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Mrs. Roosevelt's Confidante: A Maggie Hope Mystery
Mrs. Roosevelt's Confidante: A Maggie Hope Mystery
by Susan Elia MacNeal
Edition: Paperback
Price: $7.86

5.0 out of 5 stars Back in the USA, September 2, 2015
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I always enjoy spending time with Maggie Hope, and the fifth adventure is no exception. In this outing her code-breaking and espionage skills have taken her back across the Atlantic to the US, her childhood home, ostensibly to act as Winston Churchill’s secretary while he confers with President Roosevelt in Washington DC. The attack on Pearl Harbor means America has finally joined the fight, but someone is threatening the joint war effort by trying discredit Mrs. Roosevelt with a manufactured scandal, so Maggie is temporarily assigned to the First Lady’s staff to make sure nothing jeopardizes the Allied alliance.

I greatly enjoyed the fictional portrayals of FDR and Eleanor, and we finally get to meet the aunt who raised Maggie in Boston, an outspoken women who firmly believes her niece's prodigious intellectual abilities are being wasted in her job as Winston’s “secretary”. Other historical figures in the book include German rocket maker Wernher von Braun and, surprising to me, Walt Disney, who apparently took time away from Mickey Mouse and his cartoon friends to make propaganda films for the US government.

As always the story skillfully weaves multiple plotlines and points of view, which allows readers to keep up with the actions of Maggie’s Nazi mother and eccentric genius father back in England. Romance is in the mix, but not the focus, and while this book isn’t as dark as some of the early volumes it still addresses serious issues, most notably racism. The series is following the events of WWII closely, so I appreciate the Historical Notes at the end of the book that separate fact from fiction and name the author’s sources. I love this series--the books keep me glued to the page and have greatly enhanced my understanding of WWII dynamics.

Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them
Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them
by Nancy Marie Brown
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $15.69
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5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating history, September 1, 2015
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When ninety-three meticulously carved, 12th century, walrus ivory chessmen were discovered in the decidedly protestant sands of Scotland’s Isle of Lewis in 1831, a haul that included 16 alarmingly Catholic-looking bishops, no one knew where they had come from (Fairies?), and while we still aren’t sure of their origins today there are some passionately held theories, a subject that this book explores in fascinating detail.

The chessmen themselves are fantastic looking, with distinct irresistible facial expressions and elaborate garments. The kings and queens sit on ornate thrones, the knights are astride pony-size horses--which were all they had in northern Europe at that time--and the rooks are wild-eyed berserkers biting their shields with crooked teeth. You’ve seen replicas of these chessmen if you watched Ron and Harry play wizard chess in the first Harry Potter movie. My edition of the book, a free advanced review copy supplied by the publisher, had just a few black and white photos. I don’t know if the finished book will have more, but it’s easy (and well worth it) to find images on the internet.

Ancient ‘‘sea roads” have long connected people who lived in what are now the British Isles and Scandinavia, and I greatly enjoyed reading about the interconnections, religious networks, and cultural exchanges this made possible. Origin contenders for the chessmen include Norway, Scotland, and--after extensive research author Nancy Marie Brown's favorite possibility--Iceland, where they may have been created by Margret the Adroit who is said to have carved walrus ivory “so skillfully that none in Iceland had ever seen such artistry before.” That line comes from the Saga of Bishop Pall, possibly written by Pall’s son Loft (friend of Icelandic saga master Snorri Sturluson) which would give it some historical credibility.

In exploring the genesis of the chessmen, Brown delves deeply into the stories, histories, and personalities of the past, both the 12th century when they were created and the 19th century when they were found, and she also reports on debates about the chessmen that continue to this day--some Scottish nationalists believe the The British Museum should return its 82 pieces to Scotland. I don’t have much personal investment in who exactly created the chessman, which meant that some of the more exacting details didn’t hold my attention, but most of the book completely captivated me.

The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015
The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015
by Joe Hill
Edition: Paperback
Price: $8.39

5.0 out of 5 stars Diverse mix of well written, mind expanding stories, August 30, 2015
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I was happy to see that this collection of short stories contains a diverse mix of mind-expanding, "wonder"-filled science fiction and fantasy sub-genres, which means I didn't love all of them but I didn't expect to.

