30 June 2019

Books Completed Since June 1

book icon  The Perfectionists, Simon Winchester
Not so far in the past as history goes, tools and instruments were hand made, one at a time. So long as they worked properly, there was no need for them to be extremely precise. Then came the age of exploration and the age of invention. Such inventions, especially, were required to be precise if they were to work properly: to measure time and/or distance accurately to make scientific measurements, or for machinery (like steam engines) to work properly without the danger of leakage, or, worse, explosions. This is Winchester's history of the art of precision, from medieval navigational equipment to John Harrison's stunning chronometer to the boring of cannon in a manner that the barrels would not explode, all the way through steam engines, tools, screwmaking machines, clocks, interchangeable parts on everything from firearms to washing machines, locks, jets, GPS, atomic clocks, and more.

I know little about engineering, but this book was fascinating. Winchester traces his own interest in the subject to his father's engineering job, and also explains the difference between "precision" and "accuracy" (it's a significant one). Each of the chapters "ups" the precision of the instrument in the previous chapter, until we reach a tolerance of 0.000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 01. I've really enjoyed all of Winchester's other books, especially Atlantic, and this one does not disappoint. Page turning from front to back.

book icon  A Death of No Importance, Mariah Fredericks
This is the first in the Jane Prescott mystery series (I reviewed the second book, Death of a New American, previously). Jane, an orphan raised by her uncle (who works to save prostitutes from their lives on the street) previously worked for the late Mrs. Armslow, and, as the book opens, has worked for the nouveau riche Benchley family for a year as ladies' maid to Miss Charlotte Benchley. She and her shy sister Louise are just Out in society, and Charlotte has shocked everyone by becoming engaged to fast living Norrie Newsome, who supposedly had an understanding with Beatrice Tyler. But at the party to announce their engagement, Norrie is found with his face bashed in, and Charlotte is implicated in the death, even though the real suspect is considered to be an anarchist who has been threatening the Newsome family since a horrendous accident in a coal mine that they owned.

I enjoyed this book just as much as its sequel, and admire Fredericks for writing a historical novel where the protagonist is not a 21st century women dressed up in long frocks. While Jane, with her unconventional uncle and friend Anna who is an activist for worker's rights, has a more liberal view of the world than some women would have had back then, she is still bound by the conventions of her time. She's not a suffragette or an activist, but she is learning, as other women are in her time, that there may be other choices for her rather than traditional roles. The mystery itself is good, the historical underpinnings sound, and once again we discover that the veneer of the wealthy often had sordid underpinnings. Can't wait for more of this series.

book icon  Brief Cases, Jim Butcher
This is a second collection of short stories set in the Harry Dresden universe. I saw several complaints and bad reviews about this collection since it collected all of the Dresden stories about his encounters with a Bigfoot named River Shoulders and his half-human son Irwin, which were previously collected in a Bigfoot story collection, and some of the stories had been in other collections. I think that's an unfair criticism; some of us do not purchase every single volume of urban fantasy short stories just for one Dresden story, so for me this was a welcome collection of stories I hadn't read, except for the very first story with Irwin. No fair knocking down a book's score for that!

Besides the three Bigfoot stories, we have a tale where warden Anastasia Luccio and a demonic nacken (horselike animal) go to Tombstone, Arizona, to arrest an errant warlock, and help Wyatt Earp defeat the warlocks protecting him; a fun story where Harry takes on the curse of the Chicago Cubs; a story featuring John Marcone; another with Molly Carpenter's anguish after a traumatic event; a Waldo Butters story (Butters was supposed to be a one-off character); and even a nifty three-part Rashomon-like narrative about Harry taking his daughter to the zoo, as told by Harry, daughter Maggie, and Harry's temple dog, the enigmatic and fey Mouse. The story taking place in Alaska was also a page-turner. Dresden fans should enjoy these additions to the Dresden-'verse.

book icon  Bite Club, Laurien Berenson
I've read this series from the beginning, and there are some times when I love Aunt Peg and some times when I want to swat her. The latter is my reaction in this book, where Aunt Peg bodily takes over the small mystery-novel reading group that our protagonist Melanie Travis, special needs teacher, mom, and poodle handler, has formed and invites a half dozen more people to participate, all dog show people, of course. One of the guests asks to bring along her new neighbor, Evan Major, who seems to not have any friends. Evan asks if Melanie will help him train a bulldog puppy he purchased, but on her first training day, Evan doesn't answer the door, and when Melanie looks in his window, she sees him lying injured or dead in his home. The police are called, but the neighborhood busybody tells the detectives that Melanie went inside the house, and now she's a suspect in his murder.

In an unusual subplot, Melanie's dog-show friend Terry Denunzio suspects his older partner Crawford may be becoming attached to a younger man who has been assisting them at the shows. As Melanie owes him a favor, Terry asks if Melanie can scope out what's going on with the younger guy and Crawford. I usually like Terry, but this was very unfair of him.

Despite the behaviors of Aunt Peg and Terry, I enjoyed this installment as always. The mystery was convoluted enough, and we got to revisit some old friends like Alice Brickman, and also got to see Melanie's teen son Davey mature more in his dog-show efforts. Melanie's husband Sam as usual is good as gold and endlessly patient; I hope sometime Berenson is going to let us see him get frustrated and lose his temper, but this is not the installment. I twigged to the possible murderer the moment Melanie interviewed that person, but it was late enough in the book for that not to matter. Enjoyable as always!

book icon  The Illustrated Walden, Henry David Thoreau
Thankfully, I never had this as required reading, so it wasn't ruined by well-meaning teachers who made you hate what might have been a good book. This copy had nifty illustrations (impressionist paintings, vintage and new woodcuts, pen-and-ink artwork, and bordered pages) to prettily mount Thoreau's most famous publication, so I figured I'd go for it.

I enjoyed this as long as he chronicled his life in his little cabin, talked about the natural world around him, and waxed philosophical. I could have done without the continual lectures about how everyone should live like he did, with minimal possessions and eating vegetarian. Snore. He does this for sixty pages at the beginning of the book, and then dotted throughout the text thereafter. Then there's the lecture about the uselessness of reading popular fiction instead of reading the classics. Sure, Henry, encourage everyone to march to a different drummer, but then call what people choose to do wrong. You sound just like the Puritans.

book icon  Throw Out Fifty Things, Gail Blanke
In searching for Marie Kondo, I found this book on the shelves as well. Blanke walks the reader through tossing out unneeded things in your life: old completed work projects, used up makeup containers and spice bottles, tattered books and even more tattered furniture, broken items, clothes you never wear, and more. The gimmick to this is that once you discard the obligatory fifty items (or more), Blanke encourages you to do the same with emotional items: toss out old grudges, bad feelings, negative emotions, toxic relationships, etc. An okay reference to getting rid of not just things, but emotions that hold you back, but I'm glad I read it as a library copy.

book icon  The Forgotten Arts & Crafts, John Seymour
This is a combination of two books, one about vintage building methods and crafts, and one about household items that used to be common (like churns and hand-dashes for washing clothes). The author talks with affection about hedging, thatching, plowing behind horses, logging, and all sorts of hand work that used to be done in the 19th century, and all the old skills that are being lost, and does the same for household items like dashes, churns, sadirons, hand sewing, cooking over a woodstove, etc. (apparently he's never asked women about this, because, while I like to look at these items as a curiosity, I sure as hell don't want to use them!). A great look at the effort our ancestors required to survive.

book icon  The Fifth Heart, Dan Simmons
In 1885, Marian "Clover" Adams, wife of Henry Adams (grandson of John Quincy Adams, great-grandson of John Adams), committed suicide by drinking developing fluid. Clover, a quick-minded woman with an interest in photography, was known to suffer from "melancholy," yet in 1893 her brother Edward asks Sherlock Holmes to investigate what he suspects was murder—Holmes is about to leave for the US when he stops noted writer Henry James from committing suicide, taking a reluctant James with him on his investigation. James provides Holmes with an introduction to the Five of Hearts, a small club formed by the Adamses, John and Clara Hay, and an archaeologist named Clarence King.

Thus begins a long, long adventure that mixes Holmes, James, the Five of Hearts "club," and such other luminaries as Samuel Clemens, vice president Adlai Stevenson, and Theodore Roosevelt, and mixing in Holmes' thwarting of a Washington, DC, drug ring (but only after obtaining a new drug to help wean himself off cocaine, a promising new "heroic" drug called heroin) and his attempts to stop the assassination of the President at the Chicago Exposition.

Wow. What can I say about this book? It is crammed full of historical detail, from the slums of DC to the splendors of the "White City" in Chicago, from Clover Adams' extraordinary monument to Clemens' ill-fated investment into the Paige typesetting machine. I found it fascinating, except that if you took all these details out, you would be left with about half the book. Holmes' effort to stop the assassination is interesting, but it's buried under such minute details that most people won't find it worth the effort. Plus, frankly Henry James, who fills the Watson role, is a bore. He moans about his clever brother William, the psychologist; is jealous of his late sister's partner in a Boston marriage; fears being found out when Holmes first introduces himself to his friends as a Norwegian explorer; and complains endlessly that no one in the US appreciates his books. God, what a kvetch. If I keep it, it's just for the historical details.

book icon  Clark Howard's Living Large for the Long Haul, Clark Howard
Another one of savings guru Howard's books about people who have either managed to turn around bad credit/bad spending habits or who have started on the right foot by saving money early. Featured are a couple who paid off $40K of debt in two years, another couple who now ride bicycles exclusively (sorry, guys, would not do this in Atlanta; I want to remain alive), a 32-year-old woman who's already saved $200K, a married pair who run their cars on used cooking grease, a man who traveled to India to save money on a surgical procedure, and more inspirational financial stories. Some good tips here, but I'm not sure I'd go to a foreign country for surgery or burn oil in my car.

book icon  WHOology, Cavan Scott & Mark Wright
This is a chubby book of Doctor Who facts and trivia that I thought was a little too expensive for what it provided, since I have so many books about Doctor Who that contain similar facts. So only when I found a nice discount copy did I pick one up. Of interest: a timeline of significant events in the series' history, times the Doctor had a double, adventures mentioned but never seen, what's known about the Time Lords, the Doctor's family tree, and lots more bits and pieces about Daleks, Time Lords, and even about the Doctor's vintage car "Bessie." Enjoyable for fans.

book icon  Lonely Planet's Best of Great Britain, Damian Harper, etc.
I confess, I ordered this for reasons you might think odd. We have no money to travel, let alone overseas, and husband has no vacation time after a company reorganization and several years of medical problems. But it has always been my dream to travel Great Britain, and I love listening to the Lonely Planet reporters come on Rick Steves' radio series and talk in enticing words about the glories of  historic buildings, beautiful landscapes, and wonderful food. I'd never read a Lonely Planet guidebook.

