31 January 2011

Books Finished Since January 1

book icon Sherlock Holmes For Dummies, Steven Doyle and David A. Crowder
One hundred years have passed since Doyle wrote the stories and novels that comprise the canon of Sherlock Holmes. Today Holmes is still popular, with films, novels, and television series being written around the character and his loyal friend Dr. John Watson. So this is a primer to Doyle, Holmes and Watson, and the canon, in addition to mentioning the pastiches that followed, in a lively style that only wants you to remember that neither Holmes nor Watson were doddering middle-aged or old fellows during the majority of the stories, but were young chaps (as portrayed in the modernized British series Sherlock). Everything is covered through the Robert Downey Jr Sherlock Holmes film. Plus note that Holmes never said "Elementary, my dear Watson," or wore a deerstalker hat through the streets of London (a deerstalker is exactly what its name states; it's a hunting hat, for wear in the country).

The only problem I can see with this book is that Doyle and Crowder repeat the same error that many have made: they refer to Dashiell Hammett's "series" of "Thin Man" books. For once and for all, Hammett only wrote one book with Nick and Nora Charles, The Thin Man. MGM was the one who spawned a series of "Thin Man" movies.

book icon The Best American Mystery Stories 2010, edited by Lee Child
Otto Penzler points out in his forward that very few mysteries are detecting stories anymore; more's the pity. There are about three straight "detecting" stories here—many of the rest are what I would call suspense stories, or even thrillers. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the majority of them, although the ones with more gruesome narratives were my least favorites.

Notable among the stories are an excellent Sherlock Holmes pastiche, "The Case of Colonel Warburton's Madness," in which Holmes turns his sleuthing eye upon a story told by Dr. Watson about his experience in San Francisco with a patient exhibiting signs of insanity. Author Lyndsay Faye has Doyle's narrative spot-on. Doug Allyn's police procedural "An Early Christmas" had appealing characters on both sides of the law and a nice solid mystery. "A Jury of His Peers" by Jay Brandon, set in San Antonio, Texas, at the time of the Mexican War, was also a favorite, mixing an actual historical incident with a fictional mystery. Both "Designer Justice" and "Custom Sets" are tales of revenge rather than what I would term as mystery, with nicely built suspense and satisfying endings.

The one story everyone seems to have enjoyed and praised is the Kurt Vonnegut piece; I really did not enjoy it all that much. "Dredge," involving a traumatized young man and a drowning victim, was unsettling and creepy. As always, peoples tastes vary. If you are a mystery/thriller/suspense fan, there is a good chance all or some of these stories will appeal to you.

book icon The Tale of Applebeck Orchard, Susan Wittig Albert
There is a very slight mystery here—who set Farmer Harmsworth's haystack on fire, leading him to bar the footpath through his land, one which has been used for generations—but there is more interest in what the human denizens of the Lakes villages of Near Sawrey and Far Sawrey have been up to. Will Captain Woodcock ever realize how Miss Nash, the plain but endearing schoolteacher, feels about him? Will young Gilly Harmsworth escape the clutches of her abusive aunt and uncle? Will Lady Longford allow her granddaughter Caroline to attend college to study music? And, most importantly, will Beatrix Potter and attorney William Heelis finally acknowledge the admiration they feel for each other?

There's also a subplot with the badgers at the Brockery, and of course the village animals, including Max the Manx cat who is looking for permanent abode, have their noses stuck firmly in the footpath controversy, but they are mere distractions this time to the human emotions boiling about them.

book icon Christietown, Susan Kandel
In the fourth Cece Caruso mystery, Cece has her hands full with her own wedding preparations to police lieutenant Gambino and the impending birth of her first grandchild, not to mention the visit of her ex-husband, his fiance, and her mother. At the same time she has been asked to revise a chapter in her biography of Agatha Christie, and is involved with the opening of a retirement community called "Christietown," where the homes look like little English cottages planned around a British "high street." Part of the publicity includes a Christie play—but suddenly the leading lady turns up dead.

Cece's family and friends provide much of the highlights in this book, especially one person who Cece unexpectedly finds herself friends with. The idea of a little English village town in a desert area seems a bit absurd, though.

book icon A Celebration of The Good Life, Richard Webber with John Esmonde and Bob Larbey
This is a marvelous trade paper volume all about the classic British comedy series starring Richard Briers, Felicity Kendal, Paul Eddington, and Penelope Keith, chock full of publicity photos and text about the creation of the series, creators Esmond and Larbey, the four principal actors, the locations used, and even a few pages at the end about real people who "chucked the rat race" and practiced self-sufficiency (but none of them in Surbiton, of course!). If you are a fan of the series, you are certain to enjoy this book.

book icon Inventing George Washington, Edward G. Lengel
Famous persons are almost always surrounded by legendary stories, and none so much as George Washington. Well into the 1920s and 1930s, children were still taught the "cherry tree' legend made popular by Parson Weems, and George Washington quotations and events attributed to him (such as the probably apocryphal situation where he was caught praying at Valley Forge) are still being mentioned by politicians of all persuasions.

