30 April 2009

Books Finished Since April 1

The sort of thing you think of at 1 a.m. when you're still not asleep yet: I've changed the title of these posts since the old one wasn't accurate. Many books I've listed were finished in a certain month, but half or more was read in the previous month—or sometimes even earlier, so it wasn't exactly accurate to say they were read in a certain month...yes, definitely one of those things you think of at 1 a.m. when you can't sleep...LOL...

• Kiki Strike: The Empress's Tomb, Kirsten Miller
The improbable, intrepid and ingenious Irregulars are back...and there's trouble brewing: Ananka's been on so many midnight forays that her grades are suffering and her parents are threatening to send her to a farm-style boarding school. In the meantime, Oona's deepest secret has been revealed and now the girls—except for Kiki—are eyeing her warily, wondering if she's about to turn traitor. Into the mix is a find in the Shadow City, trafficking in slaves, giant squirrels running amok in the city, and the tomb of a Chinese empress who is believed to have been poisoned as a traitor. Can the Irregulars triumph? Can Ananka escape her fate—and help misfit Molly at her school at the same time? Like the first Kiki Strike book, this is a fast, funny, page-turner of an adventure. Miller is very convincing in showing Oona's schism within the group, to the point that it becomes truly worrisome. Secretive Betty also becomes more fully realized. In addition, Miller takes some pointed, not-at-all-subtle pokes at overachieving parents who push their children to be what they are not. Highly recommended.

• Main Street: Keeping Secrets, Ann M. Martin
In this next volume in the "Main Street" series, the best friends quartet of sisters Flora and Ruby, plus Olivia and Nikki, are excited to find out that the new family in the Row Houses contains a girl their age. Willow seems friendly and smart, but what's with her odd mom? And why won't she ever invite them over? Along with the fun of preparing for Hallowe'en as well as a dog parade, Martin also sensitively touches on mental illness. The ongoing mystery involving Flora and Ruby's Aunt Allie remains to be solved, so stay tuned for the next installment.

• Small Favor, Jim Butcher
Harry Dresden still owes faery Queen Mab a favor...and the favor she wants him to do is hunt down "Gentleman Johnny" Marcone, a mobster that Harry has tangled with before. He's been kidnapped and exposed to the possessed coins of the Denarians. But someone else doesn't want Marcone found and sends an increasingly large—and violent—gruff (a supernatural goat; think "three billy goats gruff") on Harry's trail.

I enjoyed this book, but it almost takes your breath away, going from one bit of action to the next. The number of players in the game—Harry's allies, Harry's enemies, other characters from previous books—are so many that it's hard to keep up with all of them. At least for once Harry seems to have gotten a happy ending, but I expect it to be a brief respite. It always is.

• A Tangled Web, Kathryn Reiss
This is the last of the new set of American Girls mysteries, featuring Julie and a new girl in school who isn't exactly what she seems to be. Clues are planted so blatantly that a lot of the "mystery" is given away. There are some touching sequences involving Vietnam veterans, however, and Thanksgiving preparations that help the story along.

• Tell Me Where It Hurts, Dr. Nick Trout
I was looking forward to this book being in paperback, as I have collected books about veterinarians' experiences ever since I read James Herriot's books years ago. But now that I've finished with it, it's been consigned to the donate pile. I wasn't totally disappointed with it like I was with the uneven narrative of Best Friends, nor did I mind Trout's insertions of veterinarian realities between the animal stories, but after a while I got tired of his little fantasies about what he should have said or should have done. Once or twice wouldn't have been bad, but these often snarky comments dot the text like one too many horseflies. I would have preferred more animal experiences to Dr. Nick's litany of what he should have said.

• Eleanor Vs. Ike, Robin Gerber
Could a woman have won the Presidency in 1952? That's the premise of this interesting alternative history novel where Adlai Stevenson has a heart attack at the Democratic National Convention and the best candidate left is Eleanor Roosevelt (with Sam Rayburn as her running mate). Gerber does a great job of recreating 1950s politics (there are almost too many explanations of who these people are, I'm sure intended for modern readers who have minimal knowledge of the real 1950s, rather than the Happy Days view of the era), and I found the subsequent campaigns and characters believable. My only two pauses: a silly "kiss with history" where Eleanor is introduced to a little girl named Hillary Rodham and a piece of narrative on the convention floor when "paramedics" go to Stevenson's side. The "paramedic" did not exist in the 1950s and it brings the narrative back to the present with a thump. Otherwise this is recommended.

• The Street Musician, Paul Berna
In the first of three sequels to Berna's Horse Without a Head, taking place mere months after the events of that novel, Gaby's gang of ten are looking for something to do now that clumsy Tatave has wrecked the headless horse for good. Marion ("the girl with the dogs") suggests that they keep an eye on the townsfolk of Louvigny and perhaps a mystery will surface. Soon Fernand is wondering what's going on at a local trucking firm co-owned by two English brothers. And when Marion gives a dog away, supposedly to a disabled man, why does the animal surface some time later, dyed solid black and accompanying a blind street musician who picks a different street each day to ply his talent, even those areas unprofitable to him?

Although all the children—Gaby, Fernand, Marion, Zidore, Tatave, Criquet, Juan, Berthe, Melie, and little Bonbon—have their share in the adventures, it's very obvious that Marion in Berna's favorite, and she gets the lion's share of the action. This is an unusual of mystery and turns out quite differently from the first cops-and-robbers type action of the original story. I'm glad I discovered there were sequels and was able to follow up with this group of children!

