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Monday, June 29, 2015

The Sage of Waterloo

When I tell you that the subject of Leona Francombe's debut novel, The Sage of Waterloo (#504) is about a white rabbit named William living on the grounds of the ruined Belgian chateau Hougomont Farm who reflects on the lessons to be learned from the Battle of Waterloo fought on this very soil  June 18, 1815, you might be ready to move right along to the next book.  But I found this to be one of the most interesting and unique perspectives on those events of two hundred years ago, and well worth the time spent with this slim volume.

William is not like the other rabbits in the hutch at Hougomont.  None of them are white, nor do they share his great-grandmother's gifts as an oracle.  He can dimly see the shadows that she occasionally sees around the grounds near the night of the full moon.  Old Lavender has kept the events of the Battle of Waterloo alive in the memory of the rabbits by countless retellings of the stories of soldiers who fought and died there.  It's magical the way Ms. Francombe has managed to present the reader with brief anecdotes that bring that day alive in a way that all the modern day re-enactors never could.

Highly recommended for anyone who has the slightest interest in the Battle of Waterloo, or who remembers reading Watership Down with great pleasure.  Try something different for a change!

Amidst Dark Satanic Mills - An Interplanetary Steampunk Adventure

Captain Robert Folkestone and Sergeant Felix Hand serving in Her Britannic Majesty's far-flung outposts on Mars make their second appearance in Ralph E. Vaughan's Amidst Dark Satanic Mills - An Interplanetary Steampunk Adventure (#503).  I love watching those classic 1930s black and white adventure movies like Gunga Din or The White Feather, and reading these steampunk novels evokes the same kind of pleasure.  I can easily picture Errol Flynn as Captain Folkestone, along with some unnamed cool blonde actress as his verbal sparring partner and Section Six agent, Lady Cynthia Barrington-Welles.  As for Felix Hand, I'm not sure who could play him properly; after all, he is a Highland Martian with a clockwork heart.  He is definitely the heart and soul of this trio, and its comic relief, as well.

In this outing, Folkestone and Hand are unwittingly caught up in a conspiracy much more monstrous than they could have ever imagined when they are asked as a courtesy to the Red Prince's Court to follow up on an unidentified human body floating in a backwater Martian canal.  What the people behind this conspiracy have in mind is no less than total domination of the Solar System with allegiance only to the shadowy organization Medusa.  Even knowing the name is enough to get an entity killed.  Lady Cynthia joins in the search for Medusa's base of operations, suspected to be somewhere in an asteroid belt, posing as a rich, eccentric British tourist.  Suffice it to say that things do not go well for any of them as they continue to close in on the ruthless minds behind Medusa.

Of course, as I was reading Amidst Dark Satanic Mills, the hymn tune Jerusalem to which this Blake poem is set kept playing in my brain.  Luckily for me, it's one I particularly like, but as an American, rarely get to sing...  So there you have it - lights, camera, action and a soundtrack!  All you need to do is supply the popcorn for a perfect way to spend an afternoon.

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Dog Who Knew Too Much

Was there ever a detective quite like Spencer Quinn's Chet, the canine half of his popular Chet & Bernie series?  Always the professional, alert and on the job until that scrap of sausage on the floor, or the scent of a pesky squirrel pulls him temporarily away.  But his human partner Bernie fills in the gaps, even if Chet doesn't always get the point of his comments.  But that's okay with Chet, because Bernie's the best, paws down.

The Dog Who Knew Too Much (#502) is the fourth outing in this wonderfully entertaining mystery series.  There isn't much money flowing into the Little Company's till, and there are bills to pay when Bernie reluctantly accepts a job to accompany a divorced client to a Parents' Day event at her son's wilderness camp as a "friend".  Her ex-husband has chosen this camp for their son, hoping it will toughen him up.  Anya Vereen isn't so sure.  When Devin fails to return from an overnight hike with the rest of his tent mates and the camp counselor admits to losing him, Bernie and Chet take the lead in initiating the search party no else seems to think is necessary.  Is there more behind Devin's disappearance than simply wandering off into the woods?  When Chet and Bernie discover a body in an abandoned mine not far from the camp site, it seems certain that the intrepid duo will suffer a similar fate...

