31 December 2009

Books Finished Since December 1

Yep, I did a lot of reading during December: almost two dozen Christmas magazines I had saved up from the moment they had been released until after Thanksgiving—next year I start earlier or buy fewer magazines!—or the Christmas books I bought, which are all reviewed in Holiday Harbour November and December 2009, and January 2010 entries.

However, I did have this non-Yuletide book on reserve at the library, reserved the moment I knew about it:

• Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women, Harriet Reisen
     Reisen states in her introduction: "Like so many other girls, I fell under the spell of Louisa May Alcott when my mother presented Little Women to me as if it were the key to a magic kingdom. I was taken into Louisa's story so completely that a book with covers and pages has no place in my memory of the experience. While I was there, by my mother's decree, my life was suspended. Jelly omelets were delivered to my room on bed trays, and sleep was optional. At such a time, school was out of the question. Jo March was coming to take up residence in my heart, a companion for life, to endow me with a little something of Louisa Alcott's own wise, funny, sentimental, and sharply realistic outlook."
     The good news is that this is a lively, very readable biography that presents Alcott in all her moods: jubilant over money earned, depressed over family situations, frank over her juvenile writing (she hated it, and only did so to earn money to make her mother comfortable), envy of her youngest sister's seemingly charmed life. She becomes less the stiff woman in her few portraits and more someone you might know: the lady next door with the charming but offbeat father who couldn't manage to hold a job due to a combination of principles and pig-headedness, the overworked mother, the placid older sister, the sister who died early, and the ladylike, artistic sister.
     I did enjoy it, but Reisen is a lot more charitable to Bronson Alcott than I would have been. I felt last year's Eden's Outcasts gave a more rounded portrait of Bronson and Louisa in relation to Bronson. But then I've always wanted to bonk Bronson Alcott on the nose, yakking about the philosophical while physically his family was always on the brink of penury, if not starvation.
     The one thing that did bother me is that Reisen does that fabulous intro about being a Little Women/Alcott literature fan, then makes two elementary mistakes about events that happened in the March family books! First she states that Bronson taught Louisa her letters by teaching her to mold her body in the shapes of the letters, a sequence that was used "in Little Men" with Demi learning his letters from Mr. March. Uh, no, it's in Little Women, in the chapter "Daisy and Demi." She also states that Daisy and Demi are Jo's children! Er, no, the twins are Meg's. Jo and her professor have two boys, Robert and Theodore, otherwise Rob and Teddy. Beats me why such a strong fan made such silly mistakes.

14 December 2009

Another One Bites the Dust!

I didn't realize Doggie Day Care Murder was the last of the Melanie Travis mysteries. Sheesh...no more Amanda Pepper and now Melanie; haven't seen a Holly Winter or Benni Harper story for ages, Amelia Peabody is getting too old for hi-jinks, it looks like the Louisa May Alcott mysteries didn't continue...

30 November 2009

Books Finished Since November 1

If the reading seems light this month, it's due to one week's vacation as well as an abundance of fall magazines.

• The History Detectives, Barb Karg
If you enjoy the PBS series, you'll love this compilation of their cases, especially if you have missed any of the programs. I was very happily reading what I thought were "extra" stories when I realized these were from episodes that had not been broadcast in my area. (An episode guide in the back of the book is included.) The only thing a bit off: they use the "this was the last clue so-and-so needed to give this person an answer" gimmick they use on the series. It's okay on TV, but seems cheesy in a book. Also, I wished some of the photos were better. Great for history buffs!

• A Voyage Long and Strange, Tony Horwitz
"What happened in North America between Columbus's sail in 1492 and the Pilgrims' arrival in 1620? On a visit to Plymouth Rock, Tony Horwitz realizes he doesn't have a clue." Well, either Tony Horwitz went to a really horrible school or he wasn't paying attention. I remember studying most of the explorers Horwitz mentions: DeSoto, Coronado, De Leon, de Vaca, the Roanoke colony, not to mention St. Augustine and something Horwitz doesn't mention, Father Serra and the California missions.

Horwitz's attention span notwithstanding, this is an amusing and informative overview of the European exploration of the area that later became North and Central America. Besides exploring history and having offbeat adventures like encountering Newfoundland's blackflies for the first time, experiencing a sweat lodge, dressing like a conquistador, and more, Horwitz discusses the opposing views of historical sites (i.e. the Protestant founders of Jacksonville, FL, versus the Catholic founders of St. Augustine; the celebration of Thanksgiving in Plymouth, MA, which the native population considers a Day of Mourning), errors at historical sites, theories of other "founding fathers" like the Vikings, the Chinese, the Welsh, and other tantalizing facts. Historical purists may find it a superficial gleaning, but there is a bibliography of further reading, and Horwitz imparts quite a few facts along with his humor.

• When Jessie Came Across the Sea, Amy Hest, illustrated by P.J. Lynch
I first saw this beautiful picture book back when Kudzu, the remaindered book store that had taken over the old Woolworths on Peachtree Industrial Boulevard, was still open, but I never did around to buying it. When I saw it at Penn's Landing I couldn't resist finally buying it. It is the story of Jessie, a thirteen-year-old girl at the turn of the last century, who must leave her beloved grandmother when she receives a chance to emigrate from her small village to the United States. We follow Jessie's story from seamstress' apprentice to young lady in text and in wonderful, detailed illustrations that capture the immigrant experience and life in New York. What took me so long to buy this?

• A Test of Wills, Charles Todd
Inspector Ian Rutledge is finally back to work at Scotland Yard after service in World War I, but he is carrying a horrible burden: he is recovering from shell shock after being buried in a trench cave-in, with the mental voice of a fellow soldier still taunting him. He knows if his secret is revealed he will be reviled as a coward. Unbeknownst to him, his superior knows his secret and has deliberately assigned him to a murder case: a Warwickshire colonel possibly murdered by a decorated Army flyer, with the only witness a shell-shocked, despised neighbor.

I had enjoyed Todd's Bess Crawford mystery, also set during "the Great War," and had ordered his latest Rutledge mystery through Amazon Vine, so I decided to try this first in the series. I usually do not like police procedurals, but I enjoyed the combination of country village with secrets and postwar atmosphere, plus the portrait of a man tormented by his past. I assume we expand on Rutledge's past in future books, as his character is sketchy except for his wartime experiences, but in light of modern views of post-traumatic stress syndrome, it was fascinating but depressing seeing how its victims were treated over eighty years ago.

• The Red Door, Charles Todd
In the newest Inspector Rutledge mystery, the police detective is summoned to the home of the Tellers. The family's youngest brother, who was in a hospital suffering from a mysterious paralysis, has vanished. Not only are there no leads, but the family itself, comprised of brothers (included one wounded in the war), sisters, sisters-in-law, and an often-addled grandmother, all seem to be hiding the clues that might tell Rutledge where Walter Teller is. Then, out of nowhere, he reappears, just as Rutledge is handed another mystery: a woman, the wife of a Peter Teller, has been murdered in her home in a country village. Is this Peter Teller related to the formerly missing man, Walter Teller? And why was she murdered?

As in A Test of Wills, the specter of the Great War is keenly felt. Rutledge's search for the truth was absorbing, but I had a hard time caring about the Teller family at all, not to mention the neighbors of the murdered woman. Even she turned out to not be very sympathetic. I'm afraid that at the end, it turned out I didn't really care much who killed who and why.

31 October 2009

Books Finished Since October 1

• Tinsel, Hank Stuever
I can ordinarily take or leave humorous Christmas books; some are funny while others are just crass, so I was wary when I ordered this one, as the description made it sound as if the author was going to make fun of the people he was involved with. Instead I found this an imperfect, but entertaining and slightly sad story of Steuver's visit with three families in heartland Texas: a young couple who put up a bravura light display, an earnest but garrulous woman who has developed a small business putting up decorations for wealthy people, and a single mom who is trying to keep the magic of Christmas alive during hard times.

I say "sad" because as a "Christmas nut" I found these folks well-meaning but having completely lost sight of the fun and meaning of Christmas. The man with the light display, for instance, is so into it that he refuses to leave home during the holiday to visit his parents (a sign of deeper familial problems) because "people would miss his lights." The woman who does the home decorating is sweet-natured Christian, but avoids visiting a dying friend except for the day she puts up her decorations for her, and takes inordinate effort into convincing her kids that Santa Claus still exists, including hiring an insipid elf to come visit the home to present them with the news about a skiing trip to Colorado. Even the woman who's trying to make ends meet spends a lot of time searching for bargains on expensive items so she can give "good" presents to the people she loves. Christmas is about family (whether by blood or by choice), friends, simple gatherings and token gifts, but most of all feeling good, whether a deeper religious meaning or just a time of the year to enjoy oneself, and so much of what these folks strive for is artificial or filled with conspicuous consumption, symbolic of the modern "spirit" of Christmas. If these folks had been complete jerks it might have been humorous, but because they were nice people, the result is a little melancholy instead.

Despite that, I enjoyed the telling of the participants' stories and the background info about the American Christmas industry. Just don't be surprised if some parts are more "hmmmm" than "ho-ho-ho."

• Confections of Closet Master Baker, Gesine Bullock-Prado
Once upon a time a young woman whose sister became a movie actress worked for her. She had what many would consider a "dream job," elbow-deep with Hollywood glitz and glam (and all the background tedium that goes with it). As the years progressed she realized how unhappy she was at the work, and she and her husband departed Hollywood for Vermont, where she now runs a bakery/coffee shop and finds herself elbow-deep in pastry dough instead. This is not a how-to about how to leave the "rat race," or start your own business, just a good-natured, frequently hilarious profile of a rather cynical woman who has finally found her place in the world. The nicest part of this book is the memories the author recalls of baking with her mother and grandmother, and what the recipes (supplied in the text) mean to her. These are the portions of the book that struck especially close to my heart, as I remember baking with my mom for holidays, and I was left rather misty-eyed. While this isn't a book that makes one urge "You have to read this," I would recommend it to anyone looking for a sweet (there's that word...) and funny memoir perfect for, dare I say it, reading with a home-made pastry and some coffee.

• The Wizard of Oz: An Illustrated Companion, John Fricke and Jonathan Shirshekan
I wouldn't call myself a Wizard of Oz fanatic, but if you're a fan of the film, this landscape-oriented book about the origins and making of the film is perfect. It covers Oz from its birth from the pen of L. Frank Baum through the early silent presentations through the production of the classic MGM film. Along with informative text are hundreds of photos ranging from early production designs to various tests of Dorothy with different clothing and hairdos to photos from the filming to the premiere. Recommended.

