30 September 2017

Books Completed Since September 1

book icon  The Fanfiction Reader: Folk Tales for the Digital Age, Francesca Coppa
I first heard about fanfiction from "TV Guide" and a book called Star Trek Lives. At that point I was writing my own, but didn't know that was what you called it. In 1980 I discovered fanzines, printed delight continuing the adventures of favorite television and movie characters. A little while later, I joined the ranks of the authors.

The internet has opened up the fanfiction world (for better or for worse, considering the dreadful orthography and grammar that pops up). Anyone who can upload a story can share it with others. This particular fanfiction volume differs from earlier works in that it reproduces in entirety stories, rather than citing excerpts. For the most part I enjoyed the stories, even if I wasn't involved in the fandom (although there was a very strange Supernatural story that I thought would never come to an end) and if a couple of stories kind of wigged me out (the Pete Ross story from Smallville being one and the NSYNC real-person fic being the other, for two totally different reasons).

What I found really annoying was the introductions to each of the stories, which gave away the plots in an effort to explain what the author was doing. Surely it could have been worked differently. It especially irritated me in the first story, "Lunch and Other Obscenities," taking place in the reboot Star Trek universe, and probably my favorite story in the book.

book icon  Son of a Midnight Land, Atz Kilcher
Why does anyone who hates summer live in Georgia? Well, there are a lot of reasons, mostly due to family and friendly ties. But every chance we get, my husband and I are watching television programs set up north where it's cold most of the time, reveling in the snow and the "jacket weather," wayyy back to Flying Wild Alaska and many of the other programs taking place in "Seward's Icebox."

We latched onto Alaska: the Last Frontier at once and became fascinated by the homestead life of the Kilcher family, so picking up a book written by one of the family was a given. Let's say that part of what it said was not a surprise. If you have read country singer Jewel's book, Never Broken, you know that she is Atz's daughter, that life on the homestead was pretty tough, and that the genial Yule Kilcher, patriarch of the clan, that you see in old home movies, wasn't a hard-working saint. Oh, he was hard working, but he was also often abusive and had his own inner demons. Atz, as the oldest son, bore the brunt of this, and it affected him in many ways, including internalized anger. He has been several times married, and later became an advisor toward abused youth because he understood what they were going through.

Son is written in a stream-of-consciousness style that may not fit or might confuse some readers. Atz is evidently using the book as not just a look at his past, but to exorcise some further demons brought about by an impatient, frustrated father and an unfulfilled, depressed mother. If you watch the series and have been tempted to view it as some halcyon place where you work hard, eat naturally, and live happily ever after, this book may disappoint you. When it comes to human beings, the truth is always more complicated than that.

I won't be able to watch Alaska: the Last Frontier and Atz now without thinking of what has been revealed, but to me it makes Atz and his family stronger for it.

Note that the book contains profanity and stories of physical and emotional abuse.

book icon  A Terrible Beauty, Tasha Alexander
Lady Emily Hargreaves has never forgotten that she married her first husband without loving him, until she read his diaries after he died. Now married to Philip Ashton's best friend, Colin Hargreaves, the pair and Emily's old friend Jeremy Bainbridge, who was betrayed by his fiance, are headed for the island of Santorini, to the villa which Philip bought as a wedding gift for Emily. The three of them are flabbergasted when they are greeted at the villa by Philip, who apparently did not die in Africa as they were told. Furthermore, someone is trying to kill him to get an antiquity from him, one that might have belonged to the mighty Achilles himself.

Emily's narrative alternates with Philip's, as he tells his story of survival and his attempt to return to his previous life, only to discover Emily has moved on from his death and remarried. He becomes involved with archaeologists and loves his new life, but still dreams of sharing it with her, only to find the precious antiquity and then lose it—while those eager to own it try to wrest it from him nevertheless. At first skeptical of him, Emily and Colin slowly come to believe his amazing tale. But how many people will die before the antiquities thieves believe that Philip doesn't still have the artifact?

