30 June 2015

Books Completed Since June 1

book icon  The Great Detective, Zach Dundas
This book sounded so intriguing that I ordered it despite the fact it was a hardback, and I was not disappointed. Dundas intertwines the adventures of Sherlock Holmes into the life story of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and at the same time discovers the continuing fandom surrounding the character from its beginnings in journals written by men all the way through "The Baker Street Babes," a podcast group comprised mostly of women who came to Holmes fandom through the BBC series Sherlock. He takes us through the stories and the novels, while visiting sites including (of course) Baker Street and Dartmoor, links Holmes' life with the real-life Victorian era, investigates the pastiches and the films, from William Gillette equipping Holmes with a calabash and a deerstalker to Basil Rathbone fighting Nazis in 1940s Britain to Benedict Cumberbatch texting in 21st century London.

It's a great jolly mixed bag of fact and fiction and I loved it all. Dundas has a nice relaxed writing style that easily takes us from modern Baker Street to Holmes and Watson's digs to Conan Doyle retreating into Spiritualism after his son's death to modern literary spinoffs like Laurie King's Mary Russell mysteries. It's a perfect grab bag for any Sherlock Holmes fan.

book icon  Chasing Secrets, Gennifer Choldenko
This is a suspenseful adventure set before the San Francisco earthquake and fire by the author of the "Al Capone" books. Like Jacqueline Kelly's Calpurnia Tate, protagonist Lizzie Kennedy is chafing against the social strictures for young women in 1905. She's stuck in a snooty girls' school and has no friends, and would prefer to go on house calls with her physician father. Lizzie's one true friend is Jinn, the family's Chinese cook, but he disappears and no one will tell her where he is. Then rumors of the plague begin, and Lizzie finds Jinn's son, Noah, hiding out in Jinn's room.

Choldenko has created a real page-turner here, what with Lizzie trying to keep Noah hidden, the puzzle about Jinn's disappearance, and trying to keep her activities hidden from her imperious Aunt Hortense, who oversees the family with a will of steel. It also makes the subtle point that as much as Lizzie loves Jinn, he has an entire Chinese life that she has never considered; she sees him only as he is involved in her life.

If I have one quibble with the book, it's that Lizzie seems to have a lot of unmonitored time, considering that Aunt Hortense is supposed to have eyes like an eagle, and she manages to "borrow" horses easily. But the characters are engaging, especially the friendship that grows between Lizzie and Noah, and the setting compelling.

book icon  Betsy's River Adventure: The Journey Westward (Sisters in Time), Veda Boyd Jones
This is one of a series of books for pre-teen girls about girls throughout history. This one roughly parallels Lois Lenski's A'Going to the Westward about the first westward expansion into the Ohio Country (wherein the heroine is also named Betsy). Betsy Miller is shocked and dismayed when she finds out her family is going to pull up stakes and move westward, and also irritated that her aunt and uncle and their son George (Betsy's nemesis) are also going with them. George is always tormenting Betsy about her height, and he owns a mischievous dog that Betsy hates. She vows that somewhere on the way to Ohio she will "get back at him."

It's not a bad account of the early westward movement, and Betsy learns not only about the country and the people traveling on the road, but about how if you plot bad things for others, those plots usually boomerang. By the end, she's even developed a respect for George and he for her. One of the better entries in this series.

book icon  Let Me Tell You, Shirley Jackson
Who can forget "The Lottery," which has been read by every junior high or high school student for years? It was my first introduction to Shirley Jackson, but I confess I haven't read much more of her other writings, not because of aversion but because there's just so many good things out there tempting me to read. I did read another of her stories in school, the family memoir "Charles," which I absolutely adore.

Like most short story collections, this one has its ups and downs. It opens with a creepy story called "Paranoia," as seen through the eyes of a man who's being followed--or at least thinks so. His fate, left in Ms. Jackson's skillful hands, was never in question. Another great story is "Mrs. Spencer and the Oberons," about a snobby housewife and social leader (think of a serious Hyacinth Bucket) who has her nose put out of joint when a new family moves in town. Jackson manages a satisfactory ending for Mrs. Spencer--and even makes you feel a little sorry for her. "The Lie" is also an excellent character study of a woman who thinks a simple apology will make all the difference in her world. Others, like "The Arabian Nights," were rather "eh."

