30 September 2020

Books Completed Since September 1

book icon  1939: The Last Season of Peace, Angela Lambert
I admit, I picked this up because it was only a dollar at the book sale. It's a study of the 1939 "Season"—the time of year when young, wealthy debutantes were presented officially to society, and of course were available for marriage!—in England. And if this book is any indication, I am so glad I didn't grow up wealthy! While I suppose we all dream about winning the lottery, I spent my time reading this book feeling sorry for these rich girls whose time, especially during the Season, was not their own; who were drilled in careful deportment and how to curtsey to the queen, and night after night spent hours dressing, then hours more at debut parties mouthing polite platitudes to young men who were as nervous as they were.

This book was written in the late 80s, so many of the "debs" who came of age that year were alive for the author to interview to the author. Several of these young ladies kept souvenirs of their Season, and the book is liberally illustrated with photos and memorabilia from Susan Meyrick, who kept every single item from her Season, from dried corsages to dance cards. It all looked glamorous and fun, but behind the scenes the girls were exhausted or shy; some, of course, rebelled against the strict behavior codes of the times, yet sometimes still participated in the routines. One of the novelties of the 1939 Season was that Joseph Kennedy was still serving as Ambassador to Great Britain and his vivacious daughter "Kick" (Kathleen) was also presented to the Court at this time, escorted by her brother, later President John F. Kennedy.
The most amazing detail here is that you would think these girls, being wealthy and gone on tours of Europe and other places, would have been very worldly, but it was exactly the opposite. Although being presented at the "Season" meant they were ready for marriage, most of them didn't know anything about sex. Some of them had never kissed a boy, even at the "ripe old" marrying age of eighteen, they didn't know how babies were made, and they had never met anyone of a lower social standing than they were except their own servants. They were carefully protected from the "bad things" in life by their fathers, mothers, and brothers. Some of them had no idea how poor some people were; they knew everyone wasn't rich, of course, but they'd never seen anything squalid or horrible. (Fathers would, even in the 20th century, not permit their girls to read newspapers!)

Having never been interested in "debs" and their Season, because the events happened before so many British young men and women were thrown into the maw of the second world war, and because the stories came directly from the debs themselves, I did enjoy reading about what an ordeal this was.

book icon  Murder at Chateau sur Mer, Alyssa Maxwell
Emma Cross, a distant (and poor) relation of the Vanderbilt family, works as a newspaper reporter for the Newport Observer, and is covering a polo game at the Newport Casino. All the finest families, including Senator George Wetmore and his wife Edith, are attending the match—when a disheveled woman comes on to the field looking for Mrs. Wetmore. Behind her Emma hears someone say "Lilah." From her brother and her male cousins, Emma learns that Lilah Buford works with some other well-know ladies at the notorious Blue Moon Tavern—but if that news isn't shocking enough, next day Emma is summoned to the Wetmores' home, Chateau sur Mer, where Lilah lies dead at the foot of one of the staircases. Edith Wetmore implores Emma to discreetly look into the crime before her husband's career is tarnished.

And if Emma didn't have enough problems, she discovers Derrick Andrews, who's in love with her, is back in town, and his mother is ready to marry him off to her. But Derrick has been out of her life for some time, and she's discovered new feelings for Newport police detective Jesse Whyte.

Emma's investigation will take her from the poorest and most ramshackle sections of Newport all the way to the prestigious Reading Room, a male-only bastion; she will face violence, fire, and even the loss of her living. But she works her way through the complicated threads of the mystery—and finally manages to take care of that horse I'm always complaining about. 😀

Incidentally, George and Edith Wetmore were real people; he served as both senator and governor of the state of Rhode Island, and they lived well, but very quietly, at their smaller "summer cottage," Chateau sur Mer, which you can tour.

book icon  Murder is In the Air, Frances Brody
This newest Kate Shackleton mystery (#12), 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  This Old Man, Roger Angell
All I knew before I read this book was that Roger Angell was E.B. White's stepson, the son of White's wife Katherine Angell and her first husband, and that he had worked at "The New Yorker," which kept his stepfather and writers like Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, Robert Benchley, and others in the public eye for years. He was, in fact, both a "New Yorker" writer and editor, and this book collects his most famous essay "This Old Man" along with several dozen other essays, profiles, verse, book reviews, and more from his career at the magazine.

