April 04, 2016

Plague, Labor, and a Mystery

The Butcher Bird: A Somershill Manor Mystery, by S. D. Sykes, (Pegasus), 336 pages, release date 4 April, 2016

Set in the Kentish countryside and London immediately following the plague epidemic of the late 1340s, The Butcher Bird offers a compelling mix of mystery and historical imagining. Oswald de Lacy, not quite twenty and a third son, had never been particularly important in the de Lacy family At seven years old, he was sent to a monastery to prepare for an eventual life as a monk. But the deaths of his two older brothers during the plague forced him out of the monastery and into a rather unwelcome role as Lord of the manor. Religious training did little to prepare Oswald either as a landowner or as a leader of the families renting lands on the family estate.

In the post-plague years, the feudal structure of English society is beginning to crumble. With nearly half the work force wiped out, surviving laborers find themselves able to demand higher salaries. While law requires that they be paid at pre-plague rates, they are increasingly questioning the structures that had shaped their lives, choosing to leave areas their families had inhabited for generations in order to seek better pay and opportunities in cities or on other manors with more generous Lords.

Oswald’s hands are full trying to balance the competing demands of the laborers on his estate and the local nobility, who are determined not to grant any increased pay or new opportunities to those who work their lands. But once the body of an infant is found impaled on a thorn bush (just as shrikes, “butcher birds,” store their pray for later eating), Oswald’s challenges increase. While Oswald is determined to find a rational explanation for this crime, the local families quickly embrace tales of a gigantic bird brought to life by a madman who has been an unsettling presence since his wife and children were killed in the plague.

The puzzle is sufficiently complex to keep the narrative moving forward, but in many ways the chief delight of this book is the opportunity to imagine the daily lives of those living at this time. This is S. D Sykes’ second Somershill Manor mystery, and like the first it is carefully researched and engagingly presented. In addition to the tensions between folk beliefs and rationalism, the world of medicine is fracturing, with some practitioners beginning to question humor-based medicine and trying new, simpler cures, focusing more on cleanliness than on exotic ingredients like badger dung.

One can only hope that Sykes will be offering more titles in the Somershill series and that she’ll lead us on through the Fourteenth Century and the swiftly changing life of that time.

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March 31, 2016

A Welcome Return of M. J.Carter’s Blake and Avery

The Infidel Stain, by M. J. Carter, (G. P. Putnam’s Sons), 432 pages, release date 29 March, 2016

One of the real joys of reading is discovering characters you love and having the opportunity to get to know them over time as new books featuring them come out. This is very much the case with Jeremiah Blake and William Avery, who were introduced to readers by M. J. Carter in last year’s The Strangler Vine.

Blake and Avery are one of those odd couples who can flourish in the world of detective fiction. When readers first met them, they were based in India. Blake was a British agent gone rogue, who had long since abandoned faith in the British cause in India. Avery was a young officer, still believing in the British cause, but increasingly disappointed with the lack of opportunities for advancement—and beginning to question much of the British story about the nation’s role in India.

The Infidel Stain takes place in 1841, three years after The Strangler Vine. Blake and Avery have returned to Britain, but fallen out of touch. Blake lives in a run-down apartment in an immigrant-rich neighborhood in London and eats at a kitchen for impoverished sailors returned from India. Avery is living a prosperous, if unengaging, life in the countryside. The two are reunited to investigate a series of murders of London printers. The police have shown little interest in the cases, but a wealthy philanthropist wants to see justice pursued and is willing to pay Blake and Avery to do the pursuing.

Like The Strangler Vine, The Infidel Stain offers a detailed portrait of a fascinating historical moment. Britain  faces unrest brought on by the Chartist movement, a campaign to grant the vote to all men, regardless of property-holding status. The Chartists, while viewed as threats to the social order, are seen as sell-outs by the previous generation’s radicals, who sought the vote for women as well as men, and who questioned many assumptions about both faith and morality.

I admit to some disappointment at finding Blake and Avery out of India. I’d been looking forward to more of the portrait of colonialism that their adventures revealed, but they’re every bit as fascinating in London as they were while in India. The Infidel Stain is the kind of “meaty” mystery that offers far more than a puzzle at its center. Readers see life in 1840s Britain as it was lived by members of various social strata. While many characters operate with good intentions, real good is harder to define. The challenges—political, financial, moral—posed by London’s poor can’t be solved the way a particular set of crimes can be.

I’m eagerly waiting now for my next meeting with Blake and Avery, both because I want to spend time in their company and because I want to know more about the London in which they operate.

