Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters

Rose George lures us in with tales of high-tech Japanese toilets and then spends the rest of The Big Necessity pointing out that the phrase 'water born disease' is a euphemism for 'shit born disease.' 2.6 billion people have no access to even the most rudimentary toilet, and many of the toileted are relieving themselves into a hole which may seep into the ground or a pipe which may overflow with moderate rain. After the brief discussion of Japanese plumbing (including a crowded bar debating the qualities of the top two toilet brands - basically, one rinses better and the other dries better, leaving the choice of toilet up to the preference of the user), she takes us on a tour of the developing world where the same basic problem of safely eliminating and possibly recycling waste needs to be tailored to scores of environmental and cultural issues. George discusses biogas generators on Chinese farms, the struggle to create enough toilets in India so that the country can be "open defecation free," and addresses the problem of using 'biosolids' as fertilizer (they're nutrient rich, but how much treatment do they need to be made safe). I found George's writing style accessible and the topic fascinating, but she's a bit earnest. Part of me wonders what Mary Roach would do with this subject.

Napoleon's Buttons

I went a little overboard when the Borders in Center City closed last March, buying anything that looked interesting. I seem to have made mistake with Napoleon's Buttons - I thought it would be a bit like James Burke's Connections, but it's more of a Connections-light. Maybe with my chemistry background I'm not part of the intended audience, but I found it a bit condescending in places, and a few questionable facts make me suspect the rest of the presented historical connections. The specifics of the experiments leading to the discovery of vitamin C deficiency as the cause of scurvy and some of the background on the origins of olive oil were interesting, but I think I might have enjoyed this book more if I knew less about the covered topics. Or maybe not - the authors' tone isn't particularly inviting.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Birthday Present

A first person narrator is almost by definition an unreliable character. He or she will always be unaware of some necessary information. The Birthday Present includes two unreliable first person narrators. Rob Delgado, the main narrator, knows he's missing information and is particularly careful to point out what parts of his brother-in-law's life are known and what parts are speculation. The other narrator Jane Atherton the Alibi Lady, is losing her grip on reality.

Rising politician Ivor Tresham meets Hebe Furnal at a fundraiser for a charity her husband manages. They begin a brief affair which ends with her death in a car accident during a faked kidnapping - the titular 'birthday present' being an evening of 'adventure sex.' After an initial media frenzy focused on Hebe's husband, the press and the police decide that the real target of the kidnapping was a millionaire's wife who they hound into a nervous breakdown. Meanwhile, Joe and Iris Delgado observe while her brother tries to find out who knows that he was the mastermind behind the kidnapping.

Over the next three years, Ivor gradually becomes involved with the kidnapping survivors. A combination of guilt and fear leads him to track down Dermot Lynch, who survived the accident with severe brain injuries, and Juliet Case, the ex-girlfriend of Lloyd Freeman who died in the accident. Juliet's motivation for her affair with Ivor seems clear, but it's not - we see only what Joe Delgado sees and the depths of her feelings remain obscure until the climax. Similarly, we never truly know what Dermot Lynch's mother and brother know or believe, or whether Ivor's fear of blackmail is real or imagined.

Vine intersperses Jane Atherton's diary entries with Delgado's straight narrative. Hebe was Jane's best friend, or rather only friend. She's a lonely, rather mousy woman who was born to be used, first by Hebe and later by Hebe's husband Gerry, in part because she lets herself be used. She drifts through life with a sense of self pity and a bit of self-sabotage, and although she never crosses paths with Ivor, her actions indirectly set up Ivor's final act.

The car crash which was the ultimate end of the 'birthday present' is a good metaphor for the book - it's sort of like watching a slow-motion car crash. The events unfold slowly over 4 years, against the backdrop of the Conservative Party's gradual fall from power and a movement against tabloid sleaze. Ivor's fate was totally unexpected, but completely supported by what went before. I've read most of the books Ruth Rendell has written under the name Barbra Vine, and I'd rank this one second, directly and barely below A Dark Adapted Eye.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Hide and Seek

A year or so after the events of Knots and Crosses, Edinburgh is booming. It's the late 80s and London transplants are conspicuously consuming. Rebus wants nothing to do with that (it's not in his nature, and he'd rather just solve the murder of a junkie found oddly posed in a squat), but a lunch devised to organize an anti-drug task force brings Rebus into contact with the top level of Edinburgh business society. When one of his dining companions commits suicide a few days later, and the murder victim's girlfriend mentions hidden photographs, Rebus suspects that the two deaths may be connected. He's right, and Hide and Seek is a compelling mystery with plenty of twists, red herrings, and dead ends. Eventually, Rebus solved the mystery (ahead of me - which is fairly rare) although justice is not served. For the most part, Hide and Seek lives up to the standards set by the first Rebus novel, but it does rely a bit too much on coincidence, especially in the final segment of the story.

Necropolis: London and Its Dead

For every person living in London, how many hundreds have been buried beneath the city? Enough that some of the Underground tunnels curve because the piles of buried, tangled bones were too dense to dig through. Catherine Arnold takes us on a tour of death, from the pre-Roman burial mounds through Roman funeral ceremonies, the mass graves of the Black Death, the scandals of overfilled and seeping cemeteries, the Victorian cult of mourning, and modern day practices. While generally interesting, Necropolis is essentially a survey of funeral practices, mentioning most and giving deep attention to few. I would have liked a little more detail, particularly about the rather morbid Victorians. Arnold has written three books (so far) about less savory aspects of London's history, and I hope her tours of madness and sin are a bit more enlightening.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Body in the Library

I don't believe in conspiracy theories. It's not because I'm particularly cynical (or at least I don't think that's the reason), or because I was a scientist before I went to law school, but because I don't think the average person or group of people can pull it off. Most people aren't smart enough to develop the plan and the rest are usually too confident in their plan (or arrogant) to bother with trouble shooting. So the plan fails - some minor detail seems 'off' to an uninterested observer and the elaborate plot comes crashing down.

I'm in the minority, though, and maybe it's because I've read so many Miss Marple books. The fluffy-bunny spinster has one of the most finely tuned BS detectors in fiction. She picks up minor non-verbal cues and inconsistencies, and wraps them in seemingly inconsequential stories of people who've lived in St. Mary Mead. I can see her today, gently pointing out the flaws in some of the crazier theories that bounce around the internet and shocking the younger, more 'aware' people around her when her assertions turn out to be true.

The Body in the Library is Miss Marple's second full length novel and her third appearance (she debuted in the short story collection The Tuesday Club Murders), and while she's a bit softer than she was in those books, she's still a bit of a sharp-tongued gossip rather than the 'sweet aunt Jane' we meet in later volumes. One morning, a maid wakes Miss Marple's friend Mrs. Bantry from an early morning dream to announce, "There's a body in the library!" Naturally, she sends her husband to investigate and yes, there's the body of a heavily made-up girl in a satin dress, lying on the hearthrug. The girl turns out to be a dancer at a near-by resort, not a 'lady' but coincidentally about to be adopted by Conway Jefferson, a wealthy friend of the Bantrys.

Mr. Jefferson's widowed daughter-in-law and son-in-law are the natural suspects, as are a movie studio employee who's recently relocated to St. Mary Mead, a rather stupid young man staying at the resort, and the resort's dance and tennis instructor. Add in a missing Girl Guide, a few careless comments about teeth and nails, and Miss Marple not only solves the crime but points out how and why the criminal tried to frame one suspect who, in a panic, threw suspicion onto the Bantrys. It's simple common sense, something distinctly lacking in today's world.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Flu: A Social History of Influenza

Flu: A Social History of Influenza wasn't what I expected. The 1918 flu epidemic severely attacked Philadelphia (it was quite possibly the US city most affected by the flu), and killed my maternal grandmother's younger sister and both of my paternal grandmother's parents. Regina was buried in her First Communion dress after the last funeral held in the parish before funerals were banned as a public health measure, and Grandmom and her brother, who had grown up in privilege, were put in an orphanage by two aunts who stole their inherence. Pandemic flu is part of my family history, and even though I wasn't born for another 50 years, probably affected my life and even my experience (my paternal grandparents wouldn't even have met if my great-grandparents hadn't died), and when I bought Flu: A Social History of Influenza, I expect to discuss the societal impact of past and potential future flu pandemics. It touched on them, and on the science of flu, but there was nothing that I hadn't read in John Barry's and Gina Kolata's books on the 1918 epidemic.

