31 August 2021

Books Completed Since August 1

book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Mystery of the Mexican Idol, Jerry West
And here we are at book 31 in the series and I'm thinking I should have taken notes again. John Hollister's brother Russ (the cartoonist) is back, flying into the Hollisters' home town of Shoreham when his flight is delayed. He tells the children (12-year-old Pete; 10-year-old Pam; Ricky, age 7; Holly, age 6; and 4-year-old Sue) and their parents there was a snake loose on the aircraft and in the panic over the reptile, his briefcase disappeared. Luckily he has the important document he's been carrying in his wallet instead: it's the map to a hidden Mayan temple with a "Laughing Idol" in the Yucatan given to him by an injured buddy/archaeologist named Skeets Packer. You guessed it: Uncle Russ, Aunt Marge, and their kids Teddy and Jean are going to Yucatan to search for the temple, and, no surprise, the five sibling sleuths and their parents will be going along. No sooner have they decided this than their house is broken into and searched! Everyone suspects it's due to the map.
 
In short order both Hollister families are in Mexico, the kids have created a code out of Mayan characters (keep it in mind, it does turn up later), they've found a rare coin and a chicken named Tan-Tan, come to depend on their driver Balám, discovered men not happy that they're in Chichén Itzá, and befriended two kids, Tomás Rico and his tagalog little sister Yotam (she says "Yo tam hai" all the time, which means "me, too" in Mayan, so that's her nickname). Add snakes, secretive boys with full sacks, a movie crew, a kidnapping, and the knowledge that Mayan artifacts are being smuggled out of the Yucatan for resale instead of ending up in local museums, and you have the Hollisters on an Indiana-Jones-type adventure with so many plot devices it's difficult to keep them straight.

Having read the previous volumes written in the 1950s where the boys and girls share sleuthing adventures, it's darned annoying near the end of a book written in 1967 to have Pam, Holly, and Jean relegated to learning to make huipils (traditional Mayan dresses) while the boys get to go out to do a little detective work; at least they're all in it at the end. Plus you end up learning a good deal about Mayan culture and the constant fight against looting of treasures, if the tangled plot doesn't make you dizzy first!
 
book icon  Amber: A Very Personal Cat, Gladys Taber
In 1968, Gladys Taber returned from a visit to Cape Cod with a heavy heart; her final dog, Holly the Irish setter, had died while they were at the Cape, the last link between herself and her best friend Eleanor Mayer ("Jill" in the Stillmeadow books), whom she had known since college. Not minutes later Taber's daughter showed up with a magic box: inside was an Abyssinian kitten Gladys named Amber. She became Taber's constant companion throughout her final ten years of life.
 
Partially memoir of life-with-kitten, partial guide to taking care of cats, and all love for everything feline, Taber chats about Amber's friendly personality, her quirks, her uncanny instinct to know who loves cats and also to recognize the car engines of particular visiting friends, her prodigious leaping ability, and her habit of tagging after her mistress like a little dog—so much for cats being aloof! This book is a little bit like her early book Especially Spaniels, with a cat rather than cockers.
 
Some of the cat care items are now outdated, like the care of ticks and fleas (as we now have monthly medications for them) and the attitude toward spaying and neutering (Gladys preferred closely monitoring Amber when she came into "season"), but basic first aid is still the same, and anyone who's loved a kitten will certainly love Amber! Illustrated with black-and-white photos of the very photogenic subject.
 
book icon  Hal Borland's Book of Days, Hal Borland
I enjoyed This Hill, This Valley enough that I sent off for this one. It's not really a Book of Days as in a diary, although some entries are about his observations of wildlife, weather, or seasonal growth and harvest. He says in the foreward that it was intended neither as calendar or almanac, but was his day-to-day thoughts, and the questions he had throughout the year: Who am I? Where am I? What time is it? But a lot of it reads like he took his newspaper columns and broke them up into manageable bits and used them as diary entries, and he's started from one-celled organisms and moved up through the evolutionary scale. Some of his entries, like about birds and mammals, were quite interesting, also the diary entries; I was less enthusiastic about all the material about fish, amphibians, and reptiles, and especially insects, but that's just me. He also talks about the findings of anthropologists in talking about early man, and about Robert Bakker's "new theories" (this was published in 1976) about dinosaurs being warm-blooded, which he disbelieves, so some of the science he talked about then is not up-to-date now.
 
I really would have preferred it if he'd stuck to a diary format of doings around his home, and his observations of animals, plants, and birds, with some of the scientific information tucked in around those observations, rather than what looked like just cutting-and-pasting his old columns into diary entries. It makes you wonder why he's talking about ants in December and birds' eyes in February.
 
book icon  Death Comes to Bath, Catherine Lloyd
Three months after Sir Robert Kurland almost succumbed to an infection in the leg he injured at Waterloo, he does not seem to be recovering well. His forthright wife Lucy Harrington Kurland consults his old friend, an army physician, and moves the household, including her unmarried sister Anna, to the city of Bath, where Robert will "take the waters" and have other theraputic treatments. They rent a fine home, and Robert finds he even enjoys the spa treatments, especially after he finds a kindred spirit in Sir William Benson, a plain-speaking Yorkshire industrialist. Robert, Lucy, and Anna, plus Penelope Fletcher, Robert's doctor's pregnant wife, are more puzzled by Benson's family: three sons from Benson's first marriage, his young wife Miranda and her two spoiled sons, and Dr. Martel, Miranda's live-in physicians, who all appear to hate each other.
 
And evidently one of them hates Sir William, who was found drowned after one of his spa treatments—or it looks as if he were drowned, until Dr. Fletcher finds a stab wound.

This sixth book in the Kurland St. Mary mysteries find both Robert and Lucy eager to solve the mystery of who killed Sir William, if they don't go crazy dealing with the battling Bensons beforehand. The natural children hate their stepmother and stepbrothers, the stepmother knows it and reacts in all sorts of melodramatic ways, and her two sons are just plain troublemakers. In fact, the only person who really seems to have liked Sir William was his valet! More trouble comes when the solicitor comes to read the will: he doesn't have a copy, since Sir William practically changed it weekly. In the meantime Anna has finally found the man of her dreams, but is too afraid of childbirth to want to be married.

The baffling Bensons prove to stymie Lucy and Robert for a while, and they both miss a couple of clues that Lloyd dangles before their eyes. Still, the change of venue and their willing partnership in this detection event make this a winner.
 
book icon  Re-read: Where the Old Roads Go, George Cantor
I found I was in need of a travel comfort read and went back to an old favorite where Cantor travels the old Federal highways in the Northeast (the New England states as well as New York, with a brief dip or two into Pennsylvania), from the real Mother Road, U.S. 1 all the way through U.S. 302. No doubt most of the local attractions Cantor mentions are probably gone (the caboose motel is still there, but it received a terrible rating on Yelp), but the historic background to each road is still solid as we travel from Fort Kent, Maine to the George Washington Bridge on Route 1; the forests of upper Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont via Route 2; drive from Massachusetts through the beautiful New Hampshire countryside on Route 3; cross the midpoint of the Green Mountain State and the Granite State (one of my Dad's favorite shortcuts to Lake George) on Route 4; etc. There's the old Putnam Pike (a.k.a. "Suicide 6," from Rhode Island to Connecticut after traveling the "tail of Cape Cod," my especial darling U.S. 9 from one mountain range (the Catskills) through another (the Adirondaks) taking in beloved Lake George and Fort Ticonderoga, the beginnings of "the Yankee Highway" (U.S. 20), west to Connecticut from Plymouth (a.k.a. in my neck of the woods the Danielson Pike) on U.S. 44, and more. No freeways, no standardized filling stations and chain restaurants...more developed now, alas, but still fun to roam. Thanks for the memories, George.
 
book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Monster Mystery, Jerry West
In the penultimate volume of the Happy Hollisters series (yes, it's almost the end), Pete, age 12, brings the members of the Shoreham Detective Club to order: his brother and sisters (10-year-old Pam; Ricky, age 7; Holly, age 6; and 4-year-old Sue), and neighbors Dave Mead, Ann Hunter and her brother Jeff, and Donna Martin. They are going to solve "the monster mystery" that has caused gossip in their lakeside home town, Shoreham, after strange footprints have been found around town and small food items missing from porches. They also want to help a nearby school start a toy library (so poor children can borrow toys as they do books) and, in the process, befriend a boy named Alex Kane. Almost as soon as they resolve to investigate the monster, Holly sees it: it looks like a small wrinkled old man with big teeth.
 
The Hollisters have met several different Native American tribespeople in the course of their travels, plus Mexicans, Hispanic Americans, and Swiss, German, and Danish people. It's only in book 32 that they meet someone...black! Alex turns out to be a vital new member of the Detective Club (and his dad has a cool job, too; he's the fire chief) as the Hollisters and friends seek out "monster" clues and even investigate a flying saucer claim. It's a bit irritating that in the newer books in the series, the girls seem to be excluded from sleuthing more, but in the end, once again, it's Pam who solves the whole thing. As a child of the 1960s, having seen this plotline endlessly on television (Lassie, of all series, seemed particularly fond of it), I twigged what was going on about halfway throughout, but it's still a tidy little mystery carried to its inevitable conclusion. And Joey Brill, the jerk, eventually gets a good spanking from his father!
 
book icon  Time's Convert, Deborah Harkness
Judging by some of the lukewarm reviews of this book, some folks were looking for more brooding Matthew and spellcasting Diana. This isn't the book.
 
There are basically three storylines here, all to do with learning and growing: Phoebe Taylor, deeply in love with Marcus Whitmore, resolves to become a vampire, sired by Miriam Shephard. Having agreed to stay away from Marcus during her first 90 days, she is sequestered with Freyja and Miriam as her instructors in learning to live her new life. In the meantime, we join Diana and Matthew in their home in New Haven, Connecticut, where they are both learning what it's like to raise two Bright Born (half-vampire, half-witch) children: Rebecca takes after Matthew and there are fears she may have blood madness and Philip definitely has magical tendencies, especially after he conjures a small griffin he calls Apollo. In the third thread, we learn about Marcus Whitmore's life, from his abusive childhood with a father who returned home from the French and Indian Wars as a drunkard with a violent temper to his participation in the Revolutionary War to his siring by Matthew while on his deathbed at Yorktown to his adventures in France during the Revolution to his life in New Orleans during the early 1800s when Matthew finally had to put a stop to his indiscriminate siring of vampire "children."
 
Marcus' portion of the story reads a lot like a historical novel, with his participating in the Revolution both in the United States and in fractured France. He meets people like the Marquis de Lafayette, Benjamin Franklin, and his idol, Thomas Paine. Harkness vividly brings both the U.S. and the French settings to life, but if you're not a fan of historical stories, this may bore you. Phoebe's portion of the book illustrates how differently a vampire sees the world and how things as simple as walking and grasping things have to be relearned because vampirism makes one super strong and super sensitive. (It also treads very carefully on where the blood that keeps them alive comes from—mostly they buy it from humans willing to sell!) The Matthew/Diana/Becca/Philip part of the book is rather whimsical: remember the episodes of Bewitched where Tabitha was going through "wishcraft"? This is a more serious—since Matthew's brother Baldwin so is fearful that Becca will attack someone or Philip will toss off a damaging spell that he wishes them spellbound as Diana was as a child—version of that, sort of Bringing Up Bébé, if your child is a witch or a vampire, that is!

