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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 August 2009

Books Finished Since August 1

• Death at Rottingdean, Robin Paige
Lord and Lady Sheridan (formerly Charles Sheridan and Kate Ardleigh), having spent their first season as Baron and Lady Somersworth, retreat to the small coastal village of Rottingdean for a respite after a tragedy, as well as baronial duties, have left them craving quiet and solitude. Alas, it isn't to be after a local boy spots a body being dragged from the sea, and next morning a coast guardsman is found dead on the beach. The Paige mysteries always include a "kiss with history" with a historical figure; in this outing it's Rudyard Kipling, who is a fine accomplice to Charles and Kate's sleuthing (and, if you know a history of Kipling's family, a fine sense of irony is included due to the nature of the crime as well as the birth of his latest child). These are fine "cozies" for those who love the genre and the time period, and the seaside setting is very evocative (and very Dr. Syn!).

• The Harding Affair, James David Robenalt
I usually devour 20th century American history books, so when i saw this volume on Amazon Vine, I was intrigued. The most I knew about Warren G. Harding was that he was a ladies' man, a pretty inadequate President in most estimations, and that his buddies were involved in the Teapot Dome scandal. So I forewent what would have been my obvious choice (a book about Louis Howe and the Roosevelts) to get this instead.

Robenalt has minutely investigated Harding's personal and private life and it shows. And I did learn many things about the man that I did not know before, such as he was much more liberal to the cause of African-American rights in the US than Southerner Woodrow Wilson. (Much later, after his death, an inflammatory book was published that "proved" he had "Negro" blood.) However, in this narrative of Harding's years'-long affair with his Marion, Ohio, neighbor Carrie Phillips, paralleled by the case of a German countess accused during the first World War of being a spy, was sadly, in general, uninteresting. While the occasional "I didn't know that" popped up, Harding's one-sided correspondence (most of Carrie Phillips' letters did not survive) with his inamorata eventually became turgid and difficult to read. YMMV.

• The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Before the Storm, Juliet Nicolson
The summer of 1911 was an anomoly in the British Isles, almost unnaturally sunny and hot. The fine weather presaged the last stand of the old ways: society men and women clinging to old traditions while their servants considered breaking their ties to the past, the wealthy bored with the bleak emptiness of their lives, labor unrest in workers who had earlier accepted their lot in life, Queen Mary's struggle to adjust to being wife to a king and against her own insecurities. This is not an in-depth study of Edwardian society by any means, but it is a fascinating portrait of both sides of "the street" in an era which has been fodder for nostalgia for years, especially following the success of Upstairs, Downstairs. I particularly enjoyed the chapter about the butler torn between his traditional role and trying to make a fresh start, and the glimpses of people who would later become known for their roles in World War I, such as Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon.

• Don't You Know There's a War On?, Avi
This is one of two Avi novels about homefront WWII (that I know about). Fifth-grader Howie Crispers and his classmates, between collecting scrap and paper for the war effort, discover that Miss Gossim, their beloved teacher, was secretly married several months earlier and is now expecting a child, which means she will be fired. Howie, who has a crush on the teacher, finds a way to save her. This is a very simple story for kids. I have read that some people are a bit disturbed the way Howie seems to "stalk" the teacher and is still thinking about her five years later. I have read better WWII stories for kids.

• Doggie Day Care Murder, Laurien Berenson
Melanie Travis can't seem to keep away from murders, even though she has a still fairly new marriage, a new baby, and an ever-growing 9-year-old who her Aunt Peg is steering into junior showmanship classes at local dog shows. She was just supposed to check out a dog day care center for her best friend Alice, who's re-entering the workforce, and at first glance she likes what she sees, but when she returns the next day, she discovers the business brains of the center, Steve Pines, who runs it with his sister Candy, has been shot and killed. Melanie would rather stay out of this one, but since she has such a good track record with chasing down killers, she's persuaded to "look into things." I'm fond of dogs, and of this series; if you were reading this "cold" your mileage might vary.

• The Patriot Witch, C.C. Finlay
I've been looking for a new fantasy series, and this one seems to fit the bill. Proctor Brown is a typical young countryman of the Revolutionary War period: he wishes to expand the family farm and marry his pretty girlfriend Emily. Not only can the course of true love not run true—Emily's father had hoped for a better match than a farmer, and he's an avowed Tory, while Proctor is a Minuteman—but the young man holds a deeper secret: a descendant of John Proctor, who was hung as a witch in old Salem, like his mother Proctor holds otherworldly powers, which she fears revealing. Then Proctor notices that British major Pitcairn is protected by a mysterious, uncanny charm, and later, after his shot begins the fighting at Lexington Green, he is witness to the transport of a witch. Next thing he knows he is embroiled in a hunt for the woman after she escapes, and discovers the presence of others like himself, who know the British cause is being aided by witchcraft. This is a nice alternative history/fantasy, although Proctor and his friends do speak in more modern vernacular than I would have expected (although I'm glad the the author didn't go for the stilted "noble Colonial" narration as would have been used years ago), which is occasionally disconcerting. I intend to continue with the series. YMMV, as always.

• Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding, Scott Weidensaul
Sometimes you buy a book full price and it's a loser; other times you find something on the bargain shelf and it's a winner. The latter is this book, a delightful narrative starting with the first European explorers, through the years with early bird watching and then the years of specimen collecting that decimated species, the crusade to remove bird skins/feathers as ornamentation on 19th century women's hats, and the efforts to publish an effective birder's guide that would still fit in your pocket. In between, stories of individual birders, ornithologists, and even "opera-glass" observers are told, along with the author's own experience. If you love birds or birdwatching, this is the book for you.

• Who Was That Masked Man, Anyway?, Avi
The second of Avi's WWII-set juveniles, with a novel approach: the story is told completely through dialog, like a Golden Age of Radio presentation—appropriate as our hero, Frankie Wattleston, is crazy about radio, specifically the kids' and adults' adventure serials that populate the airwaves. He and his best friend Mario create, through Frankie's vivid imagination, their own misadventures as they spy on Mr. Swerdlow, a medical-school student who is boarding at Frankie's home—and try to help their teacher, whose boyfriend was killed in battle. This is a lively, funny story about a boy addicted to radio series the way kids today are addicted to video games. I'm not sure I can quite believe that Frankie's teacher or parents would be so gullible sometimes, and the ending with Frankie's brother, withdrawn after his return from combat, seems a bit pat, but the dialog and radio series' quotes make up for any shortcomings.

• Death At Whitechapel, Robin Paige
Jennie Jerome Churchill, the American-born mother of the future Winston Churchill, is afraid. Her, and her son's, prolifigate lifestyle has already put them into debt, and now someone is blackmailing her, insinuating her late husband had a part in the "Ripper" murders ten years earlier. If what the blackmailer says is true, it will destroy her life and her son's burgeoning political career. Enter once more Kate Ardleigh Sheridan and her husband Charles, American mystery writer and British peer and amateur criminologist, to help her, especially after the blackmailer is found murdered. I especially enjoyed this outing because it was interesting to see a glimpse of the young Winston Churchill, very much not the old political lion figure at this point, but a callow, often snobby, youth, and also because the Ripper murder theory in this novel is very like the one presented in the Sherlock Holmes film Murder by Decree.

I'm puzzled, though. I was under the impression that a character first presented in the previous book was about to become a regular character...I guess I was wrong!

• Mr. Monk is Miserable, Lee Goldberg
Okay, Mr. Goldberg. There's one gag you've used in one episode and two books now. I'm not sure if it's third time's the charm or three strikes and you're out. But...enough, okay?

That out of the way, this next outing in the Monk novel series immediately follows Mr. Monk Goes to Germany. Natalie has blackmailed Monk into going to Paris for a few days, hoping to get a little bit of vacation out of her enforced trip to Europe, and to hopefully relive the happy memories of a past trip with her late husband. No chance: not only do the memories rattle Natalie, but Monk inexplicable wants to go—in a Hazmat suit, of course!—on a tour of the famous Paris sewers, which he considers the most remarkable thing about the city! Then Monk discovers a skull in the catacombs that is from a recently-deceased body, with signs of foul play about it. Yes, it's another mystery for Monk and his reluctant assistant, in which they meet street cleaners, the Paris constabulary, a group that eschews "the rat race," wonderous sanitizing streetside toilets, and, even more amazingly, food Monk will actually eat!

There's an offbeat tour of Paris along with the usual mystery elements, much fun for the Monk fan. Enjoy the journey, and don't forget your wipes!

• The Day the Falls Stood Still, Cathy Marie Buchanan
This is not the usual type of book I read, but I was intrigued by the time period and the setting: the World War I years and directly thereafter, when the creation of power plants along the Niagara River in both Canada and the United States raised questions in some about the survival of the river ecosystem due to all the water being drawn off.

17-year-old Bess Heath's education is cut short when her father is fired from his executive position at one of the hydroelectric plants. She comes home to find her father drinking more than usual, her mother (a former experienced seamstress) making dresses again to supplant the family income, and her former lively older sister depressed and barely eating. On that fateful trip home, Bess will also meet Tom Cole, a "riverman" whose knowledge of the great Niagara seems almost magical, and will warm to his presence. But a tragedy finds Bess covering up a secret, after which a more critical decision approaches: should Bess make a good match as her family grows more impoverished, or should she go with her heart? The story unfolds against the beautiful landscape of eastern Canada, with lovely details about both the river system and about the lovely clothing both Bess and her mother make, with portraits of the conflict between upper- and lower-class society. I enjoyed the characters, the wonderful setting, the descriptions, even the narrative most of the time, but ultimately I found the whole a bit...eh. My usual forte is either historical/biographical books from the era, or historical mysteries, so the slice-of-life approach seemed rather ordinary. It's more my failing than the book's.

• Where There's a Witch, Madelyn Alt
I've been reading this friendly little "bewitching mystery" series since the first book came out and have enjoyed watching Maggie find out about her empathic talents, get a fulfilling job, and make new—if unusual friends—and have felt indignant about her pushy mother and manipulating sister. In the last story, "little miss perfect" sister let the cat out of the bag about the esoteric activities going on with Maggie's employer and friends. Now, as reaction about the "heathens" spreads, groundbreaking at a new church reveals a hidden room—which soon holds the corpse of a murdered young woman. The buildup to the story was slow, the murderer really obvious, and I really disliked Alt ultimately making Maggie's staid policeman boyfriend "the heavy" in the triangle between Maggie, Tom, and romance-novel-hero wannabe Marcus. I'll keep hanging on hoping Maggie will eventually tell off her mom...and her sister.

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