28 February 2021

Books Completed Since February 1

book icon  Paper Son, S.J. Rozan
Lydia Chin is stunned when her mother calls her to help a family member, and to bring her partner Bill Smith, whom Mrs. Chin hates, along. She's more astonished to discover she has family in the Mississippi Delta. Because the U.S. government once set restrictions on Chinese immigrants, her great-grandfather's brother had come over as a "paper son," with fake papers saying he was another man's son so he could gain entry, and he ended up founding a grocery store in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Now a descendant of this brother, Jefferson Tam, has been arrested for killing his father. Anyone, Lydia's mother believes, who is related to her husband's family, cannot be guilty. Therefore, Lydia (and Bill) must head to Clarksdale to clear his name and find the real culprit.
Bill, who's from the South, fares much better than streetwise Lydia when they arrive. She's surprised to find that there are (or were at one time) many Chinese grocery stores in Mississippi because they were the only ones who would serve black customers. As the investigation deepens, Lydia discovers that what's going on is all about family...including some long-held secrets.

Besides being a great mystery in an unusual place for our protagonists, there's a lot to think about concerning racism in the past that still affects people today and how a single choice in the past can set up tragedy in the future. Plus it's great to see Lydia, with her urban upbringing, trying to understand what makes a small Mississippi town tick.
book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Cuckoo Clock Mystery, Jerry West
In entry 24 in the series, Joey Brill the brat actually does something wrong that has a good result: his throwing rocks at the windows of the Trading Post damages some imported cuckoo clocks, leading the children (Pete, age 12, Pam, 10, seven-year-old Ricky, and Holly, age 6, plus 4-year-old Sue) and their parents on a trip to the Black Forest of Germany, following the rhyme on a piece of paper they find in one of the broken clocks. It turns out a priceless golden cuckoo clock vanished from a German museum, and the verse just may lead them to it!
It's funny reading these now seeing how casually Mr. and Mrs. Hollister can just pick up tickets and take the kids off to Europe. The neighbors are always happy to take care of the Hollister pets, and Mr. Hollister can always count on his assistants at the store to keep everything running smoothly. And once again it's kind of part mystery, part Rick Steves tour of the Black Forest, though not so intense as the books about Denmark and the other about the Netherlands.
Stuff that makes you know this was written in the past: Pete gets really excited because the car Mr. Hollister rents is a Mercedes-Benz! Now those cars are all over the road.
The question never answered: Did anyone punish Joey for the cuckoo clock damage? Really, that kid belongs in reform school or in therapy.
book icon  Death With a Double Edge, Anne Perry
This is Perry's fourth book in her series about Daniel Pitt, son of Special Branch head Sir Thomas Pitt and his wife Charlotte, who were the protagonists of Perry's first mystery series, and so far the best, possibly because both elder Pitts are involved. It begins slowly, when Daniel is called to identify a body he believes, due to the coat the person was wearing, is his fellow solicitor, Toby Kitteridge. To his relief, but also to his consternation, the body is instead that of Jonah Drake, one of the elder partners at fforde-Croft and Gibson, and he has been savaged by someone wielding a large knife or sword. Daniel and Kitteridge, as well as their superior Marcus fforde-Croft, begin investigating as they know it will reflect badly on their law office, and soon they are fairly sure the murder has something to do with one of Drake's prior cases, one that was still unsolved although Drake was able to get the court to acquit the accused, Evan Faber, the son of famed shipbuilder Erasmus Faber, the latter who's using his special skill to demand favors from the government.

As I said, starts off slowly and then the plot speeds up as more deaths occur and Daniel, Kitteridge, and even Pitt and Charlotte attempt to put clues together. The last eight or nine chapters pull into high gear as we get a glimpse into the crime and what the criminals are willing to do to keep their secrets hidden. While I had a feeling an introduced character was significant to the story, I had no idea of the plot twist that would make this character be more significant than it appeared at first!