I am a fan of history, so I enjoyed all three threads that comprise this book, although I must confess I liked the "bringing up vampire/witch babies" sequence the best. The book, as some have complained, doesn't really come to a climax; it actually comes full circle with Marcus, with each protagonist in the book doing some growing. I was satisfied.

(Several reviews complained about the language. I am not naïve enough to think that nobody swore in Colonial times, but, yes, I was a little taken aback that "f---" showed up so often in this book! Surely there were other curse words? Are "damn" and "hell" simply too mild to show "strong emotion" any longer?)
 
book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Mystery of the Midnight Trolls, Jerry West
#33, and last in the series. The family goes out with an intriguing adventure with a really dumb ending. Everyone is excited when John Hollister brings home his new sailplane, but peculiar things begin to happen: first Grandma Hollister sends them a message in Braille from Canada, asking the kids to come visit and meet a special friend. But she also says she and their grandfather are having trouble with trolls who show up during the night! Then a special invention for sailplanes from Iceland sent to Mr. Hollister is stolen when the kids go to the post office to pick it up. Luckily Officer Cal helps them get it back. Next thing you know the five children (Pete, age 12; Pam, 10; 7-year-old Ricky; Holly, 6; and Sue, 4) are on their way, via bus (yes, alone!—and on the way they acquire a piglet) to Canada, where they meet Helga Karlsdottir from Iceland. (Guess what, it turns out Helga is the daughter of the man who sent Mr. Hollister the package!) In Canada, the kids ride a pony and search for the trolls.

The whole Hollister family are then on their way to Iceland so that the sailplane can compete in a sailplane contest, traveling with Helga and hosted by her parents and brother Olaf. (Pam appears to have a little crush on Olaf, the first time that's happened in a Hollister book.) At the airport they find the sailplane has been stolen. So for the rest of the trip they are searching for the sailplane, the thieves that followed them from Shoreham, the trolls (who appear to be in Iceland as well), and still manage to learn about Iceland itself—the hot springs, the Icelandic ponies, the nearly treeless landscape, the "midnight sun," etc. There's also an ultralight helicopter involved in the story.

The trip to Iceland is fun, but the fact that Helga is blind seems to be put into the plot for no good reason: sure the kids get a Braille message to decode and later they send a secret message in Braille, and there's some talk about the "radar" the blind can rely on so they don't bump into things, but it's not like it helps solve the mystery as in the volume where a deaf boy's ability to read lips assists the kids. Holly is still "twirling her pigtail," an annoying habit she began a few books back. Also, there's a very strange ending involving Sue, who is a little fractious upon leaving Canada. She's sad that there are no trees in Iceland, so she can't see any birds, even though Sue has never shown an affinity for birds in any other book. Helga consoles her by telling her they will take her to see some puffins, but too much goes on, like deserted cabins, geysers, stolen ponies, etc. for that to happen. At the end of the book, Sue still mourns that she never got to see any "muffins," so Helga goes upstairs and brings back something to plunk in front of her: a stuffed puffin! And, seriously, that's how the book ends. Kind of a letdown after 33 volumes!
 
book icon  Don't Make Me Pull Over! An Informal History of the Family Road Trip, Richard Ratay
This is a sweetly nostalgic and tongue-in-cheek road trip about family car vacations in the 1970s, where Ratay's dad and mom piled four kids and tons of luggage in their car at 4 a.m. (so they could drive past Chicago before rush hour) to get on the road. I remember those early morning starts, snacks in the back seat and then having to help Dad drive when I turned sixteen, watching the world spool by outside the window, but am forever grateful my Dad was all about bathroom breaks and having his meals on time and wasn't like Mr. Ratay with his obsession about "making time"! We at least got to stop every two hours and eat at places like Nickerson Farms (oh, that chicken soup!) instead of just pulling through the drive-though at (yeeech) McDonald's.
 
Along with the family trip memories of squeezing six people in a double motel room (at least Ratay's dad sprang for brand-name motels!), Ratay chronicles the history of American roads and road trips, roadside eateries and sleeping places, attractions, and what finally put the kibosh on the great American road trip: airline deregulation. (I've taken advantage of that since 1979—and yet husband and I still miss our past road trips, given the kibosh the last few years due to his health: Gatlinburg in 2013 and 2014; Virginia in 2012;  Michigan and Ohio in 2011; Pennsylvania Dutch in 2009; etc., most of the time with a small dog and a budgie in tow!)
 
Noted: in his chapter about the 1970s gas embargo and subsequent shortage, Ratay has missed a "fun" result of the era: people siphoning gas from your car! In college my Toyota Corolla started getting 15 mpg instead of 24. After the car was vetted as fine, Dad bought a spring-looking gadget that went in the filler pipe. You could put gas in the the car okay, but no one was able to stick a siphon hose down into your tank. Voilá—mileage back to 24mph. I used to park in the very back row (next to the trees) of the parking lot furthest away from the classrooms at RIC; evidently someone was gassing up their car for free by siphoning gas from the back row.
 
The last few paragraphs bring forward a great truth: today's road trips, with their personal tablets and movies in the back seat and headphones, aren't the same. You miss all the cool stuff on the road, and talking about what you've seen, and what you wanted to see. Or in Ratay's words: "More than anything else, that's what made a family road trip so special: the feeling of being inextricably bound together in a great adventure. An adventure based less on where we were headed, and more in the moments we shared along the way. In the end, it never really mattered where we traveled in our car on all those great family road trips. In simply making the drive together, we were already in the best place of all."

If you fondly remember family car trips, or just want to read some warm history, this is a great read.
 
book icon  Conversations With Amber, Gladys Taber
This is Taber's second book centered around her final pet, the Abyssinian cat Amber, but this one is more a cross between one of her Stillmeadow books and her first book about Amber, which was almost a cat care manual. Instead of talking about or with her late housemate "Jill" (Eleanor Mayer), Taber bounces her commentary about the weather, her homes in Stillmeadow and Still Cove, her neighbors on Cape Cod and the wildlife there that she feeds, and more off Amber. It is a sweet, if sad, coda to the restricted life Taber led in her final years.
 
A big plus to this second book: beautiful pointillist pen-and-ink illustrations of Amber as each chapter header by Pamela Carroll.
 
book icon  The Dante Chamber, Matthew Pearl
This is a sequel to Pearl's The Dante Club, which I enjoyed so much, especially the voice in which it was written (Pearl did a good job writing as if he was actually in the nineteenth century). In that story, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell and Oliver Wendell Holmes, along with publisher James T. Fields, become involved in a mystery where recent Boston deaths are emulating the gruesome punishments in Dante's nine circles of Hell (Longfellow is writing a new Dante translation). Now Holmes is in England just as deaths begin happening imitating the punishments Dante doled out to the people in Purgatory, and Christina Rossetti is afraid that her brilliant but unstable brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a tortured artist, is involved somehow. She teams up with her dour, non-artistic brother William, along with a still grieving Robert Browning, poet laureate Alfred Tennyson, and Holmes to discover who is carrying out these gruesome murders.
 
Pearl paints Rossetti as a reluctant leader, a woman of strong opinions who is struggling to remain a good Christian, but too intelligent to be bound to the strictures attached to women of that era. She well holds her own against Browning, who admires and tries to protect her; Tennyson, who is torn between his own self-interest and helping his friends; Holmes, who doesn't want to be involved in such horrible events again; and Gabriel himself, who is still guilt-stricken over the death of his wife five years earlier, and who appear to be slowly going crazy. You get a great idea of the personalities, but the story itself is pretty much a rehash of The Dante Club.
 
book icon  Reminisce: Family Road Trips, by the editors
Well, had to grab this one after the Ratay book! It's the best travel stories, vignettes, and images from "Reminisce/Reminisce Extra" magazines in hardback form. Most of the stories are, indeed, about family car trips, but there are other anecdotes about train and bus travel (some during World War II). The most fascinating stories are the ones which take place the earliest: motor travel in the 1920s. Two young men cross the country by motorcycle, getting bogged down in mud on terrible roads and various pieces of equipment breaking down. Car travelers are also continually stuck in mud on non-existent paved roads of the '20s.
 
Plus you have family campers, some of them home made; adventures in road stops before there were motels and restaurants, like camping next to the railroad tracks or in a farmer's front yard. Here too are the stories of kindnesses, like a young man trying to get home before his mother died; everyone who read the letter summoning him home gave him a free lift, even once by aircraft! He spent only $1.50 practically going cross country and did arrive in time to say farewell to his mother. Another man remembers being the only one of six children to go to a big amusement park at age four, only to find out it's because once the visit is over he has to go to a tuberculosis sanatorium for six months. You visit National Parks, big cities, tourist traps, Route 66, classic amusement parks, etc. all illustrated by readers' photos and vintage postcards and memorabilia. Great fun!
 
book icon  Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art, Rebecca Wragg Sykes
This is a recent (last year) publication of the latest finds about Neanderthal man. I grew up with the old scientific information: Neanderthals as strong but stupid, cudgel-wielding "cavemen" who dragged women by the hair. Then graves were found indicating that Neanderthals buried their dead with care, that they nurtured their children just as tenderly, and prompted by these new discoveries, Jean Auel wrote the wildly popular "Earth's Children" books, the first of which detailed the raising of a Cro-Magnon child by a band of Neanderthals. This prompted new, real-life scientific study.

I was fascinated by the book in what I found out: that the "graves" one hears about might not be graves at all, that the Neanderthal burial customs included stripping the flesh off the bones (did they cannibalize their dead as part of a ritual? no one knows), that Neanderthals lived all over the globe, except in Africa, and that all humans, except for those from sub-Saharan Africa, have some percentage of Neanderthal genes, proving that Cro-Magnon man and Neanderthal man interbred.

If there's a problem with this book, there's just so much information. The author obviously knows her subject, and she loves it, so there are pages and pages of detail about stone tools, living spaces, much of it repeated. Sykes does try her hardest to make the Neanderthal world come alive, including with chapter openings "seen" from Neanderthal eyes and "felt" by Neanderthal feelings.

The text is supported by some illustrations of tools from the dig, and a diagram of how Neanderthals are related to modern man and of the intertwining of the family trees.
 
book icon  England's Finest, Christopher Fowler
Here's another dozen short stories starring the two offbeat, elderly head detectives of the Peculiar Crimes Unit, irascible and intelligent Arthur Bryant and urbane and social John May, and their equally offbeat team, including one with Janice Longbright, the next oldest member of the team (her mother worked with Bryant and May) as the protagonist and another where she provides a vital clue, plus a new introduction by Raymond Land, their long-suffering supervisor, and notes by the author.
 
The Bryant and May mystery novels are delightful, offbeat stories which usually involve some aspect of London history, whether it be the local rivers or pubs, parks or traditional customs, Punch and Judy shows or pagan sacrificial beliefs, and more along with a cracking, twisty puzzle that often doesn't end as you would expect. The stories are equally entertaining, with a clue to a murder being a missing reindeer; a body discovered in the PCU's own basement; a flashback tale to the 1950s; even a tale with Bryant and May in Transylvania, and more.

