30 September 2019

Books Completed Since September 1

book icon  Bonzo's War, Clare Campbell
I wish I could say this was a scintillatingly-written book, but it's rather pedestrian; however, the subject itself is fascinating: how London's pets made out during the Blitz and the remainder of World War II. Some jaw-dropping facts are contained here: that when it became inevitable that war would come, the British government recommended that pets who could not be taken safely to shelters should be put down—they were afraid animals would panic and harm themselves and others. The animal-loving English actually took this to heart and had so many hundreds of animals destroyed that veterinarians' offices were piled waist-deep with dog and cat carcasses, and they ran out of room to bury them!

There were protests, of course, and charities sprang up to rehome animals, and gradually the orders were rescinded. Other owners just ignored the instructions and found ways to keep their pets with them. To their surprise, some animals, once the first bombs were over, fell back into routines. Several even warned their families of air attacks—if a dog made a particular howl or a cat went to hide, the humans knew bombs were imminent.

Campbell has taken her stories directly from the newspapers and pamphlets of the day, and the writing is rather cut-and-dried. But it's such a novel subject about the second World War that if you are a pet lover or interested in more obscure details about a war subject, you might find this one interesting.

book icon  The Glass Sentence, S.E. Grove
This is an inventive first book of a trilogy for young adults in which an alternate Earth has experienced what they called "the Great Disruption" in the year 1799. Abruptly what we would know as the thirteen original states has become "New Occident" and remains on the East Coast. The remainder of the earth has reverted to other "ages"; prehistoric ages sit side by side with medieval times and Renaissance eras. Countries like France and Germany simply vanished. Ancient Egypt exists in Africa. Our protagonist Sophia Tims lives with her uncle Shadrack Elli in 1896 Boston, having no idea where her parents, explorers who vanished, are. New Occident has decided to close its borders to everyone but citizens, and as well as anyone without proper papers, which means Sophia's parents won't be able to return.

One day Sophia sees a boy from the western Baldlands being exhibited in a cage. Incensed, she returns hoping to set him free, but he's gone. When she returns home, Uncle Shadrack is gone and his map room—he is a cartologer, a special type of cartographer, with a collection of maps of all types on all materials—has been trashed—and the boy she was trying to free, Theo, is there. However, a special set of maps he entrusted to Sophia is safe in her room, and she finds a note: "Sophia, go to Veressa."

Soon she and Theo are on the run with horrifying men with scars around their mouths pursuing them, and with the tale of a terrifying being called a Lachrima ringing in their ears. They're helped by a brother and sister pirate team, but there's no doubt there will be a time they can't outrun their pursuers.

This is a super fantasy, with some fantastic world building. The idea of maps that can be only activated by certain interactions, and that maps exist that can let you experience a certain time and place are fascinating. The idea of an earth fractured into different eras, and a "United States" that followed a completely different evolution, is also intriguing. Sophia and Theo have many adventures, including in a frozen wasteland and in a cave full of rapidly growing vegetation. The only problem is that Sophia herself is slightly bland. She has this grand talent of being talented with the maps, and she bravely tackles all obstacles, but personally Theo, the brother/sister pirates, and even her Uncle Shadrack overwhelm her personality.

Looking forward to reading the sequels.

book icon  Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul, Barbara Reynolds
I started reading Lord Peter Wimsey in college, but had never read much about his creator until a few years ago when I read the first volume of her letters (the second is still very far down in a pile of books).

This book captures Sayers in all her moods: the precocious child who learned Latin at five, who was producing plays in her teens, who was the liveliest girl in her class at Oxford, who had two tempestuous love affairs (one that produced a son who was brought up by her cousin, a boy who thought Dorothy was his aunt), who wrote Peter Wimsey as someone who had what she had not (but soon tired of him), who became a scholar of Dante without planning to.

I was awed by Sayers' creativeness and energy, especially as a girl and young woman. I don't know when she had time to sleep! I envied her the time at Oxford. However it affected her writing, though, I'm sorry she let herself get entangled in two love affairs that sounded toxic, especially the first (a rich source for her when she wrote Strong Poison, but she was soundly lampooned in her lover's book using the same background). (Her later marriage started out well until her husband became an invalid and they began getting on each other's nerves.) I would have loved to have known her, although I'm sure if she would have found me quite shallow.

book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Indian Treasure, Jerry West
In this fourth book of the Happy Hollisters series, a lost dog starts the kids on new adventures. Blackie belongs to Edward "Indy" Roades, a Native American originally from New Mexico and formerly a professional baseball player. When he tells Mr. Hollister that a member of his tribe is liquidating his store, The Chaparral,  Mr. Hollister wonders if he can't buy up the stock for his own store, The Trading Post. Of course the whole family travels out to New Mexico, only to find that The Chaparral was burgled the night before. The Hollisters feel sad for the proprietor and want to help find who stole his stock. They also wonder if they can discover the location of a lost turquoise mine that would bring the tribe much prosperity.

