Book Reviews by Sue Sharp
Belleville Public Library Friends member, Sue Sharp, periodically sends the library book reviews to post online. Check back often for new reviews!
RIP: A. Lincoln
In 1876, a group of Illinois thieves, led by a well-know counterfeiter of the time, dreamed up a scheme to steal the body of Lincoln from its not-so-secure tomb. The extremely lucrative business of counterfeiting in the U.S. had been dealt a severe blow by the newly formed U.S. Secret Service. Honest law enforcers had put away a couple of the best forgers ever seen. Shovers (passers of the bad bills called queer) agreed to join in the plot to hold the body for ransom (and a large cash settlement) until the release from Joliet prison of a superior forger. If their demands were met, they would return the remains of Illinois' favorite son. Thomas J. Craughwell takes the reader through these fascinating and ghoulish doings in Stealing Lincoln's Body.
The author details the last hours of Lincoln and the steps taken to insure a proper burial. The lack of security alone is mind-boggling to those living in the 21st century. Shallow, hidden graves in the monument basement were secured by a secret society, not by heavy padlocks-and that was after the attempted robbery. It took years for a supposedly safe monument to be built.
The enormity of the counterfeiting troubles in the U.S. in the 1700s-1800s makes the reader wonder how the nation kept its economy afloat at all. Without a standard bill or coin format, banks could issue their own bills. Forgers had a fairly easy time because who knew what the next town's banknote looked like, anyway? And police forces had enough trouble with regular criminals. It wasn't until the formation of the Secret Service to combat forgery that the monetary system started to stabilize. At the time half of all U.S. bills were bogus. The first director of the agency hired counterfeiters to be his first agents with surprising success. Apparently, however, there were drawbacks to that hiring plan.
The entire book is entertaining. The reader will learn much about newspaper integrity (or lack thereof), security (mostly lacking), schemers and their lying ways, Lincoln's friends and family, and funeral practices in this informative book. Some of it is like a Keystone Kops movie with cons turning on one another, forgetting to bring transportation, and thankfully not thinking through what they needed to do to be successful. Throughout it all Robert Lincoln is an aloof, hardly engaged presence in the affair. Mary Lincoln is more engaged, threatening to move the body to Washington if her wish to use the Oak Ridge Cemetery is not followed. Local politicians wanted a tomb in the middle of Springfield and even tried to circumvent her wishes. Those Illinois pols! Then in 1900 the bodies were dug up again when the monument had to be redone because of poor construction, collapses and leaks. These events are so intriguing you may detour through Oak Ridge Cemetery just to check on the old boy the next time you visit the Lincoln Museum.
Woman Alone on Foot
This reviewer seems stuck in a genre this year. This book must be the third one reviewed that has as the central character a woman who finds herself on the run away from or on the trail of someone or something where she must fight the elements (usually involving terrible cold, solitude, and starvation). The Outlander by Gil Adamson fits the pattern.
In 1903, Mary Boulton, age 19 and recently widowed by her own hand, as she tells it, is high-tailing it across the American West to escape her two unrelenting brothers-in-law looking to impose their own justice. Mary has had her baby die a few days after birth, endured an unfaithful husband, and sometimes hears voices in her head. "Outlander" seems to be a term used by westerners to mean an outsider or oddball. With no food in the mountains, she is brought back from starvation by a mountain man equally out of place in town. He hasn't been in civilization for years. When they part, she is found later (starving again) by an Indian who delivers her to a mining town's peculiar preacher. He is, with no carpentry talent, building a church, and trying to convert members by challenging the miners to boxing matches which he always wins. The kindly dwarf who runs the sketchy little town's general store (a canvas tent), becomes another of her friends and benefactors. In other words, the story is overflowing with outsiders.
Bit by bit we find out the background of gritty Mary-her family, how she came to marry the older John Boulton, and when the voices began. It is all entertaining stuff with primitive living conditions, a horrible mining situation (continuous references to water in the mine and shifting interior walls), Indians, a family of 8 brothers who steal horses for a living, and porcupine stews. It may be a familiar plot by this time, but it still drew this reader along easily. Don't forget the evil brothers who can't seem to let go of the idea of finding Mary alive.
Fish Out of Water
Let me make myself very clear from the beginning: I will make a jumble of The Little Book by Selden Edwards in this review. Time travel is just hard to grasp for this reviewer-fun, but not explainable! Wheeler Burden is born during WWII, goes to Harvard, becomes an ace baseball player there like his father before him but gives up the sport for his true love music and becomes a big rock star. His war-hero father did not survive the war. Wheeler was raised by his poor Jewish mother but educated as the scion of his father's wealthy Eastern family. He is called eccentric because of some of his breath-taking choices.
Sounds like a pretty straight-forward novel with interesting plot twists, right? Well, the real problem for Wheeler is that he wakes up one day at age 47 walking around Vienna in 1898. He knows it is Vienna because his prep school mentor Arnauld Esterhazy (called The Haze by the boys) drilled his students on the importance of the events of that city and that period.
Wheeler scrambles to get the proper clothing, haircut and a place to stay in Vienna. He has the feeling he has some duty to perform while there.
Now the tricky part for this reviewer. Wheeler meets Sigmund Freud, some famous painters, The Haze himself, and Dilly Burden, his own father (who is younger than Wheeler because he was a young man when he died) in Vienna. This is a wonderful chance for father and son to get to know one another. The son is older than the father and when granddad appears, he is younger than both. Try keeping that straight, especially when Wheeler's lovely young grandmother appears, too! And who is influencing whom? Wheeler keeps a journal in 1898 that his grandmother uses a few years later back home in Boston to foretell the future. What? No wonder it took the author 30 years to write this book.
