31 May 2021

Books Completed Since May 1

book icon  Re-read: Friday, Robert Heinlein
I still like this book. I've heard all the complaints, and, yeah, I know all the ones about Friday being ready to shag anyone. Heinlein was in older-man-wish-fulfillment mode at the time. Hard to ignore as it's part of her character, but I try to look beyond it. Other complaints annoy me: Friday likes to be raped. Um, no, she doesn't. As a courier she's been trained against torture methods, which include rape. People who read this get so distracted by the sex that they don't seem to realize that Friday doesn't react to normal conventions simply because she was brought up in a laboratory and as an Artificial Person she doesn't get a normal "human" upbringing because, despite the fact she looks, smells, sounds, feels, and is genetically human, she and her fellow APs are not considered human because they were not born and therefore do not have souls. So basically, unless someone buys an AP and frees them, they are slaves, and their "master" can do any damn thing to them they please, including using them as a sex slave or torturing them/experiment on them.

But Friday was lucky: she was "adopted" from her "creche" and given employment as a confidential courier by a heavyset man she knows only as "Boss." She's good at her job, but she wants one thing more than anything: to be part of a family—to take part in the ordinary, everyday things we take for granted, like loading the dishwasher, cooking a meal, having a garden, playing with kids or pets, and—yeah, okay—having sex. But political times in Friday's universe are parlous; North America has been balkanized into smaller republics and theocracies and dictatorships and freewheeling democracies, and each of them seem to be at war with one another—or is the war caused by other forces altogether?

From being ambushed on her way back to her home base, tortured, rescued, and rehabilitated, to going "home" to her family for the last few years only to be tossed out due to prejudice, to meeting new friends and eventually having a new job, Friday embarks on a picaresque journey through the troubled political climate—but still wants one thing: a place to call home and friends who do not hold her origins against her. Behind all the shagging, Heinlein was still satirizing all the prejudices humankind still manages to erect to keep "undesirables" away.

I like Friday. She's nice people. In fact, I like her better than some of her critics. YMMV.
book icon  Re-read: Stillmeadow Calendar, Gladys Taber
Jill's memory is still alive in this first complete Stillmeadow book since Eleanor Mayer's death. Signs of the times abound: Gladys' complaints about the depredations of the Japanese beetle, and lingering fears of atomic blasts as the Cold War plods on in the real world. She's still tossing recipes into the text, which make me a tad cross, but she also talks about new friends (also writers) like Faith Baldwin and Hal Borland (she made Borland sound so yummy I am taking a dip into one of his books myself once it arrives). Alas, apparently The Stillmeadow Road was the last of the Edward Shenton illustrations; but there are some nice pen-and-inks by Sidonie Coryn. And of course there's always the dogs!
book icon  Once Upon a Wardrobe, Patti Callahan
It's the closing days of 1950. Megs Devonshire is a young woman fascinated by mathematics and facts, with not a lot of room in her world for fancies, who attends Somerville College at Oxford University. The one thing she loves more than numbers and logic is her family, especially her eight-year-old brother George, who was born with a heart condition and spends most of his life in bed. His one consolation is reading, and as the story opens, his soul is on fire from a new book he finished, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Megs sees it as just another storybook, but George requests that since she attends Oxford, where C.S. Lewis teaches at a different college, she must ask him "Is Narnia real?" And if it isn't, where did it come from?

Megs, reluctant to address Lewis on campus, follows him one day to the home he shares with his brother, and she is found by "Warnie" Lewis, who introduces her to his brother, who prefers to be known as "Jack." But when she asks him about Narnia, instead he starts telling her the story of his life, and while George loves the stories she brings home about "young Jack," she is continually frustrated: why won't he tell her the one thing George wants to know? But even as she tells George the stories, it awakens his creativity and curiosity, and also, with the help of a redheaded fellow student named Padraig Cavender, opens Megs' mind to the unseen mysteries of the world, the ones that can't be explained by maths and facts.