Miriam fforde-Croft, who has been Daniel's sleuthing companion in the previous three books, is in Europe studying for a medical degree which she cannot get in England (the Dutch being more enlightened in women's education in 1911), and only appears near the end, but Daniel's work with Kitteridge, and in a small part with Roman Blackwell and his mother, and especially with his own parents more than makes up for her absence. If you read the series, and have read the Charlotte/Pitt books (mention is made to several of the books, chiefly to the first, The Cater Street Hangman), you will surely love this one.
book icon  Re-read: Murder Must Advertise, Dorothy L. Sayers
It was only a step from extracting a quotation from this book to wanting to re-read it. The television production, starring Ian Carmichael, which showed on Masterpiece Theater back when I was in college, was my first exposure to Sayers and Lord Peter Wimsey. I bought the book—not just the book, but the whole series of books, having been besotted at once, and this one is still my favorite.

An advertising copywriter at Pym's Publicity, an ad agency, is killed in a supposed accidental fall down a staircase in the office. A suspicious letter having shown up in the man's desk leads Mr. Pym to find someone who can do a discreet investigation. Enter Lord Peter, posing as wide-eyed, polite but nosy Mr. Death Bredon (Peter's two middle names) who soon comes to believe the death was no accident. He also found out the copywriter was hanging out with a group of Bright Young Things, the wild British youth of the years between the wars, who were into thrills, fast cars, alcohol and lots of drugs, and soon insinuates himself in that crowd. At the same time, Wimsey's brother-in-law, Chief Inspector Parker of Scotland Yard, is trying desperately to figure out where all the dope is coming from.
Sayers, who worked for an advertising agency for nine years, not only creates a topping mystery, but nicely skewers the advertising business as she does so, creating a collection of memorable characters at Pym's, including "Miss Meteyard of Somerville," who appears to be an avatar of Sayers herself.

You don't need to have read the earlier books in the series, but they're all excellent as well (well, Five Red Herrings is a tad dull) and you'll find out more about Peter's family (including his delightful mother the Dowager Duchess), his impeccable manservant Bunter (who seems to be on holiday in this volume), and his other adventures. (Oh, and if you've only seen the Ian Carmichael TV version, do read the book—characters had to be concatenated for television, and scenes excised, so there are more situations, and a climactic cricket game that finally puts Wimsey on to the murderer.)

book icon  Spying on the South, Tony Horwitz
Having read Horwitz's A Voyage Long and Strange and having a copy of Blue Latitudes and Confederates in the Attic, I was tempted to buy this book when I saw it at Costco just after Horwitz's sudden death a few days after it was published. If you're like me, when you hear the name "Frederick Law Olmstead," you think of his wonderful landscaping milestones in North American history: Central Park and Prospect Park in New York City, Mount Royal Park in Montreal, the "Emerald Necklace" of parks in Boston, and Biltmore Estates in Asheville, North Carolina, just to name a few. But before Olmstead became a full time designer of parks, he was a correspondent for the then-new "New-York Times." As the factors that led to the U.S. Civil War grew and became uglier, Olmstead, under the pen name "Yeoman," made two tours of the South in the 1850s. he wished, he indicated in his first piece for the "Times," to publish a a series that was as close to unprejudiced as possible about the Southern side of the fast-emerging conflict, and intended to interview, rationally, slave owners. After all, slavery had been a common human practice since time immemorial. Were the stories of the brutality of its practice being exaggerated? But once he made the actual trips, he not only found out things were worse than Northern readers imagined, but that he couldn't keep his feelings out of the way slaves were treated in the supposedly "civilized" places he visited.

Horwitz retraces Olmstead's path on his second trip in 1853-1854 from Baltimore around the edge of the slave states all the way down to Texas, with side trips to Lexington, Nashville, New Orleans, and even to Mexico, and reports on the working-class people he meets along the route: barge workers in Ohio, old plantations, Cajuns, African-American churches, "mudders" who race trucks, landmarks like the Alamo, and finally on a mule-back trail ride with a muleskinner who does his best to make Horwitz give up.

In general I enjoyed this book because of the different people he met, but as someone who's lived in Georgia since 1984, I find it a bit hard to believe that it was so difficult for him to meet normal people on his route. Or did he and just not include them in his book because the people who had boat races and ate alligator meat and believed weird theories were just more interesting to write about? I've met everyone down here from good ol' boy elderly men who think women only work for "pin money" to groups who do their damnest to help everyone, and it seems the majority of people he talked to were offbeat and ate weird food.

