28 February 2019

Books Completed Since February 1

book icon  A Forgotten Place, Charles Todd
The Great War is over, but not for its men: they now face the repercussions of their injuries in their return to civilian life. Bess Crawford is serving as a nurse to these men, including Welsh soldiers from the same mining town. These men know that with missing limbs they will be unable to make a living anymore; too many are depressed. One man commits suicide, and Bess and the other hospital staff try to give the others hope. After they are shipped home, Bess is disturbed when she gets a note from the Welsh company's captain saying that another man has committed suicide. He asks if there is any way she can come to help them. Bess, good soul that she is, decides to use a few days of her leave to do just that. But by the time she arrives, all but a few of the men have died and Captain Williams has moved to a remote village. To make certain he's all right, Bess has a driver take her to this village since it is off rail or bus lines—and then the driver leaves her stranded. Captain Williams and his sister-in-law take her in, and Bess is sure she can find some way to get back to Swansea, until she realizes that the mysterious citizens of the tiny community are determined she not leave.

This is a slow-moving atmospheric entry in the Bess Crawford series, akin to a Gothic novel, with bodies washing up on the shore and mysterious burials, a strange tale about a sunken ship, violent acts in the middle of the night, and Bess' sensation that she is always being watched. The sea and the changeable weather add more fillips of mystery and atmosphere. You need to be patient with this entry in the series as it's written more like a 19th century suspense novel, but the spooky setting and ominous villagers make it well worth reading.

book icon  Seven Letters from Paris, Samantha Vérant
In 1989 Samantha and her madcap best friend Tracy went to Europe, stopping briefly in Paris. There they befriended two Frenchmen around their age who took them on a dream tour of the city. Jean-Luc Vérant and Samantha hit it off immediately, and he begged her to stay in Paris. Samantha was nervous and the next day she and Tracy continued their tour. But Jean-Luc did not forget her and wrote her seven letters which she kept for the next twenty years. In 2009 Samantha's world fell apart. She was laid off from her job, she and her husband were on the verge of divorce, and she had no idea what she was going to do. But she'd kept Jean-Luc's letters all those years. She thought that, in having to start her life all over again, that she would at least contact him to apologize for never writing back.

Instead, something magical happened. Jean-Luc wrote back. And 20 years later, he was still interested.

This is, indeed, a modern-day fairy tale: attractive woman relegated from art director at a big corporation reduced to dog walker and moving back home after a divorce finding out not only did the handsome French guy she once befriended is still in love with her, but he's even free to marry her. Alas, Samantha has no confidence in herself and keeps shooting herself in the foot, but Jean-Luc is persistent. And when she visits Paris again, she finds everyone loves her—Jean-Luc's kids, Jean-Luc's parents, Jean-Luc's friends...Alors! Really, I'm glad it all worked out for her, but reading this is like reading a romance novel. I actually bought it because I was interested in her second book, in which she learns to get used to living in France.

What I really found annoying was the recitation of clothes and other stuff she bought or sold or Jean-Luc got for her by their brand names. Do women really know what all of these things are by their brand names? Sometimes I didn't know if she was talking about a dress or shoes. In fact, I found her brand name dropping rather intimidating. Plus she promises Jean-Luc's children, who suffered through a snooty stepmother, a cat, and even though she's nearly broke, she spends her cash on an expensive purebred cat. You couldn't have adopted a cat from a shelter? Sheesh. Talk about conspicuous consumption.

book icon  Choices, edited by Mercedes Lackey
This is the latest edition of short stories set in Lackey's Valdemar universe. The stories, as always, range from stand-alone stories like "With Sorrow and Joy," the tale of a Herald who goes home to solve thefts and possibly make peace with a resentful cousin and "Of Crows and Karsites," where young Herald Rinton and his Companion sense a Gifted person on the other side of the Karse border, where Gifted people are viewed as demons, to stories with a continuing character who has appeared in other collections (Kitha and Hadara, a change child and a blind gryphon; Lady Cera of Sandbriar, trying to rebuild a shattered community; Kade and his companion Nwah the kyree; and more).

