31 December 2013

My Dozen Favorite Books of 2013

Once again, I had to make it a baker's dozen; in no particular order:

book icon  About Time, Volume 7, 2005-2006, Tat Wood and Dorothy Ail (What can I say? I'm a sucker for well-written and slightly snarky Doctor Who analysis; Amazon purchase)

book icon  A Study in Silks, Emma Jane Holloway (good even with the teenage angst; Barnes & Noble purchase)

book icon  Passion of the Purple Plumaria, Lauren Willig (finally! a love story with mature protagonists!; Amazon purchase)

book icon  Paris to the Past, Ina Caro (I'm not even an Francophile, but I loved this tour of historic France; Barnes & Noble purchase)

book icon  Thieftaker, D.B. Jackson (witchery and mystery in Revolutionary-era Boston; Barnes & Noble purchase)

book icon  Eiffel's Tower, Jill Jonnes (made me feel as if I were there; Barnes & Noble purchase)

book icon  One Summer: America 1927, Bill Bryson (captured the flavor of the era; Amazon Vine selection)

book icon  Among the Janites, Deborah Yaffe (and I don't even like Austen, but this was a fine study of fandom of any persuasion; Amazon Vine selection)

book icon  The Apothecary, Maile Meloy (page-turning young adult fantasy; Books-a-Million purchase)

book icon   Here is Where: Discovering America's Great Forgotten History, Andrew Carroll (if there's anything I like more than history, it's more history; Amazon Vine selection)

book icon  Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh and America's Fight Over World War II, Lynne Olson (America's greatest hero vs. the strong-willed President; Amazon Vine selection)

book icon   Eighty Days, Matthew Goodman (the rival races around the world between Nelly Bly and Elizabeth Bisland—I couldn't believe it when reviewers suggested there was "too much description" of the era in the text...that was my favorite part!; Amazon Vine selection)

book icon   Heidi's Alp, Christina Hardyment (a family in a camper goes looking for all the great children's lit sites and this great narrative is the result; Amazon Marketplace purchase)

Books Finished Since December 1

book icon  The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, Alan Bradley
I'm sorry to admit it, but I was disappointed in this newest Flavia De Luce mystery. I’ve read the Flavia de Luce books since the first and still love her youthful enthusiasm crossed with her precocious chemical interests and attraction to murder scenes. In this latest book, we delve into the mystery of Harriet de Luce, mother of Flavia and her tormenting older sisters, who died eleven years earlier and who has just been brought home to the family’s crumbling estate, Buckshaw. While waiting for Harriet’s coffin at the railway station, Flavia sees a man struck down and killed, and is astonished to see that Winston Churchill is one of the people mourning her mother. What does it all mean, and why has an obscure cousin and her precocious child suddenly shown up?

While I enjoyed the unraveling of the details behind Harriet’s death, the book itself seemed rather erratic, with Flavia jumping from one thing to another in short succession. It’s also not the usual village mystery that has been one of the standards of the series, but that, not to be too spoiler-y, seems fated to change as well. However, we do get to know more of the backstory of Flavia’s parents and also of Dogger, her father’s former batman and now faithful retainer, who often takes Flavia’s part in her investigational escapades, and cunning Aunt Felicity makes a return appearance. Flavia’s cousin Undine also proves an able verbal jousting companion for her.

In short, glad to have solved Harriet’s demise, but not as enchanted with the tale-telling this time and am a bit skeptical of the series change upcoming. Warning: for all of this to make sense, you must read the earlier books!

The rest of the books I read this month are chronicled in my holiday blog, Holiday Harbour, marked with the legend "Christmas Book Review."

30 November 2013

Books Finished Since November 1

book icon  Dogs of War, Sheila Keenan and Nathan Fox
This is a graphic novel I found in the teen section of Barnes & Noble, but the stories are suitable for adults as well. There are three tales within: the story of Marcellinus "Donnie" McDonald, who is serving in the trenches in the first World War, along with his border collie Boots, who's been trained as a rescue dog. Separated from  his adopted father, he and Boots stumble into the trench of the Irish Fusilliers, and have some terrifying encounters on the battlefield. Loki is a trainee sled dog in Greenland during World War II who looks like he might be a dead loss, except for a trainer who has faith in him. Can Loki make a difference with the Nazis on their tail? Sheba is a soldier's best friend in Vietnam—but can her handler ever leave her behind, physically or mentally? It will take a small boy and a misbehaving beagle to find out.

All three stories are good, but the Vietnam story definitely packs a punch. Please note: this is a graphic novel about war, not some cutesy comic for little kids. There are deaths and blood portrayed. But the rewards at the end of each story are great.

book icon  The War That Ended Peace, Margaret MacMillan
The usual summary of the years before the first World War, that "War to end all wars," typically talks about a long golden summer of peace, punctuated by a few national rivalries, and exploded by an assassination in Sarajevo. But the peace was only on the surface; long-simmering discontentment from each nation involved had simply come to a boiling point, and Sarajevo was just that final, proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.

