01 January 2019

Favorite Books of 2018

Once again it's a baker's dozen, and I've cheated a little by putting two similar books by the same author as one listing. C'mon, it's Alistair Cooke...

book icon  Christmas: A Biography, Judith Flanders
The history of Christmas by British historian Flanders.

book icon  Red, White, and Who: The Story of Doctor Who in America, Steven Warren Hill, Jennifer Adams Kelley, Nicholas Seidler, and Robert Warnock, with Janine Fennick and John Lavalie
Hefty trade paperback with everything you ever wanted to know about Who broadcasts, fandom, etc. in the U.S. If you've been a Who fan since way back when, this is the book for you.

book icon  Becoming Madeleine, Charlotte Jones Volkis and Léna Roy
Madeleine L'Engle's granddaughters present a children's version of her biography, with rare photos and facsimiles of Madeleine's art and diaries. ::swooon::

book icon  To Die But Once, Jacqueline Winspear
The latest (so far) Maisie Dobbs mystery novel, now set in the years before World War II.

book icon  One Man's America, Alistair Cooke & Talk About America, Alistair Cooke
Published, printed essays from Cooke's regular BBC radio series "Letter from America," which ran from the 1940s until his death.

book icon  Space Helmet for a Cow 2: The Mad, True Story of Doctor Who, Paul Kirkley
Sequel to Space Helmet for a Cow (surprise!), but this time from the new series. More snark, more fun.

book icon  The Whole Art of Detection, Lyndsay Faye
Incredibly good volume of Sherlock Holmes pastiches by Faye. She has the voices down pat.

book icon  The Book, Keith Houston
A book about...books (by the same guy who gave you the book about punctuation).

book icon  America and the Great War, Margaret E. Wagner
Text and photos/posters/advertisements/propaganda in one seductive volume.

book icon  The World of All Souls, Deborah Harkness, Claire Baldwin, Lisa Halttunen, and Jill Hough, with illustrations by Colleen Madden
For fans of Diana Bishop and Matthew Clermont, a book about their universe, including historical research used for sources, plus chapters that were edited from the trilogy, accompanied by wonderful ink illustrations.

book icon  The Prisoner in the Castle: A Maggie Hope Mystery, Susan Elia MacNeal
American-raised cryptographer turned British spy, Maggie knows too much, and is confined to an island with others in similar straits—until it all goes Agatha Christie.

book icon  On Trails, Robert Moor
Super nature text about trails and how they are formed, while Moor walks some of the most famous trails in the world.

book icon  The Morville Hours, Katherine Swift
Beautifully written chronicle, based on a medieval book of hours, of Swift's restoration of an estate's gardens.

With an honorable mention to Mary Mason Campbell's The New England Butt'ry Shelf Almanac. I loved Campbell's essays in this book and wish there were a book of more of them.

31 December 2018

Books Completed Since December 1

book icon  Re-Read: Christmas After All, Kathryn Lasky

book icon  Re-read: Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol: The Making of the First Animated Christmas Special, Darrell Van Citters

book icon  Re-read: Christmas in America, Penne Restad
book icon  Re-read: The Battle for Christmas, Stephen Nissenbaum

book icon  Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Wonder of Christmas, edited by Amy Newmark

book icon  The Christmas Book, Francis X. Weiser

book icon  The Ghost of Christmas Past, Rhys Bowen

book icon  Top Elf, Caleb Zane Huett

book icon  Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors, adapted by Frances Frost

book icon  Re-read: Sleigh Bells for Windy Foot, Frances Frost

book icon  Re-read: The Victorian Christmas Book, Antony and Peter Miall

book icon  Santa Claus: A Biography, Gerry Bowler

book icon  Christmas Ideals 2018, from Worthy Publications

book icon  Christmas in Greece, from World Book

book icon  Christmas in Finland, from World Book

book icon  Merry Christmas!, Karal Ann Marling

book icon  The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street, Karina Yan Glaser
In the tradition of The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright and the Penderwick books by Jeanne Birdsall is this tale of a family living in Harlem. There are scientific Jessie and her musician sister Isa, twelve; nine-year-old Oliver, bookworm and basketball fanatic; Hyacinth, age six, who loves yarn and fabric, and four (and three quarters) Laney, who loves to hug and adores her bunny Paganini (there's also a basset, Franz, and the cat, George Washington), plus their mom, a baker, and their dad, a computer expert who also operates as the super for the brownstone they live in at 141st Street. Right before Christmas, their crabby landlord, Mr. Beiderman, says he won't renew their lease at the end of the month and they have to move immediately. The kids love their neighborhood and their home and don't want to move, and work up some plots to warm up "the Beiderman" so they won't be evicted, while their parents scramble to pack and find a new place to live. Plus they're getting ready for Christmas and things are afoot among their close-knit neighbors.

