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Books, books, books!
Is there anything better than losing yourself in a good book,
whether fluffy novel or scholarly tome?
This blog is for long and short reviews of books read,
essays about book series, memories of books,
quotations, and anything else with a literary bent.
 

31 October 2016

Books Completed Since October 1

book icon  Re-read: Rilla of Ingleside, L.M. Montgomery
Technically a re-read, but a new edition which is the complete book as published originally, not the edited version that was released in 1985 in the Bantam set of "Anne of Green Gables" books republished after the success of the Kevin Sullivan miniseries.

Anne's youngest daughter, Rilla—Bertha Marilla Blythe—is now fifteen. Like most girls her age, she is active, vivacious, and mostly carefree. She's also pretty and knows it, and is beginning to see her old playmate Kenneth Ford as something else than the boy she used to romp with in Rainbow Valley. Anne wonders if she will ever be serious. But on the night Rilla is invited to her first dance, a night in which her feelings for Ken Ford begin to change, it is announced that England has declared war on Germany after the slaying of Archduke Francis Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Suddenly life changes for everyone: Rilla's brothers and older male friends enlist except for Walter, her dreamy and artistic sibling, who is afraid his reluctance to kill will endanger his compatriots; her sisters volunteer for the Red Cross; and her mother and Susan Baker roll bandages and hold teas. And then Rilla, who is not fond of babies at all, rescues a newborn whose father has gone off to war and reluctantly takes him on as a responsibility.

There are now many books around about homefront life during World War I, since they have been written to commemorate the 100th anniversary, but Rilla of Ingleside was a rara avis of its time, and still one of the few novels written from a Canadian homefront point of view, written by someone who endured it. While there are humorous moments (Susan's sparring with her pessimistic cousin, the Blythes' mercurial cat Doc, youthful mistakes in raising her "war baby"), this book brings life in homefront WWI to vivid life: the dread of waiting for telegrams, the fearful perusal of the newspaper, the knowledge of knowing that any moment you may receive a missive telling you a loved one has died, being a man who has just received a white feather [a symbol that since he isn't serving he's a coward]. One particularly touching subplot in the book involves Jem Blythe's little dog Monday. A beautiful book.

book icon  Back to the Front, Stephen O'Shea
It was natural for me to go from Rilla to this book. The author is a Canadian who admits right off that he he is not a "history buff" (just as Rilla moved in her own small sphere) and had no interest in the First World War until he moved to Paris in 1981 and accompanied a friend on a weekend trip to the Somme battlefield. O'Shea was flabbergasted to find that not only can you still tell where the battles were fought 64 years later, despite the population having grown and the fields having been cultivated (not to mention another war occurring), but that French farmers still plow up supplies from that war: gas masks, horse harnesses, shoes, hip flasks, ammunition, even the occasional live mine, etc. It inspired him to make multiple visits to France from 1985 through 1995 and walk the entire Western Front from Nieuport, Belgium to the Swiss border.

O'Shea proceeds from battle site to battle site, observing the current physical site and then adding the historical detail of pompous, know-it-all officers who sent men to their deaths (if you are a Douglas Haig fan you should avoid this book) and the many times bored and vermin-ridden soldiers in the trenches with the horrifying fates that awaited them: festering wounds, burned-out lungs from poison gas, crippling injuries, dismemberment and death, surrounded by screaming horses and mules shattered by shrapnel and bullets, and appalled by the bored tourists who visit the sites just because it's something to do.

Keep in mind that this is a memoir of his experience and not a real history. His descriptions of the battlefields and the war are real and immediate, but even after having lived in France he has a poor opinion of both the French and the Belgians and he often sounds snooty. His descriptions of how the officers in all the armies wasted human lives turn into lectures against war; the descriptions themselves should have been left to stand as a monument to that waste. This is an interesting way to acquaint yourself with the major battles of World War I, but be aware that there are some prejudices involved.

book icon  Re-read: The Singing Tree, Kate Seredy
Since I had already re-read Rilla and continued with World War I reading with the O'Shea book, I thought I would complete a circle and reacquaint myself with another favorite, Seredy's sequel to The Good Master, the story of the two cousins Jansci and Kate Nagy, who live on Jansci's father's big ranch on the puzta, the Hungarian plains. Jansci, fifteen, is old enough to have his own small herd of horses, and Kate, a year younger, is growing into a young woman interested in going to dances. As the story opens, they are preparing for a neighborhood celebration, the wedding of Peter Hodi and Mari Vidor—but as they head home from the event, news comes of the assassination of an archduke in faraway Sarajevo.

Rapidly, things change: the Nagy horses and herders are conscripted into the Army, and finally Kate's father and Marton Nagy as well. Spoiled Lily Kormos comes to live on the ranch, but after a bumpy start, the cousins find her a good friend. Women and children and the elderly must get in the harvest on their own, and the cousins are called to drive up to the mountains to fetch Mother's elderly parents and there, among a crowd of refugees and the presence of an Army hospital, come face to face with the real horror of war.

This is a wonderful book which portrays war as terrible without going into hurtful details, with memorable supporting characters: Moses and Sarah Mandelbaum, the Jewish owners of the village store; Mother's stalwart parents; the six Russian prisoners of war who work as farmhands and the six German children that are sent as refugees from Berlin. When I read this again as an older child, I realized from my history lessons that if I had lived at that time, Jansci and Kate would have been my enemies, since their government was fighting against the Allies. A sobering thought, and one Seredy makes throughout the book, as when one of the German boys writes a puzzled letter to his mother wondering how the Russians can be enemies when "they are just big men like Papa," that behind bellicose politicians and generals there are just plain people who, like their "enemies," want to make a living, raise their children, tend their crops or business, and not wage war at all. Worth reading whether you are a child or an adult.

book icon  Re-read: Beautiful Joe: an Autobiography, Margaret Marshall Saunders
I've had a copy of Beautiful Joe since I was old enough to read Western Publishing's line of Whitman Books. However the version I originally read was light years away from the original story.

Saunders was brought up in an animal-loving 19th century Canadian family and the rampant animal abuse of the era horrified her. When an American humane group offered a prize for the best novel portraying kindness to animals, Saunders wove a tale around a real-life Canadian dog who had his tail and ears chopped off by a cruel owner, set her story in Maine, and wrote a classic that all who have read it will not forget. But the book has gone through several changes throughout the years, the outright portrayal of the animal cruelty being excised from my children's addition, some of the farm chapters tossed out in favor of a chapter about a pet crow, and modern editions which remove the Victorian symbolism. I went through each edition until finding the Applewood edition, which was the complete novel as originally written, and this, the Broadview edition, is even more expanded, with footnotes, the crow chapter included in an appendix, and even a sequence where Bruno the farm dog is saved instead of destroyed.

I doubt very many parents would allow their kids to read the original edition today, although it was considered instructive and wonderful for older children in the 19th century, and even today, the story is not for the fainthearted. I'm an animal lover, and as hard as it is to get through some passages, I have loved all the characters since childhood—the Morris family, Cousin Harry, the Woods, the other Morris dogs Jim and Billy, Fleetfoot the wise colt, and more—and I love having the chance to have all aspects of the story complete with some additional material supplied about the humane movement in America. This is a classic in every sense of the word.

book icon  The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, Esther Crain
I am a history buff, but my favorite period of history has always been what is called the late Victorian/Edwardian era in Great Britain and the Gilded Age/Progressive Era here in the United States, so you bet I grabbed this book the moment I saw it. Much of the information in it I already know, having other history books about it, but I still found this book captivating because of its huge complement of photographs and woodcuts from the time period.

Crain divides the volume into different sections which talk about a specific topic: how the wealthy lived (and the difference--and feud--between "old money" and "new money"), the emerging middle class, and the poverty-stricken. There are sections about amusements of the era, with photos of Coney Island that I've never seen before, another portion devoted to crime and punishment, and, throughout the various sections, just how New York itself grew as a city from the tip of Manhattan Island to finally fill up the space once devoted to tenant farms and open land. With that in mind, the final section devotes itself to Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx, which eventually came together to form the New York metropolitan area. Special pullouts (a tiny bit hard to read with white ink on black paper) are devoted to things like famous crime of passion cases (think Evelyn Nesbit), the violent conflict between the old Metropolitan Police and the new City of New York Police, the Blizzard of 1888 which convinced the city to finally build a subway, Tammany Hall politicians, etc.

