31 January 2013

Books Finished Since January 1

book icon  Eighty Days, Matthew Goodman
If this doesn't end up on my "Dozen Favorite Books Read in 2013" list at the end of the year, it will mean I have had some excellent reading in 2013!

Almost everyone has heard of Nellie Bly (Elizabeth Cochrane), the spunky, intrepid New York World reporter, who, after writing several startling exposé pieces, including one about the asylum for "insane" women on Blackwell's Island, is sent on a whirlwind trip to best the fictional Phileas Fogg of Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days. Bly didn't have time to post many reports, but the World promoted the story as today's "reality shows" are publicized, and even held a contest, promising a world tour to whomever came the closest to guessing the official time of her journey.

Not as well known was the around-the-world journey taken at the same time by Elizabeth Bisland, a quiet Southerner displaced after the Civil War. Bisland, who left just hours after Bly departed, but heading west instead of east, was sponsored by "Cosmopolitan" (yes, that one, a very different magazine in the 19th century).

I was captivated from the first paragraph to the last, in chapters that chronicle Bly's and Bisland's adventures by turns, using the women's diaries, their books published after the voyage, and other news stories, or stories about the same destinations, people, and institutions written by people who had visited them. I especially enjoyed the details about the cities they visited, the society they lived in, the publications and people they worked for, and all the myriad little facts that made 19th century society come alive. I could see the quiet streets of Japan so loved by Bisland, hear the uproar of the marketplaces as visited by both women, envision the meeting between Bly and Jules Verne (and got a good laugh out of Verne's real opinion of Bly, the one that didn't make publication!). I could almost walk into the 19th century world described, especially then-exotic ports of call in India, Japan, and China, not to mention pre-earthquake San Francisco and the blizzard-shrouded Western frontier. Bly and Bisland are vividly portrayed with all their strengths and weaknesses, and the epilogue briefly addresses what happened after their voyages. I would recommend this book to anyone who loves history!    

book icon  Speaking from Among the Bones, Alan Bradley
It's the 500th anniversary of the death of St. Tancred, the patron saint of the church at Bishop's Lacey, and in honor of the occasion, archaeologists are opening the crypt where the saint is interred. Headed to the church organ loft to gather a specimen of bat's blood (don't ask!), budding young chemist Flavia DeLuce of course must check out the proceedings. To the vicar's horror, Flavia is there when the stone is shifted and a body is exposed.

Except that it is not the bones of St. Tancred that appear, but the fresher body of Mr. Collicutt, the church organist who so abruptly disappeared. Not only that, but he's wearing a gas mask. In short order Flavia's discovered a secret tunnel leading from a open grave, yet the book has barely gotten started!

This is a great entry in the Flavia series, mixing old favorite characters with new, including a charming young man named Adam who helps Flavia with her sleuthing. In addition, there's some family surprises—Flavia actually getting along with her sisters? can it be true?—including a whopper at the end that will leave you open-mouthed.

book icon  Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World, Simon Callow
A biography of Dickens with a different slant. Actor Callow, who has not only played Dickensian roles over the years, but who has played the writer himself in a stage show as well as in an episode of Doctor Who, looks at Dickens from the POV of his great joy in performing, whether it be doing parlour magic tricks for his children or readings in great halls for the hundreds of people who flocked to see him perform or even acting out scenes from his books in the privacy of his home before committing them to paper. Dickens' exuberance for the acting profession, an early ambition, shines clearly in Callow's peppy text.

This is not an exhaustive biography of Charles Dickens by any means, but is not meant to be. For those with only a casual knowledge of the writer, or who remember him only as "that boring guy from required reading," this is a good introduction to a man who was as wildly popular in his day as a big-name actor or sports figure is today. (Dickens' behavior to his wife can certainly be parallelled to today's celebrities; eventually the poor woman is banished to a different house while her husband cavorts with young actress Ellen Ternan.) Callow's style is breezy and enjoyable.

book icon  Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Book 3, Eric Wiggin
I became friends with Rebecca Rowena Randall at an early age, admiring her grit, her creativity, and her blossoming from feckless young girl to poised young woman, rejoicing in her successes and commiserating in her defeats. I was delighted later to find another book of her adventures that added more childhood events and even stories about her friends.

Eric Wiggin isn't related to Kate Douglas Wiggin, although some of his biographies have stated so. He took two classics, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and New Chronicles of Rebecca, simplified all of Kate Wiggin's lovely poetic Edwardian language, and blended them into one narrative spanning two books, then produced this novel, a sequel to both, layering on a thick smear of overt Christianity to what was already a Christian-themed book. Not only does this heavy-handed moralizing reduce poor Rebecca to boring adulthood, but he basically goes through and gives anyone from the country (like Rebecca's mother) cheap rural accents. Kate Wiggin says John Randall went to medical school; in this John stays around to do farm chores. Where Eric Wiggin might have brought to life Rebecca's siblings Mark, Fanny, and Jenny, they are reduced to the background, while we listen to Adam Ladd repeat what improvements the railroad will make to Sunnybrook and the surrounding countryside ad infinitum. (Just how many times can you comment at the difference a standard-gauge railway instead of a narrow-gauge one will make?) (I also noticed Mr. Wiggin lowers "Mr. Aladdin's" age so hopefully people will forget Rebecca's being courted by a man twenty years older than she is.) Oh, and Harriet Beecher Stowe makes an appearance, despite the fact that Rebecca was written in 1904 and in this book everyone is getting a telephone, and Stowe died in 1896.

