28 February 2013

Books Finished Since February 1

book icon  Call the Midwife, Jennifer Worth
In 1950, young, middle-class Jennifer Lee graduated as a midwife and was assigned to what she thought was a hospital in the East End of London, then a slum area crowded with hundreds of tenement buildings filled with the poor families of dockworkers. The "hospital" turned out to be a convent of Anglican nuns who practiced midwifery. For Jenny, the squalid surroundings were a shock, but in her practice she learned that, like anywhere else, good and bad existed no matter what the economic state.

This is the original memoir from which the hit British television series was taken (along with its sequel, Shadow of the Workhouse) and provides a wonderful window into a different time. The appalling conditions of the East End are not glossed over, and several sequences, like the story of Mrs. Jenkins and Mary's tale, will probably make you cry. The nuns and Jenny's fellow midwives, especially tall, clumsy "Chummy," the poor little rich girl determined to help others, and Sister Monica Joan, elderly and suffering from bouts of dementia, are unique and memorable figures.

Worth's writing is crisp and brisk, whether writing about a particularly difficult birth or about the humorous exploits of the convent's man-of-all-work, and this is a terrific memoir of a lost time. Please be warned, though, that the elements surrounding the workhouse patients (especially in the sequel) are often very painful. If situations like that bother you, you might want to give this a miss, or at least be prepared to skip certain chapters.

book icon  The Blythes are Quoted, L. M. Montgomery
This is a very unusual book, the actual final book in the Anne of Green Gables series. It was delivered to Montgomery's publisher just before her death and, at that time, was not published in its complete form because it was submitted during World War II and the publisher felt people might not like its anti-war sentiments.

As originally written, Montgomery intersperses short stories in which Anne and Gilbert Blythe are mentioned (or in which their children are mentioned or play very small roles), among poetry of her own that she attributes to Anne or her son Walter, who died in World War I, and bits of dialog between Anne, Gilbert, their housekeeper Susan Baker, and, later in the book, their older children. In this way you find out the fates of the Blythe children (pretty much paired up as you might have expected after the ending of Rilla of Ingleside) and learn that now their children are set to participate in yet another world war. Eventually the poetry and dialog was removed, a story excised, and the book published as The Road to Yesterday. This Penguin version is the first time the original book has been seen by the public.

The stories are a mixed bag, and of subjects that Anne fans only might think inappropriate (divorce, revenge, deserted children, etc.). Several of them, like "Penelope Struts Her Theories" and "Brother Beware," are quite humorous, but most are darker, especially the opening story, "Some Fools and a Saint," and also "Retribution." The continual mentioning of the Blythes in several of the stories seems forced. The poetry ranges from lyrical nature to musings over death and the nature of loss.

I enjoyed this book, but I can't say it's always easy to read. Once lively Anne remains grief-stricken at her son's death and for those of us who grew up with her, it's difficult to see her so sad.

And, okay, I have to say it; I feel the same way about this as I do about the rest of the later books: Susan Baker drives me crazy. I wish she would shut up and let Anne and Gilbert have more "airtime." YMMV.

book icon  Farmer Boy Goes West, Heather Williams
Having tackled all manner of Laura Ingalls sequels, this newest "Little House" title is a sequel to Wilder's Farmer Boy, following the later adventures of Almanzo Wilder. Now thirteen, Almanzo is facing boarding school until his father decides to accept an invitation from his Uncle George, now living in Spring Valley, Minnesota, with his wife, to visit their farm and perhaps buy land. Almanzo chooses to accompany his parents, sister Alice, and baby brother Perley to Minnesota, only to find Uncle George ill, his aunt Martha unfriendly, and the farm not doing as well as George has always stated. But there's also a new friend, new challenges, a new horse (of course!), and even a rather attractive young classmate!