MacMillan does an excellent job of laying out the individual situations that became the trigger of World War I, beginning with a summary of Europe in 1900, and then examining, country by country, alliance by alliance, and finally event by event every step that led to the final declaration of war. Her narrative is highlighted by distinctive personalities: the Kaiser with his deformed arm and bombastic personality; avuncular Edward VII and later his son George V, the first of two kings in a row who had not expected the British monarchy to fall upon them; Nicholas of Russia, an autocrat with poor advisors whose personal life partially led to his undoing; the aristocratic Emperor Franz Joseph; the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who hated Hungarians and Serbians, yet his assassination killed a man whose opinion might have turned the tide against eventual war, as well as their advisors, ministers, and other military officials like Britain's Admiral Jacky Fisher and Otto Von Bismarck. Events outside of Europe—in Morocco, Libya, and South Africa among others—also contributed to the breakdown of relations.

This is not a difficult, obtusely scholarly book. Its prose is precise and understandable, but because of all the actions going on "behind the scenes," it is a dense book, and one that must be read with an attention to detail so that all of the actions and how they led to war can be grasped. If you are looking for a simple overview of the causes of WWI, this is not the volume for you; however, if you are interested in the period and can give your total attention to the text, it is illuminating and rewarding.

book icon  Dark Invasion, Howard Blum
Long before the United States entered World War I, we were still providing supplies to the countries of the Triple Entente (Britain, France, Russia) and not to the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy), and also not allowing German ships already docked in the United States to leave port. The Germans, chafing at these restrictions and knowing of the large German-American communities in the US who might support them, began a campaign of sabotage, particularly on the East Coast, run by German handlers living undercover. In 1915, mysterious explosions in munitions ships at sea convinced authorities to put New York police inspector Tom Tunney on the case.

I had heard of the infamous "Black Tom" explosion in New Jersey before, and knew there had been sabotage, but had never read about the subject in much detail before, and for that reason found this book fascinating. While the German objective was simply to keep supplies and transport animals from reaching the front, people were being killed as "collateral damage." Blum chronicles the exploits of some of the agents for Germany, including Frank Holt, a man who'd murdered his wife, disappeared, and then built a new identity for himself, and Paul Koenig, the security officer of the Hamburg-American shipping line, and the efforts of Tunney and his German-speaking agents to track them down. Particular details were both amazing and frightening: Agents built small bombs that looked like cigars into cargo holds, which often did not only start fires, but blew holes in the hulls so that the vessels sank, and men sneaked into stables at night to inject the germs of anthrax and glanders (a truly frightening-sounding disease) into the nostrils of horses and mules bound for Europe. One man even infiltrated financier J.P. Morgan's stronghold and shot him.

I might have liked this book a bit better had not two things bothered me. One was that I found the author's writing style a bit "choppy." The sentences did not seem to flow for me as well as they could have. The other was the habit of Blum referring to his protagonist by his first name, while everyone else is referred to by their last name. Why "Tom" and not "Tunney"? It felt as if Blum was trying to get me to feel chummy toward Inspector Tunney. However, neither problem interfered with my learning further facts about German sabotage in the First World War.

book icon  The Heir Apparent, Jane Ridley
I first became interested in the history of Edward VII after seeing the British drama Edward the Seventh in 1983. "Bertie," as he was known to the family, was, although she would not admit it, much like his mother, Queen Victoria: not much of a scholar and fond of amusements. But Victoria had fallen under the spell of her workaholic husband Prince Albert, and came to look upon her firstborn son as a pleasure-seeking wastrel, especially after he is caught consorting with a prostitute. When Albert died soon after this event took place, Victoria blamed her son for making his father ill, although Albert had surely been seriously ill before confronting his son about his indiscretion. This left Bertie with nothing to do but seek pleasure, as his mother refused to give him the responsibilities that the heir to the throne should have been entrusted with.

Ridley makes no apologies for the Prince of Wales. His affairs of the heart hurt his Danish wife Alexandra and showed the monarchy in a bad light, the very thing Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were trying to eschew, as their own royal pasts were riddled with sexual scandals. On the other hand, he was badly served by a mother, who continued to insist, even into his middle age, that he was irresponsible when she never gave him anything responsible to do, even though in his public appearances he generally made a positive impression to the public, who was growing tired of the Queen's isolationism after the death of Albert.

