Sunday, December 20, 2015

Pioneer Girl

I remember growing up and wondering why the Little House books were listed as fiction.  After all, weren't they the author's multi-volume autobiography?  Well, no, they're "inspired by a true story" with the messier parts of Wilder's youth downplayed (or outright omitted) for the juvenile audience.  More than 80 years after the fictional Laura first appeared, Pioneer Girl gives us Wilder's original, adult-aimed memoir, with copious notes and a detailed introduction.

There's been some controversy over whether Wilder actually wrote the books under her name.  Her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, acted as her editor and was known as a ghostwriter as well as being a fiction author in her own right; Laura never graduated from high school.  Pioneer Girl should quiet some of the naysayers.  Laura had written regular newspaper columns for twenty years before beginning her memoir (many of these were collected in Little House in the Ozarks), and although it's less polished, many sections of Pioneer Girl  track closely to their fictional counterparts.  Hill also describes the editorial back-and-forth between mother and daughter, with Lane making suggestions based on her knowledge of the fiction market and Wilder often rejecting them - because they're not right for this particular story.

Since I've read the Little House books enough to have memorized long passages and have also read a few biographies of Wilder, not much of the story was new to me.  What was different, though, was the tone.  Wilder's juvenile version isn't particularly sentimental, but her real life was more chaotic and occasionally violent.  Husbands drag their wives around by their hair, a drunken man accidentally sets his breath on fire and dies, and while working as a companion to a semi-invalid  woman, teenage Laura finds herself in a situation that was most likely (she doesn't go into detail) an attempted rape.  It's a far cry form the Little House books (and even further from the saccharine TV series).

Hill's notes provide historical context and help organize Wilder's occasionally out-of-order (or simply inaccurate) memories of her childhood.  They also describe DeSmet as a booming railroad town.  Wilder's last two volumes hint at the town's rapid growth, but for the sake of simplicity, she doesn't introduce many new characters.   Hill provides brief biographies of Wilder's teachers and classmates, as well as describing the town's active social life.  The Whirl of Gaiety described in Little Town on the Prairie wasn't a single winter but a brief illustration of an organized and long-running social scene.  The town had a roller rink and frequent dances by the time Laura was a clothes-conscious teenager.  Religious life (fairly central to the books) was more complex as well.  Wilder portrayed the town as single-sect, but in addition to the Congregational church the Ingallses attended, there was a Baptist church and a Catholic church (where Mary Power taught Sunday school), and Rev. Brown, well, claim-jumped the DeSmet church (another minister had been authorized to start it).  For me, Hill's notes were the highlight.  They're about as long as the main text, so I read Wilder's work first (glancing at the notes if they seemed necessary to understand the narrative), and then read the notes.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Hidden Brain

We function on autopilot.  Our brains have to take in and analyze so much that if we we had to think about everything, we'd be paralyzed.  Imagine having to think about how to walk, how to drive a car, how to act in a social situation.  In those situations, the Hidden Brain takes over, and the effects are much more consequential than we think.

Shankar Vedantam uses a series of news stories and individual narratives to illustrate studies showing how autopilot affects us on both a small and large scale.  It affects our choice of partner (and how we see ourselves in that relationship), whether we'll survive a disaster, the accuracy of a witness's identification of an alleged criminal, how access to guns increases the chance of suicide, and who we'll vote for in a presidential election.  He also explains how our hidden brains, programmed to stick to the average/normal situation, both cause discrimination and make it harder to stamp out.  That helps explain why what I thought of a critical mass of women studying computer science when I was an engineering undergrad in the late 80s/early 90s turned out to be a peak - pop culture showed almost exclusively male geeks, so 13-year-old girls in 1992 who wanted to become engineers received more, not fewer, raised eyebrows than I did in 1982, and why I Look Like an Engineer is important.

Abracadaver

I think I'll put the Sergeant Cribb mysteries into the "commute book" category.  They're light, entertaining, but not too taxing at 7 am or so engrossing that they can't be put down when I pull into the station after 20 minutes.  Abracadaver fits the mold - an entertaining trip backstage at Victorian music halls where performers' careers are being murdered by sabotage.  Sergeant Cribb decides to investigate so he and Constable Thackery are watching from a box when the strongman's bulldog attacks him.  They help him to his rented room, only to disappear the following day.  They find him, along with the other disgraced performers, preparing for their return to the stage in an 'after hours' show for the elite; a show which ends in death.  Cribb eventually solves the crime, and I found both the identity and motive of the murderer unlikely.  I still enjoyed Abracadaver for the same reasons I enjoyed the previous installments in the series.  Peter Lovesy amusingly depicts a segment of the Victorian entertainment world.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Young Victoria

When Princess Charlotte died hours after giving birth to a stillborn son, George III, father of eleven, had no legitimate grandchildren.  Since Charlotte was the unlikely result of the single night her mutually repulsive and repulsed parents spent together and the king's surviving daughters were in their 40s and 50s, it fell to the king's sons to renounce their mistresses, find wives, and save the kingdom.

Edward, Duke of Kent won the race.  He married his niece's widower's widowed sister (European family trees didn't branch much) and died eight months after the birth of their daughter Alexandrina Victoria.  It wasn't a promising start for the woman who would eventually rule half the world.  The Duchess of Kent was an avaricious, controlling woman who slept in the same room as her daughter, insisted on reading all of the princess's diaries and correspondence, and fell in with an even more manipulative courtier, John Conroy.  Victoria later described her childhood as dull and unhappy, and despite being the heir presumptive to the throne she spent most of those years isolated and desultorily educated, with only her governess able to act as companion or confidant.  As she approached 18, Conroy and her mother tried to force her to sign a document postponing her majority until age 21 and therefore allowing them to act as regents.  When that failed, they began to spread rumors that Victoria was not mentally capable of ruling.  That failed as well, and when William IV died shortly after Victoria's 18th birthday, she began what was to be a 64 year reign.  Her first act as queen was to banish her mother from her bedroom.

Plowden does a good job of describing the dull and surprisingly vulgar world that shaped the woman who loaned her name to prudishness.  George III's sons made Randy Andy and Bad Boy Harry look like a amateurs (just imagine what modern tabloids would have done with the dozen FitzClarences), but his granddaughter became associated with families covering furniture legs to avoid scandal.  I'd read that Victoria wasn't the prude, it was Albert and she fell under his spell.  That's probably true to some extent, but even her happy marriage was influenced by her mother.  Even as a Queen Regnant, as a single woman she couldn't attend functions without a chaperone of appropriate social rank.  Since the only person of rank was her despised mother, she married her cousin Albert rather sooner than initial planned.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present

No one objects to my wearing trousers.

That sounds silly, doesn't it?  But in 1960, Lois Rabinowitz tried to pay her husband's parking ticket while wearing slacks and the judge threw her out of the courtroom.  The judge later lectured Mr. Rabinowitz on what he should do to control his wife.  55 years ago, in a world we'd mostly recognize, and a woman couldn't wear pants to traffic court.  It's a small victory, but I think that's why Gail Collins chose to open When Everything Changed with that story.  We've made great (although not complete) advances in women's place in society, but some of the "little things" have major day-to-day impact.

