31 December 2010

Books Finished Since December 1


No, plenty, but they've all been reviewed in Holiday Harbour under the "Christmas Book Review" banner.

I did finish one book, however, which was not Christmas-themed:

book icon  The Camp Fire Girls' Larks and Pranks, Hildegard G. Frey
I discovered e-books back in the day of my PDA, reading in Microsoft Lit format and getting the books from BlackMask.com, now Munseys.com. This site contains books that are in the public domain, including those wonderful kids' series books originally published by Saalfield, Altemus, and other extinct publishers. These are even older than Nancy Drew vintage; some, like the Rover Boys, go back to the 19th century.

This particular series was written between 1914 and 1920 and centers on a group of Camp Fire girls and their "Guardian." Today Camp Fire is for both sexes; I don't think they even wear the cute little uniforms and beanies the Camp Fire Girls wore in the 1960s. Frey's prose is livelier than many of the didactic series of those day, and all her girls are memorable: Migwan (Elsie Gardiner) the writer of the group, Sahwah (Sarah Brewster) the champion swimmmer and prankster, Hinpoha (Dorothy Bradford) the plump redhead, and more. Incidentally, these are not what you think of as "girls": the youngest of them is fifteen, and by the end of the ten-book series even college-age Migwan, Hinpoha, and Sahwah still go to camp. Parents in those days hoped their daughters would remain innocent until they were ready to be married and go out in the world.

So although in this volume, about midway through the series, the girls make the acquaintance of a group of boys who call themselves "The Sandwich Club," there is no snogging, clandestine meetings, and raging hormones: we know the Captain (real name Cicero St. John) likes Hinpoha, but it's all very innocent. This is a pivotal book in the series as we meet at least one character who will figure in the rest of the series, Katherine Adams, a tall, awkward young woman of careless dress and Southern origins but friendly and talented, who is visiting the Girls' home town in order to attend high school. We are also introduced to the Sandwich Club; Veronica Lehar, an Austrian girl who has lost her family in the Great War and who is snobbish to the girls until she finds out what good friends they are; and also to a trick donkey the kids name Sandhelo ("Sandwich" and "Wohelo," the countersign of the Camp Fire Girls—WOrk, HEalth, LOve—melded together).

As always in these old books, subtle racism and ethnicism raise their heads. In this outing the girls try to help the poor folks in an area of town known for its Polish and Slavic citizens, but are thwarted in their efforts to help by the "superstitious" townsfolk. The young folk in these novels are so nice it's hard to see them today marred by this silly bigotry. Otherwise it's a fun narrative of how kids used to make their own fun rather than depending on electronic toys.

Favorite Books of 2010

Trying to keep it down to a baker's dozen this year was hard:

book icon  Appetite for America: Fred Harvey Civilizing the West—One City at a Time, Stephen Fried (History of the civilizing influence in the American West from the POV of the Fred Harvey Houses—Amazon Vine offering)
book icon  The Mapping of Love and Death, Jacqueline Winspear (The newest Maisie Dobbs mystery, with major changes to Maisie's life—Borders purchase)
book icon  The Boneshaker, Kate Milford (Super "steampunk" young adult novel—Amazon Vine selection)
book icon  Hello, Everybody!: The Dawn of American Radio, Anthony Rudel (Before the Golden Age; a technology remarkably like the Internet—Amazon Marketplace purchase)
book icon  Victorian London: The Tale of a City 1840-1870, Liza Picard (Overview of the Victorian era from poor to wealthy, cellar to attic—Borders purchase)
book icon  American History Revised: 200 Startling Facts That Never made It Into the Textbooks, Seymour Morris Jr. (Book that is hard not to read aloud to others—Borders purchase)
book icon  Nick of Time, Ted Bell (Topping adventure novel about a Channel Islands boy and Nazi invaders, not to mention pirates—Borders purchase)
book icon  The Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Epic Story of the Map That Gave America Its Name, Toby Lester (A history of European exploration as told through maps—Borders bargain book purchase)
book icon  The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, Jacqueline Kelly (A Victorian child learns about the natural world—Borders purchase)
book icon  An Expert in Murder, Nicola Upson (A 1930s set mystery written in spot-on 1930s English murder mystery fashion—Borders purchase)
book icon  Confessions of a Prairie Bitch, Alison Arngrim (The girl who made Nellie Oleson famous tells her story—library book)
book icon  At Home, Bill Bryson (The history of the home as told through its rooms—Amazon Vine offering)
book icon  The Writer's Tale: The Final Chapter, Russell T. Davies and Benjamin Cook (The making of the new series of Dr. Who—Amazon purchase)

Honorable mentions:
book icon  Crazy Good: The True Story of Dan Patch, the Most Famous Horse in America, Charles Leerhsen (Lyrical language and the famous trotting horse—Borders purchase)
book icon  In Spite of Myself, Christopher Plummer (Plummer's wordy but fascinating memoir—Borders bargain table)
book icon  Postcards from Europe, Rick Steves (Memorable trips and Rick's story of his first travels—used bookstore purchase)

Five fiction novels, the rest nonfiction; three of the five are young adult books, the other two are mysteries, seven of the nonfiction are historical (one is actually a social history) and there are two biographies, a travel book, and a media book.

