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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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).
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!
Unplug the Christmas Machine, Jo Robinson & Jean Coppock Staeheli
The Christmas Survival Book, Alice Slaikeu Lawhead
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!