• The Cosgrove Report, G.J.A. O'Toole
While I have always been a history buff, the American Civil War has never been one of my interests, so I was surprised when this book "called my name." I am happy I responded to it, however--wow! Written as if it was a true memoir of the times (Victorian narration, vocabulary and all), the story follows Nicholas Cosgrove, a "secret detective" who works for Allan Pinkerton and his organization. Cosgrove, out of the country when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, returns several years later only to have Pinkerton ask him to determine the whereabouts of John Wilkes Booth's grave, and if the assassin's body is still there, for there are rumors that Booth is still alive. When Cosgrove eventually finds the site, the body is gone, replaced with stones! Thus begins Cosgrove's odyssey, from the office of the Secretary of War to the impeachment controversy over Andrew Johnson, to the home of Matthew Brady and as far north as the streets of Brooklyn and beyond. I can't even express how much I enjoyed this book; it all felt quite real to me, from the unfinished streets of "Washington City" to the swamps of Maryland to the countryside of Rockville—even Cosgrove's feats of derring do near the conclusion of the story. If you enjoy complicated historical mysteries, this is highly recommended!

(Incidentally, one of the things I loved about this book is that all clues are set up for you—if you know where to look! There is an interesting plot development near the end, but somewhere in the first 100 pages of the book, if you pick up one piece of information along with a knowledge of language, you will realize the development was already staring you in the face. Bravo!)

• Special Delivery, Ann M. Martin
In the eighth of Martin's "Main Street" books, the mystery of Aunt Allie's closet is revealed: if you hadn't guessed it by now, she is planning to adopt a baby. The impending adoption forms a wheel around which all the other activities lie in this Thanksgiving-set entry. Egotistical Ruby, who constantly reminds me of Posy in Ballet Shoes, gets a lion's share of the plot this time around, although it feels like a couple of storylines got dropped in mid-book and never were mentioned again, like Ruby's business to earn money to buy Christmas gifts. I like this series because the adults' problems often figure in as much as the four girls': in this installment, Nikki's mother has some startling news for the family, along with the story about Aunt Allie. If I have any complaint it seems as if the character depth was a little shallower in this story compared to the past ones. I wish Martin had had a few more chapters to flesh out everyone.

• Time Quake, Linda Buckley-Archer
I received this book on October 14 after waiting for it for over a year (and what a temptation it was not to order it from the UK, where it had been released in July!), and began reading it immediately. I ate my dinner with it, and stayed buried in it until I had completed it. All I can say is "Wow!" I became completely wrapped up in Lord Luxon's attempt to change history by becoming involved with a modern historian and finding a pivotal point of history to manipulate. His plot, the result, and the growing effect of the time quakes brought about by use of the anti-gravity machine take up only a part of the fabulous series conclusion. In the meantime Kate's tie to the physical world of 1763 grows more tenuous each day; she experiences more of the "fast forward" effect as time goes on and is finally reduced to binding herself to Peter, who she realizes is her "ground." In the present and in the past Peter and Kate's family and friends do their best to recover the children to their own time, and in the end it is Gideon and "the Tar Man" who must make a difficult choice before the time quakes splinter the world.

The entire trilogy (Time Travelers, Time Thief and Time Quake) is highly recommended. The cover blurbs push this as similar to Harry Potter, but please note there is no magic here except for the exciting adventures across past and present which move at a breathless pace, suspense building in each volume. Highly recommended! (Wait, I've said that already—but it's that kind of book.)

• The Sisters Grimm: The Fairy-Tale Detectives, Michael Buckley
Eighteen months ago the parents of Sabrina and Daphne Grimm disappeared. After a succession of horrible foster homes, the girls are suddenly claimed by their grandmother, a woman their father told them was dead, and her mysterious assistant Mr. Canis. Sabrina, eleven years old and left cynical by the past months, is understandable suspicious and indignant when their grandmother—if she is their grandmother!—tells the girls that their new home of Ferryport is also the home to all the fairy-tale characters of old and they, as Grimms (descended from the Grimm brothers of fairy-tale fame), are fairy-tale detectives. And, oh, yeah, there's a giant on the loose! Buckley has taken all the old familiar characters and turned them on their heads, given it a modern day setting, and come up with the very funny adventures (this is the first in a series) of Sabrina and Daphne coming to terms with their heritage and learning their craft. Suspense and humor blend well. Have I mentioned who Mr. Canis really is? No, wait, you can find out for yourself...

• My FAB Years, Sylvia Anderson
This is a highly-illustrated coffee table book covering Sylvia Anderson's life with husband Gerry, creator of such British children's, and then adults', science fiction classics like Thunderbirds and UFO. The lion's share of the story is given over to Thunderbirds, so if you're a TB fan, this is well worth a grab, especially if it's on the remainder table. I found it for $5!

• Brainiac, Ken Jennings
I quite enjoyed this breezy account by Jennings, uber-Jeopardy! champ, but be warned it is not Jennings' autobiography, an expose on Jeopardy!, or an exhaustive play-by-play of his seventy-plus games. Some folks seemed to have expected it to be one of those. Instead, we get flashes of Jennings' past fascination with trivia and Jeopardy!, his tryout, and appearances along with the history of trivia and trivia competitions, including pub trivia and College Bowl (one of my favorites from childhood!), trivia books, including Fred Worth's seminal Trivia Encyclopedia from the 1970s (which I had), and trivia games, especially "Trivial Pursuit." There's even a town in Wisconsin which hosts a special weekend trivia game each year. Jennings even includes trivia in the text. Much fun.

• The Curse of the Labrador Duck, Glen Chilton
I'm still trying to figure out the audience for this book. Myself, I suppose, as I did enjoy it. But it doesn't strike me as being for ornithologists or birders, as there are little details for either, save the few descriptions of the Labrador Duck specimens Dr. Chilton saw and some description of when it became extinct and of its territory.

Basically, it's about how far an individual will go to fulfill a goal. It is to Dr. Chilton's credit that he takes us on a humorous and occasionally educational tour of portions of Europe, Canada, and the United States to do so. As other reviews have observed, his narration is very akin to Bill Bryson, and it is this that carries the book along with his sometimes unusual destinations, companions, and situations. There are also interesting observations on how different countries treat their museum properties. So if you're looking for an amusing take on different countries in the flavor of Bryson, with some description of extinct birds on the side, this book is recommended. (Some reviews have commented on Chilton's humor becoming tiresome after a while; I found it better to use this as bedtime reading where you experience just a bit each night.)

• Working Life in Britain, 1900-1950, Janice Anderson
This was a bargain book I found at Borders for only $1, a photo-essay of the lives of workers from Edwardian times to post World War II. Photos are in black-and-white, supported with text. I quite enjoyed it.

• A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman
I picked this book up at Borders after a peek inside. Sometimes a book you want can disappoint you; sometimes a serendipitous find can delight you. This one was of the latter persuasion. Ackerman writes vividly about each of the senses, emphasizing descriptions of taste in the chapter about taste, etc., voluble, wonderful, evocative descriptions that brings each sense to life. It is hard not to hear the sounds she describes in the hearing chapter, taste the items she enumerates in her chapter on taste... I had a blast reading this book if just for Ackerman's vivid vocabulary. It reminded me a bit of Victoria Finlay's Color.

• The Serpent's Daughter, Suzanne Arruda
Former World War I nurse and now travel writer, Jade del Cameron has left her usual haunts of East Africa to travel to Morocco, where she will meet with her mother. Their adversarial relationship dates from the time that Inez del Cameron, once a woman who loved life and adventure like her now-adult daughter, changed into staid humorless matron determined to make her daughter into a carbon copy.

Then Inez is kidnapped and Jade sets out on a odyssey across Morocco to help her, eventually befriending a Berber tribesman who will enlighten Jade to his own culture.

This is another Indiana-Jones-ish adventure for Jade in a different setting than the previous two novels. It not only provides insight into Berber society, but solves the mystery of Jade's long-time antagonism to her mother. Inez is indeed as fascinating a character as her daughter, and you will realize how Jade became the woman she is.

21 October 2009

Ten Forever

I found a nice hardback copy of Ruth Sawyer's Roller Skates this weekend, with a sort-of impressionist cover, but the original Valenti Angelo illustrations inside. I couldn't resist, but then the inventive, intelligent protagonist of this story is irresistible.

I missed this book as a child due to a fixation on animal stories almost exclusively (okay, there were Danny Dunn and Miss Pickerel and Donna Parker and Johnny Tremain), but found it wonderful when I finally picked it up as an adult. I didn't find out until just recently that this novel and its sequel, The Year of Jubilo, were autobiographical.

Lucinda Wyman is a privileged child growing up in 1890s New York City. She loves to read, play guitar, and invent plays with her tabletop theatre, and is generally lonely, as her four brothers are much older than she is and, it is implied, tend to think of her as a pest (this is revealed in more detail in the sequel). When her mother becomes sick with one of those inevitable Victorian illnesses that sent people off to Italy for warm weather to cure them, instead of being left with her autocratic aunt and her "four docile daughters" ("the gazelles," Lucinda calls them), Lucinda is entrusted to the care of one of her schoolteachers from her private girls-only school, and the teacher's sister.

Lucinda can't help making friends wherever she goes. In her first weeks as a temporary "orphan," she befriends Mr. Gilligan, the hansom cab driver who conveys her to her new home; Patrolman McGonigall, the beat cop outside Bryant Park, where she loves to use the titular roller skates (Lucinda never walks anywhere she can skate!); Tony Coppino, an Italian boy who helps his father run the family fruit stand; "Mr. Night Owl," the evening beat reporter for a local paper; and an impoverished couple with a six-year-old daughter nicknamed "Trinket," whom Lucinda takes to her heart.

The story follows Lucinda's year as an "orphan," celebrating the holidays, befriending yet more people—an exotic woman and a little girl whose parents are actors, attending the circus and having the opportunity to ride the elephant, putting on a Twelfth Night play, and "borrowing" Trinket for tea parties. But tragedy also plays a part in Lucinda's orphan year.

Lucinda is a marvelous child, imaginative and loving, despite her relatives' perception of her as a cold, withdrawn person. Her personality sparkles. She reminds me a little of Addie Mills. While her aunt only insults her looks and tries to make her into a little automaton, her friends as well as her Uncle Earle celebrate her individuality and creativity.

The sequel has more of a Victorian plot: a crisis strikes the family and they must move to their summer home in Maine and try to make ends meet with reduced finances. Lucinda wants desperately to be a contributor to the family income, and her brothers, especially the one closest to her in age, tend to discredit her at first. The tone of this book, predictably, is different from Roller Skates, in which Lucinda finds happines in life despite some emotional setbacks. Year of Jubilo is more a story of having to grow up quickly to survive.

Roller Skates is a joy. I am glad that I made the acquaintance of Miss Lucinda Wyman.

