31 January 2020

Books Completed Since January 1

book icon  A Wartime Christmas, compiled by Maria and Andrew Hubert

book icon  More Holmes for the Holiday, edited by Martin H. Greenberg, Jon L. Lellenberg, and Carol-Lynn Waugh

book icon  Inventing Santa Claus: The Mystery of Who Really Wrote The Most Celebrated Yuletide Poem of All Time, Carlo DeVito

book icon  Hanukkah in America, Dianne Ashton

book icon  Young Americans Colonial Williamsburg: Caesar's Story, 1759, Joan Lowery Nixon
This is one of six children's books Nixon wrote in the Colonial Williamsburg series (Will's Story, set in 1771, is reviewed here). Caesar, age seven, is a slave on the Carter's Grove plantation near Williamsburg, and in the past he and "Master" Nat, son of the owner, have been best buddies. Now Caesar is old enough to work in the fields and Nat is old enough, with his uncle's tutelage (his father has died), to learn how to run the plantation. Caesar hates the fact that his days of play are over, but he is told by his father, mother, and other slaves that it's time for him to grow up. Then Master Nat requests that he be trained as his personal servant, and Caesar must learn to treat his former playmate with the type of unquestioning respect a black person is supposed to give to a white person in those days.

One cannot really "enjoy" this book because of the way Caesar, his mother, father, siblings, and fellow slaves are treated. On every page you bristle at the unfairness of the human condition in the 18th century. One of the saddest things about this book is the brainwashing of Nat: a year ago he and Caesar were fishing and hunting buddies, now Nat is parroting the party line of his uncle, who truly believes people of color aren't mentally sufficient enough to determine their own fate and who must therefore remain in servitude. And you can see that Nat is still fighting this conditioning by the way he sometimes speaks to Caesar as an equal and then recollects and scolds him for being familiar, but with regret in his voice, so that you can understand that slave owners were not "born evil," but have been trained into the social beliefs that preceded them.

In any case, Caesar grows in wisdom and learns to feel pride in himself and what he can accomplish within the unfair strictures of slavery, keeping hope alive for the future. A very sobering read within its age limitations—except for not going into extreme detail, Lowery spares nothing when discussing what punishment, like whipping and possibly being sentenced to death, slaves might incur if they disobey their masters or run away—but retaining a spark of hope that things might be different someday.

book icon  Agents of Influence, Henry Hemming
"Fake news," Hemming tells us, is nothing new, but it was especially important to one country in 1940. Things were going badly for Great Britain as Hitler's war machine marched westward. If not needing a fighting force from the United States, Britain badly needed what the US could provide in fighting materials: ships, aircraft, weapons, and just about everything else. But to a United States just tottering out of the Depression, recalling the mess they had been involved in during the Great War, this was just another evil siren call to get involved in someone else's war. How could the British convince the US to help them?

Thus came to the States William Stephenson, who became well known after a book and miniseries about him in the 1970s, A Man Called Intrepid (which Hemming states is mostly false). He and a team of operatives from Canada carefully placed stories which supported President Roosevelt and decried the Nazi party into magazines, newspapers, and on the radio. But facing them were hardliners like the America First Party and its staunchest defender, American hero Charles Lindbergh. Having been thoroughly snowed by the Nazis, who convinced him they could not be beaten, and with more than a dribble of anti-Semitism and close-mindedness, Lindbergh convinced or strengthened many Americans' belief that the Nazis would be eventual victors, but would leave the United States alone once they had conquered Europe.

In alternate chapters, we learn how Stephenson's team paved the way for sales of scrap and programs like Lend-Lease to exist, and the methods of infiltration they used (cunningly forged false maps, surveys, official documents, etc.), and how Lindbergh fought back. We're also introduced to Hans Thomsen, a diplomat from Germany who fed pro-Nazi/German information to Congress so that it could be printed (for free) in the Congressional Record and thus distributed to newspapers, at no cost to the Nazi regime. Interesting if not compellingly written.

book icon  The King's Justice, Susan Elia MacNeal
This is the ninth book in the Maggie Hope series, and the second in which the author has addressed the subject of serial killers; I hope [no pun intended] she's got it out of her system because the idea makes me squeamish.

