28 February 2017

Books Completed Since February 1

book icon  Candlemas, Amber K and Azrael Arynn K

book icon  Becoming Queen Victoria, Kate Williams
I find complaints about this book because it's not a biography of Queen Victoria.

Because, really, it's not. There are plenty of good books to read about Victoria. This is a good book, too, but it's a bit different.

Victoria became queen because of a series of events beginning with her uncle, George IV, who became Prince Regent (as in the Regency Period of Austen and Heyer) due to the madness of his father, George III. While George IV was not quite the twit as portrayed on Blackadder the Third, he was a spendthrift and gourmand who could barely button his breeches and who hated his wife Queen Caroline. Their only child, Charlotte, was the original heir to the British throne.

This then, begins with the story of Princess Charlotte, stuck eternally between her quarreling parents, the hope of the British people who loved their monarchy but hated the king (her father was poisonously jealous of her), and how her death put in motion the events that brought Victoria to the throne and eventually turns Victoria into the woman history remembers and who gave her name to an era. It's the story of her uncles' race to produce an heir before any of the other brothers so that their child could be next in line for the throne, including Edward, the Duke of Kent, who abandoned the mistress he actually loved to make a correct marriage to a minor German princess with the "odd" name of Victorie. It was their child, known as "Drina" in her girlhood, who would be awakened eighteen years later to be told she was queen.

While I've read two biographies of Victoria, I didn't realize that her and Prince Albert's beloved "Uncle Leopold" was the same Leopold who had been married to doomed Princess Charlotte. I didn't know much about Charlotte, period, other than it was her demise that put Victoria on the throne. I found this a fascinating book, with the machinations behind the monarchy and the peculiarities of the personalities involved: the Prince Regent who stayed drunk on his wedding day because he couldn't even stand the face of his bride, long-suffering Queen Caroline who had the people on her side, even the imperiousness of George III, who expected his sons to remain standing in his presence and who kept his daughters from marrying until they were half-crazy from being stuck in the palace all their lives.

Very enjoyable if you want to know how little Drina "came about" and became the queen everyone knows. But, no, it's not a biography of Queen Victoria alone, but more the history of an era, from George III's failing sanity to Prince Albert sending away Victoria's faithful friend and governess Lehzen.

book icon  Yours Truly, Heather Vogel Frederick
Truly Lovejoy and her family, now living in the tiny community of Pumpkin Falls, New Hampshire, are drawn into a new mystery as spring arrives and the town's annual Maple Festival begins. Two neighbors who have sugarbushes are accusing each other of sabotaging their maple production. Would Truly's friends actually sabotage one another to get an advantage in the maple business? But good things are happening, too: for Truly's birthday, her BFF and cousin Mackenzie is arriving from Texas, and she's making plans of all the fun things they'll do together. But she doesn't know that one of them will be finding a treasure in their own house.

This sequel to Absolutely Truly doesn't have quite the edge as the initial book, as Truly's father is now comfortable running the bookstore and adjusting to his artificial arm. In addition, Truly's now a teenager, so sex has to rear its ugly head and she realizes she likes her classmate Calhoun, but she thinks her cousin is after him. That business was kind of blah. On the other hand, the artifact that Truly and Mackenzie find which reveals a formerly hidden historic event in little Pumpkin Falls is the catalyst for a Nancy Drew-like adventure that borrows a little from Elsie in the 19th century classic What Katy Did. [Spoiler: Chapter 1 will give you all the clues if you care to spot them.]

Verdict: Truly and her friends and family are still some of my favorite people. This series will be okay if they softpedal the teen romance tedium.

book icon  The Electrifying Fall of Rainbow City, Margaret Creighton
The citizens of Buffalo, New York, are banking that their World's Fair, the Pan-American Exposition, will outdo the 1893 event in Chicago, the famous "White City." They have even more electric lights, including a rainbow-colored tower that gave their event its own nickname, "The Rainbow City." Electricity was the motif of the exposition, generated at Niagara Falls, and invitations went out to Latin American countries to make it a true Pan-American affair.

But behind the scenes lurk cruelties and prejudice: The Animal King holds the smallest woman in the world, "the Cuban Doll" (in reality a Mexican girl) in virtual thrall and his lions and other wild animals are mistreated, as were many circus animals of the day. On the Midway elks are made to dive into tubs. Filippino people are exhibited at the fair like zoo animals, and African-American actors swallowed their pride and performed scenes of happy times on the Old Plantation. Still, this Fair has attracted all sorts (but not enough of all sorts, as the city fathers found out when balancing the books): Mabel Barnes, who visited the Fair 33 times, and whose diaries are extracted here; the President of the United States William McKinley, who would make a fateful visit; and a farmer's son now known as Fred Nieman, but formerly Leon Czolgosz.

