30 June 2021

Books Completed Since June 1

book icon  Beth & Amy, Virginia Kantra
This is the second book in Kantra's two-part Little Women modernization taking place in Bunyan, North Carolina, this time concentrating on the two younger March sisters, who are bound together emotionally by being raised in their sisters' shadows. On the surface both Beth and Amy are doing well. Beth's music has taken her far from Bunyan, where she's become songwriter, singing partner, and lover to Colt Henderson, famous country music star. Amy has gone from struggling in her fashion-oriented career to success after she designed a handbag that was used by Meghan Markle, and she's thinking of expanding her business. But Beth is hiding a secret, and Amy is still trying to cope with her long-term crush on the March family's "brother by choice," Trey Lawrence—who's still smarting from his aborted romance with Jo March.
I pretty much guessed what was going on with Beth from the first and was indignant that she felt as she did. Amy comes off much better than she does in Little Women (but as Kantra points out in the afterward, we always saw May Alcott, the original of Amy, from Louisa's point of view, the babied younger daughter who missed the drama of Bronson Alcott's aborted communal living experiment at Fruitlands and who wasn't forced to go to work like her elder sisters because her father refused to do "inappropriate" labor); she truly wants Trey to love her, not to "settle" for her as an also-run after not marrying her sister.
Abby and Ash March's marriage problems are also addressed in the story, which, in this volume, works very well, and Kantra also introduces a new "old" character, a veteran named Dan who helps Abby with the goat farm and becomes a friend of Beth, her attempt to give Dan of Jo's Boys a happier ending.
I enjoyed this more than Meg & Jo because it gave Beth and Amy chances to shine—and because there wasn't a lot of talk about being a chef and cooking. 
book icon  What the Dog Saw, Malcolm Gladwell
This is a collection of Gladwell's "New Yorker" essays over the years that explore everything from the history of Ron Popeil and the kitchen gadgets Ronco has pushed over the years to the generalization that all pit bull dogs are dangerous. There's a nifty article about why, although there are many kinds of mustards, ketchup has remained the same over the years (did you know there were specialty ketchups?); how Clairol and L'Oreal made hair color legitimate (and not something just "floozies" did) using two different advertising campaigns, both which work; how Cesar Millan uses body language to work with dogs; how interpreting photography—both for mammography and for spy photography—isn't the cut-and-dried affair you might think it is (leading the military to believe in "weapons of mass destruction"); the difference between "choking" and "panicking"; why some genius burns early and others are "late bloomers"; and analysis of why Enron failed; and more.
The only essay I couldn't make much sense out of was the one about investments, but it was well-written; the failing was mine. Enjoyed this more than I did The Tipping Point; interestingly enough, a friend read the same two books and liked this one less. YMMV.
book icon  Dear America: One Eye Laughing, The Other Weeping, Barry Denenberg
I always approach a Barry Denenberg "Dear America" book with trepidation. Once again, it's deserved. The good news and the bad news: Denenberg does not soft-pedal in the first half of the book, where Julie Weiss, her parents, and her brother experience the rise of Adolf Hitler and the annexation of Vienna, which brought misery and death to Jews like themselves. Be aware reading this that the story includes abuse, violence, virulent bigotry, betrayal, and suicide, as was experienced by the Jews of Vienna. Her mother is referred to as "a Jewish b---h" twice in the text.
Denenberg says in his afterward that he kept Anne Frank's diary near him as he wrote this. Indeed, much of the plot echoes Frank: Julie is jealous of her talented older brother (rather than sister), spoiled by her dad, and you can see an echo of Peter's mother in Julie's. The opening diary entries chronicle Julie's trivial schoolgirl problems until little hints tell us all is not well. Then the Nazi terror builds until Dr. Weiss sends Julie to America to be with her aunt and uncle. Here she faces nightmares until her Aunt Clara, an actress, and her Uncle Martin, a stockbroker, break down her defenses. The end of the story has Julie getting involved with Aunt Clara's play and goes back to being trivial again.
