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.