I must, must, must reserve some praise for the hand-colored black-and-white prints included in this book. Even if you are a history buff, it is sometimes hard to see past the flat, monochrome photographs that were taken in that era, and garish, badly hand-colored photographs are not my cup of tea. But the ones included in this book have been done by a talented professional and the result is that the photos have come alive to the point where you can almost hear the pedestrians chattering, the horses clopping, the iron-clad wagon wheels clashing against the pavement, the pushcart sellers hawking their wares, and feel the breeze coming off the bookended rivers. You immediately notice a striding woman with a scowl on her face--what's gone wrong with her day? you wonder--and children's faces, and flags fluttering in the breeze, and the attractively-colored signs on the shops and stores. Wow.

book icon  Doctor Who: The American Adventures, Justin Richards
I admit, I was disappointed in this book. I didn't realize it was written for children (or if it wasn't, it certainly reads like it was). The narratives in all of the stories were rather simplistic: something odd would happen during a historical period in the US, the Doctor would show up, and then he'd find something to remedy the situation. He runs into some people who live in a world of horse-drawn vehicles and firelight and they don't seem more surprised that he has gadgets that light up that they've never seen before. The family in the Oregon Trail is particularly perplexing in this regard. And, perhaps it is hard to develop character in short stories, but all the characters in the stories seem particularly two-dimensional, especially the young girl in the Oregon Trail tale, as if she was just thrust in the story for some "girl power."

My favorite story in this collection was the modern one, taking place in Florida at an amusement park. There was an element of mystery and danger missing from the other stories. "Ghosts of New York," taking place during the construction of the subway, also isn't bad, with the Doctor and a "sandhog" trying to solve the mystery of deceased people turning up in the tunnels. The others are just pedestrian, and there's nothing particularly that marks these as 12th Doctor stories as, say 5th Doctor stories, except for references to his eyebrows.

I am rating this a 3 because children might enjoy it. It is more like a 2 - 2 1/2 for adults, depending on how much you want some new WHO tales.

book icon  A Study in Scarlet Women, Sherry Thomas
"What if Sherlock Holmes was a woman?"

That's the interesting premise of this book and it begins with a foreboding prologue--and then suddenly the narrative seems to turn into a Victorian farce with a philandering husband and an innocent young girl. The story is then picked up from the point of view of the young woman's sister--but don't get too interested in her; she disappears (except for mention by the main character) for the remainder of the book.

Charlotte Holmes is an intelligent young woman in an era when a woman should be either ornamental or maternal (she is of the former school, a picture-book-perfect Victorian heroine). She eschews society and parties and instead desperately wants some higher education and longs to become headmistress of a school. Her father tricks her into thinking that if she is not married by age 25, he will sponsor her education. When he breaks his word, Charlotte takes desperate measures to make sure she is not marriageable, hoping this will force her father to keep his promise. Instead, all she does is create scandal, and therefore she is forced to make her own way in the world.

The most interesting character in the book, sadly, is not Charlotte, but the widowed Mrs. Watson she meets, who will pick up the threads of Charlotte's messy life and give it some purpose. For some time, Charlotte has been secretly posing as a gentleman named Sherlock Holmes, forwarding her suspicions via mail to the local police when facts reported about deaths in the newspapers don't make sense. Inspector Treadles of the police investigates the crimes based on her letters and usually finds he's--uh, she's--correct. In this case, "Sherlock" suspects that three unrelated deaths (including the unexpected passing of the woman who accused her of adultery) are indeed the work of one person...but can the police make the connection?

When you are reading a book whose synopsis sounded fascinating, but which you eventually approach with the attitude of "Oh, God, I have to finish reading this book because I promised," things are not good. Charlotte is intriguing, but her character never seems to come to any type of life--even the humorous asides about her healthy appetite don't round her out, and the romance portion of the book is pedestrian. Plus it seems inconceivable that Charlotte, while socially awkward, would not have known that the situation she got herself in would result in more problems for her--and her family--rather than forcing a decision. I can't believe that she thought it was her only solution.

In addition, one of the key aspects of the original Holmes stories is that he had more imagination and reasoning powers than the police; frequently they were shown at odds. No one could dislike Inspector Treadles; he's good-natured but persistent at his job, a good husband who thinks his wife is entitled to intelligence and outside interests, but his investigations are no different than any other "dedicated cop" character than I've read in other books--certainly not the slipshod investigators the classic Holmes despises.

Once Charlotte was finally "in place" in Baker Street, the story did pick up a bit, but I was actually relieved when I finished the book, and at this point I can't even remember "whodunnit." The characters and plot did not excite my imagination as it should have, and I would not recommend this book to a Sherlock fan.

book icon  Houseboat Girl, Lois Lenski
Patsy Foster was born upon a houseboat in the Mississippi River, but now, at eleven, she's been living in a small town near Paducah, Illinois, for two years, attending school and making friends. So it is initially difficult when her restless father, a "born riverman," buys a new houseboat and uproots the family—Mother, older sister Milly, younger siblings Dan and Bunny, Patsy's pet chickens, and a dog they were given—so they can run down the Mississippi and he can earn his preferred living, catching and selling fish. Then Patsy comes to love her life, learning to swim, the ever-changing riverbank scenery, meeting new people (and even making some enemies that become friends when they stop for a while and her father incurs the wrath of a man who thinks he owns the fishing rights to the area)—but she still longs to be settled. Is there a way she and her father can compromise?

Children today might be surprised that in the era of early television, rock'n'roll and Elvis Presley, the beginnings of the Space Race, and the Cold War that people still lived such a relatively primitive life (Mrs. Foster does have a washing machine and electric lights, but they can only be used when they are moored somewhere with electric wiring). Patsy and her family and friends amuse themselves simply and use their imaginations in play, running barefoot unless they are visiting town. Watching television is a rare treat mentioned in one chapter. Not one of Lenski's best, but a book addressing a little-known part of society.

book icon  In Search of Centennial: A Journey With James A. Michener, John Kings
This is a coffee-table sized but thin book written by one of the research assistants that helped Michener research his epic novel Centennial, my favorite of the Michener books that I've read. If you are at all interested in the writing process of a historical novel then this is quite revealing. Michener and his two assistants did research in Colorado and elsewhere for more than 18 months before he even sat down to start writing, and even then he confirmed things as he wrote and had assistants and family (his wife also did a great amount of the research) continually looking up facts and figures. He drove along the cattle trails written about in "The Longhorns," visited with the Native American tribes he was writing about to get the details of their 18th and 19th century lives correct, visited St. Louis to make certain the Bockweiss segment was factual, etc. The book includes numerous photographs, including ones taken by Michener in 1937 when he first considered writing a book set in Colorado. The final chapter is about his input into making the miniseries Centennial. Plus there are pages from his voluminous notebooks and four corrected typewritten pages from "The Longhorns."

Probably just for Centennial or Michener fans, but still a great insight into the craft of writing.

book icon  The Land of the English People, Alicia Street
Not sure why I bought this slim volume for children that is part of a people and places series for different countries and cultures, but I certainly did enjoy it. It's a combination geography/sociology/history book that was originally written after World War II and updated in the late Fifties, with much of the text still applicable to postwar Britain. It does a nice job of explaining how the different elements of the English countryside determined how those people would live, and has a neat job, using a fictional American ex-soldier and an Englishman to explain why Americans and English see the world so differently. Interesting look at England before the Cold War heated up and smog was banished from London.

book icon  The Happy Hollisters at Mystery Mountain, Jerry West
The Hollister clan is still traveling in a schoolbus they acquired on a previous adventure as Mr. Hollister looks for more Southwestern items to stock his store The Trading Post at the Hollister home town of Shoreham. When Mrs. Hollister buys little Sue a cowboy outfit in New Mexico, all the other kids—eldest Pete, Pam, Ricky, and Holly—want one, too, which precipitates them on two new adventures: to find some ancient stone dolls in a secret mountain location as told to them by their new friends Helen and Jack Moore, and to discover what's happened to the stolen sheep of their father's old friend Frank Vega, whose wife Maria makes the cowboy outfits the kids like.

The Hollisters never quit moving! Besides the mysteries involved, the kids take an airplane ride, attend a fiesta at a school, and go on a trail ride that precipitates them into danger—and there's even a kidnapping! They sure don't spend their time face down with their eyes on a tablet or staring at a television, that's for sure.

