31 December 2012

My Dozen Favorite Books of 2012

Wow. All nonfiction this year. What does that mean?
  • Letter Perfect, David Sacks (the story of the alphabet; Hamilton Books)
  • Maphead, Ken Jennings (the world of geography fans; gift from James)
  • Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero, Larry Tye (self-explanatory; Amazon Vine choice)
  • Chicks Dig Time Lords, edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Tara O'Shea (essays about Doctor Who by women; Amazon purchase—and won a Hugo award!)
  • The Helene Hanff Omnibus: Underfoot in Show Business, 84 Charing Cross Road, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, Apple of My Eye, Q's Legacy, Helene Hanff (Hanff's "greatest hits"; Amazon Marketplace purchase)
  • The Poisoner's Handbook, Deborah Blum (story of the development of forensic science in New York City; Borders ::sob:: remainder tables)
  • Star Trek FAQ, Mark Clark (surprisingly, found something new to say about Star Trek!; Books-a-Million)
  • The Story of Charlotte's Web, Michael Sims (a gentle bedtime book about the genesis and writing of the children's classic; Barnes & Noble)
  • The Great Silence, Juliet Nicolson (post WWI England societal changes; Amazon purchase)
  • Red, White, and Blue Letter Days, Matthew Dennis (book about the changing face of American holidays; Colonial Williamsburg gift shop)
  • Quirky QWERTY: The Story of the Keyboard @ Your Fingertips, Torbjörn Lundmark (history of the typewriter keyboard; McKay's Used Books)
  • A Kosher Christmas: Tis the Season to Be Jewish, Joshua Eli Plaut (how Jews cope with the tumult of Christmas; Barnes & Noble)
Honorable mentions:
  • Santa Claus: Last of the Wild Men, Phyllis Siefker (could our Santa Claus character come from older source than a Turkish bishop?; Borders ::sob:: liquidation sale)
  • A Pocketful of History, Jim Noles (examining the stories behind the images on the State Quarter dollar coins; Hamilton Books)
  • Names on the Land, George R. Stewart (the story of place names in the United States; Barnes & Noble)

30 November 2012

Books Finished Since November 1

book icon  Red, White, and Blue Letter Days, Matthew Dennis
I saw this book on a discount table at the wonderful bookstore at the Colonial Williamsburg welcome center and initially passed it by. I'm glad we went back to the bookstore because I was able to pick it up and really enjoyed it.

This is nonfiction about strictly American holidays, beginning, of course, with Independence Day and Thanksgiving, but also Columbus Day, the "Saint Mondays" (Monday holidays), and Labor and Memorial Days. While each chapter contains a history, the book is more an examination of how the perception of each holiday has changed over the years, and, indeed, how different ethnic groups have viewed the holidays, as for a long period, African-Americans had little reason to celebrate Independence Day, and neither did the Native Americans. I was quite amused, in fact, to read of the subversive use the "Indians" made of Independence Day, hiding the celebration of their own traditions under the guise of "Fourth of July." Good for them! Anti-Thanksgiving protests are also discussed, as are the shift from days which memorialize sober events, such as Memorial Day and Veterans Day, to days for recreation and special sales in department stores, and the conversion of Washington's Birthday in combination with Lincoln's Birthday into a generic "Presidents Day" which exists now mainly for a day off work and a "white sale."

This is a fascinating holidays book which also contains vintage posters, photographs, and newspaper illustrations. Unique!

book icon  Williamsburg: Before and After,
This is a neat hardback mostly picture book of the restoration work done on the different homes in Colonial Williamsburg since the creation of the area in the 1930s. You get a quick overview of the history of the city and its gradual slip into obscurity and a summary of the efforts to turn it into a living history museum by day, but the majority of the book are before-and-after stories about each of the restored homes, who lived in them, and what was removed to restore them to their colonial appearance (in some cases, after more research was done, the homes were restored again). If you are a Colonial Williamsburg fan, this one is a winner, although you may want to find a store or site where you can purchase with a coupon, as it's pretty pricy.

book icon  Williamsburg in Vintage Postcards
An Arcadia Publishing ("Images of America") of the historic homes in Williamsburg, most of them before the purchase of the area that became Colonial Williamsburg. Well, I was interested!

book icon  The Mystery of the Phantom Grasshopper, Kathryn Kenny
Compared to the previous book, #17 of the newer Trixie Belden mysteries, this one is almost written for third graders. The print is large and there's not much to the story. Trixie and Honey are after whomever stole "Hoppy," the colonial-era grasshopper weathervane (supposedly made by the same artist who provided the grasshopper weathervane on Boston's Fanuiel Hall) on the Sleepyside Town Hall. They're crushed when their favorite teacher seems to be involved in the robbery.

We're luckier than Trixie and Honey in that, via print, we are given a clue that the girls don't have. So the culprit is obvious to the reader and makes the girls look pedestrian. A plus to this book is that Bobby is actually given a chance to shine while training a pony for Regan. Nothing special. Frankly, I didn't care whether "Hoppy" got returned or not.

(Okay, perhaps you can comment that it's my adult POV that has gotten in the way of giving these books a better rating, but I can still read young adult and children's books and enjoy them as much as if I were reading them back when they would have been for my age group. I still read the original sixteen Trixie books with great delight. These later ones, so far, just appear substandard.)

book icon  Grace Interrupted, Julie Hyzy
In the second of the Grace Wheaton "Manor House" mysteries, a Civil War re-creation group is holding a gathering at a remote part of the manor grounds so that modern-day influences do not interfere with their efforts to stick to period food and dress. One of the re-creationists is a particularly obnoxious man who has left his girlfriend at the altar; two of her friends appear at the Manor House hoping to even the score. But when Mr. Obnoxious is later murdered, everyone's a suspect, including Grace's new boyfriend Jack and his younger, emotionally unstable younger brother Davey, since Jack was accused of killing the dead man's brother many years earlier.

Once again Grace is involved in a mystery (or the story ends here). :-) The tale dips into a behind-the-scenes look at historical re-creationists (some who strictly keep to the time period, others who are "farby" and include coolers and fans into their historical settings to stay comfortable) and the feuds between them. Grace's romance inches on, and a long-standing mystery is solved. Plus Grace has a new roommate: a cute tuxedo kitten and we learn more about her prickly assistant Frances (some of which definitely surprises Grace!). A nice ambling cozy with likeable characters (I love Bruce and Scott!), even if Grace is a commonplace character. You might want to read the first book, Grace Under Pressure, to get the background on all these characters.

book icon  A Journey to the New World, Kathryn Lasky
This is one of the original stories in the "Dear America" series, and has none of the compelling touches of Lasky's Christmas After All. Indeed, it seems to hit all the Pilgrim clichès: seasickness, conflicts between the "Saints" and the "Strangers," stepping off onto a big rock to get to the mainland, meeting the Indians, etc. Perhaps, being one of the first books, Lasky was forced to stick to a strict outline of what could and couldn't happen. Sadly, it doesn't breathe a whole lot of life into the historical characters except in a few entries where "Mem" (short for Remember) has an emotional revelation about her new stepmother.

These early books did not list the author's name on the cover, and indeed the afterward tries to give the impression that this was an actual diary found in an attic. I notice Scholastic quit doing that after bitter complaints of readers who were taken in by these fake "diaries." These are all fiction, some better than others; this one falls somewhere into "middling" territory. Much better that Winter of the Red Snow, however.

book icon  The Secret of the Unseen Treasure, Kathryn Kenny
#18, and the third of the newer set of Trixie Belden books. A note right off: the cover illustration of the "oval edition" throws you right off; the mystery has nothing to do with skin diving or a mystery on a lake. Instead, it takes place right in the girls' own neighborhood, on Glen Road, which has certainly gotten more populated from the days when Crabapple Farm, Ten Acres, and the Manor House were the only residences for miles around! The gang finds a bag of stolen social security checks in the lake and tries to figure out why they were stolen, only to have them tossed away, while helping Mrs. Elliot make ends meet selling flowers to the local florist. Is her stepson Max trying to drive her off her farm behind the scenes?

This is also "Trixie meets modern times" as drug use is hinted at in the plot (good heavens, no! not by the Bob-Whites!). And Bobby is back to falling down and getting dirty. At least he's not yelling "Holp!" anymore. Better than Phantom Grasshopper, but the density of the old books and #17 is definitely missing. Is "dumbing down" a kids' book series really necessary?

book icon  The Tale of Castle Cottage, Susan Wittig Albert
In this tale, Albert's "Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter" come to an end, as Beatrix considers breaking off her engagement to William Heelis, fearing the reaction of her possessive parents. And then when she discovers her brother Bertram is finally going to reveal his secret marriage after all these years, she believes there is no hope at all.

