A Cozy Nook to Read In  Book Vignette

A     B O O K L O V E R S '     P L A C E


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 March 2011

Books Finished Since March 1

book icon  How Shakespeare Changed Everything, Stephen Marche
Well, really, he didn't; still, this is a lively small book about some of the major influences Shakespeare's plays have had upon our society: innovations in language, unique characters, even "modern" concepts such as racial equality—the opening chapter, about Paul Robeson's portrayal of Othello, presents an aspect of the play I had not heard of before—and teenage angst. Other chapters discuss aspects of the Bard I had read about previously (those who try to prove Shakespeare did not write the plays attributed to him, the fact that not much biographical information is known about the man, even one about the gentleman who released starlings in North America, determined that every bird mentioned in Shakespeare should be available to be seen in the United States—the starlings, of course, bred copiously and invaded native species' territories), and there was a short but interesting chapter the Booth family and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

This is not a book I would have gone out of my way to buy, nor is it remarkable, but it was enjoyable, easy reading, and might be a good text to spark a teen's interest in Shakespeare.

book icon  Ten Second Staircase, Christopher Fowler
Once again, the Peculiar Crimes Unit, with its elderly senior officers, the eccentric and acerbic Arthur Bryant, and the still urbane John May, is threatened with extinction when their supervisor complains to his superiors about his difficulties reining in the offbeat group. In the meantime, an artist is murdered in her own display at an art museum, with a school group nearby, by a mysterious highwayman on a black horse, an improbable criminal seen by one of the students.

As always Fowler deals with much more than the mystery originally posed: May's agoraphobic granddaughter April is lured from her home to work with the Unit, Bryant becomes troubled by the emotional disassociation of the privileged as well as impoverished youths they encounter during their investigation, and the ghost of an old investigation is purposely called up, that of the Leicester Square Vampire, a killer who claimed the life of May's daughter (April's mother). The hows and whys of the plot kept me guessing until the end, and I found much amusement in realizing how much I agreed with some of Bryant's complaints about modern society! Captivating and absorbing.

book icon  The Silver Guitar: A Julie Mystery, Kathryn Reiss
The Julie stories wig me out; it's impossible for me to think of my teenage years as now being "history." :-) In this outing, Julie participates in a fundraising project that will help birds and mammals harmed in an oil spill (a particularly timely topic) and meets a couple who collect priceless objects. They plan to auction some of these collectibles off to help the cause, including a genuine silver StratoCruiser guitar which belonged to a famous, deceased rock star. But when Julie's friend T.J. accidentally breaks the priceless instrument, the two kids discover that the guitar is fake.

While the mystery is fairly solid, the dialog in the Julie books always strikes me as being unnecessarily stiff. It sure doesn't sound like the 1970s I lived through. They also manage to mention deceased young rock stars without once mentioning drug overdoses, which I found intensely amusing. Another curious incident is T.J. being given the responsibility that gets him in trouble: the couple allows T.J. access to their house after meeting him once; it's a bit hard to swallow. This is not the best of the Julie mysteries, but much better than the first one.

book icon  A Family Affair, Caro Peacock
Once again Benjamin Disraeli summons Miss Liberty Lane to provide discreet information into a perplexing event: influential Lord Brinkburn is dying, and, inexplicably, his formerly retiring wife has circulated the shocking information that their eldest son Stephen is not legitimate; she claims she accidentally had sexual congress with a stranger in a hotel room in Italy and he was the result. Their younger son Miles, her favorite of the two boys, is the actual heir. Liberty, with a young urchin named Tabby in tow to play as her maid, poses as an artist who wishes to paint and sketch in a cottage on the Blackburn estate. In this way she hopes to gain the confidence of Lady Brinkburn and perhaps find out the truth behind this fantastical statement.

