29 February 2016

Books Completed Since February 1

book icon  Bryant and May and the Bleeding Heart, Christopher Fowler
I first got involved in the quirky world of Fowler's aging police detective partners in 2010, reading the first book, Full Dark House, while on vacation.

And here I am, still hooked, in this eleventh outing, which may be the best yet.

The Peculiar Crimes Unit has a new Public Liaison Officer, an up-and-climbing executive type with the improbable name of Orion Banks, who's determined to whip Bryant and May and their misfits into shape. When a teenage boy who invites a girl he likes to a cemetery for a bit of star-gazing sees what he thinks is a corpse walking—a corpse who says "Ursa Minor" to him, no less—and reports it to the police, it sets in motion a series of events that includes a suicide victim-cum-zombie, his grieving wife and sullen son, an archer, an occultist professor, Jack Renfield's teen daughter, and a group of resurrectionists (graverobbers who use corpses for medical purposes)—in other words, just up the PCU's alley. If that wasn't all, Banks also asks them to look into the mystery of the missing ravens from the Tower of London.

Threaded within the plot is Arthur Bryant's sudden obsession with death and a childhood fear he must conquer before he can make sense of the convoluted mystery they've been handed. Plus there is the usual daft workday environment like holes in the floor and electrically-charged towel racks, Crippen's kittens, Bryant's pal Maggie Armitage the witch, and Fowler's exhaustive knowledge of and fascination with old London. Do you know what the difference is between a graveyard and a cemetery? How the ravens at the Tower are kept there? Much fascinating info is imparted as the clues fly fast and furious.

BTW, was amused to see how Fowler has created doubt again to Bryant's age, so people won't be puzzling why these guys haven't been forcibly retired yet. If you've read Full Dark House, you'll know what I mean.

book icon  The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America, Bill Bryson
I was about to buy Bryson's newest, The Road to Little Dribbling, having enjoyed his earlier Notes from a Small Island, but the reviews about bitter humor gave me pause. Did I actually want to spend the money to buy this in hardback? Why not instead read one of the three Bryson books I still had in my "to be read" pile? So I picked up this one. The premise: Bryson, after years of living in England, comes home to the midwest (Iowa) in 1988 and drives around most of the country in a little Chevette (one of which I had once), commenting about the odd and the unusual.

Well, there's some of that, some nice descriptions of a couple of national parks, and some nostalgia about family vacation trips when he was a kid. The rest is an endless kvetch, kvetch, kvetch about everything: the bad food, the ugly homes, the tourists—Bill, Bill, Bill, you go to national parks and tourist areas and then complain about how crowded they are; should they be empty, just for your pleasure?—looking for some Shangri-La of a small town. The funny part is that he travels through the Midwest and the South—badmouthing everyone in the latter as if it were still 1955; he is astonished, apparently, that in 1988, black people and white people actually eat together in the South!—and can't find the ideal small town, then when he gets into New England and finds some picture-perfect ones, heavens, they're too perfect.

Okay, I know he's supposed to be commenting wryly on the American scene, and his observations on tourist traps are spot on, but really, after pages and pages of this stuff, can you blame the reader if he or she is the one who wants to kvetch, kvetch, kvetch right back? Along the way he trashes country music, Mexican music, farmers, hillbillies...and heaven forbid that you are female and overweight! It seems every few pages or so he goes into a diatribe about obese women, which is rich considering he describes himself as overweight several times. I guess he gets a pass. Plus, as far as I can tell, the only things he liked that he saw were a few scenic spots, Cooperstown, and the Henry Ford Museum/Greenfield Village. He writes off Williamsburg because, you know, some of the buildings are reconstructed; doesn't like that all the treasures of the Smithsonian are now in separate buildings instead of piled higgledy-piggledy in the Castle to discover in a corner; and is sour because most places don't look like the pictures.

