31 July 2014

Books Completed Since July 1

book icon  A Year in the Maine Woods, Bernd Heinrich
Accompanied by a young raven named Jack, naturalist Bernnd Heinrich heads for an isolated cabin in the Maine mountains, intending to stay there for a year studying not only the raven he's brought with him, but wild ravens and the other songbirds of the forest, as well as the wildlife and botanical life surrounding him. Every day is a new challenge as he roughs it with no electricity and no running water. Occasionally he takes a break by running into town and has visits from his son, but chiefly he studies the world around him.

This is a moderately interesting book about Heinrich's year in the woods; of the most interest are his notes about the habits of birds and animals, and the trees and plants around him. Many of his sketches are included in the book. Since the book begins with the transport of the raven, you might think the majority of the story would revolve around his study of it, but Jack achieves his freedom early in the book and is not seen again, although Heinrich does look for him now and again. The realities of living through all seasons in pioneer conditions are brought home in every chapter: endless insect annoyances through most of the year, including clouds of small flies in the cabin, the deep cold and the work it takes for Heinrich to keep warm, breaking ice, keeping food away from raiders. Heinrich, who has lived off the land before, seemingly endures it effortlessly.

I should have enjoyed this book better, but I confess I didn't enjoy it as much as, say, We Took to the Woods or The Hardscrabble Chronicles.

book icon  Broadway Tails, Bill Berloni
Bill Berloni wasn't a professional animal handler; in fact he knew nothing about training dogs. But when the musical Annie came to the stage it was Berloni who was tasked with finding a dog to play Annie's mutt Sandy, as well as to train him. And so he did. This is Berloni's tale of finding the original dog, plus a substitute if the star was unwell, and learning how to train animals for the stage. He not only trained Sandy's successors, but trained a long list of other stage dogs, cats, and other animals, using his wits, love and kindness.

This is an enjoyable tale of a man and the love for his animals, and the mark that he left on rescue organizations (the dogs and cats he trained were chiefly rescue animals, and showed that even a "mutt from the pound" could succeed in show business).

The only thing that bothered me about this book was a two-paragraph story about how Benji and his (actually her, because the second Benji was female) trainer Frank Inn visited the set of Annie. Berloni comments that the dog seemed robotic and only alive when she was doing routines. I thought that was kind of odd because Frank Inn had a great reputation in Hollywood and he was known to favor the dogs who played Benji (the original "Higgins" and then his daughter). Maybe "Benjean" just adored her trainer and kept her eyes on him at all times. Some dogs are like that.

book icon  Essays of E.B. White, E.B. White
While I love Charlotte's Web, I had never read any other White, but remained constantly reminded of him reading anything by James Thurber, whose pieces about the "New Yorker" always included an admiring note of how effortlessly his co-worker, known to his friends as "Andy' because he had gone to Cornell University, where every undergraduate surnamed "White" shared  his nickname with Cornell's first president. When this book presented itself on a shelf of essays, it was after paging through only a few of the contained works that I decided to buy it.

I ended up reading this one slowly, in order to savor each essay and not let the volume end too quickly. Whether writing about livestock on his farm, camping in the woods, life in the big city, or the political situation (the essays cover the 40s through the 60s), like a well-bred horse, White never "put a foot wrong." Thurber was right; his prose is effortless and always so right. I was rueful only once, and it was while White was summing up the fears of the era he was writing about, because things had not changed much in the intervening years, and you had only to substitute a name or a date or an explosive national event to make the essay feel current, a sad commentary on a future supposed to be improved.

When I finished it was with a sigh...and then immediately went out and bought a second book of White's essays, which I expect to enjoy as much as the first.

book icon  Queen Victoria's Book of Spells, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
I quite enjoyed this anthology of "gaslamp fantasy" comprised of eighteen Victorian-era stories involving magic, fantasy, horror, and a smidgen of steampunk (but this is not a steampunk collection per se). The titular short story has a researcher discovering that Queen Victoria was tutored in magic and used a spell in an unspeakable manner. I was particularly fond of the two stories about governesses, the first, entitled simply "The Governess," about a young woman who goes to work in a household where the staff, and the lady of the house, are terrorized by the autocratic master, and another, "The Memory Book," where a governess' sinister use of magic gets her an "in" at a wealthly household.

