Sunday, May 23, 2010

Two that don't live up to the rest of their series

21. A River in the Sky, by Elizabeth Peters

Amelia Peabody and her Egyptologist husband, Radcliffe Emerson, are off, not to Egypt, but to Palestine. Out of chronological order, this one is set in 1910, at a time when the Ottoman Empire was crumbling and the British were trying to stem German influence in the Holy Land. The Emersons set off, at the behest of the War Office, which is concerned that a bumbling archaelogist may or may not be a German spy, but in any case is likely to engage in a dig that will antagonize Jew, Muslim and Christian alike.

As in all Peters' books, the bad guys aren't always easy to tell from the good, Ramses Emerson gets into hot water, there are mysterious societies, and what's right and wrong isn't always obvious. Unlike many of her books, though, there's a sense that Peters was going through the motions, putting in the stock scenes - Amelia with her umbrella, Emerson ranting, women throwing themselves at Ramses. There's very little emotional tension, and, frankly, the motivations of the characters are almost buried.

Not Peters' best.

22. The Devil Amongst the Lawyers, by Sharyn McCrumb

I was really back-and-forth about this book. I love Sharyn McCrumb's Ballad series, but this one doesn't seem to quite fit with the rest, despite the presence of a very young Nora Bonesteel.

Based on the true story of Edith Maxwell, a young schoolteacher who was tried for murdering her father, this novel could have been written about a lot of high publicity trials today. Just as today, journalists tried to fit events into a pre-determined mold, not caring if what they said was true or not. McCrumb describes them coming down to the Blue Ridge from the cities of the North, expecting poverty and ignorance, and, when that's not what they found, saying it was, anyway. They decided first whether they wanted Erma Morton (the Edith Maxwell character) to be guilty or not, and wrote their stories accordingly. (Remind anyone of broadcasters like Nancy Grace?) The journalists aren't the only ones using Morton for their own ends. Her brother, the townsfolk, all have their reasons for wanting a particular outcome.

Into this mix comes a young journalist from Tennessee, Carl Jenkins, who knows this land and its people, and is shocked by the way the experts are covering the trial. Yet he is not immune. When his newspaper wants more "oomph" to his stories, he hits on the idea of bringing his young relative, Nora Bonesteel, to town. She has the "sight", and maybe she will "see" the truth and help him with his stories. Of course, she can't, because, as she tells Carl, "it doesn't work that way".

McCrumb has given her journalists interesting back stories that inform their present, the celebrity journalist Henry Jernigan and his years in Japan, sob sister Rose Hanelon and her yearning for love, Carl Jenkins and his need to fit in and "be somebody". I almost wish she hadn't wrapped up their futures in an epilogue, because I could have stood to have had them back again.

I think my small dissatisfaction with a novel I truly enjoyed otherwise was a sense that the "Ballad" part was just lying on top of the plot, rather than being an integral part of it. The story was good enough that it could have stood on its own.

There's a non-fiction book about this trial, Sharon Hatfield's Never Seen the Moon, that I'm going to look for.


  1. Peters' Laughter of Dead Kings was similar--not much emotion or character motivation. It was still great to see John and Vicky in a novel, but it felt like they were barely there! And wouldn't John have a cell phone by now?

  2. What a wonderful blog.
    Kelly Bookend Diaries

  3. Thank you for the kind words, Kelly!