31 March 2018

Books Completed Since March 1

book icon  Murder in Morningside Heights, Victoria Thompson
Frank Malloy and his new wife Sarah Brandt Malloy are home from their honeymoon, gamely coping with the new investigative agency Frank's young ex-policeman friend Gino and Sarah's nanny Maeve set up while they were away. Frank's already bored with investigating infidelity cases and Sarah's bored with being a housewife with no midwifery or mysteries to brighten her day when the parents of Abigail Northrup hire Frank to find out what happened to their daughter. It appears they were told that Abigail died in a freak accident at the Normal School where she taught, but they think it's something more. It certainly is: because Abigail was definitely not the sweet girl her parents thought she was, a fact her maligned brother corroborates, and there are other irregularities going on at the Normal School.

I felt quite bad for Abigail's brother in the way he is treated by his parents, and the mystery is pretty good if slightly transparent; however, although there are very many clues that will try to take you off the trail, you may want to trust your instincts on who the person it could not possibly be and realize that it could be. Other revelations make up for this shortcoming, however. The "Boston marriage" aspect to the story was different, but I wish Thompson had not felt the need to have one character explain it to the next character and then that character to the next character so many times. It's necessary to explaining one of the passions involved in the story, but it seems as if every five pages someone has to explain to the next neophyte what a "Boston marriage" is. It got tiresome. Glad to see that Sarah will be able to put her midwifery skills back to work soon, though!

book icon  Play It Again 1940 and Play It Again 1948, from "Good Old Days"
These are two of a series of slim, nostalgic books published by the folks who put out "Good Old Days" magazine, with photos taken from illustrations and advertisements from "The Saturday Evening Post." What text there is is very simplified, so all but the very youngest children can read them, typos pop up unexpectedly, and the the narration is rather stilted, as if written by 21-year-olds who don't know what to make of this "olden days" stuff. However, the illos and the ads, in color or in glorious black-and-white, are worth buying the books for if you find them at a discount, especially if you like classic "Post" illustrators like Normal Rockwell.

book icon  Twenty-one Days: A Daniel Pitt Mystery, Anne Perry
Daniel Pitt, son of Sir Thomas Pitt and his wife Lady Charlotte Pitt, is now twenty-five and a neophyte lawyer. As the novel opens, he is defending one of Pitt's old colleagues, Roman Blackwell, from a murder charge. But halfway through the trial, he is called to immediately take the place of a fellow attorney who was badly injured in a traffic accident while working on a high-profile case at the Old Bailey, London's premiere court. With hours to spare and the help of a fingerprint expert, Daniel is able to clear Blackwell and rush to his newest client, with Roman and his wife Mercy in his debt. His mind at peace from his previous obligation, Daniel is now free to help Russell Graves, a man accused of murdering his wife and then disfiguring her face and neck with fire after death. Graves swears he is innocent, and although neither Daniel or his senior partner like the man, they are determined to defend him. When Graves is sentenced to death, Daniel and his partner, Kitteridge, have twenty-one days to find evidence to mount an appeal. But as Daniel investigates the crime, he finds to his horror that if he saves Graves, the man, author of muckraking expose books, will be able to publish a volume that paints his father's late mentor Victor Narraway and his wife Vespasia--and indeed his father as head of Special Branch--as criminals and traitors. Even worse, Daniel begins to wonder if Graves' research was correct.

Twenty-one Days gets off to a slow start, but builds in tension as Daniel's investigation deepens and he learns more about the Graves family: deceased wife Ebony, daughter Sarah, and handicapped brother Arthur, and the servants of the household who appear to know more than they tell. Daniel then teams up with Miriam fford Croft, the daughter of the head of his legal firm, who, instead of being held back by feminine constraints, has been allowed to break convention by her understanding father and study to be a scientist, although she has not been allowed to formally receive a degree because she is a woman. Together Daniel and Miriam hunt further clues, with a possible romance set up for the two, but with no intrusive saccharine romantic interludes to ruin the suspense. Thomas and Charlotte Pitt both appear, but only in brief cameo appearances, so Daniel carries the mystery on his own and any surprising revelations come from his own investigations, and those he has asked a grateful Roman Blackwell to help with.

