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.