Of all the Hollisters' novels I've read so far, this one has aged the most in terms and some behaviors. The Native American characters are called "Indians" as they would have when the book was published, and "redskin" is used as a descriptor once,  as well as a joke about "going on the warpath," although neither is done in a disparaging manner. Several older Native characters speak in "Tonto" style. However, these are the story's worst faults. In my youth I knew elderly Italian people who spoke in "Tonto" style, too. All the middle-aged or younger Native characters speak the same grammatical English as the Hollisters and other white characters. The Yumatan tribe is treated respectfully, and the author consulted the governor of an actual New Mexico tribe as well as another Native source to make certain his characters were portrayed in a fashion that was correct and treated everyone with dignity. In fact, I was pleased that in one scene, some of the Native girls giggle when Pam and Holly join their brothers in shooting bows and arrows; they tell the girls it is a boys' game. Although both Pam and Holly wish to continue their archery, they decide not to because it would be rude to their hosts. Today perhaps they would make some "girl power" statement, instead they remain respectful of the tribe's customs.

These are nice adventure/mystery stories for younger children, with no mayhem/dystopia/death themes. The terms discussed in the previous paragraph would make a good springboard for talking with kids about how times and terms have changed, along with giving them a suspenseful story.

book icon  Re-read: Lassie Come-Home, Eric Knight
Lassie! Such a smarmy show! is a comment I've heard for years. (Not my opinion, thank  you!) So why would anyone want to read the probably smarmy novel that inspired it?

In a word, because it's not smarmy. Instead it's the story of an impoverished collier and his family during the Depression who finally must sell the one valuable thing they own to the local nobleman and dog-fancier: a tricolor collie named Lassie. Lassie, however, understands neither short funds or new owners, and keeps escaping the Duke's grounds to go home to her real master, young Joe Carraclough. Finally, the Duke takes Lassie up to his Scottish estate, but the dog never forgets her quest, and, once escaped, must make her way over more than four hundred miles of wild land, unfriendly people, savage guard dogs, and bad weather to return to the family she loves.

Knight, who was born in Yorkshire but raised in the United States, never forgot the poor colliers who raised beautiful dogs only to have to sell them to feed their families. The story is tough, uncompromising, and neither anthropormorphizes its heroine or makes her a sentimental figure.

I re-read this because I managed to find the version I read so long ago in my elementary school library, with the wonderful Cyrus Leroy Baldridge illustrations that show Lassie as Knight described her, not as the movies changed her. A wonderful edition to find, from the People's Book Club.

book icon  The Book of Dust, Volume 1: La Belle Sauvage, Philip Pullman
Before Lyra Belaqua came in possession of the alethiometer, indeed before she was ever a ward of Jordan College in Oxford, England, she was a sought-after baby looking for shelter. Her father, Lord Asriel, puts her into the keeping of the Priory of St. Rosamund, where she is befriended by Malcolm Polstead, eleven-year-old son of the tavern-keeper of the Trout. When authorities coming looking for baby Lyra, Malcolm becomes very protective of her. Soon there are other sinister things afoot, like an organization at Malcolm's school that rewards the children for tattling on their parents or other elders who disobey the Church.

But it's a flood of epic proportions that will put Malcolm and his little canoe "La Belle Sauvage"—and the Trout's scullery maid Alice, a sarcastic girl Malcolm dislikes—to the test when they must rescue Lyra from the priory and keep her away from the authorities tracking her down.

This is the first of a trilogy companion to Pullman's His Dark Materials series. It's very slow-moving, but if you are invested in Pullman's universe it is a fascinating look at Lyra's very earliest days and the first friends who keep her safe despite the odds. Malcolm is intelligent, steadfast, and quick-witted, but also caring and nurturing, and a joy to read about. There aren't as colorful characters as was in Northern Lights/The Golden Compass, no armored bears or airship captains, so the narrative is tamer, but I enjoyed it, especially the exciting second half.