Of course there's a mystery involved in the story as always—the death of a carpenter who's working on Beatrix's newly purchased Castle Farm, where she and William have planned to live—but it all takes a back seat to the troubles between Beatrix and her parents and the usual animal subplot, which involves the local domesticated crowd and the regulars at the Brockery [badger den] against very sinister rats (who smoke and swear and gamble) hiding out under the Castle Farm barn (an ominous precursor to World War I, which is hinted at with one line of dialog late in the book). Indeed, the animals take up a good part of the story, but the charm of Beatrix's (faltering) romance is the pivot in this one. If you have invested in the series, you'll want to finish the set and "see how the story comes out." A teatime book for sure!

book icon  Quirky QWERTY: The Story of the Keyboard @ Your Fingertips, Torbjörn Lundmark
This is a darling little book printed in Australia that I picked up in a used bookstore that basically tells the story of all the symbols on the modern keyboard, starting with why the QWERTY arrangement was chosen in the first place by main typewriter creator Christopher Sholes (so the typebars didn't stick together when common letter combinations were used) to the history behind the letters (in QWERTY order, of course) and behind the symbols (which I found the most fascinating because while I've read letter histories since I received my first World Book Encyclopedia at age seven—each volume starts with a history of the letter—there aren't that many references to punctuation and diacritical marks around. Ever call something whose name you couldn't remember a "dingus"? Well, that's really three asterisks in a row: ***. The Irish were the ones responsible for putting spaces between the words. And more neat stuff like that.

The only thing Lundmark didn't address was how the arrangement of the keyboard has changed from the 1970s. I was reminded of this during a conversation about typewriters as Christmas gifts on one of my Christmas gifts, where I posted a picture of the typewriter I received under the tree in 1970. The location of symbols on the keyboard changed from when I learned to type in 1970, with the result that I had to teach myself to type again when I went back to school for a year in 1981.

The " used to be over the 2.
The ' used to be over the 8.
On the key where the " and ' are now, there were the @ and the ¢ (which is no longer on the modern keyboard; you hold down the ALT key and type 0162 on the numeric keyboard instead)
The _ was over the 6 and there was no ^
The * was over the -
Plus, on the older typewriters pre-1970, there was no 1 / ! key. You made the number one using the lowercase l. In those typewriter days, the ! was made by typing a . then backspacing and typing a '.
There also were no ~ and ` on the typewriter keyboard.

And now it's time for me to start my Christmas reading glut—I've already begun on the magazines. Those Christmas book reviews will be posted in Holiday Harbour.

06 November 2012

Thinking of Donna Parker on Election Day

It may be, you would think, a strange direction.

For those of you unacquainted with Donna, she was the heroine of a series of seven books published by Whitman Books in the late 1950s/early 1960s. She solved minor mysteries, like "who is the elderly man living in the woods?" or "who is using the school home ec rooms at night?" but mostly the Donna Parker series was about growing up. She had a dad, a stay-at-home mom, and a pesty younger brother, a best friend named "Ricky" (short for Fredericka), and a gaggle of school friends (including one poor girl named Karen who never got a last name). She was an ordinary kid, no budding sleuth like Nancy Drew or Trixie Belden. Her mom nagged her to eat a good breakfast every morning, her dad called her "Cookie," and her younger brother lived to annoy her. She existed in one of those series book whitebread small towns (about a two-hour train ride to New York City); if Donna ever encountered "Negroes," Jews and Catholics, it was probably in books—even the housekeeper was white.

In Donna Parker: Special Agent, Donna and Ricky are entering ninth grade. Since childhood they have always done things together. Now, when they have a chance to join after-school clubs, they come to their first parting of the ways: Ricky wants to take drama, Donna wants to join the school paper. And both follow their dreams.

Donna finds the school paper a mixed bag: the other kids she works with, save one, are great and the advisor, Miss Fischer, is a dream teacher. To her surprise, she finds herself elected assistant editor, but everyone knows she won't do much, since snooty Joyce Davenport, the daughter of the town newspaper editor, is in charge. And then, when she least expects it, Joyce breaks her leg and Donna is in charge.

The Summerfield Junior High School kids are looking for an interesting angle for their paper. They decide on covering the school election, with the school having a goal of 100 percent participation. When Donna talks about this while visiting Joyce, the girl convinces Donna how important participation in the voting process is, and her parents agree. So the kids expand their project: helping with the campaigning for city mayor. Not for specific candidates, but helping people vote. The students who could drive would drive people to the polls. Girls would babysit children so mothers could vote. And the kids would encourage everyone to vote: canvassing voters over the phone, tacking up posters, talking to people. Goal: 100 percent participation, just like at school.

Remember, this was the late 1950s: the Cold War, fear of spies, slapping "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance because of "those Godless commies." Children's series books like Donna Parker and Ginny Gordon and even Trixie Belden often emphasized public service: the Bob-Whites raise money for charity, the  "less fortunate" are helped via Christmas baskets and fundraisers, the kids support the Community Chest. But this was the one specific instance of elections and the right to vote and the need to vote were pointed out, and in words and ideas even a nine-year-old (me) would understand.

The town of Summerfield doesn't quite make the school record. Only 90 percent of the town votes, and Donna is so disappointed, so down, until everyone tells her what a terrific job she has done heading this project. Can you imagine if that happened today? 90 percent! What a feat accomplished that would be!

Go on. Go out there and vote. Do it for your town, your county, your state, and your country. Your vote matters. Everyone's vote matters.

If nothing else, do it for Donna.

31 October 2012

Books Finished Since October 1

book icon  Meet Caroline, Caroline's Secret Message, A Surprise for Caroline, Caroline Takes a Chance, Caroline's Battle and Changes for Caroline, Kathleen Ernst
Appropriately, on the 200th anniversary of the start of the War of 1812, American Girl has issued these books, which take place on Lake Erie during the war. The series begins on an exciting but sober note as Caroline Abbott's father, a shipbuilder, and her cousin are arrested by the British and their ship is commandeered. The British return Caroline to her home, Sackett's Harbor, New York, and it is then the family's long ordeal begins, hoping the British will either free Mr. Abbott or he can escape.

This is a much more lively set of adventures than in some of the other American Girl series, although it is probably unrealistic that Caroline gets to experience so many of the ordeals that girls in 1812 were likely to endure: having a father kidnapped, helping supply him clues to escape, etc., in addition to her mother taking over the running of the shipyard. Hardships are touched upon, especially for Mr. Abbott, but of course there is nothing truly frightening that lone women in that era might have had to face. And even in the midst of the conflict, "growing up" problems like jealousy are addressed, although the situation is rather dull when compared to Caroline's other adventures.

Major points to this set for addressing what is sometimes called "the forgotten war." One wonders if future sets will continue to address less well-known periods of history, as this and the previous Marie-Grace/Cecile series did. In addition, the artwork is lovely!

book icon  Growing Up Laughing, Marlo Thomas
This is Thomas' take on her childhood "growing up laughing" with Dad Danny Thomas, her first career steps, marriage to Phil Donohue, and involvement with her father's charity, St. Jude's Hospital. As interstices to the chapters, she interviews other comedians about their childhood and comic heritage. Most of these are okay, but I wish Marlo had skipped most of them and given us more time with her family and her dad, as well as the famous comedians who were her father's friends (Jan Murray, George Burns, etc.). Her stories about her musical grandmother, about her father's tales, and her brothers and sisters are the real meat of this book. There's even a nice tribute to Ted Bessell and another to her TV dad, Lew Parker, but not a lot about the show that made her a star, That Girl. If you're interested in those "meaty" parts, I'd borrow the book or get an inexpensive copy.

book icon  To a Distant Day, Chris Gainor
This is the story of the rocket pioneers in the days before the Mercury program and the Soviet space program. The book opens with fictional dreams of traveling in space, including Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon, and the work of the early astronomers, leading into modern discussions about early Soviet efforts and the experiments of Robert Goddard. Some of the most fascinating chapters are devoted to Sergei Korolev, so long the un-named genius behind the Soviet space flights. Korolev's early life was tragic, as he was fingered in one of Stalin's early purges and spent so much time in the gulag that his health was permanently compromised.

