31 May 2019

Books Completed Since May 1

book icon  Victoria, A.N. Wilson
While Daisy Goodwin has used several sources for her scripts for the British series Victoria, this, I learned, was the primary text from which her story was taken. I had previously read Wilson's The Victorians and therefore greeted this new book with optimism and was rewarded with a very readable biography, which, of course, begins with Victoria's forebears and "the baby race" that was necessary after the death of George IV's daughter Charlotte to provide an heir to the British throne.

Wilson wants to emphasize the point that while most people remember the later images of Queen Victoria, the chubby old lady with the sour face whose trademark line was always the parody "We are not amused," Victoria was once a lively, vivacious young lady, held under the thumb of her mother, who loved her but was never acknowledged by the royal family, and her mother's ambitious advisor Sir John Conroy, who nursed a long-standing belief that he deserved to be part of the ruling class. She had decided opinions, but would listen to others if sufficiently intrigued, and was more cunning than her prime ministers, Parliament, and other members of the family believed.

Learned many interesting things about "the John Brown affair" and also about Victoria's later friendship with her Indian servant "the Munshi," and, sadly, the imperious way she treated her own children even after the way she felt she had been take advantage of. "Bertie," later Edward VII, was left to his own devices (which turned out to be gambling and womanizing) when Victoria refused to allow him to learn statecraft from her (a privilege she extended to her hemophilic son Leopold), and the youngest, Beatrice ("Baby"), was expected to stay a spinster and provide companionship to her mother, something Beatrice eventually thwarted. And of course Victoria's passionate romance with Albert, whom she originally dismissed as a spousal choice, is well covered.

Wilson's prose makes Victoria come alive as a real woman with weaknesses and with a great deal of strength. Enjoyable throughout.

book icon  Murder in the Bowery, Victoria Thompson
Frank Molloy's newest client in his still fairly new role as private investigator is a well-groomed young man named Will Bert who's searching for his younger brother, Freddie. Will and Freddie were sent West on an orphan train where Will found a sympathetic guardian and made good while Freddie ran away from his new family and is now supposedly back in New York. But the orphan train organization has no record of either boy, and Freddie is know in the newsboy community as "Two Toes" due to an accident—and he has no brother. Plus the search for Freddie has turned up another death, that of a young society woman named Estelle Longacre who enjoyed "slumming" in tours of the poor neighborhoods in the Bowery.

This is an absorbing entry in the series which mixes a real historic event—the newsboys' strike of 1899 (which inspired the cult musical Newsies)—with the mysteries of the missing Freddie and the murdered Estelle. It also exposes the seedy underbelly of not only the New York slums, but of dark secrets that underscored the life of the wealthy, leading to a rather creepy revelation and also a bit of vigilante justice.

Also enjoyed seeing Maeve chivvying the hotel remodelers!

book icon  100 Life Hacks, Dan Grabham
It was a dollar, what can I say? Just what the cover says: tips, tricks and other "life hacks," from using a large paper clip as a makeshift phone stand to advice for doing better at work. Don't pay a lot; but you may find several good ideas.

book icon  Curious New England, Citro and Gould
Picked this up for a dollar at a book sale. It's a tongue-in-cheek listing of all the strange exhibits, sights, monuments, and museums that can be found in the six states. Do you know colonies of parrots live in Connecticut? Or that there's a nut museum there as well? Would you like to visit a three-story outhouse? Head to Maine, where you'll also find a desert, remains of a Nazi POW camp, and a stove museum. Massachusetts boasts the Ether Dome in Boston, Fall River's Lizzie Borden tour, and a house made of paper. Visit a cuff link museum, a neolithic settlement, and a museum of American life during WWII in New Hampshire, and a pet cemetery of the rich and famous, a butterfly farm, and Nibbles the giant termite in Rhode Island. And wait, you're not finished: Vermont holds cursed mineral springs, its own personal "Loch Ness" monster (known as "Champ"), and a smelly rotten sneaker display. But wait, there's more!