Margaret "Maggie" Hope, raised in the United States but back in Great Britain after her aunt leaves her the family home in her will, having fallen in with the British war effort and eventually becoming a spy who finds out hard truths about all her family, and finally, in the previous book, having been unfairly confined on a remote Scottish island with other spies and one murderer, is starting to come apart at the seams. She's thrown herself into new work—disarming unexploded bombs—and is smoking, drinking, and driving a fast motorcycle in an effort to run away from her terrifying memories, including the upcoming execution of the serial killer Maggie caught after he almost took her life. But there's a new serial killer in town who may eclipse the old: he/she is leaving stripped bones in suitcases in the Thames. Who are these new victims, and is there any connection to the old killer?

One understands why Maggie has gone in the direction she has, but it's still hard reading. You want to shake her and tell her "STOP!" The plot is suitably convoluted and very grim, and introducing us to an ethnic group I'd never heard of, the "Britalians," Italian immigrants raised in Britain but suffering bigotry from all fronts because of Italy's inclusion in the Axis Powers. In fact, one of Maggie's bomb squad team is a serious young man who is not only Britalian (did they really use that word? it sounds very modern) but a conscientious objector who was given a white feather by some young ladies in a restaurant. In a parallel to Maggie's psychological upheaval, her friend Chuck's husband has come home suffering with shell shock, silent one moment, violently angry the next.

As I said, more creepy serial killer plot which I hope MacNeal has gotten out of her system now, as some of this reads like true crime, but a true page-turner.

book icon  Re-read: The Furthest Station, Ben Aaronovitch
This novella in the "Rivers of London"/Peter Grant series takes place after The Hanging Tree and the graphic novel Black Mould, as Peter tackles some strange occurrences in the London Underground. Commuters are being verbally assaulted by ghostly figures who are trying to tell them something, but by the time the people report the events, they are already forgetting what happens. Piecing together the story, Peter believes someone's life is in danger—and the ghosts are trying to help that person.

The biggest problem with this story is that it wasn't another Peter Grant book. 😉 There's simply not enough of our favorite characters: Peter, Abigail (who's catching on frightfully quickly), Thomas Nightingale, Toby, and Peter's old friend Jaget Kumar of the Metropolitan Transit authority. The ghosts are entertaining (and in one case a little heartbreaking) and we meet another river.

book icon  Daemon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling, Philip Pullman
This is a collection of essays, or rather written versions of presentations Pullman has given at bookstores, libraries, science fiction conventions, and even religious convocations (since Pullman is an atheist that's an interesting proposition!) in which he talks about storytelling and the art of narrative (including stories told in art, which several of the essays are devoted to), plus side visits to the purity of fairy tale narrative, how modern teaching methods are ruining children's joy in reading (I agree with him there!), how he hated Narnia for what Lewis did to Susan (huh! well, I understood Lewis' metaphor if Pullman didn't—and this from a man who was railing about imaginations being destroyed!), the concept of "phase space" (several essays are devoted to this) in which a pivotal point in a story rests on not just what happens next but all the things that could have happened next, the Gnostic gospels, how ridiculous belief in any type of god is, how our loss of innocence in adolescence curbs the wild creativity of childhood, that the Fall of Man was a good thing, how teachers stifle a love of poetry, how he created the mulefa on The Amber Spyglass, and much, much more.

There's a lot to enjoy here, especially about narratives (especially those unseen) and storytelling, and Pullman can tell a good yarn, even in a collection of essays. Be aware he's a long-winded and opinionated cuss, though; if you don't mind that, there's much to like here. 

book icon  Beyond the Trees: A Journey Alone Across Canada's Arctic, Adam Shoalts
Naturalist and explorer Shoalts, the author of two other books about canoeing and hiking in Canada, wants to accomplish something that has been never done before: crossing Canada's territory at the Arctic Circle by canoe. He times it to the sesquicentennial of Canada becoming a separate country, and also must carefully time his journey until after the winter ice breaks up, and then still has only three months to go thousands of miles. Even worse, he is going to make the trek west to east, which will require him to canoe upstream on most of the rivers he encounters, including the great Mackenzie and the treacherous Coppermine (which is pretty much all rapids), plus navigate Great Bear Lake.

