Tuesday, December 29, 2009

New Year's Resolution

I started this blog a year ago because I'd entered a "52 books in 52 weeks" challenge and wanted a place to put my reviews.  Well, for the 3rd year in a row I read fewer than 52 books (I should finish #35 by Thursday) and have given up on catching up on my reviews.   I don't regret it - I fell behind because the Phillies played to well for me to turn off the TV or try writing with the game on in the background - but it's time to start again.  I've signed up for the 2010 challenge, so this year I will

  1. Read at least 52 books
  2. Not buy any new books until I've read 10 unread books lying around my house (I bought at least 10 more books than I read last year)
  3. Make a conscious effort to never have more than two books waiting for a review and to post at least three reviews each month.  
  4. Be less self conscious about what I'm writing.  I started posting reviews so I could get used to having others read what I write, and I've been debating whether I should continue posting my thoughts 'as-is' or if I should put more thought and editing time into them.  Both methods have drawbacks - when I spend too much time editing, I feel like discarding the post, but if the only editing I do is a quick grammar check, then I feel that I could have done a better job.  I've decided that the lesser evil is to just post, and (I hope) my reviews will just get better with practice.

Happy New Year!

Friday, November 27, 2009

A Royal Affair

As an American growing up in Philadelphia, all I knew about George III is that he was the bloody tyrant against whom the American colonist rebelled, ensuring a steady stream of tourists to my home town every summer.  Stella Tillyard's A Royal Affair barely mentions George's political life and focuses on his siblings.  Frederick, Prince of Wales and Augusta had nine children, six of whom lived to adulthood.  George III was unusual for his time and social position in his monogamy and acetic habits; his siblings more than made up for him.  

His older sister, Augusta, was too smart and too forward for the marriage market and eventually married a German Duke, producing the ill-fated and uncrowned Queen Caroline.  Edward, Duke of York was the consummate playboy and a financial drain on the royal treasury before dying of malaria at age 28.  Henry, Duke of Cumberland, was co-respondent in a society divorce before entering a scandalous but ultimately successful marriage with a commoner.  William, Duke of Gloucester, married the illegitimate and widowed society beauty Maria Walpole, only to abandon her after reconciling with his brother.

The saddest and most scandalous marriage was that of George's youngest sister, Caroline Matilda.  Married at age 15 to the cruel and unbalanced Christian VII of Denmark, she was essentially abandoned by her husband after giving birth to their son.  She eventually entered into an affair with Johann Fredrich Struensee, one of her husband's advisers, was involved in an unsuccessful rebellion against her husband, was exiled, and died of scarlet fever at age 24.  Tillyard spends about half of A Royal Affair dissecting Caroline Matilda's marriage, perhaps because it's a case study of why arranged marriages are a bad idea.  Unfortunately, it wasn't a very interesting or long-lived marriage and A Royal Affair never comes alive like Tillyard's previous book, Aristocrats.

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife

I want Mary Roach's job.  She investigates odd topics like how we handle dead bodies or investigate the afterlife and writes witty essays which walk the line between irreverent and disrespectful.   She freely admits in Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife that she's a skeptic, but still treats her interview subjects, which range from a little Indian boy believed to have the reincarnated soul of a man from a neighboring village, to a scientist investigating near death experiences, to the woman whose career serves as the basis for the show Medium, with sincerity and asks serious questions.  Roach saves her more sarcastic comments for the chapters on past paranormal experiments and fads (the chapter on ectoplasm is more disgusting than almost anything in Stiff), and for herself.  Like Roach, I'm a skeptic, but I think I could conduct a professional, respectful conversation with a paranormal investigator.  What I don't think I could do is enroll in psychic school or help with an experiment which involves listening for the ghosts of the Donner Party.   Roach did both of these, and managed to both keep a straight face and make herself the butt of the joke ("I can't believe I'm doing this!") in her essays.

Careless in Red

Warning - there are some minor spoilers for With No One As Witness

Elizabeth George hooked me the first time I read one of her novels.  For the Sake of Elena is her fifth Lynley/Havers novel, and George made her victim an unpleasant young woman who used people and painted the killer in a more sympathetic light.   Too many evil to the core killers and sweet, innocent victims cheapen the mystery genre.  Most of George's novels present a messier world, where murder isn't justified but is perhaps explicable.  The murderer acts in the heat of passion, the victim has done something horrible, and the worlds of those around the pair are shattered.

George also created an engaging and intelligent detective in Barbara Havers.  Technically, the hero of her series is Inspector Thomas Lynley, Eight Earl of Asherton, but Havers is a much more interesting character.  Lynley may be rebelling from his aristocratic upbringing by being a policeman, but it's the nature rather than the existence of his career that strikes us as unusual.  When we meet her, Barbara Havers is a bright, striving, dowdy and dumpy, working-class woman still coping with a decade-old tragedy.  She's not supposed to amount to anything - maybe work in a shop for a few years, marry, and stay in the neighborhood.  Unfortunately for her, she's ambitious, highly intelligent, and not pretty, and therefore doesn't fit in.  The first eight or nine books split their focus between Lynley and Havers, and we see her break down her defenses, gain confidence in her abilities, and eventually carry a narrative on her own.

Then, almost inexplicably, George dropped the character.  Havers dropped back, starting with A Place of Hiding, and I missed her.  She's not just the most interesting character in the series, she's also the perfect foil for her aristocratic partner and his upper-crust best friend and late wife.  Lynley is smart and a good detective, but Havers is smarter, more intuitive, and a better lateral thinker.  She plays devil's advocate and looks for alternate theories instead of trusting the evidence as it falls.  Havers-light novels just aren't as good.

Careless in Red starts out as Havers-free.  Thomas Lynley is in the 43rd day of his walk along the South-West Coast Path, not trying to forget that his pregnant wife was murdered but because walking is the only way he can keep his will to live.  On the 43rd day of his walk, he finds the body of Santo Kerne who has apparently died in a climbing accident.  Since this is a mystery novel, we know that Santo was murdered, and because we know the mysterious Thomas is actually DI Lynley of Scotland Yard we know he will help solve the case.  

George writes long novels with multiple subplots, and while I usually enjoy this aspect of her writing, I think she could have trimmed some of the threads.  The earthy orchard owner, the teenager sent to live with her grandfather because she wants to enter a convent, and the conflict between local DI Bea Hannaford and her ex-husband don't add much to the story and aren't effective red herrings.  I also wasn't impressed with how George seemed to be setting up Hannaford as a Havers substitute, but at least the character keeps the investigation moving until the real Havers shows up, all attitude and flannel PJs confronting Lynley before breakfast at the only inn in town.  Still, Careless in Red is a partial return to form.  A few characters are drawn a bit too broadly, especially Santo's nymphomaniac mother and the teenager in the midst of a religious conversion, but most of them are believable.  The identity of Santo's killer isn't obvious (although I did solve the mystery with about 50 pages to go) and I didn't feel cheated, like I did in George's last three novels.  It's worth reading if you've read the rest of the series, but I can't recommend Careless in Red as an introduction to the Lynley/Havers mysteries.  

