31 December 2015

A Baker's Dozen of Favorite Books of 2015

Yeah, yeah, I shouldn't even be posting this since I didn't finish my November reviews until after Christmas. I thought I'd do that in the past two weeks! But here it is anyway. If you're looking for the December books, they're all reviewed in Holiday Harbour.

book icon  How to Be a Victorian, Ruth Goodman (Barnes & Noble purchase)

book icon  If Walls Could Talk, Lucy Worsley (Barnes & Noble purchase)

book icon  Pioneer Girl: the Annotated Autobiography, Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by Pamela Smith Hill (Books-a-Million purchase, since everyone else was out)

book icon  Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein (Amazon purchase)

book icon  A Brief Guide to The Sound of Music, Paul Simpson (Books-a-Million purchase)

book icon  Bluegrass Champion (Harlequin Hullabaloo), Dorothy Lyons (library booksale)

book icon  The Best of Connie Willis, Connie Willis (Amazon purchase)

book icon  The Penderwicks in Spring, Jeanne Birdsall (Amazon purchase)

book icon  The Great Detective, Zach Dundas (Barnes & Noble purchase)

book icon  Eighty Odd Years in Hollywood, John Meredyth Lucas (Amazon Marketplace purchase)

book icon  The Oregon Trail, Rinker Buck (Barnes & Noble purchase)

book icon Doctor Who's Greatest Hits, R. Alan Siler (directly from Alan, at Dragoncon!)

book icon  One Man's Meat, E.B. White (Amazon Marketplace purchase)

plus an honorable mention to Winter at Death's Hotel by Kenneth Cameron, but it was so creepy and violent I doubt if I'll ever read it again, and the short story collection A Stone Mountain Christmas.

30 November 2015

Books Completed Since November 1

book icon  A Gilded Grave, Shelley Freydont
In this first of Freydont's "Newport Gilded Age Mystery" stories, Deanna Randolph, her sister Adelaide, and her parents are in Newport for the summer social season of 1895. At the first party of the season, held at her father's partner in the sugar business, a housemaid is found outside, dead on the rocks below the Cliff Walk. While the gossips wonder if "poor Daisy" was involved in some type of scandal, the brother of Deanna's lady's maid Elspeth, Daisy's fiance, is arrested for the murder. Deanna and Elspeth, convinced of his innocence and fans of dime novels with female heroines, are determined to find out who really killed Daisy.

I'm ambivalent about this book. I like the characters—Deanna in particular comes off as an intelligent if more common society girl who cares about clothing and catching a husband than most of these Gilded Age mystery heroines, who are often "offbeat" for the time—and I enjoyed the mystery, which was very convoluted although the "bad guys" start to reveal themselves halfway through; you spend the rest of the book figuring out the "why." But although I enjoy Freydont's Celebration Bay mysteries, I didn't really enjoy her writing in this book. Modernisms crept in at odd times, Deanna is so familiar with her maid as if to be sisters with her, her best friend and former swain Joe Ballard is so ordinary he's bland, and Deanna says things in front of her father and others that no society girl would be caught dead saying in 1895. I'll probably buy the next one and see how the scandalous behavior of Joe's audacious French grandmother will rub off on Deanna now that she's staying with her.

book icon  The President's Daughter, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
I picked this book on a whim out of a free book box at a fall gathering because you almost never see anything written about Ethel Roosevelt: her father, of course, and her parents together, and her brothers, and her audacious half-sister Alice, and even the other end of the family. To my surprise, it's the very believable story of Ethel from the moment her father finds out William McKinley has died and he has become President to the first few weeks in her new boarding school. She describes the tumult in the family upon moving to Washington, DC, and the shock of being sent to school after having had a governess for years and her difficulty in making friend, partially because the other girls are snobbish but partially because she has closed herself off from making friends because she wishes to be at home.

There are some fascinating details here that I've never read anywhere else, including in what bad shape the White House was when the Roosevelts moved in, and that—can you imagine the furor today if this happened?—the President's police force actually instructed Roosevelt's older children that when they went for a ride or walk with their father, if they saw anyone suspicious, they should actually push themselves between the potential assassin and their father because any assassin would be "after the President of the United States, not children." Wow! It's also a surprisingly nice view of Alice Roosevelt from Ethel's point of view, since Alice was known to be "right contentious" with everyone.

If you're a Teddy Roosevelt fan like me or a fan of the Progressive era and you see this book, give it a try. Very worthwhile!

book icon  Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave birth to the First Modern Humans, Brian Fagan
I was crazy for anthropology books as a teenager and constantly borrowed Silverberg's Morning of Mankind from the school library, so I'd been eyeing this book for ages when I finally found a remainder copy. In all I was happy to read about the archeological discoveries made since Silverberg wrote Mankind and enjoyed the photographs of stone age remains and paintings, but I found the text to be very repetitive. Fagan would tease us with a description of "how it might have been": Cro-Magnon tribes or individuals spying or even coming near their Neanderthal compatriots on the same hunting grounds, and then say "of course, this is all theoretical," and then do it again a chapter or two later! It made the book difficult to progress through—despite the author's beautiful descriptions of the landscape and the tribesmen—to the point where you would get to yet another "re-enactment" and sigh. Plus the drawings that are included to help us understand how Cro-Magnon tools were constructed are very vague. The legends and descriptions either point to figures which are not there or the drawing doesn't match what the legend states.

