31 July 2016

Books Completed Since July 1

book icon  Space Helmet for a Cow, Paul Kirkley
I think this one is strictly for Doctor Who fans, but what a fan book: a wonderful, amusing hodgepodge of behind-the-scenes events and facts from each era of the classic series, starting from its inception in the mind of Sydney Newman, back when the leads included Lola, Cliff, and Biddie, and its development under Verity Lambert. It's a heady mix of changes in stories, conflicting personalities, props, music, script malfunctions, strange casting, special effects on a budget, all costumes great and small, Venusian akido, teeth and hair, Billyisms, and Colin Baker's coat. Yeah, if you cleaned up a lot of the Kirkley bosh, you'd have a shorter book, but it's done in such fun that you can almost ignore it. Lots of behind-the-scenes bits about the main actors involved as well, including one jaw-dropper about Patrick Troughton.

Yeah, I enjoyed it to bits—and there's a sequel coming out soon!

book icon  The Counterfeit Heiress, Tasha Alexander
Lady Emily and her husband Colin Hargreaves are attending a costume ball at the home of the Duchess of Devonshire, along with her dear friends Cecile and Jeremy, when first Emily is puzzled when a strange man comes up to her and asks her a question, only to receive a rude response when she answers him. She is even more perplexed when she accompanies Cecile to greet her old friend Estella Lamar (who is wearing a similar costume to Emily's), a world traveller, and Cecile accuses the woman of being an imposter. The woman flees and is soon found dead. Emily and Colin grow more bewildered when they find Estella supports several homes with full servants, but has never lived in any of them. Where is real Estella? Is she still travelling? Or are the photographs of her traveling just as fake as her impostor?

Inserted in chapters between the story of Emily and Colin's investigation is the story of Estella, a shy child whose happiest moments were spent telling stories to her dolls, who survives a strange incident after her parents die and she is left an enormous fortune. It persuades her to make travel plans...but why?

This is a rather creepy entry in the Lady Emily mystery series, especially in the Estella chapters, but it is also very atmospheric, especially the sequences which take place in Paris. Alexander has based the story loosely on a historical person who was recently featured in a biography, and makes good use of her base character with touches of Charles Dickens.

book icon  Lusitania, Greg King and Penny Wilson
This was the second of two books that came out in 2015 about the Lusitania tragedy, the other being Erik Larson's Dead Wake. While Larson turned his story into a cat-and-mouse suspense tail with alternating chapters aboard the U-20 and the British liner, King and Wilson concentrate almost solely on the travellers and crew of the Lusitania, from pre-boarding to their eventual fates. The book is full of marvelous details about the decor of the ship, her meals and amusements, the clothing and the affairs and the mores of her passengers (mostly the first-class occupants), and the issues of the day, and then the harrowing experiences of those who survived, whether thrown from the ship or in a lifeboat, floating among dead bodies and watching shipmates drown.

The prose is vivid enough, but one wishes there were more pictures in a better format than murky black and white on rough paper.

book icon  From Little Houses to Little Women, Nancy McCabe
McCabe was a voracious reader from when she was a child, raised in a narrow, restrictive religious home, the appealing lives of book heroines an open door to her imagination. She "gave up childish things" for a while, then was drawn back to her childhood heroines. The book chronicles both her examination of her love of the books and a trip she took with her 9-year-old daughter Sophie to see the real-life sites she had read about as a child: the different homes of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the Mankato of the Maud Hart Lovelace "Betsy-Tacy" books, the Prince Edward Island location of the Anne books, and, briefly, Concord and Little Women, a trip that mirrored one taken when she was about Sophie's age with her dying aunt.

The discussion of the books and the chronicle of the trip are both pretty cool. I had never heard of the "Jennifer" books she talked about, and I was rather indignant that some of the highly-touted "Little House" historical sites take so much material from the television series rather than out of Wilder's autobiographical novels. Her narrative about how goody-goody Mary Ingalls seemed to be was right on target. She and Sophie have a comfortable mother-daughter relationship that is warm and mirrors the relationships in her favorite books while remaining unsentimentally modern.

On the other hand, I wonder why all these reviews of children's literature involve the narrator working out childhood traumas. It's very sad.

book icon  Sup With the Devil, Barbara Hamilton
In what I believe is the third and final Abigail Adams mystery, Abigail travels to Harvard College at the bequest of her nephew Horace, who tells her a troubling story about an errand to provide an Arabic translation for a mysterious "Mrs. Lake" and being drugged for his pains. Abigail can't make sense of it, but does make the acquaintance of some of Horace's classmates, including the gentlemanly Ryland, the bullying Pugh, a "praying Indian" named Weyountah, and cheerful Virginian George Fairfield, who is accompanied by his slave. It is while Abigail is still in Cambridge that the latter is murdered, and his slave Diomede is accused of the crime. The others band together to clear Diomede of the charge—else he will be returned to Virginia and burned alive. And what did it have to do with Horace's mysterious journey?

