31 January 2019

Books Completed Since January 1

book icon  Goodness and Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas, edited by Michael Leach, James Keane, and Doris Goodnough

book icon  Preparing My Heart for Advent, Ann Marie Stewart

book icon  A Victorian Christmas Treasury, edited by Moira Allen

book icon  Queen Victoria: Twenty-Four Days That Changed Her Life, Lucy Worsley
Published in Britain as Queen Victoria: Daughter, Wife, Mother, Widow, this is, rather than an in-depth biography, a book that hits the highlights of the long-lived monarch's lifetime, from the wedding of her father (one of the sons of King George III) and mother in order to beget a blood heir to the throne of England, through her childhood, ascension to the throne, marriage and childbearing, and old age, touching on historical events like the Irish famine and personal scandals like the Queen's friendship with ghillie John Brown at Balmoral Castle. So you could call this "Queen Victoria's Greatest Hits" and it is the perfect starting ground for anyone who's become interested in the Victoria series running on television, but who's not ready to attack an in-depth biography such as Julia Baird's or A.N. Wilson's. (Becoming Queen Victoria is also good, not particularly a bio, but explains how Victoria entered the line of succession.)

Folks not fond of scholarly biographies will probably like Worsley's conversational tone; she can even be quite flip, as when she refers to Victoria's mother as "the dotty Duchess" several times. If you've seen any of Worsley's historical documentaries (and if you haven't run to YouTube immediately! they are swell), you can hear her voice as you read the text. A good deal of text is taken from Victoria's own diaries and letters as well as the diaries and letters of others, so we hear these historical people "in their own words" rather than by hearsay.

In short, a nice intro to the complicated personality that was Queen Victoria.

book icon  Bryant and May: Hall of Mirrors, Christopher Fowler
Those quintessential British detectives, eccentric Arthur Bryant and his erudite partner John May, have solved any number of mysteries with historical aspects (London's rivers, old pubs, theater lore, etc.), but they haven't tackled the quintessential British mystery form, the country house murder—until now. When they accidentally sink a barge in the pursuit of a criminal named "Burlington Bertie," the Peculiar Crimes Unit is, as always, up on the chopping block, and the two men get stuck babysitting a witness in a criminal negligence case. Unfortunately their charge is determined to go to a weekend house party held by a flaky Lord who wants to be a hippie who's planning to sell his estate to an American businessman.

And then the murders start happening.

While it is fun seeing the guys in 1960s gear—naturally John wears the latest fashions while enjoying the whole swinging scene and Arthur sticks with the classics—and coping with hippies, nobility who are now out of fashion, cheating businessmen, and a re-encounter with Maggie Armitage, it misses the fun of the whole current PCU team working together (although Janice's mother Gladys—originally a policewoman—is helping the guys on the sly and Roger Trapp appears to be the Raymond Land du jour.) We also find out how Arthur acquired his car and his red-and-white scarf, and why there's a marijuana plant growing under his desk. Begins and ends with a framing sequence from the present where Fowler once again muddies the waters about our guys' ages and who writes the stories. Whatever decade, Bryant and May are always worthwhile visitors!

book icon  Re-read: Heidi, Johanna Spyri
I had Heidi from when I was very small, in the "Whitman Classic" edition. Who could not help but be enchanted by the story of the small, determined girl who is unceremoniously dumped on her bitter grandfather by her neglectful aunt, and who comes to love not only the old man but her life in the Alps—until her aunt returns to take her away again, this time to Frankfurt, where she is to be a companion to a girl confined to a wheelchair. (Anyone who thinks Heidi is a "wimpy story" and a "wimpy girl" hasn't read the books.)

