31 January 2016

Books Completed Since January 1

book icon  Christmas in the American Southwest

book icon  The Carols of Christmas, The Oxford Book of Christmas Poems, The House Without a Christmas Tree, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

book icon  Reminisce Christmas

book icon  The Humbug Murders

book icon  The Family Way, Rhys Bowen
In this twelfth of the Molly Murphy mysteries, she and her husband Daniel Sullivan, a New York City police officer, are expecting their first child in less than three months. Independent Molly, who once ran her own detective agency, is bored silly making little clothes for the expected child and wilting during a hot NYC summer, but is reluctant to stay at Daniel's mother's country house since she feels the woman disapproves of her. When she goes out to mail a letter, she receives one addressed to her old detective agency about an Irish girl who came to the States and disappeared. A little while later, while talking with an old friend, shouts are heard in the street. A baby has been kidnapped from its carriage. If this wasn't enough, she runs into her brother Liam, now on the run from government agents.

Daniel doesn't want Molly following her old pursuits anymore, but the independent woman does so anyway, looking into the disappearance of the Irish girl and inadvertently becoming involved in the kidnapping case, all the while worrying about her brother, who supports the Irish Republican cause. There are some really odd coincidences in the story—which Daniel comments about in disbelief at the end, which helps!—and Molly, as always, overestimates her power to extricate herself from a situation and once again almost comes to grief over it.

This was a good read with the various plotlines woven together very neatly (except for those coincidences, of course) and I love when Molly's "Bohemian" friends Sid and Gus are involved with the story; in this one they actually help her sleuth. Several conventions of the era which are notable appear in the plot: the sending of unmarried pregnant girls to live in a convent (and an American version of "baby farming") until they gave birth and the common habit of sending unattractive daughters into the religious life since no one would want to marry them. I thoroughly enjoyed this installment of the series.

book icon  Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin
Rubin, who has written previously about improving your personal happiness and the happiness of your household, now talks about developing positive habits to improve your life. As always, Rubin states that what habits work for her will not work for other people, since we are all individuals. Based on that, she asks you to define your own personality as one of four types: Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, and Rebel. Once you have classified yourself, you can begin addressing how to form new habits based on personality type. Some people, for example, may choose to give up sweets altogether, since they cannot trust themselves around sweets, while others can restrict themselves to only a few a week without falling back into bad habits. Obligers, who often sacrifice their happiness for that of others, form habits differently than Rebels, who instinctively fight against any rules at all.

There is a quiz at the back of the book so you may classify yourself and Rubin even sells a workbook. I thought it was a unique approach to habit-changing as opposed to other books which tell you you definitely must abstain, or follow rigid procedure to change a bad habit into a better one. Happiness Project is still my favorite of her books, but I thought her habits process showed some alternative thinking.

book icon  Crucible: All-New Tales of Valdemar, edited by Mercedes Lackey
This is a pretty enjoyable collection of short stories in Lackey's Valdemar universe. I found fewer of what I think of as "unfinished stories," ones that are more vignettes than actual short stories. Right off I was charmed by the story of the partnership between one of the little lizard hertasi of the Vales and a blind gryphon who help a change-child, although I wish it had been much longer, followed by a tense story about an innkeeper using a Gift in an evil way. There are also further stories featuring Lady Cerantha, Herald Will and his daughter Ivy, Healer Kade and Nwah the kyree, and the Haven Guards. Other stories feature not only Heralds, but Bards and Healers, and of course the fabulous Companions, one who chooses an elderly woman who resented her daughter being chosen, another who will die if her Chosen does not escape a fantasy world. The final story, written by Mercedes Lackey, involves a canny Healer kidnapped by a band of renegades. All in all, a satisfactory read.

book icon  The Fairy Tale Girl, Susan Branch
This is the first volume in Branch's two-volume autobiography, crammed with vintage family photographs, diary excerpts, journal scribblings, quotations, maps, Susan's hand-lettered text, and of course her exquisite watercolors. It's simply a gorgeous volume just to look at. The book opens with her best friend putting her on a plane for Boston where she heads to the place she lives today, Martha's Vineyard, after her divorce, and then takes us on a flashback through time. She tells of her happy childhood as one of eight children in 1950s California, then moving out on her own with her best friend Diana in the 1960s, learning to cook from Julia Child's cookbook and discovering how much she loved cooking and baking, and then meeting her first love, Cliff Branch, owner of a music store. It is Cliff who encourages her early artistic efforts, but it's also Cliff who eventually breaks her heart by taking up with other women.