I complained in a previous month that Our Boston had way too many sports references. Well, Angell was a sports fan, and I expect sports essays here, but yet in his case I never minded them. When he wrote about sports it was always interesting or compelling in some way, or portrayed a sports figure in a different manner in which I thought of them before. Some of the essays are funny, some brought a tear to the eye, but all of them are a delight to read. I found this for a $1.50 at the book sale, but it's well worth full price.

book icon  The Dark Horse, Craig Johnson
Walt Longmire pulls into the tiny town of Absalom on a mission. He might not have been on that mission had not the Campbell County jail gotten a bit overcrowded and asked Walt if they could keep a prisoner in the Durant jail for a few days: Mary Barsad, a woman who had confessed to killing her husband after he set their barn on fire with her eight horses inside, including an expensive prize Quarter horse named Wahoo Sue, and killed them all.

Walt ends up believing that Mary is innocent, and because he is Walt Longmire, must go to the scene of the crime to investigate and correct this wrong before Mary is convicted. But the citizenry of Absalom aren't going to make it any easier for him, even if no one liked Mary's husband Wade. (Hell, even his brother didn't like him.) But with a little help from his friends both old—Henry Standing Bear and his crew back in Durant—and new—grizzled Herscel Vanskike and the local barmaid Juana and her son Benjamin, Walt is sure as hell going to try.

As I've said previously, I'm not fond of police procedurals, but I love the Longmire books, and especially love Johnson's supporting characters in each book; in this one it's the boy Benjamin and a wonderful horse who is introduced about halfway through the story. (Henry Standing Bear is understood. I love Henry with all my heart.) This one is a thrill-a-minute between the bully boy Cliff Cly that Walt meets in Absalom, a chase through the hills, and the real villain of the piece. The only mystery that remains is how Walt can get beaten up so many times and still manage to function!

book icon  Olive Bright, Pigeoneer, Stephanie Graves
I got this book from Netgalley not long after I read Poppy Redfern and the Midnight Murders, and the two of them have a little of the same vibe: young woman in her twenties living in a small English village as World War II rages—Poppy has trained as an air-raid warden, Olive is the 22-year-old daughter of a veterinarian and pigeon fancier. As much as I liked Poppy Redfern, I almost enjoyed Olive Bright more. The story opens as Olive's best friend George is just leaving the small village of Pipley to join the RAF, and she too wishes to do something for the war effort. Her father has volunteered their homing pigeons to the Army's National Pigeon Service's for courier duty; unfortunately the recruiters know of Dr. Bright's mercurial tempers and are avoiding the Bright loft. Instead, two other, secretive Army officers approach Olive, saying they would like to use the Bright pigeons, but for super-secret war matters they can't tell her about. Eager to get the pigeons in action and without asking her father, Olive challenges the two men to put the Bright birds to the test.
In the meantime, with the village women rallying around the war effort, overbearing busybody Miss Husselbee is being more of a martinet than usual. While everyone is annoyed by her, they're also shocked when she turns up murdered at the Bright loft, found by Jonathon, the Brights' young evacuee. Is her death tied to the secret movements of Jameson Aldridge and his partner, the officers who wish to use Olive's pigeons? And, if not, who in the village would want Miss Husselbee dead?

I really, really liked the fact that even to the end of the book there was no effort made to pair up Olive with Jameson Aldridge as Poppy had been paired with the American officer. They are contentious with each other through the end. There's a Welsh corgi in this story as well, and it's called a corgi, not "a Welsh herding dog." I thought the pigeon angle of the tale was a fresh one, something not involving spy training, American bases, or anything else that has been used in historical mysteries before, and enjoyed the fact that the birds are all named after book characters, and Olive herself is a devotee of Agatha Christie mysteries and still is a bit of an innocent at heart. There's also a subplot about Olive's late mother that turned out to be not what it seemed, and I liked that Olive had a good relationship with her stepmother, who is gamely battling multiple sclerosis. I'm not sure if the author plans a sequel, but if she did, I would definitely read it.

book icon  Betsy and Billy, Carolyn Haywood
In a fit of nostalgia I picked this up at some sort of used bookstore on one of our New England vacations, as it was a discard from the Seekonk (MA) public library. Haywood, a prolific children's writer and illustrator who studied under Howard Pyle, had two different series, Betsy (begun 1939) and Eddie (begun 1947), as well as many stand-alone books. I believe by the 1970s the Eddie series was more well known, although the last Betsy book was published in the 1980s.