Also touched on several times is Werhner Von Braun and his companions' culpability in the Holocaust, as one of the most notorious "work camps," Dora, provided the slave labor for the rockets built in Peenemunde. So thoroughly were these German scientists covered up for by the researchers who wanted their information that many older Americans still remember Von Braun as "that nice German scientist who worked with Walt Disney." The author mentions the work camps several times, but makes no judgment calls. You can tell it's an uncomfortable subject for him, as it for the reader, knowing that space progress came from such horrific sources. Of note, too, for animal lovers: some of the creatures shot into space met a gruesome end.

This is not a book for a casual reader who just wants simple facts about man's progress in space; however, should you be interested in the subject, Gainor is a clear, concise writer who explains difficult subjects simply without being simplistic. There are many details about animal test flights and the life of Korolev that I had not heard before.

book icon  To Davy Jones Below, Carola Dunn
Daisy Dalrymple and her beau DI Alec Fletcher have finally been married (to the dismay of her mother and of his). With Alec's schoolgirl daughter in the care of her grandmother, the happy couple are about to go a-honeymooning when they find they have been booked on the ocean liner Talavera at the instigation of their American friend Caleb Arbuckle, who is traveling along with his daughter Gloria, now married to Daisy's friend Phil, as well as Arbuckle's partner and his flashy new wife, whom Arbuckle suspects is a golddigger. They are barely out to sea when a man is pushed overboard.

In this ninth Daisy adventure, she's pulled into a mystery through no fault of her own, especially after Alec develops seasickness. I did find myself a  bit resentful of Arbuckle's role in their ending up aboard ship in the first place—yeah, I know; story ends here if he hadn't, but really... Their shipboard company varies from commonplace (a country farm couple on their first vacation) to offbeat (a spinster herbalist who is constantly described as "a witch"), not to mention the ostentatious and manipulative new bride of Arbuckle's partner, Jethro Gotobed. 1920s shipboard life is portrayed vividly, and of course Daisy does what she does best: sleuth and exasperate Alec. Missed in this adventure is Alec's solid partner, Sgt. Tring, but there's enough shipboard intrigue to keep all busy. Still spiffing!

book icon  The Know-It-All, A.J. Jacobs
Have I mentioned before that A.J.'s wife Julie has to be one of the most patient women on earth?

This is magazine writer Jacobs' breakout book, a chronicle of his mission to read the entire Encyclopædia Brittanica (no, not the classic 1911 version, but a newer version with the "macropedia" and the "micropedia," which, IMHO, was a waste of good paper), a project his father started but never finished. (BTW, did you know you can read the classic 1911 version online?) Since I've "done" The World Book at least twice, this was a natural for me.

Of course in classic A.J. Jacobs style, he goes overboard, flaunting his new knowledge at every opportunity, realizing he won't retain what he reads (which leads to some amusing encounters with speed-reading classes), and including choice little tidbits of the text. It also chronicles A.J. and Julie's odyssey of trying to get pregnant (yeah, a little TMI sometimes) and Julie's patient but occasionally exasperated coping with her husband's new madness.

Jacobs is best taken in small doses; this book is recommended for bedtime reading. :-)

book icon  Bryant and May Off the Rails, Christopher Fowler
The Peculiar Crimes Unit is in peculiar circumstances once again: they can only survive if the killer known as "Mr. Fox," who escaped custody after killing one of their own, is brought to justice immediately. Still smarting from the death of Liberty DuCaine, the team knows they have only a week to make things right, and when a single mother is pushed down an escalator in the King's Cross Station, they fear "Mr. Fox" has begun a new killing spree. But what is the mysterious sticker put on the victim's clothing all about? And what does it have to do with a student who disappears after boarding a subway car?

As in every PCU mystery, Fowler explores some aspect of London life. This time it's the London Tube, which is the stage set for all that happens next, whether from the bright corners of the monitored stations to the hidden inner workings.

I find it hard to describe these books because they're so offbeat, definitely not your usual police procedural. They are always puzzling, certainly often whimsical, especially with someone of Arthur Bryant's personality, with the added fillip of learning neat little facts about London pubs, rivers, mythology, etc. as with the tube system and its modern surveillance in this story (technology definitely plays a factor in this one, despite Bryant's continual misuse of his cell phone). I enjoy the heck out of them. If you like your mysteries straight, perhaps not for you, but for me, just my cup of hot cocoa!

book icon  Little Vampire Women, Louisa May Alcott and Lynn Messina
If I'd known this book was this funny, I would have read it long ago.

Part of the movement that paired classic books with monsters, starting way back with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, this is the supposed "true" telling of Alcott's classic work. The March family, vampires all, are humanitarians who eschew human blood for more humane animal blood, but otherwise the narrative is the same as Alcott's with otherworldly interruptions or changes (for instance, Jo isn't a writer in this one; she's in training to defeat vampire slayers by means of modern methods, until Professor Bhaer encourages her to rely on good old-fashioned vampire instinct). Messina's sense of the absurd comes to the fore in many chapters (the reference to Beth and the kittens convulsed me), such as the commentary about the etiquette of attending a mixed vampire/human gathering (it's considered bad form to bite someone's neck...or stake someone). Jo's search for the perpetrator of the disease that strikes Beth also adds a novel twist to the familiar tale.

A bit gory, but with vampires you must know it would be, but amusing. A good Hallowe'en read!

book icon  Trixie Belden and the Mystery of the Uninvited Guest, Kathryn Kenny
Okay, a little backstory here: girls who grew up in the 1950s-1970s will remember Trixie Belden as the anti-Nancy Drew; instead of a lawyer dad, a roadster, and everything at her fingertips, she had two older brothers (one who teased), a pesty younger brother, a stay-at-home Mom, and a Dad who worked in a bank. They all lived at Crabapple Farm, near the village of Sleepyside-on-Hudson in New York. The farm was off the beaten path, so Trixie didn't have any friends nearby until Madeleine "Honey" Wheeler and her family moved into the big Manor House up on the hill. A "poor little rich girl," Honey was a sheltered, sickly child—until she meets Trixie. The two thirteen-year-olds become fast friends and almost immediately start solving mysteries together, starting with the appearance of a redheaded teenage boy named Jim at the abandoned Ten Acres estate in The Secret of the Mansion.

Sixteen books were written about Trixie, Honey, their family and friends, and the activities of the kids' club, the Bob-Whites, between 1948 and 1970, when Whitman books dropped the series. I collected these sixteen books, in which the characters aged, moved up a grade, and began the long process of growing up, but I skipped the newer set that began in 1977 because of the capricious decision to freeze all the kids' ages (of course! the publisher didn't want them growing up!). However, when a stack of books #17-#31 hove into view at the library book sale for only fifty cents each, how could I resist?

Boy, was I surprised, too! Now, granted, one of the appeals of Trixie was that she was often impetuous. Too many times she acted before she thought. But she's a good kid at heart, which is why I was flabbergasted at the way this book opened, with Trixie practically foaming at the mouth over the visit of her cousin Hallie from the West Coast. Apparently Trixie and Hallie have "issues" going back to childhood, but we really don't know what the rivalry is all about, besides the fact Trixie seems to be resentful because Hallie is pretty. In short order suddenly Trixie thinks she's fat. (She's "sturdy"—that's not fat.) And apparently is having a cow just because Jim might think Hallie was pretty. Seriously? Plus six-year-old Bobby ends up being threatened with bodily harm, which I found disconcerting. The older kids have been threatened with guns and knives before, but on Bobby it seems a bit much.

The rest of the mystery isn't so bad, with former bad boy Dan accused of theft before he vanishes and a wheelchair-bound woman trying to horn her way into Jim's cousin Juliana's wedding. But wow, the Trixie-angst in the first half of the book is shocking. I hope that doesn't continue in the rest of the later books.

book icon  The Doomsday Vault, Steven Harper
Alice is a lass in a steampunk Victorian London, doomed to spinsterhood by the mysterious deaths of her family in the clockwork plague and her peculiar interest in automatons; Gavin is a music-loving cabin boy on a dirigible overtaken by pirates who is frantically trying to escape the unsavory attentions of one of his captors. Naturally, these two must meet!

