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Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Winter Queen

I never would have found The Winter Queen (#197) by Boris Akunin on my own.  A friend from the GoodReads Historical Fiction 2012 Challenge highly recommended it, and I'm glad she did.

When a young aristocrat commits suicide in the crowded Alexander Gardens in Moscow on a fine spring day in 1876, Grushin, the commander of the Criminal Investigation Division of the Moscow Police, finds the daily incident report curious.  He reads the report aloud to Erast Fandorin, who has just joined his department on the lowest rung of the civil service ladder.  Young Fandorin has his own opinion on the suicide.  His ideas intrigue Grushin enough to send Fandorin out to do some investigating of his own.  What he discovers is that there is much more behind the apparent suicide.  Affairs almost take a deadly turn for Erast as he begins to suspect a wide international conspiracy is behind events.  But who is running the cabal, and to what purpose?

The characters and background are drawn so vividly in The Winter Queen, you are pulled into the world of imperial Russian bureaucracy seamlessly.  Russia is hovering on the edge of great social and technological changes, and these elements play their own roles in the plot.  The main character is young and endearing.  You want Erast Fandorin to succeed in his investigation and discover the truth.  Athough he accomplishes his mission, he will pay a high price for his rapid advance through the bureaucracy in a way that will mark him for life. 

The Winter Queen  has been translated from Russian for the English-speaking world.  Mr. Akunin is already one of the most widely-read authors in Russia, and it's easy to see why in the first mystery featuring Erast Fandorin.  Fortunately for us, many of the other novels in this series have also been translated, and I am looking forward to reading his further cases.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Zoobiquity: What Animals Can Teach Us About Health and the Science of Healing

Zoobiquity: What Animals Can Teach Us About Health and the Science of Healing (#196) first came up at my library book group as a recommended read.  Later that same week, I heard Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, M.D., the physician half of this writing team (Kathryn Bowers is her journalist co-author.) interviewed on NPR.  I've included a link so you can listen to it for yourself:  NPR Zoobiquity Interview .

Dr. Natterson-Horowitz is a cardiologist who began by asking a very simple question:  Can animals get    (Fill in the disease) ? after she was called in to consult on some primate cardiac cases at the Los Angeles Zoo.  Her research led her to discover that there is incredible overlap in diseases and conditions that affect both humans and non-humans.  But since until recently the gap between veterinary and human medicine has been so great that research which could potentially be beneficial to a wide range of species has not been shared.  Finally, it seems that picture may be gradually changing to be replaced by a universal approach to both human and non-human health.  The term coined for this is zoobiquity. 

Filled with intriguing and entertaining anecdotes to illustrate her points, Dr. Natterson-Horowitz still manages to present her arguments in a way that is easy for the layman to grasp without dumbing down the contents. You'll never look at Fluffy or Fido (or yourself!) the same way again.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar

When my husband asked me how I was enjoying A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar (#195) as I was reading it, I had to stop and think before I could answer him.  I finally decided to tell him that the story itself was interesting enough, but I didn't like a single one of the characters. By the time I finished Suzanne Joinson's book, I hadn't changed my opinion.

In 1923, Kashgar is an uneasy western outpost of the Chinese in a heavily Moslem region.  This is where Evangeline English and her sister Lizzie accompany the enigmatic and forceful Millicent Frost to found a Christian mission there. They are not welcome, and are immediately placed under house arrest for murder for their part in a delivery gone wrong when the mother dies.  Their story is intertwined with that of Frieda, who has just returned to her London flat after months abroad working for some vague foundation promoting Anglo-Muslim relations, and is angry that her married boyfriend does not show up to greet her, but finds a homeless Yemeni man sleeping outside her door instead. There is a connection between these two stories, which wasn't too difficult to figure out early on.

I have the feeling that the author would find me too bourgeois to appreciate her work, but I disliked all the characters in this book.  Liars, cheats, hypocrites and deceivers all, with no moral compass to ground them, or us, the readers.  We're supposed to admire them, I guess, but I couldn't get around their absolute willingness to gain their own ends at the expense of everyone else's happiness.