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Chimney Sweeper's Boy

I've read none of the books Ruth Rendell has written under her own name.  She's one of the modern masters, but there are only so many books I can read and her Inspector Wexler mysteries haven't made it on to my shelf.  I have read several of the psychological thrillers she has written as Barbara Vine, but I've also put two of them down after a few chapters.  Gallowglass never grabbed me,  but A Dark Adapted Eye is a near perfect mystery and I couldn't put down The Blood Doctor.  Her 1998 novel The Chimney Sweeper's Boy falls in between the poles - I enjoyed it, but it's not a classic.

Gerald Candless is a famous author in failing health.  At one time he was charming and well-reviewed, but he's become a shadow of himself; his latest novels have been released with little notice and he seems to get most of his pleasure from being rude to the younger writers who make the pilgrimage to his Devon home.  Gerald dies the night after one of these hazing luncheons, and his publisher asks his daughters to write a memoir of their beloved father.  Hope, a successful attorney, is too distraught to even attempt to write about her father so Sarah, a university lecturer, takes on the task.  She soon learns that the real Gerald Candless died as a child and her father assumed his name and identity when he began writing his unacknowledgedly autobiographic novels.

While Sarah tries to unravel her father's true identity, Vine tells the parallel story of Candless's widow, Ursula.  Forty years earlier, Ursula was a sheltered young woman, the youngest child by a decade of a comfortably affluent family.  What she didn't realize, but the reader can easily see, is that Candless was deeply closeted and married both for the public image and to have children.  His daughters were the center of his life, and after their birth, Ursula's only use to him was as material for a novel.  Vine mixes memories of the Candlesses' unhappy marriage with fragments of Gerald Candless's works and the slow development of Ursula's new relationship with a 60ish bookseller.  

I enjoyed The Chimney Sweeper's Boy but I was never surprised by it, and that's what separates it from Vine's better works.  Her best books leave the main mystery open ended, but each passage from Gerald's novels gives just a little too much information for the final chapter to be a surprise.  

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Mansfield Park

Fanny Price is not the typical Jane Austen heroine.  She's not witty, or confident, or even obviously competent like the slightly downtrodden Anne Elliot.   Weak and shy, Fanny comes across as someone you want to admire for her unwavering goodness, but can't like because she's so frustratingly passive.  You want to jump into the book and shake her, telling her, "It doesn't matter that you're in the right if you don't do anything to correct those who are wrong."  

This is the third time I've read Mansfield Park, and this time I concentrated on the supporting characters.  The main plot, about Edmund Bertram and Fanny finding true love with each other after escaping romantic entanglements with indiscreet siblings Mary and Henry Crawford, never captured my attentions.  Like attracts like and there are few characters in Mansfield Park who are as dull and moralistic as Fanny and Edmund.  For the same reason, I don't believe Henry Crawford actually fell in love with Fanny.  He may have been infatuated with her because she was the rare woman able to resist his charms, but the novelty would have worn off quickly.  Mary may have forced herself to believe she was in love with Edmund, but she was more in love with his position as the potential heir to Mansfield than with the dull, moralistic, clergyman-to-be.  Additionally, Henry never really comes to life.  He seems to exist only to serve the plot, flirting with Julia, courting Fanny, and running off with Maria shortly after her ill-advised marriage.

I enjoyed Mansfield Park almost in spite of its routine plot and bland main characters because much of the supporting cast is drawn with an acid-tipped pen.  On this reading, I realized just how avaricious Aunt Norris is, constantly finding leftovers at Mansfield Park which she can take to her own, small home and probably saving a (meager) salary by using Fanny as an unpaid servant.  I'd realized on previous readings that Mr. Rushworth, Maria Bertram's eventual husband, was an idiot, but this time I realized that he's one of the dimmest characters I've encountered in literature.  He's Hugh Laurie's portrayal of the Prince Regent as a private citizen, unable to distinguish the characters in a play with which he was familiar and probably botching most of his "four and twenty" speeches.   Tom Bertram's friend Mr. Yates made an impression for the first time as well.  Like Tom, he's an unfettered rich kid, the sort who today gets an SUV for his 18th birthday and totals it a few months later because he's texting while driving or speeding because he can.  He goes through life totally untouched by his surroundings, and we realize that when he doesn't follow the Crawfords out the door when Sir Thomas unexpectedly returns from Antigua.  He's so unaware of the consequences of his theatrical plan that he practically brags about it to the obviously angered Sir Thomas.

I found other characters to be more sympathetic this time around.  Julia Bertram is a self-absorbed rich girl, but she's also aware that Aunt Norris considers her second best to her manipulative sister Maria.  Her eventual marriage to Mr. Yates isn't unexpected, but possibly not a bad choice.   They're like Pete and Trudy Campbell in Mad Men, immature and wealthy but not without hope of eventually reaching maturity.  Sir Thomas felt like a remote paterfamilias when I read Mansfield Park for the first time.  This time I saw a man who cared about his family, giving Maria the option to break off her obviously doomed engagement and becoming the first to realize that Fanny had grown from a meek little girl to a pretty young woman who'd been cheated of the attention heaped on her cousins.  I also felt more sympathy for Mrs. Price.  She's too passive to handle life as the wife of a disabled and unemployable alcoholic, but when she married for love, there was no way for her to know that her husband would be wounded in battle and that she'd bear ten children in fifteen years.  

What strikes me most about Mansfield Park, though, is how of its time it is.  Austen's other five major works all feel modern, but I can't see Mansfield Park in a 21st Century setting.  Emma and Pride and Prejudice were both brought into the 1990s, and I can see Northanger Abbey cast with sorority sisters or Sense and Sensibility played against the current recession, but Fanny Price feels so strongly tied to the 18th Century that I can't see how the plot could be adapted to a modern setting.   Maybe that's the attraction - with the rest of Austen's books, I'm trying to see how to fit them into present-day Philadelphia, but with Mansfield Park, I just let it be.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Finger Lickin' Fifteen

Lula doesn't like cops, something Janet Evanovich refers to in most of her Plum books.  So what does Lula do when she sees a man decapitated in front of her?  Ask Steph to call her boyfriend, Trenton detective Joe Morelli.  There's a slight hitch - when they return to the scene the body is missing and Joe and Steph have broken up after an argument about peanut butter.  Further complicating matters, Steph is once again working part time for RangeMan Security, this time at Ranger's request.  And this is all before Lula and Grandma Mazur decide to enter a barbecue cook-off.

Finger Lickin' Fifteen is a bit of departure for Evanovich because the main crime seems to get less attention than the subplot.  The headless man is celebrity chef Stanley Chipolte and there's a million dollar reward for solving his murder so Lula and Grandma Mazur decide to enter the cook-off in an attempt to find the killer.  Even with the help of Lula's new man, a cross-dressing fireman who bears at least a passing resemblance to Julia Child, they are far from successful.  This thread focuses more on the home aspect of Steph's life - the killers are found but the murder takes a back seat to Lula's and Grandma's attempts to make non-burnt, non-toxic barbecue sauce.  It does allow Evanovich to channel her inner teenager, with a lot of bodily function humor, most of it from Lula.

