Dickens and Christmas, Lucinda Hawksley
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...)
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
Mr. Dickens and His Carol, Samantha Silva
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.
Mrs. Claus: Not the Fairy Tale They Say, edited by Rhonda Parrish
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.