06 March 2020

This Month's Theme...

So what's everyone reading for Women's History Month? The other day I corralled some of the women's nonfiction I have, and, of course, I have plenty of mystery stories with female protagonists. Alas, that means I can't read a Longmire book this month. 😊

I've already read Meg & Jo, Mary Poppins She Wrote, and the fourth "Noodle Shop" mystery (Wonton Terror), and, since I try to alternate fiction and nonfiction, thought it would be appropriate to go from an Asian mystery to Amy Tan's book Where the Past Begins. I have all sorts of choices after that: in fiction the latest paperback edition of one of the "Royal Spyness" mysteries, another "Witch City" mystery, another Flavia de Luce book, the resumption of Cleo Coyle's "Ghost" mysteries, even a book about BBC workers during the second World War; in nonfiction the second volume of Dorothy Sayers' letters, the final volume of Blanche Weisen Cook's Eleanor Roosevelt bio, Heather Lende's Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs, the book about Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret that got their nanny "Crawfie" fired, and more.

And, oh, goodness, the library book sale is next weekend... It's supposed to rain, so I must mull upon how to keep the books dry.

29 February 2020

Books Completed Since February 1

book icon  Young Americans Colonial Williamsburg: Nancy's Story, 1765, Joan Lowery Nixon
This is the third in Lowery's series of six book, each focusing on a boy or girl growing up in the colonial city of Williamsburg. In this entry, the protagonist is Nancy Geddy (who is the niece of the John Geddy featured in Ann's Story), the daughter of a silversmith. Her mother died after her birth and she was brought up learning housewifely duties from her grandmother. Then, when she was ten, her father James dropped a bombshell: he is remarrying!

Now twelve, with a toddler half-brother Jamie, Nancy still chafes at her stepmother's criticism. Elizabeth will not allow her to use her mother's recipes, is always sick now that she is pregnant again, and, when Christmas approaches, is refusing to decorate or make dainties for the twelve days of celebration coming up. But this is only part of Nancy's troubles. One of her best friends is Tom, the orphan apprentice who works at her uncle's foundry. If the new Stamp Act that the British have imposed on the colonies is enacted, the foundry (and Nancy's father's business) might lose customers as well as a way to collect debts, and Tom may have to be let go from his apprenticeship. Can Nancy prevail upon her gentle father to take a stand against the Stamp Act with the other Williamsburg merchants, and somehow come to terms with her feelings about Elizabeth?

I found this a well-moving story with a good explanation (which we rarely got at school) about how the Stamp Act affected the colonial population personally. I just wish there had been a scene at the end where perhaps Nancy would find out why her stepmother was so retiring, and also realizing that pregnancy did indeed make Elizabeth very ill and that she wasn't "acting." There are the usual short essays at the end about Williamsburg and colonial childhood, plus one on the lives of the real characters in the story and another on the Stamp Act.

book icon  The Boston Massacre: A Family History, Serena Zabin
As we zip through our American history classes, the "Boston Massacre" (the shooting of four Boston citizens by British soldiers in 1770) is barely a blip on the radar, except as one of the events that led to the Revolutionary War. And when we do learn it, it's as simple as several hundred British soldiers being quartered on Boston soil who turned on their American "enemies."

Except at the time, they really weren't. Zabin tells the stories of the soldiers, who lived a very poor life, who came to colonial soil under orders, and some came with wives and children, which was common practice back then. Women especially were essential to the military scene, as they not only remained with their husbands, tempering bad influences, but washed, mended, and did minor doctoring for not only their husbands, but his fellow soldiers. These women and children also had to be housed, and some became part of the Boston community. Other soldiers, on their free time, courted and later married Boston (or local) women, so they were not soldiers kept in a separate "ivory tower" encampment, but also became part of the community, so that the rebellion being sown around them was difficult for all involved. Not to mention that some soldiers realized the advantages of living in the colonies rather than a military life or the thoughts of going back to an overcrowded city or lonely village and deserted in impressive numbers, with fellow soldiers reluctant to bring them back and Massachusetts denizens willing to defend them.

This book concentrates on the little known-practice of wives and family accompanying the armies (American wives did this as well, as the tourguides at Valley Forge and other Revolutionary War national parks will tell you) and just how integrated some of the "redcoats" became in Boston society (General Thomas Gage, for instance, had a Boston-bred wife). It is probably of most interest to those studying or interested in the Revolutionary War era.

book icon  Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, Dick Moore
I found this at the "perpetual book sale" at the local library; it's Moore's story of the classic child stars of the silent era through the 1940s (and a bit into the early 1950s). Moore started his career in films before he was a year old and, while he appeared in several "Our Gang" ("Little Rascals") shorts, he's most famous for giving Shirley Temple her first screen kiss in Junior Miss. Moore talks to as many of his fellow child star compatriots as possible, from a candid Jane Withers, to a cagy Shirley Temple, to the child actor he considered his best friend, Matthew Beard ("Stymie" of the Our Gang comedies), as well as Natalie Wood, Roddy McDowall, Diana Cary ("Baby Peggy"), Margaret O'Brien, the Watson boys (the most famous, Bobs, was the famous "he ain't heavy he's my brother" child), Jackie Coogan (whose parents' squandering of the money he earned in Hollywood led to the "Coogan Law" regulating child actors' pay and who it actually went to), Jane Powell, Bonita Granville, and more. Some of the kids had positive experiences, but for most of them it was painful. Dean Stockwell speaks about being teased for his part in The Boy With Green Hair and shaving his curls when he quit films in his teens. They worked long hours, they usually received a sub-par education (Roddy McDowall was chagrined at the lack of education he had; Dick Moore himself remembers only one studio teacher who really cared that they learned their lessons and who wouldn't allow the studio heads to take the kids' three daily hours away), they were forced to pose for photos endlessly and have staged birthday parties.