This third Liberty Lane adventure starts off at a gallop during the re-creation of a joust held by bored young aristocrats and never slackens its pace. Bit by bit, Liberty peels back the layers of the Brinkburn family, to come to some astounding revelations and an action-filled conclusion to the story. Yes, Liberty's manner still seems too modern for an early Victorian-era young woman--in one sequence she's actually running around the countryside in a robe and her underwear, and seems not very nonplussed by the fact--but our plucky heroine, the narrative, the interesting supporting characters, and even the medieval re-creations by the indolent young lords all add up to an appealing mystery-adventure.

book icon  Clue in the Castle Tower: A Samantha Mystery, Sarah Masters Buckey
Samantha and Nellie accompany the Admiral and Grandmary to England, where they are invited to the manor home of the Admiral's old friend, now guardian to his two mischievous grandsons. The lively boys seem nice enough, albeit being pranksters, so the girls decide to help when Henry and Ian are threatened with being sent back to their dreary boarding school after their grandfather suspects them of stealing valuable books.

Aside from the boys seeming a bit more American in their manners than English, this is a mildly interesting mystery. The Lady Florence character, however, seems just tossed into the story to show an independent British girl and add another suspect, and the tutor is rather colorless. The most interesting character is the maid who yearns for more education (although she reminded me a bit of Maisie Dobbs).

book icon  Make Room for Danny, Danny Thomas with Bill Davidson
This is an easy-to-read, amiable autobiography of television star and nightclub performer Danny Thomas, who started off life as Amos Jacobs, the son of Lebanese immigrants. One of eight children, Thomas was actually raised by the aunt who cared for him while his mother was sick after childbirth and her husband. He was determined go to into the entertainment industry and eventually did, working hard and eventually getting some big breaks due to friends. Eventually he became known nationwide as the star of the highly popular sitcom Make Room for Daddy.

This book may not be everyone's cup of tea—Thomas doesn't "dish dirt" or relate sexual escapades. By today's standards it's pretty tame! But as a fan of Make Room for Daddy and Thomas' charity, St. Judes, I found it enjoyable.

book icon  A Bundle of Trouble: A Rebecca Mystery, Kathryn Reiss
Rebecca's troubles are only beginning when she notices her brother Victor sneaking out at night. The same day a young couple and their small baby move into the Rubins' apartment building and Rebecca offers to care for the fretful infant away from the tumult of moving. She takes the child to the park, where she befriends an Italian girl taking care of her baby sister. But when she returns baby Nora, she fears the two babies have been switched—deliberately, as part of a kidnapping spree going on in New York City.

The historical details of this volume are much better than the previous Rebecca mystery. Reiss gives one a nice feel for how poor children lived and cared for younger siblings in 1914. For an adult, it will be obvious that one character must be the obvious suspect since that person has no other purpose in the story. Still, there are several mysteries working here at once, a definite improvement on the first story.

book icon  The King's Speech; How One Man Saved the British Monarchy, Mark Logue and Peter Conradi
Albert Frederick Arthur George grew up as a shy prince in the shadow of his effervescent older brother, first in line to the throne of England. "Bertie," as he was known to family and friends, suffered from a debilitating stutter that made him the butt of classmates' jokes and caused instructors to think he was slow-witted. Lionel Logue was a talented public speaker from Australia who emigrated to England with his family and successfully treated people with speech disorders despite having no formal training.

In 1926, tired of criticism of his public speaking and desperate for a cure, the Prince contacts Logue for help. What he did for the prince was nothing short of a miracle; the treatment became a godsend when "Bertie" found himself king after his brother abdicated in favor of "the woman I love," and, not soon after, the country was plunged into World War II.

This book is at its best in the first two-thirds, as it chronicles the life of the man who would later be George VI as well as the Australian upbringing of Lionel Logue, followed by the prince's decision to seek Logue's help and how the therapist helped him. Revealed are the prince's bleak childhood, Logue's youth in pioneer Adelaide, and of the close friendship that sprang up between the men, as well as a portrait of England in the first half of the 20th century. If you saw the film, are a history buff, or were simply curious about the story, you will probably enjoy this book.

