31 December 2019

Favorite "Dozen" Books of 2019

Once again, there's the difficulty of having to narrow these down to a dozen; I usually end up with the traditional baker's dozen [thirteen] instead. If this was a "best books," maybe the Griffo wouldn't be on here, because there's a bit in the story that's on the edge of credulity. But, being a "favorite," it needs to stay, because I was just so delighted with the protagonist being a retirement-age Italian granny. So I guess my "dozen" will have to be fifteen entries and sixteen books this year.

book icon  The Bowery Boys Adventures in Old New York, Greg Young and Tom Meyers (taken from a podcast about historical areas of NYC, both still extant and now demolished)

book icon  Cool Hand Lou: My Fifty Years in Hollywood and on Broadway, Lou Antonio (an autobiography of the actor and director)

book icon  A Forgotten Place, Charles Todd (the latest Bess Crawford mystery, written in a Gothic style)

book icon  Dear Mrs. Bird, A.J. Pearce (a young British girl survives the Blitz while working on a stodgy women's magazine)

book icon  Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul, Barbara Reynolds (biography of the Lord Peter Wimsey author)

book icon  Underland, Robert MacFarlane (MacFarlane's tour-de-force about places underground from caves to crevasses to the catacombs of Paris)

book icon  Saving Jemima: Life and Love with a Hard-Luck Jay, Julie Zickefoose (Zickefoose's story of the rescue and raising of a blue jay)

book icon  The Rise of the Rocket Girls, Nathalia Holt (great story of the women who would work with the first rocket programs)

book icon  A Death of No Importance/Death of a New American, Mariah Fredericks (the first two books in Fredericks' new series taking place in the 1920s, with a heroine who is not a 21st century woman in 20th century clothes)

book icon  How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, Chris Taylor (the film series from George Lucas' original idea to hark back to the old movie serials to the present, with chapters on SW fandom)

book icon  Moonbound: Apollo 11 and the Dream of Spaceflight, Jonathan Fetter-Vorm (the American space program that put man on the moon, told in a graphic novel—perfect!)

book icon  Murder on Memory Lake, J.D. Griffo (starting new series with an unconventional heroine: a 60-ish Italian grandmother—when she exclaimed "Ah, Madon!" I knew I was home)

book icon  A Gentleman's Murder, Christopher Huang (British murder mystery with an unconventional narrator, a biracial man, post First World War)

book icon  The Body on the Train, Frances Brody (the latest in Brody's Kate Shackleton mystery series, and, if not the best, probably in the top three—great story!)

book icon  On the Map, Simon Garfield (another great book from Garfield, this time on the history of maps and mapmaking)

What's next? Oh, as Betty Roberts would say with delight, so many things! I have three ARCs to read first, one the latest Maggie Hope mystery story, and then I have Nathalia Holt's new book about the women at Walt Disney's animation department, The Secret Commonwealth as well as Philip Pullman's book about writing, and I still haven't gotten to Tony Horwitz's final book...

Books Completed Since December 1

book icon  Light of the World, Amy Jill Levine

book icon  Re-read: Santa Claus: Last of the Wild Men, Phyllis Siefker

book icon  A Lakes Christmas, compiled by Sheila Richardson

book icon  The Case of the Missing Auntie, Michael Hutchinson
I admit, I still watch cartoons if they're good cartoons. And earlier this year PBS debuted a dynamite new series, Molly of Denali, about a Native Alaskan girl and her family and friends. The series opened with a sobering story called "Grandpa's Drum," about Molly's Grandpa Nat, who hasn't sung with the tribe since his childhood, and what happens when Molly finds out why. This entry in "the Mighty Muskrats" series travels similar ground.

This, the second in a new series by Hutchinson, who is a member of the Cree community, revolves around four children, Samuel, Chickadee, Atin, and Otter, cousins who call themselves "the Mighty Muskrats," who live at the Windy Lake reservation. Chickadee's grandfather admits to her that his younger sister Charlotte was taken away from his family in the late 1950s in what they called "scoops"—native children who were adopted (mostly to act as servants) for white people. Now with the Muskrats heading into the big city to go to an exhibition fair, a disturbed Chickadee thinks their first mission should be to try to track down their missing aunt, but the boys are full of anticipation about visiting cousins, going to the fair, and Otter just wants to see his favorite Native band perform.

No sooner are the kids at the much vaunted mall in the crowded, confusing city that they run into Brett, a boy who used to live on the "rez" and who Chickadee secretly had a crush on., and things start to go a little haywire. But Chickadee is still determined, no matter what, to find missing Auntie Charlotte.

This reads like an old-fashioned kids' adventure—the covers even look like a Happy Hollisters book—with modern sensibilities (internet, cell phones, etc.), real-life problems (Native people still coping with terrible laws once enacted by white settlers), and the problems of a usually-overlooked culture. The kids meet good and bad people of all cultures, cope with bureaucracy, find out some hard truths about their past, but also that they can help overcome it.

