31 August 2013

Books Finished Since August 1

book icon  Divided Highways: Building the Interstate Highways, Tom Lewis
Really, how could I pass this up when I opened it up and saw the name of John Volpe of Massachusetts and a mention of Route 128, our way to visit relatives around the North Shore for so many years?

The title may leave you to think that it's just the story of the "Interstates," the ubiquitous freeways that both set us traveling and trap us in traffic, but it is also the tale of the Federal highway system from the first efforts to provide solid, modern roads between cities in the early part of the 20th centery, replacing the wash of mud that plagued horses and teams. America's roads were ill-kept in comparison to European roads, and the development of the automobile only emphasized the problem. Drivers could find themselves up to their hubcaps in mud, travelers sometimes making less that five miles a day. Following paved roads came more traffic, and a dream that traffic might travel on roads unobstructed by towns and stoplights.

The road to the eventual interstate system is populated by unique characters including Thomas Harris McDonald, the first director of public roads; Robert Moses, the "visionary" of the future whose dreams only displace the poor who can't fight back; automaker Henry Ford; William Levitt, who built cookie-cutter homes that housed homecoming GIs; a host of presidents, including Dwight Eisenhower, who signed the Interstate Highway Act into law; and Victor Green, whose "Green Book" was necessary for African-Americans who faced hostility when traveling. We see the successful Pennsylvania Turnpike take over a disused railroad route; the car manufacturers who destroy trolley routes to put buses in their place; the Central Artery in Boston displace thousands and turn once-thriving neighborhoods into smelly dark holes; the historic streets of New Orleans threatened by multi-lanes.

It's really obvious whose side Lewis is on, but I found this a smooth read, with facts side-by-side with personalities and history, and quite enjoyable. The new edition that I have covers the engineering behind the "Big Dig" in Boston that replaced the central monstrosity of the Central Artery, which added to its appeal to me.

book icon  Spider Web, Earlene Fowler
The latest Benni Harper Ortiz mystery opens with a bang—literally, as a sniper shoots a police officer in the leg. Although the town of San Celina reacts with shock, plans are not cancelled for the town's Memory Festival, which will celebrate memories via crafts, oral and written histories, and photographs, with proceeds going to Alzheimer's disease research. The edge is on police chief Gabriel Ortiz more than ever, and it isn't a great surprise to Benni that her husband begins showing signs of stress syndrome from his Vietnam service—but this time his nightmares are worse, and his reactions violent.

As Benni struggles to run the festival, help Gabe, worry over the sniper, cope with her father chafing at his mother's and his aunt's matchmaking efforts, and coo over cousin Emory and best friend Elena's new daughter, she also gets the uneasy feeling that a new resident of San Celina isn't all that they seem.

The Memory Festival isn't just a setting for this story, it is the recurring theme for the entire book, with Gabe's troubled past catching up with him, and how the memory of war in several different generations has shaped people Benni knows. There are some generous red herrings, and the sniper turns out to be someone you might expect, but I was more interested in the interplay between the characters in this one. Probably the only Benni book I ever finished with misty tears in my eyes.

book icon  Trixie Belden and the Mystery of the Ghostly Galleon, Kathryn Kenny
Gleeps! #27 in the series and Triixie finally seems to be back to normal! She's neither paranoid about not being pretty nor in a giggling fit nor offending people (well, except for Mart, and it's about time Brian gave him hell about picking on Trixie all the time). And, wow. Dan actually gets to go with them this time. Will wonders never cease.

The Bob-Whites are in the Catskills with Miss Trask, visiting her hometown and the family inn, which is being run by her brother. She and her brother have quarreled, so the kids are there to act as a bit of a buffer between them, and also Miss Trask thinks the kids will get a kick out of solving a mystery about a pirate ancestor in her family. The situation is tense as they arrive, as Frank Trask has gimmicked up the family inn in a way his sister doesn't like, but it has been good for business. But a cynical waiter clues the Bob-Whites in on some mysterious accidents that have happened lately...and then Trixie and Honey see a spectral galleon in the river.