From 1960, Collins travels to 2008, blending oral and traditional history to illustrate how American women fought against discrimination within the Civil Rights movement, earned the right to have unchaperoned (and co-ed) dorms, made inroads into professions other than teaching and nursing, forced and dealt with changing standards of beauty and fashion, became able to hold credit in their own names, died for their country, and pushed towards more a equal division of home duties and codified family support.  Collins's tone is a bit more serious than in her New York Times columns, but still very enjoyable, and she allows both famous and ordinary women to tell their own stories.  It's definitely worth reading (although because of its structure, hard to review).

Friday, November 6, 2015

Captive Queen

I have no illusions about Henry II's and Eleanor of Aquitaine's ruthlessness.  They were both brilliant and ruthless politicians.  What I can't imagine was that either one of them was petty.  Sure, they'd stab you (or each other) in the back, but for grander reasons than Alison Weir presents in Captive Queen.  Weir begins this, her third novel at the ceremony where Eleanor's husband Louis VII of France recognizes Henry's father Geoffrey as Duke of Normandy.  Their attraction is overpowering and Eleanor soon convinces Louis to ask for an annulment.  Eleanor and Henry marry and initial form a strong political partnership, but that disintegrates as he forms a close friendship with Thomas Becket.   As their marriage disintegrates, Eleanor and Henry both manipulate their children (who need little prompting) to view the other parent as an enemy.  Eventually, Henry imprisons Eleanor for her role in their sons' revolt and spends sixteen years as a prisoner.

We all know the story, through both fact and fiction, so it's the presentation that counts.  The Lion in Winter portrays the two as brilliant sparring partners enduring  a family Christmas.  Sharon Kay Penman's Plantagent books use 1300 pages and shifting narrators (including all four of their surviving sons, one daughter-in-law, and several advisors both real and fictional) to paint a more nuanced picture of Henry and Eleanor than Alison Weir has managed here.  Alison Weir is one of my favorite non-mystery writers, and I enjoyed Captive Queen, just not as much as the author's prior work and other books on the subject,  Maybe it's because Eleanor and Henry are too grand for a single 400-page novel.  Cramming their entire lives into a single volume turns grand gestures petty.

Death in the Floating City

As much as I've enjoyed Tasha Alexander's Lady Emily mysteries, I have to admit that they're a bit uneven.  They're always fun, but sometimes the mystery is a bit forced or the subplots aren't fully integrated into the story.  Death in the Floating City has none of those faults - it's her best book since Lady Emily's debut in And Only to Deceive.  Alexander uses the same literary construct (a parallel story told through a diary), and uses it well.

Lady Emily Hargraves grew up with Emma Callum.  Their mothers were friends, and Emma made Emily's life miserable.  Emma eventually scandalized society by eloping with a Venetian Comte, and as the story opens, she's showing Emily and her husband Colin the jeweled and blood-encrusted dagger found in her father-in-law's chest.  Emma can't (or won't) trust the local authorities, so calling Emily is her only option.  Emily agrees, and soon meets scholar and bookseller's daughter Donata Caravello.  Donata serves as Emily's guide through Venice, teaching her the social rules and multi-generational feuds of Venice.  Interspersed with Emily's 19th Century investigations are chapters of Besina Barozzi's and Nicolo Vendelino's 16th Century romance.  Though passionately in love (with each other and with Dante), they belong to feuding families so their love is clearly doomed.  

Alexander sprinkles enough clues in both the main story and the historical romance for the reader to solve the mystery shortly before the killer is revealed, so the book works as a mystery.  Death in the Floating City shines, however, as a novel.  The author's descriptions of Venice made me not only want to visit but to time travel so I could see what Emily saw, and there's some interesting commentary in the four romances (two "society" and two "doomed") portrayed in the book.  She also provides a bittersweet ending where the killer faces justice and a centuries long feud ends, but Emily once again faces a loss.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Beast

Faye Kellerman excels at mixing horrific crimes with domestic bliss which still manages to be believable.  The Beast lays a nostalgic gauze over both, as old friends contemplate moving on.  Peter and Rina's children are grown (even their sort-of foster son Gabe Whitman is at Julliard or touring most of the time), as is Marge Dunn's daughter, and even Scott Oliver seems to have settled down.  This is where I expected the series to shift to Cindy Decker Kutiel, but more on that later.  

The Beast features Kellerman's weirdest crime.  A reclusive billionaire has died in a seedy apartment with a full grown tiger.  The tiger turns out to be a red herring; the late Hobart Penny was shot, not mauled, and Penny was a sexually violent sadist.  Kellerman gives us enough clues and misdirection to solve the mystery right before Decker arrests the culprit and manages (barely) to avoid the level of creepiness that led me to stop reading her husband's books.  The plot worked, but felt a bit forced at times, although the scenes at a barely legal animal preserve were interesting and engrossing.

Kellerman's domestic scenes, perhaps intentionally, are almost wistful.  Peter's tired of LA, tired of large crimes, but not ready to retire.  Marge Dunn's long distance relationship is moving towards marriage.  Both detectives are searching for jobs in smaller departments.  Those scenes feel like conversations with old friends, where not everything actually has to be said.  There's a sad tinge, though, to the conversations because the next book won't include the same team.   The domestic scenes aren't perfect - Gabe's scenes with his girlfriend Yasmine feel like a set up for a future plot, and I'm somewhat disappointed that Cindy's husband is entering medical school (he's a nurse practitioner, an important job that doesn't get enough popular notice or respect).  Overall, though, it's a slightly better than average installment in a series that has never slumped, with a nostalgic feel that makes me want to binge-read the series from the beginning.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

An Entertainment for Angels: Electricity in the Enligtenment

An Entertainment for Angels is another one of my "looks interesting" purchases from Daedalus Books.  Better than some of those purchase, but not as good as most, it's a brief history of 18th Century electrical exploration.   While interesting and amusing, it included little that I didn't already know and was a bit simplistically written for my tastes.  It's not a bad book, but probably more suited to the tween with an interest in science who's moving away from YA and into adult literature.

The Mission Song

It's appropriate that I was struck by the language in The Mission Song - after all, the central character is a translator.  Perhaps that's why John le Carre used lyric cadences which washed over me, pulling me into the novel long before I became engrossed in the plot.  Bruno Salvador (Salvo), is the illegitimate son of an Irish priest and an African woman.  Raised in a series of missions and schools, his natural ear for languages has made him the top translator in London, specializing in African dialects.  Married to a socially prominent rising tabloid editor (bringing to mind a blonde Rebekah Brooks), he translates for whomever needs him, including MI6.

That's the "important client" which calls Salvo away from the black tie event celebrating his wife's promotion.  They need Salvo to translate (and not translate) during a delicate negotiation among several African leaders.  It's the "not translate" which piques Salvo's interest.  He's a translator, not just translating but interpreting what he hears, and he just can't turn that off.  He can't pretend to not understand all he understands, and when he learns that the plan MI6 has formulated will harm rather than help Africa, he can't let the plan stand.  Especially since he's fallen in love with a nurse from his mother's native region.  Salvo tries to undo some of the damage created by the meeting where he translated (and didn't translate), but he's naive and not as well connected as he thought.  It ends badly for him (although with some consolations), but because the language le Carre used is so beautiful, it's easy as a reader to minimize that fact.