I read this as an advanced reader's copy, and it's actually due out before Christmas, which is a perfect time for its release: it's definitely a "Christmas book" in theme. Callahan works a bewitching magic in this book; her vocabulary is pitch-perfect vintage English, and she describes Oxford, the Kilns, and even the Devonshires' cozy house with such warmth that it's like walking out of the wardrobe and arriving in Narnia. It has the same warm, familiar feeling as a Beatrix Potter drawing or the passages about Mole and Ratty in The Wind in the Willows. Douglas Gresham, C.S. Lewis' stepson, has given this book a big thumbs up, as do I. Enchanting.
book icon  The Scent Trail, Celia Lyttelton
I buy too many books by hearing about them on podcasts. This one came from "Travels With Rick Steves."  It all started with Lyttelton, who was already fascinated with scent and its effect on our memories, wanting to create her own "signature scent." (Gosh, to have that kind of money...) In order to put it together the way perfumers did, composed of top notes, heart notes, and base notes, Celia has her personality and memories analyzed, and then sets sail, drives, and flies to the rose-growing fields of Turkey, the lavender fields in France, vetivert distilleries in India, and the sands where ambergris (basically whale snot, and the fixative for most perfumes) washes up on shores. She finds out about the two earliest perfumes, musk and castoreum, which are now artificially produced because they both come from animals (a deer and the beaver, respectively) and the "harvesting" of them is cruel. Enroute she also learns how each culture used perfume (the earliest use, of course, being to cover body odor), of its sexual side and its use in male/female seduction over the years, the use and origins of the most famous of perfumes frankincense and myrrh, and the use of spices and herbs as perfumes (vanilla, ginger, and cinnamon, for example). Along the way we see glimpses of the different cultures.

Never been very interested in perfume, but this mixed geography, sociology, different cultures, and vintage customs into a heady (pun intended) brew indeed.

book icon  Marilla Before Anne, Louise Michalos
This book starts out promisingly enough: Marilla Cuthbert at eighteen is as high-spirited as the orphaned Anne Shirley the Cuthberts adopt in late middle age. Subdued most of her life by an emotionally abusive mother who realized that her husband loved someone else and only married her because it was "the right thing to do," Marilla and her older brother Matthew have lived for the few kind words from their reclusive father. She has bloomed after she meets William Baker, a shipbuilder, and William returns her love, but her mother wants her to marry local, and wealthy, John Blythe, who has always assumed he would marry Marilla. William promises to come back to Avonlea after he completes a job in a Boston shipyard and ask Marilla's father for her hand in marriage, and if he doesn't say yes the couple still plans to run away together. The night before William leaves, Marilla spends the night with him. Sometime later, the news arrives that William has been killed in an explosion at the shipyard. Marilla is not only heartbroken, but now she has a secret that may destroy her future in Avonlea. Thankfully her Aunt Martha arrives to help her out of her problem.
I find I can't review this book without giving away spoilers, so
Of course you've figured this out by now. Marilla is pregnant, out of wedlock, a disgrace in 1841. Her aunt takes her away to Nova Scotia under pretenses of helping her to get over William's death, but in reality so she can have her baby and it can be adopted. Only after the baby is born and her aunt's partner (Aunt Martha is in a "Boston marriage" which shocks Marilla briefly) has found a wonderful couple to take the child, Marilla discovers William is alive. He has been writing to her mother and her mother has hidden the letters instead for forwarding them, so he thinks she found someone else. It turns out he's living right near her, with an overprotective landlady, and by the time he finds her and then she finds him and the misunderstanding is sorted out, the baby is safely with its new family. William later dies and Marilla becomes a friend to the couple who adopted her child. The child writes her letters and meets her in person, but she can't reveal who she is, she can only follow the child's progress during its growing years.

If this wasn't all soap opera-y enough, Marilla has named the baby "Anne," which is her middle name. The adoptive parents change the child's first name, keeping "Anne" as her middle name.

To Bertha.

If you are any kind of an Anne of Green Gables fan, you must get it by now. Bertha is the young woman who became a schoolteacher and married a nice young man named Walter Shirley. They had a little daughter they named Anne, and then died of sickness within days of each other, and little Anne was sent to strangers who, as she grew older, used her simply as a servant. And then she ended up in an orphanage. So Marilla, who by now has lost touch with Bertha, is Anne Shirley's real grandmother.

Oh. Ooof. No. I could see that with Marilla having a child, and then losing the man she loved, and the child, and knowing her mother had kept secrets from her, it had made her dour and not finding much joy in her workaday life. But Anne actually being her granddaughter? And then Marilla manipulating it so that Mrs. Spencer thinks she's supposed to bring a boy back to Avonlea, but she's really going to bring Anne all the time? And finally Marilla never having to let on her real relationship to Anne because there would be a scandal (for both her and Anne, as well as Matthew)? I'm about to flip myself over with eyerolls because it's like one big TV soap opera. What a shame because the book was well-written and could have been good. Instead, it's just another storyline in an 1800s Days of Our Lives.
book icon  Starship Theraprise, Justine Mastin and Larisa A. Garski
This book is so disappointing.