As a modern reader, I'm still impressed by how egalitarian these books are. Yeah, okay, Delores Vega and Helen and Pam get to rustle up the food on the trail ride while Jack and Pete make the fire, but since they have lost their supplies (their horses were deliberately let loose), Delores must find food for the kids using wildcrafting, and she manages admirably, plus she's been entrusted with the safety of the other children on the trail ride, where in most 1950s books a boy would be given that task. (Her brother Diego has had to stay home and ride fence.) When the kids have their airplane ride, all of them are invited to take a turn at the wheel, not just the boys, and Ricky is ribbed for his bad flying just like Pam. Plus the Vega family and their foreman Truchas don't have stagy Spanish accents or speak some dialect gibberish that approximates a Mexican way of talking. If something is referenced like a Mexican hat dance, it's part of celebrating the Vegas' Hispanic heritage.

These books are simple to read but yet full of adventures, with each chapter ending on a cliffhanger so you just want to go on. And you will.

(For Hollister fans: this is the book where the family acquires Domingo the donkey.)

book icon  Christmas in the Crosshairs, Gerry Bowler

book icon  Victoria, Daisy Goodwin
I think when most people think of Queen Victoria, they envision the faded monochrome photographs of the overweight, dour woman in black who gave her name to the latter half of the British 19th century and who imperiously and humorlessly reigned over an empire. It is such an ingrained icon that it may be difficult to imagine that once Victoria was a romantic young girl like many teenage girls, one who loved to dance and stay up late at parties, to get up at noon and try on new dresses and hairstyles, chafing against a domineering parent. Known as "Drina" (her first name was Alexandrina) as a girl, she was under the thumb of her ambitious German mother and her mother's British advisor Sir John Conroy, who hoped that Victoria's uncle William would die while the girl was still in her minority so that they could be appointed as regents. Victoria, as she told everyone to call her after she became queen, despised Conroy and the influence he held over her mother. Yet Victoria would also fall victim to the influences of a man—one who was reluctant to do so—her beloved "Lord M," William Lamb, Lord Melbourne, the prime minister.

This is Goodwin's book based upon the research she performed, with major input from young "Drina's" journals, while writing the new British historical series Victoria, written as a novel, which covers Victoria's life from her sixteenth birthday (in the prologue) to her marriage proposal to Albert. Both the new television series and the book play up Victoria's attachment to "Lord M." as more an at-first daughter/father relationship (since the Duke of Kent, Victoria's father, was not even a memory to her) that became a real-life romance (at least in Victoria's mind), than the straight queen/advisor always portrayed. Goodwin's prose is brisk and literate, always leaving you wanting just one more page, and Victoria-the-girl determined to be a good queen against a host of naysayers including her "Uncle Cumberland" who would love to declare her unfit to rule are absorbing. As a story that humanizes the young Victoria and simplifies some of the early goings on in her court ("the Bedchamber crisis") for instance), this is a good starter. However, it is fiction and if you are looking for a comprehensive biography, this is not the book.

book icon  Brooklyn on Fire: A Mary Handley Mystery, Lawrence H. Levy
By the time I was about a third through with this book, I had to go back and check to see if the author was indeed a guy. Otherwise I would have wondered if our heroine's name was Mary Sue Handley.

I picked this up as a Vine book because I read many Victorian/Edwardian/early 20th century mysteries. A young woman setting herself up as a "consulting detective" (like her hero, Sherlock Holmes) in 1890 New York sounded like just the ticket. I hadn't read the first book in the series, Second Street Station, but the characters seemed pretty self-explanatory. Mary is from a middle-class Irish family; she has a policeman brother whom she can outwit at chess; her mother complains about her not being married; she's blonde, blue eyed and pretty and basically has educated herself via her brother's encyclopedia and reading voraciously (thus references to Maisie Dobbs—trust me, this is no Maisie Dobbs-type novel), and in the previous book she solved something called the Goodrich mystery and now all of New York knows who she is. But it's been quite some time since the Goodrich case and she's relieved when a woman named Emily Worsham appears asking her to find out if her deceased uncle might have been murdered.

In a trice, Mary is catapulted into a mystery involving—although she doesn't know it at first—the real-life fight between New York and Brooklyn (Brooklyn wishes to remain its own city; New York wishes to annex it) which includes (of course) dirty politicians, a few New York millionaires (Levy involves just about every famous name in his story: the Vanderbilts, the Carnegies, the Rockefellers, Leland Stanford, etc.), an elderly lady who talks with her cats, a flipped-out method actress and her adoring friend, a supposedly dead husband, an OCD lawyer—and, if all these characters were too tame for you, a character who seems to come from another book entirely, one of those Law & Order: SVU creepy people by way of a noir mystery, a hired killer who gets sexually aroused by murder and fire. (And yes, it's described in detail. Ew.)

Our Mary forges on, especially when she discovers the coffin of the "dead uncle" is filled with rocks. She follows clue after clue, fends attackers off with ju jitsu which she learned from a Chinese instructor (and then later in the book it's revealed she also knows "the French art of kickboxing known as savatte), is so plucky that most people have no problem with the fact that it's 1890—a time where a woman can't walk down the street unescorted without being looked at askance—and she's a "lady detective," and is so brave and forthright that George Vanderbilt falls madly in love with her and at one point is willing to give up building his dream home, Biltmore House, for her. Or that in another chapter Mary is shot in the back and the bullet hits nothing vital and the blood transfusion she gets from George works even though doctors back then didn't know about blood typing and there's a 50 percent chance she might have died. (Incidentally the guy who shot her runs away into the woods and gets killed by a bear...honest.)

Let's not leave out the fact that Levy peppers his text with myriad little facts about the era or quotes from writers as if he couldn't bear to leave any of his research behind (in one chapter, Mary and George go to Richmond, Virginia, where Mary brightly observes that Richmond has electric trolleys, the first ones in the United States, and Manhattan is so behind the times). Or that no matter how much research he did, modern verbiage pops up to kick you out of the story (like the gay character who refers to himself as gay when that wouldn't be a term until 80 years later).

I'd give this book two stars, one because Mary was kind of a neat character who needed a much different author (Carolyn Keene would have done, since I kept thinking of Nancy Drew), and the other star for the laughs it provided to my husband and I when I discussed it with him.

book icon  A Newbery Halloween, edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Charles G. Waugh
There are a dozen more-or-less scary (for children) stories in this neat volume that followed A Newbery Christmas. It includes a Madeleine L'Engle short story I had heard about but never read, "Poor Little Saturday," in which she drew on her Southern roots and ghost tales from her relatives to produce a story about a haunted house. Some of the stories are more nostalgic than scary (even if there is a little frisson of danger when Ramona Quimby puts on her "baddest bad witch" mask), like ""The Baddest Witch in the World" and the Halloween chapter from Eleanor Estes' The Moffats. There are creepy stories the don't even involve Halloween, just mysterious spirits, taking place in China, Japan, and Genoa, Italy. Elizabeth meets the fey Jennifer on Halloween night in Konigsburg's "A Halloween to Remember, and Virginia Hamilton recalls an African-American family's tense Halloween in "The Year Halloween Happened One Day Early." The creepiest story in the collection is "The Witch's Eye," in which two girls attempt to get rid of the titular object.

Another great Newbery collection with just the right mix of treats and tricks!

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15 October 2016

Browse Among the Books

Book Sale, Take 2 (and final)

book icon  A Newbery Hallowe'en (has a Madeleine L'Engle story in it I've never read)

book icon  The Land of the English People (this is a juvenile published after World War II)

book icon  My Pride and Joy by George Adamson (brand new, too!)

book icon  Christmas on the American Frontier, 1800-1900 (apparently the library is getting rid of all their copies)

book icon  The Map That Changed the World by Simon Winchester

book icon  Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint (another bad cover, but I used to love the Danny Dunn books)

Plus two older books for James that I thought he'd get a kick out of: one about the "modern sport" of model rocketry and another about rocket science that looks like its from the 1950s.

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14 October 2016

Notes from This Year's Fall Book Sale

$20 and a bunch of goodies.

book icon  A Treasury of American Heritage (articles from the magazine)

book icon  In Search of Centennial: A Journal With James A. Michener (about the making of the television miniseries)

book icon  America's Historylands: Landmarks of Liberty (collection of "National Geographic" articles)

book icon  Christmas Ornament Legends (a little book about the significance of figural Christmas ornaments—the pickle, grapes, rabbits, etc.)

book icon  The Stories of English, a nice big fat linguistics book by David Crystal)

book icon  The Story of Santa Klaus (a facsimile of a 1909 book)

book icon  Houseboat Girl (a Lois Lenski book I don't have! Dreadful cover, but the inside is intact)

book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Mystery at Missile Town and ...at Mystery Mountain

And because I always come home with one goofy sort of book,

book icon  Night and Day (a collection of articles from a British magazine printed in 1937, rather "New Yorker" like—the column fonts even look familiar—and supposedly it went out of business after being sued by Shirley Temple ??? !!!)