This was a good introduction to Perry's new series about Daniel Pitt, although he seems a little bland compared to the untidy Pitt and the unconventional Charlotte, not to mention his quick-witted sister Jemima. Miriam, however, is the one to watch for in this series. She reminds me of Julia Ogden in the Canadian television show Murdoch Mysteries.

book icon  The Showstopper: a Rebecca Mystery, Mary Casanova
Rebecca Rubin's cousin Michael puts this first of three American Girl mysteries for 2018 into motion when he forgets his lunch. He's working at a famous Broadway theatre and of course stagestruck Rebecca and his sister Ana get to take his forgotten meal to him and go backstage in the bargain. The girls find out the theatre is looking for children their age for a job, but when they actually get permission to work there, they find out it's not for acting, but to support a miniature farm that's on the roof of the theatre. Disappointed at first, Rebecca is determined to stick with it because she gets to associate with talented new actress Olivia Berry—only to discover someone appears determined to harm "Ollie," as she asks the girls to call her: the young woman is almost injured on stage, and other frightening things keep happening.

This story could easily be rewritten into a more adult thriller once the culprit is revealed, yet there is nothing too frightening or sinister here for the audience this volume is intended for. A bunch of historical facts are painlessly included in the narrative, including the fact that the plays given in the theatre weren't the sole things entertaining the crowds back the. The miniature farm depicted on the roof of the theatre, the rooftop lake and restaurant, and the stage show "up above" were all real aspects of some vaudeville theatres of that era, and the Oscar Hammerstein that Rebecca and Ana meet is the real-life grandfather of Oscar Hammerstein II, who wrote the lyrics to the songs in The Sound of Music, Oklahoma, etc. with his partner Richard Rogers.  An excellent outing for Rebecca.

book icon  Menace at Mammoth Cave: a Kit Mystery, Mary Casanova
I can't decide whether this or the Rebecca mystery are the best of the 2018 American Girl mystery stories. They are both suspenseful and have good, almost creepy mysteries as part of the story. This Kit mystery makes up for the thoroughly disappointing The Jazzman's Trumpet, which was so predictable.

In this story, Kit is in Kentucky with her Aunt Millie to visit her brother Charlie at a CCC camp and tour Mammoth Cave. Charlie's group is part of the workforce expanding the Mammoth Cave area into a larger national park. Unfortunately in the process people are being turned off their land and someone seems bent on sabotaging the CCC camp workers' work, including an event that makes Kit fear for Charlie's life. It's possible that Kit's new friend Benny, an African-American boy whose family will be forced to move, is one of the culprits. Who can she trust, and is Charlie in danger?

This is just a great mystery with a lot of history behind it. During the building of many of the Eastern National Parks, people were made to move from the farms and land that their ancestors had settled two centuries before. It was discouraging and infuriating for them and many fought back. In fact, if you read this book and are interested in finding a similar story, there is an episode of The Waltons called "The Conflict" that you might want to check out. In the story the Walton men visit Grandpa's sister-in-law and her son and grandchildren to defend their property; they are being moved to make way for the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, and some of the issues addressed in this book are addressed in that story. I also enjoyed the dynamics of the mountain families and how they pitched in together.

book icon  Legend of the Shark Goddess: a Nanea Mystery, Erin Falligant
Of the three American Girl "Beforever" mysteries, this is probably the least "mysterious" and is more about Nanea jumping to conclusions. Her brother David now in the service, Nanea is more determined than ever to do something for the war effort, even if it's just keeping an eye out for lawbreakers. That's why she's so suspicious of Mano, a teenager who's hanging around her grandparents' store. Nanea is sure he's stolen from them. But her little dog Mele likes Mano. Who can she believe? And then when her grandfather's watch disappears, she fears an American soldier is also not to be trusted.

