03 February 2008

Books Read Since January 16

• Hex Marks the Spot, Madalyn Alt
Third in Alt's "bewitching" mysteries about Maggie O'Neill, who becomes involved in the paranormal after she starts working at Enchantments, a small-town Indiana antiques/New Age shop, where the owner is a practicing witch. While the brutal murder of an Amish craftsman is investigated, Maggie begins to embrace her own empathic powers, as well as her mixed feelings about the two men in her life, a no-nonsense stable policeman and a leather-jacketed "bad boy." (I was quite struck by the resemblance of this relationship to that of Betty/Victor/Scott in Remember WENN—Betty is even from Indiana!) An enjoyable cozy mystery.

• Pony Farm Mystery, Pamela Kavanaugh
Most little girls love horses and ponies, although the majority of them grow out of it by the time they hit their teens. Still, even I still enjoy a good girl-and-her-horse story. Alas, this...was disappointing, to say the least: twin girls visit their recently hospitalized grandmother to help with what is left of her once flourishing horse training stable. The grandfather died after being accused of doping horses. Now mysterious and threatening things are happening on the property, but at least there's a cute boy to help the eldest twin try to solve the mystery of who set up her grandfather as she reads his diaries. The gimmick: she's always felt a strange attraction to a boy and pony statue on the property, and it seems the "spirit" of the statue is trying to help her. Despite this gimmick, the story is stale and by-the-numbers. If you want a good horse story, try National Velvet or Don Stanford's wonderful The Horsemasters.

• The Tale of Hill Top Farm, Susan Wittig Albert
If you are the police-procedural or straight detective story type, you may hate this charming cozy by the author of the China Bayles mysteries. This first book in a series revolves around Beatrix Potter, having finally made enough money from her charming little stories to buy a farm in the small village of Sawley. Beatrix brings her own little menagerie with her: a hedgehog, a mouse, and two rabbits, and parts of the story involve these creatures as well as two cats and a Jack Russell terrier who help solve the murder of a particularly prickly spinster in town. These are leisurely mysteries filled with classic British cozy-type characters. Very enjoyable reading although I found all the village folks introduced a bit hard to keep track of!

• March, Geraldine Brooks
What happened to Mr. March, father of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, when he served in the Civil War? This is the premise of this adult flip-side novel in which March returns to a Southern plantation that he first visited as a young peddler and re-encounters a bewitching slave girl. Brooks gives this an absorbing treatment and does not soft-pedal the brutality of the period, but one wonders why she chose to parallel the Alcott novel. If she wanted to draw Alcott fans, it would have been better to avoid the numerous inconsistencies that pepper the novel, since she has chosen to make Mr. March more like the real Bronson Alcott rather than the character portrayed in the novel (the same approach Gillian Armstrong took in the latest Little Women film, which most fans found jarring). The Marches are described as vegetarians when they were not, Beth is described as sickly from babyhood when she was not, and oddest of all, "Marmee," the girls' name for their mother, is described as being Mrs. March's nickname (from her name Margaret Marie). This seemed so absurd to me that it jarred me from the narrative. (If you have ever heard the word "Mommy" spoken in a pronounced New England accent, you will understand where "Marmee" came from.) In short, some of the ties to Little Women seem overstrained. However, the narrative is otherwise good and some people may gain new insights on race relations, life, and injustices during the Civil War, although I found nothing new.

• Murder in Baker Street: New Tales of Sherlock Holmes
These were okay, if nothing special, tales of Sherlock Holmes. At times, the narratives did not sound sufficiently 19th century. My favorite part of the volume, in fact, is the chapter written by Conan Doyle himself, containing a mischievous parody of Sherlock Holmes by Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie, plus the retrospective "100 Years of Sherlock Holmes."

• A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson
What's your favorite thing in the entire world to indulge in? A box of chocolates? Shoes? New clothes? Computer parts? Bryson's book of science, irresistible from the first chapter to the last, is like an enormous container of every favorite thing you've ever wanted. Even if science wasn't your favorite subject in school, you will find this an immensely readable narrative of the cosmos, stars, planets, Earth, life, evolution, and finally the rise of Homo sapiens and the people who studied them. Call it "science made comprehensible," and even better, science narrative that makes you want to continue pursuing other science narratives. Like popcorn. Chocolate. Books...

• By Permission of Heaven: The True Story of the Great Fire of London, Adrian Tinniswood
Most people have heard of the Great Fire of London, begun in a baker's shop in Pudding Lane, as a minor notation in world history class quickly passed for the next battle. The ongoing English war with the Dutch, however, adds a sinister notation to the affair: was the bakery the actual cause of the fire, or was it what today what we would call terrorism? Xenophobia flourished during the fire and it was, at least at that time, eventually blamed on a "Popish plot."

This isn't my favorite period of history, so I daresay I skimmed a lot more of it than I should have. However, it's not a badly written book. Those interested in the period should enjoy it.

• Oh, Yikes! History's Grossest, Wackiest Moments, Joy Masoff
This book is just fun. I picked it up at the liquidation sale at the Discovery Channel Store at Town Center Mall. How do you get kids interested in history? Make it gross! And indeed Masoff has, concentrating on the more unsavory parts of history, like what folks did before toilet paper, monarchs who loved to kill and torture, the "nasty, brutish and short" life of Neanderthals, serfs, and outlaws, ancient medical treatments, and anything else in the past that could make a kid say "ewww." Note to prospective purchasing parents: Masoff uses a lot of potty language to keep the kids interested, including "butt" and other vocabulary of that ilk.

No comments: