Sunday, September 29, 2013

Devil's Brood

I love The Lion in Winter - brilliant dialog, double and triple crosses, and all performed by an amazing cast.  It's a manipulated snapshot, though, a single event which didn't actually happen but which distills the complicated relationships between Henry FitzEmpress, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their squabbling sons.  Sharon Kay Penman takes a more historically accurate approach as the third book in her Plantagenet series sprawls through the final 17 years of Henry's reign.

Penman writes long, complicated novels with frequent shifts in location and point of view, and in Devil's Brood does so deftly.  It helps, of course, that one of her protagonists is the brilliant, proud, and stubborn Eleanor who saw herself as Duchess of Aquitaine above all other roles.  It was this pride which led Eleanor to back their sons in a revolt against her husband, a decision which led her to spend years as Henry's prisoner.  While she's a captive, her sons continue to rebel and repent, constantly shifting alliances among themselves, their father, and Phillipe of France (who, apparently, did not look like a young Timothy Dalton, more's the pity).

Interestingly, Penman leaves Richard as a supporting character, whom she portrays as a dashing soldier with little internal life.  Instead, she focuses on Henry the Young King and Geoffrey, who are less well known.  Henry comes across as a bit like Tom Bertram - a rich, handsome, rabble-rousing frat boy given more power than he can handle.  He's a lousy general and has little promise as a ruler, but he's already been named king so his father has little choice but to forgive him for his rebellions.  Ultimately he's a tragic figure who, like so many of his era, dies from dysentery, an uncrowned king.  Penman's characterization of Geoffrey owes a bit to Goldman's play.  He's a forgotten son, a scheming spare given Brittany through his marriage to Constance, the true heir.  Geoffrey is also the most intelligent and tactically-minded son, and his marriage to the equally clever Constance echoes his parents' marriage.

It's Eleanor, though, who ties the threads together.  She's a prisoner, but a high-status one who receives news and occasional visits from her rebellious children.  Eleanor also has, for the first time in her life, time to reflect.  She doesn't regret placing Aquitaine ahead of her marriage, but she accepts the truth and misses being both Henry's lover and advisor.  Their relationship is unsurprisingly strained, but never totally broken, with affection buried under the frustration, most obviously when Henry has the unenviable task of telling Eleanor of their grandson's death, and those of the Young King and of Geoffrey.  Jailer and prisoner, they're still grieving parents who have not completely forgotten their passionate relationship, and her release on his death is bittersweet because she's lost the one person who was truly her match.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Think Twice

I was in Tower Books on South Street with my ex-boyfriend Steve when I first saw Everywhere That Mary Went.  Or rather, Steve saw it and said I should buy it - it was about a Mary in Philadelphia.  The following Saturday, I decided to read a chapter or two before going to sleep, and the next thing I knew it was 4 am and I'd finished the book.  I loved Scotoline's first 8 or 9 books, tightly written mysteries that really capture my home town.  When I read her books, I feel like I know her characters because I do - or at least I've stood behind them in line at the Wawa.  A few years ago, though, she lost my interest.  Timeline issues with her Rosato & Associates series-that's-not-quite-a-series nagged at me, and her stand alone novels just didn't grab me.  I stopped looking for her newest books, and mainly bought this one because I saw it at the Center City Borders' closing sale.

I wasn't particularly optimistic about Think Twice which includes two tropes (the evil twin and the recurring villain) of which I'm not particularly fond.  Bennie Rosato's twin Alice Connelly is a cartoon, a manipulative cypher who knows exactly what her twin thinks without ever letting us into her mind or motivation.  She's allegedly reformed when she drugs Bennie and buries her alive before assuming her identity.  All she has to do is pretend to be Bennie for a few days, then she'll fly to the Cayman Islands with Bennie's money.  Easy, right?  Well, it might have been if the field where she'd buried Bennie hadn't been mowed a few hours later, uncovering enough of the coffin for Bennie to break free.  Or if Bennie's ex-boyfriend Grady hadn't shown up on her doorstep, hoping for a reconciliation.  So instead of simply convincing Bennie's associates, Mary DiNunzio and Judy Carrier, that she's Bennie, Alice has to convince her twin's former lover that she's Bennie - while Bennie (whom everyone thinks is Alice) tries to convince the police that she's the victim of identity theft.  This illustrates why I generally don't believe in conspiracy theories - there are too many things that can go wrong.

Anyway, Scotoline uses two plot devices I don't like involving a character I particularly dislike, but instead of being headed for probation, I'm actually eager to read the Scottoline books I've missed.  The Alice as Bennie/Bennie Hunts Alice story works until the slightly forced ending, but I'm OK with that.  Scotoline allows Grady, Mary, and Judy to doubt Alice just enough, and Alice gives reasonably plausible explanations.  More importantly Think Twice brought back Judy and Mary, along with the senior DiNunzios (and a distant relative whose appearance I'd normally consider padding, but whose few scenes were entertaining and well-integrated into the story).