While set at Christmas, this isn't particularly a Christmas book as it is the both funny and at times sad story of a lively family of imaginative kids, their friends and neighbors, and their earnest but sometimes offbeat efforts to get the landlord to like them (which, of course, go all wrong). Sometimes the story seems a bit old-fashioned (the kids call their parents "Mama" and "Papa") and some reviewers have expressed disbelief that they are so friendly with everyone in their neighborhood (I assure you, this type of thing did used to exist and no reason exists why it still shouldn't take place), but altogether it's full of fun and warmth.

book icon  Re-read: The Cottage Holiday, Jo Mendel

30 November 2018

Books Completed Since November 1

book icon  Victoria & Albert: A Royal Love Affair, Daisy Goodwin and Sara Sheridan
This is the second companion volume to the BBC Victoria series, focusing on series two. As in the first volume, it traces what happens in the episodes and explains the actual history being portrayed. It also talks about what in the teleplays has been changed to create more drama or to better illustrate an event. (For instance, in the episode about the Irish famine, Dr. Traill, the Protestant minister who tried to help the starving tenant farmers, did not visit the queen.) While the book is filled with lovely color photos from the series and many behind-the-scenes glimpses are given, from children on the set to how the food scenes are portrayed to what the sets are really built of, the best bits are the inserts which talk about the historical backgrounds: they explain who the Chartists were and why they were rebelling, talk about the sociological issues of the time (child labor, poverty, the Corn Laws, sexual license, and more), explain what the Victorians ate, how they dressed, how they addressed pregnancy and motherhood, sexual inequality, and compare Victoria and Albert to a more modern "power couple," their great-grandchildren Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip. Daisy Goodwin also talks happily about how her research led her to discover unknown facts about the royal couple: the scene in the Christmas special where Victoria saves Albert when he falls through the ice was not made up for dramatic effect: it actually happened. Also, apparently the queen loved her food and ate very fast; she could eat seven or eight courses in half an hour, and she didn't keep her nails clean! You won't see that on TV!

I confess, I waited until this went on remainder: $30 is just too much. $8 was much better for a series overview and history lesson.

book icon  The Vanishing Man, Charles Finch
I began reading the Charles Lenox series with the first book, A Beautiful Blue Death, and have pretty much enjoyed the series even when a few things niggled at me (with all the money Charles had, couldn't he get a decent set of boots?). As the series has proceeded, I've enjoyed the development of Lenox's detective agency and his family life, but have been slightly wistful for the days when he investigated crime with the help of his former scout Graham and the advice of his best friend Lady Jane. Happily, Finch has delivered in the second of what I understand are three prequel novels featuring Lenox.

In 1853, Lenox is summoned to the home of the Duke of Dorset, ostensibly to locate a stolen portrait of one of the Duke's ancestors. But as Lenox continues to investigate the crime, he realizes there's much more to the Duke's request. The case will eventually involve William Shakespeare and a hidden facet of the Catholic persecution in past centuries. And as he puzzles over the Duke's mystery, he also tries to help a man who claims he is falsely being held in "Bedlam," London's insane asylum.

I really enjoyed this flashback to the "old days," the mystery is convoluted and takes several twists, and Finch also introduces a fascinating character, Thaddeus Bonden, a gentleman who is known for his ability to find anything. A delightful addition to the story is Lenox's twelve-year-old cousin Lancelot, who is turning his household upside down with his pranks, and who has a great scene where he confronts the Duke of Dorset. (I haven't read the first prequel novel, so Bonden may have been introduced there.) I'm looking forward now to reading the first book and also to the release of the third.

book icon  One-Night Stands with American History: Odd, Amusing, and Little Known Incidents, Richard Shenkman and Kurt Reiger
Not sure why, but I didn't enjoy this as much as Shenkman's other two books, Legends, Lies & Cherished Myths of American History and I Love Paul Revere, Whether He Rode or Not, perhaps because it seems a jumble of less interesting facts, the first two books having used up all the "juicy" stuff. However, there are still fascinating tidbits within, so perhaps my problem was reading it as a whole book rather than putting it in the bathroom and reading it a bit at the time. (Or it could be that I've read so many American history texts since I read the first two books that a lot of the material was already known to me.) For instance, the Puritans outlawed church weddings. They saw marriage as a strictly secular matter that "belong[s] to the realm of government." Or that, while Sally Hemings was not much chronicled by scholars until the mid 1970s, rude verses about her status as Thomas Jefferson's mistress were bandied about by his contemporaries (rude verses included).

I found the last chapter, mostly about the 60s, kinda dull, but then I lived it once and didn't really care to rehash it.

book icon  Murder Between the Lines, Radha Vatsal
This is the second book in the Capability "Kitty" Weeks series, and it remains as intriguing as Vatsal's first entry. Kitty, reporter for the Ladies' Page on the New York Sentinel, is sent to visit a girls' school famous for the scholarship of its graduates in an era when girls were usually trained to be ornamental. She is intrigued by Elspeth Bright, a budding scientist, who is working on genuine scientific projects at the school. But right after Kitty speaks with Elspeth, the girl is found frozen to death in the snow after a bout of sleepwalking. Kitty is unhappy with this verdict and as she digs deeper, finds much more going on.