In the meantime it's a glorious, grand adventure filled with secret societies, women operating "out of their place," steampunk puzzles and automated cats, airships and steam horses, and hulks of stalking zombies in a London still fraught with late Dickensian overtones: coal smoke, gaslit alleys, and the requisite "mad scientists," who here are victims of the clockwork plague. Despite the fact that modern man's fascination with conspiracy theories also rears its ugly head, this is a nonstop action piece from beginning to end, with a feisty female lead and surprises around every corner. I galloped through it in a couple of days.

book icon  December 1941, Craig Shirley
I really, really wanted this book when it was released; I loved the idea of a day-by-day chronicle of December 1941, not just straight on war-news, but something that would give you an idea of how people lived back then, what they read in books and newspapers, what was popular culture suddenly interrupted by violence. And on that note, the book does succeed. While each chapter begins with war-related headlines, the writer endeavors to give you a seat in the kitchen or parlor in 1941 America, reading the newspapers and magazines of the day. War news from Europe mixes freely with hit movies, discoveries in science, world news, the inequalities of the races, behind the scenes at the White House and in Congress, sports, advertisements for Christmas gifts, and more. Once Pearl Harbor is attacked, we also have more personal war-related glimpses: the arrivals in homes of telegrams announcing the death of a son or father or the relentless efforts of the military to hold sites in the Pacific like the Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong. Winston Churchill arrives in Washington, DC.

Unfortunately, the effect of all this information is rather overwhelming; I would say this is not a book you would read in one sitting. Chapter by chapter is a more fitting way to address it. Sadly, reading it chapter by chapter to get a feel for the time and place is about all you can do with this book, since it is filled with factual errors, typos, and repetitions, not to mention pedestrian writing. It looks like it was rushed to print at the last minute with no proofreading or fact checking at all. (Heck at one point, the printed book actually has blank spaces in it where it was supposed to calculate the days, hours, and minutes since the war started, but no one bothered to fill it in before the book was published.) If these were obscure facts it would be one thing, but items like who was Secretary of the Navy at the time, or what day December 1, 1941, fell on, or the number of pilots in the RAF, are pretty much basic. To get that 1941 feeling, borrow from the library or buy it for a dollar from a library book sale, and for God's sake, take the facts with whopping big grains of sea salt.

book icon  Will Sparrow's Road, Karen Cushman
Cushman's newest book comes with a twist: while her previous protagonists have all been girls, the hero of this Elizabethan tale about a traveling circus is a young boy whose abusive father sold him to a tavern keeper in exchange for beer. When Will finds he will again be sold, perhaps for the terrifying job of being a chimney sweep, he flees, meeting what he thinks are helpful folk on the road who only steal from him. So Will swears to not trust anyone again and soon finds himself as errand boy and hawker for a traveling "freak show," whose company includes an inebriated dwarf and a girl with the furry face of a cat, plus a blind juggler and a man with an "educated" pig.

Prickly Will, for obvious reasons, is not the most likable character at first, and it takes him a long time to learn a lesson akin to The Frog Prince and the story of "The Golden Man" on Lost in Space, but it paints a fascinating picture of life in 1599 and the means of entertainment back then, and how those who were unusual faced prejudice and banded together to survive. Cushman's portrayal of Elizabethan life is so vivid: the colors and the smells of the marketplace and the midden, the piercing cold of the rain and swimming heat of the sun, the noise of the crowds and the mouthwatering descriptions of food—young Will is always hungry, as most boys are—that this book is a delight to read if only for those, but the story of Will and his traveling companions is just as compelling. A great way to introduce an older child to everyday life in a different era.

14 October 2012

HIR (Highly Incorrigible Reader) Postscript

On the way to do a distasteful task (buy clothing), I made one more stop at the book sale. Arrived when they opened at one to find only a dozen people there. I had only fourteen dollars, so I had to be good even if I found a lot of things.

Only six books this time:

All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life by Jack Santino, which I can now take off my Amazon wish list.

The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers, Volume II (no Volume I, sadly).

World Book's Christmas in the Netherlands (a bit in bad shape, but how could I abandon Sinter Klaas and Black Peter?).

The #20 Trixie Belden I missed on Friday, Mystery Off Old Telegraph Road.

Beany Malone, the second book in a long-running series.

and Susannah of the Yukon, the sequel to Susannah, A Little Girl of the Mounties (you may have seen the Shirley Temple version, Susannah of the Mounties).

12 October 2012

HIR (Highly Incorrigible Reader)

So, I told myself sternly. NO books you don't need this year! Don't buy anything at the library book sale that you don't need.

But I needed these books. Honest.

Yes, totally incorrigible when left in the company of books. Especially inexpensive books. I only spent $32 on two reusable grocery bags of books I almost couldn't carry to the car.

This year I was determined to get there when the doors opened and I made it. (Never mind the guys had shown up to cut the grass when I told them to come next Thursday. Whatever.) To discover a line! Really, there were folks lined up to get into the doors, most of them senior citizens to whom dollars are precious. I do understand.

(We were all keeping a weather eye—pun intended—on the sky. The prediction was for only 20 percent chance of rain, but as I parked the car near the equestrian arena (these events are held in Jim Miller Park, where they have the county fair every year and rodeos several times a year), there was an ominous grey-shading-to-black cloud on the horizon, and by the time the line started to move the dark cloud was covering one third of the sky, with two funny ripples in it, like it was folded. I should have taken a photo. I fully expected it to rain while I was inside, but there was no precipitation.)

I usually make a beeline for the Christmas books first. After two times of having them down near the computer books, this year they were back up front. And I found more of those "Christmas in [name of country]" World Book-published volumes. Having not looked at the ones I bought in the spring—well, since spring, since I'm waiting until closer till the holidays to read them—I may have bought some duplicates, but if I did, each duplicate has a good home elsewhere. (I just checked—I bought two duplicates, but one was intentional. Volumes are Christmas in New England, ...Australia, ...Ukraine, ...France, ...Ireland, ...Denmark) Plus another for someone who'll like it, and a book of Christmas plays. Also looked through humor, travel, nature, with no results except for Mouse Tales (a behind-the-scenes look at the Disney parks) and then realized I couldn't put off going through the offensive stroller crowd longer and went into the next building where the children's books were.

I didn't find any miracles, like any Lois Lenski regionals or history books, or a hardback copy of The Singing Tree, or any more "All-of-a-Kind Family" books. Did find three "Dear America" books that looked promising (Alamo, suffragettes, Native American captive), a Christmas book I believe I have but someone else should enjoy, a copy of the first Happy Hollisters with no dustjacket, an ARC of a mystery book that takes place in Boston (I saw several ARCs there; you're not supposed to give away or sell advance reader's copies, at least according to Amazon Vine, but are supposed to destroy them after six months if you don't want them), and an old Scholastic copy of El Blanco: Legend of the White Stallion, which was one of my favorite Disney shorts in the 1960s.

I also found a real curiosity: Yourself and Your House Wonderful, which has a copyright date of 1940, but two earlier ones of 1902 and 1932, and is a health book for grade-school kids (definitely older kids because it talks about not believing in Santa Claus at one point). I opened it up to a page where it urges you not to bite your fingernails because the bits going into your stomach can possibly kill you! Will be interested in the other old-fashioned advice it imparts!

I also came home with a stack of Trixie Beldens. If you don't know anything about the series—girl sleuth living with two older brothers and one younger one who befriends wealthy girl who moves in next door and they have adventures—it was a series of sixteen books written from the 1940s to the 1960s. There was a gap of seven years, then 22 more were written between 1977 and 1986. In the first sixteen books, the juvenile characters were allowed to grow older and have birthdays; after that the series basically froze them in time. Trixie and best friend Honey were eternally fourteen, Trixie's big brothers stuck at fifteen and seventeen, and little Bobby forever five. I lost interest when this happened and didn't buy any more, but there they were, just ripe for the buying... I found 17-31, missing #20, a goodly amount.

I actually never did get a good look at the history or biography sections, as when I got back there my arms were about to fall off [grin]. After wandering about a little, however, I did get a copy of an illustrated volume about Edith Holden, who wrote Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady, which became phenomenally popular in the 1970s when they were showing Upstairs, Downstairs. It's mostly her artwork, which is why I bought it.

I also bought a real find: Margery Fisher's Who's Who in Children's Books, which is a list of famous characters from juvenile fiction, mostly American and British—the Pevensie children, Charlotte the spider, Winnie-the-Pooh, the Moffats, the Swallows and Amazons, the March sisters, the "Railway children, Danny Dunn, Christina Parsons can all be found here—but Strewweltpeter and Pippi Longstocking and the Moomins also appear. I saw this in some bookstore back in the 70s, couldn't afford it (originally $22 back then), and have coveted it ever since. Not only is it a neat reference book, but it is full of lovely illustrations from most of the books mentioned, so you have artwork by Ardizzone, Verney, Pyle, Shepard, Sendak, Ransome, Potter, Baynes, etc. Really chuffed about that one!