The RangeMan plot is a little tighter, and gives Steph a chance to show that she's not merely lucky.  Several of RangeMan's security clients have been burgled, and it looks like an inside job.  Steph's job is to casually investigate the RangeMan employees while doing background searches for clients.  This turns out to be a dead end, but while visiting a recent break-in with Ranger, she figures out how the crime were committed.  Using that information, they lay a trap for the robbers and save the security business.

Finger Lickin' Fifteen is well plotted, but the plot is really just a framework against which the insanity of Steph's life is set.  So we get multiple Car Deaths,  a family dinner (with the cross-dressing fireman and a produce manager named Peter Pecker whom Steph's mom thinks could be her new son-in-law), a few appearances by Joyce Barnhardt, a fire in Steph's apartment which does not reach her indestructible 70s-painted bathroom, and a secondary FTA.   Junior Turley is a flasher with a regular route (and yes, Grandma Mazur is a regular) whose capture is up there with Punky Balog.  Not only is there the unsuccessful attempt to capture him during a funeral with Grandma's help, but there's also why he was arrested.  It's middle-of-the-pack Plum, but still funny enough that reading it in public is a risky endeavor.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Plum Spooky

Stephanie Plum has a problem.  No, it's not the scientist who broke his boss's nose with a coffee cup and then disappeared after Vinnie Plum wrote his bond, or Lula's romantic problems, or the fact that Joe Morelli's brother Anthony was kicked out by his wife and is currently living with Morelli - and has been shot in the butt with a nail gun.  Or even the fact that Diesel has reappeared in her living room.  Her problem is Carl, Susan Stitch's pet monkey.  Susan has gone on her honeymoon and left Carl with Steph.  So while dealing with her FTA, who is apparently in cahoots with the Unmentionable Diesel is trying to catch, Lula's problems with Tank, and Morelli's frustrations, she also has to deal with a monkey who gives people the finger, plays GameBoy, and gets into an argument with Grandma Mazur about how to eat mashed potatoes. 

Steph and Diesel locate their respective quarries in the Pine Barrens, where they also encounter the Easter Bunny and Edgar the Fire Farter (whom, of course, Steph unknowingly invites to dinner).  Plus about twenty more monkeys.  There's a creative Car Death and  the unexpected and amusing capture of a minor FTA, just as we expect from a Stephanie Plum novel.  This is also one of the books where Stephanie is truly in danger - the Unmentionable uses Steph as a 'reward' for her FTA, and while we know she will save herself with panic and a well-placed knee, the scene is a bit creepier than we expect from Evanovich.  Still, she knows that we like our Steph books moderately fluffy so Steph escapes unscathed and even monkey-free, and in search of yet another car to destroy.

The Unruly Queen: the Life of Queen Caroline

I was never particularly interested in the media circus surrounding Charles and Diana.  She struck me as an initially naive girl who'd been roped into marriage and who eventually developed into a media-savvy woman.  He struck me as an immature jerk, but one who'd been created by his bizarre upbringing.  Strange as it may seem, I feel sorry for members of the Royal Family, or at least the ones close to succession and constantly in the public eye.  It may be nice to have the money and social cachet to be a second cousin once removed to the Queen, but you can marry when and whom you want and have your own career and interests.  The Queen's children and grandchildren are public property, their romantic lives must be seen through a dynastic lens.  Their job is to make public appearances and lend a famous face to charities, but they are rarely allowed to take an active role.

This, however, was not the most acrimonious marriage entered into by an heir to the British throne.  That dubious honor belongs to the Prince Regent and Caroline of Brunswick.   Flora Fraser wrote The Unruly Queen in 1995, at the height of the Charles and Diana conflict but managed to avoid highlighting the parallels between Charles and his great-great-great-granduncle.  

George, the Prince Regent may not have been quite as dim as portrayed by Hugh Laurie in Blackadder the Third but he was as spoiled, extravagant, and concerned with his own amusement.  George married for money - he'd been secretly married before to Maria Fitzherbert, a Catholic widow, and kept a succession of mistresses after he'd been persuaded (temporarily, at least) to end his relationship with her.  He married his first cousin Caroline solely to increase his allowance and ended all pretense of marriage as soon as she'd delivered a healthy heir.  Caroline is no more appealing of a character, although slightly more sympathetic.  She'd been raised in almost total isolation, not only kept apart from children her age (as many royals of the era were) but even after the age at which she would have made her debut was not allowed to attend formal dinners or musical performances.  It should be no surprise, then, that she was crude, childish, and willing to test the boundaries of her new-found freedom.  

Fraser paints a compelling picture of a lonely woman surrounded by people who depended on her husband for their livelihoods.  Once she'd given birth to Princess Charlotte, she was disposable and essentially excluded from royal life.  Like her husband, she had multiple affairs, but one can understand why a woman whose marriage had essentially ended on her wedding night would do so.  Unlike her husband, these affairs were crimes against the state and culminated in her trial in the House of Lords for treason and eventually her being barred from what should have been her coronation as Queen Consort.  She died soon afterwards from an intestinal obstruction and if not forgotten, left as more of a footnote to history than an important person, unlike her 20th Century successor whose media savvy will preserve her place in the collective memory.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Death on the Nile

I've been reading Agatha Christie for nearly 30 years - she was my gateway into adult fiction, and a few years ago, I realized that despite the many hours I'd spent with her books, I'd only read about 2/3 of them and re-read about a dozen multiple times.  I've since worked on reading more of the cannon, but that doesn't stop me from pulling one of the favorite few off the shelf every few months.

Death on the Nile is one of those favorites.  I remember the first time I read it, as a 15-year-old on my way back from vacation in Rio de Jenario.  25 years and at least a dozen revisits later, I still flash back to my mother retrieving me from the airport snack bar where I was pouring over the plan of the S.S. Karnak so intently I hadn't heard our flight announced.  

The plot of Death on the Nile follows the locked room template.  Someone murders Lynnette Doyle while she's on a honeymoon cruise in Egypt.  No one other than her fellow passengers could have committed the crime, most of them have both alibis and motives, and it is up to Hercule Poirot to deduce the identity of the murderer.   Of course, I know who murdered Lynnette Doyle, and why, and how.  That allows me to enjoy the setting and the characters, especially the Allertons (does Mrs. Allerton really not know what her son is up to?), Simon Doyle (is he really the sweet, stolid, doting husband he appears to be?) and Cornelia Robeson (is she dim, or has she been typecast by her family?).  Rereading Death on the Nile, or any Christie novel, is untaxing pleasure reading in its most basic form.

A Gladiator Dies Only Once

The advantage to writing historical mysteries is that the author can place his stories as far apart as he wishes.  Steven Saylor's Roman detective Gordianus aged 31 years over the course of 10 novels published between 1991 and 2005, with nearly a decade between the early novels and months between later ones.   Gordianus's timeline speeds up because Saylor places him as a bit player in major events, and those events become more frequent as the Roman Republic segues into Empire.  