Interspersed with the mystery plot is Kitty's interview with wealthy Alva Belmont, once married to one of the Vanderbilts, who is an ardent suffragist, and the fate of one of the other girls from the school, Georgina Howell, who is fascinated with Kitty's profession and ready to escape the stultifying atmosphere of the school. Vatsal deftly mixes Kitty's investigations (plus a personal matter involving her father) with the suffrage movement and Woodrow Wilson's involvement with it, and also the advances in militarization as (what we know and Kitty doesn't) the Great War approaches. Progress even comes to the Ladies' Page by the end of the book.

One of the reasons I love this series is that in most other historicals that I've read, the woman protagonist is often just a 21st century woman dressed up in 19th or early 20th century clothes. She's for suffrage, she talks back to authorities, she believes in modern ideas. Kitty still hasn't turned twenty in an era where it was thought women's health suffered if she studied or read too much. When a doctor tells her this, she actually believes it for a few days until both another doctor's input and her own common sense tell her it's not true. She's not sure if women should vote. When sometime terrible is about to happen, she doesn't suddenly make like a superhero and fix it herself. She more truly embodies the young woman of the "'teens" who's embracing the ideas of what women can actually do.

book icon  Peter Pan and Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, J.M. Barrie
Sometimes I can pick up a children's book now as an adult and get as much enjoyment out of it as I would have as a child. This happened with Sawyer's Roller Skates and Grahame's Wind in the Willows. So I decided that I should make up for having never read Barrie's Peter Pan, and bought this edition, which also contains the chapters on Peter from Barrie's novel The Little White Bird.

I guess I came to this too late. Barrie seems to have inserted a lot of sly jokes for adults in the story, as in the opening chapter where he chronicles how Mr. and Mrs. Darling met, and the absurdity of having a Newfoundland dog as a nurse (because the children drink so much milk and they don't have the money), but that still didn't help. Peter is a petulant brat—I much prefer the lost boys, who are at least nice to Wendy—and, although I can usually get around racist attitudes in old books by reminding myself this was another time and managed to get through the references to "redskins," but when the Indians "prostrate" themselves before Peter, and Tiger Lily talks in what is stereotypical Chinese dialog ("Peter Pan save me, me his velly nice friend"), it was a bit much. Wendy gets to do nothing but tell stories and mend the lost boys' clothing, and there are bits of narrative that are more misogynist than any of the series books that I've read.

The Kensington Gardens portion is a bit of whimsy about how Peter Pan came to live in that famous London park as a baby whose "mother shut the window against him" and wouldn't allow him to come home, replacing him with another baby. This will strike you as some cruel abandonment until you realize (and what Peter doesn't) that Peter is actually a baby who died. As he becomes a fixture in the park, he helps a little girl named Maimie.

Sorry to be a killjoy, but I was not enchanted by this, and would not buy it for a child.

book icon  America and World War I: A Traveler's Guide Mark D. Van Ells
It took me ages to read this book, not because it's shallow, but because it's so dense. This is not your average travel "tour book" with notes of historic sites and then good restaurants and hotels. It is basically a history of the United States' participation in the first World War as illustrated by landmarks and tributes left behind, both in the United States and in Europe. Van Ells covers everything: the outbreak of the war, the primary general of the war (Pershing, including his excursions against Pancho Villa before we joined the fight), training camps, the trenches, the battles, the small French and Belgian towns, digressions to cover the battles at sea, the new war in the air, and the treatment of people of color who fought, and finally of the last battles and the Armistice.

Photographs, cartoons, drawings, battle maps, tables, and other printed media are used to enhance the details of this incredibly detailed book that includes visits to memorials, battle sites and other significant places, museums, statues to the famous and to the now unknown, and to cemeteries still tenderly cared for. A bibliography and a list of the sites close the volume.

Don't expect a brief description of each site. This really is more of a history book than a travel book, but if you're looking for a WWI history that leads you to historical sites, you'll be pleased with this.

book icon  Posh and Prejudice, Grace Dent
Oh, my gosh, how did it take me eight years to read the next Shiraz Bailey Wood book? Shiraz is just your average "chav" (a British insult word for what we might call "trailer trash"; she lives with her working class family in Essex, wears lots of makeup and bling and also hoodies, and the family has the stereotypical chav Staffy—Staffordshire terrier; think "pit bull"—as a pet. She's always looked forward to quitting school at sixteen and getting a job, but in the first book in the series, her English teacher has inspired her to continue with her education if she passes her exams. She and her best friend do pass the exams, and are off to the Sixth Form, where she is quite happily studying Latin and classic novels and Shakespeare—but she's also still mad about her working class boyfriend, until a sarcastic but well-to-do rich boy in her class starts showing an interest in her. Now she's conflicted: does she stay with the boy she's always had a crush on, or the new guy who makes her heart go pitter-pat, but is so far above her station? And as much as she loves studying, she's still not longing to be university—she's tired of being tied down.