Fun to read, probably more fun to visit.

book icon  The Silver Gun, L.A. Chandlar
I started this book with such promise.

Lane Sanders is challenged and left breathless by her job assisting New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, a short, squat piston of perpetual motion who keeps her on her toes. She has lived with her Bohemian aunt since her parents died, looked after by Aunt Evelyn's enigmatic majordomo Mr. Kirkland, gets on well with her co-worker and friend Valerie; less well with her other office mates Lizzie and Roxy, and she maintains a friendly but platonic relationship with a reporter named Rourke. LaGuardia is determined to rout out crime in his beloved city and frequently receives threats against his life, but Lane is still startled when one of those threats is delivered directly to her. And then someone tries to push her in front of a subway train.

There are several mysteries going on here: the threat to LaGuardia, the identity of a creepy-looking guy with long nose hairs that keeps showing up at events that LaGuardia attends, the handsome man with a British accent who steals Lane's heart at a dance hall, and an image that continually turns up in her dreams: a silver gun with elaborate red scrollwork on it that turns out to have something to do with her deceased parents. So there are lots of subplots, twists, and downright surprises in the plot, which starts with Lane at a run and just keeps her running.

And then it happened. Three times in two pages a police character referred to an unmarried woman as "Ms." Really? Really? You go through all this work developing a 1930s background and details (except for minor, maddening modernisms that crept in, like Lane and her mysterious guy dancing to a song that was written in the 1950s) and then you use a term that came in in the 1970s? It completely threw me out of the story and I never really got back into it. Plus the diary entries that Aunt Evelyn encourages Lane to read were written by a friend of hers that turned out to be a Famous Artist who has been in several media stories in the past few years. Not sure why this person was included in the plot.

book icon  The Food of a Younger Land, Mark Kurlansky
In the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration was initiated to create jobs in a country shellshocked by the Great Depression. One of the WPA offshoots was the Federal Writers Project, most well known for experimental plays done by up-and-coming artists like Orson Welles and John Houseman, and the state guidebook project, which provided the history and highlights of each of the then 48 states and Washington, DC. But yet another project was put aside, America Eats, a book about the various regional foods of each section of the country, from the Yankee standards of New England to the Spanish-flavored cuisines of the West and of California. All over the country recipes and profiles were being submitted for a book hopefully to be published in 1942—and then came December 7, 1941.

This volume includes most of the unedited, unfinished excerpts, articles, and essays that were supposed to be part of the WPA's guide to American foods, and it's fascinating to read, from the pickles and Indian pudding of Vermont all the way to "Oklahoma City's famous Suzi-Q potatoes." We visit a "sugaring off," a clambake, a traditional Rhode Island May breakfast (these are still held); learn how to make traditional barbecue sauce in the south—and hominy, and mint juleps; attend a "Negro" baptism and eat "burgoo" and Brunswick stew; chow down on lots and lots of corn dishes in the Midwest, along with persimmons, pheasants, and Native American dishes; sample geoducks, Washington apples, Basque and Bohemian dishes, potatoes and "prairie oysters." This was a United States devoid of all but a few chain restaurants, where regional foods were made fresh with local ingredients and no one ate fresh tomatoes in December.

It's fascinating reading if you're interested in the food history of the United States. 

book icon  Murder on Memory Lake, J.D. Griffo
An Italian grandmother as a sleuth? How could I resist, especially after I read the first few pages and our heroine responds to what she thinks is a scam phone call with "Ah, Madon!" and my childhood came spilling back, aunts, uncles, grandparents and great aunts, and godmothers all using that familiar exclamation. I ended up reading most of chapter one to my husband, laughing through half of it, as Alberta Scaglione discovers her great aunt Carmela has left her a darling lakefront home and almost three million dollars. But her peaceful new life doesn't stay peaceful because soon after she moves in Alberta discovers a dead body floating in the lake. And not only that, it's someone Alberta knows, Lucy Agostino. Alberta didn't like Lucy very much, but there's a clue on the body that lets her know that Lucy's death was the result of foul play. And since the police won't believe her, Alberta resolves she'll find out what happened to Lucy—with a little help from her sister Helen, an ex-nun; Joyce, her African-American  ex-sister-in-law who she likes more than her brother; and her granddaughter Gina, otherwise known as "Jinx" since the day she was born in a casino (it's a long story).