I feel guilty giving this book such a bad rating because I truly enjoyed the parts which brought me up-to-date on discoveries in the archaeological field since the 1970s when I became interested in the subject, and some of Fagan's descriptions are very evocative. I'll probably keep the book, but I think you should find it on remainder like I did, or take it out of the library.

book icon  Cannons at Dawn: The Second Diary of Abigail Jane Stewart, Kristiana Gregory
Let me be up front about this: I hated Winter of the Red Snow, Abigail's first "diary." It was pretty dull.

The sequel is much more interesting (with the biggest problem the awful "paintings" of the characters Scholastic is now putting on the covers; "Abigail" has perfectly plucked eyebrows and a flawless complexion and appears to be wearing lipstick). Soon after Mr. Stewart leaves to fight in the war, their home burns down, and the family movies to Philadelphia, but finds no place to stay. Except for the eldest girl, Elizabeth, who remains behind with her intended, who was wounded in battle, Abigail and her family become camp followers, marching behind the troops and providing laundry, sewing, and sometimes even food for them. Life on the road is full of hardships, from mosquitoes to sickness, but it's here Abigail meets the man she will marry, Willie Campbell.

Women and children as "camp followers" were a common feature of wars in those days. It is a part of history little spoken about unless you visit historical sites like Valley Forge. Gregory has written a good tale of how they lived, coped, and even triumphed. If you can suffer through the dullness of Red Snow, you will probably enjoy this portion of Abigail's tale much better.

book icon  Pledging Allegiance, Lawrence R. Samuel
This book sounds as if it should be a history of the Pledge of Allegiance (surely there's a book out there about it, isn't there?), but it's actually a fairly engrossing history of the bond drives during World War II. To raise money for the war effort in the first World War, the fundraising efforts were called "Liberty Loans" and some exquisite artwork came out of these efforts, but it was thought at the beginning of the second World War that the Liberty Loan drives were meant to appeal to only the wealthy or at least well-to-do. These new fundraisers wanted Americans to realize that the Nazi and Japanese regimes threatened everyone's way of life and attempted to sell war bonds to everyone, even children.

Therefore, one of the things they did was make war bonds available in small denominations. One didn't have to make an executive salary to buy one: the janitor, the dog-catcher, the factory worker could afford them. Children, who had less money than anyone, could buy war stamps to paste into a book that would eventually be worth enough to buy a war bond. War bonds were touted as perfect gifts: no wallets, toys, or expensive dresses!

The chapters I found most fascinating were the ones selling war bonds to African-Americans. The Liberty Loans had only concentrated on whites; War Bonds were for everyone. People of color treated as they were had no especial reason to support a war effort that excluded them on so many fronts: segregation, black men only recruited as orderlies or janitors, blatant prejudice. Yet the War Bond chairmen fought that they not be excluded from the war effort, and the results are impressive: people of minimal salaries sometimes gave more than white people with higher wages.

If this book has one problem, it's the quoting of too many statistics. It's at its best when it talks about the individual efforts of those who gave.

book icon  Re-read: Autumn, Susan Branch
Like all of Susan Branch's books, exquisitely decorated with her watercolor motifs of cozy things and seasonal icons, this is just a beautiful volume for anyone who loves the colors, the scents, the chill of autumn, autumn leaves, gingerbread, hot soup, warm cocoa, and the promise of a cozy winter. Mostly recipes, but also "things to do" lists, enumerations of savors, and, again, all that beautiful watercolor art.

book icon  Re-read: Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday, James W. Baker
Your typical Thanksgiving book for adults is a cookbook, whether of traditional foods or new twists, like using other ethnic foods for "spice." The book may also have tips on decorating: "tablescaping" and other ideas of how to set a pretty table. Let's say I hate cookbooks, unless they have something historical to offer, like The Little House Cookbook. Very few adult books ever talk about the holiday itself or its history. Those are mostly reserved for children, and run the gamut from the old "Pilgrims and the Indians" story—even though we have known for years now that most of our stories about "the first Thanksgiving" are myths created after the fact, many people still think that Pilgrims wore black and had hats and boots with buckles, that the feast they celebrated in 1621 was a "Thanksgiving," etc.—to stories about being generous and giving thanks. Baker's Biography is a very readable companion piece to Diana Appelbaum's Thanksgiving, but is an easier read without being simplistic. It also touches more on things like images, writings, and films about Thanksgiving, changes in menus in the intervening years, and parades and football games. The one thing that this book makes very clear is that the "iconic" autumn Thanksgiving imagery of Pilgrims and Indians only became emphasized at the very end of the 19th century and during the early decades of the 20th, back when the United States became flooded with non-English speaking immigrants whom the schools wished to impress upon some idea of the country's heritage. Previous to that it was simply a winter New England holiday which spread as New England residents moved westward, and involved reunions with family and friends. Even fictional short stories about Thanksgiving mostly emphasized reunions between estranged or long-parted relatives; Pilgrims and Indians were rarely to never mentioned.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to read more about the history of the Thanksgiving holiday and its changing face over four centuries.

book icon  One Man's Meat, E.B. White
After reading The Essays of E.B. White, I had to purchase this other collection of White's essays, written between 1938 and 1943, after White and his family pulled up stakes from New York apartment life to a saltwater farm in Maine and first published in 1942 with ten fewer essays, starting with White talking about packing up his New York life. If you think there is culture shock today when moving from city to country or coast to coast, imagine it in an age when radio is the biggest thing in technology, going from a modern furnished city apartment to the country with no electricity, no central heat, and animals to care for. The seminal ideas that would later see light as Charlotte's Web can be found here, plus the juxtaposition of ordinary farm chores (sick animals, extricating oneself from the snow, obtaining enough wood to keep warm) against the upheavals of events in Europe, and finally war itself, where White finds himself cutting marsh hay one day, helping to conduct blackout drills the next.