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March 30, 2016

A Year that Shaped America

The Fever of 1721: The Epidemic that Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics, by Stephen Coss, (Simon & Schuster), 368, release date 8 March, 2016

The Fever of 1721 is one of those works of nonfiction that readers can get caught up in like a novel. The characters (a number of whom have names readers will recognize) come from the fields of medicine, religion, and politics. They’re facing multiple conflicts—particularly regarding the best means of preventing the spread of smallpox and the growing resistance to British rule. Stephen Coss has a deft hand with the quick portrait and telling detail, so that readers come to feel they know the characters involved, despite the historical distance.

If you’re interested in medicine or American history—or just enjoy a good nonfiction read—you find The Fever of 1721 a real pleasure.

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March 29, 2016

Disease Detective

Adventures of a Female Medical Detective: In Pursuit of Smallpox and AIDS, by Mary Guinan with Anne D. Mathers, (Johns Hopkins University Press), 144 pages, release date 24 March, 2016.

Adventures of a Female Medical Detective recounts a dozen stories from the life of Mary Guinan and makes for quick, compelling reading. In the early 1970s, Guinan was the only female member of the Centers for Disease Control’s Epidemic Intelligence Service class—a two year training in international epidemiology. As a woman, she quickly found herself pulled into investigations in regions where interactions between male doctors and female patients were viewed as inappropriate.  She engaged in epidemiological research in Pakistan and Lebanon. She also served as an expert witness in the court case that determined the Americans with Disabilities Act applied to people with AIDS.

Her writing, assisted by Anne D. Mathers, is lively. Reading Adventures of a Female Medical Detective feels like engaging in a conversation with someone who is simultaneously a friend and an inspiration. Guinan’s stories, serve as a great introduction to the field of epidemiology. Don’t be misled by the fact that this title is published by Johns Hopkins University Press. This is a title that will not only fascinate adult readers, but one that could also introduce middle grade and older readers to this fascinating, challenging, and diverse line of work.

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March 28, 2016

Botany and Desire

At the Edge of the Orchard, by Tracy Chevalier, (Viking), 304 pages, release date 15 March, 2016

There’s no such thing as a bad Tracy Chevalier novel. There are brilliant Tracy Chevalier novels and rather good Tracy Chevalier novels, but that’s about the extent of the range. In other words, when a new Tracy Chevalier comes out, I know I’m in for some enjoyable reading. At the Edge of the Orchard falls in the middle of her range, not brilliant, but better than rather good.

This novel follows two historical threads: one of a violently divided family of homesteaders in Ohio, the other of the experiences of one son from that family as he moves west, arriving in California shortly after the start of the gold rush. The first thread is narrated in the alternating voices of husband and wife. The second is narrated in third person. In an odd way, this variety means that the second thread, which should be the most engaging, feels as if it’s holding readers at a distance.

Reading this novel can be an uncomfortable experience, but it presents an insightful view of the compromises we make when living with and building family—the times when not bad is good enough, even if it’s not ideal. The historical background of this novel is the growing English passion for Californian plants during the mid-19th Century, which adds to its interest.

You can trust that At the Edge of the Orchard will provide a worthwhile read, if not a life-changing one.

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March 24, 2016

A Tale of Two Janes

Jane Steele: A Novel, by Lyndsay Faye, (G.P. Putnam’s Sons), 432 pages, release date 22 March, 2016

Lyndsay Faye is one of the best current writers of historical mysteries. She creates complex plots and multi-faceted characters. Her characters’ imperfections are obvious from the start, which makes them more engaging, not less. In Jane Steele, she’s created a young woman, a reader of Jane Eyre at the time the novel was first published, whose life is a bloody, fun-house mirror reflection of Eyre’s. Confronted by the limitations placed on women of her time—particularly women with neither relatives nor money—Jane Steele attacks those who seek to do her harm. She is no shy governess. She depends upon no man for her rescue. For those familiar with Bronte’s original, Jane Steele will provide a delightfully tongue-in-cheek riff on the story of the governess. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of spending time with Bronte’s heroine, Jane Steele will still provide engaging companionship, simultaneously serious and comic.

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March 22, 2016

Neither Here Nor There

The Inn Between, by Marina Cohen, (Roaring Book Press, Macmillan), 208 pages, release date 22 March, 2016, recommended by the publisher for ages 8 to 12

The Inn Between is an unsettling tale. Quinn’s life is full of disappearances. Her little sister Emma disappeared while walking home from school. Her best friend Kara might as well be disappearing: she’s moving from Colorado to California. Quinn travels with Kara’s family when they drive to California, squeezing in a few more days with her friend. Then after they check into a rather unsettling inn, the Inn Between (their motto: “We’ve been expecting you”) first Kara’s parents, then her brother Josh disappear as well.