A standard and likeable Trixie Belden entry, although Mart gets tiresome really fast and the hoary old riddle about the house with windows all facing south makes an appearance. For once I'm not wondering where good ol' plucky Trixie went. Now if we could only solve the mystery of why Honey is a blond in this one.

book icon  Passion of the Purple Plumaria, Lauren Willig
Well, I wouldn't make much of an operative in the Pink Carnation universe. I figured once Ms. Willig got around to telling Miss Gwen's story, the series would be close to the end and the very last book, of course matching up the inimitable Jane Wooliston to the dashing man of her dreams (I still have a bet with myself on who that will be) would be next. Surprise! there will be a book about "Turnip" Fitzhugh's sister first and Willig notes another story in the works in the interview afterwards. Oh, well...

Miss Gwendolyn Meadows has always appeared to be the perfect chaperone for the winsome Miss Wooliston, sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued, proper and typically spinsterish. It would surprise people to know that in her spying missions she dresses as a man and swashes and buckles with the best of them. Her heart and feelings have been pushed inside for so long that she hardly knows what to make of it when she meets the flamboyant Colonel William Reid, whose impish daughter has disappeared, along with Jane's younger sister Agnes, from their expensive private school, and, while parrying retorts with him, starts to enjoy his company!

What a novelty to have a love story between two mature people, both having suffered the bumps of life, Reid with grown children, Miss Gwen with secrets of her own! I've always complained that most romance books are about young, impossibly gorgeous people, so it's refreshing to have real adults as protagonists this time around. There's a surprising turn at the end as well, along with the realization "What, you mean it's a whole year until the next one?"

book icon  Star Trek and History, edited by Nancy R. Reagin
This is an appealling collection of essays about Star Trek (the original series as well as its sequels) and how each of the series reflected what was going on in the world at the time the episodes were filmed. Kirk is explored in the context of an "Old West" character and McCoy as symbolizing the passing of the traditional family practitioner. Several essays address the original series' take on the Cold War and the Vietnam conflict. A particularly interesting piece talks about how Lieutenant Uhura, while a groundbreaking character who attracted the attention of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., never really fulfilled the promise of that character (even in the reboot film), and another addresses the stereotypical treatment of Native American characters, even through Star Trek: Voyager. Other essays talk about the future as portrayed in the various series, the holodeck, environmentalism, and examinations of the Vulcans, women, Klingons, Cardassians, and even Star Trek fandom. A good read for Star Trek fans.

book icon  A Fine Romance, Susan Branch
I have loved Susan Branch's lovely hand-colored and hand-written books since I can remember, and always have one of her small calendars for our bedroom. When I saw the preview of this book—a chronicle of Branch's visit to England with her husband—I ordered it so fast my credit card practically whipsnapped. And this exquisite little book did not disappoint, especially as it arrived the same day as a distressing time at work. It's a loving diary of their anniversary trip to England aboard the Queen Mary II, and then their weeks visiting different areas of England including the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales, visiting friends, gardens, and historical sites, written by hand in Susan's charming manner, with photographs and incidental drawings and quotations filling each page. Each section is written with such enthusiasm that I teared up when Susan fulfilled her dream and visited the beloved farmstead of her favorite artist, Hill Top Farm, the home of Beatrix Potter. She even prefaces the story with the sweet and simple story of how she met her present husband upon moving back east after a heartbreaking divorce.

A must for Anglophiles and Susan Branch fans, and a perfect book for anyone who likes cozy corners, lovely flowers, and picturesque countryside.

book icon  Trixie Belden and the Hudson River Mystery, Kathryn Kenny
In the 28th book in the series, surprise! There's a token black character, a first in a Trixie book! Loyola Kevins is a brainy classmate who is working with Trixie's older brother Brian on an ecological project for school, and Trixie figures the team is a shoo-in for the best project—that is, if Brian's attitude doesn't hurt them. He seems distant and distracted, a big change for responsible Brian, especially after he tells a horrified Trixie and Honey that he doesn't know why he ever thought about being a doctor, something that's been his dream since childhood.

