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!