Monday, June 19, 2017

Murder Must Advertise

Sometimes the adaptation is better.  I fell in love with Lord Peter Wimsey through the early-70s cardboard-set adaptations, and they're still highly entertaining.  So are Sayers's books, but on my third reading of Murder Must Advertise, I have to admit that it's not one of her best.  Someone killed copywriter Victor Dean, so the president of Pym's Publicity asks Lord Peter to go undercover as Dean's replacement.  Meanwhile, Peter's brother-in-law DI Charles Parker is trying to break a drug smuggling ring which centers around Dian DeMomerie - whom Dean had coincidentally dated.  The two men (well, mainly Peter) solve the crimes mostly through luck and it's not a particularly satisfying conclusion.  What makes the book worth reading are the scenes set at Pym's.  Sayers had worked as a copywriter in the early 1920s (some of her Guinness slogans are still in use) and she really captures the office politics and makes the minutiae of the profession entertaining.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Third Sister

Eliza's Daughter didn't impress me, but it's infinitely better than The Third Sister.  A disorganized (but mercifully brief) attempt to make Margaret Dashwood a fleshed-out character, it fails miserably.  Julia Barrett drags Margaret to Delaford and back and then to Bath, giving her no characteristics other than artistic talent and a vague feistiness.  Scenes with Mrs. Jennings's schoolmates (one of whom takes Margaret under her wing, another of whom manages to tame the Middleton children) serve only to pad the novel, and to bring Margaret into a situation I can only describe as Anne Elliot's dilemma with the names changed.  Barrett's worst crime, however, is to make Eliza Williams's daughter into a son (who bonds with Col. Brandon).

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer

Contrary to what alarmist clickbait articles say, our species had coexisted with cancer since our emergence.  At its roots, cancer is a copying error, and the older we get, the more likely we are to accumulate enough errors to knock out the safeguards against our cells' uncontrolled growth.  It's such a terrifying disease, eating the patient from within and leaving strange growths, that doctors would hide the diagnosis from their patients.  We've declared war on cancer and have to wonder whether cancer has won.

Siddhartha Murkerjee alternates between telling the overall history of cancer with a chronicle of his fellowship year at Dana Farber Cancer Institute.  The first great leaps in treatment didn't come from a doctor who focused on patient care but from Sidney Farber, a pathologist who with the help of antifolates formulated by chemist Yella Subbarow, managed to induce brief remissions in his young leukemia patients.  He'd only postponed the inevitable by a few months, but from there doctors moved onto drug combos and eventually to modern chemotherapy.  That, in turn, led to battles between the surgeons and chemotherapists, neither believing the other was in the right and both more concerned at times with killing the disease than saving the patient.  In the aftermath of AIDS activism, patients stood up and fought for more responsive care - less disfiguring surgeries, drug dosages correlated to cure the disease and spare healthy cells, and palliative treatments.

Murkerjee doesn't neglect prevention.  The first recognized environmental cancer was scrotal cancer in chimney sweeps.  Naked young boys were sent into the tight shafts and many developed a cancer almost unheard of in the general population.  Strangely, that explains why the link between smoking and lung cancer didn't jump out at researchers in the 1950s - smoking was so common that it threw off the signal-to-noise ratio.  Researchers linked chronic inflammation to some cancers, leading to a fall in liver cancer with the advent of hepatitis vaccines and in stomach cancer with better sanitation and the antibiotic treatment of ulcers.  I remember as a child hearing about the search for cancer vaccines, and while that hasn't panned out, less than a decade of vaccination against HPV is already causing a decline in the incidence of cervical cancer.  There's also secondary prevention, like mammograms and colonoscopies which find cancers early when they're more treatable.  With the identification of oncogenes, researchers are developing treatments which can turn off those genes, stopping tumor growth without harming surrounding tissues.  

