30 April 2015

Books Completed Since April 1

book icon  Bluegrass Champion (Harlequin Hullabaloo), Dorothy Lyons
This is a charming 1949 teen horse story about a girl named Judy and her American Saddlebred horse Harley (Harlequin Hullabaloo) whose only "sin" is that he was born a pinto in a solid-color horse world. Judy's sure Harley can bring some glory back to run-down Bluefield Farm, which was ruined by a neglectful cousin after she and her sister Gail's parents died, but even though he has fine natural gaits, including the slow gait and the rack that Saddlebreds are famous for, no judge seems to look beyond his calico coat. But she persists in putting him in training. In the meantime Gail is training her own horse, too, and holding off the man who wants to be her husband until she can make a name for the farm again.

Okay, the heroines are both attractive blondes and all the major characters are white and fairly well-off and the one black character is of course the man who really keeps Bluefield Farms together and one of his lines is in genuine literary "darky" language (oh, geez), but it's so refreshing to see a teen drama that's not about totalitarian dystopia, suicide or depression, fantasy countries, and abusive or bigoted parents that I nearly cried. The African-American characters, even while kept in the background, are treated with the respect they deserve (both Judy and Gail know they could never keep Bluefield without the help of Sam and Nellie), and the girls, instead of being simpering clothing fiends or "mean girls" or in the popular set at school, are smart, ambitious, and, even though they have boys interested in them, are not interested in just being wives and having babies. Judy is willing to work long hard hours to bring Harley's talents to the fore, even if one of her schemes backfires badly. I really enjoyed this, and if you like traditional horse books, you might, too.

book icon  The Christie Curse, Victoria Abbott
Jordan Bingham is back in her hometown of Harrison Falls, New York, desperate to pay bills left on her by a prolifigate ex and grad school. She answers a classified ad for a research assistant to Vera Van Alst, the reclusive, wealthy heir to the Van Alst shoe fortune. She finds Vera a bitter recluse in a crumbling mansion, fond of nothing but collecting rare books and manuscripts, constantly babied and bullied by her cook, Senora Panetone, who lends some humor to the grim Van Alst household. (Jordan's descriptions of Panetone's meals will leave you drooling.) Vera tasks her to find a purported play written by Agatha Christie during her missing eleven days in which she claimed to have amnesia. But once Jordan starts investigating, people start to get hurt (and this after Vera's former assistant died trying to hunt down that same manuscript).

This is an interesting-enough first book in a cozy series involving rare books and manuscripts. Jordan is an average, if streetwise and cop-wary protagonist with a quirky family of con-men uncles (who help her with her investigation). While there's nothing really extraordinary about the story, the mystery was moderately intriguing and I wouldn't be adverse to purchasing the next books in the series. But, yeah, I guessed the secret about the cat pretty quickly!

book icon  Elementary: The Ghost Line, Adam Christopher
In Hell's Kitchen, an Irish immigrant is killed inexpertly with a high-powered firearm. When Sherlock Holmes and his partner, Joan Watson, investigate the man's apartment, they find tickets to an invitation-only art exhibition in the victim's possession and an old pumping station under his residence. While Sherlock and Detective Bell, and later his AA partner Alfredo, investigate the tunnels below New York with the help of tunnel aficionado "Judge D," Joan attends the event with Captain Gregson and find something odd going on at the museum antiquities exhibit.

Although I read a few complaints that the book concentrates too much on the villains of the piece, I found this a worthy Elementary story with a nice scope. Gregson and Watson get some interaction together, and, even better, Sherlock and Alfredo team up for part of the investigation, where Alfredo gets to see Sherlock put his talents to the test, rather than being a tutor as he tends to be in the television episodes. The only iffy spot is a sequence between Watson and the villains of the piece; she gets away too easily in the encounter—you'll know it when you get to it.

