Thursday, August 13, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Flaxborough Crab by Colin Watson

 Back in 2018, I discovered (thanks to Netgalley) the re-released Flaxborough Chronicles of Colin Watson. Starting with Coffin Scarcely Used, which I loved, I started reading my way through several of them. In general, I liked the earlier books better. I got them a bit out of order, and stopped with what I think was the last in the series, but missed some along the way. One of these, The Flaxborough Crab, has been on my kindle queue for quite a while, so I finally loaded it up to read.

This is book six in the series. Again, it pits Detective Purbright against the criminal element. Purbright is an intelligent, methodical, and generally unexcitable chief detective in a small English town that sees more than its fair share of crime. The book begins with an off-putting series of sex crimes, off-putting because of the response to them. Watson has an ironic style that doesn’t fit well with attempted rape and flashing. The police seem amused by the crimes and some even hint that some of the women took pride in the excitement of being harassed, commenting also on the relative attractiveness of the victims.

However, that aside, the plot (typically far-fetched in this satirical crime novel series) holds together. The author’s skill at humorous description remains the best part of the book. The story is sped along by the reappearance of Miss Teatime, a fiercely intelligent con artist who has the habit of becoming embroiled in the adventures and aiding Purbright, but whose motives are generally mercenary.

While my enthusiasm for the series has faded somewhat over the years, I still find that once I start one of the books, I can’t put it down. I’m carried along by the old-fashioned dry wit of the narrator. If you like old-style British humor, this series delivers.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: When Life Was Young: At the Old Farm in Maine by C.A. Stephens

 After the thrilling dark historical mystery, The Black Friar by S.G. MacClean, I changed gears and read the simple, old-fashioned story, When Life Was Young: At the Old Farm in Maine by C.A. Stephens. Written in 1912 and available as a free download at the Gutenberg Project, this is a sweet memoir about a young adolescent boy’s first year on his grandfather’s farm in Maine. The boy’s father (and the fathers of some of his cousin’s, sons of the grandfather) died in the Civil War, and the children, male and female cousins, six in all, were sent to live with their grandparents. 

The story is told by “Edmund’s son,” the last of the children to arrive. He is twelve years old, the youngest of the boys, older than two of his female cousins. Terribly homesick at first, he adapts to life on the farm, helped first by the novelty and then by the close-knit family and homespun adventure. Despite the hard work and some difficulties with one particular cousin, it’s a good life for a child.

The book takes the reader through nearly a year of Maine farm life. The work is described in detail, as are the “simple pleasures:” a fair, a camping trip, fishing, and a game of hoarding apples that has the whole family taking part good-naturedly in some petty thievery. 

There is some similarity to The Little House books, except that this is a boy’s recollections and the people stay put in the East. The grown narrator does a fair amount of retrospective moralizing but, overall, captures well the mind-set of a shy young boy coming of age in a safe haven following tragedy. A sweet book and a pleasant read.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Black Friar by S.G. MacLean

 The second book in the  Damian Seeker series by S.G. MacLean, The Black Friar, is as superb as the first, The Seeker

Picking up where Book 1 left off, Damian Seeker continues in his role as the captain of Oliver Cromwell’s guard. It’s a difficult job, protecting the Lord Protector, when plots are springing up right and left. The main antagonists are the Royalists, but there are also Fifth Monarchists (religious fanatics) as well as the generally disenchanted folks who once supported Cromwell but who speak against him now that he has assumed the role of king. For them, he’s no better than the deposed and executed tyrant.

Amongst the disenchanted are those honest people we met in book one, Elias Ellingworth, an impoverished lawyer and pamphleteer, and his sister, Maria. Seeker and Maria have begun an affair. For these star-crossed lovers, there is no viable future. Seeker knows it’s only a matter of time before he will have to arrest Elias, and possibly Maria herself. Keeping such a relationship secret with so many spies watching each other is also a dangerous undertaking.