I found this book fascinating—and ultimately sad at how these kids who delighted us so much at the movies had such a hard life. I also learned something that I didn't know: Gene Reynolds, the noted television producer—he did M*A*S*H—began his career as a child star! Well worth reading if you're a fan of classic film.

book icon  In the Shadow of Vesuvius, Tasha Alexander
Lady Emily and her husband Colin Hargreaves (an intelligence gatherer for the British government) are vacationing in Pompeii with Emily's childhood friend Ivy when they turn up a dead body that has been encased in plaster like the Pompeiian bodies found on the site. The man's body is discovered to be that of an American reporter who had visited the site some months ago. When the police write it off, of course inquisitive Emily and ever-suspicious Colin want to find out who killed the man and why. Their immediate suspects are an American brother-and-sister, Benjamin and Calliope Carter and perhaps the camera-shy archaeological worker Stirling—or perhaps the handsome tour guide Mario. It certainly isn't Emily's old friend Jeremy Bainbridge, who seems enamored by Callie Carter, and surely can't be a young woman who gives a surprising introduction of herself, has a connection with the couple's past, and falls in with Emily and Colin's party.

As in the last few of these mysteries, there are alternate chapters set in AD 79, the date of the fateful eruption of Mount Vesuvius, about a character who seems to have nothing to do with the plot until the last couple of chapters. This is Kassandra, a Pompeiian slave who gains her freedom when her father buys both himself and her out of slavery. She is a talented poet whose work on an epic brings her to the attention of a suitor who courts and later marries her former mistress. The fact that Kassandra's poetry, presented at first anonymously, was well-received when scribbed as graffiti on the Pompeiian walls, was interesting at first, then the story took a really predictable turn (I wanted to shake her and yell "You stupid girl, you should have known that would happen!"), and it's only at the end that her fate ties in with the mystery of the murdered American reporter.

I also wanted to kick Colin's butt more than several times in this story. Due to something revealed a few chapters into the story, he turns into yet another male horse's ass, which is not only not like him, but it led to him treating Emily's feelings quite badly. The charm of Colin always was that he never did this sort of thing, and it's irritating that he's developed the habit now.

I did enjoy most of this except for the conclusion of Kassandra's story and Colin's behavior, as my paternal grandparents lived on the island of Ischia before they emigrated to the US and Vesuvius figured in their past. Also amused at yet another offhand reference to Elizabeth Peters' character Amelia Peabody and Radcliffe Emerson!

book icon  Elfquest: The Final Quest (Volumes 1-4), Wendy and Richard Pini
It seems so long ago, and then again it seems like yesterday that I was traveling up to Boston to visit friends: Mary Bloemker, Pat Brimer, Abby Rogers, Gail Paradis, Deb Walsh, Mary Fall, and Steve Eramo. One of our destinations was the comic book store Million Year Picnic at Harvard Square, and one of the things Abby bought religiously was a comic called Elfquest. I've never been a high fantasy fan or a comics fan, but one weekend when I was staying at Abby and Gail's apartment, I picked up the first issue of Elfquest to read. And the second. And then however many Abby had at that point. And the next time I was in Million Year Picnic, I bought up all the back issues to catch up, and then collected and read for years, although the last hard copies I got was "Kings of the Broken Wheel." Still not being much of a comics devotee, and not going to a comic book store regularly after not going to the laundromat on Buford Highway weekly, I didn't read the subsequent sequels until the Pinis posted them online in 2009.

So I had to collect the final four compilation volumes of the saga, which ended officially February 28, 2018 (40 years after the original issue 1 was published), and they've been sitting in my TBR pile since July. I needed a special day to sit down and read them, and the day I found was perfect: damp, rainy, dark, and miserable. And suddenly it was the 1980s once more, and I rejoined Wolfrider chief Cutter, his lifemate Leetah, his best friend Skywise, his children Sunstream and Ember, and all the Wolfrides, Sun Village people, Go-Backs, Waveriders, and other elfin and human denizens of the World of Two Moons. The time has come finally for the elves to make a decision: stay on the World of Two Moons and face the inexorable march of the warlike humans who are encroaching on their territories, or come back to the floating palace they had arrived in and head back to their origin planet, a decision that will break up friends, families, and even couples. In the meantime children are born, evil humans pillage and destroy while others embrace their elfin visitors, and fate spins its wheel. Fitting adventures lead to an expected parting, but not without a loss or too. Yes, I cried at the end.

book icon  A Dream Given Form: The Unofficial Guide to the Universe of Babylon 5, Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz
I thought we had bought every Babylon 5 book ever written (except for the complete "encyclopedia," the price of which makes me want to faint), until I saw this volume; it is a fairly new publication from 2017. Perhaps there is new interest in the series because of it showing on Amazon Prime for so long? I wasn't aware it even existed until someone used it as a reference at the Crusade panel at DragonCon.

Whatever. Don't expect an episode guide—you're better off finding one online or going back and finding Jane Killick's five-volume season-by-season guide. This one looks behind each of the episodes for themes, plot points that will later reappear, origins of quotations or verse uttered by the characters, storylines that link to Shakespeare and other classic (and classical) writers, items that will show up later, even humorous lines of dialog. It's a great read for B5 fans because they notice things even most B5 fans didn't—for instance, I never noticed that Bester never unclenches his left fist!