30 September 2009

Books Finished Since September 1

• Come Back, Como, Steven Winn
From when she was a small child, Phoebe Winn wanted a dog more than anything. Her parents, both with less-than-pleasant memories of family dogs, tried to fob her off with other pets: goldfish, and then a lovebird who met a sad end. Finally mom and dad relent and adopt a small terrier mix from the animal shelter—a dog with an inherent fear of men. From then on it's waiting for their new dog to adjust to them—or perhaps it's one of the humans that must adjust to the dog.

This is a nice, but unremarkable story of a dog with problems who comes into a family with problems. From the daughter's point of view, her love of "Como" is immediate, and her mother's affection immediately follows. But it's prickly dad who must learn to adjust to a wary Como, and there will be a heart-stopping accident before they accept each other for who they are. I was a bit appalled at the beginning of this book with what happened to the lovebird—what kind of a pet owner doesn't confirm with their pet sitter what dates they will be going on vacation?—and also that the animal shelter worker would be so eager to foist off a dog with a fear of men that she ignored telling the family about it until after their child had fallen in love with the dog. There are some sweet parts, however, especially when Winn realizes how much he has come to love Como.

• The Ghost and the Haunted Mansion, Alice Kimberley
At last! "Kimberley" finally mentions something integrally associated with Rhode Island! But one mention of Del's frozen lemonade does not a Rhode Island setting make.

Penelope Thornton-McClure apparently witnesses her pal Seymour Tarnish, the local mailman, fleeing from a mansion on posh Larchmont Avenue, where a death has happened. When it's determined that the elderly owner died of foul play, Tarnish is the first suspect—especially when it's discovered that the woman left the expensive home to him! As Pen and her ghostly companion Jack Shepard, who is tied to the bookstore which Pen runs by having died there in 1947, try to clear Seymour as well as discover what really happened to Timothea Todd, it turns out the crime is tied to a case Jack had before he died, in which a young boy's mother disappeared.

The jacket summary of this book is a bit of a cheat, as the threat to Jack's existence is laughable. The mystery is the usual folksy one for this stereotypical Yankee town, although the bumpkin police continue to annoy. The Forties flashbacks are neat, though. Maybe in a future book Pen can be in a coma or something and somehow help Jack solve a mystery in the past.

• Death at Epsom Downs, Robin Paige
While Charles Sheridan uses his skill of photography at Derby Day, his American wife Kate becomes involved with the infamous actress Lillie Langtry, formerly the mistress of the king, and now implicated in the murder of a bookie with whom she was in excessive debt. In addition, a horse's behavior in the Derby brings about the growing specter of horse doping, and once again both Charles' and Kate's sleuthing skills are put to the test when Charles is recruited by His Royal Highness King Edward VII to uncover the scandal at the root of the death of a jockey.

Another enjoyable adventure with the sleuthing Sheridans, with a fascinating look at early 20th century horse racing, and the recurring character I wondered about from the previous book finally does return, with happy results.

• Hounding the Pavement, Judi McCoy
Ellie Engleman is finally free of her manipulating, stultifying husband, starting fresh in a new Manhattan apartment with the help of her much-married mother and hoping to make her dog-walking business a success. But when she and her mixed-breed dog Rudy arrive at one of her customer's homes to pick up his pet Bichon Frise, she discovers the man dead and the dog vanished. Enter Sam Ryder, workaholic police detective and also the victim of an unhappy marriage and divorce, who considers Ellie first a suspect, and then a dog-crazy flake.

How much you tolerate this book is how much you can put up with its conventions. I found it kinda cute, but be forewarned that it is not just a mystery, but a romance-mystery crossover, and many romance novel conventions are used, including a big smattering of sexual desires and encounters. Also, the gimmick in this one is that Ellie can communicate telepathically with dogs she is emotionally involved with, so there's a lot of dialog going on between Ellie and her pooch Rudy (who senses that Sam Ryder wants to do "the Big Bang" with her) and a couple of the other dogs she walks, including her best friend's Jack Russell, who idolizes Mr. T from The A-Team. If you are a "cozy" fan, but not particularly enamored of romances or gimmicks, you probably won't like this one.

Some annoying parts: I would have thought Rudy's sense of smell would have twigged Ellie to some things much earlier. It also seems as if McCoy sets up all other dog walkers besides her heroine to be callous, rude people who only care for their profits, not their charges. I find this a perfect discount or coupon book.

• The Big Burn, Timothy Egan
In August 1910, the drought-stricken Bitterroot Mountains and environs caught fire. The tinder-dry environment, coupled with a fierce wind, created a firestorm of unprecedented ferocity. Mountain towns, lumber interests, and the fledgling National Park system had only one defender: the rangers of the newly formed and hopelessly understaffed Forest Service, an organization loathed by the big businesses who thought the only proper thing was to clear and develop the forests. The book begins slowly, with the history of the Forest Service at the hands of its two "fathers," President Theodore Roosevelt and conservation enthusiast Gifford Pinchot, and builds, like the fire itself, painting vivid portraits of the people who would become involved with this monster—woodsman Ed Pulaski, ex-football star and now forester Joe Halm, supervisor Bill Weigle, the independent Ione "Pinkie" Adair, the Buffalo Soldiers who gain the respect of racist whites—until at last it explodes, devouring settlements and settlers alike.

While the fire may not have "saved America," it certainly brought recognition and respect to the Forest Service and created attention to the need for better conservation of our natural resources. My only caveat about this book: don't read the parts about the fire at bedtime; Egan's graphic descriptions of the devouring flames and their results are disturbing, sinister and unnerving.

• Death at Dartmoor, Robin Paige
While his wife Kate soaks up mist-shrouded atmosphere for a new novel (written under her pen-name of Beryl Bardwell), Sir Charles Sheridan embarks on a project to fingerprint all the prisoners at England's notorious Dartmoor Prison. Also visiting Dartmoor are Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, also gathering information for a new novel that will eventually become The Hound of the Baskervilles, and Kate's friend Patsy Marsden. When a Scottish physician accused of killing his wife, a man Charles is convinced is innocent, escapes from the prison, he is accused of the murder of a man who was found dead on the moor. But how did the Scotsman escape? Could it have anything to do with the young missionary who delivered Bibles to the prison?

This mystery kept me guessing, although I never doubted Charles was right, and also found out some things I did not know, such as Hound was originally co-written with another author. I am enjoying this cozy series after ignoring it for so long.

• A Fierce Discontent, Michael McGerr
This can be considered a companion volume to Crusader Nation which I bought last year. Both are about the progressive movement in the United States that began in the late 1800s, ran strong for many years, and then took its last gasps during the First World War. The disparity between rich and poor became emphasized in publications of the day, and organizations and movements were created to help the poor and improve living conditions and social conditions, not just among the poor, but for the entire population. Jane Addams sets up settlement houses. Upton Sinclair advises consumers about the horrible state of slaughterhouses. Temperance fighters begin their long crusade to ban alcohol. Millionaires become philanthropists. Chautauqua societies brought education to adults. Conservationists fought for the country's natural resources. In the intervening years, however, Americans also discovered leisure time. Movies, auto touring, and other amusements drew them away from good works. And the progressive movement also had its bad points: it supported the eugenics movement and also segregation. An accessible history of the era.

• Ballet Shoes, Noel Streatfeild
Yes, I'm one of those poor unfortunate adults who had never read this book as a child. Not only wasn't it in the library, but I wouldn't have read it anyway, as I preferred books about animals and hated ballet. Now, of course, I find its 1930s setting delightful and the portrayal of three adopted girls who must learn to perform to be able to earn money to help their guardian—each girl has her own talent: Pauline is a good actress, Petrova a devotee of mechanical items, and Posy a natural dancer—a great read. I must confess that I picked it up because I saw the British telefilm of this story at Christmastime and really loved it. It was picked to pieces by fans of the book who didn't like Emma Watson as Pauline, or thought Posy was portrayed as a brat, or complained they didn't stick exactly to the storyline. Well, Emma Watson didn't exactly fit the description, but I thought she was okay, and Posy much of the time was a bit of a brat, and all I can figure out that they changed was making Winifred into a whiner (which really was a disservice to the poor girl) and having Mr. Simpson be a bachelor to work up a little romantic interest for Garnie, who was shown as possibly being tubercular. But the book is just as wonderful as everyone has always described! I'm glad I bought it.

• DogTown: Tales of Rescue, Rehabilitation, and Redemption, Stefan Bechtel
Whether or not you have ever watched the NatGeo series, if you are a dog-lover you will surely enjoy this volume of stories of individual dogs at DogTown, the unique animal refuge in Utah where no dog is refused (dogs that cannot be "re-homed" are cared for at the facility). You will meet Annie, the exuberant Australian shepherd dog who accidentally attacks a child and is labeled "a biter"; Georgia, one of the pit bulls rescued from Michael Vick's dog fighting kennel who had all her teeth removed, probably so she could be bred; Aristotle, a Chihuahua with a puzzling and virulent skin disease; Bingo, the mixed breed dog so abused that he had emotionally shut down; and other troubled or injured dogs. Each chapter follows a dog from his or her arrival in DogTown, the steps that were taken in treatment, and how they came to their forever home. Within chapters you learn about the horror that is a puppy mill or a hoarder's home, how a dog's handler will decide on a treatment for them, what steps are taken if medical care is needed, and other aspects of DogTown's rescue work. There are also interstices between chapters where DogTown workers talk about a dog in their past or in their work that became special to them.

As expected, there are reminders to spay or neuter your dog, warnings against purchase of pet shop puppies, and emphasis on adopting dogs from shelters, but it does not detract from the narrative about amazing people making a difference with abused dogs.

• A Beautiful Blue Death, Charles Finch
I wanted to like this book, but it fell under my expectations. Charles Lenox, a Victorian gentleman and amateur sleuth, is asked by his childhood friend Lady Jane Grey to investigate the "suicide" of a young woman who used to be her maid. The author seems to have tried to go for a Lord Peter Wimsey character in 1865, complete with butler who helps him with his investigations, with a little Sherlock Holmes tossed in (Charles' older brother Edmund works in the government). But after having read so many Victorian-set novels—both those actually written in the Victorian era, like Conan Doyle, and those Victorian homages by Anne Perry, Robin Paige, etc.—the entire narrative is just disappointing, down to the little things like Lenox always complaining about his boots being thin and cold. He's rich—he should be able to buy any boots he wants (or his butler should be able to find him some! Bunter would be horrified)! I suppose it's not unrealistic, due to the common surname Grey, to have a character named "Lady Jane Grey," but anyone with knowledge of English history may wish she had another name. Many times the dialog sounds like "book dialog," nothing someone would actually say. Servants speak to their employers in too familiar a manner.

The title refers to the obscure poison used in the suicide, but sadly, that may be the most interesting thing about the book. I have the sequel and hope there is more promise to it.

