Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Diamond Caper

Peter Mayle's Caper novels are technically mysteries, I guess.  There's a crime, a detective, usually a chase or some sort of counter-scam, and the bad guys get caught.  I don't think of them as mysteries, though.  I solve them much too easily, and think of them mainly as a framework for a series of fantastic meals and postcards from the south of France.

The Diamond Caper adds a slight twist to Mayle's usual blueprint.  This time the crime, diamonds stolen from a well-hidden personal safe, were insured by Knox Insurance.  That's Elena Morales's employer and the crime occurred just as she and Sam Levitt bought their house in Provence.  Between the lure of long lunches and the company's setback, she's decided it's time to become a lady of leisure - after she and Sam solve the burglary.  With the help of their friend, the slightly disreputable mogul Francis Reboul and a detour through several stately homes, they discover the subtle clue to the obvious (to me, anyway) culprit.  Like most of Mayle's books, it's quick. light, and enjoyable, best read either on a beach or in the depths of winter when you wish you were somewhere warmer and less depressing.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

All Shall Be Well

I wonder whether Deborah Crombie planned for her main characters to fall in love and eventually marry, or if it just happened.  Knowing that they do, I looked for signs in All Shall Be Well, and while Duncan Kincaid may be feeling the first hints of his attraction to Gemma James, the recently divorced and frazzled single mum doesn't quite have the energy to notice.

Crombie, as usual, shows their relationship against a murder case.  Jasmine Dent was terminally ill, but Duncan, her upstairs neighbor, doesn't think her death scene appears natural.  Her book and glasses aren't by the bed, and the scene just seems wrong.  So was she murdered or was it a mercy killing?  She'd asked Margaret Bellamy, a rather downtrodden young co-worker, to help her die but according to Margaret, Jasmine had changed her mind.  Margaret's sponging boyfriend might have thought that Jasmine would leave Margaret money he'd be able to use, and of course Jasmine's home care nurse would have the means and knowledge to commit a mercy killing.  Jasmine's brother, watching yet another business fail and knowing that his sister would no longer bail him out has a strong motive, and even the retired Major living downstairs from Jasmine and Duncan turns out to have reason to hold a grudge against her.  Once again, Crombie manages a surprise ending that's fully supported.  I've read three of her books and each ending has been a well-founded surprise.  It's going to take some self control to not binge-read her backlist.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour

Before the United States entered WWII, a few prominent Americans played a major role in Great Britain's fight against Nazi Germany.  Two are well known, but the most influential has sadly become a footnote.  Averell Harriman was a millionaire who used his connections to be appointed the head of the Lend-Lease program.  The program helped keep Britain supplied, particularly during the early years of the war, but it also allowed Harriman to live in luxury (most of the Americans in Britain before 1942 did) and carry on an affair with Winston Churchill's daughter-in-law Pamela.  His role was important, but in Lynn Olson's book he comes across as more of a dilettante.  Edward R. Murrow is a more familiar, and more vibrant character.  Olson shows him as dedicated to the cause and to his job, a workaholic who feels constrained by the studio where he worked so well.  The third man was Gil Winat, the American ambassador to Great Britain who renounced his isolationist predecessor's policies and worked to bring the US into a real partnership with the UK.  Alongside the the stories of these men's war years, Olson tells of the personalities and personality clashes among the Malta delegates.  FDR and Churchill met with Stalin because it was necessary at the time, but reading the needling and undermining FDR aimed at his British counterpart, I can't help but wonder if it caused their dependence on Stalin and partial led to the severity of the Cold War.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign Ever

I remember watching Donald Trump's 2015 interview with Katy Tur, and thinking, "Now I know what this reminds me of.  She's Lizzy Bennet dealing with an incoherent Lady Catherine DeBourgh!" The truth was even weirder, with Tur trying to make sense of his word salad on a 500-day cross-country odyssey which started by chance.  NBC assigned Tur that interview because she was available - based at the time in London, she was in New York because she had a few free days and Make-a-Wish arranged a tour through the NBC News studios with a reporter.  "It'll be a few weeks of following Trump, and then he'll drop out.  Or he'll win and you'll be the White House correspondent."  But there was no way he could win, right?

Well, he did, and no matter how confused or horrified Tur was during the campaign, she always thought there was a chance.  So did I, by the way.  A few days after Trump announced his candidacy with paid extras cheering him on, I jumped back into the temp pool.  I shared an office with three men, all of whom though he'd be a decent President although perhaps he wouldn't get along with Angela Merkel.  Granted one was the angriest, most bitter person I've ever met and another one daily spouted conspiracy theories so outlandish that even with 30+ years of urban legend research he amazed me.  Still, it gave me pause.  I, however, didn't have a close-up view of the vitriol and venom.  I saw clips of the rallies; Tur saw a pleasant woman who'd 30 minutes earlier helped her style her hair  shouting and cheering for people to beat up the press corps.  Cameras didn't show the shirts saying "Trump that Bitch" (and other, cruder variations) or "Hillary should have married OJ" (did they realize that meant they wish Hillary Clinton had been violently hacked to death in the 90s?).  They didn't show Trump, after weeks of ignoring her questions (therefore putting her job in jeopardy) forcing a kiss on Tur before an appearance on *Morning Joe*.  The media briefly reported that Tur needed the Secret Service had to escort Tur out of an event because the candidate had incited the crowd to attack her, but not how most of the press corps had security to protect them from the crowds.  We saw the misogyny but not the Trump staffer who, after telling Tur about his wife and kids asked, "So where can I meet 30-year-old women?"

Horrifying as the campaign could be, Tur managed to find humor and camaraderie in the insanity.  Throughout the book, she keeps a sense of humor, a feeling of "Is this real?" and at least once the desire to mutate into a flying creature (it makes sense in context).  Behind the media glare, there's junk food, hookups and breakups, disorientation, friendships, and nights spent looking for something funny and non-political to watch while trying to fall asleep.  On November 7, Tur spent the evening watching with dread as the concession party turned into a victory celebration.  She turned down the White House assignment in favor of general political reporting and fill-in anchor spots, and her career is definitely on the way up. I wish her well, and hope she also finds time to write more books.

Monday, November 13, 2017

McCone and Friends

I'd already read a few of the stories in The McCone Files, Marcia Muller's first short story collections.   All of the stories in McCone and Friends were new to me, but since they were written in the 1990s, I was still visiting past lives.  Sharon's nephew/operative Mick Savage was still living with co-worker Charlotte Kiem and Rae Kelleher was dating Willie, a fence-turned-legitimate retailer (she married Ricky Savage over a dozen books ago).  Some of the stories take place at All Soul's Legal Cooperative, which dissolved before I took the bar in 1998.  Sharon's still the same - adventurous, and an engaging mix of logic and instinct, as is her friend and office manager Ted Smalley.  While some of the stories are a bit dated, they're all engaging.  Whether the issue is drug smuggling, missing persons, or an antique jukebox, Muller uses the short form to create brief but satisfying puzzles and gives us the chance to visit with old friends.

