Meg and the Secret of the Witch's Staircase, Holly Beth Walker
This was a series of mysteries for young girls that came out not long after I was too old for them, although I was always curious about them. Meg Duncan is a girl about twelve years old who lives in Hidden Springs, Virginia, a small town, with her widowed father. She is often on adventures with her Uncle Hal, who is much younger than her dad, and her best friend Kerry Carmody, who lives on a small farm with her brothers and sisters, parents, and pets. Meg has a Siamese cat named Thunder as a pet, although the cat doesn't appear is this, the second of six books. Instead she and Kerry are trying to help a pair of elderly sisters who are barely making ends meet on an old plantation. When one of the ladies breaks her arm, they are in more perilous straits than usual, and really could use the money that would be earned if they found the missing family silver, which was hidden during the Civil War.
This is a nice, easygoing mystery series that parents would do well to hunt up for their girls. Meg and Kerry are intelligent and self-sufficient, girly without being "princessy," and go in for healthy activities like horseback riding. Like most series book kids from that era, you won't find them wasting time in front of a television!
If I found more of these at a book sale I would probably pick them up.
Standing in the Light: The Captive Diary of Catharine Carey Logan, Mary Pope Osborne
"Caty" Logan and her brother Thomas are taken captive by the Lenape Indians soon after this story opens. Caty, the daughter of Quakers living in the Delaware Valley, who has been taught by her gentle father that the Indians have been deceived once too often by the white settlers, has managed to keep her copybook, ink, and pen with her, and chronicles her life in captivity. At first she and her brother are separated, and a resentful Caty is adopted by two women whose daughter was killed when whites invaded an Indian camp.
As in Lois Lenski's classic Indian Captive, at first Caty fears and hates her captors and refuses to learn their language; it is only when she realizes that they are people like her, who may have different living customs, but who love and work just as her own family has done, that she begins to thaw. A white boy captured earlier by the Lenape helps her reunite with her brother and also brings her ink so that she can carry on with her writing, recalling her heritage while learning to love her new life. The narrative is not as strong as Lenski's story about Jemison, but the idea of brotherhood is well communicated.
A Line in the Sand: The Alamo Diary of Lucinda Lawrence, Sherry Garland
Okay, what does everyone learn about the Alamo at school? Chances are, unless you're from Texas, you basically know about this old mission which is manned by "Texians," the American settlers who were invited to settle on Mexican territory who are now threatened by the Spanish. Famous figures like Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, William Travis, and Sam Houston are involved. Santa Anna attacks the mission and almost everyone dies. Later, Texas becomes an independent republic, and, finally, a state.
I enjoyed this novel mainly because it told me many more facts about the events surrounding the Battle of the Alamo than I ever learned in history class, such as the the efforts of the tiny town of Gonzales to keep their small six-inch cannon out of the hands of the Spanish army, the "Runaway Scrape" of the inhabitants of the town after the Alamo defeat as they flee from Santa Anna's troops. I also didn't know anything about the Alamo survivors. The book's narrator, Lucinda, is a typical "Dear America" protagonist, a little feisty, but more ready to talk about boys, her troublesome brothers, and her problems with her best friend. Her brother Lemuel, an animal lover, is an interesting character, but he disappears halfway through the book.
So Far From Home: The Diary of Mary Driscoll, an Irish Mill Girl, Barry Denenberg
Mary is an Irish girl who comes to the US due to the potato famine in Ireland. She lives with her poor but nice aunt who runs a boardinghouse, but endures grueling working conditions in the cotton mills. The "Yankee girls" don't like her because the Irish are so desperate for work that they will work longer hours for less money, thereby affecting everyone. Her sister, now a maid, has turned into an unbearable snob. Mary also finds out that the little daughter of an Irish couple who died on the ship, who was sent to America to be "cared for," is blind and has been used as a slavey for two years.
The Lowell Mills were once a good-paying alternative for country girls desiring not to remain there to become farmers' wives, with its backbreaking work. The girls were paid fairly and also received an education; they once had a noted literary magazine. Unfortunately the mill owners fell prey to greed and started importing cheap immigrant labor while increasing work hours; the workers, of course, seeking a scapegoat they could confront, blamed the immigrants as well as the owners. Mary Driscoll's story is a literal textbook example of the entire period, a by-the-numbers story of everything that could have happened to an immigrant girl plus events that happened to others sent to America. Plus, for some reason the book just ends with Mary leaving the mill, and the epilog is skimpy. This is probably not a "Dear America" book I'll be keeping.
