Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World's Superpowers, Simon Winchester
Simon Winchester writes tomes. And I love 'em.
Another nearly pristine book sale discovery is Winchester's follow-on to his wonderful Atlantic. For his examination of the largest and not always "pacific" of the waters, he talks about ten significant historic events in the life of the Pacific since 1950: nuclear bomb testing, the rise of the transistor, the popularization of surfing as a sport, the rise of North Korea, the sinking of the original Queen Elizabeth ocean liner in the port of Hong Kong, the first hints of global warming with the hit of a super typhoon on Darwin, Australia, the Australian break from Great Britain, the discovery of an abyssal heat source by the submersible Alvin, the dying off of coral and bird species, and the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in conjunction with the rise of the Chinese as a sea power, and Winchester sends you skipping through the serious—the societies destroyed by the transfer of the Bikini Islanders and other Micronesian groups to other islands so their remote locations could be used for atom bomb tests, the death of coral on the Great Barrier Reef, the extinction of plants and animals—and the light, like Gidget and surfboards and unusual looking fish.
Post-Atlantic, The Perfectionists, and The Men Who United the States, I haven't been disappointed in a Winchester book yet, and I still have Land, The Professor and the Madman, A Crack at the Edge of the World, and The Map That Changed the World to go.
Revenge in Rubies, A. M. Stuart
Harriet Gordon has settled into her new home in Singapore with her brother Julian, a minister, and Will, the boy, that she helped in the first of the series (Singapore Sapphire), is doing well in school and in living with them. To make extra money she is still typing police reports for Inspector Robert Curran of the Singapore constabulary, and, after a brutal murder, she's asked if she might help comfort members of the victim's family. Unfortunately it only draws her into the drama surrounding the death of Sylvie Nolan, the much-younger wife of a colonel at the Singapore army compound. Not only doesn't the military seem to want Curran to investigate the crime, but one of the men, a Major Goff, openly resents Curran because of something to do with his father's army service—Goff has, indeed, accused Curran's father of cowardice. Given only a short time to investigate the murder, Curran is suddenly hit with a severe attack of malaria, and Harriet is determined to help the family of the victim as well as her friend.
Stuart does another terrific job illustrating the life of English people living in Singapore just as the Edwardian era is ending: the rules of society they must follow, the stifling heat of the tropics, and women's roles in a male-dominated world. Harriet is neither a milqetoast Victorian lady or an out-of-her-century feminist, which is very refreshing for those of us who know history and want an accurate, but self-sufficient protagonist. Looking forward, once again, to the next installment.
Ghost: My Thirty Years as an FBI Undercover Agent, Michael M. McGowan and Ralph Pezzullo
I had to grab this when I saw it at Books-a-Million, especially since I was still writing L&O: CI fanfic where Robert Goren is operating as an FBI agent. I found it quite the page-turner, especially after watching the old FBI series with Efrem Zimbalist Jr as a kid, where all the agents were square-jawed and deadly solemn. McGowan talks about how differently undercover operations are from what you see on television, especially how long they take to set up and work—he talks about ones he worked that took between two and five years to complete, while he had to stay in the persona of some low-life drug dealer or dishonest businessman. He also talks about some of the criminal bosses he met over the years; some of them being downright weird, all of them being really creepy.
I noticed some of the reviewers of this book on Amazon complained that McGowan was uber-egotistical; I would think to be able to carry off some of these undercover cons that a person would have to be, to be able to bluff his or her way through situations that could possibly get them killed. You'd have to think on your feet and be very self-assured.
Anyway, I really don't read true crime stuff, but I found this enjoyable, and might have to hunt up other behind-the-scenes at law enforcement books.
Jo and Laurie, Margaret Stohl and Melissa de La Cruz
Did you ever read a book quickly just to get it over with? I found that I did that with this book.
I think most Little Women fans have had periods where they wondered just what would have happened if Jo did accept Laurie. I have another book which I haven't read, The Courtship of Jo March, that addresses the same subject. Jo and Laurie also looked quite tempting, until I really got into it.
The conceit here is that a real Jo March wrote Little Women (the first part) and now is desperately trying to write the second, her goal, as always, to earn money for her impoverished family, being interminably nagged by her publisher for a "nice sweet sequel." Also, several of the things she wrote about in her book were not real: Beth did die, Meg and Mr. Brooke never were a couple, and Aunt March was a fictional creation. However, Laurie is real, and he does want Jo to marry him; she'd rather never think about it and instead the two go off to New York together (with Meg and Mr. Brooke as chaperones, where the inevitable happens) where Laurie re-meets an old friend, Lady Harriet, a British girl. Yes, you guessed it, "Lady Hat" is the sabot thrown into the gears that gets the Jo and Laurie friendship off the rails.
This book has so many bad places it's pathetic. Amy here is fifteen, and still spouting the same malapropisms as she did at twelve, which is stupid. Later, she, not Beth, is the one who almost dies. Apparently, however, the authors, who seem to have no idea about the disease they assigned to her, gave her "consumption," which means she never will be well; otherwise known as tuberculosis, it was, in those days before penicillin, a wasting disease--but our Amy makes a full recovery! Mr. Laurence ends up being a jerk who makes Laurie attend societal functions simply to make the family look good, including forcing him to blow off a chance to see Charles Dickens with Jo for a society party. "Lady Hat" is supposed to be vivacious and "unconventional," but she's just a bore.
Yeah, they do get engaged at the end, but by then, who cares? Glad I got this as a remainder book!
Confederates in the Attic, Tony Horwitz
So happy to have found a nearly pristine copy of this at the Friends of the Library book sale, especially since I had read his Spying on the South, which is sort of a sequel, published right before his death, back when it was published. I find this better balanced than Spying, while still touching on the same things: how the myth of the "noble Confederacy" still permeates certain groups in the American South (and not all of them being "bigoted rednecks"). Horwitz visits tiny museums, investigates Confederate re-enactors, speaks with Southern historian Shelby Foote (who used to answer his own phone and suffered after Ken Burns' miniseries The Civil War brought his name to the fore), talks to both sides in the case of a young white man assaulted by a black man (while the white man's family said he was innocent and a "good boy," co-workers labeled him lazy and racist, and the family and friends of the black man said he taunted them with racist slurs), visits Southern strongholds like Charleston and Vicksburg, and nearly gets assaulted in a bar (among other things).