Given that the "Little House" books are really novels based on biography, Williams does a good job of portraying Almanzo's later adolescence. Father Wilder seems a bit milder than he was in the original book, but otherwise the narrative seems to capture the characters and the time pretty well (except for a rather strained "kiss with history" that author Williams tells us really happened in an informative afterword). I enjoyed this...YMMV.

book icon  The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers Volume 1, chosen and edited by Barbara Reynolds
Let's say that you may have to be interested in the life of Ms. Sayers to enjoy this book. Reynolds has collected her correspondence from her first girlish letters from school all the way through the publication of the final Lord Peter Wimsey books, chronicling her years at Oxford, her struggle to find a career, and her relationships with friends and with the man who formed the basis for the character of Philip Boyes in Strong Poison. It was due to her breakup with John Cournos that Sayers had a rebound romance with a motor mechanic and conceived a son, John Anthony, whom she entrusted to the care of a close cousin for his upbringing. For years her son thought Sayers' cousin was his mother and Sayers his cousin until the truth was finally revealed to him.

No insights are really given into her books via the correspondence, which is a pity (although there are a couple of times where you say "Oh, that's where that came from!"), but it's a vibrant portrait of Sayers, who went boldly to university in a era when women were still viewed by many as "unnatural" for doing so (see Gaudy Night) and made her own way in the world (well, with some monetary gifts from her parents), not conforming to stereotypes. I'm a Sayers fan, so I found the collection enjoyable. If you've never read a Sayers' mystery or one of her religious translations, the letters will probably not hold your interest.

book icon  Elemental Magic, edited by Mercedes Lackey
I've rarely been this disappointed by a Lackey short story selection.

Instead of the usual collection of Valdemar-set short stories, these revolve around Lackey's Elemental Masters universe, which postulates practitioners of magic aided by Air, Water, Fire or Earth disciplines. While Lackey's universe covers the late Victorian through World War I era, the stories cover Elemental Masters through all phases of history, and perhaps that was a bit of the problem for me, as I like the Victorian/Edwardian settings. But the first two stories, which take place in Ancient Greece, I thought were rather dull. Another two of the tales were just vignettes rather than full-fledged stories, with characters introduced and interacting, but nothing really resolved, as if waiting for a second volume and a sequel. Another is a rather dull version of "Rapuzel."

Saying that, there were some very enjoyable stories, including the Hawaiian-themed "Makana" and "Queen of the Mountain"; "Air of Mystery," which involves a parfumiere, and even a companion story to The Wizard of London. Unfortunately the blah stories overwhelmed the better ones, and the book even has a a recycled cover with illustrations pinched from previous novels. Shrug.

book icon  Bless the Bride, Rhys Bowen
Well, that's more like it!

I found Molly Murphy's last outing, helping escape artist Harry Houdini and his wife Bess, a bit of a slog, but this next entry in the Murphy mysteries had me from beginning to end. It's almost time for Molly and Daniel's wedding, but the bride, staying at the Sullivan family home, is chafing under the criticism of her future mother-in-law and longing for a little more action than gossip and sewing. While visiting her friends in the city, she decides to take one more case, what looks like a relatively simple effort of finding a Chinese man's missing jade pendant. But, as she soon learns, what is really missing is the man's illegal bride.

But after finding out what kind of a man her employer is, if she finds the bride, does she want to tell her client? Worse, how will she keep Daniel from finding out that she has broken her promise to take no more detective cases when the police become involved in a crime in Chinatown?

This great combination of New York City history and mystery also includes lots of scenes involving Molly's flamboyant friends Sid and Gus, which are always fun. Note: If you read historical mysteries, you may notice that part of this story touches on the same territory as the Sarah Brandt mystery Murder in Chinatown, about Chinese men marrying Irish women since Chinese women were forbidden entry into the United States. However, the plots do not overlap. A treat.

book icon  Lost in the City, Kathleen O'Dell
In this newest Julie mystery, the 1970s San Francisco girl is helping her best friend by caring for a pet parrot while the family is away. When the bird vanishes, Julie has a flock of suspects, including a cranky elderly man and a former classmate.

