30 November 2020

Books Completed Since November 1

book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Secret of the Lucky Coins, Jerry West
Sometimes one little action starts a whole lot of plot: in this 22nd entry in the Happy Hollisters series, someone gives four-year old Sue a "lucky penny." That's all it takes for the other children, Pete (age 12), Pam, 10, seven-year-old Ricky, and Holly, age 6, to get absorbed in coin collecting. (As usual, the kids' bete noire Joey Brill tries to make off with their coins.) They take their collection with them to Crestview, where they used to live, to visit their cousins Teddy and Jean, and enroute take cover from a small tornado. Afterwards, Pete discovers a rare Oak Tree shilling in a fallen tree. It has mysterious marks on it that seem to point to a hidden treasure. Once they arrive in Crestview, a local museum has a coin collection stolen! Coincidence? Well, of course, this is a happy Hollisters mystery, after all.

As was begun in the previous Little Mermaid adventure, Ricky is still doing dumb things and getting in trouble for it. This time Holly gets herself into a sticky situation as well as the kids play around a cannon monument. However, some novel twists in this story: turns out Joey Brill is visiting his cousin in Crestview, so we're stuck with him there, but he bullies smaller Oz, too. So Oz prefers the Hollisters a whole lot more than he likes Joey's company! Oz is also talented at drawing and provides the police a valuable clue. In another break from the norm, the children catch the museum thief early in the story, but believe his story about why he committed the robbery and help find justice for him. Otherwise it's business as usual as the quintet and Teddy and Jean hunt clues and piece together what's going on.
book icon  False Value, Ben Aaronovitch
Peter Grant was suspended from the police force after the Faceless Man died. Since then he's been anticipating fatherhood and wondering what to do next. His decision: take a technical job with a rising new company, the Serious Cybernetics Corporation—where he discovers he's actually been hired to spy on the employees and figure out why there are gaps in the security logs.
Actually, he's not all that he seems. Alternating chapters take us back in time to where Peter discovers that somewhere there is a primitive Babbage machine called a Mary Engine that goes back to the days of Ada Lovelace, a gadget that has terrifying magical abilities. Once Peter discovers there's a secure area at the SCC, he's pretty sure it's hiding this amazing machine. But what does SCC mogul Terrence Skinner planning to do with it? With the help of two of the employees, Peter's about to find out—if he can also cope with the Librarians from the U.S. who are after the same device.

The Mary Engine is an intriguing idea, but overall this entry in the series lacks that special something that makes the Grant books a delight to read. For one, an occasional reference to another fandom is fun. It's always enjoyable to find a Doctor Who or other fannish reference in these books. But Skinner's whole company is a riff on Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and the references to Vogons, Magratheans, and mice just go on and on. (Although I have to admit having the baddie named "Skinner" along with the multiple reference to mice is a neat science in-joke.) Plus a lot of the story takes place at Peter's place of work and it's dull hanging around an office all day; I can almost see the fluorescent lights. (::flinch!::)
book icon  The October Man, Ben Aaronovitch
Another book I read at least twice as an e-book, but it didn't seem "real" till I had a hard copy.  This takes place in Ben Aaronovitch's "Rivers of London" universe, which I've been a fan of since the first book Rivers of London (Midnight Riot in the U.S.). However, rather than concentrating on Aaronovitch's usual protagonist, Peter Grant, we are shown another aspect of the magical universe portrayed in the "Rivers" books.

In Germany, Tobias Winter is also a young magic practitioner and part of the German police force. He is called to the Moselle Valley area when a corpse is found completely covered by a fungus that is also used in winemaking, and detects traces of magic ("vestigia") at the murder site and from the corpse. Now all he has to do is find out why the man died in such an unusual way.

Tobi is a pleasant character, although I didn't think his background and experience were as interesting as Peter Grant's. However, I enjoyed learning more about the German magic discipline, and Tobi's investigation with his partner (Vanessa Sommer, assigned to him by someone with a puckish sense of humor) not only turns up river spirits of a type Peter Grant would be familiar with, but another esoteric member of the community as well as a vengeful spirit. The wine-making lore was interesting as well, although I was a bit grossed out to learn that there are wines made using mold! The usual touches of Aaronovitch humor enliven the story, and I loved Vanessa's encounter with a young child who's more than she appears.
book icon  God, War, and Providence, James A. Warren
Roger Williams had radical ideas. The Puritans were aghast when Williams dared to say that people who were not from the Puritan sect could still be as good and as Christian as the Puritans were. He had the temerity to think that non-traditional sects, like the Society of Friends (Quakers), and that even Jews had the right to worship as they wished. And, most shockingly, he believe the "savages" like the Narragansett, Wampanoag, and Pequot tribes were not tools of the devil as the Puritans believed, but could be as good as Christian men without being Christian, and that their laws were just.