Not only a biography of Edward VII, this is also a portrait of the British monarchy at the time of Victoria and later Edward, and a view of society during that era: the elaborate country house parties at which huge quantities of food were ingested and appalling numbers of animals were hunted, the covert lives of the aristocracy, the complicated politics of Great Britain's relationship with the countries of Europe, especially after the ascendancy of Victoria's eldest grandchild, the man later to be known as Kaiser Wilhelm. Victoria's machinations of her own children's lives are vividly portrayed, and even as you shake your head over "Bertie's" excesses, you also consider his bleak childhood ruled by strict tutors, knowing that he was never favored over his more clever sister Vicky. Briskly, compellingly written and full of interesting facts and character portraits, this is an excellent biography.

book icon  Down But Not Quite Out in Hollow-Weird, Geoff Gehman
Today Eric Knight is known chiefly for his authorship of Lassie Come-Home, but in the 1930s he was lured away from his film critic job in Pennsylvania to work in Hollywood. Knight deplored the state of film in the era and hoped, as so many other writers have, that he might make a difference in the movie industry, but he immediately found his way blocked by uneducated studio executives who appeared as if they had never read a book in their lives. Knight expressed his frustration at these annoyances in long letters to his wife Jere, who soon joined him in Hollywood, and his friend Paul Rotha. Later, when World War II breaks out, Knight attempts to partner with Frank Capra in the "Why We Fight" series of films.

Like most people, all I know of Knight is Lassie Come-Home and mentions of his This Above All and The Flying Yorkshireman; I didn't realize he'd worked as a film critic or in Hollow-Weird, as he came to call the place, and I never realized he worked on "Why We Fight" (and indeed his credits were pulled from most of the project), so it was a great glimpse of someone whose name I've known all my life without knowing anything else about him besides that he loved dogs. I'm not sure I would have bought the book if I didn't have any interest in Knight.

book icon  Autumn: A Spiritual Biography of the Season, edited by Gary Schmidt and Susan M. Felch
I have to admit what called me about this book was the big maple tree on its cover!

These are essays and excerpts and even some poetry about the autumn season, ranging from the Book of Ruth in the Bible to The Rural Life by Verl Klinkenborg. One of my very favorites was an essay about autumn leaves by Thoreau. Klinkenborg provides an essay about October and there is also an excerpt from May Sarton's House by the Sea. I was very surprised that there was nothing at all from Gladys Taber, as this appeared to be the perfect volume to highlight some of Taber's essays!

I'm sorry to say that what with being sick and vacation, I wasn't able to give this volume all the attention it deserved. I hope to revisit it next autumn.

31 October 2013

Books Finished Since October 1

book icon  Meg and the Secret of the Witch's Staircase, Holly Beth Walker
This was a series of mysteries for young girls that came out not long after I was too old for them, although I was always curious about them. Meg Duncan is a girl about twelve years old who lives in Hidden Springs,  Virginia, a small town, with her widowed father. She is often on adventures with her Uncle Hal, who is much younger than her dad, and her best friend Kerry Carmody, who lives on a small farm with her brothers and sisters, parents, and pets. Meg has a Siamese cat named Thunder as a pet, although the cat doesn't appear is this, the second of six books. Instead she and Kerry are trying to help a pair of elderly sisters who are barely making ends meet on an old plantation. When one of the ladies breaks her arm, they are in more perilous straits than usual, and really could use the money that would be earned if they found the missing family silver, which was hidden during the Civil War.

This is a nice, easygoing mystery series that parents would do well to hunt up for their girls. Meg and Kerry are intelligent and self-sufficient, girly without being "princessy," and go in for healthy activities like horseback riding. Like most series book kids from that era, you won't find them wasting time in front of a television!

If I found more of these at a book sale I would probably pick them up.

book icon  Standing in the Light: The Captive Diary of Catharine Carey Logan, Mary Pope Osborne
"Caty" Logan and her brother Thomas are taken captive by the Lenape Indians soon after this story opens. Caty, the daughter of Quakers living in the Delaware Valley, who has been taught by her gentle father that the Indians have been deceived once too often by the white settlers, has managed to keep her copybook, ink, and pen with her, and chronicles her life in captivity. At first she and her brother are separated, and a resentful Caty is adopted by two women whose daughter was killed when whites invaded an Indian camp.

As in Lois Lenski's classic Indian Captive, at first Caty fears and hates her captors and refuses to learn their language; it is only when she realizes that they are people like her, who may have different living customs, but who love and work just as her own family has done, that she begins to thaw. A white boy captured earlier by the Lenape helps her reunite with her brother and also brings her ink so that she can carry on with her writing, recalling her heritage while learning to love her new life. The narrative is not as strong as Lenski's story about Jemison, but the idea of brotherhood is well communicated.

book icon  A Line in the Sand: The Alamo Diary of Lucinda Lawrence, Sherry Garland
Okay, what does everyone learn about the Alamo at school? Chances are, unless you're from Texas, you basically know about this old mission which is manned by "Texians," the American settlers who were invited to settle on Mexican territory who are now threatened by the Spanish. Famous figures like Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, William Travis, and Sam Houston are involved. Santa Anna attacks the mission and almost everyone dies. Later, Texas becomes an independent republic, and, finally, a state.