The Betsy series was one of those "slice of life" (middle class) kids books I ignored when I was of the age to read them, being more crazy about books with animal protagonists. It covers Betsy's second grade school year, with a Hallowe'en party at school, the birth of her little sister on Christmas day, making cookies for the second-grade class' mothers on Valentine's Day, having a Mother Goose exhibition on May Day, and a bazaar to earn money for playground equipment during the last week of school. There's also a couple of funny chapters revolving around Betsy's best friend Billy's dog Mopsie-Upsy Downsy and Betsy's own dog Thumpy. While there are no minority children pictured, the stories are very simply told with a "Mister Rogers" flavor: gentle lessons about accepting yourself as you are, doing your best, forgiving friends who hurt you. Haywood's numerous illustrations are simple and evocative, and several of them, like Betsy wearing leggings to visit Santa Claus, open a window to another era. (As well as one that would make parents gasp now: in the Valentine baking chapter, Billy gets to light the gas oven!) 

book icon  Here's England, Ruth McKenney & Richard Bransten
This is a darling book I found at one of the library book sales, written by two Americans who fell in love with England and return often, and then finally decided to write a guidebook of their experiences and favorite places. They are both history and literature buffs, so most of the sights they pass on are historical and literary in nature—if you're looking for restaurant recommendations and stuff about pop stars, this isn't the book for you.
The real charm in this book is that (1) Ruth attempts to explain the convoluted history of England without boring you to death, but also to apprise you of some of the neat characters involved that you usually don't read about, like Margaret of Anjou (who had more cojones than most of the men who surrounded her)—and it does pretty much make sense!, and (2) it was written in 1950 and updated slightly in 1955, so you aren't going to hear about the Eye, the Gherkin, and Canary Wharf; in fact, when McKenney/Bransten talk about St. Paul's Cathedral, they spend several paragraphs mentioning how sad it is that the surrounding area is still covered with debris from the German bombing of London during World War II, and mourn the classic London churches that were too damaged to save and that had been razed. You are looking partially at an England that doesn't exist anymore, one that came to an end with austerity and the Great Smog of London that killed thousands in 1952.
It's written in a light style that you don't see in guidebooks anymore, with a real affection for the country and the cities visited, and makes you long for a time machine to go back and see it as it was then, destroyed buildings, coal fires, and all. And she walks around Oxford. I love reading about Oxford.
book icon  Death Comes to the School, Catherine Lloyd
It has been three years since Lucy Harrington and Major Sir Robert Kurland married, but as their third Christmas together approaches, Lucy is in a very sober mood. She and Sir Robert have not gotten on well since the summer, when she suffered a miscarriage. He seems to be avoiding her and she is slowly becoming convinced he is no longer in love with her. And then a disturbing thing happens: Lucy visits the village school and discovers the new teacher, Miss Broomfield, is a martinet, with an obsession about sin, who bullies the children and her two young assistants. The teacher was hired back in the summer, when she was so ill, and she can't believe the woman came so highly recommended, but definitely wishes her replaced, but before that can happen, Miss Broomfield is found dead in her classroom, with a quill pen viciously stabbed into her eye. The girl who found her, Josephine, one of two charity children in the school, is hysterical. Although Sir Robert warns his wife to stay out of the matter, Lucy can't help getting involved in the mystery as she plans Christmas at both Kurland Hall and at her father's (the vicar) rectory. Some help arrives in the form of Sir Robert's vivacious Aunt Rose—but the mystery only grows more perplexing when expensive jewelry is found in Miss Broomfield's quarters.

I love these characters, so I'll just hold my tongue about that silly romance-novel quibble I always have: the characters don't speak to each other. (In fact, Lucy chides someone else at the end of the book for not doing the same thing, when she and Sir Robert are tippytoe-ing around each other for nearly the entire book; one longs for them to have a proper fight and have things all come out.) Otherwise the story is entertaining, the mystery suitably convoluted, and Aunt Rose is a delightful character (someone else realizes that as well, in time). All the flurry of an early 19th century Christmas preparatory season just add more color to the tale, and some favorite characters return: Lucy's friend Sophia and her old bete noire Penelope, now married to the town doctor.