The author is obviously fannish, not just of Elementary: there's a Doctor Who reference that will make you laugh, and very late in the book, a reference to the Batman universe. For all I know, I missed a bunch more. I hope Christopher gets to write other Elementary novels, because I really enjoyed this one.

book icon  Jewel of the Thames, Angela Misri
It is a somber time for 19-year-old Portia Adams. Abandoned (except when he needs money) by her abusive stepfather and now orphaned by the death of her mother, Portia realizes she will have to abandon her dreams of higher education and go to work. Then she discovers, when her mother's will is read, that she has inherited property in London and also acquired a guardian, the glamorous but distant Mrs. Jones. After she and Mrs. Jones depart Portia's hometown of Toronto and arrive in England, Portia is further astonished to find out that the property is none other than 221B Baker Street, once the home of her grandfather Dr. John Watson!

Portia's immediate destination is Somerville College, where she studies law, but her fine observational skills involve her in three different mysteries in this first book of a projected five young-adult series. As she sharpens her deductive skills, she befriends the young neophyte policeman downstairs, and increasingly wonders about the mysterious Mrs. Jones, who provides a big piece in the solution of the mystery of Portia's grandparents. She's a great character, at once intelligent but still human, strong but sympathetic. I love the fact that she goes to Somerville, the alma mater of Dorothy L. Sayers and Vera Brittain, and that she's an introvert who loves books. A big plus is the cover of the book, which has a retro-Nancy Drew type feel to it combined with a modern, dreamy sensibility done in silhouette. Can't wait for the rest!

book icon  Kiki Strike: The Darkness Dwellers, Kristen Miller
I kept waiting for this to come out in paperback, which it never did, but had to find out what became of Kiki Strike, who, at the end of the previous book, was revealed as the lost Princess Katarina of Pokrovia. Kiki and her guardian are on their way to Pokrovia to claim the throne and then renounce it so that the small country will remain a republic. But she's waylaid by her evil aunt and cousin, who want more than anything to rule Pokrovia again, and held captive in Paris.

Back in New York, Ananka Fishbein and the rest of Kiki's offbeat gang of Irregulars are concerned when their friend doesn't check in. Eventually the shyest member of the team, Betty Bent, is sent to France on the track of Kiki, while Ananka and her friend Molly Donovan wage war on an elite New York school that turns out "Stepford students" and Oona Wong's identical sister makes her life miserable.

This is a wild ride involving sinister conspiracies, the ossuaries and catacombs of Paris, an underground group called the Darkness Dwellers that go back to the second World War, a disgraced spy, Ananka's headmistress, the headstrong Molly Donovan, another of DeeDee's crazy inventions, and even Ananka's mother. But the best part about the story is how Betty comes into her own. A great conclusion to the Kiki Strike trilogy. 

book icon  Gone With the Woof, Laurien Berenson
Melanie Travis Driver is back! For the past eighteen months, she's been a stay-at-home mom to toddler Kevin and nine-year-old Davey, her poodles are "finished" in the dog show world, and life has been extremely pleasant, but dull. Her energetic Aunt Peg, who involved Melanie with her first show poodle (and her first murder mystery) says she is getting boring, so Melanie jumps at the chance to help a famous show judge write his memoirs. But instead of being about dogs, it appears the book will be a tell-all about the man's sexual conquests, and after his son complains to Melanie, he's killed by a hit-and-run driver.

It's great to see all the familiar characters back; not just Melanie and her family, but supporting characters like Aunt Peg, Alice Brickman, Bertie Kennedy, and Terry Denunzio, and I'll be reading this series as long as Berenson cares to continue it. Sadly, the victim is such an ass that you don't really care that he's been murdered, and his father isn't much better. For me, besides Melanie's dogged (pun not intended) investigation, I am enjoying the Driver family mechanics. Sam is every kid's dream of a stepfather!

book icon  Huck Finn's America, Andrew Levy
One hundred years ago, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was being banned from libraries—but not for the reasons it is today. Instead, due to concern about undisciplined youth, especially boys, running wild, and even being involved in murders, the book was reviled for being about a disobedient boy who was bored by church and school, who smoked and stole, and who consorted with the so-called dregs of society, in this case persons of color. Today, while fighting criticism that the book is too racist to be read in schools—ironically when Twain was attacking the racism of Huck's society—there are some who view the book as an idealized children's adventure, romanticizing Huck and Jim's freedom on the raft while ignoring the murders, dishonesty, and bigotry of the society that supports them.

