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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