31 May 2023

Books Completed Since May 1

book icon  A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L'Engle, Sarah Arthur
Where else but here in the U.S. could a woman who wrote a book with deeply Christian themes be accused of being non-Christian because she talked about "witches" and "unicorns" since they are obvious symbols of the devil!

But that's Madeleine L'Engle.

Title is as it says: Arthur's examination of the ways L'Engle's faith shone in her storytelling, even if certain "Christians" said it wasn't "real" Christianity because she didn't adhere to their particular brand of Christianity. In fact, L'Engle and C.S. Lewis were both listed as authors who wrote pornographic children's literature. Seriously?

Arthur isn't blind to L'Engle's faults, especially her disconnection between her family's memories of the past and her family as portrayed in her nonfiction, and that she couldn't really come to terms with her son's death from alcoholism. Enjoyable summary of L'Engle's portrayal of Christianity in her books and in her life.

book icon  Naked Heat, Richard Castle
While the Castle series, which I loved except for the loathsome final season, was on, a series of tie-in novels were published supposedly written by "Richard Castle" (the actual author was mystery writer Tom Straw), both his superspy "Derek Storm" books and his later series "Nikki Heat."

Basically the Nikki Heat books are Castle stories under a different name and a couple of tweaks. Kate Beckett becomes sexy Nikki Heat, Castle morphs into a magazine journalist Jameson Rook (Castle/Rook, get it?), Captain Montgomery becomes Captain Montrose, Ryan and Esposito are Raley and Ochoa, Laney Parish turns into Lauren Parry. Rook even has an actress mom; the only character missing is Alexis. The story begins when Heat, smarting over the article Rook wrote in the first book Heat Wave, is called to the murder of Cassidy Towne, a well-hated gossip columnist from the New York Ledger (the Ledger is also the newspaper that turns up in Law & Order: Criminal Intent). At Towne's apartment? Jameson Rook, who was doing a story on her.

Of course a gossip columnist has a lot of enemies, so Heat has her job cut out for her: the suspects include a singer and a baseball player. She doesn't remain unscathed, either; she's assaulted and almost killed. Rook is driving her crazy for half the story, but their attraction remains unmatched. And what's going on with another murder victim who was found with a coyote standing nearby?

Fun fluff, and good for Castle fans who were sorry the series ended on such a rotten note.

book icon  Re-read: Born Free, Joy Adamson
I was ten and a half years old when the film Born Free came out. I was a passionate animal lover (heck, at that time I liked animals more than people) and saw every film that came out involving a dog, cat, horse, etc. The story, about a lion cub raised by a game warden and his artist wife in the African bush in the 1950s and then their efforts to teach her to hunt so that they could release her to the wild instead of confining her to a zoo, enthralled me. Of course, I wanted the book. It wasn't a children's book, and I didn't care. Mom bought me the Bantam paperback with the Virginia McKenna cover and I read that book so many times it literally fell apart, and I ended up buying another copy as an adult.

The copy I recently re-read is the 40th anniversary edition and I jumped into it gleefully. There are a couple of cringey lines now (Adamson observing the lion cubs didn't like Africans but liked white people, except for the Adamsons' assistant Nuru and other employees), but otherwise it was still fascinating. I never realized as a child how much of the text was devoted not to Elsa, but to George's job of helping the local people rid themselves of predatory lions, about the natural features of Africa, and about the political situations that sometimes made the bush an unfriendly place for both whites and Africans.

Liberally illustrated by photos of the real Elsa and the Adamsons. There was a sequel, Living Free, about Elsa's cubs, and a third book about releasing the lions from the Born Free film to the wild as Elsa had been.

book icon  Two Wrongs Make a Right, Chloe Liese
Back in rom-com territory: Jamie Westenberg and Bea Wilmot don't exactly hit it off the first time they meet, but their friends conspire to match them up with each other. So they decide to get revenge by pretending to fall in love long enough to then dash everyone's hopes with a spectacular breakup. But in pretending to be lovers, guess what, Bea and Jamie start to learn about each other and, whaddya think: maybe they could be friends? Maybe they even could be...more.

