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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 October 2016

Books Completed Since October 1

book icon  Re-read: Rilla of Ingleside, L.M. Montgomery
Technically a re-read, but a new edition which is the complete book as published originally, not the edited version that was released in 1985 in the Bantam set of "Anne of Green Gables" books republished after the success of the Kevin Sullivan miniseries.

Anne's youngest daughter, Rilla—Bertha Marilla Blythe—is now fifteen. Like most girls her age, she is active, vivacious, and mostly carefree. She's also pretty and knows it, and is beginning to see her old playmate Kenneth Ford as something else than the boy she used to romp with in Rainbow Valley. Anne wonders if she will ever be serious. But on the night Rilla is invited to her first dance, a night in which her feelings for Ken Ford begin to change, it is announced that England has declared war on Germany after the slaying of Archduke Francis Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Suddenly life changes for everyone: Rilla's brothers and older male friends enlist except for Walter, her dreamy and artistic sibling, who is afraid his reluctance to kill will endanger his compatriots; her sisters volunteer for the Red Cross; and her mother and Susan Baker roll bandages and hold teas. And then Rilla, who is not fond of babies at all, rescues a newborn whose father has gone off to war and reluctantly takes him on as a responsibility.

There are now many books around about homefront life during World War I, since they have been written to commemorate the 100th anniversary, but Rilla of Ingleside was a rara avis of its time, and still one of the few novels written from a Canadian homefront point of view, written by someone who endured it. While there are humorous moments (Susan's sparring with her pessimistic cousin, the Blythes' mercurial cat Doc, youthful mistakes in raising her "war baby"), this book brings life in homefront WWI to vivid life: the dread of waiting for telegrams, the fearful perusal of the newspaper, the knowledge of knowing that any moment you may receive a missive telling you a loved one has died, being a man who has just received a white feather [a symbol that since he isn't serving he's a coward]. One particularly touching subplot in the book involves Jem Blythe's little dog Monday. A beautiful book.

book icon  Back to the Front, Stephen O'Shea
It was natural for me to go from Rilla to this book. The author is a Canadian who admits right off that he he is not a "history buff" (just as Rilla moved in her own small sphere) and had no interest in the First World War until he moved to Paris in 1981 and accompanied a friend on a weekend trip to the Somme battlefield. O'Shea was flabbergasted to find that not only can you still tell where the battles were fought 64 years later, despite the population having grown and the fields having been cultivated (not to mention another war occurring), but that French farmers still plow up supplies from that war: gas masks, horse harnesses, shoes, hip flasks, ammunition, even the occasional live mine, etc. It inspired him to make multiple visits to France from 1985 through 1995 and walk the entire Western Front from Nieuport, Belgium to the Swiss border.

O'Shea proceeds from battle site to battle site, observing the current physical site and then adding the historical detail of pompous, know-it-all officers who sent men to their deaths (if you are a Douglas Haig fan you should avoid this book) and the many times bored and vermin-ridden soldiers in the trenches with the horrifying fates that awaited them: festering wounds, burned-out lungs from poison gas, crippling injuries, dismemberment and death, surrounded by screaming horses and mules shattered by shrapnel and bullets, and appalled by the bored tourists who visit the sites just because it's something to do.

Keep in mind that this is a memoir of his experience and not a real history. His descriptions of the battlefields and the war are real and immediate, but even after having lived in France he has a poor opinion of both the French and the Belgians and he often sounds snooty. His descriptions of how the officers in all the armies wasted human lives turn into lectures against war; the descriptions themselves should have been left to stand as a monument to that waste. This is an interesting way to acquaint yourself with the major battles of World War I, but be aware that there are some prejudices involved.

book icon  Re-read: The Singing Tree, Kate Seredy
Since I had already re-read Rilla and continued with World War I reading with the O'Shea book, I thought I would complete a circle and reacquaint myself with another favorite, Seredy's sequel to The Good Master, the story of the two cousins Jansci and Kate Nagy, who live on Jansci's father's big ranch on the puzta, the Hungarian plains. Jansci, fifteen, is old enough to have his own small herd of horses, and Kate, a year younger, is growing into a young woman interested in going to dances. As the story opens, they are preparing for a neighborhood celebration, the wedding of Peter Hodi and Mari Vidor—but as they head home from the event, news comes of the assassination of an archduke in faraway Sarajevo.

