31 January 2021

Books Completed Since January 1

book icon  Re-read: The Homecoming: A Christmas Story, Earl Hamner Jr.

book icon  The History of the Christmas Card, George Buday

book icon  A Kent Christmas, Sutton Books

book icon  Ideals Christmas 2020, Ideals Publications

book icon  An Extravagant Death, Charles Finch
Charles Lenox is back to present day in this 14th entry in the series.

Lenox has finished his latest case successfully, but unfortunately it's made him some enemies (he put an end to a criminal scheme run out of the Metropolitan Police) and caused trouble for Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, who advises Lenox to leave the country for a little while. Reluctant to leave his wife Lady Jane, their precocious daughter Sophia, and new baby Clara, and carrying the Queen’s seal, which will guarantee him passage anywhere in the United States he wishes to go, Charles heads across the Atlantic. After a few days getting to know the society “names” in New York City, Charles is traveling to Boston when he is summoned by wealthy William Schermerhorn, one of the favored “400” who attend Caroline Astor’s fabled balls, to Newport, RI, where a beautiful young woman, Lily Allingham, has died, ostensibly by suicide. He is accompanied by Theodore Blaine, the lame son of another wealthy family, who is as absorbed by detective work as much as Lenox, and who helps him as he reluctantly begins to untangle the murder, along with young Fergus O’Brian, an Irish boy Lenox hires as his personal servant. He also becomes re-acquainted with Kitty Ashbrook (the woman he almost married in the last of the three recent prequels, The Last Passenger), now a widow, who guides him through the intricacies of American society. Schermerhorn’s son is a suspect in Lily’s death, as is young Lawrence Vanderbilt, who believed Lily was going to marry him when she was previously engaged to Schermerhorn.

This was a change-of-place (literally) story for Lenox, whose adventures usually take place in England. It was interesting getting his eye-view of the upper classes of America, not as glowing as fawning newspaper society pages, not as critical as Dickens on one of his tours. He feels an immediate rapport with Teddy Blaine as he was also fascinated by detective work as a boy, and also comes to enjoy the company of O’Brian, and through his eyes we note the differences and the similarities between the American and the British upper class, feel his surprise when he first sees the Newport “cottages,” and work the mystery with him.

I had my suspicions about the culprit about halfway through, and was pleased to have figured it out,  as these are  usually very complicated. I also appreciated the ending, which chronicled a difficulty in 19th century living that we would find much different today. An excellent entry in this series, which I have been reading since the first book.

book icon  Bryant and May: Oranges and Lemons, Christopher Fowler
I would like to wander around Christopher Fowler's mind sometime, if such a thing could be managed. What fascinating nooks and crannies there must be in it, just based on this fiendish new mystery involving senior detectives Arthur Bryant and John May. The latter is still in hospital after being shot by a woman which he had a relationship with, the former has disappeared, and the Peculiar Crimes Unit is finally being broken up.
Until the Speaker of the House of Commons is killed in a bizarre accident involving crates of oranges, and the PCU is reassembled not to solve the crime, but to look into the man himself and his state of mind at the time of death. But Arthur Bryant, as always, sees something in the event that no one else does, and when another mysterious death takes place, he comes to believe that someone is following the old nursery rhyme "Oranges and Lemons," meaning more deaths will come. The reinstated PCU faces more hurdles than usual: their former headquarters is in worse shambles than it's ever been, their titular head Raymond Land is on the verge of collapse, and they've had an observer (read: "spy") foisted off on them, not to mention they've been joined by a curious young intern. And, as in all of their investigations, things tend to go wrong; this time their quarry seems to always be one step ahead of them. Certainly the culprit seems to be a master of misdirection.

