31 December 2017

Favorite Books of 2017

Another baker's dozen!

book icon  Beatrix Potter's Gardening Life, Marta McDowell (lush full-color book about Potter's farms and love of nature, something that will warm you up on a cold rainy day)

book icon  Becoming Queen Victoria, Kate Williams (not a bio of Victoria, but how her cousin Charlotte's life and death led to "little Drina" being queen)

book icon  Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly (story of the African-American mathematicians who kept the United States flying and led us into space as they battled racism and sexism)

book icon  The Librarians and the Mother Goose Chase, Greg Cox (Cox captures the multiple characters of the television series perfectly; you might as well be watching a Librarians film)

book icon  My Small Country Living, Jeanine McMullen (British woman and her boyfriend buy a small farm; all the joy and all the heartache of living off the land)

book icon  Listen, Slowly, Thanhhà Lại (a thoroughly American girl of Vietnamese descent is reluctantly dragged back to her homeland so her grandmother can discover what happened to her husband; rich, rewarding portrait of modern Vietnam and the scars left by war)

book icon  The World Remade: America in World War I, G.J. Meyer (the United States reluctantly went to war, and liberties took a beating—if you think today's government is restrictive, think again)

book icon  The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Marta McDowell (Laura's life as seen against the different natural environments she lived in: the deep forest, the prairie, the rolling hills of Iowa and how it affected how the Ingalls family lived, ate, and worked)

book icon  From Holmes to Sherlock, Mattias Boström (massive volume chronicling not just Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, but of the family and fans who gave Holmes eternal life, from the first Holmes story to the creation of Sherlock)

book icon  Back Over There, Richard Rubin (author Rubin, who wrote a book about the surviving "doughboys" of the Great War, visits the sites he was told so much about; incredible that even though World War II cut a swath over the same territory, the scars of the previous war can still be plainly seen)

book icon  Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse, Eric Jay Dolen (just what it says, engagingly told, including about one of the first boondoggles visited on the new American government)

book icon  Caroline: Little House, Revisited, Sarah Miller (Little House on the Prairie told from Caroline Ingalls' viewpoint, of the sheer hardship of being a pioneer woman)

book icon  Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Caroline Fraser (this was a bumper year for Wilder fans; this one tells the story of the Ingalls family against the history that was happening behind it)

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 I also want to give a shout-out this year to two series: Ben Aaronovitch's absolutely wonderful "Rivers of London"/Peter Grant books, which are both novel and graphic novels: six books so far, one Audible short story, one novella, and three graphic novels with a fourth just released. Every single one should be listed here. This is an inventive urban fantasy about a young biracial police officer who finds himself learning magic and fighting some of Great Britain's more esoteric enemies. Seriously, run, don't walk, to your nearest bookseller and pick up the first one, Midnight Riot (a.k.a. Rivers of London)!

Also Robert Ryan's 4-book (so far) series of "Dr. Watson Thrillers" in which John H. Watson rejoins the Army in World War I to serve as a surgeon. The realities of war are so brilliantly and frighteningly portrayed.

Books Completed Since December 1

I only read Christmas books during the Christmas season, so all my reviews are in "Holiday Harbour." However, I had to make an exception for Peter Grant!

book icon  Rivers of London: Detective Stories, Ben Aaronovitch
Linked together by Peter's oral examination for becoming a a detective, Grant relates four different cases to his examiner, who is initially a magic skeptic. Three of the stories involve Lesley May, one before and two after her encounter with "Mr. Punch." Each of the stories is interesting, spanning the gamut from the magical—a goat found burned to death who was ignited by magical means—to the mundane (attempts to find a flasher), but as a whole the story wasn't as suspenseful as the longer-form previous graphic novel compilations.