Quinn does a good job, though, of tracing the history of influenza from the first well-described outbreak during the Renaissance through the modern day. I was particularly interested in the discussion of 18th and 19th Century outbreaks. Although doctors had little medicine effective against the flu, they were surprisingly sophisticated in their descriptions of the disease and had an idea of contagion. Other than that, there was very little in Flu that I didn't already know. It's well-written and I enjoyed reading it, but I probably would have liked it better as an introduction to the subject than as the 5th or so book I've read about it.

Unnatural Death

Unnatural Death starts with a perfect murder - one that looks natural. Lord Peter Wimsey and his friend Detective Charles Parker are discussing death over dinner when a fellow diner breaks in with the tale of an unsuspected murder. The man, a doctor whose country practice had recently been destroyed by a rumor that he had caused (directly or indirectly) the death of one of his patients. Understandably, the man declines to give his name, but Lord Peter can't let this rest. He gives his assistant, the apparently dithery spinster Alexandra Climpson, the task of finding the doctor's late 'victim' and acting as his agent in the investigation. Miss Climpson finds the victim, Agatha Dawson, and the village and settles herself into its distaff society. Meanwhile, Lord Peter's search for the servants dismissed from the Dawson home leads to the death of one and a near escape for Lord Peter himself. A dropped prayer book, an attempt to frame a distant relative (with the unlikely name of Rev. Hallelujah Dawson), and letters which cross in the mail lead to a much more climatic ending than one would expect when the murder's identity is so clear.

I've already mentioned that I'm re-reading the Lord Peter mysteries, and as with Clouds of Witness, I'm getting much more of the humor this time around. Peter and Charles usually investigate separately, but when they interview a witness together, Charles always tries to rush the witness. This invariably causes the witness to go further off point, leading Peter to kick his friend or whisper sarcastic comments while gently leading the witness back to the topic. Miss Clipson's letters to Peter also made me smile - they're informative but so full of emphasized words and phrases that you read them in the voice of an elderly gossip sharing the latest over coffee and a biscuit.

There's one more aspect of Unnatural Death which I didn't notice in the past. Sayers speaks of 'mannish' career women, and independent women aren't viewed in a totally favorable light. However, Sayers was a career woman - an expert in medieval history with an MA from Oxford, she also worked as an advertising copywriter for a few years. I wonder if she was writing what she thought the public would want to read, or was she reflecting criticism that had been aimed at her?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Detective Wore Silk Drawers

A few months ago, Deadalus Books had a buy-four-get-one-free mystery sale. They had the next, hard-to-find book in Sharan Newman's Cathereine LeVendur series so I picked four random titles to justify the shipping and take advantage of the sale. Although I didn't realize it, two of the books were the first two on Peter Lovesey's Sergeant Cribb series, written in the 1970s and recently reprinted.

Set in the 1870s, the series features an analytical but essentially underrated Scotland Yard detective. As Sergeant Cribb is mulling over a pint in his local, a man gives him a tip on a body - a headless corpse that has washed ashore. Upon examination, Cribb discovers that the victim was probably a prizefighter and since that sport had recently been outlawed, believes that the crime is larger than a single murder. The titular detective, though, is not Cribb but Detective Jago, a well-born amateur boxer estranged from his family and stuck in a desk job at Scotland Yard. Jago infiltrates the prizefighting ring while Cribb and the plodding Constable Thackery investigate from London. The headless body is actually a bit of a red herring - the main murder occurs later in the book and while there are only two suspects, both have adequate means and motive to keep the audience guessing until Cribb solves the crime.

And Then There Were None

I started reading Agatha Christie in my early teens, but And Then There Were None sort of fell through the cracks. It's one of her 'classics' but I didn't read it until I was in my 30s. Granted, I had two separate copies which became soaked beyond repair (one due to an air conditioner compressor leak, the other due to a dorm refrigerator oozing onto that book's replacement copy), but somehow left copy #3 on the shelf for a decade before reading it, and another decade before my first, RAL-based re-read.

And Then There Were None is a classic locked room mystery. Ten people are stranded on an island, and one by one they're murdered. A few days later, the police arrive to find ten murder victims and no murderer. Some time later, the murderer's confession washes ashore as a message in a bottle, and it's truly ingenious. It also brings up the issues of culpability, revenge, and justice.

Each of the ten victims was responsible, in a way, for a death that was not classified as murder, and one person decided to dispense justice. The least culpable and/or most remorseful died quickly, while the guiltier, less remorseful killers spent days dealing with increasing paranoia. Was, however, the killer accurate in assessing guilt? Anthony Marsden, the first victim committed vehicular manslaughter - but was he reckless (a higher degree of guilt) or merely careless (as the murderer decided)? Vera Claythorn felt deeply guilty for her crime, and yet didn't show it and was therefore considered unremorseful by the killer. Emily Brent seemed almost proud that she indirectly caused the death of her pregnant out of wedlock maid but was deemed less guilty - was that because she was a step removed, or because dismissing her employee followed the social norms of the day? And was the murderer dispensing justice or a psychopath rationalizing revenge?

Murder on the Orient Express

I've joined an Agatha Christie RAL on Ravelry - every month, we read and discuss one of her novels, and with over 60 to choose from, we won't begin to repeat until at least 2016. I, and many of the other knitters, have already read most if not all of her books, so the discussion is perhaps more important than in most RALs.

Unfortunately, I didn't get much out of the discussion of Murder on the Orient Express. It's probably because I read the book late in August as the discussion was winding down (yes, I know that my 2010 New Year's resolution was to not let any book sit more than a week without being reviewed - I'm going to keep making that resolution until I keep it), and possibly because I've read it so many times. I know the answer to the puzzle, and I've pondered whether the solution was revenge or justice, so there's very little reason for me to re-read the book other than for lightweight enjoyment. It's literary comfort food - a few hours during which I can enjoy the travelogue and admire how well Dame Agatha plotted what became one of her most famous novels. I can also marvel at how perfectly the producers cast the 1974 movie - or I could, if Patrick would ever watch and return the DVD I loaned him three years ago.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Malice of Unnatural Death

Dear Mr. Jecks,

This is your 22nd novel, and I've read all 22 over the past 13 years. I'd like to say I've enjoyed them all, but somewhere around the 15th volume, your books became a bit of a slog. I think I've figured out what your problem is - you're putting Baldwin and Simon in too broad of a context. For 15 books, you had them solving local mysteries - the external world of the 14th Century might be mentioned but had little if any effect on the matter at hand. Then you sent your detectives on pilgrimage - an interesting plot device, but not one that worked particularly well. Still, it was less distracting than your recent habit of injecting the political intrigue of the 1320s into Dartmoor. Yes, the battles between Isabella and Edward II and his lovers are intriguing, but they feel tacked on when they affect a local baron and his friend the bailiff. Alison Weir's biography of Isabella was fascinating and your series takes place while she was in power, but that doesn't mean you have to tie her into your plots.

