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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 January 2014

Books Completed Since January 1

There are Christmas book reviews here, here, here, here, here, and here, in Holiday Harbour.

book icon  The Race Underground, Doug Most
I fell in love with the T in 1979, on my first trip to Boston, and it’s always irritated me that I’ve never been able to find a history of the Boston subway system, the first in the United States. So happy this turned up, although the book’s promos seem a bit misleading: “Two Rival Cities, Two Brothers, Both With Plans to Build A Subway Underground. Who Will Be First?” (By the way, who would build a subway aboveground?) It seems to be playing up a rivalry between the two brothers, Henry and William Whitney, one in each city, but that didn’t seem to exist. The rivalry between the two cities, however, was quite real: both Boston and New York were determined to host the first underground transportation system. Traffic, like traffic today, was glacially slow, irritating, and clamorous, and made even worse by use of the horse, who deposited pounds of manure and quarts of urine each day (this fact is brought up regularly as the chapters progress, as if the author fears we will forget it). Horsecars were filthy inside and out, and there were dozens of different companies running transportation through the city streets. People wanted better transportation, but first they had to get over prejudices–most were afraid to walk to any transportation underground “where the Devil lived” and expected it to be dark and dank–and find a better propulsion fuel than coal, which filled the existing London “underground” with choking smoke.

Most takes us back to the first subway construction attempts in New York City, Alfred Beach’s pneumatic railway, which was blocked by “Boss” Tweed, who had money in the elevated system, and to the architects of both systems, who fear they may have to use coal, but really wish to use the cleaner invention of the time, electricity, which at first does not have the power to propel both cars and passengers. This is followed by the endless political wrangling in both cities, Boston’s eventual decision to build a subway using the cut-and-cover method, and the drama of that construction. The resulting, initial subway route was less than two miles, but did what it was intended to do: reduce traffic on city streets.

Most follows the personalities of each of the people involved: the two Whitney brothers, so disparate in their personalities; the inventors and engineers who devised the systems; the greedy ward bosses; the common laborers who worked on the construction; the ordinary people affected by the weather, the bad transportation, the social mores, the economic turns. There’s bid finagling, gas leaks and one explosion, protests from those who preferred an elevated system, and other drama.

I’ve been reading advanced reading copies for some time now, and know you should ignore the typos, but this volume has the most I’ve ever seen in an ARC, especially proper nouns without capital letters and missing spaces between words. I’ve no doubt they will be cleared up before publication, but I hope the mistakes are corrected along with them! On page 17, in a paragraph describing how horses are unnerved by traffic, the author oddly describes the nervous animals who “sometimes raised up their front legs.” Horses do have to “raise up their front legs” to walk! Does he perhaps mean “rearing,” in which the horse raises up the front part of its whole body? At the beginning of chapter three, the Whitney family of 1635 board a wooden sailing ship in England and arrive in Massachusetts “eight days later.” Maybe in 1935, but not in 1635! Could the voyage have taken eight weeks? There’s another howler a little further along in the book, but I neglected to bookmark it and now can’t remember what it was, but suffice it to say that I blinked and said “No, no.”

This criticism may lead you to believe that I hated this book, but I didn’t; it is filled with detail about the people and the events–there’s a harrowing description of a little boy sent out on an errand at the height of the Blizzard of 1888, for example–and despite the typos and errors it was quite enjoyable. However, small errors like these make you wonder if some of the larger facts are also inaccurate. Mr. Most is a heck of a storyteller, and at his best when he’s talking about the everyday life of the 19th century protagonists, but I’m not sure how seriously to take some of his facts.

book icon  Finding the Way, Mercedes Lackey
This was a surprise; I thought I had read all the Valdemar short story collections and was current with them, but, fishing in my to-be-read pile, I found this one, copyright 2010, and with a Borders ::sob!:: sticker still on it. I was even more delighted to read it, as usually I have a quibble with one or two of the stories. Surprise! No Scooby-Doo homages or vignettes passing for complete stories. All are solid and absorbing. The volume starts off at a gallop with the story of Sherra the hertasi, who meets a frantic Companion searching for her new Chosen at the edge of a swamp; Sherra must guide the Companion across the swamp in circumstances that grow continually more complex. Another excellent story concerns a new Chosen who refuses to believe she is good enough to be a Herald and must be convinced of the fact; yet a third story involves an elderly Chosen who has since stopped dreaming about adventures, only to be drawn into one by the arrival of a Companion. Several of the stories take place in the Arrows of the Queen era. Two new Ree and Jem stories are included, plus a story about Herald Jors and his Companion Gervase, who have figured in other tales in the short story collections. This is a great collection if you love Lackey's Valdemar universe.

book icon  Look to the Hills: The Diary of Lozette Moreau, A French Slave Girl, 1763, Patricia C. McKissack
This is the first in the newest batch of "Dear America" books I dug up at McKay's used books in Knoxville, Tennessee. It is told by Lozette Moreau, who is the "personal servant" (read "slave") of Marie-Louise Boyer, daughter of a French aristocrat. When the marquis, the father of "Ree" as Zette calls her, dies, older brother Pierre brings the estate to insolvency, and Zette is about to be sold into what is probably certain death in the West Indies while Ree is to be married off to an elderly nobleman. Ree forestalls this by accepting help from a male friend, fleeing to the colony of New York to search for her younger brother Jacques, a prisoner in the French and Indian War. It is there that Zette, who has always taken her slavery for granted, learns the importance of freedom, not only for herself, but even for Ree.

