Book Review: The Case of the Missing Marquess by Nancy Springer


Author: Nancy Springer
Title: The Case of the Missing Marquess: An Enola Holmes Mystery
Narrator: Katherine Kellgren
Publication Info: Recorded Books, Inc., 2006
Summary/Review:

The upcoming Enola Holmes movie on Netflix made me aware of the existence of this first book in a series about Sherlock Holme’s sister.  I’ve read all of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes writings and numerous non-canonical works by other writers, and this is definitely a good addition to that body of work.  Enola Holmes is certainly more interesting than the mystery sister introduced in the BBC’s deeply-flawed final series of Sherlock, who also had an odd name starting with E – Eurus.

Enola is the much younger sister of Sherlock and Mycroft who grows up isolated at the family’s estate after the death of her father and her mother estrangement with her brothers.  The novel begins on Enola’s 14th birthday when her mother disappears without a trace. Her famous brothers arrive and Mycroft decides to send the non-gender conforming Enola to a finishing school.  Enola decides instead to run away and investigate her mother’s disappearance on her own, stumbling into another mystery along the way.

Springer does a good job avoiding making Enola immediately as intellectually brilliant as her more famous brothers, allowing her to develop these skills over the course of the book.  She also does a good job showing the Holmes brothers dismissive and chauvinistic attitudes – which is straight from Conan Doyle’s characterization – and the restraints Enola has to work with in as a woman in Victorian society.  Although I know the book is a series, I was surprised by the unresolved conclusion. Nevertheless, I would like to read more about Enola Holmes.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Attack of the Clones by R. A. Salvatore


Author:R. A. Salvatore
Title: Attack of the Clones
Publication Info: Random House Publishing Group, 2002
Summary/Review:
Like its predecessor, this book is an improvement on the film it novelizes. Primarily this is due to the fact that it includes a lot of scenes where minor characters get fleshed out, such as Shmi and Lars and Jango and Boba Fett, as well as some deeper insight to Anakin’s relationship with Obi-Wan. Presumably these were in early scripts but were cut to prevent the movie being 5 hours long. There are scenes that I wish had made the cut in the film, such as when Padme brings home Anakin to meet her family.  It is much better at developing their relationship than any of the scenes that made it into the movie.  Unfortunately, all that painfully bad dialogue of Padme and Anakin expressing their anguished love is also present in the book (plus the author seems creepily obsessed with describing Padme’s beauty).  So this is no masterpiece of literature but it does offer some things that you don’t get from the movie.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Caste by Isabel Wilkerson


Author: Isabel Wilkerson
Title: Caste : The Origins of our Discontents
Narrator: Robin Wiles
Publication Info: Random House (Audio), 2020
Summary/Review:

The author of the remarkable work on the history of the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, returns with a book about systems of caste.  Wilkerson focuses on three of the most deeply entrenched caste systems in world history: India’s millennia-old system, the subjugation of Jews in Nazi Germany, and the continued inequality of Blacks in the United States that persists even after dismantling slavery and Jim Crow segregation.

Through the lens of caste, which Wilkerson says trumps both class and race, we can understand how inequality persists and what can be done to dismantle it. Wilkerson works through eight pillars of caste and richly illustrates it with examples from history and current events.  Wilkerson also frequently draws upon examples from her own experience as a professional Black woman being treated as an inferior.  The book is eye-opening and sobering, and it is one that I believe should be on everyone’s must-read list.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: A Field Guide to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks by Kurt F. Johnson


Author: Kurt F. Johnson
Title: A Field Guide to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks
Publication Info: Farcountry Press (2013)
Summary/Review:

A really spectacular guide book to the animals, plants, fungi, waterfalls, geysers, and even the night time sky in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.  This is an excellent reference to have handy when traveling in the parks and wondering just what exactly is that!

Rating: ****

Book Review: A Ranger’s Guide to Yellowstone Day Hikes by Roger Anderson and Carol Shively Anderson


Author: Roger Anderson and Carol Shively Anderson
Title: A Ranger’s Guide to Yellowstone Day Hikes
Publication Info: Farcountry Press (2013)
Summary/Review:

If going to Yellowstone, you’re going to need to get off the road and explore Wonderland on foot.  Trouble is,  if you have old legs and are traveling with kids less keen on hiking, you’ll want to be prepared.  This book has 29 hikes of various skill levels and lengths in various different park environments.  Some of them are just a short addition to visiting some of Yellowstone’s most popular attractions, such as Mammoth Hot Springs and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, that take you away from the tourist throngs.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Watching Yellowstone & Grand Teton Wildlife by Todd Wilkinson


Author: Todd Wilkinson
Title: Watching Yellowstone & Grand Teton Wildlife
Publication Info: Riverbend Publishing (2008)
Summary/Review:

This book does just what it says on the tin: tells you the best places to see wildlife in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.  The critters each get their own page with gorgeous photographs, a description of the animals habits, and tips on where to spot them in the park. It will be a useful tool on our visit to the parks.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Jedi Academy by Jeffrey Brown


Author: Jeffrey Brown
Title: Jedi Academy 
Publication Info: Scholastic Inc., 2013
Summary/Review:

Jedi Academy is a story set in the Star Wars universe about 200 years before the movies, and features Roan Novachez, a farmboy from Tatooine selected to attend the Jedi Academy on Coruscant.  Drawing on elements of Hogwarts and Diary of a Wimpy Kid, this richly-illustrated early reader book follows Roan through his misadventures and struggles to fit in with more advanced users of the Force.  I think I was a kid I would’ve been annoyed by the many references to schools in our universe, but as an adult I’m less attached to pure canon to let that interfere with my enjoyment of some silly gags.  This is a good book, and the start of a series, for the young Star Wars fan in your life.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Tree by Colin Tudge


Author: Colin Tudge
Title: The Tree: a natural history of what trees are, how they live, and why they matter 
Publication Info: New York : Crown Publishers, c2006. 

Summary/Review:

I like learning about trees but I have difficulty retaining any of the knowledge I learn about trees.  I expect that will be the case after this detailed and fascinating study of trees.  The bulk of this book is an encyclopedic breakdown of trees around the world by family, genus, and species. It’s full of fascinating  tidbits.  My favorite section of the book, “The Life of Trees,” is full of interesting stories of how trees function including a symbiotic relationship among fig trees, wasps, and nematodes.  The book can be dry at times, but has enough interesting facts and anecdotes to keep it interesting for a dilettante.

Favorite Passages:

 

“Metabolism—the basic business of staying alive—is half of what living things do. The other half is reproduction. It is not vital to reproduce in order to stay alive. Indeed, reproduction involves sacrifice; reproduction, as we will see later in this book, is often the last fling: many a tree dies after one bout of it. But it is essential nonetheless. At least, all creatures that do not reproduce die out. However successfully an organism may metabolize, sooner or later time and chance will finish it off. Everything dies. Only those that reproduce endure—or, at least, their offspring do. All individuals are part of lineages, offspring after offspring after offspring.”

“There can be enormous variation among the different individuals of any one species, too, which again is partly genetic. Grain and figure may vary, just like human fingerprints. There may be no specific benefit from such variation. But if there is no great natural selective pressure not to vary, then variations will creep in. Genomes are not commandments, which say exactly what to do come what may. Genes present options. They operate in dialogue with the environment. So the same tree, grown under different circumstances, could grow in very different ways; and the effects of the different circumstances are reflected in the timber.”

“On the whole conifers are excellent pioneers, invading soil that has been variously devastated and has not yet built up fertility. But in good or adequate soils and in reliable climates, where growing should be easy, conifers tend to be ousted by angiosperms.”

“First, if many different species are crammed into any one place, the population of each species is bound to be small. But when populations are small, they start to lose genetic variation as the generations pass. Each parent in each generation passes on only half of his or her genes to each offspring. If the total number of offspring produced is low (as it will be if the population of parents is small), it becomes very possible that some of the parents’ genes will not be passed on at all. Thus, as the generations pass, small populations tend to become more and more genetically uniform, as the rarer types of genes within the population fail to get passed on. This loss is called ‘genetic drift.'”

“Present-day leaders—politicians and captains of industry—are wont to suggest that any radical initiative that takes account of the realities of soil, water, and climate is “unrealistic,” commonly because such initiatives may inhibit the plans of bullish industries and their governments, and hence inhibit “growth.” But the word “realistic” has been corrupted. It ought to apply to the realities that are inescapable—of physics, of biology—made manifest in the declining earth, and the creatures that live on it. It should apply to the realities of people’s lives—whether they have enough to eat, and water, and shelter; whether they have control over their own lives, and worthwhile jobs, and can live in dignity. The “reality” of which our current leaders speak is the reality of cash. But cash is not the reality. Cash is the abstraction.”

“Yet since the start of the twentieth century, the architects’ favorite materials—especially for the most expensive and prestigious buildings—have been concrete and steel, with liberal quantities of bricks that have not been dried in the sun but fired in high-temperature, energy-guzzling kilns. Typically, too, they have been built in open spaces, apparently to show them off, or because trees have been considered inconvenient. So modern buildings are generally exposed to winds and merciless sun. They are made habitable only by constant infusions of energy to heat them and cool them down again. Twentieth-century architecture, in short, has for the most part been a prolonged exercise in profligacy.”