Plus I want to give a shout-out to Christopher Fowler's Bryant and May mystery series, starting with Full Dark House...humor and mystery well mixed!

06 December 2010

A Curiosity

I have found a...curiosity.

Classic live-action Disney fans will certainly remember 1948's So Dear to My Heart, the story of a country lad and his mischievous pet lamb, starring Bobby Driscoll and veterans Beulah Bondi as Granny and Burl Ives as Hiram. (This is the film where Ives sings one of his big hits, the Oscar nominated "Lavender Blue.") The source material for this has always been noted as the Sterling North book Midnight and Jeremiah.

Somewhere in my early teens (and I can date that by the price on the paperback book, which was 95 cents), I found a copy of the book version of So Dear to My Heart, with a copyright date of 1947. I figured when the book was reprinted, the name of the book was changed to that of the movie, and the name of the lamb from Midnight to Danny, just as the publishers of Rose Wilder Lane's Let the Hurricane Roar! changed its name to Young Pioneers after the television movie it was based on, and changed the names of the protagonists from "Charles and Caroline" to "David and Molly" to avoid conflicts with the Little House on the Prairie television series.

Well, I have come upon a copy of the original Midnight and Jeremiah in a used bookstore, copyright 1943. To my surprise, it is more of a children's book than what I though the "original" was, with pictures on every page by famed illustrator Kurt Wiese. The characters and the basic story are all familiar, but at the same time markedly different, and although I haven't read it yet, it looks like the story ends at Christmas.

It almost looks like North either rewrote the book for adults previous to the film's release, or based the rewritten book on the screenplay for the Disney film. It would be interesting to know the story behind the two volumes.

(Later: The book From Walt To Woodstock: How Walt Disney Created The Counterculture states that the Dan Patch sequence was added to the film by Walt, who, like Jerry, got to meet the famous trotting horse Dan Patch when the horse's train was stopped in Marceline, MO, where Walt spent the happiest days of his childhood. So the renaming of the lamb and the sequence was Disney's, not North's, lending further credence to the book being a novelization of the film.)

Cover picture link)

30 November 2010

Books Finished Since November 1

book icon  Good Old Dog: Expert Advice for Keeping Your Aging Dog Happy, Healthy, and Comfortable, ed. by Nicholas H. Dodman BVMS
Since our dog has passed her twelfth birthday, I thought this book would provide some good information on what we can expect in her old age, and I was not disappointed. As the title suggests, each aspect of your dog's aging process and how to cope with is covered: tooth care, feeding (did you know that some "senior" foods for your increasingly sedentary dog are actually more fattening, causing him/her to gain weight?), joint problems, exercise, illnesses due to aging (heart failure, incontinence, loss of appetite, etc.), cancer and other surgical problems, hearing and sight, and more. Also discussed is how to make more difficult decisions, like amputation and the possible inevitable euthanasia, as well as options if your budget does not cover an expensive procedure. The text is written in a simple, but not simplistic style, and the reader is encouraged to do his/her own research, with other books—and second opinions—recommended. An satisfactory overview.

book icon  Turn Coat, Jim Butcher
Warden Donald Morgan, who has never had much respect for "Chicago's only practicing wizard," Harry Dresden, now a Warden himself, abruptly shows up at Harry's doorstep, injured and needing protection from his fellow Wardens, who are hunting him down for murder. Harry's astonished as anyone, but formulates a plan to save him. He knows Morgan wouldn't murder someone...but who would? It must be an inside job.

In the meantime Harry senses something evil and utterly powerful shadowing him. Is it related to Morgan's crime?

I have to confess I've been reading Dresden since they began and after so many books I'm starting to forget who did what in which book and sometimes find following Butcher's now huge cast a bit daunting (so thanks to whomever did all those synopses on Wikipedia!). But this outing offers a taut murder mystery with fantasy and horror trappings, as always a page-turner. Once again Harry's world turns upside down at the end. If you are an urban fantasy fan, I would give Harry's adventures a try, but do start at the beginning (Storm Front)!

book icon  The Big Book of New England Curiosities, Susan Campbell & Bruce Gellerman
The one thing that puzzles me about this book (and there may be other state instances that I don't know about) is that the authors mention the Big Blue Bug ("Nibbles Woodaway"), but don't put it in the book because they say everyone knows about it. What was it gonna take, a page? I mean, how can you do a book of New England "curiosities" without Nibbles?

Anyway, this is just as the title says, a state-by-state collection of unusual, odd, or just plain strange places and things, from haunted properties to odd landmarks to peculiar attractions: a life-size chocolate moose in Maine, a statue of Samantha Stephens (where else, in Salem, MA), dinosaurs in Connecticut, Rudyard Kipling's American home (Vermont), and more. It's a liberally illustrated, brief, humorous, and a fun read.

book icon  The Sherlockian, Graham Moore
In 1893 Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes, determined never to write another Holmes story again. But in 1900, he brought him back in a "flashback novel," The Hound of the Baskervilles, and then resurrected him. Why bring Holmes back? Doyle was a consummate diarist and his journal from that year might tell the tale—but is missing.