This book is being pushed heavily by the publisher, but I think there are many, many books out there much more worthy of your time and attention.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Merchant's Daughter

I must admit that Young Adult Christian novels aren't usually my first choice for preferred reading, but I did receive Melanie Dickerson's The Merchant's Daughter (#194) from the folks at Zondervan Publishing in a GoodReads Historical Fiction First Reads giveaway. I wasn't sure at first that I would like the book, since I'm not really a member of their target audience, but I do have to say that once I got into the story a bit, the action picked up and I really did want to find out what happened to the characters.

Set in England in the 1300s, Annabel Chapman is the merchant's daughter who is forced by her family's lack of duty to the local overlord into a three year period of indenture as a servant in their lord's household.  Of course, her brother offers her an alternative: he has promised Annabel as a bride to the loathsome bailiff in return for payment of the Chapman's fees.  Annabel is repulsed by the thought, and is determined to pay her family's debts to the new, young, and disfigured Lord Ranulf le Wyse. If she serves her term of indenture, perhaps she will then be allowed to enter a convent where she hopes to be able to finally read the Bible for herself.

Even though the course of true love never does run smoothly, the reader will be able to see the end coming from the first few pages.  However, it's always the obstacles that make the journey so interesting.  Although it was not immediately apparent, I was relieved when Ms. Dickerson did make a point of explaining that Annabel's long time desire to read the Bible for herself was fulfilled by reading for Lord Ranulf in Latin, not a skill possessed by many in a medieval village.  After all, if you are going to read historical fiction, you probably do it because you want to learn something new about a different place and time.  It's nice to know the author did the research to make sure the background is authentic.

If you're a young adult reader, or merely young at heart, this medieval romance based on on a Beauty and the Beast theme should be just the ticket.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

An Economist Gets Lunch; New Rules for Everyday Foodies

Tyler Cowen is an economist, George Mason University economics professor, best-selling author of The Great Stagnation, and restaurant reviewer/food critic.  I think I've covered all the bases for this author of An Economist Gets Lunch; New Rules for Everyday Foodies (#193).

I found this book to be quite an interesting read.  Mr. Cowen presents many facts about the current world-wide supply of high quality, cheap food and the forces which drive this market in a way that is easy to understand and grasp in layman's language. 

On the other hand, since the title contains the words "Everyday Foodies"  many of the tips to finding and enjoying food that tastes good as well as being nutritious he includes here are positively ridiculous.  I don't know about you, but I'm not likely to be strolling the food stalls in Singapore, or sitting down to a $150 lunch in Tokyo or complaining about the dismal quality of food in central Paris anytime soon.  If you are like me and will be eating anywhere in the United States, we're apparently doomed to a lifetime of awful food.  That is, unless, you happen to live near the Great Wall Asian Market in suburban Washington, D.C. and shop their produce stand.  If you are abroad eating on someone else's expense account, you may find some tolerable meals out there.  Mr. Cowen does rave about the cheap meals he was able to find recently - on a trip to Nicaragua.  If you go anywhere other tourists visit because, say, there are interesting things to see or do there, expect miserable meals.

That being said, there really is much food for thought (sorry!) in this book.  And that's the point: that it's important to think about your food choices, and why you eat the way you do., Mr. Cowen suggests ways that you might be able in the future to eat better, improve your health and the overall health of the planet and the people we share it with.

And just for the record, if you do decide it's worth your time to read this book (and I think it is) Tyler Cowen is absolutely dead wrong about hospital food - I spent eight years of my working life as a software implementation specialist eating in hospital cafeterias all over the US, and yes, Mr. Cowen, there are lots of places where the hospital cafeteria serves the best food in town, outsiders regularly eat meals there, and they are the most in-demand caterers in town!  He is also spot on about Somerville, Massachusetts being a hot spot for high quality, high flavor ethnic foods.  I know, because I grew up there eating in little mom-and-pop restaurants with my parents way before it was the fashionable foodie thing to do!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Seriously...I'm Kidding

Seriously...I'm Kidding (#192) by Ellen Degeneres is her third book.  Maybe she should have stopped at two.  I don't think there's anything in this book that you haven't already heard or read about.  I thought it was very tired and unoriginal for the most part.  Although I do have to say that I totally agree with her chapter Common Courtesy.

