30 June 2014

Books Completed Since June 1

book icon  The American Seasons: Wandering Through Winter, Edwin Way Teale
This is the fourth and final book in Teale's seasonal odyssey across the United States with his wife Nellie; the four books were written between 1947 and 1966, and this final book won a Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. Teale, a naturalist, originally wrote for Popular Science, but then became a free-lancer, and authored over a dozen books about the subject.

You would think that this book would address the snowy and cold areas of the country, but the Teales begin their trip in San Diego and work their way east, only encountering true winter weather when they get to the edge of the midwest. They see whales, observe the plants of the desert surviving brutal drought, observe birds over the entire trip, their favorite being the cheeky chickadee, have adventures along the Mexican border, then head into snow and ice storms as they drive toward the northeast, where they hunt for diamonds, discover a colony of white squirrels, explore Big Bone Lick and its cache of prehistoric bones, visit a sugarbush and a deer yard, and join a man who collects witch hazel. Along the way, they visit fellow naturalists, avid birdwatchers, and the home of "Snowflake" Bentley, who took the first microscopic photos of snowflakes.

This is a wonderful book for anyone who loves exploring the natural world, whether in person or vicariously through books. I'm hoping to turn up his other three books to visit the seasonal US in an era before superhighways.

book icon  Just My Typo, Drummond Moir
I confess. I also collect books on typographical errors. I love bloopers. I can't even read the "Damn You, Autocorrect!" web page because by the time I've gotten through five of them I'm reduced to helpless laughter.

However, this is why this book doesn't really stand out for me. While there are typos here from older books and other publications I have not read before, about half of them I've already read elsewhere in other books like Richard Lederer's volumes on English, and even online. If you haven't read other books about typographical errors, this will have you on the floor, but for folks who have read them continually over the years, you may figure it's just more of the same.

book icon  The Victorian City, Judith Flanders
Aside from the fact that the title is a bit of a misnomer, as the book does not cover the entire Victorian era, but just the Dickensian portion, ending with Dickens' death in 1870, this is a book you fall into and don't come up for air again until you've reached the index at the other end. Flanders' prose brings you right there, into the dirty streets swept by street crossing boys earning pennies a day, food vendors who supply London workers with their food, street vendors who must busk for a living. With Flanders we visit havens for prostitutes and thieves, pubs and eateries, churches and slums; learn about the Victorian way of commuting, traveling (including on the iconic Dickensian stagecoach), surviving, spending increasing leisure hours, and even dying. Quotations and excerpts from Dickens' novels liberally pepper the text. If you are a Victorian-era junkie like me, or a Dickens fan, this is the book for you!

Oh, don't forget to read the footnotes; there are more things there!

book icon  Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue With His Century, Volume 2: The Man Who Learned Better, William H. Patterson Jr
Alas, Patterson passed away just weeks before this second part of his biography of Heinlein was published.

Like the first volume, Patterson has filled the book with so many miniscule details of Robert Heinlein's later life (after his marriage to Virginia Gerstenfeld) that you wonder if he was a fly in the corner during the entire period of time. We follow the development of the Future History stories, go to Hollywood for the filming of Destination Moon (whose fate was tied up with another movie about a squirrel), build a home in Colorado and cope with fallout from Heinlein's ex-wife Leslyn, travel along with the Heinleins to Russia, Australia, and even Antarctica, observe the long development of Stranger in a Strange Land, understand Heinlein's support for blood drives after a transfusion saves his life, and finally follow his long slow slide into ill health as he aged. Patterson's approach seemed warmer in this volume and I didn't feel as if I was being held at arm's length as I was in the first half. Heinlein fans will definitely enjoy this concluding volume. God bless, Mr. Patterson.

(As with The Victorian City, above, don't forget to read the footnotes in this book. There is a lot more information included!)

book icon  Cold Days, Jim Butcher
He's dead. No, he's alive, because Queen Mab isn't going to let her Winter Knight get away. So Harry Dresden has accepted a devil's bargain, because he knows he has to protect his Chicago home town from the evil that is emerging.

Butcher starts out with a bang. Harry awakes, alive, only to have Mab try more and more inventive ways to kill him—seventy seven different scenarios, all told. And that's just in chapter one! He acquires a malk (kind of a supernatural cat) that he names Cat Sith to help him, as well as a young woman who seems to be being put through the same paces as Harry. Then Mab's insane daughter Maeve (think Bellatrix Lestrange, only more insane) makes an appearance just about the time Harry makes an enemy of a bloodthirsty Redcap.

After that, it gets crazy.

