30 April 2021

Books Completed Since April 1

book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Swiss Echo Mystery, Jerry West
In this 25th entry, Mr. Hollister has returned home to Shoreham and the Trading Post after the Hollisters' German adventure, but Elaine Hollister and the five children (12-year-old Pete; 10-year-old Pam; Ricky, age 7; Holly, age 6; and 4-year-old Sue) have crossed the border and are touring Switzerland. When an insurance investigator, Johann Meyer, literally runs into the family as they arrive, along with his grey poodle Biffi, during his chase after a criminal, they discover he's investigating the theft of a diamond from Holland. Blackmor, a noted jewel thief, had escaped Meyer's clutches moments before. Minutes later, they find an antique key on the ski lift that will take them to their hotel. Could the thief have dropped it?
 
If you say no, you haven't read enough of these books.
 
This is actually a very tense plot for a Hollisters' book. Although there are a lot of cute bits like Sue wearing a genuine Swiss costume, and lots of great encounters with the kids encountering German children and being able to interact with them using a translating toy that anticipates Google Translate by 60 years, the complicated story involves a locksmith, Meyer disappearing in a plane crash, the family taking Biffi to safekeeping in a small town called Grindelwald, a teen camping club who allow Pete and Pam to accompany them, and the mystery of Alpine horns sounding off from a remote mountain location when they aren't supposed to be. The entire town of Grindelwald (which sounds a lot like Rick Steves' favorite Swiss town, Gimmelwald) help the kids solve the mystery, rescue Meyer, and find the diamond.

Biggest bonus of this book: No Joey Brill!
 
book icon  The Body, Bill Bryson
Bill does for the human body what he did for the home, and for "everything" (A Short History of Nearly Everything) in his examination from outside (skin and hair) to inside (everything else, including cancer), and from birth to death. The paperback edition makes for spooky reading as he has talked in the text about being prepared for the next epidemic—and the two-page afterward, of course, written in September 2020, talks about Covid-19.
 
Some Bill food for thought: though most people don't think of it as an organ, your skin is actually your largest one, and it's a marvel—unless we majorly injure ourselves, we don't leak; how we overcame deadly microbes, but resistant ones may bring back more pandemics; the rise and fall of phrenology; the fact that humans choke to death the most easily of any mammal, just because of our physiology; and even more delightful tidbits as we go from bone to internal organs to hormones to the fact that we walk upright, from how things work to the men and women who discovered how they did or who created something that aided our wellbeing. All told in fine Bill Bryson style.
 
One thing, Bill: you've been away from the U.S. too long: Alabama is not a neighbor of Arkansas (not in the way I perceive it from what you're talking about anyway). Texas, Louisiana, Missouri, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Mississippi, yes. Alabama, no.
 
book icon  Re-read: And It Was Good: Reflections on Beginnings, Madeleine L'Engle
This was my reading for Good Friday/Easter week and is the first book in L'Engle's "Genesis Trilogy"; in this volume she discusses the Bible from creation through God's request that Abraham sacrifice his only son by Sarah, Isaac. She begins with a thorny question that is still under debate today: using male pronouns in referring to God, but reminds us that God did not say man and woman were created in "my" image, the word was "our," so that male and female are both parts of God. She solves this problem in this book and the other two by referring to God not as "He" (or "She"), but using a neutral pronoun, "El." 
 
I find it difficult to describe L'Engle's religious nonfiction. She talks about the Bible from all points of view: from a literal one and also from a historical, logical one; from the Bible as a legend, and the Bible as belief. She links her thoughts to homely (in the British sense) events: a cruise on a freighter she and her husband are taking, the fears of nuclear war at the time the book was written (shades of later Gladys Taber Stillmeadow books!), her relationship with the modern church and her religious beliefs. These are wonderful books to slow down with, practice mindfulness, and give a little thought to. I find them relaxing to read yet at the same time receive food for thought.
 
