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.