As in Blue Latitudes, he seems to hang around a lot with drunks, and the most entertaining bits of the narrative have him in the company of Rob Hodge, a dead serious (and crazy ass) Civil War re-enactor who can mess with his body so that he looks like a "bloated dead body," who has appeared in re-enactments in films due to the talent. Rob has no patience with "farbs" (those who go to historical re-enactments in inaccurate clothing carrying inaccurate gear) and Horwitz visits battlefields with him, trying to imagine what it was like during the actual battles. Some of it is very sobering, a lot of it is funny, and Horwitz gets his point across about "myth" conceptions and avoidance of the slavery issue without the heavy-handed preaching that got into Spying on the South.
My Name is America: The Journal of Douglas Allen Deeds (The Donner Party Expedition, 1846), Rodman Philbrick
After several years of "Dear America" books written for pre-teen and younger teen girls, Scholastic began an equivalent series for boys. The title is self-explanatory: Douglas Deeds is an orphan of 15. who, with just his old horse Barny, joins the Donner/Reed party as they go west to California. He is lucky to be taken in by the Breen family (a real-life family who was with the Donner party) as they cross the continent and face hardship, including young Edward Breen breaking his leg and having to cross the Salt Desert.
Roderick does a pretty good job of portraying the tough life of the expeditionary pioneers who crossed the North American continent. Douglas is rather a dull protagonist, to be honest, but we relive the whole trip, including its horrifying conclusion (spoiler of sorts: Douglas does not resort to cannibalism to survive), and see the mistakes made by the leaders of the expedition in following the directions of Lansford Hastings, who wrote a book about emigrating to California without ever having done all of the route.
Friends for the Journey, Madeleine L'Engle and Luci Shaw
L'Engle and Shaw became friends at a religious conference and remained close until L'Engle's death. This was the one book of L'Engle's I didn't have: a collection of essays, conversations, and verse that they wrote together in which they talk about friendship, faith, marriage, relationships, and the nature of prayer. It's another dose of L'Engle nonfiction goodness, as well as Shaw's enjoyable prose and poetry. One poem which she wrote for her son's wedding is just gorgeous.
31 May 2022
Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World's Superpowers, Simon Winchester
30 April 2022
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation Companion, Mike Flaherty, case files by Corinne Marrinan
This is an oversize paperback that reviews the first three seasons of the acclaimed CBS crime drama, chronicling its creation and its characters (Gil Grissom, for instance, was originally named Gil Sheinbaum, but it was changed because star William Peterson was an admirer of astronaut Gus Grissom). Each of the episodes of the first three seasons is summarized in detail, and then, in inserts, there is discussion of the unique aspects of the episodes, the unusual special effects the series was noted for, original script concepts that were changed for the episodes, what prompted each story, etc. There are also two-page character profiles of Grissom, Catherine Willows, and the rest of the Las Vegas CSI team. (Why was the show based in Las Vegas, you might ask? Well, because except for the FBI laboratory at Quantico, VA, Las Vegas literally does have the largest crime lab in the country, and really does run three shifts to process all the information that passes through it!) Illustrated with photos from episodes galore and looks into how real crime scene investigation works (tip: it doesn't go as quickly as you see on the series!).
A good book to find used for the CSI lover in your family.
Murder in Chianti, Camilla Trinchieri
Following the death of his wife Rita, former NYPD homicide detective Nico Doyle (his mother was Italian and his father Irish) has moved to Rita's hometown of Gravigna in the Chianti region, and is enjoying helping Rita's family at their restaurant, but he still grieves for his wife. One day a dog's yelping summons him to the woods near his home, where he finds a flashily-dressed, and very dead, man. He immediately summons the local maresciallo (policeman), Salvatore Perillo, who quickly finds out Nico's background and seeks his help solving the mystery. Nico accepts reluctantly, hoping Perillo won't find out the secret of why he left the NYPD, but as the mystery deepens, he finds out people that he now knows well and even likes were acquainted with the victim and nobody wants to talk. He does adopt the dog that alerted him to the body, a fluffy little animal he names "OneWag" for his habit of only wagging his tail once. (Everyone else calls the dog "Rocco.")
Not only a murder mystery, but an examination of small-town Italian life, the book is filled with talk of wine, cooking, and the communities that form around the local restaurants. If you're looking for a straight mystery, you might want to look elsewhere, but if you also want a primer on Italian life, this is the book for you, filled with mornings eating pastry, evenings enjoying pasta dishes, and the smells and sounds of the Chianti countryside. You also slowly learn about Nico's past life, and a secret that binds the small town together.
Many Windows: Seasons of the Heart, Faith Baldwin
For many years, Baldwin wrote what was then called "women's fiction" and is now known informally as "chick lit," as did her younger friend Gladys Taber, but, like Taber, she also wrote several nonfiction inspirational books. The difference is that while Taber wrote about her home, Stillmeadow, and about her friend Jill, and their three children, Baldwin's books are more about faith and happiness, introspective volumes that discuss human behavior, belief in God, good and evil, and society in general, while also talking about her day-to-day life over the course of a year. Many Windows is the second of five volumes, and they make very nice bedtime reading.
As the Crow Flies, Craig Johnson
This is the eighth book in the Longmire series, and begins with Walt Longmire and his friend Henry Standing Bear scouting out a new location for Walt's daughter's wedding to Michael Moretti after their original choice has been taken over by another event on the nearby Cheyenne Reservation. Someone suggests they look at the beautiful Painted Warrior cliffs as a replacement setting, but as Walt and Henry check out the venue, they see a young Crow woman fall from the cliff. Appalled, they find her dead, but the baby she was carrying is still alive. And now Walt is determined to find out what happened to her, only to have to partner with "the rez's" new tribal police chief, Lolo Long, a veteran with attitude, to do so.
