31 December 2022

Books Completed Since December 1

As always, all the December book reviews are on pertinent pages in Holiday Harbour:

book icon  The Usual Santas: A Collection of Soho Crime Christmas Capers, from Soho Press

book icon  A Nottinghamshire Christmas, compiled by John Hudson

book icon  Llewellyn's Little Book of Yule, Jason Mankey

book icon  The Matzah Ball, Jen Meltzer

book icon  God Rest Ye, Royal Gentlemen, Rhys Bowen

book icon  A Somerset Christmas, compiled by John Chandler

book icon  The Magic of Christmas, edited by Amy Neumark

book icon  Re-read: A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

book icon  A Suffolk Christmas, compiled by Humphrey Phelps

book icon  Ideals Christmas 2022, editors of "Ideals"

30 November 2022

Books Completed Since November 1

book icon  Lab Girl, Hope Jahren
This is the memoir of Jahren, who grew up the daughter of a scientist and always found emotional comfort in the laboratory, since her emotionally-distant family didn't show her much attention. She became a paleobotanist (like Elly Sattler in Jurassic Park) and this is the story of her career, from education to junior and then senior scientist. Suffering from bipolar disease, she's supported by an offbeat partner named Bill, who's a top-notch scientist but massively eccentric (during part of his childhood he lived in a hole in the backyard; Jahren doesn't reveal what made him do this until about halfway through the book). It's the story of road trips, building laboratories, taking students on digs (and on unauthorized excursions afterwards, like their trip to the Monkey Jungle in Florida), with Jahren's musings on plant life on Earth.

This is an oddly compelling book, although the narrative is very...odd. Jahren starts out by saying Scandinavian families are generally unemotional, which I think is very odd; I know Scandinavian families and they are usually very affectionate. Perhaps the fact that she was bipolar colored her opinion. Bill is also a very odd person, although you find out about halfway through the book that he's had acceptance problems through his life. The final part of the book addresses Jahren's marriage sketchily—it's hard to discern what she and Clint saw in each other.

The botanical parts are pretty interesting; she addresses things about plants I'd never heard of and it's interesting to read about her research.

book icon  Re-read: Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday, James W. Baker
This is a very readable history of the "all-American holiday" that works very well as a companion piece to Diana Appelbaum's Thanksgiving, but is an easier read without being simplistic. It also touches more on things like images, writings, and films portraying Thanksgiving, changes in "traditional foods" in the intervening years, how the holiday has been infantilized by the iconic use of Pilgrim and "Indian" icons, and the inclusion of parades and football games as part of the "tradition," turning Thanksgiving into the opening salvo for the Christmas season. The one thing that this book makes very clear is that the "iconic" Thanksgiving imagery of Pilgrims and Native Americans only became emphasized at the very end of the 19th century and during the early decades of the 20th, back when the United States became flooded with non-English speaking immigrants whom the schools wished to impress upon some idea of the country's heritage. Previous to that it was just a New England holiday which spread as New England residents moved westward, and involved reunions with family and friends. Even stories about Thanksgiving mostly emphasized reunions between estranged or long-parted relatives; "the first Thanksgiving" was not mentioned.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to know more about the history of the Thanksgiving holiday and its changing face over four centuries.

book icon  Bookish and the Beast, Ashley Poston
This is actually a young adult romance book, third in a series, but I bought it because the female protagonist was a book lover and went to SF conventions, and I loved Poston's The Dead Romantics.

I have to say the teen protagonists acted a lot more adult than the last few adult rom-coms I've read!

The story: Vance Reigns, teen star of the Starfire series, has been banished to his godfather's house in a small town in North Carolina after yet another bad-boy action. There he meets Rosie Thorne, still smarting from the death of her mother a year earlier. After almost hitting Vance's dog Sansa with her car, she follows the dog, enters the house, and accidentally damages a valuable Starfire book, so Vance's godfather lets her work it off by arranging the books in the house's huge library. Vance treats her rudely and she avoids him in return, neither of them knowing that earlier in the year, in costume, they met at a convention and enjoyed each other's company.

The usual misunderstandings abound, especially since Vance, due to his growing up as a Hollywood brat, is cynical and has ceased believing that people befriend him for any other reason than to get something out of him, and there's an interesting subplot about Rosie trying to escape the clutches of an egotistical classmate who won't take "no" for an answer. But for a teen romance, the story is pretty good and not at all cringey as I got during the rom-coms I got from Kindle Unlimited!

book icon  America Eats!, Pat Willard
During the Depression, the WPA sponsored several literary and arts programs to put people back to work. One of the later projects was to be a collection of essays about the different regional foods of the United States. Unfortunately, the WPA was dismantled by the Supreme Court before the project could be completed and published.

Pat Willard found the decrepit old boxes with the material collected for the project and here in this book publishes some of the essays written back in the 1930s, then follows up by going to the individual region and seeing if the customs still exist (it's interesting to know that in some cases they have persisted, if in a minor way). The original essays are fascinating, although they do contain some ethnic and racial terms that might be problematic today. The book's contents are arranged by events rather than regions, so you'll get an account of making authentic Brunswick stew (squirrel meat is essential) next to a "booya" picnic from Minnesota, men running a barbecue at a political gathering who shoo women away because they "stop the meat from breathing" in Mississippi to chicken pilau ("perlow") and conch feasts in Florida, tales of church suppers in Georgia and in Indiana, lodge dinners, food in migrant camps, and more. If you are fond of food history, this is the book for you!

book icon  The Trouble With Hating You, Sajni Patel
Liya Thakkar's conservative Indian parents think their "wild" Americanized daughter will never get married; without telling her, they invite her to dinner to meet handsome Jay Shah and his mother, the object being marriage. When Liya, a successful biochemical engineer, discovers what dinner's all about, she flees, knocking down Jay and, by leaving, insulting his mother. Later she discovers Jay is the attorney who's been hired to help salvage her faltering employer, and she's supposed to work closely with him. Angry, she accepts a date with a guy named Mike, who doesn't want to take no for an answer and leaves her stranded. Who rescues her but Jay Shah?

