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.