The story well-illustrates the uncertainties people, especially children, faced during World War II. They knew their own neighbors and friends might be part of the black market, and they met strangers that they weren't sure if they could trust. While everything comes out okay for Nanea in the end, for some families it did not. While this was not the best of the mysteries, it was enjoyable and the lesson to trust your heart and to be careful but not cynical well taken.

book icon  One Man's America, Alistair Cooke
Before Alistair Cooke passed, during his elder journalist years between his series America and during Masterpiece Theatre, he had several books published that examined mostly serious subjects (Six Men, The Americans, World War II-era America, etc.) that talked about significant events in the American scene. All of these books were taken from his weekly report on the BBC, "Letter from America."

This is an older collection which I found different from these later books and more enjoyable. While some of the essays in this book address historical subjects or personalities—there's one about Father Serra and the missions, for example; another about Damon Runyon, a third about Joe Louis, yet another about Washington DC—others are just interesting observations about American life: one of the most amusing is Cooke's recounting of meeting his first Native American and having all the clich├ęs broken. Another is about an old senator who started believing the press releases about himself and who changed personalities for the worse because of it. Four essays cover the seasons, another one simply talks about moving house. It's more E.B. White with the occasional political overtone. I was enchanted. I'm going to look for his older books and see if there are more like this. I was also amused to see phrases lifted in whole to be included in his America series, like the descriptions of fall and Newfane, Vermont, and calling DC "a city of Greek wedding cakes." Loved seeing the genesis of that series.

book icon  Death of an Avid Reader, Frances Brody
Kate Shackleton has a new case: Lady Coulton has asked her to find the daughter born out of wedlock that she had to give away while her husband was abroad. No sooner has Kate begun her hunt for Sophia than she is asked to participate in an odd ceremony at the historic Leeds library: it's reputed to be haunted and there are witnesses who must accompany the priest who will walk the library attempting to exorcise the specter. But when Father Bolingbroke descends into the basement, the exorcism party is dismayed to find the body of Dr. Potter, a mathematician who uses the library daily and who is fearful for its unguarded rare book collection, lying dead. Nearby is a sick Italian organ grinder who is immediately charged with the crime. An indignant Kate, not believing the ill man could carry out such a crime, vows to find out the truth while she is still looking for young Sophia.

As in other books in this series, Kate slowly finds her two cases merging in the most surprising ways, and must enlist the help of John Sykes to unravel the threads, which gradually become a threat to Kate herself. This is a nice complicated entry in the Shackleton series, with much misdirection and some memorable supporting characters, including the little monkey belonging to the organ grinder. Thoroughly enjoyable!

book icon  Crowned and Dangerous, Rhys Bowen
As you remember, at the end of Malice at the Palace, Irish spy and impoverished former estate heir Darcy was zooming away with our heroine, Lady Georgiana Rannoch, 35th in line for the throne, equally blue-blooded and impoverished. It turns he is driving her to Gretna Green in Scotland, for them to be married. Unfortunately a blizzard stops them in their tracks, and then both remember Georgie will have to renounce her claim on the throne formally for her to be able to marry a Catholic. Both these issues are not insurmountable, but the next event is: Darcy's father has been accused of murdering the wealthy and reclusive American that bought the family estate. Darcy drops everything to go to Ireland and forbids Georgie to follow; indeed, he breaks up with her altogether, leaving her stunned and shaken.

But this is Georgie, after all; she's as tough as the Highland landscape and isn't going to let a simple spurning hold her back. She immediately follows her beloved to Ireland, pretending to be a friend of Darcy's, to discover his father truly believes he murdered the American in a drunken haze. Can Darcy and Georgie clear Lord Kilhenny? Can Zou Zou, the flamboyant European countess Georgie befriended through Darcy, help them? And what is the deal with this reclusive American anyway? He doesn't seem to have a past—but he does have some very shady compatriots.