• The New York Public Library Book of Popular Americana, Tad Tuljea
Yep, it's a reference book, but I read it. Found mistakes in it, too. :-)

• The Mystery of Saint-Salgue, Paul Berna
In the  third  (see May 6 entry) fourth story of Gaby's gang of ten, several years have passed. Gaby is now old enough to drive and he and the other children have pitched in to buy a 1930s vintage Citroen van, which they are taking on a three-weeks camping trip to the Riviera (if rickety old "Calamity Jane" lasts that long!)—along with eleven of Marion's dogs! Their first night of camping, they run into an older Canadian couple, Charley and Betty, who are from a village in Manitoba called "Saint-Salgue" and who are heading for the village of the same name in France. The moment they speak to the Canadians, the children are followed, accused of theft, have "Calamity Jane" vandalized, and are set on by the police. Puzzled, but perceptive as always, they realize it all has something to do with the mysterious "Saint-Salgue," especially after they discover Fernand has been keeping a secret from them. While two of Marion's dogs are prominent in the story, the tale belongs largely to Zidore, who keeps the van running and the troupe on an even keel. Again, another offbeat and fascinating story from Berna.

• St. Nicholas, Volume 19, Part 1, November 1891-April 1892
I haven't finished a St. Nicholas volume in a while, and this one was quite good. I was most absorbed in following the fortunes of "Tom Paulding," a boy who is searching for for Revolutionary treasure to help his widowed mother and young sister, which has a fascinating look at the development of upper Manhattan, a spot which, at that time, was being turned from farmland into urban area. A second, tamer, serial is "Two Girls and a Boy," concerning a well-bred child named Mildred who becomes friends with rather wild siblings Leslie and Charles. There is one quite funny story about a little boy who arranges a "Bull Fight" with his aggressive pet rabbit standing in for the bull, and some true life stories about "Electric Lights at Sea," penguins, and "Russian Children in the Ural Mountains." Less interesting is an Alice's Adventures in Wonderland knockoff called "The Admiral's Caravan" in which a little girl named Dorothy slips into a fantasy world where, like in Alice, all sorts of improbable things happen and the characters take idioms seriously (these types of stories were quite common then).

A study in opposites come from "Strange Corners of Our Country," which, although spattered with the usual bigotry twaddle of that time—"savages," "queer customs," "dirty homes," etc.—is a fascinating portrait of parts of the country over 100 years ago, including customs of Native American tribes, including an account of a real "snake dance" rather than a movie gussied-up ceremony. Presented in the same volume is "Tee-Wahn folk stories," Native American folk tales, which are presented in a respectful manner, including the story of the revenge of the fawns (on the wolves who killed their parents) and the tale of the man who married the moon.

Lastly is Laura E. Richards' leisurely memoir of her childhood, narrating the plays and travels of her family. I have read several of Richards' stories, including Captain January, about a little girl who lives at a lighthouse, most famously turned into a Shirley Temple film, and the books in her "Three Margarets" series, but I did not realize who she was until getting about halfway through her memoir to discover her father was Samuel Gridley Howe, founder of the Perkins Institute of the Blind in Boston (Laura Bridgeman, the deaf-and-blind girl who served as an inspiration for Helen Keller, was trained to communicate by Howe, and was named after Laura Richards) and her mother was Julia Ward Howe, who wrote the words to "Battle Hymn of the Republic."

Even if you don't know Captain January or the "Three Margarets" series, you may be familiar with Richards from the following, delightful nonsense verse which I remember reading in school:

Once there was an elephant,
Who tried to use the telephant--
No! no! I mean an elephone
Who tried to use the telephone--
(Dear me! I am not certain quite
That even now I've got it right.)
Howe'er it was, he got his trunk
Entangled in the telephunk;
The more he tried to get it free,
The louder buzzed the telephee--
(I fear I'd better drop the song
Of elephop and telephong!)
• Rick Steves' Europe Through the Back Door 2008
A companion book to the Rick Steves' Europe series that shows mainly on PBS stations. Steves encourages "back door" travel—not going to high-priced hotels and seeing only the regulation sites, or moping on the beach, but staying at smaller places, eating local food, and interacting with the folks of whatever area you are visiting. He makes it sound all deliciously wonderful to live out of a backpack for two weeks, tramp old marketplaces and bicycle through the countryside, sleep at hostels and agratourismas—which, probably, it is. There are also tips on best times of the year to travel, how to pack, the best time for visiting popular attractions, and even little sidebars about unusual places to visit: the countryside of Turkey, locations with Holocaust memorials, the former Eastern Bloc countries. As much fun to read as the television show is to watch. If you don't like Steves' television series or can't stand his puns, YMMV!

• Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong, James W. Loewen
Loewen crosses the United States from west to east, reporting on inaccuracies in historical markers, whether they glorify people who were not what the marker claimed, or inaccurately describe an historic event which took place on the site, or do not mention significant historic events that took place on a site, instead perhaps concentrating on room furnishings, narrowly-described ways of life, and other insignificant details. It makes for absorbing reading (I did spot at least one mistake), but I'm sure it raises controversies as well.

About two-thirds of the way through the book I was impressed; he was getting through his text without mentioning Gone With the Wind. Alas, I thought too soon...

1 comment:

Starnarcosis said...

I found your site while googling "Junior Classics"! which I still love also at age 50. What eclectic and wonderful taste you have.