A Gladiator Dies Only Once is Saylor's second collection of Gordianus short stories, and like The House of the Vestals, it both fills in gaps in Gordianus's personal history and provides insight into Roman culture.  He provides a primer on gladiator games and funeral rites, the manufacture of garum, Roman sports, and the foibles of historical characters.  What strikes me is how modern Gordianus's life really is.  In one story, his pre-teen son has replaced toys with statues of mythological creatures, like a modern boy replacing Matchbox cars with action figures.  Gordianus endures rather than enjoys dinners with his frequent client Cicero, the embodiment of the pompous, long-winded politician.  He takes cases he doesn't like solely for money and deals with the cynical ends to which his work is applied.  Saylor, like Miss Marple, knows that human nature is the same, no matter what the setting.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Plum Lucky

How can I review Plum Lucky?  Stephanie is not a deep character, and Janet Evanovich's between-the-numbers novels are short and fluffy.  It's tightly plotted enough to get past the silliness, with the slightly scatty but ultimately sane Stephanie Plum holding everything together.  

On St. Patrick's Day, Grandma Mazur 'finds' a duffel bag full of cash.  So, like the 72-year-old juvenile delinquent she is, Grandma decides to buy an RV and head to Atlantic City, bringing along angry little person Randal Briggs as a bodyguard and driver.  Unfortunately, the money actually belongs to a gangster named Lou Devina.  Also on the trail of the money is Snuggy, a jockey-turned-bank robber who talks to animals and is on a mission to save a race horse, the supernatural bounty hunter Diesel, and Stephanie whose mother has threatened to cut off her supply of pot roast and pineapple upside down cake if she doesn't bring her grandmother back Right Now.  Along for the ride are Lula, the hooker-turned-file-clerk who kept her wardrobe when she changed professions and Connie Rosolli, the Jersey-girl receptionist at Vincent Plum Bail Bonds who packs a lot of attitude and a semi-automatic pistol.  Of course they find Grandma and recover the money and even save the horse, but that's not really the point.  The plot exists only to tie together the set pieces, including Lula creating a diversion by throwing nickles on the ground...while wearing gold lame spandex that's shorter, lower cut, and tighter than usual, and a few jokes about the bodily functions of quadrupeds. It's fluffy fun, not to be read on public transit unless you're trying to get a three-seat for yourself.

Nine Men Dancing

I had an account with amazon.co.uk several years before I had one with amazon.com, and Kate Sedley is one reason why.  I picked up her first Roger the Chapman mystery, Death and the Chapman about 15 years ago, but after the first few installments, she must have been dropped by her American publisher.  I was hooked, though, so after a few years shopping with a now-defunct bookstore in London, I started buying her books (and those by Michael Jecks and Susanna Gregory) through amazon.co.uk.

Sedley makes Fifteenth Century England feel both familiar and alien.  Roger's travels wouldn't seem out of place on the Travel Channel, if they were to do a walking tour of southern England, but the bustling commercial city of Bristol only has a few thousand inhabitants, most of whom  have some connection to each other.  It's odd to think of a major city with fewer people than my Roxborough neighborhood, and even odder to think of a town so isolated that an outsider's marriage and relocation is gossip-worthy twenty years later and a decade after his death.

Nine Men Dancing begins, as do about half of Sedley's mysteries, with Roger leaving Bristol in January, 1478 to sell his ribbons and notions in the small settlements and villages of Southeastern England.  As he begins his return trip to Bristol, he stumbles across an abandoned manor.  A few hours later, he hears how the brothers who owned the manor died of plague shortly after digging a new well, and also about the disappearance of Eris Lilywhite.  The prior autumn, Eris had disappeared on a stormy night after Nathaniel Rawbone announced that he planned to marry her.  Eris had originally been attached to Nathaniel's son Tom, who had jilted Rosamund Bush, who first tells Roger the story.  He meets Eris's mother and grandmother and promises the older woman to try to discover if Eris is dead or alive.  Naturally, everyone in this small, isolated community has an idea of who may have murdered Eris, with most suspicion centering on the jilted Tom Rawbone and his older brother Ned whose inheritance would be decreased if his father started a new family with Eris.  

Sedley neatly ties the threads together, ending with Eris's sad but believable fate, the details of which involve a bit more technical knowledge of water tables than I expect in a medieval tale.  She also mixes in the politics of courtship in a small village where everyone knows (and is probably related) to each other.  With only a few eligible men and women of marriageable age, the competition for the son of a well-off farmer (like Tom Redbone) or the tavern-keeper's daughter (Rosamund Bush, who spends the novel playing hard-to-get with Lambert Miller) can be as fierce as any seen in Jane Austen's assemblies and balls.  It's one of the more enjoyable books in an entertaining series.   Sedley's books are hard to find in the US, but finding them is worth the effort.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Seneca Falls Inheritance

I like to re-read mystery series.  I'm sure that seems odd to some people, because what's the point of reading  a mystery if you know the solution?  For me, the point is to revisit the characters earlier in their history and see how they've grown over the years.  And, to be honest, with nearly eight years and 457 books between visits, some of the details of Seneca Falls Inheritance were a little fuzzy.

The book opens with a flatboat accident which kills Friedrich Steicher and his wife.  A few weeks later, his daughter by a brief, annulled first marriage appears in Seneca Falls, asking for directions to the Steicher farm.  Her body turns up in the canal the next day, and when the town learns of her parentage, Steicher's son becomes the main suspect.  Constable Cullen Stuart and town librarian Glynis Tyron piece together the solution, with a few unlikely but not totally unbelievable twists.

Miriam Grace Monfredo ties this mystery to the organization of the 1848 Women's Rights Convention, and she isn't totally successful in doing so.  Elizabeth Cady Stanton sets the main plot in motion by writing to Steicher's first wife, asking her to tell her daughter that she may be in line to inherit a prosperous farm and has enlisted the novel's fictional librarian/detective to help organize the Convention, but the convention itself feels unconnected to the main plot.  I've always been fond of that particular historical event (I memorized Stanton's keynote address in 6th grade forensics), but in retrospect, its appearance in Seneca Falls Inheritance feels a bit forced.  The book also contains a bit too much character exposition and explanation, probably because it's the first in the series,  and it's not particularly complex.  Like Sharon Kay Penman's Justin de Quincy mysteries, it may serve as a good bridge from YA to adult novels for pre-teens interested in mysteries or historical novels.

Monday, May 11, 2009

T is for Tresspass

Series authors have a problem.  Most novelists release books about a year apart, so how do you deal with aging your characters?  Many authors slow the clock, allowing their characters to age at half or less the normal speed and changing cultural touchstones as the series wears on.  Marcia Mueller did this with her Sharon McCone mysteries - the 60s radical who was 28 at her 1977 debut stopped talking about the 60s  as time wore on and eventually turned 40 in 1999.  Others, like Faye Kellerman, start with relatively young characters and stagger the spacing of their books so if there are only a few months between volumes, the next book will take place two or three years later.   Then there's Janet Evanovich, who has decided that Stephanie Plum will be 32 forever, and forever accompanied by her juvenile-delinquent grandmother, and the authors of historical mysteries who either by luck or design don't have to worry about how quickly their characters age.