book icon  The Mental Floss History of the United States, Erik Sass with Will Pearson and Magesh Hattikuduk
The Mental Floss folks hit the high points in this occasionally humorous overview of United States history, with summaries of each era ("State of the Union"), "Lies Your Teacher Told You" (actually misconceptions people have about US history, riffing on the van Loewen books), and sections like "Where My Gods At," "Other People's Stuff," "Trendspotting," etc. The authors try hard to stay impartial (especially near the end during the Red/Blue States controversies), and it's a nice, informative summary in digestible bites. In fact, there are some nice overviews of subjects many history books gloss over, such as indentured servitude, the ubiquitous colonial rum, Bacon's Rebellion, Lincoln's treatment of civil liberties, how Commodore Perry really "opened up" Japan to trade, and more, plus a tidy summary of presidents from Washington to Obama at the conclusion of the book. Super for history buffs!

book icon  The Winter Garden Mystery, Carola Dunn
The Hon. Daisy Dalrymple, her family fortune just a memory due to her brother's death in the Great War, must instead write articles and take photographs for "Town and Country" magazine to earn her living. When an old school friend invites her to the family estate, Daisy is overjoyed to find a new article source. But the household is unsettled: autocratic Lady Valeria is quarreling with one of the inhabitants of the nearby village, her vague husband retreats to his model dairy at the least sign of conflict, tomboyish "Bobbie" (Daisy's chum) keeps disappearing, and something is obviously troubling breathtakingly handsome Sebastian, Bobbie's brother, and his crippled tutor, Ben.

It is when Daisy is being given a tour of the manor's famed Winter Garden that another apparent secret of the estate is revealed: the body of Grace Moss, a housemaid who disappeared, is buried under a dying shrub.

Again, while the Daisy mysteries have so far mentioned repercussions from the first World War, they are not the thoughtful, psychological tales of Anne Perry's or Jacqueline Winspear's postwar novels. Although the war deaths are not treated lightly, rather, it is the bright 1920s, with snappy slang, flappers, and bobbed hair inserted into an English country house mystery. These are quite enjoyable "cozies" with a heroine who knows her own mind, and supporting characters that will remind you of early Sayers or Woodhouse.

book icon  Mother Was a Gunner's Mate, Josette Dermody Wingo
I found this at the library while I was there for a totally different reason (but isn't that always how it is?). It's the true story of Josette Dermody, "nice Catholic girl" from Detroit who joined the WAVES in 1944. She trains at Great Lakes and then is shipped to her duty station at Treasure Island near San Francisco to train naval Armed Guard antiaircraft gunners on the West Coast. Told in a delightfully brisk first person, Josette encounters sexist male compatriots, occasionally hostile female companions (one of her bunkmates is a deeply prejudiced Southern girl), not to mention the fears of her family at home (she never did get her father to understand why she joined up, a sore point with him) and her fears for her brother and ex-boyfriend overseas. Josette may not "see the world," but she certainly sees lives different from the world she grew up in, meeting German prisoners, Russian sailors, and the denizens of 1940s San Francisco. A must for anyone wanting to know about woman's contributions during World War II, or just wanting a good coming-of-age story.

book icon  The Vertigo Years, Philipp Blom
The years from 1900-1914 are known by many names, including the Edwardian era (although George V came to the throne in 1910, those four years are usually considered to be a continuation of Edward's reign until the first World War began) and "the Gilded Age." It's usually considered a quiet time of fabulously wealthy aristocracy, complacent middle class, and appallingly hideous slum dwellers.

Don't believe it. Behind the post-Victorian "calm" was a world already boiling with social change—suffragettes, sexual tensions, young men and women gathering without chaperonage, the theories of eugenics, the collapse of aristocracy, the flowering of psychiatry, the protest against abuse of colonial tribes—and mechanical ones as well: the rise of the automobile, aviation, and other technological advances. For years doctors had insisted only women suffered from nervous problems due to the fact that they were female and subject to "hysteria"; now more and more men were appearing with "nervous complaints," harried by the clock and the rush of industrialization, feeling emasculated by intelligent women.

Year by year, Blom deals with a topic particular to that passage of time: the Paris exposition of 1900, X-rays and radioactivity in 1903, the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, the suffragette movement in 1908, the rise of leisure time by 1911, etc. I really enjoyed this book and all the different topics and personalities it addressed.

book icon  Trio of Sorcery, Mercedes Lackey
There was no way I was going to miss this volume, after having read all the Diana Tregarde novels and existing short stories—not buy the book with the "long lost 'Arcanum 101'" in it? Lackey has talked about this story for years!