Maybe because I didn't read the first book the kids don't seem to be as individually fleshed out as I'd like, except for Chickadee (I still don't think I know how old each of them are, except that Atin is the eldest). Otherwise I found this really enjoyable, and a great way to introduce non-Native children to one aspect of Native culture. (The story is set in Canada, but the "residential homes" mentioned were just like the "Indian schools" like that in Carlisle, PA, which ended up with such an evil reputation, and for good reason.)

book icon  A Christmas Party, Georgette Heyer

book icon  The Book of Christmas Folklore, Tristram P. Coffin

book icon  Bells, Spells, and Murder, Carol J. Perry

book icon  Re-read: Merry Midwinter, Gillian Monks

book icon  A Fenland Christmas, compiled by Chris Carling

book icon  Re-read: The Story of Holly and Ivy, Rumer Godden

book icon  Re-read: Sleigh Bells for Windy Foot, Frances Frost

book icon  Re-read: The Tuckers: The Cottage Holiday, Jo Mendel

book icon  Re-read: Dear America: Christmas After All, Kathryn Lasky

book icon  Carols From King's, Alexandra Coghlan

book icon  Ideals Christmas, from the Ideals Publication

book icon  Re-read: A Little House Christmas Treasury, Laura Ingalls Wilder with colorized illustrations by Garth Williams

book icon  Re-read: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Barbara Robinson

book icon  Re-read: The House Without a Christmas Tree, Gail Rock

30 November 2019

Books Completed Since November 1

book icon  Suburban Safari, Hannah Holmes
I don't always make it, but I've tried to keep with my retirement resolution of trying to walk at least one mile every day. This usually involves me taking the dog through our very small neighborhood and out to the main street, which sounds rather bland except that the rental condo complex across the road is very badly maintained, and a good deal of Georgia wild plants live on that small section of roadside so that I can watch the seasons go by: buds to flowers to green leaves to berries to the hard knobs of the buds waiting for winter's end. So I was intrigued by this book by Holmes, who basically tracks wildlife and wild plants in her own backyard.

I'm a piker compared to Holmes; she has a good deal of land which she has apportioned areas for wildlife, a butterfly garden, compost heap, birdhouses, all that, and she calls on scientists to explain her findings. In the course of a year she observes squirrels, chipmunks (one whom she allows to run in and out of her house!), crows, all matter of insects. She also tries to keep a drought-proof, pesticide-free lawn without ticking off the neighbors who wouldn't accept a scraggly meadow in their midst, and discover earthworms aren't always good for the earth, talks about plants who actively fight off any other kind of plant, and discusses invasive species.

Who knew a back yard could be teeming with such life, even a pocket sized one like we have, backed with a little stand of trees? While I won't be going out there to watch bugs or let a chipmunk run wild through my home, it's astonishing to discover what a cool little microcosm it is. Thoroughly enjoyed this romp through suburban nature.

book icon  Star Trek: The Captain's Oath, Christoper L. Bennett
I can take or leave Star Trek original novels. Some, like Greg Cox's Khan trilogy, have been terrific, others I've just tossed in the trade in bin as the author presses the reset button at the end. This one is definitely interesting, filling in the gaps of James T. Kirk's career from the little info we were given on the series (and a lot more from additional publications from both baseline Star Trek sources and novel-generated ones). It opens with his taking command of the Enterprise after commanding the scout ship USS Sacagawea from 2261 through 2265. It is during the command of Sacagawea he first meets Klingon captain Koloth and encounters other characters we will later meet on the series, and first works with Leonard McCoy. The wraparound story concerns Kirk's efforts to balance the Aulacri peoples' desire to terraform a planet where the population killed themselves in bloody civil war vs. a Andorian archaeology team who have just made an exciting find on that planet, but the narrative also travels back and forth in the Sacagawea timeline to see Kirk making the several judgments that will serve him in good stead as captain of the Enterprise. He also encounters a spacefaring society whose lifeform is quite different from the humanoid species he has formerly encountered which they at first fight and then attempt to negotiate with.

In general, this is a good story if you can keep track of the back-and-forth travel between the "present" Sacagawea adventures and her past ones (as well as the flashbacks to Vega Colony). We meet interesting new lifeforms, see Kirk deal with a crew and command staff of less homogenized human characters, the Caitians (from the animated series) appear again in a great sub-storyline, familiar names like Areel Shaw and Janet Wallace pop up, and we get to see the Kirk/Gary Mitchell friendship that was unfortunately cut short by the pilot episode (the book ends as the Enterprise sets off on that fateful mission). Bennett does have his moments of preachiness, however, and you have to sidestep some of the speeches to get to the more interesting action and technology of the story (like Samuel Goldwyn says, if you want to send a message, call Western Union—a lot of this could have been shown, not talked about). But in the end it's pretty much a keeper.

book icon  Good Husbandry, Kristin Kimball
Kimball's sequel to The Dirty Life opens where the previous book left off, with Kristin and Mark married and still developing their Essex Farm, a 500-acre agriculturally diverse smallholding that sells vegetables, fruits, and meats. After a rocky start agriculturally, Kristen became pregnant (soon they were the parents of two daughters) and the farm did well for a while, with volunteers and paid workers joining their vision of selling healthy, sustainable food. But bills began to mount, the farm underwent a drought that was finally relieved, and then rain began in earnest...and kept going. Worst of all, Mark was injured, and seemed to lose all his enthusiasm for the project.