This is one of the better "Dear America" novels. Zette and Ree (both who have mastered fencing) are level-headed young women who manage their new freedoms well. The French and Indian War is a brief interlude in American history class and it's not only nice to see it addressed, but addressed from "the other side," so to speak, as the French were the enemies in this conflict. McKissack isn't afraid to address hard questions, either: once in the United States, are Ree and Zette still mistress and slave? Or have they become real friends, something that is a change from the way they were raised?

book icon  The 1964-1965 New York World's Fair, Bill Cotter and Bill Young
The memories dim a bit more every year, but I was there, and there was no way I'd pass up this Images of America volume of color photos from the Fair. From the Disney-designed pavilions and the other big business exhibits, the regional venues, the boulevards, the concessions, and the 1960s fashions, this is one big nostalgic journey for anyone who attended, and a window to the future we dreamed about in 1964 for those who didn't. Thanks to Bill and Bill and Arcadia Publishing for the memories!

book icon  To End All Wars, Adam Hochschild
As the 100th anniversary of World War I approaches, I'm reading various books based on the subject, and am always interested in a different point of view (the only point of view I'm avoiding, actually, is a straight narrative of battles, ground gained, and other facts of a statistical nature; I want narratives about people and lifestyles on the battlefield and home front). This volume concerns those who were opposed to the wars, specifically those belonging to the growing socialist movements in Europe, but also from the POV of the peacemakers and conscientious objectors. I understand from some reviews that the author is a socialist and that his narrative cannot be trusted, but I found the focus of this volume fascinating. Except for Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth, most of the first World War histories I have read either do not take a side for or against, or are "for" the war while making occasional comments about the carnage and its uselessness. I find it especially pertinent because for many years now I have been reading American children's series fiction cataloged on sites like gutenberg.org and munseys.com, where, in nearly all the books written from 1917-1919, the boys and/or girls in the stories are wholeheartedly for fighting "the Boche" and doing positive things to help the allies, and the books are so "gung-ho" it is a revelation to read this volume and know that so many people were actually against participating in the fighting (the author even mentions children's stories like this in his introduction).

There are some fascinating characters within: John French, the cavalry general who still believed almost until the war was ended that one good cavalry charge would still make a difference in a war of trenches and massive artillery, brother of Charlotte Despard, who became a socialist and one of the war's most vocal protesters. There were the "saber-rattlers" like Douglas Haig and Rudyard Kipling (the latter who so instilled patriotism in his children that his half-blind son begged to be sent into combat and his father found a way to send him). There were the famous suffragist Pankhurst women, mother Emmeline and daughters Christabel and Sylvia, who first opposed the war, but who were then estranged once Emmeline and Christabel joined the war effort. There was the Scots socialist James Hardie, who later became Sylvia Pankhurst's only love. Hochschild follows these personalities and others through each year of the war, interspersed with vivid battlefield horrors and the chronicles of antiwar movements in every country in Europe including Germany.

I found this book a great read.

book icon  Mr. Monk is a Mess, Lee Goldberg
In this next-to-last volume of Lee Goldberg's tie-in novels with the Monk series, Natalie and her former boss are on the way home to San Francisco, ostensibly to pack up their homes to move to Summit, New Jersey, where they've been offered positions on the police force. Monk is unsure he wants to leave, even though he has formed a bond with Ellen Morse, a Summit storekeeper who is nearly as OCD as he is. But when Natalie arrives home, she finds a dead woman in her bathroom; the investigating police then find marked money stuffed under her mattress. The FBI suspects she's guilty of the murder and involved in the scam the money came from. What's an almost newly-minted private investigator to do, especially when another mystery pops up: Ambrose Monk's new love-of-his-life Yuki has vanished and Monk doesn't want to find her.

This mystery has more knots in it than a kid's aged shoelace.Just when you think you have your finger on what's going on, another tangle appears. I like that in a mystery. Also, Goldberg is slowly wrapping up the threads of the story he has created following Adrian Monk and Natalie Teeger after the end of the television series. (Don't worry, Monk fans: after Goldberg's final book another writer is taking over chronicling further adventures.)

book icon  Louisa May Alcott, Susan Cheever
If you take a peek at my bookshelves, you'll see my biographical hobbyhorses: I have multiple biographies of Walt Disney, Theodore Roosevelt (and other Roosevelt family books)—and Louisa May Alcott, including a biography written about her in the 19th century by a family friend. Naturally, I picked up this book!

