31 August 2020

Books Completed Since August 1

book icon  Lois Lenski: Storycatcher, Bobbie Malone
Malone would have had hard work to capture the life and emotions of Lois Lenski; an intensely private person, Lenski jotted down few private thoughts, even in her correspondence, mainly things concerning her work. So this book is more an examination of her work and her work habits, and little personal information is gleaned. Even Lenski's own Journey Into Childhood delves little into the personal side of her later life, as she waxed enthusiastic about her childhood: she is very circumspect, especially in what seemed like a very formal marriage to Arthur Covey. However, we do know of the difficulties she faced finding time for her artwork when society dictated she be a good wife and mother.

Malone addresses each of the phases of Lenski's career: her illustrations for others' books, her historical novels, her regional and "roundabout" books, the "Mr. Small" books she wrote for her son, and the "Davy" books she wrote for her grandson, each tailored for the job it was to do. ("Mr. Small" and "Davy" were both published as small books, alá Beatrix Potter's "little books," so that they could be held by small hands.) Some of the book reviews are subjective, and I don't agree with all of them. (But it made me surely wish once again I could read her early autobiographical books Skipping Village and A Little Girl of Nineteen Hundred!) I would certainly rate her historical novels much higher! I was amused to discover that Lenski was so enamored of her research for Phebe Fairchild Her Book that her publisher had to remind her that the story was about Phebe and not all about the historical facts she was placing in the story.

Her most well-known books are the regional stories inspired by a trip Lenski and her family took to Louisiana. She became fascinated by the lives of the Cajun people and wrote Bayou Suzette. Her next regional, Strawberry Girl, won her a Newbery Medal. There were eventually seventeen regionals, as well as her "Roundabout America" series for younger children. They not only touched on how people lived in different regions of the United States, but portrayed a class of children frequently missing from the two-parent-middle-class-family-businessman-father-homemaker-mother common in juvenile fiction of the 1940s to the 1960s: middle- and lower-class kids, often rural or with no home of their own. These, of all her works, were the most unique.

An enjoyable overview of Lenski and her body of work, even if I didn't agree with all the author's assessments.

book icon  Addressed to Kill, Jean Flowers
I noticed there doesn't seem to be any further books in this series, which is probably for the best. The plot in this third and final of the "postmistress" mysteries is a mess. It takes place in the small Massachusetts town of North Ashcot around the Valentine's Day holiday, where Cassie Miller is enjoying the tunes of a local group doing their practice sessions at the social hall attached to the town post office. But when one of the musicians, a college professor, is found dead at his home, Cassie wonders if it's linked to robberies in the neighborhood, or something more sinister.

All that post office trivia Cassie used to impart in the first two books seemed like padding in this one, and the story of her giving the presentation to the college class seems to go on almost as long as the mystery. Sunni Smargon, the chief of the North Ashcot police, seems to think of Cassie as a deputy now, enough for her to ask Cassie to do some very questionable sleuthing, and Cassie seems to be able to take time off from her post office job (replaced by the old postmaster, Ben Gentry) any time she wants (sure glad my taxes aren't paying her salary!). During her investigation, Cassie swipes something from the murder victim's study!

Something nice happens to Cassie at the end and is about the only positive thing about this story.

book icon  A Furious Sky, Eric Jay Dolin
As a child I was enthralled by my mom's story about the Hurricane of 1938, so I have several books about that disaster, and also one on the 1935 Key West tragedy, so when I saw this, a book about the history of American hurricanes going all the way back to the first European explorers, I was intrigued. And then to find that it was written by the same author who wrote Brilliant Beacons, one of my favorite books read in 2017? Perfect.

I can't say I was quite as enthralled by this one as much as Brilliant Beacons, but it was nearly as good, although I had hoped Dolin would be able to garner more nuggets about the colonial hurricanes, since I have read more about the modern ones (since 1900). Yet I did garner a little more information about the great Revolutionary War hurricane (and how it affected the outcome), the Great Gale of 1815, and early storms during the age of exploration, as well as the history of weather prediction in general and of how hurricanes form and grow in particular, especially of the two theories of how hurricanes "work": one from merchant and amateur scientist William Redfield and the other by James Espy. (In the end, it turned out they were both partially correct.) Alas, another insightful hurricane theorist was pretty much ignored because he was both Spanish and Catholic: Father Benita Viñes of Cuba. (Had the newly formed and xenophobic US Weather Bureau consulted with the Cubans, more people in Galveston might have been saved.) Dolin even brings us along on the newest of hurricane trackers: the airplanes and their crews known as "hurricane hunters."