Rapidly, things change: the Nagy horses and herders are conscripted into the Army, and finally Kate's father and Marton Nagy as well. Spoiled Lily Kormos comes to live on the ranch, but after a bumpy start, the cousins find her a good friend. Women and children and the elderly must get in the harvest on their own, and the cousins are called to drive up to the mountains to fetch Mother's elderly parents and there, among a crowd of refugees and the presence of an Army hospital, come face to face with the real horror of war.

This is a wonderful book which portrays war as terrible without going into hurtful details, with memorable supporting characters: Moses and Sarah Mandelbaum, the Jewish owners of the village store; Mother's stalwart parents; the six Russian prisoners of war who work as farmhands and the six German children that are sent as refugees from Berlin. When I read this again as an older child, I realized from my history lessons that if I had lived at that time, Jansci and Kate would have been my enemies, since their government was fighting against the Allies. A sobering thought, and one Seredy makes throughout the book, as when one of the German boys writes a puzzled letter to his mother wondering how the Russians can be enemies when "they are just big men like Papa," that behind bellicose politicians and generals there are just plain people who, like their "enemies," want to make a living, raise their children, tend their crops or business, and not wage war at all. Worth reading whether you are a child or an adult.

book icon  Re-read: Beautiful Joe: an Autobiography, Margaret Marshall Saunders
I've had a copy of Beautiful Joe since I was old enough to read Western Publishing's line of Whitman Books. However the version I originally read was light years away from the original story.

Saunders was brought up in an animal-loving 19th century Canadian family and the rampant animal abuse of the era horrified her. When an American humane group offered a prize for the best novel portraying kindness to animals, Saunders wove a tale around a real-life Canadian dog who had his tail and ears chopped off by a cruel owner, set her story in Maine, and wrote a classic that all who have read it will not forget. But the book has gone through several changes throughout the years, the outright portrayal of the animal cruelty being excised from my children's addition, some of the farm chapters tossed out in favor of a chapter about a pet crow, and modern editions which remove the Victorian symbolism. I went through each edition until finding the Applewood edition, which was the complete novel as originally written, and this, the Broadview edition, is even more expanded, with footnotes, the crow chapter included in an appendix, and even a sequence where Bruno the farm dog is saved instead of destroyed.

I doubt very many parents would allow their kids to read the original edition today, although it was considered instructive and wonderful for older children in the 19th century, and even today, the story is not for the fainthearted. I'm an animal lover, and as hard as it is to get through some passages, I have loved all the characters since childhood—the Morris family, Cousin Harry, the Woods, the other Morris dogs Jim and Billy, Fleetfoot the wise colt, and more—and I love having the chance to have all aspects of the story complete with some additional material supplied about the humane movement in America. This is a classic in every sense of the word.

book icon  The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, Esther Crain
I am a history buff, but my favorite period of history has always been what is called the late Victorian/Edwardian era in Great Britain and the Gilded Age/Progressive Era here in the United States, so you bet I grabbed this book the moment I saw it. Much of the information in it I already know, having other history books about it, but I still found this book captivating because of its huge complement of photographs and woodcuts from the time period.

Crain divides the volume into different sections which talk about a specific topic: how the wealthy lived (and the difference--and feud--between "old money" and "new money"), the emerging middle class, and the poverty-stricken. There are sections about amusements of the era, with photos of Coney Island that I've never seen before, another portion devoted to crime and punishment, and, throughout the various sections, just how New York itself grew as a city from the tip of Manhattan Island to finally fill up the space once devoted to tenant farms and open land. With that in mind, the final section devotes itself to Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx, which eventually came together to form the New York metropolitan area. Special pullouts (a tiny bit hard to read with white ink on black paper) are devoted to things like famous crime of passion cases (think Evelyn Nesbit), the violent conflict between the old Metropolitan Police and the new City of New York Police, the Blizzard of 1888 which convinced the city to finally build a subway, Tammany Hall politicians, etc.