In January of 2010, a guest at the annual meeting of the Baker Street Irregulars states he has found the missing diary and will reveal its contents. He's also extremely nervous and fears he's being followed. The newest member of the Irregulars, Harold White, a shy, slightly chubby, nearsighted man in his early twenties, can't believe his luck being admitted to the society just as this revelation will be made. Then the man is found murdered in his room, with Harold as one of the witnesses to the body's discovery, along with Sarah Lindsay, a journalist reporting on the Sherlockians. As Harold is drawn into investigating the crime, a parallel story is told in alternating chapters: of Arthur Conan Doyle's investigation into a true crime, with the help of his friend Abraham "Bram" Stoker. The two investigations keep pace with each other, leading both Harold and Arthur into territory they begin to wish they never had penetrated.

Even as you wonder how the two crimes 110 years apart may relate, Moore keeps both narratives going at a good clip. I found the Doyle mystery a bit more compelling than the White (Moore's Victorian London is quite vivid and often disturbing), although Harold, as much as he resembles a Sherlockian "Trekkie," comes across very well and gains confidence as the story progresses. I would recommend this story to any Sherlock Holmes fan, but admit it might not be of interest of anyone who is not a fan of the Great Detective.

book icon  All Clear, Connie Willis
This book and its first half, Blackout, are a veritable fountain of words, very Dickensian, and probably at least a quarter of them could have been cut. But this didn't keep me from turning page after page after page to follow the adventures of Polly Churchill, Merope Ward, Michael Davies, Mary Kent and her partner Paige Fairchild, Ernest and his partner Cess, the boarders at Mrs. Rickett's, Sir Geoffrey and his amateur thespians, Mr. Dunworthy, and Colin, not to mention the mischievous urchins Alf and Binnie, plus the others populating Willis' massive epic about 21st-century time travelers stranded in Blitz-era London.

As their hopes fade that their own "drops" will open to return them to 2060 Oxford, Polly, Merope, and Mike attempt to find fellow time-traveler Gerald Phipps, who has been assigned to Bletchley Park, without interfering with history, fearing, as more time passes, that not only is their time travel itself is the cause of the slippages that keep the drops from opening, but that they have changed history somehow, even perhaps causing the Nazis to claim victory. As Mike searches for Phipps, Polly's appearance in plays put on in the subway to raise morale leads her to a job as a chorus girl where she becomes wartime sweetheart "All Clear Adelaide" and Merope becomes more emotionally involved with the scamp Hodbin children. In the meantime, other time travelers in "future" World War II (1944 and 1945) are trying to avoid Hitler's V2 rockets and participating in the elaborate cover-up that diverted the Axis eyes from the Normandy landings.

Willis' vision of wartime England is so vivid that she may be slightly forgiven for the barrage (pun intended) of description, characters, and incidents that comprise All Clear. I thoroughly enjoyed it all, but be warned there are more than half-a-dozen time travel streams to contend with, and you won't understand a word of what's going on without having read the first half of the story, Blackout, first.

book icon  The Leopard's Prey, Suzanne Arruda
Photographer/travel writer Jade del Cameron, back with her friends Madeleine and Nevelle Thompson in British East Africa, comes much too close to a leopard as she helps men collect animals for zoos. Nor can she relax once she is done, because when she returns with the Thompsons to their coffee plantation, the dead body of a storekeeper with a bad reputation is found in their just-delivered coffee dryer. Inspector Finch appears to want to pin the crime on one of Jade's friends, especially her off-again, on-again love interest Sam Featherstone, since he had a violent argument with the man days earlier.

Jade, of course, can't help being involved in the mystery, especially when Sam is accused. Trouble is, there is no lack of suspects: the victim had an unsavory past, and not many people liked him. Were his business partners involved? Or one of his customers? And did a baby the Thompsons almost adopt figure into the crime? Jade faces danger from every angle in this outing, including in the air, a challenge she meets, as always, with bravery and aplomb. Note: pay attention to Sam's aerial report; it contains a vital clue.

book icon  The Water Room, Christopher Fowler
The Peculiar Crimes Unit is just about to re-open (after the explosion that occurred in Fowler's first PCU novel, Full Dark House) when Benjamin Singh, an old friend of senior detective Arthur Bryant's, asks if he will look into his sister's death. He found her sitting in a chair in her basement, dressed, dry, but with her mouth full of river water. Bryant, his longtime partner John May, and the rest of the team start asking questions in her tiny neighborhood, where more odd deaths occur.

In the meantime, a young woman has moved into Ruth Singh's old home as London suffers through endless deluges of rain following an unusually hot summer. Why does she keep hearing water when she goes down in her basement, and why do wet spots keep appearing on the walls even though they are dry to the touch? Who is the street person who keeps peering into her window?