Patents: Ingenious Inventions, How They Work and How They Came to Be

Just what it says on the tin, Patents: Ingenious Inventions is a collection of patent summaries.  Ben Ikenson gives us a brief description of the invention, a few clams from the patent, and a few paragraphs about the invention's significance.  It's not quite an ideal commute book (the narrow hardback is heavier than it looks and the language is too simplistic to be fully engaging), but there are plenty of obscure facts to be amusing.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Evolution of Useful Things

Form follows function - except when function follows form.  This follow-up to To Engineer is Human (which has been on my shelf, unread, for at least 15 years) traces the origins of items such as table flatware and paperclips from their origins as natural items (shells and thorns respectively) to their modern forms.  The chapter on metal cans is particularly interesting because it shows how some solutions bring up additional problems - first, how do you open it, and later how do you deal with the waste of pull tabs?

America Walks Into a Bar

If you look hard enough, there's a book about anything.  I've read the histories of the zipper and the cookstove, salt and aniline dyes, and of course I have all of Mary Roach's books.  I love used and remaindered bookstores because I can browse the odder reaches of non-fiction at less risk to my budget.  America Walks Into a Bar is a perfect example of the sort of book I love and which makes most people say, "There's a book about that?"  Christine Sismondo traces the history of the American bar from Colonial days to their current, often characterless incarnation.  We're all taught that beer was the standard beverage in the 17th and 18th Centuries because the water wasn't safe to drink, but Sismondo tells us how those necessary businesses (sometimes with cause, sometimes because they were run by women or African Americans) were also seen as a source of crime and moral turpitude.  They remained suspect throughout history, with that hint of danger leading both to crackdowns (as happened in Teddy Roosevelt's NYC), the propagation of stereotypes (the drunken Irishman, in both his belligerent and comic incarnations), and safe rebellion by slumming socialites.  Bars also led to real revolution.  The Sons of Liberty plotted the opening shots of the American Revolution while drinking in public houses, and the fear of revolution as well as snobbery led to crackdowns on working men's bars.  Feminists in the 60s and 70s fought to get into exclusive bars because that's where lawyers and businessmen met and made deals; opening those clubs was as important to allowing women into Ivy League colleges.  Without the inn, the saloon, the speakeasy, and your local, we wouldn't be who we are without a place to drink.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Lost Abbot

If I'd read The Lost Abbot before Death of a Scholar, I might not have felt like I was missing something while reading the latter.  Or perhaps not, because I was alternating chapters of Susanna Gregory's novel with articles on recent developments in treating drug resistant bacterial infections.  While reading The Lost Abbot, my mind was clear of almost everything but whether Expressway traffic would allow me to finish the chapter before the bus reached the train station.

The Abbot of Peterborough has disappeared and the order has sent Brother Michael (scholar, courtier, and Matthew Bartholomew's closest friend) to investigate.  He's accompanied by several Michaelhouse colleagues.  Master Ralph de Langelee is a retired soldier who's still good in a fight (and his latest lover's husband has discovered the relationship), Brother William has once again alienated much of Cambridge, Matt has become too close to the surgeon's wife, and gentle Clippsby can't be separated from his protectors.  Once in Peterborough, they find an abbey full of intrigue and a town whipped to the edge of revolution by the 14th Century version of a millionaire socialist.  Gregory wrote a satisfying mystery with hints of workplace comedy.  We've known Matt, his book bearer Cynric, Michael, and William for 19 books and the other two travelers for more than a dozen.  We see how they know and play to each other's strengths and foibles, and how even prickly and unlikable William is a friend who the other can count on to "have their backs."  Once again, I want to binge-read the series from the beginning so I can see how the friendships have developed.

Wrath of the Furies

Warning - mild spoilers for Raiders of the Nile and The Seven Wonders

After Gordianus rescued Bethesda from the Cuckoo's Nest in Raiders of the Nile, the couple return to the relative safety of a fishing village near Alexandria.  While guests of retired court eunuchs Kettel and Berynus, Gordianus get word that his former tutor, Antipater of Sidon is still alive.  Antipater had two purposes in escorting Gordianus to the Seven Wonders - showing his pupil the world and helping overthrow the Roman Empire.  Despite this, and the danger any Roman will encounter traveling in the outer reaches of the Empire, Gordianus feels a duty to rescue his mentor.  Posing as a mute to disguise his obvious accent and bringing Bethesda as a translator, Gordianus finds Antipater in a lower tier of Mithridates court and possibly regretting his decision.  Thanks to his disguise and his encounter with an undercover diplomat, Gordianus ends up witnessing the Ephesian Vespers, but can he save his tutor?  Or any of the Romans scheduled for execution?  Steven Saylor's latest Roman sub Rosa mystery is thoroughly engrossing and taught me about an ancient massacre I'd never heard of.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Brush Back

I've got mixed feelings about Brush Back, Sara Paretsky's most recent VI Warshawski novel.  At its heart is a murder in retrospect (one of my favorite tropes), but Paretsky's awkward use of retcon kept pulling me out of the story.  She probably though that rooting her novel in the past would emphasize VI's new age instead of reminding me that a character once just a few years younger than my mother is now barely older than I am.

If you can ignore Vic's obvious age shift, Brush Back fits in well with the other late Warshski novels. Vic's high school boyfriend Frank (the one who comforted her after her mother's death) wants her to investigate his sister Annie's murder, a crime for which their mother Stella served 25 years in prison.  There's no reason for Vic to take on the case - it's technically been solved, Stella hated (and hates) the Warshawski family, and Vic was slightly jealous of the striving girl her late mother took under her wing.  Vic's also hosting her late cousin Boom-Boom's goddaughter, a Canadian hockey prodigy whose presence both leads to the book's climax and helps set Boom-Boom's hockey career in the early 90s (7 or 8 years after his character was killed in Deadlock).  I enjoyed watching Vic dive into the past, unraveling her usual blend of political, financial, and police corruption, but would have enjoyed t even more if the time shift had been more subtle.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Color of Law

It's been an angry week, and The Color of Law added to my rage.  I'd heard Richard Rothstein on NPR, and I'm somewhat familiar with 20th Century urban history so nothing was new or shocking.  But it still infuriated me.

The average white family has a net worth of about $132K; the average African American family a net worth of about $10K.  Most of this is because American wealth is built on home ownership.  That's why my parents encouraged me to buy a house (even letting me live at home for a few years while I paid down law school debt and save for a down payment).  And my parents were able to do that because *their* parents were able to buy houses - my paternal grandparents' house had a deed with a white-only cause.  Home ownership means a stable living situation, costs that don't rise as quickly as rent, equity against which to borrow for education, and a nest egg for a comfortable retirement or to pass down to heirs.  A combination of laws (struck down by the Supreme Court in 1948) and real estate and banking practices made this simple step into economic security unattainable for one eighth of the population.

Federal programs - VA and FHA loans and the GI Bill for college education - and good union wages created a booming middle class in the middle third of the 20th Century.  African Americans didn't get those benefits.  New suburbs had restrictive covenants (later on, mob violence abetted rather than stopped by the authorities enforced the whiteness of Levittown, PA (among other places), and the federal agencies wouldn't guarantee loans to non-white borrowers.  Add in manipulated school district lines, earlier discrimination in New Deal jobs programs, and unions minimizing or outright disallowing African American membership and you have a country more segregated in 1970 than it was in 1900.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Shogun's Daughter

Five months after the earthquake chronicled in The Incense Game, Yanigasawa has found a new way to usurp the Shogun's power.  He's convinced Tokugawa that he's the real father of Yanigasawa's illegitimate son Yoshisato and the Shogun has named the boy his heir.  Yanigasawa uses his new power to demote those unallied to him.  Chamberlain Sano becomes a magistrate in charge of rebuilding while his son Mashihiro ends up as an ordinary page.  With no official duty to investigate crimes, Sino can refuse when the Shogun's wife asks him to find out who killed her stepdaughter but Sano's sense of justice won't allow him to neglect Lady Nobukura's request

The Shogun's Daughter could not inherit on her own, but she could produce an heir. Her death from smallpox led to the succession crisis which allowed Yanigasawa to seize power.  Before Sano and his wife Lady Reiko can determine not only who murdered Tsuriheme - let alone whether she was murdered - he's arrested for the murder of Yoshisato.  There were far too many coincidences for a satisfying puzzle, but the suspense involved in the family's escape made up for that.  There's one one more book in Laura Joh Rowland's series, and I'll be sorry to reach the end.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Someone Always Knows

Marcia Muller invented the female PI sub-genre in 1977 with Edwin of the Iron Shoes.  Sharon McCone was a 28-year-old investigator for a legal co-op, solving crimes in a not-yet-gentrified San Francisco.  A few years later, Sara Paretsky's VI Warshawski and Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone appeared.  The three godmothers of the female PI are still writing, but their characters have taken different paths.  Grafton decided to write backwards, only progressing the timeline a few months between books.  Approaching Y in the alphabet series, she's now writing historical.  That makes Kinsey's slower development make sense - she's still a solo operator doing some of the searches people can now do themselves on Google.  VI has only aged from her mid-30s to about 50 in 35 years, and is also still a solo operator but one who focuses on higher-level financial and legal work.  Her cases only involve murder when she takes on a case for personal reasons.

Sharon McCone has all been retconned a bit.  By the mid-80s, there were fewer references to Berkley in the 60s, and in 1999 she celebrated her 40th birthday 10 years too late.  Muller seemed to age her at half-speed for several books, but I'd put Sharon near 60 in Someone Always Knows.  Her business has progressed as well.  In the mid-90s, All Souls legal co-op dissolved and Sharon open her own agency.  It's grown, and Sharon's high profile essentially bars her from fieldwork. She's the executive director, delegating to over a dozen employees and doing analysis in her office and overseeing the merger of her business with that of her husband, Hy Ripinski.

That's what she's doing when Hy's former partner, the shady and assumed dead Gage Henshaw, walks into M&R Investigations.  Theoretically there to claim a share of the business, he's actually involved with a derelict property owned by a boorish developer and which Sharon's former neighbor wants to rehab.  Arson, murder, and a trip to Mexico follow.  The mystery plot had a few too many coincidences for my taste.  The novel, however, was more than just the plot.  Several of the later Mccone books focus on Sharon's family and this time her brother John and the old family hold have brought back memories and led both siblings towards new beginnings.  Sharon mentions several times that she's not ready for retirement and I wonder if those are the words of a 70-year-old author at the end of a contract.t  If so, I hope her publisher listens.  I think McCone has at least a few more cases in her, and I'd like to read them.

The Marriage Game

Elizabeth I started a small, bankrupt kingdom on the way to global empire, but that accomplishment is secondary to The Marriage Game.  She was the greatest marital prize of the mid-16th Century and played suitors off each other until she had aged out of the Game.  Alison Weir's novel looks mainly at the personal side of Elizabeth's political maneuvering and on the Queen's personal reasons for not marrying.

I've never believed the theory that the Virgin Queen wasn't.  By the time she was 16, Elizabeth had seen her mother executed and two stepmothers die in childbirth.  She'd also been subject to rumors and scandal regarding her relationship with Thomas Seymour, Katherine Parr's husband.  Today, we'd see their relationship as molestation but 470 years ago, it was attempted treason for him, near-ruin for her.  With childbirth such a risky undertaking and a family history linking sex and scandal, I doubt the calculating Queen would be willing to risk death to consummate a relationship.

Marriage would also deprive Elizabeth of her power.  Her sister Mary had been England's firsts undisputed Queen Regnant and her unsuccessful reign had not been helped by her marriage to Phillip of Spain.  As ruler of the country but a subject of her husband, a Queen married to a foreign prince had divided loyalties.  A Queen who married one of her subjects would exacerbate factions within the court.

The Marriage Game adds another complication.  Elizabeth was in love with Robert Dudley.  Both safe (because he was then married to Amy Rosbart) and dangerous (as the brother and son of traitors), she'd known him from their childhood in the Tower of London.  Weir uses their flirtatious, physical relationship as the background to the perpetual negotiations.  Shifting perspective between Elizabeth and Dudley, she portrays a complex relationship hindered by Elizabeth's vanity and position, and later by complacency and Dudley's desire for an heir of his own.  A partially requited love story with political undercurrents, The Marriage Game provides a view of Elizabeth as a person more than as a monarch.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

I'd Know You Anywhere

I don't want my heroes to be too likable or my villains to be completely evil.  Laura Lippman gives her killer a few POV chapters, but the flawed, sometimes unlikeable victims in I'd Know You Anywhere tell most of the story.  Apparently perfect, slightly stand-offish suburban mom Eliza Benedict, both in (a recession-free) 2008 and "the summer she was 15."  Eliza, then Elizabeth Lerner, spent five weeks that summer as a captive to a man who raped her and murdered at least two other girls.  She thrives on normality, becoming slightly angry at herself when she realizes that six years in London has jumbled her idioms.  Her life is a series of events - soccer practice, errands, social functions related to her husband's job.

"I'd know you anywhere," accompanied by a picture taken at one of those functions.  It's from her captor Walter Bowman.  Virginia has set his execution date, and anti-death penalty advocate Barbara LaFortunay forwarded his letter to Eliza.  But why?  Barbara so desperately wants to save Walter's life that she not only puts Eliza and Walter in contact but also entices the author of a long-forgotten true crime book about Walter's crimes back to Baltimore with the promise of a sequel.  Trudy Tacket's  internal monologue focuses on Walter's death, the ultimate retribution for her daughter.  Neither Barbara nor Trudy are particularly sympathetic characters.  Barbara is a zealot whose cause I support but whose character I disliked.  Trudy suffered the greatest tragedy I can imagine, but she comes across as not only justly bitter but as a woman who was, well, a shallow snob obsessed with surface appearances.  Lippmann also surprised me by not making the writer sleazy.  He's a schlubby guy who lives in a row house in Philadelphia and works for the state.  True crime is a hobby, something that keeps him away from his wife's reality TV habit and which probably gives him something to think about on SEPTA.

But what does Eliza want?  How does speaking with, and eventually meeting, the man who kidnapped and raped her, fit into her life?  She's busy protecting her children, pre-teen Iso and 8-year-old Albie, both of whom are adjusting to school in the United States for the first time.  Somehow, LIppman turns I'd Know You Anywhere into a healing story - for Eliza.  Barbara loses Walter, and we suspect that Walter's death leaves Trudy feeling empty because she no longer has a focus for her grief.  23 years later, Eliza finally comes to terms with what happened "the summer she was 15."