Fowler has recently published the final Bryant and May novel, and that will be a great loss to the mystery community. Thanks for twenty wonderful novels and two collections of short stories (and a graphic novel to boot)!
 
book icon  Face Toward the Spring, Faith Baldwin
Faith Baldwin was a good friend of Gladys Taber (Taber is mentioned in one chapter) who wrote what we'd call today "chick-lit." She also did several volumes of nonfiction in which she chronicled her days and the seasons, and was introspective about life, faith, and responsibility. This is one of those volumes. She writes quite easily, in a similar fashion to Taber, although she has no rollicking dogs and introspective cats and a best friend; her prose is more spiritually oriented, although she does not espouse any specific religion (in fact she states she has been criticized after speaking to religious groups for not doing so).
 
This book made perfect bedtime reading; calming, yet leaving food for thought (pick up some Post-It type notes for marking quotes).
 

31 July 2021

Books Completed Since July 1

book icon  Re-read: My Own Cape Cod, Gladys Taber
I'm getting close to my re-read of the main Stillmeadow books with this volume about Taber's Cape Cod hideaway, Still Cove, near Nauset, MA. It was the first of two books she wrote about the beach cottage, which she and her best friend Eleanor Mayer ("Jill" in the books) bought together, thinking they would retire there and leave Stillmeadow to their children. Alas, Jill passed away before that could happen.
 
As in the Stillmeadow books, Taber talks about the landscapes, the weather, and the personalities surrounding her second home; a little differently, she doesn't share the usual recipes, and, of course, there is no talk about Jill's usual projects and active lifestyle. If you've read the previous books it rather leaves a hole in the narrative. She talks mostly about Amber, her Abyssinian cat, with some chatter about Holly, the Irish setter, but in the past tense, so it seems Holly may have died by the time the book was published. She also captures a little bit of the times: some talk about the Vietnam War, and some sad commentary about the aimless hippies who wander about flaunting their freedom, but to Taber seem sad and without purpose. Happier tales capture the traditional country stores, Snow's and Ellis', who extend credit and which are clearinghouses of neighborhood information, and her generous neighbors, one who comes to check the house regularly, another who plows her driveway in winter and tries to set the garden in order in summer, and a young man named Bobby who Taber watched grow from age ten to a husband and father who is a skillful builder of homes.
 
There's also talk, of course, about the "summer people," the tourists who migrate to the Cape the moment it gets warm and then vanish in September, sometimes leaving disorder and abandoned pets in their wake. But mostly it's about the beauty—and sometimes the inclement weather—of the area.
 
book icon  The Mammoth Book of Historical Detectives, edited by Mike Ashley
I got this in a slipcase along with The Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunnits, and although I enjoyed the other wayyy back in 2017, this collection seemed to have more stories that "didn't set a foot wrong." It begins with an intriguing story set in prehistoric aboriginal Australia and ends with another enjoyable Solar Pons tale about a governess hired ostensibly to care for two children, but who finds many strange things going on in the beautiful home they live in. One mystery actually comes from the Bible, and another is tackled by the Wise Men. To me one of the least interesting was "The Duchess and the Doll," more a history lesson than a mystery, although the history itself was absorbing; both the nuns' tales were enjoyable, and Sister Fidelma's was in addition suitably creepy to suit its subject; Gordianus the Finder and his young ward Eco solve a theatre murder in ancient Rome, while Judge Dee searches for the murderer of a beggar in ancient China—in another Chinese-set story, two brothers with completely different philosophies track down the murderer in a monastery; Harrison Hull looks into the real-life poisoning of George Wythe in early America, while western cowpoke Ben Snow trails a bank robber in mission-era California. All in all, one shy of thirty enjoyable stories.
 
Literally dozens of these "mammoth books" were published in the 1990s, including volumes of nonfiction, and the historical mysteries collected are some of the best. 
 
book icon  Great Maps, Jerry Brotton
I found this for five dollars at Ollie's Discount Outlet and enjoyed checking it out: it's an oversized DK/Smithsonian volume of historical maps, from Ptolemy's first map "of the world" all the way to Google Earth. Inset closeups for most of the maps show you items of interest, like the first mention of "America" on a map, or how a place is portrayed, or other legends of note. There's Dr. Snow's famous "cholera map" that was the first to link feces-contaminated water to disease, a Catalan map that looks like a modern AAA "Triptik," the famous vellum Hereford "Mappa Mundi," a map of Utopia, Chinese maps that were made long before European exploration, the first surveyor-made map of France, and lots more. Perfect for map fans!
 
book icon  The Bombay Prince, Sujata Massey
In 1921 Bombay, preparations are under way for the visit of the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VIII. Not everyone is happy about this: many Indians are already clamoring for freedom from British rule. One day Perveen Mistry, the only female solicitor operating in India (mainly because her brother is totally unfit to take over the family business and her father has enough clout to make her work meaningful) is surprised when a Parsi student from the local university visits her for advice. Freny Cuttingmaster is lucky enough to be one of the few female students and wonders if not showing up to greet the prince as the rest of the college will be doing will endanger her student status. Perveen advises her to consult her student manual.
 
Next day Perveen joins her British friend Alice Hobson-Jones, a university instructor, to await the Prince's parade. Noticing Freny is missing, Perveen goes looking for her, and finds her murdered in the center of a quadrangle. The police are eager to believe that insurgents killed Freny; her parents are only frantic to get her body released for funeral services, which must happen within a certain amount of days in Parsi society. Perveen wants to help them, but she also wishes to find out why Freny was killed; she doesn't believe for a moment it was one of the political protestors. Making her investigation even more difficult (since as a woman she should be keeping her nose out of it) is that riots have broken out about the Prince's visit and parts of the city are blocked off.
 
This is the third book in the Perveen Mistry series, and the first one I've read. I chiefly enjoyed the historical aspects of the story, and the machinations that Perveen has to observe to be able to investigate Freny's death. I also did not know anything about Parsi society and am now embarrassed that I thought they were a sect of Hinduism. They are actually followers of Zoroastrianism, which originated in Persia, today's Iran. The Mistry family are also Parsi.
 
book icon  Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America's National Anthem, Marc Ferris
When Mark Ferris became curious about our national anthem, he discovered a lot more than he thought he'd find.
 
What is an "anthem," anyway? Derived from Church of England tradition and the word "antiphone," it's a type of song exciting an emotional response. "God Save the King," for instance, became England's anthem during the takeover attempt of "Bonnie Prince Charlie." Early on, "Yankee Doodle," originally a derisive song chanted by the British, became an American rallying cry, but later another song, "Hail, Columbia" (not to be confused with "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean," a later song) became popular. Then came the War of 1812. "The Defense of Fort McHenry" (the song's original title) was the ultimate rallying cry.
 
Yet over the years the song has also been controversial. Most people say it's too hard to sing. Even professional singers have mangled it at sporting events and important occasions. Others complain that it glorifies war and doesn't adequately represent the United States. Katherine Lee Bates' "America the Beautiful" is so much easier to sing and prettier. Or what about "My Country, Tis of Thee"? Sure, it's sung to "God Save the King," but it's got American words! And it mentions those new heroes, the Pilgrims!
 
One of the most interesting sequences in this book is how the Confederacy tried to co-opt "The Star-Spangled Banner" as their own. After all, it was written by a Southerner and slave-owner, Francis Scott Key, and it was written in the South. It belonged to the Southern states! Eventually, of course, other songs, like "The Bonnie Blue Flag," became representative instead. ("Dixie" was actually written for a minstrel show. By a Northerner and abolitionist, to boot.)
 
It's all here: how different songs have been proposed, but nothing found to replace it; efforts to at least simplify it—to howling protest; and everyone weighs in on how good or bad it is. A thorough discussion of the song, the alternatives, the protests, and more.
 
book icon  Murder at Veronica's Diner, J.D. Griffo
Alberta Scaglione, her sister (the ex-nun) Helen, her sister-in-law Joyce, and her granddaughter Jinx are meeting for a customary breakfast at Veronica's Diner, Helen's favorite eatery, when they notice their favorite waitress, Teri Jo, looks tired and harried, so when she asks them to see that a package gets mailed, they willingly agree. Minutes later Teri Jo emerges from the kitchen with a knife in her back. Later, searching behind the diner, they find a small figurine of a Swiss girl, and then Alberta's house is broken into (thankfully, Lola the cat is safe). Still, the Ferrara Family Detectives aren't about to back down, especially when they discover Teri Jo wasn't who she seemed. Teaming up with the police, and with Father Sal and Alberta's sweetheart Sloan trailing behind, the improbably quartet find themselves involved with a secret in Brooklyn.
 
Okay, when the comic book appeared did you start screaming at the characters in the book? Seriously, it took them so long to catch on to that clue! I wanted to stand up on a chair and yell at them to pay attention. Otherwise, a fun mystery with yet another eyebrow-raising improbable ending.
 
book icon  A Mudlark's Treasures: London in Fragments, Ted Sandling
This is an interesting little English history with the history told through fragments of items found while "mudlarking" in the Thames—searching the shore of the river during low tide. In Victorian times and earlier, trash of all sorts was thrown into the river, then buried in the estuary sands, and during those times, the wretchedly impoverished scoured the sands during low tide for valuable items to sell so they could buy food and shelter. Today, "mudlarkers" still do it for fun, still pulling up dozens of pipe stems, Victorian bottle caps, 17th and 18th century glassware, Pepys-era wig curlers, RAF buttons, and even Roman-era items.
 
Each entry talks about an item, like the wig curlers or bottle bases, and what it represents in the historical narrative. (I was pleased to note that Sandling doesn't ignore the fact that the wealth that prompted the manufacture of many of these items was founded on the back of slavery.) The only thing I didn't like was that the items, which are prettily reproduced in watercolor on the book endpapers, are not linked to the book's chapters in any way, and some of the items he talks about are not pictured. I feel like I need to go back through the book with a pen and note on each chapter the number of the item pictured on the endpaper and/or note the pages relevant to the item underneath it. The watercolors are pretty, but I would have preferred photos of the items. Still, a really nifty walk through English history and the world of mudlarking.
 
book icon  The Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television, Koren Shadmi
This is a quirky little graphic novel about Rod Serling's life told in flashbacks as he chats to a woman on an airplane flight, from his being the short Jewish kid that got picked on to bulling his way into airborne school during World War II (he was technically too short to be a paratrooper, but his superiors admired his persistence and his chutzpah) to fight Nazis, only to be sent to the South Pacific and viewing the gruesomeness of war to his homecoming when he starts writing for radio and then for infant television and wants to "say something" in his media work, which repels networks and advertisers alike. From early attempts and advice from his older brother Robert (also a writer) to his failures to his successes, it brings home his driving personality and propensity for overwork that eventually came to tell on his health.
 
As for the ending—well, it's a bit derivative, but it did give me an uncomfortable chuckle, and probably suitable for the guy who conceived The Twilight Zone.
 
