Books Finished Since October 1
Appropriately, on the 200th anniversary of the start of the War of 1812, American Girl has issued these books, which take place on Lake Erie during the war. The series begins on an exciting but sober note as Caroline Abbott's father, a shipbuilder, and her cousin are arrested by the British and their ship is commandeered. The British return Caroline to her home, Sackett's Harbor, New York, and it is then the family's long ordeal begins, hoping the British will either free Mr. Abbott or he can escape.
This is a much more lively set of adventures than in some of the other American Girl series, although it is probably unrealistic that Caroline gets to experience so many of the ordeals that girls in 1812 were likely to endure: having a father kidnapped, helping supply him clues to escape, etc., in addition to her mother taking over the running of the shipyard. Hardships are touched upon, especially for Mr. Abbott, but of course there is nothing truly frightening that lone women in that era might have had to face. And even in the midst of the conflict, "growing up" problems like jealousy are addressed, although the situation is rather dull when compared to Caroline's other adventures.
Major points to this set for addressing what is sometimes called "the forgotten war." One wonders if future sets will continue to address less well-known periods of history, as this and the previous Marie-Grace/Cecile series did. In addition, the artwork is lovely!
Growing Up Laughing, Marlo Thomas
This is Thomas' take on her childhood "growing up laughing" with Dad Danny Thomas, her first career steps, marriage to Phil Donohue, and involvement with her father's charity, St. Jude's Hospital. As interstices to the chapters, she interviews other comedians about their childhood and comic heritage. Most of these are okay, but I wish Marlo had skipped most of them and given us more time with her family and her dad, as well as the famous comedians who were her father's friends (Jan Murray, George Burns, etc.). Her stories about her musical grandmother, about her father's tales, and her brothers and sisters are the real meat of this book. There's even a nice tribute to Ted Bessell and another to her TV dad, Lew Parker, but not a lot about the show that made her a star, That Girl. If you're interested in those "meaty" parts, I'd borrow the book or get an inexpensive copy.
To a Distant Day, Chris Gainor
This is the story of the rocket pioneers in the days before the Mercury program and the Soviet space program. The book opens with fictional dreams of traveling in space, including Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon, and the work of the early astronomers, leading into modern discussions about early Soviet efforts and the experiments of Robert Goddard. Some of the most fascinating chapters are devoted to Sergei Korolev, so long the un-named genius behind the Soviet space flights. Korolev's early life was tragic, as he was fingered in one of Stalin's early purges and spent so much time in the gulag that his health was permanently compromised.
Also touched on several times is Werhner Von Braun and his companions' culpability in the Holocaust, as one of the most notorious "work camps," Dora, provided the slave labor for the rockets built in Peenemunde. So thoroughly were these German scientists covered up for by the researchers who wanted their information that many older Americans still remember Von Braun as "that nice German scientist who worked with Walt Disney." The author mentions the work camps several times, but makes no judgment calls. You can tell it's an uncomfortable subject for him, as it for the reader, knowing that space progress came from such horrific sources. Of note, too, for animal lovers: some of the creatures shot into space met a gruesome end.
This is not a book for a casual reader who just wants simple facts about man's progress in space; however, should you be interested in the subject, Gainor is a clear, concise writer who explains difficult subjects simply without being simplistic. There are many details about animal test flights and the life of Korolev that I had not heard before.
To Davy Jones Below, Carola Dunn
Daisy Dalrymple and her beau DI Alec Fletcher have finally been married (to the dismay of her mother and of his). With Alec's schoolgirl daughter in the care of her grandmother, the happy couple are about to go a-honeymooning when they find they have been booked on the ocean liner Talavera at the instigation of their American friend Caleb Arbuckle, who is traveling along with his daughter Gloria, now married to Daisy's friend Phil, as well as Arbuckle's partner and his flashy new wife, whom Arbuckle suspects is a golddigger. They are barely out to sea when a man is pushed overboard.
In this ninth Daisy adventure, she's pulled into a mystery through no fault of her own, especially after Alec develops seasickness. I did find myself a bit resentful of Arbuckle's role in their ending up aboard ship in the first place—yeah, I know; story ends here if he hadn't, but really... Their shipboard company varies from commonplace (a country farm couple on their first vacation) to offbeat (a spinster herbalist who is constantly described as "a witch"), not to mention the ostentatious and manipulative new bride of Arbuckle's partner, Jethro Gotobed. 1920s shipboard life is portrayed vividly, and of course Daisy does what she does best: sleuth and exasperate Alec. Missed in this adventure is Alec's solid partner, Sgt. Tring, but there's enough shipboard intrigue to keep all busy. Still spiffing!
The Know-It-All, A.J. Jacobs
Have I mentioned before that A.J.'s wife Julie has to be one of the most patient women on earth?
