Sunday, December 11, 2016

Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt's Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York

What do you think of when someone mentions Theodore Roosevelt?  The Bully Pulpit?  The charge up San Juan Hill? Trust-busting?  His cowboy years in the Dakotas?  That's the myth, and the reality, but it's incomplete.  Roosevelt was an upper-crust socialite and, when you get right down to it, a bit of a snob and a prude.  Island of Vice covers the two years Roosevelt spent as New York's Police Commissioner, during which he fought to protect New Yorkers from sin and booze.  Spoiler alert - sin and booze won.  Roosevelt's anti-alcohol crusade (understandable when you realize that his brother Elliot died from alcoholism shortly before Teddy became Commissioner) fell hardest on the working class whose day of leisure - Sunday - was now the day when the bars were closed.  As for vice, well, New York passed a law allowing alcohol sales in "hotels" so bars slapped together a few tiny rooms upstairs, ushering in a new era of hot-sheet hotels which rented by the hour.  Eventually human nature and squabbling on the Board of Commissioners did Teddy in…until the campaign experience he gained made him McKinley's Vice President and, after McKinley's assassination, the youngest President in US history.  Island of Vice is a fascinating look at two turbulent years in Roosevelt's and New York City's history, and adds another layer to TR's public persona.

The Great Silence

The Bright Young People of 1920s England partied away the memories of the Great War.  Juliet Nicholson used a combination of contemporaneous news reports, personal diaries, and personal interviews to chronicle the confusing years that led to the decade-plus party.  Dividing the time between the Armistice and its second anniversary like the stages of grief, Nicholson shows how the war affected everyone - civilian and soldier, working class and titled landowner, children and adults.  Most of the stories are personal and not particularly significant, but two themes stand out.  Women who had been drafted into important civilian jobs weren't willing to just disappear into their homes and started laying the groundwork for the mores and laws that nearly a century later allowed me to become a scientist and then a lawyer. I already knew that (although not, obviously, the personal stories Nicholson tells), so the second major theme interested me more.  Harold Gillies, a New Zealand born surgeon, invented plastic and reconstructive surgery while treating injured soldiers.  All of The Great Silence fascinated me, but Gillies's work stayed with me.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Seven Wonders

HIstorical mystery novelists don't have to worry about their characters getting too old or reconfiguring the timeline.  When it became unrealistic for Steven Saylor to follow Gordianus forward through the early days of the Roman Empire, he went back to Gordianus's youth and his frequently-referenced tour of the Seven Wonders.   Over the course of a year, we see Gordianus lose his naiveté while using the deductive skills he learned from his father (also a Finder) to solve a mystery at every stop along the way.  A betrayal and the political situation back in Rome leaves him in Alexandria to start his own detective career and leads to his first encounter with his eventual wife, Bethesda.


Coincidences happen.  As an urban legend enthusiast, I depend on that fact when I'm debunking stories that "can't have happened by chance."  As a mystery fan, I have a more complicated relationship with coincidences.  Too few and the novel becomes unrealistically sterile; too many and the coincidences are a crutch.  I thought about the coincidences in Grasshopper because the novel starts with one. Electrician Clodagh Brown goes out on a call and realizes that Mrs. Clarkson, who called her because "C. Brown" was at the top of the phone book listings, is Liv, the semi-fugitive Swedish nanny who was among those with whom Clodagh explored London roofs a dozen years earlier.  Back then Liv was agoraphobic, under the spell of her criminal boyfriend, and pining after Wim who'd started the crew on their roof-walking hobby.  Now she's "respectable" and tries to bribe Clodagh to keep her identity secret.  Clodagh refuses the money, but with some free time (her husband works for a relief charity and is doing field work), she opens up her old journals and writes the narrative of her first year  in London, with the perspective of time.

Clodagh's first meeting with Liv was also coincidental.  At 16, she started climbing the towers that hold electrical wires, and a year later that led to the death of her slightly younger (by a few months) boyfriend.  Depression and social ostracism led to poor A-level scores so her only option was a third-rate polytechnic and a program which did not interest her.  Living in the basement flat of a house owned by her mother's cousin and his wife (the star of an Eastenders style soap), she's isolated and miserable, a claustrophobic and depressed young woman living in what feels like a dank cave.  About to be expelled for non-attendance, she's on her way to a meeting with her advisor when police activity forces her to use the pedestrian tunnel where she has a panic attack and is rescued by Michael Silverman - Silver - the son of her cousin's neighbors and the resident of an attic flat in his parent's usually unoccupied house.

Silver is also about 20, but neither working nor in school.  He inherited money from his grandmother, enough to live on comfortably but not extravagantly, and he's assembled a small group of misfits who live with or drop in on him.  Liv is one of them, brought to Silver by Johnny, she's hiding the secret of the money she stole from her employers and hiding from her apparently reasonable parents.  Johnny is a  criminal (theft and assault), and others (Morna, Niall, Lucy) mainly students who came and went.  The one thing they shared was a love of rooftop exploration.  Led by Wim, they ran around London nearly 100 feet in the air.

That wouldn't be much of a story if they hadn't discovered a fugitive couple in one of the upper floor flats on their regular route.  Alison and Andrew wanted to adopt Jason, but child services decided that the bi-racial boy shouldn't be raised by two white parents so they abducted him.  Silver wants to help them, and Clodagh goes along with the plan.  But Alison and Andrew are not as they appear, and Silver discovers yet another coincidence just a little bit too late.

Ruth Rendell wrote Grasshopper 15 years ago, and that led to another level of analysis.  I'm about the same age as Clodagh, so I kept pulling back to my college years and seeing her story as I would have seen it back then.  Would a teenager obviously suffering from PTSD and depression after seeing her friend get electrocuted then fall to his death have been scolded rather than treated in the late 1980s?  Probably.  How about her parents' reaction to her claustrophobia?  Mine is not as severe as Clodagh's, but I get more eye-rolls than sympathy when I mention how difficult it is to drive through a tunnel under water or when I flinch at anything unexpectedly too close to my face.  She's reflecting at 32 and happy how she was at 20 and coming out of depression.  I kept wondering what Clodagh is like at 47.  It added to my enjoyment of a book that started slow but was definitely worthwhile.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

A Dangerous Inheritance

Sr. Maureen Christi had the unenviable task of facing me and about 20 other teenagers at 8 am every day 30-plus years ago.  It's not that I wasn't receptive to Poe (her favorite) and Shakespeare at 14; it's that this particular night owl wasn't receptive to much before 10 am.  I must have paid attention, though, because what she taught me then (and three years later at a more reasonable 1 pm) regularly pop into my mind.

One thing she told us was that Shakespeare was a political creature and a man who knew who - Elizabeth I - paid his bills.  Without getting into the details of Richard III (although I might have preferred that to Romeo and Juliet), she let us know that the victorious Henry VII's granddaughter wasn't going to stand for a pleasant portrayal of the vanquished king.  Art influences us, probably more than unvarnished reality, and Richard III became deformed and irreparably evil in our consciousness.  Fiction (and the recent discovery of Richard's body under a car park) adds some much-needed nuance to that view.

Alison Weir adds her voice to the novelists rehabilitating (somewhat) Richard III.  He's a supporting character in A Dangerous Inheritance, the father of one of the protagonists.  Kate Plantagenet is his illegitimate but recognized daughter, and through her eyes, we see a loving father and husband and concerned knight displeased with the state of his country.  Kate's faith in him is sweet, and because she only sees glimpses of his slide into despotism, supported by her reality.  His death throws her, now married to the Earl of Pembroke, into the political sphere.  Pembroke "switched sides" late in the war (possibly after he knew the outcome), and Henry VII needs to know whether Richard murdered his nephews.

Seventy years later, Katherine Grey marries one of Pembroke's descendants in a double wedding, alongside her sister Jane and Guilford Dudley.  Unlike Jane, Katherine is eager to marry - she loves pretty dresses and quickly comes to love her husband although they're forbidden to consummate their marriage.  The night Mary retakes her throne from Jane, Pembroke separates the lovers and deposits Katherine, with no guard and no warning, on her parents' doorstep.  Political maneuvering (and close blood ties to the throne) bring her to court as one of Mary's attendants.  Here, she meets proud, savvy, brilliant Elizabeth who's much better at the political game.  Katherine wants to be queen, and changes alliances and religions more than once in the hope that it will happen, but she wants the pageantry rather than the power. She likes pretty dresses and being in love and making her husband king.

