31 August 2021

Books Completed Since August 1

book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Mystery of the Mexican Idol, Jerry West
And here we are at book 31 in the series and I'm thinking I should have taken notes again. John Hollister's brother Russ (the cartoonist) is back, flying into the Hollisters' home town of Shoreham when his flight is delayed. He tells the children (12-year-old Pete; 10-year-old Pam; Ricky, age 7; Holly, age 6; and 4-year-old Sue) and their parents there was a snake loose on the aircraft and in the panic over the reptile, his briefcase disappeared. Luckily he has the important document he's been carrying in his wallet instead: it's the map to a hidden Mayan temple with a "Laughing Idol" in the Yucatan given to him by an injured buddy/archaeologist named Skeets Packer. You guessed it: Uncle Russ, Aunt Marge, and their kids Teddy and Jean are going to Yucatan to search for the temple, and, no surprise, the five sibling sleuths and their parents will be going along. No sooner have they decided this than their house is broken into and searched! Everyone suspects it's due to the map.
In short order both Hollister families are in Mexico, the kids have created a code out of Mayan characters (keep it in mind, it does turn up later), they've found a rare coin and a chicken named Tan-Tan, come to depend on their driver Balám, discovered men not happy that they're in Chichén Itzá, and befriended two kids, Tomás Rico and his tagalog little sister Yotam (she says "Yo tam hai" all the time, which means "me, too" in Mayan, so that's her nickname). Add snakes, secretive boys with full sacks, a movie crew, a kidnapping, and the knowledge that Mayan artifacts are being smuggled out of the Yucatan for resale instead of ending up in local museums, and you have the Hollisters on an Indiana-Jones-type adventure with so many plot devices it's difficult to keep them straight.

Having read the previous volumes written in the 1950s where the boys and girls share sleuthing adventures, it's darned annoying near the end of a book written in 1967 to have Pam, Holly, and Jean relegated to learning to make huipils (traditional Mayan dresses) while the boys get to go out to do a little detective work; at least they're all in it at the end. Plus you end up learning a good deal about Mayan culture and the constant fight against looting of treasures, if the tangled plot doesn't make you dizzy first!
book icon  Amber: A Very Personal Cat, Gladys Taber
In 1968, Gladys Taber returned from a visit to Cape Cod with a heavy heart; her final dog, Holly the Irish setter, had died while they were at the Cape, the last link between herself and her best friend Eleanor Mayer ("Jill" in the Stillmeadow books), whom she had known since college. Not minutes later Taber's daughter showed up with a magic box: inside was an Abyssinian kitten Gladys named Amber. She became Taber's constant companion throughout her final ten years of life.
Partially memoir of life-with-kitten, partial guide to taking care of cats, and all love for everything feline, Taber chats about Amber's friendly personality, her quirks, her uncanny instinct to know who loves cats and also to recognize the car engines of particular visiting friends, her prodigious leaping ability, and her habit of tagging after her mistress like a little dog—so much for cats being aloof! This book is a little bit like her early book Especially Spaniels, with a cat rather than cockers.
Some of the cat care items are now outdated, like the care of ticks and fleas (as we now have monthly medications for them) and the attitude toward spaying and neutering (Gladys preferred closely monitoring Amber when she came into "season"), but basic first aid is still the same, and anyone who's loved a kitten will certainly love Amber! Illustrated with black-and-white photos of the very photogenic subject.
book icon  Hal Borland's Book of Days, Hal Borland
I enjoyed This Hill, This Valley enough that I sent off for this one. It's not really a Book of Days as in a diary, although some entries are about his observations of wildlife, weather, or seasonal growth and harvest. He says in the foreward that it was intended neither as calendar or almanac, but was his day-to-day thoughts, and the questions he had throughout the year: Who am I? Where am I? What time is it? But a lot of it reads like he took his newspaper columns and broke them up into manageable bits and used them as diary entries, and he's started from one-celled organisms and moved up through the evolutionary scale. Some of his entries, like about birds and mammals, were quite interesting, also the diary entries; I was less enthusiastic about all the material about fish, amphibians, and reptiles, and especially insects, but that's just me. He also talks about the findings of anthropologists in talking about early man, and about Robert Bakker's "new theories" (this was published in 1976) about dinosaurs being warm-blooded, which he disbelieves, so some of the science he talked about then is not up-to-date now.
I really would have preferred it if he'd stuck to a diary format of doings around his home, and his observations of animals, plants, and birds, with some of the scientific information tucked in around those observations, rather than what looked like just cutting-and-pasting his old columns into diary entries. It makes you wonder why he's talking about ants in December and birds' eyes in February.
book icon  Death Comes to Bath, Catherine Lloyd
Three months after Sir Robert Kurland almost succumbed to an infection in the leg he injured at Waterloo, he does not seem to be recovering well. His forthright wife Lucy Harrington Kurland consults his old friend, an army physician, and moves the household, including her unmarried sister Anna, to the city of Bath, where Robert will "take the waters" and have other theraputic treatments. They rent a fine home, and Robert finds he even enjoys the spa treatments, especially after he finds a kindred spirit in Sir William Benson, a plain-speaking Yorkshire industrialist. Robert, Lucy, and Anna, plus Penelope Fletcher, Robert's doctor's pregnant wife, are more puzzled by Benson's family: three sons from Benson's first marriage, his young wife Miranda and her two spoiled sons, and Dr. Martel, Miranda's live-in physicians, who all appear to hate each other.
And evidently one of them hates Sir William, who was found drowned after one of his spa treatments—or it looks as if he were drowned, until Dr. Fletcher finds a stab wound.