I'm really not the right person to review the Julie mysteries; I was a teen myself during the 70s and all the hippie stuff being "history" gives me the giggles, and, frankly, is as much of a bore as it was back then. A minor mystery involving Julie's aunt becoming a vegetarian is also a snooze, and anyone owned by a bird will be able to figure out the identity of the bird thief.

I noticed they only gave Marie-Grace a mystery this time and not Cécile, to give Caroline a book. I wish they'd left out Julie instead.

book icon  Traitor in the Shipyard, Kathleen Ernst
The first Caroline mystery involves a dramatic situation going on at the Abbott shipyard: sabotage of a the construction of a new warship. Caroline is afraid that a friend of her father, a man who was held prisoner by the British at the same time as Mr. Abbott, now working at the shipyard, is the culprit. With help from her friend Rhonda, Caroline tries to ferret out the spy.

There are several good red herrings in this story, even if I suspected the person doing the spying after a while. As in one of the Felicity mysteries, the author tries not to make value judgments about people's loyalties, which certainly represents the population of the United States at the time of the War of 1812 better than a strictly jingoistic POV. The end is quite exciting; all in all a dandy mystery.

book icon  Trixie Belden and the Mystery of the Castaway Children, Kathryn Kenney
On a hot August night as a thunderstorm threatens, young Bobby Belden hears an odd noise in the yard and notices that the family dog is uneasy. The Beldens soon discover why: there's a baby hidden in the doghouse, and to Trixie and Honey's great dismay, it looks as if the child may have been abused. The teens soon discover the identity of the child, but it only deepens the mystery: where is the baby's older brother? Has he truly been kidnapped, as a ransom note suggests?

There's a good mystery in this one, with some baffling situations and clues, but everyone mooning over the baby gets a bit tiresome. I was also a little upset to discover that Bobby had once again been placed in rather menacing circumstances. You would think by now the Belden adults would have put their foot down about the girls solving mysteries if this sort of thing was going to keep happening.

book icon  The Haunting of Maddy Clare. Simone St. James
Call it a ghost story with romantic interruptions.

In post-World War I England, Sarah Piper's employment opportunities are few and she is living hand-to-mouth on temporary jobs. One day her agency sends her to see Andrew Gellis, who needs her to substitute for his partner for a few days. Her task: attempt to communicate with a ghost! A terrified housemaid, once rescued from abuse, committed suicide in a barn and her spirit has haunted the structure ever since, growing more destructive and malevolent by the day. Andrew is desperate to capture some concrete sign of spirit activity to prove that his theories about ghosts are true. And so begins Sarah's ordeal as she helps Gellis and his partner Matthew Ryder not only prove the existence of the ghost, but to try to discover why the young woman hung herself. They soon discover that several townspeople know more than they are telling, including a former innamorata of Andrew's.

I'm not much for scary stories, so I was relieved that this had just the right amount of "creep" to it without being too gory. The 1920s atmosphere is very light; with only a few words one might change the time period and not change the story much, although the repercussions of the Great War do play a role in the story. The story does not presume that 1920s people were innocent of sexuality or profanity, so do be warned that both exist in the story. A few bits of non-period vocabulary did toss me out of the story occasionally, but I thought it built to a satisfactory climax with characters I liked, if one of the male characters was a bit Mills and Boon/Silhouette.

book icon  Fire Works in the Hamptons, Celia Jerome
Ah, I think I get the drift finally: Willow is going to end up with a different hot guy in every book (although this time there's little action, just a lot of wanting).

In this outing, the strange man Willow hopes may be a date prospect (if he's not one of her cousin Susan's "strays") must take a back seat when the local fireworks turn out to contain odd "lightning bugs" that set things on fire, and Willow sees beautiful shapes within the fireworks that no one else sees. When a baby swallows one of the bugs, she begins breathing fire, and the townspeople assume this is again Willow's doing; that she has created some type of character for her comic book that has come alive. To help Willow cope with the "fire"flies and the fire-breathing baby, the Department of Unexplained Events sends Piet, a man whose presence keeps fires from starting. As the blazes increase and Willow's precognitive dad sends her garbled danger signals, our heroine must sort out what's going on, and her growing attraction to Piet.