I’ve written fan fiction since I was ten years old and scribbling stories about Timmy and Lassie; I really thought this was going to be about people writing their own fan fiction in order to help them deal with problems in their lives. Anyone who’s ever written fan fic knows that many frustrations with the “real world” can be dealt with by addressing the same problems in fan fic, especially when one feels kinship to a certain character because their problems mirror yours. How many hundreds of people who felt “different” in the 1960s took Mr. Spock of Star Trek to their heart because he personified the alienation (no pun intended) they felt in their life? Hundreds of fans wrote to Leonard Nimoy letting him know how important he was in helping them feel that it wasn’t bad, or wicked, or stupid to be “different.” Instead the narrative is written in a flip style by two very fannish and enthusiastic therapists who work up little fan fics about characters in (mostly) today’s media, like Dean Winchester from Supernatural, coming to them to talk, and their attempts to make the character understand their actions and how they can feel better about themselves. I do like the fact that they emphasize that if you are “different” they do not want you to consider yourself “broken”; you are just different and there is no reason that you have to measure yourself up to some ideal of “normal.”

Unfortunately, in an effort to be “hip” and “with it” (or whatever the terms are for it today), the authors come off as trying too hard. After chapter 3 I started to get annoyed with the numerous footnotes of smirky “I’m in on the joke” fannish asides–and whose idea was it to number them with lower-case Roman numerals that are so. hard. to. read? It becomes a tiresome struggle to get through it all. Also…yoga poses? Really? With lame little chibi-character drawings for each? How cutesy-poo can you get? I would have much preferred this if it was written from a serious point of view instead of this buddy-buddy we-know-where-you’re-comin’-from narrative. Frankly, after awhile the chumminess became more creepy than helpful.

Two stars because (1) it was an interesting idea and (2) fan fiction isn't treated as some weird aberration and no one asks "Why would you write that junk when you don't get paid for it? Why not write your own characters and get paid for it?" (Uh, because some of us love to write and it doesn't matter if we don't make money from it? Why do you play golf or watch football?)
book icon  Love and Death Among the Cheetahs, Rhys Bowen
Georgina Rannoch, once in the line of succession for the British throne (35th) and now just Georgina O'Mara after marriage to adventurous Darcy, is amazed when he announces they are going to Kenya on their honeymoon. Alas, it wasn't his romantic choice, as Darcy is nearly as penniless as Georgie: in his super-secret job for the British government, he's tracking a jewel thief to a British settlement called Happy Valley—which is anything but, to Georgie's eyes. The couples living there are all cheating on each other, taking drugs, and drinking themselves senseless, especially a rude lout called Lord Cheriton, who keeps trying to seduce Georgie. But on their way home from a terrible party, Darcy and Georgie find Cheriton's vehicle parked on a bridge, and him lying dead (and half eaten by scavengers). So yet again Georgie, partnered now with Darcy, is trying to solve a murder—as well as keep herself alive. The Happy Valley holds too many secrets.
This is a change of pace from the usual Georgie novel, but except for one or two people, the inhabitants of the Valley are so crude that you really don't care if all of them are murdered. (Even worse, Bowen says the real British settlers in the real Happy Valley followed the same customs!) The only saving grace is that many of the involved "get theirs" and Lord Cheriton certainly deserved what he got. The revealed murderer should get a medal.
book icon  The Seine: The River That Made Paris, Elaine Sciolino
I've spent my life wanting to go to Great Britain (I was an Anglophile from the moment I saw Richard Greene as Robin Hood). I'd love to go to Italy where all four of my grandparents came from. Now, if someone gave me an all-expenses paid trip to France (or just Paris), you bet I'd go. But I've never wanted to go to France—yet I have all these travel books about France that I've loved over the years: Paris to the Past, Paris to the Moon, Eiffel's Tower, Back to the Front, The Olive Farm. Doesn't anyone write books like this about Germany? Spain? Scotland? One of the Scandinavian countries? Is it only France that pushes writers to such literary enthusiasm? Surely there are beautiful and interesting things elsewhere?
As Sciolino proves chapter by chapter, the Seine has as many faces as a theater audience. She has been a transportation route, a symbol of romance, dangerous at flood and beautiful for painting. Sciolino talks to barge residents, historians, owners of floating shops, romantics, the river police; finds the source of the river; discovers that, as an estuary, the Seine should properly be called le fleuve, but is always called la riviรจre; learns about the goddess Sequana whom the Seine is named after; investigates the effort to reverse the water pollution around Paris. We discover the painters, the heroines (like Joan of Arc), the writers, the films, the manufacturers who have looked to the Seine for inspiration. She also visits the other cities along the Seine's meandering route, not just Paris, but Rouen and Le Havre.