Amusing, sometimes dead funny, and occasionally poignant, Dent shows us a girl on the cusp of maturity, unsure of her future, but knowing there's something more out there. By the way, ignore the awful American covers; Shiraz, despite her craving for bling, is much more than the image shown. In the vein of Adrian Mole, but she doesn't whinge anywhere near as much.

book icon  Legacies: Collecting America's History at the Smithsonian, Steven Lubar and Kathleen M. Kendrick
You find the most intriguing things at book sales. Take this book: it was a dollar, a big coffee table book about the Smithsonian. But not just the run-of-the-mill book where galleries are shown, or artifacts, or perhaps a history is told using those artifacts. This volume is different: it's about how the Museum of American History (once the Museum of History and Technology) has changed over the years, how the collection of artifacts has changed, and how they have been differently interpreted.

For instance, did you know the Smithsonian was originally founded only to hold items of scientific import? So some of the best loved items in the museum, like the Fort McHenry flag we refer to as "the star-spangled banner" and painted portraits of the famous were not considered acceptable in the original museum. They were held here and there until it was determined that the Smithsonian would not have just one focus and more than scientific instruments would be accepted. At first the historical artifacts had to come from noted, often wealthy Americans and usually concerned the founding of the U.S.: George Washington relics including silver tea services, bullets from the Revolutionary War, uniforms and weapons of officers. Later items began to then be accepted, but still from the noted. It was only in the 20th century that the notion of displaying artifacts that came from "just folks" and had to do with ordinary life or culture (like Julia Child's kitchen or Archie Bunker's chair or a teenage girl's jeans) might tell a very different story about our culture. At first only the First Ladies' dresses and other clothing were displayed; modern displays also touch on what that First Lady did with her time and her title. Displays are also constantly being reinterpreted: a suit of buckskin worn by a Native American and common clothing of a pioneer might have been displayed in the old days as a curiosity about a conquered people and how frightening settlers found the "savages," next to the attire of the area's "real" heroes. A modern display will discuss the displacement of Native Americans and their mistreatment by some of the pioneers during the days of Manifest Destiny.

It's a really fascinating look into how museums develop displays and how changing attitudes changes the historical interpretations and therefore the displays. Contains large color photographs of items in the Museum of American History, from Washington's silver to that pair of jeans.

book icon  Tails, You Lose, Carol J. Perry
In this second of the "Witch City" mysteries, Lee Barrett is rebounding after a house fire which destroyed the top story of the house in Salem, Massachusetts, where she is living with her Aunt Ibby. Having lost her job at WICH-TV, Lee will start anew after Christmas as an instructor at "the Tabby," the Tabitha Trumbull Academy of the Arts, located in the old Trumbull Department Store, which is reputed to be haunted. Christmas is hardly over when Lee learns from her boyfriend Pete Mondello, police detective, that the handyman at the Tabby has disappeared; he went down to the basement and vanished.

Lee and her students get thoroughly involved in both the mystery and their class in television broadcasting, and of course her latent clairvoyant tendencies pop up to guide and confuse her. When someone in the story mentioned bootlegging, part of the plot clicked into place for me—that's not a spoiler, but pretty evident if you remember your history lessons from school. Otherwise Perry weaves an interesting puzzle around her main characters and supporting actors.

These books aren't great literature, but they are fun, and I enjoy them.

book icon  Thanksgiving: The True Story, Penny Colman

book icon  Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, Robert M. Grippo and Christopher Hoskins

book icon  Re-read: Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday, James W. Baker
James W. Baker has written the very readable Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday. This works very well as a companion piece to Diana Appelbaum's Thanksgiving, but is an easier read without being simplistic. It also touches more on things like images, writings, and films about Thanksgiving, changes in menus in the intervening years, and parades and football games. The one thing that this book makes very clear is that the "iconic" Thanksgiving imagery of Pilgrims and Indians only became emphasized at the very end of the 19th century and during the early decades of the 20th, back when the United States became flooded with non-English speaking immigrants whom the schools wished to impress upon some idea of the country's heritage. Previous to that it was just a New England holiday which spread as New England residents moved westward, and involved reunions with family and friends. Even stories about Thanksgiving mostly emphasized reunions between estranged or long-parted relatives; Pilgrims and Indians were not mentioned.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to read more about the history of the Thanksgiving holiday and its changing face over four centuries. 

book icon  The New England Butt'ry Shelf Almanac, Mary Mason Campbell
I found this on Archive.org and became enchanted with the Tasha Tudor drawings, so wanted a "real book" of my own. It is divided into the same sections for each month: a section opening page drawn by Tudor, a one-page list for your birthdays and anniversaries, the flower of the month, the bird of the month, an essay for the month finishing with recipes, and finally an essay on a New England personage ("Snowflake" Bentley, Emily Dickinson, Gilbert Stuart, Sarah Josepha Hale, etc.), with a smattering of color Tudor illustrations inside.