Another major change I noticed was the way Rebecca's father was portrayed. As a child she always loved him because he sang songs, played the violin, and danced, and her mother did all the boring things like housework and sewing and was never any "fun." She realizes only after she is older that it was her mother who kept them all from starving, sacrificing her looks and her strength so that her husband's clothes were always sharp-looking. Aurelia would do chores so Lorenzo's hands might not be hurt and he could still play instruments. And then he has the nerve to criticize her appearance! Mr. Wiggin turns the feckless Lorenzo into a father who makes wooden toys for his children and works hard, completely contrary to Mrs. Wiggins' original text!

Add to the fact that Mr. Wiggin kills off a regular character and then spends his time indiscriminately matching up adult characters in holy wedlock...well, the book ends up being a disservice to Kate Wiggin, but most of all to the wonderful spirit of Rebecca Randall. Phooey.

book icon  Leaving Everything Most Loved, Jacqueline Winspear
This tenth novel involving Maisie Dobbs, psychologist and private investigator, finds her at a cusp in her life. She's in love with James Compton and wishes to marry him, yet she feels that she has not yet achieved all she wants for her own life. She feels the urge to travel and learn something of other societies before committing herself to the responsibility of marriage. So she goes into her newest case conflicted and discovers her own situation mirrored in the murder victim, a young Indian woman who has been boarding with former missionaries, hoarding enough money to go home and start a school for girls. For reasons known only to the murderer, this seemingly lovely and inoffensive woman was shot.

Maisie's personal dilemma provides counterpoint to the story of the murder victim, who Maisie discovers, was not a traditionalist, something which may have angered her fellow Indian compatriots. Winspear also uses the story to portray the prejudiced way these members of the Empire were treated (even their officers who helped fight in the Great War and who received medals are not considered on the same level as their British counterparts). Then, too, changes are overtaking Maisie's co-workers,  Billy Beale and Sandra Tapley, and even her father.

Winspear could have left Maisie a static character who forever solved World War I-related cases (and I'm certain those stories would have been interesting), but instead she stays true to Maisie's continual thirst for knowledge and enlightenment. This reads almost like a final book, with everything tucked away, but enough hope is given in the concluding chapter that the old days of Maisie's investigations are not yet finished. I, for one, hope not!

book icon  Heidi's Alp, Christina Hardyment
One of the most delightful books about children's books ever. Hardyment and her four daughters, first accompanied by a friend and her baby, and then by her husband, set off from their home in England in an aging camper van nicknamed "Bertha" to discover the Europe of children's books: from Denmark and the sites of Hans Christian Andersen (and Lego bricks), through Switzerland (where they discover their very own Alm Uncle in "Heidi country"), Germany, Italy, and France. It's part travelogue, part family story, and always referencing children's books, starting with the world of Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates as the family crosses the English Channel into the Netherlands. Along the way they try to discover the real history behind the legend of the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike, the disappearance of the children of Hamelin (was it really due to the Children's Crusade as so often theorized?), and the truth behind William Tell.

As far as I'm concerned this was a dream of a trip and a wonderful tale told in appealing, descriptive narrative. I envy the Hardyment girls their adventure and wish I'd been along for the ride.

[I didn't realize until after I'd finished the book that I'd read another of Hardyment's books many years ago, Dream Babies, about how babies were portrayed in child-rearing manuals through the years. Another cool book.]

book icon  Trixie Belden and the Mystery Off Old Telegraph Road, Kathryn Kenney
This next Trixie Belden mystery has a slight plot that only begins halfway through the book: the kids have decided to arrange a bikeathon to raise money for the Sleepyside Junior/Senior High School art department, and once the reader gets two vital clues (an item Trixie finds and an occupation revealed), the crime du jour should be pretty obvious. Instead, the amazing highlight of this story is that Trixie and Honey have a fight! and that Mart is the one who counsels Trixie about it! Wonders will never cease. Not to mention a re-use of an old plotline appears: this time it's Honey's cousin Ben who's been sent to Sleepyside to keep him out of gangs. Favorite learning moment: silk-screening is completely explained, and we get a lecture about how expensive art supplies are. My question: a brand new character, a classmate, is referred to occasionally by his whole name, but more often by his first name. Why is Honey's cousin Ben, whom we've met in a previous book, always referred to as "Ben Riker"? Almost every single time. Can't they remember who he is?

book icon  Ghost Story, Jim Butcher
(spoilers ahoy!)
When we last left Harry Dresden, he was dead and plunging into cold water.