Sometimes the qualities of these stories waver back and forth between great and meh, but this was a particularly good collection: I quite enjoyed the first story mentioned; the final story, written by Lackey herself, which involves the sword "Need" who will only respond to a swordswoman to save other women; another entertaining and humorous tale with the Iron Street gate guards of Haven; "Letters from Home" in which a young trainee struggles with her Gift; "The Right Place" about a young orphan who can read animals and knows a horse and her foal are being abused; and "The Letter of the Law," in which a Herald must find out a way to save a family's prized ram in a city where the ruler will not bend the law. But they were all good this time, and perfect for fans of Valdemar.

book icon  Re-read: In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson, Bette Bao Lord
Since it's once again the year of the boar (these days they call it a pig), I had to pick this delightful book for a return engagement. Young "Sixth Cousin," otherwise known as Bandit, knows only that news that's come to her Chinese home has made her mother smile and her grandparents sad. Her college-educated father, she discovers, isn't coming back: he's made a new home in the United States, and he's sent for Bandit and her mother. Grandfather decrees that Bandit shall have a new name before she departs and she decides on an American one: Shirley Temple Wong.

Soon everyone is getting used to their new home in Brooklyn—including Mother, who discovers that with no servants, she will need to learn to cook, clean, and do laundry—and Shirley is off to the fifth grade, where the kids seem friendly at first, but then ignore her. It's due to her sudden encounter with the biggest, toughest girl in class that Shirley's status suddenly changes, and it's through her classmates that she becomes a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers and their newest player, Jackie Robinson.

I had forgotten some of the events in this book, including the sad period when Shirley had no friends and the chapter about the family's homesickness, and also some of the laugh-aloud funny things that happen, like when Shirley volunteers to change a fuse. It's a sweet-and-sour look at the experiences of an immigrant child in the late 1940s, heartwarming and humorous.

By the way, did anyone notice what happened in the principal's office? Shirley told the principal she was ten, but if you went by the way she counted, she was only about eight and a half. She still learned English well enough to pass the fifth grade! I'm impressed!

book icon  Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children's Books as an Adult, Bruce Handy
This book is about...well, just what the title says it's about: Handy goes back and looks at classics and sees them with adult eyes, still admiring most of the texts. He begins with picture books, painting a surprising portrait of Margaret Wise Brown, whose Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny may give people the impression she was some warm and wise granny. Instead she was a lively young woman with a creative way with words, who allowed herself to be bullied by her female partner.

There are chapters on Dr. Seuss, Charlotte's Web, Beatrix Potter (and other animal stories), Beverly Cleary's imp Ramona, the Little House books and Little Women, and more, all with entertaining information, such as Green Eggs and Ham was written after Ted Geisel was challenged by publisher Bennett Cerf to write an interesting book using just fifty words (the chapter also chronicles the difficulties he had writing a book using less than 300 simple words considered understandable to children; the result was The Cat in the Hat). I disagreed with him occasionally, but life would be pretty boring if we didn't have differing opinions!

Really enjoyed this, except I got tired of Handy suddenly pulling a fact that had nothing to do with the books he was commenting on out of midair and issuing an apologia for the author. The book is still good despite the author's political or personal leanings at another time of his/her life, and hopefully he/she learned better as they grew older.

book icon  Death in St. Petersburg, Tasha Alexander
Lady Emily and her dashing husband Colin Hargreaves are in St. Petersburg, Russia, for Colin's newest assignment, monitoring political situations between Great Britain and Russia. They are at the Mariinsky Theatre to watch a performance of Swan Lake, with the lead role taken by the prima ballerina Irina Semnova Nemetseva. But during the interval, the crowd emerges from the theatre to find Nemetseva lying dead in the snow. Soon after she dies, an ethereal ballerina wearing Nemetseva's costume begins to appear at various locations in the city. What does it mean? Is her ghost haunting St. Petersburg? And who killed her? Was it her best friend Katenka (Ekaterina Petrovna Sokolova), who was her understudy, and who finished the Swan Lake performance to enthusiastic applause? Or someone else?