I found the section on pre-World War II stories interesting but minor; their main theme was women awaiting the return of their men coming home from war, but entirely enjoyed her humorous family stories and essays about writing and being an author in the last quarter of the book. Here you'll also find out the mundane origins behind "The Lottery" and how Jackson's imagination spun it into a tale--like it or not--that, once read, you'll never forget.

I think Shirley Jackson's fans will appreciate this book the most, but anyone with a taste for the offbeat may enjoy.

book icon  Silence for the Dead, Simone St. James
The Great War is over and young Kitty Weekes is on the run. On false pretenses, she takes a job as a nurse at a convalescent home for shell-shocked soldiers, as much to escape her past as to earn money to make a living. As the new girl, she is given all the dirty jobs, yet she perseveres, slowly gaining the trust of her fellow nurses and the patients, from the patient man confined to a wheelchair to the angry man whose family are embarrassed that he is in a mental institution. But mysteries still abound: like the shadowy Patient Sixteen, and the growing uneasiness that something else, something evil, is creeping into the walls of Portis House, manifesting as an ugly black mold growing uncontrolled in a lavatory.

As in all of St. James' mysteries, there is a supernatural element to the story, and the story is a mixture of thriller, mystery, romance, and an examination of the treatment of what is now called post-traumatic stress syndrome. The way the soldiers are treated is almost as frightening as the sinister feelings creeping through the house, and Kitty's encounter with a family member is as chilling as it is sad.

The story is at its best when dealing with Kitty's learning process and her survival and the regard she comes to have for her patients (and the patients and the staff for her), and for the portrayal of the soldiers she nurses. The supernatural element is a bit derivative, and the final solution to the problem a bit overwrought, but the characters and the hospital and era setting overwhelm any misgivings I had about it. An edge-of-your-seat enjoyment.

book icon  The Oxford Book of English Detective Stories, edited by Patricia Craig
This is a terrific collection of English mystery stories, only two of which I had previously read (a Sherlock Holmes story and "Death on the Air"), presented chronologically from the beginning of the 20th century through the 1980s. (There is a Dorothy Sayers story, but it is a Montague Egg, and I have only read Lord Peter Wimsey.) There are stories about amateur detectives and others that are police procedurals, and even stories where the people involved don't know there's been a mystery until the story is nearly completed. Some of the stories feature series detectives, like Inspector Thorndyke, Adam Dalgliesh, Father Brown, and Mrs. Bradley. In keeping with English tradition there is a sleeping-car murder, a crime ala Crippen, and murder at an Oxbridge-type institution, plus a murder at Oxford. I was quite taken by "Superintendant Wilson's Holiday," in which that man does indeed have a busman's holiday in an entertaining police procedural. But the story that really blew me out of the water was Agatha Christie's classic "The Witness for the Prosecution." I'd never read it before and really, really loved the twist!

Anyway, for mystery story fans, a worthwhile find to hunt down.

book icon  Eighty Odd Years in Hollywood, John Meredyth Lucas
If you have checked the credits of 1960s and 1970s drama series, I'm certain the name "John Meredyth Lucas" will be familiar to you. He worked as a director or writer on series like Ben Casey, Mannix, and Star Trek, and also many of the episodes of the long-running spiritual series Insight. But his television career was just part of Lucas' unorthodox life. The son of a silent movie actor and a scenario writer/actress who later divorced, his stepfather became the acclaimed Golden Age film director Michael Curtiz, who did, among others, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Captain Blood, and Casablanca.

This is an eye-opening book in more ways than one. While Lucas' later television and movie directing tales are interesting, his young life in Hollywood's chaotic movie colony are amazing and often horrifying, like the time he was seduced, at the tender age of twelve, by a drunken actress at one of his mother's parties. Today there would be lawsuits and arrests; in those days it was just something that happened. Lucas also has no bones about showing all aspects of his life: how he skipped school and sometimes drank too much. However, it's a fascinating tale of high- (and sometimes low-) living, the behind-the-scenes lives of movie people, and filmmaking in the silents versus in sound movies. Mother Bess Meredyth comes off as a woman before her time, Michael Curtiz a larger-then-life character from a movie.