[Later: Looks like the last two and a half chapters are missing from the House Wonderful book, including the rest of the chapter about reproduction. This came from a religious publishing house, however, so I'm sure most of the mechanics have been left out.]

30 September 2012

Books Finished Since September 1

I can't believe I read so few books in September, but then this year's workload was a trip and a half! September also marked the appearance of several of the fall magazines, and I am continuing to read magazines on my e-reader and tablet. I can get both "BBC History Magazine" and the British "Country Living" on Zinio, as well as having found a new nostalgia magazine, "Looking Back," available on Nook along with "Good Old Days." I still get "Reminisce" by mail, but it's half the magazine it was—literally. Since Reiman sold out to "Reader's Digest," the magazine is full of ads for eldercare items. Sad, really.

book icon  See You in a Hundred Years, Logan Ward
When Borders died last year, I made a spate of purchases that included some "back to nature" texts, which I am strangely drawn to despite my dislike of anything that smacks of gardening and working in the hot sun; this is the first one of them that I have read. Author Ward, seeing an incredulous child at a New York City zoo not know what kind of animal a cow was, was determined that his toddler son not grow up the same way. Exhausted by their high-power city jobs, he and his wife Heather decide to chuck everything for a year and live exactly as a farm family would have lived in 1900: no running water and indoor plumbing, no telephones or electronic equipment of any kind. They would live off the land of the farmhouse they bought, cook their own meals, travel by bicycle, horse or "shank's mare."

In general, this is an entertaining book, although I was continually irritated by their lack of pre-planning. They eventually have to choose the old farmhouse they finally buy because it's too close to the date they have set to start their "project." They appear (at least it doesn't show up in the narrative) to not do a lot of research about self-sufficiency. They plan to travel by horse and wagon, although Ward has no idea how to handle, harness or drive the horse he buys—in fact, he starts out afraid of her. The first part of the book has him continually ranting at the antics of the two milk goats they buy; did they not read up on keeping goats and know the creatures were that mischievous or persistent? And it only strikes Ward when they get to the farm that there are a lot of snakes about and these pose a danger to his mischievous toddler!

Thankfully, the Wards had indulgent neighbors who were willing to help out. One neighbor teaches him to harness and train Belle, the horse; others bring them vegetables and baked goods so they won't starve until their harvest comes in. By harvest time they have fallen into the rhythm of the land and the book settles down, if it wasn't for some other unfriendlier "natives," like the rude occupants (adults, not kids) of the Boy Scout camp up the road and the nighttime excursions of hunters who said the previous owner said it was "okay" to hunt on his land.

A good read eventually, but, again, the lack of planning may aggravate you. Also, warning: much coarse language. Didn't bother me, but I know some folks don't like it.

book icon  Illuminating Torchwood, edited by Andrew Ireland
This is a collection of essays about the British series through season 2, so don't expect chatter about "that death" in "Children of Earth" (although it's mentioned) and the sadly Americanized and overlong "Miracle Day." Wished the book hadn't concentrated so much on the sexuality issue, although, ironically, the sexually essays were the most interesting of the batch. Jack and Gwen are heavily emphasized; wish there had been some separate essays on the rest of the team—be interesting to see how the essayists though Owen or Tosh "ticked." And, really, folks, how about a nice article about Rhys? He's the one who keeps Gwen "normal." Still, enjoyed most of the essays, especially one about how costumes define the characters.

book icon  The Anatomy of Death, Felicity Young
The suffragette movement in Great Britain forms the backdrop to this story about a young woman who has just overcome great odds to graduate medical school and who arrives in London to serve as that city's first female coroner. Dody McCleland comes from an unconventional family in which women are encouraged to defy conventions to achieve their goals, and her younger sister Florence is as militant a suffragette as Dody is a dedicated physician. But when a prominent noblewoman is discovered to have been murdered at a suffragette rally where the police have been witnessed beating the participants, all want to know: is a law enforcement officer to blame? Inspector Matthew Pike, lame from a battle wound, is given the case, and begins to trust this "odd woman" who has defied convention and also wants to discover the truth.

This is a fast-moving story which painlessly imparts some history along with its plot, although I dare anyone to get through the chapter about the force-feeding of jailed women hunger-strikers without queasiness—plus admiration for the women who fought for their rights when all were against them, even others of their sex. It doesn't have the depth of one of Anne Perry's Victorian novels, but the characters are enjoyable. It probably can be read by older teens who enjoy a good mystery as well as adults who want a glimpse of past social evils and the people willing to try to change them.

book icon  Steampunk'd, edited by Jean Rabe and Martin H. Greenberg
Anthologies are always a hit-or-miss type of book. Some contain only a few good stories among many weak entries. However, this isn't one of them: a paperback offering full of dandy steampunk-themed tales. I had my favorites, but I can't name one that I actually thought was bad. The steampunk is addressed in different manners, so there are not just repetitive stories about clockwork men or airships, and there are some odd, moody stories that are total surprises, especially "Foretold," about Russian meteorite scavengers. Nor do the traditional Victorian settings alway appear. "The Battle of Cumberland Gap," for example, takes place in a Napoleonic alternate universe where a French empire is making headroads into British America with terrifying steam-powered war machines, and the splendid "Nubian Queen" is the story of Sahdi, a bold African queen in a universe where Rome's empire was overturned. Occasionally historic figures appear, as in "Imperial Changeling," a new take on what happened at Mayerling. Even dinosaurs and a "machine whisperer" make appearances. Steampunk fans in search of something a little different will enjoy this one.

book icon  Princess Elizabeth's Spy, Susan Elia MacNeal
"Hope is back!" Margaret "Maggie" Hope, that is, American-raised, British-born young woman who previously held a typist's job under Winston Churchill and succeeded in foiling enemy plots while discovering new—and sometimes unpleasant—facts about her own parents. As this sequel begins, she has graduated from "spy school" a little deficient in the physical nature of the occupation. She is therefore resentful when, instead of being sent overseas to help the Allies, she is relegated to going undercover at Windsor Castle where the Royal family is living, ostensibly as a maths tutor for fourteen-year-old Princess Elizabeth because of suspicions the family may be in danger. And no sooner does Maggie arrive than one of the princesses' ladies-in-waiting dies in a gruesome accident.

Other reviewers have termed Maggie's adventures "Nancy Drew for adults" while the publisher describes them as "for lovers of Jacqueline Winspear...and Anne Perry." You will certainly find more Nancy Drew here; MacNeil's books contain none of the insight or introspection Winspear and Perry provide for their characters. There are nice peeks at the Royals and their servants in a wartime palace, eating rationed food and the lively banter between teenage "Lilibet" and her mischievous younger sister Margaret, but...and dare I use that description again this year?...a "boys own adventure" feel about the rest of the plot, which includes machinations to put the disgraced Duke of Windsor on the throne, red herrings, and occasional glimpses of Nazis up to no good, not to mention modern-day sensibilities about homosexuality and one character's irritating habit of referring to Maggie as "Magster," which was, what, a 1980s thing?

You'll manage this novel best if you put your brain in idle and enjoy the whopping great adventure of the "B movie"/serial wartime mystery plot, best imagined in black and white. Nancy Drew could only dream of this happening to her!

31 August 2012

Books Finished Since August 1

book icon  My Best Friend is a Wookie, Tony Pacitti
When young Tony is bullied yet again, his mother shows him his first Star Wars film, The Empire Strikes Back. Voila! A fan is born!

This is Pacitti's sometimes funny, sometimes sad, and occasionally self-indulgent story of his love affair with the Star Wars films, from being succor in his childhood as the small, shoved-around "new kid" (who inadvertently gets himself a damning nickname not long into the new school year) though his teen and college years. His growing dismay with the prequel films provides a parallel to the blues of growing up and the pain of failed romances.

It's pretty much a book that any fan of any film or television series can empathize with. His fandom, like many fandoms to many people, provides a refuge from taunting classmates and later forms a bond between him and the fellow fans who become his friends.You'll especially enjoy this if you're a Star Wars fan, but the situations can apply to any fandom.

book icon  Jane, Robin Maxwell
Jane Porter, uncensored! When a struggling pulps writer meets an outspoken woman at an archaelogical presentation, he doesn't realize this will lead him to a tale so fantastic he can't even tell it in its original form. But even his own version is so mesmerizing it becomes immortal.