This is the usual excellent mystery I've come to expect from Craig Johnson. I've been watching the television series long enough that now I hear Walt's narration in Robert Taylor's voice and Lou Diamond Phillips when Henry Standing Bear talks, but the books and the series are completely different, but equally good, animals. (Cady isn't married in the series, for one.)
If you don't cry during the last few paragraphs of the book, you have no soul.
Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies, Robert Sklar
I have a strange history with this book: I actually bought it a couple of years ago as a gift for a friend, and really wanted to keep it. Luckily I found a nearly new copy at McKay's earlier this year.
People today associate the movies with Hollywood and the wealthy and being a wealthy influencer, but the movies as a medium were begun by immigrants, and immigrants at the lowest social order (according to the upper classes!), including Jewish men like Adolph Zukor and William Fox who founded the earliest studios. Churches, middle- and upper-class people, and concerned social groups were convinced that the "movies" would lead people, especially children, into perdition when the nickelodeons emerged, offering cheap entertainment. Later the movies became a scapegoat for the "cheapening" of American life, encouraging divorces, drinking, wild behavior, and other obscenities in otherwise "nice people" (just as radio, cheap paperback books, television, and finally the internet later took the blame for the same or similar behaviors).
While a social history, Sklar also hits the artistry of movie greats like Edwin Porter, D.W. Griffith, and others who took the movies from short, usually funny or erotic vignettes to full-fledged storytelling, using a mixture of closeups, medium shots, and long shots to develop narrative and pace. Sexism, racism (especially in Birth of a Nation), erotica, the Communist witch hunts, complaints of doctors that movies caused everything from bad eyes to abhorrent behavior, and other topics are also discussed.
This make a great companion piece to one of my favorite books on the history of film, Kenneth MacGowan's Behind the Screen, which I also found in a used bookstore, long long ago.
Amongst Our Weapons, Ben Aaronovitch
In the newest of the "Rivers of London" series, detective and apprentice wizard Peter Grant is investigating a dead body found in the London Silver Vaults which lie underneath the city. The man that was found was killed instantly and his assailant disappeared without a trace. Along with this mystery, Peter is experiencing an even more terrifying future: being a father! His partner Beverley, in reality the goddess of Beverley Brook, is about to give birth to twins.
I was amused that the first few chapters of this book actually read like a magical version of a Law & Order investigation; all it lacks is Lennie Briscoe. Peter is now teamed up with a non-magical partner, Danni Wickford, who views all the "magical bollocks" with some wonder and some skepticism; it doesn't look as if she will follow in the footsteps of Peter's original partner, Lesley May, who went rogue and reappears here.
All your old favorites are back—Guleed, Nightingale, briefly Molly and Toby the dog (since Peter is now living with Beverley rather than at the Folly), Miriam Stephanopolaus, Abigail's talking foxes, plus Alexander Seawoll gets a larger role as usual, and the team accompanies him to "the North" and meets his father. There are also the usual puns and references to other fandoms, including a really big Monty Python call-out as part of the plot.
If I have any complaint, with Peter living with Beverley, we don't get the charming bits that take place at the Folly, and I'm sort of on the fence with Peter's life turning into a domestic drama.
The Secret Language of Color, JoAnnEckstut and Arielle Eckstut
This is a coffee-table size book about...surprise!...color. There is a chapter for each of the primary and secondary colors—what the particular color represents in various societies, how it's used in signage, how it relates to animals and birds, its place in culture, etc.—and then alternating chapters talk about colors in science: physics and chemistry, the earth, the universe, plants, animals, and finally humans.
If you're as into colors as I am—I've been crazy about colors of paint, crayons, fireworks, plants, etc. since childhood—this is the book for you.
CSI: Sin City, Max Allan Collins
The second book in the CSI tie-in series. In this entry, the crime lab is working two cases once again: Sara and Catherine have been assigned to look into the murder of a worker at a strip club (night shift commander Gil Grissom believes that Catherine's former work as a stripper should provide her some extra insight into the case), while Grissom, Nick, and Warrick, along with homicide detective Jim Brass, look into the report of a missing woman named Lynn Pierce, who was threatened by her husband (on tape).
Collins has a good handle on the television characters and the book reads like an episode of the series. You can often hear the actors speak the lines. (One particular scene involves the discovery of a sex toy. Sara Sidle says gleefully, "DNA on a stick!" and you can imagine Jorja Fox saying the line.) He also has a way of describing scenes so they can be clearly envisioned. If you were a fan of the early episodes of the series, you will find these are a good addition.
Mysteries of the Alphabet, Marc-Alain Quaknin
I'm always interested in books about the alphabet and linguistics. This is an unusual book as it tries to be an art book and a history of the alphabet. Ouaknin is a rabbi, so the Hebrew alphabet is often referenced, and he takes this history not just back to hieroglyphics and cuneiform, but traces the meaning of each of the letters, gives them a numerical value, gives them symbolic meaning, etc. Multiple illustrations (maybe too many) show the original letters and their derivations on archaeological finds. Translated from the French.
When Wanderers Cease to Roam: A Traveler's Journal of Staying Put, Vivian Swift
Sometimes serendipity happens at the library book sale. I saw the lettering on the side of this, along with the unfamiliar author's name, and wondered "Did Susan Branch illustrate a book for someone?"
No, Vivian Swift is both the author and illustrator of this delightful book that covers a year in her life at her Connecticut home. There are beautiful landscapes, drawings of birds and animals, leaves, gardens, bridges, seascapes and more, along with Swift's diary entries, list of emotions over the seasons, memories of her past traveling in Europe, discourses on tea and cats and nature, and more. It's a beautiful little volume if just for the watercolors, but the commentary is enjoyable, too.
Three Debts Paid, Anne Perry
This is the next volume in the Daniel Pitt mystery series, which finds Daniel defending his former history professor in a case of assault. Another writer accused Nicholas Wolford of plagarism and took a swing at him; Wolford retaliated and broke the man's nose and jaw, and now he's afraid both charges will ruin his reputation. In the meantime, Daniel's good friend Miriam fford-Croft has returned from Europe where she studied to be a pathologist and is working with eccentric Dr. Evelyn Hall at the morgue on a particularly grim set of killings: the murderer strikes on rainy days and then disfigures the bodies. One woman, then another, and then a man are all killed, with the same disfigurement, leading them to the obvious conclusion that the same person is responsible. Daniel's old classmate Ian Frobisher, now a police detective, is on the case, but is severely hampered because the man killed was a banker and involved in secret budget negotiations; they are not allowed to question his family or his bank.
