30 June 2017

Books Completed Since June 1

book icon  Folks, this ain't normal, Joel Salatin
Salatin and his family run an organic and free range farm in Northern Virginia, trying to combine the best way of old farming methods (use of straw bedding and manure for fertilizer, grass-feeding their cows and allowing their pigs and chickens to forage, no antibiotics, etc.) and modern ones (using the internet, farmer's markets, etc.) to get healthy food to people. Salatin's argument is, like most organic farmers, that the processed stuff we are stuffing ourselves with is bad for our health and that factory farming could be accomplished more naturally if we combined old methods with new. He's selling his philosophy, naturally, but a lot of what he says makes sense.

Still, it takes money to "eat right." Salatin argues that you can ditch that loathsome lawn and grow your own, but for those of us who hate being out in the sun aren't going to go for it (I let someone else take care of my lawn; I don't even water it—if God wants it to grow He can make it rain Himself). If I was one of these bigshot executives with a six-figure salary I would buy all my vegetables from local farmers, only eat organically grown grains, and eat only free-range, grass-fed animals which are killed humanely. But not making six figures (the two of us together don't make six figures), factory-farmed supermarket food is our lot.

Still, the book makes interesting reading and will make you think.

book icon  Live and Let Growl, Laurien Berenson
Believing she'll be helping her sister-in-law Bertie get her dogs ready for a dog show, Melanie Travis leaves her two sons and six poodles in the capable hands of her husband to ride with Bertie and her formidable Aunt Peg to a dog show in Kentucky, where Peg will also check up on an unexpected acquisition: a racehorse she inherited from the best friend of her late husband. However, it turns out that husband Sam and Aunt Peg and Bertie want Melanie to have a good rest from her teaching and training duties, so Melanie has some leisure time to spend with her poodle Faith on the trip and befriend Aunt Peg's old friend Ellie Wanamaker, a retired show judge. Ellie's not only having family difficulties, but Melanie notices a lot of the folks on the dog show circuit are hostile toward her. But was one of them hostile enough to kill her?—she took a fatal fall on familiar land; was it just an accident.

This entry in the long-running series is a bit of a breather from the usual story where Melanie meets someone unpleasant on the dog show circuit who is later murdered, as much of the story itself has to do with double-dealing on the racehorse circuit instead. A different venue (Kentucky instead of Connecticut) freshens the plot a little, but with that comes a warning: the whole process of buying and selling (or not selling) racehorses is completely explained in long detail so that the end gambit makes sense. If you have no interest in horses, that may turn you off. A plus: there's a delightful quartet of Jack Russell Terriers who have cameos in this one, and Melanie gets to spend time with Faith.

book icon  ROY G. BIV, Jude Stewart
This is a small novelty-like book about color and color interpretation which probably would have been more interesting had it not been set up like a web page with hyperlinks. While that works okay on a web page, it's annoying to be confronted on every page with underlined words in a rainbow of color referencing referrals in the margin of the page to other colors with similar meanings. The information contained in each chapter about a color is interesting, but the "links" are distracting and, after a while, annoying when you see the same ones over and over. My advice is to just read the text as text and avoid the hypertext.

book icon  Meg Follows A Dream: The Fight for Freedom, 1844, Norma Jean Lutz
It's 1844 in Ohio, and Meg Buehler is the daughter of one of many families of German heritage that live in the area. Meg loves art, but her practical parents, a hard-working mother who can't understand why Meg is always daydreaming, and her father, a furniture-maker of the old school, don't think learning how "to paint flowers" is a good use of her time. Her father also disapproves of her younger brother, Fred, whose head is filled with dreams of machinery, and who teases Meg about her art and often tattles on her. Meg also becomes interested in a young man she sees at the opening of the local art institute.