I really wanted to like this book but I was very disappointed.  I found myself wondering if her literary contract specified the number of pages required in this manuscript, because so many pages were blank, or had line drawings or only a few words per page. I also didn't appreciate the "dumb" jokes scattered throughout.  Someone who has managed to be as successful as Ms. Degeneres with only a high school diploma is to be admired.  She's very astute, yet she expects us to fall for the "poor undereducated me" act. That's insulting.

I guess you'd really need to be a dyed-in-the-wool Ellen Degeneres fan to like this book.  If you want to go ahead a read it anyway, at least it won't take long...  Seriously, I'm not kidding.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Hunger Games

A friend finally lent me her copy of The Hunger Games (#191) by Suzanne Collins.  My mistake was in not asking for all three volumes at once.  I'd heard from others that once they got started on these books they couldn't put them down.  Well, friends, the rumors are true.

I wasn't really expecting to like this book, but I was very pleasantly surprised at the quality of the writing in The Hunger Games.  Since it's billed as a Young Adult novel, I expected that the vocabulary might be dumbed down, but it wasn't.  The reader's involvement with the plot was immediate, and the pacing relentless. 

For the first time since I read Gone With The Wind a gazillion years ago, I found myself picturing the characters in this book as the actors who portrayed them in the recent movie, which I haven't even seen!  (Yet!)  I'll be pacing until Monday rolls around and I can get to the library to pick up the next two books. 

Should you read this book?  I'd say yes, if you want to know what all the buzz is about.  This isn't just some sparkly vampire/werewolf fantasy.  This is a book that puts some thought-provoking ideas out there, more in tune with Lord of the Flies.  It's bound to become a classic.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Death Comes to Pemberley

I think Jane Austen would be pleased with how well P.D. James captures her literary style in Death Comes to Pemberley (#190).  Pemberley is, of course, the home of the former Elizabeth Bennett and her husband, Fitzwilliam Darcy, of Pride and Prejudice, now settled for several years into wedded domestic bliss with their two young sons, and with the added felicity of Jane and Charles Bingley and their family living nearby.

Preparations are underway at Pemberley for their annual October ball, and the Darcys have been joined the evening leading up to the ball by Darcy's cousin Colonel Fitzwillam, the Bingleys and their house guest, Mr. Alveston. Along with Darcy's sister, Georgiana, the company expects to spend a quiet evening at home when a chaise comes galloping at full speed out of the Pemberley woodlands.  Elizabeth and Jane's black sheep sister Lydia is the sole occupant of the coach and cries out hysterically that her husband is dead, shot in the Pemberley woodlands.  The Colonel with his military experience takes charge of the search party, and they do, indeed, find a body in the woods - with George Wickham, Lydia's husband, kneeling over the body.

There are plenty of questions as the party at Pemberley tries to discover what Lydia and George were doing on Pemberley property in the first place; the Wickhams are not received at Pemberley, and only Lydia is an acceptable visitor to the Bingley's home.  What did George and his friend Martin Denny, the victim, quarrel about that caused him to stop the coach in the woods and jump out? Is Wickham innocent, as he claims? 

Some of the most critical questions, however, are those raised in the minds of Darcy and Elizabeth as they ponder whether their own past actions could have influenced what took place in the dark woods that night. Each must come to terms with the revelations made during the course of the investigation and trial before they can face the future together.

P. D. James is an admirer of Jane Austen, and it shows in her sly references to Persuasion and Emma, among others.  I did feel that I could have been reading one of Austen's works and I found that very appealing.  I must admit that I have never read any of James' other mysteries. (Although my husband is willing to read this Jane Austen tribute because he has.)  But I must also confess that there was one thing about this book that did bother me: Lady James uses the term police consistently throughout this book. I would have expected to see constabulary, sheriff, Bow Street Runners or thief takers used instead for the law enforcement functions she describes in the book.  I know that she did work for the British Police for many years, but in 1803, the Marine Police had just been established in London in 1798, and the Glasgow Police Act was newly passed in 1800.  It wasn't until after 1828 that Peel's Bill established a police force as we know it.  A small nit, but I did have to include it. It's the only small thing that marred my enjoyment of this literary murder mystery.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Chihuahua of the Baskervilles

Chihuahua of the Baskervilles (#189); cute title, isn't it?  The cover blurbs by two other authors I thoroughly enjoy promised that this book by Esri Allbritten would keep me "guessing - and laughing -" until the very end.  A glow-in-the-dark top-hatted chihuahua ghost, coffin races and an invesitgative team from the paranormal travel journal Tripping reporting on the mysterious events in spirit-laden Manitou Springs, Colorado, should add up to a light, fun read, but in this case, they don't. 

