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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 May 2014

Books Completed Since May 1

book icon  Hattie Big Sky, Kirby Larson
A blogger whose book blog I regularly read loves this book, so I snapped it up when I found it at the library book sale. It fits into my World War I reading for this year as well.

At the end of 1917, Hattie Brooks inherits a claim in Montana from her uncle. Grudgingly brought up by an aunt who resents her and a mild-mannered uncle who usually doesn't defend her, Hattie is glad to get away from her home-in-name-only to face the challenge of proving up on 160 acres of Montana farmland. She finds the work almost insurmountable, but is helped by neighbors who she soon becomes good friends with, a couple with several children. But the husband is German and anti-German feelings are running high due to the war; Hattie is endangered just by knowing them.

Larson does a superb job of bringing the hardships of homestead life alive, and the staggering work Hattie has to perform to "prove up" on her claim, including installing a fence, not to mention the twin threats of the weather and sickness. Some reviewers have pointed out parallels between the Montana Loyalty League in this book and the Patriot Act, but there was a great feeling of hatred against Germans during the first World War and the similarities are obvious. If it's a political statement, it's an apt one and not one dredged up just to make a political point.

book icon  Grace Among Thieves, Julie Hyzy
Grace Wheaton's job at Marshfield Manor (an estate with a passing resemblance to Biltmore House) has its ups and downs, and in this installment, things are definitely down: a friend has reported to Grace that there have been thefts from historic sites across the country, a grim fact Grace already knows as items have turned up missing from the Manor as well; she's beginning to believe that a movie crew filming a documentary on the grounds may have something to do with it. In addition, estate owner Bennett Marshfield's stepdaughter Hillary has been insinuating herself with the film crew and making noises about Bennett not being up to managing the estate.

And then, during a tour of the house, a woman is pushed down the stairs and killed, and a man is shot.

This is a nice solid entry in the Grace Wheaton series, which finds Grace not only confronting a new mystery but a new romance as well. My favorite part of these books is the relationship between Bennett and Grace, and this one does not disappoint. Major hisses to the bad guys in this novel for not only threatening someone very close to Grace, but for threatening her cat, too.

book icon  The Ultimate Book of Top 10 Lists, from Listserve.com
One of my weaknesses is books of lists, going way back to the original Book of Lists by David Wallechinsky and Amy Wallace published back in the 1970s. This one, stacked purposefully on the bargain book tables at Barnes & Noble, called immediately to me. As with all of these books, the subjects run the gamut from bizarre lists (museums, phobias, traditions, etc.) to urban legends debunked, and lists of science and history facts. There are lists of movies and music, nature and people, survival tips, and travel tips. In short, this is a great bathroom book, perfect for long or short "trips." Redeeming social value? Not much, but there are interesting facts scattered throughout and you may even learn something.

book icon  My Bookstore, edited by Ronald Rice
It's so nice to read this book and know there are still some great independent bookstores across the country. In my area we are still pretty much in the thrall of chains, and the best chain, Borders, is already gone. Yes, I buy online, but only because I don't have an unlimited budget for books, and sometimes because the bookstores just don't have what I want. It's all fine and dandy for the chains and the independents to offer the standard bestsellers and books authored or recommended by celebrities or in the news, but most of those have never been to my taste.

This book brings back the days when I did have a personal bookstore, Paperback Books in Providence, RI. It wasn't anything to look at, but I spent many happy hours there and bought books that I still have. The eighty-four writers in My Bookstore will tell you about their happy places and why they are special to them. And you, like me, may now have a list of bookstores you want to visit when you get to a particular city!

book icon  Doctor Who: The Vault, Marcus Hearn
Oh, what a book! If you have any interest in the history of Doctor Who from its origins in 1963, this is the perfect 50th anniversary volume for you. It is full of one-of-a-kind photographs, memos, advertising circulars, BBC "Radio Times" issues, books and annuals, and other memorabilia which helps to tell the story of the program. Formatted as a year-by-year chronology (except for the "missing years" between the cancellation of the original series and the new one, which are combined save for the year of the television movie), each chapter features a full-color photo of the Doctor or one of his enemies (and a couple of companions). My thanks to Amazon.com, who had this on a one-day sale that enabled me to afford it.