Parts of this book can be a bit unbelievable (like the search under the lake caper), but I didn't mind because it brought back all the wonderful memories of Italian family meals, the old Italian proverbs bandied about, and all the Italian terms like pozzo and ubotz, not to mention that so much of it is damn funny. I have the next one to read and another is coming out in the fall, and believe me, I'm waiting to see what these pazze Italian ladies come up with next! Just a fun cozy mystery, and so very, very nostalgic if you were brought up Italian.

book icon  The Farmer's Son: Calving Season on a Family Farm, John Connell
John Connell has returned to the farm where he was raised, helping his father with the cattle and the sheep that support the family, after having been away some years. He falls back into the rhythms of country life pretty easily, helped along by his mother, but tension still exists between himself and his father. This is Connell's diary of six months on the farm and his relationships with the animals, with his parents, and with himself.

This is akin to the flip side of the stories told by James Herriot, of the indomitable farmers who brave all weathers and the forces of life and death to nurture and do good by their livestock. Connell's narrative is almost hypnotizing, told as if he were narrating it aloud, with an Irish lilt and often a poetic turn as he ruminates on farming, nature, and relationships. There are also asides where he talks about the ancestors of modern-day cattle, the aurochs, and how humans went from hunting them to raising them for meat and for milk. He also talks with affection about the sheep and a dog he is trying to train, and the ancestral farmlands of Ireland.

It's a beautifully written memoir about the farming life, if that is the type of book you are looking for.

book icon  Ruff Justice, Laurien Berenson
Family awards are in the air in this entry in the Melanie Travis "canine mysteries" series. Her 13-year-old son Davey's poodle Augie needs only a few more points to become a champion. And her Aunt Peg is handling a promising new young poodle named Coral. Wanting Coral to look her best, Aunt Peg has commissioned a hand-braided leash from artisan Jasmine Crane, and goes to pick it up at her booth—and finds Jasmine strangled with one of her own leashes. Soon after, Aunt Peg and a young woman named Abby ask Melanie if she'll look into the disappearance of Abby's twin Amanda, a noted pet sitter. Amanda, coincidentally, was living in a garage apartment on Jasmine Crane's property.

Melanie only promises to check out a few people to try and locate Amanda, but the more she probes, the more she discovers that things with Jasmine, Amanda, Amanda's lackluster dog-show boyfriend Rick, and Jasmine's former partner Sadie aren't what they seem. Not to mention Jasmine's fellow vendors at dog shows, who have no love lost for her. And what about those burglaries occurring during dog shows?

In a subplot, Melanie assists Francesca, a new student at her school who is suddenly failing in her subjects.

Enjoyable as always, even if the subplot is predictable. I enjoy all the characters even if Aunt Peg continually gets on my nerves. I love the way Davey is standing up to her now!

book icon  The History of THE BOOK in 100 Books, Roderick Cave and Sara Ayad
This is a nifty oversized book filled with fascinating photographs and prints chronicling the history of books, from the first basic storytelling "published" on cave walls and cuneiform tablets all the way to electronic books and even unusual books (are they really "books"?) Tally sticks that go back to 20,000BC, the lost knowledge of Inca khipus, palm leaf texts from India, the first cookbook; folding books, scrolled books, spiral books; handwritten manuscripts and printed manuscripts; graphs, patents, underground publications, bank notes, papermaking. comic books. All illustrated in full black and white and in color, photos, drawings, and more. Perfect for every book lover.