It's sad, because there are some good parts to The Malice of Unnatural Death, and the idea of a necromancer attempting to murder long-distance is fascinating. You've tied this quite well to the subplot concerning the order of succession at a local abbey, and Coroner Richard's booming personality is more amusing than distracting this time around. You've finally figured out the right tone for that character, and I now look forward to seeing him again. All you need to do is trim about 50 pages of obfuscation and keep the bulk of your story local. A good editor can help you do this - perhaps it's time to find a new one.

Jane Eyre

I am not a romantic - forget flowers and candlelight, I'd rather have a guy who will have long conversations with me, quote Monty Python, and play backgammon - so it's no surprise that I don't find Edward Rochester to be a great romantic figure. In fact, I think he's a manipulative jerk. While I do have some sympathy for his being tricked into a marriage with an apparently insane and violent woman, that does not excuse his keeping her prisoner in the attic and pretending that she does not exist. He does not redeem himself by the way he flirts with Blanche Ingram and makes Jane believe he's going to marry Blanche before his improbable proposal to his ward's governess or with he ignores Jane's requests and showers her with unwanted gifts in the days leading up to their planned marriage.

Jane, on the other hand...well Jane's got spunk. She's got a moral compass without being a boring prig like Fanny Price. It gets her in trouble at home, where her refusal to tolerate abuse by her aunt and cousins gets her sent away to a particularly harsh boarding school, but it's also what drives her to escape Thornfield on what would have been her wedding night and eventually find a new life under an assumed name as a teacher in a charity school. The final chapters of the novel, with their Victorian over-reliance on coincidence, felt like a bit of a let down to me, but I enjoyed Jane Eyre more than I thought I would. Charlotte Bronte had a clear, descriptive writing voice, and while parts were a bit dry for my taste (I can just imagine how acidly Jane Austen would have described the benefactors' visit to Lowood), I could both like and admire it.

The Devil's Disciples

Susannah Gregory's first Chronicle of Matthew Bartholomew, A Plague on Both Your Houses, took place during the plague's march through Cambridge. Matthew Bartholomew, the Arab-educated physician and fellow of Michaelhouse College, survived to solve a dozen more mysteries. A decade later, the plague has not returned in The Devil's Disciples, but the fear remains - and Matthew finds himself suspected of being the Sorcerer, a heretic who claims to be able to protect people from the plague. Exhausted from treating patients suffering through an epidemic of the flux (his cure - boiled barley water - seems magical to some, pointless to others, but to modern audiences is simply rehydration with untainted fluids), he's dragged into the investigation by his friend Brother Michael. Michael, in turn, has been dragged into political intrigue involving his patron, the Bishop of Ely, and the Pope living in exile in Avignon. Add in a bidding war over a piece of property left to Michaelhouse and you've got a nice, complex problem to solve.

This is one of the better mysteries I've read this year, but much of the plot depended on knowing the history of the characters. I've read the entire series, but it's been a decade or more since I read the early volumes and some details have faded. While I recommend the book, I do not think it's a good introduction to the series. This is a series that really benefits from sequential reading.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

This Body of Death

Elizabeth George used to be one of my favorite authors.  Her Inspector Lynley mysteries are complex and populated by interesting characters, but around 2003 (5 books ago), she hit a serious slump, and I put her 'on probation.'  She began to redeem herself with Careless in Red, and while This Body of Death isn't quite up to the level of Playing for the Ashes or In the Presence of the Enemy, I am once again looking forward to her next book.  

Meredith Powell fell out with her best friend Jemima Hastings over Jemima's then-new boyfriend.  Nearly two years later, Meredith decides on their shared birthday to swallow her pride and restart their friendship, but Jemima had left town a few months earlier, and the corpse found in a London cemetery the previous day turns out to be Jemima's.  Acting Detective Superintendent Isabelle Ardery is the primary on the case, and after a rough initial meeting with her team, she asks Lynley, still on compassionate leave after his wife's death, to work with her.  As they investigate from London, DS Barbara Havers and DS Winston Nkata search the New Forrest town where Jemima had lived, and find more questions than answers about Jemima's ex-boyfriend and his new girlfriend.  Just as they're making progress, Ardery calls them back to London where she's slowly losing control of the case.  Barbara does, eventually, discover the killer, through a combination of logic, insubordination, and luck, but it's not the tidiest solution.  It feels a bit as if George realized that after 950 pages of plot, subplot, 'colorful' side characters, and false leads, she had to find a way to end the book.  There's no 'cheating' on the solution, but it doesn't feel totally natural.

I had a few other minor issues with This Body of Death.  The first involves timeline - I realize that few mystery series allow characters to age in real time, but with the nearly two year gap between the publication of each novel in the series and how two recent volumes occurred simultaneously, This Body of Death takes place only 14 months after Playing for the Ashes which I read in 1996 and the time compression is a bit jarring.  As I said above, some of the characters (particularly Jemima's landlady and a local psychic) were a bit too 'colorful' for my taste and a good editor might have trimmed some of their eccentricities and tightened the character development scenes for Isabelle Ardery.  

What I loved about the book was the return of Barbara Havers.  Part of George's slump was due to the near (or total) disappearance of her most compelling character.  Havers is bright, insecure, intuitive, stubborn, and the character who most clearly comes to life in every novel.  In the Havers-light books, I missed her dry sarcasm and her determination to follow her (usually correct) hunches.  Most of all, I missed her complicated relationships with Lynley, Deborah, and Simon, and her budding friendship with her neighbors.  The highlight of the book for me was when Barbara, at Ardery's order, tries to improve her look and asks 9-year-old Hadiyyah for advice.  The passage where the defiantly schlumpy Havers gets the Trinny and Susannah treatment from her young neighbor made the entire book worthwhile.

Remembered Death/Sparkling Cyanide

I'm not sure how many times I've read Sparkling Cyanide since the mid-80s.  My copy was in storage for about a decade, but there were years where I read it more than once so this is about the 15th re-read.  The cover (yellow, with "Agatha Christie" in large blue letters and "Remembered Death" in slightly smaller reddish-brown print, above a small picture of a man and two women in evening dress superimposed on a skull) began to fall off during this reading and is now held on with packing tape, and the cover price is $2.95 - these, as well as the yellowing pages, are a testament to years of comfort reading.

Christie really is comfort reading.  When I take one of the dozen or so I've read multiple times off the shelf, I know I'll get a well-plotted mystery without too much gore, usually populated by attractive, wealthy, and entertaining characters.  They're clever, but not too taxing - the perfect antidote to a stressful week.

Sparkling Cyanide is one of Christie's "murder in retrospect" novels, with a present-day murder added to spark the plot.  Beautiful, vain, Rosemary Barton apparently committed suicide at her birthday dinner held in an expensive London restaurant.   A year later, her husband George holds a dinner at the same restaurant with the same guests - Rosemary's sister Iris who inherited her sister's fortune; Rosemary's two lovers, the mysterious Anthony Browne and rising politician Stephen Farraday, Farraday's wife Sandra; and George's secretary Ruth Lessing.  As he's about to announce that Rosemary was murdered, he dies, as his wife did, by drinking champagne laced with cyanide.  Five suspects with five strong motives - and yet none of them could have killed either Barton, let alone both.  It's a typical Christie plot, solved in 190 pages with just enough coincidence to be believable.  

Dame Agatha populated the story with beautiful, wealthy people untouched by the Depression and WWII, dancing in posh frocks and dinner jackets - miles away both physically and emotionally from the Underground station where she undoubtedly worked on the manuscript during the London Blitz.  Her 1943 audience read Sparkling Cyanide as a relief from the horrors of the day, but it also works as a teenager's transition into adult literature and a bored project attorney's mental escape from the tedium of her job.  It's not a taxing read, but with scattered references to fashion, history, and Shakespeare, also not quite as shallow as it may appear.  Sparkling Cyanide is an old friend, and I'm already looking forward to the next time we meet.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Devil's Feather

I enjoy finding authors with backlists, because it means I've got a few years before I have to wait for his or her new books to come out.  I decided to try Minette Walters after seeing an adaptation of The Scold's Bridle on BBC America a few years ago, and wasn't disappointed.  I enjoy her writing style, and particularly like how she inserts police reports, newspaper clippings, and letters or e-mails to handle the exposition, and I'm sorry that I only have two more of her books to read before I'm scouring the new release lists for her name.