Along with Nazi abuse there is an undercurrent that adults would more understand than children. The Weiss marriage seems troubled. There is some mystery about Aunt Clara, and once Julie gets to the US, a mystery about someone named Eva. There's a real horror story here, but it seems disconnected, and the whole business about Julie and the play seems mere fantasy. As always, Denenberg's epilog is depressing (although here it is expected) but a few people do survive.
[Note: the author also makes a mistake in dating a famous historic event. He portrays Orson Welles War of the Worlds adaptation as taking place on October 31. Although the broadcast was intended as a Hallowe'en treat, it was actually performed on October 30, 1938.] 
book icon  Buffy the Vampire Slayer FAQ, David Bushman and Arthur Smith
This is another enjoyable entry in Applause's "FAQ" series which also acknowledges the original film, which creator Joss Whedon intended to be more serious, and the comic books, especially the "Season Eight" issues that are considered canon. It also touches briefly on Buffy's "sister series" Angel.
I read a criticism of this book that it's basically a rehash of the two Watcher's Guide books and therefore an overview of episodes, characters, arcs, and seasons. All I can say is that there are unique interviews to this book, and there may be people out there just getting into Buffy who haven't read the Watcher's Guide. If I have any complaint about this book, it's that it sometimes repeats information about an encounter from every single different viewpoint. Talk about overkill. And sometimes the narrative is a bit too cutesy. Otherwise I enjoyed the photos and information.
book icon  Re-read: Lammas Night, Katherine Kurtz
It is a known fact that Adolf Hitler and many of his followers were great believers in the occult and, as also noted in Raiders of the Lost Ark, collected occult items in an attempt to use them to advance the cause of the Axis powers. It is also believed that during the time of the Spanish Armada, the psychic forces of England's esoteric community caused the storm that vanquished the ships.
The British esoteric community is still fighting the forces of evil in this military fantasy set during World War II. Intelligence agent Colonel John "Gray" Graham is not only an important operative in MI6, but a leading member in England's occult community. An operative has just brought them information that the Nazis' occult community is planning dark magic against their enemies; Graham must try to organize the British equivalent against them. He finds assistance in an old friend, Prince William, the youngest son of King George V. William, the twin brother of epileptic Prince John, most often feels like a fifth wheel in his family, fit only for minor diplomatic social events. He doesn't know about Gray's secret life, but the situation has become dire enough that Gray considers revealing more to him.
Kurtz paints the military and wartime life of Britain realistically and with great effect, and treats the occult portions of the story with equal respect. It's all very down-to-earth, with no over-the-top fantasy elements, which makes the idea approachable. However, my favorite aspect of the story is Prince William. Since Victorian-era and Edwardian-era history is one of my favorite topics, I know something about the British Royal Family and that Prince John, who had epilepsy and was possibly autistic, did not have a twin brother. Yet William is so realistic that I had to go back and check the family tree I had in one book! 
book icon  Terry Nation: The Man Who Invented the Daleks, Alwin W. Turner
This isn't a biography of Nation as such, although it discusses his early life and love of pulp magazine adventure and fantasy fiction. Rather, it is a history of Nation's life against his work in England and in the United States in television, from his first work on The Goon Show and Tony Hancock's different shows to his creation of the Daleks—a creation whose popularity amazed everyone—along with his famous British series Survivors and Blake's 7 (both shows examined in depth), as well as his being producer of The Persuaders and MacGyver in the United States. Two lesser-known series, The Champions and The Baron, are also profiled.

