Friday, December 27, 2013

The Haunted Dolls: an anthology selected by Seon Manley and Gogo Lewis

I thoroughly enjoyed this collection of haunted doll stories. Of course, I liked some of the stories more than others, but I only found one boring.

My favorites were The Dressmaker's Doll by Agatha Christie, that master of mystery, and The Doll's Ghost by F. Marion Crawford. In the first, a large doll seems to be changing locations in a dressmaker's shop without assistance from any humans, thoroughly disturbing those who work in the shop. It has a delightful ending I didn't see coming. In the second, the ghost of a doll visits the man who repaired her as he frets over his missing human child.

The delightful and poignant Steadfast Tin Soldier by Hans Christian Andersen is also included. Not all of the stories are genuinely creepy, but some of them are.

Scattered throughout the book are delightful drawings of little girls and their dolls. It is worth flipping through just for the art. A definite recommend for any fan of dolls, or anyone creeped out by them.  You can find it at the Galesburg Public Library in the fiction section under Manley, Sean.

The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon

The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon is set in a Vermont town of "strange disappearances and old legends." Key to the plot is a mysterious structure known as the Devil's Hand. ("The Devil's Hand, people called it, the ledge of rock that stuck up out of the ground like a giant hand, fingers rising from the earth. Haunted land, people said. A place where monsters dwelled." p. 21)

I wanted to like this book more than I did. It is very readable, but I was put off by some plot points meant to confuse the issue that were never explained to my satisfaction. The text is nicely atmospheric and the mystery imaginative. There are some nice character touches; I particularly liked the character of a recent widow, Katherine, and her building of dioramas. The narrative goes back and forth between the early 1900s and the present day and includes chapters from a secret diary written in 1908 which is known to be missing key pages.

The Winter People reminded me a bit of The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (which I also wanted to like more than I did). If you like a strange tale with touches of folklore and other-worldly mystery, you might enjoy The Winter People.

I read an advance reading copy of The Winter People. It is scheduled to be published in February 2014.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Venetia by Georgette Heyer

Venetia is a delightful Georgette Heyer regency romance first published in 1958. Venetia is old (25) and unmarried. For reasons that become clear later in the book, she was kept out of society on her family's rural estate rather than going to London to come out. She is beautiful and intelligent and knows her own mind. She lives with her lame younger brother and manages the family estate while her older brother enjoys himself elsewhere. She has two local admirers, who she describes with mirth as "worthy" and "excessively romantic." She considers marrying one just because her options are limited, but she knows she cannot love him.

Although she is green, she is well read, and she does not consider herself a complete innocent. She is independent and headstrong, and on a walk unchaperoned to pick berries, she runs into the rake who owns the estate next to her family's. He is not even a reformed rake, but they quickly discover they have sympathetic minds and become good friends, to the horror of all who know her.

Lord Damerel has never seduced an innocent and never means to, which puts him in a quandry when he finds himself falling in love with Venetia. Like all good reformed or reforming rakes, he means to give her up for her own good.

Although a little draggy in the middle, the plot takes unexpected twists and arrives at a delightful conclusion. I recommend Venetia for any reader who likes an old-fashioned, gentle romance in the manner of Jane Austen.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Deepest Secret by Carla Buckley

The Lattimores work at being as “normal” a family as possible within the strictures of caring for a son with Xeroderma pigmentosum (XP), a rare genetic disorder that causes extreme sensitivity to ultraviolet light. Only 40% of individuals with XP survive beyond age 20. For Eve, this means doing everything possible to protect Tyler, whatever the consequences. She muses,

“How is a parent supposed to balance the needs of a healthy child against a fragile one? It can’t ever be equal—not the time, nor the resources, nor the hours lying awake in the dark consumed by tangled thoughts—but the love can be exactly the same. The love has always been split precisely down the middle, an effortless divide. Melissa knows this. She must know this.”

But like most fourteen-year-old boys, Tyler is increasingly resisting mom’s efforts to swaddle him, like most sixteen-year-olds, Melissa still needs her mother. Husband David works out-of-town and the physical distance is beginning to influence an emotional distance, and the neighbors in their quiet street, who each have their own secrets, are increasingly reluctant to abide by the requests of Eve to use special light bulbs in their outdoor fixtures, especially in the wake of a tragedy that puts everyone on edge. In raising a son whose day, of necessity, starts at sunset, Eve convinces herself that his life relies on her, so what is she to do when the consequences of her actions might remove her from him?

I found The Deepest Secret a quick read and I appreciated Buckley’s handling of the differing viewpoints in the dilemma facing all parents—loving and letting go. I read an uncorrected proof, so the encapsulating quote above may be changed by the time the book goes on sale on February 4, 2014.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns by Margaret Dilloway

Galilee Garner, the narrator of Margaret Dilloway’s novel The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns, is a complex individual. Named by her parents after a “hippie” trip to the Holy Land in the 1970s, she prefers to go by Gal.  She is a high school biology teacher in her mid-thirties who has suffered from kidney failure since she was a child. In her spare time, she breeds roses, hoping to create a new rose that will win prizes and be sold to the consumer market.

The book’s title is a little heavy handed; okay, we get it, Gal is as prickly as the thorny roses she breeds. But she is worth getting to know. I liked that the book’s narrator is herself somewhat unlikable. She felt more believable because of her difficult personality traits. She lives a rigid life – she has to, because of her kidney failure – which causes issues with her best friend and with the principal at her school.