I don't know when or why Sue Grafton decided to deal with aging Kinsey Milhone by setting her novels further and further in the past, but it's an ingenious device.  Kinsey has only aged 5 1/2 years in the 25 she's been on the scene, but the world has slowed down with her.  Kinsey's new car is a 1970 Mustang which is merely used and not classic, she has no cell phone, no one suggests that Rosie's Bar hook up cable, and she actually has to get government documents in person instead of clicking on a link and printing it herself.  I've felt rather nostalgic while reading the last few Milhone novels.  So far, they've spanned my teens and carried me from 8th grade to sophomore year of college and I enjoy seeing how much of daily life which we take for granted barely existed just 20 years ago.

While I normally notice the historical aspect of Grafton's books, they stood out in T is for Tresspass, perhaps because the topics are so current, identity theft and the problem of caring for the elderly and alone.  Grafton shifts the narration between Kinsey and a woman who has stolen the identity of a nurse named Solana Rojas and has been hired as a home health aid for Kinsey's neighbor.  

Solana looks good on paper, because the real Solana (referred to as the Other) is highly qualified and because the criminal is highly skilled at ingratiating herself, and because in some ways she's picked the perfect victim.  Gus Vronsky is the local crank, an elderly man whose hobby is yelling at teenagers for practicing skateboard tricks.  Kinesy's landlord Henry Pitts maintains a casual friendship with Gus but few others in the neighborhood care to talk to him and his only relative is a great-grand niece who lives across the country in Manhattan.   No one seems to notice that Solana is gradually cutting Gus off from society, first cancelling the Meals on Wheels delivery, then telling his few visitors that Gus 'just isn't up to company' or 'just started a nap.'  Once she has control over Gus, she moves in with her disturbed and mentally disabled son and begins to steal Gus's property while physically mistreating him and frightening him into believing that she is protecting him from being locked in a nursing home.  

Solana's plot fails through a series of coincidences - a chance encounter with the granddaughter of a woman she'd previously 'cared' for, seeing Kinsey's car where she doesn't expect it, and the actions of Henry's potential ladyfriend, a successful 70-something real estate agent.  It falls by coincidence, and yet it doesn't feel like Grafton cheated.  It may be a bit too coincidental that her prior charge's granddaughter sees her in a department store as she's planning her escape but not beyond belief, and Grafton plants the seeds of the other 'random' events while Kinsey goes about her professional life investigating insurance claims and acting as a process server. 

What doesn't quite work is the ending, or rather the last two of three endings.  Kinsey (with help) rescues Gus, but the fate of Solana and her son are a bit more gruesome than I expected and verge on cartoonish.  Still, it's one of the better entries in what has been an enjoyable series.  Grafton only has six letters left in the alphabet, so somewhere around 2015 we'll see the series end with Z as Kinsey faces the year - 1990 - in which I first met her.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Eating with the Victorians

I love stores like Daedalus and (the apparently departed) Atlantic Books which specialize in remaindered books.  I enjoy wandering through the warehouse or catalog and buying almost at random any book which looks like it might possibly be interesting.  At best, I'll find a fascinating book at a discount; at worst, I'll not feel like I wasted too much money if the book doesn't live up to its description.

I found Eating with the Victorians in the Daedalus catalog and what I didn't realize was that it's a collection of academic papers on the topic rather than a unified work.  I enjoyed it, but the chapters overlapped a bit.  For example, almost every chapter discussed how the main meal of the day migrated from late morning in medieval times through midday and into the evening, or how the light, social Afternoon Tea differs from the hearty working-class supper of High Tea.  The essays on formal dining and the china, silver, and servants required for different forms of service felt dry, probably because I'd read most of the same information in more general histories of the era.  Eating with the Victorians falls into an odd category - the disposable academic book.  While I enjoyed it and learned a few bits of trivia, ultimately it reminds me of the required reading for the history courses I took because they looked interesting and started after 10 am.  

Sunday, April 5, 2009


I'm not sure how I feel about Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination.  It was well written, and I'm interested in English history and culture, but it left me cold.  Maybe it was because I don't have the requisite foundation, and a British reader would be as disconnected from an American version because she hadn't read Paul Bunyan in 4th grade.  I think Peter Ackroyd's writing style and the structure of the book factor in as well.  The book seemed a bit dry and choppy, like the syllabus of a survey course for students who knew 90% of the material but have forgotten about half.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Mr. Darcy's Dream

Jane Austen's novels aren't the fluffy rom-com forerunners they appear to be.  Austen was a witty writer who satirized social climbers, pricked the egos of the self-important, and saw courtship among the gentry as a cutthroat competition for the best merger of financial resources.  Elizabeth Ashton isn't Jane Austen and her Darcy novels are unashamedly frivolous.

Mr. Darcy's Dream is the sixth book in the series, and the heroine this time is Georgiana Darcy's daughter Phoebe Hawkins.  Phoebe is about to start her second London season when she receives an offer of marriage from Arthur Stanhope, scion of a prominent Whig family.  Her father, Sir Giles, refuses to permit the marriage, so to prevent a scandal Georgiana plants rumors of Phoebe's ill health and sends her to Pemberly.  Louisa Bingley, still single after three seasons, decides to join her and the two young women spend a pleasant few months at Pemberly planning a ball, dealing with a Catherine de Bourgh-like relative, and making social calls.  No one should be surprised that Mr. Stanhope decides to visit his sister near Pemberly, nor that Louisa Bingley falls in love with Mr. Drummond, the attorney hired to oversee renovations to  Pemberly, or that there's a happy ending featuring two engagements.  A subplot involving a French governess and the series' usual villain doesn't quite work but it doesn't distract from the main purpose of the book, which is to keep the hero and heroine apart until the final chapter.  Mr. Darcy's Dream is an ideal book to read on a tropic beach (which is where I read The True Darcy Spirit), but it also makes a fair distraction from a snow-hindered SEPTA commute.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Great Mortality

I don't think I'm particularly morbid, but I enjoy reading good books about disease and death.  John Kelly's The Great Mortality focuses on a fascinating subject, but ultimately the book's disjointed narrative leaves it below the bar set by John Barry's The Great Influenza.

Kelly starts with a history of both the plague and of the trading routes along which it spread and I enjoyed the first few chapters.  When he began to follow the plague from country to country, though, the book became less interesting.  At points, Kelly bogged down in the minutia of probating wills where the inheritors had all died, and then he abruptly moves to another part of the country or to a new country altogether.  While it must be difficult to reconstruct an epidemic among a largely illiterate population seven centuries after the fact, I think one more pass by a good editor would have improved the flow of the book.  

I was also a bit put off by Kelly's attitude in a few places.  Kelly used a somewhat clinical tone to describe the history of the plague bacillus and its spread from Asia into Europe and through Germany and France.  His description of the Italian and English reactions to the disease, however, made me think of E.M. Forster's civilized, rational English and primitive, emotional Italians and it felt rather condescending.  Still, I'd read more of Kelly's work, especially if he were to expand on his final chapter on plague deniers, modern-day scholars who claim that the Black Death was not actually plague but some other illness.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Mistress of the Elgin Marbles

Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin was rich, headstrong, and less memorable than Emma Woodhouse.  Susan Nagel's biography of the Countess, Mistress of the Elgin Marbles tries to compare her to an Austen heroine, but Mary never seems to come alive.  One of the greatest heiresses in Regency Scotland, she married the sickly Lord Elgin (who lost his nose to treatment for what may or may not have been syphilis), followed him on his diplomatic journeys, and earned a reputation as a captivating hostess and author of charming letters.  On their return journey, Lord Elgin was imprisoned by the Revolutionary French government and while Mary negotiated his release, she fell in love with his best friend and was eventually sued for divorce.