Secret passages, airplanes, racehorses, an Auntie Mame countess and a grumpy member of the nobility, two of the stubbornest protagonists ever, and Bowen's lively narration make this one a winner in the Georgiana Rannoch series, but we're still faced with that ever-present cliffhanger: will they ever be able to be married? Stay tuned!

book icon  A Death in the Dales, Frances Brody
Lucian Simonson, the charming and intelligent physician Kate Shackleton befriended in Murder on a Summer's Day, has invited her to stay at his aunt's old place in the small town of Settle. Kate takes along her fourteen-year-old niece Harriet, who is recovering from a severe case of diphtheria, with her to get some country air. Once there, Harriet befriends Beth, a girl somewhat older than herself who is working in the fabric mill in Settle and chafing at the fact that her brother, working for a farmer with a bad reputation out of town, has not yet come to visit her, and Kate finds out that Lucian's aunt had wanted to meet her before she died—years earlier this aunt had seen a murder take place and was convinced the wrong man went to prison. She was hoping Kate could take up this "cold case." With Harriet's urging, Kate not only takes on this old mystery, but also searches for Beth's missing brother.

I really enjoyed the teaming of Kate and her niece in this story. While Harriet (and Beth) are able to assist Kate in the case, they do not play Nancy Drew or Trixie Belden, but act as normal teenage girls might. As always in these mysteries, there are red herrings aplenty and diversions, and a great sense of the 1920 time period. The one thing I disliked was a revelation about a certain character, but then it was because I had rather liked this person until something was revealed. But that's a failing of my own, not of the character.

book icon  Walking to Camelot, John A. Cherrington
Why I like books about long-distance walkers when I've never done anything longer than limp around Disney World is beyond me, but I guess there is something appealing about leaving everything behind except what's in your backpack and hiking across beautiful countryside.  And this is what John Cherrington, 50ish solicitor, and his friend Karl, two decades older than him, both from Canada, did: walked a public right-of-way called the Macmillan Way, which stretches from the soggy fenland of eastern England to end on the English Channel near the town of Weymouth. On the way they pass through the lovely Cotswolds with their honey-colored stone buildings, pass through the village of Cherington where John's ancestors came from, and visit Cadbury Camelot, supposedly the place where King Arthur and his knights lived. On the way they will dodge irritated bulls, negotiated (mostly unsuccessfully) with B&B owners who think it's too early to turn on the heat, endure rainstorms, visit as many pubs as Karl wants, and enjoy the lovely English countryside.

I enjoyed this well enough, but was hoping for something a bit more introspective, with more descriptions of the countryside than Cherrington included, and perhaps some of his inner feelings about the trip. Usually in these volumes the author imparts some spiritual epiphanies, but this was pretty much straightforward narrative. It's mostly engaging, I loved what was described of the countryside, and was sorry when the book ended. But did tire of Karl having to hunt up pubs. I'm sure he wasn't as shallow as he sounded.

book icon  Serafina and the Black Cloak, Robert Beatty
Serafina lives in the basement of Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina, with her father, who is the mechanical engineer on the estate, having been there from the time the house was built. But no one upstairs (or really downstairs) knows Serafina lives there. She is a strange little girl with golden eyes and only four toes on each foot, and she is so quick she can catch rats, but she is also sweet, intelligent and curious, and wishes only for a friend her age. But one day she senses an evil presence in the basement, a man in an evil-impregnated black cloak. When she tries to warn her father of it, he rejects the story as fantasy—until several children disappear from around Biltmore Estate, including a Russian girl and a piano prodigy. When Serafina accidentally meets the Vanderbilts' young orphaned nephew, a series of events sets in motion that may shed some light on her past, but may also threaten her new friend when the man in the sinister cloak sets the boy as his next victim.

Deep dark fantasy which may be too intense for younger children, the book applies old mountain legends of shapeshifters to an unsettling plot involving a creeping evil and the newest marvel of the age, Biltmore House with its electric generators and lights. It's pretty good if you can swallow that Serafina lived for twelve years in the Biltmore basements without anyone noticing her, that "Braeden" was a good name for a boy in 1899 (not to mention that the kid has a Doberman Pinscher, a breed that originated only nine years earlier and wasn't even recognized as a breed until 1900, a year after the book takes place), and that by the end of the book the Vanderbilts would be so grateful that they wouldn't ask a lot of questions about her.

book icon  The Year of No Clutter, Eve O. Schaub
Schaub, who spent a year detoxifying her family from added sweetners (in The Year of No Sugar), tackles a new problem: a huge room upstairs in her home that the family calls "the Hell Room" that has become a repository for both useful items—old photographs and memories of her daughters—and junk like discarded hobbies, a dead mouse, old school projects, and other detritus, all compounded by dead insects, dirt, cobwebs, and a filthy rug. She desperately wants to clear the room, not just because it's a hidden eyesore, but because she yearns to use it for useful things, like a hobby room where she can share time with her girls. But Schaub finds throwing out anything, even a crushed piece of construction paper from one of her long-ago school projects, painful and unsettling. With the help of her daughters, and the reluctant help of her husband (who has his own junk in this room as well), and some eye-opening revelations (is she a hoarder? or is she a collector?).