It's the first Tregarde story ever written, about Diana's first steps away from home and lodging at college, trying to balance study and sorcery. Along the line she gets an assignment from the police (discredit a fortune teller who's advising a woman whose little girl was kidnapped) and a "Scooby gang" comprising the students upstairs who become her first friends. There's some exposition for newcomers to the storyline which may be tedious to Tregarde fans, but it trots along at a good pace. The other two stories are "Drums," a short story based on the Native American characters in Lackey's novel Sacred Ground and an original tale, "Ghost in the Machine," about Ellen McBride, a "techno-shaman" who helps online game developers whose new "super-villian" is a lot more powerful than it should be. The Jennifer Talldeer story explores some interesting Native American legends, but the Ellen McBride story crackles with energy—I would definitely like to see more stories, or a book featuring McBride. Highly recommended for those of you, like me, who've been waiting for "Arcanum 101" for years, and the other two stories are welcome laginappe.

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22 March 2011

Behind the Scenes

Oooh, look what's being released next Tuesday!

Lessons from the Mountain

(And while it has nothing to do with Mary's biography, there's a new Bryant and May book due out in September...)

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11 March 2011

Read an E-Book Week: Those Adventurous Boy Heroes

Given the era of the boys' series books contained in e-book archives, it was a given that the boys would experience more adventure and danger than their female counterparts.

Boys were definitely boys in those days, and while the girls did get to solve mysteries, frequently face unpleasant people, and even encounter spies, the boys invented, fought in wars or against enemies, were shot at, participated in long trail rides or motor rides, hunted and faced wild animals (not to mention wild men—outlaws and such), occasionally used their fists, always used their wiles—and remained gentlemen to boot!

The granddaddy of all boys series' was the Rover Boys. They're quaint reading now, even for 19th century book fans: they speak in pseudo-British slang (the opening stories take place in the boys' boarding school, Putnam Hall, and their schoolmates were spun off into yet another series). During their adventures the boys age, eventually marry, and their sons take over the youthful tales.

Probably the most famous of the boys' series was Tom Swift. Despite decades of "tom swifties" jokes, the Tom Swift series was a serious set of books about young Tom, a budding inventor and his inventor father, and what seemed like the constant efforts of other, lesser inventors to steal Mr. Swift's blueprints, patents, etc. The first books discussed machinery like motorcycles and motorboats, which, while commonplace to us, were quite novel to the readers of 1910. Later inventions included electric guns and other more fanciful equipment. Tom, like the Rover Boys, aged, married, and had a son, Tom Swift Jr, who participated in more space-age adventures with rocket ships and ray guns.

As time passed, the boys' series leads were often paired with the newest technology. There were boy motorcyclists, boy radio operators, boy motorboat owners, boy motorists, boy submariners, and, of course, boys involved with the newest, most amazing invention of all, the airplane. There were several boy aviator series, most of which took place during "the Great War." Their names changed, but the plots mostly followed the same plots: the gallant American boys flying for freedom against the "Boche" (Germans), saving the helpless and foiling evil spies. (If you blanch at the thought of ten-year-olds flying airplanes, driving cars and motorcycles, and thwarting enemies, please recall that the term "teenager" had not been coined when these books were written. The "boys" represented in series books were usually seventeen to nineteen years old.)

