27 February 2008

Books Read Since February 4

• Inside the Victorian Home, Judith Flanders
Yummy nonfiction for history buffs: Flanders describes Victorian middle-class life using the rooms of a typical home as metaphors for all stages of a person's life, starting with the bedroom where a person was born, continuing through the nursery and then into the public (drawing room and parlor) and servant's areas (kitchen and scullery) of the home. Numerous diaries, novels, and other excerpts are used to illustrate life, dress, meals, social encounters, etc. Absorbing.

• The Complete Adventures of Homer Price (Homer Price/Centerburg Tales), Robert McCloskey
I was an animal lover as a child and tended to choose books in which animals were main characters, which explains why I had never read McCloskey's classic Centerburg books way back when. Homer is an average kid growing up in the midwest, where his dad runs a garage and a motel and his mom runs the accompanying restaurant; when he's not helping them out or building radios, he visits his Uncle Ulysses' lunch counter and gets involved with the odd characters around town, including the town sheriff (who's prone to Spoonerisms) and another Centerburg resident who collect string, and certain odd events, including the malfunction of his Uncle Ulysses' marvelous doughnut machine (one of Homer's most remembered stories). These stories are still very funny.

• The Master of Sunnybank, Irving Litvag
Those animal books I loved included the dog tales of Albert Payson Terhune, and as a kid I could think of nothing better than being able to write in the wonderful melodramatic voice of Terhune, with his voluble vocabulary and stirring scenes. Hundreds of Terhune fans, including the author, remember his literary voice with delight, and indeed Litvag tries to emulate it as "the Visitor," as he tags himself, wanders the desolate grounds of what was left of Sunnybank before the house was bulldozed away, and tells the story of Bert Terhune, sportsman, dog lover, traveler, and homebody (if the home was Sunnybank). Litvag is unsparing of Terhune's faults—his neglect of his daughter for his adoring but jealous wife, his temper, his prejudices—but still finds much to commend in this biography of a man who brought Lad, the magnificent collie, and his kennelmates to vivid life.

• White Night, Jim Butcher
Life continues to be busy, dangerous and often depressing for Butcher's "only practicing wizard in Chicago," Harry Dresden, who continues to instruct Molly Carpenter in his own "ways of the force," while trying to protect a group of women from an otherworldly serial killer and cope with the return of his former foster sister. Not to mention trying to figure out why his brother Thomas has been so secretive about his life lately—could it be Thomas is responsible for the killings? With the return of all your favorite characters: Mouse the temple dog, Butters the medical examiner, Bob the skull, and, of course, Murphy. Enjoy, 'cause Harry keeps on getting better and better.

• The Tale of Holly How, Susan Wittig Albert
Second in Albert's "Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter" mystery series, a cozy that mixes missing badgers at the badger sett, the death of a shepherd, the tribulations of an orphaned child sent to live with her strict aunt and the aunt's unfriendly assistant, the appointment of a new head teacher to Sawrey School, and of course all the inhabitants of the Sawrey villages as it becomes apparent that the death of the shepherd was no accident, and that the new head of Sawrey School isn't quite what he claims to be.

• Re-read: Little Men, Louisa May Alcott
Jo and Fritz Bhaer and their little school for boys have all been family members for years, and it's always nice to go visit again after awhile and reacquaint with the boys—and girls—of Plumfield School, especially "Naughty Nan," a wild girl who has been sent to Plumfield in hopes that Jo can teach as well as tame her, and Dan, the orphan boy who learns adults can be trusted after long trials. More didactic than Little Women, Little Men is nevertheless fun in reading about the children's pranks and plays.