It was love rather than political machinations that led her to marry Edward Seymour, son of Edward VI's Lord Protector.  That marriage (or, rather, the children it produced) led to Katherine's downfall.  Elizabeth knew that her people would rather have a man on the throne than a brilliant but prickly (and justifiably paranoid at times) woman.  A cousin of royal blood, married and with a son was a threat, one which had to be sequestered in the Tower of London with cast-off, mostly broken furniture.  In exile, Katherine connects the pendant she found in her first husband's house, one which Kate Plantagenet owned, to the voices she thinks she hears late at night, and sets off to discover the fate of Edward V and the Duke of York.

Friday, November 11, 2016

A Dreadful Murder

A Dreadful Murder, like Chickenfeed, is a "quick read" based on a real, unsolved murder.  Someone shot Caroline Lugard in August, 1906.  Her husband, a dour retired Army officer, was both the last person to see her alive and was alone when he found her body.  An inconclusive inquest and Major-General Lugard's friendship with the local police chief launch the widower into a swamp of rumor and innuendo, from which two Scotland Yard investigators cannot withdraw him.  Brief and simply written (the quick reads series is written at a basic level, in part to get non-fluent readers interested in literature), A Dreadful Murder barely qualifies as a novella, but it's worth the small investment of your time.

Friday, October 28, 2016


Jane Austen barely mentions servants, although we know they're there.  Jo Baker took the few mentions of servants in Pride and Prejudice and some historical research to create her downstairs family: housekeeper/cook (and Mrs. Bennett's confidant-by-circumstance) Mrs. Hill. her aged husband who acts as butler and occasional valet to Mr. Bennet, two maids (20ish Sarah and pre-teen Polly), and the new footman, James.  Longbourn meanders through several intertwined plot lines, focusing Sarah's choice between James and by Mr. Bingley's servant and former slave (and probable half-brother) Ptolemy Bingley.  Mrs. Hill, thinking of Sarah's future and her own history, gently nudges the younger woman in one direction, then the other, concerned more with Sarah's security than her heart.  In the end, though, it's Sarah's decision and that choice (like most of the novel) I easily predicted.

There are no surprises in Longbourn, but it's engaging and the well-drawn characters are sympathetic. Parts of the epilogue may be a little bit far-fetched, but downstairs life rings true.  The Bennetts are on the edge of respectability, socially unable to do their own work but not rich enough to afford the staff required to fully support their lifestyle.  Even the more benevolent family members (Lizzy and Jane) are  dismissive of the servants whose value comes from what they do rather than who they are, and Mr. Wickham appears more predatory towards young girls than Jane Austen ever imagined.    Mrs. Hill, more aware of the precariousness of a servant's life, worries about how the Bennett girls' marriages (and Mr. Collins's eventual inheritance of Longbourn) will break up the household and gently manipulates others where she can.  While not as good as Pride and Prejudice, Longbourn works as a companion volume.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Invitation to a Dynamite Party

Peter Lovesy followed up my favorite (so far) Sergeant Cribb mystery with what I think is the weakest. Invitation to a Dynamite Party starts with Cribb receiving an introduction to bomb making and Irish Nationalism.  The suspected bombers have murdered one policeman, and a second - Cribb's faithful but not too bright Constable Thackery - seems to have become a mole.  After some intensive instruction in explosives, Cribb manages to ingratiate himself with the criminal crew and prevent (rather than solve) a high profile murder.  It's an adequate mystery, but it just didn't grab my attention.  Read it if you're reading the series and don't like missing an installment, but don't go looking for Invitation to a Dynamite Party.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Acquired Tastes

The next installment in my Peter Malye casual re-read, Acquired Tastes is a collection of essays Mayle wrote in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  He covers, well, acquired tastes - expensive yet visible items most of us would partake of if only we could afford it (or have an expense account allowing us to explore them).  Truffles, custom-fit clothing, cashmere, champagne, and limousines get their day along with the less pleasant expenses of house guests, lawyers, and tipping.   It's a bit more "guy" oriented than I remember it (I can assure you that I covet cashmere sweaters as much as any man - or more so, since I don't have a shirt coming between the exquisite softness and my arms and torso), and the numbers are a bit off thanks to the inflation of twenty-five years.  Like most of Mayle's work, it's aspirational, leaving the reader wanting a custom-made suit, hand-made shoes, and a five-star dinner date as an excuse to wear them.

The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism

I've got a bit of a gap in my knowledge of European history.  Once you pass the Renaissance, I'm a bit hazy on the mainland.  I haven't thought about Napoleon III since I took European History in high school.  That made it hard to enjoy The Judgment of Paris.  I thought it would narrate the artistic revolution that brought us Delacroix, Monet, Manet, Renoir, Degas, Cassat, and others.  While Ross King addressed the artistic trends at the time, he mixed professional politics with real politics, and with the European wars that flared in the middle of the 19th Century.  So I'm torn - it's a well written book covering a fascinating topic, but not a topic about which I particularly care.  I'd much rather read the book I thought it would be.

Saturday, September 24, 2016


I've seen Rebecca, of course.  20 years ago, as a first year law student, Friday night was movie night and I focused on classics.  I bought the book over a decade ago (at Atlantic Books in Stone Harbor; the free bookmark listed several stores but by 2008 they were down to that store and the warehouse) and it sat on my shelf long enough for me to forget all but the most basic parts of the story.

I'm glad I did, because I don't think the creepy atmosphere would work quite as well if I knew the real relationship between Rebecca and Maxim.  The narrator, the second Mrs. de Winter, is a young, naive woman who'd been working as a paid companion to a delightfully vulgar character when Maxim de Winter courts and marries her over the course of a few weeks.  She's madly in love, but afraid that Maxim doesn't love her as much as he could have loved Rebecca.  Rebecca de Winter, whom everyone admired and loved.  A woman who inspired such devotion that the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, keeps her room as if it were a shrine.   Du Maurier's elegant but slightly claustrophobic story unrolls through Mrs. de Winter's eyes, letting us know only what she does and leaving the twist truly shocking (at least if you haven't seen the movie recently).

And When She Was Good

Laura Lippman introduced Heloise Lewis in Scratch a Woman, a work too long to be a short story and too short to be a novella, published in Hardly Knew Her.  Given an entire novel, she's less of a cypher and a much more sympathetic character than I expected from the Suburban Madam set-up.

We first see Heloise in her other guise, perfect suburban mother, getting coffee in Starbucks.  As she coolly and logically dresses down two patrons sneering at the story of a murdered suburban madam, she reflects on how shocked those customers would be to know that the perfectly calm and coiffed redhead standing next to them is also a prostitute who both sees personal clients and runs an escort service under the guise of a lobbying firm, the Women's Full Employment Network.  No one knows, or suspects, that the slightly standoffish widow with the perfect life is not as she appears.

Lippman could have used the Suburban Madam Murder as an impetus for Heloise to get out of her business, but she's a more subtle writer.  The crime does nag at Heloise, but it's not her greatest problem.  One of her former employees claims to have contracted HIV while working for WFEN, her contact (and occasional protector) on the police force is about to retire, and her accountant *may* suspect that there's something wrong.  But how can she get out of the business when her imprisoned former pimp (and her son's father) takes half the profits and will have her killed if she tries to leave?  Lippman combines a tightly constructed mystery (although one with two or three more coincidences than I'd like, and a denouement that's just a bit too pat) with flashbacks which show how an emotionally and physically abused teenager named Helen became a prostitute, an informant, and finally the woman she appeared to be.

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken

Warning - potential spoiler

Genre fiction gets dismissed as fluff that doesn't address issues the way "literature" does.  Personally, I'd rather read a mystery that sneaks in a lesson than a literary work staggering under the weight of its importance.  The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken starts out as a typical Vish Puri mystery with a particularly silly case (someone removed the #1 mustache in India from its owners face while he slept) and a cricket match featuring Rumpi's nephew, a rising star.  At the dinner celebrating both the match and the opening of a new stadium, the father of the opposing bowler drops dead, poisoned by his butter chicken.