In the 1980s I fell in love with a beautiful illustrated edition (color and black and white by Donna Pacinelli). It turns out that this edition is taken from the original text published in 1881 in two volumes. I had known my Whitman edition was abridged, but it took this edition to show me how much! The original text is much longer, with all the Grandmother's hymns preserved intact. I really appreciated this edition, which did not translate any of the German titles or names, so that you got a better flavor of the story. The goats are still Schwänli and Bärli, rather than Little Swan and Little Bear, she's still Fraülein Rottenmeier and not "Miss," and they haven't called Heidi's grandfather the eyebrow-raising "Uncle Alp" as I saw in one edition. In fact, the unabridged version has some lines that made my eyebrows arch, as in when Grandfather tells the Doctor that he wants Heidi provided for properly because she has only one relative who "will take advantage of her." You know he's talking about snobby Aunt Dete, and that certainly wasn't in my abridged edition!

If you're reading Heidi to a younger child, you might want to find a simpler edition that is not too highly abridged; if you're looking for the full flavor of the story, check into the genuine unedited article. (If you can find it, find the one with the Donna Pacinelli illos, as they are truly beautiful.)

Incidentally, I still can't figure out why Heidi is almost always portrayed onscreen as a blond. She is described as having dark curls and dark eyes several times in the book! Apparently all Swiss kids must have blond hair and blue eyes in films. Ugh!

book icon  Liquid Rules, Mark Miodownik
I want to go to whatever school it is where Mark Miodownik teaches.

I'd never heard about "material science" when I went to school, but biology left me cold, chemistry was absorbing in the laboratory, but the mathematical portion of the course was over my head. Needless to say, after that, physics was out. :-) But earth science I loved, and I would have loved a course on material science.

In his previous book, Stuff Matters, he covered solids: concrete, paper, glass (yes, it's really a very slow moving liquid, but it's perceived as solid), etc. This one concerns the other material in our lives: liquids. Using the framing device of an airplane journey from London to San Francisco, Miodownik opens with an obvious choice: jet fuel to represent the explosive liquids (including gasoline). We're then on a journey through the rest of the family: alcohol, water/the ocean, adhesives, paint/liquid crystals, bodily fluids, coffee and tea, soap, freon, ink, moisture in the atmosphere, magma, and sustainable liquids. Liberally illustrated with drawings to illustrate chemical molecule structures and other concepts, he makes scientific principles understandable and the science fun to learn.

The only thing I did not like about the book was Miodownik's attempt to incorporate the woman sitting next to him on the plane into his narrative. In chapter six it's very clumsily done (he falls asleep on "Susan's" shoulder and, regrettably, drools). I'm guessing this is his attempt at keeping the narrative light and not pedantic, and it falls really, really flat, especially when he keeps making an idiot out of himself in front of her. I wish he'd do a rewrite of the book and get rid of all the twaddle with Susan (it's perfectly okay for him to interact with her, but the schoolboy humor really is annoying). He could have included far more scientific material instead!

The book is still worth the read; just ignore the framing. And I look forward to his book on gases (there has to be one coming, right?).

book icon  Re-read: Christmas Past, Robert Brenner (Rudolph Day reading)

book icon  A Symphony of Echoes, Jodi Taylor (The Chronicles of St. Mary's #2)
Jodi Taylor's "St. Mary's" books present a setup similar to Connie Willis' Doomsday Book, Blackout, All Clear, etc.: a university sponsoring trips into the past to learn more about real history via some kind of mechanical process that is not explained. However, while Willis' books are mostly serious studies of time traveling (well, save for To Say Nothing of the Dog), Taylor's books are (occasionally madcap) action-adventures. This entry begins with her protagonist Madeleine "Max" Maxwell traveling with Kalinda Black on Kalinda's final mission, to see/catch Jack the Ripper in the act. They are only there to observe—until they end up being stalked.

As in all the St. Mary's books, there are several adventures which usually culminate in them being interconnected. In this case the crew later journeys to a future version of St. Mary's where the facility has been compromised, and a finding there will take them back in time to, as Voyagers! used to put it, get history back on track—in this case history being altered by a rogue force.