• The Time Travelers, Linda Buckley-Archer
Engaging tale of a neglected boy who is visiting with the family of some friends of his au pair and who, with the eldest daughter of the family, is swept into the year 1763 after a visit to her father's laboratory and an unexpected encounter with an antigravity machine. The machine is stolen by a menacing individual called "the Tar Man," and Peter and Kate are helped by Gideon Seymour, "cutpurse and gentleman," as he styles himself, as they follow the Tar Man to London with the help of Gideon's employers, while Peter starts to see Gideon as the father figure he lacks. What could have been a trite time-travel tale is a delightful portrait of eighteenth century life (although the folks that find out about Peter's and Kate's identities seem awfully accepting awfully easy!) and a cracking good adventure story with cliffhangers around every chapter. The first book in a trilogy, it is followed by The Time Thief. Highly recommended.

• Daily Life in the United States 1920-1940, David E. Kyvig
How everyday people coped, and later survived, the boom of the 1920s and the bust of the 1930s. This is a well-narrated text, but definitely a scholarly approach; if you are looking of the friendliness of the Victorian Home text, it will be less apparent here. Nevertheless, I found it enjoyable.

• The Sweet Far Thing, Libba Bray
The conclusion of Libba Bray's Gemma Doyle trilogy, it's raised many hackles in the teenage swooning community because Gemma doesn't get the romantic ending everyone wanted for her. While Gemma struggles to know who to trust with the magic that has been endowed to her, conflicts break out between the gypsy camp nearby and the workers restoring the school's East Wing and the girls puzzle why the restoration is suddenly happening now, when the wing has been lying ruined for twenty years. At the same time, Felicity braves the peculiarities of society to earn her inheritance and independence and Ann sees a way out from her dismal future as governess to her cousin's bratty daughters. Pippa returns, a secret is revealed, and Kartik's fate is sealed in 800 rather padded but ultimately absorbing pages.

• Re-read: Eight Cousins, Louisa May Alcott
My favorite of all the Alcotts, despite its little preachments: orphaned Rose comes to live at the "aunt hill," the house in which her father was born and around which all her relatives live. She is depressed, unhealthy, and terrified of many things when her Uncle Alec, her legal guardian and once a suitor for her mother's hand, takes over her upbringing. He encourages her to get fresh air, exercise, not overstudy, learn "womanly crafts" along with French, and to explore new things, including friendship with her seven male cousins, aged seventeen to seven. The boys are a fun lot and Rose eventually blooms in their company, as well as helping them over their own problems, while providing a sisterly shoulder for the servant girl, Phebe, she "adopts" as her companion. Rose's new life always sounded like such fun, and I adored Mac, the bookworm of the boys, naturally my favorite!

• An Incomplete Revenge, Jacqueline Winspear
It's 1931, with the worldwide depression affecting England more and more, and once again time for hop picking in the south of England. Hundreds of Londoners, including Billy Beale and his family, leave "the Smoke" of London to earn extra money as hop pickers, and Maisie Dobbs joins them on a job of her own: to discover why fires and thefts occur each year during the harvest in a certain village. The locals blame the gypsies that arrive each year to pick hops, but Maisie finds the villagers unusually secretive, and a plot of ground destroyed by fire over fifteen years ago during a Zeppelin raid that gives her chilling vibrations. Another absorbing mystery/character study by Winspear, in which we learn something more about Maisie's past and find her future changing. The entire Maisie Dobbs series is highly recommended.

• A Thief in the Theater, Sarah Masters Buckey
• Traitor in Williamsburg, Elizabeth McDavid Jones
• The Runaway Friend, Kathleen Ernst
Three new "American Girls" mysteries: good if simple tales. Kit investigates theft in a community theater giving a performance of Macbeth; Felicity's father faces conviction as a traitor for helping a man so accused and she tries to help him; Kirsten (a first Kirsten mystery) tries to find out why their young homesteader neighbor suddenly disappeared, leaving the oxen he bought to be repossessed when Kirsten's father and uncle needed them for the harvest. I always enjoy these books, especially the Kit tales, but I wish they hadn't abandoned the "History Mystery" one-shots to focus on these.