In addition to all the episodes of the series, the authors also talk about each one of the Babylon 5 films and all the episode of the followup series Crusade, and there is an interview with Peter Jurasik about working on the series and the character of Londo Mollari.

book icon  The Real Beatrix Potter, Nadia Cohen
This is a new biography of Potter. Coming on the heels of Linda Lear's exhaustive biography, I don't think it offers anything new, although I seem not to remember so much material about Canon Hardwick D. Rawnsley, who awakened Beatrix's interest in saving the Lake Country.

Beatrix Potter was born into the wealthy household of Rupert and Helen Potter (a lawyer and amateur photographer, and a heiress) to a stifling life of her parents' social ambitions. She wasn't allowed to have friends, so she turned to art, including highly detailed botanical sketches of fungi, and the clever drawings of small animals in letters to friends' children that became the basis for her "little books," the charming small volumes that became classics. Her first romance ended in tragedy; her second left her a happy, contented farmwife who preserved great tracts of land from developers.

Well told by Cohen. Contains an album of photographs of Potter, her homes, and land.

book icon  The Mutual Admiration Society, Mo Moulton
In 1912, the idea of a woman's going to university was still strange, if not an abomination in some minds. Women's minds were not strong enough to absorb higher learning; it would make them go crazy. Or it would destroy their "womanly, nurturing qualities" and render them unfit wives and mothers. Certainly well-bred feminine women would not want to do anything like that. And just to make certain women didn't get ideas beyond their station, while they could attend university, take the same examinations as men, and be marked, but they could not graduate and receive a diploma.

But more and more young women sought education, including a parson's daughter named Dorothy Sayers, who was learning Latin at age six, wrote prodigious plays and acted them out. At Oxford Dorothy met Muriel St. Clare Byrne, Charis Barnett, and "D. (Dorothy) Rowe." Occasionally along with Muriel "Jim" Jaeger, Amphilis Middlemore, and Catherine "Tony" Godfrey, they formed a group called "the Mutual Admiration Society." They supported each other, occasionally fought with each other, put on elaborate plays with each other, and mostly knew each other's secrets, and they all defied convention. Sayers had a child out of wedlock. Charis Barnett became (shockingly!) a birth-control advocate, and then also a well-known authority on child rearing. Muriel was most certainly a lesbian. From their experiences, and the experiences of the women who stood with them and followed after them, a new generation of independent women rose.

I confess I read this mostly for Dorothy Sayers and the snippets about Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, but I loved reading about university experiences early in the 20th century, and I always enjoy reading about Oxford University.

book icon  The Book of Dust, Volume 2: The Secret Commonwealth, Philip Pullman
Well, I don't know what to say. I put off reading La Belle Sauvage until it reached paperback, but when this went on sale I asked for it as a birthday gift. Pullman's managed to turn this into a Bildungsroman/picaresque journey in which Lyra is severely tested. But what a Lyra! Pullman, whose Daemon Voices expresses contempt for how C.S. Lewis treated Susan, turns her into Susan, someone who doesn't even believe in her daemon any more, due to a couple of avant garde books she is reading, and is set at odds with Pantalaimon from the first page. In the first chapter Pan witnesses a murder and Lyra gets seemingly insignificant news from a classmate that starts the whole plot moving—and before we know it evil plots are roiling and Lyra's and Pan's problems become so severe that he walks out on her. Lyra's quest for him starts with the Gyptians, but leads far afield.

Pullman was determined this book be disturbing and it sure is, but it's annoying as well. Pan is still seething over having been abandoned by Lyra in The Amber Spyglass (which was seven years earlier; surely they'd had it out before then?), doesn't like the books she's reading, and finally goes off on a quest of his own having had a tantrum like a spoiled child. Like many college students, Lyra has let herself be brainwashed by fashionable thought (the truth about the authors is revealed in other narratives in the story). The Magisterium, as a thinly disguised Catholic/Christian church hierarchy gone amuck (as in The Handmaid's Tale) now seems to be being underwritten by a Big Business (oh, Lord, not this again). Instead of an amber spyglass, there is now a new method to see "Dust" and of course the Magisterium (and what seems like some Muslim-like terrorists as well) want to see every industry that can produce this method ruined and/or closed down. The evil  people, of whatever stripe, are ruthless: there are deaths (including of a once-innocent elderly man), of men, women, children, daemons) and violence, including against Lyra. If she came out of The Amber Spyglass with her innocence lost, she's certainly lost everything now. On her travels she, like Huckleberry Finn, goes off on little side trips, the most bizarre of them in Prague with a character who reminded me of someone in Nick O'Donohoe's "Gnomeworks" duology.

And the whole book ends in cliffhanger after cliffhanger. What's going to happen to Alice (arrested) and Malcolm (wounded in searching for Lyra) and Pan and Lyra herself, not to mention the two different men who are stalking her? Well, we've got to wait for the last book to find out.

book icon  Consider the Fork, Bee Wilson
Again, I hate to cook, but I enjoy well-written books about the history of cooking or history and cooking. I actually bought the e-book version of this for James, but turned it up for a dollar and bought a real copy.

Wilson tells the story of cooking and food from Stone Age cooking pots to modern appliances via chapters about pots and pans, slicing implements, heat for cooking, ingredient measurement and ingredient reduction, utensils, preservation of foods, and kitchen design. In the process we learn about Fannie Farmer, how new the use of forks is, the difference between Chinese and Japanese chopsticks, the dangers of cook fires, and how mortar and pestles morphed into mixers.