You will likely learn more than you might have wanted to know about the watercourses of London's rivers and of its sewage system in the course of this book; however, the mixture of mystery, neighborhood characters, and the eccentric Peculiar Crimes Unit (and its most peculiar member, Arthur Bryant) make the information not only painless, but downright absorbing. Bryant is in fine form in this second PCU outing, and the combination of puzzle and humor is delightful.

book icon  Especially Spaniels, Gladys Taber
This is a short book Taber wrote in the 1940s about raising cocker spaniels. It's interesting reading, even today, due to the things that have changed, like advising giving aspirin to dogs, and the use of products that don't exist anymore. What hasn't changed is her practical outlook on raising dogs, the dangers of strangers spreading illness to dogs, the stories of her own animals, and the lovely pictures of her spaniels taken by her longtime friend Jill.

book icon  Seventy-Seven Clocks, Christopher Fowler
In this third installment of the Bryant and May mysteries, Arthur Bryant's interview for his memoirs take the reader on an expedition back to 1973, as the Peculiar Crimes Unit is moving into new digs and England is moving into the Common Market. Then the scion of an influential businessman walks into a museum and ruins a priceless painting; later he dies under mysterious and bizarre circumstances. An attorney staying at the Savoy hotel dies from the bite of a snake not native to England. As more improbably crimes pile up, Bryant and May attempt to unravel the mysteries as the newspapers jeer the police, and a young woman who discovered one of the bodies and who suffers from frightening nightmares is drawn into the case by her own design.

The mystery in this one is quite complex, to the point where it ends up being a bit improbable. Still, I love Fowler's descriptive language and the partnership and characters of Bryant and May.

book icon  The Attenbury Emeralds, Jill Paton Walsh
In this new mystery featuring Lord Peter Wimsey and his novelist wife Harriet Vane, Jill Paton Walsh is on her own; she has neither an unfinished manuscript as in Thrones, Dominations nor the framework of letters written by Dorothy Sayers as in A Presumption of Death. Instead she harks back to what was briefly referenced as Lord Peter's first case of detection, the matter of the Attenbury emeralds: after Peter tells Harriet the story of the mystery surrounding the jewels, the newest Lord Attenbury shows up on their doorstep, where they discover the emeralds are still causing conundrums—and deaths.

I think I enjoyed this story more than the previous two, although as always it is evident Walsh is not Sayers. Her Sayers "voice" is better in this outing, but perhaps she feels incapable of writing in the sort of detail that Sayers did, precise descriptions of people and settings, and sharp commentary on the situations surrounding her characters (or, perhaps, her publishers think that modern audiences are not interested in reading such details any longer, a sad commentary if that is true). Every once in a while, what I feel is a too-modern sounding word or phrase intrudes, and the first half of the book, where Peter and Bunter are telling the tale of the emeralds instead of Walsh showing what happened, was awkward to me. Perhaps Walsh didn't feel comfortable writing this prequel in flashback form knowing she could not write it with Sayers' style; more likely she wanted Harriet included in that part of the narrative.

This did not keep me from reading on to discover what the purpose of all the intrigue around the emeralds served, or to find out how Peter and Harriet meet a second challenge later in the book. I would recommend with the reservation that you keep in mind that this is Walsh and not Sayers, and do not expect the level of detail of the latter.

book icon  Death at Wentwater Court, Carola Dunn
The Honorable Daisy Dalrymple's family has fallen upon hard times. Her father has died, leaving the family title in other hands, and leaving her in thin financial straits. Her fiancee, along with her brother, perished in the Great War. But Daisy is a resourceful, emancipated girl of the newly minted "Roaring '20s." She gets a position writing for the noted magazine "Town and Country" and her first big story will be written about Lord Wentworth's ancestral home. But all is not well at Wentworth Court: elder son James is resentful and suspicious of his new, young stepmother; his sister Marjorie is shamelessly chasing a handsome guest of the family; and the aformentioned stepmother is wan and secretive.

The morning after Daisy's arrival, the handsome guest, Lord Stephen Astwick, is found floating in the skating pond. At first everyone thinks it is an accident, until one of Daisy's photographs for her article reveals otherwise.

This is a bright, light English cozy mystery. The characters, including Daisy and the Scotland Yard inspector, Alec Fletcher, are lightly sketched, with not much depth to them. However, the story has a nice 1920s flavor to it, with the contrast between aristocracy and commoners, traditional characters and the "flappers" and "fast gentlemen" of the time, with a nice ear for 1920s dialog and slang. Daisy is an engaging heroine, neither precocious nor dense. In short, don't expect an introspective, complicated whodunit, but it's all enjoyable nonetheless.

Also check out my blog Holiday Harbour for November 2010, for my reviews of the Christmas and other holiday books I have read.

31 October 2010

Books Finished Since October 1

book icon  Fannie's Last Supper, Christopher Kimball
I hate to cook, but there's nothing better that I like than to read Christopher Kimball's column in each issue of Cooks Illustrated. His articles about Vermont put me in mind of Gladys Taber.

In this book, Kimball has brought his desire to cook a 12-course dinner from the original Fannie Farmer cookbook alive. We follow Kimball and his assistants as they plan the meal and attempt—as closely as possible—to cook it in period style. Of course (if you're familiar with Cooks you know they always change recipes to improve flavor) Kimball and the Cooks folks play with the recipes and actually reject some of them for not being all that tasty. This has apparently disturbed some of the folks who read this book, and it is a bit ironic that Kimball wrote a book about cooking alà Farmer and then did not go precisely by her recipes, but instead used better-tasting ones from other chefs. But since I have no interest in the actual cooking part and just read this for the historical perspective on cooking, I quite enjoyed the entire narrative. The revelations about cooking over the wood stove were especially "eye-opening." I knew they made the kitchen hot, but I never imagined things melted!