“Many modern architects worldwide are rising to the challenge, creating timber buildings as free in form as any sculpture (with modern techniques, wood can be molded this way and that) yet wonderfully comfortable. They are naturally warm in winter and cool in summer. Thus they contrast absolutely with the concrete and glass creations of the twentieth century which, without constant input of fossil fuel, are colder inside than out in winter, and hotter than the great outdoors in summer—the reverse of what a shelter should be. Truly prestigious buildings of timber should attract major prizes. How wonderful it would be if, say, the Sydney Opera House or the new Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, in northern Spain, or any of the exciting commercial buildings of Chicago or San Francisco or Boston were made primarily of timber—renewable timber, that is: grown specifically for the task or sustainably harvested. Of course, the timber should not be cheap: we must, while we are about it, put an end to the centuries-old exploitation of wild places and human labor.”

“I am floating these ideas partly through whimsy but mainly to emphasize that although food from trees at present plays only a small part in human affairs (at least if you judge from global statistics), this is largely a historical and economic accident. Grains clearly do have advantages, but they have become as dominant as they have largely through their own momentum. In particular, once the plow was developed (at least five thousand years ago) arable farming became the norm, and everything else became secondary. But if trees had only been taken more seriously, they could have become an enormous food resource—and might be now, if only the coin of history had flipped differently. Indeed, trees have many advantages over grains—they keep the soil in place, they help keep the climate equable—and we should be growing as many as possible. So it is important to change our mind-set, to move away from the idée fixe that says that grains must be central and everything else is marginal.”

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Book Review: Star Wars: Master and Apprentice by Claudia Gray


Author: Claudia Gray
Title: Star Wars: Master and Apprentice
Publication Info: New York : Del Rey, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, 2019.
Summary/Review:

Continuing my daughter’s fascination with the Star Wars universe, we read this novel which is a prequel to the prequels. It tells the story of Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn and his Padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi on an assignment several years before the events of The Phantom Menace. The central part of the story is that neither master nor apprentice feels that they have bonded.  In this story they end up in conflict with one another over following the rules and yet that conflict brings them closer together.

This book is complex for a Star Wars story with the events arranged around palace intrigue as well as issues of corporate influence on government and the enslavement of people.  The book has some interesting twists (I didn’t expect who would be the villain) and introduces the eccentric Jedi Rael Aveross, an old friend of Qui-Gon who is serving as a Lord Regent to a young queen.  I really like the character development in this novel of both Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan as well as the many new characters (members of the royal court, corporate agents, and even an interesting pair of jewel thieves who ally with Qui-Gon).  It makes The Phantom Menace all the more depressing for sacrificing opportunities for great character moments to bland CGI special effects and comic relief.

Favorite Passages:

“It matters,” Qui-Gon said quietly. “It matters which side we choose. Even if there will never be more light than darkness. Even if there can be no more joy in the galaxy than there is pain. For every action we undertake, for every word we speak, for every life we touch—it matters. I don’t turn toward the light because it means someday I’ll ‘win’ some sort of cosmic game. I turn toward it because it is the light.”

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Voyage of Mercy by Stephen Puleo


Author: Stephen Puleo
Title: Voyage of mercy : the USS Jamestown, the Irish famine, and the Remarkable Story of America’s First Humanitarian Mission 
Narrator: Sean Patrick Hopkins
Publication Info: New York : Macmillan Audio, 2020.
Books I’ve Previously Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Voyage of Mercy is a history of a United States mission to deliver food to the starving people of Ireland during the Great Hunger.  Approved by Congress, the military ship U.S.S. Jamestown sailed from Boston to Queenstown (Cobh) to deliver the good in the spring of 1847.  A naval ship was chosen to the unavailability of merchant vessels and the U.S.S. Constitution was even considered for the journey.

According to Puleo, the Jamestown mission was the first example of foreign aid and serves as a model of international disaster relief efforts.  The book focuses on two key characters.  Robert Bennet Forbes, an experienced merchant ship captain from the Boston area (born in Jamaica Plain and buried in Forest Hills cemetery, and I coincidentally passed his former home-become-museum in Milton on the day I finished this book), captained the Jamestown and was recognized for his good character and generosity.  Father Theobald Matthew of County Cork, a noted temperance leader, organized the relief operations on the Irish side.

The book is good but if it has flaws it is Puleo’s tendency to be  about the goodness of the people behind the relief effort.  Nevertheless, despite the success of the mission it did face challenges that later international relief efforts also suffered from. Distribution of the food stuffs was controversial as to whether it should be retained in County Cork or throughout Ireland. There was also the issue of the limits of charitable contributions to address deep, structural problems, in this case the colonial exploitation of Ireland by the United Kingdom.  I couldn’t help seeing parallels in the indifference and cruelty of the British government’s response to the potato famine to the current day response of the Republican Party to the Covid Pandemic in the United States.

This is a good and well-researched history, although I feel that Puleo stretched it out where a shorter book may have been sufficient.  Also, while I don’t know where my Sullivan family ancestors originated, it is a common name in County Cork, so I could very well owe my existence to mission of the U.S.S. Jamestown.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2