If you're at all interested in cooking history, you should enjoy this lively book.

book icon  Seasons, edited by Mercedes Lackey
In this thirteenth collection of stories about Lackey's fictional world of Valdemar and its lawkeeping Heralds with their otherworldly Companions. In this edition the stories all revolve around seasonable celebrations: Midwinter, Midsummer, spring festivals, fall harvests. The opening story is rather pedestrian, but most of the remainder are page-turners. Lackey herself finishes the volume with an offbeat story about friendly spiders who have appointed themselves guardians of a small town. Charlotte would probably have approved!

In between we have continuing adventures from previous short stories about Lady Cera of Sandbriar, Herald Wil and his precocious daughter Ivy (who are involved in a tense tale which includes a version of the Welsh Christmas custom the Mari Llwd), the kyree Nwah and her bonded human changeling Kade (a great change comes to their relationship in this story), Hektor Dann and the rest of the Haven city watch in a humorous tale about a yearly contest, the Animal Mindspeech expert Lena and her new husband Keven, the revengeful Paxia in her vendetta against Heralds, and Sparrow and Cloudbrother. Others are standalone, one of my favorites being "A Darkling Light" about two country children who are tasked with setting festival torches alight but who are afraid of running into autumn spirits. "A Midwinter's Gift," about a young woman who overhears a dark plot to ruin a friend, is another enjoyable tale about a girl who is expected to fulfill her family's plans for her future but finds her talents lie in another area altogether.

Great visiting with Valdemar as always!

book icon  The Queens of Animation, Nathalia Holt
Holt did such a good job with The Rise of the Rocket Girls and I have always been such a classic Disney fan that the moment I could afford this book I grabbed it. It's a good book about the contributions of the heretofore silent (or perhaps "silenced") women of the Disney Studios, but ultimately it's sad.

The majority of Disney's chief animators were men, as well as most of the story department. (Women did work at Disney in other capacity besides secretaries and clerks; the Ink and Paint Department was chiefly made up of women who carefully traced and then colored the animators' original drawings to cells that were then filmed.) There were a few exceptions like Bianca Majolie and Grace Huntington, and they were mercilessly bullied by the male animators, including big jolly teddy bear Roy Williams, who would later gain fame onscreen in The Mickey Mouse Club. Almost none of the women in the story department or in other high-ranking animation jobs were ever credited on the films. But you definitely saw their work: the savage dogs in Bambi were designed by a woman. As were the beautiful critically-acclaimed crystal designs in the "Nutcracker" sequence of Fantasia. (Fun fact: "The Nutcracker" ballet was unknown in the United States at the time Fantasia was released, but George Ballanchine was a fan of the original concept drawings. In 1954 he staged the first American version of The Nutcracker on stage, and since then it has become a Christmas classic.)

The saddest tale in the volume has to be that of Mary Blair. If you went to the 1964 World's Fair, she was the designer of "It's a Small World," and you can still see her artistry in both the Disney parks. As Mary Robinson, she married one of Walt's animators, Lee Blair, and her art wowed Disney. Very soon her work eclipsed that of her husband, and he became a violent alcoholic, verbally and physically threatening her and her children. She kept it all hidden.

It was always known that the women at Disney were not paid as well and little allowed into "the boys' club," but this really brings home the bullying and anxieties they went through. It's very sad that these talented men took such glee in doing this. An illuminating but ultimately sobering book.

book icon  A Brushstroke With Death, Bethany Blake
After reading about the tough times of Disney's female animators, I wanted something light to read. This Barnes & Noble "exclusive" (and it is, too; no release on Amazon until this fall) fits the bill: it's a witchy cozy about Willow Bellamy, who owns the art studio The Owl and Crescent, which has a resident owl as well as Willow's pet cat Luna, and a rescue pig. Willow, along with her friends Astrid and Pepper, are all witches, Willow from a long line of Bellamy adepts, including her Grandma Anna and her mother, the latter who has eschewed the craft and is the mayor of Zephyr Hollow. Willow also has custody of the Bellamy spellbook, which figures in the story after one of the local merchants, crabby Evangeline Fletcher, is killed after a meeting at Willow's studio. And did we mention Fletcher's nephew Derek is Willow's old boyfriend? And he'll profit if his aunt dies?

Plus there's another fillip of mystery that pops up: the detective who shows up to investigate the case is a dead ringer for the handsome dark-haired man walking his dog that Willow painted days earlier (and he even has a dog).

So who killed crabby Evangeline? Was it Derek? One of the other small businesspersons, including a weird filmmaker, all of whom hated her? The absent-minded caretaker of the Fletcher property? Or maybe it's Willow herself, since the murder weapon came from a still life she organized? Can Willow, Astrid, and Pepper ferret out the killer?