Also bought two books for James I hope he doesn't have and two books to tuck in with Juanita's retirement gift. I also bought one I already had, but I can try to find it a good home, and if not, it only cost me a dollar and I will put it in the box to take to McKay's later this year.

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30 September 2016

Books Completed Since September 1

book icon  Theodore Rex, Edmund Morris
I can't believe how long it took for me to get through this book, even though I practically galloped through The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt; once again this is because once the book begins to discuss politics and its machinations, I find it tough going. And of course politics is the meat of this volume because it is about Roosevelt's presidency and there can be no ignoring the subject. I enjoy more the discussions of the man himself, his passions and his hates, his family dynamics and his adventurous side.

Nevertheless, I learned much during the political portions of the text: for instance, I did not know that the United States almost went to war with Venezuela in the early 1900s. Nor was I knowledgeable about Roosevelt's role in arranging peace between Russia and Japan after the Russo-Japanese War, especially with tensions growing in Europe that would lead to the first World War. We tend to see Roosevelt as a loved proponent of the Progressive movement without remembering how many political enemies he had, nor what unpopular decisions and actions he carried out, especially inviting Frederick Douglass to the White House (his mother's Southern ancestors, the Dixie newspapers cried, would have been appalled—and that was the kindest of the criticisms!) and mediating and finally shutting down a massive strike among the coal miners.

This is a dense, but quite absorbing book—pardon my political narrative prejudices!—which should please both Roosevelt fans and foes alike.

book icon  Star Trek Legacies, Book 1: Captain to Captain, Greg Cox
In this first of three books (written by different authors), the story goes back to Star Trek roots. While serving on the original crew of the Enterprise, Una (her real name is very long), otherwise known as "Number One" in the original pilot episode, is serving under Captain Robert April, the first captain of the legendary starship. Investigating new, unsavory developments on a technologically primitive planet, Una and her landing party run into a ruthless race from another universe determined to enslave ours.

This story is told in flashback as now Captain Una visits the Enterprise, ostensibly on a friendly reunion, but in reality on a mission to retrieve a hidden object in Captain Kirk's cabin, an artifact which has been hidden and passed down from April to Christopher Pike to Kirk.

Number One has been rather a forgotten crewmember in the Trek annals, and she gets good exposure in this novel by Cox—though occasionally she  does seem a bit more superheroic than may be possible. We saw her so briefly sketched in "The Cage" that it's nice to find a fully fleshed person in there, with strong commitments to her work and loyal friendships to her crewmates, including the man she considered her best friend. It's also great to see an appearance by Robert April and his wife Sarah, the ship's medical officer, first introduced in the animated Star Trek episode "The Counter-Clock Incident," working partners as well as lovers. The aliens, who are basically sentient snails, come off as a bit Doctor Who, chiefly all paranoid militants except for one scientist figure, but they ooze [sorry...] evil and are genuinely menacing in most of the text.

Yes, the appearance of a new supporting character is as obvious as you think it is, so it isn't much of a surprise when the end of the first volume is reached, but I enjoyed Una's adventure enough to see how it comes out in the concluding books.

book icon  The Annotated Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson, Simon Barker-Benfield
Um, wait, didn't you say you hated Treasure Island? Um, yes, I did. I was dragged, summarily bored, through this book in seventh grade and haven't read it since. I simply don't "get" what people see in pirates. They are dirty thieves on ships. I know lots of people have romantic notions about them—how they are "free souls" who wander the seas—but, really, only a tiny subset of pirates (if any) lived like this. Otherwise they were on par with the Mafia.

And, specifically to Squire Trelawney, I always wanted to belt the guy, even at twelve years old. He let Long John Silver hoodwink him so easily!

However, here was this annotated edition really cheap in the bargain bin. Maybe I'd enjoy it more if I knew the background and history beyond the story and could figure out all those nautical terms? Well—no. Certainly the annotations made fascinating reading, and now I even know who Admiral Benbow was. I still don't like Squire Trelawney any better, but he was a good fighter during the siege on the island. However, even I have to appreciate what timeless and memorable characters these are. I remembered them all, even Mr. Arrow, too fond of the drink, and the fearful Israel Hands, and the creepy blind beggar Pew, and Stevenson sure could write a rousing adventure yarn. If you're a fan of Treasure Island, I certainly recommend this book!

book icon  Return to the Secret Garden, Holly Webb
Emmeline Hatton has known nothing but an orphanage all her life. The matrons are kind, but they can’t make up for having a place to really belong, and Emmie seems to be always in trouble. Her secret place, an old fire escape, is her only refuge, and it is there she befriends a small stray cat she names Lucy, something finally her own. But this is England, on the eve of the second World War, and when the children are evacuated from the Craven Home for Orphaned Children, Emmie is not permitted to take Lucy with her. Unhappy and resentful, she slowly begins to take an interest in things at her new “home,” Misselthwaite Manor, especially after she meets an inquisitive robin and finds a girl’s old diaries in her room.

This is lively, absorbing, and plausible sequel to the Burnett classic, which, unlike the sequel to A Little Princess which made excuses for all the bad characters as their just being unhappy, manages to capture a good deal of the appeal of its source. While the more modern vocabulary is not quite as rich as Burnett’s prose, the narrative does well describing the physical settings, and author does not shy away from realities, and the uncertainty of the evacuated children, the effect of the war on those at Misselthwaite, the atmosphere of a country at war (such as when a character talks to Emmie about the fate of animals in evacuated London), and best of all, creates plausible "futures” for the protagonists of the original novel, and creates parallels between this sequel and the original. There are also some wonderful, emotional scenes: a character’s belated reaction to bad news, Emmie’s realization upon meeting this person later that in her quest to find someplace to belong that she has made no allowances for the pain of others, a child hiding emotional pain behind a sarcastic front. If I have any complaint, it is that I would have loved more descriptions of the actual people: we know Emmie is thin and thinks herself “ugly,” that a certain character resembles their parent, that one character is short, that another wears a knitted cap and a little girl has a teddy bear. I would have liked to know more how these characters looked: the coloring, height, build of Arthur, Joey, and Ruby, for instance, and the matrons Miss Dearlove and Miss Rose. I scarcely know whether Emmie herself is brunette or blond. Burnett did such a good job of describing all her characters in a few succinct passages that I can see them clearly in my mind; I find I can’t do that with many of the characters in the sequel.

As an adult reading this book—the children reading it probably won’t care—I wish Ms. Webb had dipped into a few books of old British slang or even a couple of Enid Blyton novels to completely capture the speech and vocabulary of the era. There are some good strong references (“fish paste” sandwiches, candles as nightlights, blackout curtains, bread and butter for snacks), but at various times a modernism pops up that I find jarring: one character calls another “weird,” which is not a word a British child would have used in 1939, and another piece of dialog refers to someone having a “panic attack”; surely there were British slang words for that condition that would have been understandable to a modern child. (In The Secret Garden, Mary Lennox uses “hysterics,” which would have been fine.) Also, people are always listening to “the radio” when the word at that time would have been “the wireless,” another word that could have been explained in short order.

Although the protagonist of this story is a girl and the book is a sequel to what many define as a “girl’s book” (I disagree) despite the fact that there are two strong male characters in it, Return to the Secret Garden should be enjoyable to all children, especially as a read-aloud book. with its combination of both girl and boy characters and no frilly “princess” nonsense. It could lead to discussions about the feelings of children who have parents in the armed forces, and also is a historical introduction to World War II and the children evacuated from London. Other children’s fiction to read on this subject include Carrie’s War, The War That Saved My Life, and Back Home.

book icon  In Such Good Company, Carol Burnett
Imagine that you are flying to Los Angeles to New York, and for weather reasons, your flight is delayed several hours. To your surprise, at the airport you find yourself sitting next to Carol Burnett. You introduce yourself politely and tell her how much you loved her classic variety show. To your utter delight, Carol not only acknowledges your compliment with a smile, but she wants to continue the conversation! And you forget about the flight delay as Carol regales you with stories about behind the scenes at The Carol Burnett Show.