I'm sure Williams was not perfect, a man of his times, and had his own prejudices, but the fact that he believed all the things above, and also that a woman like Anne Hutchinson was just as capable as a man in proclaiming the gospel put him in a higher class than most of the Europeans that arrived on New England shores in the 17th century. He advocated for the Narragansetts almost until the day he died, fighting a losing battle against the Puritans and their complicated machinations with the Pequots, pretending to be their allies until the Pequots themselves were in the way of the English settlers. This is the story of Williams' futile fight for the rights of the Narragansetts and the greed for land that eventually toppled all the New England tribes. Not a hard read and contains supplemental maps and illustrations (including a map of the original Providence settlement).
book icon  Re-read: The Book of Stillmeadow, Gladys Taber
Back in the 1930s, Gladys Taber, her best friend Eleanor Mayer, and their husbands bought a Connecticut farmhouse, like many others of their era, to spend weekends and summers at rather than live year round in the concrete canyons of New York City. Taber began writing columns about her life in the country and the result were her non-fiction "Stillmeadow" books. I "met" Gladys in seventh grade via her book Especially Dogs in my junior-high library.
The Stillmeadow books were "hygge" long before Americans started mispronouncing the Danish word. In fact, rumor still has it Gladys was the inspiration for Elizabeth Lane in Christmas in Connecticut, except Elizabeth was a fraud and Gladys was the real thing. Together she and Eleanor ("Jill" in the books) raised their kids (Taber was later divorced, Eleanor's husband died), bred cocker spaniels, were owned by adored cats, kept a garden, canned and preserved foods, kept the farmhouse (built in the late 1600s) from falling apart, and submerged themselves in the slow turn of the seasons. This book opens in November and closes in October of the next year, chronicling the growth of the children, the antics of the dogs, and the sheer beauty of the Connecticut countryside. They are just so calming and comforting—sometimes funny, occasionally sad, filled with the scents and sounds of grass, birds, excited dogs, crickets, the steady thunk of Jill's hoe and rake, the Stillmeadow kitchen and the huge colonial fireplace.
Any day with Gladys is one filled with happiness and beauty.
book icon  Neither Wolf Nor Dog, Kent Nerburn
After writing two books on Ojibwe culture in collaboration with Native students, Kent Nerburn is contacted by an elderly Lakota man named Dan who had read the books and liked that Nerburn neither romanticized the Native group he wrote about nor was a "wannabe Indian," a non-Native person who tries to co-op Native culture as something to improve non-Native lives. Dan has spent the past few years writing down his perceptions of Native and white people, and asks Nerburn to make them into a coherent narrative. Nerburn's first attempt sounds stilted to him, but Dan seems to like it—at first, then thinks he's trying too hard to make it sound "white." Finally he rips him the notes he's written and instead takes Nerburn, along with his good friend Grover and a dog named Fatback, on an odyssey through the Native lands around them, trying to impress upon the author how much the Native population has lost from contact with European explorers and settlers.

This is a sad and unsettling book that makes you realize how much was taken away from Native American cultures in the past 400 years. When Europeans came to this country they eventually became "American" but were always allowed to keep the memories of their original culture alive. Foods were assimilated into the American diet, as well as customs and religion. Yet the various Native tribes, each with their own individual cultures, that were here when the European settlers arrived were expected to give up these cultures and customs and religion to embrace the new European ways and forget the old. Those who did not comply were browbeat, physically beaten, even killed. Now that the "worm has turned," so to speak, many wish to learn about Native culture, but still overlay their knowledge with their own assumptions, thus you get "Indian rituals" bathed in a rosy glow, the so-called "magic Indian" with supernatural powers, or the "noble savage" stereotype without seeing Native people as individuals. Worse, non-Natives wish to co-opt Native practices for their own improvement, even emulating Native dress and way of life. Dan presents Nerburn with the reality of modern Native life and the shadows of the past that haunt them.
book icon  St. Nicholas, Volume 60, November 1932-October 1933, American Education Press
Well, this is it. The last bound volume of "St. Nicholas" I have in my possession to read. For the past...twenty? maybe thirty? I guess years I have read fifty nine of the sixty volumes up to this point (I'm missing Volume 58, November 1930-October 1931); I bought the first volume in Boston, but I don't recall when—November 1873 to October 1933, sixty years of the United States going from agrarian nation to minor world power. Thankfully this was better than the previous volume, although all twelve issues fitted into a volume that would have held six months' worth of material only a few years earlier.