The McCone Files

I first "met" Sharon McCone in 1990 (for me) and 1977 (for her).  Like most long-running series, she's aged in comic book time with a dash of retcon, so re-reading older installments are doubly nostalgic.  Not only do I remember what my life was like when I first read the book, but I'm also seeing a version of Sharon with a somewhat different background.  The McCone Files allowed me to experience the same sort of nostalgia while reading (mostly) new material.  It's a collection of short stories, starting with Sharon's first case for All Souls Legal Collective and ending as Sharon cleans out her office.  Of course Sharon was younger then, but the crimes are also different.  As the staff investigator for a legal collective which charged the poorer residents of pre-gentrification San Francisco on a sliding scale, the crimes she encountered were mostly smaller and more personal than the cases handled by McCone Investigations.  There are a few murders, but also missing persons, burglary, and an accident that's not one, really.  We also meet Sharon's old friends - Hank Zahn is still around, sort of, and Ted Smalley is McCone Investigations's office manager, and in the later stories see the cracks which led to the dissolution of All Souls.  For those who aren't yet familiar with Sharon, The McCone Files is a good introduction.  It's a series of well-crafted mysteries which provides a primer on Sharon's persona.

To Fear a Painted Devil

Before she started writing psychological thrillers as Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell made regular detours into that sub-genre.  To Fear a Painted Devil is one of her earliest non-Wexford novels, and while interesting, the psychology doesn't stand up to the passage of 50 years.  Patrick and Tasmin Selby are replacement gentry - wealthy, aloof, married first cousins (as normal as that seemed to Jane Austen's characters, I'm assuming it was unusual by the 1960s) - who appear to have the perfect life.  They don't of course.  Patrick is remote, distant, and psychologically abusive; Tasmin was raised to be dependent and there are no other suitable and suitably rich men for her to marry, even if she could get a divorce.

The neighbors, of course, don't know the state of the Selbys' marriage when they assemble for Patrick's birthday.  It's an awkward grouping, including impoverished old money, social climbers, harried parents, Patrick's mistress, a middle-aged man and his much younger third wife, and the local doctor.  Just the ordinary social gathering in this newly built bedroom community, until Patrick and a late-invited guest try to eliminate a wasps' nest.  They end up disturbing the nest and the wasps sting Patrick several times, but Dr. Greenleaf treats his stings with an antihistamine and a sleeping pill.  When Patrick dies in the night, Dr. Greenleaf assumes he either took an extra sleeping pill or had an unknown heart condition.  That's not the case - he's been murdered, and Dr. Greenleaf solves the mystery (but not too easily).  I did as well, but I was somewhat hampered by the setting.  Mid-20th Century England is a bit of an uncanny valley for a modern American.  It's recognizable, but foreign enough that I can't really trust my perceptions.  That's only a problem when reading a mediocre book, and it didn't bother me while reading To Fear a Painted Devil.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Murder by the Book

I suspect that there are only a few more installments in Susanna Gregory's Matthew Bartholomew series.  Murder by the Book is the eighteenth book in the series, and nearly two years after the publication of the twentieth volume, Gregory hasn't published a follow-up.  Additionally, for the first time since the middle of the series, Matt both mentions Matilde and realizes he's attracted to another woman for the first time since Matilde left Cambridge.

Matt's romantic life, though, isn't particularly important to Murder by the Book.  Once again, the colleges and hostels of Cambridge are at odds.  The University is, thanks to a benefactor, building a library.  Matt takes the logical view - with a central repository, all University members, even those who belong to poor institutions, will have access to a variety of books.  His view barely wins when the question comes to a vote, and during the meeting someone throws a book which hits a scholar on the head.  Coslaye, the stricken scholar, survives thanks to Matt's skill, but a few months later, he's attacked again and killed. Is his murder (and the others in Cambridge) related to the library?  Or are they connected to the smugglers plaguing Sheriff Tuylet?  And who is the French spy being hunted by one of the King's top agents (who also happens to be Brother Michael's mother)?  Gregory cleanly ties together the related plots, and includes several scenes showing Matt's and Michael's interpersonal chemistry.  If there are only two more books in the series, I'll miss spending time with the two of them.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

A Brief Guide to William Shakespeare without the Boring Bits

I don't agree with the title, but it's mainly because I don't particularly care for Peter Ackroyd's writing style.  He gives a pretty good overview to all of Shakespeare's plays (grouped by category) and reprints all the sonnets with a brief introductory chapter.  The result is a passable commute book (one that can be read in 5-20 minute snatches over the course of a week or so), but not a particularly engrossing or memorable book.  Ackroyd's analyses of the plays left my mind almost immediately, unlike Sr. Maureen Christi's dissection of "Romeo and Juliet."  Decades after 9th grade, I still remember what she had to say about the fickle teenagers.

A Holiday for Murder

This is a bit of an anomaly among my Agatha Christie paperbacks - I bought it new sometime in the early 80s, but didn't open it for at least 30 years.  It's a pretty standard Christie - a rich, unpleasant man invites his family (including a never-met granddaughter, the offspring of his late, estranged daughter) to his remote estate for Christmas and dies violently in a locked room.  Everyone had a motive, everyone had opportunity, everyone had an alibi, and Hercule Poirot just happened to be visiting the local constabulary.  Throw in two impostors and a romance, and you've got an average Christie.  More diverting than engrossing, I'd put this in the beach read or commute book category.  You'll enjoy it, but it's not going to take up too much of your brain.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Critical Mass

Throughout Critical Mass, I kept thinking, What if?  Not just the big What if? that arises in any novel concerning Holocaust survivors, but smaller What ifs?  What if Martina Saginor had been born in a time and place where it was normal for a working-class woman to get an education?  What if her mother had respected rather than scorned her intelligence?  What if her daughter had known her?

Critical Mass opens with the first meeting between Martina Saginor and Sophie Herschel.  Children in the same city but different spheres (Frau Saginor was the Herschel family seamstress), they became friends and after the Nazis invaded Austria, their daughters, Kitty Saginor and Lotty Herschel, grew up together as friends of last resort.  Both escaped to London (along with Lotty's brother) on the Kindertransport and their families died in the Nazi death camps.

Lotty never liked Kitty, but decades later she still feels a duty to her childhood companion.  When Kitty's drug-addicted daughter Judy Binder disappears, she asks VI Warshawski to find her.  The search leads her to an abandoned rural drug house, but not to Judy, and VI returns to Chicago and meets with Kitty.  Once there, VI discovers that Judy's son Martin (who inherited his great-grandmother's scientific genius and curiosity), has disappeared.  As a favor to Lotty, VI begins another futile investigation, one that becomes critical when VI finds Kitty bleeding to death on the floor of Martin's bedroom.  With her client dead, VI continues searching for Martin as a favor to Lotty and discovers a link between the drug house, Martina Saginor's forced labor in a Nazi camp, and the CEO of a corporation that feels like a combination of IBM, Microsoft and Facebook.  Paretsky also weaves in flashbacks seen through Martina's eyes and a sort of closure for Lotty Herschel.  Perhaps not quite as engrossing as Hardball, Critical Mass still ranks as one of Paretsky's best books.  If you read it, don't skip the author's note - while the story is completely fictional, Martina Saginor was inspired by an actual scientist.

Friday, August 7, 2015

The Case of the Missing Servant

I try to read series in order.  OK, I'm a bit obsessive about it.  If I'm binge-reading an older series, I'll stop (for months, years even) before jumping a gap on my shelf.  Sometimes, though (usually when my mom has discovered a new author), I start with the second or third book in a series.  That's how I discovered Tarquin Hall's Vish Puri, Delhi-based private investigator and chow hound.  Hall is a mid-list author, though, so it took me a while to find the first book in the series.

