30 November 2019

Books Completed Since November 1

book icon  Suburban Safari, Hannah Holmes
I don't always make it, but I've tried to keep with my retirement resolution of trying to walk at least one mile every day. This usually involves me taking the dog through our very small neighborhood and out to the main street, which sounds rather bland except that the rental condo complex across the road is very badly maintained, and a good deal of Georgia wild plants live on that small section of roadside so that I can watch the seasons go by: buds to flowers to green leaves to berries to the hard knobs of the buds waiting for winter's end. So I was intrigued by this book by Holmes, who basically tracks wildlife and wild plants in her own backyard.

I'm a piker compared to Holmes; she has a good deal of land which she has apportioned areas for wildlife, a butterfly garden, compost heap, birdhouses, all that, and she calls on scientists to explain her findings. In the course of a year she observes squirrels, chipmunks (one whom she allows to run in and out of her house!), crows, all matter of insects. She also tries to keep a drought-proof, pesticide-free lawn without ticking off the neighbors who wouldn't accept a scraggly meadow in their midst, and discover earthworms aren't always good for the earth, talks about plants who actively fight off any other kind of plant, and discusses invasive species.

Who knew a back yard could be teeming with such life, even a pocket sized one like we have, backed with a little stand of trees? While I won't be going out there to watch bugs or let a chipmunk run wild through my home, it's astonishing to discover what a cool little microcosm it is. Thoroughly enjoyed this romp through suburban nature.

book icon  Star Trek: The Captain's Oath, Christoper L. Bennett
I can take or leave Star Trek original novels. Some, like Greg Cox's Khan trilogy, have been terrific, others I've just tossed in the trade in bin as the author presses the reset button at the end. This one is definitely interesting, filling in the gaps of James T. Kirk's career from the little info we were given on the series (and a lot more from additional publications from both baseline Star Trek sources and novel-generated ones). It opens with his taking command of the Enterprise after commanding the scout ship USS Sacagawea from 2261 through 2265. It is during the command of Sacagawea he first meets Klingon captain Koloth and encounters other characters we will later meet on the series, and first works with Leonard McCoy. The wraparound story concerns Kirk's efforts to balance the Aulacri peoples' desire to terraform a planet where the population killed themselves in bloody civil war vs. a Andorian archaeology team who have just made an exciting find on that planet, but the narrative also travels back and forth in the Sacagawea timeline to see Kirk making the several judgments that will serve him in good stead as captain of the Enterprise. He also encounters a spacefaring society whose lifeform is quite different from the humanoid species he has formerly encountered which they at first fight and then attempt to negotiate with.

In general, this is a good story if you can keep track of the back-and-forth travel between the "present" Sacagawea adventures and her past ones (as well as the flashbacks to Vega Colony). We meet interesting new lifeforms, see Kirk deal with a crew and command staff of less homogenized human characters, the Caitians (from the animated series) appear again in a great sub-storyline, familiar names like Areel Shaw and Janet Wallace pop up, and we get to see the Kirk/Gary Mitchell friendship that was unfortunately cut short by the pilot episode (the book ends as the Enterprise sets off on that fateful mission). Bennett does have his moments of preachiness, however, and you have to sidestep some of the speeches to get to the more interesting action and technology of the story (like Samuel Goldwyn says, if you want to send a message, call Western Union—a lot of this could have been shown, not talked about). But in the end it's pretty much a keeper.

book icon  Good Husbandry, Kristin Kimball
Kimball's sequel to The Dirty Life opens where the previous book left off, with Kristin and Mark married and still developing their Essex Farm, a 500-acre agriculturally diverse smallholding that sells vegetables, fruits, and meats. After a rocky start agriculturally, Kristen became pregnant (soon they were the parents of two daughters) and the farm did well for a while, with volunteers and paid workers joining their vision of selling healthy, sustainable food. But bills began to mount, the farm underwent a drought that was finally relieved, and then rain began in earnest...and kept going. Worst of all, Mark was injured, and seemed to lose all his enthusiasm for the project.