Just one thing: don't Lucy's brothers have names? If they were introduced in the first book I've forgotten, but it's more like Lloyd has forgotten, too—she calls them nothing through the entire book but "the twins" and it's like they have no identity other than being twins. Can we have some names and personalities here? Also, how does Lucy's father manage to remain the vicar when he spends most of his days riding and living easily while the curate does all the work? This must be some Anglican custom I don't understand.

book icon  Honestly, Katie John!, Mary Calhoun
This was the third in another series I missed as a kid, so I grabbed it up for a dollar to see what I'd missed. I know I have read the first book, when the Tucker family temporarily relocated to a riverfront home in Missouri to repair and then sell their great-aunt's four-floor house. Instead they decide to stay and run the big place as a boardinghouse. In the second book, apparently Katie John, an irrepressible 10-year-old, helps her parents run the boardinghouse, deals with going to a new school, and gets a beagle puppy she names Heavenly Spot.

In the third book, Katie John enters sixth grade and is immediately put off by the other girls in her class talking about boys. She is still as happy-go-lucky as ever, riding her bike, playing with Spot, and hunting geodes with a boy in her class, Edwin. But when the boys and girls both tease her at the annual fair, she declares she hates boys, hurting Edwin's feelings, but rallies the girls around her briefly. But the girls one by one drift back to their friendships with the boys, and Katie feels increasingly left out. One week she tries being madcap, another day she tries being a lady instructed via an 1896 etiquette book she found in her great-aunt's library, and finally she moves her bedroom to the very top of the house, all the time confused about who she is and what she "should" be.

Katie John's emotional experiences touched me closely. I remember that age, being scornful of the silly romance talk from the other girls. Having watched my mother and my aunts, I was convinced at that age, and throughout my teens that boys (and, later, men) were just simply too much work! And all they talked about were cars and sports! Boring. I felt the most badly because Katie's confusion over her own self nearly messed up her friendship with Edwin, which was a true partnership in exploring and discovery of the world around them rather than silly pre-sexual feelings. But in the end Katie gains some insight in the old house she and Edwin explored together, and they become friends again.

The second book is available to borrow on the Internet Archive, but I'll probably skip the last of the four, which has Katie John developing a crush on a boy in seventh grade after reading Wuthering Heights. Yawn.

book icon  The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, annotated by Leslie S. Klinger
I remember exactly where it used to be at the Akers Mill Borders Books: on top of the endcap of the mystery aisle, sitting there taunting me in its slipcovered glory. Klinger's annotated Sherlock Holmes, all fifty-six canon stories and the four novels, in three volumes, $120 for the set. Even with Borders' legendary 40 percent off coupons, it was just Too Much. And then in April 2008, A Miracle Occurred. Amazon was selling all their annotated books at eight dollars per volume. $120 worth of books for $24? Let me at it! (For the record, I also bought the annotated Secret Garden.)

And there they have sat, stacked one atop the other in the open shelf at the bottom of the Ann & Hope night table I stained and varnished myself, since then. High time I was reading them, what?
These are the first two books of short stories in the canon, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, all the way through "The Final Problem," which killed off that annoying Holmes for good, or so thought Arthur Conan Doyle, who wanted to write serious historical fiction and just penned Holmes for the cash. When all London donned black armbands at the "death" of Holmes and even Queen Victoria was peeved, Doyle held out three years before bringing Sherlock back. Serious Holmes fans consider these the best of the crop, but even then Doyle was not really caring about his continuity: in one story Mary Watson calls husband John "James." Dorothy Sayers and other writers came to postulate that Watson's middle initial stood for "Hamish," the Scots form of James, and so "James" was her pet name for him.
The footnotes in this book take very seriously the fans' belief that there really was a Sherlock Holmes and so many of them try to reconcile the inconsistencies that already had crept into the stories before the second dozen even went to press. You too can join in the mystery, or ponder why so many Holmes' clients were named "Violet," find out what a gasogene and a tantalus are, how realistic digging under the street in "The Red-Headed League" was, how to figure old-style British money and how much it might be worth at the time, what kind of snake came down the rope, and all sorts of Victorian trivia delights. For serious fans of Sherlock Holmes and, of course, those crazy people like me who get the vapors over annotated books.
book icon  The Blueberry Years, Jim Minick 
Ask me what I remember most about this book. I remember that it was one of the last books I bought from the going-out-of-business sale at Borders. (Yes, it's been sitting in a TBR pile that long.)