Weather problems are always a farmer's worst enemy, and financial woes dog the heels of those who provide our food. I really felt for the family during those chapters. But Mark's injury and reaction really irritated me. Naturally he had weeks where he needed to rest and let his body heal. But I found his extended lassitude annoying. He just seemed to dump everything on Kristen to play videogames on her phone (something I'm sure he would have chided her for) and moan about being human. Really disappointed in his reaction to realizing he was a vulnerable man and not some food god come to change America's eating habits.

Otherwise this was another absorbing and realistic look at non-industrial farming. Kristen can really bring the realities and the beauties of living in the country to life; she makes me feel like I'm out in those fields sweating under the sun, working with the beautiful but sometimes temperamental horses, feel the winter chill (especially in a badly-heated home that Mark refused to help her repair) and watching her children grow and embrace the farm life.

book icon  Peril & Prayer, Olivia Matthews
I'm back with Sister Lou LaSalle for the second in the Sister Lou mysteries. Abrasive Sister Marianna (how this contentious woman ever joined a religious order is beyond me) is rubbing events manager Autumn Tassler the wrong was as they negotiate the foods for the Advent retreat for the Sisters of St. Hermione of Ephesus, and Sister Lou, not Sister Marianna's favorite person, steps in to mediate. (Sister Marianna, predictably, wants everyone to eat boring healthy food.) Days later Tassler is found strangled in her office and when Marianna's scarf is found on the floor, she becomes a suspect. So now Sister Lou has to put her detecting shoes once more before the Sisters' congregation receives bad press for the event. Helped by her nephew Chris and their new friend, reporter Shari Henson, Lou reluctantly gets to work.

Author Matthews continues to over-describe everything in rather clichѐd style, which is aggravating (at least she didn't go on and on about Lou's blue chairs this time). And the city police officers are still the two most annoying police characters ever in cozy fiction: they decide who's the guilty party and pigheadedly believe it from then on, even when contrary evidence is under their noses. Plus mayor Heather Stanley, who is so paranoid about the town getting a bad rep that she attempts to bribe the press, really needs to be kicked out of office! (We learn a really shocking secret about her in this volume, however.)

I really enjoy the characters and setting in this mystery series, but the author's style is really awkward with stilted phrasing and descriptions.

book icon  The Encyclopedia of Cross Stitch Techniques, Betty Barnden
Nice hardback I picked up at a library book sale for a song: illustrates basic supplies including needles, fabrics, and hoops, then basic stitches along with advice on how to do them best (it really doesn't get into a good definition of "couching," though), and finally ideas for projects. For fifty cents a treat!

book icon  E.B. White: Writings from The New Yorker 1925-1976, edited by Rebecca M. Dale
After reading Essays of E.B. White and One Man's Meat, this is pretty much a disappointment because very few of White's complete essays are contained here. That is not to say there are not some longer pieces contained, including 1927's "Interview With a Sparrow" and an imagined dialog between White and his late dachshund Fred on the occasion of Laika's flight into space, and there are sweet tributes to both editor Harold Ross and White's fellow writer James Thurber, but most of the entries here are one or two paragraphs illustrating White's turn of phrase on everything from snow to writing to science and business and Christmas and academia. Not that these aren't grand turns of phrase, either; I found myself reading some of them aloud to my husband. It's just after getting full columns of White's lovely prose these one- and two-paragraph bits make you feel a little cheated. So I'm glad I picked it up at a book sale for the writing and the tribute, but it's not as good as the others.

book icon  It Takes a Coven, Carol J. Perry
In this sixth "Witch City mystery," Lee Barrett (neè Maralee Kowalski, journalism graduate, young widow of a race car driver, and now back living upstairs at the home of the librarian aunt Isobel [Ibby], who raised her) is meeting with future bride (and former student) Shannon Dumas and her fellow bridesmaids when she finds out Megan, a 105-year-old woman who is Salem's oldest practicing witch, has died. Megan's friends, including Lee's close friend River North, are devastated, and River lets slip to Lee that two other "closet" witches have died just recently, a crabby waitress named Gloria Tasker and a banker named Elliot Bagenstose. No sooner does Megan pass away than Salem is invaded by a huge "murder of crows," and someone takes a potshot at another practicing Salem witch, braggart shop owner Christopher Rich. Are these situations all connected?

Well, considering this is a "Witch City" mystery, of course they are! As Lee juggles this puzzle and also another esoteric task she and River believe they need to do, Lee is offered an intern job as investigative reporter for WICH-TV, which might lead to a permanent position. Throw her in that briar patch! And soon she's nosing about for clues in the deaths of the three witches, nudged on by her own talent for scrying obtuse clues in reflective objects and guided by her eerily prescient orange cat O'Ryan, and doing an in-depth report on the crows.

