I expected to only kind of like Duty to the Dead and I ended up liking it a whole lot. The setup is familiar: historical mystery, World War I, dying s...moreI expected to only kind of like Duty to the Dead and I ended up liking it a whole lot. The setup is familiar: historical mystery, World War I, dying soldier’s last message with an independent-minded, nurse-lady detective. Bess Crawford was charged by dying soldier Arthur Graham to take an enigmatic last message to his brother, Jonathan.
The suspects are limited to the members of an upper class family. And as such, the novel has somewhat of a traditional Agatha Christie “country house murder” air about it. It also much easier on the angst than many other similar historical mysteries (cough, Maisie Dobbs, cough). Thus it has a refreshing throwback feel to it. The historical details are interesting and there is some fantastic “local color” in the way of an episode when the Britannic sinks. Even if this had little to do with the actual mystery, it was a good way to set the scene.
The mystery itself is a heartbreaking, touching story. And like all good mysteries, the bad guys are punished and the good guys rewarded. Awesome. (less)
A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss is a first-person, historical mystery about an English-born Jew of Portuguese ancestry going by the name of Benajm...moreA Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss is a first-person, historical mystery about an English-born Jew of Portuguese ancestry going by the name of Benajmin Weaver. He’s a “thief-taker” the 17th century English equivalent of a P.I. Also, as a former boxer, so you know he can handle himself in a fight. Also, he’s an outsider, so you get poignant observations on the culture and society at the time. The mystery comes in when Benjamin is hired by an aristocrat to investigate the supposed murder of his father, and also – incidentally – the murder of Ben’s own, long estranged, “stock-jobber” father.
This novel illuminates an oft-ignored but very important bit of history: the rise of the “new finance” of stock markets and paper money, of coffee house and gamblers and economic bubbles. This, the does very well. It is not a perfect recreation of a REAL 18th century memoir, but it has enough flavor to do the job. I found it did a very creditable job in depicting life at that time as well as making a very game effort to explaining the financial situation as well.
Unfortunately, the very nature of such a task strains the format of popular fiction. Is there any more boring crime than stock market chicanery? Throughout his investigations, Benjamin is given machinations, lies, double-lies, half-truths, double-crosses, and fraud, all bit-by-tiny-bit. Putting it all together is a headache and a half.
Another problem is that I never warmed up to the narrator, finding him a little sympathetic, but also incredibly self-centered. He freely admits to being a bully and a thief and a womanizer. Yeah, he says, I used to beat up my timid cousin and no, I’m not sorry about it. In fact, I think I’ll steal his widow. Oh well, boys will be boys.
Moreover, his best friend Elias, a frivolous doctor/playwright is even MORE self-centered than he is. Ben finds him charming; I found him misogynistic. Of course, there is room in fiction for all sorts of people and he was probably meant to be that way. He is probably a very-well realized portrait of a typical intellectual rake of that era. And, like all people, he is a mixture of good and bad. But I didn’t like either of the heroes very much, and it made it that much harder to connect to the story.
Still, all things considered, I’d rather learn about the South Sea Company the emergence of the stock market through a novel than by any other way and this job nicely. (less)
Ran Away by Barbara Hambly is the 11th entry in her Benjamin January mystery series. This one has a rather odd structure. It’s like two novellas combi...moreRan Away by Barbara Hambly is the 11th entry in her Benjamin January mystery series. This one has a rather odd structure. It’s like two novellas combined into one as we begin in “present-day” 1830s New Orleans with Benjamin January married to Rose and called upon to investigate the death of two Turkish concubines. Almost immediately, however, we enter into an extended flashback to the days when Ben was living in Paris and married to Ayasha. This flashback continues over half the book and is a complete little story in its own. Then we return to Ben’s present and pick up with a new mystery starring some of the same characters.
It’s odd, but I didn’t mind it. It was nice to see more of Ben’s life in Paris. The truncated “present-day” story meant that we saw a lot less of the supporting characters, virtually No Livia or Minou or Olympe, and very little of Shaw or Hannibal. All in all, a decent entry in a decent series. (less)
I am not sure why I decided to read this book. Curiosity, I suppose. I had watched (a long time ago) the Disney movie and remembered it as a very sill...moreI am not sure why I decided to read this book. Curiosity, I suppose. I had watched (a long time ago) the Disney movie and remembered it as a very silly, slapsticky, farcical children’s movie. I think I was intrigued to learn that it was based on a book. What kind of book could it possibly be, I wondered. So I sought it out, read it, did not like it and did not dislike it.
Turns out, it’s a slim Western with a humorous air. In it, the sheriff of a small town beset with bandits takes in five homeless children. I did not find it particularly funny, but someone else might. (less)
I very much enjoyed Wolf of the Plains, which is a fictionalized account of the childhood and early adulthood of the man who would grow up to be Gengh...moreI very much enjoyed Wolf of the Plains, which is a fictionalized account of the childhood and early adulthood of the man who would grow up to be Genghis Khan. I don’t really know much about Asian history, beyond some very broad strokes, so it was quite interesting in that respect.
I also enjoyed the way the author made the very foreign culture of his setting both understandable and familiar yet still clearly alien. He did not simplify it, the way many old-fashioned children’s novels did (“they’re just like you and your family, in funny clothes, eating different food!”). Nor did he overwhelm his readers with the foreignness of it all, making it hard to understand why everyone is acting that way, and even harder to care about them. The details were given out in a very matter-of-fact way. We were given just enough that we could understand that yes, this is a very different way of living, but also that it’s ordinary and everyday to those that lived it.
The plot is also very straight-forward. The political situation is clearly explained, so that the focus is on the characters and how they are affected. The story traces Temujin who, after being exiled from his tribe, leads his mother and siblings first for survival, and then in the building a new tribe. It was exciting and page-turning, but there may have been one too many battles toward the end.
The author includes a note at the end that explains his sources for the story, and quite honestly explains which parts he fictionalized. Turns out, he fictionalized quite a bit and I have mixed feelings about that. I appreciate that he admitted to changing names, compressing time, eliminating brothers. I understand that this streamlined the story. I wish it had not have been necessary. (less)