When Will This Cruel War Be Over?: The Civil War Diary of Emma Simpson, Barry Denenberg
Warning: This book is really, really depressing.
That's not a criticism. It should be. Written from a Southern girl's POV during the Civil War, the attrition is relentless: death, hunger, occupying soldiers, loss of loved ones. I was appreciative that the author did not go back and politically correct Emma's POV as is done in some other present-day Civil-War-set novels, where the protagonist secretly believes the slaves should be set free. Emma is truly puzzled at why the slaves would want to leave the plantation when they have been nicely treated by her parents (her mother has even taught them to read, which was a punishable offense back then), unlike the owner of a neighboring plantation, who is a cruel taskmaster and eventually must answer for his sins. When the younger slaves run away, she is genuinely surprised, because in the way that she was raised she cannot conceive of any other way of life for them. Her father, too, is an unabashed fighter for the Cause, writing home gallant letters, and the only hints she gets of battlefield suffering are intermittent letters from the boy she hopes to marry.
This is the second of Barry Denenberg's "Dear America" books that I have read and if you pick this up, you must be prepared for the grim realism of the tale. It's not a great novel, but does give some perspective into the POV of a Southerner at the time of the Civil War.
The Moffats, Eleanor Estes
As a kid I was crazy about books about animals, even the "sad ones" like Old Yeller and Black Beauty, lapsing occasionally for fun, futuristic novels like those about Danny Dunn and Miss Pickerel, so I didn't read most of what was considered "classic children's fic" until I was much older. This book, the first in a series of four books about the Moffat family, is still a favorite among nostalgic adults. Widowed Mrs. Moffat supports her brood of four—Sylvie, Joe, Jane, and Rufus—as a dressmaker in a rented yellow house on New Dollar Street, and in this first adventure we follow the family's fortunes as seen through Jane's eyes in the year that follows a "for sale" sign being erected on their home. These are of the homey family sort: Jane develops a fear of the police chief, which leads her to hide in a storekeeper's bread box; little Rufus takes the order to make sure a small classmate stays in school a little too seriously; the kids drive a Salvation Army man's van to the next town; take a trolly ride, etc. It's a charming story of life in what appears to be Depression-era America, with the kids making their own fun, and Jane is a spunky protagonist with a big imagination, but I don't feel any compulsion to read the sequels. Maybe this one was something best read in childhood first.
Naughty in Nice, Rhys Bowen
This is a corker of an adventure in this fifth book featuring Georgiana Rannoch, minor royalty and thirty-fourth in line for the throne of Great Britain. When "Georgie's" parsimonious sister-in-law Fig, in the throes of pregnancy, decides she and her husband, Georgie's brother Binky, are going off to Nice for the cold winter season, Georgie is destined to be left behind in drafty Castle Rannoch—until her cousin Queen Mary asks her to find a snuffbox that was purloined after a party at Buckingham Palace; she believes collector Sir Toby Groper took the item—and he's also wintering in Nice. Georgie's delighted to be in Nice until she sees the gloomy digs Fig and Binky are sharing with Fig's family, and ends up staying with Coco Chanel and a friend at a charming French villa which turns out to be owned by her estranged mother!
A murder doesn't come into the book until it's over halfway through, but it doesn't matter since the story is so delightful up until then: Georgie has a French suitor, she's actually making friends with her mother and participating in a fashion show modeling a Chanel original, she learns a lot more about her family (not to mention about her on-again, off-again beau Darcy O'Mara), and even manages to enjoy the warm winter season in Nice despite the fact that she's up to her neck in mayhem. I thoroughly enjoyed this one!
About Time, Volume 7, 2005-2006, Tat Wood and Dorothy Ail
One couldn't help wondering, of course, after completing the sixth volume of Mad Norwegian Press' exhaustive study of each story of Doctor Who, when they were going to tackle the new series (or, as they call it, "the Welsh series"). Well, here is the first volume beginning that new epic, covering the complete Eccleston turn as the Doctor and David Tennant's first year in the role. Plot summaries, cast lists, critiques, bloopers, etc. are just part of these detailed volumes; each of them also contain essays about such varied things as "if Torchwood goes back to Victorian days, where were they for Doctors 1-7," the development of British television, the background behind the creation of the new series, the Bad Wolf subplot, the definition of a companion, etc., and all told with enough snark to have it not become boringly academic. But really, for devoted Who fans only; if you're just looking for a plot summary and a cast, this will overwhelm you.
Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie, Kristiana Gregory
I have finally found a Kristiana Gregory "Dear America" book I enjoyed. Hattie Campbell and her surviving family (her four sisters die in a swamp fever epidemic before the story opens) strike out to Oregon from Missouri, joining a wagon train. Hattie finds a new best friend, Pepper, and experiences all the hardships of the overland trail, from river crossings to long weary days covered in dust from the trail, as well as dealing with an unreasonable couple whom Hattie finds has been pilfering things from other families. Hattie's narrative is brisk, engaging, and the incidents on the trail make the hardships of the pioneers come alive. I just wondered why the mention of the Mormons were included at all. It added nothing to the plot except for speculation about polygamy.
Summer Term at St. Clare's, Enid Blyton
One cannot read about British children's authors without tripping over the name of Enid Blyton. She was the consummate series book author, creating mysteries, adventures, school stories, and even young children's adventures (as in the ubiquitous "Noddy") in large numbers throughout her life, and was creator of "The Famous Five" and "The Secret Seven."
This was part of a six-book series about twins Pat and Isabel O'Sullivan, who attend boarding school at St. Clare's (strange children who can't wait to go back to school for summer term!). Their cousin Alison, who created problems for them the previous term but who had improved, is now under the influence of a vacuous American girl; Carlotta, a girl of Spanish heritage is creating waves with her temper and arguments with the French mistress; a prim girl named Prudence takes advantage of a brainy classmate; Bobby (short for Roberta) is very smart, but is a cut-up. In other words, a collection of girls very like those in school stories from Angela Brasil to Hogwarts, with a strong emphasis on classroom hijinks but also on school honor and student integrity. But what's Carlotta's secret? And what will happen when spiteful Prudence finds out about it?
I can see why the girls of the time (this is from 1943) would read these; they're like popcorn.
Time Out for Happiness, Frank B. Gilbreth Jr.
Woohoo! What a booksale find! This book was relatively rare when it was published in 1970 and seems to have only shown up in libraries. This is a third book that Gilbreth (without sister Ernestine) wrote about his family, but, instead of concentrating on the children, this volume is about Frank and Lillie themselves; about their early lives, how they met, their business collaboration, and finally how Lillie carried on after Frank's death, despite opposition from male engineers who still felt women belonged in the home. Many interesting stories about Lillie's family, including her autocratic mother (the grandmother the kids called "Grosie"), and how she believed herself doomed to be a spinster; Frank's strong-willed mother and her sister, and how he turned his talent into a living despite not being able to afford a college education; how Frank's heart condition developed; the truth about "the dozen" (there were only eleven due to the tragic death of Mary at age five); and lots of stories about Tom Grieves, the former handyman who, after Frank's death became the jack-of-all-trades in the household. If you've read Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on Their Toes and always wanted to know "the rest of the story," you will enjoy this volume.
Nickeled-and-Dimed to Death, Denise Swanson
If you thought Dev Sinclair's life would slow down after she was acquitted of a murder charge (see Little Shop of Homicide), think again. She's still running the dime store/custom basket business, and resisting her grandmother's attempt to match her up with her old beau's grandnephew, although she really likes said grandnephew and wouldn't mind a little footsie under the table with him. Then in quick succession, Jake's line-of-duty injury is declared healed and he's back working undercover (with his ex-wife), Dev's old beau Noah Underwood invites her to a social event where she's make a business opportunity (but Noah has ulterior motives), and one of her best friends, Boone St. Onge, is accused of murdering one of his legal clients. So once again Dev is sleuthing with the help of her volatile pal Poppy (daughter of the town sheriff) and a helpful Noah.
This is a pleasant cozy mystery with a large dollop of romance tossed in. I have to say I like the idea of Dev running the old dime store rather than letting it be bought out by a drugstore chain, and I love her granny, Birdie. The trouble with this one is that I just don't like Noah. He's a good doctor, he does pro bono work, almost everyone likes him, and he's drop-dead gorgeous. Ugh. Still don't like him. Do hope the info revealed at the end of the book means something good for Dev, though.
A History of the Universe in 100 Objects, James Goss and Steve Tribe
To really understand this book you have to go back in time...far, far back...okay, not that far back...to 2010. BBC Radio 4, you understand, still presents original spoken word radio programs, and in that year presented a 100-part, 15-minute show per day called A History of the World in 100 Objects, presented by the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor. In each segment, MacGregor would find an object in the Museum and relate how it contributed to the development of civilization. These broadcasts were presented as podcasts, and I would download three at a time, which would get me through a commute on a night when the traffic was good. Later a book was published with a photo of the object and the text from the show. Let's say I was well familiar with the concept.