The underlying thread of this story is "freedom," as a conflict over slavery is slowly simmering in the Ohio area and young Fred strongly agrees with the abolitionists whose writings appear in local papers while the elder Buehlers just want to keep out of it. However, it's a very thin thread held together mostly by Meg's crush, her love of art, her lack of strength as compared to her mother and sister, her friendship with Susannah, her brother's ceaseless teasing, and her eventual collapse due to overwork. It's a lesser effort in the "Sisters in Time" series, with a lackluster, wandering plot.

book icon  The Button Box, Lynn Knight
The subtitle to this book is "The story of women in the 20th century, told through the clothes they wore." Knight's grandmother Annie was a seamstress and like everyone other woman of that era, seamstress or not, she kept a "button box" in an old candy tin (some women used cookie tins) and used these leftover and unique buttons on her personal and professional sewing projects. Knight begins her book with the iconic jet button of the Victorian times of her grandmother's birth, a mourning necessity in an era when too many children died before their first birthday and diseases like typhoid, dysentery, typhus, and tuberculosis ("consumption") carried off people willy-nilly. Through Grandma Annie's buttons, Knight follows the changing status of women from pampered Victorian/Edwardian doll to suffragette to flapper to someone making ends meet to someone making do during the First and Second World Wars to miniskirt-clad dolly-bird during the Swinging Sixties. Dress design, working women, the Baby Boom, childcare, the new feminism are all touched on in this fascinating social history. I don't like shopping or even particularly looking at clothes, but this told the story of women so well through their dress it was irresistible.

book icon  Home by Nightfall, Charles Finch
Charles Lennox's detective business is finally starting to flourish and his family life with wife Lady Jane and young daughter Sophia grows sweeter every day. He's almost too busy, especially when it affects his usual lunches with his beloved brother Edmund, who is lately extremely depressed after the death of his wife. But Edmund has something else to occupy one day: strange thefts in the village where his country house is located, and he asks Charles to come down for a few days to look into it. But Lennox and his agency are investigating, like every other private inquiry agent in the city of London,  the disappearance of a famous German pianist. How will he do both at once?

Let's say Charles manages as always. The country-set portion of the story is very entertaining—the mystery involves an insurance agent who had an unusual chalk figure left upon his property and then who was lured away from his home about a false claim; a mystery which finally ends with the death of the local mayor—especially when the townspeople keep assuming Charles has come back to Markethouse to stay. The country mystery has a little in common with something that happened in a book I read later this month, and a twist of Charles' mind with the evidence his partners have gathered brings also the solution to the disappearance of Muller. I thought the country mystery as well as the solution much superior to the city story, and enjoyed the atmosphere of the little market town. Finch is making fewer of those anachronistic errors I used to hate in the earlier books, so I am well satisfied with this entry.

book icon  Murder at the Puppy Fest, Laurien Berenson
Melanie Travis is back home in Connecticut after her Kentucky adventure, helping out at an annual event called "Puppy Fest," run by a local dog rescue organization funded by local millionaire Leo Brody, who opens his capacious home for the event, which is covered by the press, and attended by most of his children from three different marriages. When Brody doesn't show up for the opening of Puppy Fest (which is played somewhat like the Puppy Bowl game on Superbowl Sunday), Melanie is sent to track him down. You guessed it: she finds him dead—with his latest mistress bending over the body. So not only is there now a body, but several people think Melanie had something to do with his death, including Jane, the Brody daughter who runs Puppy Posse.

It's a good thing Melanie is still on vacation because she spends the rest of the book driving through Connecticut talking to the rest of Leo Brody's fractured family, and boy are they a bunch of pips—if they don't hate each other on the surface they sure do underneath. This is another one of Berenson's books in which everyone is so unpleasant you almost don't care who gets arrested as long as they all shut up. Of more interest in the story is the terrier that Melanie and Davey rescue as the book opens and if he will find a home with the family, and of what Aunt Peg is going to do once a sobering event happens.

book icon  The Queen's Accomplice, Susan Elia MacNeal
After her Washington, DC, mission in the previous novel, codebreaker and spy Margaret "Maggie" Hope is back in London, working as a "code checker" for messages coming in from Allied spies in occupied France. She's worried about one of the spies, a young woman, but her superior brushes it off as a "typical female mistake." But then a bigger worry emerges: first one and then another young woman worker at SOE is found murdered in the manner of the Jack the Ripper killings from 60 years earlier, including a Welsh girl Maggie was friends with. In the meantime, Maggie has taken in her friend Chuck and her baby after their flat is destroyed by a gas explosion, and her pleas to her old friend Winston Churchill has worked a miracle: gotten her sister released from a concentration camp and headed to England—except Elise does not wish to go.

