31 May 2012

Books Finished Since May 1

book icon  Word Origins and How We Know Them, Anatoly Liberman
IMHO, you have to be a real word geek like me to appreciate this book of linguistic and etymological origins, which begins with the author trying to make sense of the origin of the word "heifer." There are a lot of false stories of word origins out there and Liberman addresses most of them as he chronicles onomatopoeia, Latin roots, reduplication, eponyms, unlikely compounds, foreign imports, vowel and consonant shifts, and all the lovely contradictions that come together to make the English language. I loved it all dearly; YMMV!

book icon  An Unmarked Grave, Charles Todd
In this fourth mystery involving World War I nursing sister Bess Crawford, Bess is already exhausted from nursing victims of the Spanish influenza when an orderly shows her a mysterious extra body in a shed being used as a morgue. From her medical experience Bess can tell the man has not died from the influenza or of battle wounds, and she is horrified to discover that the man is a friend of the family. Before she can report her finding, she is felled by the influenza herself, is finally shipped home for nursing by her family, and only after she recovers can she take up the thread of the mystery.

I found this new story a page-turner, although Bess' cool reception of her rising string of male admirers is starting to become a puzzle. This time there's an American soldier who aids her in her investigation. One wonders, in fact, since her father's associate seems always available when she is in trouble, and he is just about her age, is there some feeling they are both repressing about each other? I also felt that the actual perpetrator of the crime came a bit out of left field. However, her trips to and from the front feel much more logical in this volume, we see more of her family and learn of the power her father commands, and I also enjoyed the subplot about the young soldier who helps her while all the time intending to use her as an escape from the horrors of the battlefield.

book icon  Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero, Larry Tye
I debated over ordering this book because I have not really read or viewed a "Superman" product for some years: didn't watch Smallville nor the new film. However, I was brought up on The Adventures of Superman, saw the first two Christopher Reeve films, bought the comic during the WGBS years, and was a Lois and Clark fan for a while, and also have a couple of well-read books on Superman: the excellent From Serial to Cereal and an encyclopedia. So I wasn't sure what to expect when the book arrived.

I found it a complete delight to read. Over the years I had read articles about Shuster and Siegel, but never a full chronicle of their early lives, the creation of the Superman character, the sale of the rights to what later became DC, and the less than ideal circumstances of their later lives, so this information was all fresh to me, as it might not be to a Superman aficionado. I also enjoyed the examination of how Superman was reinvented for each generation; it put me in mind of the book The Life and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge, which chronicles how A Christmas Carol has been interpreted--and re-interpreted--by each succeeding generation. I very much enjoyed the summation of the circumstances surrounding George Reeves' death, the discussions of the "imaginary stories" era and the Superman dilemma during World War II, and the differing viewpoints of "who is the alter ego, Superman or Clark"? The author writes simply but effectively, with no academic pretension, making it easy reading without resorting to simplistic vocabulary. The one mistake I did notice, and hope will be corrected before publication, is the statement that Mighty Mouse was a Disney creation. Mighty Mouse was created for "Terrytoons," not for Disney.

I recommend this book for anyone who is a Superman fan, a comics fan, or even someone interested in the cultural effects of media creations.

book icon  A Stranger in Mayfair, Charles Finch
I've never been so frustrated by a mystery novel in my life. The Charles Lenox books waver from good (I loved September Society, especially the descriptions of Oxford) to merely okay, and this one was less credible than usual. This is frustrating because there is a good story in here: the murder and its motive, Lenox trying to balance his need to solve crimes with his new duties in Parliament, red herrings and cover-ups...

Our story so far: Lenox and his new bride Lady Jane, have returned from their honeymoon on the continent so that Lenox may take his post in Parliament. Their two adjoining homes have been joined together, and in order that no one be put out of work, Lenox proposes that his faithful butler Graham became his secretary in Parliament. Their friends "Toto" and Thomas McConnell are about to become parents. Everything seems at "happy endings" when Lenox is asked by an old friend to help investigate the murder of his footman. Lenox is happy to oblige, and then is astonished when the old friend makes an about-face and calls the police instead. Still, Lenox and his young assistant Jack Dallington persist as Lenox juggles crime-fighting with politics.