I enjoyed this novel mainly because it told me many more facts about the events surrounding the Battle of the Alamo than I ever learned in history class, such as the the efforts of the tiny town of Gonzales to keep their small six-inch cannon out of the hands of the Spanish army, the "Runaway Scrape" of the inhabitants of the town after the Alamo defeat as they flee from Santa Anna's troops. I also didn't know anything about the Alamo survivors. The book's narrator, Lucinda, is a typical "Dear America" protagonist, a little feisty, but more ready to talk about boys, her troublesome brothers, and her problems with her best friend. Her brother Lemuel, an animal lover, is an interesting character, but he disappears halfway through the book.

book icon  So Far From Home: The Diary of Mary Driscoll, an Irish Mill Girl, Barry Denenberg
Mary is an Irish girl who comes to the US due to the potato famine in Ireland. She lives with her poor but nice aunt who runs a boardinghouse, but endures grueling working conditions in the cotton mills. The "Yankee girls" don't like her because the Irish are so desperate for work that they will work longer hours for less money, thereby affecting everyone. Her sister, now a maid, has turned into an unbearable snob. Mary also finds out that the little daughter of an Irish couple who died on the ship, who was sent to America to be "cared for," is blind and has been used as a slavey for two years.

The Lowell Mills were once a good-paying alternative for country girls desiring not to remain there to become farmers' wives, with its backbreaking work. The girls were paid fairly and also received an education; they once had a noted literary magazine. Unfortunately the mill owners fell prey to greed and started importing cheap immigrant labor while increasing work hours; the workers, of course, seeking a scapegoat they could confront, blamed the immigrants as well as the owners. Mary Driscoll's story is a literal textbook example of the entire period, a by-the-numbers story of everything that could have happened to an immigrant girl plus events that happened to others sent to America. Plus, for some reason the book just ends with Mary leaving the mill, and the epilog is skimpy. This is probably not a "Dear America" book I'll be keeping.

book icon  When Will This Cruel War Be Over?: The Civil War Diary of Emma Simpson, Barry Denenberg
Warning: This book is really, really depressing.

That's not a criticism. It should be. Written from a Southern girl's POV during the Civil War, the attrition is relentless: death, hunger, occupying soldiers, loss of loved ones. I was appreciative that the author did not go back and politically correct Emma's POV as is done in some other present-day Civil-War-set novels, where the protagonist secretly believes the slaves should be set free. Emma is truly puzzled at why the slaves would want to leave the plantation when they have been nicely treated by her parents (her mother has even taught them to read, which was a punishable offense back then), unlike the owner of a neighboring plantation, who is a cruel taskmaster and eventually must answer for his sins. When the younger slaves run away, she is genuinely surprised, because in the way that she was raised she cannot conceive of any other way of life for them. Her father, too, is an unabashed fighter for the Cause, writing home gallant letters, and the only hints she gets of battlefield suffering are intermittent letters from the boy she hopes to marry.

This is the second of Barry Denenberg's "Dear America" books that I have read and if you pick this up, you must be prepared for the grim realism of the tale. It's not a great novel, but does give some perspective into the POV of a Southerner at the time of the Civil War.

book icon  The Moffats, Eleanor Estes
As a kid I was crazy about books about animals, even the "sad ones" like Old Yeller and Black Beauty, lapsing occasionally for fun, futuristic novels like those about Danny Dunn and Miss Pickerel, so I didn't read most of what was considered "classic children's fic" until I was much older. This book, the first in a series of four books about the Moffat family, is still a favorite among nostalgic adults. Widowed Mrs. Moffat supports her brood of four—Sylvie, Joe, Jane, and Rufus—as a dressmaker in a rented yellow house on New Dollar Street, and in this first adventure we follow the family's fortunes as seen through Jane's eyes in the year that follows a "for sale" sign being erected on their home. These are of the homey family sort: Jane develops a fear of the police chief, which leads her to hide in a storekeeper's bread box; little Rufus takes the order to make sure a small classmate stays in school a little too seriously; the kids drive a Salvation Army man's van to the next town; take a trolly ride, etc. It's a charming story of life in what appears to be Depression-era America, with the kids making their own fun, and Jane is a spunky protagonist with a big imagination, but I don't feel any compulsion to read the sequels. Maybe this one was something best read in childhood first.

book icon  Naughty in Nice, Rhys Bowen
This is a corker of an adventure in this fifth book featuring Georgiana Rannoch, minor royalty and thirty-fourth in line for the throne of Great Britain. When "Georgie's" parsimonious sister-in-law Fig, in the throes of pregnancy, decides she and her husband, Georgie's brother Binky, are going off to Nice for the cold winter season, Georgie is destined to be left behind in drafty Castle Rannoch—until her cousin Queen Mary asks her to find a snuffbox that was purloined after a party at Buckingham Palace; she believes collector Sir Toby Groper took the item—and he's also wintering in Nice. Georgie's delighted to be in Nice until she sees the gloomy digs Fig and Binky are sharing with Fig's family, and ends up staying with Coco Chanel and a friend at a charming French villa which turns out to be owned by her estranged mother!