I was actually a little disappointed. This didn't seem much different than any other guidebook I've purchased, including Rick Steves' himself. I guess from the way the Lonely Planet people talked on the radio show, I thought it would be more nicely written. My bad, not Lonely Planet's, I guess. If you want to read a beautifully written travel guide (but not to Britain), try Journey to New England: a Traveler's Guide. I guess I was hoping it would be more like that.

book icon  How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, Chris Taylor
I've seen all the films in the SW "saga" and enjoyed them (even the prequels, even though the Anakin/Padme stuff made me gag), but I've never been a SW junkie. I don't go looking for SW fanfic, or cosplay; I read a few of the early tie-in novels, but, like most of the Star Trek books, usually find them dull. Really, it was the amazing interplay of the main characters in the original trilogy that made Star Wars for me. Plus I followed all the Star Wars "making of" stories in "Starlog" magazine, so normally a making-of book would not be something I would have considered.

However, looking through this book, I discovered that it wasn't just the story of skinny George Lucas, the imaginative kid from Modesto, CA, and his complicated voyage that culminated in creating space-opera for a new generation, and the evolution of the first film and then its sequels and prequels, but contained stories about how Star Wars changed the lives of some of its fans. The introduction is the fascinating story of the first time the original film was shown to a Navajo audience with the dialog in the Navajo language. Chapter three talks about the founding of the Stormtrooper group "the 501st," created by an amputee and SW fan who wanted a costume that would not show his disability. Other chapters cover fans who have studied Jedi philosophy, action figure collectors, the Joseph Campbell mythology books, and people who build their own working R2-D2 robots. The Expanded Universe books and animated series get their due, and there's even a chapter about Star Wars spoofs.

I enjoyed the entire kit and kaboodle here, and did learn lots of things about the creation of the films that "Starlog" had never covered.

book icon  Rough Magic, Lara Prior-Palmer
The description of this book sounded wonderful: 18-year-old girl enters a wild Mongolian horse race, despite the fact her father hates horses and at first forbids her to go; turns out her aunt is a famous British equestrian rider. She has always been a restless soul, flitting from one thing to another.

The reality is somewhat less. I was hoping for an introspective book, in which lonely riding on the Asian steppes brought her to a different consciousness, or learning through her ride about the Mongolian countryside and the people. Very little is learned, and although she chronicles her thoughts and some very bizarre nightmares, it all seems very superficial. She doesn't even seem to prepare for the trip in even a minor way (even to forgetting to pack sanitary napkins, which kind of grossed me out when she talked about her blue jeans turning purple), and seems to resent the people who did prepare, including a highly regarded rider from Texas, who comes with all sorts of equipment. This rider seems to be hated just because she is from Texas, even though at the end it is also noted that she has pushed her horse too hard. (The race strictly regulates how hard the horses can be ridden, how far, and they are vetted at each stop, the rider penalized if the horse is slow to recover.) This seems to make the Texas rider sound callous, but it's apparently okay for Lara to whip her "lazy" horse when he doesn't want to go fast, or to stimulate him by scaring him with a motorcycle. In fact, Lara states at the beginning of the race she will be happy if she finishes and experiences the race, and that she isn't all that competitive. By the end all she wants to do is beat the more prepared riders, especially the Texas girl.

This, combined with some of her other actions, make her sound willful and spoiled. (At one point she relates that, as a child, she threw someone's dog into a pool because she was angry.) Ultimately I admire her for completing the race, despite its hardships, but I came away not liking her very much.

book icon  The Woman in the Water, Charles Finch
This is the first of three prequels to the Charles Lenox mysteries (the first book which was A Beautiful Blue Death) that takes us back to the days when Lenox first lived in London with his former college scout Graham and was a neophyte trying to become a private investigator. He has solved two minor mysteries, and while he and Graham daily take newspaper cuttings about suspected crimes, nothing has come his way yet, and the police think he's something of a joke. And then one morning a clipping takes their eye: a letter to the newspaper states that its author has committed the perfect crime, so perfect that no one has noticed it, and the author is disappointed in the police force. Both men are alarmed because the letter's author says he will be committing another crime soon. Can they prevent someone from being killed?

As in the second of the prequels, which I read first, I enjoyed this volume better than the more recent of Lenox's adventures, in which he has formed a detective agency. His partnership with Graham, and his unrequited love for his best friend Elizabeth (later to be known as Lady Jane) is very appealing, as are his solo efforts. There is also a touching subplot involving a member of Lenox's family and the scenes with them are a joy. The mystery is reasonably convoluted and takes Lenox and Graham from society venues to the mudlarks who hunt up discards to sell. But the real draw here is the family and the personal drama.

book icon  Mary Russell's War and Other Stories of Suspense, Laurie R. King
This is a volume of short stories based on King's series of books about Mary Russell, an intelligent young woman of mixed British and American ancestry who comes to live in rural Sussex during World War I and encounters a retired Sherlock Holmes, who takes her on as his apprentice in the first book of the series, The Beekeeper's Apprentice. Later, after she attends Oxford, she and Holmes are married. I couldn't get into the series the first time I read the initial book, then came back a few years ago and found I enjoyed it more, so naturally I picked this up at a book sale recently. One of the stories, "Beekeeping for Beginners," I had read online, but all others are new to me, including the titular "Mary Russell's War," which is Mary's diary from the time war breaks out in Europe until she returns to Sussex after the death of her family and meets Holmes. This is probably my favorite of the stories, liberally illustrated by "newspaper" news clippings and other illos. There are also two Christmas stories, one from Mary's childhood, and a very amusing two part tale of an elderly Russell and Holmes on the run from Sherlock-crazy American tourists. Plus there's "Mrs. Hudson's Case," in which that august lady puts one over on Holmes (but not necessarily on Russell).

If you are a fan of the Russell stories, these are a good addition to the canon.

book icon  A Double Life, Alan Shayne and Norman Sunshine
I confess, I bought this because Alan Shayne produced and Norman Sunshine did the commercial-break cutouts for the Addie Mills specials (Shayne also created and produced The Snoop Sisters, but he didn't have much to do with the series itself) and there was a whole chapter about the creation of The House Without a Christmas Tree. At the time I read the preview of the book, it was the first time I knew Shayne and Sunshine had been a couple. This interested me more.

Shayne and Sunshine take turns telling their stories, starting with their first meeting, then going back to their youth of trying to reconcile their attraction to men in a society where this was not only considered repugnant, but in most cases illegal. Shayne originally wished to be an actor and later became a casting director and then producer (he went to acting school with Marlon Brando, who sounded like a self-absorbed twit); Sunshine was always an artist, one who went from designing advertising copy to a full-time artist with gallery showings (Sunshine once worked for Jane Trahey, who wrote Life With Mother Superior, made into the film The Trouble With Angels). As their careers progress, and occasionally rise and fall, so also does their relationship.

This is my first time reading a book with a real-life narrative of a same-sex relationship. Surprise for those of you who may not like them because you think they are "unnatural": it's just like an opposite sex relationship: the same love, the same feelings, the same misunderstandings, the same up-and-down career choices that affect a relationship. I enjoyed the relationship story and also both career stories (although how Shayne didn't go berserk at his job at Warner Brothers I'll never know). Really enjoyed seeing Sunshine's work in one of the photo inserts (I like the earlier work better than the abstract work, but that's me), especially the country-themed ones, and the ones depicting the anonymity of city living. We get celebrity stories both positive (after their house burned down, Shayne and Sunshine lived at Rock Hudson's home at his invitation, even though they were not close friends) and negative (Lee Radziwell appearing in a TV-adaptation of Laura with a Truman Capote script), some very sad (the Bette Davis tale, and also the final story about Alan's ex-wife Jacqueline), and some very positive, like the Addie Mills collaboration. And I cried when they finally were able to be married.

book icon  Murder in the British Museum, Jim Eldridge
This is the third (or maybe second) book in a series about former police officer Daniel Wilson (he worked on the Jack the Ripper case and is now a private investigator) and Abigail Fenton (archaeologist and explorer, and now investigator). Everyone else whose reviews I've read seems to have enjoyed this book, but I'm afraid I'm going to be the dissenting vote here. I found it terribly difficult to get into and to finish reading, the characters one-dimensional, the romance tepid, even the feud between the male protagonist and one of the police officers was dull. Even worse, the moment one particular character was introduced, I guessed immediately this was the murderer of Professor Pickering, and I usually don't pick up on these things.

Daniel Wilson and Abigail Fenton have to be two of the dullest Victorian lovers ever. Every time they're at home and she's cooking for him I wanted to fall asleep. I don't get any sense of them as living, breathing human beings. Plus Abigail, already unconventional for being an archaeologist, is really bucking convention by living with a man out of wedlock. While they don't go around broadcasting this fact, a lot of people either seem to know or have guessed, so I would expect a lot more negative acceptance of Abigail because they believed or suspected she was "living in sin." Even worse, Americanisms and modern sayings—at one point Abigail talks about someone "hanging around" someone else (while "hang out" goes back to the 19th century, I believe "hanging around" is a 20th century term)—infiltrate every chapter. I'd no sooner gotten into what sounded like authentic British Victorian dialog when up would come one of those anachronisms to toss me out of the story.

There are so many better male/female Victorian crimefighting teams: the Pitts, the Monks, and especially Amelia Peabody and Radcliffe Emerson. I eat up their adventures; this was just tedious.

book icon  True Stories of Heroic Dogs, George Watson Little
This is a vintage volume from Grosset & Dunlap's "Famous Dog Stories" collection, and I probably would have killed for any or every one of the books in it as a kid: Jim Kjelgaard, Jack O'Brien, James Oliver Curwood, and more, a great collection of authors who wrote slam-bang canine-oriented adventures. It's a set of true stories, written for a younger audience, of real-life heroic dogs, including a collie who saves her toddler charge from drowning, an early 20th century tale of a mongrel dog who helped the police, a Great Dane who was a true friend of poor slum boys, a hunting dog who saved his owner from a raging river, and more.

I was amused by the acknowledgments page when the editor thanks "Mrs. Julie Campbell Tatham" for her help. Julie Campbell was the original author of the first few Trixie Belden mystery books, and the tale "Pal" appears to have been almost certainly written by Tatham: it takes place in Trixie's old stomping grounds, the Hudson Valley; the mother's name is Julie; and one of the kids says "Gleeps!" just like in the Belden stories. It's very possible Tatham adapted the stories within.

Dog lovers should enjoy this collection, even though it's very old fashioned.

book icon  Moonbound: Apollo 11 and the Dream of Spaceflight, Jonathan Fetter-Vorm
This is a nifty graphic-novel story of the Apollo program, which begins with the astronauts arriving at the moon, then alternating with the story of man's relationship with the moon, from beliefs about it from ancient civilizations to theories about what kind of life might exist there, and then with the first scientific discoveries by men like Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, to the present, where it intersects with the mission. The text is unsparing: you learn about the concentration-camp workers of Mittelwerk who put together those rockets Wernher von Braun and his team created; how Sergei Korolov was treated before Stalin realized he needed him; how women were originally trained as astronauts and even beat the physical records set by men, but who were never seriously considered based on the recommendations of many men (including John Glenn); the story of Margaret Hamilton, who programmed all the computers but got no credit because software wasn't considered important. Scientific principles are also illustrated to make them more easily understood (for instance, why you can't "speed up" in orbit to overtake another spacecraft).

