30 September 2023

Books Completed Since September 1

book icon  Dear Little Corpses, Nicola Upson
This is the tenth book in Upson's "Josephine Tey" mysteries in which the writer (the real Tey's actual name was Elizabeth McIntosh; Upson writes of Tey as an original character who wrote McIntosh's novels) is enjoying a quiet stay in at the country cottage she inherited from an aunt in the village of Polstead with her lover, Marta. It is the day before World War II is declared and the village is preparing for the arrival of evacuee children from London. Unfortunately the buses arrive with more children than expected and in the chaos a little girl named Annie from the village vanishes. The longer the search goes on, the more dire the consequences appear to be. In the meantime, an eccentric family take on one little girl but refuse to take her 10-year-old brother, who is temporarily billeted with Josephine and Marta, who are in conflict when Marta's demanding director, Alfred Hitchcock, requires she come to Hollywood early.

I love Upson's writing; she has the talent to make these mysteries sound as if they were written in the 1930s without the unfortunate racism and classism that was rampant at the time. This also captures the spirit of the day leading up to and then the days after Great Britain declared war on Nazi Germany, and the attitude of a small town preparing to take in frightened and bewildered children. The menace of secrets held within the village limits is also well portrayed. I really enjoyed this one.

book icon  Border Crossings: A Journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway, Emma Fick
This is the niftiest travel book I've seen in a long time. Fick and her "then-boyfriend, now-husband" Helvio, inspired by a used book about traveling the Trans-Siberian Railway, decide to do just that. They start in Beijing and end in Moscow. The unique thing about the book is that it's narrated in Fick's watercolor sketches and hand-lettered narrative. The whole thing is priceless...sketches of Mongolian nomads, Chinese train officials, countrysides, local houses, decorations, foods, passports, tickets, customs, animals, even the Moscow subway stations. It's fascinating, a real treat for the eyes.

book icon  The Make-Up Test, Jenny L. Howe
Picked this up off the remainder table in Books-a-Million and discovered with amusement that it was set in a fictional college in Rhode Island (and the protagonist is from Maine)—it even features the Jack O'Lantern Spectacular at Roger Williams Park in one chapter. Allison Avery and her ex-boyfriend Colin Benjamin find they're going to have to work together in graduate school. Allison's looking forward to talking about literature and especially with working with Professor Wendy Frances, but the thought of teaching a class has her flummoxed. A whole book about people who obsess about books! And although Allison is plus-sized, it's not mentioned on every page of the book but exists as an undercurrent of the difficult relationship she has with her father. No crazy gay friends; they're all sane here. And Professor Frances is a wonderful, supportive character.

book icon  The Rediscovery of America, Ned Blackhawk
An exhaustive scholarly history of how European exploration and settlement of North American, primarily the United States, ruined the thriving Native American settlements all over the continent. I was quite pleased to find an expansion of a history of the southwestern settlements like Acoma that Alistair Cooke touched on briefly in the second episode of his 1972 series America. Also enjoyed a further exploration of my home region of New England, if "enjoyed" can be properly used to refer to a narrative of steady betrayals and brutalities. I was also interested to learn of the contributions of Native American women like Laura Cornelius Kellogg and Elizabeth Bender Cloud in the fight for Native rights, since I had never heard any historical references to Native women, just modern ones like Wilma Mankiller. One must be strong-stomached to read the endless litany of broken agreements, unfulfilled treaties, and flat-out removals of indigenous people from the lands where their ancestors had fished, farmed, and hunted for ages, not to mention the terrible boarding schools and removal of children from their parents into foster care, where the kids were forbidden to speak about their heritage and they were often abused physically and sexually. Note that early settlement is covered more thoroughly than modern events.