Another enjoyable outing in this series, including introducing a new cat into the mix.

book icon  Bayou Suzette, Lois Lenski
This is technically a rerun, but since I haven't read it in at least fifty years it was practically brand new.

Bayou Suzette was the first of Lenski's regional stories; her next, Strawberry Girl, would win the Newbery Medal. Eighteen in all were written. From the 1940s to the 1960s, children without the internet would learn how their counterparts in various regions of the United States lived: kids who lived on farms in Iowa or the Dakotas, whose fathers were loggers or coal miners, children whose families were Amish or immigrants from "the old country," and more.

Suzette Durand is a 10-year-old Cajun girl who lives in the Louisiana bayou with her parents and siblings, probably early in the 20th century. Her father has not worked for almost two years after being accidentally shot by a neighbor who they have feuded with ever since. Suzette makes extra money for food and necessities by catching fish and selling them at the general store. On one trip she meets Marteel, an orphaned Native American girl who is being abused by her guardian, so Suzette takes her home. At first her parents don't want Marteel to stay; they are bigoted against her because she is a "thieving Indian" like her relations, until she saves Suzette from an alligator. Suzette comes to think of Marteel as her sister, but Marteel refuses to behave the way the family wants her to, continually running off to the woods. In the meantime there are adventures on the river, a confrontation due to the feud, and finally the threat of a flood ruining the Durands' way of life.

This a very vivid portrayal of pioneer Cajun life (I tap it as early 1900s because a character has a phonograph with a big speaker horn and those went out in the 1920s) as well as the bigotry extended to "Indians" in those days. Suzette (and later her mother) are the only ones who will speak up for Marteel, and the end of the story is very affecting. Not as good as some of her later books like Strawberry Girl and Judy's Journey, but great at capturing a vanished way of life.

book icon  On the Map, Simon Garfield
Another great offering from Garfield, this about the history of maps. And you knew I had to have it, because I've been a map geek since childhood and used to invent my own islands just to make maps of them.

Garfield starts with the newest map, generated by Facebook of internet connections, a map where China hardly figures because of their restrictive internet policies, then takes us back in time, past even Ptolemy, to show us men scratching landmarks in the sand to show others where hunting grounds, water, and other necessities were. Eratosthenes was the first known man to make a map of "the world" (Europe, Africa [Libya back then], and Asia, all that was known by Europeans back then). Others, like Ptolemy's famous map, followed.

Along with the history of maps, we learn that one of the world's oldest maps was almost sold to finance the repair of a leaky roof, which countries excelled in mapmaking, the mystery of which Europeans were the first to know about the Americas, how this guy Vespucci got his name on two continents, when atlases came into being, the story of Britain's famous Ordnance Maps, all about literary maps (from Narnia to Treasure Island), the birth of travel guidebooks, the story of globes and GPS, and even about map thieves.

Sheer bliss if you are a map geek, and pretty interesting for everyone else.

book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Haunted House Mystery, Jerry West
This is #21 in this fun kids' series from the 1950s-1970s, in which the Hollister children (Pete, age 12; Pam, 10; Ricky, 7; and Holly, 6—there's also a younger sister, Sue, age 4) and their friends Donna, Dave, and Jeff, form a Detective Club, and they have a doozy of a first case: elderly Mrs. Neeley is looking for ghost hunters to rid her vintage home, tours of which form most of her income, of the spooks that seem to be haunting it. They also take a side case when Pete meets a young man named Kerry Flip, a circus acrobat who's looking for his real family in Shoreham with only the photo of his mother in an old doorway to help him.

This is a real Nancy Drew-like mystery that the kids get involved in, with a spooky old house, a string of jewelry robberies, a mysterious acrobat, and strange noises figuring in the plot. Of interest is the Hollisters' friendship with Charles Belden, a boy who is deaf, who teaches them sign language and helps them solve the mystery due to his ability to read lips. Of course Joey Brill, neighborhood bully, and his follower Will Wilson create additional mayhem, when Joey unwittingly—and that's a perfect word to use for Joey, because he's totally lacking in wits—helps the jewel thieves. Once again West (real name Andrew Swenson) counters 1950s sex stereotypes when Pam gets to accompany Pete on late-night "stakeouts" of the haunted house, and the girls are full-fledged members of the Detective Club, not reduced to baking cookies for the boys who are doing all the detecting.

There's also a very funny sequence where Holly offers to clean out the pantry so Pam can go detecting with the boys, and is helped by Donna and little Sue. We'll let you read to find out the repercussions on that one!

book icon  Rivers of London: Action at a Distance, Andrew Cartmel, Brian Williamson Stefani Renne, Rob Steen
The seventh graphic novel in the Peter Grant series. As the story opens, Thomas Nightingale is on his way to a funeral of an old friend made during World War II. He advises Peter that this led to a very interesting case in the 1950s and directs him to a dossier in his records. As Peter reads, we go back in time to both eras to see how his mentor befriended Angus Strallen, how Strallen later joined British intelligence, and then sought Nightingale's help on the case of a serial killer with ties to both the war and to a new nuclear energy project.

