Sunday, February 28, 2010


12. Heresy, by S. J. Parris

This much is true: Giordano Bruno did go to Oxford in the spring of 1583, in the party of the Prince Palatine Albert Laski and Sir Philip Sidney, where he did engage in a debate on the Copernican theory.

On this thread, S.J. Parks (pseudonym of journalist Stephanie Merritt) has hung her murder mystery. The book opens as Bruno flees his monastery with the Inquisition nipping at his heels. We next see him on his way to Oxford, having traveled far both geographically and socially. By now he had become quite well-known as a lecturer in mnemonics and as a theologian, enjoyed the protection of Henri III, and, in fact, lived in England at the home of the French Ambassador, Michel de Castelnau.

At Oxford, he is immediately confronted with the effects that religious differences in England have had there. Though the Queen sought to consolidate Protestantism there through the appointment of Robert Dudley, Lord Leicester, as chancellor, previous Marian appointments meant that there was still Catholic presence there, and concerns about treason and espionage were not entirely unjustified. Bruno, as an excommunicate, would be unsympathetic to the papist cause, yet because he was a former monk and an Italian, many English Protestants would be suspicious of him.

Bruno has not been in Oxford long when his preparations for the disputation are interrupted by horrific screams, screams that turn out to be from the sub-rector, whose throat is being torn out by an Irish wolfhound. But how did the dog get into an enclosed, locked garden? Bruno is suspicious that this is not an accident. When he finds in the man's room a journal dated using the Gregorian calendar, and in that journal a cipher in invisible writing with the phrase "ora pro nobis", he is sure that something is amiss. A second murder follows hard on the first, and Bruno is plunged into religious and political intrigue.

I will say that I am not ordinarily a fan of books that use well-known historical (or, for that matter, literary) characters as detectives. And, frankly, the part of this book relating to the actual working out of the mystery was the least satisfying. (Honestly, there really aren't a whole lot of murderers who engage in the sort of intricate "message-sending" sort of murders that occur here.) I was much more interested in the playing out of the religious and political tensions between Protestant and Catholic, English and continental European, and how that affected life in Oxford, both for town and gown.

That said, it's quite a well-written book and I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoys mysteries set in Elizabethan times. Me, I've plucked John Bossy's Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair off the shelf on which it has been languishing and will let you know whether Bruno really was a spy!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


8. Shooting at Loons, by Margaret Maron

An early Deborah Knott mystery, which somehow had escaped me! Knott, now judge, has been seconded to a town on the Outer Banks of North Carolina to fill in for an ailing colleague. She and a local boy head out looking for clams, and discover a body instead. And, of course, it won't be the only one.
The hook in this book is the tension between local fishermen and developers, wealth and the struggle to survive, rigidity and compromise, and the odd alliances that are often found in politics. As with all Maron's Deborah Knott books, this one is as much about place as it is about people, and it tells us a story about change and growth and North Carolina at the same time as it's telling us a story about murder and mayhem.

9. The Dain Curse, by Dashiell Hammett

Head to the west coast, where the Continental Op is called in to figure out a burglary and diamond theft for his insurance company employer. A suspect turns up dead, but without the diamonds. Then the guy who was burgled commits suicide, or maybe it wasn't. And he's got a wife who's behaving oddly and a daughter who is gorgeous, troubled, addicted to morphine and pretty sure that she's the victim of a family curse.

Things just keep happening here. Once you think everything's resolved, something pops up, generally a dead body. It's Hammett at his hard-boiled best.

10. Frontera Dreams: A Héctor Belascoarán Shayne detective novel, by Paco Ignacio Taibo II

I am so glad I picked up this book! This is actually the seventh book in the series, the fifth that's been translated into English, but there's a hugely informative essay at the beginning that fills the reader in on what went before. You need to know that Héctor has a body "impervious to wounds", that he was killed and resurrected.

When Héctor was a teenager, he had a sweetheart. Now she's a famous movie star, except that she's disappeared, and his daughter comes asking him to find her. This is about the literal frontera, the U.S.-Mexico border, but also the borders of reality and dreams, past and present and future, who we are and who we were and who we want to be. There are whores and narcotrafficantes, people who still have dreams and people whose dreams have died.