Our protagonists are also on journeys of discovery in this volume, Bryant trying to overcome his inability to empathize with people, May to get over his gunshot wounds and come to terms with possibly facing charges due to a personal relationship. The addition of Sidney Hargreaves to the PCU mix adds another layer

book icon  Birder on Berry Lane: Three Acres, Twelve Months, Thousands of Birds, Robert Tougias
What a piece of nonfiction to start off the year with!
Tougias is a birdwatcher. He doesn't juggle and rate binoculars, fly to foreign climes to check birds off a list, and compete with other birders to have the longest list—he just watches the birds in his backyard and in open land behind his home. Month by month, season by season, bird by bird, Tougias' gentle, lyrical prose guides us through the year. This is the perfect cozy book for a winter day, or a chill-out book after a harried week, or just a joy for bird lovers. Interwoven into the story is Tougias' relationship with his daughter, who is just about to "fly the nest" on her way to college, and how his interest in birds have inspired neighbors to take an interest in the wildlife and the ecological health of the area (especially when it looks as if a housing development and shopping center will encroach on the wild area behind their homes)
Wonderful if you are a bird lover of any stripe, or enjoy nature, or nature writing. The text is illustrated with gorgeous sketches by Mark Szantyr.
book icon  The Case of Windy Lake: A Mighty Muskrats Mystery, Michael Hutchinson
Did you ever wish someone would bring back those good old fashioned kids' mysteries, like the Happy Hollisters, but with more diverse protagonists? Well, you've found your series. The Mighty Muskrats are four cousins who live on the Windy Lake Reserve in Canada: Chickadee, the only girl; Otter, an orphan raised by Chickadee's grandfather; and brothers Atim and Samuel. The local mining company has hired the required archaeologist—so that no Native artifacts or remains are disturbed—but he's disappeared, the only clue his boat found grounded on an island. The children's Uncle Levi, head of the Windy Lake police, is teaming with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to find him. The Muskrats vow to do it themselves. In a parallel plot, the kids' cousin Denice is heading up a group of activists at the mining company who say they are not following regulations and are polluting the lake. To make her point, Denice chains herself to a mooring post on the company's pier, and the angry owner wants her gone, but he is told she isn't blocking anything and she has a right to protest. The children's grandfather says she is on a vision quest and must complete it.

The story is a satisfying mix of mystery, old-fashioned kids' adventure elements like a clubhouse, and elements of the tribal culture at Windy Lake, including the method of tracking down the missing archaeologist and Denice's willingness to fight for her people's way of life and environment.

My only quibble with the book is that there are too many instances of Atim flicking his head (to keep his hair out of his eyes). It just keeps coming up in the text too many times.
book icon  The Women With the Silver Wings, Katherine Sharp Landdeck
Once the United States was attacked by Japan on December 7, 1941, the entire country was thrown into war not only with Japan, but in the European theatre against the Nazis. Experienced male pilots were immediately accepted into the Army Air Forces and more were trained, but all male pilots were needed for the war effort and many more needed for non-combat duty such as ferrying aircraft, towing practice targets, etc., so the recruitment of women pilots was authorized with the urging of two noted female flyers, Nancy Love and Jacqueline Cochran. This book is the story of those flyers: Cornelia Fort, who witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor while out on an early morning training flight with a customer; Teresa James, whose fiance and later husband "Dink" was also a pilot; Helen Richey, who eschewed being a teacher to become a stunt pilot; Dora Dougherty, who found out about the new service from a newspaper article; and more.
This is an immensely readable and absorbing story about the WASP, the Women Airforce Service Pilots, whose history was forgotten for so long. For the few years they flew, they were so noted that Walt Disney designed a mascot for them ("Fifinella"), but they were always resented by Congress, by male pilots, and, depressingly, by too many other women, some who considered them no better than prostitutes, were suspicious that they were lesbians for wanting to do such a "mannish" job, and were thought by a bunch of pilots' wives as seductresses—they didn't want the WASP serving with their husbands because the women pilots would seduce them! Plus there were so many misconceptions about women as pilots: that they would not fly if they had children, that they could not physically handle aircraft, that they shouldn't be allowed to fly if they had their periods. Plus I knew who Jackie Cochran was, but I had not idea she dragged herself up from such a dirt-poor childhood after which she became pregnant at age fourteen. The story of the WASP is also the story of the competition between Cochran and Nancy Love, both whom were ambitious and wanted to be the head of the organization (instead both operated as head of different aspects of the group). We get to know the women themselves, their aspirations, their training, and finally their effort to get the WASP officially designated as part of the armed services so the women could be eligible for benefits.
Very enjoyable history of a group of pilots little known except for those who remember World War II or are aviation buffs.
book icon  Tales from the Folly, Ben Aaronovitch
When Ben Aaronovitch's "Rivers of London" Peter Grant books began to gain fans, the books were published in hardback only in England and Australia with an additional short story published as a bonus at the end. A few of these have been published online, but this is the first time they have been collected in print form. The first six stories have Peter Grant as the protagonist, including "A Rare Book of Cunning Device" that was available as a free Audible book, and the first story which tied in with the 2012 Olympics. The former is delightful and there's also a sweet story about a ghost haunting a bookshop. The rest of the stories, including the short "moments," involve other characters in the "Rivers" universe, including a Christmas story featuring brilliant Abigail and another with Vanessa Sommer from The October Man which has an unexpected ending.