You will be disappointed if you are expecting a biography of Washington; it is not that at all. Rather, it is about how successive generations have perceived him: as godlike hero, as rakish man-about-town, as distant aristocrat, as evil slave-owner. Lengel points out that, due to the cavalier regard which with Washington's papers were treated—not only did Martha burn all their correspondence, but one descendant cut pieces wholesale from his journals and rearranged them to suit himself, and often gave away or sold letters, so that much of what is left has either disappeared or is in the hands of collectors who are keeping their mouths shut—most of the stories cannot be substantiated. Many of the inspirational stories that were told about Washington come from secondhand sources, or from the memories of aged soldiers and comrades who revered him.

While the Revolutionary War time period is not my forte, I found this book absorbing and well-narrated, and even sometimes surprising, as I had no idea there was a group that believes George Washington encountered...wait for it...space aliens!

book icon The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society & the Birth of the Modern World, Edward Dolnick
We are surrounded by science. Every day some new technical or medical discovery is made. We live knowing the arrangement of the solar system, geometry, of gravity, orbits, and trajectory, and even if we don't understand the mathematics very well, by physics and calculus. (Well, unless you're "Snooki," of course.)

Dolnick takes us back to the time of Newton and his contemporaries: one of disease, death, and imminent apocalypse. It isn't just a world without industrialization or technology, it's a completely different world of thought, one where everything occurs because God wills it so. To deny it you risk censure, brutal physical punishment, and even death. People still believe in witchcraft, astrology, "the humors," possession by demons. And yet in this time Galileo, Newton, and others made their discoveries, in many cases to confirm God's creation of a perfect universe, and come to "wildly improbable" answers: planets do not circle in the perfect form of a circle, but in ellipses; the Earth is not the center of the universe nor the the worst place in it, mathematics alone can tell you unmoveable truths.

He also shows us Newton and others of the Royal Society, who guard their discoveries the way a prospector guards his gold strike, and who can be quarrelsome, selfish, rude, capable of dreadful experimentation on animals and men, including themselves. To a Liberal Arts major like myself, he makes the scientific discoveries clear and presents these "paragons" we have read about in science and math class as ordinary human beings who presented extraordinary ideas.

book icon A Lesson in Secrets, Jacqueline Winspear
In the previous novel, changes in Maisie Dobbs' personal life have set her on a new course in her investigations. In the newest book, a bridge is beginning to form between the repercussions of the Great War and the yet unknown second World War, while Maisie is asked by the British secret service to take a position as philosophy teacher at a new university in Cambridge which preaches a philosophy of peace, to investigate whether any activies taking place there are subversive to the Crown. The head of the university is a man who wrote a children's book about the war so filled with pacifist leanings that it was banned by the government and was rumored to have caused a mutiny at the front lines. Maisie is not there long before the man is murdered. While Scotland Yard investigates, Maisie continues her own inquiries, and, a bit too priescently, I thought, warns the Secret Service about certain of her students with Nazi leanings and the party itself (which, of course, the Government types ignore). There is much more for Maisie to learn about the man's life and the secretary who disappears following the death, about the German professor that steps into his place and the wealthy man who funds the school.

In the meantime, Billy Beale works on the case brought to them by Sandra, a young woman whose husband died due to an accident at work. As the story progresses, both Maisie and Billy suspect the accident wasn't one at all. Maisie's old friend Priscilla and her family are drawn into this portion of the story.

Maisie's relationship with her new love progresses slowly in this outing, but those who read the Dobbs books know it's in Maisie's nature to take things methodically. Her dad is also making some change in his life. Readers who like the earlier stories of Maisie dealing with repercussions of the First World War may dislike signs of the next appearing, but Winspear is not allowing Maisie to remain static in a postwar world. Several of the cards are played early in the mystery, but all-in-all I found the story and characters appealing.

book icon The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Edmund Morris
The first book in Morris' trilogy about Roosevelt, followed by Theodore Rex (his presidency), and Colonel Roosevelt (later life, including opposition of Woodrow Wilson), this is a rich biography of a complicated man. While it is evident that Morris is a Roosevelt fan, he also shows us Roosevelt "warts and all": his neglect of his eldest daughter after her beloved mother dies, his hunting excesses even as he champions against developing wild spaces, his temper, the way he cannot understand his ill and alcoholic brother's weaknesses despite his love for him. As in every portrayal of him, Roosevelt seems larger than life: Western explorer and cattleman, New York dandy, a rising politician fighting a wave of competitors used to the spoils system after elections, a man who reads prodigiously, wrote an acclaimed book on the Navy before he was twenty-five, and who seemed to survive on little or no sleep.