While reading Nagel's book, I thought of Amanda Foreman's Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and the life of Mary Worley Montagu.  Perhaps Nagel is not as talented a writer as Foreman, but I think the problem lies with the subject.  Mary Nisbet just doesn't seem to have been a particularly interesting person.  Yes, she was witty and involved in a scandal, but she was not actively involved in politics like Georgiana Spencer and her letters were not published and read after her death like Mary Worley Montague.  Even her role as the Mistress of the Elgin Marbles seems inflated.  Nagel briefly discusses the Elgin Marbles and it appears that Mary's only contribution was financial.  Ultimately, the book is as forgettable as its subject.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


Sometimes, I have to put an author on probation.  I only have so much time, and there are too many books I want to read to spend my time on authors who seem to be on autopilot.  I'll give an author I've enjoyed a few books to retain my attention, but at some point, I'll stop reading and donate my backlist to the Book Corner.

Jonathan Kellerman is now on probation.  I first read When the Bough Breaks during a Christmas break from law school and just couldn't put it down - I may have read it in a single sitting.  I've been a faithful reader ever since, and like most long running series some of the books have been better than others.  Time Bomb left a bad taste in my mouth, but Devil's Waltz was fascinating.  I was losing interest with Alex Delaware and Milo Sturgis when The Murder Book altered the formula by using Milo's POV as well as Alex's and making his partner Rick more than just a passing mention.  Unfortunately, I haven't enjoyed its sequels and have come to the conclusion that I'm now reading Kellerman's books out of habit.  

Compulsion starts with a young woman drunkenly staggering out of a club.  Her car runs out of gas and she thinks she's in luck when an aristocratic woman in a Bently gives her a lift.  The next day, the Bently's owner calls the police, claiming that it had been stolen and left on a nearby street.  Milo and his subordinate investigate and find blood on the driver's seat but it's not a priority until an elderly woman is murdered by a man driving a BMW stolen from and returned to a luxury car rental service.  Milo follows a few ultimately false leads, using Alex as a psychological sounding board, and at home Alex's luthier girlfriend is making custom instruments for a tone-deaf dot-com millionaire.  

Compulsion comes across as an average-quality mystery until about the last 80 pages when it takes a turn for the bitter.  Kellerman is a clinical psychologist as well as a novelist, so I can understand why he might see the worst in people.  However, he seems to have fallen into the habit of writing himself into a corner and then 'solving' the mystery by showing that one (or more) of the characters is a creepy psychopath.  It's the near-cheating more than the creepiness that bothers me.  The solution may work if you trace all the way back to page one and choose the less likely outcome for every potentially ambiguous piece of data, but it feels like Kellerman is playing a trick on us.  I might be a little more willing to go along with the game, but the solution usually involves such a repulsive character, I'm less willing to cut Kellerman any slack.  I'm not asking for a kittens and flowers happy ending, but unless Milo and Alex start encountering murders that can be solved without cheating, they're leaving my library to make room for my ever-expanding collection of historical mysteries.

Sweet Revenge

I first met Goldy Schultz (then Goldy Bear), the Colorado caterer who keeps stumbling across dead bodies in 1993, and she hasn't changed much.  Her business is more secure, she's happily remarried to Aspen Meadow's sheriff, and her abusive ex-husband was killed two books ago, but she's still the same espresso-guzzling, chocoholic who solves mysteries while whipping up a souffle.  Like many series characters, she's aging in slow motion (from 28 to 34 in 16 years), but it doesn't seem to matter.  Goldy's never been a deep character, and Davidson's mysteries tend to be more like an angel food cake than a dense chocolate torte.  It's a balancing act, because she touches on serious issues, especially domestic violence, but she usually succeeds.

Sweet Revenge is Davidson's 14th novel.  It's the holiday season, and Goldy is fully booked with office and private parties and events at her still-new catering hall.  On the way to a client's house to sign contracts and plan the menu, Goldy sees a ghost - Sandee Brisbane who killed Goldy's ex and then apparently died in a forrest fire.  Needless to say, her husband Tom doesn't believe her - dozens of police and fire fighters saw Sandee jump into the raging wildfire after confessing to John Richard Korman's murder.  But Goldy sees her again outside the library where she's setting up a holiday breakfast, and again when investigating the real mystery.  

Sandee is a bit of a red herring.  The real mystery involves a corpse found in the reading room, map collectors, angry ex-spouses, fighting dinner guests, and counterfeiters.  It moves along pretty well, never dragging or skipping logical steps, until Goldy ties everything together in about ten pages.  

Sweet Revenge is a bit formulaic, but it's a formula that works.  I was usually a page or two ahead of Goldy, but I don't read these books to be stumped.  I read them because I enjoy Goldy and her friends and family.  Her best friend (and JRK's other ex) Marla shows up for gossip and to display expensive clothes; her teenage son skis, studies, and hangs out with his friends; her assistant/former apprentice Julian works a few events, and there are a dozen or so recipes at the end of the book.  Sweet Revenge isn't the best book in the series - the series started strong, slumped a bit around book 6, and has been uneven since - but it's still enjoyable.  I enjoy spending time with the characters and the mysteries are usually believable, but the main attraction is the food.  I've made and enjoyed a few of the 150+ recipes included (my mom refers to Snowborder's Pork Tenderloin from Tough Cookie as Porkay Mignon) and I know that about every 30-40 pages, she's going to describe a dish that will make me drool.  

Monday, February 16, 2009

Christmas Present, 2X, x2

19 years ago, I made my dad an Aran sweater for Christmas - it's a greyish blue and my dad has worn it to death.  I made him two other sweaters, one around 1994 and the other around 2000 but he still wears the first one.  Well, since I was starting to get embarrassed when he'd tell people that I'd make his sweater, I decided to make him one for Christmas this year.  He's a big guy, so this one, like the three prior sweaters, is a scaled up version of my favorite pattern - the one on the back cover of the Bernat Aran Knits book.  

Yesterday, I had dinner at my parents' house.  Not only is my dad's sweater stretched out and stained in front, but there's now a hole in the sleeve.  To make matters worse, my dad wore the sweater after noticing the hole so it's raveled to the point where I couldn't fix it even if I did find matching yarn.  So why isn't he wearing one of the other sweaters?  Well, my mom told me that he gave them to a clothing drive a few years ago.  He said they just didn't fit the way the other one does.  

Now, I don't mind that he gave them away - there are now two large men in dire straits who are a bit warmer than they would have been.  However, I really wish he'd told me he'd done that.  I would have made him another sweater before this instead of, for the sake of family harmony and my ability not to wince when my dad shows off his handmade sweater, planning to make a second 2XL sweater for him this year.

And yes, I am going to confiscate the old ratty sweater when I give him the new one.  

This has been the occasional "defarge" segment of this blog.   Stay tuned for future adventures in knitting (which, considering what's happening in my office right now, will be attempts to finish baby sweaters before the recipients go out on maternity leave).