If you are a Peter Grant fan, these will please immensely.
book icon  Nothing Daunted, Dorothy Wickenden
In 1916, two Smith College graduates wanted more than marriage and society "flitting." So Dorothy Woodruff and Rosamund Underwood undertook a grueling journey just to go to rural Colorado and a remote village called Elkhead. While their families had all the modern conveniences like electricity and automobiles, Elkhead inhabitants lived as if they were still in the 19th century, with batten-board homes, kerosene lamps, travel by horseback, and backbreaking work. For a year, the two young women battled heat and cold, insects and lack of water, challenging teaching hurdles, and brutal winters; they also improved the lives of their students, were happily squired by men looking for brides, and experienced a whole different lifestyle from the privileged one under which they grew up.

Wickenden, the granddaughter of Dorothy Woodruff, found Woodruff's letters and memorabilia about the year, and produced this intriguing but sometimes disappointing memoir. The main story about Dorothy and Rosamund's experiences come from this source, but we read precious little about the school and the children themselves except for a few remarks about how cute they are. Those portions of the story, and how the girls lived, and the stories of the townspeople, are all very interesting. Where the storytelling bogs down is when Dorothy and Rosamund go exploring. Every time they visit somewhere, whether it's a nearby town or a mine, Wickenden gives us a complete history of the establishment, how it was set up, who ran it, etc. The first few give you a glimpse into early 20th century Western businesses; after a while they begin to read like long, tedious business prospectus publications. It looks like Wickenden ran out of personal material and needed information to make the book longer.

Still worth reading if you're into history of young society women and the limited opportunities they had, and Colorado history, the relative primitive conditions of these homestead towns.
book icon  Re-read: Addie Pray, Joe David Brown
I originally picked up this book when it was known as Paper Moon after the film it begat. Paper Moon is indeed a favorite of mine, and I always admired Peter Bogdonovitch's choice to make it in evocative black and white. If you've seen the film, it takes a good deal of its script from the text, but Addie is older in the book, and the book continues on after "Moze" and Addie ditch the fancy car. If you have no experience with either book or film, Addie Pray is the story of an eleven year old girl con-artist who travels around with the man who may or may not be her father (her "mama being fast and all"). Her partner in crime is Moses "Long Boy" Pray, a charming wanderer who makes a living selling "memorial Bibles" and "memorial photographs," conning greedy people with anonymous wallets stuffed with cash, and selling cotton he doesn't have. He and Addie live a charmed life, save for a few obstacles in the way, like cootchie dancer Trixie Delight, but a deal with a bootlegger might just kill them.

