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.