I'm not always happy with the art in graphic novels, but this works pretty well, portraying the "present" in full color while the historical flashbacks are done in three-color combinations, which easily delineate the eras. Some of the art, in fact, is pretty cool, especially the final panel on page 37, a symbolic illustration of Johannes Kepler's breakthrough.

Extremely enjoyable, and probably a great way to introduce a scientifically inclined youngster to the history of the moon landings.

31 May 2019

Books Completed Since May 1

book icon  Victoria, A.N. Wilson
While Daisy Goodwin has used several sources for her scripts for the British series Victoria, this, I learned, was the primary text from which her story was taken. I had previously read Wilson's The Victorians and therefore greeted this new book with optimism and was rewarded with a very readable biography, which, of course, begins with Victoria's forebears and "the baby race" that was necessary after the death of George IV's daughter Charlotte to provide an heir to the British throne.

Wilson wants to emphasize the point that while most people remember the later images of Queen Victoria, the chubby old lady with the sour face whose trademark line was always the parody "We are not amused," Victoria was once a lively, vivacious young lady, held under the thumb of her mother, who loved her but was never acknowledged by the royal family, and her mother's ambitious advisor Sir John Conroy, who nursed a long-standing belief that he deserved to be part of the ruling class. She had decided opinions, but would listen to others if sufficiently intrigued, and was more cunning than her prime ministers, Parliament, and other members of the family believed.

Learned many interesting things about "the John Brown affair" and also about Victoria's later friendship with her Indian servant "the Munshi," and, sadly, the imperious way she treated her own children even after the way she felt she had been take advantage of. "Bertie," later Edward VII, was left to his own devices (which turned out to be gambling and womanizing) when Victoria refused to allow him to learn statecraft from her (a privilege she extended to her hemophilic son Leopold), and the youngest, Beatrice ("Baby"), was expected to stay a spinster and provide companionship to her mother, something Beatrice eventually thwarted. And of course Victoria's passionate romance with Albert, whom she originally dismissed as a spousal choice, is well covered.

Wilson's prose makes Victoria come alive as a real woman with weaknesses and with a great deal of strength. Enjoyable throughout.

book icon  Murder in the Bowery, Victoria Thompson
Frank Molloy's newest client in his still fairly new role as private investigator is a well-groomed young man named Will Bert who's searching for his younger brother, Freddie. Will and Freddie were sent West on an orphan train where Will found a sympathetic guardian and made good while Freddie ran away from his new family and is now supposedly back in New York. But the orphan train organization has no record of either boy, and Freddie is know in the newsboy community as "Two Toes" due to an accident—and he has no brother. Plus the search for Freddie has turned up another death, that of a young society woman named Estelle Longacre who enjoyed "slumming" in tours of the poor neighborhoods in the Bowery.

This is an absorbing entry in the series which mixes a real historic event—the newsboys' strike of 1899 (which inspired the cult musical Newsies)—with the mysteries of the missing Freddie and the murdered Estelle. It also exposes the seedy underbelly of not only the New York slums, but of dark secrets that underscored the life of the wealthy, leading to a rather creepy revelation and also a bit of vigilante justice.

Also enjoyed seeing Maeve chivvying the hotel remodelers!

book icon  100 Life Hacks, Dan Grabham
It was a dollar, what can I say? Just what the cover says: tips, tricks and other "life hacks," from using a large paper clip as a makeshift phone stand to advice for doing better at work. Don't pay a lot; but you may find several good ideas.

book icon  Curious New England, Citro and Gould
Picked this up for a dollar at a book sale. It's a tongue-in-cheek listing of all the strange exhibits, sights, monuments, and museums that can be found in the six states. Do you know colonies of parrots live in Connecticut? Or that there's a nut museum there as well? Would you like to visit a three-story outhouse? Head to Maine, where you'll also find a desert, remains of a Nazi POW camp, and a stove museum. Massachusetts boasts the Ether Dome in Boston, Fall River's Lizzie Borden tour, and a house made of paper. Visit a cuff link museum, a neolithic settlement, and a museum of American life during WWII in New Hampshire, and a pet cemetery of the rich and famous, a butterfly farm, and Nibbles the giant termite in Rhode Island. And wait, you're not finished: Vermont holds cursed mineral springs, its own personal "Loch Ness" monster (known as "Champ"), and a smelly rotten sneaker display. But wait, there's more!

Fun to read, probably more fun to visit.

book icon  The Silver Gun, L.A. Chandlar
I started this book with such promise.

Lane Sanders is challenged and left breathless by her job assisting New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, a short, squat piston of perpetual motion who keeps her on her toes. She has lived with her Bohemian aunt since her parents died, looked after by Aunt Evelyn's enigmatic majordomo Mr. Kirkland, gets on well with her co-worker and friend Valerie; less well with her other office mates Lizzie and Roxy, and she maintains a friendly but platonic relationship with a reporter named Rourke. LaGuardia is determined to rout out crime in his beloved city and frequently receives threats against his life, but Lane is still startled when one of those threats is delivered directly to her. And then someone tries to push her in front of a subway train.

There are several mysteries going on here: the threat to LaGuardia, the identity of a creepy-looking guy with long nose hairs that keeps showing up at events that LaGuardia attends, the handsome man with a British accent who steals Lane's heart at a dance hall, and an image that continually turns up in her dreams: a silver gun with elaborate red scrollwork on it that turns out to have something to do with her deceased parents. So there are lots of subplots, twists, and downright surprises in the plot, which starts with Lane at a run and just keeps her running.

And then it happened. Three times in two pages a police character referred to an unmarried woman as "Ms." Really? Really? You go through all this work developing a 1930s background and details (except for minor, maddening modernisms that crept in, like Lane and her mysterious guy dancing to a song that was written in the 1950s) and then you use a term that came in in the 1970s? It completely threw me out of the story and I never really got back into it. Plus the diary entries that Aunt Evelyn encourages Lane to read were written by a friend of hers that turned out to be a Famous Artist who has been in several media stories in the past few years. Not sure why this person was included in the plot.

book icon  The Food of a Younger Land, Mark Kurlansky
In the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration was initiated to create jobs in a country shellshocked by the Great Depression. One of the WPA offshoots was the Federal Writers Project, most well known for experimental plays done by up-and-coming artists like Orson Welles and John Houseman, and the state guidebook project, which provided the history and highlights of each of the then 48 states and Washington, DC. But yet another project was put aside, America Eats, a book about the various regional foods of each section of the country, from the Yankee standards of New England to the Spanish-flavored cuisines of the West and of California. All over the country recipes and profiles were being submitted for a book hopefully to be published in 1942—and then came December 7, 1941.

This volume includes most of the unedited, unfinished excerpts, articles, and essays that were supposed to be part of the WPA's guide to American foods, and it's fascinating to read, from the pickles and Indian pudding of Vermont all the way to "Oklahoma City's famous Suzi-Q potatoes." We visit a "sugaring off," a clambake, a traditional Rhode Island May breakfast (these are still held); learn how to make traditional barbecue sauce in the south—and hominy, and mint juleps; attend a "Negro" baptism and eat "burgoo" and Brunswick stew; chow down on lots and lots of corn dishes in the Midwest, along with persimmons, pheasants, and Native American dishes; sample geoducks, Washington apples, Basque and Bohemian dishes, potatoes and "prairie oysters." This was a United States devoid of all but a few chain restaurants, where regional foods were made fresh with local ingredients and no one ate fresh tomatoes in December.

It's fascinating reading if you're interested in the food history of the United States. 

book icon  Murder on Memory Lake, J.D. Griffo
An Italian grandmother as a sleuth? How could I resist, especially after I read the first few pages and our heroine responds to what she thinks is a scam phone call with "Ah, Madon!" and my childhood came spilling back, aunts, uncles, grandparents and great aunts, and godmothers all using that familiar exclamation. I ended up reading most of chapter one to my husband, laughing through half of it, as Alberta Scaglione discovers her great aunt Carmela has left her a darling lakefront home and almost three million dollars. But her peaceful new life doesn't stay peaceful because soon after she moves in Alberta discovers a dead body floating in the lake. And not only that, it's someone Alberta knows, Lucy Agostino. Alberta didn't like Lucy very much, but there's a clue on the body that lets her know that Lucy's death was the result of foul play. And since the police won't believe her, Alberta resolves she'll find out what happened to Lucy—with a little help from her sister Helen, an ex-nun; Joyce, her African-American  ex-sister-in-law who she likes more than her brother; and her granddaughter Gina, otherwise known as "Jinx" since the day she was born in a casino (it's a long story).

Parts of this book can be a bit unbelievable (like the search under the lake caper), but I didn't mind because it brought back all the wonderful memories of Italian family meals, the old Italian proverbs bandied about, and all the Italian terms like pozzo and ubotz, not to mention that so much of it is damn funny. I have the next one to read and another is coming out in the fall, and believe me, I'm waiting to see what these pazze Italian ladies come up with next! Just a fun cozy mystery, and so very, very nostalgic if you were brought up Italian.


book icon  The Farmer's Son: Calving Season on a Family Farm, John Connell
John Connell has returned to the farm where he was raised, helping his father with the cattle and the sheep that support the family, after having been away some years. He falls back into the rhythms of country life pretty easily, helped along by his mother, but tension still exists between himself and his father. This is Connell's diary of six months on the farm and his relationships with the animals, with his parents, and with himself.

This is akin to the flip side of the stories told by James Herriot, of the indomitable farmers who brave all weathers and the forces of life and death to nurture and do good by their livestock. Connell's narrative is almost hypnotizing, told as if he were narrating it aloud, with an Irish lilt and often a poetic turn as he ruminates on farming, nature, and relationships. There are also asides where he talks about the ancestors of modern-day cattle, the aurochs, and how humans went from hunting them to raising them for meat and for milk. He also talks with affection about the sheep and a dog he is trying to train, and the ancestral farmlands of Ireland.

It's a beautifully written memoir about the farming life, if that is the type of book you are looking for.

book icon  Ruff Justice, Laurien Berenson
Family awards are in the air in this entry in the Melanie Travis "canine mysteries" series. Her 13-year-old son Davey's poodle Augie needs only a few more points to become a champion. And her Aunt Peg is handling a promising new young poodle named Coral. Wanting Coral to look her best, Aunt Peg has commissioned a hand-braided leash from artisan Jasmine Crane, and goes to pick it up at her booth—and finds Jasmine strangled with one of her own leashes. Soon after, Aunt Peg and a young woman named Abby ask Melanie if she'll look into the disappearance of Abby's twin Amanda, a noted pet sitter. Amanda, coincidentally, was living in a garage apartment on Jasmine Crane's property.

Melanie only promises to check out a few people to try and locate Amanda, but the more she probes, the more she discovers that things with Jasmine, Amanda, Amanda's lackluster dog-show boyfriend Rick, and Jasmine's former partner Sadie aren't what they seem. Not to mention Jasmine's fellow vendors at dog shows, who have no love lost for her. And what about those burglaries occurring during dog shows?

In a subplot, Melanie assists Francesca, a new student at her school who is suddenly failing in her subjects.

