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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 August 2017

Books Completed Since August 1

book icon  Fool's Gold, Caro Peacock
I'll admit I was puzzled at the opening to this book: Liberty Lane has married her sweetheart Robert Carmichael and they are honeymooning in Cephalonia in Greece. They see an impossibly handsome young man diving into the ocean and later meet him, discovering the graceful youth, Georgios, is blind—and very possibly the illegitimate son of Lord Byron. It almost read like a Tasha Alexander book.

It is only when the couple are back in London and Robert is summoned on a delicate mission on the Continent that Liberty finds herself helping the young man again. Adopted by an impetuous man named Matthew Vickery and now known as George, he is being fitted for a university education and a gentleman's life, but Vickery lives in fear that someone is planning to kidnap him because they think he knows where Lord Byron's "lost treasure" is. His fears come true when a woman shows up claiming to be George's mother. Soon Liberty and her friends Amos Legge, the groom who cares for Liberty's horse Rancie, and Tabby, the street girl who assists her in her private inquiries are deeply involved, even traveling to Vickery's new country estate to keep George safe.

Once Robert leaves, this becomes a suspenseful mystery where the ever-shifting clues make Liberty—and the reader—wonder who she can trust; even the sweet-tempered but troubled George comes under suspicion, and red herrings abound. The Victorian setting is well described without the author feeling she has to do an information dump every so often. A big plus is that the mystery isn't solved immediately as in some historicals, with the solution coming in a day or two. Weeks go by with no answers, as in a real investigation. Liberty herself makes several missteps, showing that while she is dogged and discerning, she is not infallible. Tabby, as always, is a delight, and one could only dream of having a friend as good as Legge. One suspect, however, is pretty obvious, and you wonder when the character will show up again. However, I didn't see the twist coming until almost the end. This seemed back in form compared to the previous book Friends in High Places, which I found a bit tepid.

book icon  Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse, Eric Jay Dolen
I've been waiting for this one to come out in paperback since I first saw the hardback; believe me, it was difficult to resist. Dolen begins at the beginning with a general history of lighthouses, then concentrates on the first lighthouses built on American shores and the primitive reflective whale oil lamps they used initially which were inadequate. In this area, Europe was ahead of American with the Fresnel lens—Dolen explains clearly what makes these unique lenses so effective and suited for lighthouses—and chronicles what was one of the first Federal contractor frauds featuring a superb salesman of a less effective lighting method in collusion with the man who was head of the U.S. bureau of lighthouses.

Dolen also talks about an aspect of lighthouses in American history that I hadn't thought of: how they became targets in wartime. In both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 lighthouses were fought over by the rebellious colonists and the British, and during the Civil War many Southern lighthouses became casualties of Union predations and vice versa.

My favorite chapters were reserved for the stories of the lighthouse keepers and their difficult lives; some of these men slept only two or three hours a night in order to tend their lighthouses properly, spending hours scrubbing soot off lamp chimneys, reflectors, and windows, sometimes in appalling weather conditions. The chapter on heroic lighthouse keepers—including Rhode Island's own Ida Lewis, now remembered in the name of Newport's Yacht Club—who overcame terrible storms to rescue survivors from shipwrecks makes you consider modern-day people wimps.

Well narrated and unforgettable! One of my favorite nonfiction books this year.

book icon  Foxglove Summer, Ben Aaronovitch
Neophyte police officer and wizard-in-training Peter Grant is headed to Herefordshire, to discover if the disappearance of two schoolgirls has any...ahem, "Falcon" associations. He expects a quick trip up and back, hoping the girls have just run off on a lark. Teaming with DS Dominic Croft in the little town of Rushpool, he soon joins the search for the girls when it becomes obvious they aren't just hiding out. And then evidence surfaces that the girls' cell phones were destroyed by magic.

We see more of the magical landscape that is part of Peter's world, this time in the countryside, which is unfamiliar territory for city-raised Peter, and are introduced to Dominic, who plays a part in one of the graphic novels as well, and also Mellissa, the beekeeper's granddaughter. Best of all, Beverley Brook returns.

And if all this wasn't enough, Peter's former partner, now gone rogue, is contacting him via cell phone.