The next day, an English acquaintance currently leading a Clean Up Cricket campaign hires Puri to investigate the murder.  Kamran Kahn, the dead man's son, appears to be throwing games - if he wanted to get out, gamblers may have killed his father.  Mummy-ji, who was also at the dinner, suspects another motive, one related to the years directly following the partition of India and Pakistan.  Working on both sides of the case and both sides of the border, Vish and his mother solve the mystery and, as Poirot sometimes did, weigh justice against the written law.  

I mentioned that Parnell Hall snuck a lesson into Puri's case, and, unusually, it's mainly a history lesson.  I know very little about that era, but it's not a leap to see that the current animosity between the countries springs in part from their similarities.  Puri's visit to Pakistan is a mix of the familiar (his family is from Punjab, which had been divided in 1947 so to his surprise he understands the dialect) and the strange (restaurants offer beef but not alcohol).  The pain of separation is deeper in Mummy-ji's story, in which she tells her son about her work helping women trapped by politics, religion, and family in the late 1940s.  Hall seamlessly integrates this story, as well as the usual domestic matters (Vish and Rumpi are in an arranged marriage, one that involved love at first sight and which deepened over the decades), with the cricket star's father's murder, tossing in the mustache case as (occasionally) comic relief.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Encore Provence

Peter Mayle returned to Provence in the late 1990s after a few years in New York.  He simultaneously returned to writing about Provence after a handful of novels (starting with the delightful Hotel Pastis).  The result was Encore Provence, fourteen essays on village life, olive oil, wine, lavender, and how to enjoy your time in rural Provence.  They're the literary equivalent of a bar with unusual appetizers and good wine - enjoyable (particularly in good company) and worth revisiting on a regular basis.

Looking for Yesterday

I've said that Marcia Muller's Shraron McCone has never really slumped, but I've now read two consecutive books which, while good, are not up to her standards.  Looking for Yesterday (which precedes The Night Searchers) was entertaining and engrossing, but it never quite added up.

McCone Investigations has relocated to a quaint but inconvenient building (found by office manager Ted Smalley) and Sharon isn't coping well with the transition or the balky elevator.  Grumpily arranging her office, she takes on Caro Warrick's quest to prove her innocence.  Warrick was acquitted of murdering her best friend, but that's not enough for a young woman devoted to the gun control movement.  Someone beats Warrick and leaves her for dead on Sharon's doorstep soon after, and Sharon continues the case on her own, while being stalked and threatened by an unknown assailant.   Is her stalking connected to her case?  In the end, it doesn't really matter because Muller uses it to set up the subplot of The Night Searchers (the potential merger of McCone Investigations with her husband's Ripinski International).

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Face of Trespass

I'm still not sure why Ruth Rendell's editors asked her to use a pseudonym for her later psychological thrillers.  The Barbara Vine books are a bit deeper, and maybe more likely to be written from a female POV, but the tone is similar.  Who committed a crime doesn't seem as important as why, her narrators may not be reliable, and there's often a twist at the end.

Rendell frames The Face of Trespass with brief scenes featuring a newly elected MP.  At an alumni function, an old friend mentions a schoolmate of theirs, Gray Lanceton, who published a novel and is now living in the MP's district.  Lanceton is living in semi-squalor, minding another classmate's home (rurally placed yet within a few miles of London) and experiencing complete writers' block in the wake of a breakup.  Drusilla wanted Gray to kill her husband; he refused, ending the affair and his ability to write.  He's scraping by on ever-decreasing royalties when his mother's second husband calls him to France to attend her deathbed.  This trip, along with a promise to watch a dog for a vacationing family friend, lead him to call Drusilla for help and eventually to his arrest for the murder of Drusilla's husband in Gray's home.  We know he didn't (couldn't have) committed the murder, but who did?

I enjoyed Rendell's depiction of a tatty, squat-filled, 1970s London, made hazier by the obvious unraveling of her narrator's mental state.  The murder's identity is obvious, and we watch Gray walk through a London neighborhood miles from the murder site.  So why does The Face of Trespass work so well?  It's because Rendell so tightly plotted her mystery, and because the dread I felt as I saw an innocent man stumbling towards a certain murder conviction.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

I Ain't Afraid of No Trolls

When I first heard about the Ghostbusters remake, I thought it was unnecessary.  The original isn't "sacred" but it's a very funny part of my teen years.  I spent too many hours quoting the movie and deconstructing the video with my friends, and my initial group of college friends bonded over a freshman orientation showing.  It was original - one of the first successful combinations of deadpan humor and special effects.  A remake just wasn't necessary, it was contradictory.

Then the backlash hit.  Not because a studio was remaking a classic for no other reason than a quick profit.  No one objects to that today - most summer movies (and a fair share of winter releases) are remakes and reboots, often of more recent movies.  It was because the 2016 Ghostbusters would be women.  Sure, we can win the World Cup and serve in the Senate, but star in an action comedy?  Blasphemy!  Bring on the trolls.

And they came.  They went on YouTube and down voted the trailer in record numbers.  They flooded IMDb with one star ratings before the movie's release date (so obviously on principle rather than merit).  They launched a Twitter war, particularly against star Leslie Jones.  So much time and effort, and over something so insignificant - a summer movie.  Something that exists only to make people laugh and enjoy the air conditioning.

Despite my disinterest in remakes and reboots, I had to see it.  Even if it wasn't very good.

But it was good.  It's not perfect and won't make me forget the original, but it was funny, tightly scripted, well acted, and full of cool special effects.  Everything you need in a summer movie.  Ghostbusters isn't perfect, but I can only complain about two major flaws.  They had one or two too many scenes showing that the blond beefcake secretary was dumber than a box of rocks.  That could have been established with a lighter touch.

My second complaint surprised me.  The friendship scenes early in the movie felt awkward and slowed down the pace, especially the product placement pizza party.  More than that, they were unnecessary.  The entire battle against the ghosts demonstrated more clearly than any piece of dialog that these were four smart, strong, kick-ass women working as a precision team.  They backed each other up and anticipated each other's moves in a way that only highly competent, well practiced, close friends and colleagues can.  They were what every woman can be and often is.  And what we rarely see on the big screen.  That's what scares the trolls - the possibility that fantasy will include aspects of reality.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016


I really enjoyed Erik Larson's Devil in the White City.   Larson's dual-track narrative tied together the planning and building of the 1893 Chicago Exposition and the murders H. H. Holmes committed there without feeling forced.  Larson used the same technique in Thunderstruck, with less success.  Thunderstruck ties Guglielmo Marconi's invention of the wireless telegraph with Hawley Crippen's murder of his wife.  The tie is obvious - Crippen, escaping Europe on the SS Montrose with his mistress (who was disguised as a teenage boy) was the first criminal "caught" by the new technology.  Larson writes well, but he's hampered by his material.  Marconi wasn't a particularly compelling character (he was single-minded and jealous - unpleasant on a small, annoying scale), and his work is dryer than the building of the White City.  Crippen is more sympathetic than Holmes, but his murder is more routine (if murder can ever be routine, killing a spouse to end a bad marriage is as close as one can come) and doesn't leave the reader with the creepy feeling that good mystery novels and true crime books evoke.  It may sound like I didn't enjoy Thunderstruck, but I did.  I just pales in comparison with Larson's prior work.

The Shipwreck That Saved Jamestown: The Sea Venture Castaways and the Fate of America

Sr. Virginia never mentioned cannibalism.  She was a straightforward facts-and-names sort of history teacher, either uninterested in the backstory and motivations of historical figures or someone who though 11th graders didn't need to know such matters.  As I remember it, she taught us that Jamestown survived through hard work, faith, and tobacco, glossing over how close the colony came to failing.