Once again Perry weaves an intricate plot in which all aspects of both cases eventually intertwine. We also get to know Ian Frobisher better as well as follow the progression of the relationship between Daniel and Miriam. Sir Thomas and Charlotte Pitt make cameo appearances as Daniel and Ian try to get to the bottom of things.
My only quibble with this is that a crucial piece of evidence linking the killings is only mentioned in the last few chapters of the book, which seems like cheating to me. The clues should be all set out at least in the first half of the book so readers can try to solve the mystery along with the detectives. Waiting to present this clue until just before the climax of the story seems unfair.
Beyond (The Founding of Valdemar, Book 1), Mercedes Lackey
Praise Ghu! After Lackey's simply dreadful Eye Spy with its carbon-copy instantly-recognizable avatar for a Certain Public Figure—a true plot cheat—I was afraid she'd forgotten how to write a good book.
If you, too, suffered through Eye Spy (or part of Eye Spy, as I did; I couldn't finish the awful thing), please note she has not forgotten how to write a great book. Here she gives fans of her Valdemar universe what we have wanted for years: the story of the Kingdom of Valdemar and its founder, Duke Kordas Valdemar. Kordas' duchy is a rural community of mostly yeoman farmers and livestock breeders; Kordas himself loves and breeds horses, including the stunning "Valdemar Gold." As the story opens, a new Gold filly is born and given as a gift to Delia, Kordas' sister-in-law (who harbors a secret crush on him after he saved her life).
Behind this bucolic facade, Kordas is a worried man. Like all his contemporaries, he was "fostered" (read: held hostage) at the court of the Emperor at a young age and then sent home expected to obey the avaricious and self-absorbed commands of his liege lord. But Kordas' father has taught him to expect that some day the Empire will try to invade Valdemar, lay waste to its beautiful lands, and take all that they need, including the beloved horses. So for years his father, and now Kordas, have gathered mages and made preparations for the population and the livestock of Valdemar to escape via magical Gates to lands far in the west where the Empire cannot encroach on them. Their plans are set to come to fruition during the upcoming annual Empire Regatta. Then Kordas is summoned to the Capital for a meeting of the heads of all the principalities, dukedoms, baronies, etc. Kordas goes, leaving his capable wife Isla, Delia, and his mages in charge, but what he finds at the Capital—including Air Elementals enslaved in scarecrow-like artificial bodies and "foster" children toed into line with obedience spells—so horrifies him that he finds he must help more than just the people of Valdemar.
A whopping great tale, with memorable characters, including "the Dolls" (whose secret will make you squirm), and a constantly moving plot. There are still avatars for Certain Public Figures (and their actions), but they are well disguised in the plot and not at all smack-in-the-face smirkingly obvious. Lackey hasn't written such a good adventure in several volumes. Definitely looking forward to the next two books and the definitive story of how the Companions came to be.
If I had one quibble, it's that we're told how special the Valdemar Golds are, but...why? Is it just their color? We almost learn more about the Chargers (including the two sent the Emperor who are "fake" Valdemar Golds), the Tow-Beasts, the Sweetfoots (riding horses), and the Fleetfoots (race horses) than we do about the Golds.
Manhattan Mayhem, edited by Mary Higgins Clark
This is a book of mystery short stories set in...surprise!...New York City, each based in a different neighborhood. Three take place during or just after World War II, and two involve the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park, but with two radically different plots. (Some of the plots do not involve murder—but Julie Hyzy's "Alice"-centered plot does; was a fan of Hyzy since the "Manor House" mysteries.) Was very intrigued because the story set in Chinatown, written by S.J. Rozan, is worked by the usually disapproving mother of Chinese-American detective Lydia Chin! Lee Child contributes a Jack Reacher story set at the Flatiron Building, and there's even an odd time-travel story called "Evermore." In the meantime, a dying woman gets some epic revenge; a series of murders is committed with clues from lyrics from musicals; a mystery play is the setting for a play about a murder mystery; and a young Italian man trying to escape crime can't escape other obligations—plus more in seventeen pavement-pounding stories!
21 April 2022
The Alps, Stephen O'Shea (off my Amazon wishlist)
Friends for the Journey, Madeleine L'Engle & Luci Shaw (a L'Engle book I did not have!)
Merry Hall, Beverley Nichols (it's a gardening book, but it's supposed to be funny)
Flight Path, Hannah Palmer (about the neighborhoods that used to be there before they built Hartsfield-Jackson Airport)
London the Biography, Peter Ackroyd (his books are always fun)
Confederates in the Attic, Tony Horwitz (another attempt of Horwitz to understand the appeal of the "Old South")
Beaks, Bones & Bird Songs, Roger J. Lederer (well, it's about birds)
Pacific, Simon Winchester (I have Atlantic and Land)
Awake in the Dark, Roger Ebert (movie reviews, actor profiles and more)
The Fifty-Year Mission; The First 25 Years, Edward Gross & Mark A. Altman (Star Trek by those who made it)
The First Human, Ann Gibbons (anthropological book, of course)
The Secret Language of Color, Joann Eckstut & Arielle Eckstut (like The Elements, only about color and how it relates to science and nature and culture)
When Wanderers Cease to Roam, Vivian Swift (because of the lettering on the spine, I thought this was a book Susan Branch illustrated; instead this is a book about a woman who has traveled extensively but did a journal of her one year at home on Long Island Sound—she's a watercolorist, which is why it looked like Susan Branch)
Manhattan Mayhem, ed. Mary Higgins Clark (mystery stories set in NYC)
The Seasons of America Past and Diary of an Early American Boy (Noah Blake 1805), Eric Sloane (I have been wanting these, but Sloane's books are now fiendishly expensive, and these are brand new)
31 March 2022
Sorry for the Dead, Nicola Upson
This eighth in the Josephine Tey mystery series was my first for Women's History month and tells a sad history indeed. Tey (whose real name was Elizabeth MacIntosh) is reimagined in Upson's mysteries as a playwright and later author who also solves mysteries. The book opens in 1948 basically with the conclusion of the story and then flashes back to 1938, where a nasty gossip-columnist type makes insinuations that Tey was involved in a murder in 1915. Then it further flashes back to 1915, when, during the first World War, Tey was sent to a horticultural college where young women are trying to make up for the absence of men on the homefront by becoming more self-sufficient in growing food for the British populace. However, one of the young women Tey is overseeing, a spoiled young rich girl, dies mysteriously in the greenhouse. Although the two women who own the college were cleared, there has always been resentment and hatred toward them because of suspicions they were lovers.