Not only do we see more of Nightingale's past, but we learn of Toby's predecessor in the household, and also a secret fancy of Molly's, along with a detective story having to do with both industrial sabotage and murder, which ties into a real-life nuclear accident that happened in Great Britain.

You do not really miss anything in the Peter Grant narrative by not buying the graphic novels, but each one adds more texture and depth to the characters, so if you have an aversion to "comics," you still might want to give these a try. Molly reveals hidden depths in this issue, and we also find out more about Nightingale's attachment to Toby.

The informative text at the rear adds a historical verisimilitude to the story with the tale of the real nuclear accident and also a fascinating article about Jasper Maskeline's role in hoodwinking the Nazis by using magic as a basis for misdirection.

book icon  The Body on the Train, Frances Brody
I have been reading the Kate Shackleton mysteries from the first book of the series, and I have to say, this is either the best one I've ever read or at at least in the top three. Kate is contacted by Scotland Yard to discreetly investigate an unidentified man who was found murdered, clad only in his underwear and stuffed into potato sacks, on a shipment of rhubarb sent down from the area is around Thorpefield, a small village near where Kate grew up. She is told the man may have been a Russian fomenting union unrest in the local cloth mills. In order to conduct a discreet investigation, she arranges to stay at the home of her best friend from riding school, Gertrude Brockman, who is now married to a well-to-do mine owner and country squire, in the guise of writing and photographing a story about the area and its interests for a magazine. Before she leaves for Thorpefield, she notes that a sweet shop owner in the village was killed at the same time as the unidentified man, and that the shopkeeper's boarder was accused of the crime. Kate thinks it strange that two killings happened in the same tiny place and wonders why the second crime wasn't brought to her attention.

This is only the start of a fast-moving and complex mystery that will also involve Kate's investigative partner Jim Sikes, her landlady Mrs. Sugden, Kate's niece Harriet, and even their dog, and introduces a fascinating cast of characters, including Kate's old childhood companion "PH," Philip Goodchild (a young man who we might say today was autistic), the Brockmans and their enigmatic butler Raynor, and Milly the maid who is in love with the young man accused of murdering the sweet shop owner, the mystery involving a golfing tournament, a young mechanic with a familiar face, a razed orphanage, an allotment with a strangely-dressed scarecrow, a new coal-pit being dug, and missing children. Almost every other chapter contained a new twist, and, although I figured out whodunit about 3/4 of the way through, I still raced through the book to find out if the guilty would be punished and how.

These are consistently great mysteries, but this one has pretty much topped all the rest in interesting characters and situations.

book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Trading Post Mystery, Jerry West

book icon  Chicken Soup for the Soul: It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas, edited by Amy Newmark

31 October 2019

Books Completed Since October 1

book icon  Good-Bye, Mr. Chips and Other Stories, James Hilton
Since the fall book sale was so close, I thought I'd read some of the books I picked up at previous book sales. This one was a surprise to find, as I didn't realize Hilton had written other "Chips" stories, five which are included in this book (the stories are from a book called To You, Mr. Chips, which also contained two additional chapters, Hilton's nostalgic look at his schooldays, an edited version which is included in this volume, and a story "Gerald and the Candidate," the tale of a boy who goes to Greyshott, the prep school for Brookfield, in which Chips is mentioned in passing on the last page).

The short novel Good-Bye, Mr. Chips has been a favorite of mine since junior high and the musical film with Peter O'Toole was released. I read the book and, of course, cried at the end. This is the story of a rather commonplace schoolteacher named "Chipping" (we never learn his first name in the book) who looks back upon his career at a British public school, some from the late Victorian era but mostly from 1914 onward, and his all-too-brief marriage to an open-minded "New Woman" who rides a bicycle. The other five stories are of varying quality, the most pointless "Young Waveney," about a rebellious Brookfield student who has a bone to pick with his stern teacher. The other four stories are better, of which "Mr. Chips Meets a Sinner" I think is the best, wherein Chips meets an active boy who chafes under the disapproving eye of an unimaginative father.

This particular edition, from "Reader's Digest," has lovely pencil illustrations by Donna Diamond as well.

book icon  A Time of Gifts, Patrick Leigh Fermor
This year, in the late winter, I was perusing books in the travel section and came upon not one, but two biographies of a man named Patrick Leigh Fermor. I had never heard of him, so read the back of one book to discover he was a travel writer who later fought in World War II as part of the Greek resistance. Remarkably, he took his first travels at age seventeen, when he walked from the Netherlands to Constantinople, and he had written two books about it: A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water.

Not a week or two later I was at the spring library book sale and there those two books sat, next to each other, misfiled in the young adult section. What are the chances of that happening?

Fermor kept a journal of his travels, but the book in which his first impressions were in was stolen, so much of this was written from his memory forty years later. He was educated in the classics and it shows in his flowery language and descriptions and references to classical and historical figures. It's a journey that can sometimes be a bit wordy. However, if you're prepared for that, you will discover a lost world of traveling on foot with a simple kit but a list of friends and friends made along the trail, so that young Leigh Fermor goes from sleeping in a hayloft one night to staying at a Baron's hunting lodge for a week drinking fine wines. He often detours from his path; at one point he spends a month in Vienna drawing portraits of people and animals in return for food and wine.