• The ABC Movie of the Week Companion, Michael Karol
Imagine you order a one-pound box of chocolates, find out when it's delivered that it's only eight ounces, and then discover it half full. That's the disappointment of this tribute to the 90-minute 1970s ABC Movie of the Week, the first series of made-for-television movies. Comedies, dramas, cheesy horror stories and some downright classics, like Duel, Brian's Song, The Night Stalker, Daughter of the Mind, Tribes, Go Ask Alice, and That Certain Summer came out of ABC's movie factory for six years, along with the pilots to hit series like The Six Million Dollar Man and Get Christie Love. It needed to be lots better, with lots of photos. Still, what's here is a loving tribute to these fondly-remembered films.

• Re-read: An Old-Fashioned Girl, Louisa May Alcott
When country girl Polly Milton comes to stay a month with the rich, spoiled and discontented Fanny Shaw and her family, they cannot know how much having the pleasant, polite, plainly-raised girl around the house will mean to them. Without preaching, Polly shows them how neglectiful they are of each other, makes Grandmother Shaw's final years happy, and improves the children's relationship with their father. However, they are still a spoiled lot six years later when the story takes up its thread again with Polly earning a living at teaching music and being exposed to the little temptations shown to her by the wealthy Shaws. This isn't my favorite Alcott, but Polly is an engaging, strong heroine and some unexpected twists lead everyone to happier places.

20 February 2008

Camp Fire Girls

I was doing a search on one of my favorite old-time book series, The Camp Fire Girls (note spelling!) by Hildegard Frey, and found these links about Frey and the series:

Ohioana Library Authors: Hildegarde Gertrude Frey

The Camp Fire Girls Books: Synopses

About Frey and the Novels

06 February 2008

Some Things Never Change

I am re-reading Little Women and have come to "On the Shelf," where Meg and John argue about the children's upbringing, until John shows Meg he can manage their son gently but firmly. To make amends, Meg asks John to read to her about the election as she does a sewing project. I had to laugh at this passage:
In her secret soul, however, she decided that politics were as bad as mathematics, and that the mission of politicians seemed to be calling each other names...
I see things haven't changed at all in 140 years, even with a woman running for the office of President of the United States!

03 February 2008

Books Read Since January 16

• Hex Marks the Spot, Madalyn Alt
Third in Alt's "bewitching" mysteries about Maggie O'Neill, who becomes involved in the paranormal after she starts working at Enchantments, a small-town Indiana antiques/New Age shop, where the owner is a practicing witch. While the brutal murder of an Amish craftsman is investigated, Maggie begins to embrace her own empathic powers, as well as her mixed feelings about the two men in her life, a no-nonsense stable policeman and a leather-jacketed "bad boy." (I was quite struck by the resemblance of this relationship to that of Betty/Victor/Scott in Remember WENN—Betty is even from Indiana!) An enjoyable cozy mystery.

• Pony Farm Mystery, Pamela Kavanaugh
Most little girls love horses and ponies, although the majority of them grow out of it by the time they hit their teens. Still, even I still enjoy a good girl-and-her-horse story. Alas, this...was disappointing, to say the least: twin girls visit their recently hospitalized grandmother to help with what is left of her once flourishing horse training stable. The grandfather died after being accused of doping horses. Now mysterious and threatening things are happening on the property, but at least there's a cute boy to help the eldest twin try to solve the mystery of who set up her grandfather as she reads his diaries. The gimmick: she's always felt a strange attraction to a boy and pony statue on the property, and it seems the "spirit" of the statue is trying to help her. Despite this gimmick, the story is stale and by-the-numbers. If you want a good horse story, try National Velvet or Don Stanford's wonderful The Horsemasters.