I never went to Jamestown when I lived in Richmond.  Growing up in Philadelphia, I have a bit of a bias towards the Delaware Valley as the most important player in colonial history.  Sure, Jamestown was first, but it's also on a God-foresaken swamp and why would a stressed law student with no cash flow want to go there?  Come to think of it, why did a group of fortune hunters on a mission from God go there?  The land was poor, the people unprepared, and the management incompetent, so it was only through creative (or deceptive) marketing that the colony managed to get a second wave of immigrants.  Seven ships set out in May, 1609, and six found their way to Jamestown where the disease-weakened survivors became burdens to the starving and under-seige colony.  They just weren't prepared - no skills, not enough supplies, and they antagonized the Native Americans with which they attempted to trade for food.  A majority of the colonists died from disease and starvation, even after they resorted to eating the recently dead.  They needed a miracle, and it came in the form of a shipwreck.

The Sea Venture had separated from the rest of the fleet during a hurricane and ran aground on Bermuda.  While both Europeans and native Caribbeans had been to Bermuda, no one had settled there because of the shallow waters inlets and treacherous currents.  Prior visitors had left pigs, though, which now ran wild, providing (along with abundant fish and fruit) needed food to the weakened castaways.  After a few months of recuperation, the Sea Venture passengers and crew repaired their ship and built a second one, finished the voyage to Virginia, and saved the colony.  Healthy bodies (and the expedition members best suited to leadership) stabilized the colony.  It wasn't a success yet, but the stories brought back to England encouraged younger sons to consider Virginia as a place to make their name (and provided a "ripped from the headlines" plot for Shakespeare's last play, The Tempest).

Monday, July 4, 2016

Mortal Causes

The recent Brexit vote may affect the tenuous peace in Northern Ireland.  The country not only voted to stay in the EU (along with Scotland), but it's been propped up by help from the central EU government.  Will 20 years of uneasy discomfort dissolve into renewed violence if/when the economy of Northern Ireland falls without support from Brussels?

Mortal Causes takes place during the final months of escalating violence before the Good Friday Agreement.  Reading a 20-year-old mystery is a bit like stepping into a time machine.  I was an adult, and in law school, when Inspector John Rebus first sees the body, strung up and shot in an underground rehab site.  Billy Cunningham appears to be an IRA victim, but something doesn't seem right to Rebus - is it possible that Cunningham's murder was an attempt to frame the IRA or the act of a splinter group?  Complicating matters, Cunningham just happened to be Big Ger Coffey's son and prison can't stop the gangster from threatening Rebus if he doesn't solve his son's murder.  Rankin's mystery is complex, and I don't want to spoil the mystery for future readers.  Suffice to say that Rankin easily and non-obviously ties the murder, increasing sectarian violence (Rebus lives in a world where religion, even if you're not religious, chooses which soccer team you root for), and council estate gangs into a satisfying mystery.

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal

When she was a guest on Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me, Mary Roach listed her topics of interest as "Sex, dead bodies, and poop."  Gulp focuses on the latter, along with farts, drool, smuggling, aptonyms, questionable medical ethics, Elvis, fad diets, and the hazards of sleeping under the covers if you're married to a champion farter who loves brussels sprouts.

Grossness aside, Roach's book is, as usual, informative and entertaining.  I was particularly interested in the chapter on Alexis St. Martin and William Beaumont.  I first encountered the story of a trapper with a hole in his stomach and the doctor who gave 19th Century medicine its first scientific view of digestion in high school biology.  My textbook portrayed Beaumont as a noble scientist who saved St. Martin against all odds.  The reality is messier (as, undoubtedly, were some of the experiments).  Beaumont exploited St. Martin, a trapper from the lowest rung of the social ladder, possibly creating the  gastric window which made Beaumont famous and discussing the man he treated with what at best could be considered condescension.  Sure, St. Martin lived with Beaumont off-and-on for years, but with few skills and a hole in his side, what choice did he have?  

Another fascinating chapter focuses on rectal smuggling.   Roach interviewed a murderer who calmly, pleasantly, described how prisoners conceal weapons, cell phones, cigarettes, and drugs in the place safest from strip searches.  Budget cuts mean that the prison staff are using 1990s computers, but the inmates are watching Netflix on smuggled smart phones, and it's because some prisoners are wiling to (hmm, how to say this gently…) mechanically reverse peristalsis from the terminus and then hold for a few hours.

Roach also encounters an Italian saliva specialist (who's horrified by the culinary traditions of the Netherlands where her lab is located), Elvis's doctor (who suggests that the King had a neural defect which led to a megacolon and ultimately his untimely and embarrassing death), the inventors of Beano and (through documents), some of the more colorful 19th Century dietary "experts."  As usual, she treats everyone with respect while still including enough humor to make the book risky to read in the quiet car.  It's the footnotes that made me giggle the hardest - about a third of them are purely informational, but the rest veer off into wonderful and hilarious observations on and off this not-usually-for-public-consumption topic.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Toujours Provence

I remember the first time I read Toujours Provence, my introduction to Peter Mayle.  It was the summer after I'd graduated from college and was slowly emptying my apartment in Pittsburgh.  I spent a lot of time packing boxes and driving across the state, and even more looking for a job.  That still left a lot of time to spend time with my college friends, and to read.  Nearly 25 years later, Toujours Provence is as enjoyable as I remember it.  While Mayle felt the need to create a loose narrative framework for A Year in Provence, here he provides literary postcards of his life on the edge of the Luberon.  Singing toads, a truffle hunter training a pot-bellied pig, buried treasure, Mayle's then new-found fame - they're all fettered in their own essays, along with a dozen other topics.  And food.  Everything comes back to consumables, whether it's a birthday picnic, two lunches with the local gourmand, or a visit to the local wholesale market.  Sunny and breezily told (I assume like a spring day in Provence), Mayle's second travel collection surpass his first, in part because there's no thread to tie the essays together.   

The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II

One of my college boyfriends was from Oak Ridge, TN.  His pickup line was "I used a Cray over the summer."  That's not what worked with me (I was impressed that he could recite "Jabberwocky" more quickly than I could), but I thought about him while reading The Girls of Atomic City.  I didn't know much about Oak Ridge back then - I knew there was a nuclear reactor (with the Cray) and it was involved in building the atomic bomb, and not much else.  I had no idea that this major research center had only existed since a few months before my dad was born.

The Manhattan Project built Oak Ridge out of land cheaply acquired through eminent domain and in three years, turned it into a bustling city that was both secret and full of secrets.  The people of nearby Nashville resented the newcomers, with their full wallets and rumors of full store shelves, and confidentiality rules meant that you couldn't tell your roommate, neighbor, or romantic partner anything about your job - in fact, you didn't know anything more than was absolutely necessary to perform your particular step in the process.  It was restrictive, high-pressure, and for the young women who flocked to Oak Ridge, exhilarating.

Denise Kiernan interviewed several of these women, now past 80.  They were secretaries (Celia Szapka and Toni Peters), factory workers (Colleen Rowan, Dot Jones, and Helen Hall), a nurse (Rosemary Maiers) brought in to staff a small clinic that grew to be a small hospital, a statistician (Jane Greer) who'd been barred her alma mater from becoming an engineer despite her grades, a janitor (Kattie Strickland) facing the discrimination baked into the system and missing her children, and a chemist (Virginia Spivey) who earned less than the men she supervised.  They joined the project for adventure, for a good wage, and to end the war (a personal reason for Dot, whose older brother had died at Pearl Harbor).  Their stories alternate with more objective chapters describing the science and politics behind the Manhattan Project - shorter chapters which serve as the bones upon which Kiernan lays the flesh of daily life.  These women worked hard, and under the strain of secrecy.  They also had fun, as you'd expect when thousands of twenty-somethings gather in a boom town.  I envy Kiernan's opportunity to meet these still-vibrant women, and hear them tell stories of dances and parties, sports teams and movie nights, dates and the excitement of a round-the-clock world.  While the interwoven chapter discuss the horrors which the Oak Ridge factories unleashed, the women's memories focus on the thrill of being young, surrounded by young people, and doing important work.