The Devil's Feather, unfortunately, is a bit of a disappointment.  Walters often takes two or three apparently separate plot threads and unifies them as she approaches page 300, but this time it felt forced.  She starts with the brutal murder of women in Sierra Leone.  A few years later, Reuters reporter Connie Burns is on assignment in Iraq and sees the man she suspected of the earlier crimes.  Soon after she begins investigating him, she's kidnapped and released after three days.  Suffering from PTSD and still being stalked by her abductor, she rents a small house in Dorset and falls into another mystery - was the elderly, Alzheimer's stricken owner of the house being mistreated by her London-based daughter?  Either plot would have made a thrilling novel, and Walters has expertly  tied disparate threads in the past, but this time it doesn't quite work.  Overall, I'd rate the book "interesting but unsatisfying" and a bit creepier than her usual work.

1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare

1599:  A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare never fully captured my attention, but it did make me want to watch and read the four plays mentioned.  I think it was because of Shapiro's writing style - clear but not engrossing.

Shapiro divides his book into four seasons, picks a play for each one, and then puts that play into the context of Shakespeare's world.  Winter focuses on *Henry V* and how it reflects the English campaign in Ireland.  Spring draws parallels between *Julius Caesar* and the highly structured court of the day.  Since Shakespeare traveled to Stratford-on-Avon that summer, *As You Like It* plays out against the backdrop of Shakespeare's attainment of a coat of arms.  Finally, melancholy *Hamlet* plays out against the backdrop of an aging queen, a looming succession crisis, and the first tentative steps into empire building.  Shapiro does a nice job placing Shakespeare in context, but ultimately it's not a particularly memorable book.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The White Garden

Peter Llewellyn would make the perfect Peter Mayle hero, a dashing book expert with a passion for food and a bewitching ex-wife.  Stephanie Barron is not Peter Mayle, but The White Garden could be a Mayle novel written from the female point of view.  The point of view is that of Jo Bellamy, a landscape designer from Delaware sent by her client/lover to visit and copy Vita Sackville-West's White Garden.  While exploring an outbuilding, Jo discovers a notebook apparently owned by her recently deceased grandfather and which appears to contain unpublished writings by Virginia Woolf.  

There's a problem with the notebook - well, more than one if you count Jo's not-quite-authorized trip to Southeby's where Peter is the resident book expert and Jo's boss Gray appearing in London and also developing an interest in the notebook.  Jo is only somewhat familiar with Virginia Woolf and doesn't realize that the diary begins the day after Woolf committed suicide.  Still, she's convinced that it's real, and Peter begins to believe her - Woolf's body wasn't found until several days after her disappearance - but if it's real, how did she die?  At this point, it would have helped if I were more familiar with the Bloomsbury Set than one would be a decade after reading a single book on the group.  Barron explains the background clearly enough that it's not necessary to know more than just the basics, and while Peter's and Jo's trip across England chasing the notebook and Peter's ex-wife, Oxford don and Woolf expert Margaux Strand doesn't quite have the lightness of a Mayle caper, it's well plotted and enjoyable.  In the end, the notebook ends up where it belongs, and Jo resolves a mystery involving her grandfather.

The Prodigal Son

The Prodigal Son is the best mystery I've read in quite a while - maybe two years.  I've read several very good books that happened to be mysteries in that time, but Sedley's 2006 entry in her Roger the Chapman series is probably the best example of the genre (barring re-reads of books by Christie and Sayers, of course) I've read since I started this blog.

Roger is enjoying an ale in his favorite inn when a young man who looks vaguely familiar strikes up a conversation.  A few days later, the young man is identified a fugitive accused of committing a long-ago murder and asks Roger - who, it turns out, is his half-brother, for assistance.  Roger agrees to investigate the decade-old murder of Audra Bellknap's housekeeper, a task complicated by the reappearance of the elder Bellknap son, Anthony, who'd disappeared a few years before the crime.  Anthony insists that Roger be treated as a guest rather than a peddler, and then dies himself under mysterious circumstances.  Using wits and logic, Roger discovers the true murderer, and also some surprising information about his new-found brother.

The Girl in the Green Raincoat

I missed The Girl in the Green Raincoat when it was serialized in the New York Times Sunday Magazine.  I haven't read any of the serials, actually - I never seem to get in on the first chapter and I hate starting in the middle.  If I had read the serial, though, I might have known before reading Life Sentences that Lippman had decided to stop writing about Tess.

The Girl in the Green Raincoat starts with Tess attempting to adjust to bed rest.  When she first discovered she was pregnant, she also discovered that it was a great 'cover' for surveillance.  Who's going to expect a pregnant woman to tail a suspect, and if anyone did notice her, well, they'd just ask baby questions.  That ends when a celebratory lunch with her friend and sometime accomplice Whitney ends with a dash to the emergency room where Tess is diagnosed with preeclampsia.  On bed rest, with little to do but worry about her baby and her business, Tess tries to pass the time by watching the dog walkers pass her house on their way to the path through the woods.  She focuses on the most regular walker, a young woman in a green raincoat walking a greyhound in a matching garment.  

One day, Tess sees the dog running - alone.  What else would an immobilized PI do but investigate the woman's disappearance?  She's hampered, of course, by the fact that she can't leave her sofa, but she does have her laptop and her assistant Mrs. Blossom (little old ladies who knit on park benches are even less likely to be identified as detectives than pregnant women are), and Whitney is always willing to play Nancy Drew.  They discover that the missing woman's husband has been married twice before - and both wives died suspiciously.  Lippman wrote a tightly plotted mystery with an unexpected but well-supported solution, and also fits in several subplots (one per chapter, several involving love stories) in 158 crisply written pages.  It's not the typical Tess Monaghan mystery, but it's a nice way to end the series.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Smokin' Seventeen

I still look forward to the new Stephanie Plum novels, but I wonder if Janet Evanovich does.  She's been in a bit of a lull since about 13 or 14 - they're still fun, but a bit more routine.  I wonder if she's preparing to wind down the series around #20 or so.  That being said, Smokin' Seventeen is a nice diversion for a holiday weekend.

Vinnie Plum is back in business - his father-in-law is once again bankrolling the bail bonds office.  Unfortunately, the actual office was fire bombed at the end of Sizzlin' Sixteen so Vinnie, Connie, Steph, and Lula are now working out of Mooner's RV.  It's a nice plot device which allows for the proper amount of Mooner content - he's amusing, but a little bit goes a long way.  The lack of an actual office is not good for business, but the bodies appearing at the construction site where the office used to be are even worse.  The body of Lou Dugan, owner of a local topless bar and all-around shady character appears one morning, pinky-ringed finger reaching out as if signaling from beyond the grave.  Soon after, the decaying bodies of several of Dugan's business associates and poker bodies turn up - one of them addressed to Stephanie.  

This is not Steph's main problem, though - Morelli's Grandma Bella has put a sex curse on her, she still can't choose between Morelli and Ranger, and her mother has decided to fix her up with an old classmate who's returned to Trenton.  Dave Brewer was the captain of the football team back then, but now he's returned home after serving time for financial shenanigans in Atlanta - perhaps not an ideal mate, but he can cook, so Steph at least considers him until he gets creepy.  