My complaint: Sahra Guleed, Thomas Nightingale, and Molly are all shown on the cover with Peter Grant. Sahra doesn't even appear in any of the stories, Molly has three panels in one story, and Nightingale is only in one of the little one-page "Tales from the Folly" tales. I was very disappointed that these characters did not have a larger role in any of the stories.

book icon  The Triple-Dog Dare and A Christmas Carol Christmas Book

book icon  Christmas Philosophy for Everyone

book icon  Christmas Decorations from Williamsburg

book icon  Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Book of Christmas Virtues

book icon  A Lot Like Christmas (partial re-read)

book icon  The Immortal Nicholas

book icon  Re-read: Sleigh Bells for Windy Foot

book icon  A Kentucky Christmas

book icon  Chicken Soup for the Soul: A Book of Christmas Miracles 

book icon  The Children's Book of Christmas Stories

book icon  Once Upon a Christmas

book icon  Christmas in My Heart, Book 12

book icon  Re-read: Christmas After All

book icon  Tru and Nelle: A Christmas Tale

book icon  Ideals Christmas and Spirit of Steamboat

30 November 2017

Books Completed Since November 1

I confess, I ran out of time with Christmas prep. So these reviews are not what I would like.

book icon  H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald
I'd recently seen the Nature special based on this book, and since it was there, tempting me on my to-be-read pile, I obliged it.

Macdonald's father taught her everything to do with birdwatching, particularly patience, and especially to love the beautiful raptors that soared overhead. But suddenly, devastatingly, he died, and Macdonald was thrown into a tailspin. To honor her father and work through her grief, Macdonald adopts the most fractious of the hawk family, the goshawk, a female she names Mabel, inspired in her choice of birds by the hawking manual written in the 1930s by T.H. White, author of The Sword in the Stone.

Part nature diary, part story of the conflicted and imaginative White, and chiefly an emotional catharsis, this is brilliantly written, but be prepared: Macdonald is driven to rock-bottom by her father's death, and her depression and despair is tangible and sometimes terrifying. It is difficult to get through many of the passages. However, if you can make it through the emotional roller coaster of the narration, you will be well rewarded.

book icon  Bryant & May: Wild Chamber, Christopher Fowler
Whew. In the past few novels we've been fearful of Arthur Bryant's health problems spelling the end of the teamwork of detectives Bryant and May and indeed the Peculiar Crimes Unit itself. But with Arthur on the mend, they're thrown into a new mystery: the seemingly inexplicable death of a woman walking her dog in the park. But before we join the mystery, there's a seemingly unrelated flashback to open the novel. Or is it?

So what did happen to Helen Forester? Did her estranged husband kill her? Or was it the gardener in the private park in which she was dog walking? Or even someone else, as they can't identify what instrument she was strangled with? And did we mention that the Met is trying to shut them down again? And that there's a sinister political plot mixed up in all this?

It's the usual mix of Bryant's wild theories and May's deductive reasoning, and the contributions of the Unit, and, in this outing, a history of London's green spaces and parks, and a plot development that will make you go "Yay!" I love this crew of misfits and this newest book did not disappoint.

book icon  Tru and Nelle, G. Neri
They met when Truman Persons was seven and Nelle Lee was six; he was so neat and clean she thought he was a girl and she was so grubby he thought she was a boy. Nevertheless Tru and Nelle (the future Truman Capote and Harper Lee) became fast friends, and, together with Truman's cousin Jennings, a.k.a. Big Boy, they played games and invented adventures in the tiny town of Monroeville, Alabama.

Based on Jennings Faulk's memories, Neri recreates life in a small Southern town during the Depression, where we meet Nelle's beloved father "A.C." and Truman's best friend, his cousin Sook. And when Nelle, a bookworm just as much as Truman is, resolves to raise her new acquaintance's spirits after a rebuff from his father, she turns him into Sherlock Holmes, herself into Dr. Watson, and challenges him to solve a town mystery.

This is a fun book, especially if you've read anything about Lee's and Capote's friendship as well as To Kill a Mockingbird, but I wonder if modern kids are even interested in the kids' imaginative capers. Since there's a Christmas sequel out, I guess so!

book icon  Paper, Mark Kurlansky
While the title is "paper," most of the narrative is devoted to the development of the book, but it took a while in coming. Writing came first, on clay and wax tablets and other hard surfaces, next plants like tapa and papyrus were glued together to make sheets to write on, and finally parchment was developed from animal skins (it still reigns supreme in printing circles; your printed college degree may be called "your parchment," and fine stationery still speaks of parchment paper). As radio was supposed to ruin children for reading, and television for people using their imagination, writing down things was considered detrimental to memory, as previously stories, sagas, and facts were passed down orally from generation to generation.