As the book opens, a dead man is found walled into an old monastery. The body is too well- preserved to belong to the centuries-old location or to the Blackfriar’s clothing he’s wearing. Seeker recognizes the man, a spy who was supposed to have died months earlier, a spy whose funeral he witnessed. The man was deeply embedded in uncovering something. Seeker’s superior, Thurloe, assigns Seeker to find out what the spy had learned that got him killed.

At the same time, children are going missing in the city. Not many, but the coincidence is too striking for Seeker to ignore since their circumstances are not typical of runaways or street children.

Seeker is good at his job. He’s known and widely feared throughout the city. He navigates the swirling conspiracies within the government with intelligence and cynicism. He’s kind to the lowly but ruthless to those who fall afoul of the law.  And if he has to choose between his duty to Cromwell and his love for Maria. . .

Again, the various threads of the mystery are thickly interwoven. The historical background is fascinating. And Seeker’s personal battles are as gripping as the political ones.

I have book three on my shelf and book four on order. These books are great!

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser

As a child, I read The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and had a typical reaction to them. I wanted to be a pioneer girl. I absorbed all the romance of the frontier spirit of that little girl, admiring her pluck and wanting to be able to do all the old-fashioned, simpler-times things she could do. The tribulations she faced made the reading more exciting but, like young Laura, I felt secure that the adults in her world would take care of the adult problems while she fought her own more minor battles.

As an adult, I re-read the series with my own daughter and loved the books all over again. This time, I was able to read between the lines and recognize the tragedy and hardship that lay underneath the optimism of the child.

These are wonderful, wonderful books. Each time I’ve read them, I wished there were more. And though I understand the concept of ‘historical fiction,’ like many readers, I was curious to know how much was fact and how much was fiction.

In Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, Caroline Fraser explores the life and times of Laura Ingalls Wilder and gives a more factual account. Meticulously researched and cleanly written, Fraser brings that frontier girl back to life, fixing the chronology, filling in the gaps, and analyzing the factors that shaped the life of the amazing author of the Little House books. The foibles of the Ingalls family, the struggles faced by Laura and Almanzo in their adult life, and the controversy over the shared editing process between Laura and her daughter, Rose, are addressed in a straightforward fashion. Bringing this all out does nothing to tarnish the image of the fictional/semi-autobiographical pioneer girl, but rather rounds out the life of the author and helps to demonstrate how impressive her achievements truly were. 

Saturday, August 1, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Invention of Medicine. From Homer to Hippocrates by Robin Lane Fox.

I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.

I just finished The Invention of Medicine. From Homer to Hippocrates by Robin Lane Fox. I’ve been dipping into some history of medicine lately, so this book caught my eye on Netgalley, even though it goes WAY back in time–back to the “invention” of medicine.

The author is a historian, known for his work on Ancient Greece. I should have recognized from this that the book would be pretty dense and academic; in other words, way over my head. But even so, I found much to appreciate in the information being presented. The author is clearly knowledgeable in his field and his enthusiasm for the subject and for his theories pulled me in. He was able, at times, to make it relatable to 2020, surprising me with how up-to-date the book is, given how in-depth the study was. When it wandered too deep into the weeds, I had to take a step back and let it wash over me, but I imagine that for scholars of ancient Greek history, the things I found less interesting are exactly the things that would excite debate.

In short, the author looks at the development of “medicine” as a craft. Surely there were healers before there were doctors, but he makes a distinction between the two. Starting with the famed doctors named in the Iliad, who were concerned mostly with treating war wounds and who attributed much non-traumatic (and some traumatic) sickness and healing to divine intervention, the book moves on to the body of work comprising “Hippocratic” medicine, which progressed beyond looking to gods/goddesses for explanation to looking at man/woman as part of Nature with innate illnesses. There was something more scientific in their methods, even if they got just about everything wrong.

