29 February 2020

Books Completed Since February 1

book icon  Young Americans Colonial Williamsburg: Nancy's Story, 1765, Joan Lowery Nixon
This is the third in Lowery's series of six book, each focusing on a boy or girl growing up in the colonial city of Williamsburg. In this entry, the protagonist is Nancy Geddy (who is the niece of the John Geddy featured in Ann's Story), the daughter of a silversmith. Her mother died after her birth and she was brought up learning housewifely duties from her grandmother. Then, when she was ten, her father James dropped a bombshell: he is remarrying!

Now twelve, with a toddler half-brother Jamie, Nancy still chafes at her stepmother's criticism. Elizabeth will not allow her to use her mother's recipes, is always sick now that she is pregnant again, and, when Christmas approaches, is refusing to decorate or make dainties for the twelve days of celebration coming up. But this is only part of Nancy's troubles. One of her best friends is Tom, the orphan apprentice who works at her uncle's foundry. If the new Stamp Act that the British have imposed on the colonies is enacted, the foundry (and Nancy's father's business) might lose customers as well as a way to collect debts, and Tom may have to be let go from his apprenticeship. Can Nancy prevail upon her gentle father to take a stand against the Stamp Act with the other Williamsburg merchants, and somehow come to terms with her feelings about Elizabeth?

I found this a well-moving story with a good explanation (which we rarely got at school) about how the Stamp Act affected the colonial population personally. I just wish there had been a scene at the end where perhaps Nancy would find out why her stepmother was so retiring, and also realizing that pregnancy did indeed make Elizabeth very ill and that she wasn't "acting." There are the usual short essays at the end about Williamsburg and colonial childhood, plus one on the lives of the real characters in the story and another on the Stamp Act.

book icon  The Boston Massacre: A Family History, Serena Zabin
As we zip through our American history classes, the "Boston Massacre" (the shooting of four Boston citizens by British soldiers in 1770) is barely a blip on the radar, except as one of the events that led to the Revolutionary War. And when we do learn it, it's as simple as several hundred British soldiers being quartered on Boston soil who turned on their American "enemies."

Except at the time, they really weren't. Zabin tells the stories of the soldiers, who lived a very poor life, who came to colonial soil under orders, and some came with wives and children, which was common practice back then. Women especially were essential to the military scene, as they not only remained with their husbands, tempering bad influences, but washed, mended, and did minor doctoring for not only their husbands, but his fellow soldiers. These women and children also had to be housed, and some became part of the Boston community. Other soldiers, on their free time, courted and later married Boston (or local) women, so they were not soldiers kept in a separate "ivory tower" encampment, but also became part of the community, so that the rebellion being sown around them was difficult for all involved. Not to mention that some soldiers realized the advantages of living in the colonies rather than a military life or the thoughts of going back to an overcrowded city or lonely village and deserted in impressive numbers, with fellow soldiers reluctant to bring them back and Massachusetts denizens willing to defend them.

This book concentrates on the little known-practice of wives and family accompanying the armies (American wives did this as well, as the tourguides at Valley Forge and other Revolutionary War national parks will tell you) and just how integrated some of the "redcoats" became in Boston society (General Thomas Gage, for instance, had a Boston-bred wife). It is probably of most interest to those studying or interested in the Revolutionary War era.

book icon  Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, Dick Moore
I found this at the "perpetual book sale" at the local library; it's Moore's story of the classic child stars of the silent era through the 1940s (and a bit into the early 1950s). Moore started his career in films before he was a year old and, while he appeared in several "Our Gang" ("Little Rascals") shorts, he's most famous for giving Shirley Temple her first screen kiss in Junior Miss. Moore talks to as many of his fellow child star compatriots as possible, from a candid Jane Withers, to a cagy Shirley Temple, to the child actor he considered his best friend, Matthew Beard ("Stymie" of the Our Gang comedies), as well as Natalie Wood, Roddy McDowall, Diana Cary ("Baby Peggy"), Margaret O'Brien, the Watson boys (the most famous, Bobs, was the famous "he ain't heavy he's my brother" child), Jackie Coogan (whose parents' squandering of the money he earned in Hollywood led to the "Coogan Law" regulating child actors' pay and who it actually went to), Jane Powell, Bonita Granville, and more. Some of the kids had positive experiences, but for most of them it was painful. Dean Stockwell speaks about being teased for his part in The Boy With Green Hair and shaving his curls when he quit films in his teens. They worked long hours, they usually received a sub-par education (Roddy McDowall was chagrined at the lack of education he had; Dick Moore himself remembers only one studio teacher who really cared that they learned their lessons and who wouldn't allow the studio heads to take the kids' three daily hours away), they were forced to pose for photos endlessly and have staged birthday parties.