Meanwhile, Trixie has her own surprise: she believes she has seen a shark on the Hudson River. Naturally, everyone pooh-poohs her. In short order, there's a mysterious cave, two careless boys in a sailboat, and a children's book author who's doesn't seem to have all the answers she's supposed to have. What will Trixie find in the cave? What's up with Brian? And can a shark come that far up the Hudson?

Not a bad mystery, if you can overlook the constant irritation of Mart and Bobby constantly trading spoonerisms. Maybe it's funny when you're six (and fifteen and male), but page after page of spoonerisms get really old after a while. Someone needs to give Mart something to do. (Oh, and come on. Trixie's fourteen. Don't tell me she doesn't know the word "pediatrician.")

book icon  Twentieth Century Girl: The Diary of Flora Bonnington, London 1899-1900, Carol Drinkwater
In the manner of the "Dear America" and "Dear Canada" books, this is United Kingdom-set story done in diary form. Flora Bonnington lives with her widower father, loving grandmother, and about-to-come-out older sister Henrietta just as the 19th century is turning into the 20th. Her tutor takes her to see her first moving picture as the book opens, and Flora is mesmerized. Suddenly her thoughts are all of becoming a filmmaker. Supporting her is her suffragette Grandmother; opposing her, her traditional sister and father.

Perhaps my problem with this book is reading it as an adult. It seems like only half a book as we are rushed pell-mell through facts about early filmmaking (including the fact that a woman worked in the industry!), the suffragette movement, Henrietta's preparations to be presented to the Queen, the dockers' strikes of that era, and Mr. Bonnington's refusal to look away from tradition. It's probably inherent in the short-form diary; this book could have been twice as long and given the characters a bit more depth. The ending, where Flora and her father face off, is so quickly over with so little fuss that it's unrealistic.

book icon  A Death in the Small Hours, Charles Finch
Charles Lenox's life as a member of Parliament is about to ascend to a new level: he has been asked to make a speech to open a session. So many people keep dropping by the home he keeps with his supportive wife, Lady Jane, and their infant daughter Sophia (over whom, IMHO, they gaze admiringly at in one too many passages!) that the family finally retreats to his cousin Frederick's country house in Somerset, where Charles will have a chance to work on his speech—if he's not too distracted by a mystery in the small village nearby, where a poison-pen is leaving cryptic and sinister drawings on the doors of several businesses, as well as on the doors to the church.

Lenox finally gets back to mysteries, which is where he belongs, although I have to admit I laughed aloud as he was continually interrupted by men with ideas about what should be in his speech (one gentleman thinks country sports and Jesus will solve all of London's problems)—probably my favorite chapter of the book. Plumbley is an English village out of a classic English mystery tale, and there are the usual village types; Everley is the country house of every Anglophile's dream. The mystery is fairly complicated, and suspicion points at one man so heavily you know he has to be a red herring. There's even some derring-do on horseback for Lenox himself and a pleasant surprise at the end. After the disappointment that was A Stranger in Mayfair (it still smarts, even with Burial at Sea in between), this was a definite improvement, except for the constant baby worship.

book icon  An Old Betrayal, Charles Finch
This may be my new favorite of the Charles Lenox mysteries; with, at last, enough mystery to go around—and the Finches spend less time cooing over their little daughter as well.

Lenox, still occupied with his seat in Parliament, agrees to meet with one of his old partner's potential clients after Jack Dallington is too ill to go himself—he fears from the note the person sent that they are in danger. But Lenox miscalculates at the meeting  place, not thinking that the person might be a woman, and is alarmed when she flees the restaurant where she was supposed to make contact with Dallington after a handsome, fair-haired man walks in. Thus begins a raveled story of mistaken identity, a murdered man, a grieving sister, and a mysterious young woman who turns out to work for Queen Victoria. If that mystery wasn't enough, Jack Dallington seems to have a new rival in a detective agency run by a woman, Lenox is hearing rumors that his assistant Graham is bribing influential men, and Lady Jane's close friend "Toto" believes that her husband is cheating on her with an outrageously bold woman.