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Jane and the Waterloo Map

In November, 1815, Jane Austen was nearly 40, nursing her favorite brother Henry through a serious illness, and negotiating for the publication rights of *Emma*.  Henry's impending bankruptcy made Jane's writing income more important than ever, but *Mansfield Park*'s serious tone (and dull - in both senses of the word  - romantic hero) have made publisher wary of Miss Austen's latest novel.  When the Prince Regent graciously allows her to dedicate her latest novel to him, Jane wants to refuse but can't.  It's more of a "command" than a request.

What could go wrong when a respectable spinster visits Carlton House?  She's only meeting with the King's librarian and politely dodging the offer of well-appointed writing space.  No reasonable clergyman's daughter would expect a man to suffer a fit and die in front of her, uttering "Waterloo map" with his dying breath.  Stephanie Barron's fictional Jane Austen may not have expected to watch an army office die in a well-appointed library, but after solving a dozen murders, she's learned to identify a suspicious death.  Colonel MacFarland had been poisoned by yew needles, and the mysterious map may lead to hidden treasures.  With the help of her niece Fanny, painter Raphael West (mysterious and darkly handsome like Jane's late love Lord Harold), and a servant summarily dismissed by MacFarland's sister, Jane chases down the killer despite a particularly surprising twist.  She also gets to play Miss Bates to Fanny's Jane Fairfax in one of the most entertaining passages in the novel.  We leave Jane enjoying the success of *Emma* and starting to plot *Persuasion*.  It's bittersweet, because we know that she will soon become ill and will barely live to edit her final full novel.  I can't see how Barron can fit in two more murders for Jane to solve, and not enough time for her to decide whether Mr. West is a worthy successor to her Gentleman Rogue.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Death of a Scholar

I just realized I skipped an installment in Susannah Gregory's Matthew Bartholomew series.  I have it, but a month ago grabbed the wrong book.  While you can read her books out of order, there are enough continuing characters that it helps to read consecutively.  Maybe that's why I was confused by some of the interactions between Matt and Julitta Holm, the wife of the local surgeon.  Or maybe it's because I was in the process of researching antibiotics for MDR infections - I'm pretty sure that's why I had trouble keeping characters, deaths, and motives straight.

Death of a Scholar starts with the death of a merchant, Matt's brother-in-law Oswald Stanmore.  His death is followed by the deaths of several members of the Guild of St. Mary which Oswald started to assuage his conscience over his shady business deals.  Matt and Brother Michael, his friend and the University's Senior Proctor, suspect that the deaths are related not only to each other but to the new college being rapidly built to train lawyers.  The new Wynwick Hall - and every other college and hostel in Cambridge - has attracted more scholars than they can accommodate, adding to the always tense town-gown relations.  Even in my distracted state, Matt's and Michael's detection held my attention.  I didn't solve the puzzle, but Gregory left enough clues to support the murder's identity and  transmitted them to the audience through the gentle, delusional, but surprisingly observant Clippesby.

Scientific Discovery from the Brilliant to the Bizarre

You can't go wrong with an Ig Nobel Laureate.  Chemist Len Fisher achieved immortality with his study of how to properly dunk a biscuit in a cuppa, and in Scientific Discovery from the Brilliant to the Bizarre, he takes on several well-considered - but ultimately wrong - scientific discoveries.  His first example, the soul-weighing Dr. Duncan MacDougall, appeared in Mary Roach's Spook.   Fisher uses MacDougall's experiments to demonstrate the scientific method, and how you can do everything right but still be wrong.  He follows that thread through Benjamin Franklin's lightning rod (helpful, but the best shape isn't the pointy rod Franklin created but one with a ball on the top), alchemy, and why pre-microscope ideas of reproduction made sense at the time.  It's the perfect commute book - amusing, intelligent, and easily read in snatched moments.

Wolf to the Slaughter

An artist, his missing sister, a recently released criminal,  and a cop's obsession with a shopgirl.  That's what Ruth Rendell used to frame her third Inspector Wexford novel, Wolf to the Slaughter.  Artist Rupert Margolis reported his sister Ann missing the same day that Wexford received a letter claiming that a woman named Ann had been murdered.  Rupert is neither helpful nor worried (he reported Ann's disappearance by asking the police to find someone to clean his house), and Wexford looks down on the Margolis siblings (Rupert is too disconnected to reality and Ann gets a bit of slut-shaming).  Still, he can't let a possible murder go uninvestigated, particularly since Monkey Matthews is out of jail.  While I found the psychology (Rendell's trademark) a bit out of date, I appreciated her surprising but well-supported plot twists.  The world she depicted is still a bit too foreign for me, but Wolf to the Slaughter was an extremely enjoyable novel.

A Share in Death

In an online discussion a few years ago, someone mentioned that she liked starting a series around book 3 or 4 because the author had by then worked out some of the problems with the characters and set-up.  I'm obsessive about reading series in order, and it's only because my mom was so enthusiastic about No Mark Upon Her that I was willing to enter Deborah Crombie's Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James series about a dozen books in.  I loved the book, so of course I went back to the beginning.

I met James and Kincaid as newlyweds with a long-term relationship and three shared kids (one hers, one his, one in the process of being adopted by both - No Mark Upon Her takes place as James ends her parental leave and Kincaid starts his).  It's odd to meet them as near-strangers, both divorced and Gemma's son the only child making even a cameo appearance.  She's not even around for most of the novel, which is an interesting way to introduce a dual protagonist mystery.  

It's also a nice twist to introduce police detectives into a "cozy" structure that Agatha Christie could have written.  After several weeks of particularly hard work, Duncan drives to Yorkshire to spend a week in a time share loaned to him by a relative.  We get the usual Christie treatment - large house, people from diverse walks of life thrown together, a hint of romance - and a mysterious death.  Here it's the assistant manager of the resort, a young man whose life centered upon bon mots and stored information.  Soon, there's another death, and the Christie-like assumption that one murder was committed to cover up another.  That's true, but exactly which murder was the core is a real surprise, and one I didn't discover until about two pages before Duncan (with the aid of his DS and not-yet-girlfriend Gemma, working independently to provide the crucial information).  I'm eager to see how quickly (or slowly) their relationship develops - and to read more of Crombie's well-plotted puzzles.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science

James Hannam starts God's Philosophers by criticizing a list of historians, including James Burke who's one of my favorites.  I'll forgive Hannam, though, because his book is so interesting and his premise so strong.  We've been taught that the Medieval period was the Dark Ages, a time when scientific discovery stopped dead and people fell back on superstition.  Obviously, that wasn't true, and Hannam shows how the discoveries of the Sixth through Fourteenth Centuries laid the groundwork for the scientific breakthroughs of the Renaissance.  More importantly, he breaks the myth of the dogmatic, unreasoning, anti-science Church of the Medieval era.  Members of religious orders were almost the only people who were literate or had any sort of education, and instead of relying to bling reputation of legends, they engaged in scientific experiments and rational thought.  If not for the monks of the so-called Dark Ages, there would be no scientific revolution.