Should please anyone interested in weather history, hurricane history, and how hurricanes have changed history. Need to check into Dolin's books about the American/China trade and the American fur trade!

book icon  The Children's Blizzard, Melanie Benjamin
I didn't read the description carefully on this book when I got it from Netgalley; I thought it was a new nonfiction study of the 1888 Midwest tragedy known as "the children's blizzard" rather than a novel. However, I did enjoy what I read.

Based on true accounts, Benjamin weaves a fictional story around two sisters, Raina (the younger, shyer girl) and Gerda Olsen (the older, more assured one), both who have become schoolteachers at one-room prairie schools; newspaperman Gavin Woodson, who wrote promotional literature for immigrants who came to settle the prairies; and Anette Pederson, an abused girl whose mother sold her into servitude who has been "allowed" by her "adoptive mother" to come to Raina's school. When the balmy day of January 12 in the Dakota territories abruptly turns stormy and cold, prairie teachers must make an agonizing decision: keep the kids at the schools, which were badly built and rarely had extra fuel, or allow them to go home. Raina chooses, with the help of her eldest student, to help the children get to the nearest house; Gerda, having let her children go early so she could sleigh ride with a suitor, tries to save two of them; Anette, having left Raina's classroom early, must try to survive with the help of a classmate. Once the blizzard is over, temperatures hit a deep freeze.

The hardships faced by Scandinavian immigrants to the Dakota territory, especially in winter, and especially by women—at least one of the men in this story is a real jerk—are brought to life, although I thought Gerda was a little too hard on herself. I wish Benjamin had gone more into the story of "Ol' Lieutenant" (Ollie Tennant), a black man who runs a saloon, and who discovers how his children are being treated by a white teacher, and less into Gerda's self-loathing after the blizzard is over.

book icon  Poppy Redfern and the Midnight Murders, Tessa Arlen
Britain has been at war for almost three years, and Poppy Redfern, an orphan who has been raised by her grandparents in the village of Little Buffenden in the Chilterns, has just finished her air-raid warden training in London after a succession of hair-raising raids has proven her capable. She takes up her warden duties back in her home town only to immediately run afoul of one of the American airmen who have taken over the family home, Lt. Griff O'Neal. Opinion is rife in Little Buffenden on whether the Americans are good neighbors or bad news—when a local girl who favors the servicemen from "across the pond" is murdered and evidence points to the airman she was dating. Poppy must now do her warden duties guarded by young Sid Ritchie, a sickly young man who nevertheless serves in the home guard, and everyone is on edge; Poppy's grandparents eventually organize weekly dinners to introduce the American officers to the suspicious townsfolk.

I enjoyed this well enough that I will probably get the next book in the series, and it's a good enough look at the resentments that many British had for the American servicemen who were, in their words, "over paid, over sexed, and over here." I liked Poppy and her grandparents, but much preferred it when Poppy worked in London (and it looks like I'll get my wish in the next book). But still things niggled at me. Like Poppy's grandparents' dog, Bess. It's obviously a Welsh corgi, but no one ever refers to her as one. Poppy calls her "a Welsh herding dog." The corgi was already well associated with the royal family; why did no one seem to know what it was? Were they not called "corgi" back then? Also, Poppy and her family seem to drink a lot of coffee. I was under the impression from other books written during the period (by British authors) that, although the British do drink coffee, the war was rather "run on tea," that it was not rationed where coffee was, and people drank copious amounts of it. And my other complaint is: can we quit having mystery stories with a female protagonist where she immediately meets the hot/handsome guy who falls in love with her? I'm really, really tired of having my mysteries interrupted with love stories. At least have the romance take a few books to develop!

book icon  The Story of America, Reader's Digest Association
This is one of those big Digest compilation books like I love to buy when I see them at book sales. This one is from 1975. It is both the history of the United States told in words, photographs, artwork, maps, newspapers, waybills, etc., and specific looks at American culture (the arts, exploration, industries, education, natural wonders, man-made wonders, music, the sciences, sports, space travel, etc.).

Those of you who look at the copyright date must think the book is full of outdated sexual and racial mores, but it might surprise you to know that the text is rife with accounts of the injustices suffered by people of color and by women. The matter of slavery and later treatment of African-Americans is addressed with the severity it deserves, and chapters also cover the women's movement and how so many inequalities need to be addressed. The fact that this is a nearly a 50-year old book will actually make you uncomfortable about how many of these issues that they are addressing are still problems today! The only thing missing are commentaries on LGBTQ rights, but these were pretty much still not spoken of in the '70s.