The oral history chapters don't completely gloss over the dark side, though.  Rosemary treated a soldier who had a nervous breakdown under the strain of keeping the secret few others knew, and Helen was recruited to spy on her co-workers.  The clinic poisoned a man injured in a car accident to determine the long-term risk of plutonium and then obscure the records.  And Oak Ridge was segregated, with African Americans living in deplorable conditions.  They lived in shacks, with married couples separated by strict curfews, with sub-standard food.  They could only be janitors, and paid more for their rarer entertainments (and, obviously, were paid less than their white counterparts).  It's galling, even more so when you read the excuses given for allowing people working on such an important project to live in deplorable conditions.  Kiernan does an admirable job of giving the more problematic sides of 1940s Oak Ridge exposure while keeping the tone of the book positive.  It's a difficult task, and she performs it well.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Tricky Twenty-Two

Janet Evanovich is in a rut, and has been since about 2010.  I'm not putting her on probation, though.  She still makes me laugh, and my parents buy her books and pass them on to me, asking me if I've "read the part where…" yet.  Tricky Twenty-Two had enough laughs, although not particularly large ones.  Steph's FTA is a fraternity brother accused of beating up a college administrator who'd been trying to close down Zeta House, but her investigation turns up a deranged biology professor, a second missing student, and a corpse.  In the meantime, Joe has broken up with her and she's helping Ranger bodyguard a widow at her husband's viewing (yes, Grandma Mazur has a front row seat).  Throw in Steph's mom ironing with a large glass of "iced tea," a visit to Cluck in the Bucket, an attempt at baking, Lula's glasses, and a car death involving geese, and you've got Tricky Twenty-Two.  Amusing, but disposable even by the standards of Stephanie Plum.

Women All on Fire: The Women of the English Civil War

Alison Plowden's books are a bit like a survey course.  I mean that as a complement - they touch on all the major points, attract your attention, and leave you wanting to delve deeper into the subject.  Women All on Fire covers much of the same ground as Antonia Frasier's The Weaker Vessel, but with a much lighter touch.  Plowden essentially provides biological sketches of a few dozen women who supported their husbands (or themselves fought in defense of their great houses) on both sides of the English Civil War.  She leads off with the most prominent woman, Queen Henrietta Marie, a woman who also had the most thrilling flight (how many queens find themselves ducking cannon fire?).  The later tales are less thrilling, but the reader still comes away with admiration for these women, whether they served as faithful companions, stalwart defenders, or master tacticians.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Deception at Lyme (Or, The Peril of Persuasion)

I'm glad I stuck with Carrie Bebris's Mr. and Mrs. Darcy mysteries.  The first two installments delved too deeply into the supernatural - a genre that usually either annoys me or makes me giggle.  By her fourth book (a Mansfield Park sequel), she'd hit on the formula of fleshing out a few supporting characters from Austen's novel.  Here, the main beneficiary is Mrs. Smith who transforms from a simple gossip to the main source of background information on both the current mystery and the murder in retrospect.

The Deception at Lyme begins, as it should, on the Cobb near where Louisa Musgrove fell.  Darcy's cousin, Lt. Gerald Fitzwilliam, died in battle three years previously and one of his fellow officers, a Lt. St. Clair, is finally in England with the late Lieutenant's small personal trunk so the family (and Georgiana) have travelled to Lyme.  After a walk on the Cobb, they find the unconscious body of a pregnant woman - Mrs. Clay - who goes into labor shortly after they transport her to the Harvilles' nearby house.  She dies while giving birth to a son who becomes the pawn in a bizarre custody battle between her two lovers, Mr. Elliot and Sir Walter Elliot.  The baby's legal if not actual parentage is soon resolved, but how, and why, Mrs. Clay fell (or was pushed) from the seawall remains a mystery.

Also unknown is how, exactly the late Lt. Fitzwilliam died.  Was he killed by a French privateer, or was he murdered by someone smuggling artifacts in kegs of sugar from the West Indies?  Could he have been killed by the late Mr. Smith or Mr. Clay, or by the very much alive Mr. Elliot?  Captain Wentworh and Admiral Croft provide Darcy with valuable information while Elizabeth gets more than just gossip from Mrs. Smith.  The combined information not only resolves both mysteries but also serves to vet both of Georgiana Darcy's suitors.

Two strong mysteries unobtrusively linked and a strong dose of Austen fanfic make The Deception at Lyme the strongest of the Mr. and Mrs. Darcy mysteries.  I'm happy to see that instead of ending with Austen's major works, Bebris has continued the series with a Sanditon sequel.  With Lady Susan and The Watsons also available, it may be a few years before Bebris either ends the series or branches out into sequels of sequels.

Skinny Dip

It's not you, it's me - that sums up my feelings towards Skinny Dip.  I've loved most of Carl Hiaasen's novels with their insane characters, improbable crimes, and environmental messages, but this one didn't really work for me.  It's simpler than most of his novels, with only one main plot and a minor subplot.  Tired of telemarketers calling during dinner, recently fired and probably bipolar single mother Honey Santana decides to exact revenge on Boyd Shreve.  She convinces him that he's won a trip to an exotic Florida island where she hopes to…well, I don't know and neither, really, does Honey.  Boyd falls for the bait and flies to Florida with his current (soon to be ex) mistress, Eugenie and Honey leads the two into the Everglades.  Trailing them are Honey's abusive former boss (whose fingers have been cut off and reattached to the wrong stumps), a PI hired by Shreve's soon-to-be ex-wife, and Honey's sensible but concussed 12-year-old son and not-so-sensible ex-husband.  I laughed quite a bit (particularly at the encounters between novice guide Sammy Tigertail and the ghost of the tourist who met his untimely end on Sammy's first excursion), but overall, it didn't leave much of an impression.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

A Year in Provence

Maybe I'm a little more cynical than when I was in my early 20s.  I'm not sure I still believe that A Year in Provence is an accurate portrayal of Peter Mayle's first year in France.  It's too neat, with contractors showing up at the most entertaining times and uninvited guests always showing up at the least appropriate time.  Now I suspect that most of this happened, but Mayle's literary skills embellished and rearranged the actual events.

I don't care.  A Year in Provence is as enjoyable as it was when I first read it.  It's a bridge between his travel writing (I actually read Tojours Provence first) and his fiction, lightly tying together the oddities and fantastic meals that come with being an Englishman in southern France without having to worry too much about the plot.  Mayle's charm (and talent for describing mouthwatering meals) transport the reader to his (perhaps too quaint) village on the edge of the Luberon and made me, at least, reconsider a goal.  I've always wanted to eat my way around Italy, but after one of Mayle's books, I usually reconsider altering my gastronomic tour to France.

The Incense Game

Warning - Spoiler for The Ronin's Mistress

I recently found out that Laura Joh Rowland has ended the Sano Ichiro series.  I'm disappointed (even though I have two unread books on my shelf) because the last two have been so engrossing.  Like The Ronin's Mistress, The Incense Game centers on a historical event.  A major earthquake hit Tokyo in December 1703.  Thousands died (either immediately or in the fires that followed in the wood-constructed city) and costal villages were wiped off the map by the subsequent tsunami.   The Shogun assigns Sano, once again serving as chamberlain, to the reconstruction projects which are not progressing quickly enough for His Excellency.  Ordered by the impatient Emperor to inspect and report on the progress of the rebuilding, Sano comes across a collapsed house containing the bodies of three women who appear to have been poisoned by contaminated incense.

Two of the women are the daughters of a powerful daimyo, and their father blackmails Sano into investigating the crime.  Discover who killed his daughters and Lord Hosokawa will provide money to rebuild Edo; fail, and he'll join the disgruntled lords ready to topple the Shogun.  Trapped into potential dishonor by the Samuri code of honor, Sano must first determine the identity of the target and then find the culprit.  Sano's suspect list is short, with two commoners (the incense teacher's former master and her current apprentice) and two nobles (Ryuko - the Shogun's chief priest and his mother's lover, and Ogyu, a prominent scholar).  Although improbable (but surprisingly relevant to 2016), Rowland fully supports her solution and does so without making it too obvious to the reader.