Enjoyable as always, even if the subplot is predictable. I enjoy all the characters even if Aunt Peg continually gets on my nerves. I love the way Davey is standing up to her now!

book icon  The History of THE BOOK in 100 Books, Roderick Cave and Sara Ayad
This is a nifty oversized book filled with fascinating photographs and prints chronicling the history of books, from the first basic storytelling "published" on cave walls and cuneiform tablets all the way to electronic books and even unusual books (are they really "books"?) Tally sticks that go back to 20,000BC, the lost knowledge of Inca khipus, palm leaf texts from India, the first cookbook; folding books, scrolled books, spiral books; handwritten manuscripts and printed manuscripts; graphs, patents, underground publications, bank notes, papermaking. comic books. All illustrated in full black and white and in color, photos, drawings, and more. Perfect for every book lover.

30 April 2019

Books Completed Since April 1

book icon  The Truth About Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, and Other Tales from the Wild Side of Wildlife, Lucy Cooke
I confess, I picked this up because I opened it and came upon the author talking about Swedish police running afoul of moose drunken on fermented berries. How could you not want to read on?

This is Cooke's breezy—occasionally a bit too breezy—commentary on a handful of animals and not only their peculiarities, but the peculiar things men have ascribed to them in earlier centuries, and how they aren't really the way we portray them. For instance, sloths: their slowness has given them a classic bad rap for being useless animals because of their speed—yet sloths have survived longer than man, and manage to survive despite habitat changes, complete with peculiarities (like it takes a sloth a week to poop). She also talks about the aforementioned moose (like maybe they really aren't getting drunk on fermented berries), eels, chimpanzees (and why, even though they're our closest evolutionary relatives, you can't bring them up like children), beavers (do you know a lot of products made for human consumption have beaver anal fluid in them?), hyenas (females have sex organs that make them look like males, and they are strictly matriarchal), bats, frogs, vultures, storks, hippopotami (they have a tough time surviving in Africa, but ones smuggled into South American jungles are doing quite well!), pandas (despite how it looks in zoos, pandas actually mate very successfully and have rather randy sex lives when they do), and penguins. A smattering of bears (despite years of being told giant pandas aren't bears, well, they're closer to bears than anything else) and elephants and migratory birds show up as well.

This is a fun natural history, but be forewarned that since we are talking about past beliefs about animals, you'll need to get through some pretty hideous experiments scientists have done to these animals over the years. It's a small part of the book, but can get pretty grim. The chimpanzee and the vacuum cleaner story isn't exactly safe for work, either.

book icon  Bertie: The Complete Prince of Wales Mysteries, Peter Lovesey
These mysteries (Bertie and the Tin Man, Bertie and the Seven Bodies, Bertie and the Crime of Passion) were first released in the late 1980s/early 1990s, and I can guess they are being re-released due to the continued interest in the British Victoria series currently being produced, featuring adorable Laurie Shepherd as a very young Albert Edward, later to become King Edward VII. I remember passing on them back then, but always regretted not reading them, so I have quite enjoyed getting caught up on Bertie's "career" as a detective.

I found the third book, taking place in Paris and featuring Sarah Bernhardt as Bertie's assistant in tracking down the murderer of the future son-in-law of an old French friend, the least interesting of the lot, although it was a great look at the 1880s Parisian scene. The first story is spun upon the fact that Bertie's favorite jockey Fred Archer just shot himself out of nowhere, after asking the bewildering question "Are they coming?" It did seem the most authentic of the lot, with Bertie investigating one of his favorite pastimes, although I was uncomfortable with Lovesey using a real-life suicide as a jumping-off place for an often tongue-in-cheek mystery. My favorite of the three was Bertie and the Seven Bodies, although the "base the killings around a rhyme" trope has been done often; I like country house mysteries and also Bertie's partner through much of the mystery is his wife Alix, who brings him down, sometimes quite humorously, from his fancy of being a private detective. This is Bertie with all his warts: a womanizer, a gourmand, an enjoyer of fine cigars and clothing, a little bit of a snob, but with a good heart and time on his hands, since his mother Queen Victoria refuses to give him anything worthwhile to do. (Victoria's Jenna Coleman is downright motherly compared to how the real Victoria treated the real Bertie, even in childhood.) And while he is rather a scattershot detective, his adventures are always fun.

If you've any interest in Victorian-era mystery stories or the infamous Prince of Wales who became, as King, "uncle of Europe," these should be your cup of tea.

book icon  Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness, Ingrid Fetell Lee
Everyone recognizes that some big events spark joy: perhaps the birth of a long awaited baby, or the first college graduation in a family, a wedding. But Lee talks about the small things that also provide joy: energy, abundance, freedom, harmony, play, surprise, transcendence, magic, celebration, and renewal. She investigates how even just a pop of color affects emotions and how a change of color can even revitalize a neighborhood, how layering of colored patterns can boost your happiness, how walking through nature can relieve stress, how symmetry calms, how adults still need to play, how even the smallest surprise can change your day for the happier, and more. At the back of the book are simple exercises you can do to bring joy to your life.

I'd read about some of these other things in other books (colors in schools and in urban development, how we are starved for nature experiences, about how the Golden Mean affects you emotionally, etc.), but Lee gathers them here in one place. Dead serious people may think this is frivolous, but otherwise it's fun. Would love to experience some of the homes, apartments, and outdoor spaces she describes in the book!

book icon  Re-Read: Little Men, Louisa May Alcott
I picked this up again on a whim one night and immediately fell once again in with the hijinks and lessons at Plumfield School. While we adults know Alcott wrote these children's tales to earn money for her family, and much preferred her "blood and thunder" stories, and while Little Men can be maddeningly didactic at times (and the chapter about the visit of Laurie and Amy's daughter is so sickly sweet it could give you diabetes), I appreciated the story with new eyes after having read several biographies of Alcott and of Alcott's family.

First and foremost Alcott wanted to defend the teaching methods espoused by her father Bronson Alcott and featured them prominently. "Teaching" in those days chiefly meant making children sit still and memorize things for hours at the time ("stuffing their heads like a Strasbourg goose," as Louisa put it—when I visited Old Sturbridge Village, the gentleman at the schoolhouse remonstrated me when I called him a "schoolteacher"; he was a "school keeper," he corrected me, there to make sure the kids read their books and did their lessons, not to teach), and Bronson's ideas were rather radical: he advocated schools governed by kindness, about children learning lessons about nature in nature itself rather than out of a dry textbook, of other hands-on instruction (rather like the later kindergarten movement and Montessori schools). American schools gradually did begin using most of these methods, but sadly today, except in innovative schools, have regressed. Once again children's heads are being stuffed like geese, this time to pass tests, and the valuable outdoor time that was found so useful in working off restlessness in pupils has now been restricted. Unless a child plays sports, many get no exercise at all, and recess is a declining event. The Bhaers, like Bronson, believed a good mixture of study and story, outdoor play and indoor hobbies, best gave children a rounded education.

The other thing I noted immediately in these days of sexual harassment of girls at school and in the MeToo movement is Jo's insistence that the boys as well as girls be taught good manners, and that boys learn to treat girls and women with respect. When Nat, Tommy, and Demi ruin Daisy, Nan, and Bess' "dinner party," Jo doesn't accept that "it was only in fun" and punishes the boys for their rudeness by forbidding the boys to speak to the girls. The boys soon realize the girls are as worthy as other boys of respect.

Also there is the matter of Jo's "black sheep" Dan, who has had a rough upbringing and who is coarse and wild. While he must learn respect and that duties come before pleasures, he is also given love and acceptance. Today Dan—and also perhaps wild little Nan Harding, Daisy's headstrong and sometimes heedless classmate—would be referred to counseling; perhaps they would be given ADHD drugs. Jo's solution to their restlessness is to give them both something to do that will absorb their energies, and along with love and kindness, this turns the trick. (I am not suggesting that ADHD drugs are bad and counseling is of no use. Some children are so hyperactive mentally that they literally do need medication to settle their minds to be able to think, and sometimes no amount of love and care can make up for childhood abuse. But sometimes it seems that drugs and counseling are quick-fix sops thrown at parents by a handful of lazy and greedy advisors.)

If you stopped after Little Women, I do recommend Little Men (eat a pickle while you read the "Goldilocks" chapter if you like) and its sequel, Jo's Boys, in which Alcott gives to Nan the ending Louisa Alcott really wanted for Jo.

book icon  Death of a New American, Mariah Fredericks
My favorite period of history is the U.S. and Great Britain 1880 through the beginning of the first World War, so this hit my radar immediately. I wondered if I would have a problem with it being the second book in a series, but discovered it didn't make too much of a difference to the mystery portion of the story.

Jane Prescott is still fairly new in her position as ladies' maid to sisters Charlotte and Louise Benchley, still recovering from mercurial Charlotte's ill-advised engagement that went sour (see the first book). As news of the Titanic disaster makes headlines, Jane is accompanying Louise to Long Island for her upcoming wedding to William Tyler. Louise doesn't think much of herself and Jane is hoping marriage to the handsome and slightly shy himself William will help her. When they arrive at the home of Charles Tyler, William's guardian uncle, a man who is helping in the fight against the "Black Hand," gangsters among the newly-arrived Italian immigrants, Jane is drawn to the Tylers' nursemaid, a quiet young woman named Sofia who appears to adore her charges. But not long after they arrive, little Mabel Tyler rushes to Jane, frantic: her baby brother is crying and crying, and Sofia is not answering when Mabel calls for her. In the nursery, Jane finds baby Freddy on the floor and Sofia dead. The crime is written off as a botched kidnapping (an Italian gangster had been threatening the Tylers), and Sofia is considered part of the plot, but that doesn't square with Jane. She doesn't think Sofia had any part in the crime.

One of the problems of any modern-day novel written about that period is that so many of the heroines turn out to be 21st-century women in 19th/early 20th century dress. (This was particularly egregious in Cathy Pegau's Alaskan mysteries.) They are all for women's suffrage, educated women, free love, not automatically being married...and they don't sound like their Victorian/Edwardian counterparts who did believe in these things. I liked Jane because she's not sure about these things, but at the same time she is coming to believe that all women shouldn't be relegated to be dutiful wives and airhead spinsters. She is basically learning as she goes along, and doesn't feel the need to topple social structure immediately as she does. She seems more realistic. I also liked her friend Anna, who has gotten involved with labor unions in order to get her own people, and other immigrants, paid fairly.

I also enjoyed this book because of the Italo-American storyline, as all four of my grandparents were from Italy. The novel shows the type of bigotry they endured every day, something that was still alive and kicking well into the 1940s when my mother took her mother to the Red Cross to see if there was any word of my uncle, who was stationed in the Pacific during World War II, and my grandmother was dismissed by a Red Cross worker as "another stupid Dago."

I now know I want to read the first book in this series to see how she came to work for the Benchleys, what happened to Charlotte, and how she met Herald reporter Michael Behan.

book icon  American Moonshot, Douglas Brinkley
This is an interesting take on the U.S. space program, paralleling the histories of the early space pioneers along with the early life of a youngster who would seem like the last person to put his interest in flying to the moon: the wealthy young scion of one of Boston's noted families, John F. Kennedy. Brinkley chronicles the career of Kennedy against that of the pioneers of space travel: Goddard, Oberth, and finally Von Braun.

