31 October 2014

Books Completed Since October 1

book icon  The Rocketeer: Jet-Pack Adventures, Jeff Conner and Tom Waltz
Okay, this book is just fun: ten stories based on Dave Stevens' classic comic book "The Rocketeer," later made into a little more family-friendly film by Disney that was still one heck of an adventure.

All the pulpy tropes are here: square-jawed hero Cliff Secord who has a secret identity as a crime- and Nazi-fighting "rocketeer" using a jet pack developed by Howard Hughes, his lush and curvy girlfriend Betty (based on Bettie Page) who's usually to be found half-clad, his grumpy mentor and whiz mechanic Peevy, evil Nazis and mad scientists, and even some exotic locales, not to mention flying monkeys, sharkmen, Egyptian curses, doppelgangers, a snoopy tell-all reporter, supercilious flatfoots, goons, gun molls, and more. Plus there are some delightful cameos by real life people, and those were the three stories I enjoyed the most: "The Red, White & Grey" featuring Western author Zane Grey, "Codename: Ecstasy" with Hedy Lamarr, and "Rockets to Hell" guest-starring Johnny Weissmuller and featuring a creepy setting and enemy. I'm wondering if a sequel anthology is planned because at least three of the stories, including "Rockets to Hell," are definitely set up where another story is possible.

Unlike those classic pulps, Betty, even in her half-clad state, has brains, and doesn't turn into a fainting, clingy, actual pulp damsel in distress. One of the stories talks about discrimination against women specifically (perhaps a bit too didactically), and there are other female characters who are strong and no one's "dame." Do note if you have a child who's a fan of Disney's Rocketeer that this is a much more adult universe and not suitable: nothing is described, but Cliff and Betty are not chaste, and there are many instances of graphic violence, especially in "Atoll of Terror," which owes more than a tip of the hat to H.G. Wells. As Peevy might say, "This ain't no kiddie story, y'know."

book icon  The Sisters Grimm: The Inside Story, Michael Buckley
In this next-to-the-last book of the series, Sabrina and Daphne have taken it upon themselves to rescue their long-lost baby brother, who was born while their mother was in an enchanted sleep, and kidnapped by the being inhabiting their Grandmother's Magic Mirror in a plot to bring himself to life. For Sabrina and Daphne are Grimms, part of a family of fairy-tale detectives, now living in the town of Ferryport, a refuge for fairy tale characters. In this tale they take a whirlwind tour through various fairy tales, not only hunting Mirror and their brother, but the treacherous Pinocchio, who sold them out, accompanied by Puck, the mischievous teenage fairy. Sabrina, whose grit and simple stubbornness has sustained the girls through previous adventures, is beginning to doubt herself—will she be able to stay the course?

Most of this volume, frankly, feels like filler. The girls visit Oz and Wonderland, there are some interesting scenes between Puck and Sabrina, there's a unique magical device that aids them, and most importantly, they meet the Editor, the acerbic man who keeps the fairy tale characters in line within their stories. These latter encounters are interesting, especially the creepy revisers who blank any story which has diverged from the original, but the chase after both Mirror and the little boy, and after Pinocchio, seems to go on and on. It's necessary as a set-up for the final volume, but maybe that volume could have been lengthened a bit rather than give us monotonous chase scenes.

book icon  The Sisters Grimm: The Council of Mirrors, Michael Buckley
Well, damn, I had to see how it came out, didn't I? The final book in the series pulls no punches. Mirror, having taken over the body of Sabrina and Daphne's beloved grandmother, is determined to see the end of the Grimms and break down the barrier that separates Ferryport from the real world. At his side is Atticus Charming, the unknown brother of William, who has been redacted from the Snow White legend to protect her. The two will destroy the town—and possibly the world—to see their desires fulfilled. The Wicked Queen, Morgana, and Baba Yaga come together to form a coven. The Grimms train what is a pitifully small resistance. And then the stunning news comes: it must be Sabrina and Daphne who lead the fight against them.