This was a very enjoyable rom-com compared to some of the ones I read. Liya and Jay are sensible adults, although Liya is hiding a terrible secret, and as they get to know each other, they slowly become friends while both Liya and Jay are juggling social engagements: Liya's best friend is about to be married and Jay's sister is expecting her first child. It was enjoyable to read about traditional Indian marriage customs melding with American ones, and I was thirsting so much for the sanctimonious and evil characters in the story to get theirs (I sure hope Jay did what he said he would, because one person so deserves whatever they get!).

book icon  Gulp, Mary Roach
Since the library got rid of all the Native American books I was planning to read this year, I decided to read a couple of food books for November instead. This one is the decidedly offbeat one: Roach does science books like Packing for Mars and Stiff (about cadavers); this one is about the ingestion of nutrients, from what smell has to do with taste (a lot, as people who contracted COVID-19 discovered) to the new medical practice of injecting fecal matter into sick people's colons (after they have contracted C. diff or other diseases) to cure them. In between we investigate how pets' tastes differ from ours, the fad for Fletcherization and how it wasn't true, the importance of saliva, if you can be swallowed alive, prisoners in jail hiding things...well, you know where, farts and how they grow, dying by constipation, and more, in seventeen delightful chapters.

Roach's writing is instructive without being boring, entertaining without being offensive, and just plain interesting. If you ever wanted the skinny on eating, digesting, and eliminated, this is the book for you.

book icon  A Monmouthshire Christmas, Maria & Andrew Hubert

book icon  The Dead of Winter, Nicola Upson

book icon  The 12 Birds of Christmas, Stephen Moss

31 October 2022

Books Completed Since October 1

book icon  Distilled Genius: Quotations, Susan Branch
When Susan Branch fled California after her first marriage collapsed, she rented a little cottage on Martha's Vineyard in which she found her first book of Bartlett's Quotations. She pored over the book and marked out the quotations which inspired her.

This book is a "distilled" version of her favorites, done in her beautiful watercolors, on subjects ranging from "The Secrets of Life"  to "Friendship" to "Creativity" to "Writing and Writers"—and so much more! For Susan Branch fans or just fans of quotations done in beautiful style!

book icon  The Diabolical Bones, Bella Ellis
I loved the first mystery in this series that I couldn't wait to pick up the next.

This one is not quite as good from my estimation, but I may not have gotten the full impact out of it because I've never read anything by the Brontё sisters, since it was obvious in the first book that the people they meet later form the basis for their book characters. In this outing, it's before Christmas, 1845. Clifton Bradshaw, the master of Top Withens, has gone mad since the death of his wife. During a storm it's discovered that there are a child's bones in the chimney breast. The neighborhood people aren't surprised, because they're convinced Bradshaw sold his soul to the devil.

The Brontё sisters, of course, don't believe this for a minute, and they're determined to find out who the child was and why he was entombed in the chimney.

I notice the sisters argue a lot more often in this outing, like actual sisters would do, and after knowing what happened to Branwell it's sad the way they keep trying to distract him from his destructive habits, but he keeps backsliding. The best part of this series is the way the author emulates the style in which the books were written and makes it sound like the story was written in 1845 without getting into the proselytizing and gargantuan prose of the time. Very evocative of the mid-19th century and the bleak winter Yorkshire setting is quite compelling.

book icon  A Place for Everything, Judith Flanders
Since the beginnings of the Roman alphabet, alphabetical order has always been the natural and logical way to organize manuscripts!


You would have thought this book would be a natural for me, but I was really distracted while reading it and perhaps I should go back some day and re-read it, as I didn't get out of it what I hoped I would, especially since I usually love Judith Flanders. Hierarchy was the original "order" of keeping books (originally scrolls): books about God would be first, then about religion in general, working down to more base items, and this system actually persisted well into the Renaissance. The book is also a history of records' keeping itself, from antiquity and through the long period where monks at churches kept the history and the learning from dying out.

Again, I guess I just wasn't in the mood for it; if you are anyone interested in the history of libraries, reading, and records-keeping, this is a well-researched text from Flanders with much history revealed. I'll get back to it someday, because I'm a Flanders fan.

book icon  CSI: Body of Evidence, Max Allan Collins
This is the fourth in Collins' original novelizations from the television series; as in the other stories, two mysteries run concurrently: Catherine and Nick are called to an office where child pornography photos were found on one of the work printers, while Grissom, Warrick, and Sara are following clues after a witness sees a car stop, and a man pull out something from the trunk and leave it on the side of the road: a body wrapped in carpeting which turns out to be the mayor's missing secretary—and this is a touchy topic during an election year. The sheriff and his assistant will be drawn into the mystery before it ends.

The cybercrime is particularly twisty and Catherine having a child colors her feelings about the crime, so that it throws off the investigation. Again, these books are just like watching an episode of the series. The only thing that's a little off is that on the series they will visually show you a "re-enactment" of what the CSU people think might have happened. In the books it's shown as sort of a flashback type thing that Grissom or Sara envisions and it reads a little odd. Otherwise the characters' voices and the laboratory and police scenes are well captured. I wish someone had asked Collins to do Law & Order: Criminal Intent novels!

book icon  Just My Type, Fallon Ballard
This was the better of the two rom-coms I read from NetGalley, but they're aggravating me so much I probably need to stop reading them (I've always had a problem with chick lit; then every once in a while I find a winner—I enjoyed Love Hypothesis so much that I thought these might please me). The protagonists are so young and incredibly...angsty. (But, yeah, I gotta admit I got angsty when I finally fell in love (and stupid, too).