All of this (as usual) is set against a framework of Lula's outfits, minor FTAs (including an alleged vampire and a capture that involves a fight over a bottle of wine), funerals, car death, and family dinners.  The ending seems a bit contrived, and while Smokin' Seventeen is entertaining, it's not particularly memorable.  Maybe Evanovich needs a Bella to put a spell on her - a good one that brings back the right balance of wackiness and tight plotting.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Time and Chance

Trilogies should probably be read in sequence - particularly trilogies where each installment is over 500 pages.  That's a lot easier if all three books have already been published when you discover them than if you pick them up as they come out.  Time And Chance periodically refers to events in While Christ and His Saints Slept, and after 5 years, my memory of some of the details is somewhat hazy.  If I'd read them back-to-back, that wouldn't have been a problem, but since Devil's Brood didn't come out until 2008, I would have just shifted the problem to the third book. 

I read Sharon Kay Penman's Welsh trilogy alongside Alison Weir's biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine, and those books started my interest in medieval England.  Eleanor was a supporting character in Here Be Dragons (her granddaughter, John's illegitimate daughter Joan, married Llewellyn  of Wales), and she's the center of one of the plot threads in Time and Chance.  Her marriage to Henry II provides one of the plot threads in this sprawling novel, the compelling and sometimes explosive relationship between two intelligent and strong willed leaders which is eventually destroyed not by Henry's affairs but the fact that he falls in love with one of his mistresses.  Losing Eleanor's affection also means that he loses her shrewd political advice (the one time he goes against her counsel is when he nominates Thomas Becket to be Archbishop of Canterbury), and eventually leaves Henry alone in the political crisis of his own making.

Penman's usual style is to make a minor (or, in this case, fictional) member of the court a major character through whose eyes we see the plot.  In this trilogy, she gave Henry I an extra son (with 20 known illegitimate children, who's going to notice another one) named Ranulf.  Raunulf's mother was Welsh and in While Christ and His Saints Slept, he married his cousin and serves and a bridge between the two countries, as well as being the voice of reason to his nephew, Henry II.  Penman masterfully twines the two plot threads, but Ranulf's story frequently refers back to the prior novel and at times, I felt that I needed to check While Christ and His Saints Slept to fully understand Time and Chance.  Still, I enjoyed the novel and it's evocative descriptions of medieval court life - I just recommend reading the trilogy as more of a unit than three separate entities.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Mildred Pierce

I bought Mildred Pierce during my early-90s noir period - it's a 'quality' paperback on the Vintage Crime label, and the cover price is $6.95, considerably less than the rapidly disappearing pocket-sized paperbacks I prefer go for today.  "Crime" is also a bit of a misnomer - while Cain was best known for his thrillers and the 1944 movie adaptation was reworked as a murder mystery, Mildred Pierce is a straight domestic drama.  

At 17, Mildred married Bert Pierce and quickly had two daughters, Veda and Ray.  They lived well off the sale of new housing subdivisions until the Depression hit, leaving Bert (who'd never really had a job) essentially unable to cope with his uselessness.  Mildred, who'd been making a few odd dollars baking cakes and pies, threw him out, looked for work, and eventually swallowed her pride and became a waitress in a downtown diner.  With the help Bert's former business partner, she opens a restaurant, and eventually expands her business to three restaurants with different atmospheres and a commercial baking business supplying pies to other establishments.  Then, because of her poor choice in men and inexplicable devotion to her monstrous daughter Veda, loses it all.  

I know it sounds like a fairly routine book, but what saves Mildred Pierce is the characters.  Bert's a decent guy, just not quite up to the challenges of surviving the Depression, and he stands by Mildred, proud of her success and there for her when she fails.  They don't really want to divorce, and maybe Mildred would have been better of staying with him.  But she doesn't - as her business takes off, she begins an affair with Monty Bergeron, a wealthy man who sleeps with her and scorns her and take her money when he his family fortune disappears but bonds instead with Mildred's haughty teenage daughter Veda.  There's a subtext there that 'polite' novels would have ignored in 1941, but I suspect that pulp readers saw what I saw in Monty's comments about Veda's emerging bust, or in the closeness between the two.  Mildred, however, doesn't see anything inappropriate in the relationship between her daughter and her lover, and also doesn't see that her beautiful and musically talented daughter constantly manipulates her.  It's Mildred's devotion to Veda's musical career that leads to the loss of her business, and eventually to her loss of Veda.

The other thing I noticed while reading Mildred Pierce was how foreign the novel's setting appeared, even though it takes place in the decade before my parents were born.  Not everyone has a telephone, radio was new, and a blood transfusion from a professional donor with no testing or typing is seen as a potential cure for a bacterial infection.  Like Knots and Crosses, Mildred Pierce is set in the close enough past to be recognizable, but far enough away to be almost an entirely different world. 

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Vintage Caper

A friend of mine used to have a second job in a movie theater.  A few times a year, he'd tell us what lobby posters were available and he'd get them for us - I've got Casino Royale and A Perfect Year hanging in my living room.  While it's nice to see Russell Crowe in a sunbeam as soon as I walk in my front door, that's not why I wanted that poster - I'm a big fan of Peter Mayle.  20 years ago, my mom handed me Tojours Provence and I was hooked.  Mayle has crisp, descriptive writing style and a dry sense of humor - and he appreciates good food.

Movie producer Danny Roth has a problem.  It's not that he's totally repellant (apparently, that's beneficial to his career), but that no one appreciates his sophisticated palate and his multi-million dollar wine collection.  Naturally, he arranges for the LA Times to do a puff piece on his collection, and equally naturally, someone steals it while he's skiing in Aspen.  Elena Morales, the VP for private claims at Knox Insurance calls her ex-flame, lawyer-turned-criminal-turned-investigator (and all-around connoisseur) Sam Levitt look into the theft.  Sam's a typical Mayle hero - charming in a roguish sort of way and attracted to brilliant and witty  women who just happen to be incredibly attractive.  After a consultation (over a gourmet meal, of course) with a friend in the LAPD, Sam flies to France, meets Sophie Costes from Knox's French office, and Sophie's journalist cousin Phillipe.  Together, they conclude that Roth's wine was stolen by a media magnate I can only describe as a French Burlesconi and devise a suitable resolution.

The Vintage Caper isn't Mayle's best novel (that would be Hotel Pastis), because it's much too routine.  Sophie is suitably sophisticated and Phillipe is suitably rumpled, and at times the plot seems to be an excuse to string together a series of meals.  The meals, though, are fabulous - Mayle may have lightly lifted some dishes from his travel writing, but these meals are worth repeating - the plot holds together, and Mayle's dialogue is (as always) brisk and witty.  I read the final few pages on the train one evening, and smiled so broadly that my seat mate asked what I was reading.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Knots and Crosses

Ian Rankin didn't set out to write mystery novels.  How he could have thought that he would not have been listed as a 'mystery novelist' when his first book focused on a police detective hunting a serial killer is even more of a mystery than the plot of Knots and Crosses, but it doesn't detract from this compelling psychological novel.  

We first see John Rebus at his father's grave, and that sets the tone for Knots and Crosses.  Rebus is chronically depressed and psychologically scarred by his military service.  He's recently divorced, on uncertain terms with his brother (a stage hypnotist), not well liked by his colleagues, and he lives in a very grey version of Edinburgh.  There's a serial killer stalking pre-teen girls, and Rankin alternates between the investigation in which Rebus is involved and scenes featuring his 12-year-old daughter, Samantha.  

Knots and Crosses is a well-written, tightly plotted mystery, and I didn't guess the killer until a few pages before the end.  What struck me, though, was how different the world was in 1987.  There are no cell phones, few computers, no internet...Samantha looks for a library book in a card catalog and the investigation involves shuffling paper instead of scrolling through screens.  There's even a brief passage discussing whether computers will ever replace legwork.  1987 is an almost foreign world, but I lived there - as a college student and a legal adult.  How odd will the world depicted in books published today feel in 2025?

