31 May 2013

Books Finished Since May 1

book icon  Mistletoe and Murder, Carola Dunn
Daisy's first Christmas with her new husband, DI Alec Fletcher, and her stepdaughter Belinda, is hijacked by her imperious mother, who declares the whole family will spend the holiday season at the Cornish estate Brockdene as guests of Lord Westmoor. Alas for the Dowager, who is imagining an elegant country-house Christmas, Lord Westmoor doesn't even live at Brockdene any longer; the house is occupied by some "poor relations" in his family, the Norvilles, who are treated with snobbery by the servants because the female head of the household is from India and her children are of mixed racial ancestry. Not only are relations tense as the Fletchers arrive, but a guest brought by "sea dog" Captain Norville, a straitlaced missionary, turns out to be imperious, unyielding, humorless—and eventually dead.

This is a dandy Daisy outing, with the children (Belinda and Daisy's nephew Derek) providing humor and clues without being cloyingly cute kids. The Norvilles are all appealing characters, especially the gentle grandmother whose marriage to Lord Westmoor's uncle has never been legitimized—well, except for young Jemima, whose irritating adolescence is in nice contrast to Belinda's sunny personality. The manor house and its surrounding estate provides a great setting as well, complete with hidden passages and intriguing antiques. One of the better entries in the Daisy Dalrymple Fletcher mystery series.

book icon  War Work, Libby Oneal
Ms. Oneal, who was a little girl during World War II, based this wartime novel on her own experiences as a child. Zoe and her little sister Rosie face a boring summer since their usual seashore trip has been canceled due to gas rationing. While helping a neighbor boy, Joe Bunch, collect scrap for the war effort, the children discover a man dropping a note into a tree trunk. Convinced he's a spy, the kids start staking out the tree and following the culprit, who seems to be connected to the sisters' neighbor Miss Lavatier, who gives dancing lessons. What's going on? Can the kids catch a spy?

This is considerably less suspenseful than my summary sounds. Despite the mention of scrap collection and Victory gardens, blackouts and German spies, I never got a real 1940s feel from the story. It has more of a 1950s/early 1960s feel to it, and the illustrations don't help; they are in a very 70s style, especially on the cover. Children probably won't notice the difference, but it was a real letdown for me. Plus I know kids didn't have "helicopter" parents back then, but I can't believe Zoe was able to sneak out of the house as many times as she did, get her clothes all dirty, and then have her mother not notice! Zoe's relationship with her little sister is very natural, however, and often comic, and sisters should recognize themselves in Zoe and Rosie.

book icon  Murder at Marble Arch, Anne Perry
How refreshing to see Pitt back where we enjoyed him best, investigating society crime. The rape and murder of Caroline Quixwood, followed by the accidental death of Angeles Castelbranco, daughter of the Portuguese ambassador, sets the stage in Perry's newest Pitt mystery; as the novel unfolds, it becomes apparent the two deaths are connected in some way, especially after it is discovered that Angeles was almost certainly a victim of rape. Both Thomas and Charlotte find that this latter crime hits close to home, as Angeles was only a few years older than their eldest child, fourteen-year-old Jemima, just blooming sexually and beginning to notice young men.

I enjoyed this much more than the more cloak-and-dagger aspects of the last few novels, but admit to being dismayed that Victor Narraway appears to be taking over the Pitt stories. Half the plot revolves around Narraway's investigation of the crimes, and his attraction to the older but still lovely Lady Vespasia Cumming-Gould. I also still miss Gracie, the Pitts' former maid, who is now married; Minnie Maude isn't half so memorable or fun. I wish Perry would write a novel with Gracie and her husband, police officer Samuel Tellman, as the main characters!

book icon  Private Life in Britain's Stately Homes, Michael Paterson
If weeks of watching Downton Abbey have whetted your curiosity about English country houses, you should enjoy this easy-to-read overview of the golden age of the British country house, which only lasted briefly between the time transportation, plumbing, and heating made these country houses a comfortable place to weekend and the beginning of the first World War, after which people were much less likely to want to be servants on a huge estate and inheritance taxes took the bloom off owning huge properties. It may surprise people to know that this "golden age" lasted only around thirty years since so much literary and film attention has been paid to it. Paterson takes us behind the scenes of the history of the great manor homes, and the daily activities of both the "upstairs" and "downstairs" folk. History buffs should enjoy!

book icon  The Apothecary, Maile Meloy
Some of the best books are accidental. There's this one, for instance, which I picked up at Books-a-Million because I was intrigued by the cover and the description on the back cover. Janie Scott lives a fun life in 1952 Hollywood, where her parents are writers for television. But 1952 is also the uneasy reign of Senator McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities . Knowing they will be subpoened to testify against friends, the Scotts flee to austerity London, where Janie's mom and dad find work writing for a series about Robin Hood. Janie finds herself the "new American kid" in a British school, intrigued by classmate Benjamin, whose father is the local apothecary.