I found this book fascinating—and ultimately sad at how these kids who delighted us so much at the movies had such a hard life. I also learned something that I didn't know: Gene Reynolds, the noted television producer—he did M*A*S*H—began his career as a child star! Well worth reading if you're a fan of classic film.

book icon  In the Shadow of Vesuvius, Tasha Alexander
Lady Emily and her husband Colin Hargreaves (an intelligence gatherer for the British government) are vacationing in Pompeii with Emily's childhood friend Ivy when they turn up a dead body that has been encased in plaster like the Pompeiian bodies found on the site. The man's body is discovered to be that of an American reporter who had visited the site some months ago. When the police write it off, of course inquisitive Emily and ever-suspicious Colin want to find out who killed the man and why. Their immediate suspects are an American brother-and-sister, Benjamin and Calliope Carter and perhaps the camera-shy archaeological worker Stirling—or perhaps the handsome tour guide Mario. It certainly isn't Emily's old friend Jeremy Bainbridge, who seems enamored by Callie Carter, and surely can't be a young woman who gives a surprising introduction of herself, has a connection with the couple's past, and falls in with Emily and Colin's party.

As in the last few of these mysteries, there are alternate chapters set in AD 79, the date of the fateful eruption of Mount Vesuvius, about a character who seems to have nothing to do with the plot until the last couple of chapters. This is Kassandra, a Pompeiian slave who gains her freedom when her father buys both himself and her out of slavery. She is a talented poet whose work on an epic brings her to the attention of a suitor who courts and later marries her former mistress. The fact that Kassandra's poetry, presented at first anonymously, was well-received when scribbed as graffiti on the Pompeiian walls, was interesting at first, then the story took a really predictable turn (I wanted to shake her and yell "You stupid girl, you should have known that would happen!"), and it's only at the end that her fate ties in with the mystery of the murdered American reporter.

I also wanted to kick Colin's butt more than several times in this story. Due to something revealed a few chapters into the story, he turns into yet another male horse's ass, which is not only not like him, but it led to him treating Emily's feelings quite badly. The charm of Colin always was that he never did this sort of thing, and it's irritating that he's developed the habit now.

I did enjoy most of this except for the conclusion of Kassandra's story and Colin's behavior, as my paternal grandparents lived on the island of Ischia before they emigrated to the US and Vesuvius figured in their past. Also amused at yet another offhand reference to Elizabeth Peters' character Amelia Peabody and Radcliffe Emerson!

book icon  Elfquest: The Final Quest (Volumes 1-4), Wendy and Richard Pini
It seems so long ago, and then again it seems like yesterday that I was traveling up to Boston to visit friends: Mary Bloemker, Pat Brimer, Abby Rogers, Gail Paradis, Deb Walsh, Mary Fall, and Steve Eramo. One of our destinations was the comic book store Million Year Picnic at Harvard Square, and one of the things Abby bought religiously was a comic called Elfquest. I've never been a high fantasy fan or a comics fan, but one weekend when I was staying at Abby and Gail's apartment, I picked up the first issue of Elfquest to read. And the second. And then however many Abby had at that point. And the next time I was in Million Year Picnic, I bought up all the back issues to catch up, and then collected and read for years, although the last hard copies I got was "Kings of the Broken Wheel." Still not being much of a comics devotee, and not going to a comic book store regularly after not going to the laundromat on Buford Highway weekly, I didn't read the subsequent sequels until the Pinis posted them online in 2009.