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron

Warning - Mild spoilers

The last two Jane Austen mysteries have had a bit of melancholy air to them, with a pall cast by the loss of Jane's Gentleman Rogue.  Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron starts with the death of Jane's beloved cousin Eliza but it's a much more vibrant novel than its immediate predecessors.  

Jane and her brother Henry travel to Brighton to recover from Eliza's death.  Along the way, they rescue a young woman who has been kidnapped by the dissipated Lord Byron, a young woman who eventually turns up dead, sewn into a shroud made from the sails of Lord Byron's boat.  Jane is not exactly part of this social circle, but Lord Harold's niece Desdemona (whom Jane befriended in a prior novel) asks for her help on behalf of one of Lord Byron's acknowledged lovers, Lady Oxford.  (Can you imagine how much fun the supermarket tabloids would have with these convoluted relationships?)  

Jane, of course, uncovers the truth but the real joy in the novel is in seeing Jane enjoy her new-found fame.  Everyone is reading Pride and Prejudice, and we get a little bit of a thrill when Byron tells Jane that he wanted to meet her because one must know the competition.  A little bit of money and some undercover fame (according to Barron, if Jane were to admit authorship, she would no longer be able to eavesdrop at the local dinners and balls which serve as her source material) return Jane to the vivacious woman of the earlier novels.  She may ruefully acknowledge her out of fashion robes and her greying hair, but in a way this is her second debut into society.  Sadly, we know it will be a short-lived social career.  Jane has only four more years to live, and only three more years of health.

The Minotaur

Barbara Vine's mysteries aren't so much 'whodunnit' as 'whydunnit' - she usually frames her books as a present-day retelling of a past event, focusing more on how her characters interact than the actual events.  The Minotaur follows that pattern.  Cartoonist Kirsten Kvist is on vacation in Riva when she sees Ella Costway, a member of the family with which she lived when she first came to England from Sweden.  

As a university student in late 1960s Sweden, Kirsten fell in love with an English student and earned a nursing credential so she could follow him back to England.  He helped her find a job as a nurse/companion to John Cosway, a mathematical genius diagnosed with schizophrenia and living in the family home with his domineering mother and three downtrodden sisters.  It doesn't take long for us to realize that John is not schizophrenic but autistic, and that he's been drugged into a near trance, but the book isn't really about John.  It's about his sisters - resigned housewife-without-being-a-wife Ida, 40ish spinsters Winnifred and Ella, and wealthy widow Zorah who on her periodic visits is the only person who treats John as a sentient being.  During Kirsten's year with the Cosways, Winnifred becomes engaged to the local curate and Ella begins an affair with a loutish artist who's moved into the village.  It's a novel of small things which have major outcomes, and one in which the central events just couldn't happen in today's world of cell phones and internet research.  Miss Marple would enjoy The Minotaur - it's a book for students of human nature.

Burn Out

It's amazing how much younger characters become over the run of a series.  When Marcia Muller introduced Sharon McCone, her detective was 28 and I was 8 and more than a decade from discovering her.  24 years later, we're about the same age, and I suspect that I will be older than she by the time Muller retires the character.  Some convenient amnesia comes with the Dorian Gray syndrome - McCone's Berkley days and the 20-odd years it took for her brother-in-law to go from a struggling country musician to a superstar have faded over the past several books - but Muller hasn't totally ignored the passage of time.  Once the lone investigator for a legal co-operative, McCone is now the head of a thriving investigative agency with a dozen operatives and little reason to leave her office.

This development (and the particularly nasty case solved in The Ever Running Man), led to the titular Burn Out.  Theoretically pondering her next career move (but in reality nearly paralyzed by depression), McCone has a chance encounter with a young Paiute woman who is murdered a few days later.   McCone investigates, mainly because the victim's uncle is the caretaker for her husband's ranch, and soon finds herself enmeshed in a web of family secrets and small-town intrigue - which somehow connect to a reclusive billionaire.  

Maybe I've become too good at solving mysteries, or maybe it's only a middling detective novel, but I solved this a bit too early for my taste.  Where Burn Out succeeds is as a psychological novel.  Muller slowly (and I think realistically) draws McCone from her depressive state to 'the old Sharon' as she teases apart the puzzle.  I enjoyed watching McCone wake up and begin to solve the day-to-day problems in both her personal and professional life.  It's a mystery novel for people who want more than justice for the dead in their mysteries.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Jacquard's Web

Jacquard's Web reminded me of Connections.  Not just because James Burke covered several of the same topics, but because James Essinger seamlessly traveled from Prince Albert's inspection of a woven portrait of JM Jacquard, to the history of silk weaving, to the 1890 US Census with stops along the way for the French Revolution and Lord Byron.  The bulk of the book, however, discusses Charles Babbage and his two machines, the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine.  Babbage never managed to build working models of either machine, but they're considered the precursor to the modern computer, and their description, written and annotated by Byron's daughter Ada Lovelace is considered the first computer program.  Essenger is an engaging writer, and Jacquard's Web strikes the right balance between a collection of trivia facts and deep thought.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Disordered Minds

Minette Walters doesn't write straight-forward novels.  She drops newspaper clippings, e-mails, and police reports into the narrative, but somehow makes sure they contradict what she's just written.  Disordered Minds is a particularly twisty puzzle of a novel, and in my mind her second best (behind Fox Evil).  

Disordered Minds opens in 1970 with the particularly brutal gang rape of a 13-year-old girl as her best friend watches.  A few weeks later, the girl disappears.  Walters then cuts to a chapter in "Disordered Minds," a scholarly book by anthropologist Dr. Jonathan Hughes which argues that Howard Stamp did not murder his grandmother a few weeks after the opening scene.   George Gardiner, a 60ish woman who now lives in the neighborhood where both crimes occurred 35 years earlier contacts Dr. Hughes and after a particularly rough first meeting, they begin to unravel the case which is not so much cold as forced into a freezer.  

It doesn't take a lot of deduction to realize that the two crimes are somehow connected - two violent crimes separated by a few weeks and a few blocks, involving people who knew each other just can't be coincidental.  Walters is a master, though, and she keeps us guessing as to how they are connected, and who committed which crime.  Nothing is as it appears, and several characters have so completely hidden their pasts that the revelation of their true natures comes as a shock.  Against this dark and violent backdrop, Walters places the present day subplot of a wary academic with few friends and a lot of emotional baggage becoming close to the schlubby, frumpy older woman with whom he tracks down the killer.   Like a particularly dark Agatha Christie, Minette Walters serves justice with a happy ending.

Queen Isabella

Never designate a serious book as bedtime reading if you've also got a Sudoku addiction.  I think I've put off reviewing Queen Isabella because I didn't give it the level of attention an Alison Weir biography deserves.  Isabella of France, like most medieval princesses, made a political marriage.  Unluckily, her husband Edward II was a weak man who had no desire to be king and rejected her for his male lovers.  Even worse, he had horrible taste in men, choosing corrupt, social-climbing lovers.  Piers Gaveston never really understood court life, and that led to his downfall but the more courtly and manipulative Hugh le Despenser brought England to the brink of civil war.  Isabella made a similar mistake, because Roger Mortimer was also manipulative and corrupt, but he was a better tactician than any of Edward's knights.  Isabella and Mortimer led the only successful invasion of England, deposed Edward II, and acted as regents to Edward III.  Mortimer's greed eventually brought him out of favor and Isabella into disgrace, and she retired from public life and eventually regained some of her reputation - a reputation later ripped apart by early historians.