Lana Parker never got the love she expected from her academic mom (another neglectful academic mom? really?), so she was not only head over heels over her high school sweetheart, Seth Carson, she was in love with his supportive family. But Seth went off to college and left her, so now she's gone from one long-term relationship to the next with something always ending it abruptly. When her current long-term boyfriend breaks up with her instead of proposing, she's crushed (even though she really didn't love him). So Natalie, Lana's new editor out in Los Angeles, has this great idea: she'll pit Lana against the new employee to see who gets a coveted column—you guessed it, the new employee is Seth, who's never had a steady relationship. To win, Lana will write columns about being on the dating scene, and Seth will learn how to be a guy who a woman will want to set up a long-term relationship with.

Don't get me started. I was really upset that Lana makes one of the first things on her "challenge list" to "have a one-night stand." Really? Really? Do you know how dangerous that is in this day of roofies? I can't believe the author would do such a thing. At least there wasn't another flaky gay character in this one. Can't we please get a sensible gay character instead?

book icon  The Plus One, Mazey Eddings
This is apparently part of a four part series about a group of friends who fall in love (Lizzie and Harper are the previous two). Indira Papadakis is a young psychologist who loves her job, and who loves her brother Collin and his intended, Jeremy. The person she doesn't love is Jude Bailey, Collin's best friend, who's been her "enemy" since childhood, in town for Collin and Jeremy's wedding. But Jude has a secret: in order to get through medical school without debt, he signed up to be a doctor in emergency zones once he graduated, most of them in war-torn areas. He is suffering terribly from PTSD, and Collin and Jeremy's bonkers pre-wedding festivities (please, can we have some sensible gay characters?) are torture to him. Indira doesn't want to fix him, but she does want to help him, and so they pretend to be lovers (and you know how that turns out in romance books).

I really admire Eddings for tackling the problem of PTSD—Jude's frayed nerves notch up the plot on this one, and Indira's efforts to help, not fix—but Collin and Jeremy really wrecked the story for me. Their pre-wedding antics are so childish and stupid. As an introvert, I felt so sorry for Jude, continually dragged into "make the wedding favors" and other jerky activities. Apparently this was supposed to be funny, but I was just appalled instead. And this is Jude's best friend. Yeah, in the end he apologizes, but really.

The subplot about Indira and Collin's deadbeat dad was dead depressing. So tired of rom-com parent bashing.

book icon  Men Who Hate Women, Laura Bates
This is a genuinely scary book.

Bates, who has done research on "dark internet" sites has found chat groups and forums where men talk about raping and killing woman as if it's not only natural, but that it should be expected because women "deserve" to be raped and their only use is as sexual objects. I had been reading John Douglas' books about profiling and his observations about male rage piqued my interest, so I picked up this book. The chapters are "Men Who Hate Women," "...Prey on Women," "...Avoid Women," "...Blame Women," "...Hound Women," "...Hurt Women," "...Exploit Other Men," "...Are Afraid of Women," "...Don't Know They Hate Women," and "...Hate Men Who Hate Women," so there are many aspects of hate, all of them not only detrimental to women, but to other men.

Sadly, this is good reference if you're writing a crime against women book.

book icon  The Seasons of America Past, Eric Sloane
This is one of Sloane's numerous nostalgic books about America's colonial past, complete with his gorgeous pen-and-ink illustrations of old-time tools, toys, buildings, and farming methods. This one covers a year on a colonial-era farm, from spring sowing to winter repairs, summer planting and autumn harvest, and there's even period recipes in the final few pages. If you like to read about historical eras, Sloane's books are some of the best about the "old times."

book icon  Yours Cheerfully, A.J. Pearce
This is the sequel to Pearce's delightful Dear Mrs. Bird, finding Emmy Lake now firmly established at the magazine "Woman's Friend" under the supervision of Mr. Collins, the brother of her beloved boyfriend Charles. Emmy is now the editor of the new column "Yours Cheerfully," and the women's magazines have been pushed by the British government to step up and try to encourage more women to do war work because the war plants are understaffed. Emmy's glad to do so, until she meets some women war workers, including Anne Oliver and her precocious daughter Ruby and Baby Tony. Anne tells her how difficult it is for her to work with needing child care, and when another woman working in Anne's war plant is fired because she had to bring her daughters to work, Emmy is determined to Do Something.

This is a sweet followup to Bird, if with a less compelling storyline, although the problem of women war workers finding childcare was a very real one and many women did lose their jobs because they had to bring their kids to work. Emmy and Charles' romance is also very sweet, and the efforts Emmy and Bunty go through to help the war workers is both heartwarming and funny.

book icon  'Til Death, Carol J. Perry
Alas, this seems to be the last of Perry's "Witch City" mysteries, which means I won't be reading Perry any longer since her new series takes place in—yuck!—Florida. Anyway, Lee Barrett is finally marrying her long-time boyfriend Pete Mondello of the Salem Police, and they're looking for a place to live near her Aunt Ibby's house so they can share Lee's beautiful—and slightly psychic—orange cat, O'Ryan. In the meantime, Aunt Ibby is fixing the upstairs apartment where Lee used to live to make two smaller units for use as Airbnbs, and one of the renters just may be a murderer who did his prison time and changed his name! (Shades of Anne Perry here...)

