29 February 2012

Books Finished Since February 1

book icon  Letter Perfect, David Sacks
Another super read if you are a linguistics junkie like myself: a history of the alphabet. One of my great joys as a a kid was reading through the World Book, each volume which began with the history of the letter (or letters) referenced. Since my latest World Book is of 1995 vintage, I had no idea there had been a 1998 discovery of an earlier alphabet than the Phoenician, found that year in Egypt. It's much more than just alphabet history, however; Sacks discusses vowel shifts and how our pronouciation of words has changed ("tea" was once "tay," for instance, and, further back, the letters themselves were pronounced differently), spelling changes, even typefaces, all movie popcorn treats for word lovers. The one distraction: informative, but badly placed sidebars which occur smack in the middle of chapters...they would have been better placed between the chapters. All in all, though, a great read.

book icon  The Tale of Oat Cake Crag, Susan Wittig Albert
The peaceful farm life in the village of Sawrey is broken when one of the newfangled "aeroplanes" begins testing at the edge of Lake Windemere, leading the angry townspeople to call a meeting. And another storm is ready to break: Miss Beatrix Potter feels she cannot keep her secret engagement to attorney Will Heelis confidential much longer.

As always, a laid-back entry in these quaint cottage tales in which the village and countryside animals have as much to do with the plot as the people—Rascal the terrier even gets a moment of heroics in. As a mystery, it's rather weak, but as a gossipy take on early 20th-century village life, what with secret engagements, resentful servants, and tittle-tattling neighbors, there's never a dull moment if a cozy is what you're in the mood for. Oh, to be a fly on the wall when Beatrix's letter arrives...

book icon  In the Beginning, There Was Chaos: For Better or For Worse 2nd Treasury, Lynn Johnston
This is a two-year collection of Johnston's comic strip taking place when Michael was in first and then second grade, and Lizzie became more verbal; John continues his snark and Elly takes continuing education classes and works at a local newspaper. Besides the great fun of the strips, the explanations of which stories are true—many of the Patterson children's situations came from Johnston's own childhood, not her children's—and which were flights of fancy are neat to read. There are several newspaper stories about her work and the strip, some cartoons she did for a local newspaper, and even a color cover that wasn't used on one of her comic collections. Great fun for FBOFW fans!

book icon  A Marked Man, Barbara Hamilton
The Tory Fluckner family, appalled that their daughter is in love with a mere bookseller and avowed member of the Sons of Liberty, are equally saddened and overjoyed when a British officer also vying for their daughter's hand (and the lands in Maine she will inherit) is killed and the suspect is the selfsame rebel Henry Knox. Thus Abigail Adams is pulled into the search for the real murderer before "Harry" can be shipped off for British trial.

Those who had eyebrows raised at Abigail's going far afield in the first mystery by Hamilton will find her on firmer ground, trying to work her sleuthing around housework, raising her children, and tracking the comings and goings of husband John and the rest of the Sons of Liberty. To do so she must ally herself with Lucy Fluckner, the British woman who's become her duenna, and the two British soldiers who helped her previously, Lieutenant Coldstone and Sergeant Muldoon. Hamilton weaves a complicated, page-turning tale around Boston town life and the high passions of two groups, the British quartered in the city and the colonists fomenting for freedom, and in doing so brings both groups vividly to life, not marking the "redcoats" as stereotypical, but just men doing a job. Her descriptions of Boston in February will bring a chill to you even in midsummer!

book icon  Bryant and May on the Loose, Christopher Fowler
So I went from frigid cold and snowy Boston of the 1770s to damp, dank, rainy London of 2010. I figuratively squished through this latest Bryant and May mystery as Fowler transferred the depression surrounding the disbanding of the Peculiar Crimes Unit to the English weather. Arthur Bryant has retreated to his flat, allowing ennui to overtake him. Janice Longbright has found work in a vintage shop. John May has not stopped looking for alternatives for his team, and the rest are struggling to "make do"—until a former team member finds a headless corpse in the disused freezer of an abandoned shop in the King's Cross area. The area is undergoing revitalization for the upcoming Olympics and May persuades the Metropolitan police that the crime must be solved before the area receives a bad name.

And then a passerby is attacked by a weird half-man, half-stag figure, arousing Bryant's dormant interest.

This is another quirky entry in the Peculiar Crimes Unit series, in which the team is reassembled, housed in yet another inadequate building, immersed in headless corpses and tales of Britain's pagan heritage and historical myths, including a mystery going back to World War II. In addition, the team makes an enemy of a violent new criminal. Not the best in the series, but a welcome new entry nonetheless.

book icon  Always Reddy, Marguerite Henry
This is the short, touching and funny story of Shamrock Queen, the hunting companion of Mr. Hoops, City Treasurer in the little community of Bellville. "Reddy," as she's called, is raising what will probably be her final litter, and Hoops picks out one of her puppies for them to train together. And then, calamity! Mrs. Hoops' mother is coming to live with them, and she's allergic to dogs! What will happen to Reddy and her son Snippet now?