Which is why I just about died laughing when I saw this book sitting demurely on the shelf at Barnes & Noble. This is a must, must, must for Doctor Who fans, spanning the entire series, and ranging from the Urns of Krop Tor (object one) from before time to the Toclafane (object 100) from the year 100 trillion, with gas masks, Sandminer robots, the Key to Time, a sink plunger, and myriad more objects in between. While we're told how the object relates to the history of the universe, we usually get a behind-the-scenes peek at the production of certain episodes, and pullouts like "An A-to-Z of Mad Scientists," River Song's diary, a list of gruesome deaths courtesy the Master, and more. Narrated with tongue firmly in cheek, it's also a great resource, with lots of color photographs from various episodes.
The Memory of Blood, Christopher Fowler
Why are Bryant and May holding a party for their suspects in an old chamber of horrors?
That's just one of the unique developments in this ninth mystery involving the Peculiar Crimes Unit and its even more peculiar crew. The story begins with the PCU in new digs and a party going on among the owner of a theatre and the actors and crew appearing in the play performed there, a harmless event with little personal confrontations bubbling under the surface—until a terrible death interrupts the event. As the investigation progresses, it's obvious someone is toying with the team—and about to kill again.
In each Bryant and May book, you learn something about a different aspect of London culture; in this story it's theatre, specifically the Punch and Judy shows so dear to Victorian children despite their horrific elements. In addition, most of the team is in the midst of upheaval: Colin continues his crusade to break through Meera's emotional walls; Bryant is being forcibly moved so his building can be demolished; May realizes his lover is tiring of him; and there are even changes in the air for dour Raymond Land, who's been trying to get transferred away from the unit for years and can't understand the officers' fierce love for their positions. The mystery itself is a convoluted one which well fits into the personal entanglements of our protagonists...another winner of a PCU story!
The Midnight Tunnel, Angie Frazier
There's so much to like about this book: It's 1904 and Suzanna "Zanna" Snow lives in New Brunswick, Canada, with her parents, who run a high-class hotel called the Rosemount. She loves her parents, but idolizes her father's younger brother, who is a noted detective in Boston, Massachusetts. Zanna wants to be a detective and has been writing down her observations for years, and suddenly she has her chance: after a violent thunderstorm, the seven-year-old daughter of one of the guests disappears. Zanna's determined to find out, if she can just make the adults listen to her.
It's the usual plot of the intelligent girl ahead of her time, with a good mystery and even some sad truths for Zanna. I'm sure the kids reading this won't even notice what bothered me the most: the terrible anachronistic language. I read a lot of children's and young adult books and it's totally possible to stay with the language of the time without being obtuse. Even the easy-read American Girl books don't make the language errors this book does, the most egregious error being Zanna referring to an unmarried woman as "Ms.," an address that dates from the 1970s, not the 1870s. Another character uses the word "split" as a synonym for "leave." There were several other errors of this sort that brought me to mind of a flower child dumped in Edwardian Canada, which is very odd when the author goes to so much trouble to picture a 1900s seaside hotel and its guests: puffed sleeves, walrus mustaches, High Tea served in the afternoon, etc. To me it ruined what was an otherwise interesting juvenile mystery.
Mystery of the Black Diamonds, Phyllis A. Whitney
Whitney had two very different writing careers; in one she wrote historical romances, and in the other mysteries for children. This is of the latter sort, and if it's an example of an average teen mystery, I wouldn't mind reading more of them. They are literate and feature "real" kids who argue yet pull together when needed.
The protagonists in this offering are Angela and Matt Wetheral, who, with their baby brother and parents, are temporarily living in Colorado for the summer while their father, a famous mystery writer, does research for his newest novel. They befriend an old miner named Ben Ellington who takes a liking to them, and some weeks later, when he passes away, the grieving twins find out he has left them a house in an old mining village named Blossom. The only other inhabitants are orphaned Jinx, an unfriendly girl with a pet skunk, and her grandparents. The twins, who love mysteries, are trying to puzzle out what a mysterious "treasure map" given to them by the old miner means. Is there really treasure? And will sullen Jinx help them?