Rowland also weaves two subplots into The Incense Game.  The first continues Sano's retainer Hirata's mystical journey.  In exchange for their help in the investigation, Hirata agrees to join his late master's other students in one of their ceremonies and learns too late that his fellow students are not as they appear.  I'm not fond of this thread, but Rowland inserts it more successfully than she has in some of her prior novels.  I was more interested in her second subplot; former Chamberlain Yanigasawa's attempted return to power.  After the death of his son Yuritomo, Yanigasawa became a recluse.  Three years later, the Shogun's cousin has positioned himself as the likely heir.  With four more sons, Yanigasawa believes he still has a path to power, and both his interactions with his second son and the plot he developed to place the boy near the Shogun are extremely entertaining.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Mad Hatter's Holiday

Peter Lovesy's fourth Sergent Cribb novel plays with the format a bit.  After three straightforward, slightly comic, Victorian police procedurals, Lovesy waits until the midpoint of Mad Hatter's Holiday to introduce Cribb and the faithful but not particularly bright Constable Thackery.  Instead, the novel starts from Albert Morcrop's point of view.  Morcrop is a telescope salesman who uses his beach holiday to turn his telescope on the passing crowd.  He becomes obsessed with Zena Prothero, a young woman married to a much older doctor.  A doctor with a son from a prior marriage and a habit of walking out with other women after sending his wife to bed with a sleeping potion.  When parts of a woman's body and Mrs. Prothero's coat are found buried on the beach, the local police suspect the worst and call Scotland Yard for help.  Cribb, of course, solves the murder with an appropriate number of twists and turns.  He solved it, but I didn't - a rarity, as is the short (220 pages) length.  Mad Hatter's Holiday is the best installment so far in Lovesy's entertainingly brisk historical mysteries.

A Spectacle of Corruption

I should have liked A Spectacle of Corruption much more than I did.  It's well written, protagonist Benjamin Weaver has an interesting backstory, and there's plenty of intrigue and action.  However, like A Conspiracy of Paper and The Coffee Trader, it left me cold.  Six months after the events of A Conspiracy of Paper, Benjamin finds himself convicted of murder.  He manages to escape and, acting mostly under an assumed identity, gets involved in the upcoming election while clearing his name.  The problem was, I just didn't care.  I had no doubt that Benjamin would clear his name, but also little interest in how he did it.  The political machinations of the Whigs and Tories appeal to me more in non-fiction than as the electoral backdrop to Weaver's story.  A Spectacle of Corruption is a good book, just not quite for me.

Galileo's Daughter

Galileo's Daughter started slowly for me.  The first hundred or so pages simply outline Galileo's work and family, and introduce us to his daughter Virginia.  Ineligible for marriage due to their illegitimacy, Virginia and her sister Livia, entered a convent of the Poor Clares as young teens, taking the names Maria Celeste and Arcangela respectively.  Marie Celeste was a bright woman who, in another century,  probably would have become a scientist in her own right.  Instead, she became her father's assistant, transcribing his books and helping manage his household from behind convent walls.  Sobel uses Marie Celeste's letters to her father (many of them reproduced here) to bring a woman with a theoretically limited life alive.  She was useful not just to her father but to her entire family and to the convent where she served at apothecary and was about to become the head administrator when she died at age 33.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Five Red Herrings

Thirty years lends perspective to characters.  I've read Five Read Herrings at twice and seen the cardboard-set BBC adaptation at least five times, but never thought of why Sandy Campbell was so unpleasant.  I never thought he deserved to be killed, but this time I found him to be more tragic than terrible.  The sort of person who's disliked because he's unlikable, but then overreacts and makes himself unbearable.  We've all known people like him, co-workers or classmates, and maybe, once we no longer have to deal with them, squirm a bit at memories of how we treated them.

Since Campbell was so despised, no one is particularly surprised when his accidental death turns out to be murder.  Six of his fellow artists - the killer and the five red herrings - are suspects, and Lord Peter and Bunter set out to solve the crime.  Here's where I had another revelation; Five Red Herrings is a bit like a Monty Python sketch with a twist.  The solution turns on railroad timetables an coincidence, along with a missing piece of evidence.  Diverting and clever, and much lighter than Lord Peter's last three outings.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

After I'm Gone

How do you write a crime novel where the crime both sets up the work and doesn't matter to the plot? Laura Lippman managed this task with After I'm Gone.  Felix Brewer disappeared rather than go to jail in 1976.  He left behind his wife and three daughters, and the mistress who drove him to Philadelphia.  A decade later, his former mistress disappeared as well, and someone finds her body in a park in September, 2001.

It's the coldest of cold cases when Sandy Sanchez picks up the file, and his current-day investigations alternate with chronological flashback chapters.  We see Felix, a small time criminal, sweep Bambi off her feet at a dance, and the early years of their marriage marked mainly by Bambi's mother's disapproval.  After Felix leaves, Bambi leans on Felix's lawyer and her two teenage daughters, muddling through and making excuses for her spoiled youngest.  Each woman narrates a few chapters, with distinct voices and perspectives on their family situation.  Overwhelmed Bambi, brisk Linda, analytical Rachel, and spoiled Michelle each show us a few days here and there over the course of fifty years, leaving subtle clues to the murder's surprising identity.

The Night Manager

A single act turned Jonathan Pine from a Cairo hotel manager into a spy.  One night a guest asked Pine to copy some documents.  The guest, though, was a local criminal's mistress and ex-wife of Richard Onslow Roper, the Worst Man in the World, and the documents involved gunrunning.  Pine made his own copies and gave them to a friend at the British consulate.  With this act (and why did he do it? Le Carre doesn't give Pine's motivation), he causes Sophie's murder.

Two years later, Pine meets Roper.  The Worst Man in the World and his entourage check into the Zurich hotel where Pine now works and after a disquieting encounter, Pine offers himself to the secret service.  He's accepted and given a series of new, shady identities before being set up to save Roper's 7-year-old son from kidnappers.  Roper is grateful, but doesn't quite trust him; Roper's second-in-command Major Corkoran, believe Pine is a plant.  Le Carre alternates between scenes of Pine's assimilation into Roper's criminal enterprise and scenes of his handlers sweating it out (sometimes literally) in tiny, drab rooms.  The plot is perhaps a bit too complicated, but Le Carre's language, as usual, is evocative enough to gloss over a little confusion.  Because of this (and an unconvincing romantic subplot), I rank The Night Manager a step or two below the other Le Carre books I've read.  Very good, but with a few flaws that prevent it from reaching excellence.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Islam, Science, and the Challenge of History

Sometimes an author makes an interesting subject too dry to enjoy.  That's how I feel about Islam, Science, and the Challenge of History.  The subject fascinates me - many of the medieval scientific advances happened in the Islamic world - but the Ahmad Dallal's style never engrossed me.  The book, based on a seminar Dallal gave, is a bit too meta for my taste (not so much about Islamic scientific advances but about the culture's reaction to those advances) and I would have preferred more discussion of medical discoveries.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of America

The Age of Edison is a good companion piece to Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light.  Both trace how light changed our societies, mostly but not exclusively for the better.  Where Brilliant took a global view, The Age of Edison specialized, looking at the effect of electric light on America over the course of about 100 years.  It's a straightforward record of how electric light moved from an urban luxury to a necessity available to the most remote American communities.  Along the way, there were local disasters, corrupt companies, and moments of awe when the lights first came on.  The Age of Edison is engrossing and well-written, but there's not a lot to analyze.  Worth reading, but the facts rather than the depiction are worth discussing.

The Bridesmaid

I've had The Bridesmaid on my shelf for decades, since it's early-90s printing.  The book is a bit of a time capsule, a slim trade paperback with the Mysterious Press logo and a form on the back page to subscribe to The Armchair Detective.  The late-80s London depicted in the novel is also a bit of a throwback; a reminder that the exotic locale of my teenage Anglophilic dreams was a bit down at the heels after years of social and economic upheaval.

Phillip Wardman lives in this downtrodden London with his sisters and widowed mother.  He's mildly obsessed with a statue in his mother's garden and has an unnatural aversion to violence and death, obsessions which collide in the first chapter as he carries the statue to his mother's paramour's house after hearing about the abduction of his sister's former classmate.  The date (which includes all three children) does not go well and Phillip assumes he's seen the last of the statue.

A few weeks later, at his sister Fiona's wedding, Phillip meets the statute come to life.  Bridesmaid Senta Pelham is an aspiring actress who bears a freakish resemblance to Phillip's lost statue and the two begin an affair when Senta returns to the Wardman house to change back into her ordinary clothes.  As they grow closer, Philip gradually realizes that Senta has trouble distinguishing truth from fiction, but that there's just enough truth in her stories that he can't dismiss them outright.  Combined with her obsessive love, this leads Phillip to claim to have committed murder.  Senta then claims to have killed for Phillip - but has she, and whom has she killed?