book icon  The Great Wagon Road, Parke Rouse, Jr.
What came before the interstates, before the state highways, before the first transcontinental road (the Lincoln Highway)? It was the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road, built during colonial times and eventually extending from Philadelphia down to Augusta, Georgia (roughly along the paths of I-78, I-81, and I-85 today). Later Daniel Boone's Wilderness Road would be spun off this rough highway.

This reads like an interconnected series of separate narratives much of the time, rather than a straight history. Rouse opens with the busy path created by Native American tribes for trade purposes, which was then used by the German teamsters from Pennsylvania (whose great wagons made the name Conestoga famous) and the Scotch-Irish settlers who crowded into the Appalachian highlands. It saw further traffic during the French and Indian War. Jack Sevier and Daniel Boone, George Washington and the circuit preachers are just some of the colorful personalities who traveled the Great Wagon Road and later the Wilderness Road.

This is a good book for someone who enjoys colonial American history, or the history of highways in the United States.

book icon  Re-Read: Shoo-Fly Girl, Lois Lenski
I adored Lenski's regional stories as a kid, so I had to snap this one up when I found it at the book sale. Her regionals are long out of print and command huge prices on e-Bay because of their use in homeschooling; recently I found that there is a publisher reprinting some of these, and I hope they do them all. Meanwhile, I'll make do with this one, one of my favorites about Suzanna, who lives in Pennsylvania as part of a large, warm Amish family. Suzanna gets her hated nickname from the day that she eats an entire shoo-fly pie all by herself, and in the course of the book she meets an "English" family whose worldliness frightens the shy child. She can only confide in her favorite brother, Jonas, who starts to change as he grows older.

The story follows several seasons in life on an Amish farm and is quite charming explaining the customs of the Amish sect, and even some of the dangers posed by their lifestyle in our modern society, such as cars not being careful of their carriages and causing accidents. This isn't my favorite regional, but it's very enjoyable.

book icon  Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell
For the first time in their lives Cath and her twin sister Wren will not be rooming together. They've left Omaha and their emotionally fragile father to attend college in Lincoln, Nebraska, and Wren wants to fully experience college life by rooming with someone else, which leaves introverted Cath sharing a room with someone she'd rather not have to deal with, a self-possessed young woman named Regan. Cath and Wren have spent most of their adolescence writing fanfiction about the Simon Snow novels (sort of a pseudo-Harry Potter) and Cath feels alone and even a bit betrayed when Wren abandons both her and the fic. Worse, both girls are still coping with the fact that their mother walked out on them nine years earlier: while Cath still relies on fanfiction to buffer her feelings of abandonment, Wren turns into a hard-drinking wild child on campus. But what will Cath do when real life intrudes on her fanfic world, especially when she starts liking her roommate's boyfriend?

To tell you the truth, I was kinda bored with Cath's boy infatuation; most people review this book and say there was too much of her Simon Snow fanfic, but I thought the meet-the-world with a smile Levi character was nice but only okay—he seemed to be too much of a fantasy guy himself! The story makes the valid point that Cath can't use her fanfic dreamworld as a shield against her feelings about adulthood and her mother forever, but it's like her fannishness has to be purged completely for her to be a "normal" person. Still, the end of the book made me cry.

book icon  Color Me Dark: The Diary of Nellie Lee Love, Patricia McKissack
Nellie Lee and her "almost twin" Erma Jean live in a small town in Tennessee divided across racial lines; when her soldier Uncle Pace dies in an "accident" that everyone realizes was racially motivated on his way home from the Great War, Erma Jean is so traumatized by the incident that she loses her speech and their father decides to move the family north to Chicago to open his own funeral home and find a better life that doesn't include the Ku Klux Klan and bigots who attack veterans. Sadly, the Loves find out that prejudices still exist in the North.

