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 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.