A more typical set of boys to begin with were H. Irving Hancock's "High School Boys," initially a set of sports-themed books. "Dick & Co.," as they were often known, after their leader, Dick Prescott, also included Greg Holmes, Dave Darrin, Dan Dalzell (also known as "Danny Grin"), Tom Reade, and Harry Hazelton, all of whom lived in the town of Gridley and attended Gridley High. Well-mannered, honest "square fellows," they were nevertheless frequently tormented by the town bully and his toadies. Hancock followed with a summer series about the boys, and then, having exhausted their later schooling, wrote a series of "Grammar School Boys" adventures about them. Once the boys reached adulthood, however, they split into three groups, each with a series. Dick and Greg went to West Point, then became "Uncle Sam's Boys" and fought in Europe. (Dick, amazing as always, on his first day in the trenches spots a spy who has fooled everyone else, including the officers, for weeks!) Dave and Dan went to Annapolis, then participated in various famous naval encounters, including adventures in Vera Cruz. Very soon our young lads were officers commanding small ships! Tom and Harry took a less military approach and attended engineering school, then managed to be coupled on assignments in various wild places, including Mexico and Nevada, where they always earned the lasting hatred of the biggest, baddest gunslinger around (who, of course, they always bested with superior thinking).

One of the more unusual series was the five-book "Circus Boys" series. Phil and Teddy, two bored country boys, join...well, the circus, starting out as general dogsbodies and tenderfoot performers, and by the end of the series, due to their pluck, initiative, and staying power, have worked themselves up to be publicists for the show, before even hitting their 20s. It was an interesting look behind the workings of an early 1900s traveling circus.

Again, one cannot discuss these early series, boys' or girls', without mentioning the sometimes blatant, sometimes more subtle, racism that was included in the stories. One of the most memorable characters in the original Tom Swift series, for example, is Eradicate Andrew Jackson Abraham Lincoln Sampson, the typical minstrel-show African-American supporting character. While "Rad," as Tom calls him, often provides Tom with important "clews" and saves him, he also speaks in stereotypical "colored dialect" and prefers to travel with his mule, Boomerang. These sad individuals spot both boys' and girls' series, for both younger and older children: Dinah and Sam in the Bobbsey Twins and Hercules, the family retainer in two of the Frey Camp Fire Girls books (another stereotypical African-American provides a plot point in yet a third Frey book) are only two of many examples, which is why I was surprised to discover The Air Ship Boys by Saylor, which contained a young black character who spoke in dialect, but not as bad as other novels, and did not act the fool; while he did most of the scut work for his white companions, he was also considered a trusted guard and companion.

Most minorities and many ethnic groups came in for drubbing. The worst series in this respect was the Pony Rider Boys series, about a group of boys and their older escort, who visited various Western and wilderness locales on horseback, encountering rustlers, cheats, land grabbers, and other villainous types. I had a tough time making it through my first Pony Rider book, despite thrilling adventures, faced with such epithets as "greaser" and "spic" directed to every Mexican, "dirty savages" in regards to Native Americans, "Chinamen" to Asians, etc. As observed in my girls' series entry, it is not surprising white children who read these books came away with such racist attitudes, as these books were provided to them by people they respected: parents, relatives, friends, perhaps even clergy.

Again, however, I still maintain these books have much to offer. They portray the virtues the early 1900s' adult wished good, manly boys to have: honesty, courage, conviction, drive, steadiness; open a window to the technological advances of the time; portray the closing frontiers of the United States and even Europe; show how the First World War was "spun" as a great crusade even to the youngest citizens of the United States; and vividly point out what strides have been made in defeating cruel and ugly stereotypes. It is a trip back in time that displays the realities, good and bad, of the era in a much more honest way than more recently written books that try to pretend that such things were not common among educated persons.

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10 March 2011

Read an E-Book Week: Those Sturdy, Principled Girl Heroines

Perhaps the most famous girls in series books are Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden, followed by Judy Bolton, Cherry Ames, and the other girl sleuths from the 30s and 40s, but they were preceded by an entire flock of earnest, principled girl heroines from early series books.

Not all of the stories these girls were involved in were mysteries. Some involved character studies, like the story of The Three Margarets (Margaret, Rita, and Peggy), all manipulated by their tyrannical relative to emerge friends, or slice-of-life stories in which girls like Patty Fairfield, Billie Bradley, and Nan Sherwood faced problems in growing up, or stories in which the girls embarked on newfangled adventures: they traveled in motorcars like "The Automobile Girls," appeared in the "flickers" like "The Moving Picture Girls" who faced rival actresses, or even flew "aeroplanes" like the Girl Aviators. Jean Webster's fun-loving Patty got in college scrapes but always came out fine at the end.