Jo Walton's story Sleeper is set in 2064 and starts with a man regaining consciousnesses, or more exactly with an entity believing itself to be a man regaining something like consciousness, and while I can't say anything more without giving away spoilers it's one of the best short stories I've read anywhere. Neil Gaiman's witty story How the Marquis Got His Coat Back is set in London Below, the world of his book and TV show Nevermore, and when Seanan McGuire's atmospheric story Each to Each began I thought it was in outer space, but it actually takes place deep in the ocean.

Those were among my favorites, but all the stories are well written. The other authors in the collection are Sofia Sanatar, Carmen Maria Machado, Cat Rambo, Karen Russell, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Theodora Goss, Susan Palwick, Adam-Troy Castro, Sam J. Miller, Daniel H. Wilson, Nathan Ballingrud, Kelly Link, Jess Row, Kelly Sandoval, T. C. Boyle, and A. Merc Rustad, who finishes the collection with the aptly titled story How to Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps.

Gateway to Yellowstone: The Raucous Town of Cinnabar on the Montana Frontier
Gateway to Yellowstone: The Raucous Town of Cinnabar on the Montana Frontier
by Lee Whittlesey
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.96
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5.0 out of 5 stars Detailed, fascinating, entertaining, August 28, 2015
Though hundreds of newspaper articles had already been written about Yellowstone National Park, whipping up public interest around the world, before the railroad came to the town of Cinnabar, Montana in 1883 getting to the park was extremely difficult. This fascinating book tells the history of that town, which only existed for a few decades, but it also gives a picture of the whole country during the last part of the nineteenth century, a sense of what life in the West was like at that time, and through the individuals involved in the Cinnabar’s story it traces the country’s changing attitudes about wilderness areas, and what should be done with them.

At just less than 200 pages of text (there are many more pages of notes, and some photos), Gateway to Yellowstone is both detailed and entertaining. It’s the only book by Lee H Whittlesey I’ve read so far, but he’s probably best known for his book Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First national Park, which is so popular that the 1995 edition was updated in 2014.

I read an advanced review copy provided by the publisher through LibraryThing at no cost or obligation to me. Review opinions are mine.

War and Peace: Translated  by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Vintage Classics)
War and Peace: Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Vintage Classics)
Offered by Random House LLC
Price: $12.99

5.0 out of 5 stars The world in a book, August 26, 2015
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Henry James, not himself known for brevity of written expression, considered War and Peace a “large loose baggy monster, ” but each time I’ve read through Tolstoy’s 1000++ page rendering of the Napoleonic Wars era in Russia I’ve fallen completely under its spell. It’s an immense, sprawling literary adventure and I think this rendition by husband and wife team Richard Pevear (American) and Larissa Volokhonsky (Russian) is particularly good at capturing the nuances and beauty of Tolstoy’s writing. In defending War and Peace against its critics, Tolstoy claimed that it’s not a novel, not an epic poem, and not a historical chronicle, but is instead a convention straddling work of artistic prose whose form was dictated by its subject matter.

The book has lots (and lots) of main characters--many of my favorites in literature--and it involves readers deeply, even tenderly, in their lives, loves, hopes, struggles, and spiritual odysseys. There are battles, balls, evening soirees, and family estates ruined then resurrected, but the plot is only part of the story. Also included are philosophical digressions on the truths of life and death, discussions on the forces of history, rants about historians (people who subscribe to the “great man theory” will not find support from Tolstoy), and even a little battlefield algebra--but often these metaphysical excursions are made using capacious poetic metaphors and similes that make reading them a pure pleasure.

And did I mention that I love the characters? Though I have nothing against romance novels I never seem to enjoy them, but I swoon over the romances in War and Peace. It’s not a book without flaws. For one thing, now that I’m older, I noticed that in the Epilogue Tolstoy seems to write off people over sixty, and maybe Tolstoy spends too much time away from the plot while propounding his favorite theories. But having finished the book for the fourth time I’m sorry it’s over, and I know that after a few years go by I’ll be happily lost in its pages once more.

Hannah Arendt: A Life in Dark Times (Icons)
Hannah Arendt: A Life in Dark Times (Icons)
by Anne C. Heller
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $12.97
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5.0 out of 5 stars “Things looked different after she had looked at them”, August 25, 2015
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Short but deeply fascinating, this book about Hannah Arendt covers both her life and the evolution of her thinking in less than 140 pages. It opens with the controversy surrounding her coverage of the 1961 trial of Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann in Israel, and her pithy but divisive “banality of evil” observation, then cycles back to her turn of the century childhood in Prussia, where her highly educated, politically liberal, religiously agnostic family had established itself several generations previously after leaving czarist Russia.