Gal has a sister Becky. Becky has always been spacey, irresponsible, and a user of drugs and alcohol. She has been a neglectful mother to her one child, Riley, and soon after the book begins Riley arrives unannounced at Gal’s school. Becky’s job is sending her to Hong Kong for several months, so she has sent her daughter to live with Gal. Now, in addition to work, kidney dialysis, and rose breeding, Gal is thrust into the role of Riley’s guardian.

I enjoyed the relationship between Gal and Riley and found it quite believable. The information about undergoing kidney dialysis and breeding roses seemed well researched. Even Becky, who is unsympathetic in many ways, is well rounded as we come to understand how difficult it was for her growing up, competing for her parents’ attention with her sick sister Gal.

I thought a possible romance for Gal was superfluous but aside from that I found the plot interesting and credible. I wanted to know what happened next. I like a book without a neat, tidy ending, and this book’s ending was satisfactory without everything wrapping up perfectly for Gal.

If you are a gardener or someone who enjoys novels about interesting characters and family relationships, you might enjoy Margaret Dilloway’s The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns. The library's book clubs had excellent discussions about this book.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Death Comes to the Village by Catherine Lloyd.

Death Comes to the Village is a promising start to a new Regency mystery series. It took me a little while to become engaged by the two main characters, Robert and Lucy, but I liked them both very much by the end.

Major Robert Kurland has returned to his village home after being gravely injured at Waterloo. He is still recovering and unable to walk. Miss Lucy Harrington, eldest daughter of the rector, is frustrated by her role as the female head of household since her mother is dead, She is stuck looking after the other children and the household affairs and is taken for granted by her father, but she does enjoy her visits to check in on Major Kurland. Then a little mystery to solve engages them both.

I can't describe this book as a mystery-romance, but the groundwork was laid for a romance in future entries in the series. I figured out the "mystery" fairly early, but I enjoyed the character development, historical descriptions, and dialogue. This is a slow moving book to relax into, not a fast-paced adventure that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

As an ex-proofreader, I lament the lack of proofreading these days. I saw a number of confusing errors in this book. For example, at one point (p. 265) a character named Daisy says, "Daisy tried to break things off with him in a letter before he came back, but from all accounts, he didn't take it very well." It should say Mary instead of Daisy; this is an easy mistake for an author to make, but a good editorial review should have caught it.

I had just finished the most recent book in Anna Dean's Dido Kent series when I saw this on the library's shelf and grabbed it to read. It's not quite as good as the Dean series, but I was entertained by it and look forward to the next book in the series. I recommend it to lovers of gentle Regency mystery or romance.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Bill Bryson's One Summer: America, 1927

Bryson, Bill.  One Summer: America, 1927.  New York: Doubleday, 2013. 453 p.


            Bill Bryson’s One Summer is one of those rare popular histories that, with its rich, nostalgic vignettes, could single-handedly seduce readers into more in-depth studies.  In light, engaging prose, Bryson takes readers on a chronological journey through one of the most memorable summers in our nation’s history.  In 1927, Bryson reminds us, Americans boasted of an internationally-famous aviator (Charles Lindbergh), baseball players (Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig), tennis player (Bill Tilden), and boxer (Jack Dempsey).  The primacy of so many Yanks was important collectively as well, since “Americans in the 1920s had grown up in a world in which most of the most important things happened in Europe.”  However, in One Summer, the stories of the not-so famous, or not-so remembered, perhaps, make the tale especially engaging.  Richard Byrd’s feats of aviation, Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray’s murderous peccadillo, and the teenaged Philo Farnsworth’s development of that other national pastime – television – all make appearances, enriching the more familiar stories of flying and baseball that anchor the work. 

In retrospect, the summer of trans-Atlantic flights and home run battles seems a bright, quaint spot just before the fall, and Bryson does well to examine the questionable banking practices leading to the 1929 market crash.  But this was a summer, too, of obsessions: prohibition and killer “gin,” of Al Capone, Percy Fawcett’s ill-fated Amazonian search for the Lost City of Z, the nationwide promotion of eugenics, and anarchist bombings.  One Summer gives readers a glimpse of the macabre, dark side of the glittering 1920s, exploring complexities of the era with the readability of a best-selling novel.

One Summer provoked a fustian and aggrieved review by David Brinkley in the Washington Post’s pages, while David Shribman of the Boston Globe called into question Bryson’s characterization of Calvin Coolidge.  Brinkley’s poorly researched polemic leaves propriety and light at naught, calling into question both the temper and validity of his comments, while Shribman’s lone negative remark relies on a fairly recent and mostly unexamined reading of Coolidge’s legacy.  Other than these, however, the work has been well-received by the academy and armchair historians alike. 

Bryson’s aim in One Summer is to paint a picture of a singularly “extraordinary summer,” and with few exceptions, he succeeds.  The work moves handily from character to character, and though Bryson struggles to close these stories neatly in the epilogue, the larger challenge is contextualizing the fascinating stories and alternately lovable and despicable cast of seeming thousands.  For readers who wish to explore the copious primary and secondary sources cited, there is a 119-page online appendix of notes to the work, but one might wish too for a “recommended reading” section to round out the era.  Among a handful of scholarly monographs, Lynn Dumenil’s The Modern Temper: American Society and Culture in the 1920s serves well to help sate the hungry reader whose appetite is whetted here.  Even alone, One Summer should make its way onto the to-read list of anyone with a passing interest in the history and culture of the inter-war years.  Put on some Hammerstein, Kern, and Gershwin, pour yourself a French 75, and settle in for a fascinating romp through the summer of 1927.  -  Kristy Howell