This sixth book in the Kurland St. Mary mysteries find both Robert and Lucy eager to solve the mystery of who killed Sir William, if they don't go crazy dealing with the battling Bensons beforehand. The natural children hate their stepmother and stepbrothers, the stepmother knows it and reacts in all sorts of melodramatic ways, and her two sons are just plain troublemakers. In fact, the only person who really seems to have liked Sir William was his valet! More trouble comes when the solicitor comes to read the will: he doesn't have a copy, since Sir William practically changed it weekly. In the meantime Anna has finally found the man of her dreams, but is too afraid of childbirth to want to be married.

The baffling Bensons prove to stymie Lucy and Robert for a while, and they both miss a couple of clues that Lloyd dangles before their eyes. Still, the change of venue and their willing partnership in this detection event make this a winner.
book icon  Re-read: Where the Old Roads Go, George Cantor
I found I was in need of a travel comfort read and went back to an old favorite where Cantor travels the old Federal highways in the Northeast (the New England states as well as New York, with a brief dip or two into Pennsylvania), from the real Mother Road, U.S. 1 all the way through U.S. 302. No doubt most of the local attractions Cantor mentions are probably gone (the caboose motel is still there, but it received a terrible rating on Yelp), but the historic background to each road is still solid as we travel from Fort Kent, Maine to the George Washington Bridge on Route 1; the forests of upper Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont via Route 2; drive from Massachusetts through the beautiful New Hampshire countryside on Route 3; cross the midpoint of the Green Mountain State and the Granite State (one of my Dad's favorite shortcuts to Lake George) on Route 4; etc. There's the old Putnam Pike (a.k.a. "Suicide 6," from Rhode Island to Connecticut after traveling the "tail of Cape Cod," my especial darling U.S. 9 from one mountain range (the Catskills) through another (the Adirondaks) taking in beloved Lake George and Fort Ticonderoga, the beginnings of "the Yankee Highway" (U.S. 20), west to Connecticut from Plymouth (a.k.a. in my neck of the woods the Danielson Pike) on U.S. 44, and more. No freeways, no standardized filling stations and chain restaurants...more developed now, alas, but still fun to roam. Thanks for the memories, George.
book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Monster Mystery, Jerry West
In the penultimate volume of the Happy Hollisters series (yes, it's almost the end), Pete, age 12, brings the members of the Shoreham Detective Club to order: his brother and sisters (10-year-old Pam; Ricky, age 7; Holly, age 6; and 4-year-old Sue), and neighbors Dave Mead, Ann Hunter and her brother Jeff, and Donna Martin. They are going to solve "the monster mystery" that has caused gossip in their lakeside home town, Shoreham, after strange footprints have been found around town and small food items missing from porches. They also want to help a nearby school start a toy library (so poor children can borrow toys as they do books) and, in the process, befriend a boy named Alex Kane. Almost as soon as they resolve to investigate the monster, Holly sees it: it looks like a small wrinkled old man with big teeth.