I found most interesting the author's commentary about Twain's fondness for the minstrel show; not the tame minstrel shows of the turn of the 20th century, a common entertainment for Gilded Age Americans, but for the earliest minstrel shows, in which black performers in the traditional blackface, lampooned and made subtle points about the black man's place in a white society and what they thought of their shabby treatment. I mainly know minstrel shows as comic affairs that featured white men in blackface who portrayed blacks as shuffling idiots. He points out that the concluding chapters of the book, which are usually considered inferior by critics, are minstrel-like parodies of the much-valued educated boy who likes to read (Tom Sawyer) who has really been fed a pack of romantic fantasies by his books while the uneducated Huck Finn is the person who has knowledge of real life and the pain and unfairness of living.

(I also thought it was interesting that many people will not read Finn because they refuse to read a book where a character is called "N—r Jim." Although that despicable term is used in the book because it was in common use at the time it took place, at no time is Jim ever called by this slur by Twain or Huck. It is reviewers and other writers referring to the character who have labeled him such. Twain, in fact, shames Huck for certain mischievous and shabby tricks he plays on Jim.)

This is very readable but different look at an American classic. Fans of Huckleberry Finn should enjoy.

book icon  A Brief Guide to The Sound of Music, Paul Simpson
It's been a bumper year for Sound of Music books, since it's the 50th anniversary of the film. This is one of the smaller volumes, but it has a lot of good things about it.

At least it doesn't have 64 pages telling me which movie theatres ran the roadshow edition of the film and for how long!

Instead, Simpson uses the opening chapters to recount the history of the Trapp family before the arrival of Maria Augusta Kutschera, who was to serve as a tutor for young Maria, who had been ill, and through George Von Trapp and Maria's marriage, children, and emigration to the United States. Then the first film versions of the Trapp family story are discussed, and, happily, Simpson summarizes the first German film, Die Trapp-Familie, which was later purchased by 20th Century Fox and presented as an English dub. I've heard so much about this movie and have never seen it (but apparently it's on YouTube). Next is a nice summary of the creation of the stage musical and the songs within, the optioning for a movie, and then the casting and filming (including a narrative of how the play differs from the film). Finally, in a real bonus, Simpson talks about the 40-part Japanese anime series, and how, while it strayed as far afield of the real Trapp family as the film and the play did, it almost caught the personality of the real Maria better than any other version. All the episodes are summarized, and you can clearly see the resemblance to Maria's books The Story of the Trapp Family Singers and Maria.

The book ends with a summary of the enduring popularity of the story on television and even remounted for the stage.

This is more what I was expecting from the FAQ book, so I'm certainly glad I picked it up!

book icon  Grace Against the Clock, Julie Hyzy
There's a lot going on in Grace Wheaton's life. A fundraiser to restore Emberstowne's fabulous town clock is being held at Marshfield Manor, where Grace is a curator, and the tension is as high as an elephant's eye between the two major fundraisers, a top surgeon and his estranged wife, a noted attorney. Grace's old home is being redecorated by the former "evil stepdaughter" of her employer, Bennett Marshfield (who may also be Grace's uncle). Grace herself is bedeviled by the attentions of a handsome new boyfriend, Adam, when she still has feelings for her old flame, Jake. Oh, and did we mention the hidden door in Grace's basement?

Not to mention the murder of the surgeon!

This one kept me guessing, although I did rack up our killer in my shortlist of suspects, and I was fascinated by the mystery of the hidden door; it was Nancy Drew with an adult twist. I enjoyed the historical aspects of the story, but, again, I was a little perturbed that a character had to be twisted a little out of the initial characterization so that the plot could proceed, as happened with Tom in Madelyn Alt's series. Nevertheless, I'm eager to see what happens in Grace's life.

book icon  Rune, Christopher Fowler
This apparently was Fowler's first urban horror tale that featured Arthur Bryant and John May, the heroes of his "Peculiar Crimes Unit" mysteries. They are called in when a string of gruesome deaths occur: an older man is squashed between a truck and a wall, a man steals a car and then commits suicide with it, a young woman is crushed in an escalator, etc. The main focus of the story is actually Harry Buckingham, the son of the older man, and a junior partner in his imaging business. As people Harry knows meet with horrible deaths, he and an odd young woman named Grace try to figure out what's going on.

