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Books in Brief: The Penderwicks at Last by Jeanne Birdsall, More Deadly Than War by Kenneth C. Davis,


The Penderwicks at Last by Jeanne Birdsall; Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 304 pages ($16.99) Ages 8 to 12


Eleven-year-old half-sister Lydia is the star of this fifth and final Penderwick book, the sweet conclusion to the charming family saga that began with 2005 National Book Award-winner, “The Penderwicks.” The original four sisters are all grown up: Batty is a 19-year-old college student, budding novelist Jane is working as a waitress, Skye is in California studying for her doctorate in astrophysics and Rosalind is running an urban farm. It’s summer, and the family is preparing for Rosalind’s wedding at Arundel, the mansion in the Berkshires where the original novel took place, and much of this book centers on the antics of Lydia and her new friend, Alice, daughter of the Arundel caretaker, during the wedding preparations. The comedy includes Lydia’s brother Ben, an aspiring filmmaker, who generally makes his sister die in movies but here enlists Alice to dress up as an alien for the movie he shoots at Arundel. The unhappy Mrs. Tifton, mother of the Penderwicks’ dear friend Jeffrey, makes a cameo for the only even slightly villainous shadow on the story, which is a frothy entertainment of romance, the happy chaos of wedding doings and the comic high jinks of miscellaneous animals.  The Penderwicks are well-educated people, as their weirdly named animals suggest (the shoe-stealing dog is Feldspar, a stair-climbing chicken is Hatshepsut), and Latin quotes and music and science references abound.  This book will no doubt satisfy Penderwick fans who wanted to see the girls in their favorite book family get their happily ever after.


More Deadly Than War: The Hidden History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War by Kenneth C. Davis; Henry Holt, 263 pages ($19.99).


Kenneth C. Davis, author of “The Shadow of Liberty,” offers a fascinating account of the devastating, history-altering Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19 which some researchers now believe killed as many as 100 million people, or about 5 percent of the world’s population. Davis is a fine storyteller, and he weaves dramatic, colorful accounts of the flu’s impact on such far-flung outposts as Brevig Mission on the remote Seward Peninsula of Alaska against the larger historical and political context of the Great War and the many unfortunate events that conspired to rapidly spread the virus including patriotic parades to peddle war bonds in big cities  and  the arrival in France in 1918 of virus-stricken American soldiers: “Sent to save the Allied cause, the doughboys carried the deadly flu virus along with their rifles and rucksacks and would set off an explosion.”  There are vivid details about the gruesome, sudden nature of the killer virus that had a disproportionate effect on young adults (a man operating an elevator at a South African gold mine was stricken so suddenly he lost control of the elevator, sending dozens of miners to their deaths). Davis explores the frenzied research efforts that sought to find a way to halt the pandemic and notes the hysteria of an American populace which blamed Germany for the flu, leading German chemical company Bayer to try to calm fears with advertising noting its aspirin was: “Made on the banks of the Hudson River.” The flu claimed rich and poor. Among those who died were Grover Cleveland's sister Rose; playwright Edmond Rostand, author of "Cyrano de Bergerac," and Donald Trump’s grandfather, Frederick Trump. (Silent screen stars Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish survived bouts with the flu.) Interestingly, Davis suggests President Woodrow Wilson suffered lasting impairment from his bout with the flu, which negatively affected the final form of the Treaty of Versailles.  The book is amply illustrated with historic photos. At the end is a lengthy, fascinating appendix with a history of disease and medicine including timelines.

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