By the way, I was amused that I picked this up to read after enjoying Rozan's Paper Son. He did actually go down to Mississippi and found out about the Chinese stores in small Mississippi towns.
book icon  Anything for a Laugh, Bennett Cerf
When Cerf published two collections of jokes and tall tales, he thought that was that, and it was why, in the introduction to this second collection (with a third collection coming out soon), he declared that the third "will be the last books of this sort that will bear my name for a long time to come."
Oh, Bennett, had you only known in 1946 what you realized in the 1970s! For I wore out my paperback copy of Laugh Day until it literally fell apart, and bought The Sound of Laughter, and many other older Cerf collections up until this very day, and never got over my amusement for them. Naturally, this book was published a few generations ago, and a lot of the familiar celebrity names in 1946, which I know but anyone born after, say 1980, probably have never heard of, and so these stories won't be as funny. Several more rely on humor we try to eschew today. But I have to say I enjoyed Anything for a Laugh just as much as I enjoyed Laugh Day as a teen (even if I didn't know who the heck Toots Shor was back then), and I'll probably keep collecting Cerf humor collections until they or I are no more. Here's to you, Bennett!
book icon  The Mitford Murders, Jessica Fellowes
I picked this up the day poor James had to go to Urgent Care with his infected foot (and shipped off to the hospital a day later), and didn't resume reading it until February was a few days old. It's the story of Louisa Cannon, who lives in a poor part of London with her mother, a washerwoman, and her sponging layabout uncle, who taught her how to pickpocket and now, that she's outgrown her childish figure, seems to want to sell her body as well. She escapes by literally fleeing his clutches off a train, helped by a friendly police detective Guy Sullivan, and gets back heading to a job interview as a nanny's assistant for the Mitford family. Sullivan has been brought to Hastings by a death on the train; the very obvious murder of Florence Nightingale Shore, goddaughter of the nurse hero of the Crimea and a nurse herself. When Nancy Mitford, almost of age, and eldest of the children that Louisa will be tending, discovers that Louisa was on the same train as Shore, her curiosity leads her to encourage Louisa to "help her" look into the crime. Headstrong Nancy gets her way, and soon they are embroiled in the crime far more than they should be.

Aside from the fact that I'd really never heard of the "infamous Mitford sisters" (except knowing the title of the book Nancy later wrote, Love in a Cold Climate—they were an eccentric bunch as children as well as adults: Deborah married the Duke of Devonshire, one became a communist, another was so enamored of Hitler that she shot herself (unsuccessfully) when Britain declared war on Germany, and a fourth married British Fascist Oswald Mosely), I enjoyed this 1920s-set tale written by Fellowes, who also wrote for Downton Abbey. It has the feel of a book written at the time without the casual racism and the worst of the classism, one of those stories where the background is as enjoyable as the story. I guessed the identity of the murder right off from what I thought was a very obvious clue, but Fellowes provided so many red herrings that I doubted my guess for much of the book. Louisa and Guy are both enjoyable characters, and while Nancy gets the lion's share of the attention in this volume, Fellowes tries to distinguish each younger sister as well. The three (so far) sequels focus on Louisa and the next three eldest daughters as they "enter society."

The one thing that bothered me is that this is based on a real murder case and Fellowes uses the actual names of the people involved in the case (not just the victim but her friends). Her choice of the murderer, then, was a little bit uncomfortable, since the actual case was never solved.
book icon  Re-read: Stillmeadow and Sugarbridge, Gladys Taber and Barbara Webster
This fourth collection of Taber's Stillmeadow books forms a change of pace from chapters comprised from her magazine articles along with new, bridging narrative; instead these are letters exchanged between Gladys and her friend Barbara, also an author and the wife of Stillmeadow book illustrator Edward Shenton, during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Gladys has Stillmeadow, her 17th century Connecticut farmhouse in which she and her best friend garden, cook, and raise cocker spaniels along with the occasional Irish setter and a cat or two. Barbara and Ed live in Chester county, Pennsylvania, in an 18th century farmhouse, Sugarbridge, with a Great Dane named Duke and Barbara's horse, Chief. Gladys and Barbara are kindred spirits who, in their correspondence, address their various household happenings along with the events of the world (Gladys already worried about the affect nuclear bombs will have on the world) and the beauty of their respective countrysides. Gladys chats about the wise farmer next door, George, who has helped her and Jill so many times; Barbara reports on the elderly couple who live nearby who occasionally bring her treasures and how she wishes she could do something just as nice for them. Through both women's eyes we see the blooming spring, the busy summer, the contemplative autumn, and the frigid but festive winter, the funny actions of Gladys' spaniels, and the offbeat personality of Barbara's Dane. Beautifully written, with a sweet coda by Ed Shenton.
Sugarbridge was for sale in 2014; here are some photos of the house. I notice it is located on "Shenton Road"!
book icon  Re-read: The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin
I read a lot of reviews of this book that started with "Huh! What has she got to be unhappy about? She has a great husband with a good job, two cute kids, a nice apartment in Manhattan, no money worries!" Indeed, Rubin comments about this herself. On a bus one morning, she wondered if she was "wasting" her life. "But too often I sniped at my husband or the cable guy...I lost my temper easily, I suffered bouts of melancholy, insecurity, listlessness...I had everything I could possibly want—yet I was failing to appreciate it... [M]y life wasn't going to change unless I made it change."