Where has Campbell been hiding? As far as I know, this, The New England Butt-ry Shelf Cookbook, and Betty Crocker's Kitchen Gardens are her only three books. The portraits of the New Englanders are interesting, but I love the essays—she sounds a lot like Gladys Taber and I could have read much more about her country home, following old customs like May baskets, etc. Heck, even her cooking chatter was great to read. No more exists; what a pity!

31 October 2018

Books Completed Since October 1

book icon  The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes, Leonard Goldberg
I am on the fence about this book. First, it's always neat to see what is a new take on the world after Sherlock Holmes. In this novel, Watson is an elderly retiree, and his son, another John, is also a doctor. In the spring of 1914, a woman turns up at Watson's old digs at 221B Baker Street, looking for justice for her brother. It is said he committed suicide by leaping out a window. However, a woman and her young son were there when the man fell, the boy witnessed the event, and they are convinced it was not suicide. When Watson Sr. discovers that the woman witness was named Joanna Blalock, he becomes excited. Truly, the game is afoot, because based on young Johnnie Blalock's testimony, it could not have been suicide. Not only that, but the man who supposedly "committed suicide" leaped out of the window of the house of Christopher Moran, a noted gambler, and son of the notorious Sebastian Moran.

I think I like the idea of this book better than the execution. I haven't yet figured out why Goldberg has named his protagonist the same name as the protagonist of a contemporary series he wrote some years ago. Why is it said Sherlock Holmes died in 1903 when we know from the stories in "His Last Bow" that he was alive at least up until 1914 (with his line about the deadly wind from the east)? How did a photograph of a 10-year-old Sherlock Holmes get in a monograph? (There was photography in Sherlock's lifetime, but who might have taken such a thing, and how would it end up in a monograph and why?) And I'm really iffy about just how Joanna was actually conceived. The story makes it sound like she came to pass after a private love-in.

The story and the personalities are reasonably okay, and the growing attraction between Joanna and John Jr. very low key. They actually solve the mystery well before the novel ends and use the remaining time to spring a trap for the culprit. All in all, it was okay (much better than the Sherry Thomas books!), but not at all one of the best pastiches ever. (Scroll down to Robert Ryan's book for a better suggestion.)

book icon  Re-read: From Holmes to Sherlock, Mattias Boström
Upon finishing this, all I can say is "wow."

I read this originally as an e-book, which was very badly formatted, so I was happy to find a remaindered copy recently. It was just as impressive as I remembered.

If you think this is your run-of-the-mill "how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes" yarn,  you'll be in for a surprise: while the beginning of the book does follow that formula, the rest of the story follows how Holmes became a literary phenomenon even after Doyle's death, and the people who kept him alive: a boy named Kit who devours all the stories and grows up to be Christopher Morley; Doyle's sons Adrian and Denis, who hope to make a living off Holmes while keeping their father's memory alive (neither of them come off particularly well in this book—Adrian is money grubbing and Denis an alcoholic and spendthrift, with a Russian wife who's just as bad) while the boys' half-sister, daughter of Conan Doyle's first wife Louisa is pushed to the background; the Baker Street Irregulars and their anti-female attitude,;actors like the noted William Gillette (whose silent film Sherlock Holmes was rediscovered and restored just recently; it was Gillette who originated some of the symbols that we know Holmes by, such as the calabash pipe), Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, Peter Cushing, Arthur Wontner, even the 1980s Russian Holmes (which became famous due to videotapes recorded in the 1980s before the Berlin Wall fell); women like Edith Meiser, writer for the classic American Holmes radio series, just one of Holmes' female fans who fought to break into the "old boys club" that originally was Holmes fandom; collectors and enthusiasts such as John Bennett Shaw and Vincent Starrett; and even Eve Titus, who wrote the "Basil of Baker Street" pastiches for children, finally ending with Robert Downey Jr, Jeremy Brett, all the way down to Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat plotting out a modern-day Sherlock on a train. (The author misses almost nothing, even to noting the portrayal of Holmes by "Wishbone," only forgetting the animated Sherlock Holmes in the 23rd Century.) And all the time the rights to the stories and the estate bounce from one member of the Doyle family to the next.

There are lots of interesting tidbits tossed your way in this book, but you must be a Holmes fan to completely appreciate it. Boström has done an enormous amount of research and it shows, but the writing (or perhaps the translation) is at times almost too cut-and-dried. Rewards abound if you stick with it.

book icon  A Study in Murder: A Dr. Watson Thriller, Robert Ryan
In this third of Robert Ryan's World War I-set novels of John Watson serving as an Army doctor, the story picks up where it left off. Watson, who was captured by the Germans while driving a prototype tank, is at first assigned to a reasonably comfortable prisoner-of-war camp. But involvement in an escape attempt and the machinations of an old foe have sixty-year-old Watson shipped off to Harzgrund, the worst German camp of all. Upon arrival, Watson finds his possessions stolen, the prisoners set against him, and no cooperation among the troops, only a raw fight for survival, since the mercenary commander makes the prisoners pay for any "privileges" like Red Cross packages. However, he also finds out that prisoners believe there's a means of escape. The truth will be more gruesome than he realizes, as is the reason he's been transferred to Harzgrund.