The book is like a wonderful scrapbook of Branch's life. If you are a Susan Branch fan, you will enjoy her memories, both happy and sad. The photographs of the past, the story of her 1960s lifestyle in California, the heartbreak of her split with Cliff were all quite absorbing. (Frankly, I wanted to slap Cliff silly several times, although I understand he and Branch are still friends.) I have to say, as much as I enjoyed this one, I'm looking forward more to the Martha's Vineyard volume, though, since it takes place close to my home town.

book icon  Gone West, Carola Dunn
Investigating a crime is the furthest thing from Daisy Dalrymple Fletcher's mind when she gets together with her old schoolmate Sybil Sutherby. Sybil has been acting as a typist and editor for the novelist Humphrey Birtwhistle, who has kept the old family estate going by writing romances of the Old West, having lived there as a young man and brought his American wife back home with him. Sybil confides to Daisy that she thinks someone is drugging her employer to keep him under the weather, since when Sybil took over writing the books from Humphrey's outlines they have been making a great deal more money. So under the guise of visiting Sybil, Daisy once again gets herself involved in a mystery—as Birtwhistle dies not soon after she meets the rest of his not-always-lovely family.

Once again Daisy must try to sort out who might want to kill the victim: perhaps it's the man's younger brother or sister, who worked the estate hard most of their lives only to have him come home and claim it; or the flibbertigibbet niece with no money of her own or her two suitors, a straitlaced type or an Irish poet; it might even be his American wife. Even Sybil and her beau, the estate's physician, are not free of suspicion—and of course Daisy must cooperate when her husband DI Fletcher and his associates Tom Tring and Ernie Piper are called onto the case. A nice atmospheric country house mystery with a couple of twists.

book icon  The Smithsonian's History of America in 101 Objects, Richard Kurin
In an American response to the seminal BBC production The History of the World in 100 Objects, this is a lush volume that covers the pre-Columbian (Burgess shale points) all the way to the present (the man-made Giant Magellan Telescope) and just a bit of everything in between: Pocahontas' authentic portrait (all of them), Thomas Jefferson's Bible (which he disassembled and rearranged), Abraham Lincoln's beaver hat, gold from Sutter's fort and furniture from Appamattox, the Wright flyer and an authentic Eisenhower jacket, the Salk vaccine and the AIDS quilt. It's a giant candy box of historical choices, illustrated in color, and a nice overview of American history which tries to be inclusive of other points of view besides the usual historical narrative. The only minus of this volume is its price, but if you're a history buff, a nice used or remainder copy will do. Plus, if you dislike it, it can be used as a burglar basher. At 760 pages of heavyweight paper, it would make a nice leaf press, too. ☺

book icon  The Laws of Murder, Charles Finch
Charles Lenox and his four colleagues, including his protege Jack Dallington, have now formed their investigative agency and are hoping for consultation work from the police. Except, to Lenox's astonishment, his good friend at Scotland Yard, Inspector Thomas Jenkins, badmouths him and his agency to the press. Yet when Inspector Jenkins is murdered, he clearly leaves clues that Lenox recognizes, but cannot quite put together because they have been compromised. Lenox is also certain that one of his old nemises, the Marquess of Wakefield, is involved in the mystery—only to discover the peer also dead. But as distrust of Lenox spreads after the newspaper reports, he finds his new agency may no longer want him as one of the partners.

A ship of smuggled items, a convent on an otherwise busy street, the scandalous Wakefield who meets his doom in a most mysterious way, and a charming young Frenchman figure in this latest Lenox mystery in paperback. I'm so glad Lenox has dropped the Parliamentary seat; his part-time sleuthing wasn't really interesting, even if it allowed Jack Dallington to blossom as a detective and his old butler Graham to fill his place and use his unique skills. Needless to say, with a lascivious lord, murder, and smuggling, there are further revelations of the seamy underside of London. Sadly, Lady Jane doesn't have a lot to do in the story.

book icon  Never Turn Your Back on an Angus Cow, Dr. Jan Pol/David Fisher
This is the story of Jan Pol, the Michigan veterinarian whose cases are shown on the National Geographic Wild channel's The Incredible Dr. Pol. Pol was born in the Netherlands and was helping with animals at an early age. His family endured Nazi rule during World War II and later he studies in Michigan where he meets his wife Diane, charmed by the fact that she plays tag with a pet duck, and you learn about his early mentors.