This is magazine writer Jacobs' breakout book, a chronicle of his mission to read the entire Encyclopædia Brittanica (no, not the classic 1911 version, but a newer version with the "macropedia" and the "micropedia," which, IMHO, was a waste of good paper), a project his father started but never finished. (BTW, did you know you can read the classic 1911 version online?) Since I've "done" The World Book at least twice, this was a natural for me.
Of course in classic A.J. Jacobs style, he goes overboard, flaunting his new knowledge at every opportunity, realizing he won't retain what he reads (which leads to some amusing encounters with speed-reading classes), and including choice little tidbits of the text. It also chronicles A.J. and Julie's odyssey of trying to get pregnant (yeah, a little TMI sometimes) and Julie's patient but occasionally exasperated coping with her husband's new madness.
Jacobs is best taken in small doses; this book is recommended for bedtime reading. :-)
Bryant and May Off the Rails, Christopher Fowler
The Peculiar Crimes Unit is in peculiar circumstances once again: they can only survive if the killer known as "Mr. Fox," who escaped custody after killing one of their own, is brought to justice immediately. Still smarting from the death of Liberty DuCaine, the team knows they have only a week to make things right, and when a single mother is pushed down an escalator in the King's Cross Station, they fear "Mr. Fox" has begun a new killing spree. But what is the mysterious sticker put on the victim's clothing all about? And what does it have to do with a student who disappears after boarding a subway car?
As in every PCU mystery, Fowler explores some aspect of London life. This time it's the London Tube, which is the stage set for all that happens next, whether from the bright corners of the monitored stations to the hidden inner workings.
I find it hard to describe these books because they're so offbeat, definitely not your usual police procedural. They are always puzzling, certainly often whimsical, especially with someone of Arthur Bryant's personality, with the added fillip of learning neat little facts about London pubs, rivers, mythology, etc. as with the tube system and its modern surveillance in this story (technology definitely plays a factor in this one, despite Bryant's continual misuse of his cell phone). I enjoy the heck out of them. If you like your mysteries straight, perhaps not for you, but for me, just my cup of hot cocoa!
Little Vampire Women, Louisa May Alcott and Lynn Messina
If I'd known this book was this funny, I would have read it long ago.
Part of the movement that paired classic books with monsters, starting way back with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, this is the supposed "true" telling of Alcott's classic work. The March family, vampires all, are humanitarians who eschew human blood for more humane animal blood, but otherwise the narrative is the same as Alcott's with otherworldly interruptions or changes (for instance, Jo isn't a writer in this one; she's in training to defeat vampire slayers by means of modern methods, until Professor Bhaer encourages her to rely on good old-fashioned vampire instinct). Messina's sense of the absurd comes to the fore in many chapters (the reference to Beth and the kittens convulsed me), such as the commentary about the etiquette of attending a mixed vampire/human gathering (it's considered bad form to bite someone's neck...or stake someone). Jo's search for the perpetrator of the disease that strikes Beth also adds a novel twist to the familiar tale.
A bit gory, but with vampires you must know it would be, but amusing. A good Hallowe'en read!
Trixie Belden and the Mystery of the Uninvited Guest, Kathryn Kenny
Okay, a little backstory here: girls who grew up in the 1950s-1970s will remember Trixie Belden as the anti-Nancy Drew; instead of a lawyer dad, a roadster, and everything at her fingertips, she had two older brothers (one who teased), a pesty younger brother, a stay-at-home Mom, and a Dad who worked in a bank. They all lived at Crabapple Farm, near the village of Sleepyside-on-Hudson in New York. The farm was off the beaten path, so Trixie didn't have any friends nearby until Madeleine "Honey" Wheeler and her family moved into the big Manor House up on the hill. A "poor little rich girl," Honey was a sheltered, sickly child—until she meets Trixie. The two thirteen-year-olds become fast friends and almost immediately start solving mysteries together, starting with the appearance of a redheaded teenage boy named Jim at the abandoned Ten Acres estate in The Secret of the Mansion.
Sixteen books were written about Trixie, Honey, their family and friends, and the activities of the kids' club, the Bob-Whites, between 1948 and 1970, when Whitman books dropped the series. I collected these sixteen books, in which the characters aged, moved up a grade, and began the long process of growing up, but I skipped the newer set that began in 1977 because of the capricious decision to freeze all the kids' ages (of course! the publisher didn't want them growing up!). However, when a stack of books #17-#31 hove into view at the library book sale for only fifty cents each, how could I resist?