The first creation of paper, as Kurlansky admits, is unknown. It appears to have originated in China, then passed on to the Muslims (who used it to write a great deal about food). He then chronicles its spread around the globe, different paper-making methods, but mostly how paper was incorporated into books (but also used for calligraphy and artwork).

Really, how could I have not bought this book? It's about two of my favorite things in the world. Completely enjoyed the trip around the world following...yeah, I'll say it...the paper trail.

book icon  The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell
I picked up a trio of Gladwell books at a book sale, and chose this one to read first. Gladwell explains why some events snowball into bigger events while some die a'borning. For instance, the Wolverine company was going under until a group of Greenwich Village denizens started wearing Hush Puppies and created a fad market once more for the shoes. An epidemic in Baltimore occurred after public clinics in the city closed. He explains that these "tipping points" involve three things: the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context, and then continues to illustrate examples to back up his theory.

I have to admit, I thought this was interesting, but didn't carry away anything from it. Perhaps I'll like the other books better.

book icon  The Inheritance, Charles Finch
Right after the new year, Charles Lenox hears from an old schoolmate, Gerald Leigh, who as a boy hated their school, Harrow, but nevertheless Lenox had formed a friendship with the odd classmate. As students, the two boys had tried to solve the mystery of the bequest that sent Leigh to school. Now Leigh is in London, asking Lenox if he can look into a mysterious inheritance he has been notified of. But Leigh never shows up at the Lenox home to meet him, and he is not at his hotel. And, to his surprise, Lenox learns that his former miserable classmate is now a renown scientist.

When they do find Leigh, they find out he was hiding out from being pursued, and soon after, the solicitor that informed Leigh of the inheritance is killed. Lenox and his team, of course, will figure out what happens, but it may come at a dreadful price.

Complicated entry in the Lenox mystery series, but I was particularly amused by Gerald Leigh, who strongly resembled a certain other Gerald who was famous as a scientist and naturalist (Lenox even calls him "Gerry" at one point). A relationship that has been building in the series is also brought to a new level.

book icon  Cancelled by Murder, Jean Flowers
In this second "postmistress" mystery, Cassie Miller, the postmaster of North Ashcot, in the Berkshire mountains, battens down the hatches like the rest of the town as the last remnants of a hurricane strikes the area. Following the storm, sad news emerges: Daisy Harmon, a local shopkeeper, was killed by a falling tree.

Except, as the police find when they finally extract Daisy's body from the tree limbs, there was foul play involved. Knowing she cleared up an earlier mystery, Daisy's husband Cliff asks Cassie if she will look into the death.

There's nothing special about these stories, but they're a nice amiable series with an intelligent protagonist and none of the goofy eccentrics that sometimes show up in these small-town mystery stories. (Yes, I'm talking about the 1940s bookshop ghost series written by Cleo Coyle.) The chief of police is a woman, which is another nice touch, and in this entry she does accept Cassie's help. And I really did not suspect the person "whodunit."

However, again there's a cat on the cover of the novel. There's no cat in the story. What goes? Does every cozy mystery have to have a cute little animal mascot?

book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Ice Carnival Mystery, Jerry West
In this entry of the 1950s children's series, the Hollister kids have embarked on new adventures, traveling with their grandparents to see the famous ice carnival in Quebec, Canada. The kids have promised their parents that they will help their grandparents locate a gift their father ordered for the kids from Canada, a cariole, a French Canadian sleigh. They have adventures even before they get there, with their donkey Domingo disappearing before they leave (yes, if you know these books, it's who you suspect that caused that event) and Grandpa's car getting stuck in the snow on the way there.

Once in Quebec, there's snow, French-Canadian history, more snow, cultural lessons, runaway sleighs, a trip to an island, even more snow, and an exciting boat race (among other things!) to come as Pete, Pam, Ricky, Holly, and Sue enjoy a breathtaking winter holiday.

book icon  Re-read: National Velvet, Enid Bagnold
Mother bought me my first copy of Velvet, a paperback "Tempo" book, long before I saw the MGM movie (but after I'd watched the two-season American television series of the same name which had very little to do with the book). It was rather a challenge: Bagnold wrote the book in the 1930s, using the slang and vocabulary of the 1920s, and she didn't write it as a children's book. But instead of being turned off, I was intrigued: what was kedgeree? What did "coo lummy" mean? and I galloped through the classic story of the butcher's daughter and her winning a horse for a shilling in a raffle and then racing the horse in England's greatest horse race (actually a steeplechase), the Grand National, not caring that I knew nothing about British money, gymkhanas, and why the heck spawn would go on a tin tray.