I must, must, must reserve some praise for the hand-colored black-and-white prints included in this book. Even if you are a history buff, it is sometimes hard to see past the flat, monochrome photographs that were taken in that era, and garish, badly hand-colored photographs are not my cup of tea. But the ones included in this book have been done by a talented professional and the result is that the photos have come alive to the point where you can almost hear the pedestrians chattering, the horses clopping, the iron-clad wagon wheels clashing against the pavement, the pushcart sellers hawking their wares, and feel the breeze coming off the bookended rivers. You immediately notice a striding woman with a scowl on her face--what's gone wrong with her day? you wonder--and children's faces, and flags fluttering in the breeze, and the attractively-colored signs on the shops and stores. Wow.

book icon  Doctor Who: The American Adventures, Justin Richards
I admit, I was disappointed in this book. I didn't realize it was written for children (or if it wasn't, it certainly reads like it was). The narratives in all of the stories were rather simplistic: something odd would happen during a historical period in the US, the Doctor would show up, and then he'd find something to remedy the situation. He runs into some people who live in a world of horse-drawn vehicles and firelight and they don't seem more surprised that he has gadgets that light up that they've never seen before. The family in the Oregon Trail is particularly perplexing in this regard. And, perhaps it is hard to develop character in short stories, but all the characters in the stories seem particularly two-dimensional, especially the young girl in the Oregon Trail tale, as if she was just thrust in the story for some "girl power."

My favorite story in this collection was the modern one, taking place in Florida at an amusement park. There was an element of mystery and danger missing from the other stories. "Ghosts of New York," taking place during the construction of the subway, also isn't bad, with the Doctor and a "sandhog" trying to solve the mystery of deceased people turning up in the tunnels. The others are just pedestrian, and there's nothing particularly that marks these as 12th Doctor stories as, say 5th Doctor stories, except for references to his eyebrows.

I am rating this a 3 because children might enjoy it. It is more like a 2 - 2 1/2 for adults, depending on how much you want some new WHO tales.

book icon  A Study in Scarlet Women, Sherry Thomas
"What if Sherlock Holmes was a woman?"

That's the interesting premise of this book and it begins with a foreboding prologue--and then suddenly the narrative seems to turn into a Victorian farce with a philandering husband and an innocent young girl. The story is then picked up from the point of view of the young woman's sister--but don't get too interested in her; she disappears (except for mention by the main character) for the remainder of the book.

Charlotte Holmes is an intelligent young woman in an era when a woman should be either ornamental or maternal (she is of the former school, a picture-book-perfect Victorian heroine). She eschews society and parties and instead desperately wants some higher education and longs to become headmistress of a school. Her father tricks her into thinking that if she is not married by age 25, he will sponsor her education. When he breaks his word, Charlotte takes desperate measures to make sure she is not marriageable, hoping this will force her father to keep his promise. Instead, all she does is create scandal, and therefore she is forced to make her own way in the world.

The most interesting character in the book, sadly, is not Charlotte, but the widowed Mrs. Watson she meets, who will pick up the threads of Charlotte's messy life and give it some purpose. For some time, Charlotte has been secretly posing as a gentleman named Sherlock Holmes, forwarding her suspicions via mail to the local police when facts reported about deaths in the newspapers don't make sense. Inspector Treadles of the police investigates the crimes based on her letters and usually finds he's--uh, she's--correct. In this case, "Sherlock" suspects that three unrelated deaths (including the unexpected passing of the woman who accused her of adultery) are indeed the work of one person...but can the police make the connection?

When you are reading a book whose synopsis sounded fascinating, but which you eventually approach with the attitude of "Oh, God, I have to finish reading this book because I promised," things are not good. Charlotte is intriguing, but her character never seems to come to any type of life--even the humorous asides about her healthy appetite don't round her out, and the romance portion of the book is pedestrian. Plus it seems inconceivable that Charlotte, while socially awkward, would not have known that the situation she got herself in would result in more problems for her--and her family--rather than forcing a decision. I can't believe that she thought it was her only solution.