This is the first of a trio of stories about the Wilmot sisters: Bea and her twin sister Juliet, and their older sister Kate, all based on Shakespeare plays (this one is "Much Ado About Nothing," Kate's story is next, based on "Taming of the Shrew," and I think you can guess who Bea's twin's story is based on). I liked Bea; she states she's neurodivergent and autistic, but she reminds me a lot of myself, so maybe I'm those things? I just thought I was shy.

The series is amiable enough. I'll probably check out Kate's book when it comes out.

book icon  Life in Five Senses, Gretchen Rubin
This is another enjoyable read in Gretchen Rubin's pop psychology universe. When, after an eye exam, she discovers that no one has ever told her she has a higher-than-usual danger of losing her sight due to a retinal problem, she realizes she's been going through her life not noticing the world around her. Indeed, it's a common problem today with the rise of social media; people pay attention to their gadgets and not what's unfolding around them.

These are basically experiences based around the five basic senses (there are others, Rubin explains, but these are what people think of as the primary ones): finding the newness in what one sees everyday (like what kind of clothes your husband prefers), finding what grabs you at a museum or on the street, discovering music as not just something to dance to but which revives memories or sets a mood, doing a scent tour and realizing there are scent memories, trying new tastes but rediscovering special tastes of the past, eating a meal in without seeing the food, the power of our sense of touch: not just comforting but sometimes rousing bad memories.

The end of the book has suggestions for different exercises to help you rediscover your five senses. As someone with her nose always stuck in a book or writing, I liked this in telling me to pull back and observe the world around me.

book icon  Re-read: A Courage Undimmed, Stephanie Graves
Once again, I got much more reading the non-ebook version. 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 (including a hint of what his real name is!), and the training that Olive is observing is based on a real-life spy mission during the war.

book icon  The Fourth Enemy, Anne Perry
I have just finished what turned out to be Perry's final book, which I hoped I could give a rousing review to, but, sadly, until the last third or quarter of the book, it frankly had me struggling through.

Gideon Hunter is newly arrived as a barrister at Daniel Pitt's law firm fford Croft and Gibson, just in time to prosecute a smug, ruthless man named Malcolm Vayne who is accused of fraud. (Basically, he has arranged an investment company that we would today call a "Ponzi scheme.") Worst of all, some of his investors are members of Parliament or other government officials, which gives Vayne much power over them. Since Vayne is now so powerful, it is dangerous to cross him, and he is so protected by certain investors that if the firm's prosecution case is not strong enough, it could destroy the firm.

The first 2/3 of the book is very slow, and the conversation is much about financial matters along with Perry's characters' usual soul-searching, except for a section where an elderly woman is threatened. The pace finally picks up near the end of the book, when the evidence against Vayne suddenly turns around and the case—and lives—are threatened. The last few chapters are very suspenseful and would make a good period thriller, but I'm afraid that the lead up is very plodding and you have to like the characters to keep going. Perry tried to give the new man, Hunter, and his wife Rose, some interesting personality, but they were very flat to me.

book icon  The Lady With the Gun Asks the Questions, Kerry Greenwood
Apparently I finished this ages ago and forgot to review it.

I first met Phryne Fisher through the novels, later watching the television series. The latter is fun, but, of course for money reasons several characters have been cut from the stories, and Inspector Jack Robinson has become a love interest (in the books he's married with children). This is a collection of Phryne Fisher short stories, based on the novels. Some are long and convoluted, some are short—one's even solved by the time Robinson and Phryne are done talking about the evidence—but as far as I'm concerned they're all enjoyable to read, just from the POV of Phryne's 1920s setting and the attitudes of the characters. Wish there were more stories that involved Dot, as she is my favorite character in the series.