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Assassin's Touch

Does a historical novel have to be accurate, or is it sufficient that it feels accurate?  Laura Joh Rowland's sets her Sano Ichiro mysteries in Edo period Japan.  I know very little about the period so I don't know how accurate they truly are but they feel real. 

The Assassin's Touch is the tenth book in the Sano Ichiro series.  At the end of The Perfumed Sleeve, a power struggle led Japan to the brink of civil war and sent Sano's predecessor and nemesis, Chamberlain Yanigasawa, into exile.  Although he eliminated his main competitor, Lord Matsudaira did not have a large enough faction to become Chamberlain himself so Sano, who allied himself with neither side, became Chamberlain.

Like most mysteries, The Assassin's Touch starts with a death.  The head of the intelligence service dies during a horse race, and he is not the only official to have recently died in suspicious circumstances.  The victims have all died suddenly, with no obvious marks or signs of violence.  The Shogun orders Sano to investigate, and both the Yanigasawa and Matsudaira factions see Sano's potential failure as a way to replace him.  Complicating matters, Sano's wife, Lady Reiko, has undertaken an investigation of her own.  

Lady Reiko is an anachronism - an independent noblewoman and skilled martial artist who has helped Sano solve prior cases - and Rowland admits this by always explaining how unusual she is.  Reiko is Magistrate Ueda's only daughter and he asks the daughter he educated like a son to investigate whether or not an outcast woman accused of murder actually committed the crimes to which she confessed.

The Assassin's Touch blends two types of mysteries - the "whodunnit" and the "whydunnit" - and they collide in the final third of the book.  I admit that I wasn't surprised by the solution to either mystery or the connection between the two, but it took enough effort to solve them that I didn't feel cheated.   Like the rest of the Sano Ichiro novels, The Assassin's Touch includes a climactic battle scene, this time with a fairly small contingent of samurai and including a one-on-one battle between Sano and a samurai reputed to know an obscure martial art.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Innocent Traitor

I don't read much straight fiction; I usually stick to mysteries, classics, and non-fiction.  Innocent Traitor isn't much of a deviation for me, though, because it's Alison Weir's first novel.  I've read and enjoyed most of her non-fiction but somehow missed Innocent Traitor until I saw her next novel, The Lady Elizabeth, in Borders.

Innocent Traitor is the story of Lady Jane Grey, the Nine Days Queen who was executed for treason, and it's familiar territory for Weir who counted her as one of The Children of Henry VIII.  Weir begins with the almost simultaneous births of Lady Jane and her cousin Edward and uses multiple narrators to chronicle Jane's short life, most of which was spent as a pawn to her abusive mother's ambitions.  

Although Weir could have portrayed Jane as a "poor little rich girl" or the sweet martyr of prior historical fiction, she creates a more complex picture of an intellectual, insecure, and surprisingly dogmatic teenager.  Yes, she is a pawn, but she's also a bit of a prig, a devout Protestant who seems to equate wearing bright colors with moral turpitude.  Jane is extremely intelligent and well-educated and described by others as pretty, but convinced that she's plain and will end up a spinster because of comparisons to her pretty, frivolous younger sister.  She comes across as a real teenager, albeit one with unusual family issues.  Her one triumph as Queen is when she realizes that her mother's words no longer sting - instead of obeying the venomous Duchess of Suffolk, Jane can now issue orders to her tormentor.   

Weir wrote Innocent Traitor after four non-fiction books on the Tudor court and her ease with the era shows.  Improbable yet true events, such as Catherine Parr's discovery of the heresy charges being prepared against her, flow naturally and the secondary characters feel like real people rather than historical figures.  Princess Mary feels particularly well developed, perhaps because she's so often portrayed as a one-dimensional character.  Mary is a tragic figure.  She's plain and politically suspect but desperate for marriage and children, heir to the throne but politically tone deaf, and as devout and dogmatic as her younger cousin.  Catherine Parr also stands out - an intelligent, maternal woman who takes Jane under her wing and protects her from her mother.  Even Guilford Dudley has an unexpectedly sympathetic scene.  He's introduced as a spoiled vulgarian who preens and sneers and gets drunk at his wedding banquet, and the consummation of his and Jane's marriage devolves into a rape.  In his final meetings with Jane, however, Weir shows him to be a scared boy whose father has been executed and knows he may soon lose his head as well.   Even Jane's mother, whose only personality traits are cruelty and ambition, feels like an actual person.  Not someone you'd like to know, but a McMansion-dwelling helicopter mom you've unfortunately met.

After two novels, Alison Weir has returned to non-fiction with a biography of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster.  Based on Innocent Traitor, I hope she hasn't abandoned fiction for good.  As a reader, I'd like to see her alternate between fiction and history because I find her work in both genres so enjoyable.  Perhaps she'll write a novel about Queen Mary, focusing on the years between her mother's banishment from court and her ascension to the throne.

A Flaw in the Blood

I've been reading mysteries for decades, so I don't get 'gotten' very often.  I may not solve the case until near the end, but I'm rarely surprised by a supported solution.  A Flaw in the Blood got me, and did it without cheating.  Chapter 52 is totally improbable, and completely supported by the facts Stephanie Barron scatters throughout the narrative.

Barron also writes the Jane Austen mysteries and A Flaw in the Blood is a change of tone from that series.  The Austen mysteries are epistolary, with Jane writing her adventures in her diary or letters to Cassandra, and part of the fun comes from meeting the 'inspirations' for Austen's characters.  A Flaw in the Blood uses shifting narrators, including Queen Victoria, her daughter Alice, and a London barrister who made his name saving the queen from an early assassination attempt, to obscure both the nature and perpetrator of the crime in question.

The book opens with the aftermath of an unsuccessful suicide attempt by Prince Albert.  18 months later, he lies dying of natural causes and Queen Victoria calls Patrick Fitzgerald to Windsor Castle to disavow any knowledge of the 1840 plot on her life.  He refuses and as he explains the story to his Georgiana Armatrage, a somewhat anachronistic young woman doctor, their carriage overturns, nearly killing them.  This is the work of Barron's least convincing character, Victoria's henchman who all but twirls his mustache as he pursues the pair through England and into France where they encounter Prince Leopold, about whose hemophilia Albert had consulted with Georgiana.

Back in England, Victoria throws herself into the deep mourning that would last until her death while her daughter Alice questions whether Albert actually died of typhoid.  No one else at Windsor contracted the disease, including Alice who nursed him through his illness, and his symptoms weren't typical of typhoid.  Between bouts of hysteria and battles with her second daughter, Victoria reflects on her childhood and her recently deceased mother who was both a duchess in her own right and a political pawn.  As Barron switches between Victoria's memories and Georgiana's outline of the 1860's understanding of hemophilia, Victoria's legitimacy comes into question and we wonder how far a woman raised to be Queen will go to protect her position.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

A quick note

I started this blog to review the books in my 52 books in 52 weeks challenge.  You may have noticed that I've tagged my posts "book 4" and "book 6."  If you're wondering where the reviews of books 1, 2, 3, and 5 are, well, I've discovered that it's harder to write reviews than I thought, especially mysteries.  Of the seven books I've read so far, four are mysteries and two of those are later books in long-running series.  I'm working on them, but I'm not satisfied with how they sound so far and I hate editing my work - once I start second guessing, I end up quintuple guessing.