Even as a child it was obvious Arendt possessed a prodigious intellect, but unsurprisingly that did not make her life easy. Her father died when she was seven and she had to flee Nazi Germany as a young woman, resettling first in Paris and later in the United States. Before leaving Germany she studied and had an affair with the Nazi involved philosopher Martin Heidegger, a relationship she had trouble renouncing even as she embraced her Jewish roots more and more avidly.

I was drawn right into this book. It was refreshing to read about someone devoted to the life of the mind rather than the pursuit of fame, political power, or wealth. Even though the book is not long it doesn’t feel slight because it plunges right into the heart of Arendt’s life and intellectual development. I have never read a book so copiously footnoted, all the author’s sources are cited right there in the text, which I appreciate but it did take some initial effort to not be distracted by them.

“Things looked different after she had looked at them . . . Thinking was her passion, and thinking for her was a moral activity.” Philosopher Hans Jonas on Hannah Arendt

Out on the Wire
Out on the Wire
Offered by Random House LLC
Price: $10.99

5.0 out of 5 stars The story of radio storymaking--with cartoon illustrations, August 25, 2015
This review is from: Out on the Wire (Kindle Edition)
Back in 1999, cartoonist and writer Jessica Abel wrote a slim but very interesting graphic novel-like book--maybe you’d call it a nonfiction comic book--about how the radio show This American Life creates its often irresistible stories, stories that lead to “driveway moments” where you’ve arrived home but can’t get out of the car because you must hear how those stories end. I’ve treasured my copy of Radio: An Illustrated Guide for years and now Abel has written a greatly expanded update.

At 200+ pages Abel’s new book, Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio, includes other American radio shows with high quality narrative nonfiction, shows like Snap Judgement, Radio Lab, Planet Money, The Moth, 99% Invisible, and Radio Diaries. The people who work on these shows are characters in the “story” of how they put together their various radio pieces, and Abel uses graphic images in ways that I didn’t expect but that really work well on several levels.

She shows herself interacting and in conversations with many of the radio people she interviewed for the book, creating dialog and pictures that give a sense of the personalities involved while also conveying information about the sometimes varied story processes the shows use--Snap Judgement and This American Life have very different philosophies for instance. Some of the picture panels are set in radio offices, meeting rooms, or broadcast areas, but Abel also puts her characters in a myriad of other more dramatic locations, including wandering around lost in a dense “German forest” and scaling a treacherously steep a rock cliff, images that vividly and charmingly illustrate the creative steps the characters are struggling through.

It’s both amazing and fascinating how much goes into making these shows as compelling as they are--it might take hours or even a whole workday to get 20 seconds right. I’m a big fan of radio, I think it’s natural for a bibliophile to treasure a medium where words play such a key role, so I already loved many of the radio shows in the book but I’m listening now with a lot more alertness and insight into the techniques behind the finished products.

The book is broken into chapters that explore how to: come up with story ideas that will work, find the right characters and voice, structure the story’s components, use sound and music to create images and scene breaks, and edit hours of tape (they still call it that, even in the digital age) into a tight radio segment. I think anyone interested in radio, the creative process, or what it is that makes stories riveting will find this book as fascinating as I did.

I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher through the website LibraryThing. Review opinions are mine.

The Feline Affair: An Incident Series Novelette
The Feline Affair: An Incident Series Novelette
Price: $0.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Back before the beginning--a time travel prequel, August 25, 2015
She’s back! After finishing the third and final novel in Neve Maslakovic’s Incident trilogy--a brain-tickling, time-traveling, whodunit series--I despaired of ever reading any new stories about unflappable university administrator Julia Olsen again, but she’s back in a new novelette . . . and back in time because it’s a prequel.

Someone in the university's biology department is stealing lunches from the common fridge, a minor but awkward crime for a collegial community of learning, and everyone in the time travel department is placing bets on whether or not physicist Erwin Schrödinger owned a pet cat when he came up with his quantum superposition thought experiment about a simultaneously alive and/or dead feline. A professor and two graduate students are heading back to 1935 to discreetly locate Schrödinger and settle the wagers, but Julia herself doesn’t actually leave the present day in this story since it predates her first trip into History, told in The Far Time Incident.

