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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The King's Gold: The Adventures of Captain Alatriste

I discovered this historical fiction series written by noted Spanish author Arturo Perez-Reverte several years ago when it appeared in America in translation.  It follows the adventures of Captain Diego Alatriste and his young apprentice Inigo Balboa as they negotiate the perilous pathways of Seville, Madrid, Cadiz and the Netherlands in service of king and country in the early 1600s.  In my ignorance of Spanish history, it took me several books to realize that the characters in these books are real, and that Perez-Reverte is mining Spanish archives for the incidents on which these books are based.  One of Alatriste's companions was the noted poet, Don Francisco de Quevedo, and the books are peppered with quotes from his poetry, with a bonus selection of additional poetry related to the plot of the book included at the end.  Who could ask for more in a book that combines cold steel, derring-do, political maneuvering, personal vendettas and culture in one neat package?

The King's Gold (#463) sees Diego Alatriste and Inigo Balboa returning from action in Flanders and Holland.  No sooner are they disembarked at Cadiz when they are recruited for a secret mission to seize the contents of a ship returning with the King's Treasure Fleet from the New World.  The problem is that this particular ship is known to be carrying gold and silver as an undeclared cargo.  Who profits from such an enormous haul?  Certainly not the king and his treasury, but a delicate balance must be maintained to restore the treasure to its rightful owner without upsetting the political applecart.  Captain Alatriste is just the man for the job...

While on its surface, this is an adventure story, it also delves into the questions of loyalty and honor.  To whom does Alatriste own his allegiance, and at what cost to his personal morals?  Can he justify his duty when it requires sacrificing the lives of the poor to foster the ambitious of the greedy few?  It's amazing how these issues still resonate in today's world.  Who is clean and who is not?  These stories are highly recommended.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War

Nathaniel Philbrick's non-fiction work Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War (#462) was published several years ago, but what prompted me to finally pick it up and read it now was hearing Mr. Philbrick interviewed on NPR as my husband and I were driving to our own family Thanksgiving on the Outer Banks. When you think of the First Thanksgiving, do you picture the Pilgrims in their quaint white-collared garb gathered around an outdoor table, sharing their feast with their Indian friends Massasoit and Squanto?  If you were ever in a school pageant, that's probably the version you and your classmates enacted.  Well, prepare to have those pretty myths dispelled.

In Mr. Philbrick's Mayflower, a much more accurate picture of the Pilgrims emerges; one much more nuanced and real, from their decision to leave England where they suffered for their religious beliefs for a more tolerant Holland.  During their time in Leiden, they realized that their children were losing their English identity.  It was time to find a new place to settle without corrupting influences, and the New World beckoned.  Never mind that they did not possess the skills necessary to survive in the wilderness: God would provide.  And He did, through the intervention of the Native Americans - a relationship that lasted peacefully throughout the lives of the first generation of Pilgrims.  But as the families of the original settlers reached adulthood, and set about establishing their own farms on what had previously been tribal lands, relationships began to sour. Fifty years after landing at Plymouth Rock, pressure to expand from Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts Bay Colony to the north and Rhode Island and Connecticut to the south finally caused the spark that ignited King Phillip's War.  Never heard of it?  Probably not, if you're not a New Englander, but it was the bloodiest war ever fought on American soil in terms of lives lost in the percentages of both Europeans and Native Americans, and yes, we're counting Antietam.  Although the war technically ended with the death of Phillip in 1676, the wars on the frontiers wouldn't be over until two hundred year later so it was tremendously influential in its impact. 

Greed and ambition played a large role on both sides of the equation, just as moderation and fair play governed the actions of others.  There were heroes and villains on both sides.  Squanto is usually portrayed as one of the "good guys" in our mythology.  After reading Mr. Philbrick's Mayflower, you may find yourself changing your mind!  If you want to learn more about America's early days, the well-told Mayflower with  its unexpected twists is highly recommended!

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Alto Wore Tweed - A Liturgical Mystery

The Alto Wore Tweed - A Liturgical Mystery (#461) by Mark Schweizer is definitely written for a niche audience, but boy, has he found the right audience in me!  Episcopalian? Check.  Former Choir member?  Check.   Former Altar Guild member?  Check.  Former Vestry member?  Check.  Appreciates the more traditional forms of worship and music?  Double check.  But most importantly, have a sense of humor, and can take a joke, even when it's on you?  Also check.