As someone who's once again trying to clear the clutter from her life, I felt some kinship to Schaub, but at the same time was a bit goggled by the things she kept. I can see old craft supplies and photos, but I really didn't understand a bunch of things, especially the dead mouse. Ick! Yet she isn't a hoarder, as a visit to a real hoarder's home shows. She also has the difficulty getting her husband to cooperate; while he wants the Hell Room cleared out, he doesn't want to do any work sorting his own things that are causing the mess. This is a problem in any home where more than one person owns clutter. Eve also begins to realize that she is afraid that by losing her memorabilia she is losing her past and her own self.

I enjoyed most of this, although I found the book hard to get back into once I stopped reading. I'm still interested in reading the sugar book.

book icon  Space Helmet for a Cow 2: The Mad, True Story of Doctor Who, Paul Kirkley
This is the second half of Kirkley's tongue-in-cheek commentary on the history of Doctor Who, from "the wilderness years" and the Virgin books and later the Big Finish audios to the television film to the triumphant return starting with "Rose" and the tumult surrounding it, since Christopher Eccleston quit almost as soon as the first season began. (Kirkley spends a lot of the book popping up with "this is why Eccleston says he quit this time.") It's hard to believe now, but Kirkley also chronicles the disbelief and skepticism of the viewers on finding out David Tennant had been cast in the role. Who knew then he would become the most popular of the modern Doctors?

As in the first volume, we go behind the scenes, discover trivial tidbits (although none of the revelations are as spectacular as the Patrick Troughton surprise!), read good reviews and bad, and are subject to Kirkley's jokes (again, this is so full of fun information you can forgive the bad puns). The narrative continues through the choice of Pearl Mackie in the role of Bill, and The Sarah Jane Adventures (and Elisabeth Sladen's death) and Torchwood are also examined.

Just as much fun and packed with goodies as the original volume. A must for Who fans.

book icon  The Whole Art of Detection, Lyndsay Faye
This is a dandy collection of Sherlock Holmes short stories that have a real flavor of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Faye has captured the vocabulary he used and the personalities of Holmes and Watson admirably; the mysteries themselves are also reasonably complex, although I did guess the crime being done in "The Adventure of the Mad Baritone" immediately. The first story, "The Case of Colonel Warbuton's Madness," I had already read in Sherlock Holmes in America, but the remainder were new to me, and I was happily surprised by them, as in a collection of Sherlock Holmes pastiches there are usually good stories and some quite dreadful ones. Faye's tales are remarkably consistent. She also attempts to fill in some of the Holmes "missing adventures": for instance, in the second tale, we find out how Holmes met Sherman, the owner of Toby, the remarkable scent hound, and in "The Adventure of the Willow Basket," we learn about the infamous red leech. Faye also has written two stories narrated by Holmes—I was amused by "The Gaskell Blackmailing Dilemma," which is narrated by Holmes sounding like a fussy old woman about Watson's safety during his time alone at Baskerville Hall—and there is also "An Empty House," a wistful reminisce by Watson during Holmes' "death." Women figure in many of the stories, some as the victims, in others willing accomplices. One of the most enjoyable Holmes/Watson pastiches I have ever read.

book icon  How to Use Fonts & Typefaces, edited by Tony Seddon
It was two bucks on a clearance table, what the hell. Covers the history of type, the difference between a typeface and a font (Courier is a typeface, Courier Bold and Courier Italic are fonts), how to use them in print and on the web to best match your message (no Comic Sans, of course, on funeral home brochures and university documents, for instance), legibility versus readability, odd fonts, mixing fonts, etc. A nice basic reference.