Another fun entry in the Willow Tate, Visualizer, series, although I was annoyed and confused why the town got so furious at Willow when the fireflies appeared. It's not like she created them; they were only attracted to her because she was working on a fire creature for her comic book. And it's not like she did it deliberately! So much for support from her neighbors in Paumanok Harbor, who all have odd little talents. Piet is charming, especially with baby Elladaire, Dad Tate's strange messages are as funny as usual, and her tart grandmother just gets better. If you're looking for a fantasy series with a big of humor and a bit of romance, Willow Tate's adventures may be for you.

book icon  Show Dog, Josh Dean
If you wait for Westminster each year with bated breath, this one is for you. Dean follows a year in the life of Jack, an Australian Shepherd who, although bought as a pet, becomes involved in the show circuit. Owner Kimberly Smith falls in love with a photo of Jack on his breeder's website, but the breeder knows Jack has show-ring potential, so she offers to sell Jack to Kimberly and offer financial assistance for handler fees and show fees if and only if Kimberly will allow Jack to be shown at bench shows. Kimberly agrees and so begins Jack's odyssey on the dog show circuit.

Dean's prose is light and understandable but instructive as he leads us behind the scenes at dog shows, threading in the history of breed shows as Jack progresses from puppy classes up the ladder quickly—too quickly, his breeder is afraid—to championship status, with a coveted appearance at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog show included. He lets us know what the judges are looking for when they physically examine the dog, how handlers juggle multiple dogs in the ring, the routine of the show circuit, about the friction between the American Kennel Club and the Australian Shepherd breeders due to a schism in the latter group, and all manner of other gossipy dog-show insider moments.

While Kimberly's wavering ambivalent attitude to Jack's career occasionally annoyed me (she knew the job was dangerous when she took it!), the rest of the book is a delight. Definitely for dog lovers!

book icon  The Haunted Opera, Sarah Masters Buckey
Marie-Grace Gardner is excited to learn that a famous opera, The Crown Diamonds (reputed to be bad luck!), will be performed in New Orleans, and that her Aunt Océane will play an important role. Better yet, she finds out she and her good friend Cécile Ray will be able to help backstage. But the moment the English opera company arrives to start rehearsals, things start to go wrong. Costumes are sabotaged, and then Aunt Océane is accused of deliberately losing a critical prop. Is it one of the company? A friend of the girls' in the costume department? Or someone else?

I was right when I said they should have skipped the Julie mystery and given us someone else, like another Cécile story. This was a great behind-the-scenes look at an opera production, a popular entertainment in the 1854 setting of the story, and there were some good red herrings that pointed in the direction of several suspects (although one suspect was so obvious you were pretty sure it wasn't that person). In addition, another aspect of history is touched upon in the story that lends additional interest to a supporting character. If you can only afford two of the three new mysteries in this set, get Caroline and Marie-Grace.

21 February 2013

Long Forgotten

Even if you're a book lover, there are books you are glad there are no need for any longer.

For instance, a very popular booklet was printed from the 1930s through the early 1960s that is, thankfully, only a curiosity now. It was published for African-American families who liked to go traveling, but who faced the continual problem of hotels, restaurants, and other businesses for "whites only."

Equally as sad is the fact that the publisher based this booklet on a similar publication that was available for Jewish travelers.

The Negro Motorist Green Book, 1949 edition, is available here in full text in PDF format.

03 February 2013

Chasing the Elusive Verney

Every once in a while I still go looking for John Verney. Strange how a writer I loved so well and who was so popular just disappeared.

His obituary.

His photograph from the National Portrait Gallery.

A Telegraph article about Friday's Tunnel. (Ah, I'm not the only one who thinks his illos look like Edward Ardizzone's.)

A Christmas Card drawn by Verney.

A piece of art by Verney, "Toyland."