In addition, one of the key aspects of the original Holmes stories is that he had more imagination and reasoning powers than the police; frequently they were shown at odds. No one could dislike Inspector Treadles; he's good-natured but persistent at his job, a good husband who thinks his wife is entitled to intelligence and outside interests, but his investigations are no different than any other "dedicated cop" character than I've read in other books--certainly not the slipshod investigators the classic Holmes despises.

Once Charlotte was finally "in place" in Baker Street, the story did pick up a bit, but I was actually relieved when I finished the book, and at this point I can't even remember "whodunnit." The characters and plot did not excite my imagination as it should have, and I would not recommend this book to a Sherlock fan.

book icon  Houseboat Girl, Lois Lenski
Patsy Foster was born upon a houseboat in the Mississippi River, but now, at eleven, she's been living in a small town near Paducah, Illinois, for two years, attending school and making friends. So it is initially difficult when her restless father, a "born riverman," buys a new houseboat and uproots the family—Mother, older sister Milly, younger siblings Dan and Bunny, Patsy's pet chickens, and a dog they were given—so they can run down the Mississippi and he can earn his preferred living, catching and selling fish. Then Patsy comes to love her life, learning to swim, the ever-changing riverbank scenery, meeting new people (and even making some enemies that become friends when they stop for a while and her father incurs the wrath of a man who thinks he owns the fishing rights to the area)—but she still longs to be settled. Is there a way she and her father can compromise?

Children today might be surprised that in the era of early television, rock'n'roll and Elvis Presley, the beginnings of the Space Race, and the Cold War that people still lived such a relatively primitive life (Mrs. Foster does have a washing machine and electric lights, but they can only be used when they are moored somewhere with electric wiring). Patsy and her family and friends amuse themselves simply and use their imaginations in play, running barefoot unless they are visiting town. Watching television is a rare treat mentioned in one chapter. Not one of Lenski's best, but a book addressing a little-known part of society.

book icon  In Search of Centennial: A Journey With James A. Michener, John Kings
This is a coffee-table sized but thin book written by one of the research assistants that helped Michener research his epic novel Centennial, my favorite of the Michener books that I've read. If you are at all interested in the writing process of a historical novel then this is quite revealing. Michener and his two assistants did research in Colorado and elsewhere for more than 18 months before he even sat down to start writing, and even then he confirmed things as he wrote and had assistants and family (his wife also did a great amount of the research) continually looking up facts and figures. He drove along the cattle trails written about in "The Longhorns," visited with the Native American tribes he was writing about to get the details of their 18th and 19th century lives correct, visited St. Louis to make certain the Bockweiss segment was factual, etc. The book includes numerous photographs, including ones taken by Michener in 1937 when he first considered writing a book set in Colorado. The final chapter is about his input into making the miniseries Centennial. Plus there are pages from his voluminous notebooks and four corrected typewritten pages from "The Longhorns."

Probably just for Centennial or Michener fans, but still a great insight into the craft of writing.

book icon  The Land of the English People, Alicia Street
Not sure why I bought this slim volume for children that is part of a people and places series for different countries and cultures, but I certainly did enjoy it. It's a combination geography/sociology/history book that was originally written after World War II and updated in the late Fifties, with much of the text still applicable to postwar Britain. It does a nice job of explaining how the different elements of the English countryside determined how those people would live, and has a neat job, using a fictional American ex-soldier and an Englishman to explain why Americans and English see the world so differently. Interesting look at England before the Cold War heated up and smog was banished from London.

book icon  The Happy Hollisters at Mystery Mountain, Jerry West
The Hollister clan is still traveling in a schoolbus they acquired on a previous adventure as Mr. Hollister looks for more Southwestern items to stock his store The Trading Post at the Hollister home town of Shoreham. When Mrs. Hollister buys little Sue a cowboy outfit in New Mexico, all the other kids—eldest Pete, Pam, Ricky, and Holly—want one, too, which precipitates them on two new adventures: to find some ancient stone dolls in a secret mountain location as told to them by their new friends Helen and Jack Moore, and to discover what's happened to the stolen sheep of their father's old friend Frank Vega, whose wife Maria makes the cowboy outfits the kids like.