The biggest problem I had with this story is that I had seen the actual plot device used before. I can't recall in which book. Perhaps in an Elizabeth Peters novel? It disappointed me slightly, despite the tightly written story and peek behind the scenes in the cutthroat world of artifact smuggling and collecting.

book icon  The Apparitionists, Peter Manseau
While I am a history buff, the Civil War era is not my particular interest. However, I have always been curious about the early applications of photography, and this was an unusual subject. I knew that in the early days of photography portraits were very difficult to capture. The subject had to sit very still for long periods of time without moving, since the least twitch would appear as a blur. This is why early photographic subjects do not smile; it is very hard to hold a natural smile that long. Other people saw photography as an imperfect capture of a person's self and still preferred painted portraits. The real story begins when William Mumler takes a photograph of one person, but the ghostly image of another appears as well. Mumler himself naturally thought that he had not cleaned his glass photographic plate properly (they were scrubbed and reused once the photograph was printed), but people swore the ghostly image was just that: the spirit of a loved one that they knew personally. Mumler became convinced he was taking "spirit photographs" and made a big business out of it, especially in an era where so many people died young of the various virulent diseases we now have vaccines for. Once the Civil War broke out and young men were dying, grief-stricken parents came to Mumler to get a final glimpse of "their boy," and other forms of spiritualism became popular (the author discusses the infamous Fox sisters, who claimed they could talk to the dead, and only later they confessed that it was just something they started to alleviate boredom.) Eventually Mumler was put on trial for fraud.

P.T. Barnum, Mathew Brady (I did not realize so many of the war photographs attributed to Brady were actually taken by his assistants, and, sadly, some of them were staged, with dead bodies being moved to areas with better lighting and surrounded with battlefield items to make them better compositions!), and Mary Todd Lincoln all make appearances in this interesting, if slightly plodding history of spirit photography, as Mumler spawned a whole horde of photographers eager to provide comfort at a profit. What seems an obvious double-exposure to us now in an era of even more cunning photo-trickery was something amazing to our ancestors, and they seem sad rather than gullible, grasping at a last vestige of connection between themselves and a loved one.

Recommended for those with interest in the history of photography, the Civil War, or the spiritualist movement.

book icon  The Marsh Madness, Victoria Abbott
Chadwick Kauffman has made Vera Van Alst, former shoe factory heiress and collector of mystery first editions, an offer she can't refuse: fine first editions of all of Ngaio Marsh's mystery books. Jordan Bingham has always wanted to visit Summerlea, the Kauffman estate, and is ecstatic when she is permitted to accompany Vera to make the deal, with her Cousin Kevin along as chauffeur. The encounter is a little awkward, but it's nothing compared to the shock of next morning, when Jordan discovers Kauffman is dead and the local police believe that she, Vera, and Uncle Kevin are the prime murder suspects. Even worse, more compromising evidence keeps arising that shows them (and other members of Jordan's family) responsible, and Jordan suspects that even her boyfriend, police officer Decker, thinks she had something to do with it.

Once again, Jordan is using the expertise of her—uh—unusual family to try to figure out who is trying to frame her, although they're getting dragged into the plot as well. Knowing that the investigating detective is determined to pin the crime on her, Jordan forms her own investigation, counting on luck, disguises, and smarts.

This would have been the perfect twisted mystery except for one thing: Jordan and a friend start talking about someone. A lot. Someone who has only been peripherally mentioned in the previous three books. As far as I was concerned, this was a dead giveaway. So "whodunit" wasn't the question, it was more like "whydunit." The usual suspects, like Uncle Mick and Uncle Lucky and Cherie, re-appear, although it seems like Uncle Kevin loses IQ points every time a new book rolls around.

book icon  The Anne of Green Gables Cookbook, Kate Macdonald
I should have been suspicious when I noted on the title page that it was an expansion of the Anne of Green Gables Cookbook from 1985, which came out after the Kevin Sullivan version of the story. I remember seeing that one and remembering how few recipes it had in it. This is just that version "prettied up" with some pleasant flowery artwork and a few more recipes in it. I was hoping against hope it was more like the Little House Cookbook, which includes historical food information and the science of why the recipes work, and why and how Ma Ingalls would have used that particular recipe (for instance, she would have used sourdough starter for her bread on the prairie because they had no yeast). It could have at least been expanded to show the type of food Anne might have made for her children, and the meatless, wheatless menu they might have eaten during the World War I timeframe of Rilla of Ingleside.