I did find a minor error in the chapter which talks about the popularity of Westerns on television/in movies in the late 1950s featuring stereotypical and more than often offensive Native characters. Blackhawk states that Disney's "Peter Pan...Americanized the English tale Peter and Wendy and incorporated Indian characters and music in its depiction of Never Never Land." The "Red Indians" (as the British called them) in Peter Pan were ported directly from J. M. Barrie's book, which I read for the first time only a few years ago. Tiger Lily and the other members of her tribe were already there in glaring racist display, with Tiger Lily talking in a horrific "Pidgin Chinese" manner, substituting "Ls" for "Rs" ("Velly velly good" and similar dialog). It was repulsive. The British were apparently fascinated by American and Canadian "savages" and loved to see them in adventure tales.

book icon  Truly, Madly, Sheeply, Heather Vogel Frederick
This is the last of the Pumpkin Falls mysteries, according to the advertisement, and I will miss Truly Lovejoy, her ex-military family, and her new home in New Hampshire. It's a busy autumn for the Lovejoys: Aunt Truly is marrying her old sweetheart, and they're buying a dilapidated farm on which they plan to raise sheep to make specialty yarn, plus at school they're building catapults in science class for the annual pumpkin toss. But someone seems to be trying to drive True and Rusty off their farm, not to mention decorative pumpkins are disappearing all over town. It will take Truly and her friends to solve both mysteries. And what about the new boy in school? Will he take Truly's mind off her friend Calhoun?

A couple of quibbles: What kind of fourteen-year-old still believes in haunted houses and ghosts, especially in a military family? And then there's the matter of the names of the sheep: One of the ewes (all but the ram named after famous women) is named "Frances" Scott Key? Couldn't another female historical figure have been found rather than turning a man's name into a woman's? Dolley after Dolley Madison, who saved the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington? Sybil for Sybil Ludington who rode through the night to call the militia to help at the Battle of Ridgefield? Anne for Anne Hutchinson, who was a woman minister in Rhode Island who was persecuted because women weren't supposed to preach the gospel? Celia for Celia Thaxter, famous New England artist? Sheesh.

This has the most beautiful cover of any of the Pumpkin Falls mysteries. I'd love to have a print of it to frame!

book icon  Travels With George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy, Nathaniel Philbrick
A delightful voyage with Philbrick and his wife (and their Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever Dora) as they retrace a tour of the entire United States as taken by George Washington by mostly carriage (but some by ship) between 1789-1791 to rally the states to accept the new Constitution. Like our first president, the Philbricks do the tour in stages following Washington's route via his journals and diaries, so it's a travelogue, a history of Washington's life, and a slice of life in post Revolutionary America all at once. I loved this book to death.

book icon  The Ghost and the Stolen Tears, Cleo Coyle
The eighth book in the "Haunted Bookshop Mystery" series taking place in the fictional Quindicott, Rhode Island. Jack Shepard, the New York private eye shot dead in the entrance to the old bookstore now owned by Penelope Thornton-McClure and her aunt Sadie. Penelope, a widow with a school-age son, returned to her hometown and revived the fading shop, is the only one who can see Jack's ghost, now haunting the store. Alas, in this outing, as in the seventh book, Jack has turned into a martinet again, talking too much slang and bullying Penelope. As always, Penny's travel "back in time" sequences via Jack's lucky nickel are the most interesting parts of the book, and her two buddies Seymour the postman and Brainert the professor get more annoying by the day. Oh, the plot has to do with a missing necklace and a nomadic woman who travels around in her trailer.

book icon  The Director: My Years Assisting J. Edgar Hoover, Paul Letersky with Gordon Dillow
This is Letersky's story of being an assistant to the famous and sometimes infamous J. Edgar Hoover. Letersky is evidently a Hoover fan, although he's not silent about Hoover's likes and dislikes. One hears so much about Hoover's buddy Clyde Tolson, but in this narrative he's a tottery cranky old guy. The best part of his book are Paul's stories about Helen Gandy, Hoover's private secretary for over fifty years, and about his own career as an FBI agent.

book icon  It Happened One Fight, Maureen Lee Lenker
This book would be a lot shorter without the male and female protagonists constantly shoring up each other's egos once they finally begin talking to each other. It has its good parts—a lively 1930s based romance between Dash Howard (based on Clark Gable) and Joan Davis (based on Joan Crawford and Bette Davis), who find themselves married after a prank. So they go to Reno to make a film, after which they will be publicly divorced. But they've always had feelings for each other. and things don't go as planned.