The book is much better than my review.  I need to read Queen Isabella again and give it the attention it deserves.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Death Ship of Dartmoor

I think I've figured out what Michael Jecks's problem is - he needs a new editor.  I still enjoy reading about Sir Baldwin and Simon Puttock, and Jecks still vibrantly draws 14th Century England.  I just wish he'd return to the tight plotting he used in his earlier novels.

The Death Ship of Dartmoor is at least an improvement over the last two installments in the series, and the main mystery is fairly engrossing.  Simon is now the Keeper of the Port of Dartmouth and when a ship comes into harbor, burned and with the crew missing but the cargo intact, it's his job to figure out what happened.  Baldwin appears not to help him but to try to find Bishop Walter Stapleton's nephew who has disappeared in Dartmoor and may be the man found murdered in a hole in Dartmoor's main road.  While Baldwin's mystery is yet another disposable subplot, the fate of the titular death ship was interesting enough to keep Jecks off 'probation' and Sir Andrew de Limpsfield (the coroner and this volume's comic character) was actually amusing and helped advance the plot.  Jecks's 20th novel may signal a return to form, and I really hope it is.  Mainly because I don't want to think I've wasted money ( does not offer free trans-Atlantic shipping) and I've got six more volumes on my bookshelf.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Fatal Waltz

I'm pretty methodical, and I like reading series in order.  And when I say "like" I mean "I go to lengths to avoid reading series out of order."  Somehow, I bought books 3 and 4 instead of 2 and 3 in the Lady Emily Ashton mysteries while I was Christmas shopping and didn't realize it until I was a few chapters into A Fatal Waltz.  

The novel opens at a shooting party hosted by the unbearable Basil, Lord Fortescue and attended by Emily's oldest friend Ivy Brandon, Ivy's husband Robert (Lord Fortescue's political protege), Emily's fiance Colin Hargraves, and Colin's former lover Kristiana von Lange.  Because this is a mystery, we need a dead body and Lord Fortescue complies, shortly after a public argument with Robert.  As Emily tries to clear her friend's name, Colin tries to stop an anarchist plot that would start WWI 15 years earlier.  Both plots lead to Vienna, where Emily (with the help of French grand dame Cecile du Lac and childhood friend Jeremy Sheffield) and Colin (with the help of Kirstiana) piece together the parallel mysteries.  

Colin's mystery wasn't as interesting or as tightly written as Emily's, and its main purpose was to provide a few key pieces of information Emily needed to clear Robert's name.  They mysteries, though, are really just a background for the fun.  Emily experiences Vienna cafe society, Cecile has an understated affair (one of many) with the artist who is painting her portrait, Jeremy plays the useless aristocrat while nursing a crush, and Emily's mother Catherine, Lady Bromley blows in at hurricane force, bragging about finding Prince Eddy a bride and arranging for Emily to marry in the Queen's presence.  A slightly better than average mystery folded into a meringue of a smart historical romance.

Girl in a Box

About 2/3 of the way through Girl in a Box, I realized that even though it was published in 2006, I haven't seen the next Rei Shimura mystery.  Have I reached the end of another series?  I checked and it turns out I haven't - there's one more volume, but that's probably a good thing.  I've enjoyed the series, but Massey may have written herself into a box.

Rei Shimura started the series as an English teacher in Tokyo, became an antiques dealer, and as of The Typhoon Lover has become a spy of sorts, working for a shadow intelligence agency which apparently has only one other employee, ex-Navy officer Michael Hendricks.  Her mission (which she chooses to accept) is to infiltrate a Tokyo department store with questionable profits and possible links to US businesses.  It's an interesting premise, and Massey keeps the plot fairly tight for about 3/4 of the book.  Unfortunately, it feels a bit like she rushed the ending, leaving the conclusion somewhat confusing and the evolving relationship between Rei and Michael feeling like it was grafted onto a completed novel.   Perhaps Massey realized that she had to start winding up the series - and maybe that's why I got the feeling around page 200 that this might be the last Rei Shimura mystery.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Never Let Me Go

Warning - some spoilers

I'm not sure why I decided to read Never Let Me Go.  I'm generally not a fan of modern 'literary fiction' (too often, the author seems more interested in writing a great novel than a good book), I admired more than I liked The Remains of the Day when I read it 15 years ago. and I'd read a few movie reviews that gave away the plot.  Kathy's voice, however, drew me in, and when I was finished, I wanted to know more about the characters - my main yardstick of a good work of fiction.

Never Let Me Go feels a bit like an audio diary, recorded by someone who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness.  Kathy has been a 'carer' for nearly 12 years, comforting and hand-holding donors as they recover (or don't) from repeated surgeries, and she's recently been told that she will soon become a donor herself.  Perhaps that's why she's in a reflective mood, looking back at what she knew and didn't know as a child raised in an insular boarding school.  The children at Halisham are clones, bred and raised to eventually donate their organs, a fact that they 'know' from a young age but don't seem to really understand.  They live until age 17 or so in total isolation, with an art-centric education and no contact with the outer world except for monthly jumble sales where they can buy (approved) items cast-off by the wider world.  They learn about their origins and eventual fate almost through osmosis - no one ever says "you are clones bred for spare parts and will die in your 20s or early 30s" but somehow, the students know.  They don't understand, but they know and accept their fate.

In most ways, though, the students at Halisham are regular teenagers, and the Never Let Me Go centers on three of them: Ruth, Kathy, and Tommy.  Ruth is the most worldly, a somewhat manipulative girl who seems a bit less resigned to her fate and maybe deep down believes that she might work in an office some day and have an ordinary life.  She and Kathy are friends almost because they have no one else - they paired off as 'best friends' when they were 12 or so and with no opportunity for new friends, stay together until an argument leads Kathy to begin her training as a carer.  Tommy was in their year at Halisham and although Kathy was his confidant, he starts a relationship with Ruth.  Several years later, Kathy becomes Ruth's carer.  Ruth believes an old rumor, that a couple who are truly in love can postpone their donations for a few years, and she encourages Kathy to reconnect with Tommy so they can both get deferrals.  The deferrals, of course, don't exist, and deep down, Kathy and Tommy know this as well.

I just read what I've written, and to be honest, it doesn't sound like a book I'd like to read.  I enjoyed it, though.  It's a January book - slightly melancholy, rather lonely, isolated and grey even when a group of children are playing on a sunny field.  Sometimes a book or movie just 'grabs' me, and I can't explain why I like it (or doesn't grab me and I can't explain why I don't).  I think that's the case here.  Never Let Me Go is low-key and reflective, downcast but not quite depressing, sort of like the middle of January when the weather is cold and grey and we're coping with returning to the dullness of normal life after the holidays.  If I'd read it at another time of year, maybe I'd admire it more than I liked it, but I finished it a few days after the most depressing day of the year so that's not the case.

Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism

I love bookstores that specialize in remaindered books.  I can wander the aisles at a store with a 3-month lease or browse the Daedalus catalog and for a few dollars buy a book that I've never heard of because the description looks interesting.  Sometimes that strategy backfires.  Talking to the Dead was remaindered for a reason - it's a badly written book, and the story of the Fox sisters isn't quite compelling enough to make the slog through the imprecise grammar and almost random jumps in the timeline which characterize Barbara Weisberg's attempts to tie the sisters' story into the social framework of their era.