Unless you like endless jokes about fat women, motor homes, and stereotypical waitresses, borrow this from the library, okay?

book icon  The Sayers Swindle, Victoria Abbott
This second of the Jordan Bingham "book collector" mysteries opens a few weeks after The Christie Curse ends. Karen Smith, the bookseller badly injured in the previous mystery, is still recovering as Jordan tries to track down the first edition mysteries that disappeared from the library of her employer, Vera Van Alst, sold off by a previous Van Alst employee. Karen remembers enough of the sale of Vera's precious Dorothy L. Sayers' first editions (she did not know the books were stolen) to lead herself and Jordan to the home of Randolph Adams—where both women suspect that the courtly elderly man is being drugged, and possibly duped, by his relatives/caretakers. In trying to find out the truth (and get Vera's books back by swapping a different valuable first edition for the Sayers volumes), they find an unlikely ally in one of Jordan's not-quite-legal uncles, hyperactive Kevin Kelly.

A bouncy, not-quite-serious storyline propels this newest Jordan adventure along, with Jordan being involved in some strange situations involving "Officer Smiley," the policeman that always turns up when she's in trouble, and Karen's cute pug, Walter. Don't expect any literature close to a classic Sayers or Christie; this is just a nice cozy involving a likeable heroine, some interesting relatives, and hidden passages.

book icon  Death by Petticoat, Mary Miley Theobald
For history geeks: 63 myths about American history that get too much airing, even at living history museums. Theobold tells us that not all that many colonial women died from burns from their long skirts catching fire, not all that many men owned wigs, women didn't eat arsenic to lighten their complexions, and no, there was not a closet tax in colonial times, among others. This is just a matter-of-fact listing of inaccuracies; there's a bibliography at the back, but the book itself is light reading, with about half of it color photographs from Colonial Williamsburg. I would recommend finding this used or on remainder; however, if you're a history lover, you will probably enjoy.

book icon  Antidote to Murder, Felicity Young
In this second of the Dr. Dody McClelland books, Dody is still working as a coroner—or rather as a glorified note-taker in the coroner's office, where the famous pathologist Dr. Bernard Spilsbury is "behind" her, but still caters to her male colleague Henry Everard, who hates Dody and wants her gone. In her second career as volunteer doctor for the poor women of London, Dody treats a woman who has given herself lead poisoning to try to abort an unwanted child by giving her a lead antidote and bromide to help her sleep. The next thing she knows, the woman is dead of a botched abortion and Dody is accused of performing it, as she advocates birth control, something even her suffragette younger sister thinks of as just as bad as abortion. In the meantime, the lead tablets taken by the pregnant woman are also being used to poison unwanted children. Who is giving them out?

This is a reasonably complex mystery in which Dody's relationship with retired soldier/Scotland Yard detective Matthew Pike turns sour after he flees surgery on his bad knee and his investigation of a brothel intertwines with Dody's accusation. The poverty of London and the prejudice of the times toward women professionals, the poor, and women's suffrage is clearly illustrated, and there is a real sense that Dody will be convicted as an abortionist. I was very surprised at Florence McClelland's attitude toward birth control; I would have thought suffragettes would have had a different interpretation of it.

book icon  Born on a Mountaintop: On the Road with Davy Crockett and the Ghosts of the Wild Frontier, Bob Thompson
Stop. If you are looking for a biography of Davy Crockett, this isn't one, which several Amazon reviewers apparently didn't get. This book is about the real David Crockett (he hated being called "Davy"), the legends about him, and how his legends began (and no, it didn't start with Walt Disney; there were already Crockett legends before he left for the Alamo, some of them created by David himself).

Thompson didn't start out as a 1950s Davy Crockett fan; his young daughter fell in love with Crockett after hearing the Disney "Ballad of Davy Crockett" on a Burl Ives CD. She and her sister both got interested in Crockett and Andrew Jackson. This led Thompson, after his daughters were grown, down the "Davy Crockett trail" from Tennessee to Washington, DC to a tour of New England and finally to the Alamo, where people still argue about where Crockett was when he died (or if he even died in battle at all or was later captured and executed). He discovers Crockett scholars, Crockett fans, more Crockett memorabilia than you can shake "Old Betsy" at, and conflicting reports about everything from when Crockett officially left home to where he crossed into Texas on the way to San Antonio. The narration is crisp, brisk, and occasionally funny (but never demeaning) and if I had any quibble with this book it's when Thompson states a fact, then adds "That's how it happened....maybe" or some variant one too many times, his way of trying to tell you there are as many theories as there are legends.