You can see the early face of girls' mysteries, however, in most of the series of the times. In between attending school, vacationing, and making their way through rivalries with other girls, our heroines usually managed to find missing papers and inheritances, make discoveries about lost children or adoptions, rescue abused kids, etc. Unlike the series of today, most of the girls were allowed to age, go from high school to college to a brief career, even to marriage. Ruth Fielding even finds a successful career as a movie screen writer, Ruth and Alice DeVere (the Moving Picture Girls) become actresses by accident (it's their father who actually wishes to become a film actor)

Typical of these girls were the Outdoor Girls. Dependable Betty Nelson, age fifteen, was the head of the little group—indeed, she is known to her friends as "the little Captain" due to her practical nature—who formed a "Camping and Tramping Club." The other members of the group are Grace Ford, who manages to keep a "Gibson girl" figure despite the fact that she always seems to have a box of chocolates on her; Molly Bilette, known as "Billy," the emotional member of the group (she's of French descent, you see, so she's excitable); and quiet Amy Stonington, who finds out to her great astonishment in the first book that she is adopted. Later in the series she finds out more about her real family. In addition, Grace's brother Will Ford and his friends appear, as well as Billy's insipid small twin siblings Paul and Dodo, who usually manage to blackmail the girls into giving them candy.

The one thing you will notice about all these girls' series is that the girls in them are chiefly in their late teens, but, despite the fact there are boys about, the girls do not spend their time mooning over them, or even obsessing about sex at all. It is a given that Betty likes Allan Washburn, and that Grace Harlowe, in her own series, is fond of Tom Gray (later her husband), but these girls have no time for boys until they reach their 20s. The same goes for the Camp Fire Girls, who are in their 20s by the time the series ends. It is refreshing to see supposedly old-fashioned girls acting so sensibly as opposed to their modern counterparts, who are obsessed with bodies rather than brains, looking good for boys, and being "princesses" when younger instead of independent women.

The other things emphasized are the girls' sense of virtue and fair play. They would never think of cheating or being deliberately "mean" to others, although they occasionally uttered a too-impulsive words or actions which they apologized for later. Grace Harlowe, Betty Nelson, the "Winnebago" Camp Fire Girls, Nan Sherwood, and their sisters would be horrified by the Gossip Girls.

Grace Harlowe was one of the straightest arrows in the series world. She was so "straight," in fact, that numerous girls in each year of high school and college attempted to "get even" with her by blackening her name. Grace spends several books being mistrusted by teachers, professors, or other authority figures because of resentful classmates. Yet she always managed to persevere with dignity and clear her name, and still have fun with her friends: Anne Pierson, a poor girl despised by her classmates who Grace takes under her wing; Nora O'Malley and Jessica Bright. Some of her enemies, like Eleanor Savell and Miriam Nesbit, later become her friends.

One of the more interesting series is that of Ethel Morton. In each of the Morton books, an educational theme accompanies the story line; for instance, in one of the books Ethel learns to cook healthful meals and grow fresh vegetables, in another book she and her friends learn decorating and designing a healthful and happy home.

One of the common topics of all the books written between 1914 and 1918 is the girls' participation in some type of aid during what was known then as the Great War. They knit, raised money, put together packages for European waifs, appeared in parades, bought Liberty Bonds, and otherwise encouraged their readers to help in the war effort. Of course, they occasionally caught spies as well! Hildegarde Frey's Winnebagoes even capture a German spy in The Camp Fire Girls Do Their Bit while defending their friend, Veronica Lehar, a Hungarian refuge.

An unexpected and interesting series is "Aunt Jane's Nieces." Louise, Beth, and Patsy are all summoned to their Aunt Jane's deathbed. She will leave only one of them her fortune, and tries to set the girls against one another, but instead they become friends. They also befriend Aunt Jane's ward Kenneth, who should be the recipient of her fortune, but she dislikes him. However, Kenneth eventually does inherit Aunt Jane's fortune, leaving the girls without support. Unexpectedly their Uncle John turns up. They believe him as poor "as a churchmouse" but it turns out he's rolling in dough and adopts all three girls, as well as appointing Patsy's father as his majordomo. The girls and Kenneth go through various adventures, including making a go of a farm, buying a newspaper, traveling to Europe, etc. The books touch upon some subjects that were surprising for girls' novels of their day: in one Kenneth runs for office and the girls help him politically.