I don't know what superlatives I can attach to these books that I haven't used before. The plots are tense and complicated, and Watson is competent in working out what's going on once presented with the clues. But most importantly, they bring the real horror of "the Great War" to life. Harzgrund, the terrible POW camp portrayed in this book, was based on a real POW camp where the commander made the prisoners pay for what should have been theirs by rights, like those Red Cross packages. The portrayal of escape attempts and escape methods are based on real events. Some of the revelations will give you chills of horror. It's only in the climax to this book that the plot gets a tad fanciful, as Mrs. Gregson seems to be able to manage to do impossible things. But...recommended, recommended, recommended!

book icon  The Annotated Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett, edited by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina
When I had finished up the annotated version of Charlotte's Web, I recalled I still had this lavishly illustrated annotated volume in the spare bedroom. In that Charlotte's Web review, I noted that editors chose to emphasize different things in their annotations: "Some annotated books use their annotations to point out unfamiliar terms, or expand on the history behind events in a story, or to point out the morals and mores of the time. [The author of this annotated volume] uses them most to point out White's careful choice of words, his edits of the text, and (forgive the pun) how he spun his web of words to create his classic novel." Gerzina uses her annotations chiefly to emphasize the secret garden's rediscovery and rebirth to symbolize Mary's and Colin's reformation from spoiled, selfish, brooding children to purposeful young adults who greet the future with anticipation.

This wonderful edition is illustrated with almost all the famous illustrations from different editions of The Secret Garden since its publication, including Ernest Shepherd and of course the iconic art of Tasha Tudor, plus photographs from media products of the book (the 1949 Margaret O'Brien film, the television version with Kate Maberly, etc.). The book also contains a short biography of Burnett and her successes and setbacks, a timeline of her life, and an essay she wrote called "My Robin" about the bird she adopted at her home in England. A must for any Secret Garden fan.

book icon  Journal of a Solitude, May Sarton
Ms. Sarton's books, especially this one, were recommended on another book blog that I read, and this appeared to be one of her most noted ones, so I picked it up when I saw it. I can't say I was disappointed, but it was different from what I was expecting. Sarton, a poet and essayist, chronicled her thoughts about living alone—she found she could not concentrate on her poetry when surrounded by family, friends and day-to-day tumult, so she would stay solitary between book tours in order to concentrate on her art. She talks frankly about her bouts of depression and the positives and negatives of a solitary life. However, I think I was expecting something more like the Stillmeadow books. (It seems I spend a lot of time searching for someone else who "sounds like Gladys Taber.")

Still, this is a nice quiet introspective book, perfect for a relaxing day's read with a favorite beverage and a cat in the lap, perhaps cuddled in a favorite afghan.

book icon  Howards End is on the Landing, Susan Hill
One fall afternoon, while looking for a book she wanted to read in her extensive collection, Susan Hill discovers other books she purchased but hadn't read, or books she'd even forgotten she'd purchased, along with books she realized she wanted to read again. Hill resolves to buy no new books (except for volumes she needs to read in connection with work) until she plows through her to-be-read and begging-to-be re-read piles.

This slim but delightful volume reminds one of her nature volume The Magic Apple Tree, but with books instead of the countryside, allowing her to review her life with books. She wanders happily from her old "Observer" books on trees and airplanes and how good titles entice you into a literary world and the magic of Dorothy Sayers to Shakespeare, Dickens, and poetry to the joy of finding things in used books to the favorites she turns to along with the strange volumes she's found around the house. Even if you are young and American and recognize few of the titles and authors you cannot but help be caught up in her memories and recollections and obvious affection for certain writers and her books. A delight for any bibliophile.

book icon  Caught Dead-Handed, Carol J. Perry
This is the first book in the cozy "Witch City Mystery" series. Lee Bennett, young widow and native of Salem, Massachusetts, has returned home lined up for a job interview with the local cable station WICH. Unfortunately, the position is filled by the time she gets to the interview; while returning angrily to her car, she spies a body lying in the tide line. It's Ariel Constellation, WICH's spooky movie host, who also runs a psychic hotline. In a bind, WICH offers Lee the host position, and she figures any "in" to the station is better than nothing. She even makes some friends at the station: Janice, the program manager, and her brother George, Marty (who, like others at WICH wears lots of hats), and even Scott Palmer, who was the guy who got her job. Soon she'll meet Detective Pete Mondello and a friendly cab driver named Jake, not to mention Ariel's cat Orion—Lee calls him O'Ryan—whom Lee and her Aunt Ibby adopt.