For fans of British television, of Terry Nation, and/or of Doctor Who and Blake's 7.
book icon  The Last Passenger, Charles Finch
This is the third and last of Finch's Charles Lenox prequels that take place before the official first book of the series (A Beautiful Blue Death). It is here we first meet Kitty Ashcroft, who returns to help Lenox in the next book of the series set in Lenox's "present day, and also of his friendship with Lady Jane's husband, who is about to come to a tragic end.
During a terrible rainstorm Lenox is summoned to a railway station, where the conductor and the stationmaster are guarding a startling secret: a murdered man. Apparently he was killed on the route from Manchester and no one else in the railway carriage knew anything about it. Oddly, all the labels are cut from his clothing. Next Lenox and the police discover that the real conductor—for the man they thought was the conductor was not—dead by the side of the railway tracks. And finally they discover an American traveler is missing: one who was to speak to the British government about the slavery problem in the United States. Another of his companions, a former slave, is on the run, and a third has died in what was thought to be simply a freak accident. Have American opponents to slavery followed the men to England in order to kill them?

England abolished the slave trade and slavery some years before the United States, but repercussions still abound in this mystery which is also part history lesson. You learn something about the attitudes to "the peculiar institution," as well as revisiting Lenox's past household with all its familiar figures like Graham, Lenox's manservant, and Mrs. Huggins, the housekeeper, as well as Lady Jane and her husband.
I picked up on at least one whopper of a historical blooper; in one chapter Charles thinks of something as a crossword puzzle clue. The book takes place in 1855 and crossword puzzles were not invented until the 1920s.
book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Whistle-Pig Mystery, Jerry West
I almost feel like I needed to take notes on this, the 28th story in the series.
As the book opens, the kids (Pete, age 12, Pam, 10, seven-year-old Ricky, and Holly, age 6, plus 4-year-old Sue) worry about Blackie, the cocker spaniel companion of Indy Rhodes, the Native American head salesman at John Hollister's store The Trading Post, after his playmate, a woodchuck, abandons his burrow on Indy's property. A news story on TV tells them about a train robbery in "New England" (the individual states are never mentioned) where a million dollars in mail sacks were stolen. (Why money would be in mail sacks is never explained.) At the same time the Hollisters' old friend Fritz the wood carver in Germany asks them if they can get him the measurements of a wooden Indian called The Settlers Friend, apparently thinking this statue is common knowledge to all Americans. Well, since Indy is a Native American, of course he has a book about wooden Indian art! In this way, the Hollisters discover the statue is in the Pioneer Village, a museum in Foxboro—amazingly the same place where the robbery took place! Not only that, but the kids discover there's a wooden Indian statue in a basement of an old house in their home town that the owner doesn't want. Guess what! Pioneer Village has a whole exhibit on wooden Indians!

Quicker than you can say Pocahontas, Indy volunteers to take the kids and the wooden Indian to Foxboro. Since he can't be expected to ride herd on all five by himself, he recruits his sister Emmy to come along, and off they go to Foxboro, where they find a third mystery: they're looking for a copy of the signature of a woman named Patience Jones, who owned the property an old covered bridge sits upon. The bridge is going to be demolished rather than moved unless the caretaker of Pioneer Village can prove Jones' signature on a will is legit. The kids hope her signature is on one of the historic "autograph quilts" that 19th century women made.

Confused yet? Just wait: there's also a kid named Wally who helps the children detect, a little girl named Zuzu who tells tall stories, a hurricane that hits during the story (and nobody takes precautions), a flood after a dam breaks, an abandoned waterwheel mill, a church belfry, and an elderly farm woman named Mrs. Willow, who owns an oodle of friendship quilts. And more groundhogs, which unfortunately Emmy tells the Hollisters are known as whistle-pigs, so the name appears over and over in the text.

Although the story attempts to point out that Native Americans look like everyone else—seriously, the kids almost miss Emmy at the airport because they expect her to be in buckskin—there are entirely too many instances of Indy "flashing his white teeth." This is annoying because the Seminoles in the previous Sea Turtle books are mostly not treated as curiosities. Also, it seems dumb for someone (I'm looking at you, adults!) not to take the wooden rifle of the Indian the Hollisters found in the cellar and keep it somewhere safe, because the darn thing keeps falling off.

Also weird that West uses the name "Foxboro" for the city where the money goes missing, but never identifies, as any fan of the New England Patriots can tell you, that Foxboro is in Massachusetts. It would have been better to make up a name, especially as "Pioneer Village" appears to be a dead ringer for Massachusetts' classic living history museum, Old Sturbridge Village, which is sixty miles from Foxboro, not right next door. (There's a "Pioneer Village" in Salem, MA, but that's not close to Foxboro, either.)