I enjoyed the story, despite the tongue-twisting Russian names, and immersing myself in pre-revolutionary Russia and examining the value the Russians placed on the ballet. I really liked the setting. But I am getting a little tired of the format Alexander has been using of alternating the Lady Emily and Colin (and Cécile) narratives with chapters about one of the persons involved with the mystery. In this case it was Katenka's narrative in fleshing out their pasts and their intense friendship. But she used to be able to keep the entire mystery narrative in Lady Emily's voice, and I don't find the newer books with the alternating chapters as crisp and clever as the older books without it.

book icon  About Time: The Unauthorized Guide to Doctor Who: 2007, Series 3, Tat Wood and Dorothy Ail
So we're now on volume eight (!) of Mad Norwegian Press' in-depth look at Doctor Who, this covering "The Runaway Bride" through "Voyage of the Damned" along with the seven-minute "Time Crash" and the animated serial "Infinite Quest." Once again, each episode is examined by summarizing the plot, noting the characters, fitting the story into Who continuity, and then posing questions about inconsistencies and other things that just don't make sense. Interspersed with the episode examinations are the usual essays, ranging from "What Were the Best Online Extras?" to "Which are the Most Over-Specialized Daleks?" to "Why Should an Alien Love Cricket?" (There are seventeen essays in total.)

These are truly books for people who really, really love Doctor Who, so don't come into them thinking they are introductory volumes for the series. Wood and Ail point out the tiniest detail, which won't make a whit of sense unless you're familiar with the other seven volumes and the whole history of the series. If you are that Who lover, welcome aboard, but start from the beginning!

book icon  Re-read: Heidi Grows Up and Heidi's Children, Charles Tritten
Since I re-read Heidi last month, I thought I would follow up with two sequels written by Johanna Spyri's French translator. Supposedly children kept writing to Tritten asking what happened to Heidi and he obliged them by writing a sequel (and then others, but only the first two were translated into English), stating that Spyri could never refuse a child and probably would have written a sequel or two if possible. Heidi Grows Up partially incorporates Spyri's own experiences with a cruel schoolmaster. Now fourteen, Heidi goes to the same finishing school that Clara attended. She makes fast friends with the other girls, save for snooty British girl Eileen, especially a Hungarian girl named Jeanne-Marie, known as Jamy. At school she continues the violin lessons she began in Dorfli, and is mercilessly teased when her grandfather sends her a gift of a little goat cheese. But it is when Heidi comes home for vacation accompanied by Jamy that things begin to happen and Heidi considers returning to Dorfli when she graduates to become the new schoolmistress.

The sequel title makes it obvious what happens at the end of Heidi Grows Up, but also features Jamy's little sister Marta. Both girls were raised by their sweet but sad grandmother, and after she passes away Marta doesn't wish to stay with their socialite parents, who spend most of their time partying and traveling for diplomatic purposes, leaving Marta alone. Instead she comes to live on the Alm with Heidi and her family, to the consternation of the Grandfather, who eventually comes to love her and she ceases to fear him. But she is constantly in fear of other things, and believes in all sorts of superstitions, which makes her especially nervous as Heidi's time arrives.

While these don't have the special touch that Spyri gave to her original, these are sweet, creditable sequels, and the source material is actually partially hers: Tritten borrowed incidents from other Spyri stories to incorporate into both tales (an incident with Jamy and Peter is taken from Moni the Goat Boy, for example). I only wish the other two volumes, Heidi: Grandmother and Heidi's Country, had been translated.

Here are the full verses to the song Peter sings that Marta likes so much.

book icon  Finding Dorothy, Elizabeth Letts
I enjoyed this fictionalized account of the life of Maud Gage Baum, wife of the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The novel switches back and forth between 1938, in which an elderly Maud wangles her way onto the MGM lot to make certain the movie moguls don't ruin her husband's magical story and becomes interested in young Judy Garland, who is being pushed (to the point of being mistreated) into stardom by a rapacious stage mother and a lecherous studio executive, and Maud's memories of meeting, marrying and living with L. [Lyman] Frank Baum, who was a hard-working but mostly impractical dreamer, who skipped from being an actor and empresario to selling his family's oil product to managing a general store in the Dakota Territory to an unfulfilling job back in New York state until beginning his literary career with the first of many Oz books.

