Monday, December 27, 2010

Clouds of Witness

Ensconced in a luxurious Parisian hotel, Lord Peter Wimsey finds that his man Bunter has packed their things - Peter's brother, the Duke of Denver, has been arrested for murder of their sister Mary's fiance, Dennis Cathcart, and clearly Peter is the only person who can clear the somewhat dim Duke's name.  The Duke refuses to explain why he was wandering the moors at the time of Cathcart's murder and Lady Mary's deception has put the time of death into doubt.  Peter and his friend, Inspector Charles Parker of Scotland Yard follow a jeweled trail to Paris, across a boggy moor, and eventually to New York, with Peter arriving at his brother's trial in the House of Lords just in time to give the vital piece of evidence.  

I've read Clouds of Witness at least twice, and recently re-watched the BBC mini-series so nothing in the book was even slightly mysterious.  Because I could just sit back and enjoy the story, I noticed a somewhat comic subplot.  I don't think I'd noticed in previous readings how clear it is that Charles is in love with Mary from the beginning of the book, and Peter doesn't see it either.  When he realizes, he's shocked - not, as Charles first thinks, because of the class distinctions but because his sister has shown such terrible taste in men that he's afraid she's going to turn down his best friend in a fit of stupidity.

The Labors of Hercules

The Labors of Hercules may have been my introduction to Agatha Christie.  I remember the copy I took out of the library - a hardback with an aqua cover and a circular logo, apparently part of a series published specifically for libraries, and I remember reading it upstairs at my grandmother's house.  My grandmother died in January 1983, and I had the window open so this must have been the summer of 1982.  Or maybe I'm remembering incorrectly - maybe I read the book elsewhere (because I don't remember reading Agatha Christie before I started high school) or maybe I read it while my parents were preparing Grandmom's house for sale.

Either way, it's been nearly 30 years since I read The Labors of Hercules, and nearly 30 years since English 9 covered the labors of Hercules as well, and I only dimly remembered both.   Bits of plot, and occasional lines of dialog floated through the mist but I'd mostly forgotten "whodunit" so I could sit back and solve the mysteries as if they were new.  They're typical Christie, only stripped down to 15 or 20 pages - a clever plot with a single flaw for Hercule Poirot to discover, and a dash of romance or a happy ending here and there.  It's a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, but fairly ephemeral - middling, not top-level Christie.

All Around the Town

I haven't read a new Mary Higgins Clark book in about a decade.  I haven't re-read one of her books in quite a while either - after several years 'on probation,' I stopped buying new books and donated my backlist to the Book Corner.  She writes good beach books, but she fell into a rut of writing one of the same two books over and over again, and I got tired of them.

Last month, I noticed that the coffee shop where I buy my morning bagel and cocoa had a copy of All Around the Town, so I picked it up and worked my way through it in 5-minute intervals.  The story is fairly typical Clark (young, pretty, well-dressed woman from a world of casual affluence - an 8,000 square foot house in the 1970s, and an assistant prosecutor with a designer wardrobe? -  finds herself in mortal peril and saves herself seconds before the dashing hero completes the rescue).  The book starts with the kidnapping of 4-year-old Laurie Kenyon by an aspiring gospel singer and his wife.  When she's returned to her family two years later, her sister can see that she's been abused but their parents can't cope with the idea and shut it down.   

Fourteen years later, their parents die in a car accident and this trauma brings out the multiple personalities Laurie developed to protect herself from her abuser.  One of these personalities may or may not have been having an affair with a professor married to a gold-digging travel agent.  Naturally, when the professor is murdered, Laurie is the prime suspect.  Her sister, now a prosecutor, resigns from her office to take up Laurie's defense.  In the meantime, Laurie's abuser has become a top televangelist and rekindles his obsession with the girl.  It's a delicately balanced plot, with almost as many near-miss meetings as a screwball comedy but it works, and part of why it works is that the televangelists make minor mistakes which aren't caught because they're buried in conversations.  

There's another reason why I have a bit of a soft spot for All Around the Town.  In the late 80s and early 90s, I frequently ate at the Kenyon Diner in Willow Grove.  Sometimes alone, sometimes with my parents, and on Friday nights with my dad.  We'd sit in the back room where some older guys talked baseball and one of my proudest moments was when, at about 18 or 19, I got a "good point" response to one of my infrequent comments - a response which was my invitation to the ongoing discussion.  One of my solo visits to the Kenyon was on a Sunday morning, with a copy of All Around the Town.  An hour and about 75 pages later, I was approaching the quick-cut finale and there was a line forming at the door.  My waitress came by and refilled my coffee cup instead of asking if I was ready to leave.  That's why the Kenyon is in my personal Diner Hall of Fame.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812

How will historians learn about 'ordinary' life in 2010?  Much of what we know about daily life in earlier eras comes from letters and diaries.  We may write more e-mails than our great-grandparents wrote letters and perhaps there are more current bloggers than historical diarists, but will they be useful to 23rd Century historians?  Will my hotmail account be readable in 2150, and will anyone be able to sift through the spam and bacon and forwarded jokes to draw an accurate picture of my life?

Martha Ballard kept a diary, and from that we learn a lot more about Federalist New England than merely the business of birth.  An 18th Century midwife was part nurse, part doctor, part herbalist, and part mortician, responsible for preparing bodies for burial.  Additionally, during the peak years of Martha's career she and her teen aged daughters and niece wove lengths of fabric, supplementing her husband's income from surveying and their son's income as a miller.  We think of the 18th Century as a time when men earned income and women stayed home, but the hearth was vitally important to a family's economic survival.  The shillings Martha earned from delivering babies and the produce and meat given in exchange for fabric and nursing were vital to the family's economic survival, and when Martha's business declined due to her age and ill-health, her family encountered financial hardships including her husband's imprisonment for debt. 

Martha's diary also pokes a hole in the image of insular, self-sufficient, repressed, peaceful Puritans.  Hallowell, ME was a tight community as a matter of necessity, and young adults often spent a few months or years living in the home of a relative or family friend, and her diary contains several entries mentioning overnight guests.  38% of first children were conceived out of wedlock, and a midwife's job included questioning a laboring mother (under the assumption that the pain would act as a sort of truth serum).  We also learn of ordinary squabbles between neighbors over property and more serious conflicts over religion and politics.  Most shockingly, Martha's diary includes a mass murder - one of her neighbors killed his wife and five of his six children before killing himself.  

Future historians may have to deal with information overload when they try to reconstruct our society; we're lucky that diaries like Martha's somehow survived.  Her daughter Dolly Lambard apparently kept the diary, passing it to her daughters upon her 1861 death.  23 years later, Dolly's great-granddaughter Mary Hobart received the diary from her great-aunts upon her graduation from medical school, later explaining that "as the writer was a practicing physician, it seemed only fitting that the Ballard diary, so crowded with medical interest, should descend to her."  Who knows what would have happened to the roughly-bound volumes if the author's great-great-granddaughter had not become one of the first women licensed as a physician in Massachusetts and donated it to the Maine State Library.

Arabella: England's Lost Queen

I've read several Tudor/Stuart biographies, but I don't think I'd heard of Arabella Stuart until I wandered the aisles at Daedalus and picked up Sarah Gristwood's biography of her.   Arabella was the great-granddaughter of Margaret Tudor and the daughter of Lord Darnley's younger brother, making her Elizabeth I's first cousin twice removed and niece-by-marriage to Mary Queen of Scots.  (Royal family trees tended not to branch...)  Arabella spent most of her life as the centerpiece of various Catholic and Protestant plots to make her Elizabeth's successor and living in the shadow of her formidable grandmother, Bess of Hardwick.  Her one act of independence, an attempted escape from virtual house arrest to marry for love ended with her imprisonment in the Tower of London because her lover was William Seymour, great-grandson of Mary Tudor, grand-nephew of Lady Jane Grey, and an equally strong candidate for the throne.