This is one of my very favorite books in the entire world, and I apparently have a thing for spunky girls named Addie, what with Addie Mills along with Addie Pray. While I like the movie immensely, the book is full of additionally adventures, Addie's matter-of-fact and sometimes hilarious narration (her description of Trixie includes this gem: "...I don't guess most people looked past her bosom. Oh, my, that bosom. If Grant had met up with breastworks like that, he never would have taken Vicksburg,"), and characters like Colonel Culpepper, Amelia Sass, and Mayflower Goldsborough. It's fun and in places touching, and gives a vivid portrait of the South (the movie takes place in Kansas) during the Great Depression. If you've only seen the film, try the book; it's terrific.
book icon  Passages: All-New Tales of Valdemar, edited by Mercedes Lackey
I really enjoyed this year's collection of Valdemar stories (and got a little of the bad taste for the truly dreadful Eye Spy out of my mouth). Some of the stories: a person Chosen by a Companion does not feel worthy for the job due to a past transgression; a Healer who is supposed to inherit a family estate, but who prefers his calling—will he deny his birthright?; a happy underling of a religious order does not look forward to being in charge of a daughter house; a talented artificer hides from the mother who wishes only marriage as a future; a snowstorm brings together a totally opposite pair; a deaf apprentice Mage faces her most dangerous trial; a Herald grieving after the loss of her Companion finds she can make a difference still.
Some of the stories are slight, like the one about a baker's apprentice, and at least one ("Tables Turned") leaves us not knowing the answer to a mystery occurring during the story. But we have a dandy story by Lackey herself about Kerowyn's beginnings with the Skybolts. So it pretty much balances out.

(But, please, Misty, no more dreadful stuff like Eye Spy. Villains should be subtle, not so blatant and recognizable. A depressing development in Lackey's most current stories.)
book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Castle Rock Mystery, Jerry West
Let's see if I can keep all the plots straight in this 23rd Happy Hollisters adventure: First a Weather Bureau instrument packet lands in the Hollisters' yard. The kids (Pete, age 12, Pam, 10, seven-year-old Ricky, and Holly, age 6, plus 4-year-old Sue) intend to mail the packet back, but hope to keep the orange parachute. Unfortunately creepy Joey Brill and his best friend Will Wilson swipe it. The kids take the instrument package to Mr. Kent at the local paper, who gives them more info about it, and also tells them about mysterious lights—perhaps, the kids speculate, UFOs!—seen at Pine Lake. One of the witnesses was a jet pilot named "Jet" Hawks (yes, I'm afraid so). While Pam and Pete are helping their dad at his store, The Trading Post, by unpacking polished rocks, they take a particularly interesting one with a streak of gold in it to a local "rock hound," Mr. Kinder, who just happens to own a worked-out quarry at Castle Rock, which is, you guessed it, on the shores of Pine Lake, and find out it contains titanium. The kids talk mom Elaine into taking them to the quarry, where they are warned off by missing car keys that reappear with a threatening message attached to them, and meet a couple of fishermen who tell them stories about a "monster" in the lake.

All this happens before chapter four! The rest of the plot involves a missing scientist; a totally unplanned trip to New York City where the kids visit their friend from Skyscraper City, Hootenanny Gandy; a trip to the top of Belvedere Castle in Central Park; Ricky almost falling from a great height (twice); a flight in an airplane for Pete and Ricky that almost ends in tragedy; and a camping trip that reveals hidden caves and a hideout no one was expecting. It frankly has the most complicated Hollister plot I've ever read!

On a positive note, Pam and Holly get to be on almost all the exciting adventures (except in NYC, where they go shopping for—ugh!—dresses), and not only do Joey and Will get scared out of their wits, but Joey actually gets punished for something he does. Now that is a novelty! Much educational info included in the adventure, about weather balloons, rocks and minerals, the New York Museum of Natural History, and spelunking. Oh, and one of the culprits finishes up his sentence with "...and I think I'd have found it if these Hollisters hadn't come along." (You mean "those meddling kids," don't you? 😁 ) Also, Jet Hawks turns out to be a neat guy with a daughter named Daphne who can match Ricky pace to pace. Win!
book icon  Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions, Orin Hargraves
Another fun book sale find: the subtitle is "Making Sense of Transatlantic English." It's a never stodgy, but not flip, examination of the differences between American English and British English. I have several books like this, but they are arranged like a dictionary, either AmEng to BritEng or vice versa, or both. This is grouped by subject: banking, government, everyday life, food, etc. and also explains things like the difference between the American government setup and the British government setup and the different political parties. The author isn't afraid to touch on scatological terms and warn you of words you shouldn't use in each society (don't talk about "sitting on your fanny" in England!)