It's too bad that not all of Taibo's books have been translated, but you can bet I'll look for the rest that have been.

11. Talking Mysteries, by Tony Hillerman and Ernie Bulow

If you're a Tony Hillerman fan, I urge you to find this book. The bulk of it is an interview of Hillerman by Bulow, about Hillerman's work, how he came to set his books in Navajo country, how he writes, a lot of great stuff about the process of writing that should be of interest even if you're not a Hillerman devotée. There's also an essay by Hillerman on similar themes; a short story, a "Jim Chee mini-mystery"; and several drawings by Ernest Franklin, originally intended for one of Hillerman's books. This is a great glimpse into how an author works, where his ideas come from, and how he makes those ideas flesh.

Monday, February 15, 2010

This Book is Overdue!

7. This Book is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All, by Marilyn Johnson

I requested this book from the Amazon Vine program because I love libraries and librarians. I thought I'd be reading a real discussion about the place of the library in this cyber-age. But I didn't get that. In fact, it's hard to say what I did get.

The problem is stated clearly and succinctly by the author early on (though I doubt she realized that she was describing her book!), when she says, "This is a story . . . researched partly on a computer in mazes so extended and complex -- every link a trapdoor to another set of links -- that I never found a sturdy place to stop and grasp the whole."

Her failure to "grasp the whole" has resulted in a book that is little more than a collection of anecdotes. Johnson has no thesis, no point, to tie these stories together. She jumps from a lengthy discussion about libraries and librarians on Second Life (and it occurred to me that it's been ages since I've heard anyone even mention Second Life!) to the serious matter of government intrusion into library records to decisions about archiving author records. (She actually spends nearly six pages on library blog entries about feces. Really.) She is uncritical about technology, so entranced by its usefulness that she cannot see its drawbacks.

And the book is too much about Johnson, her interactions, what she did, what she thought.

I'm not saying, "Don't read this book." You may find some of the anecdotes amusing or interesting. Just don't expect any serious discussion or analysis of the problems facing libraries and librarians today.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Murder in the Rue Dauphine

6. Murder in the Rue Dauphine, by Greg Herren

Chanse MacLeod used to be a New Orleans police officer. Now he's a private detective. One day, he's hired by a young gay man, Mike Hansen, to try to find, and stop, the person who is blackmailing Mike and his older, rich, closeted lover. Before Chanse can get his teeth into the case, though, Mike is murdered, and the words "Faggots die" is written in blood on the wall. Though MacLeod (and the police) believe that the murder is more likely connected to the blackmail, the leader of a local gay rights organization insists that it's a gay bashing, and begins to politicize the murder. Then MacLeod, and the victim's neighbor, are shot at by someone shouting "Die faggots", and he begins to wonder.

Now, I have to admit that I figured out a good bit of what was going on before the end, but, after all, I've been reading mystery novels for literally decades, so I have a pretty good idea of what to expect. But there were some twists and turns here, and I do appreciate the fact that Herren doesn't fall back on the culprit or culprits' confession to solve the case.

This being the first of a series of Chanse MacLeod mysteries, we get a fair bit of back story about Chanse and the woman in his life, his reporter friend Paige Tourneur. Chanse has also just begun a relationship with Paul, a flight attendant, and I thought Herren did a masterful job of showing Chanse's ambivalence about it, from worrying that Paul might have a boyfriend in every airport to the opposite worry that Paul might be falling in love before Chanse is ready.

There's a long list of writers in the acknowledgements, and many of them are people whose work I've enjoyed over the years*. So to know that people like Julie Smith and Dorothy Allison saw something in Herren's work was certainly an incentive to read this. They weren't wrong.