Entertaining, absorbing, full of historical facts and modern goodies. Loved it.
book icon  Re-read: Especially Dogs...Especially at Stillmeadow, Gladys Taber
Technically, this is not a Stillmeadow book, but is a memoir of Taber's dogs. But to me, this is it. This is the Holy Grail. This is, when I was twelve years old and scouting the Hugh B. Bain Junior High School library for something new to read, and was in 636 (Animals) of Dewey Decimal organization and got to 636.7 (Dogs), the book I found. Mom didn't read "Family Circle," so I had no idea who Gladys Taber was, or what on earth "Stillmeadow" referred to, but there was a great big Irish setter on the cover (I already loved the Disney film Big Red) and when I opened it up there was Gladys telling the story of how her father planned to give her a diamond ring as a high-school graduation present and instead she asked for an Irish setter. (A girl after my own heart!) Rufus Bagg wasn't a dog lover, but he bought Timothy Pepper for Gladys, and "Timmie" romps through all of chapter one with his funny ways, like snatching things off neighbors' porches (leash laws? none in 1917!). When he died, "Father" refused to get another dog and thought Gladys was a traitor for buying her first cocker spaniels.
Timmie and Holly, Taber's first and last "Irish," bookend the volume, with the central chapters about Taber's beloved cocker spaniels (proper cocker spaniels, what we call an English cocker spaniel today, not the modern American cocker with the absurdly tiny head): Star, Sister, Rip, Jonquil, Teddy, and her beloved Honey. Interspersed with spaniel tales Taber talks about dog care and picking out a dog more carefully than one chooses a party dress. She talks amusingly of each of the dogs' personality quirks—Star and Sister, for instance, couldn't stand each other, and had to be kept in separate rooms if not watched closely; Saxon, as a puppy, would only nurse if laid on his back; Holly liked to retrieve things, usually dead ones.
Bain had this delightful tradition that if you used the library respectfully and never were late returning books and never damaged one, you could take ten books home during summer vacation. And so for three years, I did, and Especially Dogs was one of the ten. I reveled in Timmie and Holly and Sister and Jonquil the summer of 1969, 1970, and 1971. Alas, next year was high school and they were lost to me again.
It was only many years later, when my husband and my mother and I were touring Mystic Seaport, that I found reprints of Taber's Still Cove Journal and Stillmeadow Daybook...and all those memories came flooding back. It hooked me on Stillmeadow forever.

For Stillmeadow fans...but especially for the fans of the dogs.
book icon  The Consequences of Fear, Jacqueline Winspear
Freddie Hackett earns all the money he can: his violent drunken father wastes any salary he earns. The 12-year-old is a strong runner and passes messages through bomb-riddled Blitz-era London for Robert McFarlane, supervisor at MI6. One night during an air raid, he sees a man fatally knife another man, and although he dutifully tells the police, they don't believe him  plus no body can be found. So Freddie goes to another customer, someone he can trust: Maisie Dobbs. Psychologist and investigator Maisie and her assistant Billy go back to the crime scene and do find some minor evidence, but the police still think Freddie saw nothing. But if he didn't—who's spying on Freddie at his school? Are they a danger to his mother and younger, handicapped sister?
Maisie is also at odds with herself. She is working for McFarlane, giving psychological exams to people who will be planted in France as spies against the Nazis. The fact that these people well may be killed or tortured upsets her, even as she knows they volunteered—two of them, in fact, are personal friends. She's also feeling guilty about neglecting her adopted daughter Anna, and wondering about her future with American diplomatic agent Mark Scott.
We meet all our old favorites here, like Billy, Sandra, Maisie's dad, and some great new characters: Gabriella Hunter, an old friend of Maisie's mentor Maurice; MacFarlane's driver Charlotte Bright, Pascale and Elinor, the two brave young women ready to be spies in France; Freddie and his family; and an imperious old French major who fought in the previous war, all entangled in the mystery of the murdered man. The title is particularly apt in this case, as every different character must cope with some type of fear. Enjoyable as always, as the spector of the first war rises up in the midst of the second.
book icon  Robin Hood FAQ, Dave Thompson
This is one of the more interesting FAQ books, but don't expect it to be all about movies and television versions of the legend. Half of the books is Thompson's delving into the legend and what built it—could there really have been a gallant thief like Robin Hood, who did "rob from the rich and give to the poor"? Reading Thompson's findings, probably not, as early versions of the Robin Hood legend describe the character (or another character something like the Robin Hood character) as rather venial. He was mostly passed along to the next generation in ballads and songs in which verses were changed, swapped, amended, added to. Robin Hood is even mentioned in Shakespeare, but the really romantic, noble version of him started showing up later, especially after his cameo in Sir Walter Scott's classic Ivanhoe.
The last third of the book delves into Robin Hood in the media and some quirkier versions of the stories, like a 2005 British production, and also the replacement of one Robin with another in the now-classic Robin of Sherwood series. Howard Pyle's classic illustrated book of Robin's adventures, a series of Robin Hood comic books, and even musicals and an opera based upon the story are also touched on.
How much you enjoy this book depends on how much you want to survey various oral tales and rousing ballads about "Robin the Hood," "Robyn of Locksly," etc. and see how they all boil down into the classic Errol Flynn movie everyone seems to know. (Incidentally, Maid Marian's horse in that film? It's Trigger. Yes, Roy Rogers' horse. Roy Rogers who did a film called Trail of Robin Hood. Things do come around!)
book icon  A Snapshot of Murder, Frances Brody
This is the tenth Kate Shackleton mystery, in a case Kate becomes involved with personally.