This is the feeling you get from reading this book, as if you and Carol are sitting together having a cup of tea and she’s reminiscing. It’s written in a friendly, conversational style that anyone from 8 to 80 can enjoy. Along the way you find out a little of Carol’s background and her time on The Garry Moore Show, about the early careers of her regular cast, and them fun stories about the gestation of some of the most memorable skits, from the recurring—“Mr. Tudball and Mrs. ‘Hwiggins’”—to the memorable—“Went With the Wind” and other hilarious movie parodies. There’s also a chapter about the unique costume requirements of the series—yes, including the curtain dress! She devotes a whole chapter to the development and life of the “Mama” skits, including a sobering tale about reading one of them straight instead of playing it for laughs. Plus there are riotous stories chronicling Tim Conway’s eternal mission to break up Harvey Korman—they used to wager on the set just how long it would take Conway to make Korman laugh—and the story behind the skit that has become an internet favorite, the “elephant story.”

If you were one of the thousands who waited for Saturday night just to spend an hour with Carol, Vicki, Lyle, Harvey, Dick, Tim, and the other members of the company, this is the book for you. It can be read at any time, but is a perfect bedtime book, to conclude your day with a smile!

In addition, the book includes an index of all episodes and the guest stars.

book icon  A Mile of Make-Believe: A History of the Eaton's Santa Claus Parade, Steve Penfold
Today on Thanksgiving everyone tunes into the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on NBC with scant glance toward whatever is running on the other channels, but I remember Thanksgiving Day in the 1960s, when CBS broadcast something called “The Thanksgiving Day Parade Jubilee,” featuring four parades, including Macy’s, Gimbels parade from Philadelphia, J.L. Hudson’s from Detroit, and a fourth parade from Toronto, Canada, the Eaton’s [department store] Santa Claus Parade. As I grew a little older, I realized Eaton’s parade wasn’t really broadcast on Thanksgiving—Canada’s Thanksgiving is in October; CBS announcers always did tell you that it was “pre-recorded”—and it was an “odd duck” compared to the others, with floats devoted to fairy tales, including the always wonderful “Mother Goose” float which opened the parade, a woman dressed in old-fashioned garb riding the back of a huge, beautiful white goose. Even the fairy tales were a little different—perhaps British or French, I thought when I saw stories that I did not recognize.

This is a scholarly book about the history of the Eaton’s parade, from its simple beginnings when Santa Claus came to town riding on the back of a truck in the early years of the 20th century, through its golden years in which Eaton’s held other Santa Claus parades in Montreal and Winnipeg (among others), and finally of its fading years to the year a failing Eaton’s finally gave up sponsorship of the parade (1982; the parade still continues under the aegis of the City of Toronto). It’s the story of how a shopping promotion quickly became “a tradition” which generations of children and parents observed, how nationalistic tendencies changed the parade in various cities (the Montreal parade always had more French associations than its Toronto cousin and there were often protests that French heritage was not acknowledged enough; in addition, shifting attitudes to people of color and First Nations people changed how these elements were portrayed in the parade), how the management of Eaton’s once insisted that commercial endeavors (like Disney or television characters) stay out of the parade—although that was eventually rescinded, and how the parades affected city traffic, people’s memories of Christmas, and what was seen as the increasing “commercializing” of the holiday.

Once television enters the picture, there is also discussion of how television coverage changed the route of the parade, and how attendance fell when people thought they could have a better view of the parade—especially children who had to peer over the shoulders of rude adults who blocked them—at home on their color television than braving traffic, crowds, and often freezing and inclement weather. (There is actually brief discussion of the CBS broadcast and puzzlement from Canadian viewers on “what a Santa Claus parade had to do with Thanksgiving.”)

If you were an American CBS watcher, like me, who fondly remembers the Santa Claus parade from its Thanksgiving Day heyday, you may enjoy this peek behind the scenes history.

The text is liberally illustrated with vintage black-and-white photographs of the parade.

book icon  Brute Strength, Susan Conant
After All Shots was released in 2007, I didn't see one of Conant's "Dog Lover's Mysteries" again. I thought she had finally given them up to co-author a set of cooking mysteries with her daughter. Which is why I was flabbergasted when I was looking up one of Laurien Berenson's mystery books (also involving dogs) and found not one, but two newer books that I had never seen in any bookstore or found on Amazon (but then I had quit looking after a couple of  years). The moment I had more Amazon points, I sent for both. (I noticed she had a new publisher, which might solve the mystery of why I hadn't seen them.)

Dog trainer and writer Holly Winter is busy making enemies (she works for Malemute rescue and often has to turn down applicants, who don't like her very much for doing so) and refereeing a quarrel between her best friend and her newest boyfriend as the story opens, so she happily makes a new friend on one of her walks, a woman named Vanessa who owns an attractive female Malemute and who loves Jane Austen. Holly no sooner meets Vanessa's family, including golden boy son Hatch, colorless daughter Avery, and hypochondriac father Tom, than Vanessa's future daughter-in-law Fiona dies in a car crash. Unfortunately, that's not the end of the strange events happening within Holly's circle of friends and family.

As soon as I started reading, I was home again: Holly, husband Steve, Rowdy and Kimi and all the other dogs of the pack, best friend Rita, neighbor Kevin and his mother, Holly's eccentric father Buck and her ever-patient stepmother Gabrielle. To be frank, I suspected a certain character from the first, but didn't care because I wanted to know why the person was acting this way. It's a lively mixture of Holly's usual dog-centric commentary, mystery, suspense (involving obscene phone calls being made to Malemute rescue), and the delightful Cambridge neighborhood in which it all takes place. Conant even finally addressed one of my sore points in the last few books: Holly's cat Tracker, who has to stay confined to her office, explaining that the cat's temperament makes her unadoptable and reclusive.

And the best part is that I still have another one to read!

book icon  Like the Willow Tree: The Diary of Lydia Amelia Pierce, Lois Lowry
Lowry, most well known for her award-winning book The Giver, takes a turn at a "Dear America" entry with the story of the Pierce children, Lydia, just turned eleven, and rebellious Daniel, fourteen, who live a quiet middle-class life in Portland, Maine in the closing months of World War I—until the Spanish influenza sweeps through the city, taking their parents and baby sister. Sent to live with an uncle and aunt already overcrowded with six children, they are finally given over to the Shakers, the simple-living industrious Christians who live at Sabbathday Lake. Lydia comes to love her guardian, Sister Jennie, and her "sisters" (the girls she lives with), but Daniel soon runs away.

This is a very sweet book about a girl early coping with loss and being taken in by the pacifist, celibate Shakers (who, despite their simple lifestyle, Lydia discovers are not without humor and allow the children to play as well as work), but nothing really happens during the story except Lydia's worry over her brother and talk about her chores and new friends. It's not a boring book, but to me it seems more like an adult's book, and that mostly only quiet, retrospective children would have the patience to read it all the way through. For my part, I found it more compelling than the San Francisco earthquake story, with its artificial mystery element and sinister villains.

Most of the Shaker adults in the story were real people and I enjoyed the way Lowry brought them to life.

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31 August 2016

Books Completed Since August 1

book icon  Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne from a story by J.K. Rowling
One must approach this book with two things in mind: it's only from a story by J.K. Rowling and it's the script of a play, not a novel. It is the latter that hurts this book the most, because, since we cannot see the the emotions that the actors are imparting to these characters and their lines, we really miss a lot of what drives them (Ron, in particular, comes off as a bit of a nitwit). Rowling's sharply pointed narrative is missed as well as some of her wordplay. Plus what drove Albus to feel the way he does doesn't seem to be well explained—one day he's on the train, there are a few pages of bridging dialog, and then full-blown teenage angst and resentment emerges from what seems to be left field. Maybe it's more acted out on the stage.

I did ultimately enjoy the story: Albus' friendship with Scorpius Malfoy and their partnership with Delphini Diggory, Harry's still-lingering ghosts after the death of Cedric Diggory, the exploration of "roads not taken" via alternate timelines, and further takes on the character of Severus Snape. And, yeah, I cried at the end, so the story accomplishes what it set out to do.

book icon  Time Unincorporated: The Doctor Who Fanzine Archives/Volume 3: Writings on the New Series, from Mad Norwegian Press
The title, the editors explain, is a bit of misnomer. Fewer Doctor Who fanzines exist today—not because the series is less popular, but because the internet has pretty much replaced fanzines. At least  half of the essays are original to the volume.

While this volume has the usual variety of excellent, or at least interesting, essays that Mad Norwegian is known for, I was a little less absorbed by this volume because it was about a recent and known quantity, the new series, and there's been so much written about it that it's almost overkill. Still, notable essays stand out: one that illustrates that the final episode of the old series, the television movie, and "Rose" show an almost seamless progression, so that the old series and the new are not as far apart as thought; a piece about the Christmas specials; a funny and mad "dialog" about illegally downloading episodes; an essay about the morality of the Doctor; a humorous tale of "Barrowmania," essays on both Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures...did I say "less absorbed"? Oh, heck, I guess there's never too many Doctor Who essays!

