31 March 2012

Books Finished Since March 1

book icon  Names on the Land, George R. Stewart
I can't say I never found anything good on the shelves of Barnes & Noble: this is a dandy volume from their scant nonfiction section, a reprint of the 1957 update of a 1944 book chronicling the history of United States place names, from "discovery" by European explorers through settlement. Early English and Spanish place names were variable and changed many times; Native American names were misunderstood and mistranslated. And some names came from jokes! Other naming conventions, in both English and Native Languages, were based on landmarks, historical events and figures, animals, and weather.

If you are a name junkie like myself, you will love this book. Did you know Dayton, OH, was named for an up-and-comer who had the unfortunate fate to back Aaron Burr? What's the mystery: was Rhode Island named after the island of Rhodes? or the Dutch word for the color red? How many cities are named after Biblical places? It's a brook in New England, but a stream in the South—what's the difference? (Nothing!) Wheeling, WV, probably has nothing to do with those objects that go around, but is a Native word for "place-of-the-head." (Someone was beheaded there.)

The writing style is slightly old-fashioned, but author Stewart brightens the text with wry humor. Linguistics fans and history buffs should love it.

book icon  Mr. Churchill's Secretary, Susan Elia MacNeal
Margaret "Maggie" Hope was born in England, but raised in the US by her aunt after the death of her parents. She is gifted in mathematics and planning to attend graduate school when her grandmother dies. Her aunt refuses to return to England, so Maggie is sent to London alone to supervise the disposition of her grandmother's estate, to which she is named heir. But the house proves difficult to sell, and Maggie lives in it instead, surrounding herself with three roommates: her American friend Paige, ballerina Sarah, and outspoken "Chuck," who is dating an RAF pilot. Maggie herself falls in love with living in London, and the plucky grit of the British, as the Phoney War ends and the Blitz begins. She hopes to find a job to challenge her mathematical abilities, but ends up accepting a position as typist in Winston Churchill's War Room instead, despite the protests of the officious office manager, who has a low opinion of women in the workplace.

The description for this book states "for lovers of Jacqueline Winspear...and Anne Perry," but you will find little of Winspear's/Perry's introspection in this novel. Once Maggie begins work for Churchill (replacing a young woman who died in a brutal attack), the plot proceeds at a fine clip, mixing an evocative portrait of wartime London with terrorist activities (not all of them German), Maggie's adjustment to working with Churchill and her efforts to be more than a secretary, her aunt's continual urging of her to come home, the presence of spies and codes, and hinted from the beginning, a hidden secret from Maggie's past.

This novel is enjoyable for the most part if you don't expect the social commentary present in Winspear's and Perry's World War I novels and can ignore several historical gaffes which are touched on in other reviews. I liked the characters for the most part and felt the inaccuracies could be skimmed over, but the story eventually gets a "boy's own adventure" feel to it as the spy/Maggie's secret/terrorist/mystery elements come together in later chapters. I am, however, interested enough in Maggie's new life in England to check out the next entry in the series.

book icon  Damsel in Distress, Carola Dunn
In this fifth in the Daisy Dalrymple series, Daisy's childhood friend Phillip Petrie has met his true love: the vivacious Gloria Arbuckle, daughter of a wealthy American businessman. Vivacious Gloria is equally smitten, and her father even likes him. But when Phillip stops to help the Arbuckles after a motor breakdown, he is kidnapped along with Gloria, then released instead of being disposed of. He finds himself at Daisy's ancestral home, now owned by her cousin, and claims to have been in a car accident. When Arbuckle contacts him, begging to keep the event silent in fear of Gloria's life, Phillip calls Daisy instead. She and her friends arrive at the estate to help Phillip search for his beloved.