Kids will like the perpetual motion plot, but for adults the constant coincidences and the annoying repetition of "whistle-pig" will probably sour the broth.
book icon  The Hollywood Spy, Susan Elia MacNeal
In her tenth adventure, Maggie Hope, former codebreaker for the British (although originally from Massachusetts) and trained spy, has flown to Los Angeles at the request of John Sterling, an RAF pilot and writer who was once her lover. John's fiance has died, drowned in a swimming pool, and the story is she was drunk and possibly on drugs, and John hopes Maggie can suss out what happened. Since this is a mystery, Maggie of course, susses out a good deal—including the suppression of other murders and a planned "major event" that will rock the city, and be blamed on Jews.
This is a difficult book to read, because it tackles the tawdry underbelly covered by the gloss Hollywood projected in the 1930s and especially in the 1940s. Under the sunny skies, Los Angeles was a dark place of bigotry. You might have learned about the "Zoot Suit Riots," where Mexicans were harassed by police and military alike, but 1940s L.A. was also a hotbed of the Ku Klux Klan and Nazi sympathizers. Most of businesses were still segregated, not only against people of color but against Jews, and the KKK also fomented prejudice against Catholics and gays. One of the characters involved is the teenage son of a KKK member, who warns him against dating "that Mick," a Irish Catholic girl. In another subplot, Sarah befriends Henri Batiste, a Creole clarinet player, and when they want to go somewhere to eat, they have to consider what restaurants will accept Henri. I'm a little puzzled that Maggie is so surprised about the racism in Hollywood when in a previous book, which took place in Washington DC, she encountered a black man about to be executed for a crime he didn't commit and was trying to help to clear him. Also, so many of these historical books seem to imply that white Britons were not bigoted and readily accepted people of color and gay people. It is true that during the war the British did not have segregated facilities as in the U.S., but you have only to read British books published in the past to see Indians referred to as "wogs" and treated as if they were subhuman, gay men and women considered abhorrent, and people of color insulted, reviled, and referred to with the "N" word.
MacNeal did a lot of research on this book and much of it shows. She takes great delight in describing the Technicolor aspects of the 1940s: the cars, the beaches, the restaurants, the homes, the clubs, the countryside, backstage on soundstages, and tries to make the 1940 face of L.A. come as alive as possible. She tosses in lots of trivia like the fact that Los Angeles experienced its first smogs during the 1940s due to the pollution from war plants. (She missed at least one thing: while criticizing the heinous internment of Japanese-Americans, she has a character state that neither Germans nor Italians, also our enemies, were interned. Actually 11,000 Germans and somewhere between 3,000 and 10,000 Italians, some of them naturalized citizens, were put into internment camps as well.)
The mystery is fairly complex, but you have to be willing to get through some stomach-churning moments to get there—not just violence, but a disgusting scene with the KKK boasting about their wholesomeness at a church event, for example. Be warned.
book icon  The Pioneers, David McCullough
Back in my school days, I read Lois Lenski's historical children's book A'Going to the Westward, the story of the United States citizens' first move west, from the New England states to the newly-acquired "Ohio country." So it was with interest I picked up this book, which is a nonfiction recounting of the event. The bulk of the story revolves around several men: Manasseh Cutler, who drafted the original Northwest Territory charter and got Congress to approve it (the charter proposed some novel resolutions of the time: there would be complete freedom of religion, education would be guaranteed, the Natives would not be molested, and slavery―still legal in all thirteen states at the time―would be absolutely forbidden) and his son, Ephraim, who lived in the Ohio territory; Rufus Putnam, former Continental Army soldier; Joseph Barker, the builder; and finally Samuel Hildreth, who served as the big names in the history of the settlement that would eventually be Marietta, Ohio, named for Marie Antoinette.
Alas, the Indian resolve was short-lived. The Native people welcomed the whites from the East so long as their numbers were small; when more emigrants showed up, they felt surrounded, and they began attacking white communities. Pleas for help finally brought an army led by Mad Anthony Wayne which drove the indigenous population away forever. However, their other resolves were stronger and slavery was kept out of the area through the endless work of Ephraim Cutler. McCullough chronicles the founding of Marietta from the first wagons moving into the deep woods of Ohio―just the words recounting the work required to fell the trees is exhausting―to the late 1830s.
This is a good book about a time in history not much covered by nonfiction, but a bit plodding.

book icon  Re-read: A-Going to the Westward, Lois Lenski
Having read The Pioneers, I went back to the original Lenski volume. She is most well-known for her regional novels like Strawberry Girl, Prairie School, Judy's Journey, etc. and the similar "Roundabout America" books for younger children, but she also did a half-dozen or so historical books, the best known which is Indian Captive.

Reuben and Roxana Bartlett and their two children, sensible 12-year-old Betsy and sensitive 8-year-old Thomas, are just one of many new American families "a-going to the Westward" to join an uncle. They are joined by one of their church deacons, cobbler Joel Blodgett, Reuben Bartlett's other brother Robert, and the redoubtable Matilda Stebbins, a spinster relative who is on her way to Ohio to be reunited with her niece, and,  unfortunately, by the rowdy Perkins family: coarse and often drunken Jed, ever-ill Parthenia, and their two children Ezekiel and Florilla. Jed is glad to be leaving Connecticut with its Blue Laws and strict Calvinist teachings, and he has a burning desire to best the Bartletts and their "annoying piety."