In the meantime, Lee and Pete decide to travel New England on their honeymoon, and one of the first places they will visit will be Pirate's Island, owned by Lee's late father's sister and her husband. Lee discovered this is the location of the plane crash which killed her parents, so she wants to visit, perhaps place a memorial where they died. But there's something odd going on at Pirate's Island; her aunt appears to have some type of medical problem and sometimes she appears to be afraid of her husband.

So in one fell swoop we get Lee's engagement party and then wedding, her suspicions of Aunt Ibby's new lodger, househunting, her boss' insistence that she "do a little work" on her honeymoon, and her hope to find closure on Pirate's Island. Lots of things going on in this final book, but things are all wrapped up as the story ends.

book icon  Eloise and the Grump Next Door, Jenny Proctor and Emma St. Clair
Ho-hum. Part one of a three-book series about three sisters who inherit their grandmother's house on a small island off the coast of Georgia (I think; I've already forgotten). They are to turn it into a bed and breakfast and then either sell it, or one of them runs it and buys the other two out. Eloise is just out of college and didn't get into graduate school (this again), so she's the "free" one of the three sisters and gets the job of renovating. She's perky and cute and has her own Instagram following, so she's going to follow the process of the renovation on her Instagram page. Bad news: she has to deal with Jake, her grandmother's lawyer, a stuffed shirt in his early thirties who has to deal with his divorced sister and her bright son.

Well, of course they fall in love, but Eloise (call her "Lo" or she gets mad) keeps resisting it, and Jake thinks he's too old for her. He complains about this for the entirety of the book, and finally gets her the graduate position she wanted by talking to his mother (another neglectful academic—enough already). Everyone else in the book, including Jake's dad who runs the local bar, his supportive sister, etc. is cheering them on.

Complications arise when Merritt and Sadie, her pushy older sisters who treat her like a baby, arrive. People keep describing this as "swoony." I got through it only because my husband was in the hospital and it was something to pass the time.

I either have to quit reading rom-coms or find more intelligent ones

book icon  My Name is America: The Journal of Jedediah Barstow, An Emigrant on the Oregon Trail, Ellen Levine
This is a good entry in the Scholastic "Dear America" series, written for boys instead of girls. Jedediah is a 13-year-old boy whose parents, along with his younger sister, are heading for the Oregon Country in 1845, but as the book opens, the rest of his family are drowned while crossing the Kaw River just as the journey begins. Jed originally stays with Mr. Fenster, a Jewish man, but feeling uncomfortable, switching to traveling with irascible Mr. Henshaw and his wife and young daughter. Jed continues chronicling the trip in the journal his mother originally began.

The descriptions are a bit thin, but good portrayal of the hardships the pioneers faced, especially river crossings, dust storms, rattlesnakes (a character gets his leg amputated due to a rattler bite), etc. Jed also learns lessons about tolerance and forbearance on his journey, and becomes more open-minded. The epilog is a bit odd, though, as it's written in Jed's voice, when the epilogs are usually a third-person summary of what happened to the characters (which are usually positive, unless it's a Barry Denenberg book).

30 September 2022

Books Completed Since September 1

book icon  Love on the Brain, Ali Hazelwood
This is another one of Hazelwood's science-based rom-coms and it's a lot of fun, if not quite as good as The Love Hypothosis. Bee Konigswasser is a neuroengineer; her spiritual guide is Marie Curie (she even has a popular Twitter account called "What Would Marie Do?"), and she's just been offered her dream job, working on a project developing a helmet operation system for NASA. Except she'll have to work with Levi Ward, the hot guy she met in graduate school and who's never given her the time of day. They're archenemies, and that's it. Still, Bee wants to work on the BLINK project so badly she's willing to put up with "the Wardass." But when she turns out for her first day at work she finds she and her partner Rocio have no equipment.

It's a rom-com so you know what happens eventually, but in the meantime there are complications. Our heroes have their quirks—Bee is secretly searching for home (and a cat of her own), she has a peripatetic twin sister currently in Europe, her lab partner for the BLINK project is an offbeat conspiracy theorist, oh, and she faints when she gets stressed due to low blood pressure, and Levi has an overbearing gung-ho family tied to hunting and the military who think he's a loser even though he's a PhD because he's not in the Army (where do people dig up these crazy parents?—why do they even have kids if they're not going to love them as they are?). The climax to this story contains an element of suspense that was not part of Love Hypothesis.

BTW, I had no idea that it was so gruesome to get into graduate school! (See also Blame it on the Brontёs below.)

book icon  How Y'All Doing?, Leslie Jordan
I fell in love with Leslie Jordan after watching the sitcom The Cool Kids—even if it wasn't as good as I hoped—with Jordan as one of a bunch of retirees in a Western senior center (sorry, not liking him as well in Call Me Kat; he'd be the only reason I watched). After reading this book, I'm even more besotted: this is funny—his chapter on Ronnie Claire Edwards (whom everyone knows as prudish Corabeth Godsey from The Waltons) alone is worth the price of the book—and also touching (his tales about his dad). There's the story of how Debbie Reynolds called his mother, how he ended up being famous for hymn singing, his love of horses and how he worked with them for a while, and more. This book will make you laugh and cry. Enjoy!

book icon  The Way I Heard It, Mike Rowe
This is an adaptation of Rowe's entertaining podcasts akin to Paul Harvey's classic radio feature The Rest of the Story, where Rowe relates unknown tales about celebrities and other names in the news: the Jewish man who played music by Jewish composers directly into the Nazi lines;  the story of a Titanic survivor, or a man who invented a unique new tool, or a devoted husband and wife who wrote spicy letters to each other every day they were apart—in all, 35 tales about people you never knew, or thought you knew.

