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 resistant 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.