I love all these books, but this one has the additional charm of a fish-out-of-water plotline and an appearance from that very British of supernatural creatures, the Fae, all well mixed with the police procedural storyline. Pity Aaronovitch isn't triplets turning out more of these every year.

book icon  Star Wars FAQ, Mark Clark
I've seen the original trilogy, and the three prequels, and The Force Awakens (but not yet Rogue One), and have the novelizations of the original trilogy, but I can't really say I'm one of those Star Wars fans that has read everything, especially about the original trilogy (except for the "Starlog" articles since I used to subscribe). Mark Clark freely admits there is nothing new in this book, which concentrates on the original trilogy, but that it concatenates magazine articles, book excerpts, and items recently revealed on the Web in one coherent whole. So if you are the Star Wars buff to end all Star Wars buffs, you will find nothing new here. However, if you, like me, want to take a trip back to yesteryear, where a scruffy film student named George Lucas conceived and finally gave birth to a good old fashioned space opera, come on aboard! Clark goes all the way back to the conception of Star Wars being all about a Luke Starkiller (actually even older than that) and takes us on a ride through script changes, casting three relatively unknown actors (then) as the leads, and assembling a creative team to bring the SWUniverse to life. Along the way there's overbudget shoots, leisurely directors, one big honking divorce, and a reception no one ever expected.

I enjoyed it; your mileage may vary.

book icon  The Hanging Tree, Ben Aaronovitch
A teenage girl is found overdosed in a lavish apartment in a building catering to wealthy clients. A sad event in any case, but for Peter Grant, young police constable and wizard-in-training, there's a catch: one of the other people at the party is the daughter of Lady Tyburn, the goddess of the River Tyburn. She saved Peter's life some time ago and now wants him to return the favor by keeping her daughter's name out of the investigation. Further investigation into the young woman's death, however, finds that her brain has been damaged by magic. There's also an obscure magical text on the loose somewhere, a fox in human's clothing, and a lead on the Faceless Man who led Peter's former partner Lesley May to desert the force.

We're back in the city after a country vacation with lots of familiar faces appearing—DC Guleed and DCI Seawoll (neither who are happy that "Falcon" elements are mixed up in their case), Peter's tutor Thomas Nightingale, the enigmatic housekeeper Molly, Peter's lover Beverley Brook, Lady Ty, DCI Stephanopoulos, Lesley May, Dr. Walid, Ryan, Peter's mom—as well as new characters like Reynard Fossman, and a nice meaty complicated plot with lots of storylines going.

The worst of this book? It's the last one except for a novella and the graphic novel Detective Stories coming out in December. Write, Ben, write.

book icon  Salt Sugar Fat, Michael Moss
Let's say I knew all the facts Moss states here (although none of the behind the scenes stuff), but when you see it in print under your nose it has a lot more impact. I knew all the facts because I've been complaining for years how food is becoming more sweetened and salted; the latest atrocity being Classico's no-sugar added Tomato and Basil pasta sauce, which used to be basic tomatoes, tomato paste, water, and salt, which I use for a base for my own sauce (slow cooking with pork), which is now polluted with sugar, and fake-tasting garlic and onions as well.

Moss talks about the development of convenience food, and how the companies have designed food that make you want it, as opposed to designing food that people want. In an effort to produce a "bliss factor" that makes you want to eat more and more of a certain food, not only snack foods, but convenience foods like Hormel dinners and bologna have been stuffed with salt and fat and even sugar. He interviews different people who worked for mega-food conglomerates like Kraft and Coca-Cola (and, surprise!, these people do not eat the food they manufacturer, opting for healthier diets!) and how some of them actually thought they were going to help people eat better and ended up disillusioned. After all, if you eat many of these foods (they mention bread, crackers, soup, meat) without salt, they taste not only bland but in some cases bitter, metallic, or soapy.

In the end, the issue isn't about salt, sugar and fat—it's about too much salt, sugar and fat, and about companies manipulating you into eating the item ("you don't have to feel guilty"). Moss does repeat his information several times, to make sure you get the message. Otherwise, it's an easy read—as well as an uneasy read.

To be honest the most frightening part of this book was on pages 336-337, where he talks about Nestlé marketing liquid foods for people who have had gastric bypass and their envisioning "drug-like foods, or food-like drugs." Made me squirm.

book icon  Murder at Beechwood, Alyssa Maxwell
This may be the first of Maxwell's Gilded Newport mysteries that didn't jar me too much with modernisms.

Emma Cross, a "poor relation" of the Vanderbilts, makes her living as a reporter for a Newport newspaper. She lives with a chaperone and, to the disapproval of many in her set, a former "fallen woman" who is trying to turn her life around. One morning Emma hears a strange noise outside and finds a baby on her doorstep. She immediately suspects that a murder that occurred nearby might have a connection with the baby, so she treads very carefully in her search for the child's mother. Then a tragedy occurs at a house party she is attending as a reporter: wealthy Virgil Monroe drowns during a boat race, and his brother and Derrick Andrews, the publisher's son whose proposal Emma turned down, are both suspect in his death. A clue seems to link Monroe and the infant. What's going on?