Arabella's life was rather dull and spent mostly in the seclusion of semi-arrest, but Gristwood's book is not.  Like Alison Weir and Antonia Frasier, her crisp prose clarifies the convoluted political machinations of the era and enlivens passages of dry diplomatic history.  Arabella herself doesn't come across as particularly sparkling character.  It's as if the Tudor brilliance diluted over the generations and left each successive woman with a claim to the throne as a slightly blurrier copy.  Elizabeth I was a brilliant woman with an incredible education, Mary Stuart was bright and educated to be a Queen Consort.  Their younger kinswoman Arabella comes across as bright but nothing special, indifferently educated, and somewhat stunted by her enforced seclusion.  She would have made a mediocre monarch at best, but Gristwood's biography is an enjoyable and enlightening read.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Friar's Bloodfeud

I'm not sure what to do about Michael Jecks.  His last few books have been disappointing, but I've got 7 unread installments in his Sir Baldwin de Funshill and Simon Puttock series sitting on my shelf, most of which I bought from amazon.co.uk with the exchange rate and international shipping fees you'd expect.  Maybe Jecks needs to slow down a bit (he releases a book every 9 or 10 months, where most authors wait a year or so between books), because the last two books I've read have felt rushed, with poorly integrated subplots.

Yes, it's still the Year of the Subplot in my personal library, and Jecks's editor should have removed the 40 pages or so devoted to Lady Jeanne's maid.  If Emma had been mentioned in earlier books, it was only in passing, and her only role here is to exasperate Baldwin.  

The main plot is a little tighter.  Two years before the novel opens, Simon's servant Hugh had married a young woman who'd been released from her vows as a nun.  Their hut is attacked and burned, apparently killing Hugh and his wife and son.  Baldwin and Simon travel to investigate the crime, and find that a wealthy young widow has been killed as well.  Both crimes turn out to be part of a property dispute which Baldwin and Simon solve while Baldwin's servant Edgar helps insure that justice is served.

I enjoyed A Friar's Bloodfeud more than I enjoyed The Butcher of St. Peter's, because the main plot was clearer and more engrossing and the characters better fleshed out.  Maybe Jecks is pulling out of his slump.  I hope so because I like Baldwin and Simon and wish Jecks would return to giving them stories worthy of their characters.

Monday, November 15, 2010

And Only to Deceive

I've been looking at Tasha Alexander's books for the past few years - she's shelved near Stephanie Barron - and they looked interesting.  They're also published in 'quality paperback' format, and I'm cheap, so I decided to pass until I found a used copy at The Book Corner.  It was a worthwhile investment, and I'll probably pick up the next books in the series the next time I'm in Borders.

Well-born widows had more freedom than most women in late Victorian England, so Emily Ashton almost felt lucky when her husband, Vicount Phillip Ashton, died while on safari a few months after they married.  As long as she followed the strict mourning rules of the era by withdrawing from society and wearing black, she (and not her husband or father) had control over her life and her property.  18 months after Philip's death, his best friend Colin Hargraves visits Emily and begins to tell her about Philip's interest in Greek and Roman antiquities.  Her interest piqued, Emily begins to study ancient art and, eventually Greek - studies which lead her to wonder if her husband was involved in art forgery.

Emily barely knew Philip when he died, but (against the advice of her friend Cecile, a Parisian grand dame) she's fallen in love with him through reading his journals.  This is how Alexander sets up the mystery, because if Emily didn't love Philip, she'd have no motivation to clear his name.  With the help of her Bryn Mawr-educated friend Margaret, Emily discovers the extent of the forgery scheme and aided by Cecile and her society friends, brings the forger to justice.

I feel like I've left a lot out of this review, but I don't want to give away the delicately balanced plot.  Alexander doesn't rely on coincidence, but she ties together the disparate threads of the plot in such a way that revealing almost any detail risks spoilers.  Perhaps the only plot point I can safely reveal is Renoir's presence as part of Cecile's circle of friends.  I'd seen an exhibit on Renoir's later period a few weeks before I read And Only to Deceive and was struck by how clearly Renoir loved women and everything about women.  Alexander must have seen the same thing because she portrays the artist as a man who appreciates the beauty of all women, and passionately loves his wife.  Reading the passages set in his studio felt like stepping into one of the paintings I'd seen at the PMA.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Three Pound Enigma

Science books can be a crapshoot.  Sometimes, the prose is crisp and clear, and the author's complete grasp of the topic is even clearer.  Other times, the author is intimately familiar with the topic, but less so with sentence structure and pacing.  When I read the jacket to The Three Pound Enigma and discovered that Shannon Moffett was a medical student when her book was published, I was afraid I'd stumbled onto the latter.

I couldn't have been more wrong.  Dr. Moffett is a brilliant writer, and smart enough to start out her book with a profile of Dr. Roberta Glick, a professor of neurosurgery and nothing short of a force of nature.  She's one of the first women to make her name in neurosurgery and as an established expert in the field, mixes her technical skill and knowledge with a sense of spirituality and a fascinating personality.  This is the chapter in which Moffett lays the basic, physiological groundwork for her book and without Dr. Glick, she wouldn't have had the same hook.

Moffett explores both the "how" and the "what" of the brain - the mechanics of neuroimaging and what it tells us about how we thinks; the roots of multiple personalities and the effect on the patient; the mechanics and the ethics of neuromarketing.  Even the potentially dry chapters, like the one discussing the intersection of science and philosophy, were crisp and enjoyable.  The Three Pound Enigma belongs to the upper echelon of science books - equally enjoyable to the layman and the scientist.

The Chameleon's Shadow

The protagonist can't be the killer, can he?  The author can make it look like the protagonist is the killer, but when you get to the last page, it's someone else, right?  Especially with an author like Minette Walters who somehow manages to find a happy ending to particularly dark thrillers.

The Chameleon's Shadow opens with a tank driving over an IED in Iraq, killing two enlisted men and leaving their lieutenant, Charles Acland, clinging to life with severe burns and head injuries.  As Charles recovers, we suspect that his physical injuries are not the only cause of his psychological problems.  He exhibits remarkable self-control but rages at women - especially his mother and ex-fiancee - and his problems worsen after he is discharged from inpatient care.  Severe, frequent migraines and the loss of his left eye have left him unfit for military duty and he spends his days living ascetically and running as if training for an ultra-marathon.  While Charles is running through London with nothing but his rage to accompany him, the police are investigating a series of murders of gay and bisexual men.  With his blackouts and rage, Charles is a natural suspect, but is he the killer?

Walters leaves us guessing.  She relies on coincidence once - when Charles attracts the attention of the police by attacking a Pakistani man in a pub which happens to be owned by the partner of a doctor who acts as a locum for the neighborhood.  Jackson treats him during the migraine that occurs shortly after the fight, and he tells her more in 15 minutes than he told his assigned therapists in months.  A few days later, the two women take him in and he and Jackson edge towards the solution to the murders as the police approach the same conclusion from another angle.  Justice is served, and while The Chameleon's Shadow doesn't end with Walters' traditional happy ending, it's open-ended enough for the reader to believe that Lt. Acland will find some peace.