This is not to discourage the reader. The book is clever. Wheeler is something. He stalked Buddy Holly a few months before that icon's death and won a career-making interview with him. When he sees he might be in Vienna for a time, he decides to invent a wooden Frisbee to sell to support himself. As the novel alternates between then and now, we get more of Wheeler's own history, including such various events as Woodstock and how his grandmother came to guide the family fortune around the 1929 stock market crash. Oh, yes, and his father wants to get a gander at an eight-year-old Austrian kid who is the cause of his own future death by torture in Germany. Of course, his father is always talking about them not interfering to mess up the future, but if you had the chance to squash little Adolph..Well, you can see all the possible relationships and connections offered in Vienna in 1898-and the author cleverly mines every fantastic one of them.
What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn
In 1984, ten year-old Kate Meaney's father has died and she lives with an emotionally distant aunt. She occupies herself with being a junior detective at the newly opened Green Oaks shopping mall. Her way of holding off loneliness is to observe and record every suspicious activity at the mall. She is sure she will uncover devious plots. Her only friend is Adrian, the young man who works for his father's newsstand near her home. She does make one unlikely friend her own age at school, another girl who is as much of an outcast as she is. Unfortunately, the crime she cannot solve is her disappearance from the mall.
Jump forward 20 years. Adrian left town following Kate's disappearance, a prime suspect even to his own father. His only contact is a yearly postcard to his sister. The mall itself is now shabby, and the employees, including Adrian's sister Lisa, are discouraged by drudgery and fatigue. She meets a kindred soul in Kurt, a security guard. They are drawn into the cold case with two odd events. In the bowels of the mall, Lisa finds the stuffed monkey Kate always carried. Kurt swears he sees a little girl on a security tape where no little girl should be. Together they begin an investigation and find themselves drawn closer together. Eventually creepy mall secrets are uncovered and old wounds healed.
Hannah's Dream by Diane Hammond is a must for anyone who loved Water for Elephants. Hannah of the title is a Burmese elephant who lives in the private zoo of an eccentric woman. As Hearst collected artwork, Max (Maxine) Biedelman collected animals for her Northwest jewel of an estate in the early 1900s. When the novel opens, Hannah has been the only elephant on the premises for almost 40 years.
Her keeper Sam Browne is now 68, diabetic with bad sores on one ankle. It is time to retire, but he cannot leave the creature he has cared for since he came out of the Korean War looking for work and Max hired him. Hannah is not doing well either from so many hours standing on concrete instead of the soft earth an elephant was meant to stand on. Sam does the best he can with home remedies produced by his wife, but he knows Hannah will die if he is not there to reassure her on a daily basis after fearful nights alone in the barn. He and his wife even spend hours in the barn watching movies on the large screen TV to keep Hannah company.
Max Biedelman has been gone for years and her property is becoming shabby. The high-powered director hired to turn things around has the personality of a steamroller and sees this zoo as her chance to make her reputation. Bizarrely, she decides to take on the persona of Max Biedelman to give little talks, build publicity, and renew interest. Retirement of an aging elephant is not high on her list since she sees Hannah as the centerpiece of her program. A young woman hired to help with the zoo and Hannah just may be the sympathetic supporter Sam has been praying for to look after his girl who could have another 20 years to live.
This all builds to a nicely satisfying conclusion (for those who like books about animals).
Surviving Being a Survivor
When high-school senior Margaret dies in an accident, she leaves her 13 year-old sister Nico to cope almost alone. Their parents are trying to survive her death through Mom's medication and Dad's work on his book. That summer Nico turns to Margaret's boyfriend, Aaron who is also suffering. As Nico loses weight, she starts looking more like Margaret, a beautiful quirky girl who loved old movies and had a beautiful singing voice. Nico already felt outclassed, and now she feels deserted.
In Goldengrove by Francine Prose, we follow Nico's struggle to re-connect with her parents and deal with the increasing attention from Aaron which she must keep secret. After all, even when Margaret dated him, her father said the boy had a screw loose. Nico works in her father's bookstore Goldengrove to occupy herself, even though she fears her father is having an affair with a family friend and long-time employee. Secret meetings with Aaron become peculiar. She manages to survive these encounters and along the way she begins to handle her grief.
Quick and Light
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows contains, with no heavy-lifting, a bit of mystery, a little romance, a few laughs, a spate of tears, and some obscure WWII history. The entire novel is framed in letters back and forth from all the characters, giving the plot a quick pace and endless charm, maybe a tiny bit too much charm.
In 1946, Juliet Ashton, a young writer of a best-seller (a humorous take on war-time London), receives a letter from a man from the Channel island of Guernsey which is still suffering from material and human losses. He found her name and address in a used book and wondered if she could help him obtain more books by Charles Lamb. Guernsey, he says, has a literary society born from a clever attempt to avoid arrest by the occupying Germans. Fascinated by the name of the club (partly from starvation conditions) and looking for a new book topic, Juliet begins writing to the club members to gather their stories in their eccentric voices. Eventually she visits the island and becomes involved in their lives. Wittily she corresponds with her publisher and friends to apprise them of the turns her book and love life take. Secrets, misunderstandings, and an adorable orphan come into the story, but all problems straightened out by the last letter.