A murder doesn't come into the book until it's over halfway through, but it doesn't matter since the story is so delightful up until then: Georgie has a French suitor, she's actually making friends with her mother and participating in a fashion show modeling a Chanel original, she learns a lot more about her family (not to mention about her on-again, off-again beau Darcy O'Mara), and even manages to enjoy the warm winter season in Nice despite the fact that she's up to her neck in mayhem. I thoroughly enjoyed this one!

book icon  About Time, Volume 7, 2005-2006, Tat Wood and Dorothy Ail
One couldn't help wondering, of course, after completing the sixth volume of Mad Norwegian Press' exhaustive study of each story of Doctor Who, when they were going to tackle the new series (or, as they call it, "the Welsh series"). Well, here is the first volume beginning that new epic, covering the complete Eccleston turn as the Doctor and David Tennant's first year in the role. Plot summaries, cast lists, critiques, bloopers, etc. are just part of these detailed volumes; each of them also contain essays about such varied things as "if Torchwood goes back to Victorian days, where were they for Doctors 1-7," the development of British television, the background behind the creation of the new series, the Bad Wolf subplot, the definition of a companion, etc., and all told with enough snark to have it not become boringly academic. But really, for devoted Who fans only; if you're just looking for a plot summary and a cast, this will overwhelm you.

book icon  Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie, Kristiana Gregory
I have finally found a Kristiana Gregory "Dear America" book I enjoyed. Hattie Campbell and her surviving family (her four sisters die in a swamp fever epidemic before the story opens) strike out to Oregon from Missouri, joining a wagon train. Hattie finds a new best friend, Pepper, and experiences all the hardships of the overland trail, from river crossings to long weary days covered in dust from the trail, as well as dealing with an unreasonable couple whom Hattie finds has been pilfering things from other families. Hattie's narrative is brisk, engaging, and the incidents on the trail make the hardships of the pioneers come alive. I just wondered why the mention of the Mormons were included at all. It added nothing to the plot except for speculation about polygamy.

book icon  Summer Term at St. Clare's, Enid Blyton
One cannot read about British children's authors without tripping over the name of Enid Blyton. She was the consummate series book author, creating mysteries, adventures, school stories, and even young children's adventures (as in the ubiquitous "Noddy") in large numbers throughout her life, and was creator of "The Famous Five" and "The Secret Seven."

This was part of a six-book series about twins Pat and Isabel O'Sullivan, who attend boarding school at St. Clare's (strange children who can't wait to go back to school for summer term!). Their cousin Alison, who created problems for them the previous term but who had improved, is now under the influence of a vacuous American girl; Carlotta, a girl of Spanish heritage is creating waves with her temper and arguments with the French mistress; a prim girl named Prudence takes advantage of a brainy classmate; Bobby (short for Roberta) is very smart, but is a cut-up. In other words, a collection of girls very like those in school stories from Angela Brasil to Hogwarts, with a strong emphasis on classroom hijinks but also on school honor and student integrity. But what's Carlotta's secret? And what will happen when spiteful Prudence finds out about it?

I can see why the girls of the time (this is from 1943) would read these; they're like popcorn.

book icon  Time Out for Happiness, Frank B. Gilbreth Jr.
Woohoo! What a booksale find! This book was relatively rare when it was published in 1970 and seems to have only shown up in libraries. This is a third book that Gilbreth (without sister Ernestine) wrote about his family, but, instead of concentrating on the children, this volume is about Frank and Lillie themselves; about their early lives, how they met, their business collaboration, and finally how Lillie carried on after Frank's death, despite opposition from male engineers who still felt women belonged in the home. Many interesting stories about Lillie's family, including her autocratic mother (the grandmother the kids called "Grosie"), and how she believed herself doomed to be a spinster; Frank's strong-willed mother and her sister, and how he turned his talent into a living despite not being able to afford a college education; how Frank's heart condition developed; the truth about "the dozen" (there were only eleven due to the tragic death of Mary at age five); and lots of stories about Tom Grieves, the former handyman who, after Frank's death became the jack-of-all-trades in the household. If you've read Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on Their Toes and always wanted to know "the rest of the story," you will enjoy this volume.

book icon  Nickeled-and-Dimed to Death, Denise Swanson
If you thought Dev Sinclair's life would slow down after she was acquitted of a murder charge (see Little Shop of Homicide), think again. She's still running the dime store/custom basket business, and resisting her grandmother's attempt to match her up with her old beau's grandnephew, although she really likes said grandnephew and wouldn't mind a little footsie under the table with him. Then in quick succession, Jake's line-of-duty injury is declared healed and he's back working undercover (with his ex-wife), Dev's old beau Noah Underwood invites her to a social event where she's make a business opportunity (but Noah has ulterior motives), and one of her best friends, Boone St. Onge, is accused of murdering one of his legal clients. So once again Dev is sleuthing with the help of her volatile pal Poppy (daughter of the town sheriff) and a helpful Noah.