So I had to collect the final four compilation volumes of the saga, which ended officially February 28, 2018 (40 years after the original issue 1 was published), and they've been sitting in my TBR pile since July. I needed a special day to sit down and read them, and the day I found was perfect: damp, rainy, dark, and miserable. And suddenly it was the 1980s once more, and I rejoined Wolfrider chief Cutter, his lifemate Leetah, his best friend Skywise, his children Sunstream and Ember, and all the Wolfrides, Sun Village people, Go-Backs, Waveriders, and other elfin and human denizens of the World of Two Moons. The time has come finally for the elves to make a decision: stay on the World of Two Moons and face the inexorable march of the warlike humans who are encroaching on their territories, or come back to the floating palace they had arrived in and head back to their origin planet, a decision that will break up friends, families, and even couples. In the meantime children are born, evil humans pillage and destroy while others embrace their elfin visitors, and fate spins its wheel. Fitting adventures lead to an expected parting, but not without a loss or too. Yes, I cried at the end.

book icon  A Dream Given Form: The Unofficial Guide to the Universe of Babylon 5, Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz
I thought we had bought every Babylon 5 book ever written (except for the complete "encyclopedia," the price of which makes me want to faint), until I saw this volume; it is a fairly new publication from 2017. Perhaps there is new interest in the series because of it showing on Amazon Prime for so long? I wasn't aware it even existed until someone used it as a reference at the Crusade panel at DragonCon.

Whatever. Don't expect an episode guide—you're better off finding one online or going back and finding Jane Killick's five-volume season-by-season guide. This one looks behind each of the episodes for themes, plot points that will later reappear, origins of quotations or verse uttered by the characters, storylines that link to Shakespeare and other classic (and classical) writers, items that will show up later, even humorous lines of dialog. It's a great read for B5 fans because they notice things even most B5 fans didn't—for instance, I never noticed that Bester never unclenches his left fist!

In addition to all the episodes of the series, the authors also talk about each one of the Babylon 5 films and all the episode of the followup series Crusade, and there is an interview with Peter Jurasik about working on the series and the character of Londo Mollari.

book icon  The Real Beatrix Potter, Nadia Cohen
This is a new biography of Potter. Coming on the heels of Linda Lear's exhaustive biography, I don't think it offers anything new, although I seem not to remember so much material about Canon Hardwick D. Rawnsley, who awakened Beatrix's interest in saving the Lake Country.

Beatrix Potter was born into the wealthy household of Rupert and Helen Potter (a lawyer and amateur photographer, and a heiress) to a stifling life of her parents' social ambitions. She wasn't allowed to have friends, so she turned to art, including highly detailed botanical sketches of fungi, and the clever drawings of small animals in letters to friends' children that became the basis for her "little books," the charming small volumes that became classics. Her first romance ended in tragedy; her second left her a happy, contented farmwife who preserved great tracts of land from developers.

Well told by Cohen. Contains an album of photographs of Potter, her homes, and land.

book icon  The Mutual Admiration Society, Mo Moulton
In 1912, the idea of a woman's going to university was still strange, if not an abomination in some minds. Women's minds were not strong enough to absorb higher learning; it would make them go crazy. Or it would destroy their "womanly, nurturing qualities" and render them unfit wives and mothers. Certainly well-bred feminine women would not want to do anything like that. And just to make certain women didn't get ideas beyond their station, while they could attend university, take the same examinations as men, and be marked, but they could not graduate and receive a diploma.

But more and more young women sought education, including a parson's daughter named Dorothy Sayers, who was learning Latin at age six, wrote prodigious plays and acted them out. At Oxford Dorothy met Muriel St. Clare Byrne, Charis Barnett, and "D. (Dorothy) Rowe." Occasionally along with Muriel "Jim" Jaeger, Amphilis Middlemore, and Catherine "Tony" Godfrey, they formed a group called "the Mutual Admiration Society." They supported each other, occasionally fought with each other, put on elaborate plays with each other, and mostly knew each other's secrets, and they all defied convention. Sayers had a child out of wedlock. Charis Barnett became (shockingly!) a birth-control advocate, and then also a well-known authority on child rearing. Muriel was most certainly a lesbian. From their experiences, and the experiences of the women who stood with them and followed after them, a new generation of independent women rose.