In fact, I was rather disappointed when I saw the movie, although I understand why they couldn't do the whole book: four sisters instead of three would have just been crowded, and the horses Velvet inherited would have cluttered up the plot (although you can see if you've experienced both novel and movie that the Pie in the film is colored more like Sir Pericles and one of the sentences movie Velvet uses to describe the Pie is originally used to describe Sir Pericles). The Pie in the book isn't a pirate, he's a piebald, Velvet is a blonde, and Mi has pretty much always lived with the family. More importantly, in the book Velvet always intends to ride the horse in the race; there is no last minute substitution. It's real "girl power," especially with Mrs. Brown's presence.

Like Velvet in the National, take the challenge. Look beyond the vocabulary and the old customs and take the ride of your life.

book icon  Re-read: Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie
Remember the star-studded movie that came out based upon this book? No, not the recent one with Kenneth Branaugh and his astonishing moustaches, but the earlier one with Albert Finney and Lauren Bacall. It was about that time I made the acquaintance of Christie and her precisely beautiful English murder mysteries. This one has the added advantage of taking place aboard the romantic sounding "Orient Express," which traveled from the Middle East through eastern Europe and into France, and during a snowstorm, with a train full of exotic passengers, all of whom are not what they seem.

One of the best Hercule Poirot novels ever. If you're tired of cozy mysteries involving people running quaint little stores assisted by an animal mascot, a dip into Christie may be your cup of tea.

book icon  Undeniable, Bill Nye
I've always liked Nye as "Bill Nye the Science Guy." But I was really disenchanted with this book. Nye apparently wrote it in an effort to convince people who think creationism is king to accept evolutionary theory. But he does it in such a patronizing manner that even I was irritated, and I believe in evolution. Plenty of scientific fact here presented in a breezy style, but to me the underlying theme apparently was "you drip, you're an idiot if you believe that Biblical crap." I appreciate that for too many years Nye has probably had to use simple language to get across to Christians who really, really do believe the earth is less than 6,000 years ago, but did he have to do it to all of us? Not keeping this one.

book icon  The Nature Notes of an Edwardian Lady, Edith Holden
This is actually a "prequel" to Holden's acclaimed Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady that became so famous when Upstairs, Downstairs (the Downton Abbey of the 1970s) became popular. As the Diary was for 1906, the Notes are for 1905. Again, this is a charming combination of poetry, Edith's diary entries, and her extraordinary watercolors of plants and animals, the only difference being that, due to Edith's handwriting only being sketched in in this volume, much of the poetry and entries are in type rather than in Edith's distinctive script. However, her lovely artwork is all here. Perhaps a bit less polished than the first book, but a trip back to the past.

book icon  Dallas 1963, Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis
This is an ugly book.

Not because of its writing, but because of the ugly truths it exposes.

Dallas was a place filled with racial hatred in 1960, and the politicians and important town fathers did their best to fight the tide of liberalism sweeping through the city at the time of the John F. Kennedy election. Chapter after chapter will make your teeth grit hearing about the things that were done to keep the Democrats from being elected and also to keep African-Americans from gaining full civil rights. It's frightening, sickening, and infuriating. You can't help but keep reading, but wish you didn't have to. Rewarding, but sobering.

book icon  Grace Sees Red, Julie Hyzy
With her duplicitous sister in jail and her relationship to Bennett Marshfield confirmed, Grace Wheaton looks forward to doing something interesting with her share of the Marshfield fortune. When Amethyst Cellars, the wine store run by her good friends Bruce and Scott, is threatened because the building it's in is condemned, Grace thinks this might be her cause—until she gets a frantic phone call from Frances, her co-worker. Apparently Frances—who has spent much time helping Grace solve mysteries—is now the suspect in a death at an elite nursing home, where—surprise!—she goes to visit the last person anyone would expect each week.