The Warrior Queens

Antonia Fraser wrote Warrior Queens in the late 1980s, but I read it in the wake of Hillary Clinton's campaign and the months of (still continuing) "why Bernie would have won."  The nightly news dovetailed neatly with Fraser's categorization of women leaders (some legendary, some fully supported by the historical record).   Many gained power through family relationships and all had to balance their needed strength with the need to appear soft enough to be a "real woman."  Women from Boudica (the real figure behind the legendary Boadicea) through Cleopatra, Zenobia, Elizabeth I, and Margaret Thatcher walked a fine line, balancing the softness expected of a woman and the strength expected of a leader.  We have no margin of error as women - even when perfect, we're "trying too hard."  I'd like to say Fraser's queens were inspiring, but in 2017, their stories were actually a bit depressing.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Murder Must Advertise

Sometimes the adaptation is better.  I fell in love with Lord Peter Wimsey through the early-70s cardboard-set adaptations, and they're still highly entertaining.  So are Sayers's books, but on my third reading of Murder Must Advertise, I have to admit that it's not one of her best.  Someone killed copywriter Victor Dean, so the president of Pym's Publicity asks Lord Peter to go undercover as Dean's replacement.  Meanwhile, Peter's brother-in-law DI Charles Parker is trying to break a drug smuggling ring which centers around Dian DeMomerie - whom Dean had coincidentally dated.  The two men (well, mainly Peter) solve the crimes mostly through luck and it's not a particularly satisfying conclusion.  What makes the book worth reading are the scenes set at Pym's.  Sayers had worked as a copywriter in the early 1920s (some of her Guinness slogans are still in use) and she really captures the office politics and makes the minutiae of the profession entertaining.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Third Sister

Eliza's Daughter didn't impress me, but it's infinitely better than The Third Sister.  A disorganized (but mercifully brief) attempt to make Margaret Dashwood a fleshed-out character, it fails miserably.  Julia Barrett drags Margaret to Delaford and back and then to Bath, giving her no characteristics other than artistic talent and a vague feistiness.  Scenes with Mrs. Jennings's schoolmates (one of whom takes Margaret under her wing, another of whom manages to tame the Middleton children) serve only to pad the novel, and to bring Margaret into a situation I can only describe as Anne Elliot's dilemma with the names changed.  Barrett's worst crime, however, is to make Eliza Williams's daughter into a son (who bonds with Col. Brandon).

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer

Contrary to what alarmist clickbait articles say, our species had coexisted with cancer since our emergence.  At its roots, cancer is a copying error, and the older we get, the more likely we are to accumulate enough errors to knock out the safeguards against our cells' uncontrolled growth.  It's such a terrifying disease, eating the patient from within and leaving strange growths, that doctors would hide the diagnosis from their patients.  We've declared war on cancer and have to wonder whether cancer has won.

Siddhartha Murkerjee alternates between telling the overall history of cancer with a chronicle of his fellowship year at Dana Farber Cancer Institute.  The first great leaps in treatment didn't come from a doctor who focused on patient care but from Sidney Farber, a pathologist who with the help of antifolates formulated by chemist Yella Subbarow, managed to induce brief remissions in his young leukemia patients.  He'd only postponed the inevitable by a few months, but from there doctors moved onto drug combos and eventually to modern chemotherapy.  That, in turn, led to battles between the surgeons and chemotherapists, neither believing the other was in the right and both more concerned at times with killing the disease than saving the patient.  In the aftermath of AIDS activism, patients stood up and fought for more responsive care - less disfiguring surgeries, drug dosages correlated to cure the disease and spare healthy cells, and palliative treatments.

Murkerjee doesn't neglect prevention.  The first recognized environmental cancer was scrotal cancer in chimney sweeps.  Naked young boys were sent into the tight shafts and many developed a cancer almost unheard of in the general population.  Strangely, that explains why the link between smoking and lung cancer didn't jump out at researchers in the 1950s - smoking was so common that it threw off the signal-to-noise ratio.  Researchers linked chronic inflammation to some cancers, leading to a fall in liver cancer with the advent of hepatitis vaccines and in stomach cancer with better sanitation and the antibiotic treatment of ulcers.  I remember as a child hearing about the search for cancer vaccines, and while that hasn't panned out, less than a decade of vaccination against HPV is already causing a decline in the incidence of cervical cancer.  There's also secondary prevention, like mammograms and colonoscopies which find cancers early when they're more treatable.  With the identification of oncogenes, researchers are developing treatments which can turn off those genes, stopping tumor growth without harming surrounding tissues.

Periodically, Murkerjee brings us back to 2004 and the cancer wards at Dana Farber.  We see patients struggle through treatment.  Some survive and some don't, and occasionally the patient comforts the doctor who has to say, "There are no more options."  He opens and closes the book with one patient, 30-year-old kindergarten teacher Carla Reed.  Her fatigue, odd bruises, headaches, and bleeding gums  were symptoms of acute leukemia, and Muurkerjee's intake notes say that she'll probably die during treatment.  Six years later, he visits her with flowers - not on a gravesite, but at her suburban house where they drink tea and discuss her treatment while her children and dogs play in the garden.  At 5 years, her remission can be considered a cure.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Eliza's Daughter

What happened to Eliza Williams after Willoughby seduced and abandoned her?  Joan Aiken's literary fan fiction answers that question.  Eliza Williams grew up in Byblow Bottom, fostered by  mercenary and neglectful Hannah Welcome and surrounded by illegitimate offspring allowed to run wild.  Fosters also cared for legitimate children, particularly rich ones, until they were out of toddlerhood.  Hannah Welcome's daughter fostered Therese Wexford, at least until she tried to sell the baby to a gypsy band.  Eliza rescued the child and became the frail, developmentally delayed (the child had spent her first two years barely spoken to or touched) girl's companion.

When the Therese's father, the local squire, dies in a riding accident, Eliza contacts Colonel Brandon's attorney with the request to attend school.  She never meets Brandon (he's rejoined the army and Marianne has left Delaford with him), but Eliza does stay briefly with poverty-stricken Elinor and Edward Ferrars before leaving for the Bath school their daughter Nell attends.  Lodging with a barely respectable relative of Elinor's, Eliza prepares for life as a governess or music teacher (the best that an illegitimate girl with polydactyly can hope) and has begun her career at 17 when fighting off an attempted gang rape leads to her disgrace.  From there she travels to London (staying in a millinery-brothel), comes under the protection of her late mother's last (and good-hearted) protector, and reunites with Therese an her mother in Portugal.

As a novel, Eliza's Daughter is entertaining if a bit too reliant on coincidence.  As Austen fanfic, it's just wrong.  Like The Private Diary of Mr. Darcy, the characters aren't consistent with Austen's.  Colonel Brandon would not abandon Eliza to Byblow Bottom.  She may have been Willoughby's daughter, but she was also the granddaughter of Brandon's first love.   Eliza's life would have been like Harriet Smith's - sent to a respectable school where she'd hope to marry a respectable man, maybe even one of Mr. Gardiner's sons.  I can't see Marianne as a bitter woman who'd punish Willoughby's daughter either, and even Fanny Price at her worst wasn't as priggish as Aiken's interpretation of Edward Ferrars.  Overall, I found Eliza's Daughter compelling, but frustrating.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Raiders of the Nile

We know before we open Raiders of the Nile how it will end.  Steven Saylor has gone back to Gordianus's youth in Alexandria, so we know he will survive any danger.  Maybe that's why we first see Gordianus breaking into Alexander's tomb and hours from the end of his adventure.