I continued to be amused by the way White's pre-war commentary has parallels today, including a diatribe about television (as seen at the 1939 World's Fair) which sounds just like modern complaints about the internet! Plus ça change, plus c'est la même indeed! In each essay his gift for just the right word, just the right phrase is evident again and again, whether he's discussing the fragility of turkeys or the World's Fair or lambing season or a bond rally. Just paging through this book to recollect some of the essays makes me want to sit down right now and read it again. E.B. White was an American treasure. Find this book, or the Essays. You won't regret it.

book icon  Christmas book review in Holiday Harbour

31 October 2015

Books Completed Since October 1

book icon  The Complete Days, H.L. Mencken
My original review of the abridged version of this volume:
This amusing and nostalgic book is a collection of essays from three of journalist/"American Mercury" editor Mencken's autobiographical volumes, Happy Days, Newspaper Days, and Heathen Days. The first is a wry and often funny chronicle of his childhood, while the middle volume covers the obvious, and the final volume covers his adventures in the political world, music, and an incredible visit to Cuba during a revolution. Even in his childhood narrative the knife-edge Mencken wit manages to draw blood as he skewers schoolmasters and sentimental fiction (before discovering his favorite novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). Frankly, I enjoyed the heck out of it, and now want to find the omnibus edition that contains all three books in their entirety. For Mencken fans or those who want a non-sympathetic portrait of the sometimes not-so-"good-old-days."

(Warning: Mencken came from a different era. You may be uncomfortable at some of his offhand racism, but it's better to see how it existed than try to pretend it wasn't rampant in his society.)
This Library of America version not only contains the complete contents of all three books, but all his notes to the three different volumes, with photographs of his childhood home, friends, some of the personalities he talks about, etc. I particularly loved his chapters in Newspaper Days about how they got the newspaper published after a lethal fire roared through the city of Baltimore.

book icon  Theater Shoes, Noel Streatfeild
This is a companion piece to Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes, in which three orphans, after the disappearance of their father during the war and the death of their guardian grandfather, are sent to live with their mother's mother, a renown actress, who enrolls them in the same school that the Fossil sisters attended. None of the children are especially keen to go, as Mark has always planned to go into the Navy like his father and was looking forward to going to military school. The eldest, Sorrel, finds she has a talent for acting and the youngest, Holly, for dancing, just like her heroine, Posy Fossil, and Mark's talent for singing seems to point at a stage career for him as well.

It's a bit of a re-do of Ballet Shoes, with an imperious old woman instead of friendly Garnie, but BS fans will be happy to know that the Fossil sisters make guest appearances in letter form as inspiration for the three siblings. Pleasant, but nothing special like Ballet Shoes.

book icon  From Birdwomen to Skygirls: American Girls' Aviation Stories, Fred Erisman
This is a fascinating niche publication which talks about the early series novels for girls that involved them with aviation. As the series books of the early 20th centry usually stuck girls in conventional roles, even when they ventured afield as in The Motor Girls, books like The Flying Girl from the turn of the century (inspired by women aviators like Harriet Quimby), The Sky Girl and the Ruth Darrow books of the 1930s (inspired by Amelia Earhardt), and the Linda Carlton books of the 1940s all showed young women embracing the aviation challenge and making their mark on it despite male domination. Sadly, even after the actions of the WASPS and similar groups in World War II, girls' books went from women being pilots to women being stewardesses, a "more glamorous job" appealing to "young ladies" that thrust them again in a subservient position.

You can read many of these old aviation stories online and it's really sad to realize that role models for young women actually deteriorated as the century progressed rather than improved. If you are interesting in this history of children's literature, or the role of young women in children's literature, this is an enjoyable overview of those few series' books that did not have young women with their eyes on their "Mrs. degree."

book icon  Thoughts on The Thin Man, edited by Danny Reid
Okay, I admit it. I bought this book because someone I know online had an essay in it (it's the one about the Thin Man television series, which I got to watch in the early 1980s and I wish had been written more about, since I barely now remember it, except for the stars Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk and the fact that Jack Albertson was in it). After being disappointed at the two "new" Dashiell Hammett "novellas" that turned out to be script outlines, this published foray turned out to be much more pleasurable, even if six of the articles are recaps of the six films. There are two nice essays about stars William Powell and Myrna Loy, plus one about the director of the original film, a cracking good one about Nick and Nora as the ideal couple, a couple of drinking games to be played with the movies, essays about the music, Nick Jr, the other films Powell and Loy did together, and more. One of the most intriguing is a piece about the "Mrs. Asta" subplot in the sequel; since Nick and Nora were now about to be parents, the indiscriminate drinking and carousing in the first film would need to be toned down. So now the sexual jokes passed on to, of all things, the Charles' little terrier!