I confess I read this mostly for Dorothy Sayers and the snippets about Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, but I loved reading about university experiences early in the 20th century, and I always enjoy reading about Oxford University.

book icon  The Book of Dust, Volume 2: The Secret Commonwealth, Philip Pullman
Well, I don't know what to say. I put off reading La Belle Sauvage until it reached paperback, but when this went on sale I asked for it as a birthday gift. Pullman's managed to turn this into a Bildungsroman/picaresque journey in which Lyra is severely tested. But what a Lyra! Pullman, whose Daemon Voices expresses contempt for how C.S. Lewis treated Susan, turns her into Susan, someone who doesn't even believe in her daemon any more, due to a couple of avant garde books she is reading, and is set at odds with Pantalaimon from the first page. In the first chapter Pan witnesses a murder and Lyra gets seemingly insignificant news from a classmate that starts the whole plot moving—and before we know it evil plots are roiling and Lyra's and Pan's problems become so severe that he walks out on her. Lyra's quest for him starts with the Gyptians, but leads far afield.

Pullman was determined this book be disturbing and it sure is, but it's annoying as well. Pan is still seething over having been abandoned by Lyra in The Amber Spyglass (which was seven years earlier; surely they'd had it out before then?), doesn't like the books she's reading, and finally goes off on a quest of his own having had a tantrum like a spoiled child. Like many college students, Lyra has let herself be brainwashed by fashionable thought (the truth about the authors is revealed in other narratives in the story). The Magisterium, as a thinly disguised Catholic/Christian church hierarchy gone amuck (as in The Handmaid's Tale) now seems to be being underwritten by a Big Business (oh, Lord, not this again). Instead of an amber spyglass, there is now a new method to see "Dust" and of course the Magisterium (and what seems like some Muslim-like terrorists as well) want to see every industry that can produce this method ruined and/or closed down. The evil  people, of whatever stripe, are ruthless: there are deaths (including of a once-innocent elderly man), of men, women, children, daemons) and violence, including against Lyra. If she came out of The Amber Spyglass with her innocence lost, she's certainly lost everything now. On her travels she, like Huckleberry Finn, goes off on little side trips, the most bizarre of them in Prague with a character who reminded me of someone in Nick O'Donohoe's "Gnomeworks" duology.

And the whole book ends in cliffhanger after cliffhanger. What's going to happen to Alice (arrested) and Malcolm (wounded in searching for Lyra) and Pan and Lyra herself, not to mention the two different men who are stalking her? Well, we've got to wait for the last book to find out.

book icon  Consider the Fork, Bee Wilson
Again, I hate to cook, but I enjoy well-written books about the history of cooking or history and cooking. I actually bought the e-book version of this for James, but turned it up for a dollar and bought a real copy.

Wilson tells the story of cooking and food from Stone Age cooking pots to modern appliances via chapters about pots and pans, slicing implements, heat for cooking, ingredient measurement and ingredient reduction, utensils, preservation of foods, and kitchen design. In the process we learn about Fannie Farmer, how new the use of forks is, the difference between Chinese and Japanese chopsticks, the dangers of cook fires, and how mortar and pestles morphed into mixers.

If you're at all interested in cooking history, you should enjoy this lively book.

book icon  Seasons, edited by Mercedes Lackey
In this thirteenth collection of stories about Lackey's fictional world of Valdemar and its lawkeeping Heralds with their otherworldly Companions. In this edition the stories all revolve around seasonable celebrations: Midwinter, Midsummer, spring festivals, fall harvests. The opening story is rather pedestrian, but most of the remainder are page-turners. Lackey herself finishes the volume with an offbeat story about friendly spiders who have appointed themselves guardians of a small town. Charlotte would probably have approved!

