31 October 2018

Books Completed Since October 1

book icon  The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes, Leonard Goldberg
I am on the fence about this book. First, it's always neat to see what is a new take on the world after Sherlock Holmes. In this novel, Watson is an elderly retiree, and his son, another John, is also a doctor. In the spring of 1914, a woman turns up at Watson's old digs at 221B Baker Street, looking for justice for her brother. It is said he committed suicide by leaping out a window. However, a woman and her young son were there when the man fell, the boy witnessed the event, and they are convinced it was not suicide. When Watson Sr. discovers that the woman witness was named Joanna Blalock, he becomes excited. Truly, the game is afoot, because based on young Johnnie Blalock's testimony, it could not have been suicide. Not only that, but the man who supposedly "committed suicide" leaped out of the window of the house of Christopher Moran, a noted gambler, and son of the notorious Sebastian Moran.

I think I like the idea of this book better than the execution. I haven't yet figured out why Goldberg has named his protagonist the same name as the protagonist of a contemporary series he wrote some years ago. Why is it said Sherlock Holmes died in 1903 when we know from the stories in "His Last Bow" that he was alive at least up until 1914 (with his line about the deadly wind from the east)? How did a photograph of a 10-year-old Sherlock Holmes get in a monograph? (There was photography in Sherlock's lifetime, but who might have taken such a thing, and how would it end up in a monograph and why?) And I'm really iffy about just how Joanna was actually conceived. The story makes it sound like she came to pass after a private love-in.

The story and the personalities are reasonably okay, and the growing attraction between Joanna and John Jr. very low key. They actually solve the mystery well before the novel ends and use the remaining time to spring a trap for the culprit. All in all, it was okay (much better than the Sherry Thomas books!), but not at all one of the best pastiches ever. (Scroll down to Robert Ryan's book for a better suggestion.)

book icon  Re-read: From Holmes to Sherlock, Mattias Boström
Upon finishing this, all I can say is "wow."

I read this originally as an e-book, which was very badly formatted, so I was happy to find a remaindered copy recently. It was just as impressive as I remembered.

If you think this is your run-of-the-mill "how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes" yarn,  you'll be in for a surprise: while the beginning of the book does follow that formula, the rest of the story follows how Holmes became a literary phenomenon even after Doyle's death, and the people who kept him alive: a boy named Kit who devours all the stories and grows up to be Christopher Morley; Doyle's sons Adrian and Denis, who hope to make a living off Holmes while keeping their father's memory alive (neither of them come off particularly well in this book—Adrian is money grubbing and Denis an alcoholic and spendthrift, with a Russian wife who's just as bad) while the boys' half-sister, daughter of Conan Doyle's first wife Louisa is pushed to the background; the Baker Street Irregulars and their anti-female attitude,;actors like the noted William Gillette (whose silent film Sherlock Holmes was rediscovered and restored just recently; it was Gillette who originated some of the symbols that we know Holmes by, such as the calabash pipe), Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, Peter Cushing, Arthur Wontner, even the 1980s Russian Holmes (which became famous due to videotapes recorded in the 1980s before the Berlin Wall fell); women like Edith Meiser, writer for the classic American Holmes radio series, just one of Holmes' female fans who fought to break into the "old boys club" that originally was Holmes fandom; collectors and enthusiasts such as John Bennett Shaw and Vincent Starrett; and even Eve Titus, who wrote the "Basil of Baker Street" pastiches for children, finally ending with Robert Downey Jr, Jeremy Brett, all the way down to Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat plotting out a modern-day Sherlock on a train. (The author misses almost nothing, even to noting the portrayal of Holmes by "Wishbone," only forgetting the animated Sherlock Holmes in the 23rd Century.) And all the time the rights to the stories and the estate bounce from one member of the Doyle family to the next.

There are lots of interesting tidbits tossed your way in this book, but you must be a Holmes fan to completely appreciate it. Boström has done an enormous amount of research and it shows, but the writing (or perhaps the translation) is at times almost too cut-and-dried. Rewards abound if you stick with it.

book icon  A Study in Murder: A Dr. Watson Thriller, Robert Ryan
In this third of Robert Ryan's World War I-set novels of John Watson serving as an Army doctor, the story picks up where it left off. Watson, who was captured by the Germans while driving a prototype tank, is at first assigned to a reasonably comfortable prisoner-of-war camp. But involvement in an escape attempt and the machinations of an old foe have sixty-year-old Watson shipped off to Harzgrund, the worst German camp of all. Upon arrival, Watson finds his possessions stolen, the prisoners set against him, and no cooperation among the troops, only a raw fight for survival, since the mercenary commander makes the prisoners pay for any "privileges" like Red Cross packages. However, he also finds out that prisoners believe there's a means of escape. The truth will be more gruesome than he realizes, as is the reason he's been transferred to Harzgrund.