It was worth waiting for The Case of the Missing Servant.  Like most first installments, it's a bit heavy on exposition, but Vish Puri, his operatives Tubelight, Facecream, and Flush, and Mummy-Ji appear fully developed in their first appearances, and unlike several other books I've reviewed, Tarquin Hall knows how to handle a subplot.

Brahmin judge Ajay Kasliwal's maid Mary has disappeared, and he's been accused of killing her.  He's innocent, but he also doesn't know where Mary is, or even if she's alive.  Puri sends Facecream into the Kasilwal home as Mary's replacement where she learns the household's secrets.  Adding this information to the rumors Tubelight overhears and his own information from the local police, Puri tracks down Mary and serves justice with kindness.  All while dealing with an attempt on his life and  fielding angry calls from another client, a general who wants him to investigate his on-the-shelf daughter's noveau riche fiancé.  Puri handles this case with discretion, while Mummy-Ji (as usual) goes against her son's wishes to solve the more personal crime.

Tarquin Hall has written four Vish Puri novels so far, and the two I've read have contained well-plotted mysteries and some light domestic comedy.  They're well-balanced books, neither total fluff nor serious books which require deep concentration, so I hope the series becomes a long-runner.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Mistress of the Monarchy: The Life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster

Katherine Swynford presented Alison Weir with a problem which the author mentioned in her introduction.  Although she's the direct ancestor of every British monarch since Henry VII, 6 US Presidents, and Winston Churchill (among other illustrious figures), we know almost nothing about her.  Her family was gentry but not notable; her father was a foreign knight and Katherine came to Britain to serve in the household of John of Gaunt's first wife Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster.  Katherine married another knight, and after her husband and Blanche died, she became governess to Blanche's two daughters.  She also became John of Gaunt's, by then married to Constance of Castille mistress, eventually giving birth to four of his children.

Royal men frequently took mistresses and provided for their children.  What they did not do was flaunt their affairs.  John's public acknowledgement of Katherine created a scandal; a scandal which increased during the early years of Richard II's reign.  Katherine and John parted amicably, and she managed the estates inherited from her husband while John tried to bring Castille under the English Crown.  Eventually Constance died and John did the unthinkable - he married his mistress and spent the last few years of his life with her.

Katherine seems to be a very lucky woman, always in the right place at the right time.  There's so little information about her because she wasn't remarkable, but her descendants founded a dynasty.  It's as if Lizzie Bennet were Queen Victoria's grandmother.  Weir doesn't exactly explain how Katherine gained her status, but she demonstrated that Katherine was intelligent and well-liked, as well as strikingly beautiful.  Charm, brains, warmth, and a little bit of luck can bring you far in life.  In Katherine's case, they brought her into the royal family, and even helped her brother-in-law, a low-born poet and courtier named Geoffrey Chaucer, rise in the royal household.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Gentleman Rogues & WIcked Ladies: A Guide to British Highwaymen & Highwaywomen

I'm in a different kind of reading rut - I keep picking up books that don't engage me.  Gentlemen Rouges & Wicked Ladies looked interesting in the Daedalus catalog, but it's all surface and no analysis.  After a quick description of the typical highwayman (which comes to the conclusion that there was no "typical" highwayman), Fiona McDonald provides biographical sketches of several famous ones.  Unfortunately, there's not a lot of documentation for most of these men and women, so most sketches amount to a page or two of speculation and rumor, one or two notorious crimes, and execution.  It's not a bad book, and might be a decent commute book, but it's far from memorable.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Re-reading Mysteries

Last year, one of my online groups read A Plague on Both Your Houses by Susannah Gregory.  I was thrilled, because I love that series and wanted to see how the characters had changed in the 15 or so real years (and fictional decade) since the first installment.  14th Century Cambridge doctor Matthew Bartholomew was more naïve but essentially the same person I’d just seen in book 15, and Cynric and Brother Michael were rough sketches of their future selves.
They were the only important recurring characters I met. I thought I’d remembered the book well (I have fond memories of reading it), but fifteen years and nearly nine hundred intervening books later, I’d forgotten everything but the plague.  The mystery plot was a fresh puzzle and the students and faculty I’d come to know hadn’t yet appeared at the fictional Michaelhouse College.
This is why I reread mysteries.  Some people may think it’s strange, but I’ve had that habit my entire adult life.  Mysteries aren’t just puzzles, or at least good ones aren’t.  Genre novels have to succeed as fiction first; only then do I care “whodunit.”  Revisiting a series gives me a chance to enjoy the language and to catch literary or historical references I may have missed the first time around.  I see how the characters have evolved and either faded or moved to the front.  And, maybe, if it’s been long enough since I last read it, I’ll get to solve the mystery again.
Older books also act as a time capsule.  The world is very different than it was in the 80s and early 90s.  Answering machines weren’t yet universal when I was in college, and even a geeky engineering student couldn’t access e-mail at home.  Detectives had to go to a library or courthouse to find public information.  Early V. I. Warshawski or Sharon McCone mysteries remind me of the world I grew up in, and when contrasted with later books show their characters’ and creators’ adaptive skills.

Sometimes, though, I just want the literary equivalent of comfort food and a broken-in pair of jeans.  That’s when I reach for one of four or five Agatha Christies.  Most of them aren’t classics (although I think The Pale Horse should be better known), and I know every twist and turn.  Reading one of these old friends wraps me in comfort, or brings me back to a vacation (which I almost extended indefinitely when I didn’t hear my flight announcement), or just reminds me that as bad as my week has been, I can still find some pleasure on a 4x7 inch page.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Coffee Trader

Several years ago at Bouchercon, a panel discussed the placement of mysteries in their own section as opposed to the general fiction section.  That's when I came up with the theory of Popular De-Genrefication.  Once an author reliably reaches the top of the best seller list, his or her genre novels appear on the general fiction shelves.  David Liss's The Coffee Trader exemplifies this in reverse.  It's a literary novel (and a dozen years after its initial publication, probably obscure) but I found it in the mystery section of Borders.  There's some intrigue, but I'd classify it as a straight novel.

Miguel Lienzo, a 17th Century Portugese Converso, relocated to Amsterdam and made (and lost) his living on the futures market.  Due to one of those losses, he's living in his brother's house and being stalked by a former business partner.  His current partner, a Dutch widow named Geertruid convinces him to enter the coffee trade while his brother, at the behest of the local religious authorities, warns him away.  And I didn't care.  I loved Liss's language, but couldn't get involved in the plot or bring my self to care about the characters.  Maybe that's why The Coffee Trader sat unread on my shelf for the decade since I'd read Liss's first novel, A Conspiracy of Paper.  I have two more of his books waiting, but they're unlikely to rise to the top of the To Be Read list.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Hew, Screw, & Glue

Take How It's Made, throw in listicles, a handful of questionably accurate legends, and simplify the language.  Add a series of small, attractive illustrations to each chapter and you have Hew, Screw, & Glue.  Cute, but it doesn't even rise to the level of a commute book.  Sometimes when I buy something from Deadalus based on the catalog description, I strike out.  At least it was cheap.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life

We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal.
      - 1848 Seneca Falls Convention keynote address

My 5th and 6th grade Language Arts teacher added public speaking to the curriculum.  We had monthly poetry competitions (the winner got to wear a pin on her sweater until the next unit) and in 6th grade we chose famous speeches to memorize and present.  Inspired by a YA biography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, I picked her 1848 Seneca Falls keynote address.  I've spent most of my life wondering why she's not as famous today as her friend and writing partner, Susan B. Anthony.  Lori D. Ginzberg's biography provides a potential answer.  Anthony was a more public face, and more constant  and pragmatic campaigner for women's rights; Stanton was a firebrand thinker with little patience for public speeches and the tedious follow-up.  They worked well together, but Anthony's activities were more obvious.