If you're interested in Serling (and the network stupidity he had to go up against), but don't want to tackle a full biography, this might be your cup of tea.
 
book icon  Lincolnomics, John F. Wasik
Okay, I was intrigued by the title of this book. We hear about Abraham Lincoln all the time, but always in the context of the Civil War or about his assassination; some paragraphs are given to the Lincoln/Douglas debates or his early law work. And you might have read the "Lincoln and Speed" historical mysteries. Wasik discusses Lincoln's other beliefs, and how they are still pertinent today, especially investment in the newest technologies. In his early years Lincoln was an advocate for good transportation, which in his era was the canal system. He believed in the expeditious transport of goods and people, and at the time water was the most efficient way to carry both. His one patented invention, in fact, is a device to shift a boat off a sand bar and back into the river current. Later he expressed interest in the railroads and probably would have led the way in their development had he not been so early taken out of the equation. He also supported land-grant colleges and inexpensive education as education made better Americans.
 
There are a lot of interesting historical tidbits here, but I thought the prose was a bit turgid and had to fight a little to get through it. There was also a word choice that flummoxed me:"telegrammed"? I looked up the word to see if it was proper usage and it is, but wouldn't "telegraphed" or "wired" have worked better?
 
book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Mystery of the Golden Witch, Jerry West
Finally! It's book 30 in the Hollisters series and the family is home in Shoreham! And it's October to boot. Pete (age 12), Pam, 10, seven-year-old Ricky, and Holly, age 6, plus 4-year-old Sue are off with their parents to the Johnson farm to buy pumpkins for their annual Hallowe'en party. They find Farmer Johnson stuck in the lane that leads to his pumpkin farm, his tractor broken. This means he won't be able to harvest his pumpkins and sell them at his farm stand. The warmhearted kids offer to help him harvest, tend the stand, and loan him their little burro, Domingo, and his cart until the crop's in, as well as offering their collie Zip as a watchdog for the burro. They also, while exploring the farm, discover a private graveyard and a riddle on an old headstone that hints there might be a treasure hidden on the farm! Plus Farmer Johnson has an old Model-T Ford in his barn, and the kids spot a strange young woman prowling near it. But it's when Pete and his friend Dave meet a man who offers them a reward if they find a weathervane in the shape of a witch that the mystery really starts.
 
We're taking a break from the travelogue stories of the last few books with a homegrown mystery involving the witch weathervane, why the mysterious "Curie-Us" is looking for it, the young lady who was found wandering near the barn, and even a woman entrepreneur, Aunt Nettie, who runs the local cider mill. Of course there's Joey Brill and Will Wilson to toss in a few mean pranks, and the Shoreham Hallowe'en festivities. An enjoyable entry in the series, with a couple of novel Hallowe'en items (like the RSVP for the party invitations) that I'd never heard of before.
 
book icon  Re-read: Country Chronicle, Gladys Taber
This is the last of the "Stillmeadow books" that actually talks about Stillmeadow, as Taber by this time was pretty much living full time at Still Cove, her cottage in Orleans, MA. Once again recipes dot the text, and you can tell she's getting older: she comments some about hippies, the inexplicable music, and mourns drug use and the loss of old-fashioned values. Still, she finds beauty in both countryside of Connecticut and shore of Massachusetts, and talks glowingly about her wonderful friends and neighbors, along with Amber, the eccentric Abyssinian cat. She also chats about the wildlife she feeds at the Cape, including Blackberry the skunk (she's braver than I am; I wouldn't go near one!).
 
I find it funny that Taber raves thus about the maple syrup from the Stiles farm: "the pale, honey-colored syrup we all prize...the later run is dark and is what one buys commercially" when in my own home we eschew the pale syrup and want the dark, deep, dense maple taste of the later run! The light stuff is too much like corn syrup to us! Also was amused when she talks about finding time to read, and comments "you can also read while you wait for the washing machine to go into the rinse cycle." Wow, I hadn't thought about having to do that in years! (For you young whippersnappers or for those of you who don't remember, washing machines in the 1960s didn't have dispensers. You threw the detergent and/or the bleach into the washer—or, if you had a GE washer, into the FilterFlo that sat on top of the agitator. If you wanted to put fabric softener in the washer, you had to set a timer until just before the wash cycle ended, and be at the washer just as that happened. You then shut the washer off, poured the fabric softener in a cup you reserved for the process (no measuring cap lids then, either) and then into the washer, then turn the washer back on so the rinse cycle began.)
 
 
book icon  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).

Catharine Beecher is first noted as a prototype for the trailblazing home economists; the spinster sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe and brother of the rock-star-like preacher Henry Ward Beecher, Catharine was as highly educated as her brother and became a teacher, writing the bestselling A Treatise on Domestic Economy, not just how to cook and clean house, but how keeping a good home led to a  successful life. Her two spiritual descendants were white Ellen H. Swallow Richards, an ambitious New England girl who could talk literature, milk cows, and keep house, and—well, talk about the people who get excised from history: I've heard from childhood about Booker T. Washington and his efforts to advance racial equality; I had never heard about his third wife, Margaret Murray Washington, who was the first Black home economist, and all the effort she put into making life better for the African-American woman, despite barriers thrown at her left and right. I found myself inspired by this seemingly indomitable woman.

Sadly, Richards and her comrades never integrated to join forces with Washington and her followers; together they would have been an awesome organization. Others followed in their footsteps: Flora Rose and Martha Van Rensselaer, soulmates from the beginning; Lillian Moller Gilbreth, who graduated college (gasp! and she was even pretty!) with a home ec degree and after her husband's death became a noted industrial advisor; Annie Dewey, whose husband was Melvil Dewey of the Dewey Decimal System; Fabiola Cabeza de Baca Gilbert, who, as the only Spanish-speaking member of the organization was sent to the American southwest; and Mollie and Russell Smart, who enjoyed true professional and domestic equality in their marriage but still persisted in writing "the party line" about women as homemakers. These are only a few of the great people you'll meet in this narrative.

By the way, for God's sake don't think of this as a "woman's book." My husband is currently reading it and is enjoying it as much as I did, and I can almost hear him rolling his eyes at the old-fashioned sentiments quoted by the professionals of the times, like college professors saying women didn't have enough brain power to complete a typical college curriculum, or personnel departments not wanting to hire women because "they had no control of their emotions during their menstrual periods." An absolutely fabulous sociological read!
 
book icon  The Sound of the Sea: Seashells and the Fate of the Oceans, Cynthia Barnett
This is one of the best books I have read so far this year, but I find it hard to describe. Basically, it's the story of seashells: conches, scallops, the chambered nautilus, clams, oysters, etc., and how their environment is endangered by rising temperatures and sea levels.
 
Shells, Barnett tells us, have been with us throughout history; shoreline archaeological digs teem with seashells. However, they have not just been useful as a source of food, with humans and animals seeking the creatures inside. Shells have been money ("wampum" used by Native Americans was made from shells, and cowrie shells were also used as money, later coming to symbolize slavery and the cruel "Middle Passage" that brought Africans to the shores of the Americas). Cahokia, a great civilization that apparently flourished in the now Midwest-area of the United States, was built on a foundation of shells which were taken for trash until they were more thoroughly studied. Barnett even tells the story of the Shell Oil Company, which began with an English entrepreneur who sold seashell souvenirs and became wealthy, later partnering with the Royal Dutch oil company. Shell creatures as food, like oysters, clams, and snails, are not ignored, nor the use of shelled creatures for dye (the murex, which provided "royal purple" for kings). We meet fascinating people like Charles Lyell, geologist; Geerat Vermeij, a blind fourth-grader who fell in love with shells thanks to his teacher and who became an expert in them; and one of the forgotten women of conchology (the study of mollusk shells), Julia Ellen Rogers, who wrote one of the primary textbooks on the collection and study of seashells, but whose name was later buried by male scientists. Anne Morrow Lindbergh's classic book Gift from the Sea is also cited, as well as the Victorian mania for collecting seashells, and, of course, today's efforts to save their habitats.

Barnett's writing is a dream. She evokes vivid personalities, landscapes, and historical practices. You'll be sad when the book comes to an end, especially if you grew up with the song of the ocean as your childhood lullaby (the Atlantic, in my case).
 
book icon  Fan Fiction, Brent Spiner
This is a mostly fun mystery/comedy/noir novel that Brent Spiner based on his time playing the android Data (who, like Pinocchio, someday hoped to be a "real boy") on Star Trek: The Next Generation and the often-odd fan mail he received. It's 1991, in the middle of Next Gen's run, and Data has become a very popular character, hence Spiner receives a lot of fan letters. As the book opens, he receives a disturbing missive supposedly from "Lal," the android "daughter" Data built in one of the episodes. She threatens to kill him, and next day the rather loutish Paramount deliveryman brings him a package containing a pig penis floating in blood. Concerned, he contacts the police, but the officer assigned to the case seems to be too busy trying to sell a Next Gen script. Then, when a post office employee is cut by a razor blade in another missive addressed to Spiner, the FBI is called into the case and assigns an agent to him: an attractive woman who just happens to have a twin sister who's a private detective. Spiner's eventually wigged out enough to hire the latter as a bodyguard.

Spiner juggles the mystery of the too-attentive and -aggressive fan, the 12-hour days on set, the fan letters (including one from a Canadian woman who is pretending Spiner telephones her), his co-stars (who he paints with an admittedly exaggerated brush), and the two attractive law-enforcement characters, along with recurring memories of his charismatic but inflexible stepfather Sol which haunt his dreams. He also parodies some fan fiction tropes, especially the "Mary Sue" (or rather "Marty Stu") convention of having the FBI agent (Cindy Lou) and the private eye (Candy Lou) be love interests, and there's even a red herring.

I'm on the fence on this one. I was a Data fan myself and it's fun going back visiting those days. Spiner said he wrote his co-stars as exaggerated versions of themselves and that's fun, too. However, I don't particularly like stories about stalkers (or the gross things they send in the mail), and the whole sex-wish-fullfillment with the twin sisters kinda turned me off, as did a scene where a non-medical person offers him a Quaalude and he just takes it as if drug use is okay. If you like thrillers with quirk, you may enjoy that portion of the novel more.
 
book icon  Hell is Empty, Craig Johnson
One snowy day Absaroka County sheriff Walt Longmire and his deputy Saizarbitoria are transferring three prisoners to the state line. They stop to feed their prisoners at a roadside diner where further lawmen turn up with other prisoners to be transferred. However, the arrival of the FBI throws a spanner into the works. One of the prisoners, an adopted Crow named Reynaud Shade, who Walt considers a bit creepy, has told the law that he murdered a Crow boy ten years earlier and buried him in the Bighorn Mountains, except for one bone which he mailed to compatriots, telling them he had money stashed from a robbery. Walt's heart sinks when he hears the child's name: he knows the family. And when the convicts, orchestrated by Shade and with the help of an unlikely source, escape with two FBI agents as hostages, Walt knows he has to keep tracking them to bring justice for the dead boy, in a frosty, frightening odyssey up to the highest peaks of the Bighorns, and luckily he has help from a Native man he mistakenly arrested for a murder two years earlier, Virgil White Buffalo.
 