Mary and Judy don't just remind me of people I've met - I could be either one of them, asking for advice or troubleshooting a plan with someone I've known forever and who can finish my sentences.  Their conversations (about work, about their love lives, about Mary's real estate purchases) sound like the conversations I've had, and Judy's assimilation into Mary's family reminds me of my mom reminding my friends that they "know where the glasses are" and have earned the right to open the fridge without asking.  Event their arguments are real, with the guilty party feeling, well, guilty, and regretting words as they hang in the air.  I don't see enough real, believable women in entertainment.  Bridesmaids stood out not because it was the first time women were allowed a gross-out scene, but because it showed women as actual friends, with real conflicts and regrets.  Mary's and Judy's relationship is like Annie's and Lillian's at the start of the movie, shadowing an outdoor exercise class and joking over breakfast.  It's how women really act - and how we're so rarely allowed to act in the media.  I'd like to think that an adaptation of any of the Rosato & Associates books would change that, but unfortunately, it's more likely that Hollywood would change the characters.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager

My cohort and I were never teenagers.  Or at least that's what Thomas Hine seems to believe.  We're used to it, sandwiched between the Baby Boom and the Millennials, Gen-X got saddled with a non-descriptive (and kind of stupid) name and were portrayed as whiny navel-gazers in Reality Bites and countless songs by grunge bands.  So maybe it's not a surprise that we only got a few paragraphs between the end of the Boomers' innocence and the rise of the Evil Teen shortly before the publication of The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager.

This was another of my, "Hmm...looks interesting" purchases (at the still-mourned Atlantic Book Warehouse instead of Daedalus - it's been on my shelf for about a decade), and I probably should have passed on it.  Hine's material is interesting, describing how American society viewed young people from the early Republic through the late 90s, but his style is bland and slightly sloppy.  I had a nagging feeling that he was drawing wider conclusions than his research supported and then throwing a veil of vagueness over complicated issues, or skipping cohorts (like mine) which didn't fit his narrative.  What I did find interesting was the look at then-contemporary teens.  The Millennials (now in their late 20s and early 30s) are the golden children - smart, entrepreneurial, and socially aware.  Quite different from the thrill killers and murderous prom-parents whose avatars starred in several Law & Order episodes.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

A Brief History of LIfe in Victorian Britain

Another one of my "this looks interesting" selections from Daedaus Books.  Michael J. Patterson starts out by comparing the end of Victoria's reign to current day England, with a popular and long-serving Queen with sometimes scandalous children (well into middle age) standing as the one constant in an era of rapid change.  After a brief chronology of Victoria's life, Patterson outlines the evolution of 19th Century tastes and practices in food, decor, clothing, and entertainment.  It's the equivalent of a survey course - interesting facts well-presented, but without much depth and leaving the reader to decide whether to take the 200-level course.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Murder in Mesopotamia

Don't get on a novelist's bad side, because you may find yourself unflatteringly portrayed in her next book.  That's more important if the novelist writes mysteries, for your avatar may end up deservedly dead. Agatha Christie accompanied her husband, Max Mallowan on an archaeological expedition and did not get along with Leonard Woolley's wife, so she wrote a novel in which an archaeologist's wife dies violently.

"Lovely Louise" Leidner is afraid.  She's received anonymous threats, and suspects that either her late husband did not actually die in a train wreck or that his younger brother wants to avenge his death.  Her devoted husband, the head of an archaeological dig in Iraq, hires a nurse, Amy Letheran, to keep an eye on her.  Nurse Letheran arrives, meets the various archaeologists and support staff, and the next day finds Louise's corpse in a locked room.  From here on out, it's classic Christie.  Everyone has a motive, no one has opportunity, and Hercule Poirot just happens to be nearby.  With Nurse Letheran filling in for Captain Hastings, Poirot spends a few days questioning the staff of the Hassanieh dig and letting the  little grey cells do their work.  After a second violent death, he assembles the suspects, explains why each one could and could not have committed the crime, and unmasks the true killer.

The murderer's identity is a surprise, and a bit of a risk, but the ingenious way in which the murder was committed makes up for any disbelief at the culprit's identity.  I usually don't like unbelievable solutions to my mysteries, but this one was just well enough supported.  Maybe it's because the characters (apart from Nurse Letheran) weren't very interesting, with the younger members of the group almost indistinguishable.  A friend recently read Sleeping Murder (her first Christie), and wasn't impressed.  Murder in Mesopotamia is perhaps a half-step above, but it's a bit forgettable and probably not a good choice for introducing someone to Dame Agatha.