Stanton's personality may have also gotten in the way of her fame.  She was a bit vain, somewhat prickly, and possessed a level of arrogance not unexpected in the daughter of a wealthy and prominent family.  As a child, Elizabeth Cady pushed to get a "boy's" education, and went on to the Troy Seminary which was the closest thing to a college education available to American women in the 1830s.  She met and married Henry Stanton, an anti-slavery activist, and though him was introduced to the abolitionist women who founded the women's suffrage movement.

Abolition also figures into why Stanton's modern fame may not match her early contributions to the women's movement.  Although the movement grew out of and remained closely linked to the abolition movement, the Civil War and Reconstruction led to a split.  Some believed that abolition and gaining the vote for former slaves should take priority, while others thought that women's suffrage could be accomplished simultaneously.  Stanton belonged to a third faction, one which prioritized votes for women and she made some frankly racist and anti-immigrant statements.  Even without those statements, I wonder whether the split in the suffrage movement delayed the amendment so long than only one woman who attended the 1848 Seneca Falls convention was still alive to vote legally.  Or did Stanton's (and others') relentless ideology prevent the movement from being pushed aside?  Ginzberg doesn't answer that, but she does provide a clear, if somewhat dryly written, picture of a complicated activist.

Monday, June 15, 2015

From Doon With Death

I'm a Bad Mystery Fan.  I've only read a few Sherlock Holmes stories.  The only book I've read by PD James was Death Comes to Pemberly.  And until a few weeks ago, I hadn't read the books Ruth Rendell wrote under her own name (although I've read most of the books she wrote as Barbara Vine).

I like to read series in order, so I bought  From Doon With Death at the Book Corner a few months ago, and it quickly floated to the top of the pile.  One evening, Ronald Parsons asked his neighbor, Detective Mike Burden, to find his wife.  Margaret Parsons had not come home from her daily errands, and the next morning her body is found in a wooded area.  Why would anyone want to kill a dowdy, downmarket woman with no family other than her husband?  The only clue is a series of love notes hidden in a trove of books Inspector Wexford finds in the Parsons's attic.  They're signed "Doon" and while Doon's identity was probably shocking in 1964, I figured out who the murder was pretty quickly.  Rendell rightly gets some credit for raising the mystery genre from a simple "whodunnit" to the more complex psychological study that merits reviews in serious periodicals, but the motives feel almost as dated as the linoleum in the Parsons's kitchen.  I enjoyed From Doon With Death but it's not up to the level of the Barbara Vine novels.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A Vote for Old "Technology"

I read hard-copy books.  I’m more net addict than Luddite, and I don’t have a strange affection for the smell of old paperbacks.  E-books just don’t appeal to me.  They only deliver the bare content, and that just flattens the experience too much for me.
Holding a screen feels different, hard and stiff, than holding a paperback.  I can’t use one tablet to prop up another, and if I want to check something from an earlier chapter, I can visually estimate where I need to go.  
Books just aren’t the stories they contain.  My copy of Remembered Death doesn’t just tell the story of Rosemary Barton’s murder.  I pick it up and I’m briefly a teenager sprawled on the sofa while babysitting the kids across the street, or a college student decompressing after a fluid mechanics exam, or maybe even the woman having a Panini in a now-closed coffee shop.    
My paperbacks don’t only trace my personal history, but have a history themselves.  I can look at a long running series, like Diane Mott Davidson’s Goldy Schultz mysteries, and see five distinct cover styles over the 17 volumes.  I glance at the shelf and see that Elizabeth George’s novels grew into doorstoppers over time, and my James Bond and Peter Wimsey novels (removed from my parents’ shelves) are non-traditional heirlooms.  Those series, and my motley collection of Agatha Christie, provide an index of post-1950 typefaces and cover art styles.
There’s also the communal experience.  When I see someone reading Hot Six on the train, I can ask if the carpet car has appeared yet, or if Bob the dog has attacked Stephanie’s groceries.  That doesn’t happen with an e-book – no one knows what you’re reading.  It’s also harder to share an e-book, and that’s a real loss.  I have lunch with my friend Michelle every few months and passing books we’ve recently read and enjoyed across the table is part of the fun.   I grew up watching my parents pass books back and forth; the first time my mom handed me a book after she finished it was a step towards adulthood.
Finally, without physical books there can’t be any used bookstores.  As much as I love a smooth, shiny cover and unbroken spine, there’s something adventurous about used bookstores. There’s the thrill of the hunt – maybe I’ll find an out of print book to complete a series, or an edition that was published as a movie tie in years ago with a now nearly forgotten star in a glamour shot on the cover.  The reading-list novel may have marginalia, class notes and personal commentary, and a thick history may have a magazine insert or store receipt once used as a bookmark and now forgotten.  With an e-book, there’s no mystery about who read that book before, or what else may have been going on in their lives.
I know these factors don’t outweigh the convenience of e-books for most people.  Maybe I’ll change my mind some day and no longer consider how heavy a book is before choosing it for my commute.  For now, though, I’m sticking with paper.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light

I'm a city girl, so I rarely if ever experience true darkness.  Artificial light is such a part of my life that it feels natural.  In Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light Jane Brox explains how light evolved from an uncontrolled natural phenomenon to something we (mostly) control and how society changed in response.

Early man had only sunlight, and the inadequate glow of the campfire.  We soon learned to control light, hollowing out heat resistant stone and filling the depression with fat and a bit of moss.  Those lamps allows the ancient artists to create the Lascaux cave paintings, softly illuminating a few feet of wall at a time, but life remained tied to the sun cycle.  Over the next several centuries, people developed candles and better lamps, but they were expensive, dirty, and dim.  Tallow candles smelled like burning rancid fat, rushes and pine knots smoked, and none of them gave a strong, steady light.  By the 19th Century, whale oil and kerosene lamps cast a stronger indoor light, but they had to be carefully tended lest they explode and they left a layer of soot on everything in the house.  Gaslight came next, providing a steadier light for those who could afford it but with the risk of asphyxiation.

The bright, steady, clean at the user end electric light was rightly hailed as an advancement.  It made streets safer, night school possible, and pleasure reading a pastime for more than just the idle rich.  Today, however, we're beginning to see the drawbacks.  The perpetual light under which we live alters our circadian rhythms, triggering insomnia in some of us, and the shift work which artificial light allows interferes with our metabolism and leaves us prone to accidents.  Light pollution interferes with telescopes, making our exploration of space more difficult, and urban light distracts migratory birds.  We could not achieve modern levels of productivity without artificial light, but we might have escaped modern levels of stress.