To be honest, reading this book makes me feel that some things have actually regressed, and that is a sad commentary on 21st century life.

book icon  Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein's Broadway Revolution, Todd S. Purdum
Today, with hits like Hamilton breaking new ground on Broadway, most fans of musicals tend to think of Rodgers and Hammerstein as "old hat" or "treacly," and not at all groundbreaking. But back in their day, they were exactly that: creating the first musical theatre that wasn't simply a string of songs hung together on the most threadbare of plots (usually a backstage love triangle). Rodgers and Hammerstein together not only put together the most memorable songs, but produced shows that addressed prejudice, spousal abuse, young and old culture clashes, integrity vs. profit, submission to philosophies you know are wrong, etc. rather than carrying on with more "froth." Their characters, from Maria von Trapp to Bloody Mary, Julie Jordan to Anna Leonowens to "poor Jud" are memorable characters who have entered the cultural lexicon.

Richard Rodgers was a musical prodigy who, early in his career was partnered with the troubled Lorenz Hart; Oscar Hammerstein II was the grandson of a New York Theatre empresario. Hammerstein worked hard to get his lyrics just so; Rodgers, on the other hand, seemingly could pull a song out of thin air when presented with the correct lyrics. Never close friends, but good working partners, they made their way through hits—South Pacific, Carousel, Oklahoma, The Sound of Music—as well as some real stinkers (Me and Juliet, Pipe Dream, Allegro).

I've heard several reviews of this book complain that it isn't as good as Rodgers' autobiography, but having not read that yet, I found this entertaining and quick-moving, giving enough details but not bogging down in minutiae, especially when the author is talking about how Hammerstein worked to get the lyrics "just right" and Rodgers' tweaking of even a few notes to make the song "go up" or "come down" as it should to set the correct mood. I enjoyed it a bunch as an overview of their career together.

book icon  Late Checkout, Carol J. Perry
In the ninth book of the Witch City series, 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 determined not to let her temporary demotion get the better of her. Since she's been asked to share her field reporter/investigative reporter duties with WICH-TV's owner's nephew Howard Templeton, she has less work to do, so she volunteers at the Salem, MA, main library where Aunt Ibby works. Her first volunteer task is shelving books—and she's shocked (but not so shocked that she doesn't call WICH-TV reporting the news!) to discover a dead body in the spooky stacks. The body is identified as "Wee Willie" Wallace, once a promising baseball player and then a racetrack worker whose gambling ruined his life and sent him to jail. Lee's given permission to investigate Wallace's life and finds out he has ties to WICH-TV as well as to the station's former sports reporter, Larry Laraby, who was, oddly enough, found dead in his personal library, also surrounded by scattered books.

Set against Salem's legendary Hallowe'en celebrations and the 50th anniversary events going on at WICH-TV, Lee is embroiled with not only Willie's mystery but with nostalgia as she talks to television personalities she recalls from her childhood, including Katie the Clown and her favorite, Professor Mercury, who had a circus-themed science show. Her scrying ability is downplayed in this story, but she does a good job interpreting a Tarot card drawn by her friend River North on her television show as somehow being appropro to her current situation. The ending was rather unusual for this series, delving into Lee's childhood fears and memories.

I like these books; they seem to me a cut above some of the other cozy mysteries revolving around magic and/or witchcraft. Also enjoyed that a character from a previous mystery returned, and that Perry did not use the opportunity to make Howard a bad guy. Light, enjoyable entertainment and likable characters make this a plus.

book icon  Murder is in the Air, Frances Brody
This newest Kate Shackleton mystery, taking place in 1920s Great Britain, has Kate, a private inquiry agent, and her partner, Jim Sykes, hired to look in at the Barleycorn Brewery in Yorkshire, owned by William Lofthouse. Lofthouse, newly married to a young wife, and, wishing to turn more of the running of the company over to his nephew James, hopes Kate and Sykes will spot some little problems that he thinks are keeping the company from running at top efficiency. In the meantime, the brewery is drumming up favorable publicity by promoting a local girl, Ruth Parnaby, who's a whiz in the personnel department, as "brewery queen," a twist on a beauty queen—if Ruth's efforts aren't sabotaged by her drunken father, who's already driven his wife away with both Ruth and young George longing to follow her.

Two plots are running here concurrently: the mystery of who might be sabotaging things at the brewery (a recent new beer was fouled with dirt and rubbish) and also a mystery surrounding one of the workers. It's possible they are both linked, but when two different murders happen, Kate and Sykes discover there are no simple answers in this one.