I have been unhappy with many of the books in this series in the past, but this one seems to have the right balance of mystery and period setting. The historical mistakes are at a minimum in this entry, and even the secondary mysteries involving the female detective and McConnell's extracurricular activities are suitably perplexing. Not to give away any spoilers, at the end of the book a decision is made that pleased me very much; good riddance, I say. Plus, after volumes of being a paper character, Lady Jane not only comes a bit alive during the course of the novel, but eventually does something that turns her from a character on paper to flesh and blood. (I cheered, too!)

book icon  The Happy Hollisters, Jerry West
The first book in a long-running series of stories about the Hollister family, who pull up stakes and move to a new home on the lake in the town of Shoreham, where Mr. Hollister runs a combination toy store and hardware store, The Trading Post, Mrs. Hollister stays home with her active brood, and the never-stay-still kids—Pete, Pam, Holly, Ricky, and little Sue, along with their collie dog Zip—have harmless but fun adventures: rowing on the lake, exploring an island, finding a secret passage in their new house, having picnics, discovering White Nose the cat and her five kittens, helping Dad at The Trading Post, and tracking down thieves.

Yep, no sooner do the Hollisters arrive at their new house that they find out that the small moving van with all the kids' toys and one of Mr. Hollister's new inventions broke down near Shoreham and was stripped while the driver went for help. Perhaps the missing toys even have something to do with the signs of prowlers the kids keep finding in the house!

I always wanted these books when I was a kid and now they're uber collectible and being re-released so a new generation of kids with helicopter parents can goggle over the freedoms children had in the 1950s. Pam and Pete even get to go to the island with their dad's assistant to search for the thief. And, shades of the Bobbsey twins, they even have a Danny Rugg character called Joey Brill to put a little sour into their happy times. A fun look at the simple pleasures of the 1950s growing up in a large family that may put you in mind of the Tuckers series.

book icon  Dobry, Monica Shannon
This was a Newbery winner I had never yet read, so when I had a chance to pick it up for fifty cents, I did.

This book reminds me a great deal of Kate Seredy's The Good Master, with its portrait of Bulgarian farm society at the early part of the twentieth century, the stories told by Dobry's colorful grandfather, the big stove in the kitchen, his mother's cooking (apparently red peppers are a favored food there), ethnic customs revolving around the seasons and village festivals, with hints of Heidi (Dobry initially dreams of being a livestock herder instead of a farmer, and then discovers sculpting—and there's even a pet goat). But sadly this book doesn't have the charm of either book and the going is rather slow, although the revelation of why everyone waits for the gypsy bear each year is pretty amusing and surprising. Fascinating for the details of daily lives of rural Bulgarians circa 1920 and interesting to watch Dobry find his niche in the world, but rather ploddingly told compared to similar books.

book icon  Re-read: The Horsemasters, Don Stanford
This is one of my "comfort reads," the story of Dinah Wilcox, an American girl who wishes to attend a pricey small college along with her wealthier best friend. With an aim toward obtaining a horsemanship course certificate so she can work her way through college, both Dinah and her girlfriend "Bee-Bye" sign up the Owen-Allerford Riding School's Horsemastership course in England. You join Dinah as she works hard to care for her horse, learns to ride and jump properly and then teach others how to do so, and even acquires veterinary knowledge with fifteen other boys and girls. While this description may sound dull, the narrative never falters and you gallop (pun intended) into interesting lessons on horsemanship and horse care and end up learning something as you read the story without even trying hard. This book is the perfect gift for a horse-crazy child who thinks owning a horse is some fantasyland vision of galloping endlessly over sunny pastures without a thought to grooming and feeding. Dinah's classmates--like lazy Adrienne, gluttonous Jill Murphy, proper David Perrin, and flirtatious Enzo--and instructors, especially the precise Captain Pinski and the insufferable "head girl," Mercy Hale, are memorable as well. A blue ribbon to Don Sanford for his engaging and excellent narrative!