The remainder of the book is about memorable animal patients or why/how he uses a certain treatment, very like the television series. I only watch the series occasionally, so most of the stories weren't familiar to me. Plus he talks about how the television series came about.

Pol's co-writer tries to write as his subject talks, so the narrative is rather cut-and-dried. Those looking for the poetic feel of James Herriott about the landscape and the people will be disappointed. But there are a wide variety of cases covered, from horses to cows to dogs and cats, and it's enjoyable enough. Plus there's a center section of photographs, where you can see what Pol looked like as a younger man.

book icon  A Pattern of Lies, Charles Todd
In England after escorting a group of wounded soldiers from the front, Great War battlefield nurse Bess Crawford is looking forward to a few days' leave with her family. Unfortunately she cannot get a train and there are no places to stay, until she meets an old patient of hers, Major Mark Ashton, who is home on leave until his hearing problem from concussion resolves. He invites her to his home for the night, where Bess discovers the family is being systematically harassed about a devastating accident that happened at the family munitions plant two years earlier. Although the explosion was determined to be an accident, out of nowhere accusations are resurfacing that the family was behind the deaths. Bess likes the family immediately and soon is determined to get to the bottom of the accusations, especially after Mark's father is arrested.

I found this an interesting and absorbing novel in the Bess Crawford series. Probably I should have guessed the identity of the culprit earlier, but I was too busy enjoying Bess' relationship with the Ashtons and her efforts to solve the mystery of the sabotaged factory. I found that Bess' transport back and forth to the front and Britain made sense in her duties as a nursing sister. It does seem a bit unusual that her Australian soldier friend can keep popping up when she needs him, but I guess that's no less unlikely than a nursing sister getting involved with murder mysteries in the first place. I like Bess; she's capable and doesn't need a man to help her make the conclusions she comes to, for all that Simon Brandon does pop up once again just in time.

book icon  Melody Ellison: No Ordinary Sound, Denise Lewis Patrick
After reading the less-than-inspiring Maryellen books, I was worried about this newest series of American Girl novel, which features an African-American family in Detroit in 1963.

This is more like it! Melody and her family seem very real; the family dynamics are wonderful (there's a warm atmosphere that I love, especially between Melody and her sisters), and every family member has a role, unlike Maryellen's very superficial father. There are occasional "info dumps" for the modern child about the early 1960s attitude toward people of color, but they aren't too intrusive. This is what I was expecting from the Maryellen story, something that would make a 1950s Florida girl come alive, not a dumb kid painting the front door red.

The story: Melody and her family live in Detroit. Her father works on an auto assembly line, her grandfather is a florist whom she helps occasionally (Melody loves to garden), and her grandmother teaches music. Melody has been asked to sing a solo at her church in the fall and must make the important decision of which song to sing over the summer. In the meantime, her older brother is trying to break into the Motown scene, and her cousin from Alabama is moving to Detroit with her family because of racial conditions in Alabama.

I loved that the book addressed not only overt bigotry (when her cousins try to buy a house, they are told the house isn't available—although it is available to whites; when her sister tries to get a summer job at a bank, she are told there are no more jobs, although the bank manager tells a white girl positions are still open), but more subtle things: Melody and brother Dwayne go looking for new clothes in a department store and are promptly accused of shoplifting for just looking at things; Melody's cousin Val is surprised that black people can walk into the front door of the library in Detroit.

I can't wait until the second volume is out, but now I really resent that Mattel has gone cheap on the books. I would have loved to have illustrated volumes of Melody's story. I would have loved three illustrated "Inside Melody's World" features in three books instead of a measly two pages: info about the faces of bigotry, the events in Birmingham, behind the scenes at Motown, the story of "Lift Every Voice and Sing." The new "Beforever" line is a cheat.

book icon  Dear America: Land of the Buffalo Bones, Marion Dane Bauer
This is labeled "special edition" and I don't know why unless it is the first "Dear America" book I've read that is based on an actual family. The young lady who is the protagonist was the great-grandaunt of the author and she derived the story in this novel from the memories of older relatives who remembered "Polly."