The theme of this book is faith in yourself, and Sabrina is not the only one who needs to learn that lesson. Souls are lost and won, friends depart through betrayal and death, and the battles are not bloodless, nor are they always victorious. Each defeat ratchets up the tension. However, those of you following the storyline will be happy to know that all issues are resolved. ::wink::

book icon  Young Americans Colonial Williamsburg: Will's Story, 1771, Joan Lowery Nixon
This is one in a series of six books set in colonial-era Williamsburg. By trade, Will Pelham's father is a music teacher as well as the organist of the Bruton Parish Church, but he has accepted a job as the gaoler (warden) of the Williamsburg prison to make ends meet; the family lives in the same building as the jail and Will must help his father with the prisoners, a chore that sometimes frightens him. One of the other prisoners tells Will that Blackbeard the Pirate's ghost speaks to him; Will disbelieves him, but the man is persuasive and persistent. "Blackbeard" also "tells" the man one of the prisoners is planning an escape: Emmanuel, a slave who fled from an abusive master. Will knows the law: slaves must be returned to their masters. But he sympathizes with Emmanuel, too. Can he obey the law, and his father, and still help the abused man?

Think of this as an "American Girl" book about a boy, and based on an actual child. While the author has no way of knowing just what Will did or thought at this time, she nicely extrapolates with historical evidence of colonial children's chores and pastimes. At times the exposition is laid on a bit thick for its youthful readers, but it's necessary for them to understand what is going on. There are notes at the end about the real-life protagonists, about Williamsburg, about childhood in colonial days, and, in this book, about "crime and punishment." Quite worthwhile if you're a history buff. I didn't know this series existed and would love to read the other stories now!

book icon  Karen, Marie Killilea
Stories about children who overcame physical handicaps were very popular when I was growing up, and this book is a classic: the story of a Catholic family faced with an almost insurmountable problem who rose to the challenge.

Karen was born three months premature and didn't go home until she was nine months old. Her parents soon notice that she doesn't move like other babies. She is diagnosed with cerebral palsy, and at that time (the 1940s)  there was no support at all for children (or adults for that matter) with cerebral palsy. The first doctor her parents took Karen to basically told the Killileas to put her in an institution and forget her. The next said she was probably mentally deficient. They went through more than a dozen doctors before they found one to help Karen. Plus their elder daughter had sinus problems, a bout with rheumatic fever, and then a tuberculosis scare; and money was short and for a time the father worked two jobs.

This is an old-fashioned book with the appropriate mores of the 1940s-1950s. I was amused to see how so many modern reviews of this book on Amazon had shocked people exclaiming how often the characters smoked and how bad that was! Even in the Sixties everyone smoked! Doctors recommended cigarettes in advertising. I remember family parties and weddings blue with smoke. I was more appalled by the way so many doctors treated Karen as if she was some sort of vegetable. They couldn't seem to get past the fact she was "crippled" as if her motor problems affected her brain. And this was the state of medicine only 25 years before I was born! (I recall a neighborhood friend whose sister had severe Down syndrome—back then they were called "Mongoloid"—and her family was considered unusual because Louise lived at home and was not in an asylum.) The work Marie Killilea and her family did eventually resulted in the creation of the United Cerebral Palsy organization. Still, this is an inspiring story, even today.

book icon  Lassie: Under the Big Top, Marian Bray
I've heard of this series of books for a few years now, but had never seen a copy until I walked into a used bookstore and found the first three books of this five-book series written in the 1990s for a Christian publisher. In this incarnation, Lassie belongs to the Harmon family and specifically to 12-year-old Jimmy, whose father is a minister, and in the first book of the series, Jimmy's faith is tested when Lassie is locked in a van and taken several hundred miles from home. His parents take him looking for her, but every lead seems to go nowhere. God, reasons Jimmy, knows how important to Lassie is to him, so why did God allow this to happen?

If you're a Lassie fan, the basic plot may sound a bit familiar: it's because Bray based the books on plots from the television series. This one is based on "Lassie's Odyssey" and we follow both Lassie's travels and the Harmons' efforts to find her. She eventually, as you might have suspected from the title, ends up in a circus. There are also touches of "The Dognappers." The elder Harmons are named Paul and Ruth, the next book features an "Uncle" Cully, and the third a "Mr. Krebs" and a mysterious "Mr. Nicholson." As for the story, I found some of the prose a bit stilted; Bray was trying to give it a Lassie Come-Home touch (she even repeats the story of how Sam Carraclough taught Lassie not to pick up meat off the ground) and her descriptions of Lassie's thoughts and the countryside are often beautiful but sometimes awkward. The Christian bits of the prose are not intrusive; it's basically still a matter of faith with Jimmy to believe that Lassie will still come home.