The biggest surprise, however, of the series is that the Edith Van Dyne writing their adventures is in actuality L. Frank Baum of "Oz" fame. In fact, he wrote several other girls' series under a pen name, including the Mary Louise books.

These girls' novels are a window to the world of young women from 1900 through the 1920s. It is an eye-opener to see them emerge from the Victorian world where girls sewed samplers and painted china to vigorous young ladies who compete in basketball and tennis, drive automobiles, even start to lead independent lives even though there are expectations of marriage and children in their futures.

As in all the novels of this era, bigotry and racism sometimes appear. While it is sometimes painful to read, it also reminds us of how far we have come in racial and ethnic equality. It also explains to us how children of the era fell victim to racism and negative ethnic stereotypes, being presented as common and normal in these much-read volumes.

The next time you're looking for an e-book, try one of these old series. I have a particular fondness for the Hildegard Frey Camp Fire Girls (a series of ten books, eight which can be found online), but Betty Gordon, Grace Harlowe, Ruth Fielding, the Outdoor Girls, and others are all fun choices. If nothing else, you can smile at the quaint dialog, the funny medical beliefs, and even occasionally those annoying cutsey younger brothers and sisters!

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06 March 2011

Read an E-Book Week

I'd planned to do an e-book post at some point, and this appears to be the perfect time. E-books are nothing new to me—just the concept of paying for them are! :-) I've been reading e-books since I bought my HP Jornada in 2002. One of the applications it came with was Microsoft Reader, which is the ".lit" format.

At that time there were no Kindles, Nooks, Kobos, etc. There were e-readers on Jornadas and Palm Pilots and other PDAs, however, in two formats that I knew about (there may have been others), Microsoft Reader and Mobypocket. The Jornada came with some fairy tales, but I later found e-books of classics on a University of Virginia site. Gutenberg.org also had e-books. Again, at that time these were public domain classics: Louisa May Alcott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Frederick Douglass, Wilkie Collins, Arthur Conan Doyle, etc.

I hit the jackpot when I found a site called Blackmask.com. This site not only contained the same classics, but it also had pulp magazine stories and, best of all, old children's series books. Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys? No, these are still under copyright. But everything else, and much earlier than Drew or Hardy, all the way back to the much joked about Rover Boys and the original Bobbsey Twins (where they rode around in horses and carriages), and everything else.

(The owner of the Blackmask.com site was later sued for using Doc Savage and the Shadow pulps on his site, ignoring the fact that Conde Nast still owns these characters. The site vanished for a time, but is now back, sans Doc and Lamont, as Munseys.com. New e-books join the ranks daily.)

So here I discovered all the early girls' series: Grace Harlowe, Ruth Fielding, Betty Gordon, Nan Sherwood, and more. Plus the boys' series: the Pony Rider Boys, the High School Boys (later the Dick Prescott books, the Dave Darrin books, and the Young Engineers), the Boy Allies, even Tom Swift. It's all been great fun to peek into the past: fashions, mores, school customs, speech patterns, how the adults of the time expected girl and boy protagonists to act. Some of the plots are paint-by-number, sadly bigotry reared its head many times, language might be florid—but all of it has been interesting, occasionally fun, and I have even come to love some of these early characters.

I'm hoping to write more this week about the books I discovered, some characters I found endearing, and more during Read an E-Book Week.

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05 March 2011

The Peculiar Crimes Unit

Bryant and May have their own website: The Peculiar Crimes Unit!

And there are at least two more books upcoming!

Happiness!

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04 March 2011

The Library Booksale: Titles and Thoughts

The spring edition was this morning, and I was there not quite at the opening, but the earliest I'd ever been there, about a quarter to ten. (It was also a first, as I wasn't sick—for some reason every time the library has a book sale, I've either had a cold or gotten there after having not eaten lunch and wandered about, stomach growling and light-headed.)