I enjoyed this "Dear America" novel despite the sad circumstances that force the Loves to abandon family in Tennessee and the prejudices that meet them in their new life. McKissack weaves the lives of the fictional Loves into the real-life race riots that rocked Chicago in the summer of 1919 after a young African-American boy accidentally strayed onto a whites-only beach area. It also addresses something I'd never read before, about the fact that even in "colored" schools light-skinned people were favored over darker-skinned ones. It's a shame people cannot have always been, as Dr. King said, "judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

book icon  Tales from Watership Down, Richard Adams
I loved Watership Down, but I put off buying this sequel for years because most of the book appeared to be new stories about the King of the Rabbits featured in the original novel, El-ahrairah and his second, Rabscuttle. However, when I found it for a couple of dollars, I did get a copy. If you're not interested in the rabbit fairy tales, be assured they are not the entire body of the book, but they do take up much of it. There's actually a running plot about Hazel, Bigwig, Fiver, and the rest deciding that the colony is too large and planning to form a new warren some miles away. It also seemed (although I could be wrong) that Adams was responding to criticism that all the main characters were male and the does were interchangeable, because a portion of the tale is about a female rabbit who controls her own warren. However, the book has none of the suspense, poetry, and novelty of the original. Purchased at a library sale or at goodwill, it might be worth your while to see "what happened," but I wouldn't advise paying full price for it.

book icon  Eccentric London, Ben Le Vay
I spend my time dreaming the impossible, which includes a visit to Great Britain some day, and love to pick up unique travel books about the British Isles. This isn't a tour book, per se, with tips on hotels and restaurants, but a book of unusual people, places, and things you'll find in that big metropolis on the Thames. You'll learn about eccentric Londoners (alive and dead), odd jobs, strange museums, and novel places to shop; read about unusual place names, facts about the Tube and the churches of London, and even improbable pubs. Finally the author takes you on five walks around the city for maximum exposure to the city's odd turns, and you'll visit four suburbs, including Greenwich, home of mean time. There's even a calendar of British-only events, such as the yearly Pancake Day races and the Garter ceremony.

The book is illustrated with humorous line drawings, plus has a color insert, several maps, and dozens of pop-out sections, and the narration is suitably tongue-in-cheek enough to keep you amused. If I can't afford that overseas trip, I can live vicariously through Le Vay's delightful book.

book icon  Murder on Bamboo Lane, Naomi Hirahara
Ellie Rush is a newly minted Los Angeles bicycle cop, to the consternation of her mother who says she didn't send Ellie to private school for her to ride a bike at work, but a source of pride to her Aunt Cheryl, the Assistant Chief of Police. Ellie likes her job, despite getting stuck with "porta-potty duty" and having problems with a resentful male co-worker. One morning on patrol she is shown a flyer about a missing girl, a young woman she remembers having college classes with. Her friends remember the young woman, too, and one recalls that she was having problems. It's not Ellie's case, but she finds herself being drawn into it with the help of her aunt.

I usually don't like police procedurals, but this has a unique viewpoint, a likeable protagonist, and an enjoyable cast of supporting characters, from Ellie's best friend to her tough aunt. I especially enjoyed that the characters are not all eccentric whitebread types as in some of the cozies I've read; this is a multicultural group of friends who come off as being genuine, rather than minority characters being placed in the story to meet a certain quota, and her relationship with her best friend is warm and real. I'm looking forward to Ellie's next case.

book icon  The Night Journey, Kathryn Lasky
I'm a big fan of Lasky's books, and know that several of them have been based on where she lives (the Calista Jacobs mysteries) or her heritage and family (Christmas After All, Pageant), so that when I found out this book was based upon the experiences of her father's family, I was eager to read it. Rachel's parents have asked her not to bother her great-grandmother about her past—it makes her too sad, they say. But when Nana Sashie starts telling Rachel about her childhood in Russia, the girl can't help sneaking into Nana's room after dark and finding out more about the story: how young Sashie, along with her parents and aunt and baby brother, escaped from Russia in 1900. They will use the Jewish holiday of Purim to escape from their pogram-scarred homeland—but will need the help of a frightening man who works with Sashie's father to accomplish it.