After I turned out the lights last night, I lay in bed wondering how long it would take me to finish Chihuahua of the Baskervilles so I could get to Death Comes to Pemberly or The Hunger Games, both sitting on my shelf.  When I start to think about finishing a book as a chore, I know it's time to give up on it, a rare occurrence for me.  But the characters in this book were so flat and one-dimensional, and the progress of the plot so tedious combined with  the travel-brochure descriptions of all of Manitou Springs' attractions (and no offense to Manitou Springs; I'd visit it, if I'm ever out that way!) that it was a relief to give up the ghost and lay this book to rest.  I couldn't even summon the interest to find out "who dunnit". Frankly, I just didn't care.

If you're a fan of chihuahuas, and think toy breed dogs are adorable fashion accessories to dress up and carry in your purse, maybe this book will appeal to you.  If you want something that actually will make you laugh, involves dogs, has interesting, well-developed characters and unexpected plot twists, try David Rosenfelt's Andy Carpenter mystery series.  (See my posts of 3/1/11, 5/24/11, 7/3/11, 8/6/11, 12/26/11, &  1/10/12.)  You won't feel like you're wasting your time there.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Dovekeepers

The Dovekeepers (#188) by Alice Hoffman has just come out in paperback, which is how I acquired my free First Reads copy from GoodReads.  Although this book has been out since 2011, and was prominently displayed on our library's "Most Wanted" shelf, I have a confession to make: I hate the cover.  So much so that I didn't even want to pick up a copy of the book to see what it was about.  So it wasn't until I read a tiny blurb about it on GoodReads that said "It's about Masada." that I even decided to enter the giveaway contest.  Fortunately for me, I was one of the winners.

The Dovekeepers does take place on the fortress of Masada as the Jewish Zealots or Sicarii withdraw there after the Temple in Jerusalem is torn down by the Romans and the fortress itself is eventually beseiged by the Romans under Silva. When the Romans break through the fortress's defenses, it is to find that the men, women and children on Masada have committed mass suicide.  According to the contemporary historian Josephus, only two women and five children lived to tell him the tale of what happened here. 

In Ms. Hoffman's novel, she tells this story through the four voices of the women assigned to care for the dovecotes on Masada.  The role the doves themselves play in the health and well-being of the defenders is a vital one, though not nearly as picturesque as portrayed on the book's cover.  All of these women are damaged in their own way before they arrive at Masada, but together they manage to forge strong bonds that allow them to meet and embrace their destinies.  This is a book that isn't always easy to read, but is enthralling, none the less.

Of course, being the type of person I am, I had to Google Masada so that I could have an accurate mental picture of where the action in the book took place.  As I read through the material on a number of different Masada sites, I began to appreciate how Ms. Hoffman has woven the known archaelogical findings into her stories.  I have included one link here because it contains pictures of the dovecotes on Masada, a place where the characters would have spent a great deal of time:  Masada images & dovecote . 

A highly recommended read, especially for fans of historical fiction.  My book club has already decided to put The Dovekeepers on our fall reading schedule.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Uninvited Guests

The stately old English country home Sterne may be about to host its last social event for the Torrington family, who can't imagine living anywhere else.   But they may be forced to if  Charlotte Torrington's new husband (who is barely tolerated by his stepchildren) is unsuccessful in his attempt to borrow enough money to allow them to keep Sterne.  Meanwhile, daughter Emerald is celebrating her twentieth birthday and the tiny staff is struggling to put together a meal worthy of the occasion for her, the beautiful Charlotte, older brother Clovis, and much younger sister Imogen, known as "Smudge".  Also joining them for the birthday dinner will be John Buchanan, a possible suitor, and Emerald's dearest friend Patience Sutton with her mother. On the way back from picking up Patience at the railway station, Robert the groom is stopped by a railway agent and told to prepare to receive passengers involved in an accident on the nearby branch line.  These third class passengers are The Uninvited Guests (#187) of the title in this novel by Sadie Jones. But there's another passenger from the accident who also arrives at Sterne: one Charlie Traversham-Beechers.  He joins the rest of the guests at the dinner table, as it seems that he is known to both Charlotte Torrington and her housekeeper, Florence Trieves.  Traversham-Beechers turns the conventional dinner party on its head  his brash talk and disquieting parlor games.  In the meantime, the passengers closed up in the morning room are demanding attention from their reluctant hosts as the tension mounts and secrets are revealed that threaten to destroy the lives of everyone present.