• Age 14, Geert Spillebeen
At age 10, Patrick Condon leaves school behind forever. Since he is big for his age, Patrick is able to get a menial job sweeping holds of ships when his father lies about how old he is. After two years of working for a repulsive employer, Patrick has squirreled enough pennies away to fulfill his real dream: join the army. Once again repeating a lie about his age, Patrick is first inducted into the militia under his brother John's name, and then some time later, joins the real army. He loves the duties and regimentation of army life, which is much better than anything in his impoverished Irish neighborhood.

But by now it is 1914 and all Hell is about to break out in Europe.

This would at first glance be a good book to introduce adolescents, especially boys, to the squalid reality of the poverty in Ireland in the early part of the 20th century as well as the horror of the battlefields of "the Great War, but the narrative is really rather poor. The novel was originally published in Belgium; perhaps the translator is at fault—I don't know. Despite the intriguing storyline, everything is rather plodding. Perhaps the problem is that Patrick is not a particularly likeable boy, and, despite his army dreams, we don't really learn much about him.

Other things are bothersome: modern words crop up occasionally, ruining the mood of the era—one that particularly struck me was the use of "macho." At one point, the word "Kraut" is used for Germans. I have read many WWI era stories and the usual term appears to be "Hun" or "Boche." I was under the impression this term was used in WWII. I could be wrong. At the point that war is declared, the narrative changes from past tense to present tense, probably to emphasize the immediacy of the situation, but it happens mid-chapter and is quite jarring (there the author also begins referring to Patrick as John). There are several chapters that are from a different POV than Patrick's, and all are pretty badly done, but the one portraying the German scientist who developed chlorine gas is particularly bad--he comes off as a melodrama villain.

I really wouldn't recommend this book to anyone.

31 August 2009

Books Finished Since August 1

• Death at Rottingdean, Robin Paige
Lord and Lady Sheridan (formerly Charles Sheridan and Kate Ardleigh), having spent their first season as Baron and Lady Somersworth, retreat to the small coastal village of Rottingdean for a respite after a tragedy, as well as baronial duties, have left them craving quiet and solitude. Alas, it isn't to be after a local boy spots a body being dragged from the sea, and next morning a coast guardsman is found dead on the beach. The Paige mysteries always include a "kiss with history" with a historical figure; in this outing it's Rudyard Kipling, who is a fine accomplice to Charles and Kate's sleuthing (and, if you know a history of Kipling's family, a fine sense of irony is included due to the nature of the crime as well as the birth of his latest child). These are fine "cozies" for those who love the genre and the time period, and the seaside setting is very evocative (and very Dr. Syn!).

• The Harding Affair, James David Robenalt
I usually devour 20th century American history books, so when i saw this volume on Amazon Vine, I was intrigued. The most I knew about Warren G. Harding was that he was a ladies' man, a pretty inadequate President in most estimations, and that his buddies were involved in the Teapot Dome scandal. So I forewent what would have been my obvious choice (a book about Louis Howe and the Roosevelts) to get this instead.

Robenalt has minutely investigated Harding's personal and private life and it shows. And I did learn many things about the man that I did not know before, such as he was much more liberal to the cause of African-American rights in the US than Southerner Woodrow Wilson. (Much later, after his death, an inflammatory book was published that "proved" he had "Negro" blood.) However, in this narrative of Harding's years'-long affair with his Marion, Ohio, neighbor Carrie Phillips, paralleled by the case of a German countess accused during the first World War of being a spy, was sadly, in general, uninteresting. While the occasional "I didn't know that" popped up, Harding's one-sided correspondence (most of Carrie Phillips' letters did not survive) with his inamorata eventually became turgid and difficult to read. YMMV.

• The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Before the Storm, Juliet Nicolson
The summer of 1911 was an anomoly in the British Isles, almost unnaturally sunny and hot. The fine weather presaged the last stand of the old ways: society men and women clinging to old traditions while their servants considered breaking their ties to the past, the wealthy bored with the bleak emptiness of their lives, labor unrest in workers who had earlier accepted their lot in life, Queen Mary's struggle to adjust to being wife to a king and against her own insecurities. This is not an in-depth study of Edwardian society by any means, but it is a fascinating portrait of both sides of "the street" in an era which has been fodder for nostalgia for years, especially following the success of Upstairs, Downstairs. I particularly enjoyed the chapter about the butler torn between his traditional role and trying to make a fresh start, and the glimpses of people who would later become known for their roles in World War I, such as Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon.

• Don't You Know There's a War On?, Avi
This is one of two Avi novels about homefront WWII (that I know about). Fifth-grader Howie Crispers and his classmates, between collecting scrap and paper for the war effort, discover that Miss Gossim, their beloved teacher, was secretly married several months earlier and is now expecting a child, which means she will be fired. Howie, who has a crush on the teacher, finds a way to save her. This is a very simple story for kids. I have read that some people are a bit disturbed the way Howie seems to "stalk" the teacher and is still thinking about her five years later. I have read better WWII stories for kids.

• Doggie Day Care Murder, Laurien Berenson
Melanie Travis can't seem to keep away from murders, even though she has a still fairly new marriage, a new baby, and an ever-growing 9-year-old who her Aunt Peg is steering into junior showmanship classes at local dog shows. She was just supposed to check out a dog day care center for her best friend Alice, who's re-entering the workforce, and at first glance she likes what she sees, but when she returns the next day, she discovers the business brains of the center, Steve Pines, who runs it with his sister Candy, has been shot and killed. Melanie would rather stay out of this one, but since she has such a good track record with chasing down killers, she's persuaded to "look into things." I'm fond of dogs, and of this series; if you were reading this "cold" your mileage might vary.

• The Patriot Witch, C.C. Finlay
I've been looking for a new fantasy series, and this one seems to fit the bill. Proctor Brown is a typical young countryman of the Revolutionary War period: he wishes to expand the family farm and marry his pretty girlfriend Emily. Not only can the course of true love not run true—Emily's father had hoped for a better match than a farmer, and he's an avowed Tory, while Proctor is a Minuteman—but the young man holds a deeper secret: a descendant of John Proctor, who was hung as a witch in old Salem, like his mother Proctor holds otherworldly powers, which she fears revealing. Then Proctor notices that British major Pitcairn is protected by a mysterious, uncanny charm, and later, after his shot begins the fighting at Lexington Green, he is witness to the transport of a witch. Next thing he knows he is embroiled in a hunt for the woman after she escapes, and discovers the presence of others like himself, who know the British cause is being aided by witchcraft. This is a nice alternative history/fantasy, although Proctor and his friends do speak in more modern vernacular than I would have expected (although I'm glad the the author didn't go for the stilted "noble Colonial" narration as would have been used years ago), which is occasionally disconcerting. I intend to continue with the series. YMMV, as always.

• Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding, Scott Weidensaul
Sometimes you buy a book full price and it's a loser; other times you find something on the bargain shelf and it's a winner. The latter is this book, a delightful narrative starting with the first European explorers, through the years with early bird watching and then the years of specimen collecting that decimated species, the crusade to remove bird skins/feathers as ornamentation on 19th century women's hats, and the efforts to publish an effective birder's guide that would still fit in your pocket. In between, stories of individual birders, ornithologists, and even "opera-glass" observers are told, along with the author's own experience. If you love birds or birdwatching, this is the book for you.

• Who Was That Masked Man, Anyway?, Avi
The second of Avi's WWII-set juveniles, with a novel approach: the story is told completely through dialog, like a Golden Age of Radio presentation—appropriate as our hero, Frankie Wattleston, is crazy about radio, specifically the kids' and adults' adventure serials that populate the airwaves. He and his best friend Mario create, through Frankie's vivid imagination, their own misadventures as they spy on Mr. Swerdlow, a medical-school student who is boarding at Frankie's home—and try to help their teacher, whose boyfriend was killed in battle. This is a lively, funny story about a boy addicted to radio series the way kids today are addicted to video games. I'm not sure I can quite believe that Frankie's teacher or parents would be so gullible sometimes, and the ending with Frankie's brother, withdrawn after his return from combat, seems a bit pat, but the dialog and radio series' quotes make up for any shortcomings.

• Death At Whitechapel, Robin Paige
Jennie Jerome Churchill, the American-born mother of the future Winston Churchill, is afraid. Her, and her son's, prolifigate lifestyle has already put them into debt, and now someone is blackmailing her, insinuating her late husband had a part in the "Ripper" murders ten years earlier. If what the blackmailer says is true, it will destroy her life and her son's burgeoning political career. Enter once more Kate Ardleigh Sheridan and her husband Charles, American mystery writer and British peer and amateur criminologist, to help her, especially after the blackmailer is found murdered. I especially enjoyed this outing because it was interesting to see a glimpse of the young Winston Churchill, very much not the old political lion figure at this point, but a callow, often snobby, youth, and also because the Ripper murder theory in this novel is very like the one presented in the Sherlock Holmes film Murder by Decree.

I'm puzzled, though. I was under the impression that a character first presented in the previous book was about to become a regular character...I guess I was wrong!

• Mr. Monk is Miserable, Lee Goldberg
Okay, Mr. Goldberg. There's one gag you've used in one episode and two books now. I'm not sure if it's third time's the charm or three strikes and you're out. But...enough, okay?

That out of the way, this next outing in the Monk novel series immediately follows Mr. Monk Goes to Germany. Natalie has blackmailed Monk into going to Paris for a few days, hoping to get a little bit of vacation out of her enforced trip to Europe, and to hopefully relive the happy memories of a past trip with her late husband. No chance: not only do the memories rattle Natalie, but Monk inexplicable wants to go—in a Hazmat suit, of course!—on a tour of the famous Paris sewers, which he considers the most remarkable thing about the city! Then Monk discovers a skull in the catacombs that is from a recently-deceased body, with signs of foul play about it. Yes, it's another mystery for Monk and his reluctant assistant, in which they meet street cleaners, the Paris constabulary, a group that eschews "the rat race," wonderous sanitizing streetside toilets, and, even more amazingly, food Monk will actually eat!

There's an offbeat tour of Paris along with the usual mystery elements, much fun for the Monk fan. Enjoy the journey, and don't forget your wipes!

• The Day the Falls Stood Still, Cathy Marie Buchanan
This is not the usual type of book I read, but I was intrigued by the time period and the setting: the World War I years and directly thereafter, when the creation of power plants along the Niagara River in both Canada and the United States raised questions in some about the survival of the river ecosystem due to all the water being drawn off.

17-year-old Bess Heath's education is cut short when her father is fired from his executive position at one of the hydroelectric plants. She comes home to find her father drinking more than usual, her mother (a former experienced seamstress) making dresses again to supplant the family income, and her former lively older sister depressed and barely eating. On that fateful trip home, Bess will also meet Tom Cole, a "riverman" whose knowledge of the great Niagara seems almost magical, and will warm to his presence. But a tragedy finds Bess covering up a secret, after which a more critical decision approaches: should Bess make a good match as her family grows more impoverished, or should she go with her heart? The story unfolds against the beautiful landscape of eastern Canada, with lovely details about both the river system and about the lovely clothing both Bess and her mother make, with portraits of the conflict between upper- and lower-class society. I enjoyed the characters, the wonderful setting, the descriptions, even the narrative most of the time, but ultimately I found the whole a bit...eh. My usual forte is either historical/biographical books from the era, or historical mysteries, so the slice-of-life approach seemed rather ordinary. It's more my failing than the book's.