The text is liberally peppered with family photographs and behind-the-scenes publicity photos. Very enjoyable!

book icon  Thoreau at Devil's Perch, B.B. Oak
Dr. Adam Walker practices medicine in Plumford, a small Massachusetts town on the banks of the Assabat River. One day while walking along the river, another man flags him down: he has just found the body of a young black man at the foot of a cliff. The man happens to be from the neighboring town of Concord, a rather odd fellow known as Henry David Thoreau. Soon Adam and his artistic cousin, Julia Bell, back in Plumford to care for her ailing grandfather, are drawn into trying to figure out how and why the young man was killed, as the town fathers are not interested in the strange death of the young "Negro."

Thoreau makes an interesting addition to the cast of the mystery; however, the majority of the story is Adam and Julia's, told from the point of view of both their journals. The author, or actually authors, a husband and wife team, do their very best to make Adam and Julia sound like 19th century characters (albeit very liberally-minded ones) and have Thoreau's part in keeping with his character, making him into a central character without deifying or maligning him. The mystery was suitably convoluted, but be aware that this is not what you might call a "cozy" mystery if you're thinking of neat murders deduced by sweet elderly ladies in drawing rooms. There are breathless and frightening violence, virulent illness, and other rough crimes. If you understand that, you may enjoy this well-written period mystery.

book icon  Monitor (Take 2), Dennis Hart
In 1955, old-time radio, as it's now called, was dying. Television was making vast inroads into radio program ratings, and NBC's Sylvester "Pat" Weaver knew a different type of show was called for, one the audience would enjoy but would not demand their complete attention like television, made for car rides, days on the beach, and lazy weekend pastimes.

The show he came up with was Monitor, a quirky combination of news, human-interest stories, comedy, music, on-location reports, sports, and anything else that kept the show on the go and "doing things." The result was a unique bit of radio that lasted for twenty years, albeit, especially in its last two years, with many changes.

I remember Monitor mainly from Sunday afternoon "rides in the car" with my mom and dad, either to the seashore or the back roads, listening to James Daly or Henry Morgan, but mainly for the unforgettable sound of the "Monitor Beacon," which could never be mistaken for any other sound in the universe (it's now my cell phone ringtone). I don't remember any specific bits of programs, but Mom recalled music on Sunday afternoon, five minute bits of OTR favorites Fibber McGee and Molly (Jim and Marian Jordan) in the early 1960s, and a mixed bag of stories and news.

Author Hart loves Monitor and it shows. He takes every fact and facet he's collected and investigated and makes the volume a joyous look back for Monitor fans and all those curious about how radio met the challenge of television without resorting to endless records and disk jockeys (and, yes, there were Monitor imitators), from how the show was conceived, the cast chosen, and regular features of the broadcasts. After his first book about the series, ex-Monitor employees and fans of the show contacted him, so this new edition contains even more stories and some memories from Monitor folks. Recommended for radio fans.

To hear some of the sounds of Monitor: "The Sounds of Monitor"

book icon  Anthem for Doomed Youth, Carola Dunn
As Daisy Dalrymple prepares to head to her stepdaughter Belinda's school with her good friends Sakari and Melanie to see the girls participate in sports day, her husband, Scotland Yard inspector Alec Fletcher, and his team are called to Epping Forest to investigate a case of three bodies found buries in a secluded hollow. One corpse is still fresh and has a target pinned to him which says "Revenge!" The police officer on the job has already badly botched the investigation and takes an instant dislike to Alec, but Alec's superior is just relieved that this time it isn't Daisy who's discovered the body.

At least not until a mystery involving a body draws Daisy into its orbit.

The 1920s set Daisy Dalrymple mysteries usually have a light touch, although various circumstances arising from the Great War often come into play, but this one has a darker tone, a good half of it concerning Alec and his team (Sgt. Tring, Ernie Piper, and DC MacKinnon) investigating their crime while Daisy, her friends, and their daughters observe the drama at the school with three war veterans, two teachers disabled due to injuries, and a bullying, jingoistic games master. But Daisy's suggestion that the dead men might have a military connection brings out a story that is stylistically more Maisie Dobbs than Daisy's usual forte. A nice combination of plain sleuthing and moral repercussions make this story a cut above some of the entries. A solid entry in the series.