Today this might be considered a very strange children's book, but I've always loved it from my teens because Lenski tries hard to stick to the child-rearing and stoic customs of the times. The children do not expect to be hugged and coddled unless they are very ill, and the adults do not comfort or support them as they would today. No one is told it's "okay to cry," or to shirk on chores in an emergency; Betsy is always knitting or sewing—no playing dolls for her. At one point Betsy is left behind (a machination of Jed Perkins)  and, while her parents do worry, they pray that responsible Betsy will fall in with another family going west and will join them in Pittsburgh; eventually Joel goes back for her. Lenski is also unstinting about the hardships of the western trail: there are no merry days picking flowers and enjoying nature, but there are many days when the breakdown of their wagons, or a stopover at a dirty inn with drunken men, or long days of rain sorely test the resolution of the families. Conniving Jed Perkins is also determined to sabotage the Bartletts' progress and is a continual thorn in their sides.

Another aspect of the story is the Connecticut Yankee meeting new cultures on their journey. As they travel through Pennsylvania they meet the Ermintritt family, a hard-working clan of "Pennsylvania Dutch" also heading west, and while the adults initially distrust the German-speakers and think they are continually swearing at them, Betsy makes a fast friend in twelve-year-old Lotte. Once arrived at their homestead, they must befriend the Kentucky-bred Scruggs family who distrust book-learning and think the Yankees are snooty. There is as much story about the adults as there is about the four children; especially feisty and stalwart Matilda and merry Joel and bookish Uncle Rob and Reuben and Roxana Bartlett, plus characters like Herr Ermintritt, the German innkeepers, their flatboat pilot, and the elderly German man Betsy meets enroute all have their stories and their experiences on swollen rivers, in crowded filthy wayside inns, riding in wagons that overturn or jounce teeth against teeth as they bounce through the ruts. This book is worth reading even if just once to see how the first westward pioneers endured and prevailed on the trail.
Also, after reading The Pioneers, it's fun to see what the Bartletts experience that was mentioned in that book: "the River Beautiful" as the Ohio was called, the New Orleans (first steamboat on the river), the town of Marietta, the Muskingum River, the village of Belpré, and Blennerhasset's island with its beautiful plantation house described by McCullough; the Blennerhasset family later got mixed up with Aaron Burr's traitorous plot for the Northwest Territory to break away from the United States. Several of the people mentioned in McCullough's book provided the historical manuscripts Lenski consulted when she wrote A'Going to the Westward.
book icon  Murder, Take Two, Carol J. Perry
It's number ten in Perry's "Witch City" series set in Salem, MA, and Lee Barrett (neè Maralee Kowalski, journalism graduate, young widow of a race car driver, and now back living upstairs at the home of the librarian aunt Isobel [Ibby], who raised her) receives a call from one of her former students at the local community college: his nephew, a local professor, has been accused of murder. Not only that, the murder almost perfectly mimes a real-life Salem mystery, the murder of a sea captain in 1830. Roger Temple and his twin Ray are on their way to Salem to help him, but beg Lee to look into the crime; they don't believe Cody McGinnis is guilty. Neither do many of his students: they've already formed a defense fund for him.
This story almost threw me: usually by chapter five or so, Lee, who has a scrying gift, has seen some type of mysterious vision in a reflection which holds a clue to the mystery. This story is almost straight mystery, with a portion of the plot revolving around Lee's plan for a live-action Clue game, with her visions appearing very late in the story. Also, I didn't like the Charlie's Angels bit with Aunt Ibby and her two friends with Rupert Pennington as "Charlie." It seemed kind of silly. On the other hand, I thought it was cute that Ray Temple was also interested in Aunt Ibby; romance doesn't end when you get older!
book icon  The World of Upstairs, Downstairs, Mollie Hardwick
Long before there was nonstop interest in Downton Abbey, another wealthy-family-and-their-servants saga was a big hit in both the UK and the US, Upstairs, Downstairs, the story of the Bellamy family from late Victorian times to the Great Depression, living in their city home on Eaton Place in London. The Bellamys (Richard and two different wives, Marjorie and Virginia, his son James, and their ward Georgina) and their numerous servants: Mr. Hudson the proper butler, Mrs. Bridges the cook, and the maids and servingmen Rose, Sarah, Daisy, Ruby, Edward, Thomas, Alfred, and Frederick were once household names to those who followed their weekly adventures on Masterpiece Theatre, hosted then by urbane Alistair Cooke, for many seasons. To their audience, they were fast friends.
Author Hardwick sets the stage for the Bellamy family and company with stills from the series interspersed with real-life photographs, maps, cartoons, engravings, and other illustrations to chronicle the great social changes and even upheavals that began with the death of Queen Victoria and came to a head as the 1930s continued. A great volume for history buffs and Upstairs, Downstairs fans.
book icon  A Second Chance, Jodi Taylor
The third in the Chronicles of St. Mary's, Taylor's rough-and-tumble series about the academics at St. Mary's Institute of Historical Research, who investigate the past—but kindly don't call it time travel! Madeleine Maxwell and her disaster-prone crew of researchers dip into Isaac Newton's time and then attend a cheese-rolling event in Gloucester without too many problems, but when they set up a longer mission to Troy, first to see the city as it was and then to see it under siege by the Greeks (and find out the truth of the Trojan Horse and the infamous Helen), things go very, very wrong for what was supposed to be "Max's" last mission—once seeing Troy, she has promised security chief Leon Farrell that they will make a life together.