• Where There's a Witch, Madelyn Alt
I've been reading this friendly little "bewitching mystery" series since the first book came out and have enjoyed watching Maggie find out about her empathic talents, get a fulfilling job, and make new—if unusual friends—and have felt indignant about her pushy mother and manipulating sister. In the last story, "little miss perfect" sister let the cat out of the bag about the esoteric activities going on with Maggie's employer and friends. Now, as reaction about the "heathens" spreads, groundbreaking at a new church reveals a hidden room—which soon holds the corpse of a murdered young woman. The buildup to the story was slow, the murderer really obvious, and I really disliked Alt ultimately making Maggie's staid policeman boyfriend "the heavy" in the triangle between Maggie, Tom, and romance-novel-hero wannabe Marcus. I'll keep hanging on hoping Maggie will eventually tell off her mom...and her sister.

For Sherlock Holmes...or Rather Dr. Watson...Fans Everywhere

Sad, But True:

"The Case of the Two Watsons" (PNG image)

12 August 2009

Whilst Wandering the Net

A James Keeline paper (in .pdf format) on Trixie Belden, including photos of the homes that were the basis for Crabapple Farm and the Manor House!

If you're a Trixie Belden fan, you might check out this fan page, which includes info about the books, fanfiction, a forum to chat about your favorite schoolgirl shamus, and the hysterically funny nitpicks page, about the continuity errors in the books.

31 July 2009

Books Finished Since July 1

• Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time, Michael Downing
As an avowed hater of DST, I picked up this volume hoping it would enlighten me on the logical reasons for the practice. The most I knew before reading this book was that DST was instituted during World War I to extend working time in the war plants, that it was rescinded after the war, then returned for the next. How surprising to find out that the threat of DST came even earlier, that it has been contentious for years, with even communities and buildings disagreeing about it, and that it was once blamed on farmers—when farmers hate the practice. Downing keeps you reeling as the the fight goes back and forth and back again. If you are interested in the history of DST, you might find this interesting.

• The Unscratchables, Cornelius Kane
Max "Crusher" McNash is a hard-bitten veteran police officer whose investigation of what looks like a gangland killing arouses the attention of the FBI due to the crime's improbable suspect. The Feds send philosophical, well-dressed Cassius Lap to investigate. Can McNash trust Lap, since he suspects the agent may have sympathies with the killer? And can he trust himself not to grab Lap in his jaws and shake him like a bull terrier shakes a rat?

Jaws? Of course. In this spoof of pulp detective novels, McNash (a bull terrier) lives in the Kennels, the world of dogs (his boss is a German Shepherd and his partner is a borzoi; one of the perps is a whippet and the victims are Rottweilers) and Lap is a Siamese cat, from the feline refuge of Kathattan. I've never been a fan of crime noir, film or book, and I confess the private eye slang was wearying at first. But as I got absorbed in the plot, the characters, and the spoof of human foibles, I began to enjoy it, especially when a Hannibal Lector-like character was introduced (a cat, of course)--a thoroughly delightful homage! And like all the best "shaggy dog" stories, this one even ends appropriately! If you enjoy offbeat fiction, this one's definitely for you.

• The Blackstone Key, Rose Melikan
I've been reading a good deal of these types of novels lately, ranging from the time of the French Revolution to Victorian times, from the romantic romps of the Pink Carnation to the tales of Liberty Lane, Emily Ashton and Lady Julia Grey and have become very familiar with the spunky, well-educated-for-a-woman-of-the-time protagonist who becomes involved in dark doings. At first glance, Key is of that breed.

But heroine Mary Finch is not. While she is intelligent and shows unexpected strengths, she is more timid than the usual heroines of these books and makes several mistakes right until the end of the story. Her spunk is of a milder sort, and so is the story, which spends its own sweet time meandering to the climax as you get a portrait of 18th century life and the intrigues of French spies in England during the latter part of the Revolution through the Napoleonic Wars through the eyes of a young teacher. I found the characters interesting and enjoyed Mary, Captain Robert Holland, Paul Duprez, and the supporting players on both sides, but the story is very slow-moving. People who favor livelier fare will probably not be satisfied by the novel.

• The Counterfeit Guest, Rose Melikan
Now an heiress and living at her late uncle's estate White Ladies with two of her fellow teachers as chaperones, Mary Finch is asked to undertake a clandestine mission: observe Colonel Crosby-Nash, suspected of being a traitor. Since the colonel is married to Mary's friend Susannah Armitage (cousin to Captain Robert Holland, whose acquaintance Mary made in The Blackstone Key), it is fairly easy for Mary to keep tabs on him, and even receive an invitation to their country house. In the meantime Captain Holland, who has abruptly broken off his growing relationship with Mary, finds himself battling internal conflict in the Army, bred by instigating spies who use suggestion and broadsides to spread their revolutionary aims. Eventually Mary's mission and Holland's will mesh, posing danger for both of them.

Mary has become a bit less naive in this second novel, although she is certainly shyer than similar heroines like Liberty Lane and the "Pink Carnation" ladies, and her spying mission takes a certain nerve--there are several tense moments that are quite breathtaking. Holland, too, sees more action in this second novel, including a foray into preventing an explosive situation, accompanied by his faithful batsman Drake. The suspense builds nicely, but slowly, in the manner of 19th century novels of this genre. If you like nonstop action, this is not the novel for you.

We also learn more about Mary's new life and Holland's past, and that certain "wise" decisions don't always work out that way.

I found this novel thoroughly enjoyable and am looking forward to Melikan's sequel.

• Planet Dog: A Doglopedia, Harry Choron and Sandra Choron
A great bathroom book! All about man's best friend in short bites: movie dogs, literary dogs, dog shows, dog books, people in dog history, dogs in people history, and other lists. Much fun if you are a dog lover.

• Tell Me, Pretty Maiden, Rhys Bowen
After living hand-to-mouth for so long, Irish transplant Molly Murphy has her hands full in turn of the century New York City: she's following one man to see if he is a good marriage prospect, and accepts two other puzzling cases: the disappearance of a rich college boy who has been accused of a heinous murder and the haunting of a Broadway theatre where a slightly long-in-the-tooth actress is making a comeback. If that isn't all, Molly and her beau Daniel, still on suspension from the New York police force, stumble over a nearly frozen young woman in Central Park, clad only in a light dress and dancing slippers, one who can not even utter her own name. As Molly hops from theatre to street to Yale and back again, the facets of each mystery only become more perplexing. A dandy period mystery starring a feisty heroine.

• Rhode Island: A Guide to the Smallest State
What a great history of Rhode Island; I learned more from this volume than I ever did about the history of the state in school. It makes one want to grab the book and go back to see all these sites—that is, if most of them are there any longer. For this is the 1937 WPA guide to the state, a fascinating combination of history, survey, Native American portrait, and Baedeker, with "auto tours" along the main roads...which, of course, were the secondary roads of my own childhood. So many things aren't there anymore: the numerous fabric mills, the ferries that existed before the bridges, and historical buildings destroyed by neglect, time, and progress. The saddest part of this book: a photo of Napatree Point (in a photo insert six pages after page 396). One year later all 22 homes were wiped out in the Hurricane of 1938.

Read the whole book (and see the photo) here.

• Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World, Vicki Myron
In 1988, on a freezing winter night, a small orange kitten was left in the book drop in the Spencer, Iowa, library. Rescued by Vicki Myron and her fellow librarians, Dewey became not only a library fixture, but a minor celebrity after his story was told in magazines like Country.

This is such a good-natured little book about a small farming town and the people who were enriched Dewey's companionship, I hate to say anything negative about it, but it was not as good as Marley and Me or Wesley the Owl or Flyaway. Some understanding of the author's personal life and of the town of Spencer is necessary to the story, but there was almost too much biographical information about Myron herself and not enough stories about the cat. I'm glad I met Dewey, and his human friends, but I can't say I was really overwhelmed by the narrative.

• A Fatal Waltz, Tasha Alexander
I read this one in a whole "gulp." It is the third in Alexander's series about Emily Ashton, a well-bred Victorian lady whose interests also run to Greek antiquities and drinking port rather than sherry after dinner like a "normal" woman of the time. Emily is attending a house party at the request of her best friend Ivy, even though she would rather avoid the owner of the house, the sarcastic, vindictive Lord Fortescue, who would prefer that Emily not marry her fiance Colin Hargreaves. Before the weekend is over, Fortescue is murdered and Ivy's husband Robert accused of the crime. Before the book is over, in her search for justice for Robert, Emily will be threatened by Fortescue's colleague, visit Vienna and become involved with anarchists, and worry over Colin's being reunited with his old lover, now an Austrian countess and still determined to get Colin back despite being married. The suspense builds until one must keep turning the pages or wonder just what happens next.

• Consequences of Sin, Clare Langley-Hawthorne
I'm pretty sure this story was recommended by Dani on "A Work in Progress"; I was lucky enough to find it in the bargain bin in Borders at some point. Ursula Marlow is the privileged daughter of a self-made, now wealthy, factory owner, in England in 1910, but is beginning to break out of the straitlaced role of women in that era: having attended Oxford, instead of preparing for marriage as her father wishes, she is helping in the suffragette movement along with a newfound friend, Winifred Stanford-Jones. Then "Freddie" telephones her early one morning with the horrifying news that her lover, Laura, has been murdered in their bed, after they were seen quarreling at a risque club. Ursula asks her father's adviser, Lord Wrotham, to help defend Winifred, but she has no idea when she does so that she is about to discover an ugly family secret and not only put her reputation in danger, but her life.

I enjoyed this book, even if the lead characters are the usual lovely, intelligent but a bit naive young woman, and the handsome, enigmatic and troubled slightly older man (I mean, honestly, don't any ordinary people ever solve mysteries?). Ursula's upbringing causes her to make errors which may irritate some, but seem natural for the time. It's an easy read, and I'm looking forward to finding the sequel, although it appears to take place mostly in Egypt; I would have preferred pre-war England.

• Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol: The Making of the First Animated Television Christmas Special, Darryl Von Citters
This book is reviewed in July's "Rudolph Day" post in Holiday Harbour.