Maud lived a slightly unconventional lifestyle for a girl of her time, encouraged to run around with the boys by a suffragette mother who would write articles, papers, and books with Susan B. Anthony. Maud is sent off to Cornell University to be one of its first coeds and must face the harassment of male students; later her sister Julia marries badly and ends up suffering through bad times on a claim shanty in Dakota. Frank's dreamy ways and fun personality attract Maud immediately, but she ends up being the practical one of the family; while Frank works hard, disaster always seems to strike his enterprises, but he always takes time for dreaming and bringing up his four sons—they never had the daughter they so badly wanted—with happy memories.

Letts spins the tale of the Baums and of Frank's famous creation with a lively text. Maud herself is a bit of a stiff character, but Frank's magical qualities shine out from every page, and Letts' brisk portrayal of Matilda Gage is equally entertaining. She also brings her settings to life, whether it's Christmas at the Baum house or the bleak Dakota prairies (that stood in for Kansas) or the Gage neighborhood in New York. There are also memorable scenes in the 1938 narrative having to do with "Over the Rainbow" and its meaning to Maud, Judy Garland, and others who work on the film. The "star" system at the big studios of the 1930s is also given a grim once-over: it ruined Garland's life as it made her a star.

Not a perfect book, but the good parts outweigh the bad, and it does a good job of capturing the various eras.

book icon  Food Will Win the War, Rae Katherine Eighmey
I've been looking for a book about the World War I homefront in the United States for a couple of years now and pretty much been unsuccessful until I found this book while looking for something else. It's not everything I wanted, but it gives a partial view of homefront America 1917-1918.

Eighmey, who wrote the historical cookbook Abraham Lincoln in the Kitchen, consults diaries, news stories, and personal letters to bring the First World War in a farming community to life. She covers the buildup to war and then the continual effort put into rationing food for the public so that it could be saved to ship to the men (and few women) in the American Expeditionary Force and displaced citizens in Belgium and France. If you've heard of WWII Victory Gardens and thought they were only a WWII "thing," you'll learn differently here. Eventually the government suggested "wheatless meals" and "meatless meals," with only three meals a week with no restrictions. People were encouraged to grow potatoes for the war effort and eat rice instead, add nuts to meals to replace meat protein, and have egg dishes as a main course at supper.

While this book concentrates on Minnesota and particularly its rural community, it is representative of the sacrifices ordinary families made to support the war effort. This could be California or New Jersey or Texas. The volume is full of photographs, posters (complete with Columbia wearing a Liberty Cap, something that vanished in WWII ads), advertisements, and cartoons from the era, and of course filled with vintage recipes, some which sound interesting, and others which will make you wonder if people today could give up their hamburgers and steak and eat dishes like "rice au gratin" and creamed chicken instead. If you are interested in wartime homefront histories, food history, or both, you'll find a good deal to like in this book

book icon  Attachments, Rainbow Rowell
I am just not cut out for chick-lit.

I admit, I picked this up based on the fact I mostly liked Fangirl and wanted to like Carry On, but found Simon too whiny, and that I found a quotation about autumn given by one of the protagonists: "October. My favorite month...[t]here's a chill in the air that lifts my heart and makes my hair stand on end. Every moment feels meant for me...I was born in February, but I come alive in October...October, baptize me with leaves! Swaddle me in corduroy and nurse me with split pea soup. October, tuck tiny candy bars in my pockets and carve my smile into a thousand pumpkins. O autumn! O teakettle! O grace!" How could you not love a woman who talks like this? And I love epistolary books and half the text is e-mails.

