Monday, September 28, 2009

History's Mysteries

Reviewed by Susan Wolfe

The Dance of Death (Roger the Chapman Mysteries) by Kate Sedley

Nothing beats a good mystery. And history is chocked full of ‘em. That’s why I get excited whenever one of my favorite “history mystery” writers hits a home run. Kate Sedley is one of the best. She doesn’t disappoint with her latest – The Dance of Death. (Honestly, they are all excellent)

Set in one of England’s most pivotal times…just before the discovery of America... England was in turmoil. Edward IV is in decline, his treacherous wife and her greedy Woodville family are always up to no good. It’s a dangerous time to live and especially so if you have a curious mind, like Roger. Edward’s brother, Richard of Gloucester, will eventually seize the throne, becoming known as Richard III, Shakespeare’s murderer of the “Little Princes.” Villain? Maybe not. Even today, people either love Richard or hate him. (Believe it or not, there are Richard III re-enactor clubs.) But for this series, Roger sometimes works for him to solve a mystery. Now Roger is a chapman, a peddler of sorts. He can travel all over England and always somehow stumbles over a mystery that needs solving. Sometimes he is assigned to one by Richard of Gloucester, sometimes not.

In The Dance of Death, Roger becomes a reluctant spy. If the rumors are true about the king’s parentage, then Richard is the rightful heir to the throne. The answer appears to rest in France. Roger cannot speak French and he is on vacation with his very pregnant wife. Last thing he wants is to be drafted into finding any evidence about these allegations. Reluctantly, he is assigned with locating an informant in France described as a “former soldier living in Paris”. Plus he must pretend he’s married to an attractive spy who tried to kill him on a previous mission. Both the preparations for the trip and the trip itself are marked by several murders, almost including Rogers. It is a rollicking adventure with a lot twists and turns. Funny, and full of historical detail. These mysteries are like cookies, you just want to keep on reading them.

1. Death and the Chapman (1991)
2. The Plymouth Cloak (1992)
3. The Hanged Man aka The Weaver's Tale (1993)
4. The Holy Innocents (1994)
5. The Eve of Saint Hyacinth (1995)
6. The Wicked Winter (1995)
7. The Brothers of Glastonbury (1997)
8. The Weaver's Inheritance (1998)
9. The Saint John's Fern (1999)
10. The Goldsmith's Daughter (2001)
11. The Lammas Feast (2002)
12. Nine Men Dancing (2003)
13. The Midsummer Rose (2004)
14. The Burgundian's Tale (2005)
15. Prodigal Son (2006)
16. The Three Kings of Cologne (2007)
17. The Green Man (2008)
18. The Dance of Death (2009)

Saturday, September 19, 2009

A Slice Of Country Life

Reviewed by Nancy

It all started in the spring of 1902 when the Walker family disembarked from the steam train at McMinnville, Oregon. Lured by colorful advertisements posted by the railroad companies, and magazine and newspaper articles lauding the good life to be found in Oregon, the family left their sod house on the Kansas prairie and started a new life.

In A Slice Of Country Life: 1902-1915 (979.5 WAL Main), George F. Walker tells the story of his family's adventures as the owners of the Buell country store and the 27 acre farm they acquired with it. The store was in the rural community of Buell, Oregon, on the east-west route across the state, midway between Salem, the state capitol, and the coast.

George Walker was four years old when this odyssey began. It is to me astonishing how much things have changed in the last hundred years or so, and George Walker's book drives that point home. The water source for his family was a well about 150 feet from the house. Water was drawn up by a bucket on a rope and carried up a hill to the house. As George puts it, "There was no flush." The restroom facility was an outhouse with a crescent cut in the door, usually equipped with a Sears Roebuck Company catalogue from the previous year "often used down to the slick pages of the harness section." Just ponder that for a moment, and the bathroom in your home will look pretty good.

Mr. Walker relates anecdotes regarding daily life in the store and on the farm, detailing how crops were planted, equipment repaired, and medical problems addressed. To write his book George held the pen with a crooked index finger, the crooked finger being the result of a farming accident. George was feeding corn into a cutting box, a box with two blades inside used to cut up corn for cow feed, when he managed also to feed his hand into the box where it was mangled by the blades.

His mother cleansed the nearly severed finger with turpentine and bandaged it without a splint. It healed, but healed crookedly. In these times, this is hard to imagine. What if I half chopped off a finger in the paper cutter at work and then insisted that we just cleanse it with turpentine and bandage it up rather than going to the doctor? The workman's comp people would have a fit. And I imagine library management might want to send me somewhere for mental evaluation.