The serials were interesting but minor, but at least better than the awful Young Ravenals in the previous volume, which should have been shot for cruelty to any adult, or kid for that matter, who had to read through that hot mess. "The White Feather" ended up satisfactorily, "The Man from Mystery House" was a good action piece, "The Lost Circe" was an okay girls' mystery, "Nest Among the Stars" starred the hapless Japheta (still not sure why she has that nickname) at camp trailing mishaps and mistaken identities in her wake (she almost gets one man labeled as a "Commie"), and I was disappointed they started a reasonably interesting story "Trail of the Borealis" just as I finished the volume. The big disappointment was the John Bennett (Master Skylark) serial which was a boring fantasy about a knight and a dragon; glad to not have to finish that. November 1932 had an article about the magazine's 60th anniversary and a couple of other pieces devoted to the event.

Of note in this issue is J. Frank Dobie's "When I Was a Boy on the Ranch" which was later oft-anthologized, two nature pieces by amateur naturalist Daniel P. Mannix (who later wrote The Fox and the Hound, later presented in a cleaned-up version by Disney), a piece about Rhode Island history (the sinking of the British ship Gaspé in Narragansett Bay), and what I think was the only magazine appearance of an excerpt from a "Little House" book, "Keeping House" from Farmer Boy, in which Almanzo's pet pig is named "Amy," not "Lucy" as in my copy. Odd. T. Morris Longstreth, he of the square-jawed heroes, has a neat "girl power" story about a young woman at a logging camp who secretly learns to fly the camp airplane and ends up saving the day and the hundredth anniversary of Louisa May Alcott's birth is celebrated.

They finally ditched the boring "Handcrafters" column, brought back the calendar in the last volume, dropped "The Letter Box" and then picked it up again because they added pages (having been whittled down to fifty previously) but used cheaper paper which is visibly yellow, and, also in the last issue, added an airplane column. Thank goodness the League was still intact!
book icon  New England Flavor: Memoirs of a Country Boyhood, Haydn S. Pearson
This is Pearson's autobiographical look at his New Hampshire childhood growing up in the country town of Hancock, where his father was a Baptist minister and apple grower. He looks back on his chores—and there were many for a boy growing up on a farm, some monotonous like picking potato bugs off leaves and some occasionally interesting, like taking apples to the cider mill, and some pretty frustrating, like thawing out the water pump in the barnyard on a single-degree day. There are also fun activities like riding the snow roller in the winter to create a good sleighing surface on the roads, going fishing, waiting for the annual visit of the traveling peddler, and watching the blacksmith work.