One night in 1848, Kate and Maggie Fox heard mysterious 'rappings' which they claimed were produced by the ghost of a peddler killed years before and buried under the house in which they lived.  The girls eventually became 'public' mediums who held seances for profit, then fell into ill-fated romances, alcoholism, and ultimately died in poverty.  In the hands of a gifted writer, this would be a compelling story, but Weisberg's writing style had me re-reading paragraphs to determine basic facts and her attempts to connect the spiritualist movement to events such as the Civil War and the social changes of the Victorian era die at the hands of her disorganized text.  Talking to the Dead, even in its published form, is what my friend Pam would call a "hard edit" - I can only imagine what the original manuscript must have looked like.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Matters at Mansfield (Or, The Crawford Affair)

I'm not sure Anne de Bourgh has any dialog in Pride and Prejudice, and I've never given the character much thought.  I'd always thought of her as a young girl, but she'd have to be Darcy's age if their mothers planned their marriage from the time they were infants.  Anne comes to life in The Matters at Mansfield, Carrie Bebris's fourth (and best) Mr. and Mrs. Darcy mystery.  Lizzy is the first to notice the change - Anne seems prettier and less retiring than before her long sojourn in Bath while her mother made an extended visit to Pemberly.  While Lady Catherine plots Anne's marriage to the vicious and foul-tampered son of senile Viscount Sennex, Lizzy encourages Anne to dance with her cousin Captain Fitzwilliam or with an attractive stranger, Henry Crawford.  Anne misinterprets Lizzy's advice and instead elopes with Henry (who comes across as more spoiled and less caddish than the man who would ruin Fanny Price and break her heart for a bit of fun).

Needless to say, Lady Catherine de Bourgh will not stand for her daughter marrying a nobody with a shady past and sends her nephews to find the couple.  An unfortunate accident on the return trip leaves the party in the Ox and Bull Inn in the village of Mansfield where Anne finds herself the unlikely center of two separate love triangles, neither of which amuse her mother who welcomes Henry's death because it would free Anne to marry Neville Sennex.  Or Vicount Sennex - anyone but Henry.

As a mystery, The Matters at Mansfield is just a shade above mediocre.  I solved the who and how (and guessed at the why) too soon.  As a comic novel, though, it's very good, especially for Austen fans.  Lady Catherine blusters off the page, Mrs. Norris makes a cameo appearance, and Bebris uses the visitors to the Ox and Bull as a sort of Greek chorus of gossip.  Bebris's first two novels leaned a bit too heavily on the supernatural for my taste, and while her third book, North by Northanger, was an improvement, it was largely forgettable.  With The Matters at Mansfield, Bebris has found the right tone, more than half-way through the natural life of the series.

The Demon Under the Microscope

Somehow, despite my chemical background and years reviewing pharmaceutical documents, I managed to know next to nothing about sulfa drugs.  I knew they were precursors of a sort to antibiotics, and that they were often (always?) a powder sprinkled on wounds, but that was it.  Antibiotics were stronger, less toxic, and effective against a wider range of microbes, totally eclipsing the first family of magic bullets.

More soldiers died from infection and disease during WWI.  Epidemics swept through crowded, unsanitary trenches and shrapnel drove mud and filth into the bodies of men who sometimes laid for hours or days in pools of stagnant water.  Doctors did what they could, amputating obviously infected limbs and flushing bodies with antiseptics we now know should only be used externally, but patients died at an alarming rate.  A generation later, things had changed.  Thanks to sulfa drugs, infection killed no one after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  As infamous as that day was, it would have been much worse without the work of a German doctor and his chemist colleagues.

Gerhard Domagk enlisted in the German army in 1914 and was wounded shortly before Christmas.  While being treated, the army discovered that he had been a medical student and transferred him to the hospital staff where he saw the horrors of battlefield medicine and how little could be done for patients with infected wounds.  In France, Sir Almoth Wright encountered the same problem - an expert surgeon and believer in antiseptics, he and the doctors under him were operating in sterile conditions and flushing wounds internally with strong antiseptics and still patients died of gas gangrene.  

Domagk returned to medical school after the war, specializing in pathology.  Eventually he went to work for Bayer where, following the example of Paul Erlich and his dye-based syphilis cure Salvasan, he worked with a team of chemists adding functional groups to dyes until he found one which cured a handful of common bacterial infections with few side effects other than temporarily dying the patent's skin pink.   Once this miracle drug (named Prontosil) was released to the public, French and American scientist worked on improving the drug, eventually discovering that it was the functional group - the sulfa - that killed microbes and that the dye did nothing but temporarily stain the patients' cells.  Meanwhile, Leonard Colebrook, one of Sir Almoth's assistants, put sulfa drugs to practical use in maternity wards.  A combination of isolating infectious patients and the use of sulfa drugs made the formerly hazardous hospital births safe.

Sulfa drugs didn't just revolutionize wound care.  As Thomas Hager points out in the introduction, before sulfa drugs doctors had few effective drugs and most medicines were patent medicines - snake oil which were at best ineffective and often harmful.   After the discovery of sulfa drugs, the nascent pharmaceutical industry invested in research and made modern medicine possible.  Doctors, too, underwent a transformation, from men who could do little more than check symptoms and comfort patients to scientists who could cure many if not most diseases (although perhaps at the expense of bedside manner).  Sulfa drugs even played a supporting role in the regulation of drugs, after over a hundred people died from a patent sulfa medicine which used ethylene glycol as a solvent, and early reports of sulfa-resistant drugs sent a warning (which was largely ignored) about antibiotic resistance.  We owe a lot to sulfa drugs, especially when you consider how they were superseded by antibiotics barely a decade after their introduction.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

U is for Undertow

My earliest memory is of catching my fingers in a folding chair.  We were down the shore, and my mom said I had to fold up my little green beach chair before I had ice cream.  I remember she was wearing a green-and-white gingham sundress (more of a mu-mu, really), and her hair was still long and clasped in a barrette at the nape of her neck.  My grandparents were there, and Dick and Frances (my grandmother's siblings).  My mom was holding my favorite red bowl - the one I had to have my Cheerios in every morning - and I screamed.  She filled the bowl with ice as Dick extracted my fingers from the chair, and I ate my ice cream from another bowl while chilling my sore hand.  When I was about 20, I told my mom what I remembered and she was amazed that I got every detail right, except my age.  I thought I was 3 1/2 at the time - I was actually 18 months old.

U is for Undertow turns on the 21-year-old memory of a small child.  Michael Sutton walked into Kinsey Milhone's office with a memory of seeing two men bury something a day or so after five-year-old Mary Claire Fitzhugh was kidnapped and presumably murdered.  His memory is so clear, and the story is so believable that the police dig up the spot - and find the remains of a dog.  He was close, though, right?  He did see a burial...except it turns out that his faulty (or false) memory has been an issue in the past and upon investigation, his story actually can't be true.  There are too many false ends, though, and Kinsey also feels embarrassed that she believed Sutton's story.  So she keeps digging, carefully, brushing away bits of inaccurate and irrelevant information like an archaeologist brushing dirt from a half-buried artifact with a paintbrush, until she finds out what happened in July 1967.

Sue Grafton gives us an advantage over Kinsey.  She sets a few chapters in the five years leading up to Mary Claire's kidnapping, so we have a pretty good idea 'whodunit' - or do we?  I've been reading mysteries for 30 years (longer if you include Encyclopedia Brown), so I'm rarely fooled.  Grafton fooled me three or four times in the first half of U is for Undertow, and I solved the mystery for good about the same time Kinsey did.  

It's fitting that memory is the theme of U is for Undertow.  The once contemporary series is slipping into the historical category, and as I read, I remembered life before the internet or ESPN in every bar.  Kinsey's personal memories come into question as well.  Ever since her mother's family established contact with her in J is for Judgment, Kinsey has assumed that her wealthy grandmother's scorn for her daughter's elopement meant that she didn't want to know her granddaughter.  A cashe of old letters and some long-forgotten photos cast doubts on this assumption, and on Kinsey's perception of the aunt who raised her.  Kinsey's personal story plays against the backdrop of her friendship with her 88-year-old landlord Henry, who I am convinced is the true love of her life.  Grafton probably has the last chapter of Z is for Z(ero? Zip? Zoo?) ready for the final edit, and I think - hope, really - it has Kinsey and Henry strolling into the sunset.