This book is the story of her year's project to make herself happier. This included rejecting impossible goals (like "I can be happy if..." followed by some magical target), setting goals she could reach, trying to improve her mood by being nice and/or helpful to others, looking deeply into herself to figure out what was making her unhappy, and realizing she had to change; she could not change anyone else. She set basic commandments, listed her own personal "secrets of adulthood," and each month concentrated on something she wanted to improve: health, relationships, spending, parenting values, etc.

But, you say, what if I don't want to improve some of the things she did? Well, that's fine. Each project should be tailored to you. One of her commandments is "Be Gretchen." The person reading the book has to be themself. You have to realize what you want to improve...in a year, or maybe only in six months, or perhaps you'll take more than a year. It must fit you. And if something doesn't work, you didn't fail. It just didn't work. There's no wrong way to do it.

Helpful even if it's just to get some prompts into how to look into yourself.
book icon  Creating Sherlock Holmes, Charlotte Montague
This is one of those gift books that you frequently see on the remainder table, but it had vintage photos in it, and it wasn't expensive, so I couldn't resist. I have at least one of these for Sherlock Holmes, but this one is the story of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (filled out, of course, with summaries of all the Holmes stories). Usually the books are about Holmes with brief biographical data on Conan Doyle, so this was a novelty. It talks about his family, his other books, his service during the Boer War, his relationships with both his first wife Louise and his second wife Jean, his involvement with real crimes, and his involvement with spiritualism. In addition, the legacy of Holmes is considered, from adaptations of the stories for film and later television.
book icon  The Four Tendencies, Gretchen Rubin
Gretchen Rubin didn't train as a psychologist; she was a law student who went as far as passing the bar and clerking for Sandra Day O'Connor before she realized what she really wanted to do was write. She had a good life, but noted that she was still often unhappy, which spurred her first book on self-improvement, The Happiness Project. Along the way, she noted that people could be classified as having four different tendencies: Upholder, Obliger (the one most people are), Questioners, and Rebels. She discussed them in her book about habits, Better Than Before, but this is a "deep dive" into the four tendencies. Each chapter addresses what defines the particular tendency, how this tendency will react when asked or told to do activities, and how to deal with reluctance, especially with Questioners and Rebels, including with children, and how a person with one tendency, who can't understand those with other tendencies, can learn to accept that others may not be able to think, act, or react like they do.

I still haven't figured out what I am, although I'm assured by my husband that I am an Obliger (one with Rebel tendencies; and apparently Obligers are so overwhelmed by their obliging nature that they regularly have obliger rebellion anyway). I ask a lot of questions, and doing so often delays what decisions I make, which is why I waffle about this. But all the tendencies make sense, and I can see where friends and family fit in.
book icon  Mrs. Mohr Goes Missing, Maryla Szymiczkowa
This book has taken me nearly forever to read; I've had it about a year and finally left it in the bathroom so that during bouts of "unavoidable delay," as Frank Gilbreth would have called it, I would continue reading it. In 1893, in Cracow, Poland, Zofia Turbotynska leads a good—but in truth a little dull—life as the upper-class wife of a professor at the university. In looking for something to do, she decides to involve herself in a charity event for the almswomen of Helcel House, which appears to be a combination women's almshouse (poorhouse) and what we would call a retirement or nursing home for the more well-born, run by an order of Catholic sisters. As luck has it, Zofia's arrival coincides with one of the almswomen having disappeared—and a few days later Zofia is there again where the woman's body is found hidden behind some boxes in the attic. Because her death was suspicious, she is autopsied, and it turns out inoffensive Mrs. Mohr was poisoned, and Helcel House's cook is blamed. But then a second murder, much different from the first, occurs.