Jim and his wife Sarah, both teachers, dreamed for years of going out to the country and raising blueberries. Jim's grandparents had a farm on which he recalled halcyon days of picking berries, and both of them wanted to contribute something to the environment, so they buy a small farm on the backroads of Virginia and the book chronicles the backbreaking work—and the friends and customers they accumulated—in their efforts to build sustaining pick-it-yourself blueberry acres (they also harvest for a local farmer's market).
I have to admit they have a lot of guts for doing this, especially when they were still working. Imaging teaching all day and spending evenings hoeing, trimming, debugging, picking, weeding, replanting, fertilizing, etc. Just reading it is exhausting. And they make some fast friends, including a neighboring farmer who's always ribbing them (but staunchly behind them), and the folks who come pick week after week when they are open—oh, and if you've never farmed, you will probably be aghast at all the hours they work against how short the blueberry growing season is.
Between chapters Jim regales you with facts about blueberries, recipes, and the history of blueberry farming (it was turned into a business by a woman). I enjoyed it pretty well, but it didn't get into my heart the way Gladys Taber's books have (I guess I am still looking for a replacement for Taber!); people who garden, have smallholdings, or who farm will probably be the most emotionally invested, however.

book icon  The Key to Flambards, Linda Newbery
I was very skeptical when I discovered there was a sequel to K.M. Peyton's "Flambards" books. I had watched the television series in 1980, fallen in love with it, bought the first three books and loved them just as much, and then was disappointed by the fourth book (although I must admit that the story is logical, I dislike the fact that Peyton had to make a "villain" out of a favorite character to make the changes she did to the story). I didn't know if anything by anyone else could give me that "Flambards" feeling, and even when I was fifty pages into the story I was still skeptical. While I realize Grace had gone through two terrible traumas, she was so self-absorbed I found her annoying, something I never experienced with Christina Parsons.
Never fear, Grace finds her voice and her "Flambardness." She is the great-granddaughter of Christina and Will's daughter Isobel. Her mother, Polly, has just divorced her father, who already has a new girlfriend and a new child coming, and, what is worse, Grace has had her right leg amputated at the knee after being struck by a drunk driver. She's depressed and sees herself as less than whole, although her best friend, school friends, mother, and even father assure her she is still loved, needed, and wanted. An active younger teen, she misses being able to run. When her mother is offered a job at the Flambards Trust, which has taken over the Russell estate, Grace doesn't want to go—but once she befriends Jamie and his sister Charlie, the latter who teaches Grace to ride, and also Marcus, a sullen boy whose father works on the estate, she is suddenly reluctant to leave the countryside, the animals, the woods, and most of all, her heritage—and those are all endangered by the Flambards Trust's inability to make enough cash to stay open. If they don't, the fields behind the home will be sold for expensive tract houses and a shopping center.
Newbery weaves the old story—including the character of Fergus, who doesn't appear in the television series—into the new very neatly (there's even a nice family tree at the beginning of the book showing how all the Russells are related), and by the time the story gets galloping (no surprise, Grace finds herself a natural rider, just like Christina), you're invested in all the characters. And Newbery does a nice job of linking the actions of the old generation, such as Will and Mark in the Army, to a new generation (Marcus' father Adrian) and how their problems were addressed differently. We also find out what happened to Mark (Newbery vetted this with Peyton) and if he and Christina had children together.

Although her prose cannot match K.M. Peyton's, nevertheless thanks, Linda Newbery, for a new beginning to Flambards.

book icon  St. Nicholas, Volume LIX, November 1931 through October 1932, St. Nicholas Publishing Company
Holy cow, this was the most difficult bound volume of "St. Nicholas" I've ever had to go through. If I thought the changes from The Century Company to Scholastic were bad (St. Nicholas, Volume LVII, May through October 1930, reviewed a few months back), the changes throughout this year were even worse: "The Watch Tower" disappears completely by May, replaced a few months earlier by "The St. Nicholas Handicrafters." The League is whittled down to four pages, and by the time October 1932 rolls around there are only fifty pages (half of it in teeny-tiny print) and eight stories/poems in each issue. Plus, oddly enough, suddenly in May half the ads in the issues are for New York hotels rather than for boys'/girls' schools, bicycles, utilities, toys, etc.