This is very much an amateur crimefighting effort, as Daisy and her friends conduct awkward searches in the countryside looking for Cockney-speaking strangers. They make a good go of it, but it eventually starts feeling like a "boys' own adventure" with a bit of Trixie Belden tossed in. There are some truly exciting moments involving Daisy's adventure in a deserted cottage and the climax involving Daisy's beau Alec Fletcher, but there are incredulous moments as well. Still, enjoyable characters as always.

book icon  Origins of the Specious, Patricia T. O'Conner
Well, everyone knows you should never end a sentence in a preposition! And a double negative makes it a positive! And you can't split an infinitive! And...

Well, not quite. This book is subtitled "Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language," and with humor O'Connor goes on to bust most of those ubiquitous language myths and addresses mondegreens, spoonerisms, vowel shift, idioms, word origins that everyone knows and that aren't accurate, those "dirty words," and all the other wonderful spelling and grammar details that we word geeks revel in. If you like your English language trivia served tongue-in-cheek, this is the book for you!

book icon  The Girl is Murder, Kathryn Miller Haines
Ah, the 1940s teenager: pretty, neatly-dressed bobbysoxers having their books carried home by handsome young men with neatly parted hair, and pitching in collecting scrap, knitting for the soldiers, and saving fat during wartime!

This isn't that tale. Instead, it's the story of fifteen-year-old Iris Anderson, former private school student, now boarding in someone else's home with her grim father, who lost a leg at Pearl Harbor, in New York's Lower East Side, still stunned by her mother's suicide, the loss of her best friend Grace, and her introduction to a rough public school environment. Iris knows her father is having trouble keeping up with his cases because of the loss of his leg, and desperately wants to help him, and when a boy from her school disappears, this seems to be her chance.

This is the flip side of all those MGM Technicolor movies about 1940s teens: Iris faces a tense home life, less than friendly classmates, her own demons about her mother's death, and the less sunny-side of a teen's life during the war years is shown: zoot suit hatred, V-girls, teenage drinking and drug use, sneaking out to dance clubs, gang conflict. Haines enlivens the text with 40s slang and dress, and none of her characters is a Perfect Polly or Paul. Iris can be annoying and occasionally hard-headed, not a plaster saint from a homefront movie. If you want a nostalgic mystery, find an old Nancy Drew or Dana Girls; if you're looking for something with more rough edges, this may be your sip from the hip flask.

book icon  Under the Vale, edited by Mercedes Lackey
Er...why does the Companion on the cover have brown eyes? Companions have blue eyes. (All right, now that I look at it again, it's more a brownish-purple. But it's definitely not blue.)

More tales from Valdemar: my favorite story was "Fog of War," the war story taking place during the Tedrel War in the battle where King Sendar was killed. It was very down-to-earth about the everyday responsibilities of a soldier Herald. The first story, about the gigolo, was fun, and I also enjoyed the story about the motley group which includes a drunken Herald who refuses to acknowledge his Companion. Some of the stories, like "A Leash of Greyhounds," are more about aspects of Velgarth society rather than Herald/Companion stories; they aren't bad, but nothing special. "Discordance" is an unusual story about Bardic power that has not been addressed in other stories.

For fans of Jem and Ree, there are two stories involving the pair; a pleasant tale about Herald Jors and his companion Gervais; and another installment in the Dann family chronicles.

book icon  Sorry, I'm British!, Ben Crystal and Adam Russ
Tongue-in-cheek and thoroughly amusing book book about the vagaries of the British psyche and society, with hilarious cartoons, of which my personal favorite is the subway car full of adults reading Harry Potter books while the one child in their midst is reading Proust. I might have hoped for more entries and fewer cartoons, but for Anglophiles, this is a fun read.

book icon  Nancy Drew and Her Sister Sleuths, Michael G. Cornelius and Melanie F. Gregg
This is a dandy series of essays about...well, just as the title says. Intro and first five essays are about Nancy, the rest about Linda Carlton, a "girl aviator"; the odd "Melody Lane" books; Cherry Ames; family as portrayed in the Trixie Belden books; modern girl sleuths like Veronica Mars; Hermione Granger and how she fulfills the sleuth role; and a final occasional stream-of-consciousness essay about the effect of Nancy Drew on her readers.