In general I liked this book because I was a small child during the Kennedy administration and remember the "Camelot" mystique and because I followed the space program as an older child. However, I am dismayed by the reviews that cite so many mistakes in the text. I'm sorry to hear there are so many factual errors since I really liked the idea of paralleling the Kennedy story with the space program history.

book icon  Keeping Up Appearances: Hyacinth Bucket's Book of Etiquette for the Socially Less Fortunate, Roy Clarke and Jonathan Rice
I got this for 75 cents at a book sale and chuckled my way through it. The narrative ties together dialog from the television series, and it's a fun read if you enjoy following the adventures of "the Bucket woman." Don't pay full price, though. (I know, that would horrify Hyacinth...)

book icon  A Gentleman's Murder, Christopher Huang
It's 1924 in London, England, and Eric Peterkin, like his father and grandfather before him, belongs to the Brittania Club, an exclusive gentleman's club for ex-military members. He is used to the peculiarities of the members, and when one of the members bets another that he can break into a lock box in the the members' safe deposit room, he merely views it as another club foible—until the person whose box was supposed to be raided turns up dead in the supposedly always-secured room. In involving himself in the mystery, with the help of his sister Penny and eccentric friend Avery, Eric is thrown back into war memories, long-buried secrets, and the specter of the charnel fields of Flanders, along with the disappearance of a Chinese nurse from an estate turned convalescent hospital.

The twist in this story is that Eric Peterkin is somewhat of a stranger in a strange land: while his father's heritage gains him membership in the Brittania, he is still looked on with suspicion (even by a couple of members) because his mother was Chinese. It is the era of the "Yellow Peril" in literature and in theatre, and Eric, who evaluates books for publication, is already tired of books with Chinese villains and seeing plays with Chinese villains. As he investigates the crime that took place in his club, he is continually mistaken for a chauffeur, servant, or lackey.

Huang has written a great "Golden Age" style murder mystery with a twist. I enjoyed this thoroughly and hope there are sequels.

book icon  Tales from Shakespeare, Charles and Mary Lamb
You can't make it through 19th century children's literature without bumping into "Lambs' Tales from Shakespeare" somewhere along the line. Brother and sister Charles and Mary Lamb (he was the younger) adapted in 1807 twenty of Shakespeare's plays (fourteen comedies and six tragedies—no historicals) into prose (while including tough subjects like murder and jealousy, of course they skipped sexual situations completely). What follows is a very likeable narrative of the most famous of the plays, including "The Tempest," "Romeo and Juliet," "Macbeth," "Midsummer's Night Dream," etc. and if you wanted to know more about the plays without reading them, this is a good way to learn. The edition I found at Barnes & Noble is from Fall River Press with illustrations taken from Arthur Rackham, Robert Anning Bell, and Walter Paget (brother of Sidney, who illustrated some of the Sherlock Holmes stories), all lovely 19th century work that enhance the story narratives.

book icon  Easter Ideals, Ideals Publications
The spring edition of Ideals, this is devoted to both the religious side of Easter and general spring beauty, a collection of artwork, lush photographs, poetry and essays, plus the Bible narrative for Easter. Particularly liked the poems "Symbol," "April Rain," and the Wordsworth "Written in March," plus Pamela Kennedy's essay about Thomas the apostle.

31 March 2019

Books Completed Since March 1

book icon  Look Both Ways, Carol J. Perry
Her aunt's house now intact after a terrible fire the previous autumn, Lee Barrett is slowly furnishing the upper story, which Aunt Ibby has made over as an apartment for her. She spots an antique bureau on a local Salem, MA, television shopping show, available at one of the town antique shops and identical to the one that used to be in her bedroom, complete with secret drawers. At the shop she buys the bureau, but spots a few more antiques she might like and returns, only to find the proprietor dead. Her new guyfriend Pete Mondello, a Salem police detective, heads the investigation team. But even as she gets involved with the town theater group for the summer, Lee wonders if she's also in danger—the bureau once belonged to a woman who died.

This is the third of the "Witch City" books and as equally enjoyable as the first two, even if Lee's preoccupation with furnishing her nest provides a lot of extraneous text. Lee and Pete make the usual handsome leading couple, but it's the supporting characters that give it a fillip: Aunt Ibby, her gentleman friend Rupert Pennington, practicing witch River North, and of course the former witch's familiar, Lee's orange tabby cat O'Ryan. And once again Lee starts seeing visions of the type she's had since she was a child, but these are of a woman and a little dog, with the woman appearing to beckon Lee to help her—the former owner of the bureau. An ex-con, a ditzy blonde, the nephew of the former owner, and the former partner of the shop owner also figure.

I quickly narrowed down the suspects after finally discarding two red-herrings, but there's some properly spooky goings on for Salem to coincide with Lee's visions in the final chapters. These books aren't great art, but they're fun to read.

book icon  The Roosevelts and the Royals, Will Swift
One of the supposed great faux pas of the day, 1939 America couldn't believe it when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain made a tour of the United States and stopped at President Roosevelt's home in Hyde Park, NY, and the President and his perambulating First Lady Eleanor fed them hot dogs! Surely this was a black eye in social hosting!

This is the story of the two "royal families" of the World War II era, the shy and stammering "Bertie," great-grandson of Queen Victoria, who became King of Great Britain when his older brother David, a.k.a. Edward VIII, abdicated the throne to marry divorcee American Wallis Warfield Simpson, and his supportive wife Elizabeth Bowes-Lytton, and the "squire of Hyde Park," Franklin D. Roosevelt, confined to a wheelchair due to polio suffered as an adult, and his determined wife Eleanor, who grew up considered an ugly duckling and who became famous for her social causes. Alternate chapters chronicle the history of both couples, the desperate event that made them friends (World War II), and finally their futures after the combined forces of the U.S. and Britain withstood Adolf Hitler's and Tojo's bloody war machines.

I'd wanted this book since I saw it on the stacks and was not disappointed. No, you won't get the complete saga of the U.S. and Britain in the war, nor complete biographies of the four particulars, but it's a fine summary of the two couples and their parallels (Bertie to Eleanor, and Franklin to Elizabeth). I found it a great read, and it's a good starting place if you are interested in either of the families.

book icon  Dear Mrs. Bird, A.J. Pearce
No sooner do I say in at least two reviews that chick-lit is not for me than this book shows up and I fall in love with it.

Emmy Lake and her best friend Marigold "Bunty" Tavistock, along with William, Bunty's fiance, have known each other since childhood. Now they are living in Blitz-battered London, where Bunty works for the War Office, William is part of the fire brigade, and Emmy is a secretary. Emmy's secret longing is to be a Lady War Correspondent, and when she sees a situations-wanted advert for a writing job with a publisher who runs a London newspaper, she thinks this is her Big Chance. Unfortunately it's only after she's quit her old job and taken the new that she realizes she will be working for the old fashioned "Women's Friend" magazine, screening the letters for famed "agony aunt" Henrietta Bird.

But as she reads the letters, Emmy realizes times are changing. So many women want to know what to do about their feelings of loneliness while their husbands serve, or about girls who are resisting the urge to send off their boyfriends to war in a special way, subjects Mrs. Bird deems Unpleasant and not fit for publication. Surely they need answers, too? And since Mrs. Bird mainly has her eye on her own war work and doesn't even look at the column after its published, why can't Emmy consult her own feelings and the work of other agony aunts to help the correspondents her superior ignores?

Emmy's upbeat, lively narrative in the face of appalling destruction and loss of life make this one a winner. Even though in her innocent youthfulness she makes simple gaffes and one terrible error in judgment, her big heart is in the right place. You want to cheer with her even as you realize she's headed for trouble. Plus I could hear her enthusiastic narration in the voice of Emer Kenny, who plays a character coincidentally named Bunty in the Father Brown television series.

It's also a great tale about how people Carried On during the Blitz. So very much recommended!

book icon  Why We Eat What We Eat, Raymond Sokolov
I picked this up because March was National Nutrition Month and the subject looked interesting. It was pretty interesting. I don't like cookbooks, but I do like books about the history of food. This one is about how the European arrival in the "New" World changed both the cuisine of the Americas and of other countries. For instance, what we think of as "French cooking" or "Italian cooking" only exists because of foodstuffs brought over to Europe from America after 1492—tomatoes, of course, form the base of classic "Italian cooking" and there were no tomatoes in the Old World until after the 1500s. (Heck, even into the late 1700s they were looked on with suspicion.) Also, now you find tortillas or variations thereof all over the world, but corn (maize) was solely a New World product at one time. A fairly absorbing chronicle of cross cultures, more interesting if you are a foodie.

book icon  Victoria's Daughters, Jerrold M. Packard
I found this book at the library book sale just as season three of Victoria was ending, a perfect antidote to the compelling but sometimes very sweetened (especially in Victoria's attitude to her eldest son) version of the queen as played by Jenna Coleman. The book follows the fortunes of Victoria's five daughters: Vicky, the bright eldest child whose fairy-tale love story with Frederick of Prussia would turn into horrible misery; Alice, the Prince of Wales' staunchest ally in his formative years, and who devoted her life to good works as she mourned having a husband who she felt no kinship with; plain Helena (Lenchen) who married for love of an eccentric husband who agreed to live with the Queen and Prince Albert; talented Louise, who restrained her artistic leanings in order to please her mother, but who still rebelled in marrying a lowly Scottish duke; and "Baby," little Beatrice who the Queen expected to stay by her side through her lifetime, and who did until she rebelled and found a husband to free her.

Much is written about "the playboy Prince" of Wales, but this is a nice glimpse into the distaff side of Victoria's household. I'd learnt a lot about Vicky (and her painful later life with her disparaging son who would become the villain Kaiser Wilhelm of the Great War) through the miniseries Edward the Seventh, and also a little about Alice, but the younger three girls rather disappeared into the woodwork. Louise now has a book devoted to her life, which I would like to read sometime.

book icon  Death at the Seaside, Frances Brody
Private inquiry agent Kate Shackleton has seen off her partner and her landlady on August holidays and arrives in the seaside town of Whitby (known for the famous Whitby jet, a gem used in mourning jewelry) for her own time off; this is with a great deal of nostalgia, as she and her late husband were in Whitby when Gerald bought her wedding and engagement rings. In fact, the same jeweler still has a shop there. So after arranging to see an old friend, Alma, who lives in Whitby, and checking into the Royal Hotel, Kate walks to the jewelry shop—only to find the jeweler dead. Worse yet, Kate discovers Alma appeared to be in love with the jeweler, Jack Phillips, and that Alma's missing daughter, Felicity, was one of the last to see him alive.

In alternating chapters, we follow the adventures of Felicity, who, along with the young man who's sweet on her, has gone out in an old boat to find her estranged father, whom she is certain is living nearby.