Brody addresses PTSD (Ruth's dad was not a brute before his war service) and spousal and child abuse against the colorful traditional goings-on in the Great Britain of that era of crowning a pretty young girl "queen" of a certain industry (cloth mills, railways, coal mines) to perk up tough times in industrial towns. Brody reverses the usual "the mysteries are connected" plot in this story, so there are several different endings to several different crimes, leading to several different cliffhangers, and once again Kate's niece Harriet and landlady Mrs. Sugden prove themselves equal to being part of the solution. The local characters (Ruth, George, Annie, Parnaby, Joe Finch, Miss Crawford, William and Eleanor Lofthouse, Miss Boland the music teacher) are all interesting characters in their own right, and several of them will have your sympathy before the story is concluded.

book icon  The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings, Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski
For over 30 years, Oxford compatriots J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams got together at least once a week at a pub, more often at Lewis' Oxford rooms, to chat, debate, laugh, play pranks, discuss, and, most importantly, to read their current writing projects to each other. Joined most times by Lewis' brother Warren ("Warnie") and at various times by Hugo Dyson, Gervase Mathew, Alan Griffiths, Nevill Coghill, and (in later years) Christopher Tolkien, and others, they were known as "the Inklings" and the group itself was almost as famed as its parts. The story begins with Tolkien's mother, inspiration for his imaginary journeys, and ends with the death of Owen Barfield, who attained his fame after the Inklings' meetings had ended, and intertwines the lives of the four primaries and their satellites, and even their correspondents, which, despite the "all boys' club" of the meetings, included women such as Dorothy Sayers and Sister Penelope Lawson.

The works of the four, their lives, and a liberal dose of philosophy, Roman Catholic and Anglican doctrines, and psychology mix in this thick volume which skips from one writer to the next, with the University of Oxford almost as its own character holding the protagonists together. At time the analysis of the works of the Inklings gets a bit deep, other times the narrative is brisk and lively, and, of all the works I have read about Lewis, this book gives you the most insight into his brother Warnie, who was a noted writer himself and might have gained more attention if not being the older brother to the noted Lewis. Tolkien fascinated me the most in these pages: I have not read any of the "Middle-Earth" works he is noted for and was surprised not only at his total devotion to world building and language, but did not know he was also a competent artist.

If one is interested in just one or two of the group, a straight biography of them may be more your cup of tea; however, if you are curious about how they interacted, argued, forgave, inspired, annoyed, and endured, be prepared for much philosophical thought and plunge right in.

book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Mystery in Skyscraper City, Jerry West
In the 17th volume of Hollister adventures, the eldest boy Pete finds a book about tunnels under New York City at the school's annual book sale (a kid after my own heart!). Inside the volume he finds a note written in Chinese with one English word: HELP. He's no sooner bought it than an Asian man offers him five dollars for it, but Pete refuses. Later the kids (12-year-old Pete; 10-year-old Pam; Ricky, age 7; Holly, age 6; and Sue, who's four) get the message translated with the help of Sue's school friend Norma Chen; it seems to indicate that a man named Yuen Foo has hidden a treasure somewhere in New York City. Concurrently, Mr. Hollister and his friend Mr. Davis are interested in marketing a new space toy at a New York toy exhibition, but the electronics aren't quite right yet. Mr. Hollister, and the rest of the family, accompany Davis to "skyscraper city" while they work on the toy—and of course the children can try to find Mr. Foo and perhaps discover the treasure. Sadly, Mr. Foo has died, but they track down his son Paul and his grandchildren in solving the puzzle. And coincidentally Paul Foo is an electronics whiz who can help with the space toy! But the mysterious Asian man who tried to buy the book has followed them and makes trouble at every turn.

The Hollisters mix sightseeing facts (the Empire State Building, a gold reserve, and the Statue of Liberty) liberally with the mystery in this one. The Chinese part of the mystery take place at the Chinatown areas I remember seeing as a child, where the elder adults still worked with abacuses, Chinese restaurants used traditional styling, and quaint little gift shops run by Chinese people selling all sorts of memorabilia abounded. There is a sequence where the Hollisters visit a Chinese school where Chinese children, after their regular day at public school, go to learn to speak and write Chinese to preserve their heritage. I recall a Chinese boy I went to elementary school with who went to Chinese school after our weekday classes.

This is a nonstop adventure as the kids and their new Chinese friends Jim and Kathy Foo chase down clues as the mysterious Hong Yee dogs their every step. There is no one talking like Charlie Chan in the tale although the term "oriental" is still used, a word that designated "eastern" back then. Also, Pete says "Honest Injun" once; at least in that case, the pejorative is used positively. In addition, the girls don't get stuck back at the hotel making sandwiches, but follow in all stages of the investigation and it's Sue that figures out an important clue because she's so small! All the kids get to try out the new space toy, which probably would be considered a "boy's toy" back then.