Another striking tale is about the household of artist Edward Burne-Jones and a work called "the Briar Rose." New technology rears its head in several other tales: while the actual story wasn't my cup of tea, I found the author's use of description in "Charged," the story of a young man with a fascination for electricity, imaginative and dark; I enjoyed more another story about electricity vs. gas, "Smithfield," which featured Arthur Conan Doyle, and a creepy tale of the terrible fate of the workers who got "phossy jaw" as chronicled in "Phosporous." Other stories feature "Old Nick," fairies, yet another incarnation of Queen Victoria, and even "old Scrooge" and the characters from Great Expectations. All in all a great collection of fantasy.

book icon  1941, William K. Klingaman
I found this one by accident, in a book cart at Barnes & Noble stuffed with fluffy novels and genre fiction. It is written on the lines of Craig Shirley's December 1941, but with much better accuracy, and more attention to the buildup of hostilities, especially in Japan. As in December 1941, Klingaman mixes a bit of pop culture in with his history, but it's not nearly as intrusive and out-of-place. He travels to the Pacific to trace the military expansion of the Japanese and the worried stirrings in the Philippines and in Australia while China still reels from the atrocities in Nanking, and to the Atlantic and Europe to trace submarine warfare, the relentless advance of the German troops and the growing menace to those of Jewish heritage. We meet Hitler's cortege, Winston Churchill's war group, the embattled French, the courageous resistance already operating against the enemy. 1941 fashion and football, bathing beauties and baseball, and Hollywood stars also find their place as the months fall away and fateful December approaches. Now I want to read Klingaman's 1919!

book icon  The Book of Life, Deborah Harkness
The saga of Diana Bishop, once reluctant witch, and Matthew Clermont, a vampire whose "life" spans centuries, begun in A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night comes to a conclusion as Diana, Matthew, their family and their friends face a new enemy just as they are growing closer to securing the enchanted book that Diana once summoned from the Bodelian library at Oxford University. An old friend is lost, other old friends return, and the family makes new allies, but it is obvious that Diana is being stalked even as she comes into her full powers. Revenge is the motive and it is Matthew that will have to pay for it if Diana is not turned over to the stalker. The chase takes them back to the Bishop family homestead, England, and France, and to a secret meeting place in Venice.

I buried my nose in this book when it arrived and didn't come up for air until it was finished, but yet have to admit that I did not find it the strongest entry in the trilogy. The violence and the description of it that happens in the last half of the book is very strong and that may have contributed to this feeling; yet the violence that occurs is not gratuitous to the plot. Several other surprises are revealed, and, as always, Harkness goes into the minute detail of the previous books (furnishings, food, architecture), which I enjoyed, but which I know some readers did not. Still, a satisfactory conclusion to the story.

book icon  Fall of a Philanderer, Carola Dunn
Daisy Dalrymple, her stepdaughter, and her best friend are at the seashore, with Daisy awaiting the arrival of her police detective husband so the entire family can have a well-deserved vacation. Alas, this is a Daisy Dalrymple-Fletcher murder mystery and it's that proverbial calm before the storm. On the beach Daisy and the girls meet a mentally-challenged man named Sid who takes a shine to them, as well as bad-tempered George Enderby, who, Daisy discovers, has had an affair with a local woman whose husband was away in the Navy. Enderby's not well-liked in the little seaside town, so when he turns up dead on the beach, there is no shortage of suspects.

Daisy seems to spend a lot of time debating in this book whether she should or should not do something due to her pregnancy, and after a while it gets a bit wearying; otherwise the mystery is good, with a lot of red herrings thrown in the mix, including a man who arrived in town right before the murder and a certain vehicle that was seen the day of the murder. Daisy, of course, picks up on clues no one else does, and you wonder how the local constabulary manages their day-to-day efforts if they're as offhand as they appear in the book. The presence of Belinda's friend Deva prompts some predictable commentary on bigotry as well. Not my favorite Daisy, but worth the read.

book icon  Footprints in the Dust, edited by Colin Burgess
This volume of "A People's History of Spaceflight" covers, predictably based on the title, of the Apollo space missions. Editor Burgess says that they took a page out of Tom Hanks' breathtaking HBO project, From the Earth to the Moon, and organized the volume in individual essays rather than a direct narrative. This gives you differing views of the program, but also makes the book lack a certain cohesiveness. There are chapters for each mission after Apollo 11, presumably because the first moon landing has been covered in so much literature, and the previous missions did not go to the moon, but the lack of Apollo 8 coverage was puzzling. However, it may be because a book has also been devoted to that flight? As in the previous volumes, Soviet spaceflight chapters are included; I found these intensely interesting because I had not read all that much about Soviet missions. In addition, the Skylab and Apollo/Soyuz missions are covered, and the book concludes with a "what happened to" the astronauts who walked on the moon. This is a great series of books and all are heartily recommended to fans of the space program.