(Incidentally, Bray, taking another cue from Eric Knight, describes Lassie as a tricolor, but the television Lassie is a sable. A tricolor is mostly black.)

book icon  A Little House Christmas Treasury
Click here.

book icon  Lassie: Treasure at Eagle Mountain, Marian Bray
Jimmy is looking forward to a camping trip he'll be taking after school closes with his Dad and Uncle Cully, but when one of his Dad's parishoners is badly injured, Uncle Cully takes Jimmy and Lassie camping on his own. They are faring well, even after having their canoe set adrift by another visitor to the Lake Superior islands they are camping at. But when they see a beautiful eagle and find a lone cabin, once the home of a naturalist, Jimmy, his uncle, and Lassie are plunged into danger.

This is based on the Lassie two-parter "The Treasure," with certain parallels: camping, a character named Cully, an eagle (but not a golden eagle), a naturalist's cabin, and a mysterious message about treasure. In this outing the marauding poacher is more deadly than the television version, and part of the adventure serves to lead Uncle Cully, who's not a Christian any longer, to find his faith. There are some really lovely descriptions of the forest here and the beauty of nature. Jimmy's musing about his uncle's lack of faith may annoy some, but it's a nice solid adventure story, and even Jimmy's little sister, Sarah, after being a non-entity in the first book, does a good turn for him in this one.

book icon  Lassie to the Rescue, Marian Bray
It's almost Christmas, not to mention Jimmy's long-awaited thirteenth birthday, when he and his friend Blake, son of the town vet, come up with a scheme to get all the animals in the overcrowded no-kill shelter adopted by Christmas. Jimmy's idea has been inspired by an elderly toymaker, Gabriel Nicholson, who's helping out with a toy drive. Plus he's coping with playing Joseph in the Christmas pageant and trying to understand his grumpy neighbor Mr. Krebs, who seems to hate animals as much as his granddaughter Megan loves them—and wondering why his parents seem to have forgotten his birthday.

Yes, you've guessed it, based on "Lassie's Gift of Love," although Mr. Nicholson now travels in a classic truck rather than a wagon, and has a horse named Bess instead of a donkey name Holly. (Bess is another borrowing from Lassie Come-Home, the name of Rowlie Palmer's horse.) Mr. Krebs in the book doesn't seem half as grouchy as Matt Krebs in the television version, and the animal adoption scheme could have come straight out of a plot from The New Lassie. It's a pleasant enough Christmas tale, however.

book icon  Miss Potter, Richard Maltby Jr.
This is Maltby's novelization of his script for the sweet film based on the life and art of Beatrix Potter. It's a charming little romantic tale, and Maltby strengthens the text with more details into Potters life, and there is great delight in his description of her delicate drawings and the love of her characters. However, this is by no means a simplified biography of Beatrix Potter; many things were romanticized for the movie. If you loved the film, you will enjoy the book, but if you want a more accurate bio of Potter, read Linda Lear.

book icon  Re-read: The Years With Ross, James Thurber
When first the television series My World and Welcome to It and slightly later the film The War Between Men and Women were released, James Thurber's books enjoyed a resurgence, and The Thurber Carnival, Thurber's Dogs, My World and Welcome to It, My Life and Hard Times, The Thurber Album, and this book were all republished. I devoured them all, and even though I had barely heard of "The New Yorker," quite enjoyed Thurber's memoir of the eccentric original editor of the magazine, a country boy who wanted to present the most sophisticated of city magazines, an earthy man who was nevertheless shy about sexual references and had difficulties talking to most women, a man who did not finish school but who provided expert editing of the articles that made "The New Yorker" a survivor. Ross' personal quirks were well known to anyone who worked on the magazine, and Thurber affectionately chronicles his foibles and his "Rossisms."

For a full story of Harold Ross and his magazine one should go to other sources, but for a memoir of Ross by someone who was there during his tenure, crossed horns with him, but still respected him, Thurber's account is amusing, if not often laugh-aloud funny.

book icon  Coolidge, Amity Shlaes
One doesn't learn much about Calvin Coolidge in history class. He succeeded Harding after he died, he was president during "the Roaring 20s," he believed "the business of American is business," he was a Republican who supported some progressive causes. He was from Vermont, served as Massachusetts governor, and lost one of his teenage sons while in office. But his most famous quality was his reticince; he never used five words if one would do, and his nickname was "Silent Cal."

Shlaes fills in all the missing pieces about John Calvin Coolidge in this stout volume that goes from his ancestors to his death, his schooldays at an academy, his early days practicing law, etc. It's incredibly detailed; as with William Patterson's book about Robert Heinlein, it's like Shlaes was a fly on the wall. He even makes a note at one point that the Coolidge's collie was sick. Still, most of the narrative is enjoyable, although I felt like much of the time Shlaes was trying overly hard to make me like Coolidge, and that although he didn't talk much, he was a much warmer person than he appeared. Shlaes also emphasizes how hard Coolidge tried to cut down on Government spending—and how in many cases he did.