I was a little disappointed. I managed to find the hardback version, which has marvelously expressive illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman, but the narration seemed scattershot. I didn't think it packed the emotional punch of some of her other books, like Prank or even Christmas After All. The family's escape has some breathtaking moments, but I found it as a whole a little anticlimactic.

book icon  Writing Juvenile Fiction, Phyllis Whitney
While there are probably more up-to-date volumes out there about writing children's or young adult fiction, this volume by Whitney, who wrote women's romance novels and teen mysteries, plus teen short stories for magazines like American Girl (the Girl Scout magazine, not the recent magazine associated with the book series), is a nice basic text, as the primary idea is to attract and then keep the attention of the reader and write a story that appeals to them. The material, today, does not seem as sophisticated, but then both children's and young adult books have grown darker in the past fifty years. Story structure has not changed, whether you are writing about a young woman fighting to give a talented but untrained artist a chance (the example used in this book) or about teens facing demons, vampires, and death. (In fact, the example being about regular kids was a bit refreshing!) This would be a good book to offer to an aspiring young writer, as it also addresses the problems of taking time to write, and the procrastination issues most writers face.

book icon  The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar, Martin Windrow
This is the charming memoir of a British man who kept a tawny owl as a pet for fifteen years. After his first owl escaped, he was given Mumble, as he called the bird, who soon became an indispensable part of his life. At first she lives in an aviary on the balcony of his apartment building, carefully hidden from the landlord; later in her life he moved to the country where he built her a beautiful outdoor enclosure. Over the years he observed her behavior and chronicled life with his quirky roommate.

If you love birds, you will probably enjoy this book. I could see my own budgie in Windrow's observations of Mumble, and enjoyed reading about their friendship and Mumble's instinctive habits, like pouncing on "prey." Windrow does make the point that people should not keep wild birds as pets; he was only able to obtain for Mumble because his brother was a falconer (and I have to question the wisdom of having an owl in a city apartment that doesn't allow pets!). In the tradition of books like Ring of Bright Water and Born Free.

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30 May 2014

Listening to Laurie...and Jo

I've been listening to a BBC radio adaptation of Little Women today. Gayle Hunnicutt plays Marmee, Jemma Redgrave is Meg, and Buffy Davis is a lively, hearty Jo. Because of the total running time (about five and a half hours), they can do so much more, like showing them playing games at Laurie's picnic. Laurie is played by Marcus D'Amico and sounds like a real boy for once, but the actor playing Ned Moffat has such a funny voice; he sounds like John DeLancie overlaid with Bertie Wooster. I'm also particularly fond of how they handle the transitional "since last we met" portion of the opening chapter of part II (or Good Wives, as the British call the second part of Little Women): instead of a summary by the announcer, Jo runs into Miss Crocker, the spinster lady the girls entertain in the novel chapter "Experiments," and "catches her up" with the March family. I'm enjoying it so much, but I have to smile when they talk "American," for they try so hard that sometimes they wander into a Southern accent, especially Ms. Davis and the actress who plays Beth.

I think it's funny that most non-US productions of Little Women cast Hannah as African-American. It's not that I object--Hannah really could be of any race or nationality--but it seems that to the casting people it's natural for the servant at that time to be a person of color, and the result is so stereotypical! The radio Hannah is all "laws'a'mercy" and sings spirituals, and in the Japanese anime Hannah has a mammy look. It's a bit disconcerting.

I do think it's interesting that they use "Simple Gifts" as a musical motif throughout. It works very well, along with the vintage hymns.

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