I didn't enjoy this entry in the series as well as some of the previous ones. I found Alma intensely irritating, with her "sight" and the descriptions of her little fortune-telling booth left me claustrophobic. I didn't like the way she used Kate, nor the way Kate seemed to daydream her way through the mystery, at least until Jim Sykes and Mrs. Sugden show  up to help her. My favorite part of this book was the recreation of the peaceful seaside life of a 1920s English resort, with the cool breezes, piers, rock candy, summery cottages, wooden fishing craft, laid-back summer attitude, and other relicts of a bygone age. You can almost hear the wind blowing and the ships creaking in harbor as they sway in the tide.

book icon  On Her Majesty's Frightfully Secret Service, Rhys Bowen
Now that her lover Darcy's father has been cleared of murder (see previous book), Georgiana Rannoch must clear one more hurdle to marry him: remove herself from the line of succession to the throne of England ("Georgie" is 35th in line and can't marry a Catholic if she remains there). So she approaches her distant cousin Queen Mary to help her, only to have the queen send her on a secret mission while Darcy is away: she's to attend a country house party where the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII) will be with his American lover, the odious Wallis Simpson, and make sure the two aren't planning to elope. Luckily this party is in the same Italian town where Georgie's best friend Belinda has gone to hide until she gives birth. Georgie also finds out that the hostess of the party is none other than an old schoolmate.

Georgie tires me out in this book: she's continuously sent to and fro until she can locate Belinda, arrive at the party in a ladylike manner, and then has to keep an eye on her Cousin David and the imperious Wallis. All is not well at the estate, either: Georgiana's often childlike and always demanding mother and her German husband are attending the same party, along with some prominent Nazis, who are meeting in an old outbuilding for what Georgie believes may be treasonous reasons.

Again, you may spot the culprit from the beginning: the fun is watching Georgie negotiate each new obstacle thrown in her path, if not with aplomb, at least with ingenuity. I especially enjoyed Georgie's growing friendship with Camilla, the old schoolmate she once regarded as kind of a drip, but who possesses strength and depths Georgie would not have dreamed of when they were at school. A series of somewhat improbably adventures occur (the sequence in the marble temple comes immediately to mind), but it's all in fun and sleuthing.

book icon  The Children's Hour: Favorite Mystery Stories (Volume 7), edited by Mathilda Schirmer
When I was "knee-high to a grasshopper," I used to play with a friend whose older brother owned a set of the Collier "Junior Classics," a set of books of short stories, each volume around a common theme. I confess to the many times I snuck out of playing some boring girlie game on the excuse of using the bathroom and instead crept upstairs to read a story out of "The Animal Book." This volume of The Children's Hour, a similar set of books that I didn't know of, consists of mysteries from "stories for younger readers" to "stories for older readers." Frankly I found the stories for the younger kids more entertaining; most of them were about a brother and sister falling upon some type of puzzle and solving it. One story takes place in Australia and includes a youthful aborigine hero, another is a chapter from Homer Price where Homer and his pet skunk Aroma capture bank robbers, and the prize here is an Augusta Heuill Seaman novella, The Strange Pettingill Puzzle. It's so cool watching free-range kids canoeing, horseback riding, studying birds, and generally relying on their own smarts instead of being in organized activities and fixated on electronics.

The stories for older children are a tad more conventional: two Sherlock Holmes adventures ("Blue Carbuncle" and "Red-Headed League"), Poe's interminable "The Gold Bug" (read by me for the first time and not understanding why everyone loves it), and a couple more. "Miss Hinch" is an interesting tale about the titular female criminal and her pursuit, including by a successful female detective. The other exciting tale is "The Adventure at the Toll Bridge," about a gang who try to escape but hadn't reckoned on the youthful custodian.

I quite enjoyed this, and discovered that all the books are available on Archive.org's Open Library: The Children's Hour library

book icon  The Life-Changing Manga of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo and Yuko Uramoto
Chiaki is a bright young woman almost "thirty-something" who works in an office and lives in a hopelessly untidy small apartment. She meets her handsome young neighbor only because she keeps forgetting to take out her garbage and the smell is wafting over to his apartment, so he comes over to complain. She thinks her untidiness is hopeless but she truly wants to change, so she calls in "KonMari."

If you've been curious about all the kerfluffle of the Marie Kondo/Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up conversation flitting about talk shows and social media, this is the most fun way to learn what Kondo's philosophy of paring down your possessions to only the ones which "spark joy" is all about. Illustrated are Kondo's signature clothing-folding tricks (although the fitted sheet trick isn't included; it's online, so check it out) and her method of sorting by category, not by room, and by leaving sentimental items until last, when you have learned how to sort and discard other items. The text and illos are light and often amusing, imparting a lesson while giving an enjoyable read.

I really enjoyed this, and there's even a psychological twist to Chiaki's story.

book icon  Marilla of Green Gables, Sarah McCoy
I've been wanting to lay my hot little hands on this since I heard of it and finally borrowed it from the library, not wanting to wait for the paperback. This is McCoy's version of the early life of Marilla (and also Matthew) Cuthbert, before Anne Shirley entered their lives, opening when thirteen-year-old Marilla, helping her mother Clara prepare for a new baby, meets her mother's twin sister Elizabeth "Izzy" Johnson, a dressmaker in St. Catherines, for the first time. Marilla already knows her own mind, but her entire world revolves around Green Gables, and Izzy helps to widen her experience, as does her growing friendship with a neighbor boy, John Blythe.

McCoy tells a good tale here, prompted by Marilla's revelation to Anne late in Anne of Green Gables that John Blythe was once called her beau. McCoy also paid attention to the books (unlike Budge Wilson, who admitted when she wrote Before Green Gables that she never actually read the book!), so the Avonlea folks are all as we expect them, and she gives a great portrait of young Rachel White, who will become Rachel Lynde. It's also possible that the political story that is woven into the last half of the book could have happened to Marilla and Matthew. However, it's revealed in Anne that Matthew said he'd never "gone courting" when in this book he does, and also Matthew says to Marilla at one point in Anne that there was no reason for them to raise her as austerely as they had. The little romance Matthew almost has is quite in character, but although Matthew and Marilla do have some bad things happen to them in the course of the novel, their childhood apparently was far from dark: even their stern Presbyterian father seems nice. So it is a bit of a diversion from the original background as presented by Montgomery. However it did not make me all that unhappy, and McCoy's writing was quite lovely. I was just sad about the fight that broke up John  and Marilla, too close to current events for my taste.

16 March 2019

Yet Another Book Sale--Coda

James went to his club meeting, so I went back to the book sale. (Yes, incorrigible is my middle name.) Ran into Clair and Daniel Kiernan there, in fact. Yes, I found more books.
  • The President and the Assassin, about McKinley's death
  • Curious New England, about odd things up in the northeast corner (and yes, Nibbles the Blue Bug on top of the New England Pest Control building in Providence is there)
  • Mary Russell's War, all Laurie King's Mary Russell short stories
  • Two, count 'em, two, books of commentary on James Thurber's work (Long and Mossberger)
  • 1939: the Last Season of Peace, about the (social) season in Great Britain before the war broke out
  • a book about Gus Grissom, ostensibly for James
and finally, Susan Allen Toth's My Love Affair With England—I thought I had this, but it was actually Toth's sequel, England as You Like It, which I got at a previous sale and which I almost read a week or two ago, but decided on another book. Now I'm glad I didn't start it, so I can start from the beginning. And, oh, heavens, there's a sequel to the second one...

15 March 2019

Yet Another Book Sale

Every year my mantra is "I'm only going to buy the books on my list," and every year I break the rules.


Well, granted, some of the books on my list are very recent and perhaps I shouldn't expect to find them at the book sale. They're about to come out in paperback, or they just have come out in paperback, so I have found books like that at the sale before. But, alas, not today. I found only Craig Johnson books I didn't need, no Victoria Thompson in the Gaslight series (although I did find the second book in her new series), alas no Gladys Taber, no Jodi Taylor books, nor The Silver Gun, etc. But I still managed to come home with A Stack fifteen inches high.
  • Jesus and His Times, a "Reader's Digest" book that seemed appropriate for Lent or the approaching Easter season
  • Firehorse, about a teen girl who moves to Boston right before the great fire
  • Hattie Ever After, the sequel to Hattie Big Sky
  • Anything for a Laugh, another Bennett Cerf collection
  • Here's England, a tour book of England from 1950 by a husband and wife team
  • My Sherlock Holmes: Untold Stories of the Great Detective, pastiches
  • City of Secrets, a sequel to Victoria Thompson's City of Lies
  • A Christmas Party by Georgette Heyer, which will go into my Christmas reading pile
  • America's Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines, which seems perfect reading for March
  • Good-bye, Mr. Chips and Other Stories (I had no idea James Hilton had done other Chips stories! This collects all of them, and is illustrated to boot)
  • Victoria's Daughters, which I've wanted for ages
  • a hardback edition of The Wind in the Willows with no cover but Tasha Tudor illustrations
I'd taken time out to go to the rest room and then look at dismay out the open cargo doors of the civic center; it was pouring as if heaven were emptying out and a whole family, mom and three kids, including a very sopped baby, were drying off in the bathroom. So I went back and looked at the kids' books again—there were still lots of picture books and elementary grade reference books left, but the middle-grade books were practically stripped—and then the young adult and trade paper books, and there in the middle of the YA amongst the vampires and supernatural and steampunk were two books by Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. There are currently two biographies about Fermor in the travel section at Barnes & Noble; in 1933 he left home at eighteen and walked from Rotterdam to Istanbul. The books, which chronicle his journey, are supposed to be classics. Well, I'm game. If he can write like Laurie Lee, that will be a definite plus!

I also bought something for Alice and Ken, and a curiosity for Rodney.

I finally got done at the civic center at quarter to noon; it was still raining, but lightly, so I stacked the two bags of books one on top of the other and got them out to the car without getting them wet. It took me a while, but I got down to Tin Drum despite lunch-hour traffic, picked up lunch for both James and I, and got home without incident.
 

28 February 2019

Books Completed Since February 1

book icon  A Forgotten Place, Charles Todd
The Great War is over, but not for its men: they now face the repercussions of their injuries in their return to civilian life. Bess Crawford is serving as a nurse to these men, including Welsh soldiers from the same mining town. These men know that with missing limbs they will be unable to make a living anymore; too many are depressed. One man commits suicide, and Bess and the other hospital staff try to give the others hope. After they are shipped home, Bess is disturbed when she gets a note from the Welsh company's captain saying that another man has committed suicide. He asks if there is any way she can come to help them. Bess, good soul that she is, decides to use a few days of her leave to do just that. But by the time she arrives, all but a few of the men have died and Captain Williams has moved to a remote village. To make certain he's all right, Bess has a driver take her to this village since it is off rail or bus lines—and then the driver leaves her stranded. Captain Williams and his sister-in-law take her in, and Bess is sure she can find some way to get back to Swansea, until she realizes that the mysterious citizens of the tiny community are determined she not leave.