In her spare time, Kate devotes herself to photography and the local photography club, along with a friend Carine Murchison, who learned photography from her mother, a professional in the field. Carine was once in love with Edward Chester, a poetic young man who died in the Great War, and she eventually married Toby, Edward's best friend who came to tell her about his death. Toby suited Carine's father much better than Edward, but Derek, Carine's young errand boy and a friend of Kate's niece Harriet, confides to the young woman that Toby abuses Carine. Kate also knows that Carine is exhausted from nursing her housebound father, and still waits for her mother, who abandoned the family when Carine was a little girl, to return for her as she promised.

All these relationships come to the fore when the Photography Club goes on an outing to the newly-opened Brontั‘ museum in Haworth. Carine ends up booking them at a ramshackle inn with a hostile landlady and her often-invisible mother. Then, during the dedication to the museum, Tobias is stabbed. Did he fall on his own sword cane? Or did one of the members of the Photography Club, who were standing around him, kill him? Frighteningly for Kate, one of the suspects is Harriet, the other is Derek, who had a crush on Carine and wanted to rescue her from Toby. Carine, who was taking refuge in the church at the time of his death, is devastated.
The murder doesn't take place almost until 200 pages into the story; the first part is more a psychological portrait of emotionally- (and perhaps physically-) battered Carine. Several friends wish she was free of both husband and father, and Toby had enemies, including one in Haworth. Once Kate's partner Jim Sykes and her landlady Mrs. Sugden join her, they must get through a tangle of personalities to find the culprit. (However, there is one tiny clue early on that spills the beans. Look for it.)