The 1938 portion of the novel takes place at the time the Lillian Hellman play The Children's Hour was raising eyebrows for its discussion of lesbianism, and the bulk of the novel is more a damning social commentary about how "deviant" behaviors were treated in 1915. The women running the college are continually harassed, even though there is no proof of their "behavior" except the accusation from the girl who died. There is a sequence where one of the women is treated shamefully and something horrible done to her personally. It's more a psychological study of hatred of those "different" than a murder mystery until the final few chapters.
Slow-moving but telling throughout, and we learn something of Josephine's early life and how she met her good friend Detective Inspector Archie Penrose.
Notes from the Underwire, Quinn Cummings
Remember cute little Lucy from The Good-bye Girl? And smart little Annie Cooper on Family? For a while you couldn't go anywhere in media without seeing cute little Quinn Cummings—and then she grew up, gave up acting, became a mom, and decided to write hilarious books.
Think of Erma Bombeck in Hollywood and you've got Cummings' funny journey through the absurdities of her life, including running into a door at her daughter's art class location, her inevitable duels with her smart-as-a-whip child Alice (who at one point asks her mother to get her a cow's heart to dissect), the time she house-sat for a woman and was rewarded with being invited to her birthday party (only to turn out to be the "child-star guest entertainment" at the party), her adventures being a talent agent (including with an actor who didn't seem to want to act), the cat who catches all manner of small creatures and brings them home and the dog who doesn't want to be touched, and more. I laughed aloud through most of this book, except for the one serious chapter called "Dog Days" where she talks about Ursula, a rescue dog.
You also learn a lot about life behind the scenes in crazy Hollywood. Tempted to buy her other two books!
The Silver Bullets of Annie Oakley, Mercedes Lackey
Well, now I'm disappointed again. First I got exasperated at Lackey's oh-so-obvious parody of Donald Trump in Eye Spy, and then the first of her "Founding of Valdemar" books was so good, and now this, the next in her Elemental Masters series, about Annie Oakley on tour in Europe with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, showed such promise. It opens with a basis in truth: Annie Oakley, then Annie Moses, was farmed out as a servant to a couple who abused and starved her. In Lackey's version, the couple are actually werwolves and the Alpha Male has a sinister future planned for Annie, but with some magical help, she escapes.
Fast forward: Annie and her supportive husband, Frank Butler, are now the big stars of Buffalo Bill's show. In winter quarters in Germany, just before Christmas, Annie meets Frida, who is also a sharpshooter, but with a bow, and her American husband Jack. They are also Elemental Masters who tell Annie she has magic and so does Frank. During the course of the winter Annie and Frank begin learning magic under the tutelage of Frida and Jack, and even hunt with the supernatural Hunters on Christmas Eve. Finally, the wild west show is back on the road, but Annie must receive her final tutelage of being an Air Master to defend herself from the werwolves.
This story builds and builds with endless description of the clockwork precision of how the Wild West show travels, the beautiful castle and decor of Frida's friends Theo and Sofia (she likes Art Nouveau, which we are told endlessly), the wonderful Christmas market, etc. And there are a few exciting scenes of the Hunters hunting demons on the town streets at night. But there's finally a moment were Annie has to receive her final training and she can't get it, so she gets it in an alternative way. Then she gets kidnapped by the big bad.
The whole climax that the story has been building toward is resolved basically in four pages. What? I expected her to meet this great enemy from her childhood which we've been told is terrifying and has some hold on Annie, and that she would have to fight the enemy off for five or six chapters. There might be some physical or psychological torture involved. Instead she does a basic bit of magic that was taught to her at the beginning of her training and...whap! story over! What happened? Did Lackey get bored and just decide to end it, or reach her page limit and decide she didn't want to get rid of the descriptions, so she got rid of Annie struggling against her enemy instead? I was waiting for a big payoff and instead it was pretty much solved by a finger snap. Really disappointed.
What Abigail Did That Summer, Ben Aaronovitch
This is technically a re-read because I first read it when I got my first or second COVID vaccine in 2020 as an e-book. But I don't remember e-book plots unless I review them immediately (like the book above); it's like e-book print slides by my eyes. This novella takes place in Aaronovitch's "Rivers of London" universe at the same time as the novel Foxglove Summer. While apprentice wizard Peter Grant is in the country involved in a fey kidnapping, his neighbor Abigail Kamara meets an offbeat kid named Simon who lets her know that teenagers are disappearing in the area of Hampstead Heath and then returning with no memory of where they have been. It's here Abigail gets involved with the foxes Indigo and Sugar Niner (as part of her esoteric powers, she can speak to foxes), who help her with the mystery of the missing teens, which involves Simon's mum (a government type), the crazy Cat Lady on the Heath, and a house under renovation that happens to be a genius loci.
Abigail narrates in a lot of slang which is duly translated, and it's magic from a different perspective than Peter's, which I found interesting, but many people did not. She's a precocious kid with street smarts and a terminally ill brother, gutsy as all hell, and a level head. The problem with the house is intriguing, and I enjoyed this "side visit" to Peter's world.
Fatal Fried Rice, Vivien Chien
Lana Lee runs Ho-Lee Noodle House, the family business, in Cleveland's Asia Village, and, despite her earlier misgivings, does the job well. But the one thing she's never learned to do well is cook, so, on the sly, she decides to take an adult learning course in cooking Chinese food. The first night goes well, until Lana returns to the school for the grocery list she forgot and finds her cooking instructor, Margo Han, dead on the floor, stabbed in the back. She and the janitor call the police, and find themselves suspected of the crime by Detective Bishop.