The Hollisters have met several different Native American tribespeople in the course of their travels, plus Mexicans, Hispanic Americans, and Swiss, German, and Danish people. It's only in book 32 that they meet someone...black! Alex turns out to be a vital new member of the Detective Club (and his dad has a cool job, too; he's the fire chief) as the Hollisters and friends seek out "monster" clues and even investigate a flying saucer claim. It's a bit irritating that in the newer books in the series, the girls seem to be excluded from sleuthing more, but in the end, once again, it's Pam who solves the whole thing. As a child of the 1960s, having seen this plotline endlessly on television (Lassie, of all series, seemed particularly fond of it), I twigged what was going on about halfway throughout, but it's still a tidy little mystery carried to its inevitable conclusion. And Joey Brill, the jerk, eventually gets a good spanking from his father!
book icon  Time's Convert, Deborah Harkness
Judging by some of the lukewarm reviews of this book, some folks were looking for more brooding Matthew and spellcasting Diana. This isn't the book.
There are basically three storylines here, all to do with learning and growing: Phoebe Taylor, deeply in love with Marcus Whitmore, resolves to become a vampire, sired by Miriam Shephard. Having agreed to stay away from Marcus during her first 90 days, she is sequestered with Freyja and Miriam as her instructors in learning to live her new life. In the meantime, we join Diana and Matthew in their home in New Haven, Connecticut, where they are both learning what it's like to raise two Bright Born (half-vampire, half-witch) children: Rebecca takes after Matthew and there are fears she may have blood madness and Philip definitely has magical tendencies, especially after he conjures a small griffin he calls Apollo. In the third thread, we learn about Marcus Whitmore's life, from his abusive childhood with a father who returned home from the French and Indian Wars as a drunkard with a violent temper to his participation in the Revolutionary War to his siring by Matthew while on his deathbed at Yorktown to his adventures in France during the Revolution to his life in New Orleans during the early 1800s when Matthew finally had to put a stop to his indiscriminate siring of vampire "children."
Marcus' portion of the story reads a lot like a historical novel, with his participating in the Revolution both in the United States and in fractured France. He meets people like the Marquis de Lafayette, Benjamin Franklin, and his idol, Thomas Paine. Harkness vividly brings both the U.S. and the French settings to life, but if you're not a fan of historical stories, this may bore you. Phoebe's portion of the book illustrates how differently a vampire sees the world and how things as simple as walking and grasping things have to be relearned because vampirism makes one super strong and super sensitive. (It also treads very carefully on where the blood that keeps them alive comes from—mostly they buy it from humans willing to sell!) The Matthew/Diana/Becca/Philip part of the book is rather whimsical: remember the episodes of Bewitched where Tabitha was going through "wishcraft"? This is a more serious—since Matthew's brother Baldwin so is fearful that Becca will attack someone or Philip will toss off a damaging spell that he wishes them spellbound as Diana was as a child—version of that, sort of Bringing Up Bébé, if your child is a witch or a vampire, that is!

I am a fan of history, so I enjoyed all three threads that comprise this book, although I must confess I liked the "bringing up vampire/witch babies" sequence the best. The book, as some have complained, doesn't really come to a climax; it actually comes full circle with Marcus, with each protagonist in the book doing some growing. I was satisfied.