(The next book will join Lyra as a student at Jordan College after the events of the first trilogy, and I wonder what adventures she will be facing.)

book icon  James Thurber, Robert E. Morseberger
I picked up not one but two books of commentary about James Thurber at the last library book sale, this one Volume 62 of Twyne's United States Authors Series. I've read Thurber since I fell in love with the series My World and Welcome to It in 1969, but have never studied his work, so I found this enjoyable. I had never thought, for instance, about his change of tone in his work from the years when he was in an unhappy marriage to when he was involved in a happier marriage. Chapters cover Thurber's imaginative work like The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and other fanciful tales, his chronicles of the "eternal war" between the sexes, Thurber's animals (especially the infamous "Thurber dog"), his involvement in the "Red Scare" with his play The Male Animal (written with his Ohio State comrade Elliot Nugent), his complicated relationship with his relatives and upbringing in Columbus, Ohio, his cartoons, and his wordplay, especially the latter that occupied his mind as he slowly lost his eyesight. Much to think about...probably need to re-read everything!

book icon  Murder Lo Mein, Vivien Chien
In the third of the Noodle Shop mysteries, Lana Lee is enjoying her role as manager of the Ho-Lee Noodle House, even if her new romance with police detective Adam Trudeau seems to have cooled. She has entered the family's restaurant in Cleveland's Best Noodle contest, which will be held at Asia Village, and is certain that with Peter Huang doing the cooking, Ho-Lee is a cinch to win, even if one of the judges is picky Norman Pan, who hardly has a nice word to say about anyone.

It seems someone else has noticed that as well, since after the first day of the contest, Pan was murdered after receiving a threatening note in a fortune cookie.

Of course Lana and her best friend Megan Riley become involved with figuring out whodunnit, even if investigating detective Trudeau is less than pleased, especially after a second person is threatened. Will the killer be unmasked? Will the contest ever finish? And will Lana ever find out why Adam is holding her at arm's length?

I love this series because it's not about your typical white heroine in a quaint small town with a quaint small business, and Lana's dynamics with her go-getter mom, laid back dad, and law-student sister—and in this offering, her grandmother, who's a lot more than she seems. Enjoyable characters and fairly perplexing mysteries.

book icon  The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden, Karina Yan Glaser
The Vanderbeeker kids (twins Jessie and Isa, Oliver, Hyacinth, and Laney) have always considered their upstairs neighbors Miss Josie and Mr. Jeet to be like grandparents, so they are devastated when Mr. Jeet has a second stroke. To take their minds off their worries, Jessie, Oliver, Hyacinth, and Laney (Isa is at music camp) decide to do as Miss Josie has always urged them, clean out the junk-strewn vacant lot between their brownstone and the neighborhood church to make a park out of it. When they try to get the minister's permission (it's church property) to do so, they discover realtors may be trying to buy it up. But the kids don't let it stop them—and so it's a race to finish their project by the time Mr. Jeet gets out of the hospital. If, however, he ever does get out, as his first days do not do well.

This is a good-natured take on a Secret Garden theme, emphasizing teamwork, the benefits of nature, and even the danger of judging a book by its cover, as happens with Oliver's bete noire, Herman Huxley. The Vanderbeekers are kids you'd love to know; even though they quarrel, get bored, and can act snotty like real kids, at heart they are good people who manage to make others (including old friends from the first novel in the series like Bennie at the bakery, Oliver's basketball-loving friend Angie, and even reclusive Mr. Beiderman, who pops up with more surprises in this go-'round) believe in their cause. Even though I wouldn't have wanted to grub around in a garden in midsummer, I was rooting for the kids all the way!

book icon  The President and the Assassin, Scott Miller
Having been slightly disappointed by The Electrifying Fall of Rainbow City, I enjoyed much more this account of William McKinley and his assassin, Leon Czolgosz, told in alternating chapters. The book begins with McKinley's fateful last day of life at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition, then segues to his campaign of 1896, which he conducted from his own home. McKinley, a Civil War veteran and middle-class family man, gets into politics via shrewd Mark Hanna. Leon Czolgosz (who also called himself Fred Neiman), was the rather indolent son of hardworking and hardscrabble Polish immigrants. McKinley ran for office and became President just as Americans, especially those of the upper class, sought to end isolationism and make the United States a world power; Czolgosz came of age resenting the upper class who forced the poor to work for pennies and became involved in not just revolution, but anarchism, taking as his hero the killer of Italian King Umberto I, Gaetano Bresci. As each chapter passes, the reasons the two men came together on September 6, 1901, become more understandable. Meanwhile, in the text is revealed the rise of American imperialism, the start and battles of the Spanish-American War, the conflict over whether to annex the Philippines and Cuba, the causes and the movers behind the anarchist movement, and portraits of historical figures like Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Hanna, and Emma Goldman.