In between we have continuing adventures from previous short stories about Lady Cera of Sandbriar, Herald Wil and his precocious daughter Ivy (who are involved in a tense tale which includes a version of the Welsh Christmas custom the Mari Llwd), the kyree Nwah and her bonded human changeling Kade (a great change comes to their relationship in this story), Hektor Dann and the rest of the Haven city watch in a humorous tale about a yearly contest, the Animal Mindspeech expert Lena and her new husband Keven, the revengeful Paxia in her vendetta against Heralds, and Sparrow and Cloudbrother. Others are standalone, one of my favorites being "A Darkling Light" about two country children who are tasked with setting festival torches alight but who are afraid of running into autumn spirits. "A Midwinter's Gift," about a young woman who overhears a dark plot to ruin a friend, is another enjoyable tale about a girl who is expected to fulfill her family's plans for her future but finds her talents lie in another area altogether.

Great visiting with Valdemar as always!

book icon  The Queens of Animation, Nathalia Holt
Holt did such a good job with The Rise of the Rocket Girls and I have always been such a classic Disney fan that the moment I could afford this book I grabbed it. It's a good book about the contributions of the heretofore silent (or perhaps "silenced") women of the Disney Studios, but ultimately it's sad.

The majority of Disney's chief animators were men, as well as most of the story department. (Women did work at Disney in other capacity besides secretaries and clerks; the Ink and Paint Department was chiefly made up of women who carefully traced and then colored the animators' original drawings to cells that were then filmed.) There were a few exceptions like Bianca Majolie and Grace Huntington, and they were mercilessly bullied by the male animators, including big jolly teddy bear Roy Williams, who would later gain fame onscreen in The Mickey Mouse Club. Almost none of the women in the story department or in other high-ranking animation jobs were ever credited on the films. But you definitely saw their work: the savage dogs in Bambi were designed by a woman. As were the beautiful critically-acclaimed crystal designs in the "Nutcracker" sequence of Fantasia. (Fun fact: "The Nutcracker" ballet was unknown in the United States at the time Fantasia was released, but George Ballanchine was a fan of the original concept drawings. In 1954 he staged the first American version of The Nutcracker on stage, and since then it has become a Christmas classic.)

The saddest tale in the volume has to be that of Mary Blair. If you went to the 1964 World's Fair, she was the designer of "It's a Small World," and you can still see her artistry in both the Disney parks. As Mary Robinson, she married one of Walt's animators, Lee Blair, and her art wowed Disney. Very soon her work eclipsed that of her husband, and he became a violent alcoholic, verbally and physically threatening her and her children. She kept it all hidden.

It was always known that the women at Disney were not paid as well and little allowed into "the boys' club," but this really brings home the bullying and anxieties they went through. It's very sad that these talented men took such glee in doing this. An illuminating but ultimately sobering book.

book icon  A Brushstroke With Death, Bethany Blake
After reading about the tough times of Disney's female animators, I wanted something light to read. This Barnes & Noble "exclusive" (and it is, too; no release on Amazon until this fall) fits the bill: it's a witchy cozy about Willow Bellamy, who owns the art studio The Owl and Crescent, which has a resident owl as well as Willow's pet cat Luna, and a rescue pig. Willow, along with her friends Astrid and Pepper, are all witches, Willow from a long line of Bellamy adepts, including her Grandma Anna and her mother, the latter who has eschewed the craft and is the mayor of Zephyr Hollow. Willow also has custody of the Bellamy spellbook, which figures in the story after one of the local merchants, crabby Evangeline Fletcher, is killed after a meeting at Willow's studio. And did we mention Fletcher's nephew Derek is Willow's old boyfriend? And he'll profit if his aunt dies?

Plus there's another fillip of mystery that pops up: the detective who shows up to investigate the case is a dead ringer for the handsome dark-haired man walking his dog that Willow painted days earlier (and he even has a dog).

So who killed crabby Evangeline? Was it Derek? One of the other small businesspersons, including a weird filmmaker, all of whom hated her? The absent-minded caretaker of the Fletcher property? Or maybe it's Willow herself, since the murder weapon came from a still life she organized? Can Willow, Astrid, and Pepper ferret out the killer?