In breezy (sometimes almost too breezy) style, Creighton tells the story of the high hopes and the low profits for the Pan-American Exposition and the terrible event that happened there. It also reveals a little-known fact from the McKinley assassination: the man who tackled and brought down Czolgosz, Jim Parker, was an African-American waiter working at the Fair—and within days, his part in the capture of the assassin was erased from the history books. Added to the spectacle of the Fair is the story of Annie Taylor, one of a dauntless crew that met their ends trying to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel—will she survive? It's the story of a world which is progressive but nostalgic, civilized but savage, welcoming yet bigoted, on the edge of welcome change, but not quite reaching that pinnacle.

I was lukewarm about this book: I loved the photographs and the stories within, but thought it was told in a rather slipshod fashion. The prose and situations never really compelled me to keep reading it, as Hidden Figures did.

book icon  Tempest, edited by Mercedes Lackey
In this tenth collection of short stories, it's yet another mixed bag, although I found the stories mostly enjoyable. A couple are basically just vignettes rather than a story, which is rather frustrating, or a good start to a novella or book, but a story you wish has more to it, like the story of the blind girl who saves a Companion whose Herald has disappeared. One of my favorites was "Harmless as Serpents," since we tend to see the Companions as wise and brave—this tale of a conceited companion was very funny. Another favorite was "The Ones She Couldn't Save" about a young woman who has been covering up her gifts in order not to be burned as a witch. (This was another story I hope has a sequel in a future collection.)

Several familiar faces reappear in this volume: Herald Wil and his daughter Ivy; Lady Cera; Hadara the gryphon and the change child who sees for her, Kitha; Nwah the kyree and his human partner Kade; and the Haven Guard. Plus Lackey and Dixon give us another story about Darian, the hero of the Owl trilogy. All in all a good read for more tastes of Velgarth and Valdemar.

book icon  Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly
As a tween/teen I was obsessed with the space program, even buying a nearly incomprehensible book called Appointment on the Moon, which followed the progress of America's space program from the work of Robert Goddard and the events at Peenemunde, toughing my way through aeronautical engineering and aerospace scientific terms. I watched all the coverage of the space flights that appeared on television (except for the ones during the schoolday) and noted those rows and rows of white shirted-and-tied white guys manning the consoles at Mission Control.

How amazing to find out that in the early days of NASA (back when it was NACA), there were not only women who helped make aircraft and rockets fly, but there were African-American women, when the average white kid of the late 1950s-1960s saw black faces only on television maids and porters and a handful of entertainers.

This is the story of "the computers," as these ladies were called, women who, armed with nothing more technical than an adding machine, calculated trajectories, stress factors, and the other mathematical calculations necessary to make aircraft fly. They fought against bigotry both for their sex and for their race to complete higher education and to find a job. With manpower shortages during the Second World War, many of them found themselves in Hampton Roads, Virginia, at Langley, where segregation was still in full cry and "colored women" had to hike to find a "colored" rest room and were relegated to one end of the cafeteria. While their calculations confirmed the work of white male engineers was correct, they weren't allowed to come to staff meetings with those engineers. Determination and stubbornness carried them through, and when years later it came time for John Glenn to trust the calculations of an electronic computer vs. one of Langley's "girls," his choice was to trust the woman.

An "A-OK" fascinating portrait of women like Dorothy Vaughan and Katherine Johnson, juggling personal lives with long hours and bigoted supervisors, intermingled with the history of American aeronautics, aviation, and the space program, plus the indignities of Jim Crow laws and casual racism. While the film based on this book concentrates on the women's social advances, the book paints a fuller picture of the time and the science. Loved every word.

book icon  With the Might of Angels, Andrea Davis Pinkney
Dawnie Rae Johnson's life is just like any other African-American girl's in the 1950s: she lives in a segregated neighborhood, going to a "separate but equal" school that is anything but (dated, torn textbooks; falling apart building; dirty bathrooms; surrounded by dirt fields for gym class), while white girls her age go to Prettyman Coburn High School, brand new, with sports fields and a science lab. Within those strictures she enjoys her life, especially playing and watching baseball, bouncing on her pogo stick, and spending time with her best friend Yolanda.

