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.