This is a pleasant cozy mystery with a large dollop of romance tossed in. I have to say I like the idea of Dev running the old dime store rather than letting it be bought out by a drugstore chain, and I love her granny, Birdie. The trouble with this one is that I just don't like Noah. He's a good doctor, he does  pro bono work, almost everyone likes him, and he's drop-dead gorgeous. Ugh. Still don't like him. Do hope the info revealed at the end of the book means something good for Dev, though.

book icon  A History of the Universe in 100 Objects, James Goss and Steve Tribe
To really understand this book you have to go back in time...far, far back...okay, not that far back...to 2010. BBC Radio 4, you understand, still presents original spoken word radio programs, and in that year presented a 100-part, 15-minute show per day called A History of the World in 100 Objects, presented by the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor. In each segment, MacGregor would find an object in the Museum and relate how it contributed to the development of civilization. These broadcasts were presented as podcasts, and I would download three at a time, which would get me through a commute on a night when the traffic was good. Later a book was published with a photo of the object and the text from the show. Let's say I was well familiar with the concept.

Which is why I just about died laughing when I saw this book sitting demurely on the shelf at Barnes & Noble. This is a must, must, must for Doctor Who fans, spanning the entire series, and ranging from the Urns of Krop Tor (object one) from before time to the Toclafane (object 100) from the year 100 trillion, with gas masks, Sandminer robots, the Key to Time, a sink plunger, and myriad more objects in between. While we're told how the object relates to the history of the universe, we usually get a behind-the-scenes peek at the production of certain episodes, and pullouts like "An A-to-Z of Mad Scientists," River Song's diary, a list of gruesome deaths courtesy the Master, and more. Narrated with tongue firmly in cheek, it's also a great resource, with lots of color photographs from various episodes.

book icon  The Memory of Blood, Christopher Fowler
Why are Bryant and May holding a party for their suspects in an old chamber of horrors?

That's just one of the unique developments in this ninth mystery involving the Peculiar Crimes Unit and its even more peculiar crew. The story begins with the PCU in new digs and a party going on among the owner of a theatre and the actors and crew appearing in the play performed there, a harmless event with little personal confrontations bubbling under the surface—until a terrible death interrupts the event. As the investigation progresses, it's obvious someone is toying with the team—and about to kill again.

In each Bryant and May book, you learn something about a different aspect of London culture; in this story it's theatre, specifically the Punch and Judy shows so dear to Victorian children despite their horrific elements. In addition, most of the team is in the midst of upheaval: Colin continues his crusade to break through Meera's emotional walls; Bryant is being forcibly moved so his building can be demolished; May realizes his lover is tiring of him; and there are even changes in the air for dour Raymond Land, who's been trying to get transferred away from the unit for years and can't understand the officers' fierce love for their positions. The mystery itself is a convoluted one which well fits into the personal entanglements of our protagonists...another winner of a PCU story!

book icon  The Midnight Tunnel, Angie Frazier
There's so much to like about this book: It's 1904 and Suzanna "Zanna" Snow lives in New Brunswick, Canada, with her parents, who run a high-class hotel called the Rosemount. She loves her parents, but idolizes her father's younger brother, who is a noted detective in Boston, Massachusetts. Zanna wants to be a detective and has been writing down her observations for years, and suddenly she has her chance: after a violent thunderstorm, the seven-year-old daughter of one of the guests disappears.  Zanna's determined to find out, if she can just make the adults listen to her.

It's the usual plot of the intelligent girl ahead of her time, with a good mystery and even some sad truths for Zanna. I'm sure the kids reading this won't even notice what bothered me the most: the terrible anachronistic language. I read a lot of children's and young adult books and it's totally possible to stay with the language of the time without being obtuse. Even the easy-read American Girl books don't make the language errors this book does, the most egregious error being Zanna referring to an unmarried woman as "Ms.," an address that dates from the 1970s, not the 1870s. Another character uses the word "split" as a synonym for "leave." There were several other errors of this sort that brought me to mind of a flower child dumped in Edwardian Canada, which is very odd when the author goes to so much trouble to picture a 1900s seaside hotel and its guests: puffed sleeves, walrus mustaches, High Tea served in the afternoon, etc. To me it ruined what was an otherwise interesting juvenile mystery.

book icon  Mystery of the Black Diamonds, Phyllis A. Whitney
Whitney had two very different writing careers; in one she wrote historical romances, and in the other mysteries for children. This is of the latter sort, and if it's an example of an average teen mystery, I wouldn't mind reading more of them. They are literate and feature "real" kids who argue yet pull together when needed.