This is light, fun, and a pleasant way to spend some reading time, especially after some very heavy reading, and the mysterious police detective is easy on the mental image of him.

book icon  America Celebrates! A Patchwork of Weird and Wonderful Holiday Lore. Hennig Cohen and Tristram Peter Coffin
Newspaper and magazine articles make up the contents of this unusual holiday book about American celebrations, from the classic ones everyone knows like New Year's, Christmas, Independence Day, etc. to holidays celebrated by certain ethnic or regional groups, like Boys' Day and Girls' Day in Japanese neighborhoods; the buzzard festival in Hinckley, Ohio; Green Corn Festivals among the Seminole and the Seneca; and Bastille Day among the Cajuns. The dates on these articles range from 19th century datelines all the way through the 1980s: for instance the New Years' articles include pieces on Boston's no-alcohol street party "First Night," the Philadelphia Mummers Parade, and 19th century Open House and calling customs. Fortunetelling superstitions for both New Year's and for Hallowe'en appear, all sorts of Thanksgiving celebrations challenge the classic Pilgrim feast, and King's Day, Sweet Potato Day, Derby Day, St. John's Day, Dewali, and more grace the pages.

book icon  Re-read: Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Kate Douglas Wiggin

book icon  One Fatal Flaw: A Daniel Pitt Mystery, Anne Perry
This is the third entry in Perry's Daniel Pitt series, in which Daniel is begged by a young woman to help her boyfriend, who has been accused of killing a rival gang leader and then covering it up with arson. Daniel's friend, the scientist Miriam fforbes-Croft, recalls that one of her instructors at university, Sir Barnabas Saltram, once was able to save a member of the nobility in a case where a fire killed the man's young wife and he was accused of murdering her. Daniel is able to secure Saltram's services and with the help of his fellow attorney Kitteridge, Robert Adwell is cleared. And then, not weeks later, Rob Adwell is killed in a similar manner in a similar situation, and the young woman who pleaded for his life is accused of the crime. Daniel and Miriam are stunned; two so similar crimes could not have happened. Could they have been wrong? Could Sir Barnabas have been wrong—more than once?

As always, a deliberate narrative in Perry's classic style, and although Miriam is an appealing character, strait-laced and sober Daniel is not as colorful or interesting as either his father or mother were in the earlier Pitt series. The mystery is interesting up to a certain point, when you realize what happened, and then the remainder of the book is proving that.

book icon  Boston: A Social History, Brett Howard
I find the best things at book sales. This one's an episodic history of The Hub, with chapters devoted to the founding (including William Blackstone hightailing it out of there when the Puritans showed up) and setting the record straight: the Pilgrims didn't found Boston, the Puritans did (and they didn't much like each other). Subsequent chapters are devoted to "the first families" of Boston, the Adams family, the Kennedys from the first immigrant to the first Catholic President of the United States, traditional Boston foods, Harvard, Massachusetts writers, the different churches and denominations, Bostonians at war, crime and punishment, and more. The volume is illustrated with vintage woodcuts, engravings, and black and white photographs, and is different from most chronological histories of any city. Enjoyed this.

book icon  Kindness Goes Unpunished, Craig Johnson
In the third book in Johnson's Longmire series, Walt Longmire accompanies his good friend (and sometimes better half) Henry Standing Bear to Philadelphia where Henry will exhibit his Native American photos and deliver a lecture, and Walt will visit with his daughter Cady, who's practicing law at a firm there. But he is no sooner arrived at Cady's home than he gets a heart-stopping phone call: Cady's in the hospital with a severe head injury after falling down concrete steps. As Walt grapples with the fact that Cady may not come out of her coma, he is, of course, also determined to bring her attacker to justice. With the support of the family of his deputy Victoria Moretti, and eventually two Philadelphia police officers (plus Vic's family, most of whom are police), Walt discovers the attack's ties to Cady's boyfriend whom he has doubts about, and who appears to be a drug user. So he's floored when said boyfriend is also killed.

Another great Longmire adventure which takes Walt and Henry out of the familiar environs of Absaroka County while still remaining strongly themselves. Readers of this book say Johnson brings Philadelphia to life; I've only been to the city once doing tourist attractions, but his "Philly" seems very real, from the big areas like the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and monuments to small details like a local bar near Cady's home. Vic's family, as she's stated, are complicated, and Walt learns the full import of that in this story. Also great touches with Walt's and Henry's friendship and how the latter acts as a governor to the former's often hasty decisions.

I usually don't care for police procedurals of any stripe, but this series has me hooked because of the character relationships.

31 January 2020

Books Completed Since January 1

book icon  A Wartime Christmas, compiled by Maria and Andrew Hubert

book icon  More Holmes for the Holiday, edited by Martin H. Greenberg, Jon L. Lellenberg, and Carol-Lynn Waugh

book icon  Inventing Santa Claus: The Mystery of Who Really Wrote The Most Celebrated Yuletide Poem of All Time, Carlo DeVito

book icon  Hanukkah in America, Dianne Ashton

book icon  Young Americans Colonial Williamsburg: Caesar's Story, 1759, Joan Lowery Nixon
This is one of six children's books Nixon wrote in the Colonial Williamsburg series (Will's Story, set in 1771, is reviewed here). Caesar, age seven, is a slave on the Carter's Grove plantation near Williamsburg, and in the past he and "Master" Nat, son of the owner, have been best buddies. Now Caesar is old enough to work in the fields and Nat is old enough, with his uncle's tutelage (his father has died), to learn how to run the plantation. Caesar hates the fact that his days of play are over, but he is told by his father, mother, and other slaves that it's time for him to grow up. Then Master Nat requests that he be trained as his personal servant, and Caesar must learn to treat his former playmate with the type of unquestioning respect a black person is supposed to give to a white person in those days.

One cannot really "enjoy" this book because of the way Caesar, his mother, father, siblings, and fellow slaves are treated. On every page you bristle at the unfairness of the human condition in the 18th century. One of the saddest things about this book is the brainwashing of Nat: a year ago he and Caesar were fishing and hunting buddies, now Nat is parroting the party line of his uncle, who truly believes people of color aren't mentally sufficient enough to determine their own fate and who must therefore remain in servitude. And you can see that Nat is still fighting this conditioning by the way he sometimes speaks to Caesar as an equal and then recollects and scolds him for being familiar, but with regret in his voice, so that you can understand that slave owners were not "born evil," but have been trained into the social beliefs that preceded them.