Weather problems are always a farmer's worst enemy, and financial woes dog the heels of those who provide our food. I really felt for the family during those chapters. But Mark's injury and reaction really irritated me. Naturally he had weeks where he needed to rest and let his body heal. But I found his extended lassitude annoying. He just seemed to dump everything on Kristen to play videogames on her phone (something I'm sure he would have chided her for) and moan about being human. Really disappointed in his reaction to realizing he was a vulnerable man and not some food god come to change America's eating habits.

Otherwise this was another absorbing and realistic look at non-industrial farming. Kristen can really bring the realities and the beauties of living in the country to life; she makes me feel like I'm out in those fields sweating under the sun, working with the beautiful but sometimes temperamental horses, feel the winter chill (especially in a badly-heated home that Mark refused to help her repair) and watching her children grow and embrace the farm life.

book icon  Peril & Prayer, Olivia Matthews
I'm back with Sister Lou LaSalle for the second in the Sister Lou mysteries. Abrasive Sister Marianna (how this contentious woman ever joined a religious order is beyond me) is rubbing events manager Autumn Tassler the wrong was as they negotiate the foods for the Advent retreat for the Sisters of St. Hermione of Ephesus, and Sister Lou, not Sister Marianna's favorite person, steps in to mediate. (Sister Marianna, predictably, wants everyone to eat boring healthy food.) Days later Tassler is found strangled in her office and when Marianna's scarf is found on the floor, she becomes a suspect. So now Sister Lou has to put her detecting shoes once more before the Sisters' congregation receives bad press for the event. Helped by her nephew Chris and their new friend, reporter Shari Henson, Lou reluctantly gets to work.

Author Matthews continues to over-describe everything in rather clichѐd style, which is aggravating (at least she didn't go on and on about Lou's blue chairs this time). And the city police officers are still the two most annoying police characters ever in cozy fiction: they decide who's the guilty party and pigheadedly believe it from then on, even when contrary evidence is under their noses. Plus mayor Heather Stanley, who is so paranoid about the town getting a bad rep that she attempts to bribe the press, really needs to be kicked out of office! (We learn a really shocking secret about her in this volume, however.)

I really enjoy the characters and setting in this mystery series, but the author's style is really awkward with stilted phrasing and descriptions.

book icon  The Encyclopedia of Cross Stitch Techniques, Betty Barnden
Nice hardback I picked up at a library book sale for a song: illustrates basic supplies including needles, fabrics, and hoops, then basic stitches along with advice on how to do them best (it really doesn't get into a good definition of "couching," though), and finally ideas for projects. For fifty cents a treat!

book icon  E.B. White: Writings from The New Yorker 1925-1976, edited by Rebecca M. Dale
After reading Essays of E.B. White and One Man's Meat, this is pretty much a disappointment because very few of White's complete essays are contained here. That is not to say there are not some longer pieces contained, including 1927's "Interview With a Sparrow" and an imagined dialog between White and his late dachshund Fred on the occasion of Laika's flight into space, and there are sweet tributes to both editor Harold Ross and White's fellow writer James Thurber, but most of the entries here are one or two paragraphs illustrating White's turn of phrase on everything from snow to writing to science and business and Christmas and academia. Not that these aren't grand turns of phrase, either; I found myself reading some of them aloud to my husband. It's just after getting full columns of White's lovely prose these one- and two-paragraph bits make you feel a little cheated. So I'm glad I picked it up at a book sale for the writing and the tribute, but it's not as good as the others.

book icon  It Takes a Coven, Carol J. Perry
In this sixth "Witch City mystery," Lee Barrett (neè Maralee Kowalski, journalism graduate, young widow of a race car driver, and now back living upstairs at the home of the librarian aunt Isobel [Ibby], who raised her) is meeting with future bride (and former student) Shannon Dumas and her fellow bridesmaids when she finds out Megan, a 105-year-old woman who is Salem's oldest practicing witch, has died. Megan's friends, including Lee's close friend River North, are devastated, and River lets slip to Lee that two other "closet" witches have died just recently, a crabby waitress named Gloria Tasker and a banker named Elliot Bagenstose. No sooner does Megan pass away than Salem is invaded by a huge "murder of crows," and someone takes a potshot at another practicing Salem witch, braggart shop owner Christopher Rich. Are these situations all connected?