Warning: the chapter about the calves' brains may be a bit much for the modern person who gets everything packaged in plastic.

book icon  The Sisters Grimm; Once Upon a Crime, Michael Buckley
Sabrina, Daphne, Grandma Relda, Mr. Canis, and police chief Hampton are on a mission: to return an injured Puck to a colony of Everafters in New York City where his family—the imposing Oberon and Titania of "Midsummer's Night's Dream" fame—can hopefully cure him. Instead the porcine police chief finds love and danger when he falls for a "fairy godfather's" girl (yes, it's exactly what you think it is), and Sabrina finds herself face-to-face with Puck's jealous girlfriend.

Once again Buckley has well-mixed classic fairy tales for a rollicking, but sometimes creepy, adventure in a really-out-of-this-world place, NYC at Christmastime. One thing bothered me: Granny really came down hard on Sabrina for using magic in the previous book. This time Daphne wields the wand and Granny doesn't seem to mind. Bothered me, as Sabrina, even if she is pushy, does seem a bit put-upon.

book icon  Nellie Oleson Meets Laura Ingalls, Heather Williams
Since the "pre-Little House" adventures of Laura's grandmother Charlotte and great-grandmother Martha have come to an end, apparently since Harper-Collins wanted to dumb them down and the writers refused, these are two newer books about characters related to Laura. This one tells Nellie's side of the story of when the Ingalls family arrived in Walnut Grove and the events of "Town Party, Country Party" and the grasshopper invasion.

The story actually introduces Nellie, Willie and her family some time earlier; Laura doesn't enter the picture until halfway through the book, although Charles Ingalls is shown in the first chapter. I guess we are supposed to feel sympathy for Nellie when we hear about her distant father and social-climbing mother, and moments do exist when Nellie's bratty shell melts and she feels bad for people. But frankly, she's obnoxious from the start, corralling Willie into playing a mean prank on the schoolteacher, and you're glad when the plan backfires. So I'm a bit puzzled to what purpose the book was written. Williams does a good job keeping the narrative "Little House"-like, but it's still hard to warm up to Nellie.

book icon  The Power of Babel, John McWhorter
Okay, I'm at a loss what to say about this one, although I enjoyed it. But then I devour good linguistics books like one eats potato chips. One of McWhorter's main points is about dialects versus the "standard" in a particular language: the standard isn't really the "most correct" version of the language, as one might think; it's just the version of the language that was chosen to become the standard, so that, really, "Cockney" is no less credible than "BBC English," "Parisian" isn't the be-all, end-all of French as opposed to what they speak in other areas of France, and a southern accent in the United States is no less "educated" than the flat midwestern tones once preferred of newscasters—they're all just versions of the same language which evolved in different areas. He uses pop culture and familiar media figures to explain these differences, which makes the text lively and less dry than some academic tomes about language.

book icon  Re-read: Mr. Revere and I, Robert Lawson
Since we were going to Boston on vacation and I had long dreamed of visiting Revere's home, I just had to re-read this fun and lively view of Revolutionary Boston as seen through the eyes of Revere's horse. Sherry, or Scheherazade, as she is properly known, is originally a British cavalry horse, brought to Boston with the soldiers to help quell the rebellion. By a series of misfortunes, she comes into the possession of Paul Revere and sees the opening volleys of the American Revolution.

This is painless, occasionally humorous—some of the Founding Fathers, like Sam Adams and John Hancock, are shown in a not always flattering light—history for kids, which shows them that the folks behind the Revolution were not demigods, but ordinary folks with an extraordinary idea: a new republic not based on a monarchy. And, through Sherry, they understand what it is like to be free. Great story, if not always precisely in line with real historical events (the horse Revere rode on his famous "ride," for instance, was someone else's, and it was taken from him).

book icon  Full Dark House, Christopher Fowler
This is all I need, another series. But what a fun series! In present-day London, 80-year-old Arthur Bryant is killed while working late at the Metropolitan Police's Peculiar Crimes office. His grieving partner, 76-year-old John May, attempts to solve the crime, which appears to have something to do with Arthur's opening of an old case, the first one which Bryant and May solved together, during the height of the Blitz, when a killer stalked the backstage area of the Palace Theatre.

Bryant and May are an odd couple; I thought of a 1940s version of Holmes and Watson, with Bryant as the eccentric and May as the more conventional (and more attractive to women). Fowler brings the WWII atmosphere of the Blitz to life—not just hardy Londoners stiffening their upper lips, but the fear and the uncertainty and the spooky feeling of streets under blackout, not to mention the claustrophobic feeling of the theatre. Yet the narration is also offbeat and frequently humorous, especially when presenting Bryant's oddball friends. I really enjoyed the entire milieu.

book icon  Re-read: Ocean-Born Mary, Lois Lenski
Most people are more familiar with Lenski's regional series, like Strawberry Girl, but I have always also loved her historical stories, like A-Going to the Westward, and this book, which I first read in junior high school. When we went on vacation this year, we stopped at the setting of the novel, Strawbery Banke (the original name of Portsmouth, NH), where I was delighted to see the real places mentioned, like Puddle Dock.