• A Duty to the Dead, Charles Todd
Bess Crawford, daughter of a British Army officer and a nurse serving aboard the hospital ship Britannic, is invalided home after the ship is torpedoed and her arm is broken. This gives her the chance to fulfill a soldier's dying wish; Arthur Graham's cryptic deathbed message is to be delivered directly--no letters will do--to his brother Jonathan: "Tell Jonathan I lied. I did it for Mother's sake. But it has to be set right." Bess' letter to the family results in an invitation to the Graham home, but to her surprise, there is no reaction when she delivers the message. Jonathan and Mrs. Graham even question if Arthur was in pain or drugged when he said it. But the longer Bess remains in the Graham home, the more questions begin to arise: what did the message mean and why was it so important to Arthur but not to his family? How did Arthur's oldest brother Peregrine become confined to an insane asylum when he was only fourteen? And when Bess is called on to nurse Peregrine through a bout of pneumonia, why isn't he the dimwitted man he has been described to be?

I really enjoyed reading this book and finished it in one long session. Since I have read similar books taking place during or concerning nursing sisters of WWI, most of which have been mentioned here (Anne Perry's WWI mysteries, the Maisie Dobbs stories, Gifts of War), the subject was of interest to me, and I liked this the most except for the Maisie Dobbs novels. Bess is one of the strong women that emerged at the time of the war, no longer willing to be treated as sweet flowers who were rewards to men. If I have one quibble with the book it is that I would have liked more descriptions of Bess and of some of the supporting characters, but perhaps the author did so on purpose so we could imagine Bess as we wanted her to be. Also, a certain amount of coincidence creeps into the story: how convenient that someone should be sick just as Bess was visiting, or the fact that the minister so willingly offers Bess the late vicar's journals to read. However, these small things did nothing to deter my enjoyment of the novel. I will be interested to read more about this character.

• Cesar's Way, Cesar Millan
Millan, the host of The Dog Whisper, explains his dog psychology methods. If you're a dog owner or lover, you will find this quite interesting.

• A Dangerous Affair, Caro Peacock
Liberty Lane, the independent heroine of Peacock's A Foreign Affair, has set herself up as a music teacher to support herself and is living in genteel poverty in an old mews with an older woman as chaperone, and faithful Amos Legge works nearby in a stable caring for horses including Liberty's mare, Esperance. One morning as she is riding "Rancie," she is overtaken by Benjamin Disraeli, who asks her to look into a flamboyant ballerina named Columbine. Liberty reluctantly does so, just as Columbine is murdered and a country girl, Jenny Jarvis, is accused of her murder. To complicate matters, Liberty's best friend, musician Daniel Suter, has fallen deeply in love with Jenny. As always fired against any injustice, Liberty is determined to find Columbine's murderer.

This is a more traditional-type 19th century murder mystery, as opposed to the politically charged conundrum of the first novel, with suspects including Columbine's co-stars, her wealthy gentleman friend, and even her French dresser. In the meantime Liberty faces the loss of her living space, of her beautiful mare, and even her best friend. Due to its more conventional plot, I didn't find this story as compelling as the first, but it was enjoyable nevertheless due to the presence of Liberty and her companions.

• Tears of Pearl, Tasha Alexander
I was so delighted when this fourth installment of the Lady Emily mystery stories turned up as one of the available books in Amazon Vine! I read it the moment it arrived in the mail and was quite taken by the setting: 19th century Constantinople. Alexander describes the area so well that I felt like I was in the bazaars and the different palaces, could smell the spices and see the intricate tilework, and feel the chop of the Bosphorus.

Emily and her new husband, the dashing spy Colin Hargreaves, have no sooner arrived in their honeymoon setting when a young woman from the Sultan's harem is murdered. The girl turns out to be the long-lost daughter of Richard St. Clare, employee at the English embassy. St. Clare, who seems to have ruined his health, and perhaps his sanity, in searching for the girl all these years, is determined to find out who killed her. It becomes Emily's task then, since Colin cannot do so, to infiltrate the harem and see if she was under threat in any way. But she cannot know the political machinations she will need to circumvent and understand to finally solve the mystery.

I felt that the actual perpetrator of the crime was a little obvious and that, at least for me, Emily and Colin's cooing over each other got a bit much (but they were on their honeymoon, after all). I believe I liked the characters in the previous novel a bit more. But the setting and mystery nicely overshadow these slight shortcomings. I can't wait to see what this pair tackles next.

23 July 2009

Oooh, Kewl!

As I've mentioned before, I was recruited for Amazon "Vine," where you get to preview books and other products.

On the third Thursday of every month you get a newsletter with offerings tailored to what you have ordered on Amazon and what you have reviewed. Sometimes I really hate it, because you don't get all the books up front. You can pick up to two books.

A week later you get another newsletter with all the books that were offered, what is left of them, anyway, and you can pick two more.

Last week I got a really cool mystery set in England during World War I. I almost ordered a novel about 1915 Niagara Falls, but decided against it.

Today the combined newsletter came and I was going to order a rather fascinating looking book about Warren Harding's affair with a woman who was later a German spy during World War I and a book about Louis Howe, FDR's advisor, when on second glance I noticed the upcoming Lady Emily book, Tears of Pearl, was one of the books! I had just finished A Fatal Waltz, the last book. So I got that instead of the Howe book, although I usually snap up Roosevelt books. The Harding book sounded more intriguing.

30 June 2009

Books Finished Since June 1

• The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney, Michael Barrier
I have many biographies of Walt Disney, from Bob Thomas' approving volume to Marc Eliot's vilified one, and all take a different viewpoint of the man. Barrier's volume is interesting because as an animation enthusiast he discusses Disney in relation to his work—and where his absence of attention showed in his films. There are also many different sources than have been used in previous books, such as the interviews Barrier did when writing his book about animation, and the Disney magazine "The 'E' Ticket." I read several things that I had never heard before, such as that Disney hated the animation style of 101 Dalmatians, but, since he did not give much input into the film, he had no idea of what was going on until the film was about to be released. Barrier also has a few novel criticisms of Mary Poppins, usually considered a Disney masterpiece! I found the new material enjoyable, but still think no one book will ever completely define the complicated persona of Disney. It's best to read all the bios, good and bad, to get multiple views of him.

• Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer's Life, Pamela Smith Hill
Laura Ingalls Wilder once stated about her books: "All I have told is true, but it's not the whole truth." Anyone who has read anything about Wilder knows that the "Little House" series is not totally autobiographical, although it is based on true experiences. Many incidences in her life, including the birth of a brother who died at nine months of age, did not make it into the narrative. In 1930 Wilder wrote the first draft of Pioneer Girl, a memoir closer to her actual life. It was from this manuscript that the "Little House" books were born. Hill's absorbing book chronicles Wilder's original writing efforts, and how her daughter guided her (not actually wrote her books, as suggested in Holtz's Ghost in the Little House) into the creation of a more dramatic narrative. In addition, this volume supplies more details of Wilder's life that have not shown up in biographies, including the fact that a young couple and their newborn baby lived with the family during "the long winter," and that Laura was once almost assaulted by a drunken man whose wife she was caring for. Highly recommended if you are interested in the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

• The Ghost and the Femme Fatale, Alice Kimberly
I have a love-hate relationship with this series because, while I enjoy the two leads, young widow Penelope Thornton-McClure and the ghost of Jack Shepard, a hardboiled New York private eye who was killed in the 1940s in the doorway of what is now Buy the Book, the bookshop owned by Penelope and her Aunt Sadie and who is now tied to the place (although sometimes Jack's 40s slang gets old), the fictional town of Quindicott, Rhode Island, annoys me. It's populated by ersatz Yankee types that would be more at home in Cabot Cove, Maine, rather than in Rhode Island. When I read a regional mystery I like to feel like I'm in that place, and Kimberly doesn't capture Rhode Island at all. Imagine if you read a book set in NYC or San Francisco or New Orleans that didn't mention the landmarks, regional slang, or regional food and drink of that city? However, I did like this volume's plot, about a murder that takes place at a film noir festival, since the novel is stuffed with authentic old movie lore along with the fictional stars and studio created for the story.

• Escape Under the Forever Sky, Eve Yohalem
Your mother is the American ambassador to Ethiopia—sounds exciting, doesn't it? Lucy Hoffman doesn't think so. Except for her friends Tana and Teddy, she's an outcast at school since she's American, and she's confined at home a lot, partially due to having sneaked out of the house without permission a couple of times and partially because her mother fears for her. She must go to dull dinners with her mother, and only occasionally can explore the African countryside that so fascinates her. On the day she is allowed to visit her best friend again, Lucy and Tana sneak out to a nearby club to have some soda and listen to music. But Lucy is kidnapped and taken away to a shack deep in the bush, to be held for some exchange that she knows nothing about. What she does know is that at least one of her kidnappers is cruel and vicious. Should she wait for ransom, or try to escape? This is a page-turner of an adventure that painlessly imparts information about African wildlife and about the lives of those native to the country. Lucy's resourcefulness is well-balanced by her typical teenage interests, so she comes across as a real person rather than a nature savant. The Africa she paints is vivid and compelling. Only her mother seems a bit two-dimensional, but I believe that is because we are seeing her from Lucy's point of view. Highly recommended, especially for teens interested in wildlife or life in other countries.

• Rebecca: An American Girl Six-Book Series by Jacqueline Dembar Greene Meet Rebecca, Rebecca and Ana, Candlelight for Rebecca, Rebecca and the Movies, Rebecca to the Rescue, Changes for Rebecca)
I've been waiting for American Girl to come out with a series about a Jewish girl for years, and that wish has finally come true. Rebecca Rubin lives on the Lower East Side of New York City in 1914, the daughter of Russian immigrants. She clashes frequently with her older siblings, twins Sophie and Sadie, and brother Victor, but hero-worships her cousin Max, a former vaudeville performer who has become an actor in the new medium of the movies. In fact, Rebecca's big wish is to become an actress.

As a whole I enjoyed this series. The books strike the right line in showing Jewish culture. The Rubins live in a nicer apartment, but their immigrant cousins must make do with a tenement, and there are well-to-do Jews shown as well as classmates and neighbors of other nationalities. The Hanukkah story is particularly well done, with Rebecca concerned about being forced to make a Christmas decoration in school.

However, I thought the last couple of books were over the top. Rebecca and the Movies represented some clear wish fulfillment, but in the early days of the movies, men, women and children were often plucked from obscurity to appear in films, so it wasn't a stretch to believe it could happen to Rebecca. However, Rebecca's heroics in the Coney Island story seems wildly off-base, which is a shame because the rest of the Coney Island narrative is a great portrayal of the area parks in their heyday. The same goes for Rebecca's involvement in the strike in the final book. I could believe some aspects of it, but not the speech parts. Still, the stories are worth reading, especially Candlelight for Rebecca.

(There's one thing that did bother me: in one scene, Rebecca is shown in pajamas. I don't think pajamas for girls had caught on by 1914, especially in poorer households. Nightgowns and nightshirts were still mostly used.)