Probably the most interesting thing about his narrative is that his journeys took place as Hitler was rising to power, but everyone who he runs into who is German waves it off nonchalantly when he mentions Adolf Hitler. They simply don't believe Hitler is any sort of threat; he's just another politician babbling. In hindsight it looks like they were naïve and even stupid, but back then no one took him seriously because they had heard the same rhetoric in the past. A fascinating narrative, but it takes patience.

book icon  Grave Errors, Carol J. Perry
In the sixth "Witch City" mystery, it's a new semester at the Tabitha Trumbull Academy of the Arts in Salem, MA, and Lee Barrett is preparing for a new class in television production with some returning students and some new students, including twin retired police officers. Their project will be to produce a video about Salem history, and they are planning to work in the Mexican holiday of Dia de los Muertos into the story. Then one of the students drops a bombshell: she's actually in Salem to solve what she states was the murder of her sister, and soon after, Lee—who occasionally sees visions in mirrors and other reflective surfaces, a talent she's had since she was a child that disturbs her—sees the image of a dead woman in a bathtub.

While Lee's Tabby students scope out graveyards for their project, Lee's policeman boyfriend becomes interested in the supposed suicide of Dorothy's sister Emily and reopens the case. But of course Lee and her students do a good deal of sleuthing as well.

Another satisfying entry in this series, with Lee's quick-witted students finding many of the clues. It's not great art, but it's an enjoyable series.

book icon  The Morville Year, Katherine Swift
This is a sequel to The Morville Hours, which I reviewed last September. Sadly, it's not quite as good as the Hours as it's not a memoir, it is instead excerpts from a gardening column that she did from 2001 through 2005 for the Times of London. The narrative begins in spring and runs for an entire year, detailing the changes in the garden and the different plants and flowers she loves. She also talks about life around the area of Morville (an estate in Shropshire), the birds and animals she encounters, and weather and nature. It's all still in her brisk, lovely language, but it's a little less satisfying as the first book.

Incidentally, she mentions in the text that she was planning a third book about her experiences at Morville, but the book appears to have never been written. I can only assume that the author has passed away, which I find very sad after reading her vibrant narratives.

This volume contains four groups of color photographs of the different Morville gardens that she restored, so that you can see the Knot Garden, the Canal Garden, the Turf Maze, the Apple Tunnel, and other features.

book icon  Singapore Sapphire, A.M. Stuart
After the tragic death of her husband and young son, Harriet Gordon moves in with her minister brother in Singapore. It's 1910 and she is helping him run a small Christian school for the sons of the British colonial officers, but, desiring to make some money of her own, she has hired herself out as a typist to Sir Oswald Newbold, an explorer writing his memoirs. One morning when the school typewriter refuses to work, she has a local boy take her to Newbold's home to fetch her own machine where she left it, only to find Newbold has been viciously murdered along with his servant. Handsome and dashing Inspector Robert Curran is put on the case, and all he can initially figure out is that Newbold was possibly killed for the contents of his memoir. But where is the manuscript, and what was so terribly revealed that someone would kill for it?

I enjoyed this a lot. Please note it is not a "cozy" and there is violence and definite risky adventures for both Harriet and Inspector Curran, each of whom have secrets in their past, in Harriet's case one that she fears getting out and reflecting badly on her brother's school. While she is an independent protagonist, she doesn't strike me as much of a 21st century woman in Edwardian clothes as in some other novels. Also of interest here is that although we seem to have the typical independent woman and a ready-made romantic interest in the police officer, Curran is already living with and in love with another woman, one whose past appears to possibly offer the prospect of a sequel (and since this is listed as the first of the Harriet Gordon mysteries, I am in no doubt a sequel or two is in the offing).

The best thing about this book is the way Stuart recreates 1910 Singapore and especially gives you an idea of the climate. This book made me perspire just to read it, not just from the increasing cliffhangers in the plot, but from the descriptions of the humid weather and the way it affected clothing, travel, buildings, and even food. You can feel the stifling warmth of the sticky weather throughout. Combined with an intelligent protagonist and a mystery with a few twists, it all makes this one a winner.

book icon  Words in Time: A Social History of the English Vocabulary, Geoffrey Hughes
This is a linguistically dense book about the way words have changed meaning over the years: some change meaning completely (the word "silly," for instance, once had no pejorative meaning, it merely meant "nice" and then "innocent," and "knave" was just simply another name for "boy" before it meant a villain—and "villain" at one time was the equivalent of a sharecropper or a worker on a farm). Other words started out as generalized and became specific, or changed slightly ("rabbit" was originally the word for the young of the animal we now call a "rabbit," because the previous word for that animal, "coney," became the basis for a vulgarism).