Johnson has written a taut thriller of Walt's rather Ahab-ish pursuit of Shade through many ordeals (and you will be wondering if Longmire is indeed made of iron rather than flesh by the end) paralleling Dante's Ninth Ring of Hell (Saizarbitoria is reading The Inferno and gives the book to Longmire before they separate) which is, despite the sobriquet "inferno," is ice cold. Driven by his need for justice, neither fire nor ice nor snow will stop Longmire on his quest to return the Crow child's body to his family.

I noticed this garnered a lot of criticism because "it didn't feature the usual gang" of characters and that some were bored or confused by Walt's nearly solitary odyssey. Myself I found it tense and an exploration of Walt's psyche, especially the blurring of the lines between reality and fancy—even if I did wonder about how he'd really survive the punishment.
 
book icon  Thunderstruck, Erik Larson
In 1910, the North London Cellar Murder was as much as a news event as the O.J. Simpson trial in the 1990s and the Kennedy assassination in 1963. The difference was that it happened on the cusp of another technological marvel, the birth of wireless communication—and it was wireless communication that finally trapped the alleged murderer.
 
Dr. Hawley Crippen was an American homeopath who basically sold patent medicines in the US, and later in London. Infatuated with a blowsy young woman named Cora who wished to become a musical performer, he married her. From all accounts he was a gentle, indulgent husband who bought his wife a huge wardrobe, supported her career even though she wasn't that talented, and didn't seem to mind her having a supposedly non-sexual relationship with a fellow male performer, Bruce Miller. Cora later changed her stage name to Belle Ellmore, and it was under that name she disappeared. Crippen initially told everyone that she'd gone home to America to nurse an ailing relative, had gotten sick herself, and died, to cover up the fact, he confessed, that she had run away to the US with Miller. By this time Crippen was being unfaithful with his secretary, Ethel Neave. The police had no reason to doubt his story, until Crippen and Neave left town and someone started poking at the bricks in the cellar.
 
As in Devil in the White City, Larson tells Crippen's story parallel with Guglielmo Marconi's efforts to transmit wireless telegraph signals. Marconi, a driven, spoiled man with an Italian father and Irish mother, had read about Hertz's discovery of electromagnetic waves, and, not really understanding them, pressed on with inventions that transmitted them, and was convinced that these waves could carry telegraph signals "through the ether." At the time transatlantic cables could carry messages from land to land stations, but ships at sea had to rely on passing ships to tell them news or flares to signal distress. Marconi's massive wireless stations, with their blue sparks and thunderclap sounds, would revolutionize communication with ships. But he faced stiff competition with British scientist Oliver Lodge and scientist and magician Nevil Maskelyne, among others, who also had been working on Hertz's "waves," but in a less aggressive fashion, and who considered Marconi a foreign interloper with an unproven system.
 
As always with Larson, well written, but if you're in this for the true crime stuff (Crippen's was the second most famous British murder case, after Jack the Ripper), the Marconi stuff will bore you, and if you're in it for the science, the Crippen portrayal of a disintegrating marriage will probably make your eyes glaze over. There's also a great deal of Marconi's legal disputes with Lodge, Maskelyne, and even people he's recruited to help him, like Forrest. But there's also a great deal to like in the Marconi parts, especially the portraits of early wireless telegraphy stations—the blue sparks and the crackling of the early transmitters sound at once both frightening and fascinating—and the weather they battled against. Enjoyed, but you must have patience with it.
 
book icon  Murder at Ochre Court, Alyssa Maxwell
In the sixth in the "Gilded Newport" series, reporter Emmaline Cross, related to the Vanderbilts on the "poor side" of the family, returns after a disappointing year writing for James Gordon Bennett of the New York World. Instead of writing real news stories as he promised her, she's been relegated to the society column because of her connections in society. Emma has resolved to quit after writing one final social story for the World: the "coming out" party of Cleo Cooper-Smith at Ochre Court, one of the famed Newport "summer cottages." Mrs. Goelet has fashioned a spectacular tableau vivant for Cleo's coming-out, complete with a throne for the girl as "Cleopatra," illuminated by the new electric lights. But Cleo is electrocuted instead, putting suspicion on the electrician, a friend of Emma's. She resolves she must clear him.
 
I mostly enjoyed this installment of Emma's adventures, which features not only the mystery but the face of changing Newport, with controversies over the changeover to electric power and away from gaslight, and a rising problem in 19th century America, the establishment of criminal gangs. Plus there's Emma's internal struggles: primarily her determination to get away from society reporting, but also her conflicting feelings for two different suitors, Jesse Whyte, the police officer, and Derrick Andrews, the wealthy scion of a newspaper publisher, and some of the action takes place at Fort Adams, still a working fort in those days, which I've visited several times. There's also an interesting supporting character in this book, Cleo's older sister, Ilsa, who is not considered marriageable due to a severe curvature of the spine, a scathing indictment about the treatment of differently-abled people in that day.
 
My only problem: Maxwell keeps tossing in modern terms that make me cringe. Some of them can be glossed over, but "growing a business"? In 1898? Seriously?

(Note: Ochre Court still exists, but is not one of the Newport mansions you can tour. It is the headquarters of Salve Regina College.)
 
book icon  Earthed, Rebecca Schiller
One thing you must understand about this book is that it's not just about a woman, her husband, and two children moving to a smallholding and attempting to make a difference by raising their own food (vegetables, goat's milk, and eggs). Schiller and her husband did agree to do this because it had been a dream of theirs, but the story became much more: for years Schiller had felt there was something wrong with her, that she wasn't good enough, that she was inordinately clumsy and said the wrong thing at the wrong time, that she fell into some projects with enthusiasm and others she was incapable of following through. And although raising crops, enjoying the flowers and trees with her children, and caring for her animals did "ground" her somewhat, she still found her emotions erratic—one morning she beats a pitcher against her head and destroys some china cups. Diagnosed initially with anxiety, she did as the doctor asked and found herself still at sea, with physicians not believing she wasn't being helped by the treatments. If this wasn't bad enough, just as she thought a correct diagnosis of her condition had been found, COVID-19 reared its ugly head.
 
Schiller writes beautifully, whether talking about the landscape, her children, the discoveries she makes about those who lived on the land previously, and even about her emotional difficulties, which make it easy to understand her confusion, pain, and sense of isolation. She also cares deeply, not only about her family and her farm, but about injustice, the past, and the future, and bares her soul. Reading this is an emotional experience in every sense. If you are looking for a simple "how I moved to a small farm and how it changed my life" narrative with an emphasis on animals and plants, I would look elsewhere.
 
book icon  One Dozen and One Short Stories, Gladys Taber
Gladys Taber made her living from writing; some from books, some from her columns, but, from what I've gathered, a great deal from short stories which she published in numerous magazines. Today, with television, the internet, streaming video, and the like, we rarely see magazines with short stories any longer, but they were a big part of the past. Magazines that are still published, like "Redbook" and "Woman's Day" had short stories "way back when," but no longer. Tiny romance short stories and mysteries are published in "Woman's World," but they are a sad cry from the past. The only magazine I know that still regularly publishes short stories of the type Taber would write is a Scottish favorite, "The People's Friend," which just celebrated its 150th anniversary!
 
These are G-rated stories of the type that would have been found in "The Saturday Evening Post" and "Ladies' Home Journal" among others. They are not necessarily "love stories" as you might classify something in the "chick lit" category. Five involve or are about dogs, including the sweet "Little Goat Goes Up," about a runt cocker spaniel who isn't valued because she's not a show dog. "Portrait of a Gentleman" and "Money of Her Own" are both based on Taber's childhood memories, the former with a dog based on Timothy, her Irish setter as portrayed in Especially Dogs, the latter based on an event later recounted in Especially Father. "Dear Bachelor" is a romance, but told in a nifty epistolary fashion. "Just a Little Havoc" is a comedy; "Impetuous Wedding" is sort of an early version of John Grisham's Skipping Christmas. "When the Wood Grows Dry" has Good Morning, Miss Dove overtones.
 
Definitely not for the sex-or-deep-social-commentary crowd, but pleasant before-bed reading.
 
book icon  Re-read: Still Cove Journal, Gladys Taber
I am technically at the end of my Stillmeadow re-read, although I have other Taber nonfiction: Stillmeadow Album, which is a photo book; Especially Father, about eccentric Rufus Bagg; and Harvest of Yesterdays, where she reminisces about her childhood. (There are also the two "Amber" books, both which I just bought after finding inexpensive/no postage copies. I'd read them electronically, but electronic books rarely stick in my brain long.)

Taber's daughter, Constance Taber Colby, opens this final book by her mother with an account of Taber's final illness in February 1980. She was rushed to the hospital with heart palpitations in February and never left the hospital again, passing away on March 11. Amber, Gladys' last cat, died soon afterward, even though she was tenderly cared for by Connie and Gladys' neighbors. Colby finished editing Still Cove Journal, which was published in 1891. One more time we joined Taber at Still Cove, enjoying the beauty of Cape Cod, even during its storms, and tales about the wild animals and birds Taber fed. What really shines in this book is the friendships and old-fashioned kindnesses done for Taber by her Cape Cod friends: they define "neighborliness" effortlessly. Someone brings her firewood, or fuel oil, neighbors at the local stores will take Gladys' groceries home for her rather than her having to drive out for them, when she is sick or absent they will come over to care for Amber.

I thought the Stillmeadow books rather faltered after Eleanor Mayer's (Jill) death. It's obvious, despite all her wonderful friends, Gladys had lost the one person she synched with most in the world. She also seemed to give up all her dogs at that point, probably because a cat was easier for her to care for on her own. Still, there's magic to be found in the books following Another Path, especially Taber's wonderful friends in Orleans, MA.

book icon  Stillmeadow Album, Gladys Taber with photographs by Jacques Chepard
This is an oversize book with 61 photographs taken at Gladys Taber's Stillmeadow. Some are of the house and grounds (including Gladys' well-loved Quiet Garden and her prized milk glass collection), several of her granddaughters Anne and Alice and also her daughter and the rest of the family, a couple of the two neighbor boys who faithfully came to help her (and earlier her and "Jill" [Eleanor Mayer] with shoveling snow, working with the trash, burning paper, fetching the mail (Erwin, the boy standing with Taber in the photo on the back cover, still lives on Jeremy Swamp Road, near Stillmeadow), and of course photos of the dogs, including Holly the Irish setter arranged artfully across the sofa. Anyone who's read the books will love the homey comfort of Stillmeadow, which is still in daughter Connie's family (Connie, known in the earliest books as "Cicely," passed away in 2020). For Stillmeadow lovers everywhere.

30 June 2021

Books Completed Since June 1

book icon  Beth & Amy, Virginia Kantra
This is the second book in Kantra's two-part Little Women modernization taking place in Bunyan, North Carolina, this time concentrating on the two younger March sisters, who are bound together emotionally by being raised in their sisters' shadows. On the surface both Beth and Amy are doing well. Beth's music has taken her far from Bunyan, where she's become songwriter, singing partner, and lover to Colt Henderson, famous country music star. Amy has gone from struggling in her fashion-oriented career to success after she designed a handbag that was used by Meghan Markle, and she's thinking of expanding her business. But Beth is hiding a secret, and Amy is still trying to cope with her long-term crush on the March family's "brother by choice," Trey Lawrence—who's still smarting from his aborted romance with Jo March.
 