My favorite part was the subplot involving getting Kate's parents a new bloodhound after their old faithful Constable dies. The dog—who washed out of police school for being too friendly—is accidentally delivered to Kate's office and falls in love with her, Jim, Mrs. Sugden, and Harriet instead, and he also solves part of the mystery.
The volume includes the short story "Kate Shackleton's First Case," which I found almost more entertaining than the novel.
book icon  This Hill, This Valley, Hal Borland
In her later books, Gladys Taber begins to mention her friends Hal and Barbara Borland, stating that Hal's book This Hill, This Valley should be on all nightstands to read at bedtime. Who am I to argue?
Borland, a New York Times nature writer, and his wife lived in the city until 1950, when Hal nearly died from a ruptured appendix and peritonitis. He spent most of the winter in the hospital, and when he came home realized he didn't want to spend the life that had been given back to him in the city. He and Barbara move to an old farmhouse in northwestern Connecticut. This is Hal's diary of a year there: the following of the seasons, the animals, the landscape, the plants, the self-sufficient farmers and workers who are his neighbors, the joys of country living and the physical problems as well (frozen pumps and water pipes, mosquitoes, the lot). They have a mixed-breed dog named Pat who wanders freely, as opposed to Taber's carefully watched cocker spaniels, and there are no musings about cooking or milk glass, but in tone the volume is similar to a Stillmeadow book, and Gladys is correct in saying it's a great bedside book. I enjoyed the book until I got to his fall entries, and then I came to love it, as Borland is definitely a kindred spirit in regards to the autumn!
Only disappointment are the "illustrations," if you can call them that, by Peter Marks, which look more like kids' drawings of trees, flowers, and grass. 
book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Punch and Judy Mystery, Jerry West
We are back on tour in this 27th book in the Happy Hollisters mystery series for kids, this time set in Italy. Just as the kids (12-year-old Pete; Pam, age ten; mischievous 7-year-old Ricky; plucky Holly, age 6; and 4-year-old Sue, who mostly acts cute) are giving a Punch and Judy puppet show to raise money for charity—resident bully Joey Brill finally gets some consequences when he tries to swipe some of the proceeds—when they meet a little Italian girl, Nada, who is upset that her Uncle Giovanni (a highly-praised maker of Punchinello puppets) has disappeared from his home in Rome.
With the help of a contest Pam has entered, hoping to win either the first prize, a trip, or the third prize of a horse (it's complicated), Mrs. Hollister and her brood of five are off for Italy in the company of Uncle Russ, who is on a special mission: get a beautiful scallop shell carved into a cameo for the First Lady by a noted Italian cameo artist! So not only are the kids on the case of Uncle Giovanni, they're also chasing thieves who rob the cameo factory and make off with the completed trinket for the President's wife.
All this and they manage to sight-see in Venice, Florence, Pompeii, and Rome, which means the action is nonstop! Seriously, the family does sleep, but the heroine of the book is Elaine Hollister, who keeps her cool when her 12- and 10-year-old are doing surveillance, Ricky and Holly keep exploring, and she has to drive, make hotel reservations at the last minute, and pack, all without the help of the internet.
Again, a big plus for Joey finally getting in trouble this time!  
book icon  Peace Talks, Jim Butcher
Harry Dresden, now the Winter Knight for Queen Mab's faery court, for once, is at peace as this 16th "Dresden Files" urban fantasy series: he and his daughter Maggie are living in a safe apartment (guarded by svartalves) belonging to his long-time friend and one-time student Molly Carpenter, now the Winter Queen. He and Maggie are bonding, and times are calm, until his half-brother Thomas, a vampire, tells Harry that his partner, Justine (also a vampire) is pregnant. Things immediately unravel not long after: Harry's grandfather Ebenezar tells him the White Council is looking to boot Harry out, otherworldly beings are testing the limits of the magical Accords which keep them out of our world, and Harry's expected to be one of the guards at negotiations to stop magical hostilities. And then Thomas does something so heinous that, although Harry knows he probably did it to save Justine, he's sentenced to death. And Harry, whose family by blood and by choice has been threatened too many times, knows he can't let his brother die. But he'll have to defy everyone, including his grandfather, to do so.

There hasn't been a Dresden book for a few years now, so I grabbed this off the rack at Walmart (of all places; never saw it in paperback at Barnes & Noble!) and practically swallowed it. Once again, except for some scenes between Harry and Maggie and between Harry and Murphy, it's nonstop action as Harry attempts to juggle his responsibilities as White Council wizard, Winter Knight, and family man, protect his friends and family, and flat out stay alive.

After all these years I wonder how Harry still is alive (although technically he did die several books ago, but Queen Mab wanted him alive). Butcher keeps matching him against stronger and stronger villains and more and more difficult emotional choices until I wonder how he hasn't lost it by now. By the time he finishes the series he's going to have to be committed to a hospital for extreme mental trauma. I'm almost scared to read the next book since I saw a spoiler for it, and I wasn't happy.

book icon  Beyond: The Founding of Valdemar, book 1, Mercedes Lackey
Praise Ghu! After Lackey's simply dreadful Eye Spy with its carbon-copy instantly-recognizable avatar for a Certain Public Figure—a true plot cheat—I was afraid she'd forgotten how to write a good book.
If you, too, suffered through Eye Spy (or part of Eye Spy, as I did; I couldn't finish the awful thing), please note she has not forgotten how to write a great book. Here she gives fans of her Valdemar universe what we have wanted for years: the story of the Kingdom of Valdemar and its founder, Duke Kordas Valdemar. Kordas' duchy is a rural community of mostly yeoman farmers and livestock breeders; Kordas himself loves and breeds horses, including the stunning "Valdemar Gold." As the story opens, a new Gold filly is born and given as a gift to Delia, Kordas' sister-in-law (who harbors a secret crush on him after he saved her life).
Behind this bucolic facade, Kordas is a worried man. Like all his contemporaries, he was "fostered" (read: held hostage) at the court of the Emperor at a young age and then sent home expected to obey the avaricious and self-absorbed commands of his liege lord. But Kordas' father has taught him to expect that some day the Empire will try to invade Valdemar, lay waste to its beautiful lands, and take all that they need, including the beloved horses. So for years his father, and now Kordas, have gathered mages and made preparations for the population and the livestock of Valdemar to escape via magical Gates to lands far in the west where the Empire cannot encroach on them. Their plans are set to come to fruition during the upcoming annual Empire Regatta in. Then Kordas is summoned to the Capital for a meeting of the heads of all the principalities, dukedoms, baronies, etc. Kordas goes, leaving his capable wife Isla, Delia, and his mages in charge, but what he finds at the Capital—including Air Elementals enslaved in scarecrow-like artificial bodies and "foster" children toed into line with obedience spells—so horrifies him that he finds he must help more than just the people of Valdemar.