Probably my favorite essay in this book is the comparison between the original books and the French translations, in which Nancy is "Alice Roy," she is of French heritage but hails from Missouri, her sense of honor and integrity is constantly played up, George Fayne is pushed to the background due to her boyish mannerisms (or given more feminine attributes!), and Bess Marvin is emphasized due to her femininity. It's an eye-opener in how the characters were tweaked to fit French sensibilities; I would have loved more essays about the different translations alone! One essay chronicles the history of the Stratemeyer syndicate and of the Nancy Drew books, another addresses the authorship question, a third touches on the race question in the original series, while the fourth illustrates how Nancy has remained naive about scientific subjects, perhaps still reflecting the attitude even today that girls do not make good scientists or researchers.

Of the remainder of the essays, the most interesting is an examination of the Lillian Garis "Melody Lane" series. Melody Lane was not a girl, but a place where the girl detective lived. These are odd "girl sleuth" books, with the girl being a reluctant sleuth in at least two of them, with contrary characters and sometimes inexplicable plots. The Hermione Granger piece is excellent; I would have preferred another essay about classic girl sleuths (Judy Bolton, perhaps, or the Dana Girls) rather than the piece about modern girl sleuths. All in all, however, a very satisfactory volume!

book icon  The Solitary House, Lynn Shepherd
This is an intriguing mystery based in part on characters created by Charles Dickens in Bleak House, with several characters from Willkie Collins' The Woman in White also mentioned. Protagonist Charles Maddox is an ex-police officer now operating as a private detective, still taking advice from his aging, ex-thief-taker uncle, whose mind is being destroyed by encroaching dementia. A powerful attorney asks the younger Maddox to find the man who sent a member of the aristocracy threatening letters. The investigation not only takes Maddox to the seamier side of London, but reveals an even more horrifying secret being kept by members of the aristocracy.

I have to admit that I have never found novels narrated in the third person omniscient to be appealing, plus occasionally the narrative itself got a bit "precious" (a few times the language almost wandered into the diction of the Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter); however, having now familiarized myself briefly with the basic plot and structure of Bleak House, I understand why the author structured her novel in this way. Her portrait of the squalor of the slums of London is vivid and often as repulsive as the real thing, she paints evocative portraits of the streets, atmosphere, and personas, and the epistolatory segments by Hester are appropriate to the language style of the day. The relationship between Charles and his aging uncle are also well done and often affecting as the brilliant former thief-taker descends into the twilight world of Alzheimer's disease. However, I didn't warm up to Charles as much as I would have liked, and, although the narrative describes him as being quite intelligent, he makes several elementary mistakes and most of his good clues come from his uncle in his more lucid moments or occasionally from dumb luck.

I suppose I might have gotten a bit more from the book had I been familiar with Bleak House or the Collins book, especially as both the attorney and Inspector Bucket are major characters in the Dickens novel. Since I haven't read either book, I have no way of knowing if these characters were portrayed faithfully, so I cannot comment on that. In summary, I enjoyed the sensual portrait of the London slums and countryside of that era and did find the mystery compelling; however, I found the lead character a bit lacking in personality except in exchanges with his uncle, and not quite as intelligent as the narrative implied.

book icon  Clara's Kitchen, Clara Cannucciari
This is a slim little book of mostly recipes by Cannucciari, who became a media sensation after the real-estate bust in a series of YouTube videos in which she cooked frugal meals from the Depression that helped her family survive. The main charm in this book is reading Clara's memories which accompany each recipe. No prim, perfect little girl, feisty Clara relates school antics, family gatherings, and everyday life, as she and her family faced the Depression with fortitude and fun. If you are amazed that people made it through hard times without iPhones, television, and designer clothes, this is the book for you.

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