• Gifts of War, Mackenzie Ford
This is a promising volume that I wished I liked more. The time period (World War I era) is of interest to me and I did like the characters in general, especially the lead character's forthright sister, who becomes a nurse at the front. However, the dialog seemed more modern than I would expect of people in 1914-1919. I understand that in the war years women especially gained freedoms unheard of in previous years, but everyone appeared more outspoken than I thought they would be. Sadly, I thought what happened with the main characters were a bit soap-opera-ish. Also, while the author's descriptions paint lovely portraits of World War I-era England, there is more "showing" than "doing," long, lengthy narrations about things that happened, rather than the author showing the characters doing what is described in those narrations. My favorite parts of this novel, in fact, were the sequences that took place at the intelligence service where Hal Montgomery works, and how he and the others took the seeming minutia that they read in German newspapers and made educated guesses about how this related to the German war effort. The sequence where he and two other operatives stalk a suspected spy is also well done.

• Flyaway, Suzie Gilbert
Especially if you've ever owned a pet bird, filled a bird feeder daily and watched them eat and interact, or birdwatched, you will love this well-narrated, often humorous, but frequently heartbreaking story of Gilbert, who, with the help of an incredibly patient husband, two wonderful kids, and friends who are bird rehabilitators and veterinarians, begins rehabbing and releasing wild birds. Gilbert puts you in the midst of the action, whether it be "bopping" with her kids and pet parrots, rescuing a hawk in a tree, lecturing cat owners about letting their pets outside, feeding baby birds, or dealing with sick crows, sparrows, doves, and even seagulls. I couldn't do what Gilbert does—the dead mice and the mealworms would do me in—but this book struck deep into my heart and I admire and cheer on all the bird rehabbers like Gilbert and her friends. If you enjoyed books like Dewey and Wesley the Owl, this book should definitely be on your list of things to read.

• Death at Gallows Green, Robin Paige
In this second novel about the brash, progressive Katharine Ardleigh, late of the United States and now living in her late aunt's home of Bishop's Keep, one of the servants from Kate's home and her beau find the body of a murdered police constable on their stroll. The man was a friend of fellow police officer Edward Laken, who has Sir Charles Sheridan, photographer and amateur sleuth, take photos of the crime scene. Thus begins a raveled mystery involving the late constable's wife and child, a charge of poaching, missing emeralds, Laken being removed from the case in favor of an inexperienced officer, a foxy man named Russell Tod, a barn, and the investigations of Kate Ardleigh and her new friend, a shy, animal-loving artist named Beatrix Potter. Another enjoyable cozy from the pen of Susan and Bill Albert under the name Robin Paige. I wonder if Albert got the idea of doing her Beatrix Potter mystery novels from this story.

• Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature, Linda Lear
If you have been a fan of Beatrix Potter's "little books," or have watched the film Miss Potter (which was, predictably, romanticized from the real tale) and wanted to know more about the little girl from Bolton Gardens who became a best-selling author, but who reached the happiest portion of her life when she moved permanently to the Lake District of England on her beloved farms. Lear's biography is comprehensive but eminently readable, a vivid portrayal of Potter's life and times. Besides the writing, illustration, and publishing of "the little books," her tragically short first engagement, and her later life with husband William Heelis, the book also talks about Potter's little-known involvement with the investigation and illustration of fungi, and her tireless efforts to preserve the farmland of the Lake District from turning into communities of cheaply-built vacation homes. A very enjoyable read, even if you haven't touched a "Peter Rabbit book" in over 40 years!

• Mr. Monk Goes to Germany, Lee Goldberg
When his psychiatrist goes to Germany for a conference, Adrian Monk falls apart. He finally decides to follow Dr. Kroger to Europe, with a not exactly reluctant Natalie (who's still irritated at the doctor because of his effect on her Hawaiian vacation—see Mr. Monk Goes to Hawaii). They arrive in the fairy-tale village of Rohr, where, of course, they almost immediately stumble upon a murder. This is an amusing book, although the identity of the initial murderer is no surprise. There was one plot convention involving the local police force that has been used a couple of times before and is...well, getting a little old. On the other hand, Natalie's "revenge" was a hoot. Much fun if you are a Monk fan.

• Franklin & Lucy, Joseph E. Persico
I have been wanting this book since its appearance in hardcover and it did not disappoint, although there are some factual errors that have been documented in the Amazon.com reviews, so I will not repeat. While the title is Franklin & Lucy and chronicles Franklin Roosevelt's lifelong love for Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, it is also about all the other women in his life, from his betrayed wife Eleanor, whom nevertheless formed a working partnership with him, to secretary Missy LeHand, who not only served at his secretary, but who was his hostess and accompanied Roosevelt everywhere, to his strong-minded mother Sara, as well as touching on ladies like Dorothy Schiff, Princess Martha of Norway, and his cousins "Daisy" Suckley and Polly Delano. Although I have many books about the Roosevelts, this one still provided facts I did not know: for instance, I had no idea that Lucy Mercer worked in the Navy Department for Roosevelt after being fired as Eleanor's social secretary. Persico also talks more in this book about Franklin Roosevelt's health than in any other biography I have read, except for Hugh Gallagher's FDR's Splendid Deception.

• Clover Twig and the Magical Cottage, Kate Umansky
This was a delightful book to read, as the humor harkens back to my childhood: a smidge of Mary Poppins, a bit of The Phantom Tollbooth, akin to the "Freddy" books. Add touches from more modern books as in Lynn Britney's Christine Kringle and the humor from the Harry Potter novels and it might come out like this tale of practical Clover, the eldest (almost eleven) in an impoverished family (lots of siblings and a woodcutter dad who hangs out more at the local tavern), who takes a job cleaning house for Mrs. Demelza Eckle, the local witch, who lives in a ramshackle cottage with a talking gate, a mysterious locked cupboard, and her large black cat, Neville. Clover manages to keep her head, even through encounters with a clumsy boy named Wilf--and the vengeful plans of Mrs. Eckle's vengeful, fashion-conscious sister. The text is peppered with "squiggly" illustrations that remind one again of Tollbooth. Much enjoyed...but with the I-Pod/netbook/Barbie crowd, is there still a market for nostalgic tales such as these? I hope so, as they would be missing a treat.

• Death at Daisy's Folly, Robin Paige
Kate Ardleigh, late of America and now living in England in a house she inherited from a cousin, is invited to a weekend party at the home of Frances "Daisy" Brooke, Countess of Warwick, but more well-known for being the mistress of the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VI. Kate is uncomfortable when she discovers Sir Charles Sheridan will be there, since she is certain Charles loves her and she does him—but what would his family think of his marrying an American, who is even more scandalously a mystery writer? In the meantime Sheridan has found out his brother is dying and he will inherit the family estate: would Kate want to live with the stultifying routine of being wife to a titled lord?

Then a stableboy dies, and since the Prince does not want a scandal, he asks Charles to look into the affair. When Kate is enlisted to help, she finds out what lurks behind the seemingly effortless gayity of the upper class: personal secrets, hidden history, jealousies and hatred...and the possibilities of another death.

These are great period cozies that I took a while to get into. Each, except for the first, contains a "kiss with history," as Quantum Leap used to call it, with the story involving 19th and early 20th century personas like "Bertie," Daisy, Beatrix Potter, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, etc.

• Death at Devil's Bridge, Robin Paige
Sir Charles Sheridan and Kathryn Ardleigh, late of New York and now of Bishop's Keep in the English countryside, are now newlyweds, having been married quietly before Sir Charles' mother could be horrified by the prospect of having an Irish-American as a daughter-in-law, and are living at Bishop's Keep, where they have been persuaded to hold an automobile meet and balloon ascension on their estate in conjunction with the village fête. But there are dark feelings surrounding the affair: the villagers think one of the motorcars was responsible for the death of an elderly neighbor, the drivers and backers involved in the auto meet are at each other's throats, and the local squire is incensed when Kate Sheridan's young friend Patsy Marsden is paying so much attention to rakish Charles Rolls.

This edition has some fascinating facts about the early days of motoring, when it was a dirty, dangerous, and precarious business, mixed well with the cozy setting of Bishops Green and its servants, who are frequently more interesting than the two leads. Recommended for cozy fans.

31 May 2009

Books Finished Since May 1

• St. Nicholas, 1898, Volume 1, November 1897-April 1898
Some good articles that explain how people lived back then, including "The Quick Horse," a nonfiction story about fire horses, trained to be quick to respond rather than speedy; "The Christmas Ship" (fiction about two girls aboard a whaling ship at Christmas time and how a tree and gifts are managed for them), and "The Story of the Wheel" (which is a history of the bicycle, "wheel" being the 19th century moniker for bicycles). Because of my ancestry, I also found "Bell-Towers of Italy" quite good, and here found the original of "Cousin Jane's Mistake," a story of exchanged gifts to two girls accidentally exchanged by an elderly relative to two girls. This is very reminiscent of the later "Fir Tree Cousins," and I believe was also reprinted in one of the Joe Wheeler Christmas in My Heart books.

Some enjoyable serials in this sequence: the adventures of nine boys through the seasons in "The Lakerim Athletic Club," with fellows with nicknames like "Quiz" and "History," plus two battling red-headed twin brothers; "With the Black Prince," about the English, Welsh, Scots and Irish serving with Edward the Black Prince, one of the innumerable medieval stories that were popular back then, the first half of the very long "Two Biddicut Boys," the adventures of two country boys named Quint and Cliff, on the trail of the unscrupulous "gentleman" named Winslow, who sold them a trick dog named "Sparkler," who has been trained to break away and return to his master to be sold again (apparently considered one of the great serials in the annals of St. Nicholas, enough for Henry Steele Commanger to reprint it in one of his anthologies about the magazine); the very beginning of that little girl's delight "Denise and Ned Toodles," concerning a wealthy child who is given a beloved black pony she names Ned Toodles and of their marvelous playhouse, and lastly the fantasy story "Through the Earth," a surprising effort that uses scientific principles known at the time to propel a car, with a young man who volunteered, through the earth from Australia to New York. Fascinating.

• Harlan Ellison's Watching, Harlan Ellison
Harlan would probably hate me. I like things he considers childish or idiotic, enjoy movies he despises for their stupidity, don't agree with some of his world views, not to mention his attitude to Christmas cards and cats. :-) But I enjoy Harlan's essays. They are wonderful rants that contain, even with things I disagree on, truths. He is infuriating, insightful, obscene, thoughtful, egotistical, enlightening, enraging. Most of all I admire his language: whether in tirade or review or a look behind the scenes, he uses the vocabulary of an adult (and I'm not referring to his penchant for the obscene or scatological). He assumes his readers have a brain hiding behind the face they show to the world.

Ostensibly these are essays about the art of the movies. Be prepared for tangents. Lots of tangents, in a cascade of words.