As I read The Chameleon's Shadow, I was struck by the contrast between Lt. Charles Acland and Capt. Nancy Smith, the heroine of Fox Evil.  Both are army officers from farming families, but Lt. Acland apparently entered the army to escape the failing farm while Capt. Smith looks forward to being the fourth generation to work the same successful concern.  Capt. Smith's mother used her experience as a gardener on a large estate to add a successful nursery to her husband's business; Lt. Acland's mother believes herself to be a 'lady of leisure.'  Capt. Smith is an engineer, and you get the feeling she entered the army as a way to do some good before joining her father in the family business; Lt. Acland seems to have joined the infantry to escape.  The two officers have very different military experiences, but I was fascinated by the contrast between the two characters' personalities.  Walters wrote the two books about five years apart (with three novels between them), and I wonder whether the contrast was intentional.  

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Beauty of the Beastly

I usually read and enjoy Natalie Angier's columns in the NY Times, and I think that may have affected my enjoyment of The Beauty of the Beastly.  It's a compilation of (mostly) re-worked newspaper columns and as a result, nothing felt fresh.  Angier has a crisp, readable prose style, and I enjoyed learning tidbits about snake venom and cheetahs, but as a whole, the book felt slightly disposable.  Perhaps it would be more enjoyable as a time filler - an 'emergency book' left in a car so that one could randomly pick an essay to read while waiting for someone or something - than as a cover-to-cover read.  Maybe the problem was in the editing.  Either way, a few weeks after finishing the book, I remember more about reading it (standing on the platform at Suburban Station waiting for a train that came 25 minutes late, carrying it into a movie theater in case I arrived before the friends I was meeting) than its actual contents.  I enjoyed it, but (unusually for me) retained almost nothing.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Blindman's Bluff

There's something nostalgic about Blindman's Bluff.  It's Faye Kellerman's 18th Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus Decker novel, and it finally struck me that it's been more than 15 years since I picked up The Ritual Bath while on a layover in Pittsburgh, devoured it, and quickly read the three other books available at that point.  

Back then, Rina was a 20-something widow with two small boys; Peter was a police detective in his late 30s, divorced with a teenage daughter.  We've seen them age in approximately real time, marry, and have a daughter who's now sixteen.  Rina's sons are nearly grown, one in college and the other engaged to a fellow med student, and Peter's daughter is married and after nearly a decade as a police officer has been promoted to detective.  Peter's colleagues are aging too, and the book has a bit of a 'changing of the guard' feel.   I suspect that Peter will retire around book 20, and Detective Cindy Decker Kutiel will follow her father's footsteps into homicide.

That's in the future - in the present, we have the particularly brutal murders of a real estate developer, his wife, and a member of their household staff and the serious wounding of one of their sons.  While Peter deals with department brass and press attention, Rina is serving on a criminal jury.  During a break, one of the court translators (the blind man of the title) asks her to describe two men he's eavesdropping on.  It's a bit too coincidental that they're discussing Peter's case, but Kellerman manages to prevent this from sinking the plot.   She does this by both traditional methods (multiple suspects with multiple motives) and by making the translator seem a little creepy, and maybe a little too interested in Rina.  

Blindman's Bluff is an average entry in the Decker/Lazarus series.  That's actually a complement, because I've enjoyed every one I've read to date.  Peter (with the help of his former partner Marge Dunn and her partner Scott Oliver) solves the case through a combination of plodding and luck, and using only clues which the reader sees.  Maybe Kellerman could have mentioned age a bit less, and I would have liked a phone call from one or both of Rina's sons during the family scenes.  Still, it's an enjoyable, well-paced novel which left me ready for book #19.

Sizzling Sixteen

Stephanie Plum considers herself lucky - she has a job which doesn't require pantyhose, an off-and-on relationship with Joe Morelli, and something inexplicable with Carlos "Ranger" Manoso.  And, thanks to her Uncle Pip, she has a lucky bottle - it's red and looks like a handblown beer bottle, and at least Uncle Pip didn't leave her his false teeth.  Grandma Mazur got those, of course.

Steph isn't feeling very lucky, despite the bottle, as Sizzling Sixteen starts.  Her cousin/boss Vinnie has been kidnapped, and since Vinnie's father-in-law Harry the Hammer has sold the bail bonds business to venture capitalists, if they don't find Vinnie, Steph, Lula, and Connie will all be unemployed.   This isn't one of Evanovich's more tightly plotted books, but it's fun.  There's the usual minor FTA (in this case an octogenarian polygamist), a crazy Lula diet (thankfully dropped by the middle of the book), Car Death, an encounter with Ranger, and an argument with Joe (over peanut butter) which leads to Steph doing the unthinkable and actually having groceries in her fridge.  All this (and cameos by Joyce Barnhardt and Moon Man Dunphy - who's running Trenton's largest HobbitCon out of a decrepit RV) floats around Steph, Lula, and Connie rescuing Vinnie (in his underwear), losing him again, and using illicit means and a garage sale (seriously) to free him again.  I'm not sure, really, how to review any books in this series, but how can you not love a book that includes Connie's talent for stink bombs and hundreds of Hobbits storming a mobster's mansion?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Poirot Loses a Client

A few years ago, I realized that I'd somehow missed several Agatha Christie mysteries.  I started reading her as a teenager, and by the time I graduated from high school owned copies of all her novels.  I've also read several of them (Death on the Nile, Third Girl, Sparkling Cyanide) multiple times, and because I tried to read them in order when I was about 15, I've read the first dozen or so.  Still, I've somehow missed a few along the way.

Poirot Loses a Client is one of those missing mysteries.  It's been on my shelf since about the time I graduated from high school (the print date for my copy is May 1986), but I've spent nearly 25 years passing it over for a fifth reading of Evil Under the Sun or a third reading of The Pale Horse.  Poirot Loses a Client is a middling Christie, entertaining but not overly memorable, so maybe it's best that I left it until I was older.

Elderly Emily Arundell lives in Market Basing with a fluttering paid companion and a dog.  While hosting her nieces, nephew, and nephew-in-law (all of whom are hard up for cash), she falls down the stairs.  She's not seriously injured, but the incident frightens her enough to rewrite her will and to ask M. Poirot for help.  Unfortunately, her letter to Poirot stays in her writing desk for two months, and is mailed only after her death from a liver complaint.  Miss Arundell's companion, Miss Lawson, inherits the bulk of her employer's estate, but we never seriously suspect her of murder.   No, it's the victim's four relatives we suspect, and Christie uses a clever device to identify the true murder.  Other than that, we get pictures of village life, Captain Hastings being veddy English, Poirot being Poirot, and a brief look at the Bright Young Things Christie depicted so well.  Poirot Loses a Client is the sort of book that you want to read curled up with a hot drink (and perhaps a cat) on a grey, dreary day, but it's still enjoyable on a commuter train as the hottest summer on record begins to turn the dial from "unbearable" to merely "swelter."

Whose Body?

Acorn Media has rereleased the early-70s Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, and I've just finished watching the first two.  I love the atmosphere - the clothes, the props, the attitude.  I think I could very easily have been the eccentric relative to some wealthy, titled family - for one thing, I think 'eccentric' sounds so much nicer than 'weird.'  

Lord Peter is clearly eccentric, and wealthy.  He has a fabulous flat, collects rare books, and owns a large private car in the early 1920s.  He also investigates crimes - not a gentleman's job at a time when gentlemen were defined by not having jobs.  His frightfully conventional brother, the Duke of Denver, abhors his hobby but their mother, the Dowager Duchess, takes a more favorable view.  It's the Dowager Duchess who calls Lord Peter when the architect reconstructing the local church finds a naked corpse with a pair of pince-nez glasses in his bath.  Lord Peter investigates, and finds that the body is probably not that of the affluent man he's been groomed to appear to be.  Also investigating the body is Inspector Charles Parker, who is investigating the case of a missing financier who roughly fits the description of the body in the bathtub.  The body is not that of Sir Ruben Levy, but Lord Peter finds too many coincidences to believe that the murders are unlinked.  