(Several reviews complained about the language. I am not naïve enough to think that nobody swore in Colonial times, but, yes, I was a little taken aback that "f---" showed up so often in this book! Surely there were other curse words? Are "damn" and "hell" simply too mild to show "strong emotion" any longer?)
book icon  The Happy Hollisters and the Mystery of the Midnight Trolls, Jerry West
#33, and last in the series. The family goes out with an intriguing adventure with a really dumb ending. Everyone is excited when John Hollister brings home his new sailplane, but peculiar things begin to happen: first Grandma Hollister sends them a message in Braille from Canada, asking the kids to come visit and meet a special friend. But she also says she and their grandfather are having trouble with trolls who show up during the night! Then a special invention for sailplanes from Iceland sent to Mr. Hollister is stolen when the kids go to the post office to pick it up. Luckily Officer Cal helps them get it back. Next thing you know the five children (Pete, age 12; Pam, 10; 7-year-old Ricky; Holly, 6; and Sue, 4) are on their way, via bus (yes, alone!—and on the way they acquire a piglet) to Canada, where they meet Helga Karlsdottir from Iceland. (Guess what, it turns out Helga is the daughter of the man who sent Mr. Hollister the package!) In Canada, the kids ride a pony and search for the trolls.

The whole Hollister family are then on their way to Iceland so that the sailplane can compete in a sailplane contest, traveling with Helga and hosted by her parents and brother Olaf. (Pam appears to have a little crush on Olaf, the first time that's happened in a Hollister book.) At the airport they find the sailplane has been stolen. So for the rest of the trip they are searching for the sailplane, the thieves that followed them from Shoreham, the trolls (who appear to be in Iceland as well), and still manage to learn about Iceland itself—the hot springs, the Icelandic ponies, the nearly treeless landscape, the "midnight sun," etc. There's also an ultralight helicopter involved in the story.

The trip to Iceland is fun, but the fact that Helga is blind seems to be put into the plot for no good reason: sure the kids get a Braille message to decode and later they send a secret message in Braille, and there's some talk about the "radar" the blind can rely on so they don't bump into things, but it's not like it helps solve the mystery as in the volume where a deaf boy's ability to read lips assists the kids. Holly is still "twirling her pigtail," an annoying habit she began a few books back. Also, there's a very strange ending involving Sue, who is a little fractious upon leaving Canada. She's sad that there are no trees in Iceland, so she can't see any birds, even though Sue has never shown an affinity for birds in any other book. Helga consoles her by telling her they will take her to see some puffins, but too much goes on, like deserted cabins, geysers, stolen ponies, etc. for that to happen. At the end of the book, Sue still mourns that she never got to see any "muffins," so Helga goes upstairs and brings back something to plunk in front of her: a stuffed puffin! And, seriously, that's how the book ends. Kind of a letdown after 33 volumes!
book icon  Don't Make Me Pull Over! An Informal History of the Family Road Trip, Richard Ratay
This is a sweetly nostalgic and tongue-in-cheek road trip about family car vacations in the 1970s, where Ratay's dad and mom piled four kids and tons of luggage in their car at 4 a.m. (so they could drive past Chicago before rush hour) to get on the road. I remember those early morning starts, snacks in the back seat and then having to help Dad drive when I turned sixteen, watching the world spool by outside the window, but am forever grateful my Dad was all about bathroom breaks and having his meals on time and wasn't like Mr. Ratay with his obsession about "making time"! We at least got to stop every two hours and eat at places like Nickerson Farms (oh, that chicken soup!) instead of just pulling through the drive-though at (yeeech) McDonald's.
Along with the family trip memories of squeezing six people in a double motel room (at least Ratay's dad sprang for brand-name motels!), Ratay chronicles the history of American roads and road trips, roadside eateries and sleeping places, attractions, and what finally put the kibosh on the great American road trip: airline deregulation. (I've taken advantage of that since 1979—and yet husband and I still miss our past road trips, given the kibosh the last few years due to his health: Gatlinburg in 2013 and 2014; Virginia in 2012;  Michigan and Ohio in 2011; Pennsylvania Dutch in 2009; etc., most of the time with a small dog and a budgie in tow!)
Noted: in his chapter about the 1970s gas embargo and subsequent shortage, Ratay has missed a "fun" result of the era: people siphoning gas from your car! In college my Toyota Corolla started getting 15 mpg instead of 24. After the car was vetted as fine, Dad bought a spring-looking gadget that went in the filler pipe. You could put gas in the the car okay, but no one was able to stick a siphon hose down into your tank. Voilá—mileage back to 24mph. I used to park in the very back row (next to the trees) of the parking lot furthest away from the classrooms at RIC; evidently someone was gassing up their car for free by siphoning gas from the back row.
The last few paragraphs bring forward a great truth: today's road trips, with their personal tablets and movies in the back seat and headphones, aren't the same. You miss all the cool stuff on the road, and talking about what you've seen, and what you wanted to see. Or in Ratay's words: "More than anything else, that's what made a family road trip so special: the feeling of being inextricably bound together in a great adventure. An adventure based less on where we were headed, and more in the moments we shared along the way. In the end, it never really mattered where we traveled in our car on all those great family road trips. In simply making the drive together, we were already in the best place of all."