These books are enjoyable (okay, I'll say it) time travel adventures, and Taylor, a historian (without time travel herself) does a great job of making both ancient Troy and, in a later excursion, the Battle of Agincourt, come to life. Max and her fellow historians are a unique group, each with their own quirks, but still a strangely appealing family group. The storylines are similar to Connie Willis' time-traveling historians in The Domesday Book, etc., but done with more humor and earthiness.
book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Ghost Horse Mystery, Jerry West
In book 29 of the series, Indy Rhodes, trusted employee at John Hollister's Shoreham store The Trading Post, and his sister Emily are on the way home with the five Hollister children, Pete (age 12), Pam, 10, seven-year-old Ricky, and Holly, age 6, plus 4-year-old Sue, after their solving several mysteries near "Foxboro" in a generic New England. Then Pam spots a pink sea gull at the side of the road. Finding the animal and returning it to its home on the shore has the kids all excited about helping out an Audobon project to study the gulls, and also return a young screech owl named "Fluffy" to the wild. Indy and Emmy relent—they can stay one night on Wicket-ee-nock Island to see the project, but they must be getting home afterwards! Alas, someone sabotages the sole ferryboat serving the island, and without it there's no other way of getting their vehicle back to the mainland, so the two adults and five kids are trapped camping out in an old inn. There is an older couple nearby, but they are very secretive, and there's a "ghost horse" galloping around the island. Trust that the kids aren't going to let the grass grow up under their feet solving this mystery, and in the meantime they help the college students marking the gulls, and enjoy the beach.
Kids (and maybe their parents) will be positively gobsmacked that Pete and Pam are allowed to go back to the ferry port on their own (hitching a ride with a friendly clammer), rent a boat, pick up groceries, etc. The kids can also camp out on the beach with the college students, no adults in sight. Ah, for the good old days! Heck, the adults even join them for a stake-out, with only Sue left behind, when the mystery deepens! And once again little Sue provides a vital clue! Besides a couple of identifiers of "the Indian" for Indy and Emmy that really aren't needed, as in this book they are pretty much in loco parentis for the kids, a nifty mystery with a nice salty seashore coating!