The protagonists in this offering are Angela and Matt Wetheral, who, with their baby brother and parents, are temporarily living in Colorado for the summer while their father, a famous mystery writer, does research for his newest novel. They befriend an old miner named Ben Ellington who takes a liking to them, and some weeks later, when he passes away, the grieving twins find out he has left them a house in an old mining village named Blossom. The only other inhabitants are orphaned Jinx, an unfriendly girl with a pet skunk, and her grandparents. The twins, who love mysteries, are trying to puzzle out what a mysterious "treasure map" given to them by the old miner means. Is there really treasure? And will sullen Jinx help them?

While the kids search for treasure several other things are at work here, including unraveling why Jinx acts the way she does (its cause, sadly, is a subject still in the forefront today). And in a novel reversal from the usual boy-action-kid/girl-quiet-thinker stereotype of the 1950s when the book was published, Matt is the artistic one and Angie the more eager explorer. The only strange character is Mrs. Wetheral, who is apparently jealous of one of her husband's book characters! You could give this book to a modern child and not worry about 1950s prejudices. Excellent.

book icon  The Casebook of Bryant and May, Christopher Fowler
This is a graphic novel version of Fowler's Peculiar Crimes Unit mysteries, featuring one of Bryant and May's most infamous (and formerly unpublished) cases, that of the Soho Devil. One by one, men are being murdered by mysterious "bat people" who swoop down from the sky. How's it done and what's the motive? There's also another, shorter mystery following, as well as some extras like a list of some of the esoteric books in Arthur's library, summaries of the ten novels, and profiles of the PCU regulars.

If you were worried Fowler's usual quirky humor wouldn't translate into a graphic novel, fear not—I found myself chuckling at the dialog. It's the usual 21st century comic art, but well illustrates the two stories, and most of the team looks looks exactly as I imagine. If you're a Bryant and May fan, it's well worth your money.

book icon  A Study in Silks, Emma Jane Holloway
Evelina Cooper lives many lives. She belongs to the aristocratic Holmes family (Sherlock and Mycroft are her uncles) on her mother's side of the family, a family of circus performers on her father's side of the family (until Grandmother Holmes took her away). No one in her upper-class girls' school knows the secret except for her best friend Isabel, whom Evelina is spending the holidays with. She is of two hearts, one back with her fathers' people, where she was happy and cared for, and also with her upper class roots, which can provide her with an education, for, you see, Evelina is fond of steam-powered automata and shows a talent for working with them.

And then one of the family's maids is murdered.

This is a steampunk version of the Holmes-verse, although don't expect a lot of Sherlock in the first installment. The story is firmly Evelina's, of her detecting and inventing talents, and of her emotional conflicts, and of the feelings she holds for two young men, the older brother of her best friend, and Nick, a gypsy boy whom she was raised with at the circus, and who, until her grandmother took her away, she expected to marry. While there is a good deal of emotional teen yearning, this is also a complicated universe, with a small group of wealthy businessmen called the "Steam Barons" controlling the natural gas supply that lights and powers the city of London (the parallels to today's Big Business is evident). With a flick of a hand, they can turn off your power and leave you in the dark both physically and socially. Evelina is also learning to control some magical powers she has inherited, and magic is illegal in this world; magic users are burned at the stake or turned over to Her Majasty's laboratories for "testing." I thought it was highly readable despite the elaborate world-building and the teen angst, and immediately ordered the sequel. Your mileage may vary.

book icon  The Hidden White House, Robert Klara
I was in high school when J.B. West's Upstairs at the White House was published, and bought it for my mother for Christmas. One of the things Assistant (and then Chief) Usher West talked about was the reconstruction of the entire White House starting in 1948, when dangerous cracks were discovered in the second story flooring, flaws so bad that Margaret Truman's piano and Harry Truman's bathtub almost fell through. When engineers examined the house, everyone was horrified, since the interior was in such bad shape the place could have collapsed internally at any time, due to mistakes having been made during two earlier construction projects (a completed third story and a new roof). It was a third construction, in fact, of "the Truman balcony" that set off such furor, that actually revealed how frightening the problem was.

