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.