*Story! Several years ago, I wandered into the Faubourg Marigny Bookstore (and could someone please design them a website, please?) looking for a book to read on my flight home. I was looking specifically for a book by Katherine V. Forrest, which they didn't have. But the young man suggested that I try instead Death by the Riverside, by a local writer, J.M. Redmann. Great book, and ever since then I've been hooked on the concept of looking for local authors wherever I travel.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Unbearable Lightness of Scones

5. The Unbearable Lightness of Scones, by Alexander McCall Smith

The latest in McCall Smith's 44 Scotland Street series is as delightful as its predecessors. Much is changing, though. Matthew and Elspeth are wed and both are adjusting to married life. Bruce, the pre-eminent narcissist and egotist, has turned over a new leaf, or has he? Against his mother's wishes, Bertie has joined the Boy Scouts! Unfortunately, so has his nemesis, Olive. But at least he has a new therapist. And The Pretender from over the water has returned to Scotland!

This series is always entertaining, frequently amusing, sometimes thought-provoking, and provides a lovely picture of the city of Edinburgh.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Women's Albums and Photography in Victorian England

4. Women's Albums and Photography in Victorian England: Ladies, Mothers and Flirts:, by Patrizia di Bello

I recently saw a fascinating exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago called Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage. The show displayed albums by several upper-class English women who combined the arts of photography, drawing and painting to create images that deconstruct the original meaning of the photographs in a way that precurses surrealism. Di Bello, who is a lecturer in the history and theory of photography at Birkbeck College, University of London, contributed an essay to the exhibition catalogue, and this book delves into many of the same themes of the exhibition.

Di Bello looks primarily at two specific albums: that of Anna Birkbeck (Lady Waterlow), created between 1825 and approximately 1847, and that of Lady Mary Filmer, compiled around the 1860s. Lady Waterlow collected in her album poetic and artistic contributions from friends, many of whom were well-known in their own time, such as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and Robert Owen. Thus the album becomes evidence, through individual and personal connections, of the owner's participation in public, cultural spheres.

Between Lady Waterlow's and Lady Filmer's times, photography burgeoned. The phenomenon of the carte de visite, those postcard-sized photographs that were exchanged by friends and sold in the marketplace, allowed mass production of images that could then be used in a variety of ways. In Lady Filmer's album, we see images cut from cartes de visite placed in settings congruous and incongruous. She places images of men on painted parasols, just as other album makers placed images on teacups, luggage, sandwich boards and the like. Her access to images of the Prince of Wales, and her placement of a cutout of him in a prominent position on the page "Lady Filmer in her Drawing Room", is an indication of how a woman might use her albums to show her place in society.

Di Bello also looks at photography and albums in the context of the larger society. Such albums appeared in images in advertisements and in women's magazines. Photographs of aristocratic women, of the Queen and her family, were displayed in shops and reproduced widely.

It is di Bello's argument that the women who worked on these mixed media albums understood and were exploiting the way photography "sever[s] people from their original social context into another, created by the image-maker." She suggests that such albums are neither high art nor mass culture, but engaged with both. She notes that as photography lost its exclusivity, through mass marketing of images and easier-to-use photographic techniques, upper-class women began to use other means, such as photocollage, to personalize their albums and emphasize their status.

Having been much intrigued by the images I saw at the Art Institute, I was pleased to be able to read more about the subject. I would, however, caution that this is di Bello's doctoral dissertation. As such, it is written in an academic style that many may find difficult. Once the reader accommodates herself to the dense prose, however, she will be rewarded by interesting ideas and insights into a creative art that has too often been denigrated as nothing more than one of those lady-like domestic accomplishments expected of upper-class Victorian women.

Reviewed as part of

Monday, February 8, 2010

Book Blogger Convention!

There's going to be a Book Blogger Convention in New York City in May, and I'm planning to go!

In an excellent confluence of events, the convention is one week before my college reunion. So here's what happened. The reunion starts June 3. I always go a few days early or stay a few days late to go to theater & concerts, visit museums, hang with friends, etc. This year, the plan was to go out on the Sunday or Monday beforehand. Now, I'm on the board of a local theatre company, and a play that was put on in Chicago in association with that company is headed to New York. The director will be in New York in April and May, coming back to Chicago the 31st. So I decided to go out on Saturday to hang with him and see the play before he leaves. But then I heard about the Book Blogger Convention on the 28th, and thought, "well, heck! Why don't I go out on Thursday and go to that?" So I am.