Unlike the Bryant and May mysteries, this contains a strong thread of the supernatural as Harry—and the detectives, separately—discovers that ancient runes are being used in a most modern way, and the story does indeed get rather creepy when you realize how this could have really worked!

The detectives are an early incarnation of the characters, with Bryant still the technophobe offbeat one and May the more conventional one who keeps him in line. However, there is no "Peculiar Crimes Unit" in the story, although Janice Longbright works with them on the mystery, Oswald Finch makes a small appearance, and Colin Bimsley is mentioned in passing. Meera, Dan, Giles, and their reluctant commander Raymond Land aren't yet part of the team.

Horror isn't my usual read, but the presence of familiar faces helped me get through this one and I quite enjoyed seeing the "boys" in their early appearance.

book icon  Stories of My Life, Katherine Paterson
This is a great collection of memories from acclaimed children's writer Paterson, who in her stories about her parents (Presbyterian missionaries to China), her upbringing in China, and about her own missionary training and marriage to John Paterson, reveals the origin of many of her most famous characters and situations (Leslie Burke of Bridge to Terabithia, for instance, was based on her son's best friend; Gilly Hopkins emerged after her experience taking care of two foster children, the elementary school in Terabithia was based on a real school at which Paterson taught in the 1950s, etc.). She has some fascinating (and frightening) tales about the invasion of China by the Japanese, and an inspiring story of how her father got needed drugs to his Chinese friends under the nose of the occupying nation.

Paterson fans should love this book. I know I did!

book icon  The Best of Connie Willis, Connie Willis
After devouring The Doomsday Book, Blackout, All Clear, To Say Nothing of the Dog, and a collection of her Christmas short stories (Miracle), I thought I would sample some further short stories by Willis. This collection features "Fire Watch," which is also part of her Oxford/time-travel universe, and which I had read online, and a variety of others, including a somber future-set story where dogs are extinct and a man must face the truth about his past, a very tongue-in-cheek pseudo-thesis that postulates Emily Dickinson had met alien life, a tale of disapproving aliens who respond to nothing but certain Christmas songs, and a family coming to terms with the terrible changes that have occurred in the past year. I got a good laugh out of "At the Rialto," where scientists meeting at a Hollywood hotel find out that quantum theory and movie-colony zaniness aren't that far apart after all and was consumed by shivers by "Death on the Nile" and the three couples taking an Egyptian trip that turns into something more. I had to laugh at "Inside Job," not just because it was often humorous, but because part of the story involves newspaperman and all-around gadfly H.L. Mencken, and this book came in the same package in which I ordered Mencken's The Complete Days (which is referenced and quoted in the story). (And I quite enjoyed the story to boot!)

Heck, what am I saying, I enjoyed the whole book, even the reprints of three of Willis' award speeches at the end, which spoke to the reader in all of us. Thank you, Connie, for saying what we have all wanted to say about the books in our lives.

book icon  The Expansion of Everyday Life, 1860-1876, Daniel E. Sutherland
This is the four book in a series of five starting in colonial days and ending post-World War II about everyday life in the United States. As the author admits in the introduction, it is hard to cover "everyday life" because by the Civil War, there were many different kinds of "everyday life" depending on whether you were rich or poor, city dweller or rural denizen, living in the East or the Midwest or the West, being a Northerner or a Southerner. So many aspects of "everyday life" are covered in different chapters concentrating on home life, community life, work, play, birth and death, beginning with the lives of soldiers on either side in the Civil War.

This is an immensely readable overview of a sixteen-year span in United States history. Of course, it can't give an in-depth insight into every different aspect, but it does a great job giving you a general idea. As well, the author does not shy away from the injustices shown to African-Americans, Native Americans, and ethnic minorities. A lengthy bibliography which lead you on to further reading about city crime, pioneer lives, sickness, and other details of 19th century life. The other four books in this series, Everyday Life in Early America; The Reshaping of Everyday Life: 1790-1840; Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, 1876-1915; and Uncertainty of Everyday Life, 1915–1945 are also recommended.