A change-of-pace setting for the usually Marshfield-bound stories and a great cast of supporting characters, and a surprising twist for usually uptight Frances.

The only problem with this book: That last line! Oh, no, not again!

31 October 2017

Books Completed Since October 1

book icon  Dickens and Christmas, Lucinda Hawksley

book icon  Bryant and May: Strange Tide, Christopher Fowler
Is this the end of Arthur Bryant and John May's partnership? Arthur's capacious memory seems to be fragmenting and he's starting to see visions of the past. The head of the Peculiar Crimes Unit wants Arthur to sit out the newest case: a drowned young woman found chained to a stone post in the Thames—a young woman found to be pregnant when an autopsy is completed. But an apprehensive Arthur can't help but throw his oar in between bouts of baffling hallucination, and in the meantime the PCU seems to be splintering without his offbeat thinking. As the investigation proceeds, they are led to a charismatic young immigrant working at a questionable therapy center, and an old friend of John May's who is killed and found with his scarf around her neck. Bryant knows he not only has to solve the original killing, but clear his best friend, but he'll have to get his mind back to do it.

Bryant's mental problems have been building for the past three novels, but in this outing Arthur solves his own mystery as well as tackling the threat to his partner and to the whole PCU. In every one of the PCU books, Fowler emphasizes a particular piece of history in old London; in this volume it's the Thames in all her vagaries and moods. I was not expecting the twist with John May, but did notice that the solution to Bryant's problem was mentioned multiple times throughout the book; literally right under our nose all the time.

(Okay, probably fan service, but would anyone else love to see a crossover story with Bryant and May meeting Peter Grant and Inspector Nightingale? The original novels Fowler wrote with the two detectives did have supernatural elements, after all...)

book icon  The Landscapes of Anne of Green Gables, Catherine Reid
If you loved Marta McDowell's Gardening Life of Beatrix Potter or The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder, you will love Catherine Reid's new book featuring beautiful glossy color photographs of the settings of Anne of Green Gables as well as pictures of the historic sites relating to L.M. Montgomery and photographs taken by Montgomery herself (some of them hand-colored by Montgomery as well). Reid not only tells us the stories of the settings, but how they gave solace to Montgomery, who had a sad childhood being cared for by indifferent grandparents and then returned to a stepmother who basically turned her into a baby-minder and servant; while her writing was a success, she also had a troubled adulthood, plagued by publishers' problems, a mentally unstable husband, and her own depression.. We are shown the original Green Gables and a recreation of the town of Cavendish, which was inspiration for Anne Shirley's Avonlea, and also her relatives' home Silver Bush, which contained some of the inspirational landscapes for the Anne books and also the two Pat books. Of interest are several photos of Montgomery's scrapbooks, which were always full of floral and botanical images, and excerpts from her journals. Anyone who has read Anne, Emily, Pat, or any of Montgomery books set on PEI who has wondered "what did it look like?" will love this beautiful volume!

book icon  Europe on Saturday Night, John Gould
Rick Steves probably would have liked the Goulds.

In 1967, John and his wife Dorothy, a Maine farm couple, decided that with their kids grown and out of the nest they wanted to see some of Europe. They confounded the travel agents almost at once: not only didn't they want to fly, they didn't even want to take a ship like the Queen Elizabeth II, bursting with gourmet food and planned activities. Instead, they took their business elsewhere and booked on a freighter, which they enjoyed (and where they were firsthand witnesses to the new containerization shipping policies and the death of the stevedores). Upon arriving in Germany, they went immediately to the Volkswagen factory, ordered a new car, and used that, mostly, to get around Europe.

Thus follows Gould's memories of the eccentric inns they stayed at, and how, in Germany at least, they made friends with everyone (especially as they tried to eschew the actions of the Ugly American), including those who didn't speak English. Some of their side trips were failures: they found Italy very dirty and chaotic, with one memorable multicourse meal that would throw our Thanksgiving feasts to shame as the highlight, and did only touristy things in Great Britain after finding it unfriendly and "full of queues." They also enjoyed France and Switzerland, but found Germany (what would have been West Germany in those days) their favorite and it shows in his narrative, as he reminisces about the "rich brown gravy" scent of small German hotels and the brisk efficiency of the service. An enjoyable book about traveling fifty years ago and how some things—like bureaucracy and good service—never change.

book icon  Sneakers, Dewey Gram
I've been fond of this film since it came out, but the last time it was on television I did some online searching about it and discovered that a novelization had been written at the time of the movie release. These classic novelizations range from workmanlike copies of the scripts, like Terrance Dicks' Doctor Who episode novelizations, to bad, to really good (the benchmark here being Harry Brown's adaptation of The Gathering).