Pearson takes us through a typical year on the farm, from winter days dressing in front of the stove, mud season followed by planting time, happy excursions to the swimming hole in summer, and finally harvesting and winnowing of crops. He also shares humorous stories about neighborhood characters or interactions, like the "horse trading" sequence that occurs at the end of chapter two, which is hilarious. The text is full of nostalgia in the tradition of Eric Sloane and would also be welcome to fans of Gladys Taber and Rachel Peden.
book icon  This Time Next Year We'll Be Laughing, Jacqueline Winspear
In the wake of sixteen novels, Winspear takes this opportunity to write about her unusual childhood. Her parents were an unconventional couple, living in homes that had no modern conveniences well into the 1960s, and at times they lived with the Romany people, following Rom customs, making their living among them. Jackie and her brother recall being called "dirty gypsies" due to that. Much of the opening pages of this autobiography are tied to the experiences of her parents. Her father was a city boy who fell in love with the country due to the quiet; ironically his war work involved working with explosives. An artistic man, he finally became a designer, but after working years at other grueling positions. Her mother and aunts were evacuated during the war to the home of a man who molested children; in her married life she did any work that came along, including harvesting and home cleaning, but finally became an executive in the British penal system.
Winspear paints her own childhood in misty watercolors that nevertheless reveal the hard knocks of life: her love of the country, her continued obsession with horses, trying to find her place with volatile parents who favored her brother, even to discovering some of her mother's most well-loved tales of the past were just fantasies. Young people who have grown up with running water and all the common utilities will probably blanch at her recollections of having to use the outhouse, carry water from the well, keep warm in winter with a hot brick in her bed. She recalls with pride how she earned the money for her very first wristwatch at the tender age of six by doing farm chores.
Sometimes the manuscript skips around from past to present to past again without rhyme nor reason; we seem to go from her terrible ordeal with scalding water as a toddler to a present encounter with a psychologist with few connecting threads. And though her brother appears throughout the manuscript, he seems to be a very nebulous presence who is in the tale one minute and then forgotten for pages upon end, and even after reading the book I can't figure out how she really feels about him. However, her childhood experiences are very striking and the evidently love of the countryside shines out from every page.
book icon  Re-read: Stillmeadow Seasons, Gladys Taber
Stillmeadow Seasons is the third of Gladys Taber’s compilations about her life in her 1600s Connecticut farmhouse near Southbury, Connecticut. Taken from her magazine columns from 1947-1949, she begins her Stillmeadow year in April, where we watch spring bloom along with a new addition to the family, a rambunctious Irish setter puppy named Maeve. As always, against the progression of outdoor life from April to March of the next year, Gladys chats happily about canning and cooking, the lively cocker spaniels Honey, Melody, Little Sister, and Linda (and more), the cats Tigger and Esme, her favorite music, reading on cold winter nights, eating in the Quiet Garden (a new feature at Stillmeadow) on beautiful summer evenings, visits from her daughter and Jill’s children (now at college or already married), and the trials and comforts of owning an old house. Sometimes she is sober, as in addressing prejudice (some of her comments sound no different from ones we are hearing currently, which is inexpressibly sad) and fear of atomic devastation.

As someone who hates being outside int he sun, I am awed by Gladys’ and Jill’s energy in their garden and in their kitchen as well during the torrid summer months, but my favorite passages take place in Stillmeadow’s fall and winter seasons, when the ladies’ take a breather–well, while they’re not training the dogs, polishing the furniture, shoveling snow, and keeping the floors clean of snow–and enjoy a sit by the fire with a good book and classical music on the radio or the record player. The dogs are as endearing as ever, although a few familiar names from the first two books appear to have gone on to Rainbow Bridge (Star and Sister), and Maeve adds a hectic element to the household as she grows.

Gladys Taber was “mindful” long before the mindfulness movement became popular. She cherished every day, even rainy and cold ones, with something positive to say. You could spend no better time on any day, but especially on a chilly autumn or winter day, reading Taber for the ultimate chill-out.
book icon  Murder at Icicle Lodge, J.D. Griffo
Alberta Scaglione is finally getting used to the fact that she inherited her late great-aunt's lovely cottage on Tranquility Lake when her granddaughter, a neophyte reporter on a local New Jersey newspaper, lands a plum assignment at Icicle Lodge, a skiing and skating resort in the mountains: interviewing Olympic gold-medal winning ice skater Pamela Gregory, who's from the area. Not only that, but "Jinx" is allowed to take some friends with her: grandma Alberta and her sister Helen, and sister-in-law Joyce. Plus Tranquility Lake's chief of police, a man Alberta used to babysit, has been invited by the owner to the reopening of Icicle Lodge, and he brings along Jinx's boyfriend Freddy, ex-nun Helen's nemesis Father Sal, and Alberta's new love interest Sloan. Unfortunately Pamela turns out to be a prima-donna bitch—and soon she's a murder victim. So now the Ferrara Family detectives, Alberta, Jinx, Joyce, and Helen, are back on the case, discovering that competitive ice skating is almost as cutthroat sharp as the skate blades themselves.

There's nearly as much backstabbing in this story as there is in Hamlet as old stories and rivalries emerge as Alberta and her family piece through the disconnected clues. I love these books because of the lead's Italian heritage, but I have to admit sometimes the climaxes to the stories are a bit improbable: this one involves a motorized chase. Also, one of the characters disappears about two-thirds of the way through the tale and, after being so concerned about the fate of that person, Alberta seems to go on with the investigation without worrying about or mentioning that person for several chapters, although the person is probably in danger. I kept thinking "Shouldn't they be searching for [character]?" Anyway, the mystery's okay, but the family and their dynamics are the real reasons for reading.