This newest (in paperback, anyway) Dresden adventure brings back all the old favorites: Karrin Murphy, Waldo Butters, Harry's half-brother Thomas, Harry's temple dog Mouse, his apprentice Molly, Mac the bartender, and even little Toot-Toot, Harry's fairy ally, and his troops (whom Harry keeps happy with pizza). Occasionally Harry gets to take a breather, and you do, too, only to have another situation crop up to leave you breathless. Once you start turning pages, it's hard to stop. Plus there's some great Karrin action, and a heartbreaker of an ending. Yeah, I'm still hooked.

book icon  Foul Play at the Fair, Shelley Freydont
Liv Montgomery, fresh from a nightmarish career as an event arranger in New York City, has moved to the smaller upstate New York town of Celebration Bay to continue her career in a calmer venue. At least she thought it would be calmer, until during last-minute preparation for the town's annual fall festival, a man is found dead in an apple press.

Some cozies are artificially set and cast, while in others the characters and settings come to life. I could believe in the little community of Celebration Bay, which has created a new persona for itself by living up to its name and hosting festivals that draw people from all over the country. Liv and her neighbors, even the annoying former event arranger Janine, who has a grudge against Liv, are suitably "real" enough, although minor characters are quite sketchy. The mystery is suitably complicated, although close to the end I figured out most of the puzzle. Yes, there are cozy mystery conventions: our heroine gets herself into a perilous situation while investigating the crime, and, as seems to be common with mysteries with a female lead these days, there's an exasperating male romantic interest. And I did get tired of the descriptions of Liv's dog Whiskey as a "Westie terrier." C'mon, after three or four times we know he's a terrier; just call him a Westie. Or vary it with "West Highland White terrier." However, I liked the story and the regular characters enough to buy the sequels.

book icon  The Victorians, A.N. Wilson
It's taken me two years to read this book; I started it, then went on to other things after getting one-third of the way through and didn't get back to it until this spring, when I had to quickly re-read the first third to re-acquaint myself with what had gone before. Is this procrastination due to this being a bad book? No, but like The War That Ended Peace, it's a dense book with a great deal packed within each chapter, which chronicles the Victorian era from Princess Victoria's ascendancy through the death of the Queen.

However, instead of being a simple linear history of the Victorian era, each chapter focuses on a different subject that is pertinent to the timeline, so that while the history starts routinely enough with chapters about Britain before Victoria and the background of her family, subsequent chapters address not just historical events (the Crimea, the Irish troubles and the famine, the Boer War) and personages (Lord Palmerston, Gladstone, "Chinese" Gordon, Disraeli), but artists, authors, playwrights, health conditions in the slums, science, medicine, and other topics. Truth to tell, the politics is, as always, chiefly boring, but I enjoyed the chapters about pre-Raphaelite painters, expatriate British living in England, the Raj, the impact of Darwin, people of color in Victorian society, public schooling abuses, country parsons, Gilbert and Sullivan, Oscar Wilde, and dozens of other personalities and social dilemmas. If you've a serious interest in the Victoria era, you will probably enjoy this book, but it's not for those just looking for a summary of the time.

book icon  Murder on Fifth Avenue, Victoria Thompson
Police detective Frank Malloy knows he'll never live up to Sarah Brandt's social inheritance, even though she abandoned her place in society to marry a doctor and now, after his death, works as a midwife in the poorer sections of town. So when Sarah's father, millionaire Felix Decker, asks to see Frank privately, the detective is mystified until the problem is explained: a well-known businessman died in Decker's exclusive club, and he wishes Frank to find out the culprit so the club can take care of the problem by themselves and not create a scandal. But once Frank starts talking to the family, something more ugly than a quarrel between friends emerges.

This is probably the first Brandt/Malloy book in which after things are revealed, that you wish the killer won't be caught because the victim was such a right bastard. This means, of course, that there are multiple suspects, and multiple false leads for both Frank and Sarah to track down, and there's suspense down to the penultimate chapter. Once again, Sarah's bored society mother helps in their investigation (I'm coming to quite like the woman!), and the sordid realities of some parts of Victorian society are revealed. This is a nice solid entry in the series, even if only the tiniest progress is made on the attraction between Frank and Sarah.

book icon  Rocket Ship Galileo, Robert A. Heinlein
Not sure how I missed this Heinlein juvenile for so long; it was his first, written back in the late 1940s, but taking place in some indeterminate future where man has already gone to space and rockets are used as freighters. Three teenage boys, Art, Morrie, and Ross, model rocketry enthusiasts with their own workship, find an unconscious man outside their launch area and are afraid it was caused by their rocket which exploded. The man turns out to be Art's uncle Don, an atomic scientist—who soon is impressed by their talent and wonders if they'd like to accompany him on a flight to the moon! But it turns out there are people who wish to stop Don Cargraves and young proteges...permanently.