I don't know what superlatives I can attach to these books that I haven't used before. The plots are tense and complicated, and Watson is competent in working out what's going on once presented with the clues. But most importantly, they bring the real horror of "the Great War" to life. Harzgrund, the terrible POW camp portrayed in this book, was based on a real POW camp where the commander made the prisoners pay for what should have been theirs by rights, like those Red Cross packages. The portrayal of escape attempts and escape methods are based on real events. Some of the revelations will give you chills of horror. It's only in the climax to this book that the plot gets a tad fanciful, as Mrs. Gregson seems to be able to manage to do impossible things. But...recommended, recommended, recommended!

book icon  The Annotated Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett, edited by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina
When I had finished up the annotated version of Charlotte's Web, I recalled I still had this lavishly illustrated annotated volume in the spare bedroom. In that Charlotte's Web review, I noted that editors chose to emphasize different things in their annotations: "Some annotated books use their annotations to point out unfamiliar terms, or expand on the history behind events in a story, or to point out the morals and mores of the time. [The author of this annotated volume] uses them most to point out White's careful choice of words, his edits of the text, and (forgive the pun) how he spun his web of words to create his classic novel." Gerzina uses her annotations chiefly to emphasize the secret garden's rediscovery and rebirth to symbolize Mary's and Colin's reformation from spoiled, selfish, brooding children to purposeful young adults who greet the future with anticipation.

This wonderful edition is illustrated with almost all the famous illustrations from different editions of The Secret Garden since its publication, including Ernest Shepherd and of course the iconic art of Tasha Tudor, plus photographs from media products of the book (the 1949 Margaret O'Brien film, the television version with Kate Maberly, etc.). The book also contains a short biography of Burnett and her successes and setbacks, a timeline of her life, and an essay she wrote called "My Robin" about the bird she adopted at her home in England. A must for any Secret Garden fan.

book icon  Journal of a Solitude, May Sarton
Ms. Sarton's books, especially this one, were recommended on another book blog that I read, and this appeared to be one of her most noted ones, so I picked it up when I saw it. I can't say I was disappointed, but it was different from what I was expecting. Sarton, a poet and essayist, chronicled her thoughts about living alone—she found she could not concentrate on her poetry when surrounded by family, friends and day-to-day tumult, so she would stay solitary between book tours in order to concentrate on her art. She talks frankly about her bouts of depression and the positives and negatives of a solitary life. However, I think I was expecting something more like the Stillmeadow books. (It seems I spend a lot of time searching for someone else who "sounds like Gladys Taber.")

Still, this is a nice quiet introspective book, perfect for a relaxing day's read with a favorite beverage and a cat in the lap, perhaps cuddled in a favorite afghan.

book icon  Howards End is on the Landing, Susan Hill
One fall afternoon, while looking for a book she wanted to read in her extensive collection, Susan Hill discovers other books she purchased but hadn't read, or books she'd even forgotten she'd purchased, along with books she realized she wanted to read again. Hill resolves to buy no new books (except for volumes she needs to read in connection with work) until she plows through her to-be-read and begging-to-be re-read piles.

This slim but delightful volume reminds one of her nature volume The Magic Apple Tree, but with books instead of the countryside, allowing her to review her life with books. She wanders happily from her old "Observer" books on trees and airplanes and how good titles entice you into a literary world and the magic of Dorothy Sayers to Shakespeare, Dickens, and poetry to the joy of finding things in used books to the favorites she turns to along with the strange volumes she's found around the house. Even if you are young and American and recognize few of the titles and authors you cannot but help be caught up in her memories and recollections and obvious affection for certain writers and her books. A delight for any bibliophile.

book icon  Caught Dead-Handed, Carol J. Perry
This is the first book in the cozy "Witch City Mystery" series. Lee Bennett, young widow and native of Salem, Massachusetts, has returned home lined up for a job interview with the local cable station WICH. Unfortunately, the position is filled by the time she gets to the interview; while returning angrily to her car, she spies a body lying in the tide line. It's Ariel Constellation, WICH's spooky movie host, who also runs a psychic hotline. In a bind, WICH offers Lee the host position, and she figures any "in" to the station is better than nothing. She even makes some friends at the station: Janice, the program manager, and her brother George, Marty (who, like others at WICH wears lots of hats), and even Scott Palmer, who was the guy who got her job. Soon she'll meet Detective Pete Mondello and a friendly cab driver named Jake, not to mention Ariel's cat Orion—Lee calls him O'Ryan—whom Lee and her Aunt Ibby adopt.

And discovers someone has tried to kill the cat, and then later tries to kidnap him. Like it or not, Lee is drawn into the puzzle of Ariel's dead, and suspects another murder, that of a woman with an abusive husband, is part of the same puzzle.