Beth Fremont and Jennifer Scribner-Snyder work at the same newspaper, the Courier, one that has just made the jump to computers and the internet. Beth's living with a musician and reviews films. Jennifer, a copy editor, is happily married but is worried about fulfilling her husband's next wish: a child. Management is so fearful of the employees wasting time surfing for porn and goofing off on the web that they hire Lincoln O'Neill to read any e-mails flagged with "certain words." Lincoln's supposed to report Beth and Jennifer's brisk and funny (and irreverent) e-mails to management, but he can't. A bachelor still living with his mother years after the breakup with his first love, Lincoln enjoys the repartee between the two women, and especially loves Beth's wit. Soon he's falling in love with her and even checking out the club where her boyfriend performs.

I am so on the fence about this book it's not funny. Rowell has a way of writing about her that I enjoy, and it kept me turning pages to see what would happen, but I was irritated by the narrative. All these folks seemed to talk about was relationships and marriage. Okay, Beth likes good movies. Lincoln's an appealing geek who also likes movies and plays D&D. He's in contention with his sister, who wants him to move away from his clinging mother. Jennifer's afraid to get pregnant. Beth wants to tie the knot with her enigmatic guy and she's trying to save an old movie theater. Everything's awash with emotions. No one ever talks about anything but relationships, especially the women. I guess this is common in what's supposed to be a romance. As in all the romances, all the guys are adorable and all the gals are cute. It is so emotionally exhausting.

In the midst of this waterfall of emotions, two of my favorite parts are reliving the Y2K fracas (the story takes place 1999-2000) in the computing industry, and visiting Lincoln's friends Dave and Christine, who have this lovely warm marriage. The other stuff is so unreal: loud rock music, clubbing, buying expensive baby clothes and designer women's products. I could not relate to these people, except to the geeky side of Lincoln. The e-mails are a hoot, though.

book icon  Smoky the Brave, Damien Lewis
Bill Wynne was attached to the 26th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron in World War II when he met a dirty mite of a dog that had been found in the jungles of the New Guinea island where he was stationed. Wynne loved dogs and took the fearless little animal that he named Smoky to his heart. She remained with him all during his war service and became known as the 26th's mascot, immortalized by a photo of her in Wynne's helmet in an issue of "Yank" magazine. Wynne taught her tricks and she kept up the morale of the squadron, and became the first known "therapy dog" taken to hospitals to amuse injured soldiers. In one instance, she even helped the squadron string telephone wire through a pipeline under a runway.

Lewis not only tells the story of Wynne and Smoky, but of the 26th and the essential work they did during the war and the dangers and hardships they faced outside of the Japanese troops trying to kill them: jungle insects, heat, varmints, thirst, tropical illnesses. Wynne lost friends, survived a serious fever, endured hurricanes and bombings, but always Smoky was there as his partner. She also endured illness and danger, plus the real threat of being left behind once the war was over.

This is well-told with a few gaffes by a non-American writer (no "fourth base" in baseball), but summarizes Wynne and Smoky's postwar adventures in about eight pages, devoting the whole book mainly to their wartime experiences. It's a good companion to Wynne's own story about Smoky, Yorkie Doodle Dandy, in which the last third of the book is devoted to their postwar experiences on local television and in Hollywood. Pick up this one to learn more about life in the European theatre and the work of the photo reconnaissance squadrons, but Wynne's book is a more personal look at their experience.

book icon  The American Agent, Jacqueline Winspear
This newest of the Maisie Dobbs' mysteries begins a little slowly as Winspear immerses you in the sights, sounds, smells, and terrors of the Blitz. Maisie and her old friend Priscilla Partridge have volunteered for the ambulance corps and as the novel opens, they are being observed by young American reporter Catherine Saxon. Next day Maisie receives a shocking telephone call from her intelligence colleague Robert MacFarlane: after Saxon left them, she was murdered in her apartment. MacFarlane wants Maisie to investigate the crime, to be assisted by Mark Scott, the American agent who helped get her out of Munich. Maisie is also juggling a personal issue: her adoption of Anna, the young refugee living with her father and stepmother, is about to come up for review.