I pretty much guessed what was going on with Beth from the first and was indignant that she felt as she did. Amy comes off much better than she does in Little Women (but as Kantra points out in the afterward, we always saw May Alcott, the original of Amy, from Louisa's point of view, the babied younger daughter who missed the drama of Bronson Alcott's aborted communal living experiment at Fruitlands and who wasn't forced to go to work like her elder sisters because her father refused to do "inappropriate" labor); she truly wants Trey to love her, not to "settle" for her as an also-run after not marrying her sister.
 
Abby and Ash March's marriage problems are also addressed in the story, which, in this volume, works very well, and Kantra also introduces a new "old" character, a veteran named Dan who helps Abby with the goat farm and becomes a friend of Beth, her attempt to give Dan of Jo's Boys a happier ending.
 
I enjoyed this more than Meg & Jo because it gave Beth and Amy chances to shine—and because there wasn't a lot of talk about being a chef and cooking. 
 
book icon  What the Dog Saw, Malcolm Gladwell
This is a collection of Gladwell's "New Yorker" essays over the years that explore everything from the history of Ron Popeil and the kitchen gadgets Ronco has pushed over the years to the generalization that all pit bull dogs are dangerous. There's a nifty article about why, although there are many kinds of mustards, ketchup has remained the same over the years (did you know there were specialty ketchups?); how Clairol and L'Oreal made hair color legitimate (and not something just "floozies" did) using two different advertising campaigns, both which work; how Cesar Millan uses body language to work with dogs; how interpreting photography—both for mammography and for spy photography—isn't the cut-and-dried affair you might think it is (leading the military to believe in "weapons of mass destruction"); the difference between "choking" and "panicking"; why some genius burns early and others are "late bloomers"; and analysis of why Enron failed; and more.
 
The only essay I couldn't make much sense out of was the one about investments, but it was well-written; the failing was mine. Enjoyed this more than I did The Tipping Point; interestingly enough, a friend read the same two books and liked this one less. YMMV.
 
book icon  Dear America: One Eye Laughing, The Other Weeping, Barry Denenberg
I always approach a Barry Denenberg "Dear America" book with trepidation. Once again, it's deserved. The good news and the bad news: Denenberg does not soft-pedal in the first half of the book, where Julie Weiss, her parents, and her brother experience the rise of Adolf Hitler and the annexation of Vienna, which brought misery and death to Jews like themselves. Be aware reading this that the story includes abuse, violence, virulent bigotry, betrayal, and suicide, as was experienced by the Jews of Vienna. Her mother is referred to as "a Jewish b---h" twice in the text.
 
Denenberg says in his afterward that he kept Anne Frank's diary near him as he wrote this. Indeed, much of the plot echoes Frank: Julie is jealous of her talented older brother (rather than sister), spoiled by her dad, and you can see an echo of Peter's mother in Julie's. The opening diary entries chronicle Julie's trivial schoolgirl problems until little hints tell us all is not well. Then the Nazi terror builds until Dr. Weiss sends Julie to America to be with her aunt and uncle. Here she faces nightmares until her Aunt Clara, an actress, and her Uncle Martin, a stockbroker, break down her defenses. The end of the story has Julie getting involved with Aunt Clara's play and goes back to being trivial again.
 
Along with Nazi abuse there is an undercurrent that adults would more understand than children. The Weiss marriage seems troubled. There is some mystery about Aunt Clara, and once Julie gets to the US, a mystery about someone named Eva. There's a real horror story here, but it seems disconnected, and the whole business about Julie and the play seems mere fantasy. As always, Denenberg's epilog is depressing (although here it is expected) but a few people do survive.
 
[Note: the author also makes a mistake in dating a famous historic event. He portrays Orson Welles War of the Worlds adaptation as taking place on October 31. Although the broadcast was intended as a Hallowe'en treat, it was actually performed on October 30, 1938.] 
 
book icon  Buffy the Vampire Slayer FAQ, David Bushman and Arthur Smith
This is another enjoyable entry in Applause's "FAQ" series which also acknowledges the original film, which creator Joss Whedon intended to be more serious, and the comic books, especially the "Season Eight" issues that are considered canon. It also touches briefly on Buffy's "sister series" Angel.
 
I read a criticism of this book that it's basically a rehash of the two Watcher's Guide books and therefore an overview of episodes, characters, arcs, and seasons. All I can say is that there are unique interviews to this book, and there may be people out there just getting into Buffy who haven't read the Watcher's Guide. If I have any complaint about this book, it's that it sometimes repeats information about an encounter from every single different viewpoint. Talk about overkill. And sometimes the narrative is a bit too cutesy. Otherwise I enjoyed the photos and information.
 
book icon  Re-read: Lammas Night, Katherine Kurtz
It is a known fact that Adolf Hitler and many of his followers were great believers in the occult and, as also noted in Raiders of the Lost Ark, collected occult items in an attempt to use them to advance the cause of the Axis powers. It is also believed that during the time of the Spanish Armada, the psychic forces of England's esoteric community caused the storm that vanquished the ships.
 
The British esoteric community is still fighting the forces of evil in this military fantasy set during World War II. Intelligence agent Colonel John "Gray" Graham is not only an important operative in MI6, but a leading member in England's occult community. An operative has just brought them information that the Nazis' occult community is planning dark magic against their enemies; Graham must try to organize the British equivalent against them. He finds assistance in an old friend, Prince William, the youngest son of King George V. William, the twin brother of epileptic Prince John, most often feels like a fifth wheel in his family, fit only for minor diplomatic social events. He doesn't know about Gray's secret life, but the situation has become dire enough that Gray considers revealing more to him.
 
Kurtz paints the military and wartime life of Britain realistically and with great effect, and treats the occult portions of the story with equal respect. It's all very down-to-earth, with no over-the-top fantasy elements, which makes the idea approachable. However, my favorite aspect of the story is Prince William. Since Victorian-era and Edwardian-era history is one of my favorite topics, I know something about the British Royal Family and that Prince John, who had epilepsy and was possibly autistic, did not have a twin brother. Yet William is so realistic that I had to go back and check the family tree I had in one book! 
 
book icon  Terry Nation: The Man Who Invented the Daleks, Alwin W. Turner
This isn't a biography of Nation as such, although it discusses his early life and love of pulp magazine adventure and fantasy fiction. Rather, it is a history of Nation's life against his work in England and in the United States in television, from his first work on The Goon Show and Tony Hancock's different shows to his creation of the Daleks—a creation whose popularity amazed everyone—along with his famous British series Survivors and Blake's 7 (both shows examined in depth), as well as his being producer of The Persuaders and MacGyver in the United States. Two lesser-known series, The Champions and The Baron, are also profiled.

For fans of British television, of Terry Nation, and/or of Doctor Who and Blake's 7.
 
book icon  The Last Passenger, Charles Finch
This is the third and last of Finch's Charles Lenox prequels that take place before the official first book of the series (A Beautiful Blue Death). It is here we first meet Kitty Ashcroft, who returns to help Lenox in the next book of the series set in Lenox's "present day, and also of his friendship with Lady Jane's husband, who is about to come to a tragic end.
 
During a terrible rainstorm Lenox is summoned to a railway station, where the conductor and the stationmaster are guarding a startling secret: a murdered man. Apparently he was killed on the route from Manchester and no one else in the railway carriage knew anything about it. Oddly, all the labels are cut from his clothing. Next Lenox and the police discover that the real conductor—for the man they thought was the conductor was not—dead by the side of the railway tracks. And finally they discover an American traveler is missing: one who was to speak to the British government about the slavery problem in the United States. Another of his companions, a former slave, is on the run, and a third has died in what was thought to be simply a freak accident. Have American opponents to slavery followed the men to England in order to kill them?

England abolished the slave trade and slavery some years before the United States, but repercussions still abound in this mystery which is also part history lesson. You learn something about the attitudes to "the peculiar institution," as well as revisiting Lenox's past household with all its familiar figures like Graham, Lenox's manservant, and Mrs. Huggins, the housekeeper, as well as Lady Jane and her husband.
 
I picked up on at least one whopper of a historical blooper; in one chapter Charles thinks of something as a crossword puzzle clue. The book takes place in 1855 and crossword puzzles were not invented until the 1920s.
 
book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Whistle-Pig Mystery, Jerry West
I almost feel like I needed to take notes on this, the 28th story in the series.
 
As the book opens, the kids (Pete, age 12, Pam, 10, seven-year-old Ricky, and Holly, age 6, plus 4-year-old Sue) worry about Blackie, the cocker spaniel companion of Indy Rhodes, the Native American head salesman at John Hollister's store The Trading Post, after his playmate, a woodchuck, abandons his burrow on Indy's property. A news story on TV tells them about a train robbery in "New England" (the individual states are never mentioned) where a million dollars in mail sacks were stolen. (Why money would be in mail sacks is never explained.) At the same time the Hollisters' old friend Fritz the wood carver in Germany asks them if they can get him the measurements of a wooden Indian called The Settlers Friend, apparently thinking this statue is common knowledge to all Americans. Well, since Indy is a Native American, of course he has a book about wooden Indian art! In this way, the Hollisters discover the statue is in the Pioneer Village, a museum in Foxboro—amazingly the same place where the robbery took place! Not only that, but the kids discover there's a wooden Indian statue in a basement of an old house in their home town that the owner doesn't want. Guess what! Pioneer Village has a whole exhibit on wooden Indians!

Quicker than you can say Pocahontas, Indy volunteers to take the kids and the wooden Indian to Foxboro. Since he can't be expected to ride herd on all five by himself, he recruits his sister Emmy to come along, and off they go to Foxboro, where they find a third mystery: they're looking for a copy of the signature of a woman named Patience Jones, who owned the property an old covered bridge sits upon. The bridge is going to be demolished rather than moved unless the caretaker of Pioneer Village can prove Jones' signature on a will is legit. The kids hope her signature is on one of the historic "autograph quilts" that 19th century women made.

Confused yet? Just wait: there's also a kid named Wally who helps the children detect, a little girl named Zuzu who tells tall stories, a hurricane that hits during the story (and nobody takes precautions), a flood after a dam breaks, an abandoned waterwheel mill, a church belfry, and an elderly farm woman named Mrs. Willow, who owns an oodle of friendship quilts. And more groundhogs, which unfortunately Emmy tells the Hollisters are known as whistle-pigs, so the name appears over and over in the text.

Although the story attempts to point out that Native Americans look like everyone else—seriously, the kids almost miss Emmy at the airport because they expect her to be in buckskin—there are entirely too many instances of Indy "flashing his white teeth." This is annoying because the Seminoles in the previous Sea Turtle books are mostly not treated as curiosities. Also, it seems dumb for someone (I'm looking at you, adults!) not to take the wooden rifle of the Indian the Hollisters found in the cellar and keep it somewhere safe, because the darn thing keeps falling off.

Also weird that West uses the name "Foxboro" for the city where the money goes missing, but never identifies, as any fan of the New England Patriots can tell you, that Foxboro is in Massachusetts. It would have been better to make up a name, especially as "Pioneer Village" appears to be a dead ringer for Massachusetts' classic living history museum, Old Sturbridge Village, which is sixty miles from Foxboro, not right next door. (There's a "Pioneer Village" in Salem, MA, but that's not close to Foxboro, either.)