After each tale, Rowe tells his story, about his childhood, young adulthood, and how he got initially involved with The Deadliest Catch and then was given his own series, Dirty Jobs. If you love little unknown bits of history, or are a Mike Rowe fan, or both, this is the book for you.

book icon  Go Hex Yourself, Jessica Clare
Regina Johnson needs a job, and when she sees one that looks like she will be working on her favorite geeky card game, Spellcraft, she jumps at the chance. Instead she finds she's to be employed as a witch's familiar to Drusilla Magnus, an elderly woman who's clearly infatuated with all things Roman and who is clearly dotty—who believes in witchcraft anyway? "Reggie" is sure she can cope with Ms. Magnus and her fantasies, especially for $25K a month, since she has her parents' debts to pay off; it's the woman's handsome nephew Ben that's going to be the problem.

Basically, this is rom-com with magic, with a broody male protagonist who cultivates his bad rep and a female protagonist who has trust issues because of her dreadful parents, who basically have gotten her into debt by hacking into her accounts and running up bills on her credit cards. Drusilla is basically wacky old lady who's lived for centuries and is bored. Plus Reggie has a flaky gay roommate named Nick—who rates people's characters based on who they resemble on the series The Golden Girls—who's obsessing over a new flame, and there's a cat named Maurice who has his own secrets. It's cute. Some spicy sex. And a different witch's discipline than the usual Celtic goddesses. Probably best if you're a Golden Girls fan (I'm not; have never even watched it), but also for fans of stories with a magical twist.

book icon  The Shelf, Phyllis Rose
I picked this up for a dollar at Dollar Tree and it was actually an entertaining read. Rose, already an avid reader, decided to explore books as she hadn't before: she picked a row of fiction books at a local library and decided to read all of them, "off road reading." In this way she reads a Russian epic by Mikhail Lermontov along with The Phantom of the Opera, Rhoda Lerman, an author who wrote surprising books and now writes nonfiction about Newfoundland dogs, and from the nearly 800-page tome Gil Blas to the detective thrillers of John Lescroart. There's also an excellent chapter about how when women write domestic fiction it's considered "their place" but when men do it, it's considered notable and extraordinary, and another chapter about how books are culled from libraries (considering my recent complaints about our local public library having been horribly culled of books, this one hit the spot).

I wouldn't go out of my way to buy this book, but I did find it an entertaining read.

book icon  Blame It on the Brontёs, Annie Sereno
So here I am deep into another rom-com; this time about English professor Athena Murphy who's run into a roadblock with her university position: she either has to publish a book related to her discipline or she'll lose her tenure. She decides to dig out the truth about C.L. Garland, a popular writer who's done a series of spicy novellas about classic literature couples, someone she discovered lives her her old home town of Laurel, Illinois. But guess who's back living in Laurel: the man who broke her heart, Thorne Kent, who's given up his law practice to run a bakery/coffee shop. She can get through this, she's sure, even with working for some extra cash as a waitress at Thorne's business. But there's no way what they felt for each other in the past isn't going to come bubbling up in the present.

This is a nice enough rom-com; it revolves around literature and the protagonists are amiable enough. There's also an undercurrent in what's going on with Athena's separated parents about being true to yourself, and the fact that Athena and Thorne's story leads some other folks into happy relationships. But it's also one of those books where you want to shake at least once of them. Thorne has a good reason for what he's done, and Athena is supposed to be his best friend; why not let her in on it? His excuse is that he doesn't want some personal info to come out. So you love her, have sex with her, and still can't trust her? Also, this is the second book in a row where the female protagonist has a flaky gay friend (actually, in this case it's her brother) who gets hysterical at the least thing. And yet another small town with small businesses with cutesy poo names. I'm finding this in my cozy mysteries, too. Plus I've never understood the fascination with Wuthering Heights; from all that I can figure out, Heathcliff and Catherine had a very toxic relationship, so why is it considered so romantic?

Between this and Love on the Brain I am damn glad I am not an academic.

I had to admit I laughed during the bits with Athena's fake boyfriend Sergei. I was less enchanted with the Murphy pet pug, and I usually like a dog in a story.

book icon  Christmas Past, Brian Earl

book icon  Shenanigans, edited by Mercedes Lackey
This is the newest collection of Valdemar short stories. I missed the previous one, Boundaries, and noticed two things about this one: the books are now trade paper, which I hate, and this one, at least, seemed to be based around a single theme (pranks), which the previous collections were not.

I had mixed feelings about this collection. Most of the stories were okay or good. I quite enjoyed the opening story was about a pair of hertasi (sentient lizards who act as servants) who outsmart three highwaymen; "All Around the Bell Tower," told from the point of view of a youngster who seems to be autistic and who sees visions, which features Herald Wil; and the annual story featuring Lena at the Temple of Thenoth, which always focuses on animals (this time it's a dog) and also the annual story about the Iron Street Watch guards, this one featuring a very perceptive chicken.

I also enjoyed the two stories that had love stories between older people in them, "Love, Nothing More, Nothing Less" and "One Trick Pony," and a Herald-based detective story, "Of Ghosts and Stones and Snow."

Several stories are about deliberate or accidental pranks at the Collegium, most are sort of fluffy. My least favorite was "Trap Spell," which I found pretty blah.