The bulk of the book, and Fox’s central argument, goes to build a case for ascribing a portion of the Hippocratic corpus, namely books 1 and 3 of the Epidemics, to that actual person: Hippocrates. Not being a Greek scholar, it all sounded plausible to me, but what really impressed me was how much is known from the fifth century B.C. The author is trying to nail down the identity of real people living millennia ago and placing them within narrow 50-60 year time periods. I was struck more by the methodology than by the argument.

My overall impression is that this book can be read through a number of different lenses and so may appeal to a broader audience than historians of Ancient Greece or medical historians.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Someone to Romance by Mary Balogh

I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence my review.

Mary Balogh delivers reliably enjoyable Historical Romance. Someone to Romance, the 8th book in the Westcott series, is light-hearted fare (despite some dark backstory) with a smart heroine and hero who are fun to root for.

Jessica Archer is the younger sister of the Duke of Neverby, whose love story was told in the first book of the series. At that time, the Westcott family was turned upside down when Jessica’s cousin’s father, the Earl of Riverdale, was revealed to be a bigamist. His children were thus illegitimate. Jessica’s cousin/best friend was disinherited and snubbed by the ton. Although Jessica had been looking forward to her first season, she gave it all up because her cousin could not take part.

Now years have passed and Jessica realizes it’s time for her to seriously consider getting married and taking her place in the world. The problem is, while she has many admirers, she wants love. She wants romance.

Gabriel Thorne is not, at first glance, a likely candidate. Although he is a titled gentleman, he fled England many years earlier and found a place with his mother’s cousin in Boston. He is now a very wealthy member of the American merchant class. He has no desire to return to the country of his birth; however, duty calls him home.

The two cross paths under unfavorable circumstances and there is a rather instantaneous mutual dislike. But they meet again in London in ton settings and an attraction builds. Jessica slowly learns the truth about Gabriel’s past. She is able to harness her training as a duke’s sister to support him as he returns to society and as he seeks to displace the cousin who is trying to usurp his place.

Although the plot lines and character traits can become repetitive over the course of too much Regency Romance reading, authors with Balogh’s skill can keep stories fresh and readable. This is a delightful series that continues to hold my interest.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: A Stroke of Malice by Anna Lee Huber

Lady Kiera Darby and her husband, Sebastian Gage, are back to solve another murder in A Stroke of Malice by Anna Lee Huber. It is early January 1832, and the detective couple are at a house party held at the duke and duchess of Bowmont’s estate, celebrating Twelfth Night. The duchess is a new friend and Kiera, despite being six months pregnant, is enjoying herself, though the drinking and the traditional fun of naming a “lord and lady of misrule” is getting a bit wearying as the night wears on. When one of the duchess’s sons offers to lead a ghost tour of the catacombs, Kiera and Gage follow along. Their holiday is cut short when a newly-dead body is discovered amongst the skeletons. It is in a state of decomposition, two to four weeks by Kiera’s estimation, and cannot be positively identified. However, the best guess is that it is the body of the duchess’s son-in-law, a man that is not well liked by the family. And a wound to the skull makes it clear a murder had taken place.

Kiera and Gage are once again called upon to investigate foul play. And, to Kiera’s dismay, it appears likely the culprit is a member of the duchess’s family. Or it might be the lover of the duchess’s daughter, a man that had previously been a thorn in Kiera’s (and Gage’s) side but who was beginning to be more of a friend. (He has been in previous novels.) Kiera is disturbed by the fact that people she has come to care for are clearly lying and hiding something.

The family dynamics in the duchess’s household are complex. Kiera and Gage uncover more secrets than they care to know on the way to finding the murderer. They are helped by their loyal servants, Anderley and Bree, who are hiding a secret of their own, and by Kierra’s brother Trevor, who was also at the party.

The mystery is well-plotted and the interpersonal relationships are moving. This is a wonderful series for those who enjoy historical mystery with a strong dose of romance. Start with book one: The Anatomist’s Wife.