Periodically, Murkerjee brings us back to 2004 and the cancer wards at Dana Farber.  We see patients struggle through treatment.  Some survive and some don't, and occasionally the patient comforts the doctor who has to say, "There are no more options."  He opens and closes the book with one patient, 30-year-old kindergarten teacher Carla Reed.  Her fatigue, odd bruises, headaches, and bleeding gums  were symptoms of acute leukemia, and Muurkerjee's intake notes say that she'll probably die during treatment.  Six years later, he visits her with flowers - not on a gravesite, but at her suburban house where they drink tea and discuss her treatment while her children and dogs play in the garden.  At 5 years, her remission can be considered a cure.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Eliza's Daughter

What happened to Eliza Williams after Willoughby seduced and abandoned her?  Joan Aiken's literary fan fiction answers that question.  Eliza Williams grew up in Byblow Bottom, fostered by  mercenary and neglectful Hannah Welcome and surrounded by illegitimate offspring allowed to run wild.  Fosters also cared for legitimate children, particularly rich ones, until they were out of toddlerhood.  Hannah Welcome's daughter fostered Therese Wexford, at least until she tried to sell the baby to a gypsy band.  Eliza rescued the child and became the frail, developmentally delayed (the child had spent her first two years barely spoken to or touched) girl's companion.

When the Therese's father, the local squire, dies in a riding accident, Eliza contacts Colonel Brandon's attorney with the request to attend school.  She never meets Brandon (he's rejoined the army and Marianne has left Delaford with him), but Eliza does stay briefly with poverty-stricken Elinor and Edward Ferrars before leaving for the Bath school their daughter Nell attends.  Lodging with a barely respectable relative of Elinor's, Eliza prepares for life as a governess or music teacher (the best that an illegitimate girl with polydactyly can hope) and has begun her career at 17 when fighting off an attempted gang rape leads to her disgrace.  From there she travels to London (staying in a millinery-brothel), comes under the protection of her late mother's last (and good-hearted) protector, and reunites with Therese an her mother in Portugal.

As a novel, Eliza's Daughter is entertaining if a bit too reliant on coincidence.  As Austen fanfic, it's just wrong.  Like The Private Diary of Mr. Darcy, the characters aren't consistent with Austen's.  Colonel Brandon would not abandon Eliza to Byblow Bottom.  She may have been Willoughby's daughter, but she was also the granddaughter of Brandon's first love.   Eliza's life would have been like Harriet Smith's - sent to a respectable school where she'd hope to marry a respectable man, maybe even one of Mr. Gardiner's sons.  I can't see Marianne as a bitter woman who'd punish Willoughby's daughter either, and even Fanny Price at her worst wasn't as priggish as Aiken's interpretation of Edward Ferrars.  Overall, I found Eliza's Daughter compelling, but frustrating.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Raiders of the Nile

We know before we open Raiders of the Nile how it will end.  Steven Saylor has gone back to Gordianus's youth in Alexandria, so we know he will survive any danger.  Maybe that's why we first see Gordianus breaking into Alexander's tomb and hours from the end of his adventure.

Our generally honest (but at this point still somewhat naive) hero ended up joining a pirate band while searching for Bethesda.  On his 22nd birthday, they'd met a mime troupe whose female member  could pass for Bethesda's sister.  Axiothea is also under the protection of a local criminal lord, and mistaken identity leads to Bethesda's capture.  The professional finder and solver of mysteries can't find his slave (and lover, and eventual wife), until Tafhapy shows him a ransom note - The Cuckoo's Nest had taken Bethesda in place of Axiothea.  A night of gambling at a disreputable inn leads to mass murder, and a contrived but entertaining series of events brings Gordianus into the Cuckoo's lair.  Accepted as a full member, Gordianus finds himself back in Alexandria where Saylor hastily ties together the plot threads.  It's far from his best mystery, but a highly entertaining novel.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

An Antidote for Avarice

I think I picked up one of Caroline Roe's mysteries at Bouchercon, 2003.  Cure for a Charlatan was set in medieval Spain and I was ready to expand my historical mystery horizons from England and Ancient Rome.  I don't remember much (other than that the detective is a blind physician living in the Jewish quarter and assisted by his daughter), but I must have enjoyed it because I bought most of the rest of the series.   They then sat on my shelf, almost undisturbed, until my recent round of pre-shelf-clearing evaluations.