As always, the political details sometimes made my eyes glaze over, but for the most part this reads somewhat like a novel in moving to its inevitable climax.

book icon  50 Best Mysteries, edited by Eleanor Sullivan
As a whole I enjoyed the stories in this book, especially the earlier ones. The fifty stories were picked from the 1940s-1980s issues of "Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine" and, as the editor explains, she tried to pick ones that had not become famous or had become anthologized often; she wanted fifty unique tales. The stories range from ones told by noted mystery writers—John Dickson Carr, Patricia Highsmith, Ngaio Marsh (featuring her sleuth Roderick Allyn), Ruth Rendell, Simon Brett, Peter Lovesey—to authors I had not heard of previously. There's a locked room mystery involving a movie star solved from miles away, a tale involving the practice of "phantom guests" (which I'd never heard of; apparently it was common at some hotels to start a new page in the guest book you signed in the old days with made-up names so that people would not think there was no one staying at the hotel and turn away), the story of a little girl who doesn't understand why a beautiful woman and her snobby little daughter are not received into society until her beloved uncle comes into the picture, an adventure of Ellery Queen and his secretary Nikki Porter (who was an invention of the Queen radio series) near the town of Gettysburg, the melancholy story of a monk who vows (despite his gentleness) to get revenge upon the man who ultimately caused his sister's demise, a jaunty puzzle taking place at a dog show (featuring a Kerry Blue terrier), and many more excellent pieces.

My only problem with these collections, and the annual Best Mystery Stories of anthologies, is that several of the stories are not mysteries to me, and I really don't enjoy them. To me a "mystery" is just that, whether it's Nancy Drew figuring out what's in the old clock or Temperance Brennan or Kilsey Milhone tracking down a murderer, there's a puzzle and there's a solution. Several stories here I wouldn't classify as mysteries at all, like "Dressing-Up," about a hit man and his moll making it big after he betrays his boss, "The Marked Man" about a man who's supposed to practice hiding from the enemy by hiding in a New York park, the very dark "Woodrow Wilson's Necktie" about a young man fascinated by a horror waxworks exhibit, "The Fix" about a down-on-his-luck horse player, and a couple more. They're not mysteries, and they usually involve creepy people, like "Loopy," the story of a guy who likes to wear a wolf's costume his mother made for him, which I consider a psychological thriller, which I really don't want to read (although I have to admit most of the stories of that type were compellingly written). I just wish when the title said "mystery" they'd stick to "mystery" and stick the weird ones in a separate book. If you don't mind stories of that type being mixed in, this one is a definite winner.

book icon  The Happy Hollisters at Snowflake Camp, Jerry West
In this sixth book of the Hollisters series, a lot happens before the family arrives at the titular Snowflake Camp. It's November and the kids are excited about a new club being started at their school, the Pet Club. Pam runs against perennial troublemaker Joey Brill for club president, and of course with Joey being involved, that can't run smooth. Also, Pam notices that there is something troubling her teacher Miss Nelson, who's the adult supervisor of the Pet Club, and there are two rather rough-looking men trying to talk to her as well. It all comes to a head at Gramp and Gram's Snowflake Camp in Canada, where the kids will encounter a ski champ and a sled dog race at the annual Trapper's Carnival that takes place over Thanksgiving weekend.

Again, major points for the teacher objecting to Joey Brill saying a girl can't be president of a club, and also for one of the Hollister girls excelling at a sport as well as a boy, as well as showing leadership skills and good sportsmanship. On the other hand, I'm at a loss why Joey gets to ride roughshod over the Hollisters and no one ever stops him. At one point Pete is so fed up with Joey insulting his family that he hits Joey, which may be troubling to readers today (however, Pete doesn't get into trouble over it, since it's clear to everyone, even adults, that Joey started the fight). I know this was written in the 1950s, but I don't know why Joey gets away with so much; maybe his dad is some kind of big bug in the city government?

Today's readers also may find the use of the word "Eskimo" troubling. The name is not used in a derogatory manner, and is what U.S. schoolchildren were commonly taught to call Arctic Circle natives at the time the book was written. Today we know it is a rather insulting term given to Inuits and Aleutians by another native tribe who disliked them, and who passed the word on to white explorers. The term is still used in Canada, from what I can tell. Again, a good discussion point.

Otherwise, a great lively book where the kids spend most of their time in outdoor activities, although they are shown watching television. When there's no snow they use their imaginations, and they snowshoe, ski, participate in dog training, help animals, and explore the woods rather than staring at video all day.

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