Not to mention anyone who dislikes Robocop is all right with me. :-)

(As a sequel to his Glass Teat duology, I would love to read Harlan's take on modern television: American Idol and the rest of the crowd, today's dramas/comedies, things like Jon and Kate Plus 8—although I have a feeling the vocabulary would...well, be a tad explosive...LOL.)

• Gaby and the New Money Fraud, Paul Berna
This is actually the third book in the series (the British copyright is listed as 1971, but the book was actually published in 1961) and follows immediately before Mystery of Saint-Salgue. It is four years after the events of Horse Without a Head/Street Musician. Gaby and Zidore's schooldays have ended and both are at work, but the gang is still fast friends (well, with some conflicts, as the story proves). Since Gaby is of driving age, they decide buy a large used car that they all can travel in. As Marion and the other kids struggle to provide additional money and Gaby studies for his driver's license, an unlikely vehicle presents itself, as well as a way to earn money.

Once again the ingenious gang of ten has found a way to accidentally get involved in skullduggery, and once again Marion's smarts are called into play, and her dogs become involved. Despite their aging, the Gang of Ten are as entertaining as ever, and the story is very reminiscent of Horse at one point. It also sets up the events in Saint-Salgue nicely, not only with the acquisition of the van, but hinting of Fernand's secrecy with their holiday destination.

(I did note a "mistake" in the English translation, due to the fact that it wasn't published in GB until 1971...it states Gaby's birth year as 1952. It's actually 1942, since the book takes place ten years earlier.)

• The Mysterious Benedict Society, Trenton Lee Stewart
At the urging of his tutor, an orphan named Reynie responds to a newspaper ad asking "Are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?" The odd test he takes is only the beginning, for then he meets other children he will shortly be involved with: "Sticky" Washington, a timid boy with a photographic memory; Kate Wetherall, bright, optimistic, and acrobatic; and tiny Constance Contraire, stubborn, annoying, and always sleepy, not to mention the mysterious Mr. Benedict of the title.

As it works in these novels (like Fardell's gang in 7 Professors and sequels, the Pevensie kids of Narnia fame, Kiki Strike and her compatriots, even Harry/Ron/Hermione, etc.), the four children are the only ones who can thwart the sinister doings at an island-bound school. I found this tough going at the beginning because, while the children all have unique qualities—Sticky's knowledge, Reynie's problem-solving skills, Kate's ingenious McGyver-like talents, and Constance's stubbornness—they aren't much more personalized than that, besides the fact Reynie, Sticky, and Kate all have loneliness issues. What kept me with this story was the sinister plot, which involved, in part, subliminal messages being telepathically transmitted via television so that the news shows are always broadcasting messages about an Emergency. And it struck me that this is already happening: there is always a crisis on the news today, even ordinary rainstorms and snow showers and windy weather is greeted with the outcry of "severe weather." I only wish this real-life stream of continuing crises could be thwarted by a real "Benedict Society"! Anyway, the plot is inventive and the kids do grow on you after awhile, even if their personalities are not fully realized.

• Night Watch, Stephen Kendrick
One of the last of the books I bought from the Dollar General spinner (they've replaced the spinner with more expensive books). Some of these turn out better than others. I have enjoyed Sherlock Holmes since I saw the film The Seven-Per-Cent Solution when it was released. I enjoy Holmes' pastiches as well. This one was...okay. On Christmas Day Holmes and Watson, at the request of Mycroft Holmes, are summoned to a church where a murder has taken place. The murder needs to stay under wraps because of the nature of a meeting between religious leaders taking place at the church. One of the religious figures there is a very young priest named Father Brown (as in the Chesterton character). The murder involves some complicated moments, but it doesn't ever quite gel as a Holmes story (I can't speak for the Brown portion, as I have not read any Father Brown). In addition, there were typographic vagaries that drove me crazy, hyphenated words in the middle of lines. Its obvious that this was written on a word processor that puts in hyphenation and then no one proofread the manuscript to take out the unneeded ones. Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy.

• Christmas Sucks, Joanne Kimes
Sometimes when you get a bargain book you luck out. And then there's this book. I don't mind unorthodox Christmas humor—I Saw Mommy Kicking Santa Claus was very funny—but a humor book about getting what you want out of Christmas rather than falling for the buying/expectation traps shouldn't be considered funny just because she uses a bunch of swear words and insulting humor. Not worth anyone's time unless you like this type of humor.

• Far Traveler, Rebecca Tingle
This was a nice bargain book acquisition, a young-adult novel about a 10th century teenage girl. Ælfwyn is the shy, studious daughter of a former woman warrior who is the sister of King Edward of Wessex. When her mother dies of a fever she is faced with the choice of marrying an older man in an act that will bind his kingdom to her uncle's or she can be cloistered in an abbey. Hating either option, Ælfwyn flees on her mother's last gift, a warhorse named Winter she can barely ride, and poses as a scop (storyteller) to make her living. But the reader of stories finds it harder to tell them, and then she becomes embroiled with men hoping to overthrow her uncle. I found this a page-turner of a story and found the characters enjoyable.

• American Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA, Nick Taylor
My parents were teenagers and then adults during the Depression and I grew up on their stories, plus I lived in a city where many of the bridges and roads were of WPA vintage, so I enjoyed this sprawling volume that begins in 1932 as the Depression reaches its ultimate depth and ends in 1943 when it dissolves during the heated days of World War II. In between lie the politics, the machinations, the accusations of laziness and Communist infiltration, the edifices and the works of the Works Progress (later Works Projects) Administration. My favorite parts of this book are when the author concentrates on one person or one project within the whole, whether it is the Timberline Lodge in Oregon or LaGuardia Airport in New York, a packhorse librarian or an African-American writer, the Federal Theatre Project in which Orson Welles and John Housman mount a modern-day Haiti-set version of Macbeth or hot lunches for children. It is also a portrait of Harry Hopkins, the man who was in charge of the WPA for most of its life. This is crammed with information, but even at its most political is never dry. Highly recommended for American history buffs!

• Revolution at the Table, Harvey Lowenstein
As the century came to a close, Americans were found to be eating unhealthy diets full of fats, with few vegetables in evidence. Not the 20th century, the 19th. Lowenstein has created a very readable sociological study of the eating habits of Americans from 1880, when fried foods for breakfast and meat three times a day was the norm, through the 1930s. On the way, food fads such as Kelloggs' cereal diets are touched upon, plus the actual weaning of Americans away from good food like whole grain breads to processed foods like white bread and bleached flour with the help of the government, formula feeding of babies over breastfeeding, the discovery of how different foods fueled the body and then of "vitamines" that changed eating habits, schools of cookery designed to lure ethnic families away from their own diets and onto "real American food," and more interesting facts about how the American diet changed in only fifty years.

• Death at Bishop's Keep, Robin Paige
Mystery writer Susan Wittig Albert and her husband collaborate on this first of their "Victorian mysteries." Spirited, orphaned, half-Irish/half-English Kathryn Ardleigh, who secretly writes sensational fiction under a pseudonym to keep the wolf from the door, is summoned to England by an aunt she didn't know she had to work as a secretary and translator for confidential papers of a secret society her aunt belongs to. Upon arriving in England, Kate makes friends with Eleanor Marston, her brother Bradford, and Bradford's friend, Sir Charles Sheridan, amateur photographer, who has recently taken some photos of a mysterious body found at an archeological dig. Kate is welcomed to her job by her pleasant Aunt Sabrina, but must put up with not only her unpleasant Aunt Beatrice Jaggers, who also lives at the family estate of Bishop's Keep, but an undercurrent of rebellion going on with the servants due to "Aunt Jaggers" iron regime, and soon becomes embroiled with the mystery of the body, the secret society her aunt belongs to...and with Sir Charles, who is struck by her independence and intelligence. This is the first of a series of "cozies" with the usual unconventional heroine, but it's a really fun read and the characters are appealling, from the highborn Marstons to the Bishop's Keep servants and ingenious Kate and Charles themselves. Recommended for cozy fans.

• Paradox of Plenty, Harvey Lowenstein
Lowenstein continues his examination of American diet habits from the Depression to the organic food revolution of the 1980s. In the process he examines exactly how many of the malnourished "ill-fed" in the Depression were truly suffering from malnutrition, how proposed food rationing caused hoarding in World War II, how the American public came to mistrust the government that was supposed to be protecting their nutritional interests, how the processed food that was supposed to be wonderful for us turned out not to be, how vitamin supplements and women's constant dieting came to the fore, and the rise and fall of restaurant cuisine, critics, and chefs. Like his previous book, this is immensely readable and a fascinating overview of the American diet.

• "Just a Housewife": The Rise & Fall of Domesticity in America, Glenna Matthews
In 1850, women were the moral and domestic center of the home. Men went out and made the money, but it was the housewife who made life comfortable for all, who nourished and neatened, and "civilized," as Huck Finn put it, both the men and the children. In literature she was second only to God. By 1950 the housewife was being reviled as a do-nothing bitch who passed her days in idleness, shopping and eating orgies, and nagging. What happened in between? Matthews describes how the rise of labor-saving equipment, processed and prepared foods, and other modern inventions to take the drudgery away from the housewife also took away the respect she had previously garnered. This tied in quite nicely with the Lowenstein books, as there are several chapters on prepared and processed foods and how they changed the American palate. Some great insights on the domestic writers of the day (and their writings), including Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the author of the creepy short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" (which illustrates what happens when a woman takes the "rest cure" so prescribed in those days) and Marion Harland, the mother of Albert Payson Terhune.

• The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Alan Bradley
"Buckshaw had been the home of...the de Luces[,] since time out of mind." Living there in 1950 are widower Colonel de Luce, avid stamp collector and World War II veteran, and his three daughters, Ophelia, seventeen, a typical teenager; Daphne, thirteen, a bookworm; and the eleven-year-old, Flavia...wise beyond her years and enamored of chemistry—especially poisons. It is Flavia who find the dead body in the garden, after witnessing her father react to a dead bird on the back doorstep, a snipe with a stamp stuck on its beak, and an argument between him and a stranger. It is Flavia who sets out on her trusty bicycle "Gladys" to the local library and the hostelry and other places to solve the mystery of the man in the garden, and who gets into more trouble than she ever bargained for.

Flavia is simply delightful, although I must confess that after a while I got tired of her similes! If Wednesday Addams had a best friend, it would probably be Flavia de Luce (who would also be a perfect candidate for Ronald Searle's St. Trinian's school). She is diabolical, clever, humorous and even tender at times, but always worth following, along with her slightly dysfunctional family; unpredictable Dogger, now a groundskeeper but once a soldier who served with her father; police Inspector Hewitt and his assistants; and the inhabitants of the small English town of Bishop's Lacey. This description does no justice to the book. If you enjoy precocious, but never precious, children, English towns, and offbeat mysteries, this one is for you.