28 February 2014

Books Completed Since February 1

book icon  The Late Scholar, Jill Paton Walsh
[warning: spoiler if you haven't read any of Walsh's previous Wimsey novels] One of the perks of Peter Wimsey's new role as Duke of Denver is that he is the Visitor—an impartial judge of any contested decision—at Oxford University, where both he and Harriet were educated and where an ugly mystery finally drew them together. The college dons cannot decide whether to sell an historical, but relatively unimportant, manuscript, and feelings are heated on both sides. Then the don who might have cast the deciding vote dies, and they ask Peter to arbitrate. But more people begin dying, and in a manner having to do with murders Peter has investigated and Harriet has used in her novels.

Again, you can't expect Walsh to be Sayers; the books are no longer sprinkled with quotations or passages in French. Nor have Peter or Harriet remained static; it's the 1950s now and they have changed along with a changing culture; I noticed some reviewers were upset when Bunter sat down at table with the Wimseys or when they used American slang, but as the song said, "the times they are a'changing," and the Wimseys have gone along with it—American culture had continued to affect British culture as it began to do in the 1940s. Plus I'm for any novel that brings Peter and Harriet back to Oxford, since I love books set in England's two primary university towns; they sound so wonderful! Some old friends from Gaudy Night, like Miss de Vine and Miss Lydgate (who has yet another manuscript in process!), even appear. Just wish Walsh had not made Hope Bunter disappear; she merits only a mention in this one.

As long as you're not expecting Sayers, this is an enjoyable mystery with more than a few twists. (And to the publishers, Hodder & Stoughton: What were  you thinking? The paperback cover is plain ugly.)

book icon  Valley of the Moon, Sherry Garland ("Dear America")
Maria Rosario and her brother Domingo are orphans, rescued by missionaries who found the small children next to their deceased mother's body, and later adopted by servants at the Medina ranch. Thanks to the mission priest, she can read and write, and she begins keeping a chronicle of her life of drudgery at the ranch and of the foibles of the daughters of the ranch owner, especially the mercurial elder daughter being courted by an American settler living in California. Set in the year just before the discovery of gold at Sutter's Fort, this easygoing narrative chronicles the day-to-day life in the Sonoma ranchlands of California before it became a state. The author does not flinch at portraying many of the practices of the 19th century, and both cockfighting and bullfighting are mentioned as everyday occurrences. A minor quibble: the ending of the story rather smacks of classic Victoriana about orphan children.

book icon  Abraham Lincoln in the Kitchen: a Culinary View of Lincoln's Life and Times, Rae Katherine Eighmey
My cooking skills are minor, but my love of history is unbounded, so that books about food history are "devoured" (pun intended) as eagerly as a more general history text. This is an enjoyable survey of American food habits from frontier to "high society" as we follow Abraham Lincoln from his country childhood to his final residence in the White House, from simple, homey foods like corn dodgers and gingerbread cookies to French-inspired recipes and meat dishes for "company." Eighmey not only reproduces historical recipes, but talks about the 19th century food preparation process, to go so far as to hand-crush corn for proper frontier-style hominy and set a appropriate sponge for breadmaking. There are even details about the type of food the frontiersmen and Civil War soldiers would have made around the campfire, and also of sickroom foods. We also see Abraham and Mary Lincoln in a different light from the now customary costumed movie figures, as a 19th century husband and wife who go about ordinary day-to-day chores like preparing food for cookery (milking cows, raising vegetables, etc.) and the cooking itself. Lincoln not only cooked for himself as a single man "baching it" but helped his wife prepare meals; he didn't stand about all the time in a suit and a stovepipe hat looking wise. :-)

Even if you "burn water," this tasty history text should please history fans as well as foodies. Fans of Barbara Walker's classic The Little House Cookbook, which mentions a couple of the same recipes, will especially find much to like here.

book icon  Life in the Fabulous '50s, Remininsce Books
Sadly, they were sold out of the 1940s book, which is what I really wanted, but this Christmas gift from James had charms all its own, even though I was too young to remember poodle skirts, ducktails, early Elvis, the rise of tailfins, DeSotos and Edsels, car hops, and President Eisenhower. But by luck some of those 50s things lasted into the 1960s: classic television like The Roy Rogers Show, Lassie with Jeff, Highway Patrol, Sergeant Preston; old cars; Loretta Young's swirling skirts; hula hoops and other classic kids' games; and a whole bunch of other things it was fun reliving: trips to the drive-in, picnics, beach excursions, phonographs, and other '50s nostalgia. 