In any case, Caesar grows in wisdom and learns to feel pride in himself and what he can accomplish within the unfair strictures of slavery, keeping hope alive for the future. A very sobering read within its age limitations—except for not going into extreme detail, Lowery spares nothing when discussing what punishment, like whipping and possibly being sentenced to death, slaves might incur if they disobey their masters or run away—but retaining a spark of hope that things might be different someday.

book icon  Agents of Influence, Henry Hemming
"Fake news," Hemming tells us, is nothing new, but it was especially important to one country in 1940. Things were going badly for Great Britain as Hitler's war machine marched westward. If not needing a fighting force from the United States, Britain badly needed what the US could provide in fighting materials: ships, aircraft, weapons, and just about everything else. But to a United States just tottering out of the Depression, recalling the mess they had been involved in during the Great War, this was just another evil siren call to get involved in someone else's war. How could the British convince the US to help them?

Thus came to the States William Stephenson, who became well known after a book and miniseries about him in the 1970s, A Man Called Intrepid (which Hemming states is mostly false). He and a team of operatives from Canada carefully placed stories which supported President Roosevelt and decried the Nazi party into magazines, newspapers, and on the radio. But facing them were hardliners like the America First Party and its staunchest defender, American hero Charles Lindbergh. Having been thoroughly snowed by the Nazis, who convinced him they could not be beaten, and with more than a dribble of anti-Semitism and close-mindedness, Lindbergh convinced or strengthened many Americans' belief that the Nazis would be eventual victors, but would leave the United States alone once they had conquered Europe.

In alternate chapters, we learn how Stephenson's team paved the way for sales of scrap and programs like Lend-Lease to exist, and the methods of infiltration they used (cunningly forged false maps, surveys, official documents, etc.), and how Lindbergh fought back. We're also introduced to Hans Thomsen, a diplomat from Germany who fed pro-Nazi/German information to Congress so that it could be printed (for free) in the Congressional Record and thus distributed to newspapers, at no cost to the Nazi regime. Interesting if not compellingly written.

book icon  The King's Justice, Susan Elia MacNeal
This is the ninth book in the Maggie Hope series, and the second in which the author has addressed the subject of serial killers; I hope [no pun intended] she's got it out of her system because the idea makes me squeamish.

Margaret "Maggie" Hope, raised in the United States but back in Great Britain after her aunt leaves her the family home in her will, having fallen in with the British war effort and eventually becoming a spy who finds out hard truths about all her family, and finally, in the previous book, having been unfairly confined on a remote Scottish island with other spies and one murderer, is starting to come apart at the seams. She's thrown herself into new work—disarming unexploded bombs—and is smoking, drinking, and driving a fast motorcycle in an effort to run away from her terrifying memories, including the upcoming execution of the serial killer Maggie caught after he almost took her life. But there's a new serial killer in town who may eclipse the old: he/she is leaving stripped bones in suitcases in the Thames. Who are these new victims, and is there any connection to the old killer?

One understands why Maggie has gone in the direction she has, but it's still hard reading. You want to shake her and tell her "STOP!" The plot is suitably convoluted and very grim, and introducing us to an ethnic group I'd never heard of, the "Britalians," Italian immigrants raised in Britain but suffering bigotry from all fronts because of Italy's inclusion in the Axis Powers. In fact, one of Maggie's bomb squad team is a serious young man who is not only Britalian (did they really use that word? it sounds very modern) but a conscientious objector who was given a white feather by some young ladies in a restaurant. In a parallel to Maggie's psychological upheaval, her friend Chuck's husband has come home suffering with shell shock, silent one moment, violently angry the next.

As I said, more creepy serial killer plot which I hope MacNeal has gotten out of her system now, as some of this reads like true crime, but a true page-turner.

book icon  Re-read: The Furthest Station, Ben Aaronovitch
This novella in the "Rivers of London"/Peter Grant series takes place after The Hanging Tree and the graphic novel Black Mould, as Peter tackles some strange occurrences in the London Underground. Commuters are being verbally assaulted by ghostly figures who are trying to tell them something, but by the time the people report the events, they are already forgetting what happens. Piecing together the story, Peter believes someone's life is in danger—and the ghosts are trying to help that person.

The biggest problem with this story is that it wasn't another Peter Grant book. 😉 There's simply not enough of our favorite characters: Peter, Abigail (who's catching on frightfully quickly), Thomas Nightingale, Toby, and Peter's old friend Jaget Kumar of the Metropolitan Transit authority. The ghosts are entertaining (and in one case a little heartbreaking) and we meet another river.

book icon  Daemon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling, Philip Pullman
This is a collection of essays, or rather written versions of presentations Pullman has given at bookstores, libraries, science fiction conventions, and even religious convocations (since Pullman is an atheist that's an interesting proposition!) in which he talks about storytelling and the art of narrative (including stories told in art, which several of the essays are devoted to), plus side visits to the purity of fairy tale narrative, how modern teaching methods are ruining children's joy in reading (I agree with him there!), how he hated Narnia for what Lewis did to Susan (huh! well, I understood Lewis' metaphor if Pullman didn't—and this from a man who was railing about imaginations being destroyed!), the concept of "phase space" (several essays are devoted to this) in which a pivotal point in a story rests on not just what happens next but all the things that could have happened next, the Gnostic gospels, how ridiculous belief in any type of god is, how our loss of innocence in adolescence curbs the wild creativity of childhood, that the Fall of Man was a good thing, how teachers stifle a love of poetry, how he created the mulefa on The Amber Spyglass, and much, much more.