31 August 2022

Books Completed Since August 1

book icon  Murder on Pleasant Avenue, Victoria Thompson
This is the 23rd in Thompson's "Gaslight Mystery" series starring midwife Sarah Brandt Malloy and her husband Frank Malloy, former New York City police officer and now a private detective. I've been reading these since the first book, and still remember getting them with points coupons at Waldenbooks! In this entry, when a woman is missing in a section on Manhattan called "Italian Harlem," Frank's partner, young Italian-American Gino Donatelli, decides to confront the prime suspect, a saloonkeeper named Nunzio Esposito, but when he arrives at Esposito's flat, the man is dead, and a police officer discovers Gino there: naturally "this eye-talian" must be the murderer! So now it's a race against time to prove Gino innocent as well as find the young woman, a settlement worker who is believed to be kidnapped by the Black Hand, a notorious Italian criminal group, to the dismay of the strait-laced man who worked with her and hoped to marry her.

This is a great paced entry in the series, which takes place chiefly in New York City's Little Italy. You meet Gino's family—there's a very funny scene where Maeve Smith, nanny and sometimes investigator for the Malloys, has to visit the Donatellis and a misunderstanding takes place—and learn more about the Black Hand itself (no, it was not a precursor to the Mafia, as many people believe).

From the decorations on the front cover, you might think this was set at Christmas; nope, it's just a great Italian church feast like I remember from my childhood, which is the setting for a rousing finale!

book icon  Mindhunter, John Douglas and Mark Olshaker
This is Douglas' original book about becoming an FBI profiler; he was the basis for Scott Glenn's character in The Silence of the Lambs and the inspiration for the name-changed main character in Netflix's Mindhunter series. Per Douglas' memoir, he was interested in the psychology of people from his teens, and was studying industrial psychology when he was recruited by the FBI; one of a group of men (no women FBI agents back then, per J. Edgar Hoover) who pioneered the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit (the BAU portrayed in the series Criminal Minds), the people who examine the evidence, try to figure out the motives, and finally draw conclusions about the perpetrator of a crime.

The first part of the book discusses Douglas's life and the early portion of his career, where he discusses some of the criminals he interviewed to develop a systematic approach to profiling, like Ed Kemper, an otherwise affable man who murdered young women as well as his own mother; Charles Manson, who needed to be in control of his followers; and rapist and murderer Richard Speck. The second half of the book talks about the cases he worked on with the BAU and how they reached the conclusions they did about the suspects and how they went about assisting the local police in finding the perpetrators. Several times, as he reluctantly relates, no justice could be found.

This is my third Douglas book prompted by watching Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Not pleasant reading, by any means, but interesting to know how real profilers work.

book icon  Poppy Redfern and the Fatal Flyers, Tessa Arlen
This is the second book in Arlen's Women of World War II series, featuring Poppy Redfern, who is now working for a British film unit who make documentary films (read "propaganda") about the war effort. As the story opens, Poppy has herself a plum assignment: interview the members of an elite ATA group (Air Transport Auxiliary) of women pilots at Didcote airfield. Poppy quickly forms a bond with the group: self-assured Edwina, blonde Betty (nicknamed "Grable"), Annie, June, Letty, and the Polish freedom fighter Zofia, although initially she needs to prove himself with the group. Also in the mix is Poppy's now-boyfriend, the American flyer Griff O'Neal, who shows up with Poppy's Welsh corgi, Bess. But soon after filming starts, Edwina, the best of the pilots, crashes her Spitfire under suspicious circumstances. No one thinks it's an accident, but they're told to treat it as one.

The history about "the Atta girls" presented here is fascinating. As in the United States, no one in the military thought women could be competent pilots of such large and complicated aircraft. Instead the women proved to be fearless flyers and sometimes superior to the men that were being trained for the RAF. And the mystery is fairly good. But once again it's the protagonists who are disappointing: Poppy is too gorgeous to be true and what on earth is Griff doing there? Doesn't he have any duties on his American air base? He seems to be in the story just to follow Poppy around. Don't get me started on the "little dog." Welsh corgis are short, but they're not "little dogs" and people seem to heft her up with no effort. What's the dog even doing there? It made sense in the previous book when Poppy was solving a mystery in her home village, but now Griff brings her down to visit? That whole part of the story is too absurd to be true.

book icon  Spoiler Alert, Olivia Dade
This book called me because both the protagonists write fan fiction. Marcus Caster-Rapp is the good-natured, supposedly not-very-smart but good looking star of a series called Gods of the Gates (think Game of Thrones, but with Greek gods) based on a book series. The series has wandered far afield of the books and it turns out Marcus writes fanfic based on his Aeneas character from the books. April Whittier is an accomplished geologist who's also a fan of Gods of the Gates, and (unknown to her coworkers) she writes romantic fanfic based on the arranged marriage between Aeneas and Lavinia. She's also been bullied for years by her father and her compliant mother about her weight, but she's decided not to let it bother her any more. When she wears a Lavinia costume to a convention, there are catty remarks about how fat she is, and Marcus, a good guy at heart, invites her to dinner. Everyone thinks it's a publicity stunt, but Marcus really didn't like seeing her bullied online—and then when he meets her in person, he realizes she is really someone he'd like to get to know a lot better.

There's only one problem: Marcus and April are already friends, under pen names on Archive of Our Own. They beta-read each other's stories. And Marcus doesn't want to ruin what he has with "Ulsie" (his nickname for April's nom de guerre), so when they get further involved he decides not to tell her.

There is a lot to like about this book. We have fanfiction authors, we have an actor who, under his bland personality, is really quite deep, we have a geologist and fan who has finally decided to become comfortable in her own body, we have supportive friends, and a realistic fan community, from eager fanwriters to jerk Twitter posters. Our male protagonist has a secret about his past which is rather affecting. And we finally have a female protagonist who isn't your perfect gorgeous girl with a perfect figure who makes all the males in the story swoon.