Then the BBC (Book Blogger Convention, not British Broadcasting Corporation!) people said that the registration for that would also get us into Book Expo, which is the 25th-27th. And, you know, I'd love to do that, but this is getting ridiculous! I suppose I could fly out on Wednesday and spend Thursday at BEA. But, oh, all those nights in a New York hotel add up! Thank goodness I'll be staying in the dorms for the reunion. Because I am so tempted by BEA!

Am I insane? Maybe, maybe not. But I am definitely excited!

Sunday, February 7, 2010


3. Affinity, by Sarah Waters

I first met Sarah Waters work in Fingersmith, her very Dickensian novel, and one that I adored. Affinity is even better.

Margaret Prior is a young upper-class Victorian woman. Following her recovery from a suicide attempt, she engages in the "good work" of a prison visitor to the women's prison at Millbank. There, she is drawn to Selina Dawes, a medium who has been convicted of assault following a séance that ended with her mentor dead and a young woman traumatized.

The book is told in two alternating stories: that of Selina, telling of the events leading to the fateful night, and that of Margaret, beginning as she starts her prison visits. Gradually, we learn a great deal about Margaret. Her father was a scholar of Renaissance art, she his amanuensis. Her intellectual leanings made her feel a bit out of place from the rest of her family, and her father's death hit her hard. The loss of the long longed-for trip to Italy is compounded by the fact that her about-to-be-married sister is to honeymoon there, and her socially conforming mother cannot provide the sympathy or empathy she needs. All the more so because yet another loss cannot be spoken of. How can she reveal that she and her brother's wife were once, it seems, more than friends? Her inner thoughts, her psychology, unfold.

Selina is not opened to us so much. Her story is more of action. "This is what happened, this is what I learned, this is what I did." Not so much of "this is what I thought", "this is how I feel". Miss Selina Dawes, medium, becomes aware of her spiritualist powers, is taken up by the community and learns how to use those powers, becomes the protegée of the wealthy Mrs. Brink and ends up in prison. Selina comes to us more through Margaret's reaction to her than through herself.

Waters' descriptive abilities are extraordinary. Her limning of the physical and psychological constraints of Millbank prison are dead on. And this book contains what may be one of the creepiest passages of writing I have ever read. Margaret has gone to a spiritualist society, where she has seen moulds of human parts, including one which is supposed to be the hand of Dawes' spirit guide, Peter Quick. She imagines that hand coming to visit Selina in prison. "It would be silent, dark and very still; the shelves of moulds, however, might not lie still. The wax might ripple. The lips upon the spirit-face might twitch, and the eyelids roll; the dimple upon the baby's arm would grow deeper as the arm unfolded -- so I saw it now, in Selina's cell, as I stepped form her and shuddered. The swollen fingers of Peter Quick's fist -- I saw, them, I saw them! -- were uncurling, and flexing. Now the hand was inching its way cross the shelf, the fingers drawing the palm over the wood. Now they were parting the cabinet doors -- they left smears upon the glass."

Note the name: Peter Quick. That's no accident. Affinity's ambivalence over the question of "ghosts or madness", its exploration of psychological control, of possession, of power relationships, owes a good deal to Henry James The Turn of the Screw.

This is a stunning novel. And the end will rip you up.

Jules and Jim

2. Jules and Jim, by Henri-Pierre Roché

This is the book from which François Truffaut made his iconic film. It's the story of two friends, Jules and Jim, who both love Kate, who marries Jules, divorces him to marry Jim, but doesn't, and goes back to Jules, but continues her affair with Jim, not to mention other men. She's basically a selfish, self-centered woman, and it's hard to see why they love her. One can understand, perhaps the initial attraction, but these relationships span the period from 1907 until well into the '30s, when they're old enough to know better!

So it's a curious book, and I liked the laconic style - short sentences, short chapters. Yet one never feels one knows or understands the protagonists, and Kate is positively unlikable.

(I read it in translation, which, for the most part, seemed good. But there's one extended section involving a Nordic woman named Odile in which, to show that she did not speak French well, the translator has her speaking in a rather annoying pidgin (the author?translator?'s word). "Many them at café want teach me. Me no want." Now, I have no idea whether that's a decent translation of how a Scandinavian who didn't speak much French would torture the syntax, but it was irksome.)