This is not the true story of Ocean-Born Mary, a child whose presence on a ship caused a pirate captain to spare the lives of all if she was named after his little sister, but a fictional tale that Lenski has spun about the child. She arrives in Strawbery Banke to help an ailing cousin and experiences all sorts of adventures with the merchants and seafaring inhabitants of the port town, befriending an ailing child, a shipmaster's daughter, a woodcarver, a restless boy assigned to herd cows, and a merchant's daughter. And she also meets the man who spared her parents' lives, the pirate Philip Babb, who will once again cause problems in her life.

Today's children might find this book dull, but I loved every bit of historical detail in this book as a kid and still love re-reading it.

book icon  The Writer's Tale: The Final Chapter, Russell T. Davies and Benjamin Cook
In February 2007, Benjamin Cook shot Doctor Who's Russell T. Davies an e-mail: would he be interested in providing some input to Cook about how a Who episode is written? As Russell answered, "You had me at hello."

The "article" evolved into The Writer's Tale, and then The Final Chapter, a 700-page collection of the e-mails (and occasional texts) shot back and forth between Cook and Davies between the fateful day in 2007 through David Tennant's final appearance as the Doctor. In between, in a great cascade of words, one actually does find out how more than one episode is conceived, filmed, and finished, and a whole lot more. Before Catherine Tate signed up for her season, for example, Davies was working through the creation of a new companion for the Doctor, a young woman named Penny, whose father was a stargazer. How Penny changed and then morphed into Donna Noble, and how the stargazer became her grandfather, played by the delightful Bernard Cribbins, is completely told here.

In the meantime, there are behind-the-scenes glimpses, Davies' growing pressures as a writer for both Who and Torchwood, premieres, filming successes and problems (that damaged bus in "Planet of the Dead," for instance, was supposed to be whole; it was damaged in transport), script flaps, actor changes, the conception of the final story, and perhaps even a partridge in a pear tree. All in great fun—I found it totally absorbing, down to the terrible puns.

book icon  Death on the Lizard, Robin Paige
Sir Charles Sheridan and his American wife Kathryn Ardleigh (also known as Beryl Bardwell, well-known author of thrillers) are back for one last case, set in the Cornish countryside where brilliant but mercurial Guglielmo Marconi has done the impossible: sent messages across the Atlantic by wireless. But the natives of "the Lizard" hate the noise and hurry the radio towers bring to their quiet corner of England, and when two men die on the site, foul play is suspected.

In the meantime Kate befriends Lady Loveday, a widow whose young daughter recently drowned, and who wishes to try to contact her through spiritualism. But when Kate makes a query or two, it looks as if little Harriet's drowning may have something to do with the conflict over the wireless station—and with spies of that selfsame station. And can Marconi's new inamorata be involved as well?

An excellent portrait of the times, where locals feel traditions are slipping away too fast to "newfangled" technology (times, it seems, never change), with multiple mystery threads. The "bad guys" are pretty easy to spot, though; if you are fond of impossible conundrums, read for the Edwardian atmosphere instead.

book icon  Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D., Barbara Barnett
Two books on House, MD were released this fall, the "authorized" guide and this, based on Barnett's popular blog "The End of the Thought Process." Like her blog, it's a great read, especially her analysis of each character (the emphasis on our "hero," of course, but also on Wilson and Cuddy and the original group of "ducklings." The latter part of the book is an episode guide, with such notations as the diagnosis—it's never lupus, except once it was—and the epiphany that led to it, "House is a Jerk" moments (of course too numerous to name), bromance minutes, continuity notes, nods at pop culture, and more, with inserts directed at a closer look at certain key episodes, like the award-winning "Three Stories." Sure to please a House fan—well, at least it pleased this House fan. :-)

book icon  Turkish Delight & Treasure Hunts, Jane Brocket
Not being able to find Brocket's original foray into this area, Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer, for less than $40, I purchased this follow-up, a delightful little volume that brings together recipes and instructions for making foods mentioned in classic children's books, like "sugar on snow" from the little house books and raspberry cordial from Anne of Green Gables, as well as instructions for making or buying a skipping rope like Mary Lennox's or kitemaking. If you are fond of classic children's novels, you will read this with a big grin on your face, as it's just as cozy and welcoming as it sounds.

book icon  Colonial New England on 5 Shillings A Day, Bill Scheller
From the time I saw Shakespearean London on 5 Groats a Day, I thought the idea of exploring history via a "tourist's guidebook" to be fun and clever. Although I bought the Shakespeare book first, because of our recent vacation, I read this one first and was not disappointed. The author offers an accurate portrayal of colonial times (travel, food, customs, etc.) at about 1760 (often with notes of what happened in the future). The most fun are the sly little asides to events that have not yet happened, as in noting that Sam Adams looked as if they had no future except as a brewer, or that "base ball" was much too ruffianly a sport for New Englanders and it should be consigned further west to "other Yankees." If all the other "Five" travel books (Ancient Greece and Europe, the Wild West, et al.) are as humorous and informative as this volume, I will have much fun "traveling" through history.