Mr. Walker relates the story of his first viewing of an automobile and his first ride in that automobile. He also provides details about rural social life, card and parlor games that were played at get-togethers, and the excitement that was brought about when Mr. Nathan Blair, a member of the community, bought a deluxe model Edison phonograph. A date was set for a party at the local school, and Mr. Blair provided music with his phonograph.

When Mr. Walker was twelve years old, advance men for Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show came to Buell to put up advertising posters. In exchange for allowing them to display the posters in the Buell country store, the advance men gave Mr. Walker's father two tickets to the event which was to take place in Salem. Compared to the tiny crossroads of Buell, Salem was a metropolis, located twenty-five or thirty miles away.

George and his older brother, Clarence, rose early the morning of the Wild West Show. By six A.M. they had finished their farm chores. They then rode their bikes twelve miles to the town of Dallas, where they left their bikes at a livery stable (yes, I said livery stable. If you're so young you don't know what a livery stable is, look it up.) After stabling the bikes, they boarded a train for the remainder of the trip to Salem. Not only was this George's first circus and Wild West Show, it was his first ride on a train as well.

Mr. Walker is a great storyteller, and it is fortunate for the rest of us that he decided to write A Slice Of Country Life.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

BBL: Whimsy Were the Borogroves (with apologies to Lewis Carroll)

“As My Whimsy Takes Me” is, according to Dorothy Sayers, Lord Peter Wimsey’s family motto and a perfect title for this collection of short reviews. (Let it be added that Lord Peter’s coat of arms features a cat on the crest, watching three scampering mice, which makes it even more appropriate for me to cite it here and not just because one of my felines left a “gift” on the sidewalk.) Today’s reviews are a collection of whimsical items that caught my fancy and I hope you will enjoy them as well:

Gnomeland: An Introduction to the Little People by Margaret Egleton (398.45 EGL Main)
Note: this review is written by a person who has pink flamingos in the garden
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, gnomes seem to pop up everywhere. We expect to encounter one in most garden shops but the Travelocity spokesgnome was a bit of a surprise. That’s nothing beside the diverse denizens of Gnomeland. There are Disney gnomes (think the Seven Dwarves), soccer-playing gnomes, bathing beauty gnomes, naughty gnomes, and even political gnomes. (There are several different George W. Bush gnomes, some sporting a Texas-shaped belt buckle.) Gnomes are a world-wide phenomenon: they can be found all over Europe, North and South America, and even Antarctica. Australia seems to be particularly fond of gnomes, harboring several large gnome gardens and organizations dedicated to preservation and proliferation of gnomes. Beautifully illustrated with color photographs, this book is a delightful look at the history and lore of the “little people.” Even if you think gnomes are tackiness personified (the book says they’ve “been restored to their rightful place of kitsch honor”) you’ll smile at some of the creative ways people have used gnomes. It may just inspire you to add a gnome or two to your own garden. Or not.

I Can Has Cheezburger? : A LOLcat Collekshun by Eric Nakagawa and Kari Unebasami (818.54 NAK Main)
O hai! (Hi!) Once upon a time, a photo of a chubby, hopeful gray cat was posted on the internet with a caption: “I can has cheezburger?” This was part of the inspiration for the website where folks post photos of cats, dogs and other animals and allow others to invent captions for them. If you have email, you’ve probably already received some examples. The phonetic spelling and odd phrasing can be off-putting at first, but as I became used to that particular affectation I found that to be part of the charm. The gray cat, dubbed Professor Happycat, offers lessons in LOL (Laugh Out Loud) speak throughout the book. (In case you were wondering about the title of this column, yes, BBL is also LOLspeak/internet slang for “Be Back Later.” There’s a story behind that as well, but I digress. ) Charming photos and clever captions make this a great way to spend a few minutes, and may inspire some photo sessions with your own pets. (I have visions of my Melon becoming a LOLcat posterkitteh at some point. Melon’s visions may differ. Yes, that's Melon with the bunny ears above.) As this collection proves, even less-than-perfect photos can bring a grin with the right comment. K thx bai. (Okay, thanks, bye.)

The Cats’ House
by Bob Walker (636.8 WAL Main)
Once upon a time, a nice man who liked cats married a nice lady who liked cats. Right after the wedding they went out and adopted a nice cat. However, it turned out that the nice cat was bored at home by himself during the day and amused himself by ransacking the house, especially the kitchen. So the nice couple went out and adopted ANOTHER nice cat to keep the first cat company and the next thing they knew they had quite a lot of nice cats and one nice dog. They decided they would like to make their house a nice place for cats.