Kids will like the perpetual motion plot, but for adults the constant coincidences and the annoying repetition of "whistle-pig" will probably sour the broth.
 
book icon  The Hollywood Spy, Susan Elia MacNeal
In her tenth adventure, Maggie Hope, former codebreaker for the British (although originally from Massachusetts) and trained spy, has flown to Los Angeles at the request of John Sterling, an RAF pilot and writer who was once her lover. John's fiance has died, drowned in a swimming pool, and the story is she was drunk and possibly on drugs, and John hopes Maggie can suss out what happened. Since this is a mystery, Maggie of course, susses out a good deal—including the suppression of other murders and a planned "major event" that will rock the city, and be blamed on Jews.
 
This is a difficult book to read, because it tackles the tawdry underbelly covered by the gloss Hollywood projected in the 1930s and especially in the 1940s. Under the sunny skies, Los Angeles was a dark place of bigotry. You might have learned about the "Zoot Suit Riots," where Mexicans were harassed by police and military alike, but 1940s L.A. was also a hotbed of the Ku Klux Klan and Nazi sympathizers. Most of businesses were still segregated, not only against people of color but against Jews, and the KKK also fomented prejudice against Catholics and gays. One of the characters involved is the teenage son of a KKK member, who warns him against dating "that Mick," a Irish Catholic girl. In another subplot, Sarah befriends Henri Batiste, a Creole clarinet player, and when they want to go somewhere to eat, they have to consider what restaurants will accept Henri. I'm a little puzzled that Maggie is so surprised about the racism in Hollywood when in a previous book, which took place in Washington DC, she encountered a black man about to be executed for a crime he didn't commit and was trying to help to clear him. Also, so many of these historical books seem to imply that white Britons were not bigoted and readily accepted people of color and gay people. It is true that during the war the British did not have segregated facilities as in the U.S., but you have only to read British books published in the past to see Indians referred to as "wogs" and treated as if they were subhuman, gay men and women considered abhorrent, and people of color insulted, reviled, and referred to with the "N" word.
 
MacNeal did a lot of research on this book and much of it shows. She takes great delight in describing the Technicolor aspects of the 1940s: the cars, the beaches, the restaurants, the homes, the clubs, the countryside, backstage on soundstages, and tries to make the 1940 face of L.A. come as alive as possible. She tosses in lots of trivia like the fact that Los Angeles experienced its first smogs during the 1940s due to the pollution from war plants. (She missed at least one thing: while criticizing the heinous internment of Japanese-Americans, she has a character state that neither Germans nor Italians, also our enemies, were interned. Actually 11,000 Germans and somewhere between 3,000 and 10,000 Italians, some of them naturalized citizens, were put into internment camps as well.)
 
The mystery is fairly complex, but you have to be willing to get through some stomach-churning moments to get there—not just violence, but a disgusting scene with the KKK boasting about their wholesomeness at a church event, for example. Be warned.
 
book icon  The Pioneers, David McCullough
Back in my school days, I read Lois Lenski's historical children's book A'Going to the Westward, the story of the United States citizens' first move west, from the New England states to the newly-acquired "Ohio country." So it was with interest I picked up this book, which is a nonfiction recounting of the event. The bulk of the story revolves around several men: Manasseh Cutler, who drafted the original Northwest Territory charter and got Congress to approve it (the charter proposed some novel resolutions of the time: there would be complete freedom of religion, education would be guaranteed, the Natives would not be molested, and slavery―still legal in all thirteen states at the time―would be absolutely forbidden) and his son, Ephraim, who lived in the Ohio territory; Rufus Putnam, former Continental Army soldier; Joseph Barker, the builder; and finally Samuel Hildreth, who served as the big names in the history of the settlement that would eventually be Marietta, Ohio, named for Marie Antoinette.
 
Alas, the Indian resolve was short-lived. The Native people welcomed the whites from the East so long as their numbers were small; when more emigrants showed up, they felt surrounded, and they began attacking white communities. Pleas for help finally brought an army led by Mad Anthony Wayne which drove the indigenous population away forever. However, their other resolves were stronger and slavery was kept out of the area through the endless work of Ephraim Cutler. McCullough chronicles the founding of Marietta from the first wagons moving into the deep woods of Ohio―just the words recounting the work required to fell the trees is exhausting―to the late 1830s.
 
This is a good book about a time in history not much covered by nonfiction, but a bit plodding.

book icon  Re-read: A-Going to the Westward, Lois Lenski
Having read The Pioneers, I went back to the original Lenski volume. She is most well-known for her regional novels like Strawberry Girl, Prairie School, Judy's Journey, etc. and the similar "Roundabout America" books for younger children, but she also did a half-dozen or so historical books, the best known which is Indian Captive.

Reuben and Roxana Bartlett and their two children, sensible 12-year-old Betsy and sensitive 8-year-old Thomas, are just one of many new American families "a-going to the Westward" to join an uncle. They are joined by one of their church deacons, cobbler Joel Blodgett, Reuben Bartlett's other brother Robert, and the redoubtable Matilda Stebbins, a spinster relative who is on her way to Ohio to be reunited with her niece, and,  unfortunately, by the rowdy Perkins family: coarse and often drunken Jed, ever-ill Parthenia, and their two children Ezekiel and Florilla. Jed is glad to be leaving Connecticut with its Blue Laws and strict Calvinist teachings, and he has a burning desire to best the Bartletts and their "annoying piety."

Today this might be considered a very strange children's book, but I've always loved it from my teens because Lenski tries hard to stick to the child-rearing and stoic customs of the times. The children do not expect to be hugged and coddled unless they are very ill, and the adults do not comfort or support them as they would today. No one is told it's "okay to cry," or to shirk on chores in an emergency; Betsy is always knitting or sewing—no playing dolls for her. At one point Betsy is left behind (a machination of Jed Perkins)  and, while her parents do worry, they pray that responsible Betsy will fall in with another family going west and will join them in Pittsburgh; eventually Joel goes back for her. Lenski is also unstinting about the hardships of the western trail: there are no merry days picking flowers and enjoying nature, but there are many days when the breakdown of their wagons, or a stopover at a dirty inn with drunken men, or long days of rain sorely test the resolution of the families. Conniving Jed Perkins is also determined to sabotage the Bartletts' progress and is a continual thorn in their sides.

Another aspect of the story is the Connecticut Yankee meeting new cultures on their journey. As they travel through Pennsylvania they meet the Ermintritt family, a hard-working clan of "Pennsylvania Dutch" also heading west, and while the adults initially distrust the German-speakers and think they are continually swearing at them, Betsy makes a fast friend in twelve-year-old Lotte. Once arrived at their homestead, they must befriend the Kentucky-bred Scruggs family who distrust book-learning and think the Yankees are snooty. There is as much story about the adults as there is about the four children; especially feisty and stalwart Matilda and merry Joel and bookish Uncle Rob and Reuben and Roxana Bartlett, plus characters like Herr Ermintritt, the German innkeepers, their flatboat pilot, and the elderly German man Betsy meets enroute all have their stories and their experiences on swollen rivers, in crowded filthy wayside inns, riding in wagons that overturn or jounce teeth against teeth as they bounce through the ruts. This book is worth reading even if just once to see how the first westward pioneers endured and prevailed on the trail.
 
Also, after reading The Pioneers, it's fun to see what the Bartletts experience that was mentioned in that book: "the River Beautiful" as the Ohio was called, the New Orleans (first steamboat on the river), the town of Marietta, the Muskingum River, the village of Belpré, and Blennerhasset's island with its beautiful plantation house described by McCullough; the Blennerhasset family later got mixed up with Aaron Burr's traitorous plot for the Northwest Territory to break away from the United States. Several of the people mentioned in McCullough's book provided the historical manuscripts Lenski consulted when she wrote A'Going to the Westward.
 
book icon  Murder, Take Two, Carol J. Perry
It's number ten in Perry's "Witch City" series set in Salem, MA, and Lee Barrett (neè Maralee Kowalski, journalism graduate, young widow of a race car driver, and now back living upstairs at the home of the librarian aunt Isobel [Ibby], who raised her) receives a call from one of her former students at the local community college: his nephew, a local professor, has been accused of murder. Not only that, the murder almost perfectly mimes a real-life Salem mystery, the murder of a sea captain in 1830. Roger Temple and his twin Ray are on their way to Salem to help him, but beg Lee to look into the crime; they don't believe Cody McGinnis is guilty. Neither do many of his students: they've already formed a defense fund for him.
 
This story almost threw me: usually by chapter five or so, Lee, who has a scrying gift, has seen some type of mysterious vision in a reflection which holds a clue to the mystery. This story is almost straight mystery, with a portion of the plot revolving around Lee's plan for a live-action Clue game, with her visions appearing very late in the story. Also, I didn't like the Charlie's Angels bit with Aunt Ibby and her two friends with Rupert Pennington as "Charlie." It seemed kind of silly. On the other hand, I thought it was cute that Ray Temple was also interested in Aunt Ibby; romance doesn't end when you get older!
 
book icon  The World of Upstairs, Downstairs, Mollie Hardwick
Long before there was nonstop interest in Downton Abbey, another wealthy-family-and-their-servants saga was a big hit in both the UK and the US, Upstairs, Downstairs, the story of the Bellamy family from late Victorian times to the Great Depression, living in their city home on Eaton Place in London. The Bellamys (Richard and two different wives, Marjorie and Virginia, his son James, and their ward Georgina) and their numerous servants: Mr. Hudson the proper butler, Mrs. Bridges the cook, and the maids and servingmen Rose, Sarah, Daisy, Ruby, Edward, Thomas, Alfred, and Frederick were once household names to those who followed their weekly adventures on Masterpiece Theatre, hosted then by urbane Alistair Cooke, for many seasons. To their audience, they were fast friends.
 
Author Hardwick sets the stage for the Bellamy family and company with stills from the series interspersed with real-life photographs, maps, cartoons, engravings, and other illustrations to chronicle the great social changes and even upheavals that began with the death of Queen Victoria and came to a head as the 1930s continued. A great volume for history buffs and Upstairs, Downstairs fans.
 
book icon  A Second Chance, Jodi Taylor
The third in the Chronicles of St. Mary's, Taylor's rough-and-tumble series about the academics at St. Mary's Institute of Historical Research, who investigate the past—but kindly don't call it time travel! Madeleine Maxwell and her disaster-prone crew of researchers dip into Isaac Newton's time and then attend a cheese-rolling event in Gloucester without too many problems, but when they set up a longer mission to Troy, first to see the city as it was and then to see it under siege by the Greeks (and find out the truth of the Trojan Horse and the infamous Helen), things go very, very wrong for what was supposed to be "Max's" last mission—once seeing Troy, she has promised security chief Leon Farrell that they will make a life together.