Probably for Thin Man film fans only.

book icon  The Golden Thread: The Story of Writing, Ewan Clayton
I have to admit, it took me a while to get through this book although I was fascinated by the idea of a history of writing. However, while this book briefly touches on Egyptian hieroglyphics and the Greek contributions to the alphabet, the bulk of the narrative is about the Latin alphabet and European writing. The author spends many pages talking about the minute changes to the Latin alphabet over the years, the creation of "small letters," the changeover from handwritten manuscripts in legible letters to the advent of print and the creation of different fonts. I'm a font nerd and after a while some of the detail made my eyes glaze over, but then some new concept would emerge and I would forge on. There's some fascinating discussion about inks, pen points and the angle of holding the point, the creation of fonts (it's a lot more than just drawing some letters), quills vs. steel pens, etc., but be advised this is a scholarly work, and pretty much Eurocentric. If you're looking for something on Sanskrit, the Arabic and Cyrillic alphabets, and Japanese and Chinese brush writing you'll have to look elsewhere.

book icon  Darkwalker, E.L. Tettensor
While Darkwalker's society resembles early 19th century England, the story is set in a completely different universe where our protagonist, Nicolas Lenoir, once a noted police investigator, has taken refuge in the small metropolitan area of Kennian, giving the minimum effort he can at his investigative job and ignoring the efforts of his not-yet-jaded subordinate. Some years earlier, Lenoir escaped the Darkwalker, a spirit who takes revenge on those who defile the dead, and the experience has permanently embittered him, so when several children are ripped from their graves, Lenoir knows he will have to confront the Darkwalker once more. But it may cost him his life and that of his faithful assistant Kody.

There are several parallels in Lenoir's society to our own, including the Adali, a group of foreigners to Lenoir's land who resemble gypsies. Indeed, the story sometimes seems as if it wants to be set on Earth, and then veers away when it gets too close. Lenoir is your typical tormented 21st century hero; his only close—and that's describing the relationship charitably!—friends appear to be his teenage snitch, Zach, who gets more than he bargains for when he helps Lenoir, and the languid, sexy Lady Zara, who conducts salons with the most desirable men and women in town. I enjoyed reading the book and solving the mystery of the missing children's bodies, but I didn't find anything particularly unique about the Lenoir character.

book icon  Two Hundred and Twenty Two Baker Streets, edited by David Thomas Moore
Collections of short stories commonly end up being middle-of-the-road, with some good stories, some bad ones, and some which are just okay. This collection, which offers up Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson in alternate personas throughout history and around the globe, is like that. You have him (in other guises) as a carny, a gentleman in the 1600s, an investigator living in South Africa, even in a land of fiction. One of my favorite stories has Holmes conjured up by a wizard to solve the disappearance of one of his fellow wizards in an Asian-flavored universe. Another story that I found amusing concerned a teenage girl who writes Sherlock/John fanfiction. On the other hand, the story of Sherlock and John living in the drug world of 1970s New York City left me cold. Some of the stories were just okay. Take a dip, but I'd do it at bargain book prices.

book icon  Re-Read: But Daddy!, Tom Buck
This was one of my favorite books in the Hugh B. Bain Junior High School library, one of the volumes I withdrew every summer when we were allowed to take ten books home. Books about large families or unique families seemed to be in abundance during the 1960s, and this was just one of them, about the hijinks of the Buck family: father Tom, a magazine editor, mother Pat, and ten children as the book starts (Adrian is born about halfway through the narrative). They're Irish Catholics who live in a small rural area in New Jersey, and as an Italian Catholic only child, I so enjoyed reading about the funny things that happened in a multi-child family, like little Ferry being forgotten on the potty chair or the bedlam that ensued when taking the kids shopping en masse, or getting them ready for Christmas Eve service, or even Tom's painful experience during the "Pop-O-Rama Jamboree." Plus I could relate to Sunday Mass, priests who didn't understand the realities of families, and other quirks of Catholicism.

Rinker Buck mentions this book in his own story, Flight of Passage, saying that it enjoyed quite a bit of popularity in its day. It's a bit of a jolt having thought of the family as so wonderful in my youth and then realizing that Kern, Rinker, and Nick had later issues with their father's insistence on perfectionism. But to me it's still as endearing and funny as ever, especially when I remember Ferry wailing "I'm ready!"

book icon  Flight of Passage, Rinker Buck
Having read Buck's Oregon Trail, I had to go back and find this highly-acclaimed earlier book in which he describes the adventure he had with his oldest brother, Kernahan. In 1966, he and Kern bought a Piper Cub, restored it during the winter, and then, with their father's permission, the two flew the plane alone from their New Jersey home to a relative's home in California.

At the time Kern was seventeen and Rinker was fifteen.

This is a big adventure about two boys on their own for the first time, completing a journey that most adults would be wary to accomplish, taking their cue from their father, a larger-than-life flyer and writer. Certainly it was nothing I would ever tackle, even now. As they skipped from airfield to airfield, adults came to rib them, but they made fast friends as well.

Like Buck's previous book, there is a lot of salty language in this story, and it may offend people more due to the age of the protagonists. Plus there's a chapter where they talk about "doping" the airplane (coating the wings with a protective coating made of highly volatile chemicals that made them high) and how their sister would come help them just because she enjoyed getting high. I've also read a couple of reviews that claim the aviation details are made up. But it's a grand adventure, if a bit sobering after reading Tom Buck's rollicking memoir and realizing these troubled kids are the same funny youngsters. I did enjoy it, though.

book icon  The Trouble With May Amelia, Jennifer Holm
In the sequel to Holm's Newbery Honor Book Our Only May Amelia, the feisty sole girl in the Jackson family faces new challenges. It's 1900, and the family is still struggling to support themselves farming on the Nasel River in Washington State. May Amelia is somehow always in trouble, whether she burns the breakfast or washes out the sourdough starter jar, and she's continually thwarted by her seven brothers, who do nothing but tease her. But then a man arrives in the community saying that the railroad will be coming through the Jackson farm. May Amelia translates for her father that this is a great opportunity and he decides to risk mortgaging the farm to buy shares in the new railroad.