Okay, about two thirds of the way through the book I realized what was going on, but it didn't matter because I already like Lee, Aunt Ibby, Pete, and Jake, and since I bought the book because it was set in Salem, it was already pretty satisfactory. Lee puzzles her way through the clues intelligently for the most part, and does not do what annoys me most in most cozies: determines that she is going to be the one to solve the mystery due to some misguided idea that it's her responsibility. The other thing that may be a problem for some people is that about halfway through the plot takes a turn which indicates child abuse is involved. The chapter which this is finally explained is pretty strong stuff. There's also sort of an instant romance in the story, which is common for modern cozies, and of course the pair are both gorgeous. So far this one isn't all that annoying.

I confess, I went ahead and bought the rest of the books. No redeeming social value, just sent in New England and enjoyable fluff.

book icon  Make a Nerdy Living, Alex Langley
I'm sorry I bought this book.

This is nothing against Alex Langley. It has a catchy cover and graphics, and the people interviewed in the various careers (comics artist, blogging, podcasting, video game design, etc are all cool and nice, but it was an impulse buy and just so very, very basic for the price and catchy graphics. I would have preferred more content (at least two people interviewed for each profession) and lots more words and fewer graphics. This would be perfect as a $2.99 e-book, but it was an expensive mistake.

book icon  A Knife in the Dark, Bradley Harper
The first few "Jack the Ripper" murders (at that time referred to being performed by a man known as "Leather Apron") electrified London. In Portsmouth, England, struggling physician Arthur Conan Doyle, having written the first Sherlock Holmes story some time earlier, is asked to come to England's capitol by Prime Minister William Gladstone to investigate the killings. As his partner, he will have Dr. Joseph Bell, whose sharp observational style formed the basis for Holmes. He is even offered an unconventional guide, a woman author of good upbringing named Margaret Harkness who nevertheless lives in Whitechapel among the poor. Together Doyle, Bell, and Harkness follow the trail of the Ripper, but he seems to know their every move, and has even sent threatening notes to Doyle.

This is a very good semi-Sherlock Holmes pastiche. Doyle's narrative is descriptive but brisk-paced and very few anachronisms are noted. The "Three Musketeers" partnership he forms with his old teacher and the writer Harkness (Margaret Harkness was an actual writer who exposed the dismal and often fatal lives of the poor in London slums) seems very real, and the narrative follows a realistic pace. Too, Miss Harkness is not a 21st century woman in 19th century dress. My only problem with this book—and perhaps then I should not have chosen it to read—is that I've never been all that interested in the minutia associated with the Ripper murders, despite having attended panels about it at conventions (I confess it's because I liked the writers on the panel). Much of the evidence is detailed as Bell, Doyle, and Harkness investigate the crime. Anyone who holds a fascination with the mystery surrounding the Ripper might enjoy this novel.

book icon  True North: Exploring the Great Wilderness by Bush Plane, George Erickson
So I saw this book: guy flying a Tundra Cub; hey, it might be a good book for James. But it appealed to me, too, and I started on it almost as soon as I got home from the book sale. It's indeed about Erickson's trip across Canada and a bit of Alaska from his home in northern Minnesota and has many flying stories, but I'm not sure James would enjoy it, as it's so much more. It's a history of Canadian exploration (and, sadly, longtime mistreatment of the First Nations people), it's a paean to nature full of quiet lakes, pesky mosquitoes and blackflies, polar bears and black bears, caribou, ravens, beautiful trees, cold, rain, wild swimming; his encounters with the people who live year after year in remote locations; adventures in fishing; and the intrusion of industrialization on formerly natural areas.

Not only that, but Erickson loves one of my favorite books ever, A Natural History of the Senses!

Sometimes the flashbacks aren't as well delineated as they should have been, but in total this is part travelogue, part history book, all wonderful!

book icon  Nine Lessons, Nicola Upson
This is a great installment of Upson's mystery series built around mystery writer Josephine Tey (Elizabeth MacIntosh) that treats her as both a real person (using her actual books and plays) and as a fictional character (to her friends, of course, she was not "Josephine" as she is here). This time Inspector Archie Penrose gets a chance to shine as he investigates the particularly horrific murder of a church organist in Hampstead; the man was evidently buried alive with a photo of a manor house and a cryptic note. As more murders occur, Archie realizes they are all associated with King's Chapel in Cambridge, just coincidentally the city where Josephine and her lover Marta have just taken up residence. But there is no ease for Josephine when Marta goes to the States in conjunction with the release of her movie, as there is a rapist loose in Cambridge attacking young ladies living on their own—indeed, the crime strikes too close to home when one of Josephine's new neighbors, a nurse, is attacked.