And discovers someone has tried to kill the cat, and then later tries to kidnap him. Like it or not, Lee is drawn into the puzzle of Ariel's dead, and suspects another murder, that of a woman with an abusive husband, is part of the same puzzle.

Okay, about two thirds of the way through the book I realized what was going on, but it didn't matter because I already like Lee, Aunt Ibby, Pete, and Jake, and since I bought the book because it was set in Salem, it was already pretty satisfactory. Lee puzzles her way through the clues intelligently for the most part, and does not do what annoys me most in most cozies: determines that she is going to be the one to solve the mystery due to some misguided idea that it's her responsibility. The other thing that may be a problem for some people is that about halfway through the plot takes a turn which indicates child abuse is involved. The chapter which this is finally explained is pretty strong stuff. There's also sort of an instant romance in the story, which is common for modern cozies, and of course the pair are both gorgeous. So far this one isn't all that annoying.

I confess, I went ahead and bought the rest of the books. No redeeming social value, just sent in New England and enjoyable fluff.

book icon  Make a Nerdy Living, Alex Langley
I'm sorry I bought this book.

This is nothing against Alex Langley. It has a catchy cover and graphics, and the people interviewed in the various careers (comics artist, blogging, podcasting, video game design, etc are all cool and nice, but it was an impulse buy and just so very, very basic for the price and catchy graphics. I would have preferred more content (at least two people interviewed for each profession) and lots more words and fewer graphics. This would be perfect as a $2.99 e-book, but it was an expensive mistake.

book icon  A Knife in the Dark, Bradley Harper
The first few "Jack the Ripper" murders (at that time referred to being performed by a man known as "Leather Apron") electrified London. In Portsmouth, England, struggling physician Arthur Conan Doyle, having written the first Sherlock Holmes story some time earlier, is asked to come to England's capitol by Prime Minister William Gladstone to investigate the killings. As his partner, he will have Dr. Joseph Bell, whose sharp observational style formed the basis for Holmes. He is even offered an unconventional guide, a woman author of good upbringing named Margaret Harkness who nevertheless lives in Whitechapel among the poor. Together Doyle, Bell, and Harkness follow the trail of the Ripper, but he seems to know their every move, and has even sent threatening notes to Doyle.

This is a very good semi-Sherlock Holmes pastiche. Doyle's narrative is descriptive but brisk-paced and very few anachronisms are noted. The "Three Musketeers" partnership he forms with his old teacher and the writer Harkness (Margaret Harkness was an actual writer who exposed the dismal and often fatal lives of the poor in London slums) seems very real, and the narrative follows a realistic pace. Too, Miss Harkness is not a 21st century woman in 19th century dress. My only problem with this book—and perhaps then I should not have chosen it to read—is that I've never been all that interested in the minutia associated with the Ripper murders, despite having attended panels about it at conventions (I confess it's because I liked the writers on the panel). Much of the evidence is detailed as Bell, Doyle, and Harkness investigate the crime. Anyone who holds a fascination with the mystery surrounding the Ripper might enjoy this novel.

book icon  True North: Exploring the Great Wilderness by Bush Plane, George Erickson
So I saw this book: guy flying a Tundra Cub; hey, it might be a good book for James. But it appealed to me, too, and I started on it almost as soon as I got home from the book sale. It's indeed about Erickson's trip across Canada and a bit of Alaska from his home in northern Minnesota and has many flying stories, but I'm not sure James would enjoy it, as it's so much more. It's a history of Canadian exploration (and, sadly, longtime mistreatment of the First Nations people), it's a paean to nature full of quiet lakes, pesky mosquitoes and blackflies, polar bears and black bears, caribou, ravens, beautiful trees, cold, rain, wild swimming; his encounters with the people who live year after year in remote locations; adventures in fishing; and the intrusion of industrialization on formerly natural areas.

Not only that, but Erickson loves one of my favorite books ever, A Natural History of the Senses!

Sometimes the flashbacks aren't as well delineated as they should have been, but in total this is part travelogue, part history book, all wonderful!

book icon  Nine Lessons, Nicola Upson
This is a great installment of Upson's mystery series built around mystery writer Josephine Tey (Elizabeth MacIntosh) that treats her as both a real person (using her actual books and plays) and as a fictional character (to her friends, of course, she was not "Josephine" as she is here). This time Inspector Archie Penrose gets a chance to shine as he investigates the particularly horrific murder of a church organist in Hampstead; the man was evidently buried alive with a photo of a manor house and a cryptic note. As more murders occur, Archie realizes they are all associated with King's Chapel in Cambridge, just coincidentally the city where Josephine and her lover Marta have just taken up residence. But there is no ease for Josephine when Marta goes to the States in conjunction with the release of her movie, as there is a rapist loose in Cambridge attacking young ladies living on their own—indeed, the crime strikes too close to home when one of Josephine's new neighbors, a nurse, is attacked.