book icon  A Golden Cage, Shelley Freydont
In Gilded Age Newport, RI, where lavish, huge "summer cottages" stay open only then weeks a year in summer, debutante Deanna Randolph has been left in the care of the rather eccentric Ballard family (including Joe Ballard, whom everyone thought was Deanna's fiancee before they called off the relationship) while her parents travel to Europe for her older sister's health so she may participate in the social season and perhaps find a suitable (and wealthy) husband. One of the novelties of this particular social season is that a play is being put on to celebrate the birthday of Judge Grantham. The Ballards have another reason for attending: Deanna's mother has asked them to inquire about a girl named Amabelle Deeks, who gave up a posh society life to be an actress—and coincidentally she'll be appearing in the play. Later, Amabelle comes to the Ballards' home "Bonheur" looking for help, but disappears before a dead body is found in the conservatory—one of the actors who appeared in the play with her. Amabelle was already acting odd before the death, but could she have killed him? Or was it someone in the troupe? Or political friends of Judge Grantham, who are puzzled why his wife allowed such a strange, frivolous play to be performed as his birthday gift.
 
I enjoyed this series, but alas, this seems to be the second—and last—book. Deanna is half imaginative society girl, and half a young woman who wants to live a more progressive life—in this outing she wishes for a daring new bathing outfit and learns to ride a bicycle, even joining a bicycle club—and she and her maid Elspeth make an interesting pair. Joe, who's given up society for working in his own factory, is also an appealing character. Unfortunately, Freydont hasn't published a new book since 2016, and I must assume she's either ill or has passed away. I would have liked to know what she had in store for Deanna.
 
book icon  The Story of the British Isles in 100 Places, Neil Oliver
The book opens long before kings and queens and the myths of Arthur or even the Druids, on a site in Norfolk where human footsteps almost a million years old were found embedded in mud in 2013. Men, women, and children searched for food on British shores so many years ago. It ends in Kent, on a beach slowly eroding, while a nuclear power plant drums away in the distance. In between he visits areas of great beauty in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland: the obvious places like Stonehenge, Lindesfarne, Runnymede, the Globe, Culloden, and the Cenotaph, and lesser known places like Orkney, Great Orme, Perthshire's venerable Fortinggall yew tree, Staithes (Captain Cook's hometown), the Bront—Ď home at Haworth, and Scapa Flow. And eighty-six other fascinating locations.
 
This is a beautifully-told book. Oliver has a great way with language, and he makes each visited place a magical location. Combining history, archaeology, zoology, botany, preservation, anthropology, geology, meteorology, sociology, religion, and more, this is a tour-de-force through time.
 
book icon  Junkyard Dogs, Craig Johnson
In this sixth of Johnson's Walt Longmire mysteries, there's a good dollop of humor (at least initially) as Walt tries to sort out the problems between Duane and Gina Stewart and Duane's tough old grandpa George Stewart, who owns an unsightly junkyard right next to where a prosperous businessman wants to build a classy housing development. The Stewarts, with their colorful junkyard and two vicious dogs named Butch and Sundance, initially come off as Wyoming rednecks, but there's a lot more lurking here than first appears, especially after a man's severed thumb is found in a beer cooler on the property. Walt's still considering a personal relationship with his deputy sheriff Vic, his best friend Henry Standing Bear is living at the jailhouse after the pipes have frozen at his home, and Absaroka County is suffering from the coldest winter in years. Plus, after a shooting incident and exhausted after the birth of a son, Walt's best deputy Santiago Saizarbitoria is planning to quit and go back to his corrections career.

The story may start off with an improbable event and humorous aftermaths, but soon becomes tangled in murder, deception, an offbeat relationship, and Walt's medical aftermath from his previous adventure that involves some danger to his life. The frigid weather almost becomes another character as it saps and sours everyone's spirit; Johnson makes the cold get into the readers' bones as well.

Not really a spoiler: Dog comports himself quite well in this book!