To me the big problem with this story is that the writers chose to compose the text in the style it would have been written in in 1893. I've read 19th century books and some of them have been easier than others. And, indeed, the old-fashioned writing really fits the situation; Zofia is a very old-fashioned woman despite her sleuthing, and the style does help capture 19th century Cracow society and several specific situations, like the night at the opera, the celebration of All Souls Day at the Cracow cemetery, and also the all-out massive funeral for the famous artist, for which nearly the entire city turns out. But you must be prepared to wade through Victorian verbiage to get to the meat of the mystery. Plus Zofia herself really isn't that likeable. She's pushy, nosy, and autocratic at times, and I do feel sorry for that second maid she keeps trying to engage; none of them are ever good enough.

Still, the mystery is convoluted enough; I certainly would not have guessed the identity of the killer or why that person committed the crime. If you like historical mysteries with a 19th century literary flavor, this could be the one for you.
book icon  Egg Drop Dead, Vivien Chien
Despite her early protests, Lana Lee has begun to enjoy managing the family business, the Ho-Lee Noodle House at Cleveland's Asia Village, a mall full of flourishing Asian businesses. Her romance with police detective Adam Trudeau is doing well, and she's taken her next step in expanding the business: catering. Her first catering job is for Donna Feng, whose husband's murder Lana helped solve in the first book of the series.
Wouldn't you know it? Donna's governess, Alice Tam, is found drowned in the swimming pool after the party—not long after Donna screamed at her for not watching her twin daughters carefully enough. Donna asks Lana specifically if she can figure out what happened, since the police think she's the prime suspect. Plus guess who shows up at the Ho-Lee Noodle House one day: Warren Matthews, the guy who broke Lana's heart several years ago. So yet again she's propelled into solving a mystery with the help of her roommate/best friend Megan and even the reluctant approval of Adam—who reminds her not to put herself in danger, and she needs to find out why Warren's suddenly trying to get back into her life.

Turns out a lot of Donna's friends were not, and Lana's going to have to work to figure out this mess. We're given a whole lot of suspects and red herrings.

I like reading these stories because Lana isn't your usual whitebread protagonist. I love reading about her blended family and the personalities at Asia Village. This one left me irritated on several fronts, though. Firstly, since your usual cozy mystery needs a dramatic climax, usually the protagonist, Lana in this case, has to go somewhere she knows she shouldn't to solve the mystery. And boy, does she do it in this one. It makes her seem stupid. Second, when on earth did Adam start calling her "babydoll"? All of a sudden he sounds like Sam Spade. If I were Lana I'd smack him one every time he did it. And finally, Chien introduces a character she created for a writing class into the story to help Lana. I really, really wish I liked this character more, but I don't. The person speaks and acts in a cliched manner; I'm glad they are not the protagonist of this series. So I didn't enjoy this one as much as I have the previous entries.

However, the epilogue, where Lana finally meets with Warren—oh, yes, I liked that a lot!
book icon  My Friends, The Huskies, Robert Dovers
I found this at a book sale and tugged it out to read at the first onset of warm weather; it takes place during Dovers' year of participation with a French expedition (Dovers himself is Australian) surveying emperor penguins in the Antarctic. Even if you didn't see that it was an old book, and published in 1957, you certainly wouldn't mistake it for a modern book, which would be full of soul-searching, and paeans to the beauty of nature, and of the sagacity and souls of the dogs. Instead, this is the day-to-day grimness of living in tents and huts in an inhospitable climate (even in summer) with teams of dogs who are closer in temperament to wolves reacting with each other than domesticated canines. In fact, if you've read The Call of the Wild, you'll get an idea of the personalities of these dogs: deeply competitive, always fighting, with a battle for dominance between lead dog Bjorn and his "lieutenant" Fram that eventually comes to a head. Both dogs and men live a tough life of privations as they suffer through blizzards, must transport from one survey site to another using the dogs and sledges as well as tractor-footed "weasels" over treacherous ice with crevasses and cracks that cause the weasels to tilt sideways and almost swallows dogs and sleds whole, fear being lost on the featureless icy "plains," and deal with numbing cold.