Pooch in peril alert!  Chet and Bernie have been in tough spots before, but the coils of this conspiracy could be too tightly wound for them to escape, and the likelihood of finding Devin alive a game of diminishing returns.  I think this is the best Chet & Bernie mystery yet.  And what's with that weird dirty laundry locker room smell that Chet sniffs in the woods?  Finding out what's responsible is not the only surprise Chet has in The Dog Who Knew Too Much.  You'll just have to read it for yourself to find out about several new developments!

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Between You & Me

Has a book on proper English usage ever been so entertaining?  I doubt it.   In Between You & Me (#501) Mary Norris has combined her years of experience as an editor at The New Yorker with chapters devoted to common errors and dilemmas she has come across during those years.  Some were problematic, and for those she provides a solution with often hilarious examples.  Some merely irritated the crap out of her.  (And she does admit to using that particular word at least once during her professional career.)  What she never, ever does is bore the reader.

Since I was constantly peppering my husband with "Did you know..?" comments, or interrupting his peace by chortling loudly, he finally gave in and asked me, "Where are coming up with all these factoids?  What on earth are you reading?"  I told him, and I promised to put him on my "Pass Along To" list for Between You & Me

After reading this book, I've resolved to do two things: first, to see if my sister-in-law can fill me on the background for the Southbury library incident, and second, to acquire some Blackwing pencils for my very own.  I'm not an editor, but I am an avid crossword puzzler, and I'm always on the lookout for the perfect pencil.  It seems Ms. Norris has pointed (ha!) me in a new and promising direction.  If you are at all curious about our complicated language, you couldn't do better than pick up a copy of Between You & Me for some entertaining guidance.  Highly recommended.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Raiders of the Nile

Raiders of the Nile (#500), Steven Saylor's latest novel, occupies a special place in my personal library.  Firstly, it marks a milestone for this blog.  Secondly, it was a gift from my husband, who knows my literary tastes to a "T".  How delightful that these two should coincide!  It's been sitting on my bookshelf since Christmas, where I could see it as I read through my coursework for EfM, keeping up with the newspaper and journals, holding out a promise of a particular treat to come.  I've finally had a chance to catch my breath and sit down with a book that carried no obligation of a swift return to a lender, to a group read or anything else of the sort.  The objective in reading Raiders of the Nile was pure pleasure, and it delivered in curl-my-toes-in delight style.

Gordianus, the young hero of Seven Wonders, has settled for the last three years in Alexandria, one of the most exciting and largest cities in the Ancient World.  Unlike his father, Gordianus the Finder, still plying his trade back home in Rome, the young Gordianus has found himself unable to settle to serious pursuit of anything resembling a career.  True, he now owns the slave girl Bethesda, around whom his life seems to center, but as a proper Roman any relationship between the two would not be possible.  He is content to live in the moment and put off resolving this thorny issue until some point in a hopefully far distant future.  That is, until the day that Bethesda is kidnapped for ransom by an organized gang of bandits who mistake her for a rich merchant's mistress.  Galvanized into action to rescue Bethesda with no money to his name, Gordianus soon finds himself in league with the pirates to carry off a daring heist in Alexandria as an invading army heads for Egypt.

Mistaken identities, peril at every turn, multiple villains, a witch, a tyrant and political plots - Raiders of the Nile has them all in spades.  It also presents an intriguing view of Egypt through a Roman's eyes before Rome conquered most of the Ancient World, all told with a light touch and plenty of page-turning action.  My favorite kind of book and a worthy addition to this blog!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Chasing Mona Lisa

I seem to be spending a lot of my reading time in France lately.  Chasing Mona Lisa (#499) by Tricia Goyer and Mike Yorkey continues that trend. 