Sadie Jones has managed to meld bits and pieces reminiscent of a number of my favorite authors into a work of fiction that is uniquely its own in The Uninvited Guests.  The opening section brought to mind Jane Austen, Nancy Mitford and Barbara Pym; not particularly much happens except for establishing characters and setting the scene, but the descriptive language was enough of a reason to make this an lucious read for me.  There were also hints of P.G. Wodehouse and Alan Bradley's deliciously warped Flavia de Luce in Smudge's subplot.   As the story progresses, there's more than a whiff of Wilkie Collins and Henry James.

I received The Uninvited Guests as a GoodReads First Reads book, but I know it is currently available, as I have seen it on the shelves of bookstores. If you're a fan of Downton Abbeyesque type books with an unexpected twist, get yourself a copy of this book and enjoy!  

Monday, June 4, 2012

A Foreign Country

What do the murder of an elderly couple on vacation in Egypt, the kidnapping of a young man in Paris and the disappearance of the woman who has just been appointed the first female chief of Britain's MI6 have in common?  They're all threads to be untangled in Charles Cumming's upcoming book A Foreign Country (#187). And the person MI6 chooses for this delicate mission is Thomas Kell, currently enduring a miserable forced retirement after being forced out by his bosses there.

I received an Advance Readers' Copy of A Foreign Country s a GoodReads First Reads giveaway. Neither my husband nor I were disappointed in this thriller.  Kell isn't at all sure that he wants to be involved in doing a favor for the agency that gave him the boot, but he's worked closely with Amelia Levene, the missing agent, and let's face it, life has been dull since he left MI6. Kell manages to find Amelia, but along with her he also discovers a deeply buried secret.

Although lives are definitely at stake in A Foreign Country the focus here is on the mental games being played out, not the body count.  A puzzle for Kell, and one for the reader as well, with a satisfying conclusion.  An excellent addition for your summer reading bookshelf.

The Ancient Guide to Modern Life

In The Ancient Guide to Modern Life (#186) Natalie Haynes has put together a series of informative, entertaining and humorous essays comparing how the Greeks and Romans (and a few other assorted ancient civilizations) lived and viewed their own lives, and what we can still learn from them today. 

Classical studies used to be the foundation of a well-educated person's knowledge.  Today, not so much.  But we still do have some common misconceptions about the Greeks and the Romans, things we all just know, or think we do.  For instance, in every gladiator movie you've ever seen, the gladiators march out at the beginning of the scene and salute the emperor (or whoever else happens to be running those particular games) and say "Ave, Imperator! Morituri te salutant!" or "Hail, Emperor! We who are about to die salute you!"  Ms. Haynes gently bursts the bubble by comparing Russell Crowe's Maximus  the arena to a contemporary's anecdote about the Emperor Claudius, whose reaction to this line showed emphatically that this was an unexpected greeting. This is myth busting at its best, and something the everyday person can readily relate to.

Ms. Haynes tackles such diverse topics as the Greek philosphers, trial by jury, city versus rural life, the everyday life of women, particularly in Athens and Sparta, entertainment in Rome, and Greek tragedy and comedy. There's certainly enough food for thought in these essays to keep the inquiring mind busy for a long time to come, though it won't take much of your time to start the mental gears rolling.  After reading her descriptions, I've aready decided it's high time I broaden my classical horizons by reading some of the many works the nuns would never let us see in school.  Aristophanes, here I come!