The engaging May Amelia still struggles with her family and her place in the world as her story continues. While several incidents are funny and engaging, like the childrens' effort to keep their teacher from being married, the book is also full of sad incidents including the arrival of two cousins from Finland, the injury of an uncle, and other sobering facts of pioneer life. It is to May Amelia's credit that she can keep her chin up even through disaster and the scorn of her own family.

I loved seeing May Amelia again, but there were times I wanted to thwack her father and several of her brothers down the Nasel River.

book icon  New England Notebook, Ted Reinstein
One of WCVB Boston's longest-running local television shows is Chronicle, a slice-of-life delight in which host Reinstein visits unique places and speaks with unique persons in the six New England states. There's the story of Polly's Pancakes in New Hampshire, Paul Revere's expense sheet for his famous ride, the United States' smallest state capital Montpelier (where you can stick your head in the mayor's office and find him making photocopies), clam chowder and that most New England of restaurants, the diner, Boston's newest attraction, the Greenway, and more tales from the nooks and crannies of the stony Northeast. For New England fans and travel junkies, with lovely color photographs and a different slant from most travel books.

book icon  Trick or Deceit, Shelley Freydont
It's Hallowe'en time at Celebration Bay, a small community that has rebuilt its moribund economy by becoming a town of seasonal festivals. A haunted house contest is in progress, and part of the proceeds will fund a badly-needed community center. Town festival runner Liv Montgomery is also hoping that she can get a grant for the center from a philanthropic acquaintance she knew in New York City. But then the winner of the haunted house contest has his display trashed, and in the mess found scattered in the vacant lot next door, the body of one of the judges is found. Next thing she knows, Liv, her assistant Ted, the infuriating editor of the local newspaper Chaz, and the local sheriff are all involved in another murder case.

The big trouble with this one is that, despite misdirection, you'll spot the murderer early on, otherwise there's a lot of Hallowe'eny goodness going on in Celebration Bay: a witch and her coven have taken over one of the stores on the square, a religious extremist is protesting the celebration, the haunted house finalists are at each other's throats, and, as always, Chaz is being his annoying self. I'm still waiting for Freydont to reveal the mysteries of Ted, who puts on a startling performance at a town council meeting. Plus there's a whiff of romantic interest for Liv. Red herrings don't save the mystery, but it's still a fun Fright Night in a series I really enjoy.

30 September 2015

Books Completed Since September 1

book icon  Winter at Death's Hotel, Kenneth Cameron
In January 1896, Arthur Conan Doyle and his wife Louisa (and Louisa's maid Ethel) arrive in New York City on the first stop of Doyle's lecture tour, staying at the new and supposedly fireproof New Britannic, a small exclusive hotel. They are scheduled to stay only a few days, but Louisa badly sprains her ankle and cannot travel; she tells her husband to continue on his lecture schedule while she recovers. But while looking for something to read, she sees the sketch of a young woman who was murdered in the Bowery, and recognizes the woman's face as someone she saw in the hotel lobby the day they arrived. When she dutifully reports it to the police, she doesn't realize the murder is the object of a coverup, and that it seems no one wants to find out who killed the victim.

How you enjoy this book depends on whether you like a detailed setup of the era and the setting and the personalities involved with the story. While I did enjoy the story, the details were sometimes overwhelming.  Cameron carefully builds up a world around Louisa and builds Louisa as well, a woman used to the traditional role of a man caring for her, who must learn to think and care for herself, especially as it becomes more and more evident that something sinister is going on at the New Britannic and she must toughen herself in order to survive. In the process she befriends an elderly resident of the hotel, the famous offbeat writer Marie Corelli, the house detective, and a tough woman reporter, not to mention actor Sir Henry Irving and Buffalo Bill Cody, and writes a letter to Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt that begins yet another chain of menacing events.

Be forewarned that this is not some sweet little cozy about "Mrs. Sherlock Holmes" solving a murder. The sleazy, dangerous underside of 19th century New York is always evident in its pages, even in the halls of the swank hotel, and some extremely violent events happen in the course of the plot. I did read on in order to find out the solution, but sometimes it was a struggle even as I was absorbed in Louisa's voyage of self discovery and terror.

book icon  Doctor Who's Greatest Hits, R. Alan Siler
Okay, I admit I'm a little prejudiced about this book since I know the author. On the other hand, I love books of lists, and since this is a book of lists about Doctor Who episodes, it's now a triple threat of goodness.

The one novelty about this book is that the author includes episodes of the series that aren't usually included in lists of this kind; "The Gunfighters," for instance, never makes a list of 10 (or 25, or whatever) "best episodes." But then these aren't always the "best," but episodes Alan finds notable for reasons he explains ("The Gunfighters" for its setting and for William Hartnell's delight in his role and also because it's one of the historical episodes that were later dropped from the show).

My favorite part of this book is that I can hear Alan's voice in it; it's a nice informal countdown of his favorite bits, characters, etc. and he doesn't mind telling you straight out about things that bother him as well. Doctor Who fans should certainly enjoy.

book icon  Skin Game, Jim Butcher
Now that Harry Dresden, Chicago's only practicing wizard, has been raised from the dead (a death he arranged himself) and made the Winter Knight, where else can he go? This chronicle of the next of Harry Dresden's adventures is driven by the machinations of Queen Mab, who enlists Harry to accompany treacherous Nicodemus Archelone and a hand-picked group of companions to invade a vault belonging to Hades. (That's right. Hades, the Lord of the Underworld.) Harry must not only survive, but figure out who is on his side and who isn't—and that seems to change with each chapter.