Once Maisie is on the case, the mystery deepens: who was the man Catherine kept meeting and fighting with, the man called "Scotty"? Could he have a connection with Mark Scott, who is uncharacteristically letting Maisie investigate on her own. And who was her "Stage-Door Johnny," as her roommates called Catherine's boyfriend, and could he have something to do with her death? Or could it be one of the roommates, or her landlady, or someone she's made an enemy of via her career?

While Maisie's investigation takes center stage, the Blitz and the reaction of ordinary British citizens to the hellfire is just as important as the mystery. Winspear brings the hellish nights vividly alive, and intertwines them into her plot, especially in the subplot involving the Partridges and young Tim's adjustment to his disability (see the previous book). She also emphasizes the yeoman work of the war correspondents and the women who fought to join "the boys' club" and prove themselves as competent as the men. And once again, Winspear is not allowing Maisie's life to remain static.

Not the best entry in the series mystery-wise, but outstanding in its portrayal of London and environs during the Blitz.

book icon  Cool Hand Lou: My Fifty Years in Hollywood and on Broadway, Lou Antonio
Back when I was a teen with odd tastes, I didn't get "crushes" on contemporary music stars or actors; I preferred men, not boys. The cute series The Snoop Sisters provided me with Lou Antonio, with his nice dark hair and quick dark eyes (I'd seen him earlier, on Star Trek, but nothing clicked under the makeup he had to wear), and I have enjoyed his performances and his directorial efforts ever since. Recently I was listening to a podcast where the host interviews actors, but not the usual tired "pop" stars everyone else interviews today. When I was finished I scrolled through other episodes and was pop-eyed to find Mr. Antonio included on one, and was even more pop-eyed when I listened and realized he'd written a book! I read his book and rewatched The Snoop Sisters at the same time.

What a career! He actually wanted to be a ballplayer until a dislocated pitching arm killed that dream. Should he just stay in Oklahoma City and run his dad's chicken fried steak place? No, instead he went to New York City, studied acting under Lee Strasberg, and did stage and television series filmed in NYC until that option went away, then he moved to Hollywood and made a name not only in acting but in directing. His acting credits included Cool Hand Luke, four guest star appearances on the critically acclaimed Naked City, Route 66, The Defenders, Gunsmoke, and more. His director credits include The Partridge Family, Owen Marshall Counselor at Law, McCloud, McMillan and Wife, Something for Joey, Silent Victory: The Kitty O'Neill Story, and more. He's worked with stage greats like Geraldine Page and Colleen Dewhurst, and directed George C. Scott, Lee Remick, and Elizabeth Taylor. You follow him from struggling actor to noted director, from the gritty to the greats, with many goofs and triumphs along the way.

It's all written in an informal, conversational style that I found enjoyable, as if you were seated across from him at dinner and he's telling you stories. I could almost hear his voice as I read. Great book!

book icon  Stirring the Pot With Benjamin Franklin: A Founding Father's Culinary Adventures, Rae Katherine Eighmey
Call it a biography of Benjamin Franklin with culinary interruptions.

Once again Eighmey tackles a historic figure in a different way, as in Abraham Lincoln in the Kitchen, by seeing what foods and drink that figure would have eaten during their lifetime, taken from mentions of food in their journals as well as typical menus of the era. In this way, we see a typical colonial/revolutionary diet across the boards, from Franklin's childhood as the son of a fairly poor soapmaker and chandler to his time in the salons of Paris eating nouvelle cousine. Eighmey extracts Franklin's diet from his legendary diary entry about arriving in Philadelphia with three loaves of bread to his name to the Franklin family's grocery orders to Franklin's letters home from Europe mentioning fashionable dinners. Each chapter is followed by a selection of foods from the era taken from cookbooks published at the time.

I didn't like this one quite as well as the Abraham Lincoln book. She has to do a lot of extrapolation and sometimes the recipe connections are tenuous, like the ones that accompany the chapter on Franklin's electrical experiments. However, if you're interested in "cookery," as the British say, or historic recipes, this should please.