The books are a fast, usually fun mix of action, history, and the absurd (there are dodos in this book; don't ask why), plus following Max's growth from an earnest but maverick operative to a trusted figure—and a personal betrayal that hurts Max (and the reader) to the very quick. These books aren't meant as serious commentary on observers returning to past history; they are adventure books—and it must be mentioned, with adult themes—with a varied cast of eccentric characters. Try the first, and, if it's your cup of tea, journey on and enjoy—I sure have!

book icon  The Bowery Boys Adventures in Old New York, Greg Young and Tom Meyers
Have I mentioned lately how much I love history? This explains why I picked up this book—apparently based on a podcast—which is a tour book of New York City's historic places (still existing or now vanished), starting at the original city site at the Battery and working north neighborhood by neighborhood as the city once did as it grew, from New York Harbor and Bedloe's (now Liberty) Island all the way to Washington Heights (which, ironically, is the site where Peter Minuet "bought" Manhattan from the Lenape tribe).

I confess, a big reason I bought this book was that it was Advent and one of the chapters of the book discusses the Moore family and its most famous member, Clement C., a theologian now known only as the author of A Visit from St. Nicholas (a.k.a. "The Night Before Christmas")—that is, if we haven't made a mistake for 200 years and the poem was written by Henry Livingston as the Livingston family states. Moore's estate was named "Chelsea" and where it spread is now the neighborhood known as "Chelsea." But the book is full of historical tidbits like that, from sad reminders like the old New York slave market area to the chain of small parks (Washington Square, Bryant, etc.) that culminated in the magnificence of Central Park, the old "Ladies' Mile" shopping area to the still unfinished Cathedral of St. John the Divine (known to me as the place where Madeleine L'Engle had a little office where she wrote).

Whether you love NYC or not, the historical journey through the city mirrors the growth of the United States, and gives you a whole bunch of great places to visit besides the usual tired standards.

book icon  Louisa on the Front Lines, Samantha Seiple
This is a short but engrossing book about Louisa May Alcott's service in nursing during the Civil War. Taken from Louisa's diary and other family documents and previous biographies, Seiple introduces us to Louisa and her eccentric and poverty-dogged family (including her hapless father Bronson, with his philosophical and pedagogical ideas before his time), and also to a blacksmith named John Surhe, who would become the central character in Louisa's first successful work, Hospital Sketches, and also to the tough, independent hospital matron, Hannah Ropes, and how this experience "made" Louisa, but also ruined her health.

Seiple's narrative is brisk, engaging, and enjoyable as she introduces the various "players" in Louisa's war experiences and recounts her difficult nursing situation (bad food, suffering patients, endless duties). Using Alcott's own words as much as possible gives us a better idea of the unusual woman she was: for equality of races, for not pigeonholing women into motherhood, even for recreation (Louisa's favorite exercise was running, which was unheard of in a woman of her age; she'd probably jog and run marathons today).

However, I hope this is edited before it is published in February. The author states that General Ambrose Burnside invented "a carbine for [my emphasis] guns that would help the cavalry load their weapons faster." Evidently Ms. Seiple knows nothing about firearms. A carbine is a rifle, albeit a shorter barrelled one. Burnside invented a new kind of carbine that fired more quickly because it had a cartridge rather than a bullet that had to be loaded with loose gunpowder and then tamped down with a ramrod. A carbine is not some sort of attachment for a rifle to make it load faster, which is what the sentence makes it sound like. (I looked this up; somebody else with something to do with this book could have as well.)

book icon  Triple Jeopardy: A Daniel Pitt Novel, Anne Perry
I enjoyed the first Daniel Pitt novel, especially the character of Miriam fford-Croft, but did not find it outstanding. This second novel in the series is a different kettle of fish altogether. Daniel Pitt, son of Sir Thomas and Charlotte Ellison Pitt, now in his twenties and a lawyer, is asked by his visiting brother-in-law Patrick Flannery to look into a case he considers particularly reprehensible: a young woman of Patrick and Jemima Pitt Flannery's acquaintance had a man invade her bedroom in their home in Washington, DC, rip a necklace given to her by her godmother from her neck, and then flee. Her father identified the man as a Philip Sidney, who the family knew and who worked at the British Embassy. What is worse, the Embassy gave him immunity and then shipped him home. The young woman is now terrified. Could Daniel, wonders Patrick, see if something could be done about Sidney despite diplomatic immunity? Daniel reluctantly agrees, only to find out that Sidney is suddenly being charged with embezzlement from the Embassy. He talks his law firm into letting him defend Sidney in court, at which time the home invasion could be brought up and Sidney could be punished. But once Daniel meets the young man, he slowly realizes he doesn't think he's guilty at all.