Even though Julia is only able to fantasize about time travel in The Feline Affair, this novelette will give new readers a good sense of the writing style and tone of the series. For those of us who’ve already enjoyed three full length books, it’s great to be back at St. Sunniva University, and entertaining to see earlier versions of characters we’ve gotten to know well. This series is for readers who like time travel stories peopled with eccentric academic historian types--it has pervasive but subtle humor, space/time conundrums, adventures in interesting historic eras, and just a light, non-torrid background romance.

I read a complimentary ebook copy of this novelette provided by the author with no strings attached. Review opinions are mine.

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States
Lafayette in the Somewhat United States
by Sarah Vowell
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $14.92

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sharply humorous, insightful, and stirring, August 20, 2015
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Sarah Vowell’s acerbic, insightful wit comes through loud and clear in this fascinating account of French General Lafayette and his role in the American Revolution, but it took me a while to adjust to her irreverent banter in print--as well as being an author Vowell is also known for her radio pieces on This American Life. This book runs almost 270 pages without any chapter breaks, and reads like the long-winded but mesmerizing stand-up routine of a highly knowledgeable, history obsessed comedian who knows how to use humor to make a point.

Lafayette was still a teenager when he left his young bride behind and snuck out of France to join the American Revolution against the wishes of his family, but he ended up becoming such a key figure in the winning of the war that cities all over the country are named for him. Vowell has a special knack for revealing the personalities of the many historical figures she writes about, their foibles, revealing quirks, and strengths. Since Lafayette had a close relationship with George Washington he features prominently in the book and I really appreciated getting a clearer picture of the man behind the myth. Vowell even manages to make battles and military strategy interesting, in part by keeping her focus on the people involved, and in part by not overlooking the missteps or ironies of the situations.

Vowell finds plenty of opportunities to relate the struggles of the Revolutionary period to American politics today, pointing out that many current ideological divisions and tendencies have an origin, or at least an analog, dating back to the founding of the country. The book also covers the aftereffects of the Revolutionary War in France and Britain, and the America of 1824, which was when John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson competed in a notorious presidential election and the then elderly Lafayette made a return trip to the country that was still so besotted with him that two thirds of the population of New York City welcomed him ashore. While researching the book Vowell visited historic sites in America and France and she takes readers along on those trips too, giving us her impressions of tourist destinations like Williamsburg and Valley Forge while relating what happened there in the past.

In this book Vowell manages the neat trick of being both funny and stirring. She clearly loves history, and she makes it very easy to join her in that passion.

Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins
Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins
by Susan Casey
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $15.68
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ancient ocean tribes, August 18, 2015
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Susan Casey’s Voices in the Ocean made me fall deeply in love with dolphins, those intelligent, highly social mammals of the sea, then tore my heart out by describing the appalling abuses they receive at the hands of our species. Deeply sad after her father died unexpectedly, Casey was in the middle of a perhaps ill advised solo swim across Honolua Bay when she encountered a large pod, forty or fifty animals, of gently chattering spinner dolphins swimming toward her. Instead of just passing by, they swam with her for a while, lifting her spirits almost like magic and setting her on a worldwide dolphin odyssey.

Casey traveled to some wonderfully quirky places, like the new-agey Dolphinville on Hawaii’s Big Island, where 200-some people live, work, meditate, and swim with wild dolphins together. But she also visited marine parks and tourist pleasing “swim with the dolphins” sites, where community-loving dolphins are isolated and kept in slave like conditions, and she connected with dolphin activists in several parts of the world where dolphins are slaughtered in mass numbers, often because it’s believed they eat fish that should be food for people and sometimes, even more horribly, just for spite. Sea pollution and the US Navy’s underwater sonar are other human activities that have had a devastating impact on dolphins.

Along the way Casey sought out researchers who’ve studied dolphins, so the book is a mixture of science, history, personal experience, and social commentary. It’s beautifully and movingly written, and I especially loved reading about the evolutionary background of dolphins, the special qualities their large brains endow them with, the eons long and mostly wonderful history of human-dolphin interactions, and the fascinating characteristics of dolphin societies--Casey compares them to an ancient tribe.

The abuses were painful to read about, but I’m glad to be better informed. And Casey ends the book on an up note by summarizing what is known about the intriguing, apparently dolphin-loving Minoan civilization and describing her visit to the art-rich Minoan archaeological sites and museums of Santorini and Crete-- Minoan art is both colorful and beautiful, and definitely worth Google-imaging.

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