While Heinlein uses solid science in his rocketry, the plot is pure Boy's Own Adventure story, what with intelligent high schoolers recruited by an adult to go on an adventure; Samuel Scoville would be proud of this space-age successor to his Boy Scout stories. If you can buy the smart-kids-recruited-by-scientist trope, the rest of it is a great adventure tale. Swelp me, I was boggled by their discovery on the moon!

book icon  Shadow of Night, Deborah Harkness
This is the second book in the "All Souls" trilogy about Diana Bishop, a witch who has been suppressing her powers for reasons only discovered at the end of the first volume, A Discovery of Witches, and her lover, Matthew Clairmont, who is a vampire over six hundred years old, their developing relationship, and the world they inhabit, where humans rub shoulders with witches, vampires, and the unpredictable daemons.

Let's get this straight: I'm not turned on by vampires, and I'm only marginally interested in Elizabethan-era Europe, where this entire book takes place. And, like the previous volume, there are veritable cascades of words, many which might have been cut. Certainly it takes a long time to achieve the purpose of the book: to find a witch or witches capable of teaching Diana, whose wild powers are unique.

And you know what? None of that made any difference. To me, Harkness knows how to tell one hell of a story and I was absorbed from first to last. Do I want to slap Christopher Marlowe after this? Well, yes. "Kit" (a daemon, of course) is a fat pain in the ass. You long for Matthew to toss him in a midden. But I loved the description of Elizabethan society and streets, and Diana's experiments in alchemy with Lady Pembroke, and even had to laugh at the squabbling of the members of the School of Night. This is my second time reading it—in preparation for the third book, out in two weeks—and it was just as enjoyable as the first.

book icon  Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: The Diary of Bess Brennan, The Perkins School for the Blind, Barry Denenberg
This book has to be about rock bottom for a "Dear America" book. Bess Brennan is a typical girl living in Boston in the early years of the Depression. When she is blinded in a coasting accident, despite help from her twin sister Elin (who's writing in her diary for her), her mother and her Uncle Ted (her father has died) decide to send her to the Perkins School for the Blind, the famous school that Helen Keller attended. Bess is homesick and hates her teachers. Then she makes friends and loves it.

Really, that's about all there is to it. Bess is homesick. Bess doesn't like one of her teachers. Bess doesn't think she'll ever learn Braille. Her friend Amanda, who is partially sighted, helps her, and they both help another girl named Eva. I've seldom seen any children's book so flat, and it is a shame, since the Perkins School is so historically important.

book icon  Listening for Madeleine, Leonard S. Marcus
I had no idea this book existed until I was reading a Hamilton Book catalog and found it listed. It's a collection of interviews, long and short, from people who knew L'Engle, from members of her own family to those who worked with her.

The 2004 "New Yorker" article that revealed that some of Madeleine's nonfiction had more than its share of fictional elements upset and angered many fans. Marcus interviews a diverse number of people—friends from her cathedral days, others whom she befriended on her writing tours, neighbors of the Franklins in New York and Connecticut—to try to illustrate the complicated personality that was Madeleine L'Engle. I was actually more intrigued about her from the magazine article, and I enjoyed reading all the different viewpoints of her personality. In talking about her, you also get to know about Edward Nason West, L'Engle's spiritual advisor and the inspiration for the character of Canon Tallis in her books. He certainly was quite an eccentric from the descriptions and sounds fascinating. I also didn't know that author T.A. Barron, who did a series of young Merlin books, was a protege of L'Engle's. In addition, there are several more insights into her books; for instance, the crush Flip has in And Both Were Young was supposed to be with another girl, not with Paul. "Crushes" on other girls were quite common in girls' books at the turn of the 20th century, but by the time Young was written, it would have taken on an entirely new connotation which would not have been accepted.

I have to admit that a couple of the entries are in there on the feeblest of associations, especially the one-page offering from Mary Pope Osborne, which seems like it's there just for someone to say that she contributed to the book. Still, I found much to enjoy about this series of reminisces about one of my favorite writers!

book icon  Survival in the Storm: The Dust Bowl Diary of Grace Edwards, Katelan Janke
Did I read the end of this "Dear America" entry correctly? The author is only fifteen? Wow! That is really amazing, and as a storyteller she quite outdoes Mr. Denenberg, whose DA books I've come to dread. Grace Edwards and her family are holding on to their land and their self-respect in the Dust Bowl ravaged town of Dalhart, Texas (a real town which was hard hit). Grace must hold on to her hope, especially as dust storms increase and her best friend moves away after her family can't make ends meet.

A couple of times the characters use vocabulary that sounds out of place for the ages they are and there are some instances of stilted narrative, but otherwise this diary sounds very natural, as if a real teen wrote it—oh, wait, one did! Janke interviewed two women who survived the Dust Bowl and transfers their memories of the hardships, especially the endless wind and dust, very successfully. I also found the love/hate relationship between older sister Grace and little sister Ruth very true to life.

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