Always a treat to read another Longmire novel.
 
book icon  Pup Fiction, Laurien Berenson
In the newest Melanie Travis mystery, life landmarks are about to happen: Aunt Peg's new standard poodle Coral is ready to start gaining her championship points, with Melanie's fifteen year old son Davey handling her, and Davey himself has his first summer job, as a junior counselor at Graceland, a highly-rated daycare and camp owned by Melanie's friend Emily Grace. On the first day of camp, someone lets Emily's charges, a trio of Dalmatian puppies, out of their pen, which both Melanie and Emily assume is an accident—until other "accidents" start happening, like an old truck sent careening down a hill and a fire in a stove. Emily also admits to Melanie she has a not-very-trustworthy ex-husband who dumped the puppies on her; and next thing you know, aforementioned ex-husband turns up dead in the woods behind Emily's camp.

I've been reading these books since the first one, and all the characters are family by now; I'm invested in all their joys and sorrows. As in Howloween Murder, the culprit is easy to figure out once the character appears, although the events leading up to that revelation are sinister and troubling. The main joy in this is visiting old friends and seeing how Davy and Kevin (a camper at Graceland) meet new experiences, and seeing old friends like Aunt Peg, Crawford and Terry, and other of Berenson's regulars. The story of Emily and the Dalmatians is also sweet.

In this volume, Melanie's relationship with Faith changes. Her dog has always been her bulwark, but now Faith "responds" to her comments (at least in Melanie's thoughts). I thought this was a thing every pet owner did, but people seem to be commenting that this is odd.
 
book icon  Re-read: The Stillmeadow Road, Gladys Taber
It was ironic that I began reading this again this particular month, the month in which my mother-in-law passed away after becoming ill two weeks earlier on her birthday, as it is also the book where Gladys Taber had to come to terms with the death of her college-best-friend and later housemate/co-purchaser of Stillmeadow, Eleanor Mayer, known as "Jill" in the books. In a heartbreaking chapter between June and July, Taber chronicles Jill's sudden diagnosis, illness, and death.

This is the most dense of the Stillmeadow books since Stillmeadow and Sugarbridge, and Jill's presence is still felt in all the volume, but the later portions are much subdued, and Gladys, having no anecdotes about Jill's gardening prowess or her ongoing projects, starts inserting recipes in the narrative instead. Jill's absence means a little of the magic of the books has gone, but, as in her real life, Gladys fills in the blanks with other good friends, like Hal Borland and his wife. From serious thoughts about the future, God, and nature, to happy times with her family and her lovable dogs (cocker spaniels and Holly the Irish setter), to musings about friendship, happiness, love, and death, Stillmeadow is always a delightful retreat, even during hard times.
 
book icon  Re-read: The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster
"There was once a boy named Milo who didn't know what to do with himself—not just sometimes, but always.
 
"When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he'd bothered. Nothing really interested him—least of all the things that should have."
 
Milo, modern psychologists might say, needed to learn about mindfulness.

Juster, the author of this brilliantly imaginative book, died last month while I was doing Women's History Month reads, but I had to come back to it. It's been an old friend since the Stadium Elementary School days when I was introduced to The Good Master, Danny Dunn, Miss Pickerell, my beloved Johnny Tremain, and Charlotte Baker's The Green Poodles, which inspired my love of dog obedience trials. Tollbooth, with its diffident hero who enters a strange world populated by two feuding kings (one who loves words and the other numbers), a "humbug" in dress clothing, five cabinet ministers who live in the world of synonyms, and a big dog with an alarm clock for a body (because he's a watchdog, of course), took me on a delightful joyride through idioms come to life and words that twisted unexpectedly to make one laugh or terrify the daylights out of you. As much a midcentury modern fairy tale as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was a Gilded Age one, Tollbooth can be read by children who are convulsed with laughter over funny names and actions and also by adults who can appreciate the puns, turns of phrase, wordplay, and utter absurdities that turn out to be so much truth.

If you are a word lover, you must read this book. And it's great fun for everyone else, too.
 
book icon  Re-read: Another Path, Gladys Taber
This was a small one-off volume that Taber did after her lifelong friend and co-owner of the Connecticut farmhouse known as Stillmeadow, Eleanor Mayer, known as "Jill" in Gladys' magazine columns and subsequent books, passed away after a sudden illness (there are not many details; it sounds like cancer). Both Gladys' daughter and Eleanor's two children are grown, so she must adjust to life alone in the house. She talks about her grief and then her efforts to recover.