Indeed, almost too much is made of April's weight. The author seems to go overboard pushing descriptions about her ample figure, as if daring the reader to belittle her. Plus we have two sets of absolutely crap parents, which is a trend I'm seeing in romance books. Does anyone have good parents anymore? Can there be no drama without these absolutely wretched parental units? Plus, while he's a supportive friend, I really didn't like Marcus' bestie Alex. I thought the character was grating—and there will be a sequel to Spoiler Alert starring Alex. Sorry, I won't be buying.

book icon  Phasers on Stun!, Ryan Britt
This is a fun book of essays (mostly original, a couple from online columns) about the Star Trek phenomenon from the creation of the original series all the way to the newest series like Picard and Discovery (Strange New Worlds is mentioned, but has not aired as of the publication). It, however, is not a history of the Trek universe as much as a study of aspects of the universe: for instance, the internet often promotes how progressive the original series was, but was it? Sure, it had an interracial crew, but how much did they get to do? Other topics: how Star Trek and NASA became intertwined; how Enterprise's much maligned theme song reveals what's wrong with the series; Star Trek and time travel (and how much the series almost defined time travel more than Doctor Who); how Star Trek fans first reject and then accept newer series; LGBTQ+ finally appears on Star Trek--and how the "death" of Hugh Culber ignited controversy; and a lot more Trek goodness.

Think of this as interesting footnotes to each stage of Star Trek history. Worth the read for fans.

book icon  Becoming a Writer, Staying a Writer, J. Michael Straczynski
Babylon 5, Crusade, comic book author, book author—Straczynski has written for all mediums. This isn't your usual book about writing: he's not going to talk to you about grammar, structure, formats, etc., but assumes you've already read a good, basic book about the writing craft. Instead he offers other advice, freely acknowledging his debt to fellow writers like Harlan Ellison: what situations build drama, how you should always accept constructive criticism and not act as if your story couldn't use improvement, how you must take chances and let your stories go and not endlessly edit them, how the past you choose for your characters develop who they are, finishing a project, summarizing your story, and other things hard learned from experience. He also talks about what to do once you finish: finding an agent, pitching your story, how to deal with "impostor syndrome" (that feeling you get that you're not good enough), and more. Enjoyable and written in lively style.

book icon  Forever Young, Hayley Mills
I grew up with the wonderful Hayley Mills, from her first performance in Walt Disney's delightful Pollyanna to her final film for Disney, That Darn Cat. She caught Disney's eye when she did a film with her actor father, the great John Mills, Tiger Bay, about a little girl and an escaped convict. This is her story from when she was chosen to do Tiger Bay through her divorce from Roy Boulting, the older man she married to the shock of her parents and her fans.

Hayley lived a magical childhood at two homes, a London house called The Wick, and at a farm, with her older sister, actress Juliet Mills (or "Bunch" as the family called her) and younger brother Jonathan. Her mother was Mary Hayley Bell, famous playwright and author. Along with her film appearances for Disney, she chronicles her childhood as well as meeting the famous actors, actresses, and other celebrities who knew her parents, people like Vivien Leigh, Sir Laurence Olivier, Richard Attenborough, Bryan Forbes, Roddy McDowall, and more, plus the non-Disney movies she appeared in. But as she grew older, separated from other children of her age, Hayley experienced dislocation and doubt. She also had a problem when she came of age and wished to withdraw the money put away for her from her films; due to her father's accountant, she pretty much was taxed on the total amount and actually received very little for all the work she did.

It's a quick-moving narrative, although her descriptions of her later work for Disney is lacking, and she dismisses one of her great characters, Mary Clancy of The Trouble With Angels, with almost no commentary at all. The latter part of her life, after she became the mother of two sons, is pretty much ignored; it's all the history of young Hayley. However, because it was young Hayley's experiences I was interested in, I wasn't really bothered by the latter much.

book icon  The Case of the Spellbound Child, Mercedes Lackey
In what looks like the last of Lackey's Elemental Masters series starring Sherlock Holmes (a mortal) and John and Mary Watson, who are both Elemental Masters, plus the magic-talented young ladies Sarah Lyon-White and Nan Killian and their bond birds Grey the African parrot and Neville the raven (respectively), plus their young ward Suki, the group help a ghost to his final resting place, plus solve the riddle of a girl who's been confined to an insane asylum before concentrating on the real meat of the volume: Lord Alderscroft has received a plea for help from a woman in Dartmoor, who punished her children Ellie and Simon by making them gather food on the moor, but they never returned from their errand. It turns out the pair, and many more children, are being held captive by a sinister presence they call "the Dark One" who keeps them shackled in a shed and puts them into a dark sleep often. Ellie is spared from this ordeal, but she is forced to do chores and baking instead; she tries to escape and finds herself physically shackled to the ruined cottage the Dark One lives in by magic.

As in all the Elemental Masters books, the story is based on a fairy tale which I have heard of, but can't remember the title. While the Watsons, the young ladies, and Holmes himself work to find the children, resourceful Ellie finds a way to improve her lot at the cottage and then finally to escape, only to run into more danger on the way. Ellie, in fact, is the best reason to read this offering; Nan and Sarah are always good, as is mischievous Suki; the Watsons are almost too perfect, and Sherlock isn't really in the story enough to matter.