And then Benjamin's father is kidnapped. But why? He's just a neighborhood storekeeper who's tried to persuade Benjamin to follow in his footsteps. Could it have something to do with the Pharmacopoeia?

This is just a dandy adventure story mixing a variety of elements: magic from the apothecary's ancient book the Pharmacopoeia, 1950s spy fiction, English school mystery, traitors, and Soviet agents. As an adult I might have wished for a few more glimpses of austerity Britain and fewer daydreams involving schoolgirl crushes, but the emphasis is pretty spot-on for a fourteen-year-old girl, and it sure beats females gushing over vampires and werewolves. As a plus, the pages are decorated with wonderful charcoal-like pencil sketches. I'd just turned the last page when I discovered a sequel was in the works. (Plus the plot element about American writers living and working in Britain and writing under assumed names is taken from real life as well.) Can't wait!

book icon  The Possibility Dogs, Susannah Charleson
I enjoyed the author's previous Scent of the Missing, and found this volume even more appealing. After a particularly arduous and unsettling search-and-rescue mission with her Golden retriever, Puzzle, Charleson found herself developing PTSD symptoms including repetition of tasks. Soon afterwards she began to foster an abused, starved pit-bull cross that was abandoned by his owners.

For years, service dogs--at first guide dogs for the blind, and, more recently, "hearing-ear" dogs and dogs to help the mobility-impaired--have been specially bred for their tasks. But in adopting "Jake Piper," Charleson investigates the more recent notion of training rescue dogs as service animals, including working as psychological support for those who suffer PTSD or unexpected panic attacks. To that end, she begins training Jake Piper as a "psych dog," discovering in the process that she may need him herself.

Interspersed with Charleson's narrative of training Jake, she recounts stories of people helped by their service animals, including a former firefighter, a young woman who suffers from severe panic attacks, and a man with anxiety disorder whose introduction to service animals came when his son became wheelchair-bound after an accident; abandoned dogs like Annie, Lexie, and Ollie T, who proved that being discarded did not make them unwanted or unlovable; and often amusing (but occasionally heartbreaking) stories of her own pet Pomeranians, including handicapped Misty and the opinionated Mr. Sprit'sl. A pleasant, readable narrative, recommended for dog lovers or those looking for information about the training of service dogs.

book icon  Speak to the Earth, Rachel Peden
I was looking for a book to satisfy my "more Gladys Taber"—since, alas, I have collected and completed all of Taber's delightful "Stillmeadow" books—craving, and noted Rachel Peden mentioned as being similar in style and tone. Speak to the Earth is a compilation of Peden's farm columns from 1940s through the 1970s, as were her previous books. How could you not like a book that starts with "The February day was ending in a cold sunset; no red clouds, no pinkness, no orange-colored glory. Only a dazzling silver disk in a gray muslin sky; a hill from which bushy, dark trees pushed upward; a wind blowing coldly out of the north."

Peden's descriptive language about the land, foliage and animals is beautiful and evocative; I particularly loved the story about her daughter and the violets. She has a nice solid knowledge of insect life, although for myself I would have had fewer descriptions of bugs! I just didn't find her as warm as Taber. I'm probably just being picky. If you enjoy lyrical language about country living, give Peden a try.

book icon  Duel With the Devil, Paul Collins
Murder mystery blends with historical tale in this slim but detail-packed volume about the death of a young Quaker woman whose body is found in a 18th century New York City well. Just before disappearing, the girl confides to a boardinghouse companion that she is to be married to a talented young carpenter who also lives at the boardinghouse. Of course, he becomes the first suspect in her death, and the denizens of the city are howling for his blood. With this in mind a talented team of defense lawyers must be chosen—and it includes Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, four years before their historic duel, and already viciously sniping at each others' political beliefs.

While Collins does an excellent job of maintaining suspense in the mystery, even offering a solution to this, which is termed "America's oldest 'cold case,'" the big draw for me was the eloquent description of 18th century New York City, a noisy and noisome post-Revolutionary community suffering from bad water and constant sickness, the most recent being yellow fever. You are there walking the cobbled streets and dirt roads, hearing the sounds of the blacksmith and the fishmonger, smelling pungent waste and candle wax and livestock, there as civilization's slow progress creeps up from the Battery and approaches Greenwich Village (still an actual village at the time), as the construction of a potable water system is attempted. You meet the venial and the virtuous, the prim ladies and the rakes, feel the bite of winter and the uncomfortable fate of the twelve jurors left to bed down on the floor in a portrait gallery until the trial is finished. For this glimpse into 18th century alone, this book is "worth the trip." A great read for history lovers.

book icon  What's a Dog For?, John Homans
Subtitled "The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man's Best Friend," the adoption of Homan's Lab mix Stella sets the stage for his exploration of the dog's place in culture and in science. Homan investigates the intelligence of dogs, from the opinion that they are unique (did you know dogs are the only animal that will follow a pointing finger? not even a chimpanzee will do so) to the studies of others who say that dogs are nothing special in the brains department. Several chapters cover the evolution of wolves into dogs, and then the further segmenting of dogs into breeds and how the breed standards have created health problems in dogs like the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and the German Shepherd (this section includes a interesting chapter that traces the history of the Labrador retriever, descended from the St. John's dog of Newfoundland).