The results are for all to see in this amazing book, which I have to say is one of my favorites. If I ever win the lottery, I’m going to use it for a blueprint for my new abode. The house is a rainbow of colors with climbing beams, cat trees, cat stairs, and “mouse holes” in the walls for the cats to move from room to room and, of course, cat themed décor. The Walkers are also avid collectors of Mexican folk art and have painted the house and furniture in vibrant color combinations that simply have to be seen. (Cable viewers may have seen this house on some of the extreme home shows.)

While the text is delightful, it’s the gorgeous full color photographs of cats and house that make this book a visual treat. My favorite sequence has to be the time-lapse photos of the couple sleeping, surrounded by an ever changing assortment of felines. A close second would be the shots, apparently taken from underneath a glass table, of the cats licking milk.

While instructions for making your own cat items are included. The instructions appear very complete and easy for any competent woodworker, which explains why I haven’t attempted any of these. I just admire from afar.

And yes, I own my own copy of this book.

Who the Hell is Pansy O’Hara? The Fascinating Stories Behind 50 of the World’s Best-Loved Books by Jenny Bond & Chris Sheedy (820.9 BON Main)
This is a collection Paul Harvey would have loved! Short, addictive chapters give brief biographies of fifty different authors and some little-known facts about their best-known work. The books are arranged chronologically from Pride and Prejudice to The DaVinci Code in fiction and from Johnson’s English Dictionary to A Brief History of Time in non-fiction. Imagine the fun you’ll have making friends guess which world famous author was so poor he couldn’t afford a telephone so the publisher had to notify him by telegram that he’d sold his first book or which author’s love letters were torn to bits so a jealous wife couldn’t read them—but she did anyway, by carefully piecing the bits back together. (The reconstructed letters still exist.)

As promised in the title, you do find out which heroine was originally named Pansy until the author reconsidered. Thank goodness she did!

Reviews by Jeanne

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Roberts' Formula Equals Satisfaction

BLACK HILLS by Nora Roberts

When you pick up a Nora Roberts book, you know what you are getting. There’s a smart, pretty, feisty heroine. The gorgeous hero will be someone who makes her really mad but for whom she feels this immediate “pull." There will be snappy dialogue, some kind of mystery or adventure, and some scintillating sex that only occasionally gets raunchy. Black Hills continues that formula as only Nora Roberts can.

Remember that old cliché that you never get over your first love? Roberts takes that idea, plants it in the Black Hills of South Dakota on a horse ranch, and lets nature take it course. Coop is an eleven year old New Yorker who is angry that he has been shipped off to his grandparents’ ranch for the summer because of his parents’ messed up relationship. He is also pretty sure no one really loves him. Lil is a wide-open-spaces child of two loving parents who are neighbors and friends to Coop’s grandparents, and she knows an injured critter when she sees one. In one dinner and a game of baseball, these children become inseparable friends.

Through the years Coop returns to visit his grandparents whom he has come to love deeply and the girl who is his best friend. At eighteen Coop and Lil are passionately in love, but that path is more than rocky. A horrible discovery mars their last summer together, and Coop’s strained relationship with a domineering father causes him to break things off with Lil “for her own good.” Lil goes on to become a world-renown biologist and expert on big cats who establishes a nature preserve on her family land. Coop becomes a police officer and then sets up his own security company in the wake of his police partner’s death. Yet, for both of them, something fundamental is missing from their lives.

Twelve years after leaving Lil devastated, Coop comes back to the Hills. Drawn back into Lil’s world and the only place he has ever felt loved, Coop sets out to reclaim her heart. Stalling his efforts is someone tied to that horrible discovery made years ago who may be a serial killer and deadly threats on Lil’s life. Lil and Coop find it is easy to work together to find a murderer, but very hard to get past the old hurts and misunderstandings. Will love triumph in the end? Will our hero save the girl? Come on folks, this is a Nora Roberts book! Of course it all works out: it just takes awhile to get there.

Critics haven’t particularly liked this Roberts romance. Some have felt the story lags and the characters are not up to her usual standards. The question has been raised that perhaps the Queen of Romance is turning out books too quickly to maintain her quality. My feeling is that I read Nora Roberts as an escape. If I want reality, I will watch CNN. While it may not be her best romance, I enjoyed the friendships which Roberts always does well and the animals. I like Lil better than Coop, but I can see in Coop all the reasons Lil would love him. As I said before, it is a Nora Roberts book. If you are a fan, you know what you are going to get, and you like the formula.

Black Hills is available at both the main library and our Avoca branch.

Reviewed by Doris