I've read Whose Body at least twice, so I know who did it, but that didn't diminish my enjoyment of the novel.  Sayers deserves her place as one of the grand masters of the golden age of mystery.  Her Wimsey novels are cleverly plotted, with memorable characters (and even more memorable names - Inspector Sugg, Sir Julian Freake) and the right balance of clues and obfuscation for the reader to solve the mystery but not feel stupid if stumped.

The Burgundian's Tale

It's been more than fifteen years since I picked up the first Roger the Chapman book, and I sometimes lose track of the time between stories.  It's been about seven or eight years in his timeline since Roger first helped Prince Richard, and close to two years since he's worked on a royal commission.  The request to solve The Burgundian's Tale could not come at a better time for Roger - he can't hide the relief at not having another child to support when his newborn daughter dies, and his former mother-in-law (his current wife's cousin) has taken ill and is staying with his family.   

It's the perfect time for Roger to walk through the countryside selling his wares, but Prince Richard has other plans.  His sister, the Duchess of Burgundy, has returned for a visit and her beloved servant (the son of another servant raised as her companion) has been murdered and Richard 'asks' Roger to solve the mystery.  The Burgundian's Tale is a murder in retrospect, and everyone sees the late Fulk Quantrill differently.  To his aunt Judith St. Clair (his mother's identical twin), he's a link to her past and now the heir to her considerable wealth.  To her stepdaughter, he's a potential suitor and to her stepson he's a competitor.  Edmund Brorder, a cousin of Judith's first husband, has the best motive of all, since he stood to inherit his cousin's shop until she rewrote her will.  The real motive turns out to be blackmail, not inheritance, and Sedly has written a tightly plotted mystery which leaves just enough clues to allow us to guess the murderer a few paragraphs before Roger tumbles into a trap.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Life Sentences

Laura Lippman created Tess Monaghan in the mid 1990s.  I was watching Homicide and willing to try a Baltimore based mystery.  Homicide has been off the air for a decade, but I've been faithful to Lippman's work, maybe because I see a little of myself in Tess.  I don't have the adoring, younger boyfriend, but I'm an only child,  have sort of fallen into my current career and have 'long hair' as a central part of my persona.  The rowing lessons, though, go the other way - I was inspired by Tess's hobby, and one of these years will simultaneously have the time and the money to join one of the boathouses.

Life Sentences is not a Tess Monaghan mystery - it's part of Lippman's series-that-isn't-a-series.  Like Lisa Scottoline's books centered on Bennie Rosato's litigation firm, the four (so far) non-Tess books are stand-alone novels loosely connected by recurring characters.  The protagonist is Cassandra Follows, a Baltimore native who wrote a best-selling memoir about her childhood and a less-successful follow-up.  While promoting an even less well-received novel, Cassandra hears a news story linking a current murder to an infant's disappearance nearly twenty years ago.  That child's mother had been Cassandra's classmate in grade school, and since she's going back to Baltimore to interview her father (a retired classics professor) at a fundraiser for her old high school, she decides to investigate what happened to Calliope Jenkins and her missing baby.   

I took a course called "History and Fiction" my sophomore year of college.  We read autobiographies in the final third of the course and discussed the difference between "bias" and "focus" and how two people will see the same event differently.  As Cassandra meets with old friends, she learns that lesson.  Everyone she meets remembers the past differently, and some of them are unhappy with how she's portrayed them.  Cassandra's, and everyone else's, bias fuel the mystery, sealing Calliope's fate with a mixture of racial and class prejudice.  Lippman unraveled this story with just enough clues for me to solve it along with Cassandra.  

This seems to be the Year of the Subplot for me, and there's one in Life Sentences, and unlike most of the other subplots I've encountered recently, I thought this one (involving Cassandra's father and the eventual need to re-evaluate her memoir) was interesting and complementary to the main plot.  My one problem with the book was the insertion of Gloria Bustamonte.  Gloria has appeared in Lippman's other stand-alone books and while she can be an interesting character, she adds nothing to Life Sentences.  Her few scenes could have been rewritten to feature other characters, or someone without baggage created for this book.  She's a minor distraction, though, and despite my initial reluctance (memoirs and memoirists don't interest me), I enjoyed Life Sentences.  I still prefer Tess Monaghan, but I'll keep looking forward to Lippman's other works.

The Price of Murder

Bruce Alexander participated in a panel on historical mysteries at Bouchercon in 2003.  The Price of Murder, the tenth book in the Sir John Fielding series, had just been published, so I found a new author with a decent sized backlist.  What I didn't know was that the series would end with the eleventh book, because Mr. Alexander died in 2004.  I think that's why it's been over two years since I last read a Sir John Fielding mystery - I know the series is about to end and I want to stretch it out a little longer.  Or maybe I was just a bit disappointed in book #9.

The Price of Murder, like several other books I've read this year, is a dual mystery.  The first is the murder of a small child whose body is found floating in the Thames.  She's the daughter of a prostitute who sold her, knowingly or not, to a pedophile, and then disappeared.  While looking for evidence in the missing woman's room, Sir John's assistant Jeremy Proctor meets the woman's brother, a well-known jockey named Deuteronomy Plummer.  He's an interesting character, and I enjoyed Alexander's detour into 18th Century horse racing.   He relies a bit too much on coincidence (the child's murderer breeds horses), but the excitement of the racing scenes make up for the predictability.  

I was disappointed, however, in the subplot.  Jeremy's fiancee Clarissa Roundtree meets an old friend who's now living in London and helping her mother run a boardinghouse.  Her brief disappearance and the trial of her alleged kidnappers is entertaining, but serves only to move up the couple's wedding date.  Alexander should have either integrated this story line more closely with the main plot or left it out.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Shape of Snakes

I have no idea why Minette Walters (or her publisher) decided to call her 2001 thriller The Shape of Snakes.  Maybe it's a reference to the untrustworthiness of old friends or the surprisingly manipulative behavior of the heroine, or maybe it was simply an eye-catching title.

M. Ranleigh (we never know her first name) and her husband Sam bought a small house in a soon-to-gentrify neighborhood in London in the mid 1970s.  The neighborhood contained a mixture of people - young couples climbing the ladder, families which had spent generations on the dole, the outwardly respectable man carrying on an affair with the prostitute across the street while his wife was dying of cancer, and Annie Butts, a biracial woman whose Tourette's Syndrome made her vulnerable to the neighborhood bullies.  One rainy night, Annie was murdered, although the cursory police investigation deemed it an accidental death.  Mrs. Ranleigh, who discovered the dying woman, refused to accept the verdict and over the next several months spiraled into depression, anorexia, and agoraphobia, eventually leaving the area to follow her husband to an overseas posting in an attempt to salvage her marriage.

Twenty years lager, the Ranleighs return to England, and at first it looks like a coincidence that their new family doctor treated Miss Butts a quarter century earlier, and that they live within a short drive of several of their old neighbors.  As Mrs. Ranleigh casually mentions former acquaintances and as we read the notes of the doctor who treated her for post-partum depression in the early 1980s, we realize that she has spent the past two decades trying to discover who killed Annie.  Her most valuable resource are gossipy letters and e-mails from her friend Libby, the ex-wife of her husband's friend Jock, which mix news of her former neighbors with tales of her rising career and Jock's boom-and-bust lifestyle, which has has gone bust by the time the Ranleighs return to England.  

I've read several of Walters's books, and in some ways she's a darker, more violent Agatha Christie with deeper characters.  Her books center on rather gruesome crimes, and but there's always a happy ending.  Here, Walters hides the identity of the killer well enough that even though I solved the mystery with a few pages left, I was shocked to discover 'whodunnit.'  The happy ending is Ranliegh's sense of peace, and how some of the supporting characters have happier lives in 2000 than one would have expected twenty years earlier.

