30 April 2017

Books Completed Since April 1

book icon  The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, Robert Macfarlane
This is a lyrically written journey by Macfarlane, who traverses the old Icknield Way, a series of pathways cutting diagonally across England, in the footsteps of Edward Thomas, who wrote a book about the pathway before his death in the Great War. To Macfarlane, walking is not simply something one does for exercise or for exploration of a final destination, but for an exploration of self throughout the journey itself, citing other writers like Robert Frost who also believed walking was good for the soul as well as for the body. In the course of the narrative, he also takes several trips by water, out to the islands of Lewis and of Harris, and also travels to Ramallah in Palestine, Spain, and to the Himalayas, as well as discusses author Thomas.

His narration reminds me somewhat of Laurie Lee in his memorable book Cider With Rosie, mixing an observation of geology and flora and fauna along with unusual customs, the older roads being overlaid with modern civilization, friends who walk the ancient pathways with him, and the memories awakened by his journeys. The rich vocabulary brings the scent of the sea, the hush of the wind, the crackling of dry grass, the rattle of loose stones, the flapping of sails, the crunch of gravel, the colors, smells, winds and heat and cold all alive, tickling your senses—a sensual delight on every page. He turns walking from an exercise chore to a lifetime experience.

If you like nature, poetical narrative, travel to strange places, and food for thought, this book may be your cup of tea.

book icon  The Edge of Dreams, Rhys Bowen
Daniel Sullivan is stymied by a series of unrelated murder, especially when the killer keeps sending Daniel notes after each crime, and the newest note states "I'm saving the best for last." His superiors at the New York police department just after the turn of the last century are on his back to solve the crimes, as he copes from living in a tiny apartment with his wife, former independent private investigator Molly Murphy, and their toddler son Liam since their home was blown up by criminals. As the book opens, Daniel has a surprise for Molly: the house has been completely repaired. All that remains is for Molly to furnish it with bedding, kitchen supplies, etc.

Then Molly and Liam are involved in a train accident on the El, with Molly concussed and suffering from cracked ribs. Having persuaded Daniel to tell her something of his contentious case, Molly wonders if someone is trying to take revenge on him for a previous arrest, and if the train accident was directed at her.

And that's just in the first three chapters of Bowen's newest (in paperback) Molly Murphy mystery, in which Molly finally (and very peripherally) is asked by Daniel for some input on a case he is working on (and of course being Molly, she then hits the ground running). Molly does indeed bring some fresh insights into the case. In addition, she is helping her friends Sid and Gus solve a puzzle about an orphaned girl having terrible nightmares, Gus having studied with Dr. Sigmund Freud while living in Europe.

There are several plot threads going in this book: the series of murders, the mystery of little Mabel, plus more domestic plots, as after Molly is injured Daniel's mother comes to help out at the house, bringing little Bridie, Molly's ward, with her: instead of training Bridie to be a servant, Mrs. Sullivan admits she would rather have the child get more education. So things are progressing a little: Daniel has become a little less reluctant to have Molly help him and things will hopefully change for Bridie.

The plot is fairly quick moving, although some of the verbiage might have been trimmed a bit, and Bowen gives a good look at the lower-middle class Progressive-era world of Daniel and Molly. If you are not fans of Sid and Gus (I am, but know some are not), warning: they are involved in the investigations from beginning to end.

book icon  A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Rachel Held Evans
Evans, raised an evangelical Christian, moved away from religion as she grew older. Curious after she hears from friends and reads about women who are quitting their jobs to become stay-at-home mothers in order to be closer to the Biblical womanhood they believe is required of them as Christians, Evans decided to carry on a year-long experiment in which she would read the Bible and try to adhere to the rules which she read: she would cover her head and let her hair grow, defer to her husband (and during one month call him "master"), live in separate quarters when she had her menstrual period, learn to cook better, make her own clothing, and provide charity to the poor.

With sincerity, but with an occasional tongue in cheek attitude that may strike some people as irreverent, Evans particularly concentrates on reading about the women of the Bible: Queen Esther, Ruth, both Rachel and Leah, Vashti, Deborah, Mary Magdalene, and of course Mary the mother of Jesus, and others who had to follow these customs. By examining various translations of the Bible, Evans notes that some Biblical passages are not what people believe them to be: "the virtuous woman" passage, she believes, is not a list of rules which women must tightly adhere to, but a celebration of that woman.