Hargraves' has a sharp tongue and isn't afraid to use it, especially against American silliness, although he gets in several good licks to the Brits as well. I devour books like this one as if they were peanuts—but then they are, treats for me. Enjoyable to anyone who wants to examine the variants in the language.

book icon  The Dark Heart of Florence, Tasha Alexander
I've been reading the Lady Emily mysteries since the first book and although I like the continuing characters, I still believe the author brought Emily and her husband Colin together much too quickly; I wish their relationship had taken time to ripen in a few more books before they were married.

Frankly, I found most of the book rather dull except for the descriptions of Florence. Once again Colin (and an associate) are investigating a break-in at Colin's newly discovered daughter's home in Florence while also doing some hush-hush work for the Crown. Emily and her friend Cecile also investigate and find that the puzzle may be linked to the murder of an Italian man, and also to strange graffiti found on the walls of the Florence home. The mystery turns out, as indicated by the alternate plotline about Mina Portinari, to be tied to events that happened during the Renaissance. Mina is yet another woman ahead of her time, educated by her grandfather in Latin and Greek and in classic writing, who finds herself betrayed by a man and who is looked at suspiciously due to her education, book smart but woefully ignorant of the real world and completely shocked when "he done her wrong."

The Italian history portions and portions of Emily's and Cecile's investigation were the parts of the book that held my interest the most, and even those were a struggle to get through.

01 January 2021

A Baker's Dozen of Favorite Books for 2020

Well, something had to be decent in 2020...

Always hard to whittle these books down to even thirteen. Must give honorable mention points to all three Longmire mystery books (Another Man's Moccasins, The Dark Horse, Kindness Goes Unpunished) I devoured this year, plus my first read ever of Robert Heinlein's Tunnel in the Sky, with its POC protagonist who has been whitewashed on book covers for years, and to Linda Newbury, who managed to give me a decent sequel to Peyton's Flambards books.

book icon  The Mutual Admiration Society, Mo Moulton (ARC, Dorothy Sayers and her friends at Oxford and beyond)

book icon  The Olive Farm, Carol Drinkwater (book sale find, actor Drinkwater's memoir of the crumbling farm she and her partner bought in France)

book icon  The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers, 1937-1943, From Novelist to Playwright (Volume 2), edited by Barbara Reynolds (book sale find, self-explanatory)

book icon  The Moor, William Atkins (nonfiction look at the various moors of England; they're not all the same)

book icon  The Narnian, Alan Jacobs (book sale find, story of C.S. Lewis as told by his writings)

book icon  America's Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines, Gail Collins (book sale find, overview of the women who did not make it into the history books)

book icon  The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson (his newest about the Churchills during World War II)

book icon  The Annotated Black Beauty, Anna Sewell, introductions/annotations by Ellen B. Wells and Anne Grimshaw (a book find from a friend thinning out her library, expands knowledge of the novel and the treatment of Victorian animals)

book icon  Bryant & May: The Lonely Hour, Christopher Fowler (newest in Fowler's series; two elderly detectives look for a motive in unconnected murders)

book icon  A Furious Sky, Eric Jay Dolin (ARC, history of hurricanes in the "new world")

book icon  Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein's Broadway Revolution, Todd S. Purdum (the team that was ahead of its time even thought they're thought by some to be "treacly" today)

book icon  This Old Man, Roger Angell (book sale find, essays about life, sports, and everything in between by "New Yorker" editor and stepson of E.B. White)

book icon  Olive Bright, Pigeoneer, Stephanie Graves (ARC, wartime mystery along similar lines as Poppy Redfern and the Midnight Murders, but, IMHO, better)