book icon  More Tea, Vicar?, Nigel Rees
I bought this just for the heck of it, because it looked funny: a dictionary of catchphrases for various situations, the titular "More tea, vicar?" is said to cover up an embarrassing situation, like breaking wind. There are also "nannyisms" ("If you cross your eyes, they'll stick that way."), mangled words (mispronouncing "Neapolitan" as in ice cream, for instance), and many, many euphemisms for using the lavatory (of which "going to the smallest room" many be the most sensible). These are Britishisms, so they may be unfamiliar to many, but most are very funny. I especially loved the nannyisms, which used wordplay to great effect.

book icon  Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Collection, anthology
This is a collection of eleven short stories first published as e-books written to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the series. Had I not plowed on through the first story, an imaginative but very strange story about the first Doctor and an artificial hand, and his having to rescue Susan, who has tried to help some children only to have all of them captured by Soul Pirates (with a nice twist at the end, I grant you), I might not have finished at all. I enjoyed the remainder of the stories much more, although the Third Doctor and Jo story was a bit of a disappointment (a bit stilted, and the Master rather boringly used). I particularly enjoyed the Fifth Doctor and Tegan story about children beguiled by a novelty called a Truth Teller. The Rani returns with excellent effect in the Sixth Doctor story, and then...anyway, I enjoyed them all, even if the strange first tale and the Doctor and Jo among the gods weren't quite up to snuff. The Eighth Doctor story was particularly creepy, as was the Eleventh.

book icon  All The Stars in the Sky, Megan McDonald ("Dear America")
Florrie Mack and her brother Jem, along with her mother and new stepfather, are emigrating to Santa Fe from their home in Missouri. The Santa Fe Trail is filled with obstacles—weather, wagon breakdowns, injuries, deaths, illness, the gaining and the loss of friends, down to Florrie's sisterly battles with Jem and her getting used to Mr. Ryder as her stepfather. Along the trail Florrie endures thirst and hunger and fear for her mother, but also learns to draw from an artist in the wagon train and opens her mind to other cultures. This is a fine portrait of a young woman's experiences as part of the Western emigrant movement. It's nothing outstanding, and other novels have done it better, but it's a good starting point for any young person interested in the Westward movement.

book icon  A Picture of Freedom, Patricia McKissack ("Dear America")
Clotee is a slave on a Virginia plantation on the eve of the Civil War. Chosen to work in "the Big House" and watch over spoiled Willie Belmont, Clotee pretends indifference during his lessons, but begins teaching herself to read. When a new girl in the kitchen, Spicy, clumsily takes on duties, Clotee and her fellow slaves wonder if she is a spy planted by the master and mistress to pass on any tales of rebellion. But instead the two girls become fast friends as injustices rise: a friend is unnecessarily killed, another demoted, others whipped. When Willie's new tutor arrives, it turns out he is secretly an abolitionist. Can he help Clotee escape?

McKissack is unsparing of the misery that slavery caused, but celebrates the resilience of those enslaved. She doesn't fall into the trap of making them all suffering martyrs; some cannot face the thought of brutal punishment and instead turn to lies or flattery to turn dangerous attention away from them, even though it empowers those who enslave them. There are also surprises from a couple of the white characters, even if the "massa" and the mistress are rather one-dimensional.

book icon  Tomorrow-Land: The 1964-1965 World's Fair and the Transformation of America, Joseph Tirella
In 1964, my parents took me to the New York World's Fair. I was eight years old and, although we only attended for one day, it remains one of my most vivid childhood memories. I loved the dreams of the future proposed by General Motors and General Electric. The future looked bright: we were going to cure cancer, avert hunger, travel to distant planets, and abolish poverty.