Where do I begin? These aristocratic characters are still too familiar with the servants. At one point, Lenox, delighted about something, says "That's terrific!" The use of "terrific" for "great" or "wonderful" didn't happen until years later. Lady Jane, who has always been interested in Lenox's work, suddenly changes her mind about it. (Incidentally, Jane is as much a cipher as ever. I can't even recall what color her hair is or the color of her eyes, if she's tall or short, or what. Lenox might as well be married to a woman of paper.) Something in the footman's past is revealed very early in the story, early enough ahead than when it finally dawns on Lenox, I shouted aloud, "It's about time you figured it out, you idiot!" The footman's employers are referred to as acting "strangely" so often it was tiring.

There are Victorian novels like those by Perry, Pearl, and others that make you feel as if you are right there in the twisting streets with horse-drawn vehicles, sidewalk vendors, slums and aristocratic homes separated by mere miles, fetid jails, paneled halls. Then there is this book, which takes every opportunity to toss you out of the setting with misplaced words, flat characters, awkward sentences, and incongruous situations. I am really hoping some improvement happens in the next novel.

book icon  Home for a Spell, Madelyn Alt
Seriously hobbled by the broken leg incurred in Alt's previous installment of the adventures of Maggie O'Neill, Midwestern witch, our heroine thinks it's time she started planning for her future without her lifelong friend Stephanie, who's planning to be married soon. Maggie also feels uncomfortable depending so much on her generous and handsome boyfriend Marcus, whom she thinks is putting off going back to school for her. So she looks into getting a new apartment—and, you guessed it, stumbles right into a murder scene.

I've been a little ticked by this series because I felt Maggie's romance with solid, dependable Tom, the police detective, was broken up with detriment to Tom in favor of romance-novel wannabe Marcus. Maybe Alt received some complaints about that because she's now dropping hints into the story that Tom wasn't exactly blameless in the breakup. Okay, I guess. Thankfully, there's more mystery in this one, although I guessed right off the bat why the murder victim was killed; it was just a matter of when the clues would lead everyone else to the same conclusion. Do wish the author would get back to the esoteric aspects of Maggie's life a bit more, rather than little spells wrought by Liss. I miss the other members of the N.I.G.H.T.S., too., although regulars Tara and Evie do help Maggie look into the motive for the murder.

book icon  Shelf Discovery, Lizzie Skurnick
A fun book of essays about those childhood classes we never forgot and still read, even if it's sometimes surreptitiously away from acquaintances and co-workers who would be goggled-eyed at your reading "a kids' book!" From the Little House books to Madeleine L'Engle and Beverly Cleary to those forbidden books written by V.C. Andrews, Skurnick (and guest essayists Meg Cabot, Laura Lippman, Cecily von Ziegesar, and Jennifer Weiner) leads us on a journey through memory lane. And as far as I'm concerned, anyone who still loves Meg Murry, Vicky Austin, the incomparable Mary Lennox and Elizabeth Ann, the Gilbreths, and Hangin' Out With Cici is my kinda gal!

book icon  Mr. Monk on the Couch, Lee Goldberg
Nope, it's not a story about Adrian Monk's psychiatric treatments. Monk and Natalie are involved in several murders that appear to be tied to possession of an old sofa when he becomes obsessed with the cleaning crew assigned to bring the crime scene back to normal after all the evidence has been gathered, while Natalie is determined to find out the identity of one of the murder victims, a man Monk considers not worth his time. And then Adrian finds out his agoraphobic brother Ambrose is sharing his home with a "tattooed biker chick." [Yuki, from the previous novel, On the Road].