Our generally honest (but at this point still somewhat naive) hero ended up joining a pirate band while searching for Bethesda.  On his 22nd birthday, they'd met a mime troupe whose female member  could pass for Bethesda's sister.  Axiothea is also under the protection of a local criminal lord, and mistaken identity leads to Bethesda's capture.  The professional finder and solver of mysteries can't find his slave (and lover, and eventual wife), until Tafhapy shows him a ransom note - The Cuckoo's Nest had taken Bethesda in place of Axiothea.  A night of gambling at a disreputable inn leads to mass murder, and a contrived but entertaining series of events brings Gordianus into the Cuckoo's lair.  Accepted as a full member, Gordianus finds himself back in Alexandria where Saylor hastily ties together the plot threads.  It's far from his best mystery, but a highly entertaining novel.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

An Antidote for Avarice

I think I picked up one of Caroline Roe's mysteries at Bouchercon, 2003.  Cure for a Charlatan was set in medieval Spain and I was ready to expand my historical mystery horizons from England and Ancient Rome.  I don't remember much (other than that the detective is a blind physician living in the Jewish quarter and assisted by his daughter), but I must have enjoyed it because I bought most of the rest of the series.   They then sat on my shelf, almost undisturbed, until my recent round of pre-shelf-clearing evaluations.

I say "almost undisturbed" because when I opened An Antidote for Avarice, I found an April, 2011 train pass marking the start of the third chapter.  Obviously I started the book almost 6 years ago and didn't get far.  Add in my shelf-clearing mood and the book's chances of donation were high.  An Antidote for Avarice would have to be fantastic for me to keep it and read the rest of the series.  It wasn't.

Perhaps I'd have enjoyed the story more if less had taken place on the road.  I'm not a road-trip person, agreeing with Miss Piggy that if getting there is half the fun, you're going somewhere really boring.  The ennui of the trudging caravan (consisting of Isaac and his family, his patron the Bishop of Gerona, some nuns, and several soldiers) gave the various attacks, ambushes, and murders a vaguely disconnected feel.  The first murder is that of a messenger, then there's a man left for dead along the road, followed by attacks on the travelers - they all blended together and I just didn't care to figure out whether and/or how they were connected.  An Antidote for Avarice wasn't bad, but it just didn't grab me.  Hopefully someone browsing the shelves at the Book Corner will enjoy it more.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Day of Wrath

I'm running out of shelf space - I need to either weed books or buy a larger house.  Some series I haven't reread may go soon, but I'm starting with the books that have sat on my shelves, unread, for years, giving them one chance to impress me or go to Book Corner.  Day of Wrath wasn't bad, but it's going to be donated.  Courtier Nicholas Peverell returns from Henry VIII's court to find that his steward has been murdered.  Soon afterwards, the man's lover dies as well.  They'd overheard a plot against Henry from a group called Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) and thus had to die.  The problem is that the plot isn't particularly interesting or well-explained (although I easily guessed that it was connected to the impending dissolution of the local abbey) and the murder's identity isn't well supported.  Nicholas is a bit to Mr. Exposition for my taste, but Jane Warener who assists him, is more engaging.  It's adequately entertaining, but not good enough to stay on my shelf.

The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn

Alison Weir takes an unromantic look at Anne Boleyn's last days in The Lady in the Tower.  Starting with Anne's final miscarriage (she had three miscarriages or stillbirths after giving birth to Elizabeth, and Weir mentions the possibility that those losses were caused by Rh incompatibility), Weir traces the political machinations that led to Anne's death.  By 1536, Henry, always mercurial, was becoming desperate for a male heir, and his courtiers knew it.  Seeing that he was tiring of Anne's strong personality (which had originally attracted him), the Catholic factions put forward her opposite - sweet, compliant Jane Seymour.

But how to get rid of Anne?  Divorcing Catherine of Aragon (now recently deceased) had cost Henry politically, so that wasn't a viable option.  Fortunately for Henry (and for the Catholic faction at court), Anne had not endeared herself to the people or to the court.  The same strong personality that first attracted Henry left her with no political capital to spend when his desire for an heir surpassed his desire for her.  Her enemies convinced Henry she was a danger, put her in the Tower guarded by women (including her sister-in-law) who already disliked her.  From there, it was only a few quick rumors to charges of adultery (highly unlikely since she was pregnant or recovering from a birth, stillbirth, or miscarriage for most of her time as Queen) and death by an executioner summoned before her trial began.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Absolution by Murder

I think I bought Absolution by Murder because the cover art was similar to Kate Sedley's early Roger the Chapman books (when they were available in the US without an amazon.co.uk account).  It's followed me since 1994 or 1995, from New Jersey to Virginia and back home to Philadelphia, and it stood, pristine and unopened on my bookshelf until about a week ago.  I've heard about Sister Fidelma in the intervening years but there was always something better to read.

I still feel that way.  Absolution for Murder wasn't a bad novel, but I was underwhelmed.  While part of a delegation to a convocation deciding whether the 7th Century Irish and English Churches will follow Rome or continue with their own calendars and traditions, Abbess Etian is murdered in her cell.  Sister Fidelma, a highly qualified lawyer back home in Ireland, and Brother Edaulf, a Saxon monk/apothecary, use their complementary skills to solve the crime.  Along the way, Peter Tremayne throws in some ecclesiastical history, four more deaths, and a bit too much exposition before unmasking the criminal I'd identified three pages after the discovery of Etian's corpse.  I'll admit that I went into the book hoping that I'd put it in the donation box (I need the shelf space), but those lowered expectations may have upgraded my opinion by eliminating the specter of disappointment.

Medical Meddlers, Mediums, and Magicians: The Victorian Age of Credulity

Sometimes I can lose myself completely in my book while commuting, but with a relatively short train ride and frequent interruptions (even in the quiet car),  it's best to keep my reading on the light side.  Medical Meddlers, Mediums, and Magicians is an ideal commute book - entertaining enough to hold my attention but not deep enough to require deep thought, and arranged in sections ranging from less than one to about three pages.   I found "Medical Meddlers" the most interesting (among them was James IV of Scotland who practiced dentistry along with ruling his country), particularly how the author (a physician) delineated between outright quacks and those who were doing their best with the limited knowledge of the day.  I've never been particularly interested in the supernatural, so "Mediums" didn't hold my attention quite as well.  "Magicians" was disappointing, partially because so few were covered and partially because there wasn't enough attention given to those who debunked the mediums and meddlers.  Light and entertaining, but ultimately disposable, it's enjoyable without being particularly memorable.

Call for the Dead

George Smiley was always a spy, but his first appearance was in a traditional mystery novel.  Shortly after Smiley interviewed Samuel Fennan about a letter questioning Fennan's possible communist leanings, Fennan committed suicide.  Why, though, did the dead man request a wake-up call for the morning after his death?  Smiley, with the assistance of Peter Guillam and recently retired Police Inspector Mendel delves into Fennan's past and finds a connection to his own WWII spying.  Not quite convinced that Fennan was compromised, Smiley comes up with an alternate interpretation of the facts.  Which one is the truth?