Despite the drawbacks, I'm thankful for controlled artificial light.  Maybe I'd be less of an insomniac without my bedside lamp (although I doubt it - my insomnia is at its worst at mid-summer and on nights with a full moon), but without it I wouldn't be able to read a few chapters to distract myself from my sleeplessness.  I have mediocre night vision so streetlights allow me to walk at night without worrying too much about tripping.  Light makes modern life possible.  Brox's history of light made me appreciate that, and made me look at my favorite childhood books in a different way.  John Holbrook had to strain to read to the Wood family by the light of a smoldering pine knot or a flickering bayberry candle.  Laura Ingalls Wilder remembered the kerosene lamp as bright, but imagine getting all of your light from a single 40 watt bulb.  Even the solidly middle class Cuthbert home would have been full of shadows on those long Canadian winter nights.  We drape those days in a nostalgic veil of romance, but they were dull and inconvenient.  I'm glad I only experienced them vicariously.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Bad Monkey

I wonder what it's like in Carl Hiaasen's brain, but I'm sure I want to know.  It's clearly a strange place, full of strange crimes, corrupt developers, noble if off-the-rails reporters and policemen, smart women, crooked politicians, and strange fetishes.  And animals, like the titular Bad Monkey.  The monkey, an unruly former co-star of Johnny Depp, doesn't have much to do with the story.  He's Neville Strafford's pet, at least until the Neville hands him over to the Voodoo Queen in exchange for a curse.  But more about that later.

Bad Monkey starts with a Florida Keys tourist on the Misty Momma IV catching a dismembered arm (which, of course, is giving the finger).  It falls to disgraced sheriff's officer Andrew Yancy to bring the arm to the Miami Medical Examiner's Office for identification.  The arm belongs to Nichols Stripling, a medical supply magnate (he specializes in scooter chairs and Medicaid fraud) who apparently died in a boating accident.  The arm's daughter thinks her stepmother was involved, so she asks Yancy (who has by then been demoted to restaurant inspector, due to his assault of his girlfriend's husband in full view of a cruise ship) to investigate.  When a man in an orange rain poncho murders the first mate from the Misty Momma IV, and a doctor involved in Stripling's fraud commits suicide, Yancy follows the trail to the Bahamas.  Once there, he meets Neville who has given the Voodoo Queen Driggs the monkey in exchange for a curse on the developer to whom Neville's sister sold their land (including Neville's house).

If Bad Monkey sounds a bit sane for a Carl Hiaasen book, it's because I haven't explained Yancy's campaign against the developer who's built a monstrosity on the lot next to his house, Drigg's antics, multiple restaurant inspections, or why the Russian mob helps tie up the loose ends.  It's typical Hiaasen in that respect, with several incredible (and incredibly funny) threads that barely manage to make sense but somehow resolve.  Read it - just not in a place where hysterical laughter might disturb those around you.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Would You Like a Drink with That Book?

Welcome to Kidderminster Coffee and Tea.  We have a wide selection of books to go with our drinks and light meals.  Grab a cozy mystery to go with your hot cocoa or pick a book and ask us for a snack suggestion.  Here are today’s specials:
Emma by Jane Austen.  Why not have our habanero quesadilla?  Rich, spicy, and the perfect antidote to Mr. Woodhouse’s bowls of gruel.
Introduction to Thermodynamics.  A large pot of coffee, and free refills.  You’ll need it.
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas.  A Monte Cristo.  Personally, I prefer the sandwich to the book.
Babbit by Sinclair Lewis.  We’ll pretend your coffee is whiskey, but only if you tell us Joe sent you.
The Brothers Karamzov by Fydor Dostoyevsky.  Russian Caravan tea, and a pen and paper so you can keep the character names straight (offer applies to most Russian novels).
Don Quixote by Cervantes.  My mother’s coffee cake, because she’s disappointed that I’ve never read it.  Read it in Spanish, and she’ll adopt you.
Hotel Pastis by Peter Mayle.  A crisp baguette, local cheese, and fresh seasonal fruit.  Or something chosen by our chef (she’s a professional and knows what you really want).
Hot Six by Janet Evanovich.  A cupcake, because you know Stephanie should choose Morelli over Ranger.
The Hunger Games trilogy.  Two sandwiches, a large slice of chocolate cake, and an extra large mocha latte.
The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder.   Iced tea and our summer fruit plate (offer only available when the forecasted high temperature is over 85F).
Anything by Dickens.  A large plate of small cookies.  Read five pages; eat one cookie as a reward (that’s how I got through A Tale of Two Cities).
Dracula by Bram Stoker.  Blood sausages, and a seat away from sunlight.
A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond.  Marmalade on toast and a pot of tea (offer only good for Elevenses).

If nothing on our list strikes your fancy, don’t worry.  Our library and menu are extensive enough that by the time you exhaust the potential combinations, a new version of Hamlet will be in preview performances at the primate house.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Intrigue at Highbury (or, Emma's Match)

I don't like Emma Woodhouse.  She's shallow, manipulative, and a bit of a snob.  I don't like Mr. Knightly either - he's condescending and I can't get past the thought that 25-year-old John Knightly picked 12-year-old Emma out as his future spouse at their siblings' wedding.  Emma, however, has grown on me over the years, and I'm more sympathetic toward Miss Woodhouse.  Wealthy and with a married sister in London, she's the only Austen heroine who can expect a season or two and yet she stands with Fanny Price as the only ones not to spend time in London or Bath.  Smart and capable, she's run a household and managed her agoraphobic, hypochondriac father's neuroses since her early teens, but she's still stuck in a dull backwater with few contemporaries of her social strata.

I wouldn't expect Emma to get along well with Elizabeth Darcy, and Carrie Bebris probably didn't either.  The Darcys are on the way to visit newlyweds Col. and Anne Fitzwilliam (engaged at the end of The Matters at Mansfield) when a young, injured woman stops their carriage.  As they attend to her, someone steals a case containing an heirloom ring and layette.  They're near Highbury, so they report the crime to Mr. Knightly, the local magistrate.

Mr. Knightly, however, has other matters on his mind.  Edgar Churchill, Frank Churchill's uncle, died during a dinner the Knightlys held in honor of Frank and Jane Fairfax's wedding.  Mr. Woodhouse, of course, thinks rich banquet food is the culprit, but no Edgar had been poisoned.  Since Mr. Knightly and Mr. Darcy have a mutual acquaintance, they set off to solve the mystery.

It's not much of a mystery, really - I solved "who" too easily and "why" seemed slapped together.  The Intrigue at Highbury, however, works as Jane Austen fan fic.  Emma's marriage has not stopped her matchmaking, or her competition with Mrs. Elton - and both come into play as the two women try to find a husband for loquacious Miss Bates.  There's also a visit to Harriet Martin (nee Smith), an apparently high-born but mysterious peddler, a return of the gypsies from whom Mr. Knightly rescued Harriet, and Mr. Woodhouse offering Lizzy gruel to cure her convenient but fictional headache.   Bebris hit her stride with The Matters at Mansfield, and even though her mysteries aren't particularly satisfying, her novels are entertaining.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Others on the Prairie

How and why did Miss Bell come to live in DeSmet? I've read all of the Little House books too many times to count, but I never thought about Miss Bell before this week.  How did a young, single woman end up as a dressmaker in 1883 Dakota Territory?  How is such a tiny town even large enough to support a dressmaker?

Well, I can answer the last question.  Although Laura Ingalls Wilder never describes the physical town after The Long Winter, she mentions how quickly DeSmet grows in both Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years.   The school expands from a dozen students to upper and lower schools (maybe 50-60 students in all), and someone had to live and work in those buildings Pa helped build every spring.  We only meet those who are important to Laura's story, because extraneous characters could become confusing.

But I wonder about Miss Bell.  Laura describes her as young, so she's not a spinster or childless widow trying to make a living.  She's a businesswoman, though, so not as young as Laura, and there's no mention of her family.  Is she the oldest child of a family that went west to stake their claim?  Or did she strike out on her own, deciding that a depot town, even in a remote area, would attract enough residents to support a dressmaker?