Since this series of books is about Harry, you might surmise Changes was the final novel in the saga of Harry Dresden, Chicago's only practicing wizard. But readers of the series who know Harry also know it's hard to keep a good wizard down. And sure enough, Harry is enlisted, in ghostly form, to find his own murderer. Trouble is, he's not corporeal any longer, so how does he do what used to be simple things, like really simple things, as in communicate with people so he can get the information he needs?

In the six-month interval since his death, Chicago has come under attack by otherworldly beings (yeah, I know; this is a Dresden book: so what else is new?) released by Harry's actions in the previous novel, Harry's friends are holding them at bay, and his apprentice has been so emotionally scarred by her role in helping rescue Harry's daughter that she has become unstable. But the greatest change is with Harry himself, who must face the consequences of his actions in the previous book and also learn to resolve the conflict without his powerful magic, trusting old friends and new allies to help him.

Again, another nonstop narrative, with some old friends turning up, including Harry's former detective agency partner Nick Christian (from Butcher's very first Dresden story). I basically sat down and inhaled the book in a couple of sittings.

book icon  The Case of the Murdered Muckraker, Carola Dunn
The Daisy Dalrymple books are so good-natured  that I didn't think I'd ever dislike one of them, but I really didn't enjoy this Daisy adventure. Really, I read these books for their English setting, and the last thing I want to read is Daisy in the States. But here, in her tenth escapade, she is.

Even in the United States, Daisy can't seem to escape murder cases. While she stays at a hotel in New York City while her new husband Alec Fletcher works in Washington, DC, a muckraking journalist is killed. To find out "whodunnit" Daisy must navigate witnesses and lawmen with absurd American accents (apparently no one speaks correct English in the US in the Daisy universe except for woman journalists and their spinster sisters). Later in the book Daisy has an extended "kiss with history," as Quantum Leap once referred to it, with African-American aviatrix Bessie Coleman in a drawn-out chase scene that turns into a real snoozer.

Daisy and Alec deserved better. Certainly Coleman did!

book icon  Oz Reimagined, edited by John Joseph Adams and Douglas Cohen
A caveat about this one: don't just recall the Technicolor confection of The Wizard of Oz and the simple childishness of the books. These are stories written for adults and several of them touch on adult themes. In general these are not short stories for children.

Disposing with that warning, I can't say I am an Oz fanatic. I've read the classic novel and at least one of the sequels, watched the MGM film and Disney's darker sequel, seen an Oz cartoon or two, peeked into Oz via Heinlein, but never have been tempted to dip into the rest of the novels or  the Macguire books. But I quite enjoyed this collection, which ranged from stories in the Oz tradition ("The Great Zeppelin Heist of Oz" and, what was my favorite story, "The Cobbler of Oz" about a gentle Winged Monkey child and the cobbler who hopes to make her dreams come true) to a hardboiled version as portrayed in "Emeralds to Emeralds, Dust to Dust." There is also Oz as a video game simulation, or as a tilted world as seen by psychiatric inmates, or as a setup for a reality series; as a training ground for early-20th century suffragettes and even a story of a Chinese Dorothy whose adventures parallel an actual historical event, and another in which the inspiration for Baum's first novel come from the adventures of his eldest son and his slightly eccentric classmate. Not all the tales revolve around Dorothy, either, as evidenced by a bitter story about the lives and fate of "little people" who keep the Emerald City so gleamingly clean.

If you are open-minded enough to approach Oz in tales that are skewed differently from Baum's imaginings, you will find much to enjoy in this collection.

book icon  A Nation Rising, Kenneth C. Davis
I picked this up after reading Davis' Hidden History and enjoying it. Again, he addresses historical facts that are little-taught today in schools. You might call this volume "white Anglo-Saxon Americans hate everyone"; unfortunately this statement is well-supported by Davis' historical chapters about Andrew Jackson's war against the native American tribes, even the "five civilized tribes" who had settled down into farming like their white neighbors; the Protestant populations who at the least bad-mouthed and who, in more extreme cases, burned out Catholic neighborhoods; and above all the prejudice held against both slaves and free persons of color (and against the native tribes that supported them), with terrible revenge taken against slave rebellions. Even the chapter about Jessie Frémont reveals abuses against the natives of California by the Spanish soldiers and religious figures.

This is an easy read for folks who are interested in the history of the United States between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, an era, except for "high points" like the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Gold Rush, that history teachers seem to gloss over. It should be used as a springboard to read more about each era and issue.

(One also may wish Davis would keep modern politics out of his historical discussions. Equating "tea baggers" with bigots who attack Catholics seems a bit much.)