30 September 2010

Books Finished Since September 1

book icon  Death at Blenheim Palace, Robin Paige
In what Paige states is the penultimate book in the series, the emphasis is on those wealthy American young women who were dazzled—or coerced by greedy parents—into marrying English peers, only to find themselves looked down upon by the servants and overwhelmed by running huge manor houses, and discovering that they were only married to shore up dwindling finances. Consuelo Vanderbilt Marlborough has found this out the hard way. Now she fears her husband will make a fool of himself with his mistress. In the meantime, visitors Sir Charles Sheridan and his American wife, the former Kate Ardleigh, get wind of a plot to burgle Blenheim Palace during a visit of King Edward and Queen Alexandra—and it will be an "inside job." Winston Churchill as a young man also re-appears. Another "cozy" murder mystery revolving around a little-known piece of history, with a rather bitter taste at the end. For historical perspective on this novel, try the book To Marry An English Lord or a biography of Consuelo Vanderbilt.

book icon  Changing the World, edited by Mercedes Lackey
A new collection of short stories set in Lackey's Valdemaran universe, and they are pretty much all "keepers." Lackey has a strong entry (especially against her "Scooby-Doo" parody in the last volume) about a woman who resents Heralds because of a family incident. I even enjoyed the very tongue-in-cheek "Interview With a Companion," which I understand some fans did not like. There's a nice mixture of stories as well, not all involving Heralds—witness a mystery involving city guards and the tale of a trader's daughter who wishes to rescue an abused servant girl in a female-repressive society. The humorous "Nothing Better to Do" about a Herald entrusted with the transport of a mischievous toddler was also a favorite.

book icon  The Complete Idiot's Guide to The World of Narnia, James S. Bell Jr. and Cheryl Dunlop
I can't say there was anything in this volume that I didn't know, but if you are just getting into C.S. Lewis' Narnia books, or wish to probe the deeper meanings of the stories, you may find this volume helpful.

book icon  The Way I See It, Melissa Anderson
How odd that books about sweet Mary Ingalls and nasty Nellie Oleson came out nearly at the same time. Anderson's book is...workmanlike to the point of being dull. While I don't think it was quite as bad as some of the reviewers on Amazon.com paint it—I did pick up a few interesting tidbits about the series and Melissa's life off the set—and I certainly don't mind that she "dished" little "dirt" about her co-stars, the simple sentences, the reiterations of whole pages of plot synopses from Little House on the Prairie (Little House fans will remember all the nuances of the plot; why repeat the details?), and the occasional wandering into a script format made the narrative choppy. I'd take this book out of the library rather than buying it; YMMV.

book icon  Confessions of a Prairie Bitch, Alison Arngrim
On the other hand, this book is all that it was publicized to be. Arngrim's writing is fast, funny—and sometimes terrifying, occasionally profane, and always absorbing. Arngrim came from a theatrical family: her father was Liberace's manager and her mother the voice of animated characters like Gumby and Sweet Polly Purebred, her brother was the cute little kid with the dog on Land of the Giants. But beneath the surface was dysfunction; her father was gay in an era when it wasn't spoken of and her parents focused so little on their children that Arngrim's "cute" brother abused her from an early age and was a hard drug user, all without their knowledge. In the midst of this chaos Arngrim worked off her fears and frustrations (and the pain of her elaborate wig and costume) via bratty Nellie Oleson, and found friendship with the girl who played her "enemy" Laura Ingalls, Melissa Gilbert. Hilarious and heartbreaking by turns.

book icon  Main Street 9: Coming Apart, Ann M. Martin
As we return to Camden Falls, Massachusetts for a new year, Nikki Sherman is dreading the reappearance of her father. His divorce from her mother is being finalized and he's showing up to collect a last few things. But when he does reappear, Nikki is surprised to see he is well-dressed, soft-spoken and—most importantly—sober. In the meantime, Flora is letting her love for her new baby cousin absorb her days, younger sister Ruby has done something forbidden and is trying to be good to make up for it, and the youngest of all the friends, Olivia, is emotionally coming to terms with the fact that her pal Joshua considers himself a boyfriend rather than a friend who's a boy.

As always, Martin mixes up the lives of her child characters with her adult characters: there's a subplot with Mr. Pennington, and also the fears of Mrs. Sherman. I was hoping she would go against type with Nikki's father, but I was disappointed in that. As seems to be custom in the "Main Street" books lately, it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. Nevertheless, another good visit with the Northrups, Walter, and Sherman families.

book icon  Grace Under Pressure, Julie Hyzy
Grace Wheaton's grandmother loved Marshfield Manor, the place she had been a servant so many years ago, and brought up Grace to love the old place, too. Now in her twenties, Grace has become assistant curator at Marshfield, which has become a hotel and events venue as well as museum and home for the last of the Marshfields, Bennett. After a loud man attempts to break up one of Marshfield's weekly Teas, the mansion's security director is shot and killed, and Grace discovers that someone has been sending threatening blackmail notes to the estate owner. When Grace must step in the deceased man's shoes, she is faced with a resentful co-worker, irate customers, and the specter of the shooting: was the killer actually trying to murder Bennett?