Not to mention "The Young Ravenals" is possibly the worst serial ever to grace the pages of the magazine (seriously, I thought that was "Driven Back to Eden" from the 1880s). Very strange story of a mother who must leave her family to teach in another city when her husband, a muralist, isn't paid due to the Depression. She leaves the family in the capable hands of their "colored" cook, Judy, who breaks her leg right after Mother leaves. So the four kids, from high schooler Randolph down to perpetually hungry eight-year-old Bobby, and artist dad try to cope with little success since apparently not one of them knows a thing about keeping house. The two sisters, one an aspiring concert pianist, have a problem with the same boy, who's a pilot, with a denouement that involves a laundry basket and a mud slide. Other serials are better, but just marginally: "The Return of the Ruby" is obnoxiously imperialist, "Tommy Dane on the Royal Road" chock full of violence, and the only hope comes from "The White Feather," the serial which is left hanging when the volume ends, which has a topping heroine named "Bobby" with a strong sense of justice.

book icon  A Thread Across the Ocean, John Steele Gordon
The story of the transatlantic cable from American history class (400 years in about 200 hours): Cyrus Field hired a ship, laid the first cable, it broke, they laid a second cable, it worked. Everyone was happy.
Of course, like everything, there's lots more to the story. As with the moon landing, many people didn't care that they couldn't talk to Europe. That was a rich person's problem, wasn't it? And there was the matter of money: the British were eager to finance it, the U.S. Government couldn't have cared less. Field had to get financing for the cable from American businessmen. (Field, son of a clergyman, had a prodigious family history: two of his brothers were lawyers, a third was a minister who also wrote an account of the laying of the cable, his great-great-whatever grandfather John Field was the first Englishman to disseminate Copernicus' theory of heliocentricity to the British Isles.) The cable had to be specially made (the copper they were initially going to use was so impure it barely transferred electrical power; it couldn't be sheathed in rubber because that was then too fragile, so they were required to use gutta-percha instead), the ships had to be specially fitted to lay the cable, they had to find the shortest route (it was initially going to be laid from Halifax, Nova Scotia, but the shortest distance across the ocean was from St. John's, Newfoundland, a tiny village)...well, you have to read the entire story to get the idea of the technological and meteorological hardships they ran into. Plus a lot of familiar historic names pop up, like Samuel Morse, the painter who invented telegraphy, and Peter Cooper, who built the first functioning U.S. locomotive.

What reads as "so old fashioned" today was the technological miracle of its kind, and as groundbreaking as and in reality the forerunner of our world-wide telephone and internet system.
book icon  Janie's Freedom, Callie Smith Grant
The war between the States is over, and Rubyhill Plantation lies in ruins. The widowed owner leaves for her home in Pennsylvania, but not before reminding the slaves that they are now free and may have anything they find in the house (she also apologizes to them, which is a shock to everyone). Eleven-year-old Janie, ripped away from her parents when she was only six years old, and since then under the care of elderly Aunty Mil, wonders what she will do next, but the older former slaves say the best thing for Janie and the other young people of the plantation, teenage Aleta and Blue, and twins Nathan and Lucy, is to head north to a place called Chicago where they have heard "colored" people are respected. In warm clothes foraged from the house and food supplied by the older people, the five children head north, while at another plantation, Janie's mother waits, hoping her husband will return to her (he was sent away to work on a chain gang during the war).
Janie and her friends head north just as autumn approaches. Many days they know hunger, and they are afraid to beg for food for fear of antagonizing white people. Yet on their journey they are surprised to be helped by at least one white boy, and when they are in their greatest hour of need, a dirty red-haired girl helps the five despite her own distressing living conditions. In the meantime Anna, Janie's mother, just wishes that she could find her daughter again.