I am the least "naturalist" person you can imagine, but love reading stories like this. This one seems to be a bit lacking, and it's not because of Shoalts' writing skills—when he is given a chance to be descriptive, he is quite good (especially about the fierce mosquitoes and blackflies that infest the region in summer)—but because he has set this long goal for himself and such a short time to do it in, his trip seems to be rush, rush, rush. Over and over you will read how many kilometers he made that day, in how many hours, and of the exhausting work he had to do to travel that distance (rise at 3 a.m., fight against current and wind, push every muscle to the limit, endure swarms of insects), and the only time he "rests" is sitting out bad storms. At several points he wishes he could camp and fish (he's eating nothing but freeze-dried meals flown out to him at certain points), but his timetable is so tight he can't. Another night he is invited to have a shower and a good meal at a wealthy man's fishing camp, but again his timeline harries him on. I kind of wish he would have made a shorter trek, and been able to stargaze, observe wildlife, fish, explore old ruins...the book would have been less exhausting for the reader, who also would have gotten more enjoyment from it. What's the use pushing yourself like this to "see if you can do it" if you don't have time to stop and absorb it all?

I liked the book, but would have enjoyed it more if it wasn't such an endurance test rather than an enjoyable voyage.

book icon  Young Americans Colonial Williamsburg: Ann's Story, 1747, Joan Lowery Nixon
This is the first of the six Williamsburg books done by Nixon. Ann McKenzie is the daughter of Williamsburg's doctor/apothecary and also wishes to become a doctor, but the adults all tell her no woman can be a doctor and she's better off learning housewifery instead. Ann still persists in learning what she can about nursing and taking care of patients, and she even finds a way to take lessons in Latin from a supercilious boy in exchange for doing his mathematics homework, although she finds out later she is learning less than she thought she was. She's also afraid of the rumors circulating that, now that the capitol building has burned down, that they will be moving the Virginia capital "up the Pamunkey River" and her family will be forced to go live in the wilderness currently there.

Aside from this premonitory plot point (the capital of Virginia did later move "up the Pamunkey" to Richmond), Ann's story is rather pedestrian. She gets in mischief with male friends and a girlfriend named "Peachy," including sneaking out one night to see the slaves holding a dance, a move Ann fears brought smallpox to them, and you do feel sympathy for her having to accept her fate as becoming a housekeeper instead of getting to fulfill her dreams as a doctor. A nice portrait of regular Williamsburg society three decades before the Revolutionary War, plus a look at old-world medicine, but not as heartwrenching as Caesar's Story.

book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Secret Fort, Jerry West
This follows The Happy Hollisters and the Trading Post Mystery, but now it's spring vacation. The kids befriend a road crew that is building a new parkway on the site of an old fort that was active during the Revolutionary War, but the exact location of the fort has been lost. The historical society offers a reward to anyone who can locate the fort before the parkway goes through, and of course the five Hollister children (Pete, age 12; Pam, 10; Ricky, 7; and Holly, 6, and little Sue, age 4) would love to discover the hidden site. At the same time, the kids also befriend a family whose home is on the route the parkway will take; they would love to move their house to a new lot, but none are available in the town of Shoreham and the family doesn't wish to move away.

Large construction machines may fascinate children and some adults, but there are entirely too many bulldozers and other earth-moving machines in this entry for my taste. Plus, what on earth is the deal with Joey Brill? In this book, also determined to find the fort and earn the reward, Joey steals an old letter that may point the direction to the fort, knocks Pete unconscious, and lets himself be bribed by a stranger—none of which he ever seems to get punished for. His parents must really be in somebody's pockets!