This is a slow-moving atmospheric entry in the Bess Crawford series, akin to a Gothic novel, with bodies washing up on the shore and mysterious burials, a strange tale about a sunken ship, violent acts in the middle of the night, and Bess' sensation that she is always being watched. The sea and the changeable weather add more fillips of mystery and atmosphere. You need to be patient with this entry in the series as it's written more like a 19th century suspense novel, but the spooky setting and ominous villagers make it well worth reading.

book icon  Seven Letters from Paris, Samantha Vérant
In 1989 Samantha and her madcap best friend Tracy went to Europe, stopping briefly in Paris. There they befriended two Frenchmen around their age who took them on a dream tour of the city. Jean-Luc Vérant and Samantha hit it off immediately, and he begged her to stay in Paris. Samantha was nervous and the next day she and Tracy continued their tour. But Jean-Luc did not forget her and wrote her seven letters which she kept for the next twenty years. In 2009 Samantha's world fell apart. She was laid off from her job, she and her husband were on the verge of divorce, and she had no idea what she was going to do. But she'd kept Jean-Luc's letters all those years. She thought that, in having to start her life all over again, that she would at least contact him to apologize for never writing back.

Instead, something magical happened. Jean-Luc wrote back. And 20 years later, he was still interested.

This is, indeed, a modern-day fairy tale: attractive woman relegated from art director at a big corporation reduced to dog walker and moving back home after a divorce finding out not only did the handsome French guy she once befriended is still in love with her, but he's even free to marry her. Alas, Samantha has no confidence in herself and keeps shooting herself in the foot, but Jean-Luc is persistent. And when she visits Paris again, she finds everyone loves her—Jean-Luc's kids, Jean-Luc's parents, Jean-Luc's friends...Alors! Really, I'm glad it all worked out for her, but reading this is like reading a romance novel. I actually bought it because I was interested in her second book, in which she learns to get used to living in France.

What I really found annoying was the recitation of clothes and other stuff she bought or sold or Jean-Luc got for her by their brand names. Do women really know what all of these things are by their brand names? Sometimes I didn't know if she was talking about a dress or shoes. In fact, I found her brand name dropping rather intimidating. Plus she promises Jean-Luc's children, who suffered through a snooty stepmother, a cat, and even though she's nearly broke, she spends her cash on an expensive purebred cat. You couldn't have adopted a cat from a shelter? Sheesh. Talk about conspicuous consumption.

book icon  Choices, edited by Mercedes Lackey
This is the latest edition of short stories set in Lackey's Valdemar universe. The stories, as always, range from stand-alone stories like "With Sorrow and Joy," the tale of a Herald who goes home to solve thefts and possibly make peace with a resentful cousin and "Of Crows and Karsites," where young Herald Rinton and his Companion sense a Gifted person on the other side of the Karse border, where Gifted people are viewed as demons, to stories with a continuing character who has appeared in other collections (Kitha and Hadara, a change child and a blind gryphon; Lady Cera of Sandbriar, trying to rebuild a shattered community; Kade and his companion Nwah the kyree; and more).

Sometimes the qualities of these stories waver back and forth between great and meh, but this was a particularly good collection: I quite enjoyed the first story mentioned; the final story, written by Lackey herself, which involves the sword "Need" who will only respond to a swordswoman to save other women; another entertaining and humorous tale with the Iron Street gate guards of Haven; "Letters from Home" in which a young trainee struggles with her Gift; "The Right Place" about a young orphan who can read animals and knows a horse and her foal are being abused; and "The Letter of the Law," in which a Herald must find out a way to save a family's prized ram in a city where the ruler will not bend the law. But they were all good this time, and perfect for fans of Valdemar.

book icon  Re-read: In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson, Bette Bao Lord
Since it's once again the year of the boar (these days they call it a pig), I had to pick this delightful book for a return engagement. Young "Sixth Cousin," otherwise known as Bandit, knows only that news that's come to her Chinese home has made her mother smile and her grandparents sad. Her college-educated father, she discovers, isn't coming back: he's made a new home in the United States, and he's sent for Bandit and her mother. Grandfather decrees that Bandit shall have a new name before she departs and she decides on an American one: Shirley Temple Wong.

Soon everyone is getting used to their new home in Brooklyn—including Mother, who discovers that with no servants, she will need to learn to cook, clean, and do laundry—and Shirley is off to the fifth grade, where the kids seem friendly at first, but then ignore her. It's due to her sudden encounter with the biggest, toughest girl in class that Shirley's status suddenly changes, and it's through her classmates that she becomes a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers and their newest player, Jackie Robinson.

I had forgotten some of the events in this book, including the sad period when Shirley had no friends and the chapter about the family's homesickness, and also some of the laugh-aloud funny things that happen, like when Shirley volunteers to change a fuse. It's a sweet-and-sour look at the experiences of an immigrant child in the late 1940s, heartwarming and humorous.

By the way, did anyone notice what happened in the principal's office? Shirley told the principal she was ten, but if you went by the way she counted, she was only about eight and a half. She still learned English well enough to pass the fifth grade! I'm impressed!

book icon  Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children's Books as an Adult, Bruce Handy
This book is about...well, just what the title says it's about: Handy goes back and looks at classics and sees them with adult eyes, still admiring most of the texts. He begins with picture books, painting a surprising portrait of Margaret Wise Brown, whose Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny may give people the impression she was some warm and wise granny. Instead she was a lively young woman with a creative way with words, who allowed herself to be bullied by her female partner.

There are chapters on Dr. Seuss, Charlotte's Web, Beatrix Potter (and other animal stories), Beverly Cleary's imp Ramona, the Little House books and Little Women, and more, all with entertaining information, such as Green Eggs and Ham was written after Ted Geisel was challenged by publisher Bennett Cerf to write an interesting book using just fifty words (the chapter also chronicles the difficulties he had writing a book using less than 300 simple words considered understandable to children; the result was The Cat in the Hat). I disagreed with him occasionally, but life would be pretty boring if we didn't have differing opinions!

Really enjoyed this, except I got tired of Handy suddenly pulling a fact that had nothing to do with the books he was commenting on out of midair and issuing an apologia for the author. The book is still good despite the author's political or personal leanings at another time of his/her life, and hopefully he/she learned better as they grew older.

book icon  Death in St. Petersburg, Tasha Alexander
Lady Emily and her dashing husband Colin Hargreaves are in St. Petersburg, Russia, for Colin's newest assignment, monitoring political situations between Great Britain and Russia. They are at the Mariinsky Theatre to watch a performance of Swan Lake, with the lead role taken by the prima ballerina Irina Semnova Nemetseva. But during the interval, the crowd emerges from the theatre to find Nemetseva lying dead in the snow. Soon after she dies, an ethereal ballerina wearing Nemetseva's costume begins to appear at various locations in the city. What does it mean? Is her ghost haunting St. Petersburg? And who killed her? Was it her best friend Katenka (Ekaterina Petrovna Sokolova), who was her understudy, and who finished the Swan Lake performance to enthusiastic applause? Or someone else?

I enjoyed the story, despite the tongue-twisting Russian names, and immersing myself in pre-revolutionary Russia and examining the value the Russians placed on the ballet. I really liked the setting. But I am getting a little tired of the format Alexander has been using of alternating the Lady Emily and Colin (and Cécile) narratives with chapters about one of the persons involved with the mystery. In this case it was Katenka's narrative in fleshing out their pasts and their intense friendship. But she used to be able to keep the entire mystery narrative in Lady Emily's voice, and I don't find the newer books with the alternating chapters as crisp and clever as the older books without it.

book icon  About Time: The Unauthorized Guide to Doctor Who: 2007, Series 3, Tat Wood and Dorothy Ail
So we're now on volume eight (!) of Mad Norwegian Press' in-depth look at Doctor Who, this covering "The Runaway Bride" through "Voyage of the Damned" along with the seven-minute "Time Crash" and the animated serial "Infinite Quest." Once again, each episode is examined by summarizing the plot, noting the characters, fitting the story into Who continuity, and then posing questions about inconsistencies and other things that just don't make sense. Interspersed with the episode examinations are the usual essays, ranging from "What Were the Best Online Extras?" to "Which are the Most Over-Specialized Daleks?" to "Why Should an Alien Love Cricket?" (There are seventeen essays in total.)

These are truly books for people who really, really love Doctor Who, so don't come into them thinking they are introductory volumes for the series. Wood and Ail point out the tiniest detail, which won't make a whit of sense unless you're familiar with the other seven volumes and the whole history of the series. If you are that Who lover, welcome aboard, but start from the beginning!

book icon  Re-read: Heidi Grows Up and Heidi's Children, Charles Tritten
Since I re-read Heidi last month, I thought I would follow up with two sequels written by Johanna Spyri's French translator. Supposedly children kept writing to Tritten asking what happened to Heidi and he obliged them by writing a sequel (and then others, but only the first two were translated into English), stating that Spyri could never refuse a child and probably would have written a sequel or two if possible. Heidi Grows Up partially incorporates Spyri's own experiences with a cruel schoolmaster. Now fourteen, Heidi goes to the same finishing school that Clara attended. She makes fast friends with the other girls, save for snooty British girl Eileen, especially a Hungarian girl named Jeanne-Marie, known as Jamy. At school she continues the violin lessons she began in Dorfli, and is mercilessly teased when her grandfather sends her a gift of a little goat cheese. But it is when Heidi comes home for vacation accompanied by Jamy that things begin to happen and Heidi considers returning to Dorfli when she graduates to become the new schoolmistress.

The sequel title makes it obvious what happens at the end of Heidi Grows Up, but also features Jamy's little sister Marta. Both girls were raised by their sweet but sad grandmother, and after she passes away Marta doesn't wish to stay with their socialite parents, who spend most of their time partying and traveling for diplomatic purposes, leaving Marta alone. Instead she comes to live on the Alm with Heidi and her family, to the consternation of the Grandfather, who eventually comes to love her and she ceases to fear him. But she is constantly in fear of other things, and believes in all sorts of superstitions, which makes her especially nervous as Heidi's time arrives.

While these don't have the special touch that Spyri gave to her original, these are sweet, creditable sequels, and the source material is actually partially hers: Tritten borrowed incidents from other Spyri stories to incorporate into both tales (an incident with Jamy and Peter is taken from Moni the Goat Boy, for example). I only wish the other two volumes, Heidi: Grandmother and Heidi's Country, had been translated.

Here are the full verses to the song Peter sings that Marta likes so much.

book icon  Finding Dorothy, Elizabeth Letts
I enjoyed this fictionalized account of the life of Maud Gage Baum, wife of the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The novel switches back and forth between 1938, in which an elderly Maud wangles her way onto the MGM lot to make certain the movie moguls don't ruin her husband's magical story and becomes interested in young Judy Garland, who is being pushed (to the point of being mistreated) into stardom by a rapacious stage mother and a lecherous studio executive, and Maud's memories of meeting, marrying and living with L. [Lyman] Frank Baum, who was a hard-working but mostly impractical dreamer, who skipped from being an actor and empresario to selling his family's oil product to managing a general store in the Dakota Territory to an unfulfilling job back in New York state until beginning his literary career with the first of many Oz books.

Maud lived a slightly unconventional lifestyle for a girl of her time, encouraged to run around with the boys by a suffragette mother who would write articles, papers, and books with Susan B. Anthony. Maud is sent off to Cornell University to be one of its first coeds and must face the harassment of male students; later her sister Julia marries badly and ends up suffering through bad times on a claim shanty in Dakota. Frank's dreamy ways and fun personality attract Maud immediately, but she ends up being the practical one of the family; while Frank works hard, disaster always seems to strike his enterprises, but he always takes time for dreaming and bringing up his four sons—they never had the daughter they so badly wanted—with happy memories.