There's a lot to enjoy here, especially about narratives (especially those unseen) and storytelling, and Pullman can tell a good yarn, even in a collection of essays. Be aware he's a long-winded and opinionated cuss, though; if you don't mind that, there's much to like here. 

book icon  Beyond the Trees: A Journey Alone Across Canada's Arctic, Adam Shoalts
Naturalist and explorer Shoalts, the author of two other books about canoeing and hiking in Canada, wants to accomplish something that has been never done before: crossing Canada's territory at the Arctic Circle by canoe. He times it to the sesquicentennial of Canada becoming a separate country, and also must carefully time his journey until after the winter ice breaks up, and then still has only three months to go thousands of miles. Even worse, he is going to make the trek west to east, which will require him to canoe upstream on most of the rivers he encounters, including the great Mackenzie and the treacherous Coppermine (which is pretty much all rapids), plus navigate Great Bear Lake.

I am the least "naturalist" person you can imagine, but love reading stories like this. This one seems to be a bit lacking, and it's not because of Shoalts' writing skills—when he is given a chance to be descriptive, he is quite good (especially about the fierce mosquitoes and blackflies that infest the region in summer)—but because he has set this long goal for himself and such a short time to do it in, his trip seems to be rush, rush, rush. Over and over you will read how many kilometers he made that day, in how many hours, and of the exhausting work he had to do to travel that distance (rise at 3 a.m., fight against current and wind, push every muscle to the limit, endure swarms of insects), and the only time he "rests" is sitting out bad storms. At several points he wishes he could camp and fish (he's eating nothing but freeze-dried meals flown out to him at certain points), but his timetable is so tight he can't. Another night he is invited to have a shower and a good meal at a wealthy man's fishing camp, but again his timeline harries him on. I kind of wish he would have made a shorter trek, and been able to stargaze, observe wildlife, fish, explore old ruins...the book would have been less exhausting for the reader, who also would have gotten more enjoyment from it. What's the use pushing yourself like this to "see if you can do it" if you don't have time to stop and absorb it all?

I liked the book, but would have enjoyed it more if it wasn't such an endurance test rather than an enjoyable voyage.

book icon  Young Americans Colonial Williamsburg: Ann's Story, 1747, Joan Lowery Nixon
This is the first of the six Williamsburg books done by Nixon. Ann McKenzie is the daughter of Williamsburg's doctor/apothecary and also wishes to become a doctor, but the adults all tell her no woman can be a doctor and she's better off learning housewifery instead. Ann still persists in learning what she can about nursing and taking care of patients, and she even finds a way to take lessons in Latin from a supercilious boy in exchange for doing his mathematics homework, although she finds out later she is learning less than she thought she was. She's also afraid of the rumors circulating that, now that the capitol building has burned down, that they will be moving the Virginia capital "up the Pamunkey River" and her family will be forced to go live in the wilderness currently there.

Aside from this premonitory plot point (the capital of Virginia did later move "up the Pamunkey" to Richmond), Ann's story is rather pedestrian. She gets in mischief with male friends and a girlfriend named "Peachy," including sneaking out one night to see the slaves holding a dance, a move Ann fears brought smallpox to them, and you do feel sympathy for her having to accept her fate as becoming a housekeeper instead of getting to fulfill her dreams as a doctor. A nice portrait of regular Williamsburg society three decades before the Revolutionary War, plus a look at old-world medicine, but not as heartwrenching as Caesar's Story.

book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Secret Fort, Jerry West
This follows The Happy Hollisters and the Trading Post Mystery, but now it's spring vacation. The kids befriend a road crew that is building a new parkway on the site of an old fort that was active during the Revolutionary War, but the exact location of the fort has been lost. The historical society offers a reward to anyone who can locate the fort before the parkway goes through, and of course the five Hollister children (Pete, age 12; Pam, 10; Ricky, 7; and Holly, 6, and little Sue, age 4) would love to discover the hidden site. At the same time, the kids also befriend a family whose home is on the route the parkway will take; they would love to move their house to a new lot, but none are available in the town of Shoreham and the family doesn't wish to move away.

Large construction machines may fascinate children and some adults, but there are entirely too many bulldozers and other earth-moving machines in this entry for my taste. Plus, what on earth is the deal with Joey Brill? In this book, also determined to find the fort and earn the reward, Joey steals an old letter that may point the direction to the fort, knocks Pete unconscious, and lets himself be bribed by a stranger—none of which he ever seems to get punished for. His parents must really be in somebody's pockets!