Call for the Dead is a brief, tightly plotted mystery which outlines George Smiley's subdued, analytical character.  Different in tone from LeCarre's spy novels (and from the movie Tinker, Tailor, Solder, Spy which I re-watched last night), it's a good introduction to the author's elegant prose and most famous character.

Nancy: The Story of Lady Astor

I grew up on Masterpiece Theater, BBC costume dramas with top-level actors and sets which may have cost 35p for all six episodes.  I remember watching and wanting to like "Nancy Astor."  She was the first woman elected to Parliament, and the show was well done.  It didn't grab my attention, though.   Maybe I would have paid more attention if I'd realized Pierce Brosnan played her first husband (two years before "Remington Steele") but probably not because it was a few months before that would matter to me.

36 yeas later, I still didn't know much about Nancy Astor when I opened Nancy: The Story of Lady Astor, and I found her a bit less admirable than I thought I would.   Like many pioneering women in politics, she road her husband's coattails into the House of Commons.  What I didn't realize was that (after a hardscrabble early childhood in the wake of the Civil War), she came from a wealthy and prominent family.   Chillie Langdon may have served on the front lines for a Virginia regiment (records aren't clear), and after some financially tumultuous years selling tobacco found his fortune mustering and managing work crews.  By Nancy's teens, the family owned a large estate and summered at the premiere southern resort.  She and her sisters (including Irene, the original Gibson Girl) had debuts and Nancy spent an unhappy year at a finishing school in New York.

At 18, she married Robert Gould Shaw, soon became pregnant with her son Bobby, and quickly divorced her abusive husband.  Nancy then went to England where she rode with the hunt and eventually married Waldorf Astor.  He was the son of a wealthy American ex-pat (a member of the banking family) and an aspiring politician.  Nancy threw herself into his campaign for Parliament and shared his noblesse oblige style progressivism.  When Waldorf became the 2nd Viscount on the death of his father, Nancy ran for and won his seat, eventually spending 25 years in Parliament.

On the surface, admirable, but I just can't admire the person behind the public figure.  On a personal level, she could be cruel; a bully to her siblings and in later years vicious to her daughters-in-law.  Professionally, she was largely bluster and posturing, often speaking on a point without proper research or even basic knowledge of the topic.  There's also the Cliveden Set she led and which supported appeasement (I felt that Port intentionally glossed over this aspect of her life).  I don't believe in heroes, and I expect pioneers to be a bit more ruthless out of necessity than those who follow them.  Still, Nancy Astor had too few positive and too many negative achievements for me to truly admire her, and a bit too much bland snobbery to be personally compelling.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Turbo Twenty-Three

Janet Evanovich may run out of T-words by the time she gets to the 40th Stephanie Plum book.  Turbo Twenty-Three isn't as good as Two for the Dough, Hot Six, or  To the Nines (few of her double-digit books have been), but it's her best in a while.  Steph (accompanied by Lula, of course) find her FTA highjacking a tractor trailer full of ice cream.  He steals Lula's car so they chase him in the truck.  You know that's not going to go well, and it doesn't.  Even worse, there's a dead body (frozen, coated in chocolate and rolled in nuts) in among the frozen treats.

It turns out that the ice cream company has hired Rangeman to solve a series of sabotage incidents, so Ranger sends Steph undercover at both his client an a rival.  While working the cup line gives her a few leads, that's not how she finds the murder.  No, she uses coincidence and a few leads from Grandma Mazur's new boyfriend, a bartender who looks like Willie Nelson only older (yes, this induces Mrs. Plum to chug "iced tea" at dinner).  Oh, Steph (unwillingly) and Grandma Mazur (willingly) also help Lula and angry little person Randy Briggs break into reality TV.  Several laugh-out-loud scenes and a good (although abruptly solved) mystery make Turbo Twenty-Three worth the time.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

No Mark Upon Her

My mom has been reading Deborah Crombie's books since the start of the series, but No Mark Upon Her is the first volume she's handed to me.  I prefer reading series from the start, so as soon as my annual book diet ends, I'm gong to start working my way through the thirteen books that precede it.

Rebecca Meredith had been a shoo-in for the Olympic rowing team at 22, until she went skiing and broke her wrist a few months before the trials.  Nearly 15 years later, she's a Scotland Yard DI and maybe, possibly, about to try again for the Olympic team.  When she misses an appointment with her ex-husband (who needs some information on a potential investor, a recently retired police official), he assumes the worst.  He's right - Becca has been murdered and left to drift downstream from her grounded shell.  Police brass call in DI Duncan Kincaid, just married and about to take family leave with his newly adopted daughter.   They trust Duncan to both solve the case and to be discreet, because they suspect that police politics may have lead to Becca's murder.  With his wife, DS Gemma  Jones (still on family leave) and her former assistant Melody Talbot investigating the rumors that bubble up during the official case, Duncan and his assistant Doug Cullen discover the killer's identity.

Or did they?  Crombie pulls off one of the hardest tricks for a mystery novelist, a true surprise ending that's fully supported.  That, and how skillfully Crombie blends in Duncan's and Gemma's domestic life, is why I now have a new series to read.

Murder 101

I predicted Peter Decker's retirement from the LAPD four books ago in Blindman's Bluff.  I was wrong in thinking that he'd retire altogether and that Cindy Decker Kutiel would become the new protagonist.  That's probably a good thing, because Faye Kellerman has relocated Cindy and her NP-turned-med-student husband Kody to Philadelphia and I suspect that the West Coast based author would place neighborhoods in the wrong parts of the city and make Walnut Street run north/south.

Decker hasn't actually retired.  Instead, he's moved to a college town in upstate New York and joined the local police force.  The police deal mainly with small property crimes and sub-critical medical problems - and Tyler McAdams, a rich kid working as a police officer "until I start law school" and mainly to irritate his wealthy and overbearing father.  McAdams is smart, but arrogant and condescending, so naturally Rina invites him to the Shabbat dinner she holds for local students.  That evening, the police chief calls Decker to investigate a break-in at the local cemetery.  It turns out that someone has replaced two of four Louis Comfort Tiffany panels in one of the mausoleums with fakes.  A few days later, a senior art student is found murdered.  The two crimes lead Decker McAdams into the art world and, with some research help from Rina, to a solution I found a bit too abrupt and too wide-ranging to be fully satisfying.

I did, however, enjoy Murder 101 as a novel.  Peter has spent his entire career with experienced detectives, so I enjoyed watching him instruct a rookie in the basics of police work.  The Deckers' East Coast relocation means that they can visit their kids, so they (and we) have dinner with Sammy and his wife Rachel, Jake and his girlfriend Ilana, Hannah and her fiancĂ© Rafe, and Cindy and Kody.  There are even cameo appearances by Marge Dunn (by phone) and Scott Oliver, and McAdams's grandmother, a stereotypical but entertaining grande dame.  The 22nd book in the series made me want to go back and read the first.