Lenker has a nice sense of the 1930s, and so many of the things the actors endured back then (including the casting couch and pleasing gossip columnists, even if the latter costs your soul). In the end, though, I felt a bit empty.

book icon  Pony, R. J. Palacio
Silas Bird is an unusual 12-year-old. Some years earlier he was struck by lightning and survived. Brought up in a solitary cabin by his photographer father in the 1860s, one night rough riders abduct his father to help with some sort of project that will make him a fortune. His father tells him to wait at the cabin until he returns, but after two days he packs up and mounts the bald-faced pony the kidnappers had brought with them and then apparently escaped. The pony leads him—and his "imaginary companion" Mittenwool—to a wood where he teams up with a grizzled marshal looking for counterfeiters, and this is only the beginning of Silas' adventure. Silas is a very peculiar boy and I was irritated by the narrative at first, but the story soon becomes very compelling.

Warning: some people have had problems with this story because there's a very subtle gay character in it. Big deal.

book icon  The Best American Travel Writing 2021, edited by Padma Lakshmi
I don't know what possessed me to buy this book after what happened in 2020...but I was pleasantly surprised! Many of the essays had to do with staying home during the pandemic and missing travel or discovering new things about staying at home, or what happened to travelers during the pandemic, like the first story about quarantine on a cruise ship "Mississippi: A Poem, in Days" and "Out There, Nobody Can Hear You Scream" are the two best, and most sobering, essays about Black travelers and the challenges they still face in America's tourist places. Deep sea diving, the residents of Las Vegas, bathhouses, traveling and suicide—I don't think I caught a bad essay here.

book icon  Heat Rises, Richard Castle
This is the third in the series of "Nikki Heat" novels supposedly written by the author hero of the television series Castle. The stories are basically extended Castle stories with the characters' names changed and a couple of tweaks. Kate Beckett = sexy Nikki Heat, Richard Castle = magazine journalist Jameson Rook (Castle/Rook, get it?), Captain Montgomery = Captain Montrose, Ryan and Esposito = Raley and Ochoa, Laney Parish = Lauren Parry. (Rook's mom is also an actress, and has a part in this novel as well.) In this outing, Heat is called to a crime scene at a bondage dungeon where the victim turns out to be a priest. As she works on the case, she's supported by someone from "higher up"—until she gets too close to information no one wants revealed. Surprisingly complicated and nonstop plot includes a nail-biting chase through one of the tunnels under Central Park. Really enjoyed this one.

book icon  Yesterday's Britain: The Illustrated Story of How We Lived, Worked and Played, by Reader's Digest
This is a delicious coffee-table sized book (a little over 300 pages) summing up the years 1900-1979 (with a brief coda to the end of the 20th century) in Great Britain starting with chat about the new century, through agonizing Edwardian fashions to the terror and carnage of "the Great War" to the sparkling Twenties that landed, like the United States in a 1930s crash, to explode into World War II.

As usual with these books, I get bored once I get to the 50s with all the rock and roll and later hippie stuff, but it's all good with photos, pamphlets, maps, advertisements, and personal recollections. Found this at the library book sale. Would love if there was one for France...I wonder!

book icon  Her Name, Titanic, Charles Pellegrino
This is a nifty combination of a narrative of the voyage of the Titanic alternating with Pellegrino's interviews of Bob Ballard and the story of how Ballard and his crew found the wreckage of the doomed liner. Even if you've already read other Titanic books, Pellegrino's narrative of the night of April 14, 1912, is compelling and interesting, and even contains trivia I didn't know. The latter includes Pellegrino talking about his dad, who worked on the Minuteman missile program. There's an interesting parallel introduced by Pellegrino between the Titanic and the space shuttle Challenger, since both were done in by ice.

Not your typical Titanic book!