Klara's book is the story of that discovery, and of the renovation that turned the White House into the structure it is today. Only the exterior walls stone walls and a few internal historic architectural details survived the remodeling (more internal pieces were saved, but never used in an effort to rush the remodeling, a fact now regretted). Klara's narration is lively and interesting, and reveals many facts about the White House people might not have known: how badly the interior had become, how decrepit it had become during the Roosevelt years because FDR did not want to spend money on the interior while people were suffering during the Depression, how few pieces of historical art and furniture were actually in the pre-renovated structure (Chester Arthur apparently packed up the equivalent of three truckloads of furniture and sold it!). We also see the Trumans "warts and all" during the renovation, a close family of three irritated by the routine of being the First Family, and learn what really happened the day Harry Truman was almost assassinated by Puerto Rican nationalists. Klara also tells us about the little secret about the reconstruction that the public of that time didn't know about: the construction of a bomb shelter in the basement, felt necessary because of the Cold War.

An informative book, easily read without feeling talked down to, for those interested in the White House, the Trumans, or restoration (whether done well or not) of historic buildings.

12 October 2013

Book Sale Redux

Well, of course I went back. Much fewer people this morning, even though I got there just before 9:30. I scored a good one, too, just as I was about to say farewell to the biography area: they had a copy of Frank Gilbreth Jr's Time Out for Happiness, a third book about the Gilbreths of Cheaper by the Dozen/Belles on Their Toes. This one is mostly about the parents, and Lillie after the death of Frank. I've only read it as a library book.

Let's see, proving once again I never met a history book I didn't like:

book icon  The Americans: A Social History of the United States, 1587-1914 (otherwise "History with the politics left out," which is as I like it)

book icon  Oh, Say Can You See: Unexpected Anecdotes About American History

book icon  The Lion's Pride: Theodore Roosevelt and His Family in Peace and War

book icon  The Great Wagon Road about the Great Wagon Road and the Wilderness Road of colonial through post-Revolutionary America


book icon  Yours, Isaac Asimov: A Lifetime of Letters

book icon  Christmas Worldwide: A Guide to Customs and Traditions

Three "Dear America" books: lighthouse keeper's daughter during the Civil War, Polish immigrant in late 19th century, and a blind girl at the Perkins Institute in the 1930s

Three books for James (two WWII-related and one weather)

Hardback copies of Big Red and Savage Sam.

and a brand new book for someone who once admitted they hadn't read this particular classic (nicely illustrated, too).

11 October 2013

Fall Library Booksale

I was there early enough to queue up with a long line of either elderly people or stay-at-home moms. The lady behind me had driven all the way from Jonesboro to get to this sale! (Folks...really. Shopping carts and full suitcases and the strollers are bad enough; someone brought a full-sized wagon to put their books in...not a little Radio Flyer, but a big honkin' wagon like this! 40 inches long in aisles narrower than an old dollar store. Seriously?) Once they started letting people in, I switched lines (there were two) to get in the one for the children's books. Again, very few old books, and what they had was mostly nonfiction.

It's a good thing the books are cheap. I thought I needed a certain country in the World Book "Christmas Around the World" series, as the copy I bought was falling apart, and the only one of these books that were at the sale was the one I thought I needed. Serendipity, right? No, dang, it was the Netherlands I needed. Well, this one will "re-home" well.

I found six different copies of the Augsberg "Christmas" annuals, which are part religious, and part essays about subjects relating to Christmas, like composers or animals, etc. A little like "Ideals." (There were a big pile of "Christmas Ideals," but these were the old ones, with the so-so artwork and photos, so I skipped them. I miss the Thanksgiving Ideals editions! They always had such lovely photos.) I also got National Geographic's Christmas in Williamsburg, which sells for an incredible $18 full price since it's only sixty pages, pretty much brand new for a dollar.

Also found a book James might like, and one that a couple friends might like; I need to ask if they have it. A Little Golden Book of a certain title, as a joke gift.

book icon  Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie, the one "Dear America" book I wanted that I didn't have

book icon  Outlaw Red, at last (a sequel to Kjelgaard's Big Red and Irish Red)

book icon  Happy Christmas, an anthology I'd taken out of the library previously

book icon  The Fairy Caravan, one of Beatrix Potter's last books; not one of her "little books," as she called them, but a chapter book about a circus

book icon  A much better copy of The Trouble with May Amelia by Jennifer Holm, because the copy I bought last year looked like mice had chewed it

book icon  An Enid Blyton school story, because I've heard about these for years and wanted to see what one was like; Harry Potter, everyone says, was pretty much based on British school stories like Blyton's and the Chalet School books (and Angela Brasil, who I have read and enjoyed)

And two real prizes:

book icon  Liza Picard's Restoration London; I have her Victorian London and have considered Elizabethan London

book icon  And a falling-apart but topping book from 1927 called The British Boys' Annual, with a collection of sports/adventure/factual articles

Alas, no miracles this time like finding a hardback copy of The Singing Tree or the book I'd currently like to get (although I doubt if it would be there): a collection of Eric Knight's letters from Hollywood, but...fair enough.