Well worth it for Fisher fans.

book icon  A History of America in Thirty-Six Postage Stamps, Christ West
This is another interesting book I picked up for almost a song at Books-a-Million. West, a stamp collector, does exactly what he says, tells a history of the United States using 36 stamps curated mostly from the Smithsonian Postal museum, starting with the little revenue stamp that started the problems: a stamp from the Stamp Act. The stamps range from portraits of Presidents (Washington, Jackson, etc.), other important figures in U.S. history (Benjamin Franklin, Jefferson Davis, etc.), and finally, from the 1860s onward, other items significant in the country's history, the first being "the iron horse." It addresses some interesting bits of history you don't usually read about in other history volumes, like the Pan-American Exposition in 1901, the Golden Gate Bridge and Charles Lindbergh's flight, the Cold War, "Earthrise," and others.

Nifty little history volume from a different POV.

book icon  Diary of an Early American Boy: Noah Blake, 1805, Eric Sloane
Always lovely to find Eric Sloane books at the library sale as they are now out of print and fiendishly expensive. In 1805 (yes, 1805) a 15-year-old named Noah Blake was given a journal for his birthday. He kept very brief entries for a year, using homemade ink, and Sloane uses Blake's entries to chronicle the work on an expanding farm of the early nineteenth century. Together Noah and his father, along with help from a neighbor, build a working mill, build a bridge over the nearby creek, and expand the cultivated fields of the farm, all without benefit of power tools, cranes, etc. Sloane's beautiful pen-and-ink illustrations of Early American tools and structures clearly illustrate the ingenious and clever ways 1805 citizens improved their life. But Noah's life isn't all work: he talks about neighborhood frolics, and meeting a special girl named Sarah who is working for their neighbors the Adamses for a year.

If you're interested in historic lifestyles, this book and other of Sloane's volumes are for you!

book icon  War Animals, Robin Hutton
I grabbed this from the bargain book stack of Books-a-Million because I've loved Stephanie Graves' Olive Bright books and this has two chapters on pigeons used in war (the U.S. and the U.K.), plus some familiar characters from my childhood. There was this book by Patrick Lawson called More Than Courage, a Whitman book about horses and dogs, alternating chapters, one chapter about dogs and horses in war. It was there I met the acquaintance of Chips (who later had a vastly inferior movie made about him) the German Shepherd/collie/husky who won a Silver Star (only to have it taken away by commanders who said "that's only for humans) and also a Doberman named Andy.

They appear in this book along with other war dogs/rescue dogs/messenger dogs from World War II (including Smoky the Yorkshire terrier who has had two books written about her), Korea, and Vietnam, a short chapter on a ship's cat named Simon, another short chapter on horses, and the pigeon chapters. All the animals in this book received Britain's prestigious "Dickin" medal for heroic animals.

This is an easy read and you learn some great history about animals along the way.

book icon  Ship Wrecked, Olivia Dade
This is the third in a series of rom-coms taking place among the cast members of a television series called Gods of the Gates (think a cheap version of Game of Thrones). Peter Reedton is a character actor ready for his first big role, but it turns out his co-star will be Maria Ivarsson, the woman he wholeheartedly made love to right before the audition—who then walked out on him without a word. Still, he won't wreck his chance at the role. For the next six years, Peter and Maria work side-by-side, getting to know each other as friends. But both still have hangups...and both live in different places. Is their smothered attraction enough to carry them to the next level?

Of course. This is a rom-com, people. In general, I enjoyed this, although it featured yet another clueless dad (only this one wasn't evil like the dad in Hating Game; he actually turns out to be a bit pathetic). Peter and Maria both have secrets in their past that interfere with their getting closer. Enjoyable stuff: their teasing, Peter in Stockholm with Maria's family, Maria's body pride in which she refuses to lose weight or shave/wax for her role (both our protagonists are plus-sized, as the newest description goes).

I liked Spoiler Alert because it was neat to see protagonists who wrote fanfic, skipped the second because I didn't like Alex in the first book, but this one may be my favorite of the three.