30 June 2016

Books Completed Since June 1

book icon  Written in Stone, Christopher Stevens
English words have been traced back to early Indo-European tongues, but Stevens claims an even earlier pedigree: that some of our most basic words go back to the Stone Age utterances of our prehistoric ancestors. Stevens follows each individual word, basic vocabulary having to do with everyday life, from basic breathing to speaking to existence, words for birth and death, food and drink, light and dark, yes and no, growth and harvesting, and the more modern words that grew out of those simple roots.

Linguistics fans will enjoy; I certainly did.

book icon  Murder in the Afternoon, Frances Brody
In this third in the Kate Shackleton mystery series, the novel opens with two children taking food to their father, a stoneworker at a quarry. But their errand turns into horror when they discover their father dead and the sundial he was working on ruined. However, when they go to get help and return with an adult, there is no sign of the murder—in fact no sign of their father at all. Their mother travels to the home of Kate Shackleton, asking her to find him, and reveals an incredible secret: she's Kate's sister. At first Kate takes on the case as an obligation, but then she becomes involved with her niece and the mystery itself.

These are great period pieces (post World War I), with Kate still suffering repercussions of losing her husband in combat and still hoping he may be found alive in some hospital. The additional baggage of the mystery involving her biological family is also telling in Kate's investigation as she discovers a little more of "who she is." Brody does a fine job preserving the customs, language, and atmosphere of the times without resorting to the casual prejudices of the era. The mystery is also reasonably complicated.

book icon  Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leewenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing, Laura J. Snyder
This is an intriguing, if a bit tiring, book about artist Vermeer, scientist van Leewenhoek, and how they both used glass lenses to achieve breakthroughs in their chosen fields, van Leewenhoek to, of course, discover the "little animals" living in drops of water (bacteria) using the new microscopes, and Vermeer's use of the camera obscura and other pinhole techniques to emphasize depth of field in his paintings and develop new techniques of portraying perspectives. It's also a portrait of Dutch society in the 1600s: their science, exploration, finance, etc.

The detail may fascinate or bore you (I leaned toward the former, but even for me the prose was occasionally dense). My main problem, if any, was Snyder's continued assertion that, even though there was no record of it, Vermeer and van Leewenhoek just had to know each other: they lived in the same area, shared some neighbors and relatives, etc. A few times to make this assertion was okay, but it kept popping up interminably.

Best for those who are interested in the history of painting and/or scientific exploration, or perhaps Dutch history.

book icon  Treasure of the Golden Cheetah, Suzanne Arruda
Jade del Cameron reluctantly joins a safari to Mount Kilimanjaro in the company of her friendly enemy Harry Hascombe, who's escorting a movie crew to the area. The flamboyant director is shooting a film about King Solomon's mines, and some of his crew still think there's treasure to be found. Harry has asked Jade to act as escort for the actresses of the company, and she gets an unwanted education in envy, cattiness, and rivalry from both the female and male members of the cast and crew. It also looks as if someone wants to sabotage the production. But from the beginning, even Jade's ward Jelani and her pet cheetah Biscuit know there's something going on, and they stow away with the party. And sure enough, death is in the offing.

The Jade del Cameron books always mix mystery, period charm, and travelogue, and this one is no exception. There's a nice sense of tension through the entire plot, red herrings, and of course the intrepid Jade herself. Her fiance Sam is becoming less of a cardboard character as well, although he is often ineffective. If you like period mysteries set in exotic places, these are worth your investigation.

book icon  Cranston Revisited, Sandra M. Moyer and Thomas A. Worthington
A second vintage visit to my home town via old photographs and the folks at Arcadia Publishing and "Images of America." Long ago the places I remember full of shopping centers and favorite stores were farmlands dotted with cows and produce (at one time Rhode Island was a dairy capital!), there was a coal mine at the back end of what's now Garden City shopping center, and clothing mills dotted what wasn't pastures. Lots of pictures of the Sprague Mansion and even the trotting park that became the state fairgrounds and finally the housing plat where my playmates and my Mom's best friend lived. A must for any Cranstonian who loves history.

book icon  Walk the Lines: The London Underground Overground, Mark Mason
What's one of the most memorable things about the city of London? Its transport system, about which many things have been written. But what's above those underground lines?

That's what Mark Mason sets out to discover as he walks each of the London Underground lines...overhead, from the shortest to the longest, outbound and back again, some done in the warmth and others done in the cold. One turns into a pub crawl. One is done with a friend. And along the way Mason notes historical markers, changing architecture, famous personages, and more quips than you can shake a stick at. He even explains the difference between "the tube" and "the underground," and indeed there is a difference.

I think by the end I was a bit tired of his whimsy, but take it slowly and you'll discover some inside history.

book icon  Death of a Dog Whisperer, Laurien Berenson
Melanie Travis' peppery Aunt Peg, the one who dragged Melanie into the competitive dog ring by gifting her with the standard poodle Faith, has a new protege: Nick Walden, a young man who's called a "dog whisperer," who is having tremendous success with behavior training of both dogs and their owners. Even a wary Melanie, having heard too many gimmicks in her years in the dog ring and who knows Aunt Peg met Nick through her ex-husband Bob, who has led both of them astray before, likes the affable Nick. So why was he murdered?

I twigged on the solution to this one a little before the reveal, but it didn't keep me from enjoying the reappearance of semi-regulars like Terry and Crawford, or Bob being a big part of the plot, and even the fact that Melanie's mysterious previous neighbor figures into the plot. It's a shame something happened to Nick because he was actually a nice guy, as opposed to some of the murder victims previous in this series. And Melanie doesn't do anything goofy at the end of the story to precipitate the climax. The only problem was the nearly book-long difficulty between Sam and Melanie, but Sam's been such a perfect boyfriend/husband for so long it's actually a relief to know those two argue once in a while.