My suspicions that Goldberg has been allowing the characters to grow past their original series' characterizations for a reason was given credence recently with the discovery that the novel he is working on now will be his final Monk novel. So while Monk plays cleaning crew and solves the sofa crimes, he must also come to terms with the fact that his brother has fallen in love with someone he considers unsuitable and that Natalie is trying her wings rather successfully with help from Ambrose. There's also nice character development in Stottelmeyer's new assistant, Amy Devlin, who's definitely not a Randy Disher clone. Recommended for those who enjoyed the series and have become invested in the books.

book icon  American Children's Literature and the Construction of Childhood, Gail Murray
I enjoy books examining children's lit and from some excerpts I saw this one looked fascinating. And I am not saying that the author's conclusions and examinations of the different eras in children's book publishing (from treating them as inherently sinful to treating them as the paragon of innocence, for instance) are without worth. She discusses tracts, instructional books, the much-hated series novels and dime novels, children's magazines, texts for those children who were not white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (and how publications for the white majority so misrepresented minority groups and foreigners), sexual roles, and more with a minimum of pedagogical technospeak. However, when I read a book based on facts I expect those facts to be correct, especially in a scholarly publication that could conceivably be used as a textbook, as this appeared to be. Instead, this is riddled with mistakes—and these are just the mistakes I noticed because I hadn't read every children's book noted by Murray—were there more? I could have written off "Jo Marsh" (March) as a typo if it hadn't happened twice. But "Jason" being the rich boy who befriended the five little Peppers? His father hiring Mrs. Pepper as a "housekeeper"? Nan in Little Men doesn't become a doctor, but "capitulates to practicality"? She certainly doesn't, but becomes a doctor and doesn't marry. The Grace Harlowe series is mentioned, with Grace's last name misspelled, and the later "Overland Riders" series of Grace Harlowe books is stated as being a completely separate series "written by Grace Harlowe (a pseudonym)"! Elizabeth Ann does not narrate Understood Betsy, and her transformation is not because she moves to a "warmer, more nurturing home"--it's because her original guardian cousin is TOO nurturing, smothering the child in the name of care, projecting her own fears onto her, never allowing her to become independent, while her Vermont cousins care for her, but give her room to grow and develop independence and self-worth.

Again, there are good discussions of all aspects of American children's literature in this book. But be aware there are also myriad errors.

book icon  How the States Got Their Shapes Too: The People Behind the Boundary Lines, Mark Stein
In Stein's first book, he discusses the often interesting quirks in each of the United States' boundary lines: a tip of land in Georgia sticking up into Tennessee, the reason the Western states are so large, why Idaho and Montana share that particular border, etc. In this newer entry, he talks about the people behind the making of the boundary lines, from Roger Williams, who dared to think the word of the Narragansett Indians was as important of those of the colonists, to Eleanor Holmes Norton's efforts to get representation for the District of Columbia. Along the way we meet those known—Mason and Dixon, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Sequoyah, James Gadsden (remember the Gadsden purchase, anyone?), Stephen Douglas, William Seward and more—and those little known, like what the conflict that began with Robert Jenkins' ear did to the boundaries of Georgia, how the Erie Canal influenced the edges of the first "West": Ohio, Indiana, etc., why Iowa and Utah aren't larger, why California isn't in two parts, and more. American history lovers should enjoy this book, with many small tales combining to make the quilt of states that is now the USA. And you just might be surprised who Ellis Island belongs to!

book icon  Styx and Stones, Carola Dunn
Daisy Dalrymple, now engaged to her Scotland Yard inspector and busier than ever writing articles for "Town and Country" magazine, travels to Kent at the request of her brother-in-law to see if she can ferret out who's been sending poison pen letters to him. She's glad to escape the heat of London for the cool of the country in Rotherden, but the village is just as warm with secrets aplenty, a reluctant vicar and his atheist brother, and, eventually, a dead body in the churchyard.