Morris' narrative is bursting with detail, especially in an evocative prologue that places you in line waiting to shake hands with President Roosevelt on the White House's annual New Year's open house (a practice that would, sadly, be forbidden today). The frozen Dakota prairies, the stinking New York slums, the heat- and insect-riddled morass that confronted the Rough Riders, the summer days at Sagamore Hill all come alive under Morris' pen, not to mention the constantly moving contradiction that was Roosevelt himself. Okay, I must admit I found the political bits occasionally dull, but as a whole found this readable without being simplified. Recommended especially if you are a "TR" fan.

book icon Dark Road to Darjeeling, Deanna Raybourn
Sated (literally) after an eight-month honeymoon, Lady Julia and her brooding, brilliant "private inquiry agent" husband Nicholas Brisbane accompany Julia's older sister Portia and her restless brother Plum to India. Some time earlier Portia's former lover, Jane, yearning to have her own child, married Freddie Cavendish and returned with him to The Peacocks, the tea plantation he had inherited. But now Freddie has died under mysterious circumstances and Jane is afraid she or her child may be the next target.

Going hand-in-hand with the mystery element, which ecompasses the Marches' impoverished cousins Emma and Lucy, a free-spirited American women with two intriguing children who is married to a staid minister, a drunken doctor, and an older Englishman known as the White Rajah, is the often rocky relationship between Julia and Brisbane. She is determined to show him she can be an equal partner in his crime inquiries, to the point of being rude and demanding. In his turn, Brisbane will not allow himself to be led by the nose. They are two independent spirits who will need to find as much balance in their professional life as in their marriage bed, and it's as much fun watching them clash as it is to make your way through the convoluted conundrum posed by Freddie's death. The newlyweds pound the pillows a bit much, though. :-)

book icon Meet the Malones, Lenora Mattingly Weber
While the remainder of Weber's celebrated "Beany Malone" series focuses pretty much on practical, stubborn and occasionally dreamy Catherine Cecilia Malone, the first book revolves around Beany's older sister Mary Fred. The book opens with Mary Fred bringing home Mr. Chips, an injured horse she bought with money she saved for her first formal dress—but she needs funds to complete the purchase. On the way home, she encounters younger brother Johnny, who has caused a fender-bender on the snowy road with a woman delivering eggs. Johnny, an aspiring writer, promises to make good for the eggs and repair the fender, meaning he can't keep the new typewriter he was hoping for. And, at home, thirteen year old Beany desperately wants money to redecorate her room and rid herself of the nursery pattern she hated even as a child.

Their father Martie Malone, a famous newspaper columnist, has a chance to take a plum assignment in Hawaii covering the war news (Pearl Harbor was attacked only a few weeks earlier). When their housekeeper leaves, he allows the children to take over her chores to earn the money they need. But crises keep popping up: older sister Elizabeth returns home now that her soldier husband has shipped out, with a new baby; Johnny is trying to write a book about the history of their home state of Colorado with the help of a tottery old journalist, and right when Mary Fred is managing everything perfectly, the school's star football player makes the moves on her. With stars in her eyes, Mary Fred forgets family, friends and horse in order to make herself over for him. Then the real trouble arrives: Nonna, their kind but used-to-being in charge step-grandmother. Will the Malone children acquise to Nonna's every wish, or will they keep their independence and self-respect?

This is a lively, mostly happy look at life in wartime America, but it has an underlying theme about the price you must pay to get the things you want, and if it is worth sacrificing your principles for them. Weber's books are fondly remembered by her fans, and if you're a fan of 1940s era teen fiction, or just want to experience what life was like back then, you will enjoy the adventures of the Malones.

book icon Walking English, David Crystal
It's a bit of a cheat this being here, as I haven't quite finished it yet, but I'm over halfway through and having so much fun with it I must put it in.

For someone like me, who loves language and history and who is, if not a born one, at least a long-time Anglophile, this book is the literary equivalent of an angel presenting me with a box of dark chocolates filled with all my favorite fillings—mint, orange, coffee, caramel, and that heavenly lime from Sanborn's Candies—and telling me I can eat all I feel comfortable doing so, since they have no calories and no fat! Basically Crystal starts off in Wales and relates travels through England as well as in Poland, San Francisco, and South Africa in a narrative of place names, word origins, history, changes in word meaning, Shakespearan plays and names, that Welsh town with the long name that the locals just refer to as "Llanfair,' placing people by accents, sheep with accents, and more, all in a delightful candy-box jumble. I suspect I shall be sorry when the book finishes, but right now I'm just enjoying it all with a big silly grin.

A big plus: learning about the humanitarian poet John Bradburne and the book town of Hay-on-Wye. I think I'd like to spend a week in the latter, thank you. :-)