In a North Carolina town where the town's Chief of Police doubles as the volunteer organist/choir master, things are apparently never dull at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church.  A body found in the choir loft is a complicating factor just as the Church Year moves into Advent and Christmas.  The new female rector is setting up backs throughout the congregation, and her behavior after the corpse is uncovered leads Hayden Konig in his professional capacity to suspect that the death was deliberate.  Since he also wants to be the new Raymond Chandler, his suspicions are fed by the plot of the novel he's concocting on his newly acquired typewriter; the one he bought at auction that belonged to Raymond Chandler himself.  Of course Hayden's right about this being murder, but is he correct about who did it?

This book is chock-a-block full of terrible writing (his putative novel), awful puns, and just plain laugh out loud antics that someone like me has no trouble imagining are based on kernels of real experiences.  I could tell a few stories myself...  But along with that, Hayden loves music, and I wish I could once again sing in a choir that performed the kind of anthems and motets the St. Barnabas choir does.  Those were the days.  He's always listening to luscious music, and I've got to love someone who names my all-time favorite Christmas album A Renaissance Christmas by the Waverly Consort as being one of his favorites as well.  So much to love about this book if you've ever been caught up in church politics.  Can't wait to read the next three volumes in this boxed set.  (Which I did borrow from my church library, so I'm glad to say my parish isn't likely to be offended by this delightful mysteries!)

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Iris Fan

The Iris Fan (#460) is the eighteenth and final installment of Laura Joh Rowland's outstanding historical mystery series set in feudal Japan.  The series follows the ups and downs of samurai Sano Ichiro at the court of Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi over the twenty years of his reign.  Following the course of samurai honor, busihido, Sano-san has remained faithful to himself and his principles, but at great personal cost, and it has earned him implacable enemies.  This final entry is not only a nail-biting adventure on its own, it resolves some of the long-standing questions that have haunted Sano and his wife Reiko as the balance of power shifts in Japan.  Although you could read The Iris Fan on its own, I think it's best appreciated if the politics of the underlying allegiances, enmities and sequences of events leading up to them are known by reading the previous books in this series.  Believe me, it will be no hardship if you enjoyed such books as Clavell's Shogun.

In 1709, when The Iris Fan opens, Sano has doggedly been pursuing the guilty parties in the deaths of potential claimants to the Shogun's throne for four years, despite being warned to drop it.  But Sano's primary loyalty is to his lord, the ailing and elderly Shogun who raised him from the ranks to Chief Inspector and then Chamberlain at his court.  The rival heirs to the Shogun's throne are responsible for demoting Sano to the lowest possible post in the Tokugawa regime as the Shogun's health has failed.  Since both Lord Yanagisawa and Lord Ienobu are Sano's enemies, Sano knows that no matter the outcome of the succession, he and his family will be put to death, so he is desperate to solve his final case, the mysterious stabbing of the Shogun in his bed, which has left him close to death.  Sano is convinced either Ienobu or Yanagisawa is responsible, but which?  To find the truth behind the attempted assassination may be to determine the fate of Japan in the future, even if Sano dies in the attempt.

This series is so well-written and intriguing that I will miss having the adventures of Sano, Reiko and the rest of the court to look forward to, but by the same token, this is the perfect place to end the series.  Japan is about to enter the modern age, however reluctantly, through the opening of Japan to the West.  Nothing will ever be the same again for the samurai system and feudal Japan, of which Sano Ichiro was the exemplar.  Thank you for taking us there in your books, Ms. Rowland!

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Bush Was Blazing But Not Consumed

As you might have guessed from its title, The Bush Was Blazing But Not Consumed (#459), this book on multiculturalism by Eric H. F. Law is one of the assigned readings for the EfM course I am taking.  In it, he outlines some of the issues congregations have which are divided along racial, cultural or gender-based lines, and seeks to promote practical methods of dialogue that will lead to communication among the different groups.  The goal is to arrive at a point where those divided by their differences  can arrive at some commonalities leading to effective joint worship.

For me, it was really a slog to finish this book.  Although Law makes some good points, they are almost lost in his constant references back to his previous book, which the reader is instructed to consult for explanations of many of the concepts he uses in The Bush Was Blazing.  It's difficult to digest the contents of this book when you have to struggle with unfamiliar and unexplained terminology.  To use one of his own metaphors, he creates his own Tower of Babel in the text.  His work as a consultant for parishes and dioceses, mostly in the western United States, have led to the development of many of the group exercises in the Appendices, but as I read this book, in the back of my mind I could hear a small voice consistently calling "Hire me!  Hire me!  I can train those facilitators for you, conduct those exercises, ask the right questions, etc..."