Then the Supreme Court desegregates the schools. After a daunting test, Dawnie and her classmates Roger and Yolanda are chosen to attend Prettyman, but only Dawnie's parents give her permission to go, knowing she wishes better schooling and wants to become a doctor. Anyone with knowledge of school desegregation will know what Dawnie endures: taunting from classmates, white students withdrawing from the school due to her attendance, threatening messages, teachers who will not call on her, teachers who support her being harassed. Even worse, members of her own church think of her and her parents as "uppity" for sending her to a white school and her father's white boss, who considered Mr. Johnson his best employee, fires him after he refused to withdraw Dawnie from Prettyman.

This is a forthright portrayal of a young woman undergoing a trial which might make even adults blanch, and meeting the challenge with courage and even humor. While some of the "Dear America" books are narrated by girls writing in formal language, Dawnie's entries are full of life and 50s slang, whether she is angry over discrimination or rejoicing over family events. You will root for her successes and be indignant over each harassment heaped upon her and her unusual brother Gunther (known as "Goober" for his obsession with peanuts). It is a reminder to all children—and adults—of inhumanity and resilience.

book icon  In This Grave Hour, Jacqueline Winspear
Maisie Dobbs is back in London running her discreet inquiry service with the help of her old assistants Billy and Sandra when war is declared in September of 1939. Not soon after Neville Chamberlain's speech, Maisie's old compatriot Francesca Thomas, a former Belgian resistance fighter from the earlier world war, asks her to look into the execution-style death of a Belgian refugee who remained in England after the Great War. Soon another Belgian refugee is killed in the same manner.

As Maisie and her partners investigate first one, then a second murder, Winspear sketches pre-World War II Britain around her: a world of barrage balloons, young men like her best friend Priscilla's son going off to training camps, gas masks, evacuated children, and the terrible prospect of death around the corner. There's also a very sweet subplot as some evacuated children are homed at Chelstone, where Maisie's in-laws and her father Frankie and stepmother Brenda live, and Maisie tries to ferret out the mystery of a mute five-year-old girl who will not speak (at least to the humans of the household) while becoming very attached to the child. But the backbone of the book is, as always, the methodic Maisie investigation, with the return of the beloved case map with its colored web of evidence growing each day, and the ominous revelation that the killer is on some type of mission that will not end until Maisie figures out what connects the victims before someone else is killed.

As the John Denver song says, "Hey, it's good to be back home again." Maisie is back in the position that challenges her the most in a world about to teeter into combat once more.

book icon  The Runaway: A Maryellen Mystery, Alison Hart
There's a series-mystery air to this second Maryellen Larkin mystery, and with good reason: with references to the Happy Hollisters and Nancy Drew in the text and some plot devices straight out of both series, this is fun and absorbing if not particularly "deep."

Scooter, the Larkins' dachshund, vanishes before supper one night and never comes home. Her parents suspect chubby Scooter is cadging food from the neighbors but when Maryellen and her friends and family go out searching for the dog, none of Scooter's usual "soft touches" have seen him. Maryellen does find out that at least two other dogs are missing from her neighborhood, and that there are two very good suspects in the disappearances: the local ice-cream man who carries around dog biscuits for his canine friends and someone in a mysterious brown station wagon that Maryellen saw cruising one street. But why would they want Scooter and the other dogs? It's only when she finds out that some companies buy dogs to use them for testing that she really begins to worry.

There's a rather offbeat tangent in the story involving a trip to Cape Canaveral, which is still a missile testing range in these pre-Sputnik days (but at least Maryellen gets a science essay out of it), not to mention a very funny episode where Maryellen's friends are so busy putting together a detective outfit that they run out of time to go searching for Scooter, but mostly it's a nice solid story that would do Pete, Pam, Holly, Ricky and Sue Hollister (and Nancy Drew) proud.

book icon  The Lady's Slipper: A Melody Mystery, Emma Carlson Berne
Sadly, while Melody Ellison's introductory books were smart, thought-provoking, and strong, Melody's mystery debut is sadly underwhelming. The shortest of the three new American Girl mystery books, it also features a very simplistic mystery in which no real mystery exists about who or why.