• The Tale of Hill Top Farm, Susan Wittig Albert
If you are the police-procedural or straight detective story type, you may hate this charming cozy by the author of the China Bayles mysteries. This first book in a series revolves around Beatrix Potter, having finally made enough money from her charming little stories to buy a farm in the small village of Sawley. Beatrix brings her own little menagerie with her: a hedgehog, a mouse, and two rabbits, and parts of the story involve these creatures as well as two cats and a Jack Russell terrier who help solve the murder of a particularly prickly spinster in town. These are leisurely mysteries filled with classic British cozy-type characters. Very enjoyable reading although I found all the village folks introduced a bit hard to keep track of!

• March, Geraldine Brooks
What happened to Mr. March, father of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, when he served in the Civil War? This is the premise of this adult flip-side novel in which March returns to a Southern plantation that he first visited as a young peddler and re-encounters a bewitching slave girl. Brooks gives this an absorbing treatment and does not soft-pedal the brutality of the period, but one wonders why she chose to parallel the Alcott novel. If she wanted to draw Alcott fans, it would have been better to avoid the numerous inconsistencies that pepper the novel, since she has chosen to make Mr. March more like the real Bronson Alcott rather than the character portrayed in the novel (the same approach Gillian Armstrong took in the latest Little Women film, which most fans found jarring). The Marches are described as vegetarians when they were not, Beth is described as sickly from babyhood when she was not, and oddest of all, "Marmee," the girls' name for their mother, is described as being Mrs. March's nickname (from her name Margaret Marie). This seemed so absurd to me that it jarred me from the narrative. (If you have ever heard the word "Mommy" spoken in a pronounced New England accent, you will understand where "Marmee" came from.) In short, some of the ties to Little Women seem overstrained. However, the narrative is otherwise good and some people may gain new insights on race relations, life, and injustices during the Civil War, although I found nothing new.

• Murder in Baker Street: New Tales of Sherlock Holmes
These were okay, if nothing special, tales of Sherlock Holmes. At times, the narratives did not sound sufficiently 19th century. My favorite part of the volume, in fact, is the chapter written by Conan Doyle himself, containing a mischievous parody of Sherlock Holmes by Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie, plus the retrospective "100 Years of Sherlock Holmes."

• A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson
What's your favorite thing in the entire world to indulge in? A box of chocolates? Shoes? New clothes? Computer parts? Bryson's book of science, irresistible from the first chapter to the last, is like an enormous container of every favorite thing you've ever wanted. Even if science wasn't your favorite subject in school, you will find this an immensely readable narrative of the cosmos, stars, planets, Earth, life, evolution, and finally the rise of Homo sapiens and the people who studied them. Call it "science made comprehensible," and even better, science narrative that makes you want to continue pursuing other science narratives. Like popcorn. Chocolate. Books...

• By Permission of Heaven: The True Story of the Great Fire of London, Adrian Tinniswood
Most people have heard of the Great Fire of London, begun in a baker's shop in Pudding Lane, as a minor notation in world history class quickly passed for the next battle. The ongoing English war with the Dutch, however, adds a sinister notation to the affair: was the bakery the actual cause of the fire, or was it what today what we would call terrorism? Xenophobia flourished during the fire and it was, at least at that time, eventually blamed on a "Popish plot."

This isn't my favorite period of history, so I daresay I skimmed a lot more of it than I should have. However, it's not a badly written book. Those interested in the period should enjoy it.

• Oh, Yikes! History's Grossest, Wackiest Moments, Joy Masoff
This book is just fun. I picked it up at the liquidation sale at the Discovery Channel Store at Town Center Mall. How do you get kids interested in history? Make it gross! And indeed Masoff has, concentrating on the more unsavory parts of history, like what folks did before toilet paper, monarchs who loved to kill and torture, the "nasty, brutish and short" life of Neanderthals, serfs, and outlaws, ancient medical treatments, and anything else in the past that could make a kid say "ewww." Note to prospective purchasing parents: Masoff uses a lot of potty language to keep the kids interested, including "butt" and other vocabulary of that ilk.