This is the story of Tarzan from Jane's point of view, and the struggling writer she tells the tale to is, of course, Edgar Rice Burroughs. Burroughs presumably retrofit the true story for his audience, as Maxwell's Jane is a far cry from Burroughs' prim lass who accompanies her father on a treasure-hunting expedition. Maxwell's Jane is an independent woman who studies medicine with the approval of her indulgent father, rides astride, and defies her strict mother as often as she dares, until the tall tales of a brash American explorer send them to "deepest darkest Africa." And there the self-assured, charming American begins to change...or was he like that all along?

I enjoyed the heck out of this, but then I'm not a Tarzan devotee except for having seen some of the Weissmuller films and the 1960s series. Those who are Burroughs series purists may not appreciate Maxwell's minor changes to Tarzan's life story, or her placement of Jane in the forefront, but it was enjoyable for me to see the Edwardian-idealized Jane as a strong character. The portrayal of early 20th-century Africa under the thumb of colonialism and the jungle scenes are quite vivid, and her Tarzan seemed much more approachable, especially as Jane learns his fantastic story.

book icon  The Geography of Bliss, Eric Weiner
The bad thing about listening to podcasts is that they lead you into book purchases. "The Splendid Table" and "A Way With Words" are major offenders; this one came from "Travels With Rick Steves." Weiner, an NPR commentator, travels to different countries in search of elusive happiness and finds the definition of the word is different for each society—well, except in Moldova, where it's so miserable it's difficult to find anyone who's happy (seriously—when I finished the chapter on Moldova I was depressed). In Switzerland happiness seems to be about conformity, in the Netherlands about doing your own thing. He visits Shangri-La (Bhutan), where they actually have a process of Gross National Happiness, and Qatar, where it seems money can buy happiness. In Great Britain there's an experiment on the "telly" to make a town happy; in India meditation is the fashionable path.

Sending Weiner out to discover happiness is rather like watching Lou Grant tour for the same reason. I'm not familiar with his NPR broadcasts, but he wanders like an amiable bear through country after country, affording us tantalizing glimpses of other cultures. I particularly enjoyed the chapter about Iceland, where people are happy despite the long dark winters, but all of it produces a particular kind of happiness born of reading about people and places (even in gloomy Moldova). I'd recommend—happily!

book icon  Star Trek FAQ, Mark Clark
I saw this at Books-a-Million and wondered...after dozens of books and nonfiction magazine articles and even documentaries, what else can be said about the original Star Trek? Especially to me, who had the seminal Stephen Whitfield book back when it first came out in paperback in 1968.

I was pleasantly surprised upon buying it, however, that it still had much to offer. Clark doesn't concentrate solely on the series, although there is a chapter summing up the 79 original episodes and information about creating the series and the setting. Instead Clark talks about Gene Roddenberry's earlier series, what led him to create Star Trek, and what classic science fiction inspired it. He also talks about the three main actors' careers previous to Trek (as well as shorter pieces about the supporting cast), and there are chapters addressing the noted science fiction authors who wrote series' episodes, connections between Trek and other SF series, creatures and gadgets and concepts and social commentary introduced by the series, the animated series and the novels, the efforts to revive Trek as a series before Next Generation came to the screen, even tributes to DeForest Kelley and the luckless "redshirts."

Clark proves there is still something more to be said about Star Trek, and what results is a great fannish read!

book icon  The Story of Charlotte's Web, Michael Sims
I used this as a bedtime book for several weeks and it is just perfect for that purpose. Don't expect a meticulous biography of E.B. White; this charming, sweetly-narrated book is about his animal-loving 19th-century upbringing and the beloved farm he later purchased with his wife Katherine, whom he met at the "New Yorker," the latter which formed the inspiration of his children's classic about Wilbur the pig and the spider who befriends him. Sims shows us the genesis of the gentle book and its characters--at one time Fern was not part of the narrative; it is difficult to now imagine the book without her--and even White's drawings of his conception of the Zuckerman barn and his edits to the story, including the changing of Charlotte's name as he did further research into spiders. White's work at the "New Yorker" and the colorful characters he worked with are also touched on. If you've grown up loving Charlotte's Web, you should enjoy this one: perfect for bedside or fireside, or, as White might have enjoyed a good book, in a hammock under a shady tree.

book icon  The Mammoth Book of New Sherlock Holmes Adventures, edited by Mike Ashley
All right, I have to confess, I read this book in such a long period of time, one story at the time, that I'm not sure I remember half of them. I can tell you what my least favorite story in the book was, something called "The Adventure of Vittoria the Circus Belle," which I found tedious and not at all Holmesian. The other stories range from fair to good; many are attempts to recreate stories that Dr. Watson "skipped," so that there are two stories featuring "the red leech" Watson hinted so tantalizingly about, one of them featuring Holmes and Watson's contemporary, H.G. Wells. The stories are placed in chronological order with "editor's notes" for each fitting them into the Holmes canon, so that we begin with Holmes' involvement in a mystery at Oxford University during his tenure as a student to the final story where Holmes recruits Watson from medical service on a World War I medical station. Peter Tremayne, Michael Moorcock, H.R.F. Keating and twenty-three others provide the tales.

book icon  Summer at Forsaken Lake, Michael D. Beil
If you run your eyes over children's book covers these days, filled with supernatural characters, and wonder "Whatever happened to the old-fashioned kids' adventure book?," ponder no more. This is the closest you'll get to the old "kids on their own" tale as you can find today. The Mettleson kids, 12-year-old Ncholas and his younger twin sisters Hayley and Hetty, don't know what to expect when they're sent to their Uncle Nick's lake home for the summer. But in a few weeks the children are learning to sail on Goblin, patronizing the local library, and, in Nicholas' case, making friends with a girl named Charlie who pitches a wicked curveball.

There's also a hidden compartment in Nicholas' bedroom (which used to be his Dad's), an unfinished movie about a local legend called "the Seaweed Strangler," and many more secrets about a shattering event in his father's past.

Delightfully in the company of an adult who eschews "helicopter parenting" and organized activities, the Mettleson kids and Charlie have a summer to remember in this book to remember. We are reminded how intelligent, resourceful, and responsible tween-age children can be, and there are so many neat sailing, building, and amateur film adventures the kids can have that I doubt if anyone misses marathon television sessions and video games. I particularly liked the way Charlie is a girl who is good at baseball and who's shown as competent at working on a boat, but she isn't thrown up as a "See! Girls can do anything boys can do!" lesson. You'll feel like you spent a super summer at Forsaken Lake yourself and wondering why they just don't make them like this anymore.

book icon  The Great Silence, Juliet Nicolson
This is Nicolson's "bookend" to her previous The Perfect Summer: England 1911, Just Before the Storm, which I so enjoyed, and it is equally enjoyable, just the sort of history book I love, one which follows the repercussions of the war on the men who fought, the women who waited (whilst fighting for their rights), and a society which was thrown into upheaval. An opening chapter about the war segues into the Armistice, and then into the real meat of the volume. Chapters 3 and 4 I found of particular interest, as it dealt with the rehabilitation of wounded men. This was a war in which men not only lost limbs, but endured frightening facial wounds. Many retreated from the world, but strides in plastic surgery made the return almost bearable for some.

Other people inhabit this absorbing book: the enigmatic T.E. Lawrence, Dame Nellie Melba, Nancy Astor, the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII), a young Barbara Cartland, Vera Brittain, a wakening lower class that realizes that the future need not be "in service," the suffragettes, and even a real-life Tommy Atkins. The book ends with the dedication of the Cenotaph and the internment of an unknown British soldier in Westminster Abbey. My thanks to Nicolson for yet another great read.

book icon  Alone in the World, Catherine Reef
This is a simple, but unflinching, children's picture and text book about orphans and orphanages in American history. While avoiding intense explicit discussion of violence, racism, abuse, and want, Reef still manages to realistically outline the bleak, often frightening world of abandoned children. (She also points out that most "orphan" children weren't completely parentless; most just had a parent who couldn't afford to keep them or were encumbered by their own personal and physical demons like alcohol and drug abuse.) Drawings and then photographs chronicle the changing face of the orphan from colonial America well through the 1950s, and the photographs are as fascinating for adults as well as for children. A nice solid introduction to the concept of the orphan/orphanage that forms the basis of so many classic children's books.

book icon  The Last Dickens, Matthew Pearl
Publisher's clerk Daniel Sand dies while on an errand for his employer, James Osgood; his death is dismissed as a return to the debilitating drug use Sand suffered from some years earlier. But Osgood as well as Sand's sister Rebecca believe Daniel would not have betrayed them in that manner. Was Daniel killed, and perhaps for what he carried—all that existed of Charles Dickens' final, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood?

