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!