Well, considering this is a "Witch City" mystery, of course they are! As Lee juggles this puzzle and also another esoteric task she and River believe they need to do, Lee is offered an intern job as investigative reporter for WICH-TV, which might lead to a permanent position. Throw her in that briar patch! And soon she's nosing about for clues in the deaths of the three witches, nudged on by her own talent for scrying obtuse clues in reflective objects and guided by her eerily prescient orange cat O'Ryan, and doing an in-depth report on the crows.

Another enjoyable outing in this series, including introducing a new cat into the mix.

book icon  Bayou Suzette, Lois Lenski
This is technically a rerun, but since I haven't read it in at least fifty years it was practically brand new.

Bayou Suzette was the first of Lenski's regional stories; her next, Strawberry Girl, would win the Newbery Medal. Eighteen in all were written. From the 1940s to the 1960s, children without the internet would learn how their counterparts in various regions of the United States lived: kids who lived on farms in Iowa or the Dakotas, whose fathers were loggers or coal miners, children whose families were Amish or immigrants from "the old country," and more.

Suzette Durand is a 10-year-old Cajun girl who lives in the Louisiana bayou with her parents and siblings, probably early in the 20th century. Her father has not worked for almost two years after being accidentally shot by a neighbor who they have feuded with ever since. Suzette makes extra money for food and necessities by catching fish and selling them at the general store. On one trip she meets Marteel, an orphaned Native American girl who is being abused by her guardian, so Suzette takes her home. At first her parents don't want Marteel to stay; they are bigoted against her because she is a "thieving Indian" like her relations, until she saves Suzette from an alligator. Suzette comes to think of Marteel as her sister, but Marteel refuses to behave the way the family wants her to, continually running off to the woods. In the meantime there are adventures on the river, a confrontation due to the feud, and finally the threat of a flood ruining the Durands' way of life.

This a very vivid portrayal of pioneer Cajun life (I tap it as early 1900s because a character has a phonograph with a big speaker horn and those went out in the 1920s) as well as the bigotry extended to "Indians" in those days. Suzette (and later her mother) are the only ones who will speak up for Marteel, and the end of the story is very affecting. Not as good as some of her later books like Strawberry Girl and Judy's Journey, but great at capturing a vanished way of life.

book icon  On the Map, Simon Garfield
Another great offering from Garfield, this about the history of maps. And you knew I had to have it, because I've been a map geek since childhood and used to invent my own islands just to make maps of them.

Garfield starts with the newest map, generated by Facebook of internet connections, a map where China hardly figures because of their restrictive internet policies, then takes us back in time, past even Ptolemy, to show us men scratching landmarks in the sand to show others where hunting grounds, water, and other necessities were. Eratosthenes was the first known man to make a map of "the world" (Europe, Africa [Libya back then], and Asia, all that was known by Europeans back then). Others, like Ptolemy's famous map, followed.

Along with the history of maps, we learn that one of the world's oldest maps was almost sold to finance the repair of a leaky roof, which countries excelled in mapmaking, the mystery of which Europeans were the first to know about the Americas, how this guy Vespucci got his name on two continents, when atlases came into being, the story of Britain's famous Ordnance Maps, all about literary maps (from Narnia to Treasure Island), the birth of travel guidebooks, the story of globes and GPS, and even about map thieves.

Sheer bliss if you are a map geek, and pretty interesting for everyone else.

book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Haunted House Mystery, Jerry West
This is #21 in this fun kids' series from the 1950s-1970s, in which the Hollister children (Pete, age 12; Pam, 10; Ricky, 7; and Holly, 6—there's also a younger sister, Sue, age 4) and their friends Donna, Dave, and Jeff, form a Detective Club, and they have a doozy of a first case: elderly Mrs. Neeley is looking for ghost hunters to rid her vintage home, tours of which form most of her income, of the spooks that seem to be haunting it. They also take a side case when Pete meets a young man named Kerry Flip, a circus acrobat who's looking for his real family in Shoreham with only the photo of his mother in an old doorway to help him.