Throughout the book it's the dogs that hold our attention: strong but not very clever Bjorn, the loyal Fram who suddenly gets a taste of leadership and likes it, the sloppy and bumbling Aspirin, the clever and strong Helen (an instigator in savage fights) but is disinterested in caring for her puppies, young Roald who turns from bumbling puppy to ambitious puller, the grizzled veteran Boss for whom the year will bring about great change in his life, Yakka and her puppy, Maru the penguin-slaughterer, and the inseparable Tiki and Milk. These are true arctic working dogs, not cuddly pets, and violence between them is frequent and vividly described. This book is not for the fainthearted or for those who wish to believe all animals are the anthropomorphized Disney type who love one another and are cute and cuddly. A fascinating read about midcentury scientific exploration and the personalities of working dogs.
book icon  Re-read: Stillmeadow Daybook, Gladys Taber
While I'd read other non-animal stories like The Good Master, Johnny Tremain, and the Danny Dunn and Miss Pickerel books in elementary school, my reading in those years was mostly about animals: Black Beauty, Lassie Come-Home, Lad: A Dog and the other Terhunes, Beautiful Joe, the Silver Chief books, etc. So it was to my delight that I found another "dog book" in my junior high library: Especially Dogs, Especially at Stillmeadow. I knew nothing of Stillmeadow, or of Gladys Taber, who wrote for magazines my mother didn't buy. Her columns always included her dogs and cats, but were mostly about her home, her cooking, the garden she and her best friend "Jill" tended so careful, her thoughts about life and the future. Cooking and domestic pursuits bored me, and, as I tell people, the Italian gene for gardening completely passed me over; about all Taber and I had in common was writing and a love of dogs and cats. As a kid without a dog who dearly wanted one, but was stuck with allergies instead, reading about them was a small solace. Entranced by Taber's tale of "Timmie," her graduation gift, a spirited Irish setter who even won over her dog-adverse father, her other Irish setters Maeve and Holly, and the cocker spaniels she and Jill raised, including Star, Sister, Rip, and Honey, this was one of my favorite withdrawals.
While recalling the book and the author fondly, I didn't think of either of them again until I was married and visiting Mystic Seaport with my husband and my mother. The gift shop had reprint copies of Stillmeadow Daybook and Still Cove Journal; in a split instance, the memories flooded back: the setters, the spaniels, the farmhouse..."Oh," I exclaimed joyfully when I saw them (to hubby and Mom's confusion), "Stillmeadow books!" As an adult I was able to appreciate Gladys' quiet country living and not only purchased the reprints snatched up and held to my chest like treasure, but scoured the internet for more. It has been a love affair ever since. And so here on my Gladys Taber re-read I have come back to the Daybook.
Once again her volume covers one year, but this time she begins in April, as the blossoms arrive at Stillmeadow. "Early morning is like pink pearl now that April's here. The first lilacs are budding over the white picket fence in the Quiet Garden; crocus, daffodils, white and purple grape hyacinths repeat the magic of spring." And so we plunge again into housekeeping in a colonial home, the romping cocker spaniels as well as one young Irish setter named Holly, cooking special dishes, hosting special friends like Faith Baldwin and "Western star" Smiley Burnette (more people now recall him from Petticoat Junction), who built Taber a giant outdoor barbecue, the flower-filled beautiful "Quiet Garden," her recollections of her childrens' growing up and the joy of them visiting as adults, the birds at the bird feeders, the joys of each passing season and month (lilacs in May, hay wagons in September, brilliant autumn leaves in October, stiff chill and snow forming a backdrop to Christmas, and more. In this age of mindfulness and "hygge" reminders, Taber's books are a powerful reminder to just look at ordinary things for beauty, at simple things for joy, and her prose is always a delight to read, with its references to literature and her commentary on the problems of the day (this book was from 1955, so references to the atomic bomb and racial intolerance pop up often). It is always worth visiting Stillmeadow.