The language is much better in this entry, although Maxwell seems to keep Emma's horse going here and there for hours and days with no clue how she keeps him properly groomed and fed in the meantime except for one sequence in the stable. Horses require a lot of work; they aren't like cars. And I had to wince every time I read the name of the two brothers involved in this story: Virgil and Wyatt? Really? Was the author at such a loss for names she had to dump the names of two infamous Western lawmen on her characters? However, the mystery itself was suitably convoluted and I didn't guess the twist until just before the climax. Besides, it's Newport!

book icon  Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Dog Really Did That?, edited by Amy Neumark
Seems I can't resist picking up these volumes; your mileage varies depending on your tolerance for schmaltz and your love of dogs. They're like peanuts for me. Funny stories and sad stories, thoughtful stories and hopeful ones, all abound.

book icon  Death Comes to Kurland Hall, Catherine Lloyd
Lucy Harrington is back at home in Kurland St. Mary helping with her friend Sophia's wedding, still smarting from an awkward and what Lucy thought was patronizing marriage proposal from gruff Major Robert Kurland. While she refuses to act as Kurland's secretary any longer, she can't help encountering him because the wedding will be held on the estate grounds. But Lucy's got bigger problems: the widow Chingsford, a gossiping and calculating but sweet-spoken woman, has endeared herself to Lucy's father the vicar and plans to marry him—and no sooner has that been announced than the widow is found dead at the foot of a staircase. Lucy and Major Kurland soon find out that there's a big long line of people who would have loved to see the gossipy woman dead.

The biggest surprise of all in this book is that Lucy becomes friends with Kurland's ex-fiance as she tries to ferret out who hated Mrs. Chingford enough to kill her. She has also caught the eye of Kurland's estate manager, Thomas Fairfax, who appears to be puzzled when his father's young widow, who previously objected to him, now wishes to visit with him. The duplicitous Mrs. Chingford, however, knows a secret about just about everyone, and a lot of secrets under the quiet village facades start to emerge.

I enjoy this series very much; Lucy is headstrong without being anachronistic, and her adversarial relationship with Robert Kurland is done very well (as is his with her). Quite looking forward to the next one in paperback this fall!

book icon  Holmes for the Holidays, edited by Martin H. Greenberg

book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Old Clipper Ship, Jerry West
You'll have to believe in a whole lot of coincidences to have fun with this happy Hollisters volume where the family rescues a young man after a tree falls on his car. (I was particularly amused by how the author described the man who is not whitebread human like everyone else on the Hollisters' street). He turns out to be Tom King, a young man in search of the records of a clipper ship, coincidentally the same clipper ship the Hollister children's favorite actors are making a movie about. (Does it surprise you with these books that the kids eventually meet the actors and get to participate in the film? I didn't think so.) Soon 12-year-old Pete, 10-year-old Pam, Ricky, Holly, and 4-year-old Sue are helping Tom in his search for the clipper ship that may provide the young man an inheritance. but someone else is trying to find the clipper ship as well, and he's not a nice person. (You know this because even Zip the collie growls at him.)

Sexism finally rears it's ugly 1950s head: Pete and his friend and Ricky get to build and sail a mini-clipper ship out of the rowboat they are making a film with (foreshadowing: the mark of good literature!) and Pam and Holly and Sue only get to sew the sails. However, in a cute sequence that I loved, Ricky and Holly get separated from the rest of the family on a visit to Boston, visit a market, and buy some tea to throw into Boston Harbor! Nice to know in the Hollister universe seven- and six-year-old kids know history when today's teenagers can barely figure out what century George Washington is from! And of course when they are at the harborfront they accidentally stumble over a clue to the clipper ship Tom is looking for.

Seriously, this is fun if you don't mind all the coincidences. Just one thing: what is with Joey Brill's mother? Is she completely clueless or what?

book icon  Nanea: Growing Up With Aloha, Kirby Larson
This is the first book of the newest American Girl, Alice Nanea Mitchell, who lives in Honolulu. Her red-headed father works as a civilian employee on Hickam Field while her native Hawaiian mom is the daughter of businesspeople who Nanea loves to help at their small store. She has an older brother David and an older sister Mary Lou, and her favorite activities are attending hula class taught by her grandmother, an accomplished hula instructor, cuddling with her little dog Mele, and playing with her best friends Lily (of Japanese descent) and Donna (together they are known as the Kittens). Nanea is desperate to show her family she is ready for more grown-up responsibilities, and also win a contest that the newspaper is sponsoring. As part of her dual campaign, early one Sunday morning Nanea wakes early to make breakfast for the family, only to be startled by airplanes flying over and the loud sounds of explosions. Pearl Harbor has been attacked by the Japanese.