The Counterfeit Heiress

Warning - Spoiler in the link

A few years ago, every mystery I read seemed to have a subplot (usually one that detracted from the main story and/or involved "old friends" never mentioned before or since).  My current trend is parallel stories, and my authors use it much more successfully.  The Counterfeit Heiress is the third consecutive Lady Emily book to include a separate narrative which adds a new perspective to the main mystery.  It's no surprise that Tasha Alexander does this well; And Only To Deceive used this method to give Lady Emily a reason to solve her husband's death.

Alexander's secondary storyline features Estella Lamar.  One of Cecile's old friends, the mysterious world traveler has only been seen in blurry photographs since abruptly leaving on her travels.  Years later, someone claiming to be Estella shows up at the party of the season, a costume ball at Devonshire house thrown in honor of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee.  Cecile recognizes her as an imposter and the woman, wearing a costume very similar to Emily's, runs off.  Someone murders the imposter before anyone can identify her and Emily and her husband Colin make discreet inquiries at the request of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire.

Cecile, meanwhile, begins to wonder what happened to her friend Estella?  She's been sending dispatches back from her travels, but no one has actually seen her.  Upon analysis, her travels seem impossible, taking too little or too much time to get from point to point.  Estella's Paris and London homes are both fully staffed despite the fact that the mistress of the house hasn't been in residence for over 20 years.  Has she been kidnapped?  Is she even still alive?  Inspired by a true story, Estella's fate caused her imposter's death, but Alexander still manages to make the murderer a mostly sympathetic character.  It's a nice twist on the traditional mystery.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Sins of the Fathers

A few weeks ago, I realized that fiction written in the last third of the 20th Century can fall into an uncanny valley.  It's familiar but foreign.  I filter most of the 1970s through childhood and the 1980s through the inward focus of a teenager and college student, but I recognize the landmarks.  Ruth Rendell's early novels fall slightly outside that range.  They're not-quite-old movies and TV shows I saw on UHF channels on rainy weekends.

Rendell was rightly lauded for bringing a psychological edge to the mystery novel, but it makes her earlier works rather dated.  Henry Archery's son is engaged to the daughter of a convicted murderer.  A brilliant and charming Oxford student, she can't (according to the common knowledge of the day) be the child of such a brute.  Using this logic, Archery asks Inspector Wexford to reopen the case, one of Wexford's first, and exonerate Herbert Painter of the viscous murder of his employer, the elderly Mrs. Primero.  Rendell provides us, and Archery, with alternative suspects (the victim's grandson, an unstable local woman) and motivations (money), but the twist is itself a twist.  The conclusion of Sins of the Fathers conforms to the beliefs of the day, but upends two things that we think we know at the start of the book.

Main Street

Babbit was on my summer reading list for 10th grade.  I hated it.  It was my original cookie book (read a few pages, reward yourself with a cookie, repeat until done).  When I reread it while we discussed it in class, though, I fell in love.  Sinclair Lewis was a master at portraying flawed but mostly decent people who quietly chafe against a conformist society, appearing to - or wanting to - fit in but never quite feeling comfortable about it.

I wonder if Carol Kennicott would fit in anywhere.  We meet her as a college student, vibrant, enthusiastic, and a bit remote.  A judge's daughter from Mankato (neither a small town nor a large city), she has no close friends and isn't close to her only relative, an older sister.  It's her sister who introduces Carol, by  then working as a librarian in St. Paul, to Dr. Will Kennicott, a country GP who apparently came to town to find a wife (I wonder if he had a shopping list of desired characteristics).  He think she's pretty; she's bored and enticed by the chance to Do Good in a Small Town.

Carol quickly realizes that she's the victim of a bait and switch.  Main Street Gopher Prairie is populated by narrow-minded, mean-spirited, materialistic conformists. Will is a good doctor, but he's extremely condescending towards the immigrant farmers he treats and more interested in land speculation than healing.  His friends are crude and the Jolly Seventeen - the young, fashionable wives - are a catty bunch of cliquish "mean girls."  Carol's attempts to improve the town fail, through the scorn of the town and, sadly, Carol's lack of skill or endurance.  Her story grows darker as she makes friends who are driven from the town, each one leaving a film of suspicion on Carol's reputation.

Lewis could have made Carol a selfless crusader crushed by the evil town, but he's more subtle.  Carol is mostly right (the town is drab, crude, and ugly), but she acts arbitrarily and often without considering the whether her goals are right for Gopher Prairie.  She's also not very good at reforming, becoming discouraged and then losing interest at the first obstacle.  Will is the wrong husband for Carol, but he's not necessarily a bad person, and while some of the townspeople are vicious others come across as weak and easily led.  Carol is trapped, but partially because she took the path of least resistance.  I sympathize with her, then look at her short-sighted decisions.  And then I wonder, did she have other options?

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Inheritor's Powder: A Tale of Arsenic, Murder, and the New Forensic Science

I wanted to like The Inheritor's Powder, but just couldn't.  Not particularly well written, it switches between a shallow history of arsenic as a murder weapon, the confusing family history culminating in a murder, and a sprinkling of primitive forensic science.  I read it quickly, hoping it would get better.  It didn't.

Razor Girl

I saw Carl Hiaasen on his promotional tour for Razor Girl.  Besides learning that the frozen dead monitor lizard in Basket Case was real (I did not expect that), I found out that a woman did cause an accident by shaving he personal topiary while driving to a date (with her husband in the passenger seat).  Hiaasen used that Only in Florida story as a jumping-off point for another novel featuring restaurant inspector Andrew Yancy.  Still stuck on roach patrol and dating Dr. Rosa Campesino (who's transferred from the morgue to the ER), he meets razor girl Merry Mansfield because of beard hair in a pot of quinoa.

I should explain.  The beard hair belongs to Buck Nance, a/k/a Matt Romberg, a Wisconsin-born accordion player turned (along with his bandmate brothers) star of Bayou Brethren, "reality" TV stars who raise pedigree chickens and use the feathers for bespoke flies.  His beard ends up in the quinoa because Merry Mansfield rear ended the wrong rental car leading to the kidnapping of Buck's agent, Lance Coolman, instead of Martin Trebeaux, owner of Sedimental Journeys (and someone unwise enough to refurbish the beach in front of a mob-owned resort with broken glass).  Without Lance to keep him on script, Buck adds some racist and homophobic jokes to the "colorful" stories he's been booked to tell at The Parched Pirate in Key West.  Not unreasonably fearing for his life, Buck escapes, ducks into the kitchen at Clippy's, and hacks off his beard.  Since the mayor and his partner own Clippy's, Andrew's boss calls him out on an emergency inspection, and he keeps the hair.

OK, maybe I can't explain.  Suffice it to say that Hiaasen adds in some six pound rodents, a fake emotional support dog, a shady lawyer, multiple kidnappings, a relocation to Norway, a mongoose, the notorious Stoney's, and a combination deodorant and roll-on Viagra.  Typical Hiaasen - half a dozen crazy plots which somehow all come together in the last few pages.  One of his better novels, and guaranteed to get you some extra space if you read it on public transit.

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Royal Stuarts

The Royal Stuarts is a straightforward summary of the reigns of the titular family.  The monarchs before Mary get short chapters, and Allan Massie adds little insight to the English/Scottish monarchs.  The book also suffered from poor editing, occasionally confusing me with ambiguously placed pronouns.  It's the rare volume to go straight into a donation box.