Homans had much interesting information here, although there really wasn't anything "surprising," but I still found the book difficult to complete. The narrative isn't bad, but it isn't compelling either; there's nothing about it that takes me effortlessly from chapter to chapter. I usually finish nonfiction books about dogs in less than a week and this one took me over a month.

book icon  Mr. Monk on Patrol, Lee Goldberg
Monk was always written with a dollop of humor, and in this book the dollop is very large indeed.

In this outing, Monk and Natalie find themselves in Summit, New Jersey, trying to help out old colleague Randy Disher and Monk's old nurse, Sharona Fleming, now a couple. All the elected officials of tiny Summit have been indicted on various fraud charges, so Randy's trying to juggle being police chief, mayor, and God knows what else. Into this has come a spate of home burglaries, and then a woman is murdered, and the "defective detective" and his overworked assistant come to the rescue.

There are some funny moments here, especially when Monk is initially repulsed and then attracted to, due to her OCD proclivities, a woman named Ellen Morse who runs a shop called "Poop," which sells fossilized coprolites and other items to do with excrement, and Natalie continues her voyage of self-discovery in her process of becoming a private investigator on her own. (Randy's still his goofy self verbally, but he's acquired a veneer of responsibility and his real love of Sharona shows through, which reduces me to a puddle of goo.) But the plot and situations are pretty over the top, even compared to past volumes; I'm thinking this is a novel only an Adrian Monk fan could love. (Oh, and by the way, I can't believe it took Monk and Natalie so long to twig to "whodunit." Talk about being self-absorbed!)

book icon  A Question of Honor, Charles Todd
After three very good adventures with Bess Crawford, World War I nursing "sister," this fifth volume returns to the flawless excellence of Bess' first mystery.

Bess' early life was spent in India with her Army officer father, the "Colonel Sahib," as he is known, and her mother. Unlike other children, she is not sent to England to relatives or to boarding school as she gets older, but is tutored at "home." Thus she vividly remembers the shock when dependable, friendly Lieutenant Wade disappears after the police appear searching for him in connection with a murder. Her father, angry at this betrayal of his unit's honor, has the officer searched for, and a report finally comes that he has died trying to escape to Afghanistan. While it cools tempers, except for the few that think the Army is covering up for Wade, the mystery of why the murders occurred is never solved. Then, ten years later as Bess is nursing during the war, a dying Indian sergeant tells her he has seen Lieutenant Wade—alive. It is a mystery that will take Bess from London to the countryside, and in the meantime her battle to save lives in the medical stations of France continues.

In this installment, Bess' ability to travel back and forth to England to investigate the mystery is much more believable, as she accompanies troopships back and forth across the channel, delivering injured men to recuperative facilities and escaping the predations of submarines. Todd spends much time in the trenches with Bess as she endures blood, filth, sleeplessness, and constant shelling, portraying the stark horror of the war in vivid terms. At the same time we are able to follow the bit-by-bit investigation of the reason a family was murdered. The mystery is well drawn out and keeps you guessing, and the fact that Bess does, coincidentally, run into some of the people she needs to talk to in the trenches is not overwhelming. There's even an encounter with Rudyard Kipling, which, if you have read, or seen an adaptation of, his short story "Baa-baa Black Sheep," will give you a clue to the mystery. Bess and Simon continue their "is there something between them?" relationship (with no resolution, but a good working partnership), and the descriptions, from battlefield to bucolic, are evocative and strong. Bess' mother is able to help her with her sleuthing in this outing, and the situations are realistic. I opened this book at Chapter One and didn't put it down until it was finished.

book icon  The War to End Wars 1914-18, Readers Digest
This is part of a series called "20th, The Eventful Century," from Reader's Digest, which I picked up in a used book store. This is a basic, illustrated overview to World War I, filled with a great collection of photographs, drawings, and illustrations of the different battles on the Front. (A two-page spread illustrates the trench system integral to the "Great War.") I'm still looking for a homefront WWI book, if such an animal exists, but in the meantime this illustrated volume filled in some blank spaces rather well with photos of the era.