30 June 2012

Books Finished Since June 1

book icon  Night Mares in the Hamptons, Celia Jerome
Graphic novelist and otherworldly visualizer Willow Tate is spending the summer at her mother's home in the Hamptons, having second thoughts about her engagement to her British fiance. Her hometown of Paumanok Harbor is already a quirky place, with its occupants who all have some otherworldly talent, and now everyone seems to be on edge without reason. Then Willow dreams about a kidnapped colt in their midst, miserable and alone, and realizes the turbulent feelings are being aroused by a phantom herd of horses searching for the lost foal. Can Willow find the lost one before the herd destroys her home?

No sooner is Willow out of sight of Thaddeus Grant than a sexy new man, a Texas horseman, comes into her life. So her search for the colt is well mixed with a romantic plot even more intense than in the last book. The big fun in this book is wandering about town with Willow and getting a glimpse of everyone else's talents. Sometimes it's downright funny. All the familiar elements are here: Willow clashing with her new love interest, cousin Susan, her daffy parents via long distance, Little Red the homicidal Pomeranian. But behind all the fun is the sense of mounting danger from the angry herd and the sinister reasoning behind it all. If you like your fantasy well-mixed with a little romance, this is the series for you.

book icon  Walt Disney's Worlds of Nature
book icon  Walt Disney's America
book icon  Walt Disney's Stories from Other Lands
This is a series of four (I didn't get the other, which is Fantasyland and chiefly concerned with cartoon characters) hardback books published by Disney in the mid-1960s. I was delighted to discover that many of the tales herein were based on shorts from the old Wonderful World of Color, like the story of Flash the otter from the end of Nature. The Nature book mainly consists of narratives from the old "True Life Adventure" series like "The African Lion," etc., but does have a couple of fictional efforts like the "Flash" story. The other two books contain stories that apply to its theme: Swiss Family Robinson, for instance, told in the Other Lands book and Dumbo told in the America volume. Sadly, Lady and the Tramp is still the same awful version as in the Walt Disney Storybook, where Darling stays home with Aunt Sarah and blindly ignores the cruelties being dealt Lady by the woman. Some of the retellings are disappointing: the texts of Big Red and The Absent-Minded Professor are narratives from Little Golden Books rather than being the full story like 101 Dalmatians or Peter Pan. The real highlight of both of these books are narratives from the lost Disney featurette series "People and Places." Scotland is visited as well as Sicily, the Navahos are profiled as well as the Swiss—pretty cool stuff! Wish they'd had a dogs and horses volume so we could have gotten some things like "Greta the Misfit Greyhound" and "The Horse With the Flying Tail"!

book icon  Johnson's Life of London: The People Who Made the City That Made the World, Boris Johnson
This is just a delightful book!

Johnson, the Mayor of London, known for his bicycle commutes and untidy hair, has written an affectionate and informative book that is an unabashed paean to his home, chronicling the personalities he believes stand out in the history of the city, from the warrior queen Boudica, the Romans, and King Alfred through literary greats like Dr. Johnson and Shakespeare, all the way to Winston Churchill, ending, in his own quirky manner, with Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. Johnson does a great job of illustrating the eccentricities of some of his subjects, like the scientist Robert Hooke and the acerbic Johnson and painter J.M.W. Turner, and each of the portraits sparkles with lively prose and features some fact I'd never known (such as Chaucer's military service). His chapter on Florence Nightingale also talks about a woman I had never heard of, Mary Seacole, who also nursed in the Crimea and during the time was as well known to the fighting men as "the lady with the lamp," whose contribution to the nursing effort was eventually eclipsed by Nightingale's temperance views. (Seacote was also a woman of color, which may partially explain her disappearance from the history books.) His chapter on Winston Churchill, in 26 short pages, beautifully manages to capture the bleakness of Great Britain during World War II and Churchill's key role in keeping the country afloat, despite his mistakes and short sightedness on several matters.

There's even the truth behind that most mythical of historical figures, Dick Whittington, the penniless boy who went to London to seek his fortune, and, an apprentice boy with nothing but a cat to his name, became Lord Mayor of London...well, not really. He wasn't poor and didn't have a cat, but the true story is just as interesting. There are also inserts about particularly British innovations, including the flush toilet, the King James Bible, and those distinctive double-decker buses.