Overall, I have to come down on the side of not liking this book.  It may be partly because I felt so unevolved after reading it, or that no one can ever achieve or maintain the level of enlightenment Father Law demands.  But I do have to say my group was divided on its opinion of The Bush Was Burning, and in the right hands it could be a powerful tool.  Just don't expect them to be mine!

Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Weird Sisters

When The Weird Sisters (#458) by Eleanor Brown was first published several years ago, I resisted reading it because all the reviews emphasized that the patriarch of the Andreas family was a Shakespeare-spouting professor and renowned authority on The Bard.  I respect Shakespeare's influence on literature and even our day-to-day speech (I did visit Shakespeare's cottage in Stratford-on-Avon and attended a production of Romeo and Juliet there - just for the record Timothy Dalton made a gorgeous Romeo!) but I didn't relish the idea of a whole novel centering on him.  I'm glad to say it doesn't.  Thank you, Literary Circle, for changing my mind about The Weird Sisters.

The Weird Sisters is what the three unmarried Andreas daughters christened themselves after they put on a schoolgirl production of Macbeth, paring it down to the only worthwhile roles: the witches.  Rosalind, Bianca and Cordelia are now grown and have gone their separate ways until their mother's illness summons them home to take care of her in the tiny college town of Barnwell.  Putting their own lives on hold gives them the chance to pause and assess their own lives.  None are living the lives they had dreamed of as they grew up; quite the reverse.  The examination of how each of the sisters has failed in some way, and their initial convictions that nothing can be ever be set right again at this point make their ultimate redemptions a journey you'll gladly undertake in their company.

I found myself surprised by how much I cared about Rose, Bean and Cordy by the end of the book.  The Weird Sisters wasn't at all what I expected: it was so much more.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Temptation of the Night Jasmine

I decided to choose a book I've been saving for a special occasion to end my year's reading, so I plucked The Temptation of the Night Jasmine (#457) by Lauren Willig from my bookshelf where it's been patiently waiting.  It's the fifth book in her delicious Pink Carnation series (best read in order from the first book, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation.)  I realize that I'm way behind in keeping up with this series (although I own all of them, sitting temptingly on my bookshelf just where I can see them).  The question for me has always been: do I gobble them up like a handful of M&Ms as fast as Ms. Willig writes them?; or do I save them for just the right moment like a fabulous Castronovo truffle?  There's a time for each, but with this series, the delayed gratification approach seems most satisfactory.

Eloise is a modern day graduate student, searching old English archives for source materials on Napoleonic spies for her thesis.  She has settled on trying to trace and identify a successful circle of spies run by the elusive Pink Carnation.  Finding an untouched trove of papers in an English country house is like hitting a gigantic jackpot for Eloise.  The problem is not with her original English contact for the papers, the elderly Mrs. Selwick-Alderly; it's with the house's actual owner, her nephew Colin.  The stops and starts of Eloise and Colin's relationship provide the framework for the meat of the series: the adventures of various members of the Pink Carnation's circle of spies.  In The Temptation of the Night Jasmine, it centers around the return of the long absent Duke of Dovedale, Robert Landsdowne.  He's spent the last decade in India, earning a hard-won captaincy in the process.  But the murder of his mentor during the Battle of Assaye has him resigning his commission to follow the jasmine sprig-wearing Wrothan home to England, so Robert can extract his revenge on the man who betrayed his mentor and sold British secrets to the Indian Mahrattas and the French.  For Charlotte Landsdowne, the unexpected return of her cousin on Christmas Eve in the midst of a boisterous house party is the long-anticipated arrival of her knight in shining armor.  Her grandmama has arranged for a houseful of potential suitors for Charlotte's hand, but all she can see is Robert.  Needless to say, things do not go smoothly.  Robert finds himself tangled up with the infamous Hellfire Club in pursuit of Wrothan.  Charlotte in the meantime must do her duty as a maid of honor to Queen Charlotte in London.  It's her knowledge of Queen's House that will ultimately provide the key to Robert's revenge and the foiling of a dastardly plot against the British throne.  It doesn't reconcile Charlotte and Robert, however.  Will anything ever bring these two together?

Ms. Willig has earned both a degree in history and a J.D. from Harvard, so this series as well as being a crackerjack Regency era spy novel and romance, has the additional benefit of being well-researched and plausible, gilded with just the right dash of  humor.  Do I sound like a smitten fan of this series?  I am!