A whopping great tale, with memorable characters, including "the Dolls" (whose secret will make you squirm), and a constantly moving plot. There are still avatars for Certain Public Figures (and their actions), but they are well disguised in the plot and not at all smack-in-the-face smirkingly obvious. Lackey hasn't written such a good adventure in several volumes. Definitely looking forward to the next two books and the definitive story of how the Companions came to be.

If I had one quibble, it's that we're told how special the Valdemar Golds are, but...why? Is it just their color? We almost learn more about the Chargers (including the two sent the Emperor who are "fake" Valdemar Golds), the Tow-Beasts, the Sweetfoots (riding horses), and the Fleetfoots (race horses) than we do about the Golds.
book icon  Northland, Porter Fox
When I reached the last page of this book, I was so sad that the voyage was over.

Fox spent three years exploring the border country between the United States and Canada. He canoes the first portion, then rides a freighter through the Great Lakes, and finally finishes "the medicine line" (that chiefly straight border between Lake of the Woods, Michigan, and Washington state) via car (and some by foot). This is a travelogue (especially in the canoe sequences) through beautifully described boreal areas, a sociological study of the people who live in the border area (and the guys who manage to stay sane on the interminable freighter runs—the cook he encounters aboard the "Equinox" is a real character), and a history, from the voyageurs to the surveyors to the fishermen to the river pilots to the prairielands to the current struggles of the Lakota and other tribes over not only land rights, but over the pipelines that somehow still get built across their property even though it has been forbidden. (Did you know these oil pipelines, supposedly so well constructed and "no threat to the environment," leak someplace on their route every day? Superfund work is still being done on a farm that was ruined by 840,000 gallons of oil ten years ago.)

Fox tells the history not only of "the settlers and the explorers" (there are good summaries of the explorations of Champlain, who apparently respected the natives he found on this "newly discovered" land, and LaSalle as well as Mackenzie), but of the people who originally inhabited the land: the Iroquois, the Mohawk, the Huron, the Ojibwe, the Cree, the Blackfeet—their customs then and how they survive today, despite government effort to "beat the Indian out of them" in the past. He visits once-popular now-nearly-abandoned tourist camps (there's no wifi, so fewer tourists come), industrial plants, campsites on both the Canadian and U.S. border, that corner of the U.S. that sticks up into Canada (Lake of the Woods) due to an error by Benjamin Franklin, and Indian activist sites. His descriptions of the wild lands still left are breathtaking (if not always pleasant): beautiful birds and fish, starry nights, daunting storms, and clouds of mosquitoes.

As I said, part tourguide, part social commentary, part history text—all enjoyable!
book icon  Death Among Rubies, R.J. Koreto
I lucked into this series when I found a remainder copy of the first book at Ollie's Discount Outlet, and I had to get the other two in the series (so far—Koreto is thinking of doing another). Lady Frances Ffolkes is a forward-thinking woman of the Edwardian era who attended university in the United States and has come home a suffragette and determined to be independent, even though she is in love with her good friend Henry Wheaton, a solicitor and amateur painter. Lady Frances ("Franny" to her friends) even lives at a hotel for women (shocking!) with her young, more traditional maid June Mallow, who insists on being called by her last name and puts on airs as the lady's maid of a titled woman. When two of "Franny's" friends, level-headed Thomasina ("Tommie") and more flighty Gwendolyn, travel to Gwen's ancestral home Kestrel's Eyrie, she goes along when she finds out Tommie has been threatened with an ugly note promising to reveal the truth about her relationship with Gwen if she does not stop living with her.

Kestrel's Eyrie is filled with visitors, including a noveau riche American businessman and his awkward daughter, a Muslim man who frequently breaks Islamic law, and two widows who have been helped by Gwen's family. Gwen's gallant cousin Christopher and his businesslike mother run the house for Sir Calleford, Gwen's father, and all seems well until Sir Calleford is found murdered. Now Gwen is his heir and will certainly be pushed into a marriage she doesn't want by his death—which makes her a suspect. But clues point out Tommie as the apparent murderer! Lady Frances knows Tommie would never kill anyone, but how can she allow the stupid constable who keeps the peace in that area to arrest Tommie, or go after the "burglars" he initially thought committed the crime? And what's going on with the Muslim and American visitors, especially when Lady Frances finds out her diplomat brother is involved? So it's back to sleuthing for her and the stolid, determined Mallow.