This one was more good (still not Harry Brown good) than bad, but interesting in that Gram fleshes out the characters somewhat, adding pasts for all of Bishop's team, and an especially nice explanation of why a music instructor like Liz knows so much about codes (she has a Ph.D. in mathematics) and how she can afford such a ritzy apartment. We also learn her last name, Barker. There are subtle differences: the very end scene is changed, Bishop has some adventures after being dropped off on the street, and "Doris" must go out with Werner Brandes two nights in a row rather than the caper being done all in one.

The biggest difference is that another one of the team infiltrates Playtronics with Bishop, not Carl, and it makes a difference in how we see that character. Gram also tries to supply a descriptive narration rather than just a cut-and-dried adherence to the script, which I appreciated. If you were ever intrigued by the characters and wanted to know a bit more, this one can be found on Bookfinder and Amazon Marketplace for reasonable sums.

book icon  Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari
Having devoured anthropology books as a child the way Snowy gobbles millet, I could hardly resist this volume. It dwells little on physical characteristics of early man, but rather concentrates on what makes us human: a larger brain physically, to be sure, but more in the development of a society that kindles fire, cooks food, makes laws, uses money, settles disputes with words rather than force, produces art, and creates a culture.

Harari makes the startling statement that he thinks humans were better off as hunter-gatherers and our problems began when we put down roots and started farming, as our diet became less varied and we were required to work more, sometimes work at a level that drove us to death. It's an interesting idea, but one wonders if modern human populations could support such a lifestyle—but then of course the population might not be so large as we have it today, since many foragers had societies where the weak or the elderly who slowed down the migration of the tribe were left to die, and foragers might not have as many children due to the rigors of migration and also finding out how to prevent pregnancies.

Thought provoking and interesting as a sociological study.

book icon  A Little House Traveler, Laura Ingalls Wilder
After the publication of the Little House books and after Laura's death, a diary that she kept from the day she and husband Almanzo and daughter Rose left DeSmet, South Dakota, to the day they arrived in Mansfield, Missouri, where Laura and Almanzo would live for the rest of their lives, was found among her papers. It was published with bookended comments from Rose as On the Way Home. After Rose passed away, her adopted son Roger Lea McBride found a series of letters Laura wrote to Almanzo while she traveled to San Francisco to visit Rose and her husband Gillette Lane and see the Pan-Pacific Exposition celebrating the opening of the Panama Canal in 1915. This, too, with footnotes by McBride, was published as West from Home.

And finally, after McBride's death, a roll of aging papers in his files proved to be a short diary and account book that Laura wrote in 1931, when she and Almanzo traveled back to Dakota to visit DeSmet and Laura's two still living sisters, Carrie and Grace.

I had previously read On the Way Home and West from Home as paperbacks published to continue the Little House series, but only recently picked up this book, which contained Laura's third journal, here called The Road Back. It's very short, but very poignant, as the elderly couple and their Airedale dog, Nero, travel in only a few days the route it took them months to cover forty years earlier. They enjoy motor courts, are confounded in traffic, suffer from summer heat (105℉ one day) and the car overheating, and, upon arriving in Dakota, find old friends gone and those still there much changed. It's very hard to read that Laura hardly recognizes Grace, or that Carrie looks so poorly, especially when the Little House books portray them as eternally young.

Together the books complete the Little House saga. Wistful, but satisfying.

book icon  Nest, Esther Ehrlich
Remember the line from Airplane: "Looks like I picked the wrong time to quit sniffing glue."? Well, I picked this book out of the pile at exactly the wrong time, the day we found out my husband's kidneys are in such bad shape he's probably going to need dialysis.