Mary, Queen of Scots

I enjoy books - not just reading, the physical objects.  I like seeing how styles have changed over the years, and trying to guess the print date of a particular edition from the typeface illustrations on the cover.  My copy of Mary, Queen of Scots is very clearly an old copy.  For one thing, it's a pocket sized paperback - non-fiction hasn't been published like that in decades (to the chagrin of those of us who prefer paperbacks because they can be slipped into a pocket).  There's also the price ($1.50), the photo of Lady Antonia Fraser on the back (with a bouffant, heavy eye makeup, and large rings, making her look a bit like the character Jo Grant from Doctor Who) and the page advertising Deliverance, which is "Soon to be a major motion picture."  There's also my grandmother's name in pencil inside the back cover, with the date "3/18/71."  My grandmother died in 1983, so this book has sat on my shelf for more than twice as long as it sat on hers.

Mary, Queen of Scots was Fraser's first book, launching a career which includes an almost equal number of biographies and mystery novels, and she writes more like a novelist than a historian.  I mean that as a complement - I've read two of her other biographies and her style is clear and compelling, no matter how dry the details of royal ancestry may be.  Here, she vividly portrays Mary Stuart as both a headstrong young woman and a political pawn.  Like her cousin Elizabeth, Mary was a symbol of her faith in a time of religious upheaval but maintained a 'live and let live' attitude towards others' beliefs.  Mary, however, did not have the luxury of ruling a fairly powerful state or the education and brilliance of the English Queen.  Mary was bright and well read, if perhaps not well-taught in the art of statecraft, but Elizabeth was an extraordinary intellect who benefited from a comprehensive education.  

Mary also married three times, once as a child and twice due to poor judgment.  Crowned Queen of Scotland as a newborn, Mary was betrothed to the French Dauphin and sent to France at age 5 to be raised in the French court.  Her fiance, Francis, was a weak, unpleasant boy, probably unequal to the task of ruling one country, let alone two.  Two years after they married and after a year as Consort of France, Mary was Queen Dowager and soon returned to her own kingdom.

The Scotland Mary returned to rule in 1561 was not the same country she left.  The Protestant Reformation had taken hold in Edinburgh, and the mostly Protestant nobility did not want a Catholic (and to a lesser extent a woman) ruling their country.  Mary's attitude was more modern - she considered faith a private matter and was willing to let Scotland remain predominantly Protestant but tolerant of Catholics like herself.  As I read these passages, I couldn't understand how she was seen as a threat to the Protestant majority.  Maybe her years in France and the expectation that Francis would be the de facto ruler of Scotland left her unable to effectively communicate her temperate views, or maybe John Knox was just too powerful of a personality.  Regardless, Mary come across as more of a victim than a perpetrator of interfaith political battles.

Elizabeth I understood the pitfalls of marriage, especially for a queen, and managed to steer clear.  Mary, though, impulsively fell in love with and married her pretty-boy cousin, Henry, Lord Darnley.  Henry was petty, vain, and promiscuous.  The couple essentially separated when Mary was pregnant with the future James VI/I, after he was involved in the murder of her private secretary, David Rizzio.  Henry, who showed even less talent for conspiracy than Mary, betrayed the Protestant nobles behind the plot but the marriage was essentially over from that point.  Mary and her counsellors explored the possibility of divorce, but Henry was murdered while escaping from a castle which was blown up by political enemies.  One of those men, Lord Bothwell, then abducted and raped Mary, and then forced her to marry him.  Shortly afterwards, she was forced to abdicate her thrown and tried to escape to England.  There she became the tragic figure of history, the Queen locked in a tower until she was deemed too much of a threat to Queen Elizabeth's power and was tried for treason and convicted on the basis of intentionally misinterpreted and mistranslated letters.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Fatally Flaky

Diane Mott Davidson will never go on probation - her Goldy Schultz series is light enough that even the sub-par entries are pleasant, and the recipes always make me drool.  Fatally Flaky, the 15th Goldy novel, is one of the better ones.  Goldy is catering a wedding for Bridezilla Billie - a rich and unpleasant young woman who doesn't need reality TV editing to make her into a nightmare.  The book doesn't start with Billie's wedding, though - it starts with the wedding of a sweet young woman who has asked a beloved local GP to give her away and make the first toast.  Doc Finn is also Goldy's recently relocated godfather's best friend, and when the doctor dies in a suspicious car accident on his way to the catering hall, Jack is understandably distressed.  And suspicious - suspicions which lead to his being attacked and Goldy's undercover assignment at a local health spa.  For me, the mystery was an 80% solve - I figured out "who" fairly early on, but most of the "how" remained unknown until the final chapters.  I really enjoyed my time with Goldy and her family, though, and the recipes include one that my pork-loving parents will absolutely love.

The Triumph of Caesar

Gordianus, I thought you were dead.

So did I.  Saylor's previous novel, The Judgment of Caesar, ended with Gordianus walking into the Nile.  Two years later, he is clearly alive and has returned to Rome and his unconventional family with Bethesda.  Although his son Eco has taken over his detective business, Gordianus finds that he cannot refuse a commission from Caesar's wife Calpurnia who fears her husband will be assassinated during his triumph celebrating his victories in Gaul, Egypt, and Asia.  Nor can he resist solving the mystery of who killed Hieronymus, the former Scapegoat of Massalia who saved Gordianus's life and then followed him to Rome.  

Saylor leads Gordanius through meeting with the political elite and walks through the less fashionable suburbs of Rome, and gives us a good seat for the pageantry of Rome at its most excessive.  Along the way, we see that Gordianus's daughter Diana is (as we suspected) a natural in the family business and, yes, find the murderer.  I've mentioned before that I've read enough mysteries that I usually figure out 'whodunnit' and The Triumph of Caesar was no exception.  Saylor sufficiently obscured the murder's identity without cheating, so I was satisfied with the outcome.  Most importantly, Saylor transported me into a different world - for a few minutes, I wasn't sitting on a commuter train but watching a mob gasp in awe at shiny armor and exotic animals.

North and South

I haven't read much Victorian fiction, and I haven't particularly enjoyed much of what I have read.  It's too sentimental, with neon-outlined lessons on behavior.  I prefer something a bit more subtle and less self conscious.  North and South both confirms and confounds my prejudices.  The rich are so because they're better people, the poor are either vulgar or victims, the 'good' are clearly rewarded, and every action is ponderously presented - at least on the surface.  Gaskell places several compelling plots against this backdrop and draws her characters with a nuanced hand.  

Margaret Hale has been raised as the 'companion' to a richer and prettier cousin but has an independent mind and inner compass.  Shortly after her return to her family, her father, a country vicar, has to give up his post because of his religious doubts, and the family moves from rural southern England to Manchester (renamed Milton-Northern) where he will support the family as a private tutor.  Once settled, Margaret begins to adapt to her surroundings and sees that class structures are beginning to change.  John Thornton, the mill owner, is not a gentleman in the sense of being a self-supporting member of the gentry, but he's financially well off.  The Hales, in contrast, were at least on the fringes of Society but in Milton Northern, their low income puts them down a few rungs on the social ladder.  This leads to a number of misunderstandings between Margaret and John and their families of the sort that would fuel the plot of 1930s screwball comedies but here come across just seriously enough to retain the slightly medicinal flavor of a Victorian lesson.  

The working class characters aren't quite as fully drawn.  Shortly after moving to Milton Northern, Margaret meets Bessy Higgins, a young woman dying from industrial asthma and probably TB, and her father Nicholas.  Bessy is a stereotypical young victim - saintly, and despairing over her father's atheism.  Nicholas is a bit more complex - he's one of the leaders of a nascent labor movement which Gaskell views with favor - but he still borders on cartoon.  The Higgins's neighbors are crude and uneducated, and the strikebreakers are nothing more than faceless, superstitious, Irish thugs.