This is a real Nancy Drew-like mystery that the kids get involved in, with a spooky old house, a string of jewelry robberies, a mysterious acrobat, and strange noises figuring in the plot. Of interest is the Hollisters' friendship with Charles Belden, a boy who is deaf, who teaches them sign language and helps them solve the mystery due to his ability to read lips. Of course Joey Brill, neighborhood bully, and his follower Will Wilson create additional mayhem, when Joey unwittingly—and that's a perfect word to use for Joey, because he's totally lacking in wits—helps the jewel thieves. Once again West (real name Andrew Swenson) counters 1950s sex stereotypes when Pam gets to accompany Pete on late-night "stakeouts" of the haunted house, and the girls are full-fledged members of the Detective Club, not reduced to baking cookies for the boys who are doing all the detecting.

There's also a very funny sequence where Holly offers to clean out the pantry so Pam can go detecting with the boys, and is helped by Donna and little Sue. We'll let you read to find out the repercussions on that one!

book icon  Rivers of London: Action at a Distance, Andrew Cartmel, Brian Williamson Stefani Renne, Rob Steen
The seventh graphic novel in the Peter Grant series. As the story opens, Thomas Nightingale is on his way to a funeral of an old friend made during World War II. He advises Peter that this led to a very interesting case in the 1950s and directs him to a dossier in his records. As Peter reads, we go back in time to both eras to see how his mentor befriended Angus Strallen, how Strallen later joined British intelligence, and then sought Nightingale's help on the case of a serial killer with ties to both the war and to a new nuclear energy project.

Not only do we see more of Nightingale's past, but we learn of Toby's predecessor in the household, and also a secret fancy of Molly's, along with a detective story having to do with both industrial sabotage and murder, which ties into a real-life nuclear accident that happened in Great Britain.

You do not really miss anything in the Peter Grant narrative by not buying the graphic novels, but each one adds more texture and depth to the characters, so if you have an aversion to "comics," you still might want to give these a try. Molly reveals hidden depths in this issue, and we also find out more about Nightingale's attachment to Toby.

The informative text at the rear adds a historical verisimilitude to the story with the tale of the real nuclear accident and also a fascinating article about Jasper Maskeline's role in hoodwinking the Nazis by using magic as a basis for misdirection.

book icon  The Body on the Train, Frances Brody
I have been reading the Kate Shackleton mysteries from the first book of the series, and I have to say, this is either the best one I've ever read or at at least in the top three. Kate is contacted by Scotland Yard to discreetly investigate an unidentified man who was found murdered, clad only in his underwear and stuffed into potato sacks, on a shipment of rhubarb sent down from the area is around Thorpefield, a small village near where Kate grew up. She is told the man may have been a Russian fomenting union unrest in the local cloth mills. In order to conduct a discreet investigation, she arranges to stay at the home of her best friend from riding school, Gertrude Brockman, who is now married to a well-to-do mine owner and country squire, in the guise of writing and photographing a story about the area and its interests for a magazine. Before she leaves for Thorpefield, she notes that a sweet shop owner in the village was killed at the same time as the unidentified man, and that the shopkeeper's boarder was accused of the crime. Kate thinks it strange that two killings happened in the same tiny place and wonders why the second crime wasn't brought to her attention.

This is only the start of a fast-moving and complex mystery that will also involve Kate's investigative partner Jim Sikes, her landlady Mrs. Sugden, Kate's niece Harriet, and even their dog, and introduces a fascinating cast of characters, including Kate's old childhood companion "PH," Philip Goodchild (a young man who we might say today was autistic), the Brockmans and their enigmatic butler Raynor, and Milly the maid who is in love with the young man accused of murdering the sweet shop owner, the mystery involving a golfing tournament, a young mechanic with a familiar face, a razed orphanage, an allotment with a strangely-dressed scarecrow, a new coal-pit being dug, and missing children. Almost every other chapter contained a new twist, and, although I figured out whodunit about 3/4 of the way through, I still raced through the book to find out if the guilty would be punished and how.

These are consistently great mysteries, but this one has pretty much topped all the rest in interesting characters and situations.

book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Trading Post Mystery, Jerry West

book icon  Chicken Soup for the Soul: It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas, edited by Amy Newmark