Of course Lana, who's already faced murder mysteries in the previous six books in the series, feels she needs to look into the crime, if nothing else to clear herself, so with the help of her best friend and roommate Megan Riley, her childhood friend Kimmy Tran, and even a little assistance from her police officer boyfriend Adam Trudeau, Lana starts discreetly asking questions; in the meantime a fellow classmate, Bridget Hastings, is also interested in the crime. Can Lana get Detective Bishop off her back? And what's with the mysterious photographs sent to Margo Han? Could she have been having an affair with whomever killed her?
Still wondering why Adam has started calling Lana "dollface," which is very noir, and, even worse, "woman." I'm almost starting to hope Ian Feng makes a play for her, because I'm starting to find Adam a little annoying. About average for this series, although the ending felt a little rushed.
Re-read: The Secret History of Home Economics, Danielle Dreilinger
If I say "home ec" (or as it was called when I was in junior high, "homemaking"), what do you think? Me, it brings back mostly unhappy memories of dull cooking classes when we made "surprise muffins" (with jelly fillings) and disgusting pea-ham-and-cheese casseroles, and sewing classes where we made a pillow with an embroidered cover and an A-line skirt. But in Dreilinger's fascinating study of home economics, what we find are women who used home ec to not only break into scientific fields at a time when a woman was expected to be a wife and baby tender, but to make solid contributions to American life (like devising healthy meals during the "wheatless, meatless days" during World War I and rationing during World War II).
A Sunlit Weapon, Jacqueline Winspear
In the newest Maisie Dobbs mystery, Jo Hardy, an ATA (women's air transport) who found a black American flyer tied up in a barn and is afraid the man will be blamed for the death of his white companion who disappeared is advised to consult with Maisie for his sake.
Happily married to American agent Mark Scott for a year, Maisie still runs her investigative agency as well as cares for her adopted daughter Anna, who lives near her grandparents in Kent. But the case with the black American soldier, who worked with the white flyer on a nearby Kent farm, coincides with Anna having troubles at school due to the color of her skin. Maisie soon becomes concerned for the soldier as well, knowing the conditions under which black Americans live. When she finds a message in the barn that looks like code, Mark is suddenly drawn into the mystery.
This newest Dobbs is a satisfying mixture of World War II domestic troubles, the usual complicated Maisie mystery, and several subjects that have been covered in one of the Maggie Hope mysteries, including the bigotry of the time, Eleanor Roosevelt's travels, and female air transport pilots.
The Royal Diaries: Victoria, May Blossom of Britannia, Anna Kirwan
In real life, Queen Victoria was an avid diarist who began writing journals at the age of thirteen; in this fictionalized diary, we see Victoria at ages ten through twelve, writing in a diary that is essentially an old account book of cows in the royal herd. From babyhood, Victoria has had no privacy—her mother sleeps with her, she is surrounded by servants—and the diary is the only place she can record her private thoughts, including the hatred she has for Sir John Conroy, who seems to have a hold on her widowed mother, the former wife of the deceased Duke of Kent, son of King George III.
The story has us see the frustration of young Victoria as she is put through a tiresome plan of education called "the Kensington System" to prepare her for possibly becoming the monarch someday, and how she misses her half-sister Feodora, who moved to Germany following her wedding, and of the pleasures of being a princess that are tempered much by rules, regulations, and her education. She can't even go barefoot or play with other children as she likes, and must put up with Toire, Sir John's stoolpigeon daughter, as her only playmate.
The story is very ambling as it attempts to tell of the strict education of a princess, even though some shocking things are revealed to her (her uncle's illegitimate children, Conroy's possible physical abuse of Victoria's mother). Enjoyable but not unforgettable.
28 February 2022
Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language, Mark Forsyth
Ever watch James Burke? Burke was a British science reporter—he covered the Apollo missions in the U.K.—who created three nonfiction television series called Connections where he'd start with something like the invention of zero by the Arabs and string it through various historical "connections" to link with a modern invention or concept. Every show was a wild ride where one thing you'd never believe was connected to something else would not only be connected, but lead on to something else. Well, this is what Forsyth does in this book, in one- to three-page sections: he starts with "This is a book..." and then keeps going until the volume ends 259 pages later with exactly the same paragraph beginning with "This is a book..."
In the meantime we find out how a gambling game with a pot and a chicken turn into "the typing pool," how "black" led to "white" and then eventually to "blank," how double-word plurals led to "psychoanalysis," how robot sharecroppers led to "terminators" (who in movies are robots), how "tired" morphed into something that was explosive, and more than 200 more words that started as one thing evolved into yet another thing.
It's books like these that make linguistics enthusiasts happy. This one made me very happy.
Nancy Drew: The Bungalow Mystery, Carolyn Keene
I didn't read Nancy Drew growing up. When I was younger, mom bought me a few of The Bobbsey Twins books, but at a $1.25 each, they cost too much for me to collect the set. Anyway, the Bobbsey books, Nancy Drew, and even the Hardy Boys that were available when I was a kid were rewritten to modernize them, since the Hardys and Drew were from the late 20s on through the 30s and 40s (also to remove some really egregious racial and ethnic stereotypes).
They were also rewritten with simplified vocabularies, so you really didn't get the great dialog and adult-style narrative as in the original books. This is the third of Applewood Books' reprints of those original books. Nancy and her "good chum" Helen Corning (her cousins Bess and George came in later books) are boating when a storm comes up. They are rescued by a girl named Laura Pendleton, who is now an orphan facing the arrival of her new guardian. Nancy takes an interest in the nervous girl, and it seems her interest was justified; when she and Helen visit Laura again her guardian is a rude, cruel man. Laura is afraid of him and Nancy is determined to help the girl who saved her life.
The first half of the book setting up the mystery is a little slow, but the second half is full of action, with Nancy discovering that Laura's guardian is indeed up to no good and hiding something in an old shack in the woods. There's fast driving, a terrible accident, and all sorts of exciting events. Typical of a 1930s series adventure, with Nancy as the new sort of independent girl who drives and thinks for herself.