I generally enjoyed North and South.  Margaret is an interesting character who grows over the course of the novel, and the plots tie together neatly but not too neatly.  I found the ending to be a bit rushed, and a bit too neat, although that is due at least in part to Gaskell's publisher truncating the final third of the novel.  

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Snow Empress

I'm not sure what Laura Joh Rowland has in mind for her characters.  Three books ago, she promoted Sano Ichiro to Chamberlain, where he spends less time investigating and more time watching his back in the political shark tank of the Tokagawa Shogunate.  This leaves Lady Reiko fewer chances to act as an unofficial detective and his former assistant, Hirata, as the Shogun's chief investigator.  Hirata, however, was injured, and as part of his training to recover has become quite mystical.  All these changes are believable in the framework of the series, and while I'm not sure where Rowland is taking them, I'm enjoying the journey.

The Snow Empress focuses on a journey to the northern reaches of Japan.  Lord Matsudaira has kidnapped Sano's and Reiko's son Masahiro, causing Reiko to withdraw within her sorrow.  Matsudaira has hidden Masahiro in Ezogashima, where Lord Matsudaira sends Sano to find out why the local lord has not made his required annual trip to Edo.  Once the party arrives, they discover that Lord Matsumae has had a mental breakdown following the murder of his native mistress, Tekare.  As Reiko searches for her son, Sano and Hirata try to solve Tekare's murder, a task complicated by how different she appeared to everyone who knew her.  (Yes, I know this review is begging for a Rashomon reference, but I've never seen that movie, so I'll refrain.)  Logic, legwork, a bit of Hirata's new-found mysticism, and Lord Matsumae's rage avenge Tekare's death, allowing Sano to return to the familiar but uncertain environment of the Shogun's court.

Dirty Blonde

I miss Rosato & Associates.  The last few Lisa Scottoline books I've read haven't been part of her series-that-isn't-a-series involving Philadelphia's only all-female litigation firm.  The titular Dirty Blonde is Cate Fante, a newly appointed judge originally from Centralia PA.  Cate is reliably smart - and smart-mouthed - as all Scottoline heroines are, but I just couldn't get involved in her story.  I think Scottoline might have had the same problem, or maybe she realized that there are only so many times she can make her protagonist the target of a stalker.  

Dirty Blonde is full of witty dialogue, well-drawn settings (as a native Philadelphian, I mentally penciled in street names and landmarks as Cate drove around town), and daring escapes.  What's missing is a strong central plot.  Scottoline has thrown in too many subplots, including Cate's best friend and her autistic toddler, Cate's habit of picking up men in dive bars, and Cate's trip back to her burning, abandoned home town, and they all distract from the intertwined problems of Cate's stalking and the murder of a plaintiff Cate has ruled against.  

The Typhoon Lover

In her early twenties, Japanese-American Rei Shimura fell into two careers - one as an antiques expert and one as a detective.  A decade and eight novels later, Rei is now 30 and Sujita Massey has solved the problem of how to explain why a woman in a seemingly genteel job keeps coming across dead bodies.  The day after Rei's surprise 30th birthday party (thrown at a hot new club by her on-and-off fiance, Hugh), she drags herself to a 9 am interview at the Smithsonian...except it's at rather than with the museum.  Rei's former lover, Takedo, has apparently become involved in smuggling antiquities out of Iraq and the CIA thinks Rei can use him to recover an ancient ewer.  

Maybe Rei fell for the bait (she's been barred from traveling to Japan and if she takes this job, the State Department will end that), or maybe she realizes that her relationship with Hugh (described as arguments punctuated by great sex) is falling apart.  Either way, she did not expect to find Takeo engaged to a high-strung girl from a political family or that she and Takeo would have a one night stand in the middle of a storm.  After some dead ends, Rei finds that the smuggler is much closer than she though.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Butcher of St. Peter's

I have mixed feelings about prolific series-bases writers.  Michael Jecks produces a mystery about every nine months, which means that I usually have more than one of his titles in my infrequent amazon.co.uk deliveries, and if I were to stop importing paperbacks, I'd still have half a dozen Sir Baldwin mysteries sitting on my shelf.

Unfortunately, The Butcher of St. Peter's is far from the best novel in the series.  Jecks seems to be in a bit of a lull, writing less vividly than he did a dozen years and 15 or 16 books ago.  The Keeper of the King's Peace, Sir Baldwin Furnshill, has been called to Exeter to solve a dispute over the estate and remains of a wealthy man.  As he and Bailiff Simon Puttock try to untangle this complicated and uninvolving problem, they are drawn into the murder of a prominent citizen.  We should suspect the titular butcher, but we don't - like the people of Exeter, we know he's a broken but ultimately harmless man.  Unfortunately, I didn't care who committed the murder, or the resolution of Sir Henry's estate and burial, or the actions of a medieval crime lord.  It's a kitchen sink of a novel, in which these three minor mysteries are mixed with Sir Baldwin's guilt over his brief encounter (while shipwrecked) with another woman, his wife Jeanne's fear that she has lost her husband's love, and the preening of Sir Baldwin's nemesis, Sir Perigrine de Barnstaple.  I enjoy spending time with these characters, but I wish Jecks had devised a stronger plot.

Perfect Figures

I think I bought Perfect Figures because it's about math.  In retrospect, I think I pulled it off the shelf at Daedalus because of the author.  If someone is willing to be known, not just personally but also professionally as Bunny Crumpacker, well, I just have to buy the book.   Crumpacker lives up to her name - Perfect Figures is a fluffy bunny of a book, the first math-related book I've ever read that would be more enjoyable accompanied by a neon-colored drink garnished with an umbrella.  A little math, a little history, some folklore, and a bit of rhapsodizing over the shape of 8 makes for an enjoyable but ultimately ephemeral experience.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Dead Air

Just a quick explanation for the nearly two months of silence.  My mom was hit by a car a few days after my last post and I've been spending much of my free time with her - at first helping her, and now trying to fend of stir craziness.  It hasn't left a lot of time for posting (or reading, for that matter).

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of Murder

I have a confession to make - an embarrassing confession.   I've only read three stories by Edgar Allan Poe, and all three were read in school.  I aspire to win an Edgar, and yet I've never read his Dupin stories.  I'm not quite sure how this happened, because I've enjoyed the Poe works I've read, but somehow he's slipped through the cracks (and then drugged and plastered into the wall).  I did read a literary biography for 12th grade English, but somehow, Sr. Maureen Christi (who is both a Poe scholar and a woman with a wicked sense of humor) managed to find a book that made the fascinatingly self-destructive Virginian, well, dull.  

Daniel Stashower's The Beautiful Cigar Girl may not be as deep as the biography I read in 1985, but it's much more entertaining.  Mary Rogers gained notoriety as a counter girl in a New York tobacconist's shop in the late 1830s.  Men lined up to be served by her, and newspapers published bad poetry in her honor - she was a Survivor demi-star for the early industrial era.  After a mysterious disappearance, she left her job and, with the help of her former employer, Mary and her mother opened a boarding house.  One hot summer day in 1841, Mary disappeared and her battered, strangled body floated ashore three days alter.  Stashower alternates between the investigation of Mary's murder and Poe's chaotic life, two threads which meet when Poe proposes a roman a clef (The Murder of Marie-Roget) in which he will solve the crime.  Since this involves Poe, there must be a twist, and one that works against the writer.  Shortly before the publication of the third and final installment, an accidental death warms up the ice-cold case and makes Poe's solution impossible.  He quickly re-writes his story in which he claims that he has been forbidden to reveal the solution and experiences another, brief period of fame and solvency but ultimately spirals back into self-destruction.  Poe outlived Mary Rogers by only 8 years, dying in Baltimore of either alcoholism or rabies at age 40.