Sadly, the Wesley Dennis illustrations are a bit off in this otherwise adorable story, with the Irish setters illustrated in red against a different colored background. Not sure why this was done. It doesn't detract from the story, but it's a bit of a disappointment to those who love Dennis' work.

book icon  The Garden Intrigue, Lauren Willig
Augustus Whittlesby has spent ten years as an English spy, writing such insufferably bad poetry that it is dismissed by the French but coveted by the British, since it contains coded messages. He's weary of the role and wants nothing more than to retire with his ideal woman, the Pink Carnation herself, Jane Woolliston. But Jane seems oblivious to his attentions, and a more annoying problem has arrived, young widow Emma Delagardie, who appears to be his only way into Napoleon's stronghold to discover what he can about a new seagoing weapon that will help the Emperor invade England. (If you've read The Mistaken Wife by Rose Melikan, you will know what this weapon is; the same one features in each book.)

If you are a Pink Carnation fan, you know immediately where the story is going. Augustus and Emma make lively antagonists in their espionage and romantic adventures. Meanwhile, in the modern world, Eloise Kelly has her own decision to make. It's been over six wonderful months since she discovered the Pink Carnation papers and became involved with Colin Selwick. But is this a lasting relationship? And what about this "treasure" Colin's odious cousin Jeremy is apparently hunting for at Selwick Hall?

I remember reading that this series was going to run to six books; it's now at nine and shows no sign of stopping, with each just as good as the last. I've had a guess about whom the chill Miss Woolliston will eventually fall for, and the finale appears to be proving me correct. Or perhaps not. But I'll surely enjoy the ride wherever it goes. :-)

book icon  A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L'Engle (50th anniversary edition)
Meg Murry is "all wrong": an awkward teen who can't fit in, who worries over her little brother who's called names and her father who has disappeared while doing secret work for the government. But it is her "dumb baby brother" who initiates a friendship with a mysterious elderly lady that takes them and a popular boy from school on an amazing voyage to a frightening place to rescue Dr. Murry.

This is so much more than a fantasy story: it is a book about love, and about conformance, and if conformance can be carried too far. In an earlier age this was seen as a parable against the Soviet Union, but it speaks against any restrictive society. One must be brave enough, yet disciplined enough to overcome it.

I read this for the first time in seventh grade and have loved it ever since: filled with memorable characters like the sagacious but flawed Charles Wallace, the eccentric Mrs. Whatsit, loving Aunt Beast, and the sinister IT. Even in the 1970s, Meg was a unique character in children's literature: a strong, if flawed, young woman in a genre filled with heroic boys. Her appeal comes from her fallibility; that any of us could be Meg. Plus the book challenges the mind with its scientific and sociological concepts wrapped in a nifty fantasy.

This 50th Anniversary edition comes with photos of L'Engle, a copy of her Newbery Award acceptance speech, Madeleine's edits to a facsimile of Chapter 1, and an introduction by her granddaughter. Pure gold.

book icon  A Pictorial Life Story of Misty, Marguerite Henry
As a kid I was as addicted to animal books as I was to animals. One of my most beloved authors was Marguerite Henry, but I had little hope of owning any of her volumes. They were all in hardback back then. So via the library (and the tucked-away bookshelves in Shepard's department store) I read and re-read all I could find, even the obscure ones, like Benjamin West and His Cat Grimalkin. Later, when college was done and I went to work, the books were finally out in trade paperback, and I bought them two by two every payday. Some I had to collect later via the internet, the ones that never made it to paperback status: White Stallion of Lipizza, Benjamin West, Cinnabar the One O'Clock Fox, etc.

I had forgotten that there were a few gaps to my collection until just recently when a friend who is reading the books mentioned them, and I turned back to my old friend the internet. This brought me one of the most longed-for books, A Pictorial Life Story of Misty. Not the story Henry told in the novel, but the real story of how Henry bought the young filly (after she was weaned) and her life on Henry's little country place, "Mole Meadow," with Friday the Morgan horse and Pixie the cocker spaniel, and later Brighty the donkey and Alex the dachshund, until Henry decided it was time for Misty to return to Chincoteague and have a family of her own, all with color and black and white photos of Henry, the horses and other critters, and Wesley Dennis' beautiful artwork tucked in the margins. I sat reading it with a big grin on my face and as many chuckles as it would have given me way back when, and I finished it with a sense of completion and satisfaction. If you loved Misty in particular or just Henry in general, you will love this book.

book icon  Pagan Christmas, Christian Rätsch and Claudia Müller-Ebeling
If you are looking for a "unique" Christmas book, you wouldn't have to look much further than this volume. Described as "an ethnobotany of Christmas," it traces the background and the use of all the plants we think of as traditional to the holiday—mistletoe, holly, fir trees, poinsettias, etc. However, it chronicles all the plants over the years having been traditionally associated with the holiday, including the white-spotted mushrooms (the fly agaric) so commonly duplicated as ornaments on European trees, yews, and all the fragrant herbs and spices, i.e. rosemary, bay, ginger, anise, etc., most of which trace back to pagan antecedents and some to drug use to obtain "visions." For that reason, I strongly suggest this book is definitely not for children, as there are reference to sexual practices as well. However, as a book for adults I did find it quite entertaining, reading about customs from the past, some which even dated back to near-prehistoric times. And, indeed, many of the images we think of as "Christmassy," the Scandinavian "julebok" and the Julenissen, St. Nicholas' white horse, the smokers of Germany, the colors red and white, hark back to far older solstice and Yule celebrations. As a plus the book is illustrated with not only photos of the plants, but liberally illustrated with Christmas imagery that goes back to early Victorian chromolithographs, of delightfully pagan-based postcards, advertisements, and greeting cards that were sold freely in Christian countries. Just a very neat book, but not for everyone.

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