Melody's grandfather Frank is the only African-American horticulturist invited to exhibit his flowers at a flower show at Detroit's Belle Isle conservatory. Melody, already unsettled by her cousin-and-best-friend Val's attitude after Melody befriends a Jewish girl named Leah, is horrified when some expensive orchids are stolen from the conservatory after Frank and Melody tour the venue, and Frank is questioned by the police. Melody knows that if no other culprit can be found, Frank will probably be arrested for the crime just because he is black. Plus Leah is acting oddly. But Leah's a nice girl, just as fond of her sickly zayde as Melody is of her beloved Poppa. Could she really be involved in the theft?

Honestly, there's no mystery here, no real alternative suspects although a couple of half-hearted suspects are presented. The author seems more interested in paralleling the bigotry faced by both Jews and African-Americans than with presenting a good whodunit. Saving graces: Melody's and Val's friendship and even their quarrel is very true-to-life, and both Melody's and Leah's efforts to see beyond bigotry are well portrayed. But "Dee-Dee" deserved a better beginning to her sleuthing career.

book icon  The Librarians and the Mother Goose Chase, Greg Cox
Think nursery rhymes are just for children? Think again. In this newest adventure involving the denizens of TNT's fantasy-fiction series, three descendants of Elizabeth Goose—the original Mother Goose—are terrorized by bizarre incidents which lead Jenkins to come to a terrifying conclusion: the original book of Mother Goose rhymes, which are in reality powerful spells, once broken into three parts in 1918 to keep them from being misused, is now the target of someone who wishes to reassemble the volume and reboot the universe using one powerful spell. As Cassandra, Ezekiel, and Jake each team with the three people who experienced the bizarre incidents, Jenkins and Eve pursue wild magic inside the Library itself, and Eve puzzles about the whereabouts of Flynn Carsen, who has suddenly vanished.

I hadn't even realized there were Librarian novels until I saw this offered on NetGalley, and am so glad I snatched this up: it is like watching a miniseries version of the show. Greg Cox has a super grasp of all the characters, and each one of the encounters sounds just as if the actors are playing out this scenario on television. He's even managed to capture Jenkins' formality and occasional whimsical commentary. I really didn't guess the identity of Mother Goose until the very end where the flashback sequence is presented. Cox also takes inspiration from real-life places like the Winchester Mansion.

Fans of the series will love this book!

book icon  Message in a Bottle: A Julie Mystery, Kathryn Reiss
The Julie American Girls books always wig me out because I was a teen during the 1970s and my life was so different from hers that hers seems like some wild fantasy. However, in this newest batch of American Girls mysteries, Julie clearly cops the best mystery story. Here she and her mom are visiting her Aunt Nadine, who lives in a commune with her son Raymond and various others who have dropped out from society and are trying to live naturally. Raymond badly misses his father, who left the commune after serving in Vietnam, and the group is suffering from minor issues of bad luck which continue even as Julie Albright and her mom settle in. The commune is also losing money and they are trying desperately to think of new ways to sell their products so they can pay taxes. It's while Julie and Raymond are exploring near an old mine that the former finds a vintage bottle that holds a secret from the past.

I twigged onto the culprit early on due to adult cynicism; I think otherwise this would be a great challenge for a mystery-loving tween. The setting is interesting and there is an exciting sequence that takes place in an old gold mine. Reiss' text also points out the plight of Vietnam veterans and the still-continuing plague of developers who want to raze the countryside to build yet more housing developments.

book icon  A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History, Tim Grove
I've had this book for a couple of years now and have completely forgotten the circumstances under which I ordered it. I might have heard the author on "Travel With Rick Steves" or some other podcast. At this point I recalled it being humorous stories from the National Parks. It is not. Instead it's the story of Tim Grove, a history buff since a childhood listening to his grandmother's stories of "the olden days" and participating in Bicentennial activities. While he graduated college with a journalism degree, he felt a great pull to work in some historical field, and found his niche when he accepted an internship at Colonial Williamsburg.

This is just the neatest book about how Grove learned the craft of designing interactive historical displays to draw people into history, starting at participating in re-enactments of events at Williamsburg, including a controversial slave auction. From there we follow him to assignments at the National Portrait Gallery and the Museum of American History in Washington, DC;  west to St. Louis to work on the Lewis & Clark bicentennial celebration; and then returning to DC to work at Air and Space. He gets to ride a "high wheeler," received a grizzly bear pelt in the mail, learns of the dangerous life of the air-mail pilot, discovers actual flag makers instead of mythical ones, and has many other historical revelations. If you're a history geek like me, you'll love it.