Nice enough if you want a few recipes from the Anne novels and a pretty volume on your cookbook shelf. Otherwise pretty sad.
book icon  Pioneer Girl Perspectives: Exploring Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by Nancy Tystad Koupal
These are essays based upon the recently released Pioneer Girl manuscript, Laura Ingalls Wilder's original memoir and the source from which all of the "Little House" books eventually came. Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, initially envisioned it as an adult memoir, but were unable to sell it, so Laura (with coaching from Rose) rewrote the story as a children's tale, initially, she admitted, so her father's tales would not  be forgotten. Indeed, the first essay in this book is by Wilder herself, from a speech she made in 1937, about the backstory of the series.

Other essays include Rose's troubling career writing "biographies" that were fabrications simply to sell newspapers, and later wishing to include a murderous family in her mother's memoir; Rose's troubled career; how Pioneer Girl eventually got published; Laura and her family as archetypal Midwesterners; Little House as an American fairy tale; and more. Most are written at a scholarly level, but not in language that proves too dense for the layman. As further reading about Pioneer Girl and Wilder's life, the vocabulary is just about right.

Okay, one minor thing ticked me off: in his essay about the Little House books, Michael Patrick Hearn referred to Johnny Tremain as a work "of dubious literary distinction and rarely read today." Speak for yourself, buddy! No need to go insulting good books just because you like a different writer more.

book icon  The Pearl Thief, Elizabeth Wein
Code Name Verity introduced us to Julia Beaufort-Stuart, the staunch Scots lass eager to help the war effort. But we only know Julie in her war context; what was her life like before?

It is 1938, and Julie is coming home from her Swiss boarding school early to surprise her family, even though it is a sober homecoming: the family estate is being sold to clear some of her grandfather's debts. Since no one is home, she walks to the library (the librarian is a friend of hers), but finding the library empty, she walks along the river, falls asleep...and wakes up in a hospital room with a head injury, having been rescued by some Scottish travellers (like gypsies/Roma). Julie's memory of the events start coming back to her slowly, but not before she has tried to befriend (and defend) her two new friends, Ellen and Ewun McEwen.

This was a good story—I knew nothing about Scottish river pearls, or Scottish Travellers (although I knew of travellers, and of people being prejudiced against them) before I read the story—and I loved knowing more of Julie's backstory and the story of the Mary Stuart memorabilia, meeting Julie's family again and getting to know her mother and grandmother further, but simply this doesn't have the breathtaking novelty of the Verity narrative, so don't expect something on that scale. It's a quiet character study of Julie's friendships and sense of justice, with the mystery of a half-remembered jar of pearls niggling at her—as well as how she got the nickname "Queenie." Like all young girls she makes a few bad decisions, but then tries to make right by them. (Also, I scoped out one of the villains of the piece the moment the character appeared; I was kind of disappointed Julie was off the mark on this one!) It's an interesting book, but not a special book, like Verity or Black Dove, White Raven.

book icon  A New England Autumn, Ferenc Máté
This looked like a promising coffee-table like book with a combination of photographs and poetry/prose, with several selections from Sara Orne Jewett's Country of the Pointed Firs. Some of the photographs are indeed lovely, and some of the selections, including the Jewett, were novel. But there were a lot of photos that weren't of autumn, such as a lot of close-ups of boats or water or fog (boats or ships against autumn trees would have been fine) and several of the selections seemed incongruous, like the Edgar Allan Poe (perhaps they were trying to capture Hallowe'en?). Frankly, I could get just as good photos in autumn issued of "Country" and find better autumn poetry and prose online. If you buy it, get it remaindered like I did.

book icon  A Brief History of Life in Victorian Britain, Michael Paterson
It's difficult doing a book about Victorian Britain, simply because Queen Victoria reigned for such a long period. The first part of her reign, which overlaps the Dickens period and is not long removed from the Regency period, is much different from the mid-Victorian period and the late Victorian period. So Paterson must paint in broad strokes the different portions of the Victorian era and what was notable about each, and he's under no illusions that this is a complete history. Instead, it operates as a quick overview to the era and its highlights, perhaps for those who want a little background in the period dramas they are watching, with much more suggested reading in the footnotes and bibliography. It's an easy, if not condescending, read, summing up the social, military, technological, and industrial improvements—and shortcomings—of the era. There's a discussion I've not noted in very many other Victorian history volumes, which is how the printing of less expensive books encouraged a more educated society; at first books were only for the wealthy, but lower-priced, more cheaply printed books brought both fiction and nonfiction to the masses, and subscription, and then free, libraries brought reading to even more.