As I ponder the question of Miss Bell, I wonder whom else we don't know in 1885 DeSmet.  The school expands, but Florence Wilkins is the "big girl" joins Laura, Mary Power, Minnie Johnson, Ida Brown, and Nellie Oleson in the years spanning the last two books.  I can believe that Laura, Minnie, and Mary were, at 13, the oldest girls in school during The Long Winter because the town was so small then, but did none of the new families send their 15-year-old daughters to school?  We know there's a bank (Mary Powers's new beau works there), and a hotel (one of the first buildings in town), several stores, and two bars.  There's a printer, so there must have been at least a basic newspaper.

I could answer these questions with a little research.  A few hours on Google will bring me links to census data and personal histories.  Do I really want to know, though?  Or would I rather speculate on what would drive a young woman to start a dressmaking business in a frontier outpost.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Gun Games

I don't know what Faye Kellerman has planned for Gabe Whitman.  Is he a replacement for the Deckers' grown children or is he the central character in a story arc within a long running series?  Kellerman introduced Gabe in Hangman.  Kellerman, as usual, deftly integrated Gabe's assimilation into the Deckers' home life and a string of serial killings, but she also brought back Gabe's father Chris Donetti.  Chris is a compelling character, but I find recurring villains unsatisfying and their subsequent appearances forced.  Chris's appearances have avoided extraordinary levels of coincidence so far, but I remain wary.

Gabe takes the lead in Gun Games which devotes equal time and weight to Gabe's personal story and Peter Decker's investigation of a pair of teen suicides.  There's only one obvious connection between Gregory Hesse and Myra Gelb.  They attended the same private school, surrounded by rich kids whose Daddies will buy them out of any trouble.  It's a slightly above average mystery, and Decker, Marge Dunn, and Scott Oliver solve it though the combination of plodding, hunches, and inter-team comfort you expect from people who've worked together for decades.  This time "who" is a bit less of a mystery than "why" or "how" and that's a nice twist on the police procedural.

The detectives also get some help from Gabe.  The brilliant and talented 15-year-old has already complete his high school curriculum and his encounter with the suspects takes place against the backdrop of his clandestine romance with the younger sister of one of Hannah Decker's classmates.  It starts as a non-date date to the opera (Yasmin's sister backed out and if Gabe didn't go, the ticket would go to waste), but soon the sheltered Orthodox 14-year-old and the emotionally battered boy are meeting before school.  This leads to stolen afternoons, frequent text messages, and a violent attack that leads Decker to culprits of the "suicides," as well as the brief appearance of Chris Donetti.  I said at the start of this review that I don't know why Faye Kellerman brought Gabe Whitman into the Deckers' home.  That's not quite true.  I have an idea, but Spoilers, darling.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Mystery in the Minster

A few weeks after the events of The Killer of Pilgrims, Ralph de Langelee may have a solution to Michaelhouse College's financial problems.  Now the Master of Michaelhouse, Langelee was a soldier in service to the late William Zouche, Archbishop of York.  A codicil to Zouche's will left a church to Michaelhouse, and now that the incumbent priest has died, Michaelhouse can claim the parish's income.    There's a problem, though.  No one can find the codicil and the minster's vicars have taken possession of the church.  To enforce Michaelhouse's claim, Langelee travels to York with law lecturer John Radford, devious courtier-turned-theologian Brother Michael, and exhausted physician Matthew Bartholomew (ostensibly for "relaxation").

Once in York, they discover that the codicil may never have existed and that several Zouche's executors have died mysteriously.  Then Radford dies, shortly after claiming to have found the codicil.  Matt sets out to learn who killed his friend, and succeeds.  I, unfortunately, didn't care.  Matt belongs to Cambridge, and I feel a bit lost when he roams too far from home.  Gregory needed too much exposition to introduce all the new characters and settings, and yet many the characters remained indistinguishable and the situations confusing.  Mystery in the Minster entertained me, particularly the final action scenes, but didn't stick in my mind.  It's worth reading if, like me, you're a bit obsessive about reading whole series in order.  The casual Susannah Gregory fan can probably give it a miss.

Monday, April 13, 2015

American Connections: The Founding Fathers Networked

Why write  book like this?  Well, writing beats real work.  And I hope you'll find it diverting.  History is where we come from, so it's worth a look.  And as navigators say: you don't know where you're going if you don't know where you've been.

That paragraph from the preface of James Burke's American Connections sums up the entire book.  He's written a good commute book; entertaining enough to distract you but neatly parceled into 5-7 page chapters so you won't miss your stop.  Burke uses his Connection walk through history to connect the signers of the Declaration of Independence to someone or something that's part of recent memory (and yes, he connects Josiah Bartlett to his fictional descendant, President Bartlett of The West Wing).  Some connections feel forced, others are more natural, and most chapters either share information or recycle facts from Burke's prior books (hence the "beats real work" comment).  Burke also retains his breezy, slightly irreverent style, so I'll forgive the recycling.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

W is for Wasted

I've never believed that genre fiction sits on a lower rung of the quality ladder than straight fiction.  Good writing with complex, believable characters make a good novel, whether the plot involves simmering family resentment or a dead body.  W is for Wasted includes both, as well as medical fraud, a shady investigator, and return appearances by two of Kinsey's ex-boyfriends.

The dead body belongs to a homeless man who had Kinsey's name and office phone number in his pocket.  She's never seen him before, but business is slow so she decides to investigate her dead potential client.  Terrence - R.T. Dace - turns out to be an exonerated ex-con who wanted to clean up and reconnect with his now-grown children.  Dace's son and daughters didn't care about their father, alive or dead, but they are interested in the half-million dollar settlement he received from California for his false imprisonment.

It's all very straightforward (Dace must have found Kinsey's address in the phone book and planned to hire her as a go-between with his family) until Robert Deitz shows up.  He and Kinsey haven't spoken since the end of their affair, but there wasn't any bad blood until a sleazy investigator named Pete Wolinsky used Kinsey's name to subcontract a job out to Dietz, inflate his bill to his client, and then stiff Dietz because, well, by then Wolinsky is a stiff himself - shot at a bird refuge a few weeks before Dace died on the beach.

Grafton neatly connects the two crimes, with clean logic and few coincidences.  It's so cleverly constructed that it's difficult to review without spoiling.  It's enough to say that W is for Wasted, like the three preceding installments is a highlight of this long-running series.  As Kinsey approaches 40 (and Grafton approaches retirement), she's exploring issues with wider impact than simply uncovering insurance fraud, and wrapping serious discussions in novels which, although they're hard to put down, cannot be dismissed as merely "page-turners."