As in the other two books, Abigail still seems to have too much freedom for a eighteenth century housewife who has a ton of chores; she seems to be able to routinely be able to step away from home overnight and leave things to her servants and in-laws. Otherwise this is a perplexing mystery that mixes the real-life political issues of pre-revolutionary Boston (they spend most of the book waiting to see if the King will close the port after the events of the tea party) in with a mystery involving alchemy texts and college students. The vocabulary thankfully doesn't slip to reveal modernisms, as happens in so many period pieces, and the atmosphere is correct for the time. The disappearance of one of the children is also terrifyingly well done.

book icon  Radio Girls, Sarah-Jane Stratford
Maisie Musgrave was raised chiefly in Canada by an American mother who barely wanted to admit she had a daughter, and a grandmother who hated the fact she had an out-of-wedlock granddaughter. Now back in the land of her father's birth, a down-on-her-luck Maisie is thrilled to find a position as an assistant typist to the secretary of the director general of the BBC. She's not prepared for the pace, nor the piqued attentions of Hilda Matheson, a rara avis at the BBC, a woman executive, in charge of BBC radio's "Talks" department. Under Hilda, the Talks—on subjects from gardening to books to politics—have become very popular, annoying her conservative superiors, and as Maisie gains confidence under Hilda's tutelage, she begins to blossom. But soon she discovers there's something sinister going on behind the scenes...

I really enjoyed this look at the BBC's early days and at the career of real-life Hilda Matheson, who had several challenges in life, not just in business as a female executive, but as a lesbian in a bigoted society. Maisie is our "eye" into the clashes between the imperious and prudish director general John Reith versus the ambitious and creative Matheson; in addition there is a creepy subplot involving those who wish to use the BBC for their own purposes. (The parallel with current politics is not lost on the perceptive.) Yes, the subplot seems a bit "boys' own adventure" at times, but the personalities surrounding it are appealing and you wish to follow them all to the inevitable end.

book icon  Speaking American, Richard W. Bailey
While most of the linguistics books that I have trace the development and appearance of words and idioms in the English language, this one follows the historical developments that contributed to the evolution of the American language from its English vocabulary, starting with the influence of Native American words on the earliest settlers (who resisted using the Native words and at first chose to give English words to them instead). Native American vocabulary additions are also examined in the chapter taking place in Boston, followed by African-American contributions, German additions (again resisted by "pure" English speakers), French borrowings, and then vocabulary from the Yiddish speakers in New York, Chicagoans, and Angelinos.

It's a bit of a dry book, but a different look at how the language formed that does not concentrate on vocabulary. Sadly, the author died before its publication.

book icon  The Death of Lucy Kyte, Nicola Upson
This is an atmospheric and often creepy entry in Upson's mysteries featuring mystery writer Josephine Tey (real name Elizabeth Mackintosh). As the story begins, Tey finds out she has inherited a cottage from her godmother, a stage actress who was also her mother's childhood friend, and is surprised that the woman even remembered her. The cottage is in bad repair, and a room in it gives Josephine the shivers, but she still plans to fix it up as a country retreat, even as she finds out the cottage is embedded in village lore as connected to a murder in a nearby barn. Soon she's wondering if her godmother's death was due solely to old age and discovering sordid details that were covered up by a well-meaning friend of the woman. And who's the Lucy Kyte mentioned in her godmother's will? No one in the village seems to know who that is.

Even with occasional lapses in her previous narratives (like the incestuous relationship in the second book that is treated as if it were an ordinary thing), Upson does her usual terrific job of capturing the pacing and language of a 1930s thriller/mystery, and this one includes a supernatural element as well. The cottage's history has something to do with the famous "Red Barn murder," a 19th century event that actually happened in the town of Polstead, which is the setting of this book, and Upson well mixes her fictional elements with the known elements of Maria Marten's murder. Plus Josephine's continuing romance doesn't feel tacked on in this outing, but an integral part of the story. I hung on this one tensely until the final page. A real winner if you like old-fashioned murder mysteries.

book icon  Queen of Hearts, Rhys Bowen
Georgiana Rannoch, 35th in line for the English throne and perpetually underfunded, travels in a new direction in this newest entry in the "Royal Spyness" series. Her flamboyant actress mother, who was the late Duke of Rannoch's second wife, brings Georgie and her hopelessly gauche maid Queenie along with her aboard ship as she heads for Reno, Nevada, to get a divorce from her present husband to marry Max, her handsome German industrialist lover. Aboard ship, Georgie befriends an odd assortment of passengers, including a bombastic American film director (sort of a combination Goldwyn and Hearst) and his actress lover, and a princess carrying a priceless ruby. Aboard ship, the ruby is stolen, and Georgie thinks she sees someone fall overboard, but no passenger is missing.

This is just the start of Georgie's adventures, which continue through a short stop in Reno and end in California, where the director wants to put her mother into a movie and where they stay at his castle estate (think Hearst Castle). Coincidentally, Georgie's beau, the impoverished but dashing Darcy O'Mara, is aboard ship (and later following Georgie) in search of a jewel thief.

A fun romp for Georgie fans, as these books are always a bit romantic and tongue in cheek. Georgie does some real sleuthing, and her mother is quite audacious and funny. Bowen skewers classic Hollywood types and the mystery is pretty good, although if you pay attention, a clue to an identity is offered early on.