Mutha: Stuff + Things, Vincent D'Onofrio
I don't know how to describe this book because you don't as much read it as feel it. Some of it is goofy, a few things quite profound (the last two pieces in the volume), some just downright funny (the Girl Scout cookie piece was my favorite in this category). Don't come into this book thinking it's a biography or even a memoir. As the cover states, "this book was not written, it was spewed." However, wandering about the entries, you do get personal insights, as in his memory of a totally awful-sounding attraction in Florida in the 1960s called the Monkey Jungle, his insights on the word "daunted," an introspective piece called "Holy Sh*t, I'm F*cking Useless," another interesting bit of verse called "I Am the Wind," and several entertaining journal entries like "My Left Hand." (Question: doesn't everyone like to eat peanut butter straight off the spoon?)
Not quite of what to make of his intense interest in pigs and poop, but...everyone has their quirky little interests. 😏
Illustrated with black-and-white photographs presented with some unique visual effects. (I particularly like the photo on page 41).
The Love Hypothesis, Ali Hazelwood
I have a love-hate relationship with chick-lit. Most of it I hate.
This one, I had to admit, was fun, if dotted with the usual clichés. The draw is that the protagonist is not some gorgeous model or store owner, but is a graduate student who is promoting a new test protocol for cancer. Olive Smith has a personal stake in the research since her mother died from cancer, and she is very eager to get her research approved by Stanford or some other university. As a scientist she's talented, but her personal life is a mess: her best friend has a crush on her former boyfriend, but won't ask him for a date because she thinks Olive is still "into" him. So Olive, accidentally at first, inveigles Adam Carlsen, a no-nonsense professor at Stanford, into being her "pretend boyfriend" so her BFF Anh will relax and be happy with Jeremy. Trouble is, Adam's not well-liked at Stanford for being a tough nut. But as the charade goes on, Olive starts to see Adam more as a good friend than a pretend boyfriend, even as she wonders why he goes along with the charade in the first place. Could it be Adam isn't the hardass he seems? And could Olive be changing how she feels about him?
(Well, of course, since this is a rom-com...)
Hazelwood freely admits at the end of the story that her pairing is based on Kylo Ren/Rey in the final Star Wars trilogy, but if you've never watched the films the story still works if you're ready to buy the premise of a romance set in college laboratories among science nerds. I freely confess I bought this mainly because of the hot sex scenes that start at page 256 and ends at 284. YMMV. :-)
Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Ibram X. Kendi
I got lucky and picked this up on the remainder shelf at Books-a-Million, as I'd been interested in it for awhile. It was a great historical read, and, while I knew many of the things Kendi spoke about (favoritism in the Black community for lighter skin, the racist ideas carried by even the most virulent of abolitionists, etc.), I learned many more.
The volume is divided into five parts about the society surrounding five American historical figures: Cotton Mather, the fiery conservative Christian of the colonial era; Thomas Jefferson, the Revolutionary-era's "enlightened" essayist (and third US president) who nevertheless kept slaves; William Lloyd Garrison, the thundering abolitionist who spoke through his newspaper the "Liberator"; W.E.B. DuBois, whose pacifistic ways finally changed to more antiracist ideas; and Angela Davis, the young woman who became a face for Black Power (read: Black violence) in the 1960s/1970s without her ever having committed a violent crime. He traces the idea of "inferior races" back to the Greeks, who considered even the white Slavs (where we get the word "slave" from) inferior, and how growing belief in "purity" (a.k.a. "whiteness") gave myth to the inferior status of those with dark skins (it helped that this "truth" was backed up by scientific discoveries—which, of course, were misinterpreted). Stories of Africans who were "descended" from apes, rumors of Black "looseness" of morals raising the specter of interracial sex and "mongrelization," the belief that people of color were not as intellectually developed (and could not become more intellectually developed), and other racist ideas firmly cementing ideas of racism even in the minds of Black people themselves.
A big book with a lot to swallow, but very readable and often infuriating (as it should be!).
Love, Lies & Hocus Pocus: Beginnings, Lydia Sherrer
Twenty-something Lillian Singer is one of the few people who know about the secret library of magic at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, GA; she's the archives manager there. She's also a wizard. Alas, she's just escaped from another unsatisfying computer date when she's asked for help by Sebastian Blackwell, a young heedless friend who's also a witch. He's asked her to help him free an old mansion from a ghost combined with a curse so the property can be sold; in return she'll get a collection of old magic books. But Sebastian has led her astray before—will Lily go along? And if she does, what trouble will trouble-magnet Sebastian get her into?
James bought me the first two books in this series as a birthday gift when I expressed interest at Conjuration. I like to support local writers and this looked like a fun series. It actually is quite inventive: I like Sherrer's delineation between wizards (they're basically "born" with the talent and learn to use it rather like "the Force") and witches (who manipulate the fey world to get the things they want), and Lily herself is a very appealing character. The second half of the book, which involves a time loop, is very inventive. These books are also written at a young-adult level, so there's nothing in the story which might make parents wary.
My big problem is Sebastian irritates me. He's not a bad guy and I guess he's supposed to be cute, and he comes off as a nice guy especially in the interlude with the girl who works at the bar. But he gives me the fidgets. Your mileage may vary. Oh, and Lily had a pet cat, if that helps. :-)
31 January 2022
An Oxfordshire Christmas, compiled by David Green
Moravian Christmas in the South, Nancy Smith Thomas
Murder at the Mistletoe Ball, J.D. Griffo
This is the sixth in Griffo's Ferrara Family Mystery stories, wherein Alberta Ferrara Scaglione, her sister Helen (a former nun), her ex-sister-in-law Joyce (who's African-American and divorced from Berta's brother Rocco), and her granddaughter Gina, known to everyone as "Jinx," a journalist for the local New Jersey paper, have had their hands full solving mysteries around the little town of Tranquility, New Jersey, ever since Alberta inherited a lake house from her aunt. But now Alberta and Co. not only have a new mystery, but there's a chance that she might finally be reunited with her estranged daughter Lisa Marie. She and her daughter have always locked horns, especially when Lisa Marie decided to marry Tommy Maldonado instead of attending college. But now Jinx's rather wild brother Sergio has vanished after becoming enfatuated with a woman named Natalie, and Lisa Marie needs her mother's help.