I was agog at the crowd. I have never seen that many people at the sale. Not only was it difficult to move around, but more people than ever were dragging shopping carts, those rolling boxes with handles like a suitcase, or even real suitcases (when they weren't blocking the aisle with strollers). There were many young mothers or older people there, and many were stuffing bags, boxes, and suitcases full of books, a clear commentary on the economy.

I hit the children's books first, under the same cockeyed optimism that I will find some older books as was common in the 70s and 80s book sales. Sadly, most used book stores and sales usually just have piles and piles of Babysitters Club, Goosebumps, and modern paperbacks. Unfortunately, I never do find Betty Cavanna or Janet Lambert, or Augusta Heuill Seaman, or the Scholastic Books we didn't have money for when I was in school, like White Ruff or Always Reddy. I did see a vintage bio of George Washington, but passed it up. I got one of the Katie John books, though, and a Ginnie and Geneva, and picked up Gone-Away Lake, which is a classic that I've never read. I also found a small press book that was stuck with the biographies, about a boy growing up on Martha's Vineyard.

I checked out both the hardbacks and the paperbacks in more forlorn hope that someone had discarded some of the Carola Dunn books I'm trying to find, looked over the travel, nature, and craft books, and then scoured the biographies hoping that someone had been careless and donated a copy of Colonel Roosevelt. However, I did find American Eve, the story of Evelyn Nesbit, and a biography of one of my television favorites, Danny Thomas.

There was a nice collection of Christmas books this year, half craft stuff and the other half mostly Mary Higgins Clark books, the John Grisham Skipping Christmas (which I absolutely loathed), David Baldacci's The Christmas Train (loved it), some Jan Karon. I found an interesting recipe book from the 1960s that had traditional recipes in it, like syllabub and mulled wine and other historical- or ethnic-based ones. And then a total surprise.

Many years ago in the original Atlanta Borders store I found a trade paper volume called A Worcestershire Christmas. It was short selections, photos, and drawings of Christmas celebrations in Worcestershire, England, published by Sutton. Well, here was a similarly-sized book, same format, also by Sutton, called A Surrey Christmas! I'm wondering now if there were a series of them! (OMG, just checked Amazon.co.uk—there are dozens of them, looks like for each shire in England, plus volumes like Bronte Christmas, Thomas Hardy Christmas, London Christmas, Great British Christmas, Medieval Christmas, Country House Christmas, Gilbert and Sullivan Christmas, etc. ...wow!)

Anyway, I was still poking about in the children's book area when a mom came behind me with two small kids, maybe about age four or five. The little girl had picked up a book and was trying to give it to her mother. Her mother said, "You've already read that book; I'm not buying you a book you've already read!" Not "a book you already have," but "a book you've already read." Is this not depressing? It's not like the book cost a fortune! And why should the kid not have a book she really loved and wanted to read again? I have so many books I love to re-read; they are as dear as old friends. What's wrong with buying a book that's already been read?

Later, as I was perusing the art books, a woman came up behind me with two older children, probably around nine or ten. It sounded like they were being homeschooled, because mom was looking for books about artists for the children to learn about, and when I pointed out a book about opera to her, she picked it up to check it because the children were going to see a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta soon. They were dragging a library cart behind them with an entire, fairly new set of the World Book Encyclopedia, and I wanted to give them a sunny smile and say, "Oh, what a wonderful time you're going to have with that!" I can still tilt my head to the left and see my set, the ones my mom gave us as a housewarming gift, and remember my original one from 1963 with the pebbly red "library finish" that my Cousin Eddie Lanzi sold us. I would see something on television and say, "Mommy, is that true?" and she would say, "Go look it up in the encyclopedia!" and I would. I read all the volumes through at least twice. Through its pages I visited different countries and climates, discovered the world of flora and fauna, read about scientific discoveries and literary gems—and the people who created them, got to know saints and sinners, heroes and villains.

Now I can surf anywhere and see anything via the web, but nothing will ever be quite like the magic of that first World Book!

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