The Hollisters never quit moving! Besides the mysteries involved, the kids take an airplane ride, attend a fiesta at a school, and go on a trail ride that precipitates them into danger—and there's even a kidnapping! They sure don't spend their time face down with their eyes on a tablet or staring at a television, that's for sure.

As a modern reader, I'm still impressed by how egalitarian these books are. Yeah, okay, Delores Vega and Helen and Pam get to rustle up the food on the trail ride while Jack and Pete make the fire, but since they have lost their supplies (their horses were deliberately let loose), Delores must find food for the kids using wildcrafting, and she manages admirably, plus she's been entrusted with the safety of the other children on the trail ride, where in most 1950s books a boy would be given that task. (Her brother Diego has had to stay home and ride fence.) When the kids have their airplane ride, all of them are invited to take a turn at the wheel, not just the boys, and Ricky is ribbed for his bad flying just like Pam. Plus the Vega family and their foreman Truchas don't have stagy Spanish accents or speak some dialect gibberish that approximates a Mexican way of talking. If something is referenced like a Mexican hat dance, it's part of celebrating the Vegas' Hispanic heritage.

These books are simple to read but yet full of adventures, with each chapter ending on a cliffhanger so you just want to go on. And you will.

(For Hollister fans: this is the book where the family acquires Domingo the donkey.)

book icon  Christmas in the Crosshairs, Gerry Bowler

book icon  Victoria, Daisy Goodwin
I think when most people think of Queen Victoria, they envision the faded monochrome photographs of the overweight, dour woman in black who gave her name to the latter half of the British 19th century and who imperiously and humorlessly reigned over an empire. It is such an ingrained icon that it may be difficult to imagine that once Victoria was a romantic young girl like many teenage girls, one who loved to dance and stay up late at parties, to get up at noon and try on new dresses and hairstyles, chafing against a domineering parent. Known as "Drina" (her first name was Alexandrina) as a girl, she was under the thumb of her ambitious German mother and her mother's British advisor Sir John Conroy, who hoped that Victoria's uncle William would die while the girl was still in her minority so that they could be appointed as regents. Victoria, as she told everyone to call her after she became queen, despised Conroy and the influence he held over her mother. Yet Victoria would also fall victim to the influences of a man—one who was reluctant to do so—her beloved "Lord M," William Lamb, Lord Melbourne, the prime minister.

This is Goodwin's book based upon the research she performed, with major input from young "Drina's" journals, while writing the new British historical series Victoria, written as a novel, which covers Victoria's life from her sixteenth birthday (in the prologue) to her marriage proposal to Albert. Both the new television series and the book play up Victoria's attachment to "Lord M." as more an at-first daughter/father relationship (since the Duke of Kent, Victoria's father, was not even a memory to her) that became a real-life romance (at least in Victoria's mind), than the straight queen/advisor always portrayed. Goodwin's prose is brisk and literate, always leaving you wanting just one more page, and Victoria-the-girl determined to be a good queen against a host of naysayers including her "Uncle Cumberland" who would love to declare her unfit to rule are absorbing. As a story that humanizes the young Victoria and simplifies some of the early goings on in her court ("the Bedchamber crisis") for instance), this is a good starter. However, it is fiction and if you are looking for a comprehensive biography, this is not the book.

book icon  Brooklyn on Fire: A Mary Handley Mystery, Lawrence H. Levy
By the time I was about a third through with this book, I had to go back and check to see if the author was indeed a guy. Otherwise I would have wondered if our heroine's name was Mary Sue Handley.