A welcome new story in the Dresden saga, with significant appearances by both Karrin Murphy (sounds like a hint of something new here!) and Michael Carpenter, who is given a rare gift in order to be able to help Harry. Mousy Waldo Butters, who has surprised everyone in previous books, has a great role in this one as well, and I really loved Harry's encounter with Hades, who turns out to be much different, yet much the same, as you would expect.

Brace yourself: as in all the Dresden books some nice folks lose their lives and it's not pretty. But if you've read the series for a while you know that. Just wish ROC would quit publishing the paperbacks in those mutant tall forms!

book icon  Servants, Lucy Lethbridge
If you're a fan of Downton Abbey or English manor house mysteries or even go back to Upstairs, Downstairs (which, this book reveals, was supposed to be chiefly about the latter), you will probably enjoy Lethbridge's examination of the British system of servants which came into its peak in the late 1800s and then coasted after the first World War and completely died after the Second. Lethbridge uses the real diaries and books of servants to detail the relationship: the backbreaking work of the "skivvies," the precise formality of the upper-servants, the eccentricities of the wealthy that were served (one master insisted on the yolks exactly in the center of the egg, another must have his potatoes all the same size, a couple insist on full-course Edwardian dinners even though there are only two of them, one household of two is supported by sixty-plus servants who are expected to be "unseen and unheard."

Interesting nuggets of information abound: about the parsimony of some employers, to the lost feeling that some lifetime servants felt when they weren't needed any longer in sharp opposition to the young women and men of the latter half of the 20th century who would rather work at any job (even in a noisy, dirty factory) than be "help," of the bland food eaten, of servants who worked for other nationalities who found American children overfed and rude, of the wealthy helpless when their servants deserted them because they could not even boil an egg or dress themselves. We also hear about servants' employment agencies, the new Au Pair, the Doctor Barnado homes which took starving orphans off the street to train them up for domestic work, and even the rise of the English kitchen from a bleak room in the basement to the heart of the home. In fact, a good deal of this book is the downfall of the servant class system, which is not oft talked about in books about servants. Food for thought and much info if you've wondered about life "below stairs."

book icon  A Medal for Murder, Frances Brody
In this second of the Kate Shackleton mysteries, our widowed detective for hire has been asked to find missing goods from a pawnshop at the same time she is attending a friend's play. As she and Meriel leave the theatre after a successful performance, they stumble upon the body of a local automobile dealer who has been stabbed. And soon the leading lady in the play, an ambitious young woman who wants to pursue acting despite her guardian grandfather's objections, has disappeared. And there seems to be an additional mystery about the grandfather's past as well.

Brody takes many different threads and winds them together into an intricate plot involving repercussions from the Boer War's seamier side and secrets kept. The story has a nice 1920s atmosphere with very few small mistakes, as in other period mysteries set in the same era, which draw you out of the story. Kate is an astute investigator, if a bit plodding; you should be fond of classic British mysteries to enjoy this story the most. There's no flash-bang action or quirky cozy characters, just a straightforward murder investigation.

book icon  The Parker Twins: Cave of the Inca Re, Jeanette Windle
This is the first in a series of Christian-based novels for kids about thirteen-year-old Justin and Jenny Parker, fraternal twins, children of a Boeing analyst and a stay-at-home Mom. As the story opens, their oil-executive uncle Pete arrives in their hometown in Washington State with an intriguing proposition for the kids: he'd like to take them along to Bolivia to check out ancient Inca sites. They quickly make friends with Uncle Pete's missionary friends and even Pedro, a boy who scorns God for not being powerful, but they begin to believe that the men staying at the hotel room next to them are not what they seem.

This is an okay tween adventure and the Christian angle is not so emphasized as to mute the adventure aspects of the story, unlike the Marian Bray Lassie books. My big problem with the story is the kids—they're just kind of blah. He likes baseball and reading. She likes basketball. They're nice kids. The author has spent time in South America and it shows, but some of the dialog is just a big info dump about Inca culture or antiquities thieves. I have several more of these books (they were a dollar each) and still am not sure I want to read the rest.

31 August 2015

Books Completed Since August 1

book icon  The Epic Book of Top 10 Lists, Jamie Frater
What can I say? I love books of lists. Yeah, some of the lists in this book are rubbishy things about celebrities, and there's true crime, conspiracy theories, and "woo-woo" lists galore. But mixed in are lists about history, geography, literature and writers, linguistics, science, urban myths and sociology. It's a perfect bathroom book, and now that I've finished it, there it shall stay.

book icon  The Lure of the Moonflower, Lauren Willig
Wayyyyyyy back when twelve books in the Pink Carnation saga apparently were only a dream in Ms. Willig's head, Penelope Devereaux, after a bad marriage to a lout, found true love with an adventurer named Alex Reid. At the end of their story Alex's brother Jack, a brash soldier of fortune, made a brief appearance. "That," I announced to no one in particular as the room was empty save for me and the book, "is who the Pink Carnation will end up with."

And for once I was right.

In December 1807 Jack Reid finds himself in Portugal, assigned to help his new contact protect Queen Maria, "the mad queen of Portugal," from being captured by the French. He's dismayed to discover that not only is his contact a woman, but it's none other than the woman, the famous Pink Carnation who managed to thwart revolutionary plans and then Napoleonic excesses with superb management of a spy network. But now the Carnation, in the person of Miss Jane Wooliston, has gone rogue, teamed up with the biggest rogue of all.

It's a tense romp across Portugal, with Jane pursued by an old lover and enemy, the Gardener, parrying and thrusting with each other (and arguing what to name a ragtag donkey) in a fragile romance that may come to disaster at any moment, in the style of Raiders of the Lost Ark and other romantic adventures. In the meanwhile, Eloise and Colin's framing tale comes full circle, with a Selwick secret finally revealed.