Thursday, February 11, 2010

Red Chrysanthemum

Red Chrysanthemum is the 11th book in Laura Joh Rowland's Sano Ichiro series.  Three years into his tenure as Chamberlain, Sano and his wife Reiko haven't exactly grown apart, but his new position means they spend less time together, and Sano is often too distracted or tired to really listen to Reiko.  Additionally, as a compromise candidate in an unstable political climate, Sano must constantly be vigilant for any plot to depose hiim.

Reiko is an unusual character - a Samurai class woman whose father allowed her to train in marital arts, and a clever detective who helped Sano when he was the Shogun's chief investigator.  Now, with few outlets for her mental energy, she has begun helping those who write to her.  She's done some good, freeing abused wives from marriages and bringing the killer of a pregnant peasant teen to justice, but she's also made enemies.  Did one of those enemies frame her for murder?

Reiko has been found - by Hirata, Sano's former right-hand-man and now successor as chief investigator - in the bed of a murdered and mutilated daimo.  Reiko can't explain how she got there, her memories don't make sense, and the daimo's widow claims Reiko was her late husband's lover and killed him in a jealous rage.  Rowland interweaves Reiko's mystery with the political machinations of competing factions in the Tokagawa Shogunate which may lead to Sano's execution for treason.  Like one of House's patients, everyone Sano, Reiko, and Hirata meets lies, or tells a tale too remarkable to believe.

Red Chrysanthemum is a tightly plotted mystery, with all threads (including the false leads and red herrings) getting neatly tied up in the end.  Because I read paperbacks and almost always know that there will be a next book, I was never really concerned that Sano or Reiko would be executed, but I was mostly pleased at how Rowland 'saved' them.  I have one minor quibble, though, and it's with Hirata.  He seems to bend to the needs to the plot and occasionally against his known character, and his actions in the climactic scene have a hint of deus ex machina.  Still, this is a good entry in what has been a remarkably even-quality series.

Revolutionary Road

I grew up in the 70s and 80s, so the 50s were a recent memory to which the current day was unfavorably compared.  It wasn't until later that the general pop culture allowed us to see that, like all eras, the 50s had both positive and negative sides.   Still, there was the occasional movie or book, like Revolutionary Road, which cast a jaundiced eye on the contemporary landscape.

Revolutionary Road showed the unpleasant and unhappy people behind the shiny curtain of 1950s suburbia.  April and Frank Wheeler married too young, had children before they were ready (if they'd ever be ready), and moved to the suburbs because it was expected.  They're miserable - a frustrated actress reluctantly keeping house and an insecure pseudo-intellectual in a do-nothing office job.  It's possible that neither would be happy in any life - wealthy April was abandoned by her parents as a toddler and raised by a remote aunt; born to older parents a generation after his brothers, Frank spent his childhood moving constantly as his father's sales career spiraled downward - but they seem to feed on each other's misery.  

The book opens with a community theater production that goes poorly.  April was the star, and after a few good scenes, gave as wooden a performance as the rest of her cast mates.  This starts a multi-day fight with Frank, and you get the idea that the two of them never have a reason for their disputes and yet are rarely on speaking terms with each other.  Against this bitter backdrop, they go through the motions of normal life - work, housework, drinks and dinner with a neighborhood couple.  Then April decides they should move to Paris - she's worked everything out, government agencies need secretaries and Frank can 'find himself' abroad - and at first this dream brings them back together.  They spend long nights discussing their dreams and making love.  

And then it falls apart.  Maybe he's afraid of change, maybe it's because he's actually engaged at work for the first time, or maybe he just sees the problems in April's plan, but Frank starts to waver.  Then April discovers that she's pregnant.  Neither really wants a third child, but a baby is a good way to postpone moving to Paris.  Maybe Frank really doesn't want to move, but is that a reason to see keeping April from self-aborting as a battle to win?  It's an uncomfortable passage.  For some, even contemplating abortion is reprehensible; and yet Frank seems concerned only with winning the battle with April, not with the baby.  Frank was never a particularly sympathetic character, but when he wins, he seems to let his crueler nature peek through.  That mean streak, and a pair of visits from their realtor's disturbed son, leads up to a fight that ends tragically for all.  

Revolutionary Road is depressing and compelling.  I knew from the start that the characters were doomed, but I wanted to know how.  The characters are generally unappealing, but I still wanted to know more about them, maybe find some redeeming characteristics.  

My copy of the book is a movie tie-in, so there's a picture of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet on the cover.  Normally, when I read a book that's been made into a movie I haven't seen, the cast doesn't influence how I see the characters, but for some reason I saw DiCaprio as Frank.  I'm not sure why (I haven't seen many of DiCaprio's movies), but I think it's because he looks uncomfortably boyish.  In his 30s, he still has a baby face but an adult presence.  He's one of those people whose age you can't place because he seems both younger and older than he actually is, and that's Frank - a world-weary but immature 30-year-old manchild.


Saturday, February 6, 2010

Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster

It's a Lacroix, darling - Edina Monsoon

I've never really understood the appeal of labels and logos.  Part of it is that when you get right down to it, I'm frugal (unless you ask my mom who'll tell you I'm cheap, and back it up with tales of unbroken twenties and moth-filled wallets, some of which may actually be true) and can't get my mind around the idea of paying a 300% premium for the privilege of wearing someone else's name across my butt.  I'm a rarity though, as Dana Thomas tells us in Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster.  Thomas traces luxury houses from their early years of hand-crafting beautiful luggage, clothing, and accessories for the very wealthy through their expansion into new markets in the 1980s, to their status as mall stalwarts earning profits on entry level products.  Along the way, she stops for factory tours, a ride-along with a detective who specializes in busting counterfeiters, and a gossipy look into the world of celebrity stylists.  

Luxury used to belong only to the wealthy - wealthy women ordered couture dresses and custom-made handbags.   That was fine for small, family owned houses which took pride in their craftsmanship, but as the luxury companies merged into publicly-held groups, profits became more important.  To keep up with the pressure from stockholders, brands initially expanded into emerging markets (especially Japan) and lower cost items such as perfume and accessories.  The next step was to cut costs.  Thomas mentions the move towards unlined items and one (unnamed) house which shortened the sleeves of their jackets by half an inch, saving thousands of dollars (a move which particularly bothers me, a 5'8" woman with very long arms).  She also discusses outsourcing, a practice most houses try to hide, by placing the "made in China" label in an inconspicuous place or by emphasizing the European site at which the Asian-made parts were assembled.  These sections poke a hole in the "I'm paying for quality" argument I sometimes hear from women carrying designer bags - the entry level bags are at least sometimes made in sweatshops and from substandard materials, just like the counterfeit versions and the no-name bags found in discount stores.

Thomas's book is more a collection of essays on related topics than a unified work, and the chapter on the rise of the Hollywood stylist was the most fun to read.  Old Hollywood was a pretty, escapist, world where everyone wore evening dress and each studio employed stylists who not only designed gorgeous costumes but also dresses for stars to wear when they were nominally off-duty.  As the studio system fell, and a more naturalistic style of film came into vogue, movie characters wore off-the-rack clothes and stars were on their own on the red carpet.  Dressing movie characters in the sort of clothes their characters would wear in real life (no more picnicking in elaborate silk dresses) makes the movies more realistic, but also freed stars to indulge in tackiness.  Stylists stepped in, saving stars from their baser tastes and the public from seeing a repeat of Kim Basinger's self-designed, one-armed 1990 Oscar gown.  As stylists became more powerful, they began making demands on the houses, some of which were unreasonable and none of which were substantiated in the book.  I understand that Thomas's sources for this chapter probably spoke off the record to preserve their own jobs, but they ring true, perhaps because I've seen so many beautiful stars wearing the wrong dress from a hot designer.  The chartreuse dress Nicole Kidman wore to the Oscars in 1997 made her look seriously ill, and the dress as seriously ugly as Demi Moore's bicycle shorts from a few years earlier, and the only explanation I can think of for her wearing it was a backroom deal by her stylist.  