This is interesting if you are into linguistics, but a person looking for a layman's commentary may be turned off by the detail.

book icon  The Vanderbeekers to the Rescue, Karina Yan Glaser
It's spring and the Vanderbeeker kids are on the move as always: musical Isa is preparing for an audition as her twin Jessie, only brother Oliver, Hyacinth the yarn maestro, and little Laney are determined to make everything perfect when their mother, an extraordinary baker, is going to be interviewed by "Perch," a magazine about ambitious women. Unfortunately Mama Vanderbeeker isn't home the day the health inspector shows up and the kids basically wreck her chance to get a permit to bake at home. Now they keep the news of the abortive inspection from their parents, hoping to make amends for their mistake before the inspector returns and Mom's "Perch" interview.

Alas, if that happened, there would be no story. Instead things start to really get crazy, starting with animals that keep turning up in their backyard, a discovery that the nephew of their beloved upstairs neighbors Mr. Jeet and Miss Josie had lied to them, and the fact that a sad little building on a nearby side street is arousing their interest.

And what about Oliver's treehouse—will it ever be finished?

These books remind me of the great family stories from the 1950s like the Melendy family books, where, while the kids occasionally squabble, they all love one another and work on projects to help each other or others, only these kids live in a racially diverse neighborhood and balance modern lifestyle elements like the internet with good old-fashioned kid-inspired projects. The story goes breathlessly from one event to the other, and of course there's an inspiring ending.

(There's also a bit of a sad aspect to the plot. I hope what it implies isn't what I think it is.)

book icon  The Dirty Life, Kristin Kimball
Until she was in her 20s, Kristin Kimball lived as a city girl. Then she had the opportunity to interview an earnest and energetic organic farmer named Mark who had a dream to own a farm that provided meat, eggs, and vegetables to paying customers. She fell hard for Mark and also for the farming lifestyle, giving up her apartment and her career to move with Mark to a small farm near Lake Champlain.

This is the story of Mark and Kristin's first year on the five-hundred acres they named Essex Farm, and how she went from high heels and designer clothing to dark mornings spent milking and mucking out. There are good days and bad, trouble with livestock, making the best of bad soil, but also the blessings of fresh food, the friendship of the horses they buy to work the farm.

Kimball's narrative is brisk and always interesting, and I enjoyed the book, but wow, Mark's single-mindedness was sometimes hard to endure. His life truly was wrapped up in the farm, and sometimes I wondered how she could put up with him. On the other hand, despite the work, it was a joy to see how Kimball had finally found her calling. I could never live this type of lifestyle, but I love reading well-written books about people who have and take joy even in the sometimes exhausting and/or filthy work involved in running a farm.

book icon  Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd, Alan Bradley
Flavia DeLuce, precocious twelve-year-old sleuth and unfortunately drummed out of the exclusive girls' academy in Canada that her deceased mother wanted her to attend, arrives home just before Christmas for what she hopes will be a happy reunion with her father, sisters, and Dogger, her father's Army batman. But she arrives home to find Colonel DeLuce seriously ill and in the hospital. Until she's allowed to visit him, Flavia takes her beloved bicycle "Gladys" out for a spin as a favor to the vicar's wife to deliver a message to Mr. Sambridge, a local woodcarver. But Flavia finds Sambridge hanging upside down, dead, a children's book among his library, and an unusual cat hanging around the man's home. It's a puzzle to occupy her as she worries over her father's continued ill-health.

I enjoyed the puzzle within the story but was irritated by the fact that Flavia never got the chance to visit her father in the hospital, even though her obnoxious cousin Undine—a character I wish Bradley would get rid of, but apparently the odious child has no other relatives—was allowed to go. It seemed overly cruel.

I was interested in the children's book that was continually referred to in the story and wondered if it was a riff on A.A. Milne and his son.

book icon  The Corfu Trilogy: My Family and Other Animals; Birds, Beasts and Relatives; The Garden of the Gods, Gerald Durrell
By now most of the Anglophiles have watched all four seasons of The Durrells (The Durrells in Corfu) and may be interested in reading the source material, Gerald Durrell's now-classic autobiographical books of his British family's time on Corfu. Be advised, if you are looking for the television story The Durrells, this isn't it. When they decided to make this new version, Keeley Hawes was fascinated by Louisa Durrell and decided to focus more attention on the mother character.

Oh, the Durrells did go to Corfu, young Gerry was a budding naturalist and kept a little menagerie and there was a dog named Roger, there was a Spiro and a Lugaretzia and a Theo and even a Sven, Larry was a writer, Leslie liked to shoot, Margo was preoccupied with adolescent girl interests, there even were two black American men who stayed with the family. But most of the television stuff is made up whole cloth: Spiro was never a love interest for Louisa (although the special What the Durrells Did Next implied there was a bit of flirtation between them), Sven is Larry's friend and only in one chapter and one other incident and the only thing Louisa did when she found out he was gay was to be horrified that he spent so much time with Gerry, Margo never met a Countess or worked for her (it was Gerry who met her in one chapter), the doctor and his wife were barely mentioned and Margo didn't work for them, nor did she try to be a beautician, there was no Zoltan or Nikos, no boarders, no Basil, no girl that Leslie almost married and her baby, and Leslie didn't become a town constable. Leslie did frequently provide meat for the family table while Louisa recreated baked treats for meals. Larry did write, but he didn't live with the family, but with his wife. There was a Prince Jeejeebuoy and a Captain Creech, but they are much briefer in appearance. The one thing that was the most accurate of the series was Theo's role of mentor for Gerry's nature expeditions and he is much in evidence in the stories.