Sad it's all over, but happy it ended so well for the inimitable Pink Carnation.

book icon  The Oregon Trail, Rinker Buck
I saw this book at Barnes & Noble the week it was released and was immediately intrigued by the concept: a man who has a genuine pioneer wagon built and then buys three mules and drives them along as much of the old Oregon Trail as is possible with his brother along as a partner. I dived in immediately, happily enjoying its mix of memoir, soul-searching, and history (the history of mules in the US, of westward expansion, of wagon making, etc.) until I reached page 95, where the author mentioned his father by his full name, Tom Buck. Holy smokes! Suddenly I realized I know this guy! Well, not in person, but in the 1960s Tom Buck wrote a humorous book called But Daddy! about his multiple-child Catholic family. It was one of my favorite books in the Hugh B. Bain library and I later found a copy at a used book store. He wrote about Rinker and Nick and all the kids, including little Ferry who was forgotten sitting on her potty seat. And now here I was reading Rinker's book.

And I had a blast, seriously, especially the historical asides and the chronicle of the trip, the stories of the people they met, and the relationship between Rinker and his brother Nick, a craftsman and independent artisian. I was also interested to learn the other side of Tom Buck, the genial "Daddy" of the book that made growing up in a big family look like so much fun, and of Rinker trying to resolve his personal issues with his father. I'd say this is a perfect choice if you are a history buff, but please be advised the language is very salty.

book icon  A Letter of Mary, Laurie R. King
I have a confession to make: I do not review the e-books that I read. So if you are surprised to see a Mary Russell book here when I've never mentioned reading any before, it's not because I began in the midst of the series, but because I've already read the first two books that came before. I actually read The Beekeeper's Apprentice several years back and didn't like it, then came back to it last year and finished and enjoyed it, going on to the second. However, I had picked up this third in the series "dead tree version" at the book sale. If you aren't familiar with this series, it is based on the premise that, in his 50s, Sherlock Holmes retired to the Sussex Downs to keep bees (as Conan Doyle stated) and met a bright, American-bred teen of British/Jewish ancestry living a miserable life with her adoptive aunt. He senses her quick mind and takes her on as an apprentice. After she comes into her majority, they are married, but have an unconventional relationship where he still sleuths on the side and she reads theology at Oxford.

In this outing, amateur archaeologist Dorothy Ruskin turns up on the Holmes/Russell doorstep with an astonishing find: a roll of papyrus that states that Mary Magdalene was a disciple of Jesus. Later Ruskin is killed; the pair soon discover it was murder. Was the murder due to the papyrus? After their home is "tossed," Holmes and Russell come to believe it is so. While Russell investigates one suspect, Holmes tackles another.

I have to admit my favorite part of this story is begins eight pages into chapter seventeen where Mary runs into a young English lord who you may recognize if you are a devotee of Dorothy L. Sayers. But I did enjoy the mystery, if the "letter of Mary" actually got short shrift (maybe it will come up in a later book), and am already reading the fourth book, The Moor.

book icon  The Lexicographer's Dilemma, Jack Lynch
Imagine English with no grammar regulations and spelling rules!

Once upon a time, that's the way English was. Each region in England had its own spellings for words. Even kings and scribes frequently spelled the same word different ways. Shakespeare, in fact, couldn't seem to decide on how his own name was spelled. He had signed himself Shakespear, Shakspear, and other permutations. Then writers like John Dryden began concentrating on another classical language, Latin, and noticed that English did not conform to the same rules of this impeccable grammar; in fact it had no strict rules at all!—and he though it should. Soon Jonathan Swift wanted an English academy where proper forms would be taught and chronicled. As the years passed, more rules were created.

This is a smartly written, understandable and lively chronicle about how grammar rules "got that way," from Dryden to Noah Webster all the way to protests against "Ebonics." Immensely readable, especially for English nerds.

book icon  Sword Bound, Jennifer Roberson
It's been ten years since Roberson wrote what was supposed to be the final Tiger and Del novel, and I bought this book with both anticipation and fear, the former because I had loved the previous six books of the series and fear because in ten years I had changed: would I still like these characters?

I needn't have worried. Rejoining the Sandtiger and his lifemate Delilah was like visiting relatives; no time had changed them. Set two years after the close of the previous story, they now run a training center for sword dancers, that strictly-ritualized art of swordfighting that they both practice, and are raising a two-year-old daughter, while Neesha, Tiger's son from another relationship learns the trade. But he thinks their life has become boring. What about going out on an adventure? What about, Del suggests quietly without Neesha hearing, if they went to visit the boy's mother and stepfather on their horse farm?

What follows is an episodic (yet one building to a climax) adventure tale. Despite all their efforts at staying anonymous, Tiger is constantly challenged to a "dance," especially by youngsters trying to prove themselves, and along the way they are recruited to rescue the kidnapped son of a caliph and protect a caravan. But danger from an old enemy is approaching them, and when it happens, lives may be forfeit. Tiger's still the arrogant one who, nevertheless, never stops training or learning, Del is more the peacemaker who, nevertheless, can take you apart from the moment she lays hands on her sword. Neesha displays all the cocksureness of youth as the story opens, but ripens with disaster. Familiar characters appear, especially Tiger's temperamental horse with no name.