There are many twists and turns in this story; no sooner does Daniel get one thing possibly sorted out than another rears its ugly head, and the plot turns out to involve much more than embezzlement and much more than a clumsy home invasion. Indeed, it's possible the Government itself may be involved.

This starts out slowly, but if you have been invested in the Thomas and Charlotte Pitt novels, and remember Jemima Pitt's New York adventure and eventual marriage to Patrick Flannery, New York City police officer, you will enjoy seeing what's happened to them and meeting their children. Jemima and Daniel's supportive sibling relationship in the face of the mounting evidence makes this novel, as is the reappearance of Miriam fford-Croft, daughter of Daniel's senior partner in the law firm, as she tackles growing forensic evidence. In the last two-thirds of the volume each chapter races along to a new disappointment or a new hope, culminating in an exciting ending. Recommended, especially if you are a fan of the Pitts.

01 January 2019

Favorite Books of 2018

Once again it's a baker's dozen, and I've cheated a little by putting two similar books by the same author as one listing. C'mon, it's Alistair Cooke...

book icon  Christmas: A Biography, Judith Flanders
The history of Christmas by British historian Flanders.

book icon  Red, White, and Who: The Story of Doctor Who in America, Steven Warren Hill, Jennifer Adams Kelley, Nicholas Seidler, and Robert Warnock, with Janine Fennick and John Lavalie
Hefty trade paperback with everything you ever wanted to know about Who broadcasts, fandom, etc. in the U.S. If you've been an American Who fan since way back when, this is the book for you.

book icon  Becoming Madeleine, Charlotte Jones Volkis and Léna Roy
Madeleine L'Engle's granddaughters present a children's version of her biography, with rare photos and facsimiles of Madeleine's art and diaries. ::swooon::

book icon  To Die But Once, Jacqueline Winspear
The latest (so far) Maisie Dobbs mystery novel, now set in the years before World War II.

book icon  One Man's America, Alistair Cooke & Talk About America, Alistair Cooke
Published, printed essays from Cooke's regular BBC radio series "Letter from America," which ran from the 1940s until his death.

book icon  Space Helmet for a Cow 2: The Mad, True Story of Doctor Who, Paul Kirkley
Sequel to Space Helmet for a Cow (surprise!), but this time from the new series. More snark, more fun.

book icon  The Whole Art of Detection, Lyndsay Faye
Incredibly good volume of Sherlock Holmes pastiches by Faye. She has the voices down pat.

book icon  The Book, Keith Houston
A book about...books (by the same guy who gave you the book about punctuation).

book icon  America and the Great War, Margaret E. Wagner
Text and photos/posters/advertisements/propaganda in one seductive volume.

book icon  The World of All Souls, Deborah Harkness, Claire Baldwin, Lisa Halttunen, and Jill Hough, with illustrations by Colleen Madden
For fans of Diana Bishop and Matthew Clermont, a book about their universe, including historical research used for sources, plus chapters that were edited from the trilogy, accompanied by wonderful ink illustrations.

book icon  The Prisoner in the Castle: A Maggie Hope Mystery, Susan Elia MacNeal
American-raised cryptographer turned British spy, Maggie knows too much, and is confined to an island with others in similar straits—until it all goes Agatha Christie.

book icon  On Trails, Robert Moor
Super nature text about trails and how they are formed, while Moor walks some of the most famous trails in the world.

book icon  The Morville Hours, Katherine Swift
Beautifully written chronicle, based on a medieval book of hours, of Swift's restoration of an estate's gardens.

With an honorable mention to Mary Mason Campbell's The New England Butt'ry Shelf Almanac. I loved Campbell's essays in this book and wish there were a book of more of them.