I liked Nanea very much. She's very much like Maryellen without the silly streak (you won't catch her painting the front door red!) and I was very much drawn to her warm multicultural family as well as her friendships. The story of what the family experiences after the Pearl Harbor attack seems very true to other things I have read: her father gone for days helping at the airfield, her brother delivering blood to hospitals, her older sister and her friends taking up knitting, and Nanea and her friends recycling bottles and collecting scrap and doing anything they can to help out, and the family's attempt to help when Lily's father is mistakenly arrested as an enemy alien. Mele is also lost after the attack, only increasing Nanea's distress. The only thing they softpedaled a little was Lily's being insulted and her family being harassed after the attack; these things are only talked about, not shown. It might have been a bit grittier to show Nanea witnessing someone calling Lily a "Jap" and telling her to get out of Hawaii, or seeing the family's store egged, but perhaps American Girl didn't want to go that far.

The high water mark of the most recent American Girl series has been Melody, and Nanea doesn't quite make it, but it is still a strong entry and at least we have another non-white girl as a protagonist. AG seems to be overrun with blondes ever since Mattel took over. Again, as in the Melody book, I really missed the history feature that used to be in back of the books. While there is a Hawaiian word glossary, there are no little sidebar drawings to illustrate the Hawaiian and Japanese treats the girls like or the native food.

book icon  Nanea: Hula for the Home Front, Kirby Larson
Nanea is looking forward to getting back to school (her school was damaged in the Pearl Harbor attack) and continuing to help her favorite teacher Miss Smith. But as soon as they set foot in the classroom Nanea is dismayed to see Miss Smith paying so much attention to a new student named Dixie Lopez, who seems unfriendly and who even seems to fall asleep a lot. In fact, Miss Smith gives the coveted job of War Stamp Collection supervisor to Dixie! Even worse, while running errands for the military, her older brother David has become good friends with an Army officer, Lieutenant Gregory. David will be eighteen soon and Nanea is afraid the lieutenant will talk David into enlisting.

In the second volume, Nanea's story starts to sound a bit like Molly's: her mom is working for the Red Cross, her older sister is doing endless knitting projects, and the kids are being organized into doing a hula exhibition to entertain the injured sailors at the nearby military hospital. In fact, Nanea's bond with her little dog Mele results in Mele "dancing" in part of Nanea's hula routine, a big hit with the soldiers, and she discovers that just petting Mele makes the young men feel better (shades of modern "therapy dogs"). While I know she is smarting over the loss of her best friend and worried about David, her selfish attitude toward Dixie at the beginning of the story seems uncharacteristic. Otherwise it's a good tale of how kids pitched in to help the war effort and some of the hardships they faced (Dixie's living conditions) and I'm glad there was no "cop out" with David. However, once again missing the lengthy historical notes that used to be at the end of the American Girl stories. This probably would have addressed the beginnings of therapy animals for military casualties.

book icon  American Eclipse, David Baron
How could I resist this with our totality excursion coming up on August 21? I actually didn't get to read it until after seeing the breathtaking sheer amazement of a total eclipse, so it means that much more. In 1878, another total eclipse cut a swath across the United States from Idaho to Louisiana, and the astronomers of the time packed their equipment to go west to the Rockies: James Craig Watson, determined to discover the planet Vulcan which was said to orbit the sun inside the orbit of Mercury; his once friend and now rival C.H.F. Peters; Maria [pronounced "Mariah"] Mitchell, the brilliant woman astronomer still striving to prove that higher education, even in the sciences, did not ruin a woman's body (per a bestselling nonfiction book of the time); Cleveland Abbe, a nearsighted but persistent observer who means to view the eclipse even after he's stricken with altitude sickness; and even the inventor Thomas Edison, who had invented a gadget called a tasimeter to measure the heat of the corona of the sun.

Baron saw his first total solar eclipse in 1998 and his love for the subject shows through, even when his detail for what's going on with the astronomers (what they ate and how they passed their time—Edison went hunting and poor Mitchell was obliged to track down her telescopes due to railroad rivalries) gets a bit bogged down. He has some wonderfully descriptive language of the eclipse. His text illuminates the science of the time and of the cultural and medical beliefs that held back Mitchell and her fellow astronomy students, and even of the educational deficiencies that led an African-American man to murder his son and then commit suicide as the sun was blotted out, believing it was the end of the world.

I was surprised to note that Edison only began working on the problem of a cheap, long-lasting electric light after his astronomy adventure, so that it was only four years between his first experiments and the first electric Christmas tree lights! The volume also is illustrated profusely with the illustrations of the time taken from newspapers, scientific journals, and magazines, which present novel graphics, which gives us an idea how Americans of the time viewed the event. Astronomy buffs and science fans will especially enjoy.

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