Carry on, Mad Norwegian!

Incidentally, on the spine of my copy it says "Writings on the Classic Series." Ooops.

book icon  The Elements, Theodore Gray
I've wanted this book ever since I laid eyes upon it, and when I saw the paperback at $10 I bought it so quickly you couldn't see my credit card move. It's the very definition of a coffee table book, oversize, thick paper, color printing, with two pages each (some more popular elements have four pages) on each element, with photographs of items that contain that element (atomic weights, structure, electron paths, spectrum prints, and other more complicated chemical facts are included as well). In the later pages, with the more theoretical elements, each page holds multiple elements and explains where the name of that element comes from. You might wonder what real knowledge a person might gain from this glorified picture book—and you might be correct, but it's great just for its gorgeousness. The illustrations included nuggets and crystals, old specimen bottles with solutions inside them, metallic bars and parts, it's just great to look at.

Unfortunately the author is also insane; he thinks icky CFLs with their glare bright light and headache-inducing tendencies are better than incandescent bulbs. Forgive him, God, he knows not what he says.

book icon  The Lost Art of Dress, Linda Przybyszewski
Considering that my favorite mode of dress in winter is a sweatshirt and sweatpants and that I don't even wear a dress to work, one might think this book would be the last thing I would buy, but I was fascinated by the topic.

Home Economics came of age just before World War I, after years of restrictive fashion for women was giving way to clothing that helped her move naturally and participate in sports. It was a little-respected science at the time, but its proponents did not let it stop them. When Great War-era women asked for advice on fashion, domestic science produced the Dress Doctors: women who looked at the whole picture of a woman's build, mathematical ratios, color coordination, and fabric types and made recommendations so accurate that at one time American women were considered the best-dressed women in the world. The Dress Doctors followed one from childhood to girlhood to womanhood, recommending the ideal of proportion of eight "heads," and within that framework produced options every woman could use. These ideas were spread not only in domestic science courses in school, but by the 4H and settlement houses, and during the lean years of the Depression and the rationed years of World War II, the Dress Doctors came up with economical alternatives.

The author's narrative was so lively and the subject so interesting that I didn't even mind that it was about hated sewing. By the time they got to the baggy, childish dresses of the 1960s, I was in complete agreement and wish we'd learned about this in school in the 1970s, especially the budgeting concepts that young women learned alongside cooking and sewing lessons! Sewing fans, women's studies majors, history buffs, and someone just interested in a neat story will all enjoy this one.

book icon  City of Darkness and Light, Rhys Bowen
Molly Murphy Sullivan is delighted by her sturdy baby boy Liam, but worried about her police captain husband Daniel: he's working later nights on something dangerous to do with the Society of the Black Hand. All her fears come true when someone tosses a bomb through the window of Daniel and Molly's little house in Greenwich Village, killing Annie, the little Irish girl that Molly rescued from an abusive situation, who dies protecting baby Liam. Daniel wants Molly and Liam out of the city and fears she will be traced even to his mother's home in Westchester, but a solution has presented itself: she will go stay with her two wealthy friends Sid and Gus, who are studying art in Paris. But when Molly gets to Paris, Sid and Gus have vanished from the pension where they were staying, and when Molly tries to find them, she finds instead the body of a famous American artist.

Turn-of-the-century Paris—which turns out to be as much of a character as the people Molly interacts with—is vividly portrayed in Molly's search for her friends...and for a murderer; she immediately finds herself rubbing shoulders with famous artists (what Quantum Leap always referred to as "a kiss with history"), including Mary Cassatt, as well as getting herself involved in the mystery of the deceased artist, whom she finds out was not universally beloved. The mystery moves at a good clip, with a slowly-building suspense that does not let up once she finds out the fate of her friends, plus a few hair-raising escapes for good measure. (You may wonder how Molly investigates a murder since she has a baby with her, but in the fortuitous Murphy world she finds a pleasant young woman, daughter of the local baker, who is happy to take over care of Liam while Molly goes sleuthing, and the situation even makes sense.) A great entry in Bowen's Molly Murphy series, and at least we don't have to endure Daniel telling her to stay out of his cases!

book icon  The Hired Girl, Laura Amy Schlitz
Fourteen-year-old Joan Scraggs lives the life of a drudge on her father's farm cleaning up after her dad and four brothers, all of whom seem to hate her. She longs for education and to become a teacher, but her father seems set to work her to death the way he did her mother. She might even settle for some love. The last straw comes when her father burns her only three "friends," her beloved books. Finding out from a newspaper that she can get paid work in the city for the same labor she performs for free daily on the farm, Joan runs away to the city of Baltimore using money her mother hid in her doll and is rescued by Solomon Rosenbach, a young Jewish man. She tells his family her name is Janet Lovelace and that she is an eighteen-year-old looking for a job. The family hires her and so begins "Janet's" real education—in city life, in the life of a faith different from her own, in believing in herself.

I really enjoyed this book, which Schlitz based on the diary of her grandmother. Janet/Joan is a real teenager; her moods go up and down depending on what is going on in her life, but despite her almost animalistic upbringing—you will tear up when Joan finally confronts her father and finds out why he acts the way he does—she is good at heart and makes a difference to the people in the Rosenbach household. Her crush on Solomon's handsome brother goes on a bit long, but is typical of a girl her age, and there are some funny, and not-so-funny, hijinks in the process. I really appreciated that although Janet/Joan was a devout Catholic that she did not allow the prejudices of certain church members to change her opinions of the Rosenbach family, really loved her relationship with Mimi Rosenbach, and was glad that she came to love Malka, the elderly housekeeper who initially bedevils her.

In addition, Joan's description of her housework duties, both on the farm and in the city, will make your doubly glad you don't live in 1911!

book icon  Art in the Blood, Bonnie MacBird
I was really looking forward to this book after hearing MacBird read excerpts from it at 221B Con [a Sherlock Holmes convention]. Now that I've read it, I can say I enjoyed it, but not as much as I thought I would, especially after I found out the custom illustrations we had seen at the convention were not in the hardback or the paperback, only in the special edition. (You can see them online here, but it's just not the same.)

Dr. John Watson finds his friend Sherlock Holmes in deep depression after unsuccessfully trying to capture Jack the Ripper; surprisingly the great detective is aroused from ennui by an encoded letter from a Frenchwoman who says her son has been kidnapped. Upon arriving in Paris, an interview elicits that the woman is a dancer at a French club and her son is the illegitimate son of a British lord. Before you can says "blue carbuncle," Holmes and Watson are attacked by thugs at the club, make the acquaintance of the great French detective Jean Vidocq, and discover that the disappearance of a Greek antiquity—just coincidentally something the elder Holmes brother Mycroft is invoved with—may turn out to be related to the boy's father.

MacBird's prose flows easily enough, not in direct imitation of Conan Doyle, but usually suggestive enough for the story to sound authentic. The story is certainly more action-packed than most Holmes mysteries (although Holmes is perfect able to comport himself physically), famous names are dropped periodically (look, there's Toulouse Latrec!), and there are little inconsistencies that quirk at TruFen (for instance, Mary Morstan has a sick mother in this outing, but canon has established her as an orphan). Vidocq is based on a true person, a French criminal-turned-detective, but his character in this book is just flat annoying. (Holmes is partially based on Vidocq, which makes him an inside joke.) I would recommend the book, but a Holmes purist may not see beyond these flaws.

book icon  Dawn of the Belle Epoque, Mary McAuliffe
After reading both City of Darkness and Light and Art in the Blood, both which have significant settings in Paris and "kisses with history" with artists and other 19th/early 20th century celebrities, I naturally gravitated to this one next.

Dawn is a bit like an impressionist painting, with a chronological story opening at the end of the Franco-Prussian War in a Paris still smarting from the loss, and progressing year by year, following the artists, the authors, the musicians, the political repercussions, the styles, and the culture that would all mark this period of history. The painters and sculptors, including the usually overlooked talent Berthe Morisot and the later-famous Mary Cassatt, supply the lions' share of the narrative, as the new painting style, "impressionism" (once an insult) is criticized and then finally accepted and admired, and writers like Dumas the Younger, Zola, and Hugo leave their marks on French literary society.