31 December 2019

Favorite "Dozen" Books of 2019

Once again, there's the difficulty of having to narrow these down to a dozen; I usually end up with the traditional baker's dozen [thirteen] instead. If this was a "best books," maybe the Griffo wouldn't be on here, because there's a bit in the story that's on the edge of credulity. But, being a "favorite," it needs to stay, because I was just so delighted with the protagonist being a retirement-age Italian granny. So I guess my "dozen" will have to be fifteen entries and sixteen books this year.

book icon  The Bowery Boys Adventures in Old New York, Greg Young and Tom Meyers (taken from a podcast about historical areas of NYC, both still extant and now demolished)

book icon  Cool Hand Lou: My Fifty Years in Hollywood and on Broadway, Lou Antonio (an autobiography of the actor and director)

book icon  A Forgotten Place, Charles Todd (the latest Bess Crawford mystery, written in a Gothic style)

book icon  Dear Mrs. Bird, A.J. Pearce (a young British girl survives the Blitz while working on a stodgy women's magazine)

book icon  Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul, Barbara Reynolds (biography of the Lord Peter Wimsey author)

book icon  Underland, Robert MacFarlane (MacFarlane's tour-de-force about places underground from caves to crevasses to the catacombs of Paris)

book icon  Saving Jemima: Life and Love with a Hard-Luck Jay, Julie Zickefoose (Zickefoose's story of the rescue and raising of a blue jay)

book icon  The Rise of the Rocket Girls, Nathalia Holt (great story of the women who would work with the first rocket programs)

book icon  A Death of No Importance/Death of a New American, Mariah Fredericks (the first two books in Fredericks' new series taking place in the 1920s, with a heroine who is not a 21st century woman in 20th century clothes)

book icon  How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, Chris Taylor (the film series from George Lucas' original idea to hark back to the old movie serials to the present, with chapters on SW fandom)

book icon  Moonbound: Apollo 11 and the Dream of Spaceflight, Jonathan Fetter-Vorm (the American space program that put man on the moon, told in a graphic novel—perfect!)

book icon  Murder on Memory Lake, J.D. Griffo (starting new series with an unconventional heroine: a 60-ish Italian grandmother—when she exclaimed "Ah, Madon!" I knew I was home)

book icon  A Gentleman's Murder, Christopher Huang (British murder mystery with an unconventional narrator, a biracial man, post First World War)

book icon  The Body on the Train, Frances Brody (the latest in Brody's Kate Shackleton mystery series, and, if not the best, probably in the top three—great story!)

book icon  On the Map, Simon Garfield (another great book from Garfield, this time on the history of maps and mapmaking)

What's next? Oh, as Betty Roberts would say with delight, so many things! I have three ARCs to read first, one the latest Maggie Hope mystery story, and then I have Nathalia Holt's new book about the women at Walt Disney's animation department, The Secret Commonwealth as well as Philip Pullman's book about writing, and I still haven't gotten to Tony Horwitz's final book...

Books Completed Since December 1

book icon  Light of the World, Amy Jill Levine

book icon  Re-read: Santa Claus: Last of the Wild Men, Phyllis Siefker

book icon  A Lakes Christmas, compiled by Sheila Richardson

book icon  The Case of the Missing Auntie, Michael Hutchinson
I admit, I still watch cartoons if they're good cartoons. And earlier this year PBS debuted a dynamite new series, Molly of Denali, about a Native Alaskan girl and her family and friends. The series opened with a sobering story called "Grandpa's Drum," about Molly's Grandpa Nat, who hasn't sung with the tribe since his childhood, and what happens when Molly finds out why. This entry in "the Mighty Muskrats" series travels similar ground.

This, the second in a new series by Hutchinson, who is a member of the Cree community, revolves around four children, Samuel, Chickadee, Atin, and Otter, cousins who call themselves "the Mighty Muskrats," who live at the Windy Lake reservation. Chickadee's grandfather admits to her that his younger sister Charlotte was taken away from his family in the late 1950s in what they called "scoops"—native children who were adopted (mostly to act as servants) for white people. Now with the Muskrats heading into the big city to go to an exhibition fair, a disturbed Chickadee thinks their first mission should be to try to track down their missing aunt, but the boys are full of anticipation about visiting cousins, going to the fair, and Otter just wants to see his favorite Native band perform.

No sooner are the kids at the much vaunted mall in the crowded, confusing city that they run into Brett, a boy who used to live on the "rez" and who Chickadee secretly had a crush on., and things start to go a little haywire. But Chickadee is still determined, no matter what, to find missing Auntie Charlotte.

This reads like an old-fashioned kids' adventure—the covers even look like a Happy Hollisters book—with modern sensibilities (internet, cell phones, etc.), real-life problems (Native people still coping with terrible laws once enacted by white settlers), and the problems of a usually-overlooked culture. The kids meet good and bad people of all cultures, cope with bureaucracy, find out some hard truths about their past, but also that they can help overcome it.

Maybe because I didn't read the first book the kids don't seem to be as individually fleshed out as I'd like, except for Chickadee (I still don't think I know how old each of them are, except that Atin is the eldest). Otherwise I found this really enjoyable, and a great way to introduce non-Native children to one aspect of Native culture. (The story is set in Canada, but the "residential homes" mentioned were just like the "Indian schools" like that in Carlisle, PA, which ended up with such an evil reputation, and for good reason.)

book icon  A Christmas Party, Georgette Heyer

book icon  The Book of Christmas Folklore, Tristram P. Coffin

book icon  Bells, Spells, and Murder, Carol J. Perry

book icon  Re-read: Merry Midwinter, Gillian Monks

book icon  A Fenland Christmas, compiled by Chris Carling

book icon  Re-read: The Story of Holly and Ivy, Rumer Godden

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

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

book icon  Re-read: Dear America: Christmas After All, Kathryn Lasky

book icon  Carols From King's, Alexandra Coghlan

book icon  Ideals Christmas, from the Ideals Publication

book icon  Re-read: A Little House Christmas Treasury, Laura Ingalls Wilder with colorized illustrations by Garth Williams

book icon  Re-read: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Barbara Robinson

book icon  Re-read: The House Without a Christmas Tree, Gail Rock