During her project she met all sorts of interesting people, including a traditional Jewish woman who e-mailed her from Israel, women in Bolivia who are trying to improve their poverty-stricken lives, companions at a retreat she intended, and flummoxed her husband, who wanted her to go back to being his partner, not someone who had to defer to him (he finally ordered her not to defer to him).

I found this book interesting enough to keep reading, especially about the misconceptions some Christians have about what is really said in the Bible and a view that is more restrictive than its actual words. Again, her lighthearted manner may not please those who are deeply religious.

book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Merry-Go-Round Mystery, Jerry West
I thought it was so funny that I picked this up at random to read (the next book I had in my possession in the series) and it took place around Easter. An appropriate time, too, since the whole family is kept hopping (yes, that was a bad pun).

The children's elementary school, Lincoln School, has an annual fair that contributes to a charity; this year the money will go to a day care facility. The Hollisters volunteer to find a merry-go-round to rent for the fair while Ricky Hollister decides to build an entry for the soap box derby. They have good luck in finding the former, although someone has told the owner of the equipment that they are going to use it to make money. Later someone tries to buy the carrousel from them and they seem to be being followed. Indeed, the action is nonstop as the kids ride in a plane (and then find it when they disappears), help with the school fair, keep awful Joey Brill from interfering with the fair and getting the kids in trouble, track down Domingo the burro when he's "horsenapped," and watch Ricky's progress in building the soap box racer with his grandpa.

All I could think of reading this was how many of these situations would not happen today: there's a suspicious noise outside and instead of Mr. Hollister going outside to check, it's 12-year-old Pete with the dog. Later Pete and Pam (age ten) go to check for the plane on their own. The Hollisters accidentally chase the wrong car off a road (the occupants are unhurt) and no one threatens to sue them. Four-year-olds are allowed to sew. A mom trusts the Hollisters (strangers to her) to take care of her twins. Holly is allowed to drive the donkey cart at home and at the fair with no adult supervision (she's six).

Since I'm missing so many books in the series, I'd never realized the Hollisters were new in Shoreham (they used to live in Crestwood, just as their series book compatriots the Tuckers had just moved to Yorkville from Castleton), or that they had a married uncle who was a cartoonist. This was the first time I'd read about their grandparents as well. Also interesting to see that they had daycare back then (they call it a day nursery, and the kids are no older than six; presumably older children were latchkey kids). The boys get the brunt of the exciting stuff this time, but it's Pam that overhears a vital clue, so it's balanced somewhat. An always charming story of mystery with kids just plain having fun!

book icon  The World Remade: America in World War I, G..J. Meyer
Well, this year I was looking for a good, readable book about the United States' entry into World War I, and The World Remade has certainly filled the bill. It's a thick but very approachable history which begins with the Paris peace talks in 1919 and then segues to the first of the "Background" inserts which follow each chapter, this which summarizes how "the Great War" began. In subsequent chapters, we learn how the United States went from "strict neutrality" to staunch crusaders, with Woodrow Wilson the chief Crusader with intense fervor who wishes to make the world safe for democracy.

This book tries to present a fairly balanced view of Woodrow Wilson (unlike Thomas Fleming's vituperative histories) until he enacts the Alien and Sedition Acts. For those of you who think some of Donald Trump's latest foibles are restrictive, he's a piker compared with Wilson. The chapters about the Acts are truly frightening; all you had to do was say you didn't believe in the war or make an unkind remark about one of our allies and you would be thrown into prison. To Wilson the U.S.'s entry into the war wasn't assistance, it was a religious crusade that America had to win to show how pure the country was. Unfortunately the government was learning only what the Triple Entente wanted them to because the Germans' transatlantic cables had been cut by the British, and the propaganda machine was in full swing: Belgian babies bayoneted, rapes, starvation. In turn, Germany was made responsible for the war when Kaiser Wilhelm complained he couldn't control his generals and Austria-Hungary was the one who set off the trigger.

The "Background" inserts are some of my favorite parts of the book: the heritage of Wilson, the election that brought him to the presidency, the voyage of the Lusitania, the role of journalists in inflaming anti-German feeling, the story of Wilson's foe Robert LaFollette, the birth of Prohibition, Wilson's distaste for African-Americans and suffragettes, the "Spanish" flu, and other fascinating facets of American society back then. As well as being about the U.S. joined and fought the war, it is also the story of how the war changed the U.S. from a sprawling, still primarily rural, country with a few colonial possession to a world power.