And she needs it even more when Sergio is accused of Natalie's murder.
Christmas hijinks with the Ferraras along with Helen's old nemesis Father Sal, Alberta's new beau Sloan, and Jinx's boyfriend Freddy, plus the mystery of Natalie's death, and a little help from Tranquility's police chief Vinny D'Angelo, all wrapped up in the usual Italian sayings and descriptions of food, food, food (how do the Ferrara folks stay so skinny eating all this food?). We finally get to meet Lisa Marie (who's always sounded like a bit of a pill) and Tommy, and discover they're not so bad after all.
(My mystery after reading this: is Griffo a closet Law & Order: Criminal Intent fan? Because his description of Vinny sounds like a young Vincent D'Onofrio down to his being six foot four and having size thirteen shoes, and the character even has a sister Frances, which was the name of D'Onofrio's character's mothers name on CI. Awfully coincidental!)
Re-read: The Jungle Books, Rudyard Kipling
As a child I had The Jungle Book in a Grosset & Dunlap edition, and then borrowed (alas, never returned) a book called All the Mowgli Stories from a friend and in this way learned there had been a second Jungle Book. Some time last year or the year before found a beautifully illustrated edition of both books—but it was missing one story. This Penguin Classics edition I picked up at, of all places, 5 Below, remedies that by including "In the Rukh," which was actually the first Mowgli story, about him as an adult.
It's also an annotated edition, and, if you know me, know I adore annotated books! In addition, it includes a general preface that is an overview of Kipling which includes the truths about his imperialism, and an introduction and a note on the texts used (British and American texts differed slightly) by postcolonial professor Kaori Nagai, who places the tales in perspective from both a British and an Indian point of view.
And then, of course, the tales of Mowgli as well as the other beloved stories like "Rikki Tikki Tavi" and "The White Seal," plus the few from The Second Jungle Book, which, in my opinion, are not as good except for "Quiquern," a tale of the Inuit. I couldn't resist starting to reread the moment I brought it home, and it's always a lovely journey going back to Mowgli's jungle. And all the nice references to "St. Nicholas" help, too!
Wintering, Katherine May
It was one of those years when everything went wrong. May's husband became seriously ill, then her son began having problems in school. Even worse, she began having severe stomach pains and was forced to leave her stressful job. This is the story of how she chose to "winter" after enduring these multiple crises, and how that choice put her life back into perspective.
This is a beautifully-written volume about living a low-key life, immersing your life in nature and in homely (as the British say) activities that restored her, and her family to equilibrium. She does this by celebrating the seasons rather than dreading them, learning the lore of the "wintering" preparations people once followed in simpler times. She indulged in cold water bathing, visited the Arctic, went to Stonehenge for the winter solstice, celebrates Christmas and Hallowe'en. I was mesmerized by her "rest" that encompassed new experiences. A perfect bedtime book.
Re-read: An Irish Hostage, Charles Todd
In 1916, nurse Bess Crawford saved fellow nurse Eileen Flynn's life when the ship they were on, transporting injured soldiers from the front lines of the Great War, was torpedoed. Now it's 1919, the war is over, and Eileen has asked Bess to be her maid of honor in her wedding to Michael Sullivan. But there are still terrible frictions between England and Ireland, and Bess' parents and her father's assistant Simon Brandon, are fearful of her traveling across Ireland by train. Instead, to assuage them all, Bess arranges to be flown to Eileen's home by Captain Arthur Jackson, an American still stationed in England. When Bess arrives at Eileen's house, she discovers Michael is missing, most probably kidnapped by Irish nationalists, possibly because, like Eileen, he "took the king's shilling" and worked on the side of the enemy. Are Bess and Michael's best man, another Englishman, Major Ellis Dawson, also in danger?
Wild Irish Rose, Rhys Bowen and Clare Broyles
It's been awhile since I've seen a Molly Murphy mystery, so I was delighted when this showed up on NetGalley. It's winter in New York and Molly is busy tending to her lively two-year-old son Liam, her adopted daughter Bridie, and her husband Daniel Sullivan, a police captain, while enjoying her relationship with her unconventional neighbors "Sid" and "Gus." Since winter began, however, Molly's grumpy mother-in-law has been staying with them, which has tempered Molly's happiness somewhat.
One winter's day Molly and Bridie accompany Sid and Gus in taking warm clothing to Ellis Island to give out to new immigrants along with other society ladies, including Cordelia Ransome, a snooty girl who's just become engaged to a viscount. When Molly and Bridie arrive home, they discover there was a murder on the island while they were there, an English detective, and an immigrant Irish girl just like Molly had been not many years earlier is accused of the crime. Molly tracks down the girl and after meeting her, is convinced of her innocence and is determined to clear her.
While this is a rather complex mystery with twists and turns I did get it into my head who the murderer was about halfway through and turned out to be correct. It did, however, mix the mystery well with Molly coping with her mother-in-law, with Bridie who's going through "growing pains" and (while being schooled by Sid and Gus) being spoiled by her best friends, and even dealing with her memories of Ireland. While the action gets a bit melodramatic during the conclusion, it's great to see Molly, Daniel, and all the "old gang" (including Ryan O'Hare and Mrs. van Woekem) once again.
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation: Double Dealer, Max Allan Collins
First in a series of original novels based on the television series.
The Las Vegas criminalists are investigating two crimes: a murder that occurred fifteen years earlier that has just been discovered on a construction site; the mummified body had been buried under a trailer. The second case is a lawyer who was murdered in a casino; his death looking very much like a mob hit by an assassin who has a very distinctive "signature" to his jobs. But once back in the labs, it's discovered that both the old murder and the new one bear the same "signature."
Collins does a great job of making his novel sound like a movie-length version of a CSI episode. He has the characters, from enigmatic Gil Grissom and seasoned investigator Catherine Willows down to flaky tech Greg Sanders, down well and has the format of the series down pat. If you could never get enough of the television series, the books are a good addition to your collection.