Mary Ann Elizabeth Rodgers accompanies her siblings, half-siblings, father and stepmother to the United States, where her minister father has arranged for them to found an English colony in 1873 Minnesota. He has come home with tales of green and verdant fields and the members of his Baptist congregation, unwelcome by the Church of England, are eager to come. Tragedy strikes early: the small brother of Polly's best friend Jane dies on the ship during the Atlantic voyage. When they arrive at their new home, there is no infant town as they were promised and it is snowing heavily on Easter Sunday. This is only the beginning of their trials.

This is a excellent primer to the pioneer experience, but be aware that very sensitive children may find this one chilling. It is not a happy experience for the Rodgers family. The story begins with the death of little Timmy and other deaths occur, and something else upsetting happens near the end. Keep in mind that the events that happen are nothing different than what you might read in the "Little House" books, but they are different than the experiences of most children today. Some parents may be dismayed that the godly Reverend Rodgers is not the steadfast leader he needs to be (he reminds me somewhat of Bronson Alcott) to survive in the Minnesota wilderness, but he is typical of many of the people who went west with misconceptions and believed promoters' tales of the area. I was particularly impressed by how Polly's stepmother learned to cope with the situation and how Polly's perception of her changed from the beginning of the book when she was a despised stepmother.

book icon  The Annotated Little Women, Louisa May Alcott with annotations by John Matteson
Yes, I have yet another annotated version of this classic. I read so much about this volume on a blog that I wanted it, and James obliged for Christmas (thanks to a wonderful Barnes & Noble before-Christmas sale). Matteson, an Alcott scholar, received permission to use photos of items from Alcott's "Orchard House, including personal items like Anna Alcott Pratt's (the original of "Meg") wedding dress, the newly-discovered New Testament belonging to Lizzie (the original of "Beth"), books published by May Alcott Nieriker, and never-before-seen family photographs.

In this volume Matteson uses Alcott's original text for Little Women, only briefly mentioning the revision that her publishers requested when the two parts of the text were put together to make the one book we know today, to correct the slang that the girls and Laurie use (it was considered detrimental to the readers of the 19th century!). Instead he talks more about the different "sections" of the first part. Initially Alcott wrote only the first twelve chapters, which are episodic scenes in the lives of the girls, unsure that anyone would want to read "dull" stuff; her publisher agreed, but his niece loved the story so much that Alcott continued, with the next chapters providing a more cohesive whole to the story. Also, the story was originally supposed to end when Mr. March came home at Christmas, the story running one year from one Christmas to the next. It was Alcott's publisher who asked that she write "Aunt March Settles the Question," which suggests a future (i.e. a sequel) might be in order for these characters. I knew Alcott didn't think much of the book until her publisher's niece said she loved it—she basically wrote her children's books and stories to make money—but I had no idea of the actual "construction" of the book until now.

I'm hard pressed to tell you which volume is "better." I liked this one for its biography of Alcott and the importance of Lizzie Alcott and May Alcott Nieriker to what happened to Louisa in later life; also the new photographs (since when you visit Orchard House they don't allow you to take photos). But the other book by Daniel Shealy was good, too. If you're an Alcott fan, you'll want both, so check the used book stores!

book icon  The Lost Art of Reading Nature's Signs, Tristan Gooley
I don't hike (I'd like to, but not in the tropics, thankyouverymuch), I don't camp, and I sure don't want to eat some of the things author Gooley did during a hike in Borneo. On the other hand, this is a fascinating book about the nature signs that our ancestors used to survive, whether as hunters or farmers before the advent of the Weather Bureau or explorer. Gooley covers all types of signs, from in which direction plants grow and which plants grow near settled areas and which prefer wild spaces, which animals you may see on your hikes (not just the native creatures of an area, but which animals will come out in the daytime and which at night, which prefer wet places, which prefer dry), weather signs, determining your direction by charting the stars (he goes way beyond finding Polaris by using the two stars on the cup of the Big Dipper), seeing things differently when you hike at night and finding your way in the dark via temperature, animal sounds, etc.

It makes you a bit wistful for all the ancient knowledge we have lost. If I lived out in the country I would definitely try learning one of more of these techniques.