Gerry is definitely all about the animals in the first book and he can take three pages to describe an owl, a beetle, or a gecko. Corfu is a wonderful paradise of animals, and Gerry provides loving detail of their lifestyles and environments in vivid, enchanting language, plus encounters with island residents like "the Rose-Beetle man." The other two books are shorter and contain more of the family foibles that popped up in one form or the other in the series, and there's where you will read about Sven, the Countess, and the two American gay black men, along with drunken Captain Creech and Jeejee. I found all three books delightful and even enjoyed the entomology lessons, but don't expect the soap opera and romance aspects of The Durrells.

book icon  Teen-Age Mystery Stories, edited by Frank Owen
I bought this at the same time as The Children's Hour: Favorite Mystery Stories (Volume 7) which I reviewed back in March. In general I enjoyed it, although a few of the stories were pretty pedestrian (you must have been short of Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys/Augusta Heuill Seaman books to read these). Still, there are a few really enjoyable ones along the way, including the opening tale "The Bookshop Mystery" in which a sharp young bookstore clerk uncovers a crime, "Spider Mansion" set during World War II, the testing of a young game warden in "Four Men in Boats," the story of a young runaway in "Johnny on the Spot," "Dead Man's Secret" with its Native American hero, and "The Unlighted Road" about a young man trying to establish a new life. The protagonists are mostly male, but a fuzzy dog story features a female sleuth, and two have a boy and girl team. I was most impressed by "Dead Man's Secret" featuring a Native protagonist who didn't speak like the "half breed" characters in most adventure books written in this era (1948).

book icon  From Flappers to Flivvers..., Reminisce Books
Nostalgia devotes so much time to the Great Depression and the World War II era that it was interesting to find a "Reminisce" volume totally devoted to memories of the 1920s, with chapters devoted to flappers (and the consequences of getting one's hair bobbed), early radio when you had to listen with headphones, early auto trips and their muddy routes, photographs from the 1920s, silent film and other amusements, horses and trains and early aircraft, and other activities, hobbies, and pastimes. Liberally illustrated with black and white private and newspaper photographs (and a few hand-tinted personal ones), advertisements, clippings, and maps, some full page, to illustrate the times, the fashions, and the up-to-the-minute wonder gadgets of 100 years ago. What a wonderful journey!

book icon  Unplug the Christmas Machine, Jo Robinson & Jean Coppock Staeheli

book icon  The Christmas Survival Book, Alice Slaikeu Lawhead

book icon  Re-Read: Lies Sleeping, Ben Aaronovitch
In this seventh novel in the series, all the stops are out at the Metropolitan Police and its esoteric division The Folly (dedicated to magic and the supernatural) to catch the sinister Faceless Man (recently identified as Martin Chorley) and renegade police constable Lesley May, who was formerly Peter Grant's best friend and fellow "probie" on the force. After a member of a magical club is attacked by a "killer nanny" and later dies, The Folly learns about the existence of a giant "drinking bell" made at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry as well as the thefts of artifacts from various archaeological sites. Chorley—and by extension Lesley—is planning something big and presumably catastrophic involving both. It's up to the team to determine what will happen, and then stop it before it "goes down."

Almost all of the series regulars reappear, including Peter's teenage neighbor and fellow apprentice Abigail (and the pair of foxes she speaks to), fellow constable Sahra Guleed, the intimidating Miriam Stephanopolos, Alexander Seawoll, and Father Thames and his riparian contingent, and of course Peter's "governor," the enigmatic Thomas Nightingale, head of The Folly. Sadly, Toby the ghost-sensing terrier and Nightingale's odd housekeeper Molly are very sparely used; however, Molly has a wonderful scene near the end. The story moves quickly, from one revelation to the next, yet there is time for psychological insights into the Faceless Man, Lesley, and even the hysterical Mr. Punch from the opening novel when his past is revealed. Plus there are surprises until the very final page (but no cliffhangers, thankfully, other than there is much more story to be told), and with the usual complement of inside jokes: the obligatory Doctor Who references, not to mention Back to the Future, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and, to my delight, one from one of my favorite caper movies, Sneakers.

In short, fans of this series should love it. If you are new to the series, you really need to read (at least) the other six books (there is also a novella involving Peter and a more recent one featuring young German practitioner Tobias Winter, several short stories including an audio-only one, and five, so far, graphic novels that are all part of the canon) to understand how Peter Grant began his career with The Folly and his relation to all the other characters. Trust me, if you like urban fantasy, reading the other six will be enjoyable and no chore at all—you'll willingly find yourself searching for the rest!