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.