The biggest irony of reading this book was that I was doing so during the investigations into the Department of Veterans Affairs, because  in the 1920s Coolidge was furious about excesses and graft at the Veterans Bureau, as it was called then: tales of employees receiving equivalents of today's six-figure salaries for a month's work, or stealing supplies from the veterans to sell for profit. Things, sadly, never change.

book icon  Hermione Granger Saves the World, Bell
This is a fair collection of nonfiction essays about Hermione and her role in the Harry Potter books as well as her feminism. I think the essays are a little too focused on feminism; while Hermione is symbolic of independent young women, I just wanted to read about the character, not focus solely on her role as a feminist.

I do wish this volume had been proofread a bit more. In one of the early essays, the author refers to The Tales of Beetle and the Bard, which was jarring and made me doubt its veracity.

book icon  The Pierced Heart, Lynn Shepherd
Having sampled Shepherd's The Solitary House and found it a fairly interesting mystery despite not having read the Dickens' novel that was its inspiration (Bleak House) because her use of Dickensian language was so strong, I thought I would give this newest effort a try. I'm sorry to say I found it a less-than-stellar homage to Dracula. Victorian investigator Charles Maddox visits Baron Von Reisenberg in Austria to see if a donation promised to Oxford University by the Baron is legitimate. Instead he finds Von Reisenberg's name strikes terror in those whose homes surround his castle and the homestead itself is a place of horror. He escapes only by being confined to a hospital with a fever. But once back in London, he discovers the Baron has arrived there as well.

Shepherd's description, especially in the first third of the book where Maddox is in Austria, is haunting and atmospheric. You feel the penetrating cold, witness extraordinary and terrifying sights, shudder at the atmosphere of evil which permeates the surroundings. The problem is that the story itself doesn't live up to the descriptive language, and frankly Maddox isn't a very appealing protagonist. I was also bothered by the fact that this is the second novel of Shepherd's that I've read that features terrifyingly brutal things happening to women; some of the narrative is extremely hard to endure. Since I haven't sampled her first novel or the one that preceded The Pierced Heart, I'm not sure if this is a regular feature of her mysteries, but for myself twice is enough. I won't be ordering another one of her books again.

book icon  The Care and Management of Lies, Jacqueline Winspear
Winspear takes a departure from her Maisie Dobbs' mysteries to write this stand-alone novel about the effects of the Great War on a trio of friends. Kezia Marchant has been friends with Thea Brissenden and her brother Tom since she was in school with Thea. The girls have divergent personalities: Kezia is quiet and unassuming while Thea is restless and eager to "do something" with her life. When Kezia settles for marriage with Tom instead and becomes a farm wife, Thea is scornful and continues to support the suffragette movement. When Tom goes off to war, Kezia must bear the burden of running the farm.

This is a low-key story of how World War I changed even the smallest things about life in England, and how quiet people found strengths they didn't know they had. While Thea's eventual war service paints her as bold and self-sacrificing, she has taken up the cause only because of fear, while Kezia's home front efforts not only keep the the Brissenden farm going, but her letters to Tom, detailing the delicious meals she is learning to cook, provide emotional sustenance not only to Tom, but to his battalion mates.

The story rambles somewhat, like a summer day in the country, and those looking for Winspear's precise mysteries may be disappointed. However, as a whole I found it very enjoyable.

book icon  The Virago Book of Ghost Stories, edited by Richard Daley
I picked this up at the "Little Free Library" set up by the Sci-Fi Literature Track manager at DragonCon, figuring it would be perfect reading for Hallowe'en, and certainly it was. As in all short-story collections, there are some more interesting than others (and certainly that varies between people as well). Some classics are included here, like Edith Nesbit's (no, she didn't write only children's stories) "The Violet Car." Other favorites: a husband is haunted by the wife he ignored in "The Token," a ghostly child walks the halls of a sad home in "The Shadowy Third," the sweet "The Waiting Room," the story of a nurse who accepts a frightening assignment ("The Night Nurse"), the story of a man and a bath-chair ("Juggernaut"), and the creepy story of a river journey gone wrong ("Three Miles Up"). Probably my very favorite was about a man who rents a friend's apartment and is beset by "The Haunted Saucepan." And, happily, although there is some bloodshed, none of the stories are horribly gory; just good old-fashioned spooks and scares here.

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