I'm still looking for a good nonfiction book about homefront WWI, but for now this has been a good alternative, even if the truth about the Alien and Sedition Acts make these chapters chilling.

book icon  A Study in Sable, Mercedes Lackey
Lackey's fairy tale retellings in her Elemental Masters world reach the ultimate fantasy: Sherlock Holmes. Nan Killian and Sarah Lyon-White, the two young protegees of the Harton School (previously seen in The Wizard of London and Home from the Sea), are living on their own as agents of the Wizard of London, otherwise known as Lord Alderscroft, and have been asked to work with the man at 221 Baker Street. No, not the gentleman in flat B, but the married couple in flat C, none other than John Watson and his wife Mary, who are Elemental Masters of water and air. With the Watsons' help, they put to rest an evil spirit that threatened them as children, and then the real mystery arrives: Sarah, who is a true medium, is asked to dismiss the ghosts haunting an illustrious opera singer—a woman whose missing sister poses a new case for Sherlock Holmes! Thus is Holmes the nonbeliever drawn into the Elemental world of his closest friend.

The beginning of the story seems a bit disjointed. It seems odd that the haunted house that tried to trap the girls as children is all of a sudden a priority at the beginning of the novel. Then the story immediately switches to the story of the missing sister. Sarah finds herself spending night after night trying to dismiss singer Magdalena's spirits, while being treated royally by the singer herself; soon Nan is uncharacteristically jealous of her best friend.

On a whole I enjoyed this, although Sherlock, the believer in logic over all things, appears to give in to the magic all around him without much of a fight, and there are bits where Sarah, going back and forth to help Magdalena, gets very tedious. Little Suki, the street girl Nan and Sarah rescued, is as cute as ever, and of course the wonderful birds, Grey the parrot and Neville the raven, are integral to the plot. Incidentally, the violinist on the front—is he Holmes, or isn't he? You'll have to read to find out.

book icon  Christmas Truce, Malcolm Brown & Shirley Seaton

book icon  Re-Read: Happier at Home, Gretchen Rubin
In her book The Happiness Project, Rubin studied happiness of self, and what you can do individually to be happy (something that is different for everyone), and discovering that happiness doesn't always make you happy and that if you are happy, it affects those around you (and sometimes even changes their own behaviors). In this companion book, she realizes that her home life could be better as well. Dividing the school year—the "second new year" for parents—by their component months, she assigned themes to each month, and then set out to make improvements in those areas. In September she tackles possessions: should you downsize? is pure simplicity the answer, or just the answer for someone else? do your possessions define you, or do they just make you happy? and can you make the possessions you have work better for you?

In turn, she addresses being happier in your marriage, in parenthood, in interior design (and no, she's not talking about expensive redecoration), with your use of time, in the treatment of your body (sometimes what works for one person, like acupuncture, doesn't work for someone else), in your family, in your neighborhood, and, finally, learning to embrace the moment rather than always looking to the future.

I like Rubin's books because she doesn't tell you must follow a prescribed sense of rules, but rather you must decide what works for you. Perhaps you don't want to create a secret place in one of your cupboards, or paint a willow tree in your home office. As Rubin has her motto "Be Gretchen," you follow her examples to make your own rules for a happy home. No counting points, or making unbreakable rules, or a need to take expensive classes (she has a kit, but there's no need to buy it unless you want to).

book icon  The Path of the Wicked, Caro Peacock
Incensed after Benjamin Disraeli tries to solicit her for spying purposes, Liberty Lane takes a case she was initially going to reject: going to a village near Cheltenham to help Stephen Godwit, a magistrate who is scheduled to rule against a man accused of murdering a governess. Jack Picton is a known political agitator and refuses to give himself an alibi, but Godwit still refuses to believe he would go as far as killing someone. Liberty's young assistant Tabby accompanies her, and, to her surprise, she is escorted by Amos Legge, the friend who cares for her racehorse Rancie, as he has equine business in Cheltenham in the slow period after the annual races.

Liberty finds Picton uncooperative and Cheltenham stirred up by the disappearance of a rich man's son who has run out on a bet. In short order she finds that the governess who was killed had a bad reputation, a broken engagement has created bad blood between wealthy neighbors, and that Picton has something else he's keeping hidden.

Horses and the crushing penal system in England take center stage as Liberty tries to puzzle out this one. It's indeed like a jigsaw as each interview gains her more information but initially she is at a loss to piece them together. I wish we had a little more insight with what was going on with Amos, who made a startling announcement to Liberty as the story opened, but it's rather brushed off with a joke at the end. Otherwise I enjoyed the story and Liberty trying to figure just how she is going to get her information in a close-knit community like the little village of Northleach, and the village is a welcome setting after Liberty's city-bound adventures.