You can probably find many more books today about coping with grief, especially memoirs; however, when Gladys wrote this book it was rather a unique idea. Fills in the blanks between The Stillmeadow Road and Stillmeadow Calendar.
 
book icon  The Enigma Game, Elizabeth Wein
This is a companion book to Wein's Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire, as well as the Verity prequel The Pearl Thief. Jamie Beaufort-Stuart, Julie's brother, flying Blenheim bombers for the RAF, is presently in Scotland, butting heads with a commanding officer who seemingly doesn't understand flying. Ellen McEwen is a volunteer driver, working at RAF Windyedge and hiding the fact that she is a Traveller (like a gypsy, but not a Romany), as they are despised across Britain. And Louisa Adair, the daughter of a British mother and a Jamaican father, has lost both her parents and is looking for a job, wondering who will hire a "colored" girl. She finds her chance as a companion to an elderly German woman now known as Jane Warner, a former opera singer, who is being released from an alien enemy camp to live with a British relative, Nancy Campbell, who runs a tavern near RAF Windyedge. On the day Louisa and Jane arrive, a German plane has crashed in the sea near Windyedge, but the pilot manages to get back to the plane by taking Ellen hostage and eventually flies away. However, he's left something behind, a wooden box that contains an amazing machine for composing—and breaking—codes. Louisa is the first to realize its importance, and when Jamie's squadron is transferred back to its homebase at Windyedge, he and Ellen and Louisa all hope it can be used in their fight against the Nazis.

This. Was. So. Good! Told in alternating points of view by Jamie, Ellen, and Louisa, in distinctive voices, we get inside all of them: the fears and the frustrations of the young men putting their lives on the line in every flight, the determination of Ellen that no one finds out her real identity, and Louisa, having no place to go and nowhere to run to, to stick to her guns, do her job, and find her place in the world. While prejudice is tackled (Jamie has a Texan in his group who is especially perturbed that a "darkie" is allowed to sit with white people), it's not an in-your-face lecture or annoyingly didactic. The characters are all wonderfully real, especially, Jamie, Ellen, Jane, Nancy, and especially Louisa, and the story keeps you wanting to turn page after page.
 
book icon  Blue Latitudes, Tony Horwitz
I liked this book. In general. When he's talking about history.
 
Horwitz, and, for most of the trip, his Australian friend Roger, investigate the celebrated voyages of Captain James Cook, who ventured across the Pacific Ocean looking for both the fabled Northwest Passage as well as the mythical southern continent (he did indeed find the latter; they called it "Australia"), revealing new worlds to Europeans, including the seductive island of Tahiti, where the natives prized sexuality; Tonga, with its fierce warriors; Fiji; Niue; Christmas Island; the islands later known as New Caledonia; plus Australia, New Zealand, and the Aleutian Islands. Fascinated by Cook, they even travel to Yorkshire to try to piece together why a barely lettered farmboy became one of the most undaunted explorers ever. He also wants to see how the native populations of the Pacific Islands see Cook today: was he just an explorer, or was he a destroyer (the consensus was, surprisingly, closer to 50-50 than you would think)?
 
When Horwitz sticks to the history portions of the narrative, as well as the sociological portions of the story—the British brought disease and discontent to the native population, and the later missionaries tried to destroy their culture, which gives them a right to hate Cook and the men who came later—the book is great. He talks to people from all walks of life, from white folks who went down there seeking "the good life" on the beach to Tahitian teens who are so sexualized that even their elders are disturbed to the King of Tonga, who was more interested in talking about military history and Otto Von Bismarck, and all this is enjoyable. Plus there are those little slices of life which prove the South Pacific isn't all paradise, like Tony and Roger staying overnight on an island and get bitten everywhere by tiny insects, or sweltering in humid rooms.
 