I picked this up as a Vine book because I read many Victorian/Edwardian/early 20th century mysteries. A young woman setting herself up as a "consulting detective" (like her hero, Sherlock Holmes) in 1890 New York sounded like just the ticket. I hadn't read the first book in the series, Second Street Station, but the characters seemed pretty self-explanatory. Mary is from a middle-class Irish family; she has a policeman brother whom she can outwit at chess; her mother complains about her not being married; she's blonde, blue eyed and pretty and basically has educated herself via her brother's encyclopedia and reading voraciously (thus references to Maisie Dobbs—trust me, this is no Maisie Dobbs-type novel), and in the previous book she solved something called the Goodrich mystery and now all of New York knows who she is. But it's been quite some time since the Goodrich case and she's relieved when a woman named Emily Worsham appears asking her to find out if her deceased uncle might have been murdered.

In a trice, Mary is catapulted into a mystery involving—although she doesn't know it at first—the real-life fight between New York and Brooklyn (Brooklyn wishes to remain its own city; New York wishes to annex it) which includes (of course) dirty politicians, a few New York millionaires (Levy involves just about every famous name in his story: the Vanderbilts, the Carnegies, the Rockefellers, Leland Stanford, etc.), an elderly lady who talks with her cats, a flipped-out method actress and her adoring friend, a supposedly dead husband, an OCD lawyer—and, if all these characters were too tame for you, a character who seems to come from another book entirely, one of those Law & Order: SVU creepy people by way of a noir mystery, a hired killer who gets sexually aroused by murder and fire. (And yes, it's described in detail. Ew.)

Our Mary forges on, especially when she discovers the coffin of the "dead uncle" is filled with rocks. She follows clue after clue, fends attackers off with ju jitsu which she learned from a Chinese instructor (and then later in the book it's revealed she also knows "the French art of kickboxing known as savatte), is so plucky that most people have no problem with the fact that it's 1890—a time where a woman can't walk down the street unescorted without being looked at askance—and she's a "lady detective," and is so brave and forthright that George Vanderbilt falls madly in love with her and at one point is willing to give up building his dream home, Biltmore House, for her. Or that in another chapter Mary is shot in the back and the bullet hits nothing vital and the blood transfusion she gets from George works even though doctors back then didn't know about blood typing and there's a 50 percent chance she might have died. (Incidentally the guy who shot her runs away into the woods and gets killed by a bear...honest.)

Let's not leave out the fact that Levy peppers his text with myriad little facts about the era or quotes from writers as if he couldn't bear to leave any of his research behind (in one chapter, Mary and George go to Richmond, Virginia, where Mary brightly observes that Richmond has electric trolleys, the first ones in the United States, and Manhattan is so behind the times). Or that no matter how much research he did, modern verbiage pops up to kick you out of the story (like the gay character who refers to himself as gay when that wouldn't be a term until 80 years later).

I'd give this book two stars, one because Mary was kind of a neat character who needed a much different author (Carolyn Keene would have done, since I kept thinking of Nancy Drew), and the other star for the laughs it provided to my husband and I when I discussed it with him.

book icon  A Newbery Halloween, edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Charles G. Waugh
There are a dozen more-or-less scary (for children) stories in this neat volume that followed A Newbery Christmas. It includes a Madeleine L'Engle short story I had heard about but never read, "Poor Little Saturday," in which she drew on her Southern roots and ghost tales from her relatives to produce a story about a haunted house. Some of the stories are more nostalgic than scary (even if there is a little frisson of danger when Ramona Quimby puts on her "baddest bad witch" mask), like ""The Baddest Witch in the World" and the Halloween chapter from Eleanor Estes' The Moffats. There are creepy stories the don't even involve Halloween, just mysterious spirits, taking place in China, Japan, and Genoa, Italy. Elizabeth meets the fey Jennifer on Halloween night in Konigsburg's "A Halloween to Remember, and Virginia Hamilton recalls an African-American family's tense Halloween in "The Year Halloween Happened One Day Early." The creepiest story in the collection is "The Witch's Eye," in which two girls attempt to get rid of the titular object.

Another great Newbery collection with just the right mix of treats and tricks!

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