Naomi "Chirp" Orenstein lives on Cape Cod with her older sister Rachel (whom she gets along with), psychiatrist father, and dancer mother. Chirp's "thing" is birdwatching and she's putting in a great effort to spy a rare loon. Life is pretty much perfect—until her mom is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Chirp tries her best to keep things normal, but her normally close sister suddenly becomes standoffish, her father becomes distant, and her mother sinks into depression so severe that she is committed to a mental hospital. With her dad and sister captured within their own grief, Chirp's only solace is her birdwatching and Joey, a classmate who lives nearby (and who an abused child).

When I saw the cover copy I thought this would be a nice story about a girl who made it through some hard times with her birdwatching to get her through. Little did I know how hard the times were about to get. I finished it because I truly came to care for Chirp and Joey, but I would read it before giving it to any child, because things get pretty grim.

book icon  Colonial Williamsburg, Philip Kipper, with photography by Langdon Clay
Occasionally you luck out at library book sales, and this was one of those lucky finds, a big Abrams coffee table book. Kipper starts with the history of the city itself, then its slide into obscurity after the capital was moved to Richmond. The tale next picks up with William Goodwin, the rector of the Bruton Parish Church (the oldest still-operating Episcopal church in the United States), who came up with a crazy idea to reconstruct some of the old colonial capital and talked John Rockefeller Jr into being his financial partner, right up until the book's publication in 1983. The volume is full of beautiful full-color photographs of the green spaces and buildings in the Colonial Williamsburg area, plus etchings, maps, old photographs, and prints, including shots of the colonial buildings before (when they were gas stations and variety stores) and after restoration (plus an interesting two-page spread about how some buildings were re-renovated after more historic information was dug up about them (in this case, rooms in the Governor's Palace, which did not look the same in 2012 when I visited a second time versus 1976 when I saw it the first time), not to mention some of the innovations made to keep the colonial site as pristine as possible (for example, if you travel the Colonial Parkway—which I recommend you do because it's a gorgeous ride!—you enter a tunnel that goes right under Duke of Gloucester Street).

You also learn more about the relatively "unspoiled" Rockefellers, who lived very plainly (well, for wealthy people, at least) in an old home near the site and of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller's interest in folk art and the museum that has her name devoted to it. I've been a Williamsburg fan ever since I saw the city on a Lassie episode, so needless to say I loved this book!

book icon  Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Caroline Fraser
Wow. That was my first reaction to this meticulously researched historical book. As McDowell's The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder shows us the natural world behind the "Little House Books" saga, Fraser's volume paints the history of Laura's family and Almanzo's family, then the couple themselves and finally daughter Rose Wilder Lane, against the historical events of the United States. You'll meet one of Charles Ingalls' ancestors who came over on the Mayflower, and his descendants including a poet of published verse, find out the history of the Big Woods and the Indian wars that enabled the Ingalls and Quiner families to settle there, learn the truth about the Kansas house on the prairie and why the Ingalls really left (and who Laura may have confused with Soldat du Chene), about the homesteading laws that enabled them to claim land in DeSmet, and about the history of "the Land of the Big Red Apple" and the world of the Depression-era Missouri where Laura and Almanzo ended their days, not to mention the historical figures and radical politics that became part of Rose Wilder Lane's life. The Little House books exist in an enchanted bubble of a children's book series where "now is now" and never "a long time ago"; the Ingalls family did not. They lived, as we all do, against the events of history which shape our lives. A presidential assassination, an election, a natural disaster, a Congressional decision can all change the future.

The sheer amount of information in this book about the Indian wars, the pioneer experience, the socialist movement, and other historical events may daunt some readers, but it is extremely rewarding to see how the times shaped the story of this particular family. The book includes maps, illustrations, and photographs to help bring the era alive. Definitely on my Christmas wish list!

book icon  Murder on a Summer's Day, Frances Brody
Kate Shackleton, who has made her living as a private inquiry agent since the death of her husband in the Great War, is awakened by a phone call one summer morning from her cousin James. He wishes her to investigate, very covertly, the disappearance of a maharajah from the town of Bolton Abbey, part of the estate of the Duke of Devonshire. The maharajah's family was staying at the estate while he himself was lodging with his mistress at a nearby hotel because the woman was not welcome at the estate. The family says it may be one of the maharajah's practical jokes, but when a local man who was a servant at the estate has also disappeared only to turn up dead in the river, the stakes grow higher, especially when a valuable diamond the Indian man was carrying disappears.