At that age, however, I was little aware of the other tumult going on in the world aside what I saw on the news each evening: the Civil Rights movement, the murder of Kitty Genovese, the changes Beatlemania and Bob Dylan wrought on rock and roll, the rise of the drug culture, the escalation of the war in Vietnam. The author points out how the creators of the Fair—especially the hard-nosed Robert Moses, the master builder of the Fair, and the man who nearly ruined the city of New York with a cross-Manhattan freeway project—had lost touch with the changing face of the United States. The stories about the Civil Rights movement were heartbreaking and infuriating, the Vietnam stories sadly reflective since I was of the generation who watched the war unfold on television; a friend's father and my own cousin served there. Frankly, I found the rock and roll stuff boring and the drug culture just plain stupid, but it was part of the change going on in society at the time. A good read, but marred by typos that should have been corrected in the editing process, including the repeated use of " Jacob Javitz" for "Jacob Javits," even in the index.

book icon  A Light in the Storm, Karen Hesse
This "Dear America" book is the story of Amelia Martin, whose father mans the lighthouse on Fenwick Island in Delaware in the months before the Civil War breaks out. It is a bleak, lonely life, with the island scoured by the sea, but Amelia—nicknamed "Wickie"—still loves it; her mother, however, who is tormented with arthritis and on some days can barely move, hates it. She and Wickie's father also disagree about the slavery issue consuming the country, so home life in the lighthouse is stormy even when the weather is bright.

I love stories about lighthouse keepers' families because it was often such a trial for the families who lived on these lonely spits of land, what with isolation and storms, and this is a sobering look at the realities. You can sympathize with Wickie's mother, driven by her pain, while also wondering how the woman can be so bitter. In addition, Hesse based the story on Ida Lewis from my native state of Rhode Island, who ran the light at Lime Rock for many years.

book icon  The Traveler's Tricks: A Caroline Mystery, Laurie Calkhoven
There's one big problem with this story right off the bat if you're an adult. Yes, Caroline has proven she's very responsible. And yes, she'll be riding with her friend Rhonda on their long stagecoach ride. But I still can't see Caroline's father allowing a child, especially a female child, and in those dangerous days of the War of 1812, to carry valuable plans and a large amount of money on a several-days trip with spies everywhere. Surely there was some trusted employee at the shipyard who could have done it? Other passengers are also fearful of thieves. And why is a mysterious horseman following the coach?

The stage is robbed just as it is incapacitated by an accident: Caroline and Rhonda must find the stolen plans and money before they have to leave. There's a nice collection of suspects, including a sad young woman Caroline is certain has a secret, but that wretched bratty little boy aboard is really annoying. If you can get past the fact that it's bizarre for Caroline's father to have given her this job, it's a passable adventure—complete with talking pigs.

book icon  A Growing Suspicion: A Rebecca Mystery, Jacqueline Dembar Greene
Rebecca's visiting her cousin Ana in Brooklyn, hoping her aunt will teach her the secret of her delicious knishes. But Ana is more interested in starting a garden, and, thanks to the vegetable patch she's trying to start, the girls befriend Ana's neighbor, Mr. Tanaka, who is helping to build the elaborate new Japanese garden at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. To Ana's delight, Tanaka asks the girls if they would like to help in the garden. But the moment Rebecca and Ana show up, things in the garden begin to be sabotaged, and the girls are blamed. Ana even thinks it's all Rebecca's fault after she pulls a prank.

This is a great look behind the building of the Japanese garden at the historic Brooklyn location, but a certain character is suspicious right from the start. The only question is why the person is doing it; you may "twig" early to the reason. It's hard to remove modern sensibilities from this; I know in those days children were considered incurable mischief-makers, so naturally Rebecca and Ana are blamed, but it's really irritating the way the adults pin it on them without a pin of evidence.

book icon  Intruders at Rivermead Manor: A Kit Mystery, Kathryn Reiss
Of the three new "American Girl Mysteries," this one is my favorite, although there's a point where the Uncle Hendrick storyline becomes cliche (Kit's observation at the end also sounds a little too pat to come out of a girl her age). It has touches of Annie, and the novel doesn't shy away from using the correct descriptive terms of the time, such as "colored" for a person of color. Something is going on every minute! Kit is working for her uncle again, and on her way to his house, stops to help the elderly woman next door, Elsie Munnis. Kit soon finds out that the eccentric woman believes that time travelers are visiting her home. There's also the mystery of Kit's friend Jessamine, whose father used to work with Kit's dad; Kit keeps seeing her, but she won't tell Kit where she lives. Then Kit herself finds evidence of the time travelers: a woman's bonnet in an otherwise empty room. Could Miss Munnis, a science-fiction fan, be right?