Rendell used her Barbara Vine pseudonym to distinguish her psychological mysteries from the more straightforward ones.  While reading The Bridesmaid, I wondered why this one was published under her real name.  It features a narrator with imperfect insight into and knowledge of an unstable potential murderer, but there's something missing.  Perhaps it's the fact that the solution (which I guessed too early for my taste) is clear-cut.  I still don't know the identity of Jamie's mother, but I easily connected the deaths in The Bridesmaid.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Richard III: The Search for the King's Grave

"Oh, enough about Richard - let's talk about me!"  That's how Philippa Langley's chapters came across.   A writer who organized the search for Richard III's remains (found under a Leicester car park in 2012 and confirmed as Richard's in 2013), she makes Richard almost an afterthought to her search, and her navel-gazing.  I am interested in the archaeology involved in finding the grave, but Langley glosses over that and keeps coming back to the "feeling" she had when she stood over the R painted on the tarmac and under which Richard was eventually found.  (My cynical side kept thinking about how plastic memory is and how easily one can implant false memories in one's own mind.)  Langley's writing style didn't help; I can't remember the last time an author irritated me so much.

Historian Michael Jones's chapters were much more enlightening and enjoyable.  His straightforward exploration of Richard's actions and motivations segued neatly into how Tudor libel turned Richard III  into a historical monster.  His style is a bit dry, though.  I wanted to enjoy Richard III: The Search for the King's Grave but unfortunately the authors made it difficult to do so.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Man Who Loved China

I should have enjoyed The Man Who Loved China more than I did.  I've read a few books by Simon Winchester and found them engrossing, and Joseph Needham is a fascinating character.  A true polymath, he read biochemistry at Cambridge, became a fellow of the college, and married a fellow scientist.  (Joseph and Dorothy Needham - also a biochemist who studied the chemical composition of muscles - are the only married couple to both be named fellows of the Royal Academy.)

Then Needham met a young Chinese scientist named Lu Gwei-djen.  They started a life-long affair (with the knowledge and consent of Dorothy Needham - they had the sort of bohemian post-Edwardian arrangement that makes me think of the Bloomsbury Set), and Needham's love for Gwei-djen led to a love of China.  Initially attached to a diplomatic mission, he set out to confirm his theory that China and the West had parallel tracks, both inventing technologies that at the time were considered purely Western.  He was right, and his discoveries changed the world's view of China.

I should have been fascinated by Winchester's narrative, but for some reason it didn't make much of an impression on me.  Perhaps it was how and when I read it, a few pages at a time before bed during the dreariest part of the winter.  It may be a book that requires more concentrated attention.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Sun in a Bottle

Imagine, unlimited power where the only by-product is helium, a non-toxic gas used both industrially and to blow up party balloons.  Sun in a Bottle traces the 20th Century quest for viable, and then commercially viable fusion power.  Building on the (ultimately wrong) Too Cheap to Meter dreams of early fission power and the sensible desire not to create waste products that could bring about the end of the world, scientists on both sides of the Cold War raced to create fusion reactors which produced more energy than they used.  Charles Seife has written a fascinating, if somewhat dry,  narrative of what is still an unsuccessful enterprise.

Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas

1814 is drawing to a close and Jane, Cassandra, and their mother travel to their former home to spend the holidays with the Mr. Collins-like James Austen and his Mary Musgrove-like second wife, Mary.  They're in for a drearily holiday until a neighbor invites the family for a series of parties and balls to celebrate the full Christmas season (the holiday not being confined to a mere day until the rather dreary Prince Albert imported that tradition).  Jane, as usual, stumbles upon a murder and with the help of Benjamin West's son Raphael (an artist in his own right but here making sketches for a later work of his father's), untangles a web involving both clandestine love affairs and foreign affairs.  As usual, the charm of the story lies in "meeting" the inspirations for Jane's characters and seeing her for the witty, rather sharp-tongued woman she must have been (rather than the prim spinster her nieces and nephews made her out to be after her death).

Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Night Searchers

Marcia Muller hasn't slumped in her nearly 40-year Sharon McCone series, but not all of her novels are quite up to the same level.  I enjoyed The Night Searchers, but it doesn't quite live up to the most recent installments.  Maybe that's because I've somehow missed its immediate predecessor, but it also covers a transition period for Sharon and that lurked in the background throughout the book.

Sharon's current clients are a young couple, Camilla and Jay Givens.  He's a successful accountant; she's a vague woman who drifts through hobbies and jobs, and thinks that she saw a satanic ritual.  Her husband thinks she's crazy, but it that to his advantage?  Jay also belongs to a group called the Night Searchers who go on late-night treasure hunts.  Sharon and her nephew/employe Mick join them, stumble on a second death, and this case eventually ties in with Sharon husband Hy's current case.  Overall, I found it entertaining but not particularly satisfying.  The mystery was decent (if tied up a bit too abruptly), and I always enjoy spending time with Sharon and her friends.  Worth reading, but mainly as part of the series.

Behind the Shattered Glass

The rich are eccentric where everyone else is merely strange.  Lady Emily's mother, however, has no tolerance for either.  This fact sets up some of the most entertaining scenes in Behind the Shattered Glass, Tasha Alexander's eighth mystery.  Lady Catherine Bromley, wife of an Earl and confidant of Queen Victoria, is *not* amused when her daughter's neighbor staggers across the threshold and dies.  It's just not what one expects when visiting your daughter, her husband Colin, and their infant twins at his family's country seat.  Colin has no choice but to investigate, and (to her mother's chagrin) enlist's Emily's help.

The Hargraveses barely knew the newly elevated Marquess of Montague when he had the gall to die upon their doorstep, but they were mildly acquainted with his cousin Matilda, heir to the title - or so she thinks.  It turns out that there's a missing heir, a young man who's the product of a shunned family line and who has spent his adult life as an explorer and adventurer.  Matilda asks Emily to prove that this *Rodney* person is not the product of a legitimate line, and anyone familiar with the screwball comedies of the 1930s should know that by the end of the book, it won't matter.  More seriously, Emily and Colin also investigate the late Marquess's background, finding him more and more unsavory with every discovery.  Technically a gentleman but no gentleman, he'd misused an Oxford friend and dallied with the vicar's daughter while forming an engagement to an American millionaire's daughter - and that's just what Colin and Emily discover in the first day or so of their investigation.

As she's done with most of her mysteries, Alexander includes a parallel narrative which eventually ties into the main plot.  Lily, an artistically and musically inclined housemaid, tells this part of the story, including backstairs squabbles and potentially important information about the night of the murder.  Lily also catches the attention of Colin's friend Simon, a Duke whose eccentricity includes treating servants like people.

Simon isn't the only person who's chafing at the restrictions of Victorian society.  Emily, as mentioned in A Crimson Warning has joined her mother-in-law in the suffrage movement.  It's a cause Colin can't bring himself to support but he, unlike his wife the Earl's daughter, believes that class distinctions should start falling.  120 years later, they both seem to have giant blind spots but for the time, they're quite progressive.  I liked how Alexander showed that the two can disagree while still gently pushing each other towards their own causes.  I wonder if she's going to take a more political turn in later episodes.  That could be very interesting.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

This Is Improbable Too!

Science can look silly - or even be silly.  Politicians love highlighting shrimp on treadmills and other apparently pointless scientific studies.  What they don't realize is that experiments that appear pointless on their face can be (and often are) applied to wider, more practical problems.  Marc Abrahams, editor of The Annals of Improbable Research and the creator of the IgNobel prizes looks at the issue from the other angle.  He looks for the odd or humorous side of legitimate scientific research (and he appreciates those who investigate questions no one asked).  Like its predecessor, This Is Improbable Too! makes a wonderful commute book.  Entertaining enough to grab your attention but structured so that it can easily be read in short blocks, it's like the IgNobel prizes.  It makes you laugh, then makes you think.