Letts spins the tale of the Baums and of Frank's famous creation with a lively text. Maud herself is a bit of a stiff character, but Frank's magical qualities shine out from every page, and Letts' brisk portrayal of Matilda Gage is equally entertaining. She also brings her settings to life, whether it's Christmas at the Baum house or the bleak Dakota prairies (that stood in for Kansas) or the Gage neighborhood in New York. There are also memorable scenes in the 1938 narrative having to do with "Over the Rainbow" and its meaning to Maud, Judy Garland, and others who work on the film. The "star" system at the big studios of the 1930s is also given a grim once-over: it ruined Garland's life as it made her a star.

Not a perfect book, but the good parts outweigh the bad, and it does a good job of capturing the various eras.

book icon  Food Will Win the War, Rae Katherine Eighmey
I've been looking for a book about the World War I homefront in the United States for a couple of years now and pretty much been unsuccessful until I found this book while looking for something else. It's not everything I wanted, but it gives a partial view of homefront America 1917-1918.

Eighmey, who wrote the historical cookbook Abraham Lincoln in the Kitchen, consults diaries, news stories, and personal letters to bring the First World War in a farming community to life. She covers the buildup to war and then the continual effort put into rationing food for the public so that it could be saved to ship to the men (and few women) in the American Expeditionary Force and displaced citizens in Belgium and France. If you've heard of WWII Victory Gardens and thought they were only a WWII "thing," you'll learn differently here. Eventually the government suggested "wheatless meals" and "meatless meals," with only three meals a week with no restrictions. People were encouraged to grow potatoes for the war effort and eat rice instead, add nuts to meals to replace meat protein, and have egg dishes as a main course at supper.

While this book concentrates on Minnesota and particularly its rural community, it is representative of the sacrifices ordinary families made to support the war effort. This could be California or New Jersey or Texas. The volume is full of photographs, posters (complete with Columbia wearing a Liberty Cap, something that vanished in WWII ads), advertisements, and cartoons from the era, and of course filled with vintage recipes, some which sound interesting, and others which will make you wonder if people today could give up their hamburgers and steak and eat dishes like "rice au gratin" and creamed chicken instead. If you are interested in wartime homefront histories, food history, or both, you'll find a good deal to like in this book

book icon  Attachments, Rainbow Rowell
I am just not cut out for chick-lit.

I admit, I picked this up based on the fact I mostly liked Fangirl and wanted to like Carry On, but found Simon too whiny, and that I found a quotation about autumn given by one of the protagonists: "October. My favorite month...[t]here's a chill in the air that lifts my heart and makes my hair stand on end. Every moment feels meant for me...I was born in February, but I come alive in October...October, baptize me with leaves! Swaddle me in corduroy and nurse me with split pea soup. October, tuck tiny candy bars in my pockets and carve my smile into a thousand pumpkins. O autumn! O teakettle! O grace!" How could you not love a woman who talks like this? And I love epistolary books and half the text is e-mails.

Beth Fremont and Jennifer Scribner-Snyder work at the same newspaper, the Courier, one that has just made the jump to computers and the internet. Beth's living with a musician and reviews films. Jennifer, a copy editor, is happily married but is worried about fulfilling her husband's next wish: a child. Management is so fearful of the employees wasting time surfing for porn and goofing off on the web that they hire Lincoln O'Neill to read any e-mails flagged with "certain words." Lincoln's supposed to report Beth and Jennifer's brisk and funny (and irreverent) e-mails to management, but he can't. A bachelor still living with his mother years after the breakup with his first love, Lincoln enjoys the repartee between the two women, and especially loves Beth's wit. Soon he's falling in love with her and even checking out the club where her boyfriend performs.

I am so on the fence about this book it's not funny. Rowell has a way of writing about her that I enjoy, and it kept me turning pages to see what would happen, but I was irritated by the narrative. All these folks seemed to talk about was relationships and marriage. Okay, Beth likes good movies. Lincoln's an appealing geek who also likes movies and plays D&D. He's in contention with his sister, who wants him to move away from his clinging mother. Jennifer's afraid to get pregnant. Beth wants to tie the knot with her enigmatic guy and she's trying to save an old movie theater. Everything's awash with emotions. No one ever talks about anything but relationships, especially the women. I guess this is common in what's supposed to be a romance. As in all the romances, all the guys are adorable and all the gals are cute. It is so emotionally exhausting.

In the midst of this waterfall of emotions, two of my favorite parts are reliving the Y2K fracas (the story takes place 1999-2000) in the computing industry, and visiting Lincoln's friends Dave and Christine, who have this lovely warm marriage. The other stuff is so unreal: loud rock music, clubbing, buying expensive baby clothes and designer women's products. I could not relate to these people, except to the geeky side of Lincoln. The e-mails are a hoot, though.

book icon  Smoky the Brave, Damien Lewis
Bill Wynne was attached to the 26th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron in World War II when he met a dirty mite of a dog that had been found in the jungles of the New Guinea island where he was stationed. Wynne loved dogs and took the fearless little animal that he named Smoky to his heart. She remained with him all during his war service and became known as the 26th's mascot, immortalized by a photo of her in Wynne's helmet in an issue of "Yank" magazine. Wynne taught her tricks and she kept up the morale of the squadron, and became the first known "therapy dog" taken to hospitals to amuse injured soldiers. In one instance, she even helped the squadron string telephone wire through a pipeline under a runway.

Lewis not only tells the story of Wynne and Smoky, but of the 26th and the essential work they did during the war and the dangers and hardships they faced outside of the Japanese troops trying to kill them: jungle insects, heat, varmints, thirst, tropical illnesses. Wynne lost friends, survived a serious fever, endured hurricanes and bombings, but always Smoky was there as his partner. She also endured illness and danger, plus the real threat of being left behind once the war was over.

This is well-told with a few gaffes by a non-American writer (no "fourth base" in baseball), but summarizes Wynne and Smoky's postwar adventures in about eight pages, devoting the whole book mainly to their wartime experiences. It's a good companion to Wynne's own story about Smoky, Yorkie Doodle Dandy, in which the last third of the book is devoted to their postwar experiences on local television and in Hollywood. Pick up this one to learn more about life in the European theatre and the work of the photo reconnaissance squadrons, but Wynne's book is a more personal look at their experience.

book icon  The American Agent, Jacqueline Winspear
This newest of the Maisie Dobbs' mysteries begins a little slowly as Winspear immerses you in the sights, sounds, smells, and terrors of the Blitz. Maisie and her old friend Priscilla Partridge have volunteered for the ambulance corps and as the novel opens, they are being observed by young American reporter Catherine Saxon. Next day Maisie receives a shocking telephone call from her intelligence colleague Robert MacFarlane: after Saxon left them, she was murdered in her apartment. MacFarlane wants Maisie to investigate the crime, to be assisted by Mark Scott, the American agent who helped get her out of Munich. Maisie is also juggling a personal issue: her adoption of Anna, the young refugee living with her father and stepmother, is about to come up for review.

Once Maisie is on the case, the mystery deepens: who was the man Catherine kept meeting and fighting with, the man called "Scotty"? Could he have a connection with Mark Scott, who is uncharacteristically letting Maisie investigate on her own. And who was her "Stage-Door Johnny," as her roommates called Catherine's boyfriend, and could he have something to do with her death? Or could it be one of the roommates, or her landlady, or someone she's made an enemy of via her career?

While Maisie's investigation takes center stage, the Blitz and the reaction of ordinary British citizens to the hellfire is just as important as the mystery. Winspear brings the hellish nights vividly alive, and intertwines them into her plot, especially in the subplot involving the Partridges and young Tim's adjustment to his disability (see the previous book). She also emphasizes the yeoman work of the war correspondents and the women who fought to join "the boys' club" and prove themselves as competent as the men. And once again, Winspear is not allowing Maisie's life to remain static.

Not the best entry in the series mystery-wise, but outstanding in its portrayal of London and environs during the Blitz.

book icon  Cool Hand Lou: My Fifty Years in Hollywood and on Broadway, Lou Antonio
Back when I was a teen with odd tastes, I didn't get "crushes" on contemporary music stars or actors; I preferred men, not boys. The cute series The Snoop Sisters provided me with Lou Antonio, with his nice dark hair and quick dark eyes (I'd seen him earlier, on Star Trek, but nothing clicked under the makeup he had to wear), and I have enjoyed his performances and his directorial efforts ever since. Recently I was listening to a podcast where the host interviews actors, but not the usual tired "pop" stars everyone else interviews today. When I was finished I scrolled through other episodes and was pop-eyed to find Mr. Antonio included on one, and was even more pop-eyed when I listened and realized he'd written a book! I read his book and rewatched The Snoop Sisters at the same time.

What a career! He actually wanted to be a ballplayer until a dislocated pitching arm killed that dream. Should he just stay in Oklahoma City and run his dad's chicken fried steak place? No, instead he went to New York City, studied acting under Lee Strasberg, and did stage and television series filmed in NYC until that option went away, then he moved to Hollywood and made a name not only in acting but in directing. His acting credits included Cool Hand Luke, four guest star appearances on the critically acclaimed Naked City, Route 66, The Defenders, Gunsmoke, and more. His director credits include The Partridge Family, Owen Marshall Counselor at Law, McCloud, McMillan and Wife, Something for Joey, Silent Victory: The Kitty O'Neill Story, and more. He's worked with stage greats like Geraldine Page and Colleen Dewhurst, and directed George C. Scott, Lee Remick, and Elizabeth Taylor. You follow him from struggling actor to noted director, from the gritty to the greats, with many goofs and triumphs along the way.

It's all written in an informal, conversational style that I found enjoyable, as if you were seated across from him at dinner and he's telling you stories. I could almost hear his voice as I read. Great book!

book icon  Stirring the Pot With Benjamin Franklin: A Founding Father's Culinary Adventures, Rae Katherine Eighmey
Call it a biography of Benjamin Franklin with culinary interruptions.

Once again Eighmey tackles a historic figure in a different way, as in Abraham Lincoln in the Kitchen, by seeing what foods and drink that figure would have eaten during their lifetime, taken from mentions of food in their journals as well as typical menus of the era. In this way, we see a typical colonial/revolutionary diet across the boards, from Franklin's childhood as the son of a fairly poor soapmaker and chandler to his time in the salons of Paris eating nouvelle cousine. Eighmey extracts Franklin's diet from his legendary diary entry about arriving in Philadelphia with three loaves of bread to his name to the Franklin family's grocery orders to Franklin's letters home from Europe mentioning fashionable dinners. Each chapter is followed by a selection of foods from the era taken from cookbooks published at the time.

I didn't like this one quite as well as the Abraham Lincoln book. She has to do a lot of extrapolation and sometimes the recipe connections are tenuous, like the ones that accompany the chapter on Franklin's electrical experiments. However, if you're interested in "cookery," as the British say, or historic recipes, this should please.