These books are enjoyable (okay, I'll say it) time travel adventures, and Taylor, a historian (without time travel herself) does a great job of making both ancient Troy and, in a later excursion, the Battle of Agincourt, come to life. Max and her fellow historians are a unique group, each with their own quirks, but still a strangely appealing family group. The storylines are similar to Connie Willis' time-traveling historians in The Domesday Book, etc., but done with more humor and earthiness.
 
book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Ghost Horse Mystery, Jerry West
In book 29 of the series, Indy Rhodes, trusted employee at John Hollister's Shoreham store The Trading Post, and his sister Emily are on the way home with the five Hollister children, Pete (age 12), Pam, 10, seven-year-old Ricky, and Holly, age 6, plus 4-year-old Sue, after their solving several mysteries near "Foxboro" in a generic New England. Then Pam spots a pink sea gull at the side of the road. Finding the animal and returning it to its home on the shore has the kids all excited about helping out an Audobon project to study the gulls, and also return a young screech owl named "Fluffy" to the wild. Indy and Emmy relent—they can stay one night on Wicket-ee-nock Island to see the project, but they must be getting home afterwards! Alas, someone sabotages the sole ferryboat serving the island, and without it there's no other way of getting their vehicle back to the mainland, so the two adults and five kids are trapped camping out in an old inn. There is an older couple nearby, but they are very secretive, and there's a "ghost horse" galloping around the island. Trust that the kids aren't going to let the grass grow up under their feet solving this mystery, and in the meantime they help the college students marking the gulls, and enjoy the beach.
 
Kids (and maybe their parents) will be positively gobsmacked that Pete and Pam are allowed to go back to the ferry port on their own (hitching a ride with a friendly clammer), rent a boat, pick up groceries, etc. The kids can also camp out on the beach with the college students, no adults in sight. Ah, for the good old days! Heck, the adults even join them for a stake-out, with only Sue left behind, when the mystery deepens! And once again little Sue provides a vital clue! Besides a couple of identifiers of "the Indian" for Indy and Emmy that really aren't needed, as in this book they are pretty much in loco parentis for the kids, a nifty mystery with a nice salty seashore coating!

book icon  My Heart is Boundless: Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Eve LaPlante
Much has been written about Louisa May Alcott (including fictional mysteries) and some about her visionary but deadbeat dad Bronson, but not much at all about her mother, the tireless provider for her family, Abigail "Abba" May Alcott, who was the inspiration for Little Women's Marmee. Eve LaPlante has chosen to right that wrong with Marmee and Louisa and now this volume of Abba's diary entries and letters.
 
Sadly, both show what happened to poor Abba, who, at first was educated by reading her brother's schoolbooks and her journals and letters reveal a bright and promising girl, and later woman, whose mind did not stay confined to "a woman's sphere." Then she met Bronson and the rest of her letters and diaries are full of endless pleas for assistance and a chronicle of her travails trying to keep her children fed while Bronson wittered around talking philosophy and ideal communities where "everyone was equal" (except for Abba, naturally, who worked like a horse). (I'm sorry. I hate Bronson Alcott. Can you tell?) Eventually Abba gave up on Bronson and relied on her two eldest Anna and, of course, Louisa) to keep hearth and home together.
 
This book just made me desperately sad.
 
book icon  A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson (illustrated edition)
I read this book wayyyyy back in 2008:
 
What's your favorite thing in the entire world to indulge in? A box of chocolates? Shoes? New clothes? Computer parts? Bryson's book of science, irresistible from the first chapter to the last (starting with "the big bang" [if that's even how it happened] and ending, alas with Homo sapiens and our irresistible urge to make things extinct), is like an enormous container of every favorite thing you've ever wanted. Even if science wasn't your favorite subject in school, you will find this an immensely readable narrative of the cosmos, stars, planets, atoms, molecules, cells, Earth, life, evolution, and finally the rise of Homo sapiens and the people who studied them. Call it "science made comprehensible," and even better, science narrative that makes you want to continue pursuing other science narratives. Like popcorn. Chocolate. Books...
 
The illustrated version is liberally sprinkled with photographs (including the scientists profiled), maps, illustrations, graphs, cartoons, paintings, snapshots, landscapes, botanical specimens, news articles, woodcuts, vintage posters and book covers, etc., in short, all the supporting information that makes the volume even more delightful.
 
book icon  Chesapeake Requiem: A Year With the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island, Earl Swift
Tangier Island, in Chesapeake Bay, has a long history going back to the original Virginia settlement, but is more well-known as a tight-knit inter-related community several generations old of shellfishing natives who pretty much know no other life. Like the Gullah of the coastal South, they have their own accents and a difficult way of life most would not like to follow. Swift visited the island several times between 2010 and the publication of the book, and brings to life their hardscrabble life making a living supplying most of the crabs eaten on the East Coast and doing without what are considered necessities today, like the internet and cable TV. Plus the islands themselves are slowly eroding away, whether it is from "erosion" as the natives claim (and indeed the area appears to have been eroding since its founding) or whether by sea level rise due to climate change.
 
By the time you finish this book, you will feel invested in the people you meet, whether you concur with their beliefs or not. Most of the island population belongs to a Methodist parish or an offshoot of it, and many of them believe that Tangier has been protected by God all these years. They are also politically conservative, yet at the same time they work hard to make their living and don't think off-islanders understand the area as they do because they have lived on the land so long.
 
I was rather upset by the internet comments that were made about the islanders after they came out strongly for Donald Trump in the 2016 election, which smacked of the offensive comments made by similar people when fires destroyed part of Gatlinburg, Tennessee—basically that the people of Tangier (and of Tennessee) didn't deserve to live because they voted Republican. These critics, whose morals are supposed to be "better" than the people they oppose, showed themselves as being just as bigoted and narrow-minded. Shameful. 
 
book icon  Return of the Pharaoh, Nicholas Meyer
Juliet Watson has a cough which is all too familiar to her husband, Dr. John Watson. Encouraged by her physician to take her to a warmer climate, Watson picks Egypt, where Juliet is enrolled in a severe course of treatments at a noted clinic, leaving Watson on his own much of the time. It's then he runs into Colonel Arbuthnot—in reality, an undercover Sherlock Holmes, trying to discover the whereabouts of an English duke who's become enamored of Egyptology, but has vanished, leading to inquiries from his wife and the Home Office. As part of his investigation Holmes has discovered several other Egyptologists have died, or gone missing, as well. The story follows Holmes' and Watson's search, from a hotel with a disappearing room to finally end in a railway trip that nearly turns deadly, and then, with the help of Howard Carter (several years before he became famous for discovering "King Tut"), tracking down a tomb which has apparently remained untouched and is full of gold and other riches.

The pros of this book: Meyer has his Victorian vocabulary pretty much down pat, so it sounds like something Arthur Conan Doyle might have written. His Holmes/Watson badinage is fair; it doesn't sound quite as good as in his previous works. Meyer also brings Edwardian-era Egypt to life, from the heat to the smells and sounds of the streets and the marketplaces to the vintage treatments Juliet has in the sanatorium to the realities of the environment to the sensations of crawling inside tombs thousands of years old. The cons: to me it just kind of ambles along, with no suspense until the second half, a little like a Rick Steves' travelogue. So I enjoyed it, but there were certainly bits where it dragged in spots, especially in the first half of the novel.

(Also wondered if Meyer's reference to the wallpaper at the duke's hotel was a tip of the hat to Charlotte Perkins Gilman...)
 
book icon  Re-read: Busman's Honeymoon, Dorothy L. Sayers
I'd had no plan to pull this and re-read it, until TCM did a day of vintage honeymoon flicks and played Haunted Honeymoon, the only film made of a Lord Peter Wimsey novel, with debonair Robert Montgomery (yes, Elizabeth's father) as Peter and Constance Cummings as Harriet Wimsey, neè Vane. While the plot had to cut most of the various charming interchanges between the characters as in the book, they did stick closely to the story: Peter has bought Harriet, as a wedding gift, a home she loved in her old hometown, a cottage called Talboys, and brought her there to spend their honeymoon. But when they arrive, the house has not been prepared as Peter had been assured it would be, and, indeed, the housekeeper and the former owner's niece know nothing about the sale. Alas for the Wimseys' honeymoon: the body of the former owner is found on the stairs to the cellar, and foul play was obviously involved.
 
Sayers and a partner originally wrote this as a play, after she finished Gaudy Night in which Peter eventually proposes to Harriet, and said no more novels were in the offing, and then novelized the play. As in all the Wimsey books, it contains a delightful contingent of characters: the snoopy Mrs. Ruddle, who cleaned for the victim; spinster Aggie Twitterton, the deceased's niece; Frank Crutchley, the handsome handyman who's also handy with the ladies; Inspector Kirk, who can match Peter quote for quote from literary sources; Joe Sellon, the constable with a secret; Tom Puffett, the chimney sweep; and other village denizens. I'd forgotten some of the soul-searching bits, where Peter thinks he's not good enough for Harriet and Harriet of course thinks she's the one that's not the ideal mate; also the battle between Peter's efficient manservant Mervyn Bunter and the meddling Mrs. Ruddle which ends in a gastronomic tragedy; and Sayers' once again skillful skewering of the Press. Plus there are the well-remembered delightful bits: the story being opened with a series of letters, including one from Peter's wonderful mother, the Dowager Duchess; and of course the postscript where Harriet goes to the Ducal seat for the first time and tours the family home.

Since it's the last in the series and has built upon Peter and Harriet's relationship as set up in Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, and Gaudy Night, this is best not read first—but then Peter is best read in order, even if the first book, Whose Body? isn't one of the better stories (they take off with the second volume, Clouds of Witness, complete with a nice Sherlocky-setting on the moor). Sayers' Wimsey series is delightfully intelligent, witty, and conveys the mores of 1920s and 1930s.
 
book icon  A Darker Reality, Anne Perry
This is the third book in Perry's new Elena Standish mystery series, taking place in the mid-1930s. Elena (a professional photographer and neophyte MI6 operative) and her parents, British Charles and American Katherine, are in Washington, DC, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Katherine's parents, Wyatt and Dorothy Baylor. At the celebratory party at the Baylor home, Elena instantly connects with a woman named Lila Worth, an Austrian beauty married to scientist Harmon Worth, who is working on atomic physics. Several hours later Lila is murdered by having been run down by her grandfather Wyatt's car—and Wyatt can't prove where he was at the time of death. With the help of James Allenby, ostensibly from the Foreign Office, but really a fellow MI6 operative, Elena will search for the person who has framed her grandfather.

This all sounds terribly exciting, but...seriously, it's not. The first half of the book is endless soul-searching (with four shifting points of view) among Elena, Charles, Allenby, Elena's former MI6-head paternal grandfather Lucas, and Elena's mentor at MI6, Peter Howard, about whether it's right to involve Elena in an investigation, or if Elena is going to find out something about her grandfather she'd rather not know, or how Wyatt Baylor can be so conservative in personal values when Elena has seen the terror Adolf Hitler is causing in Berlin (and would he still have those beliefs if he knew?). It's only in the second half of the novel that their actual investigation begins and people are questioned, and then in the final quarter of the book the pace picks up with Elena finding out more about Lila Worth.

Several great discussions of luscious-sounding gowns (as always in a Perry novel) and of the calm quiet of the Baylor house and its wonderful rooms, but the soul-searching first half will make you wonder if it's worth plodding on. Yes, it is, but be aware it takes awhile.