I blamed a couple of people for the murder initially, and then zeroed in on the correct suspect, but for a reason I didn't suspect until the end. This is a novel series for me in that I love the protagonist's sidekick even more than I love the protagonist. Mallow is wonderful. Under her demure servant's garb she's resourceful, clever, and great in emergencies. I could see her being played in a TV series by Nell Hudson, who played the queen's dresser Skerrett in ๐‘‰๐‘–๐‘๐‘ก๐‘œ๐‘Ÿ๐‘–๐‘Ž. Oh, Lady Frances is cool, too, as is Hal Wheaton, who loves her enough to let her be herself, but Mallow is the real treat in this series. Do I see a future between her and Dickinson, the younger police constable? Oh, I hope so!
book icon  The Diary of a Bookseller, Shaun Bythell
I love this book. I loved it from when I opened it and started reading James the diary entries.

At eighteen, Shaun first visited The Book Shop, a used/vintage store in Wigtown, Scotland, a town that has since reinvented itself as a "booktown" like Hay-on-Wye in Wales. Twelve years later, discontent with employment opportunities, he went back to the store looking for a book, ending up buying the store from the owner, who wanted to retire. Eventually he started a blog about the endless problems running a book store, the odd customers who wandered in alรก The Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops, the events and festivals the store participates in, buying collections of old books, etc. for the period of 2014 and early in 2015. Here we meet Nicky, Shaun's eccentric hippie associate; Anna, his current girlfriend; his buddy Eliot who stays over at the apartment above the shop and is constantly leaving his shoes where Shaun can trip over them; Mr. Deacon, the elderly regular customer; Vincent, the mechanic who keeps the rattletrap bookstore van running; Captain, the resident cat; plus an entire train of customers, many who use the shop to find books and then order them cheaper on Amazon, some who argue that a book priced online no cheaper than £20 is too expensive at £5, some who bring in old dirty romance paperbacks expecting them to be worth a lot more than they are, and on, and on, and on.

Shaun is, if you read on, more than a bit cynical and does not "suffer fools gladly," you may even find him a little grumpy for your tastes. However, knowing what I do about retail sales from my husband and other friends who have gone that route in employment, I find I still sympathize with him because of the damnfools that wander in, complaining, reading the books by the fire for hours and never reading anything, pennypinching to the point where it's infuriating, etc. There are some poignant bits, too, when he attends estate sales and goes to buy books from people who are cleaning out their parents' home after they die. You find out "how it all came out" in the epilog.

And there's a sequel!!!
book icon  A Good Horse Has No Color, Nancy Marie Brown
Here's yet another book I bought due to it being mentioned on a podcast ("Travels with Rick Steves" strikes again!). Nancy Brown fell in love with the Icelandic sagas as a teen; also, as a horse lover and moderately good rider she fell in love with the Icelandic breed, which is small, but sturdy and has natural gaits similar to a Tennessee walking horse, the ground-eating "tolt" and the fabulous "flying pace." This is Nancy's story of her love of Iceland and her search for two Icelandic horses that she could purchase to take home to the U.S. Guided by two men she trusted, Haukur, a farmer who lived next to a home she and her husband rented after his mother was murdered, and Elvar, a horse breeder, Nancy goes on an almost obsessive search for two "perfect" horses. Her indecision and emotional needs, as well as her inexperience with choosing a good horse (and an Icelandic horse is different from the standard breeds you would find in the U.S.) almost sabotage her efforts.

I'll admit listening to her narrate the Icelandic sagas was a bit much, but in all the stories an extraordinary horse is crucial to the plot, and to Icelanders as well. The horses are carefully bred, and a limited number of them are exported, and then only the perfect ones (imperfect ones are usually destroyed and, surprisingly, often eaten). They can cover landscapes that would lame other horses, swim against strong currents, and were essential to Icelandic survival before cars, trains, paved roads, and bridges. Because they are so small, they are referred to as ponies, but calling them this in Icelandic culture is an insult.

Nancy spends a lot of time studying the complicated Icelandic language to be able to communicate, but one wishes she'd studied the better points of Icelandic horses and how to ride them (the seat is completely different) before she wanted to look for one. She has to depend on Haukur and his family and Elvar and his family to tell her if the horse is good or bad, and despite the fact she despises people who pick a horse for color or looks, she does the same thing herself, only coming to that realization at the end. She also seems to expect the horse she picks to instinctively know how to teach her, which seems unreasonable to me—maybe it's not.

But those are minor quibbles: the descriptions of Iceland are wonderful, and the breed is fascinating. However, I think you must at least like horses to get anything out of this.