Again, not a complete reference by any means, but interesting overview.

book icon  A Rather Remarkable Homecoming, C.A. Belmond
Sadly, the last of the Penny Nichols/Jeremy Laidley stories, as far as I can tell, as Belmond's website hasn't been updated since 2015. I don't know if she passed on or just stopped writing, but I'm sorry to see them go.

Newlyweds Penny and Jeremy return to London from their honeymoon only to find that a big corporation (headed by some sinister brothers said to have ties to the underworld) is trying to buy a huge swath of land in rural Cornwall, including the property of the couple's grandmother, where they first met as children. With encouragement from HRH Prince Charles himself, they head for the property, which has been sadly run down, and the people who wish to save it. They hope that a clue that William Shakespeare once stayed at Grandmother Beryl's house may save it as a historical property.

In the course of the story, Penny and Jeremy discover friends and foes, eccentrics and businessmen, a children's pact, an old friend in dire straits, folks that will turn on them when things don't go their way, and people who will do anything to get their way on both sides. It's the usual charming combination of the likeable couple (with some help from not-so-honest cousin Rollo), an erudite historical mystery, and a wonderful setting in Cornwall (with a crucial side trip to Spain). While the mystery wasn't quite up to the previous one about the tapestries, it's a fitting conclusion to the saga of Nichols & Laidley.

book icon  Re-read: A Wind to Shake the World: The Story of the 1938 Hurricane, Everett S. Allen
The 1938 hurricane was as real to me as a child as current events like the Vietnam War, the assassinations of two Kennedys and a King, and the music of the Beatles. Nourished on my mother's tales of life during her childhood and pre-marriage adulthood, I would ask her over and over "tell me the story about the hurricane," and she would re-tell her story once more, complete with the bricks flying by her window at work and the scare about her missing father.

Everett Allen was a cub reporter—literally, as he had just started the job the day before—on a New Bedford newspaper when the hurricane of 1938, nicknamed "the Long Island express," barrelled along the coastline of southern New England and around Cape Cod. So this account of the hurricane from Long Island to Cape Cod is not only evocatively and engagingly written, with Allen taking us back to the summer and fall of 1938, but it has that depth that comes from a person who experienced the event firsthand and who has not only taken reports from the newspapers of the time, but interviewed people who survived the ordeal. You will find heartbreaking stories and amazing survival tales, and be able to envision the surge of water, the scent of the wind, the scrape of flying sand against your skin, the desperation of the survivors and their despair in the lost. One of the best accounts of a natural disaster ever published.

book icon  The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Marta McDowall
This is technically a re-read, since I read the e-book earlier in the year. But it doesn't quite beat having the physical book in my hands, since this is such a gorgeous volume. The moment I saw the author of this book, I wanted to read it. I sat down one grey and gloomy day to read McDowell's Gardening Life of Beatrix Potter and was completely immersed in summer, flowers, and the heady scent of the English countryside and the sheep-dotted slopes of the Lake District.

While there have been many books in the last couple of decades written about Laura Ingalls Wilder, this is the only one that addresses not simply events in Laura's life, but the landscapes her family lived in, the wildlife she saw, the plants that grew in the diverse areas in which she lived. Each chapter corresponds with a milestone in the life of a plant, from seed as Laura is born and spends her early years in the Big Woods of Wisconsin (and Almanzo grows up in the cold north of New York), to late harvest as she and husband Almanzo grow old at Rocky Ridge Farm in Missouri. It is also more generally a history of westward expansion and the flora and fauna found by the settlers when they arrived.