Repercussions from the First World War drive this seventh of the Dalrymple mysteries, and it is a bit darker than the usual story. Dunn's village characters are perhaps not so well done as Sayers' or Christie's in the beginning, but as the secrets multiply, the personalities become a little more solid and realistic. We also see a bit more of Daisy's family and her emotional ties with Alec Fletcher's daughter Belinda grow closer. A nice solid entry in the Daisy Dalrymple series.

book icon  Chicks Dig Time Lords, edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Tara O'Shea
This book won a Hugo award and deservedly so; I enjoyed every moment of my read. While there are tons of great essays about the show itself: about Nyssa, Rose, the role of the female companions, an interview with Sophie Aldred and India Fisher [Charley from the "Big Finish" audios], cosplay, sexuality in Who, etc., I was most entranced by the stories of female fans discovering the series, including a delightful piece written by John Barrowman's sister and several ladies who, basically, like me, discovered the series before everyone else and suffered the pangs of having no one to share this super discovery with—even my best friend couldn't figure out what I saw in this weird British show with a guy traveling around in a telephone booth. :-) If you're a Doctor Who fan, a must!

book icon  The Traitors' Gate, Avi
Young John Huffam's life is turned upside down the day he, his parents, and his older sister are turned out of their home because of Mr. Huffam's gambling debts. He is headed for debtor's prison unless John can talk a wealthy relative into giving the family the money. In short order the boy is amazed to find himself followed by Scotland Yard detectives as well as a bright young slum girl named Sary, and to hear whisperings about "traitor" attached to his father. But who can John believe?

This is a topping young people's Dickensian mystery, which is suitable because it's based on incidents in the life of Charles John Huffam Dickens. Avi paints a vivid, but not too scary for the younger crowd portrait of the slums and streets of London as John contends with a confusing adult world to try to save his family's future and name. The story takes place at the time David Copperfield was being serialized, and it is mentioned often, especially in connection with someone using the name "Inspector Copperfield." John is a resourceful and likeable boy, and Sary a charming gamin.

book icon  Literary Landscapes of the British Isles, David Daiches and John Flower
This is a neat book I found at the library booksale which contains essays about the landscape of England as seen through the pens of some of her most noted writers, starting with the London of Chaucer: what the city looked like at that time, her boundaries, social ills and highlights, historical events, and real-life personages. Subsequent chapters deal with the same subjects in the London of Shakespeare, Samule Johnson, Charles Dickens, and finally Virginia Woolf, before moving on to the Bath of Jane Austen, the Lake District as seen by its most famous poets, before leaving England briefly to touch on her romantic poets on the continent, and then returning to the Yorkshire of the Brontes and the fictional Wessex of Hardy. A final English chapter about the industrial revolution's changes to the country then leads into a look at Scotland in literature and the Dublin of Joyce. I liked the earliest chapters of this book the best; it seems as both the Virginia Woolf and James Joyce chapters had nothing but long narratives about the streets their characters walked, directly from the book, rather than interesting sidebars about history.

book icon  The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton, Elizabeth Speller
I didn't realize when I was offered this book that it was a sequel to The Return of Captain John Emmett, but luckily I had that book in my to-be-read file and was able to preface my reading of Easton with the introduction of the character of Laurence Bartram in Emmett.

This is a completely different book from Emmett, which chiefly deals with repercussions from the first World War and the problems of shell-shocked soldiers. Easton is more of a country house mystery in which the couple Bartram befriended during his previous investigations, the Bolithos, are involved with the restoration of a manor church and construction of a labyrinth at the request of the estate's mistress, a troubled woman whose five-year-old child disappeared almost fifteen years earlier. Restoration of the church reveals long-buried family secrets, and then a young servant disappears in an eerie echo of vanished Kitty. I found this an enjoyable, nicely-written period piece which captures the atmosphere of a country village of the early 1920s, but if you like your mysteries fast-moving, this probably isn't the read for you. Also note a rather startling sexual scene near the end of the story; I understand why it's there, but it may seem rather out-of-place after the methodical classic mystery preceding it. Missing in this outing and missed is Lawrence's friend Charles, who keeps pushing mystery books at him and previously helped him with the mystery of John Emmett.