Even detectives can get conned.  Teddy Xanakis pulls a pretty good one on Kinsey Millhone early in X, and on top of it Teddy paid her with counterfeit $100 bills.  Following the events of W Is for Wasted, Kinsey is in a position to investigate a personal case without much hope of being paid, so she works the case to a generally satisfying end.

Teddy's con isn't the main plot, though.  X is mostly a direct sequel to W Is for Wasted, with Kinsey diving into a cold case left behind by Pete Wolinsky.  Pete's ethics were questionable at best, but Kinsey became friendly with his widow Ruth while solving Pete's last case (a case in which he claimed to be working with Kinsey), and ultimately his murder.  The IRS (or someone claiming to be from the IRS) claims that there's a problem with Pete's estate, so Ruth asks Kinsey to search the box of Pete's documents (marked with a large X) which Kinsey has under her desk.

Pete's files turn out to be from the case that ended the partnership between Benjamin Byrd and Morley Shine, the investigators under whom Kinsey apprenticed and with whom Pete occasionally worked.  Ned Lowe's wife apparently committed suicide and Pete's investigation cast doubt on the verdict.  Since she has no other active cases (and a financial cushion thanks to her inheritance), Kinsey picks up the cold case, solves it, and partially rehabilitates her colleague's reputation.

There are only two more books to come in the Kinsey Millhone series, and I'm going to miss them.  The last few have been among the best, and X didn't disappoint me.  Beside two strong mysteries, Grafton included a comic subplot involving Henry Pitts's interest in water-saving technology and his and Kinsey's strange new neighbors.  She's also bringing back characters from Kinsey's past.  Two of Kinsey's ex-lovers, Cheney Phillips and Robert Deitz, appeared in W is for Wasted, and Phillips plays a major part in X as well.  There's also a cameo by Kinsey's other ex, Jonah Robb, and a visit to her old friend Vera (now the mother of three kids under five and 8 months pregnant with twins).  With Kinsey's recent discovery of Millhone relatives and trust with her maternal-side family, it looks like Grafton is setting up a happy ending for her heroine.  I just hope it includes Henry Pitts.

The Black Book

The Black Book succeeds as a novel but fails as a mystery.  I didn't find any of the interlocking mysteries (the attack on his DS Brian Holmes, the murder of the chef at Holmes's favorite Elvis-themed restaurant, and the cold case surrounding a hotel fire) Rebus solved particularly satisfactory.  I found Rebus's personal life (he's crashing on the sofa of his own apartment because his girlfriend has kicked him out and he's sublet the apartment to students; then his estranged brother appears looking for a place to stay) to be more coherently plotted.  Despite its weaknesses, I enjoyed The Black Book, but I recommend it more as an installment in a series.  If you're reading books individually, you can probably skip this one.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Henry VIII: Reformer and Tyrant

Derek Wilson holds Henry VIII in contempt.  I've read biographies where the author doesn't seem to like the subject, but I'd never before read one where the disdain drips off the page.  Maybe Wilson felt he needed to be so obvious in his dislike because Henry is so popular, but I found his jaded view a bit distasteful.

Henry's reputation does exceed his accomplishments.  Giles Tremlett makes the convincing argument that Catherine of Aragon was a more competent diplomat and leader, and Henry left the country in debt.  Wilson argues, though, that even Henry's reputation as a musician and thinker (he was, after all, originally the "spare" raised to be a courtier and high-ranking clergyman) is the result of sycophantic PR and that he was an unpredictable tyrant from his youth instead of becoming a despot through ill health (and possibly a brain injury).  Is Wilson right?  It's possible, but I'm not sure I agree with his reasoning.  Wilson seems to believe that Henry was a terrible leader (and musician, and thinker) for one reason.  Even when he was young and sexy, he wasn't particularly good in bed.  Wilson uses his wives low fertility and the presence of a single acknowledged illegitimate child as evidence, along with Henry's habit of falling in love with his mistresses instead of just sleeping with several women at court.  While Henry's last two wives did  not conceive while married to him, he was by that point morbidly obese and most likely suffering form heart disease and diabetes.  It's possible he was unable to even consummate those marriages.  Catherine of Aragon, however, conceived several times, and Anne Boleyn conceived at least twice in three years.  As for his habit of falling in love rather than rutting like an animal, I don't think that's a sign of weakness.  IF true, it makes Henry more enlightened than most of his contemporaries.  Henry VIII: Reformer and Tyrant is an interesting take on a fascinating character, but a bit too Freudian for my taste.

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Corsican Caper

I wonder where in Provence Sam Levitt and Elena Morales will buy their house.  Wherever they choose, they will undoubtedly foil a plot aimed at their friend Francis Reboul.  And Peter Mayle will call it The ____ Caper and surround the plot with long lunches and dinners full of sparkling conversation.  Mayle follows his usual template in The Corsican Caper.  A year after The Marseille Caper, Elena and Sam visit Reboul in Corsica.  It's a normal visit - their friends Mimi and Phillipe are now engaged, Sam and Elena walk through a few properties with a real estate agent, and an oligarch wants to buy Reboul's house.  It's not for sale, but Oleg Vronsky considers himself a very persuasive guy.  Just ask his business associates (those who are still alive, that is).  Good (or at least not evil - Reboul is a bit of a rogue) triumphs in the end, of course, with the help of a local gangster, twin goons, and Reboul's mother, but that's not really the point.  Mayle is better known as a travel writer and I read his novels for the food and the scenery.  The plot works, but it's mainly there to give the author an excuse for witty comments.  Mayle's novels aren't deep but they're well written and a lot of fun - and they serve as a fantastic antidote to winter in the Northeastern US.

Monday, January 18, 2016


I reread Elephants Can Remember shortly after an academic analysis showed that Agatha Christie may have been in the early stages of Alzheimer's Disease when she wrote that memory-dependant novel.  When I reread Nemesis a few weeks ago, I looked for signs that this novel, written a year earlier, showed signs of Dame Agatha's decline.  I'm not an expert, but I don't think it does; Nemesis is much more coherent than its successor.  I don't however,  have a program to analyze the complexity of the language so I may have passed more subtle signs.

Nemesis begins in the comfortable confines of St. Mary Mead where Jane Marple is perusing the obituaries while drinking her morning tea.  As usual, she sees a familiar name, but it's not an old school friend.  The name she sees is Rafiel - the same Mr. Rafiel she'd met on a Caribbean vacation a few years earlier.  A few days later, Mr. Rafiel's attorneys tell Miss Marple that she's been given a bequest by the estate.  It's not money, exactly, but a tour of famous gardens.  Oh, and while she's on tour, can she also solve the murder for which Mr. Rafiel's son was unjustly convicted?  Of course Miss Marple's basic understanding of human nature (along with a few convent coincidences) frees young Mr. Rafiel from Dartmoor and brings the real murder to justice.  There's a reason why Christie's books are considered "cozy" - they're the literary equivalent of a good cup of tea.  Warm, comforting, and often a bit more complex than they're given credit for being.

The Ronin's Mistress

It's been a few years since I read The Cloud Pavillion, so it seems appropriate that Laura Joh Rowland included a bit of a time skip between the two books.  Sano Ichiro has spent the two years since we last saw him demoted to his prior position as the Emperor's investigator and remaining on guard against Chamberlain Yanigasawa's attacks.  He feels his downfall is inevitable though, because Yanigasawa's son Yoritomo (the Emperor's current favorite) has changed from unwilling to enthusiastic partner in his father's plots.  To protect the family, Reiko has begun to search for a wife for their 12-year-old son, Masahiro, but Sano's precarious political position has made most families wary of forming an alliance with the Ichiro family.

Then fate hands Sano a case that can save him - or send him into exile and leave his wife and children dishonored.  The Emperor orders him to investigate the case of the 47 Ronin, 47 men who cold-bloodedly murdered the man they claim caused their former master's dishonor and execution.  As Sano interviews the Ronin and other witnesses, Rekio interviews the wife and mistress of the Ronin's leader. Every witness has a separate story, and none of them are completely accurate.  The Ronin's Mistress is a satisfying mystery, with plenty of plot twists which lead to a well-crafted action scene.  My only complaint is that (again), Sano's deputy Hirata's mystical powers form a less than compelling subplot, and one that I suspect will drive the next book in the series.