Pearl's novel is a labrynth mix of the search for any hidden chapters or notes having to do with Drood, as well as insight into the cutthroat world of 19th century publishing, where it was fair game for books to be pirated and published by unauthorized means, and where corporate takeover attempts weren't much different from today's. In a flashback sequence, we relive Dickens' last tour of the United States as publisher Osgood and accountant Sand (an outcast in feminine society because she has dared to divorce her abusive husband) race to England to see if any other part of the final work can be found. The sinister world of the opium trade, which prominently figures in Drood and, as even exists today, the demands of fanatics and publicists desperate for the celebrity figure's attention, are also explored as Osgood suspects that a neurotic woman fan may have access to the manuscript.

I didn't quite like this as much as Dante Club or The Technologists, but in this centenary year of Dickens, I enjoyed finding a novel that explored his superstar popularity as well as his ceaseless problems with his books being pirated, all worked up into a mystery of Drood-ish proportions.

25 August 2012

A New Work by Laura Ingalls Wilder to Be Published

This is super news!

Anyone who has read more than one biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder knows that the genesis of the "Little House" book came from Laura's handwritten memoir, Pioneer Girl. Intended more for mixed-aged audiences rather than children, Pioneer Girl tells the real story of Laura's life, the one that wasn't toned down and simplified for children. The death of her baby brother, the discovery of a home in which a murder happened while on their journeys, the Ingalls' sad stay in Iowa, the story of how a woman offered to adopt Laura...all these untold stories are in the manuscript.

For years, if you wanted to read Pioneer Girl, you had to pay for its photocopying. Now the book will be available to all. More here: Publication of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Pioneer Girl.

03 August 2012

New American Girl Book Set

A new American Girl series arrives in September! The girl is Caroline Abbott, and she lives in Sacketts Harbor, New York, on the shores of Lake Ontario, during the War of 1812. Kathleen Ernst, the author, talks about the book on her web site.

Pretty cool that the series commemorates the War of 1812 on its 200th anniversary.

I find it amusing that I'm excited about the books when most of the other sites that I have looked at talking about the new character, whether by girls or by women, are focusing on the doll that goes with the books, not the books themselves. I guess I just will never be into dolls. :-)

Well...maybe if they have a red-headed one in an interesting decade. I'd love to see an Italian girl growing up in some Italian neighborhood in the 1950s...saddle shoes, poodle skirts, the works! Or something taking place in the 1920s. Perhaps a girl crossing the prairie in the 1870s or in a growing Western town of the 1880s? A colonial girl (late 1600s-early 1700s) not in the usual settings (Salem, Plymouth, or Virginia), but somewhere in the Middle Colonies. No one ever treats that period in that setting.

31 July 2012

Books Finished Since July 1

book icon  That's Not in My American History Book, Thomas Ayres
This is a collection of essays about the myths that still surround events in American history despite efforts to quell them, the most obvious being "facts" like the people of Columbus' time not knowing that the world was round, that Charles Lindbergh was the first person to fly the Atlantic, that the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, Paul Revere finished his famous ride, etc. If you're already up-to-date on these "mythconceptions," you'll learn about the original fourteenth state (it wasn't Vermont), an "aeronaut" before the Wright Brothers, an interesting theory about Pocahontas, all about Benedict Arnold and why he might have been driven to becoming a traitor, and more.

Unfortunately reviews have pointed out that several of Ayres' "facts" are untrue, including the story of "Taps," but, as with all historical trivia books, this one should just be a springboard to delve more deeply into a subject rather than taking the statements automatically at face value. This book has merit just for pointing out that there is more to American history than white men making it all happen: many cowboys (and some cavalry troops) were African-American and Native American, there were women who worked behind the scenes in all wars (and they weren't just doing laundry and rolling bandages, etc.).

book icon  The Helene Hanff Omnibus: Underfoot in Show Business, 84 Charing Cross Road, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, Apple of My Eye, Q's Legacy, Helene Hanff
More years ago than I would care to remember, a little book became a big best seller, Helene Hanff's 84, Charing Cross road, the epistolary tale of Hanff's friendship with the employees of a London bookshop. She later wrote a sequel in which she finally got to visit England, but, in the way of things, I never got around to buying it. When a friend read Charing Cross for the first time, it reminded me I had never found the sequel. Via Amazon Marketplace, however, I came upon a bargain: both of the books, plus three other of Hanff's books in an omnibus edition. So after refreshing myself in the original, I then finally read the sequel with a grin of delight on my face as Helene meets some of the people she wrote to all those years and got to complete most of her dreams of seeing what was her magical world: literary England. The other books are just as much fun: Underfoot is the tale of how she tried to become a playwright and ended up writing for television; Apple is the story of her odyssey around her home town of New York City with a friend while writing a tour book; and Q's Legacy brings Helene's story full circle. "Q" was Sir Arthur Quiller Couch, whose books on writing and literature Hanff devoured as her own education when she was unable to finish college. It was in looking for the books recommended by "Q" that eventually drove Hanff to correspond with Marks & Co of 84, Charing Cross Road. If you enjoyed her original book, with all of her opinionated commentary, you'll probably love them all. A bonus for Hanff lovers!

Incidentally, the bookseller I bought this omnibus volume from was, you guessed it, English, which I found very fitting!

book icon  Happier at Home, Gretchen Rubin
This is Rubin's sequel to The Happiness Project, which I enjoyed last year despite the annoyed reviews asking "she's rich, why should she be unhappy?" which was the point of the book: Rubin knew she had a good life, but she was still unhappy. Knowing the only person she could change was herself, she was determined to improve her attitude.

This newest book is not as dense as the previous book, but serves as a follow-on to what has already been accomplished. Knowing her home is the most important thing to her, Rubin works on improving her happiness in and with her home starting in September as her children's school year begins and ending in May. Again, Rubin uses what works for her: putting more emphasis on improving communications with her family and her children, making special places in her home (even if they are only small corners), to not procrastinate and even do things that make her unhappy to ensure happiness in the future. Again, Rubin's way is not your own, and by using her rules as suggestions, you can tailor for yourself.

I liked the previous book better, but this has some useful tips as well. The most important one: Be Yourself.

book icon  The Ultimate Dog Lover, edited by Marty Becker
A "Chicken Soup for the Soul"-type volume (even the design is similar) of heartwarming true tales about dogs along with photographs and some training and upbringing tips. I bought mine as a remainder book and for that price it was worthwhile. A nice before-bed book for dog lovers.

book icon  Still Life With Chickens, Catherine Goldhammer
When Goldhammer went through a traumatic divorce, she found she could no longer stay in a family home full of memories. So she bought a small house by the seashore which was definitely a "fixer-upper" (some portions, like the kitchen, required gutting), along with her flamboyant teenage daughter who declared that she wouldn't move unless they could buy some chickens. To appease her daughter and her own guilt about making the child move away from her friends, Goldhammer buys an incubator and raises six chickens from birth, discovering that she gets more solace from caring for the flock than anything else in her life.

Part bucolic memoir and part coping strategy, this is a short, introspective book in the Eat, Pray, Love vein. I enjoyed it while I was reading it, but must admit it's not my usual genre, and I was glad I bought it from a remainder table. YMMV.

book icon  America's Hidden History, Kenneth C. Davis
After penning his bestsellers Don't Know Much about History and Don't Know Much about Geography, Davis completed this more-focused book about events beginning with the colonization of what became the United States through the Constitutional Convention. Subjects include King Philip's War and other conflicts between the Puritans and the Native Americans, George Washington's early career, the story of the first colony in America (not St. Augustine!), the story of Dr. Joseph Warren (whose pivotal role in the Revolutionary War is little remembered today), and more.