This is a book for Anglophiles and history buffs, or indeed, anyone who's ever wondered "Who's that British chap with the flyaway hair?"

book icon  A Burial at Sea, Charles Finch
After what I thought was a disappointing effort in A Stranger in Mayfair, Charles Lenox returns a little bit more to form. It is three years since his marriage to Lady Jane and he is now a fixture in Parliament, but secretly longing for his old life as a detective. When his brother sends him to the Suez Canal on a clandestine political errand just as his wife is ready to give birth to their first child, he becomes embroiled in a murder that takes place aboard ship—a ship on which his young nephew Teddy has just reported for duty.

Finch nicely captures life at sea in the days between the use of sail and the takeover of engines, and creates a claustrophobic world of suspicion in which Lenox must ferret out a murderer. The creak of the wood, the swells and storms of the sea, the close quarters of the men and the fresh new lives of the young sailors all come alive in his tale. The killer and his reasoning—since this takes place on a British vessel in the Victorian era, there will be no surprise that the murderer is male—was not obvious, and even when Lenox is done ferreting out the "whodunit," his mission in Egypt has yet to come to the fore. The latter portion is less satisfying in its cloak-and-dagger, but still suspenseful.

book icon  Murder on Sisters Row, Victoria Thompson
Midwife Sarah Brandt is a bit taken aback to find out the baby she's delivering is in a brothel (and Sarah's been delivering children in less favorable neighborhoods for so long it seems a bit odd for her to be so surprised), but is determined to help the mother and her baby when the former begs to be taken away from her "irregular" life. She suggests Sarah contact a certain woman in a society that helps rescue "Magdalens" from their life of sin.

Of course since this is a Sarah Brandt mystery, you know there will soon be a death, and Sarah will be embroiled in it, to the chagrin of her tentative love interest, police detective Frank Malloy. Trouble is, Malloy needs Sarah's help, and there are no end of suspects: the quailing young mother whose attitude makes a sharp turnaround once her child is born, the dowdy secretary of the woman who was supposed to help the young woman, strangely unsympathetic rescuers and an even more oddly sympathetic madam. You'll probably spot some of the clues as you go along, but it remains a page turner of a mystery. However, if you're looking for some progression in the romance of Malloy and Brandt, be aware you're just in this one for the mystery.

book icon  A Choice of Days, H.L. Mencken
This amusing and nostalgic book is a collection of essays from three of journalist/"American Mercury" editor Mencken's autobiographical volumes, Happy Days, Newspaper Days, and Heathen Days. The first is a wry and often funny chronicle of his childhood, while the middle volume covers the obvious, and the final volume covers his adventures in the political world, music, and an incredible visit to Cuba during a revolution. Even in his childhood narrative the knife-edge Mencken wit manages to draw blood as he skewers schoolmasters and sentimental fiction (before discovering his favorite novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). Frankly, I enjoyed the heck out of it, and now want to find the omnibus edition that contains all three books in their entirety. For Mencken fans or those who want a non-sympathetic portrait of the sometimes not-so-"good-old-days."

(Warning: Mencken came from a different era. You may be uncomfortable at some of his offhand racism, but it's better to see how it existed than try to pretend it wasn't rampant in his society.)

book icon  My Face to the Wind: The Diary of Sarah Jane Price, a Prairie Teacher, Jim Murphy
When Sarah Jane's father, a prairie schoolteacher, dies in an epidemic, his fourteen-year-old daughter is left in the care of a harried, seemingly unfeeling boarding house keeper in the windswept, bare town of Broken Bow, Nebraska. To keep from being shipped off to a girls' orphanage, Sarah Jane presents herself as a candidate for the town's new schoolteacher. Can she succeed in the face of hostile students and school board members?

This is a workmanlike entry in the "Dear America" book series, but it is still a good representation of the primitive conditions that pioneer schoolteachers faced: minimal equipment, rickety schoolhouses, weather that could turn on you at the flick of a snowflake, not to mention the underpayment of women teachers and the lack of respect that accompanied it. It has some similar elements to Laura Ingalls Wilder's These Happy Golden Years in that Sarah Jane must learn to make her students respect her and that the students face danger from bad weather. Your auto commute will seem like a breeze after the blizzard segment!