I enjoyed Deluxe, but for the most part it confirmed what I knew or suspected.  Luxury brands are no longer a sign of high quality but a public badge consumers wear to say "I've arrived" or a marketing-driven indulgence.  A complex web of advertising and product placement has convinced us that a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes or an Armani dress or a Vuitton bag are necessary indulgences, or at least of higher value than a similar item with a less prestigious name.  

Wearing a logo means you've won the economic game when Deluxe was published in 2007, but does that still apply?  As I read, I felt the ghost of the Great Recession - are consumers as willing to spend for a name without a clear increase in quality?  Is shopping still a hobby, and if not, will it become one again in the future?  How many of the women who bought a new 'it' bag every season have had economic setbacks and look at the shelf full of designer accessories with regret?  Entertaining and well-written, Deluxe, may have profiled the final days of a label obsessed society.


Monday, February 1, 2010

The Lady Elizabeth

We know how it ends.  Elizabeth R, Gloriana, the Virgin Queen ascended to the throne of a tiny, near-bankrupt island nation set it on the path to empire and cultural domination.  Alison Weir's The Lady Elizabeth tells us how it began, with a startlingly intelligent little girl, who before her third birthday asked why she was no longer Lady Princess, but merely Lady Elizabeth.  The reason, of course, is that her father has declared her illegitimate after executing her mother on trumped-up charges of adultery and is once again in search of a wife and an heir, leaving Elizabeth and her half-sister Mary in limbo.   

The Lady Elizabeth is a novel, so Weir can play a little bit with the historical record.  We know the basic facts - Elizabeth was a brilliant scholar but a bit of a little girl lost who never really experienced family life until Katherine Parr married Henry VIII.  She remained Elizabeth's guardian after the king died, and seemed to tolerate her fourth husband's early-morning visits to Elizabeth's room.  Thomas Seymour's physical improprieties with Elizabeth are part of the historical record (and historical rumor), and the scenes are a bit uncomfortable to read.  At 14, Elizabeth was old enough to marry - in fact, Seymour had tried to marry her - and found the Admiral attractive at first, but we're still reading about a teenager being molested by her step-father, with the apparent tacit approval of the only mother she's ever known.  Maybe Weir could have skipped this episode, but instead she uses it as Elizabeth's introduction to the treachery of courtiers.  It's a lesson she needs, because her youth will be spent dealing with shifting political and religious alliances.  Elizabeth survives the proto-Puritan reign of her brother, and the Inquisition-tinged reign of her sister because she's smart and savvy enough to stay out of the political intrigues which might land her on the throne - or the scaffold.  True, she has some brilliant advisors like William Cecil, but she's also poorly served by other alleged protectors like her governess/companion Kat Astley who encourages Seymour's attentions to her charge until long after they've gotten out of hand.

Religion plays a major part in the novel, as it did in the Tudor Era.  Although Henry VIII broke from Rome and is the founder of the Anglican Church, he died as a Catholic, just not one who followed the Pope and who nearly brought heresy charges against the secretly Protestant Katherine Parr.  Elizabeth, too, is a Protestant, and often portrayed herself as a modest Protestant maiden, albeit one who seems to be a forerunner of the Sexy Librarian ("Why, Lady Elizabeth, you're beautiful!").  Unlike her siblings, the fanatically Protestant Edward VI and the equally ultra-orthodox Catholic Mary I, she takes a more nuanced view of faith, believing it to be more of a private matter.  

I agree with Elizabeth, but wonder how much of her half-siblings' fanaticism is natural and how much grew from their circumstances.  Edward VI became king at age 9 and while intelligent, was a sheltered, naive boy ripe for manipulation by Protestant courtiers who wanted to scrub the Anglican Church of its Catholic roots.  He outlawed Catholicism and made the Pope a favorite villain, then died at age 16.  Mary, who first found solace in her faith allowed that faith to grow into an intolerant ultra-orthodoxy during the decades in which she was a political impediment to her father and thwarted in her desire for marriage and children.  After ascending to the throne, she married a man as intolerant as she who argued for her sister's execution, and embarked on the persecution of those who would not embrace the True Faith.  Both monarchs encouraged evil in the pursuit of religion, and I give Weir some credit for showing Edward as weak and Mary as desperate rather than as merely despotic bigots. 

This is Weir's second novel, and I enjoyed it more than her first.  Innocent Traitor was good, but the dogmatic, slightly priggish Lady Jane Grey isn't as interesting of a character as the brilliant and vivacious Elizabeth.  Weir also stays with Elizabeth's point of view, which gives the book a more unified feel than the shifting narration of Innocent Traitor.  She has since returned to biography, including a recently published book on Anne Boleyn's final days, but I hope she returns to fiction, perhaps with a novel about Mary or a humanization of Edward.


Friday, January 15, 2010

To Kill or Cure

How does a doctor expose a snake-oil salesman when the most skilled physician has little more than a belief in hand washing and a few symptomatic treatments at his disposal?  That is Matthew Bartholomew's dilemma in To Kill or Cure, Susanna Gregory's thirteenth mystery set in 14th Century Cambridge.  Trained in Europe by an Arab physician, Bartholomew is the most modern of Cambridge's five medical men - he has studied anatomy (illegal in England at the time) and has a basic understanding of contagion and the connection between dirt and infection.  Still, many of his patients die, leaving the residents of Cambridge vulnerable to the charms of Richard Arderne, a charismatic man who claims to cure any ailment (for a large fee, of course) with his magic feather.  A magic feather might not impress us as much as, say, ginko biloba capsules, but since even doctors in 1357 didn't know how or why their patients recovered, I can understand how people might want to believe Arderne's spells.  

Arderne works against a backdrop of growing town/gown tensions.  Several years after the plague, prices have increased but the rents University students pay are statutorily kept artificially low and the landlords have organized, asking that the rates be tripled, or else they will no longer rent to students.  An apparent accident which kills one of Cambridge's other doctors leads to a riot in which a student and a townsman are killed, and a second, injured student disappears.  Bartholomew, acting as the University Corpse Examiner, finds that his colleague was actually murdered, but when Arderne brings the dead student back to life as Bartholomew begins his examination, he begins to question his skills. 

I've mentioned before that I'm rarely tricked by mysteries that don't cheat, and I solved the Arderne plot, perhaps a little too quickly.  The rent plot was a bit murkier, and while Gregory didn't quite cheat, she threw in a few too many suspects and motivations in the last few chapters.  I think Gregory may have realized that the Arderne plot was too thin and the rent plot too hard to solve for either to stand alone and tried to shoehorn them into a single novel.

It may look like I didn't enjoy To Kill or Cure, but I did.  Although thin, the Arderne plot was amusing and I was happy to see Gregory return Brother Michael to his earlier characterization.  Senior Proctor (and Chancellor in all but name) and Bartholomew's Michaelhouse College colleague, Michael had begun to veer towards the stereotype of the gluttonous, jolly monk with a somewhat cavalier attitude towards his vow of chastity.  The rent plot, while not particularly satisfying, brought Michael the courtier - an intelligent man skilled in balancing the competing interests of multiple parties and a lover of University politics - to the forefront.  He's not the fool he's played in the last few novels, but a skilled professional who manages to control a tinder-box town in tense times.