I was born the year the "Disney Davy Crockett" merchandising train died, so I've never been Crockett-crazy, but I really enjoyed this book!

book icon  Little Woman in Blue: A Novel of May Alcott, Jeannine Atkins
So many books have been devoted to Louisa May Alcott, both biographic in nature and even fiction written around the character, that little time has been spent on yet another Alcott who was famous in her own right: May, who became the inspiration for Amy in Little Women. While May Alcott was never renown for her illustrations (her drawings for Louisa's first edition of Little Women were universally panned), she did gain some acclaim for her painting and was, unlike Amy, to live in Europe and paint for a living, and served as inspiration for sculptor Daniel Chester French, who was one of her art students.

Atkins' May is portrayed as a hard-working artist and part of the Alcott family, tirelessly nursing Louisa through her bout with typhoid after she nursed injured soldiers in Civil War-era Washington, DC, who resents when Louisa chooses to make the fictional Amy give up her art for marriage. She carries on a brief flirtation with Julian Emerson, son of family friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, and finally falls in love with a man some years her junior while in Europe.

I bought this because I am always interested in the Alcotts and loved having a different view of the family's life, but at the same time "domestic drama" isn't what I usually read. I also found the choppy structure of the sentences wearying. I wanted to beg the author for some compound sentences and subordinate clauses. Still, a nicely told story about a historical figure not usually in the public eye.

book icon  Re-read: The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin
Since I had to buy another copy since my first has vanished into thin air. (The original was the only book I ever bought at the Borders store on Ponce de Leon Road, which closed not a month later, too.) ::grump::

I was curious when this book first came out, enough to go to Amazon.com to read reviews. Some of them were downright vituperative: "shallow, silly, stupid," all came up at various times. A frequent theme reoccurred: "What does Gretchen Rubin have to be unhappy about? She says...brags, some people insist...about her wonderful husband, kids, family, job, home.

I think they missed "the piont," as they used to joke on Ask the Manager. Rubin admits her blessings of home, family, and work right off, but wonders: "If my life is so good, why am I so unhappy so often?" This is Rubin's discovery of herself, and how making herself happy actually helps her family and friends attain happiness as well. She doesn't perfect anything, backslides and recovers, admits selfishness and frustration, but persists. It's her journey into what works for her, but any "happiness project" you do for yourself must center around your own needs and situations. I found her writing bright and interesting, and, while there is some repetition, it is usually to emphasize key points, not to fill space.

I felt inspired by Rubin's journey and hope to profit from it. I may never have a super job in New York City or adorable children, but happiness can be attained on many levels. Your mileage may vary.

book icon  The Cold Dish, Craig Johnson
A friend of mine is enamored with the Longmire mystery series now running on Netflix, and I tried it out not long ago and enjoyed it. Of course then it started me wondering what the books were like, and the next thing you know I had a book of short stories [to be reviewed in March], but finally turned up this, the first book in the series.

Walt Longmire is the longtime sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming, with a territory that extends to the Buckhorn Mountains and includes Native American reservation land. Since the death of his wife, Martha, he's a bit like a broken clock spring, leaving much of his work to his deputy sheriff and subordinates. His closest friend is Henry Standing Bear, who runs the Red Pony, a local "watering hole." As the book opens, a young man who, with three friends, sexually assaulted a learning-disabled Cheyenne girl several years earlier, is found murdered. Walt would prefer his last years as sheriff be as quiet as possible, but the mystery just refuses to let go. It soon becomes obvious that someone is gunning for the remaining three young men.

This isn't just a mystery, but a portrait of an aging man whose grief has taken overtaken him, and a look into a society millions of miles and philosophies away from the big cities and suburban sprawl of the east and west coasts. Absaroka County is as much a character as its occupants, and Longmire more than some square-jawed cowboy lawman with a gun. The friendship between Walt and Henry Standing Bear is outstanding—"worth the price of admission," as the saying goes. I'll definitely be reading more Longmire mysteries.