I fell right back into the stories and the situations. If you enjoyed Tiger and Del before, you probably will, too.

book icon  Why? Because We Still Like You, Jennifer Armstrong
This is a nice hardbound history of The Mickey Mouse Club (the original, not the tiresome one with Britney Spears), and if you haven't read one before (there were several books about the Club released in the 1970s, when the series was re-syndicated to television), this is as good a place as any to start, since it's more up-to-date on the Mouseketeers' later lives. However, it takes a lot of its meat from the earlier books as well, so if you have those, you may be reading things you already knew.

One of the unique things about this book is that Armstrong devotes some time to the Mouseketeers that weren't in the public eye, like Mary Espinosa, who was the first Hispanic child involved in a television program, brothers John and Dallas Johann, and Don Agrati (later Don Grady), their problems, and how they felt being relegated to the White and Blue teams (the prestigious Red team, of course, were the kids like Annette, Bobby, Karen, and Cubby). There's also a chapter on the boys of the Club's most famous serial, "Spin and Marty."

Still, a lot of the volume seems padded, and the chapter "Life After Mousehood" and the appendix pretty much offer the same information. Still, for a basic history of The Mickey Mouse Club, this one is pretty good.

book icon  Maryellen Larkin: The One and Only, Valerie Tripp
The newest American Girl, Maryellen, is growing up with five brothers and sisters, a stay-at-home mom, and working Dad. She lives in Florida, has two best friends named Karen, an aging dachshund named Scooter, and loves swimming, The Lone Ranger, and her buddy Davy next door. She's looking forward to fourth grade, and even makes a new friend there, an Italian girl. But her old best friends don't like Angela (I mean, weren't they our enemies during the war?), her friendship with Davy seems to cool, and her mom still seems to forever bunch her in with the little kids.

I'm ambivalent about Maryellen. She's at heart a good kid. But she seems over the top somehow. In the first half of the first book, she gets herself in dutch trying to paint the front door red when her Mom's old war plant friends visit. It's just such a dumb thing to do that it colors my whole opinion of her. She also seems very self-centered compared with the other American Girls. It's all about her, her, her and the attention she thinks she's not getting. Frankly, I like her oldest sister, Joan, whose upcoming wedding works into the plot, and even her musical sister Carolyn more than I like Maryellen. (Beverly, the little sister who likes ballet, is freaking annoying, even if she does teach Maryellen to skate.)

I guess what I'm really unhappy about is the new format of the books. Your American Girl used to get six books (albeit narrow ones) with color illustrations and little incidental illos in the text showing things that might be unfamiliar to modern girls, like a sadiron in the Addy books or a patten in the Felicity books), and then each book had a "Inside [Girl's Name] World" which talked about a topic addressed in the books (the Depression in Kit's books, the war effort in Molly's, etc.) with old photographs, drawings, and maps in six pages. Now the six books are two books, three stories in each book, with only two pages of historical info at the end, no illustrations at all.  It's disappointing and very cheap.

book icon  Maryellen Larkin: Taking Off, Valerie Tripp
Many things happening in the second volume of Maryellen's adventures: the family gets a camper, Maryellen and her friends enter a science contest only to be pushed around by the sixth graders in their group, they go on vacation and their dog Scooter gets lost, Maryellen writes a play about the Salk vaccine to urge parents to vaccinate their kids, then pouts when no one wants to do it her way. Again, her self-centeredness really bugs me. Yeah, you are self-centered at ten, but on Maryellen it just seems annoying.

Positive points: the science project part which really gets rolling at the end of the book, and also Joan's wedding (and Joan finally communicating to her mother that Mom's wedding plans are not necessarily what she wants) and when Maryellen realizes that all her Mom's fears have come true on their camping trip. Plus Mr. Larkin isn't such a cardboard figure in this one. However, I can't believe they would team fourth graders up with sixth graders for a science project; grades were kept pretty much strictly segregated in those days. Also, every 1950s trope seems to be here, last book it was poodle skirts and the Lone Ranger, now it's Davy Crockett, campers, and the polio vaccine. Still miss the illos and the history.

book icon  Sleepy Hollow: Children of the Revolution, Keith R.A. DeCandido
Ichabod Crane, convert to the American side in the Revolutionary War, was killed in battle by his former best friend, who became initiated into a fiendish cult, but not before he cut off the head of his now enemy. Over 200 years later, having been enscorcelled by his wife, who he was unaware was a witch, Ichabod comes back to life to help Lieutenant Abigail Mills, an African-American woman who is part of the Sleepy Hollow police force, defeat minions of evil. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are ready to rise and devour the earth.

If this sounds nothing like the Washington Irving story, well, it isn't. This is the basis of the television series Sleepy Hollow and of this novel based on the series. It's a quirky plot which actually works if you like a mixture of fable, fantasy, and horror as part of your weekly viewing diet.

In the novel, Ichabod's wife Katrina appears to him in a vision, begging him to find a medal he was awarded by George Washington. Trouble is, he died before he received it. Soon Ichabod and Abbie discover that medals identical to the ones Ichabod was awarded are being stolen from museums, and the guards killed in a particularly gruesome manner. It's up to Ichabod, Abbie, Abbie's sister Jenny, and their police captain Frank Irving to track down who's stealing the medals and why.

I like DeCandido's work and this isn't a bad Sleepy Hollow novel, but it seems to me there's not enough Ichabod in it to go around. Yeah, the series is an ensemble show, and I love that, but I just think Crane gets short shrift here. When he is involved, though, DeCandido gives him some great Ichabod-and-new-tech commentary, and the sequence in the Sleepy Hollow museum was so great I was sorry there wasn't such a place. Historical characters are also worked effortlessly and well into the plot, including a visit to Fort Ticonderoga, a place I've loved since my teens. Looking forward to the next Sleepy Hollow novel!