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Plantangenets: The Kings That Made Britain

Derek Wilson's The Plantagenets is the literary equivalent of a survey course.  Wilson provides quick biographical sketches of the kings and the highlights (or lowlights of their reigns in clear, concise language.  There's nothing special, but he does include the modern opinions of Richard I (brutal and negligent towards his kingdom), John (an able administrator if a poor king), and Richard III (the victim of a Tudor smear campaign), and by stripping the Wars of the Roses down to the basic facts, makes the inter-family civil war comprehensible.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Weaker Vessel

I'm not sure how I feel about The Weaker Vessel.  The topic (women in 17th Century England) interests me, and I enjoy Antonia Fraser's writing style.  I should have loved the book, but for some reason it didn't make much of an impression on me.  Perhaps it's because I read it over the course of six very stressful weeks and couldn't devote enough mental energy to the lives of the dozens of (mostly) noble women Fraser profiled.   A few weeks later, only shadows of the political maneuverers, writers, holy women, merchants, and actresses remain in my mind, along with the nagging suspicion that the understandably missing lives of poorer women (who would have been illiterate and therefore would not have left letters and diaries) would have made The Weaker Vessel much more interesting.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Jane and the Canterbury Tale

I miss Lord Harold, and Jane does as well.  Stephanie Barron's Jane Austen mysteries became a bit more somber with his death, and I miss the lightness of the earlier books.  Jane is also aging - she's now nearly 39 and the flirting now falls to her niece, Fanny Knight.  She still enjoys a lively party, though, and Jane and the Canterbury Tale opens at a society wedding.  Adelaide Fiske, after a scandalous first marriage and widowhood, has married an army officer and all seems well until Fanny stumbles across the freshly dead body of Adelaide's first husband.  Naturally, Adelaide's brother and new husband are suspects, as is her cousin who expected to marry her, and the mysterious man who delivered a bag of tamarind seeds to the wedding.  Jane, of course, teases out the truth in the tales told by all the suspects, and while the book was entertaining, the solution wasn't totally satisfying.  I enjoyed Jane and her interactions with her niece and her brother, Edward Knight, but the mystery didn't live up to Barron's prior installments.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Star Island

Take Britney Spears's career profile and Lindsey Lohan's stage mother, remove all talent, and add an unwise mix of vodka, Red Bull, hydrocodone, birdseed, and stool softener.  That's how Carl Hiaasen introduces Cherry Pye, and her stunt double, Ann DeLusia.  As Cherry's mother sneaks the drug-addled starlet out through a service entrance, a particularly disreputable paparazzo snaps a photo of Ann being loaded into an ambulance - and discovers that the thrashing girl has brown, not green eyes.  Bang Abbot isn't your everyday sleazy photographer-for-hire, though - he's the recipient of a tainted Pulitzer Prize - so he's not going to settle for a photo of Cherry's double.  No, he's going to kidnap her and take enough pictures for a coffee table book to be published after Cherry's inevitable early death.

Except he kidnaps Ann, who a few days earlier was rescued from the wreck of her rental car by Skink (the former governor of Florida) so she can help him quash a shady real estate deal.  Oh, and Cherry's new bodyguard is a 6'10 ex-con with a weed-whacker where his left hand should be and who want to return to his previous job, shady real estate deals.  Star Island is classic Hiaasen - con men, an ineptly executed crime, improbable events (trust me, do not read how Bang Abbot won his Pulitzer in public unless you want to scare those around you), and weirdness that goes so far beyond the suspension of disbelief it's saved only by Hiaasen's whacked-out creativity.  Only Carl Hiaasen can surround a tight plot with the insanity of Cherry's mixers or Skink's idea of appropriate punishment and somehow make them fit.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Murder at Hazelmoor

I bought most of my Agatha Christies in the early 80s, some of them new and some used.  Murder at Hazelmoor fooled me - the spine is uncracked and it has early-80s cover art, but there's a stamp from The Book Swap on the inside cover.  It's also spent over 30 years on my shelf, unread - maybe I was more likely to file away the books I bought used.  In this case, I didn't miss much.  Murder at Hazelmoor is a middling locked-room Christie - a seance proclaims Captain Trevelyan's death and a few hours later, when Major Burnaby checks on is friend, Captain Trevelyan is dead.  The police settle on Trevelyan's nephew as the most likely culprit, and the young man's fiancée sets out to prove them wrong.  Cleverly plotted and diverting, but not particularly engrossing, it's a casual Christie - worth reading, but maybe not worth hunting for.

The Child's Child

I'm afraid that The Child's Child will be the last book Ruth Rendell writes under her Barbara Vine pseudonym.  It's not quite as good as The Birthday Present, but Rendell was in peak form for about two-thirds of the novel.  Perhaps it would have joined The Birthday Present and A Dark Adapted Eye among her best if it had been published as a novella.

I say that because The Child's Child feels like a novella with 85 pages of coincidence-laden framework extending the work to novel length.  Ph.D. candidate Grace Easton and her brother Andrew inherited a sprawling house on the outskirts of London from their grandmother.  Instead of selling it and  sharing the proceeds, they decide to divide the house and live together-but-not-together, and it works well until Andrew's partner James Derain moves in.  James's stability, never a sure thing, degerates when the two men witness the gay-bashing death of an acquaintance of theirs, and then a somewhat unbelievable series of events leads to Andrew and James moving out, leaving Grace, pregnant and working on a Ph.D dissertation analyzing the treatment of unwed mothers in 19th Century literature, alone in the suburban mansion.  One night, she reads the manuscript a family friend gave her.

The Child's Child couldn't be published when it was written in the 1950s.  Martin Greenwell based Maud Goodwin on a neighbor, a woman who'd gotten pregnant at 15 and who also happened to be James Derwin's great-grandmother.  Maude's brother John, who was gay at a time when it was illegal, "saved" Maude by moving away with her and pretending to be her husband.  One evening, John explained to Maude why he so willingly moved away with her, but she was a puritan-leaning as the family they'd left.  Long before John disappeared, Maude retreated into a icy shell, proud and protective of her daughter. There's not much of a mystery - we know John's fate, even if the police take several months to figure it out - but Rendell wrote a compelling story about a woman who trapped herself in a facade of respectability.  While I found the modern-day section of The Child's Child enjoyable, it really didn't add anything to the book.

The Carbon Age

I'm not sure what Eric Roston's goal was when he wrote The Carbon Age, but I suspect his editors pushed him to tie it to current concerns about global climate change and obesity.  Unfortunately, the highly technical tone of the rest of the book (among other things, he explains on a nuclear level how hydrogen creates all other elements) doesn't quite translate to a discussion of how what we need to survive can also harm us.  Perhaps if his style weren't so dry, he could have tied the two sections together.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Bad Quarto

I read two of the Peter Wimsey mysteries which Jill Paton Walsh finished for Dorothy L. Sayers's estate, so when I saw The Bad Quarto at the Book Corner, I took a chance on it.  I enjoyed it, although there were a few too many coincidences for my taste.  Shortly after a St. Agatha's College faculty member John Talentire falls from his window, college nurse Imogen Quy cycles by on her way home.  There's nothing she can do for the dying man, other than note that his office was on a wall known to tempt thrill seekers who climb college buildings.

A few months later, Imogen's grad student borders ask her if their dramatic society can meet in her living room, she assents and becomes unofficially drawn into the society.  They're bankrupt (due to a fire) and need to decide whether to accept wealthy student Matin Mottle's offer of financial support.  The support comes with a catch - he's never acted before and wants to play Hamlet.  It's not a minor consideration - the director and a few of the actors hope to use this performance to attract the notice of agents and producers and start professional careers in theater - but they acquiesce and choose an alternate version of the play (the titular Bad Quarto) in the hopes that they can minimize Mottle's damage.  Mottle turns out to be marginally adequate as Hamlet, but has friends disrupt the performance, accusing a faculty member of John Talentire's murder.  Walsh requires the reader to suspend just a bit too much belief (Imogen has chance-but-important encounters with too many interested parties), but sets up a neat, well-plotted puzzle.  I solved the mystery a few pages before the end, but by then it was the obvious answer.  Still, I enjoyed the book, mainly because I liked the character of Imogen Quy, and I'm going to look for the rest of the series.