As Germany looses its grip on France in the final days of the Occupation, Goring is intent on securing one final priceless piece of French art that has so far eluded his grasp - the Mona Lisa.  The French had secreted it away before France was invaded, but Goring's agent Major Heller has a fix on its location.  In the chaos surrounding Paris' liberation, a daring pair of Swiss agents working for America's OSS arrive to aid the French in their efforts.  Gabi Mueller and Eric Hofstadler are caught up in the deadly pursuit of one of the world's most iconic paintings and the bitter political rivalry between de Gaulle's Free French Resistance, and its rival Communist factions.   Gabi and Eric are immediately authorized by Dulles, head of the OSS, to help Collette Perriard, curator in charge of the Mona Lisa, and her Communist lover Bernard Rousseau to rescue the painting before it can disappear into a Swiss bank vault forever.

Although I felt at first as though I were still reading Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, the action in this book was brisk and moved right along.  It also highlighted a bit of French history of which I had never been aware - the struggle between de Gaulle's forces and the French Communists to fill the power void when the Germans pulled out.  Of course we know who came out the winner in that contest, but this novel does shed light on the role the Communists played in liberating their country from the Nazis.  This is a fast read.  The action moves right along, and you want to keep reading to find out what happens to the characters next, with several twists and turns along the way.  A great vacation read!

Friday, June 5, 2015

Emma - A Modern Retelling

I was rather surprised by my reaction to Alexander McCall Smith's Emma - A Modern Retelling (#498).  I don't remember Emma being so mean in Jane Austen's classic novel.  Interfering and meddlesome, yes, but not so mean-spirited.  In consequence, I spent most of this book disliking Emma intensely for her superiority and judgmental high-handedness.  The reason this took me aback was the warmth with which McCall Smith's #1 Ladies' Detective Agency series is imbued.  Characters may act badly, but we can still sympathize with them and their actions. Not so here; I kept wondering how George Knightley could possibly love this Emma.

Alexander McCall Smith doesn't keep the reader guessing about who is who in his adaptation of this story.  All the names have been preserved from the original, and so have the characters' relationships to each other.  If you're already familiar with the story, you know exactly where it is heading, and that's a good deal of the pleasure of reading a book like this.  The modern Emma has gone to university (not a first rate college, but respectable) and drives a Mini Cooper, but she still cuts the same swath through the neighboring society.  Somehow, landowners are still an important force in the environs of Highbury village.  Some things, it seems, never change.

I wasn't as enchanted with this modern version as I had hoped to be; it will never occupy the same place in the pantheon as Jane Austen's original.  But still, it makes for an undemanding beach read.

Joan of Arc - A History

When I was growing up, my older brother was captivated by Joan of Arc.  I can remember reading children's books about her, and if I'm not mistaken, even a Classics Illustrated comic book version of her story.  But I must admit, until I read Helen Castor's Joan of Arc - A History (#497), I never really had a good grasp of how or why her fate befell her. 

Ms. Castor has done an excellent job of explaining who was fighting whom in France, and how Joan herself played her role and was played in return.  The book itself is divided into three sections.  The first section begins at the end of the day of the Battle of Agincourt, fourteen years before Joan makes her appearance.  The politics and the enmities and the alliances are all concisely laid out so that the modern reader can make sense of the political situation in France, England and the rest of Europe at that time.  As key players died and their successors struggled for power in the ensuing years, France was a battleground.  Joan was sent to Charles, the Dauphin, at a crucial moment in his quest for the throne.  The second section of Ms. Castor's book deals with this period of her rapid ascent into a popular figure with the people, and her early, seemingly miraculous, victories over the English and Burgundians.  It wasn't long before the English put a price on her head, and after her capture their Catholic allies prosecuted Joan as a heretic and unnatural woman for wearing men's clothing.  She became a political pawn of the enemy until she was executed by them.  The third section of Joan of Arc deals with the aftermath of Joan's trial and execution, and her subsequent reinstatement as a national icon just as World War I was about to consume Europe.

If you are looking for a hagiography with rapturous descriptions of her three heavenly visitors, this is not the book for you.  If you want to read an interesting and thought-provoking analysis of Joan of Arc's place in history, and the extraordinary role she played in shaping modern Europe you won't be disappointed.