Although there was a coincidence with some characters that seemed a bit contrived, I enjoyed both the mystery and the characters, especially Grace and her roommates (although I flinched at Hyzy giving a gay man the clichè name of Bruce!).

book icon  At Home, Bill Bryson
Think of this of "a short history of nearly everything having to do with the home." Bryson takes us from attic to cellar in the old vicarage he calls home in England to tell the story of private life. After examining the pivotal year of 1851 and the land surrounding his home, Bryson starts with the basic structure of all human shelters, the one-room living space that became the medieval hall, and then visits each individual room to chronicle a different aspect of society: the bathroom to examine sanitation; the kitchen to talk about food (of course); the scullery to discuss servants, etc. The home becomes a springboard of discussion to architecture, social customs, furnishings, plants...even sexuality, and all in Bryson's engaging fashion.

The true test of this book: it kept me absorbed in a 3 1/2 hour ticket line in over 70 degree heat. Now that's interesting writing!

book icon  An Impartial Witness, Charles Todd
Bess Crawford, nurse at the front in World War I, accompanies the wounded home to England where they will be hospitalized. One patient, a badly burned pilot, keeps a photograph of his wife with him always. To her surprise, Bess sees the woman at the railway station—with another man...then later learns from a newspaper article that the woman has been murdered. She can't help reporting what she saw to Scotland Yard...or becoming involved herself in the investigation, especially after an innocent man's life is at stake.

I didn't like this installment of the Bess Crawford mysteries as well as the last, although we did get to see much more of her family. Despite the fact she's nursing at the front, she seems to come and go from her posting at ease, and one can't worry about her much as she always appears to have a faithful bodyguard by her side. Those things, however, didn't keep me from turning the page to see who was involved and how other characters in the story would react.

book icon  Night of the Living Trekkies, Kevin D. Anderson and Sam Stall
Quirk Books, who have kept us in supernatural horror characters like zombies, werewolves and vampires with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Mansfield Park and Mummies, tackles a media classic with this humor-edged survival tale about Jim Pike (hmmm...Jim Kirk...Christopher Pike...get it?), a veteran of two tours of duty of Afghanistan and former Star Trek fan who just wants to spend the rest of his life blending in with the woodwork, until the weekend GulfCon invades the hotel where he works as a bellboy. But it's not the invasion of the Trekkies that will bring Jim out of his torpor, but something more serious...something that looks like an invasion of...zombies? With his younger sister, a convention attendee, to protect, and others to protect, Jim must find a way out for them, and fast.

This isn't great literature nor an insightful psychological portrait, but it is a well-paced, very often humorous, survival adventure. SF fans especially will enjoy the battle of wits against the mindless invaders (and no, they're not actually refugees from reality television...).

book icon  Turn and Jump, Howard Mansfield
This book made me...melancholy.

The subtitle is "How Time and Place Fell Apart" and is a series of essays connected by a time theme, basically how people used to operate on a schedule set by the sun and by what chores needed to be done, but how now we are harried by the clock. Some of them are only thinly connected to the theme, but I found all interesting, especially the story of a family-run grocery store that was operated for 103 years, and each year of its operation record books were kept of the day-to-day events. I almost cried when I finished the essay and discovered the place no longer exists, since it sounded like such a wonderful place to visit. The melancholy effect came to a head with the final essay, which is about the Native Americans just reclaiming their heritage in public, when they were told to keep it hidden for so many years.

book icon  The Gentle Art of Domesticity, Jane Brocket
No sooner did I wish to find Ms. Brocket's Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer, a book about the goodies found in old children's books, then I came upon this volume on the remainder pile at Barnes & Noble. Since it's about baking, knitting, sewing, and quilting, with the occasional side trip to gardening, you might figure it was the last thing I would be reading, but I rather enjoyed it all, turning the pages that made the book into a cozy home, with colorful patterned illustrations on every page of baking or fabric projects or just family photos and domestic-themed paintings. It was like reading Jennifer Harris' "Allsorts" blog in print. Brocket's themes include "Inspiration," "Color," "Texture," "Patterns," and more.

book icon  Blackout, Connie Willis
Willis returns to her future Oxford universe setting of The Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog, where history students time travel to pivotal but not critical settings in history to observe people and events happen as part of their studies. As the book opens, Merope Ward (under the alias Eileen O'Malley, a maid at a manor house) is already studying World War 2 evacuee British children, Polly Churchill is now Polly Sebastian on her way to pose as a shopgirl in Blitz London to study the effects of bombing on the residents, and Michael Davies, as Mike Davis, is supposed to go to Pearl Harbor. But it becomes evident that there is something "up," as schedules are switched and amended up until the time each of them leave. Michael ends up near Dover, frantically trying to get to the beach to observe only the returnees from Dunkirk. Instead he takes part in the action and worries he has change history, while Polly must cope with "slippage" that has made her days late for her assignment and Merope with her job taken away.

Once one can get over the fact that most of these history students appear fixated on their time periods and don't know a lot about anything else but what they are studying, and, as in the past books, the "net" they use for transport is prone to trouble, this is an absorbing glimpse into what would happen if modern people had to cope with the realities of the Second World War, and perhaps the prospect of not returning home. As what happens to Kivrin in Doomsday Book, Polly begins to see that the population she is studying aren't just subjects, but real people who she begins to care about. Mike and Eileen also form attachments and struggle with what their impact will be on history.

Be forewarned that this book ends on a cliffhanger and is continued in the sequel All Clear...which I have in my hot little hands thanks to Amazon Vine. :-)