The Inn Between is a sort of “Hotel California” story. The girls find themselves unable to escape the Inn Between, even as the disappearances continue. The hotel’s pool may be harboring a monster (“it’s deeper than you’d think”), visitors all have a strange lightlessness to their eyes, and those who take the inn’s elevator up never appear again. To add to all this, Quinn is convinced she’s seen Emma in one of the inn’s windows.

Quinn and Kara, tied together by their friendship bracelets, swear they’ll stay with each other forever, but doing that turns out to be difficult—and not because Kara’s family is headed to California. This is a dark novel, but a dark novel with light, the sort of story that will appeal to younger readers beginning to wrestle with difficult questions of life and death, love and forgiveness. Once they begin reading, like Kara they’ll want to stay firmly tied to the story’s courageous center, Quinn.

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March 15, 2016

Holmes, Van Helsing, and Vampires

Sherlock Holmes and the Tangled Skein, by David Stuart Davies, (Endeavor Press), 192 pages, release date 4 March, 2016

The world can always use another riff on the Sherlock Holmes stories and David Stuart Davies’ Sherlock Holmes and the Tangled Skein is a welcome addition to the genre. Set immediately after Holmes has solved the case of The Hound of the Baskervilles, Tangled Skein opens with a pair of attempts on Holmes’ life, followed closely by a series of deaths that appear to be attributable to vampirism. Luckily, Holmes and Watson bump into that expert of the supernatural, Professor Abraham Van Helsing (originally from Bram Stoker’s Dracula). This short novel fills a gap in the canon (a gap readers may not even have known existed) and provides a delightful meeting of the creations of two beloved Victorian authors.

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March 11, 2016

Comic Espionage in Elizabethan England

Death by Disputation: A Francis Bacon Mystery, by Anna Castle, (Anna Castle), 364 pages, release date 3 February, 2015

Anna Castle’s Death by Disputation is the middle novel in what’s currently a three-volume series: the Francis Bacon Mysteries. I’s a romp of a read, grounded in the religious feuds of Elizabethan England. Both Catholics and Puritans are dissatisfied with Elizabeth’s rule. Both concoct one scheme after another for making their version of Christianity the faith of the nation—by force if necessary.

Though this is a Francis Bacon mystery, Bacon isn’t the central character. He’s a presence more offstage than on, appearing in person occasionally and sending letters to the real protagonist of the novel, Thomas Clarady. Clarady works as an agent for Bacon; Bacon works for his Uncle, Lord Burghley; Burghley is Elizabeth’s chief adviser, charged with, among other things, keeping the queen safe from religiously motivated plots.

As I noted, this really is a romp of a book. Castle knows the period, but the historical setting takes second place to the novel’s characters which include the poets/playwrights/occasional espionage agents Kit Marlowe and Thomas Nashe, and Clarady’s friend Trumpet from Gray’s Inn, with an almost alarmingly flexible identity that keeps all around him (and/or her) on their toes.

Clarady himself is the son of a privateer (a pirate), who hopes to rise within the highly stratified society of Elizabethan England. Clarady spent time at Gray’s Inn, but was forced to leave when his friend and patron abandoned the study of law for the life of a gentleman. Now, Clarady’s worked out a deal with Bacon: if Clarady can uncover a ring of Puritan plotters at Cambridge, Bacon will see that  Clarady is allowed to finish his education at Gray’s Inn and become a lawyer. Clarady’s task is complicated by the murder disguised as suicide of a tutor who had originally brought the plot to the government’s attention.

Clarady, of course, solves the case. His friends engage in various antics. Marlowe and Nashe appear as “frenemies” of a sort, helping Clarady’s investigation while simultaneously bombarding him with a wide range of insults and snide remarks. Death by Disputation offers readers pleasant, clever company. More novels in the series would be welcome.

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March 03, 2016

A Multi-Layered Literary Treat

The Madwoman Upstairs: A Novel, by Catherine Lowell, (Touchstone), 352 pages, release date 1 March, 2016

Reading The Madwoman Upstairs is like giving yourself a present. It has a range of elements that make it the kind of read that can feel like a mini-vacation. First off, it features a long-running literary rivalry between a pair of academics obsessed with the Brontes. Second, that whole Bronte thing—imagined versions of the sisters and their lives together. There’s also a treasure hunt. And a student room in Oxford that once housed plague victims. Start this book on a weekend, so you don’t have to set it down; pleasure awaits.

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