Some reviewers seemed disappointed by the fact that this book was not labeled more heavily as being about only the colonial period. The cover is indeed not clear about this, but by reading a description of the book this became understood, so I don't understand what the problem was. I don't read many books about this era and found this quite enjoyable since it doesn't dwell on the usual facts, although I was amused by this unfortunate typo about our first President: "...young George Washington gained entree [sic] into...most powerful families..." Well, I'm glad he was fed!

book icon  Holmes of the Movies, David Stuart Davies
This is an out-of-date, but informative British book about the portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in films, peppered liberally with photographs. It begins with the silent films and spends some time on the three portrayals of Holmes that the author finds the most notable: Arthur Wontner, Basil Rathbone (even if Nigel Bruce had to portray Watson as an ass), and Peter Cushing (despite the fact he was too short to be Holmes). The final film mentioned is the not-yet-premiered The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, which, after my vaguely remembering viewing of the Rathbone movies at a young age, was my true first introduction to the Great Detective. Isn't coincidence fun?

book icon  Rattle His Bones, Carola Dunn
For Daisy Dalrymple, it's just another day at work: she's doing a story on the new exhibition of dinosaur bones at the Museum of Natural History, although this particular outing has a holiday air as she is taking her nephew Derek and her future stepdaughter Belinda Fletcher to see the exhibit. Daisy is in the middle of an interview when a shout of pain interrupts her: one of the more unpleasant members of the staff has been killed, impaled on dinosaur bones.

It's the usual pattern in this eighth Daisy mystery, as she's embroiled directly in the case, to Inspector Alec Fletcher's dismay. The prologue lets us in on another crime in progress at the museum, so the stakes are higher than most. It's also fun to have an opportunity to wander around (even in literary form) inside an old-fashioned museum, not the bright glass-and-metal of the present, but one with polished dark wood display cases with brass trimmings, and envision the day when dinosaur theory was still very new. There's a large cast of characters, so lots of opportunity for red herrings. A nice solid entry in the series.

book icon  All My Patients Have Tales, Jeff Wells, DVM
I've been addicted to veterinarian books since James Herriot appeared upon the scene, so it was a natural that I was going to snap up this one at an opportune financial moment. It's the pleasant story of Wells' training in South Dakota and practice in Colorado, and his work with both large and small animals—and after reading Nick Trout's memoir I was happy to see there wasn't a sign of snark!

I'm not sure what else I can say about this book. It's a nice read that lovers of veterinarian stories and animals will probably enjoy. It offers a good look into the routine, emergencies, and sacrifices of a vet's life. There's some funny sequences with some of the animals—how about a pig named "Bacon" and a cow chase? I guess my "problem" with other vet books besides Herriot's is that he wasn't only telling stories about his practice, but was telling us about a now-vanished way of life and vet practice among the Yorkshire Dales, using now outmoded medicines and creaky transport, and dealing with farmers working in a traditional lifestyle. Somehow our protagonist watching television and driving a pickup truck doesn't have the same poetry. :-)

book icon  The Winter of the Red Snow, Kristiana Gregory
The Stewart family lives near Valley Forge and witnesses the terrible wintering of General George Washington's troops during the Revolutionary War. They help as best they can, offering supplies and assistance, and Abigail and her older sister help their mother do the laundry for Washington and his officers, as well as sewing shirts and knitting scarves and mittens for the soldiers who are perishing with cold and disease.

As always in the "Dear America" series, some of the books work for me and some don't. Winter is not a bad book, and there are some terrible truths that Abigail learns (the executions for deserters, for example, and the fact that not all Tories are demons as the propaganda of the time would have had them believe) that take the story beyond a children's history look at the winter of 1777, but I found the story strangely lifeless. The family and their friends never came truly alive for me.

book icon  97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement, Jane Ziegelman
This is a combination of ethnic history that can't be beat: the story of a Lower East Side New York City tenement house through the five ethnic groups that resided in the building between 1863 and 1935, how they worked and occasionally played, and the foods they ate, and how these foods entered the American way of life, from bagels to spaghetti. 97 Orchard was originally built for a German family in what was then a German neighborhood. It then by turns provided a home to Irish, German Jewish, Russian Jewish, and finally Italian families. Recipes from the era are liberally scattered through the text as Ziegelman examines the changes wrought by time and assimilation. A great read!

Incidentally, 97 Orchard Street is now the New York Tenement Museum.

book icon  The Storm Makers, Jennifer E. Smith
It all starts when Ruby McDuff sees the strange man in the family barn. The McDuffs have living in the country for a year now, so that Ruby's dad can pursue his dream to be an inventor and her Mom an artist. Next her recently moody twin brother Simon shorts out the toaster by just touching it. And then when Ruby confronts the stranger she saw in the barn, he tells her that Simon is a Storm Maker, one of an elite group of people who can manipulate the weather. But a rogue Storm Maker is planning to get his hands on Simon, to take charge of the world's weather his own way.

It's the old story: children help defeat evil, but it's not a bad spin on the genre. Ruby must keep her brother from being used by the twisted Rupert London, helped by her stranger from the barn, Otis Gray, a man with a secret, and Daisy, the town mechanic. There are a lot of Wizard of Oz riffs in the story that work well with the weather theme, and Ruby and Simon have a nice sibling relationship, not nasty enough to be off-putting, but not perfect, cloyingly supportive siblings, either. The Storm Makers are almost plausible enough to be real, and the adults as a whole are not plaster saints, but not totally profane: even the main villain has a tender spot. This would be great for read-aloud.

book icon  The Poisoner's Handbook, Deborah Blum
This is another book that I picked up from a remainder table because it looked interesting, but didn't know if I was going to enjoy, but bought because it was cheap. This book would have been worth full price—it's absolutely fabulous. It's the story of the birth of forensic medicine in New York City starting in 1915 when the city hired its first trained medical examiner, Charles Norris (previously the medical examiner was a political appointee and a drunken sot), through his death in the 1930s when his associates have formed a solid forensic team. Norris worked long into the night to learn to detect poisons even in their minutest quantity and often spent his own money on supplies and equipment. The chapters chronicle different poisons from chloroform to heavy metals, the crimes committed with these poisons, and how Norris and his team learned to detect them.

Possibly the most horrifying passages of this book involve how the Federal Government poisoned any number of people during Prohibition by adding additives like gasoline to liquor to keep people from drinking. As someone whose grandparents still made wine during Prohibition and has heard jokes about "bathtub gin," it's mind-blowing how many people died from drinking tainted alcohol and how the government was culpable. Prohibition did nothing to stop drinking and alcoholism and actually created organized crime as we know it today.

Blum writes easily and informatively about all these subjects. It's all enthralling if occasionally uncomfortable. Don't read this during dinner or if you're sensitive to descriptions of dead or diseased bodies. Super nonfiction for historical or medical fans.

book icon  13 Little Blue Envelopes, Maureen Johnson
I found the premise of this book intriguing: a teenage girl who has lived a mostly sheltered life receives a set of blue envelopes from her recently deceased, free-spirited aunt. The first envelope instructs her to pack a backpack and go to the airport, the first step on a trip to Europe. In the process, Ginny will learn more about life, love and living large.

Well, that was the theory, anyway. As much of a devotee as I am of Auntie Mame and although weekly on his radio show Rick Steves and his guests assure me that Europe isn't dangerous, the idea of sending a rather naive seventeen-year-old girl off to Europe to discover life with nothing but a backpack and an ATM card rather horrifies me. If Ginny had been a more adventurous type maybe I would have felt differently, but she's really rather a dull heroine who basically develops a crush on the first guy she meets in Europe while she's learning about her aunt's interesting life. (Frankly, I would have preferred reading a book about the aunt.) I got the sequel to this book as a free e-book and that relieves me, since I'd like to find out what happened to a certain item that has vanished by book's end, but not enough to pay for another "adventure" of this kind. If this is female adolescent "chick lit," I know why I never read any of it at that age. I much preferred books about the space program!

book icon  The Broken Lands, Kate Milford
This is Milford's exciting prequel to The Boneshaker, taking place chiefly on Coney Island during the era in which the Brooklyn Bridge is being completed. When two evil entities, Walker and Bones, arrive in New York City, it is the crossroads of power situated there that they are setting greedy eyes on. If they can overcome the five guardians of the city, they can turn it over to Jack Hellcoal, the man who once beat the Devil at his own game. Into the mix of Tom Guyot, the African-American man who once defeated Jack, various Coney Island denizens, and real-life journalist/writer Ambrose Bierce come Sam, a young card sharp whose father died working in the cassions of the bridge, and Jin, a Chinese girl apprenticed to a fireworks master. It will take them all, and more, to defeat Walker and Bones

This is an exciting, suspenseful, and sometimes truly scary young adult novel that can be read by all ages with pleasure. Milford paints a vivid portrait of young Coney Island before the arrival of the amusement parks in an era still reeling from Reconstruction and recession, and of the great bridge that will bring changes to both Manhattan and Brooklyn. You come to care about Sam, Jin, and their companions as they protect the city they love in a story that's a little bit Bradbury and a little bit Seven Faces of Dr. Lao. A definite keeper!