This is light, fun, and a pleasant way to spend some reading time, especially after some very heavy reading, and the mysterious police detective is easy on the mental image of him.

book icon  America Celebrates! A Patchwork of Weird and Wonderful Holiday Lore. Hennig Cohen and Tristram Peter Coffin
Newspaper and magazine articles make up the contents of this unusual holiday book about American celebrations, from the classic ones everyone knows like New Year's, Christmas, Independence Day, etc. to holidays celebrated by certain ethnic or regional groups, like Boys' Day and Girls' Day in Japanese neighborhoods; the buzzard festival in Hinckley, Ohio; Green Corn Festivals among the Seminole and the Seneca; and Bastille Day among the Cajuns. The dates on these articles range from 19th century datelines all the way through the 1980s: for instance the New Years' articles include pieces on Boston's no-alcohol street party "First Night," the Philadelphia Mummers Parade, and 19th century Open House and calling customs. Fortunetelling superstitions for both New Year's and for Hallowe'en appear, all sorts of Thanksgiving celebrations challenge the classic Pilgrim feast, and King's Day, Sweet Potato Day, Derby Day, St. John's Day, Dewali, and more grace the pages.

book icon  Re-read: Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Kate Douglas Wiggin

book icon  One Fatal Flaw: A Daniel Pitt Mystery, Anne Perry
This is the third entry in Perry's Daniel Pitt series, in which Daniel is begged by a young woman to help her boyfriend, who has been accused of killing a rival gang leader and then covering it up with arson. Daniel's friend, the scientist Miriam fforbes-Croft, recalls that one of her instructors at university, Sir Barnabas Saltram, once was able to save a member of the nobility in a case where a fire killed the man's young wife and he was accused of murdering her. Daniel is able to secure Saltram's services and with the help of his fellow attorney Kitteridge, Robert Adwell is cleared. And then, not weeks later, Rob Adwell is killed in a similar manner in a similar situation, and the young woman who pleaded for his life is accused of the crime. Daniel and Miriam are stunned; two so similar crimes could not have happened. Could they have been wrong? Could Sir Barnabas have been wrong—more than once?

As always, a deliberate narrative in Perry's classic style, and although Miriam is an appealing character, strait-laced and sober Daniel is not as colorful or interesting as either his father or mother were in the earlier Pitt series. The mystery is interesting up to a certain point, when you realize what happened, and then the remainder of the book is proving that.

book icon  Boston: A Social History, Brett Howard
I find the best things at book sales. This one's an episodic history of The Hub, with chapters devoted to the founding (including William Blackstone hightailing it out of there when the Puritans showed up) and setting the record straight: the Pilgrims didn't found Boston, the Puritans did (and they didn't much like each other). Subsequent chapters are devoted to "the first families" of Boston, the Adams family, the Kennedys from the first immigrant to the first Catholic President of the United States, traditional Boston foods, Harvard, Massachusetts writers, the different churches and denominations, Bostonians at war, crime and punishment, and more. The volume is illustrated with vintage woodcuts, engravings, and black and white photographs, and is different from most chronological histories of any city. Enjoyed this.

book icon  Kindness Goes Unpunished, Craig Johnson
In the third book in Johnson's Longmire series, Walt Longmire accompanies his good friend (and sometimes better half) Henry Standing Bear to Philadelphia where Henry will exhibit his Native American photos and deliver a lecture, and Walt will visit with his daughter Cady, who's practicing law at a firm there. But he is no sooner arrived at Cady's home than he gets a heart-stopping phone call: Cady's in the hospital with a severe head injury after falling down concrete steps. As Walt grapples with the fact that Cady may not come out of her coma, he is, of course, also determined to bring her attacker to justice. With the support of the family of his deputy Victoria Moretti, and eventually two Philadelphia police officers (plus Vic's family, most of whom are police), Walt discovers the attack's ties to Cady's boyfriend whom he has doubts about, and who appears to be a drug user. So he's floored when said boyfriend is also killed.

Another great Longmire adventure which takes Walt and Henry out of the familiar environs of Absaroka County while still remaining strongly themselves. Readers of this book say Johnson brings Philadelphia to life; I've only been to the city once doing tourist attractions, but his "Philly" seems very real, from the big areas like the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and monuments to small details like a local bar near Cady's home. Vic's family, as she's stated, are complicated, and Walt learns the full import of that in this story. Also great touches with Walt's and Henry's friendship and how the latter acts as a governor to the former's often hasty decisions.

I usually don't care for police procedurals of any stripe, but this series has me hooked because of the character relationships.