McAuliffe skips from subject to subject, sometimes with awkward segues, which may annoy some readers, but don't think of this as a straight history: view it as a scrapbook of the era one has unearthed from the depths of an antique shop, to page through to see the brilliant flares of character in bright cutouts pasted on each page: Sarah Bernhardt and Cesar Ritz, Victor Hugo and Georges Clemenceau, Ravel and Debussy, Gauguin and Manet, Cezanne and Monet, the art studios in Montmartre, Gustave Eiffel following his engineering career little knowing he will one day build a Parisian icon, the American expatriot Whistler, the cruel bigotry of the Dreyfus affair and the saga of Emile Zola, the reign of fashion designer Charles Worth (whose gowns were de rigueur for wealthy Victorian ladies),  the rebirth of the narrow medieval streets of Paris into wide boulevards, absinthe, squalid truths, bare garrets, and splendid beauties—just a few of the names and situations that inhabit this book. I found it captivating and can't wait until the sequel is released in paperback.

book icon  Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee
The shock waves went deep on this one. To Kill a Mockingbird is such an iconic novel, and Atticus Finch such the ideal of the honest lawyer, defending his client against impossible odds, and the unique, loving father, that when it was revealed in the pages of this novel that, horror of horrors, Atticus Finch was a racist, it overwhelmed almost everything else about the book. None of it should have surprised anyone: Atticus was a product of his time. He defended Tom Robinson not from some ideal about race equality, but because he knew Tom was innocent, and to him convicting an innocent man, whether Negro or white, was anathema to him, a blot upon the legal system he so respected. (And still Atticus is fighting in his own way in his own era; he invites the Ku Klux Klan speaker to the courthouse so that the man reveals his own prejudices while still feeling he was allowed free speech, without totally agreeing with him.)

The real problem with this book is its sheer pedestrian narrative. Scout's voice in To Kill a Mockingbird is so fresh, so vivid, so unique, and tells such a compelling story that the third-person narration of Go Set a Watchman is flat and sometimes flatfooted in comparison. The older Jean Louise and her dull fiancee aren't a patch on Scout, Jem, and Dill, and the swift dismissal of Jem's future is all the more uncomfortable having read Mockingbird first. Had Watchman actually been published first, I doubt if many people would have waited impatiently to read Harper Lee's second novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Uncle Jack, who's such a pleasant figure in Mockingbird, becomes a pompous windbag who speaks in quotations and aphorisms and babbles about the classics to make his point, and poor Atticus just sits around and suffers with arthritis when he's not quietly opposing the NAACP. (Plus there's a few inconsistencies: here Francis is Aunt Alexandra's grandson, not her son; Jean Louise's fiance was apparently a close friend of theirs from childhood, although he doesn't appear in Mockingbird at all.) There are still some affecting situations, especially when Jean Louise goes back to visit Calpurnia and finds things have changed in their relationship, and we get to see some of Scout's hijinks as she grew from small girl to adolescent, but most of this book is merely a jog-trot through familiar territory without any of the pleasures. A library read if there ever was one.

book icon  Dead Presidents, Brady Carlson
Carlson fell in love with presidential stories as a schoolboy, but it was only after he visited Abraham Lincoln's grave in Springfield, Illinois, that he became fascinated with the afterlives of the presidents, whether it be their graves (Lincoln, for instance, is encased in concrete to keep people from stealing his body after several attempts were made to do just that), their tributes (museums, city names, school names, state names, the Interstate highway system), or the odd or even gruesome events (think poor James Garfield, killed by doctors sticking dirty fingers in his bullet wound) surrounding their deaths. In this book Carlson travels from Mount Vernon to Monticello, New York to California, and even out to the Kansas prairies to discover that sometimes the death story is just as compelling as the life story (certainly William Henry Harrison is known more for his one-month presidency and death from pneumonia more than for his prowess as a general.).

Rather than their being arranged chronologically, Carlson groups his presidents by categories—George Washington and Abraham Lincoln soloing, naturally—presidents with gruesome deaths, controversial presidents, forgotten presidents (think Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce, whose names usually turn up only in trivia contests), presidents with libraries or monuments, obscure presidential tributes, etc. To some the narrative might appear a bit scattershot, but I appreciated the author ditching the usual chronological order as in informational booklets about the presidents to give us a unique comparative story instead, and I enjoyed it very much.

book icon  Black Dove, White Raven, Elizabeth Wein
Americans Rhoda and Delia met during the Great War and immediately became soulmates. Both marry: Rhoda an Italian and Delia an Ethiopian, and both have children, a girl and a boy, respectively. Together they performed airplane acrobatics as Black Dove (Delia) and White Raven (Rhoda) and raised their children alone—until the day Delia died from a bird strike. But she and Rhoda had a dream: to go live in Ethiopia, where Delia and her son Teo would live a life without the segregation rampant in the United States in the 1920s; Rhoda was still determined to make that dream come true, and eventually it did. But the little family of three—Rhoda, daughter Emilia, and Teo—are about to lose their happy life when the Italians advance on Ethiopia.

Taking place mainly in the 1930s, and told alternately by Em, Teo, and through their fictional Black Dove/White Raven stories in which the fears emerging in their lives take fictional form, this appealing adventure story follows Em and Teo from their earliest memories to the "now" of the threat of Italian invasion, where Rhoda fights for their home and Teo learns a horrifying secret about his father that affects his future. Both children learn to fly from Rhoda, but while Teo is a natural pilot, Em struggles with each flight, until a crisis forces her to face her fears.

Wein paints a lovely portrait of pre-invasion Ethiopia, where modern medicine and respect for native culture co-exist, and of the bond shared by Delia and Rhoda that lasts beyond death and the friendship of Emilia and Teo. Rhoda's unconventional Quaker family is also a compelling factor in the opening chapters of the book. The landscapes are lovingly drawn and, as always in a Wein novel, the magic and majesty of flying has a prominent role. While the situation may not be quite as compelling as Code Name Verity, the characters and setting are unforgettable.

book icon  Pony Girl, Janet Randall
This is a children's book from the early 1960s that I picked out a freebie bin somewhere having never heard of the book or the author, who apparently wrote other books with horses in them. Peggy Warmack and her little brother Jimmy, along with their father "Slim" Warmack, a rodeo star just getting over a serious injury, live on a small ranch in Nevada. Their dad arrives home one day, having unsuccessfully tried going on the rodeo circuit once more, without his rodeo horse and with a shocking surprise, a blowsy bright woman named Maida that he introduces to the kids as their new stepmother. But further shocks are in store: Slim is giving up the rodeo business and he and Maida have bought a pony ride concession in California.

The family makes the move to California with Peg and Jimmy still resentful of Maida, and arrive in California to find the former owner of their new house left it a trashy mess and left the ponies for the pony ride starving. But as they all pitch in to care for the ponies and get the concession on its feet, the kids find out Maida is more an ally than an enemy. Now if only they could make some money and get on their feet, and also find out who is trying to put the carnival their concession is attached to out of business.

In a gentler, yet tougher, way than would be used today, the author addresses things like getting used to a stepparent, animal cruelty, facing death, prejudice toward people living different lifestyles (Peg makes a friend in school who is forbidden to associate with her because she is "one of those carnival people"), and other childhood problems. The story is relatively free of gender stereotypes: although Maida and Peg clean and cook, they also run the pony concession and take care of the animals, and no one suggests Peg shouldn't ride and go out exploring just like the boy she befriends. There's a pony named Golliwog in the story that might give some people pause, but the name is not used to further a racial stereotype, and I was impressed that there was a Native American character who neither talked "ugh you see 'um" stereotypical "Indian language" nor had some mystic Native American "woo-woo" factor associated with him. A child today could still read this and not have any problems.

book icon  My Year With Eleanor, Noelle Hancock
I'm an Eleanor Roosevelt fan, and was intrigued by the theme of this book. Hancock, just laid off from her six-figure job with a gossip website, fearful of her increasingly intimate relationship with her boyfriend not to mention many other things, still sparring with a father who wants her to be a lawyer, and with her 30th birthday on the horizon, takes to heart a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: "Do one thing every day that scares you." Having saved money, she decides to embark on a one-year project of doing something that frightens her every day. Along the way, she hopes to give up sleeping pills and give more consideration to her future with boyfriend Matt.