book icon  My Heart is Boundless: Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Eve LaPlante
Much has been written about Louisa May Alcott (including fictional mysteries) and some about her visionary but deadbeat dad Bronson, but not much at all about her mother, the tireless provider for her family, Abigail "Abba" May Alcott, who was the inspiration for Little Women's Marmee. Eve LaPlante has chosen to right that wrong with Marmee and Louisa and now this volume of Abba's diary entries and letters.
Sadly, both show what happened to poor Abba, who, at first was educated by reading her brother's schoolbooks and her journals and letters reveal a bright and promising girl, and later woman, whose mind did not stay confined to "a woman's sphere." Then she met Bronson and the rest of her letters and diaries are full of endless pleas for assistance and a chronicle of her travails trying to keep her children fed while Bronson wittered around talking philosophy and ideal communities where "everyone was equal" (except for Abba, naturally, who worked like a horse). (I'm sorry. I hate Bronson Alcott. Can you tell?) Eventually Abba gave up on Bronson and relied on her two eldest Anna and, of course, Louisa) to keep hearth and home together.
This book just made me desperately sad.
book icon  A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson (illustrated edition)
I read this book wayyyyy back in 2008:
What's your favorite thing in the entire world to indulge in? A box of chocolates? Shoes? New clothes? Computer parts? Bryson's book of science, irresistible from the first chapter to the last (starting with "the big bang" [if that's even how it happened] and ending, alas with Homo sapiens and our irresistible urge to make things extinct), is like an enormous container of every favorite thing you've ever wanted. Even if science wasn't your favorite subject in school, you will find this an immensely readable narrative of the cosmos, stars, planets, atoms, molecules, cells, Earth, life, evolution, and finally the rise of Homo sapiens and the people who studied them. Call it "science made comprehensible," and even better, science narrative that makes you want to continue pursuing other science narratives. Like popcorn. Chocolate. Books...
The illustrated version is liberally sprinkled with photographs (including the scientists profiled), maps, illustrations, graphs, cartoons, paintings, snapshots, landscapes, botanical specimens, news articles, woodcuts, vintage posters and book covers, etc., in short, all the supporting information that makes the volume even more delightful.
book icon  Chesapeake Requiem: A Year With the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island, Earl Swift
Tangier Island, in Chesapeake Bay, has a long history going back to the original Virginia settlement, but is more well-known as a tight-knit inter-related community several generations old of shellfishing natives who pretty much know no other life. Like the Gullah of the coastal South, they have their own accents and a difficult way of life most would not like to follow. Swift visited the island several times between 2010 and the publication of the book, and brings to life their hardscrabble life making a living supplying most of the crabs eaten on the East Coast and doing without what are considered necessities today, like the internet and cable TV. Plus the islands themselves are slowly eroding away, whether it is from "erosion" as the natives claim (and indeed the area appears to have been eroding since its founding) or whether by sea level rise due to climate change.
By the time you finish this book, you will feel invested in the people you meet, whether you concur with their beliefs or not. Most of the island population belongs to a Methodist parish or an offshoot of it, and many of them believe that Tangier has been protected by God all these years. They are also politically conservative, yet at the same time they work hard to make their living and don't think off-islanders understand the area as they do because they have lived on the land so long.
I was rather upset by the internet comments that were made about the islanders after they came out strongly for Donald Trump in the 2016 election, which smacked of the offensive comments made by similar people when fires destroyed part of Gatlinburg, Tennessee—basically that the people of Tangier (and of Tennessee) didn't deserve to live because they voted Republican. These critics, whose morals are supposed to be "better" than the people they oppose, showed themselves as being just as bigoted and narrow-minded. Shameful. 
book icon  Return of the Pharaoh, Nicholas Meyer
Juliet Watson has a cough which is all too familiar to her husband, Dr. John Watson. Encouraged by her physician to take her to a warmer climate, Watson picks Egypt, where Juliet is enrolled in a severe course of treatments at a noted clinic, leaving Watson on his own much of the time. It's then he runs into Colonel Arbuthnot—in reality, an undercover Sherlock Holmes, trying to discover the whereabouts of an English duke who's become enamored of Egyptology, but has vanished, leading to inquiries from his wife and the Home Office. As part of his investigation Holmes has discovered several other Egyptologists have died, or gone missing, as well. The story follows Holmes' and Watson's search, from a hotel with a disappearing room to finally end in a railway trip that nearly turns deadly, and then, with the help of Howard Carter (several years before he became famous for discovering "King Tut"), tracking down a tomb which has apparently remained untouched and is full of gold and other riches.

The pros of this book: Meyer has his Victorian vocabulary pretty much down pat, so it sounds like something Arthur Conan Doyle might have written. His Holmes/Watson badinage is fair; it doesn't sound quite as good as in his previous works. Meyer also brings Edwardian-era Egypt to life, from the heat to the smells and sounds of the streets and the marketplaces to the vintage treatments Juliet has in the sanatorium to the realities of the environment to the sensations of crawling inside tombs thousands of years old. The cons: to me it just kind of ambles along, with no suspense until the second half, a little like a Rick Steves' travelogue. So I enjoyed it, but there were certainly bits where it dragged in spots, especially in the first half of the novel.