I say "almost undisturbed" because when I opened An Antidote for Avarice, I found an April, 2011 train pass marking the start of the third chapter.  Obviously I started the book almost 6 years ago and didn't get far.  Add in my shelf-clearing mood and the book's chances of donation were high.  An Antidote for Avarice would have to be fantastic for me to keep it and read the rest of the series.  It wasn't.

Perhaps I'd have enjoyed the story more if less had taken place on the road.  I'm not a road-trip person, agreeing with Miss Piggy that if getting there is half the fun, you're going somewhere really boring.  The ennui of the trudging caravan (consisting of Isaac and his family, his patron the Bishop of Gerona, some nuns, and several soldiers) gave the various attacks, ambushes, and murders a vaguely disconnected feel.  The first murder is that of a messenger, then there's a man left for dead along the road, followed by attacks on the travelers - they all blended together and I just didn't care to figure out whether and/or how they were connected.  An Antidote for Avarice wasn't bad, but it just didn't grab me.  Hopefully someone browsing the shelves at the Book Corner will enjoy it more.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Day of Wrath

I'm running out of shelf space - I need to either weed books or buy a larger house.  Some series I haven't reread may go soon, but I'm starting with the books that have sat on my shelves, unread, for years, giving them one chance to impress me or go to Book Corner.  Day of Wrath wasn't bad, but it's going to be donated.  Courtier Nicholas Peverell returns from Henry VIII's court to find that his steward has been murdered.  Soon afterwards, the man's lover dies as well.  They'd overheard a plot against Henry from a group called Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) and thus had to die.  The problem is that the plot isn't particularly interesting or well-explained (although I easily guessed that it was connected to the impending dissolution of the local abbey) and the murder's identity isn't well supported.  Nicholas is a bit to Mr. Exposition for my taste, but Jane Warener who assists him, is more engaging.  It's adequately entertaining, but not good enough to stay on my shelf.

The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn

Alison Weir takes an unromantic look at Anne Boleyn's last days in The Lady in the Tower.  Starting with Anne's final miscarriage (she had three miscarriages or stillbirths after giving birth to Elizabeth, and Weir mentions the possibility that those losses were caused by Rh incompatibility), Weir traces the political machinations that led to Anne's death.  By 1536, Henry, always mercurial, was becoming desperate for a male heir, and his courtiers knew it.  Seeing that he was tiring of Anne's strong personality (which had originally attracted him), the Catholic factions put forward her opposite - sweet, compliant Jane Seymour.

But how to get rid of Anne?  Divorcing Catherine of Aragon (now recently deceased) had cost Henry politically, so that wasn't a viable option.  Fortunately for Henry (and for the Catholic faction at court), Anne had not endeared herself to the people or to the court.  The same strong personality that first attracted Henry left her with no political capital to spend when his desire for an heir surpassed his desire for her.  Her enemies convinced Henry she was a danger, put her in the Tower guarded by women (including her sister-in-law) who already disliked her.  From there, it was only a few quick rumors to charges of adultery (highly unlikely since she was pregnant or recovering from a birth, stillbirth, or miscarriage for most of her time as Queen) and death by an executioner summoned before her trial began.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Absolution by Murder

I think I bought Absolution by Murder because the cover art was similar to Kate Sedley's early Roger the Chapman books (when they were available in the US without an amazon.co.uk account).  It's followed me since 1994 or 1995, from New Jersey to Virginia and back home to Philadelphia, and it stood, pristine and unopened on my bookshelf until about a week ago.  I've heard about Sister Fidelma in the intervening years but there was always something better to read.

I still feel that way.  Absolution for Murder wasn't a bad novel, but I was underwhelmed.  While part of a delegation to a convocation deciding whether the 7th Century Irish and English Churches will follow Rome or continue with their own calendars and traditions, Abbess Etian is murdered in her cell.  Sister Fidelma, a highly qualified lawyer back home in Ireland, and Brother Edaulf, a Saxon monk/apothecary, use their complementary skills to solve the crime.  Along the way, Peter Tremayne throws in some ecclesiastical history, four more deaths, and a bit too much exposition before unmasking the criminal I'd identified three pages after the discovery of Etian's corpse.  I'll admit that I went into the book hoping that I'd put it in the donation box (I need the shelf space), but those lowered expectations may have upgraded my opinion by eliminating the specter of disappointment.