As always, I enjoy this series, despite any flaws in the individual books.

book icon  Once Upon a Flock, Lauren Scheuer
Adorable little book about a couple and their child who raise a trio of chickens and learn that these supposedly "stupid" birds have personality and charm of their own. The flock is guarded by a cute little terrier, and Scheuer's adorable little drawings of chickens, dogs, and kids, plus photographs of the real thing, pepper the text. Animal lovers will...well, love!

book icon  Heirs of the Body, Carola Dunn
This very latest of the Daisy Dalrymple-Fletcher novels has Daisy assisting with a mystery involving her own family. When Daisy's brother, who was to inherit the family estate, died in the Great War, and Daisy, being female, could not inherit, her cousin Edgar and his wife were the legal inheritors of the estate. Now, since Edgar and his spouse have no children, a legal heir must be found for when Lord Dalrymple passes on. Advertising produces several heirs, and Edgar asks Daisy to help him investigate the claims. As in all families, some of the claimants are nice, and some are not, and since this is a murder mystery cozy, of course one of them turns up dead.

This is an entertaining mystery in which we see more of Daisy's family—I simply love cousin Edgar, who cares more for his butterfly collection than his title (but who can get serious when he needs to)—including her sister and her snobbish mother. Once again Alec Fletcher's superiors are appalled that Daisy is involved in another murder, and there is fun with a village fete, where Belinda (Daisy's stepdaughter) and Derek (Daisy's nephew) prove they are both "bricks" in the best British slang tradition.

book icon  Martha's Vineyard: Isle of Dreams, Susan Branch
When we left our heroine at the end of The Fairy Tale Girl, she was on an airplane fleeing the end of a broken relationship, back to somewhere she had loved, Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. She intends only to stay a few months to soothe her broken heart, and then she sees—and impulsively buys—Holly Oak Cottage, a tiny home in need of love. And gradually Susan falls even more in love with the Vineyard, and her home, and a new pair of cats...and with enough encouragement, submits her unique combination of watercolors, quotations, and recipes to a publisher for what will be the first of several beautiful cookbooks.

If I was enchanted with FTG, I absolutely adored this one, since I grew up in New England and the whole milieu of seasons, seashore, books, and artwork was very close to my soul, and the combination of watercolor art, quotations, vintage photographs, postcards, and Susan's handwritten text was like a warm, loving blanket of New England happiness. Even when snakes intrude into the Garden of Eden (yes, Cliff, her ex, showed up again, like a bad penny), it's a happy ride as you rejoice with her remodeling of Holly Oak, nature walks, and the whole heady book-publishing experience.

Of course, if you aren't a Branch fan, your mileage may vary. But anyone into home, domesticity, nature, and happiness of self will probably love this book.

book icon  Melody Ellison: Never Stop Singing, Denise Lewis Patrick
The second book in the Melody Ellison series does not disappoint. In this outing, Melody has been able to "see in" her first new year, that of 1964. When the pastor of her church challenges his congregation to "make a difference," Melody and her cousin and her friends get together to rehabilitate a derelict playground and make it a good park for the neighborhood. It's a lot of work for the children, and they are almost stymied in their goals, but with the help from public opinion and some of the adults in their lives, they continue and persevere.

Once again, a great read. The book does not shy away from prejudices faced by the Ellisons, their families, and their neighbors, but they always hold up their heads and overcome hard times. Melody's brother Dwayne faces rocky times on his way up in Motown, and her sister Yvonne fights for civil rights in Mississippi, where the times are particularly dangerous for people of color. The family is a haven of love and support for all of them. Even when a final obstacle comes in their path, they keep faith and overcome it.

Melody Ellison and her family and friends are inspiration for us all.

book icon  The Mysterious World of Sherlock Holmes, Bruce Wexler
This is a neat coffee table book that labels itself "the official book of the Sherlock Holmes Museum." It is like many of the other Sherlock Holmes summaries in that it talks about Conan Doyle and the origins of the stories, but also discusses police work at the time of the canon, women in the story, traveling in Victorian times, and the era's "forensics." Final chapters talk about Holmes and the media (Jeremy Brett was the newest Holmes when this was written), and there are oodles of photos from the Sherlock Holmes Museum and vintage Holmes illustrations, the latter which are the big draw in this book.

book icon  Elise The Actress, Norma Jean Lutz
This is another "Sisters in Time," vaguely Christian-themed book like the "Dear America" series. Elise Brannon is growing up during the Civil War, with a best friend whose mother is struggling after her husband's death at Bull Run and her brother joining the Union army. Since she loves to act, she and her friends put together a show to earn money for a local hospital and entertain the wounded soldiers, and they all hope for a successful end to the war. But then Elise alienates her friend Verly by befriending a man whose son fought for the Confederacy.

This is a much better girl-in-the-Civil-War book than When This Cruel War Is Over, although the Brannons don't experience as much hardship as in that book, as it represents a more typical Union family. Elise is a likeable girl, and the Christian theme is very general, of forgiveness and generosity rather than evangelizing. This book also tries to show that both Union and Confederate sides suffered during the war and that labeling someone because of something a family member did is unfair.

The biggest thing I want to know about this book is why in the dickens is the family's "Irish maid and nurse" Berdeen speaking in a Scottish accent? Why is she calling Elise a "lassie" when a real Irish person would be calling her a "colleen"?