While this book does have its compelling parts—afraid of death (one of my own fears), Noelle volunteers at a funeral parlor; she volunteers working with cancer patients; and she climbs Mount Kilimanjaro—I had a lot of problems with her other "fear" choices. So many of her fears were that far out (skydiving, performing kareoke, flying in a fighter jet, performing standup comedy, being in a shark cage) that I thought it was kind of dumb. She's so very insecure that she can't figure out what to do with the incredibly patient and loving Matt. When she hasn't time to do something frightening during the day, she runs naked down the main hallway of her boyfriend's apartment house at night to fulfill her promise. At least she's grateful for him, as well as for her three crazy friends who go with her skydiving and being dunked in the shark tank (I can't believe the shark tank people let her go down there without more instruction on how to use her scuba gear!), because most people would have lost patience with her a long time ago. Her therapist seems to be God to her.

The last third of the book is the most palatable. She seems to have matured and does indeed work out a lot of her fears working at the mortuary and climbing Kilimanjaro. Otherwise she strikes me as a ditz who lucked out on a 6-figure salary early in her life and then had to figure out what to do with the rest of it.

(BTW, does Hancock really think women pee out of their vaginas? Yeah, this is mentioned on page 260.)

book icon  Shakespeare's Pub, Pete Brown
At Christmas we still see them: the images of happy travelers on English stagecoaches, schoolboys and rosy-cheeked chubby businessmen heading home for the holidays. The stagecoach era was very short, and almost all of the "coaching inns" associated with it are gone, except for this one: the George Inn in Southwark, reduced in size substantially from what it was during its prime and rebuilt twice in the 1600s, but still surviving. Chaucer's fictional pilgrims probably stopped here, Shakespeare's Globe Theatre was nearby and he probably drank there, and Charles Dickens was a customer (one of the licensees used to insist The George is where Mr. Pickwick met Sam Weller, even though the book calls the rendezvous The White Hart).

With an amusing, breezy narration, Brown tells the history of The George, from 1475 to the present, and in the process chronicling the history of the Southwark area of London, especially during The George's heyday as a coaching inn. You'll meet the watermen of the Thames, the pollution, the tawdry recreations of earlier days (bearbaiting, cockfights, gin houses, and of course the ever-popular brothels), the recollections of later licensees, and the efforts to save the Inn from the curse of urban renewal. While the connection to Shakespeare is rather tenuous, a Dickens fan will enjoy dipping in here as well, especially if their interest is Pickwickian.

The only problem I had with this book were the large number of references to modern British pop stars I didn't know. The history bits are quite enjoyable.

book icon  Murder at Marble House, Alyssa Maxwell
The second of the Emma Cross "Gilded Newport" mysteries opens where the first left off, with Emma having discovered that the "reporter" who helped her in the previous book is really Derrick Andrews, scion of a wealthy Providence, RI, family. Emma has no time for his romantic overtures although she is drawn to him, and is just recovering from their encounter when her Aunt Alva calls her and demands she visit. Emma, a "poor relation" of the Vanderbilts, arrives at Marble House to find her aunt wants her to help talk her cousin Consuelo into an arranged marriage. Later in the day there will be a get-together where a "mystic" will tell fortunes and Aunt Alva wants Consuelo sparkling for the event. But that never happens because the fortune teller is found murdered out in the gazebo. Now not only does Emma feel obliged to help Consuelo, but she also wants to free the young maid accused of the crime.

I will admit I found this a page-turner as Emma encounters each new suspect. However, my criticism of this series stands: the vocabulary often throws you out of the story very quickly. Really, would a woman in 1895 talk about another woman as being "victimized"? Other things have a "boy's own adventure" aroma about them, like Emma dressing as a man to investigate a situation and being thrown into some danger; as much as she espouses being independent, a man has to rescue her from the situation. She also seems to travel around Newport very freely in an era where women were carefully chaperoned, and frankly I don't see Consuelo Vanderbilt doing what she ended up doing.

Still, I enjoy the Newport setting, and Emma's determination to make something of herself in the newspaper field appeals to me. This one also does a real hatchet job on Alva Vanderbilt, who basically shopped her daughter out to the British peerage so she could brag she had a "real duchess" in the family and who had a strong will and temper (Maxwell makes Alva sound meaner than a wolverine). I'd love it if Maxwell would keep up with the vocabulary of the time, but here I am on the second book, so I suppose I'm managing still.

book icon  Carry On, Rainbow Rowell
In Fangirl, Rowell introduced us to Simon Snow, the hero of a series of eight books, and fanfiction fodder for Fangirl's protagonist Cath and her sister Wren. Elements of the Snow "universe" were excerpted in the book as Cath's stories. Rowell got so intrigued by the fanfic characters that she created that she decided to write a real Simon Snow novel.

Like Harry Potter, Simon goes to a magical school called Watford, has had a bad home life (he lives in an orphanage), has a close friend in Penelope (the Hermione of the piece), a girlfriend in Agatha, and an antagonist in his roommate Basilton "Baz" Pitch, whom he's discovered is a vampire. Spells are cast with Magic Words, the head of the school, the Mage, is Simon's protector, and Simon even has a vicious enemy, the Insidious Humdrum. Unlike Harry Potter, Simon spends a lot of time feeling sorry for himself, and his roommate is not only a vampire, he's gay, and in love with Simon. The latter was a great deal of the focus of Cath's fanfiction, but frankly, in the book all the moping of Baz over Simon and Simon over Baz gets old pretty fast. In fact, Baz is a lot more interesting character than Simon, and so is Penelope, for that matter, since Simon's always whinging about one thing or the other. What carried the story for me was the fascination of the Magic Words (you could use a cliche, or a song lyric, if only the emotion behind it was strong) and the conundrum of the Humdrum [wordplay intended] looking exactly like Simon as an eleven-year-old boy.

I probably should have waited for the paperback, but it wasn't half bad, either.

book icon  The Perfect Horse, Elizabeth Letts
Following Letts' absorbing story of the jumping horse Snowman in The Eighty-Dollar Champion, she hits the bullseye again with this suspenseful story of the rescue of the priceless Lipizzaner horses of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. As a child I'd seen Walt Disney's Miracle of the White Stallions and thought I knew most of the story, but of course it was even more complicated than that. Not only were the Lipizzaners in Vienna endangered, but so were the breeding mares and foals that lived in the Piber Valley, and also champion Arabian horses in Poland. All of these horses were brought together by Gustav Rau, a horse fancier and Nazi officer who was collecting these animals for the Reich, in order to breed the perfect horse for war: powerful, tireless, and eating minimal food. He was fascinated by the Lipizzaners and planned to change their beautiful lines for something more suitable for working.

Letts brings together all the players in the story: Alois Podhajsky, the director of the Spanish Riding School; Gustav Rau; Stanislaw Pohoski, the director of the Arabian stud farm in Poland; Rudolf Lessing, the veterinarian for the Arabians; Hank Reed, the American cavalry officer who is the last of a dying breed; plus Tom Stewart, Ferdinand Sperl, and the others that took part in the amazing rescue, including a cameo from General George Patton, to tell the story of totalitarian obsession, love of horses, dangerous missions, delicate negotiations, war-scarred villages, exploding bombs, avaricious Soviets, determined Americans, and the beautiful animals they are trying to save. A great war story, but even better if you're a lover of horses or, still, like me, a fan of Miracle of the White Stallions from way back in 1963.

book icon  A Front Page Affair, Radha Vatsal
Capability Weeks, better known as "Kitty," has had an eclectic, around-the-world education, but having a job is a new experience for her. In 1915, she is hired to be the assistant to Miss Busby, the Ladies' Page editor at the New York Sentinel. Kitty gets her first big assignment when she attends the garden party of the wealthy Elizabeth Basshor in place of her under-the-weather boss. She's in the midst of gathering color for her article when she notes an older man and his much younger wife (once a showgirl); later, after a fireworks display, the older man is found shot dead in the stable. Kitty desperately wants to follow up on this real case, but it's not something a young woman does in 1915. Can she juggle an investigation, her social job, and even a rival—and figure out why the FBI is trailing her father?

This is a pleasant enough cozy mystery with, to my surprise, a plot element that came directly from a nonfiction book about the first World War that I read a couple of years ago. Despite her practical demeanor and intelligence, Kitty is initially a bit careless at her first job, and it is interesting to follow her growth as her investigation proceeds. Vatsal also vividly illustrates the strikes against women working in journalism in Kitty's day: they were considered not intelligent enough to remember anything but feminine facts (clothing details and society gossip) and not strong enough to compete against men in what was then a strenuous profession. Several red herrings throw us off the trail, and a friend turns into an enemy and back into a friend again.

This is Vatsal's first novel, an excellent debut, and a pretty good portrait of American society in the years before our involvement in World War I.

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