(Also wondered if Meyer's reference to the wallpaper at the duke's hotel was a tip of the hat to Charlotte Perkins Gilman...)
book icon  Re-read: Busman's Honeymoon, Dorothy L. Sayers
I'd had no plan to pull this and re-read it, until TCM did a day of vintage honeymoon flicks and played Haunted Honeymoon, the only film made of a Lord Peter Wimsey novel, with debonair Robert Montgomery (yes, Elizabeth's father) as Peter and Constance Cummings as Harriet Wimsey, neè Vane. While the plot had to cut most of the various charming interchanges between the characters as in the book, they did stick closely to the story: Peter has bought Harriet, as a wedding gift, a home she loved in her old hometown, a cottage called Talboys, and brought her there to spend their honeymoon. But when they arrive, the house has not been prepared as Peter had been assured it would be, and, indeed, the housekeeper and the former owner's niece know nothing about the sale. Alas for the Wimseys' honeymoon: the body of the former owner is found on the stairs to the cellar, and foul play was obviously involved.
Sayers and a partner originally wrote this as a play, after she finished Gaudy Night in which Peter eventually proposes to Harriet, and said no more novels were in the offing, and then novelized the play. As in all the Wimsey books, it contains a delightful contingent of characters: the snoopy Mrs. Ruddle, who cleaned for the victim; spinster Aggie Twitterton, the deceased's niece; Frank Crutchley, the handsome handyman who's also handy with the ladies; Inspector Kirk, who can match Peter quote for quote from literary sources; Joe Sellon, the constable with a secret; Tom Puffett, the chimney sweep; and other village denizens. I'd forgotten some of the soul-searching bits, where Peter thinks he's not good enough for Harriet and Harriet of course thinks she's the one that's not the ideal mate; also the battle between Peter's efficient manservant Mervyn Bunter and the meddling Mrs. Ruddle which ends in a gastronomic tragedy; and Sayers' once again skillful skewering of the Press. Plus there are the well-remembered delightful bits: the story being opened with a series of letters, including one from Peter's wonderful mother, the Dowager Duchess; and of course the postscript where Harriet goes to the Ducal seat for the first time and tours the family home.

Since it's the last in the series and has built upon Peter and Harriet's relationship as set up in Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, and Gaudy Night, this is best not read first—but then Peter is best read in order, even if the first book, Whose Body? isn't one of the better stories (they take off with the second volume, Clouds of Witness, complete with a nice Sherlocky-setting on the moor). Sayers' Wimsey series is delightfully intelligent, witty, and conveys the mores of 1920s and 1930s.
book icon  A Darker Reality, Anne Perry
This is the third book in Perry's new Elena Standish mystery series, taking place in the mid-1930s. Elena (a professional photographer and neophyte MI6 operative) and her parents, British Charles and American Katherine, are in Washington, DC, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Katherine's parents, Wyatt and Dorothy Baylor. At the celebratory party at the Baylor home, Elena instantly connects with a woman named Lila Worth, an Austrian beauty married to scientist Harmon Worth, who is working on atomic physics. Several hours later Lila is murdered by having been run down by her grandfather Wyatt's car—and Wyatt can't prove where he was at the time of death. With the help of James Allenby, ostensibly from the Foreign Office, but really a fellow MI6 operative, Elena will search for the person who has framed her grandfather.

This all sounds terribly exciting, but...seriously, it's not. The first half of the book is endless soul-searching (with four shifting points of view) among Elena, Charles, Allenby, Elena's former MI6-head paternal grandfather Lucas, and Elena's mentor at MI6, Peter Howard, about whether it's right to involve Elena in an investigation, or if Elena is going to find out something about her grandfather she'd rather not know, or how Wyatt Baylor can be so conservative in personal values when Elena has seen the terror Adolf Hitler is causing in Berlin (and would he still have those beliefs if he knew?). It's only in the second half of the novel that their actual investigation begins and people are questioned, and then in the final quarter of the book the pace picks up with Elena finding out more about Lila Worth.

Several great discussions of luscious-sounding gowns (as always in a Perry novel) and of the calm quiet of the Baylor house and its wonderful rooms, but the soul-searching first half will make you wonder if it's worth plodding on. Yes, it is, but be aware it takes awhile.