Brody does a good job of trying to recreate a 1920s murder mystery—without the casual racist comments sadly common at the time—with language and details, and only rarely are there slips that show she is writing from a modern point of view. Kate is someone everyone would like to get to know: fair minded, tenacious, intelligent, and practical about her chosen profession. To be honest I have enjoyed the more domestic—as in location—mysteries she solved in previous books, rather than this international involvement and hope Kate doesn't turn into a more international detective. The mystery is properly convoluted with a nice tinge of exotic overlay, peopled with interesting characters of various motives.

Another satisfying entry in the Shackleton series.

book icon  The Crown, The Official Companion, Robert Lacey
I have to admit that I have not yet watched all the episodes of first season of this series showing on Netflix. I had no idea of even watching it at all until chatter about it at several conventions piqued my curiosity, and I was immediately drawn into the story of young Princess Elizabeth and her husband Prince Philip of Greece starting just before her ascension to the throne of Great Britain. The cast and performances are quite marvelous.

People began asking about the reality behind the series, as, for television and movies, things are always "tarted up." In response is this delightful volume that takes you behind the scenes at the real-life drama that inspired the series and lets you know what's true and what's been compressed and what's just a little bit of drama. The text is liberally scattered with black and white photographs from both real life and from the series (I wish some of those latter were a bit better labeled for people who may read this book in the future not knowing which of the photos are the historical ones), and there is a color-and-black-and-white glossy insert with even more photographs. I came away knowing a lot more about the history behind the series as well as feeling rather bad for Princess Margaret.

Fans of The Crown and of the British royal family should find this book both absorbing and delightful.

book icon  Mr. Dickens and His Carol, Samantha Silva

book icon  The Mammoth Book of Historical Whodunits, edited by Mike Ashley
This is a nifty book of historical mystery stories (and one short novel) taking place from ancient Egypt to the 19th century United States where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle must solve a mystery. They also range from historical stories told by 20th century authors (Brother Cadfael, Sister Fidelma, Judge Dee) to a mystery written by Herodotus over 2000 years ago. Peter Tremayne, John Dickson Carr, Elizabeth Peters, Mary Monica Pulver, and even a Sherlock Holmes tale written by Sir Arthur's youngest son Adrian are all featured. I enjoyed some better than others, including the Cadfael and the Fidelma and also Sister Frivesse, and was initially interested in, but lost interest in the long narrative about Captain Nash (the Shakespeare story went on a bit long as well and, I thought, was trying too hard to be clever). Well worth the price, and I have the first sequel left to read as well.

book icon  Mrs. Claus: Not the Fairy Tale They Say, edited by Rhonda Parrish

book icon  The Dead Can Wait, Robert Ryan
In this second book in the "Dr. Watson Thriller" series, John H. Watson has returned to England after his ordeal at the front, not only having endured the terrible environment of the trenches, but having been stalked by a German sniper and having to deal with a killer in the British ranks. Now he has been assigned to figure out what happened to the crew of a new secret weapon: in the midst of testing it, they all exhibited psychotic symptoms and then died, except for one man, and he will not talk. Watson demurs on going, only to be told that if he doesn't, his friend Sherlock Holmes' life is endangered; the aging detective has already been shipped off to an island where political prisoners are sent.

As in the previous book, there are at least three narratives going on at once: Watson's investigation, the curiosity of a schoolteacher and an American reporter about a cordoned-off area of Surrey where military maneuvers are taking place, and narratives about others involved in the machinations, including an MI5 officer and Mrs. Georgina Gregson, who finds herself shanghaied to the same location as Watson. I confess I liked this one a little less than the first, preferring the battlefield setting, but still enjoyed its perplexing combination of narratives that seem to have nothing to do with one another at first and then slowly come together. While there is action, the plot takes its time building to a climax which includes murder, kidnapping, and a race across tidal flats. Watson's character is intelligent and perceptive, and he gets himself and Mrs. Gregson out of several sticky situations—I especially admire Ryan's take on Watson, which is definitely not Nigel Bruce, but never goes quite overboard to someone we don't recognize. I'm looking forward to the next one—where Watson's actions in this book leave him in a quite sticky battlefield situation—with pleasure.