The Lost Goddess

Archaeological discoveries in a remote region of France and the isolated Plain of Jars in Laos are linked in Tom Knox's thriller The Lost Goddess (#185) through multiple remains showing signs of holes drilled in the skulls of the victims.  Modern day murders at her dig in France draw the career-stymied archaelogist Julia Kerrigan to investigate and eventually lead her to Cambodia, where she meets photographer Jake Thirby and Chemda Tek.  Chemda is a young Cambodian woman working on a UN task force documenting the abuses of the Khmer Rouge regime.  She is apparently getting too close to some uncomfortable truths as she and Jake try to keep ahead of the forces intent on silencing them.  With Julia to provide some key missing pieces of the puzzle, the team discover what was really going during Pol Pot's reign of terror and some Tek family secrets.

I can't say that I enjoyed this book.  I was reading it while traveling, and it didn't seem to hold my attention - maybe because I found the whole narrative so very dark, unpleasant and disturbing. This book is billed as a "genetic thriller" on the cover, but I found the premise so strained it required an incredible amount of lead up to a not-at-all satisfying payoff sprinkled with any number of disgusting images.  Maybe this book would appeal to you if you're a Tom Knox fan, but I know after reading The Lost Goddess, I won't be joining his fan club anytime soon.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

No Way to Treat a First Lady

No Way to Treat a First Lady (#184) reached out from the shelf and grabbed me as I was walking through the library.  It's a political  satire that Christopher Buckley wrote ten years ago, but is just as relevant and fun today as it was when it was first published. 

Ken MacMann, the womanizing President of the United States, has been found dead in bed next to the First Lady by one of the White House maids.  It would have been considered just a tragic health issue if it weren't for the impression on the President's forehead that clearly spells out "Revere" which just happens to exactly match the maker's mark on the antique silver spittoon kept in the presidential bedroom.  It doesn't take long for the unpopular Beth MacMann to be accused of her husband's murder in a domestic dispute.  But of course, since he's the President, the ante is upped when she's arrested instead for his assasination.

Beth promptly hires her old law school flame, Boyce "Shameless" Baylor, the winningest defense attorney in the country to represent her.  And so the media circus begins with the entire world hanging on every courtroom minute, with endless interviews and analysis.  Did she or didn't she?  With evidence piling up against Beth, it seems as though Boyce may be about to lose his first case, and there's much speculation that this might be deliberate.  But what about the presidential supporter who was sleeping in the Lincoln Bedroom that night?  Will Shameless live up to his name and pull out all the stops to win this case?

What perfect timing to discover Christopher Buckley!  We were visiting relatives in Arlington, Virginia, during our roadtrip, and I happened to be reading this book while we were there.  Nothing makes the book seem more real than driving past the White House and judicial buildings with  this book in hand.  I also found out my niece is a Buckley fan, and we both have plans to read his newest satire just out on Chinese-American relations - They Eat Puppies, Don't They?.  Can't wait!

Saturday, June 2, 2012

An Irish Country Doctor

I was reading Patrick Taylor's novel An Irish Country Doctor (#183) when my husband and I set off on a roadtrip several weeks ago, and this book proved to be the perfect choice.  I jumped into this series with the second novel, An Irish Country Village (See my post of 3/29/12), so this book was like traveling with an old friend. 

For those of you who have not been fortunate enough yet to meet the newly-minted doctor Barry Laverty or his unconventional boss Dr. Fingal Flahertie O'Reilly, his housekeeper Mrs. "Kinky" Kincaid and the other denizens of Ballybucklebo, Northern Ireland, An Irish Country Doctor is really the best place to start. It's 1964 and Barry has taken his first paying postion to feel out how the life of a General Practitioner in a small town would suit him.  He had no idea just how busy the practice would turn out to be, or how much Fingal Flahertie O'Reilly needs his services.  The problem is, Barry can't quite approve of O'Reilly's methods.  Laverty may have the latest scientific knowledge, but O'Reilly has much to teach him about dealing with people and animals.  Along this somewhat bumpy road we're introduced to the citizens of Ballybucklebo, made privy to their secrets and struggles, and the possibility that Barry may have met the girl of his dreams.  All of this is served up in a delightful mix of humor, heartbreak and the beautry of the Northern Ireland coastline.

I already know what happens next, so I'm looking forward to the continuing saga of Ballybucklebo in Dr. Taylor's visit there.