While the kids search for treasure several other things are at work here, including unraveling why Jinx acts the way she does (its cause, sadly, is a subject still in the forefront today). And in a novel reversal from the usual boy-action-kid/girl-quiet-thinker stereotype of the 1950s when the book was published, Matt is the artistic one and Angie the more eager explorer. The only strange character is Mrs. Wetheral, who is apparently jealous of one of her husband's book characters! You could give this book to a modern child and not worry about 1950s prejudices. Excellent.
The Casebook of Bryant and May, Christopher Fowler
This is a graphic novel version of Fowler's Peculiar Crimes Unit mysteries, featuring one of Bryant and May's most infamous (and formerly unpublished) cases, that of the Soho Devil. One by one, men are being murdered by mysterious "bat people" who swoop down from the sky. How's it done and what's the motive? There's also another, shorter mystery following, as well as some extras like a list of some of the esoteric books in Arthur's library, summaries of the ten novels, and profiles of the PCU regulars.
If you were worried Fowler's usual quirky humor wouldn't translate into a graphic novel, fear not—I found myself chuckling at the dialog. It's the usual 21st century comic art, but well illustrates the two stories, and most of the team looks looks exactly as I imagine. If you're a Bryant and May fan, it's well worth your money.
A Study in Silks, Emma Jane Holloway
Evelina Cooper lives many lives. She belongs to the aristocratic Holmes family (Sherlock and Mycroft are her uncles) on her mother's side of the family, a family of circus performers on her father's side of the family (until Grandmother Holmes took her away). No one in her upper-class girls' school knows the secret except for her best friend Isabel, whom Evelina is spending the holidays with. She is of two hearts, one back with her fathers' people, where she was happy and cared for, and also with her upper class roots, which can provide her with an education, for, you see, Evelina is fond of steam-powered automata and shows a talent for working with them.
And then one of the family's maids is murdered.
This is a steampunk version of the Holmes-verse, although don't expect a lot of Sherlock in the first installment. The story is firmly Evelina's, of her detecting and inventing talents, and of her emotional conflicts, and of the feelings she holds for two young men, the older brother of her best friend, and Nick, a gypsy boy whom she was raised with at the circus, and who, until her grandmother took her away, she expected to marry. While there is a good deal of emotional teen yearning, this is also a complicated universe, with a small group of wealthy businessmen called the "Steam Barons" controlling the natural gas supply that lights and powers the city of London (the parallels to today's Big Business is evident). With a flick of a hand, they can turn off your power and leave you in the dark both physically and socially. Evelina is also learning to control some magical powers she has inherited, and magic is illegal in this world; magic users are burned at the stake or turned over to Her Majasty's laboratories for "testing." I thought it was highly readable despite the elaborate world-building and the teen angst, and immediately ordered the sequel. Your mileage may vary.
The Hidden White House, Robert Klara
I was in high school when J.B. West's Upstairs at the White House was published, and bought it for my mother for Christmas. One of the things Assistant (and then Chief) Usher West talked about was the reconstruction of the entire White House starting in 1948, when dangerous cracks were discovered in the second story flooring, flaws so bad that Margaret Truman's piano and Harry Truman's bathtub almost fell through. When engineers examined the house, everyone was horrified, since the interior was in such bad shape the place could have collapsed internally at any time, due to mistakes having been made during two earlier construction projects (a completed third story and a new roof). It was a third construction, in fact, of "the Truman balcony" that set off such furor, that actually revealed how frightening the problem was.
Klara's book is the story of that discovery, and of the renovation that turned the White House into the structure it is today. Only the exterior walls stone walls and a few internal historic architectural details survived the remodeling (more internal pieces were saved, but never used in an effort to rush the remodeling, a fact now regretted). Klara's narration is lively and interesting, and reveals many facts about the White House people might not have known: how badly the interior had become, how decrepit it had become during the Roosevelt years because FDR did not want to spend money on the interior while people were suffering during the Depression, how few pieces of historical art and furniture were actually in the pre-renovated structure (Chester Arthur apparently packed up the equivalent of three truckloads of furniture and sold it!). We also see the Trumans "warts and all" during the renovation, a close family of three irritated by the routine of being the First Family, and learn what really happened the day Harry Truman was almost assassinated by Puerto Rican nationalists. Klara also tells us about the little secret about the reconstruction that the public of that time didn't know about: the construction of a bomb shelter in the basement, felt necessary because of the Cold War.
An informative book, easily read without feeling talked down to, for those interested in the White House, the Trumans, or restoration (whether done well or not) of historic buildings.