And what is Josephine to do with the news that Archie has a long-lost daughter? The girl's mother wants to break it to him in her own time, but can't seem to do it.

Lots of good, solid investigating in this outing for Archie, who learns more about the famous "Monty" (horror writer M.R. James) who was once provost of King's College and who served as mentor for the murdered men. Josephine helps him in his investigation, but it's all solved by good old fashioned detecting and footwork, although she comes up with a solution for another problem.

Incidentally, a clue to the mystery may be found if you are familiar with any mystery short stories by Thomas Burke. (Yes, that's a spoiler.)

book icon  The Years of the Forest, Helen Hoover
Helen Hoover and her husband Ade (Adrian) anticipated the back to nature movement way back in the 1950s, when she quit her job as a metallurgist and he his job as an artist to move to a log cabin/summer house arrangement in Minnesota off the beaten path: no plumbing, no running water, no electricity, no phone. She wrote of their earliest experiences in A Place in the Woods; this volume is a summary of their experiences in the years they lived in Minnesota before moving to the Southwest.

After reading this book, I'm not sure whether I would want to hug Hoover or shake her. Her writing about the forest, the lake, the animals, all of the nature she experiences so beautiful it nearly overwhelms everything else. Her nature narrative rivals some of the best I've read.

However, on a personal level, these are two of the worst "babes in the woods" people I've ever seen. They make no provision for eating (they don't hunt) other than buying groceries in bulk before the delivery truck quits making its rounds for the season, and start a garden and then don't protect it from the animals. At one point they are so low on food that Helen (at least) gets scurvy, but they take what's left of their food and feed the wild animals because the animals are having a tough time during the winter. Except for the articles Helen writes and some notepapers that Ade designs, they've got no way of making a living, plus at the beginning of their stay, they did nothing to dissuade their neighbors (except for one Native family) from thinking they're kooks, so no one ever asks after them except for two people. When strangers claim a shipment of their food, they end up still having to pay the bill for it because the local grocer knows them so little that they can't prove they weren't the ones who picked it up. They crashed their car and have no way to get into town when Helen gets a fever. Finally after a few years they start to talk to their neighbors and are so surprised at how generous they are! They take pride in living as naturally as they can so not to spoil the woods (a constant theme is the progress bringing hunters and campers to their woods), but all their food comes in cans! They've got to be throwing those cans somewhere, having no way to portage them out, so they've still despoiled the woods! And it's very sweet that they feed the deer, including Peter, the deer Helen wrote a book about, and the groundhog, and the rabbits, but by doing so they allow the animals to rely on them and also lead hunters right to the deer!

Gorgeous prose, and Adrian's pen-and-ink drawings are stunning, but their lifestyle choices left a lot to be desired.

book icon  The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel, Alyssa Palombo
I should have read up on this book before I bought it. Having watched the series Sleepy Hollow, I thought this might have been yet another reworking of the Washington Irving story which has Katrina as a witch and bought it as something to read for Hallowe'en. Sadly, it wasn't to be. As in the Irving story, Katrina is the gorgeous young daughter of the community's richest man, who's being courted by the muscly Brom Van Brunt ("Brom Bones"), when schoolteacher Ichabod Crane comes to town. However, in this version Katrina is well-read and well-educated (Brom still comes off as Gaston from Disney's Beauty and the Beast) and the moment she and (slightly jug-eared but) handsome Crane with his green eyes lock glances they are in love. Soon she offers him her virginity and they tryst in the wood and once at her friend Charlotte's house while trying to keep their relationship a secret (though Katrinia's ex-slave nursemaid knows pretty much immediately, unlike her clueless parents). Charlotte is known to have witchlike powers and reads the tarot cards for her, and it shows the relationship will end in disaster, and yes, Katrina still persists. So what happens on Hallowe'en when penniless Ichabod plans to ask for Katrina's hand in marriage (and he has to do it soon, because Katrina forgot to take the pregnancy prevention tea Charlotte brewed up for her)? Yeah, you can guess.

So basically this is historical chick-lit with a couple of torrid sex scenes in a romantic wooded glade and Charlotte's visions tossed in for good measure. Katrina also has nightmares that turn out to be precongnition, but so symbolic that she can't understand it till the grim end. There is no spellbook, just a diary in which she records her dreams. I have to admit that at times the narrative is very good at setting a scene, but most of the narrative is Katrina twittering or worrying over Ichabod. Frankly, I would have preferred a book about Charlotte and her mother, who are herbalists and midwives. If you want a romantic version of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," this is the book for you; otherwise steer clear.

Oh, yeah, I liked Katrina's dog, but unlike Lassie, even he can't save the story.

book icon  Halloween: An American Holiday, an American History, Lesley Pratt Bannatyne

book icon  Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, Nicholas Rogers

book icon  The Halloween Encyclopedia, Lisa Morton