Boy, was I surprised, too! Now, granted, one of the appeals of Trixie was that she was often impetuous. Too many times she acted before she thought. But she's a good kid at heart, which is why I was flabbergasted at the way this book opened, with Trixie practically foaming at the mouth over the visit of her cousin Hallie from the West Coast. Apparently Trixie and Hallie have "issues" going back to childhood, but we really don't know what the rivalry is all about, besides the fact Trixie seems to be resentful because Hallie is pretty. In short order suddenly Trixie thinks she's fat. (She's "sturdy"—that's not fat.) And apparently is having a cow just because Jim might think Hallie was pretty. Seriously? Plus six-year-old Bobby ends up being threatened with bodily harm, which I found disconcerting. The older kids have been threatened with guns and knives before, but on Bobby it seems a bit much.
The rest of the mystery isn't so bad, with former bad boy Dan accused of theft before he vanishes and a wheelchair-bound woman trying to horn her way into Jim's cousin Juliana's wedding. But wow, the Trixie-angst in the first half of the book is shocking. I hope that doesn't continue in the rest of the later books.
The Doomsday Vault, Steven Harper
Alice is a lass in a steampunk Victorian London, doomed to spinsterhood by the mysterious deaths of her family in the clockwork plague and her peculiar interest in automatons; Gavin is a music-loving cabin boy on a dirigible overtaken by pirates who is frantically trying to escape the unsavory attentions of one of his captors. Naturally, these two must meet!
In the meantime it's a glorious, grand adventure filled with secret societies, women operating "out of their place," steampunk puzzles and automated cats, airships and steam horses, and hulks of stalking zombies in a London still fraught with late Dickensian overtones: coal smoke, gaslit alleys, and the requisite "mad scientists," who here are victims of the clockwork plague. Despite the fact that modern man's fascination with conspiracy theories also rears its ugly head, this is a nonstop action piece from beginning to end, with a feisty female lead and surprises around every corner. I galloped through it in a couple of days.
December 1941, Craig Shirley
I really, really wanted this book when it was released; I loved the idea of a day-by-day chronicle of December 1941, not just straight on war-news, but something that would give you an idea of how people lived back then, what they read in books and newspapers, what was popular culture suddenly interrupted by violence. And on that note, the book does succeed. While each chapter begins with war-related headlines, the writer endeavors to give you a seat in the kitchen or parlor in 1941 America, reading the newspapers and magazines of the day. War news from Europe mixes freely with hit movies, discoveries in science, world news, the inequalities of the races, behind the scenes at the White House and in Congress, sports, advertisements for Christmas gifts, and more. Once Pearl Harbor is attacked, we also have more personal war-related glimpses: the arrivals in homes of telegrams announcing the death of a son or father or the relentless efforts of the military to hold sites in the Pacific like the Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong. Winston Churchill arrives in Washington, DC.
Unfortunately, the effect of all this information is rather overwhelming; I would say this is not a book you would read in one sitting. Chapter by chapter is a more fitting way to address it. Sadly, reading it chapter by chapter to get a feel for the time and place is about all you can do with this book, since it is filled with factual errors, typos, and repetitions, not to mention pedestrian writing. It looks like it was rushed to print at the last minute with no proofreading or fact checking at all. (Heck at one point, the printed book actually has blank spaces in it where it was supposed to calculate the days, hours, and minutes since the war started, but no one bothered to fill it in before the book was published.) If these were obscure facts it would be one thing, but items like who was Secretary of the Navy at the time, or what day December 1, 1941, fell on, or the number of pilots in the RAF, are pretty much basic. To get that 1941 feeling, borrow from the library or buy it for a dollar from a library book sale, and for God's sake, take the facts with whopping big grains of sea salt.
Will Sparrow's Road, Karen Cushman
Cushman's newest book comes with a twist: while her previous protagonists have all been girls, the hero of this Elizabethan tale about a traveling circus is a young boy whose abusive father sold him to a tavern keeper in exchange for beer. When Will finds he will again be sold, perhaps for the terrifying job of being a chimney sweep, he flees, meeting what he thinks are helpful folk on the road who only steal from him. So Will swears to not trust anyone again and soon finds himself as errand boy and hawker for a traveling "freak show," whose company includes an inebriated dwarf and a girl with the furry face of a cat, plus a blind juggler and a man with an "educated" pig.
Prickly Will, for obvious reasons, is not the most likable character at first, and it takes him a long time to learn a lesson akin to The Frog Prince and the story of "The Golden Man" on Lost in Space, but it paints a fascinating picture of life in 1599 and the means of entertainment back then, and how those who were unusual faced prejudice and banded together to survive. Cushman's portrayal of Elizabethan life is so vivid: the colors and the smells of the marketplace and the midden, the piercing cold of the rain and swimming heat of the sun, the noise of the crowds and the mouthwatering descriptions of food—young Will is always hungry, as most boys are—that this book is a delight to read if only for those, but the story of Will and his traveling companions is just as compelling. A great way to introduce an older child to everyday life in a different era.