But Horwitz, like Bryson (and even Crichton), drives me nuts, too. What is it about a couple of white guys traveling the world that makes them go to local festivals and get shit-faced drunk? Granted, according to his narrative, most of the festivals seem intended to get people shit-faced drunk (like the one they attend in Cooktown, Australia), but I'm sorry, I don't understand why getting drunk is fun. Can't you have fun by just having a couple of beers? Frankly, the descriptions of them vomiting and waking up with hangovers (or watching people on the street vomiting) sounds more like a horror film to me. I just don't get it.

The rest of the book is worth reading.
 
book icon  Killer Kung Pao, Vivien Chien
Lana Lee has no interest in getting involved in another murder investigation, but this one throws itself at her feet. Lana, now the manager of her parents' restaurant the Ho-Lee Noodle House, has been asked by her mother to modernize the interior of the place, and also recruited by Ian Sung, manager of the Asia Village complex in which the noodle house is located, to organize an upcoming sidewalk sale. As she and Ian are walking to the parking lot, they see June Yi, the contentious owner of Yi's Tea and Bakery in Asia Village, deliberately back her car into the vehicle of Millie Mao, noted in the area as a champion Mah Jong player. Millie, injured in the accident, says she is going to sue June. When Lana goes to get her hair done the next day, both June and Millie are at her favorite salon—and after a power failure, Millie is found electrocuted. June is naturally blamed–there was already bad blood between her and Millie before the accident–and June's sister Shirley asks Lana to quietly investigate the matter. Unhappily it leads to Lana investigating, and suspecting, people she's known for years, including the grandmother of Jasmine, her favorite stylist. Not only that, but in the course of the investigation she ends up eating at Ho-Lee's competitor, House of Shen. What's Mommy Lee going to think of that?

It's the usual investigation, with Lana's best friend Megan getting involved between shifts at the bar she works at, although Lana's boyfriend, police detective Adam Trudeau, seems pretty cool with her asking questions this time so long as she doesn't endanger herself like she did last time. He's still calling her "dollface," though. I guess it doesn't bother Lana, but it would me.

Also, the ending is a bit unusual for your normal cozy, and Lana had better be thankful for modern tech.
 
book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Sea Turtle Mystery, Jerry West
In installment 26 of the Happy Hollisters, the children (Pete, age 12; sister Pam, 10; Ricky, age 7; and Holly, age 6; as well as little Sue, 4) spy a jet-powered airboat being tested near their home on Pine Lake. When the boat capsizes, the two oldest help save the pilot, a Seminole named Charlie Tiger Tail, and Mr. Hollister gives him a hand stabilizing the boat. Charlie is a deputy sheriff in the Everglades, trying to protect endangered sea turtles (and other animals) and needs a faster boat to catch poachers. The next thing you know, the family is in Florida, staying in a Seminole "chickee" (an open-sided hut customary to their hosts) on the islands of Santabella and Captive (based on real-life Sanibel Island and Captiva). The plot also involves a riverboat deliberately left aground, a genial caretaker, a guy who uses a metal detector, and Charlie's daughter Clementine, who camps several days with the Hollisters.

Alas, the plot also involves idiot bully Joey Brill, who first tries to hijack Charlie's boat, then steals a gift Charlie gives them, and then turns up in Florida complaining because a group of boys called the Junior Deputy Sheriffs won't sign him up, but will sign up Pete and Ricky (not Pam, alas, because it's a boy's only club—she'll end up showing them, though, because, although the boys get the lions' share of the adventure, Pam and Holly and Sue contribute to the investigation as well, and it's Pam that figures out where the poachers are).

For the era this was written, the Seminole scenes are nicely integrated into the plot and there's a friendly examination of their culture without making too much of "look how exotic this is." There is a good appreciation of the sea turtles and also rare crocodiles, and the danger they faced from poachers even back in the 1960s. Several scenes are a bit scary for smaller children, especially during the climax when one of the kids is threatened. All in all, a suspenseful tale with ecological overtones and little stereotyping of Native American characters.