If you fondly remember family car trips, or just want to read some warm history, this is a great read.
book icon  Conversations With Amber, Gladys Taber
This is Taber's second book centered around her final pet, the Abyssinian cat Amber, but this one is more a cross between one of her Stillmeadow books and her first book about Amber, which was almost a cat care manual. Instead of talking about or with her late housemate "Jill" (Eleanor Mayer), Taber bounces her commentary about the weather, her homes in Stillmeadow and Still Cove, her neighbors on Cape Cod and the wildlife there that she feeds, and more off Amber. It is a sweet, if sad, coda to the restricted life Taber led in her final years.
A big plus to this second book: beautiful pointillist pen-and-ink illustrations of Amber as each chapter header by Pamela Carroll.
book icon  The Dante Chamber, Matthew Pearl
This is a sequel to Pearl's The Dante Club, which I enjoyed so much, especially the voice in which it was written (Pearl did a good job writing as if he was actually in the nineteenth century). In that story, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell and Oliver Wendell Holmes, along with publisher James T. Fields, become involved in a mystery where recent Boston deaths are emulating the gruesome punishments in Dante's nine circles of Hell (Longfellow is writing a new Dante translation). Now Holmes is in England just as deaths begin happening imitating the punishments Dante doled out to the people in Purgatory, and Christina Rossetti is afraid that her brilliant but unstable brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a tortured artist, is involved somehow. She teams up with her dour, non-artistic brother William, along with a still grieving Robert Browning, poet laureate Alfred Tennyson, and Holmes to discover who is carrying out these gruesome murders.
Pearl paints Rossetti as a reluctant leader, a woman of strong opinions who is struggling to remain a good Christian, but too intelligent to be bound to the strictures attached to women of that era. She well holds her own against Browning, who admires and tries to protect her; Tennyson, who is torn between his own self-interest and helping his friends; Holmes, who doesn't want to be involved in such horrible events again; and Gabriel himself, who is still guilt-stricken over the death of his wife five years earlier, and who appear to be slowly going crazy. You get a great idea of the personalities, but the story itself is pretty much a rehash of The Dante Club.
book icon  Reminisce: Family Road Trips, by the editors
Well, had to grab this one after the Ratay book! It's the best travel stories, vignettes, and images from "Reminisce/Reminisce Extra" magazines in hardback form. Most of the stories are, indeed, about family car trips, but there are other anecdotes about train and bus travel (some during World War II). The most fascinating stories are the ones which take place the earliest: motor travel in the 1920s. Two young men cross the country by motorcycle, getting bogged down in mud on terrible roads and various pieces of equipment breaking down. Car travelers are also continually stuck in mud on non-existent paved roads of the '20s.
Plus you have family campers, some of them home made; adventures in road stops before there were motels and restaurants, like camping next to the railroad tracks or in a farmer's front yard. Here too are the stories of kindnesses, like a young man trying to get home before his mother died; everyone who read the letter summoning him home gave him a free lift, even once by aircraft! He spent only $1.50 practically going cross country and did arrive in time to say farewell to his mother. Another man remembers being the only one of six children to go to a big amusement park at age four, only to find out it's because once the visit is over he has to go to a tuberculosis sanatorium for six months. You visit National Parks, big cities, tourist traps, Route 66, classic amusement parks, etc. all illustrated by readers' photos and vintage postcards and memorabilia. Great fun!
book icon  Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art, Rebecca Wragg Sykes
This is a recent (last year) publication of the latest finds about Neanderthal man. I grew up with the old scientific information: Neanderthals as strong but stupid, cudgel-wielding "cavemen" who dragged women by the hair. Then graves were found indicating that Neanderthals buried their dead with care, that they nurtured their children just as tenderly, and prompted by these new discoveries, Jean Auel wrote the wildly popular "Earth's Children" books, the first of which detailed the raising of a Cro-Magnon child by a band of Neanderthals. This prompted new, real-life scientific study.