This is a beautiful book, liberally illustrated with color and black-and-white photos of the Ingalls family, illustrations from both Helen Sewell and Garth Williams from the "Little House" books, botanical prints, maps, and clippings from newspapers, brochures, magazines, etc. that tell the story of the European settling of the Midwest. McDowell's words bring to mind winter chill, summer warmth, birdsong, the sheer awe of the tall prairie grass (don't compare prairie grass to what grows on your front lawn; these are mammoth blades of grass which were higher than a man's head and gave to the bison all the nourishment needed), the scent and sight of fields of wildflowers, the blue sky arching above. For anyone who loves nature, or who wishes to know as closely as possible what Laura experienced in the Wisconsin woods, on the Kansas prairie, in the Iowa groves, and in the hills of Mansfield, Missouri, this is a keeper for certain.

Perfect for a quiet day with cocoa and soft music playing in the background.

book icon  Caroline: Little House, Revisited, Sarah Miller
It's been a bumper month for Wilder books: this is the third I've listed here.

Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie chronicles the brief period that the Ingalls family—Charles, Caroline, Mary, Laura, and Baby Carrie—lived on the Kansas prairie attempting to "prove up" on a homestead claim. Part of it was fictionalized—Carrie was actually born in Kansas, the Ingalls actually moved from Kansas because they had no income coming in from the man who bought their home in Wisconsin—and much of the story was from memories elicited from family members because Laura was so young, but the events were true. Caroline tells the true story from an adult perspective, from leaving Wisconsin to leaving Kansas.

Caroline Quiner Ingalls was a woman of her time: you do what needs doing and no complaining, but here the author tries to bring us into the mind of a relatively young woman who has already endured hardships as a child and who undertakes a bumpy, stressing wagon ride while pregnant, facing giving birth with just her husband for help. So most of the narrative is Caroline's internal conflict, fearful of the future but fiercely protective of her children and very much in love with her husband. Miller even confronts the thorny subject of Caroline's hatred of Native Americans, which stems from fear based on events that happened when she was a child.

Some reviews complain that they were uncomfortable with Caroline's thoughts of sex and desiring her husband, which strike me as odd. She's a fairly young woman (late 20s) with a husband she adores. Are modern readers still unable to believe that 19th century women, although forbidden to speak of such things, had the same sexual feelings that modern women have? After all, Caroline was legally married to Charles—even most religions were realistic about married women enjoying relations with their husbands (and husbands were supposed to take care that married relations were enjoyable to the wife as well; it was considered part of their marital "duties"). Our ancestors were not sexless.

Even though I know the plot of Little House on the Prairie by heart, this book really brings home how difficult and how dirty pioneer life was. The sequence where the family endures a severe rainstorm makes me flinch just to read it, not just with the storm, but with the idea of the mud and the dirty boots inside the wagon, thinking of all the work Caroline is going to have to get her bedding and clothing clean after the storm is over. Dangers like the well digging and the house raising, which were softpedaled in the original novel, are given their full portend here.

While this is definitely not an action novel, it is paced comfortably like a long journey by wagon. I enjoyed it immensely.

book icon  A Peter Rabbit Christmas Collection, Beatrix Potter

book icon  Movie Geek: The Den of Geek! Guide to the Movieverse, Simon Brew
I have a confession to make: I've never heard of Den of Geek. According to the introduction, it was once a mere starter website which is now very popular. I also have no idea who Jason Statham is, but he sure pops up a lot in this book. 😀

However, I love trivia books, and particularly movie and television trivia books, so this one was a no-brainer. It's not the usual lists, either, like the top ten top grossing films, or the top twenty films taken from novels. Instead we have funny, but often thoughtful lists like "Things That Inspire Movies," "Ill-Advised Sequels That Never Were," "The Lost Endings of Big Movies," "Family Movies That Traumatize Small Children" (Watership Down, anyone?), and, one of my favorites, "The Collateral Damage of Tom Hanks' Movies" (and he doesn't even mention Saving Private Ryan). There's even three pages about the relation between Pink Floyd and the new Doctor Strange film. The graphics are pretty good (although the contrast of the thin black typeface on the occasional blue pages is not good and those pages are a bit more difficult to read). Plus it's an entertaining read, even when the situation takes a serious turn, and perfect for bedtime reading, where you can read one essay or five and not worry about losing your place.

I enjoyed this so much I'm going to buy a copy for a friend who is a filmmaker and film buff.