MacNeal has based her story about a serial killer during the Blitz on a real-life killer during that time crossed with the sordid history of H.H. Holmes, an American serial killer who operated during the 1890s and who some theorize might also have been Jack the Ripper. (See Erik Larson's Devil in the White City.) Intercut is Elise Hess' odyssey and Maggie's friends Hugh and Sarah training for a mission in France. There is also the reality of many men's resentment of a woman's new, powerful role in wartime London, which not only is fueling the killer, but other men less lethal.

This one is a welcome change from the tepid Washington adventure of last time, as tension builds and the killer sets his sights on Maggie. The equality for women lectures are a bit tedious as they seem like lectures most of the time, but they do indeed provoke real resentment from the reader at the callousness of some of the male characters (which have repercussions in the following book). This book and The Paris Spy are pretty much a two-part story, so don't read that one without also grabbing this one as well.

book icon  The Uncertainty of Everyday Life: 1915-1945, Harvey Green
This was the final volume in the "Everyday Life in America" series by Harper-Collins, and wasn't written until 1992, so it has a different viewpoint of the two wartime eras separated by boom and bust economics rather than the one that would have prevailed had this book been written in, say, 1960. Between 1915 and 1945 the United States went from a still mostly agrarian, isolationist nation to a manufacturing world power. American products and production reached its height and they became known as reliable and recommended. Yet another wave of immigrants unnerved "the old order" and, sadly, interactions between white Americans and black Americans not only remained the same, but in some ways deteriorated as the post-Civil War society the Ku Klux Klan rose again. Americans had more free time, which they first devoted to the "movies," first silent and then with sound, and then radio. (Television briefly knocks but is not touched on.) As advertising methods moved from text to imagery due to improved printing methods, advertisements persuaded Americans to buy more, especially items that would have been considered "frivolous" int he 19th century, and we truly became a consumer culture. Foods changed through the generations, with formerly "hearty traditional dishes" giving way to international foods, and the teenager appeared, with his/her own culture.

The text is a bit dry when they get into facts and figures and at its best when talking about social changes. If you are student of or interested in American history, a worthwhile series of books to dig up.

book icon  Deck the Halls: Treasures of Christmas Past, Robert M. Merck

book icon  Mycroft Holmes, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar & Anna Waterhouse
In 1870, the man whom Sherlock Holmes would describe as having his finger on the pulse of the nation is a mere secretary in the British government. He's engaged to be married to a beautiful and educated young woman whose parents have a plantation in Haiti, has just purchased a spirited mount named Abie, and has an unconventional friend, also from Haiti, who works in a tobacco shop. Then his fiance Georgiana abruptly decides to return to Haiti just as his friend receives a report of strange goings on there, including the deaths of children.

The good news is that this is a high energy mystery with something going on every minute, and a little-known facet of history of life after the slave trade ended revealed in the plot. With a lively opening in London, most of the action takes place in Haiti, where our party of Mycroft Holmes and his friend Cyrus Douglas meet opposition along every path trying to track down Georgiana as well as digging up troubling clues to the uncanny events happening.

The biggest problem for me is that I don't believe this is Mycroft Holmes. I can't really reconcile the overweight gourmand who has so much pull in the British Government as the intense, action-packed hero portrayed in this book: he rides at dead speed, bets on rowing races, swims, leaps, and does so much physical action he's more like Tarzan than Mycroft. So I enjoyed the adventure, the research into life in Britain and Haiti at the time was sound and the narrative was lively and literate, but it would have been better if our hero was named Montmorency Harrison or Michael Havilland—and the few small scenes with a supercilious university-age Sherlock did nothing to dispel that feeling.