I was fascinated by the book in what I found out: that the "graves" one hears about might not be graves at all, that the Neanderthal burial customs included stripping the flesh off the bones (did they cannibalize their dead as part of a ritual? no one knows), that Neanderthals lived all over the globe, except in Africa, and that all humans, except for those from sub-Saharan Africa, have some percentage of Neanderthal genes, proving that Cro-Magnon man and Neanderthal man interbred.

If there's a problem with this book, there's just so much information. The author obviously knows her subject, and she loves it, so there are pages and pages of detail about stone tools, living spaces, much of it repeated. Sykes does try her hardest to make the Neanderthal world come alive, including with chapter openings "seen" from Neanderthal eyes and "felt" by Neanderthal feelings.

The text is supported by some illustrations of tools from the dig, and a diagram of how Neanderthals are related to modern man and of the intertwining of the family trees.
book icon  England's Finest, Christopher Fowler
Here's another dozen short stories starring the two offbeat, elderly head detectives of the Peculiar Crimes Unit, irascible and intelligent Arthur Bryant and urbane and social John May, and their equally offbeat team, including one with Janice Longbright, the next oldest member of the team (her mother worked with Bryant and May) as the protagonist and another where she provides a vital clue, plus a new introduction by Raymond Land, their long-suffering supervisor, and notes by the author.
The Bryant and May mystery novels are delightful, offbeat stories which usually involve some aspect of London history, whether it be the local rivers or pubs, parks or traditional customs, Punch and Judy shows or pagan sacrificial beliefs, and more along with a cracking, twisty puzzle that often doesn't end as you would expect. The stories are equally entertaining, with a clue to a murder being a missing reindeer; a body discovered in the PCU's own basement; a flashback tale to the 1950s; even a tale with Bryant and May in Transylvania, and more.

Fowler has recently published the final Bryant and May novel, and that will be a great loss to the mystery community. Thanks for twenty wonderful novels and two collections of short stories (and a graphic novel to boot)!
book icon  Face Toward the Spring, Faith Baldwin
Faith Baldwin was a good friend of Gladys Taber (Taber is mentioned in one chapter) who wrote what we'd call today "chick-lit." She also did several volumes of nonfiction in which she chronicled her days and the seasons, and was introspective about life, faith, and responsibility. This is one of those volumes. She writes quite easily, in a similar fashion to Taber, although she has no rollicking dogs and introspective cats and a best friend; her prose is more spiritually oriented, although she does not espouse any specific religion (in fact she states she has been criticized after speaking to religious groups for not doing so).
This book made perfect bedtime reading; calming, yet leaving food for thought (pick up some Post-It type notes for marking quotes).