And what is Josephine to do with the news that Archie has a long-lost daughter? The girl's mother wants to break it to him in her own time, but can't seem to do it.

Lots of good, solid investigating in this outing for Archie, who learns more about the famous "Monty" (horror writer M.R. James) who was once provost of King's College and who served as mentor for the murdered men. Josephine helps him in his investigation, but it's all solved by good old fashioned detecting and footwork, although she comes up with a solution for another problem.

Incidentally, a clue to the mystery may be found if you are familiar with any mystery short stories by Thomas Burke. (Yes, that's a spoiler.)

book icon  The Years of the Forest, Helen Hoover
Helen Hoover and her husband Ade (Adrian) anticipated the back to nature movement way back in the 1950s, when she quit her job as a metallurgist and he his job as an artist to move to a log cabin/summer house arrangement in Minnesota off the beaten path: no plumbing, no running water, no electricity, no phone. She wrote of their earliest experiences in A Place in the Woods; this volume is a summary of their experiences in the years they lived in Minnesota before moving to the Southwest.

After reading this book, I'm not sure whether I would want to hug Hoover or shake her. Her writing about the forest, the lake, the animals, all of the nature she experiences so beautiful it nearly overwhelms everything else. Her nature narrative rivals some of the best I've read.

However, on a personal level, these are two of the worst "babes in the woods" people I've ever seen. They make no provision for eating (they don't hunt) other than buying groceries in bulk before the delivery truck quits making its rounds for the season, and start a garden and then don't protect it from the animals. At one point they are so low on food that Helen (at least) gets scurvy, but they take what's left of their food and feed the wild animals because the animals are having a tough time during the winter. Except for the articles Helen writes and some notepapers that Ade designs, they've got no way of making a living, plus at the beginning of their stay, they did nothing to dissuade their neighbors (except for one Native family) from thinking they're kooks, so no one ever asks after them except for two people. When strangers claim a shipment of their food, they end up still having to pay the bill for it because the local grocer knows them so little that they can't prove they weren't the ones who picked it up. They crashed their car and have no way to get into town when Helen gets a fever. Finally after a few years they start to talk to their neighbors and are so surprised at how generous they are! They take pride in living as naturally as they can so not to spoil the woods (a constant theme is the progress bringing hunters and campers to their woods), but all their food comes in cans! They've got to be throwing those cans somewhere, having no way to portage them out, so they've still despoiled the woods! And it's very sweet that they feed the deer, including Peter, the deer Helen wrote a book about, and the groundhog, and the rabbits, but by doing so they allow the animals to rely on them and also lead hunters right to the deer!

Gorgeous prose, and Adrian's pen-and-ink drawings are stunning, but their lifestyle choices left a lot to be desired.

book icon  The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel, Alyssa Palombo
I should have read up on this book before I bought it. Having watched the series Sleepy Hollow, I thought this might have been yet another reworking of the Washington Irving story which has Katrina as a witch and bought it as something to read for Hallowe'en. Sadly, it wasn't to be. As in the Irving story, Katrina is the gorgeous young daughter of the community's richest man, who's being courted by the muscly Brom Van Brunt ("Brom Bones"), when schoolteacher Ichabod Crane comes to town. However, in this version Katrina is well-read and well-educated (Brom still comes off as Gaston from Disney's Beauty and the Beast) and the moment she and (slightly jug-eared but) handsome Crane with his green eyes lock glances they are in love. Soon she offers him her virginity and they tryst in the wood and once at her friend Charlotte's house while trying to keep their relationship a secret (though Katrinia's ex-slave nursemaid knows pretty much immediately, unlike her clueless parents). Charlotte is known to have witchlike powers and reads the tarot cards for her, and it shows the relationship will end in disaster, and yes, Katrina still persists. So what happens on Hallowe'en when penniless Ichabod plans to ask for Katrina's hand in marriage (and he has to do it soon, because Katrina forgot to take the pregnancy prevention tea Charlotte brewed up for her)? Yeah, you can guess.

So basically this is historical chick-lit with a couple of torrid sex scenes in a romantic wooded glade and Charlotte's visions tossed in for good measure. Katrina also has nightmares that turn out to be precongnition, but so symbolic that she can't understand it till the grim end. There is no spellbook, just a diary in which she records her dreams. I have to admit that at times the narrative is very good at setting a scene, but most of the narrative is Katrina twittering or worrying over Ichabod. Frankly, I would have preferred a book about Charlotte and her mother, who are herbalists and midwives. If you want a romantic version of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," this is the book for you; otherwise steer clear.

Oh, yeah, I liked Katrina's dog, but unlike Lassie, even he can't save the story.

book icon  Halloween: An American Holiday, an American History, Lesley Pratt Bannatyne

book icon  Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, Nicholas Rogers

book icon  The Halloween Encyclopedia, Lisa Morton