All these "Sisters at Heart" books are Christian-oriented, but this one seems more Christian-themed than the others I've read, and it makes the book seem a little stereotypical (Janie is good at singing spirituals, for instance, and of course there is the standard Very Happy Ending as ordained by God). It's a very gentle retelling of the former slave experience which would probably be appropriate for a younger child.
book icon  The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow: The Story of Sarah Nita, a Navajo Girl, Ann Turner
This is certainly a more realistic book than "Dear America's" previous Native American effort, which tried to put a positive spin on the Carlisle Indian School. In fact, it's a downright sad narrative, as it should be. Sarah Nita, a Navajo girl, lives with her parents and little sister Kaibah in what will eventually become the eastern edge of the state of Arizona. It is 1864, and the US Cavalry is tired of the raids the Navajo are carrying out against white settlers. So they are rounding them to send to a fort in what is now New Mexico. The sisters escape the first sweep that takes their parents, and they courageously walk all the way to a canyon where other Navajo live and are taken in. But the soldiers are relentless, capture the canyon tribe, and Sarah Nita and Kaibah join the exhausting forced march that will take them all the way to Ft. Sumter almost to the Texas line. (Think the story of the Trail of Tears from Cherokee history and you will have it, only instead in a desert setting, which makes it worse.)
In a change from the original diary format, since Sarah Nita did not know English dates, she tells her granddaughter, who is writing the story down, the entries are headed by her memories of a certain day. This seems to have confounded a few readers, who complained they couldn't tell "what date it was." A Navajo girl in 1864 would not know that info, and to me it made the story more realistic.
It's an extremely moving story, but also slow moving, and what happens to the children and to the tribe could be very disturbing to a sensitive child. Care must be taken that this will not traumatize the reader; he or she might need some preparation first, or wait until they are a little older.
book icon  A Cruel Deception, Charles Todd
In this latest of the Bess Crawford mysteries, the Great War is over, and Bess is still providing post-operative care for the wounded, but she's wondering about her future. If she continues in nursing, she wishes to keep working with soldiers. But she is summoned to London for a clandestine meeting with the Matron of nursing, who wishes Bess to go to Paris to get information about her son. He was taking part in the peace talks, but has abruptly cut off communication. Matron believes he may be having problems after being wounded years earlier at the Battle of Mons. Bess soon finds her quarry, Lieutenant Lawrence Minton, and is deeply disturbed to find him addicted to laundanum and suffering from crippling guilt, with only a French friend to try to curb his destructiveness.
The first half of the story moves very slowly as Bess tries desperately to discover what has driven Lt. Minton to the brink of insanity. Once the story shifts to Paris the pace picks up as Bess enlists a Parisian doctor and his wife in helping the officer, but this only endangers Bess' life. What terrible secret is Minton holding back that violence is being done in his name?
One of the problems with this book is its title. You know from the start that Minton is no danger to Bess, Marina, or anyone because the title tells you so: he's being deceived. The mystery is what the deception is.

For those who have read all or most of the Bess Crawford series and wonder: Simon's not in this one. He's supposed to be in Scotland and may "have a lassie." This thought does give Bess some pause...but is it a sisterly pause, or a lover's pause? There will be no resolution to that question in this book! However, there is a clue that Bess may be on his mind.
book icon  MASH: An Army Surgeon in Korea, Otto F. Apel, MD and Pat Apel
How true was M*A*S*H, the movie and the television series? Well, the doctors there pretty much didn't have a stable of writers ready for a quick quip. But the fact that the doctors didn't respect military tradition that much? Or that the work was dirty, exhausting, frightening, and daunting? That the weather was often sizzlingly hot or numbingly cold? All true and in spades.
Dr. Apel writing is a bit dry and contains statistical figures, but still fascinating story of the reality of the MASH units that existed for only a short time on Korean soil (they were changed before the Korean War even ended). I was appalled to discover that all the MASH doctors were just pretty much shipped to the front with no training on how to deal with battle wounds, military protocol, or even the living conditions. Unlike the rawest of soldiers, they didn't even have basic training. When Apel came off the jeep from Japan, a Korean teenager took his bags to his tent, and he proceeded to being in the operating room for over 80 hours, and thus began his one year tour of duty.

Apel served as an advisor to the television series for two years, and if you were a M*A*S*H  viewer, you will see some of the stories his experiences inspired, including the episode where everyone dyes their hair red and another where a peephole in the nurses' shower is arranged. The most interesting part of the story talks about the advances in vascular surgery that came from the surgeons' experimentation at the MASH units. The surgeons had been forbidden to do the surgery by the Army, who said it was quicker just to amputate the limb affected by the arterial injury, but the doctors felt not repairing the injury went against their Hippocratic oath.

If you want the real skinny on a MASH unit, this may be the book for you.