Warning to anyone who dislikes dialect in a book: since this takes place in Dartmoor, many of the characters speak in the local dialect, and Suki has her own dialectical speech habits.

book icon  American Sherlock: Murder, Forensics, and the Birth of American CSI, Kate Winkler Dawson
This is the story of Edward Oscar Heinrich, a driven man who trained as a pharmacist and then a chemist. Heinrich was no stranger to hardship: his father's hard luck culminated in the man committing suicide when Oscar was sixteen. He eventually began doing chemical work for both the city coroner and the police, then began studying crime and criminals, and was eventually dubbed "the American Sherlock Holmes" for his work in forensics. He also was an early pioneer of profiling, as he sought to understand what made criminals "tick." The book follows Heinrich's career by discussing his involvement in several notable deaths, including his investigation into the Fatty Arbuckle case, in which the famed silent comedian was accused of killing a young starlet, Virginia Rappe.

The cases themselves are pretty interesting, especially chronicling how crimefighting went from beating up "the usual suspects" and making them confess, to scientific means like fingerprints, ballistics, crime scene evidence, blood spatter patterns, etc. to track down miscreants. The big problem with this book is that Oscar Heinrich, for all his novel scientific deductions, was really a pretty dull person otherwise: he was married, had two kids, because of his father's financial difficulties was always worried about money, and pretty much had his nose to the grindstone 18 hours a day. He had no interesting hobbies or life outside his work, unless you count the fact that he blamed, like many people of his era, the movies for causing young people to go bad and seek sensation and perform criminal acts. So Heinrich's role in American forensics is quite remarkable, but don't expect a sparkling narrative about an unique man.

book icon  Uneasy Lies the Crown, Tasha Alexander
I've made no secret that, although I love Lady Emily, I still think she and Colin were brought together too quickly, and that occasionally I'm really bored by the alternate storyline Alexander has come to include in each book.

This time the alternate storyline is a rather ambling tale of a knight who fights with Henry V (think of the St. Crispin's Day rallying speech!) and his wife who lives with dubious relatives while he is abroad with the king, but the pair are Colin's ancestors, so this time the correlation between past and present is more firm.

On her deathbed, Queen Victoria summons Colin Hargreaves to her side and gives him a cryptic note. Several weeks after her death, a body dressed as the murdered king Henry VI is found in the Tower of London. followed soon by another body which shows up in Berkeley Square dressed as the hideously killed Edward II, and the clues lead the police to believe that this is a direct threat to the new king, Bertie—oooops, we mean Edward VII. (This is rather a running gag throughout the book.)

Dismissed by the Scotland Yard's investigator, who thinks investigating murders is no place for a lady, Emily and her cousin Jeremy Bainbridge begin following a convoluted trail of clues in a poor neighborhood that includes gangs, street kids, and a brothel. Jeremy, who's sometimes been an ass in past books, comports himself nicely in this one, and he and Emily make a good sleuthing pair. In the meantime, Colin continues to receive more cryptic clues that lead them on a scavenger hunt. There's a nice twist at the end, too.

book icon  A Courage Undimmed, Stephanie Graves
Yay to Netgalley for allowing me to read the ARC of the newest Olive Bright mystery! Olive Bright, daughter of the local vet and, like her father, a pigeoneer (one who breeds and trains racing pigeons), continues to help the British war effort by volunteering the Bright birds for messenger service. As a FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) volunteer, she also works at Bricktonbury Manor, headquarters of Baker Street, a top-secret World War II spy organization, under the aegis of Jameson Aldridge (her feigned love interest), but hopes to become an SOE agent who would be dropped into Nazi-occupied France.

Alas, Baker Street has a new commander, who thinks women have no place on the front lines; he not only tells Olive her pigeons may not be needed any longer, but assigns her to escort an annoying Royal Navy officer who's eager to interrogate a new resident of the village of Pipley, a Mrs. Dunbar who claims to be a spirit medium. In her first appearance in the village, Mrs. Dunbar said she was in contact with the dead souls of a British battleship on which several residents of the village served. Now everyone's uneasy, including the Naval representative, one Ian Fleming, who tells Olive that the ship is fine, but Mrs. Dunbar knows too many unique details for a civilian. But when Olive takes Fleming to a seance where Mrs. Dunbar dies, the question is whodunnit and why.

I love these books and the characters, but this latest one fell slightly short of the mark for me at the beginning. I think it's because I've read one too many mystery books centered around spirit mediums who are murdered. Plus Jamie is missing for the first half of the book, so a lot of the sparring between Olive and Jamie that brightened the previous two books is missing here. The solution to the mystery is rather pedestrian, too. Positives: we get a look behind the scenes at a wartime Christmas, and when Jamie does return he has a great surprise for Olive, and the training that Olive is observing is based on a real-life spy mission during the war.

book icon  I'll Be Right Back, Mike Douglas with Thomas Kelly and Michael Heaton
This is an easy read of Mike Douglas' memories of his long-running talk show. It's not strictly a biography, although he does tell you how he got into singing in nightclubs and how he met his wife Genevieve, and a little of his life after the show was handed over to a younger host (even though it was still getting good ratings).

Basically it's anecdotes about the people he met and enjoyed; if you read this book, there are very few people he didn't. Some readers of this book seemed to take umbrage at this fact, but he does criticize several people who didn't show up for their guest appearance (like Chevy Chase) or who were just plain rude, but he does it nicely. Apparently the readers were looking for more blood. Sorry, guys, these are just fun stories about movie and television stars, singers, dancers, even newsmakers and fellow talk-show hosts. There's also a daunting chapter explaining how "you," as this week's celebrity co-host, would be prepped for the show and what would be going on around you, as well as Mike's ten most outrageous or favorite happenings on his set (yes, one of them involves monkeys).

If you loved The Mike Douglas Show as I did, you may also love this book. But don't expect Mike to insult anyone. It's just the way he was.