The Gecko's Foot

Sometimes, it takes effort to keep up my Pale and Geeky credentials, such as when I read The Gecko's Foot.  Peter Forbes covers a fascinating topic - how engineering, both on the macroscopic and microscopic level, imitates nature - but in most chapters, he just can't seem to hit the right tone.  Perhaps Forbes, who has edited and translated poetry, is out of his area of expertise writing about science.  

I found the uneven tone frustrating because The Gecko's Foot covers such fascinating topics.  How does the lotus blossom manage to throw off dirty water?  Strange as it may seem, it's because the surface of the flower is extremely rough - not smooth as one would imagine - as seen through an electron microscope, and engineers have imitated this roughness to create paints and glass coatings which self-clean.  Forbes also discusses the less successful attempts to create spider silk and to imitate the nano-Velcro on the gecko's foot.  Forbes treats these technological quests with a combination of Gee Whiz Mr. Wizard and Mad Men hucksterism which I found annoying and somewhat condescending.  

Forbes's tone becomes much drier in the later chapters, possibly because the science of how insects fly or how light refracts on a butterfly's wing doesn't have a short-term commercial application.  With no obvious way to link biology to new technology, Forbes seems lost.  He mentions mollusk shells and suspension bridges but doesn't make a clear link between nature and the lab.  Forbes makes one clear connection between nature and innovation in the later chapters, when he discusses how an easily unfolded and refolded map imitates the way petals unfurl from a flower bud.  While this could have been fascinating, Forbes's description of the process reminded me of the old New Yorker cartoon where a student writes "And a miracle occurs" to get from two simple alkanes to a complex molecule.  Like the professor in the cartoon, I just wish he'd been a bit more explicit in step 2.

I hope I haven't given the impression that I didn't enjoy The Gecko's Foot because I did.  I'm just frustrated by the fact that I didn't enjoy it more.  After reading Stiff, I have to wonder what Mary Roach could have done with this material.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

A book about corpses should not be laugh-out-loud amusing, but Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers is seriously funny.  Like Janet Evanovich's Plum books, it's not something you want to read on public transit.  In fact, I can see Grandma Mazur discussing it over pineapple upsidedown cake while Steph's mother reaches for a tumbler of whiskey.  I would love to have lunch with author Mary Roach, but perhaps not after she's visited the Body Farm.

Stiff covers serious topics - the history of anatomy, how cadavers are used to create safer cars, organ donation, burial - but Roach has a dry sense of humor and the ability to walk the like between irreverence and respect.  The professionals she profiles seem to do the same thing.  They may use humor to deal with their sometimes gory work but never forget that the bodies upon which they are working were recently living people and deserve a degree of dignity.  Gross anatomy students hold a memorial service for their cadavers at the end of the semester and engineers testing car safety equipment mask a cadaver's face in a white sock as if to protect his privacy.  Roach's wry impressions, often of how she imagines her serious but ghoulish questions sound, leaven what could be a morbid topic.

Throughout the book, Roach expresses her respect and gratitude for those who donate their bodies.  Every time someone walks away from a car accident or a medical examiner determines how long a murder victim has been hidden, it's because someone experimented on cadavers.  Hundreds of thousands of people have enjoyed extra decades of life because someone was selfless enough to allow surgeons to remove their organs after their often sudden and violent death.  Roach also shows respect for the survivors, pointing out that as noble as donating one's body to science can be, it's unfair to force one's survivors to do something with which they are not comfortable or which would be an undue hardship.  Keeping that in mind, she implies that while she's more than willing to have her cadaver used in an anatomy class or to develop safety equipment, if her squeamish husband outlives her, she will only donate organs, not her entire body.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Fox Evil

Fox Evil is the fourth Minette Walters book I've read in the past few years, and it's structurally similar to Acid Row, with apparently disparate story lines colliding at the midpoint of the novel, shifting narrators, a strong professional heroine, the final third of the novel running in what feels like real time, and a happy ending.  Fox Evil is more of a whodunnit than Acid Row, which could have been named Anatomy of a Riot, and while I expected the happy ending, I didn't solve the mystery.

Fox Evil opens in August 2001 with a band of Travellers convening in Dorset.  Ten-year-old Wolfie lives with, and in fear of, his stepfather Fox, a psychotic bully with a mysteriously posh accent.  About the same time, Col. James Lockyer-Fox's lawyer Mark Ankerton tracks down his client's granddaughter, born to his then teenage daughter and privately adopted by a farm family.  Naturally Ankerton expects a family eeking out a bare living and an heir who will be impressed by her newly-found family.  Nancy Smith, however, is an Oxford grad who's a Captain in the Royal Engineers visiting her family's prosperous 2000-acre farm, and more impressed with the prospect of being the fourth generation (and her future children being the fifth) to farm the same land than with Col. Lockyer-Fox's wealth.  

Shortly before Christmas, the Travellers encamp near Lockyer-Fox's estate.  Mark Ankerton has decided to stay with his client during the holiday and discovers that someone has been making harassing phone calls  to the Colonel since his wife died.  Nancy Smith, on the way back to her unit after a holiday break, stops by the manor on Boxing Day and unexpectedly forges common ground with her newly-found grandfather.  Then the plotlines begin to intertwine.

I really feel I haven't done Fox Evil justice in this review.  It's a fantastic, fast-paced mystery with compelling characters and a believable outcome.  I stayed up well past midnight to finish it, but if I explain why, I'll be posting spoilers.  I will say that the happy ending doesn't seem tacked on as it might be.  Walters gave the secondary and tertiary characters just enough pages so that we not only want their lives to improve, we can think "That's nice," instead of "Yeah, right," when Travellers, army officers, policemen, and lawyers get together for a party.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Sticking to the Book Diet

Six or seven years ago, I read an op-ed about going on a book diet - don't buy any new books until you've read at least ten unread books sitting on your shelf.  Well, since I've usually got about 100-150 unread books on my shelf (damn you Daedalus Books!!), this should be easy, right?  

It's not.  Every year, I think about gaming the system.  Should I pick a few 200-page light reads?  Gravitate towards the authors I know I can burn through quickly?  Or should I just admit that no matter what I do, my boss will find a way to keep me chained to my desk so I won't read book #10 until at least President's Day.  

This year, it's worse.  I bought books in late December, as I usually do, but it's not the glossy paperbacks I see through shop windows or the Daedalus catalog tempting me.  It's the opportunity.  John & Linda gave me a Borders gift card for Christmas, but I didn't see them until the 29th so I didn't get a chance to use it.  The next day, I found out I have a $5 certificate from Borders but I have to use it by January 31.  Finally, I'll be 40 on the 28th, and I have to be able to buy myself a birthday present, right? So, naturally, I spent last weekend doing some desperately needed housework and have spent this week losing count of the emergencies hitting my desk.

It's January 9.  I've finished one book so far, and that involved staying up until 1 am last night (what else am I going to do when I get to the "I can't put this down" last 100 pages at 11:15?).  I'd talk about Fox Evil, but right now, I'm just too sleepy.