book icon  Death in the Floating City, Tasha Alexander
Lady Emily and her husband, agent for the crown Colin Hargreaves, are in Venice at the desperate request of Emily's old schoolmate, a woman she admits to never having liked much, to find the woman's missing Italian husband, after finding his father dead in the family villa. Emma Callum's disposition hasn't improved much, but Emily agrees to help her nevertheless; however, solving the mystery will take more than tracking down the man.

Alexander's writing makes Venice sound so yummy that you want to go visit (despite the modern truths of pollution and sinking foundations). However, a good deal of the story is involved with a forbidden "Romeo and Juliet" type love story that happened many centuries earlier, and there the novel bogs down. The machinations against the two lovers grow to a depressing degree (especially the young woman involved in an arranged marriage to an abusive friend of her family), until you're ready just for Emily to solve the mystery so you can get away from this miserable twosome, and the older tale itself it told in a stilted style, evidently to distinguish it from the main narrative and give it a historical feel, but it also makes it more difficult to slog through. Plus Emma's such a pill that you also wonder why Emily puts up with her. I hope Emily and Colin give up their travels and go home!

book icon  Catholicism, Robert Barron
I had this for Lenten reading, but got to it a bit late. This is a well-written, basic narrative of the beliefs of Catholicism, apparently taken from the research Father Barron did for the television series Catholicism, illustrated with black and white and a few color plates of Biblical locations, churches, and classic artwork. He begins with the birth and life of Jesus, follows the paths of the Apostles, then discusses the Liturgy of the Mass, profiles several saints, and ends with the destinations of the afterlife. Anyone who is interested in the faith, or wishes correction of misconceptions of Catholicism, would be well served by reading this volume.

book icon  Chicks Unravel Time, edited by Deborah Stanish and LM Myles
The folks at Mad Norwegian have done it again in this sequel to Chicks Dig Time Lords. In this entry, thirty-five women each tackle a season of Doctor Who, writing about diverse topics such as objection to the character of Peri, David Tennant's charisma, defense of Colin Baker's Doctor, appreciations of Patrick Troughton and Tom Baker, contrasts of the Doctor and the Master, and a chat about the unappreciated Liz Shaw. Diana Gabeldon talks about how companion Jamie MacCrimmon inspired her own Jamie in the "Outlander" series. Joan Turner examines how Barbara Wright tried to "right" history and save civilizations. Aliette de Bodard discusses racism in Season 14, especially in "Talons of Weng-Chiang." Laura McCullough reacts with pleasure to the science that crept into Season 18. Kelly Hale defends the television movie for giving us Paul McGann, who carried on in his own audio season.

Whether you're a new series fan or an old series fan, you will find something here to please you: discussions of feminism, character, companions. If you've only seen the new series, the essays about the classic episodes may lead you to new experiences as you look up those videos as well.

[Did get a chuckle out of the reference to the cut of David Tennant's "gib." I think they meant "jib." Evidently either the author or the proofreader isn't familiar with sailing.]

book icon  Gunpowder Plot, Carola Dunn
Daisy Dalrymple Fletcher, now late in her pregnancy, is visiting Edge Manor, the home of an old schoolmate, to do a story for her magazine. Sir Harold Tyndall, a martinet and bully (even with his children), nevertheless throws a traditional Guy Fawkes Day fete that is famous in the area, and Daisy is certain coverage of the event will please readers. But while the revelers are watching the fete's celebrated fireworks, Sir Harold apparently shoots a visiting Australian woman and then himself. Once again a reluctant guest at a murder site, Daisy tries to help her husband, DI Alec Fletcher, as much as possible while coping with a baby bump, the bratty behavior of the two Tyndall nephews, the family quarrels between the Tyndall children, and the continuing mystery of the Australian couple.

Once again Dunn finds a plausible way for Daisy to be involved in a murder mystery, and this one is reasonably complicated, takes place at a traditional country house during a very British holiday, and lets us know that spoiled children aren't a modern phenomenon. One of the better books of the series, with a large cast of interesting characters along with favorites Tom Tring and Ernie Piper helping Alec track down the killer.