Sadly, I was disappointed. Cheever spends a lot of time trying to get into Bronson Alcott's head (sadly, no matter which biography of Louisa I read, I end up wanting to smack Bronson upside the head; he had educational ideas before their time, but as a husband and father I find him rather lacking), avoids even mentioning that Bronson once told wife Abba ("Marmee" of Little Women) that he didn't want to have sexual relations with her any longer, and tosses great chunks of Civil War events at us during that decade in Louisa's life (one must have some reference to the event, but four pages chronicling a specific battle seems unnecessary). Not only that, but in-your-face errors pop up in the book, the most egregious being that Elizabeth Alcott is several times mentioned as being the Alcotts' youngest daughter, when it was actually May (the original of "Amy" in Little Women). Cheever also digresses occasionally by trying to define the personality of a writer, which belongs in an introduction or in an afterward, not in the body of the text.

I'm still waffling about whether to keep this or not. There are several photos included that I haven't seen before. But the text is less than inspiring.

book icon  Blind Justice, Anne Perry
Oliver Rathbone, now a judge, is presiding over a rather ticklish case in court: a well-respected minister has been accused of gathering charitable contributions from his flock with such strong methods that some of them, including the father of a young woman who works at Hester Monk's clinic, have been driven to bankruptcy. (The case, in fact, was initially instigated by Hester, and corroborated by her clinic bookkeeper.) The case against the minister looks bad until one of his friends testifies, making all the witnesses—and Hester—look witless and childish. Rathbone, horrified, secretly uses one of the unsavory photographs left to him by his late father-in-law against the witness—and is even more horrified when the minister kills his wife and children, and then himself.

There's a rather clever crime involved here, but it's buried in pages and pages of Rathbone's wrestling with himself: should he use the photograph or not, how should he use it, and when it's found out, what will happen to him for using it. Hester and Monk take rather a back seat in the story until the last third, and Perry, in this entry, has a maddening habit of telling us things that happened rather than showing us (for instance, in one sequence, Scuff, the young slum child the Monks have unofficially adopted, talks to some servants hoping to find some evidence, and instead of showing Scuff doing so, as Perry has done previously so successfully with Gracie Phipps in the Pitt mysteries, we are only told the result of it later; this makes the story very static). The only thing that makes the soul-searching bearable is that Rathbone's officious wife, who was in denial and deserted Oliver when her "sainted" father was revealed as not-so-sainted in a previous novel, finally learns the truth about him.

This is not a good book to join the Monk series with. The Oliver/Margaret story goes back some previous novels and you need to have read them to understand what is going on with Arthur Ballinger and the legacy he left Oliver. I stuck with the story because I love the characters, but it was slow going for a while.

book icon  A Mourning Wedding, Carola Dunn
It's time for another wedding now that magazine author Daisy Dalrymple (from a once-titled family who fell on hard times after the first World War) has tied the knot with Detective Inspector Alec Fletcher of Scotland Yard and the pair is expecting their first child together: Daisy's dear friend and former housemate Lucy Fotheringay is marrying Lord Gerald Bincombe. Daisy has no sooner spent her first night at the vast country home of the Fotheringay family than Lady Eva, whom everyone in the family knows collects gossip, is murdered. While everyone is quite horrified, no one is quite surprised, given the secrets that Lady Eva knew; they are more horrified that the killer must be someone in the family. Soon Alec is involved, and then another stunning event occurs.

Thankfully, there's a family tree at the front of this book so you can tell all the characters without a scorecard, as Lucy's family is quite large, with "poor relations," officious ex-Army officers, and distant female cousins. Quite a nice classic country house murder mystery is related here, while poor Daisy has to cope with morning sickness and Lucy's waffling about even marrying at all. We also find out what psychological damage Lady Eva's gossip-collection has done to some family members and their relations with each other. I was very glad that several characters were not involved in the crime, as I'd come to like them a lot. The ending is a bit abrupt, but all the loose ends are "well tied up," as the cliche goes.

book icon  A Boston Picture Book, Barbara Westermann
I was given this cute little children's picture book as a Christmas gift. Verse accompanies detailed little cartoon-like drawings of the city and its landmarks. Adorable, but oh, it is so very seventies! :-)

book icon  Hollywood's Top Dogs: The Dog Hero in Film, Deborah Painter
This is a small press book which I was given for Christmas. It's an overview of—what else, dog films, starting with the silents. While most filmgoers probably know the classic dogs, like Rin-Tin-Tin and Lassie, and possibly Strongheart, plus the more modern dogs like Benji, Old Yeller, and Beethoven, they're probably not knowledgeable about the first American dog star, Jean, a border collie that worked at Biograph studios, plus a whole horde of German Shepherd canine heroes like Peter the Great (who was tragically shot by an angry man gunning for his owner), Flash, Lightning, and Flame. There are summaries of many of the films of each of the dogs, including modern films like Benji: Off the Leash, and chat about the Lassie and Rin Tin Tin television series. The author also makes a point of addressing the continuing problem of people making a breed of dog popular because it was featured in a hit movie and discovering that the resulting dog doesn't resemble the well-trained animal in the film. I found it enlightening because I'd heard of some of the more obscure dog stars, like Flame, but had never heard of Peter the Great and Lightning, and was interested in the plots to the silent films, but this is a rather mediocre book at best. Persons looking for a solid book of film scholarship will be disappointed.

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