Just another GR refugee. Other than that, I had a stroke in 2004, and read almost anything I can get my hands on, though I have a particular weakness for history, mystery, and historical fiction.
A Talent for Trickery is a historical romance with a Victorian setting (1871, I believe), and unlike many with that era's setting, it thankfully doesn't have a girl in a Regency dress, c. 1815, on the cover.
It features strongly a trope I've certainly seen before, but in science fiction and fantasy, rather than historical romance: the base under siege. Perhaps the classic TV form of a "base under siege" story is many a Dr. Who serial, both Old and New Who. (From "Web of Fear" and "Horror at Fang Rock" to "Dalek," "The Time of Angels," or "Mummy on the Orient Express," for example.) In literature you'll find it everywhere from The Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter and A Game of Thrones; but I don't see it so often in historical romance.
It certainly kept my attention while I was dealing with a bad bout of insomnia last night. (I got three hours of sleep. Luckily, I was able to take a long nap today.)
Currently $1.99: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie. Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is an official DNF.
I don't make those very often; mostly I let a book marinate in my "currently reading" pile, because I might get back to it. I save DNF for a book that I know I will never "get back to."
Ashes of London is one of those. And I'm disappointed, because I was looking forward to this one. Mystery thriller set in the Great Fire of London and the aftermath! Just my type of thing.
Not so much. We start with the fire well under way - with the collapse of Old St Paul's Cathedral, the great medieval hulk, begun by William the Conqueror, that towered over the London of Charles II. But we don't get a dead body, or anything like a crime. (You would expect one by 15% in, which is about as far as I got.)
Aside from the fire, we don't really get a sense of 1666 at all. I read historical fiction to get a sense of the past. I didn't get that feel here. This could have been any pre-modern time with a big fire.
The writing is bland. We get no real sense of 1666. The characters are fairly flat. And we have two protagonists. (I dislike multiple protagonists, particularly uncharacterized multiple protagonists. Instead of giving us two flat narrators, how about giving us one interesting and developed one?)
So now I'm about 15% in, and nothing is really exciting me about this one. And then(show spoiler)
, and I am out. I will never pick up this book again.
Because first I was bored, there was neither a sense of the past or a visible mystery to solve, and I didn't care about the characters (I can't even be bothered to remember their names), and then I was offended. And now I am gone.
Well, A Discovery of Witches is a lengthy tome, and I still hold that if you put Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane into a blender and hit pulverize, you'd get this on the other end.
On the other hand, Harkness writes better than either Stephenie Meyer or Katherine Howe.
Will I read the next volume of this trilogy (which my library has)? Not sure. But this was a fun read, despite some of the ludicrous moments.
Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling is another very good work of art history from Ross King. It covers in most detail the years 1505, when Michelangelo was called to Rome from Florence by Pope Julius II to make his tomb, to 1512, when he finished the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It also takes a good look at Julius II, at Raphael (who was working next door), and to a lesser extent the other personalities dominating the Italian scene in the first decade or so of the 16th century.
Michelangelo was as grumpy as he was talented. He was overjoyed to get the job of making Pope Julius II's tomb (seen as an affirmation that he was indeed the world's best sculptor), and then very angry that Julius changed his mind, and wanted him to fresco a ceiling instead. (He had not worked in that medium in half his lifetime, since he was a teenager in the shop of Domenico Ghirlandaio.) I can only envision him muttering, "Damn it, Pope Julius, I'm a sculptor, not a painter!"
He continued grumpy as he went to work on the ceiling. His assistants were annoying. His neck hurt. Someone was stealing the marble he had bought for the pope's tomb, which had been left just lying around. His family back in Florence were all lazy, or unambitious, or too ambitious, and expected him to pay for everything. He wasn't being paid enough. The pope was a megalomaniac who knew nothing about art.
That last one was pretty much true. Julius II was a piece of work. He was intent on re-conquering lands that had formerly been part of the Papal States - and he was then shocked and surprised that when he went to war with his neighbors, they called in someone larger to protect them. (That would be France.) He issued coins which compared him to Julius Caesar on one side, and to Jesus Christ on the other.
He also did not have great taste in art. His original plans for the ceiling featured strongly the emblems of his own family - oak leaves - (which would have been much simpler to execute) and Michelangelo rejected them out of hand. Then, when it was done, he insisted it wasn't really done, because it hadn't been covered in gold leaf. Julius disliked the existing frescoes in the papal bedroom (the art had been installed by one of his recent, loathed, predecessors, Pope Alexander VI, a Borgia) so much he moved down a floor. He hired Raphael to decorate the library of his new suite.
Raphael was not nearly as grumpy as his rival at work over in the chapel, and was dubious about Michelangelo's skills as a painter - until he saw the half-finished ceiling. (Michelangelo hated visitors interrupting his work.) He then paid him a painter's compliment, inserting Michelangelo into the already mostly done "School of Athens." He immortalized one notoriously grumpy genius as another notoriously grumpy genius - Heraclitus. (Michelangelo would also paint a self-portrait of himself on the ceiling; as a grumpy Jeremiah.)
When the ceiling was done in 1512, Michelangelo might have thought he was done with the Sistine Chapel. That was far from the case. He'd be called back to work on its altar wall, painting the Last Judgment, in the 1530s and 1540s. And while he was still finishing up that work, he got the job as architect of St. Peter's basilica. ("Damn it, Pope Paul, I'm a sculptor, not an architect!")
Recommended to those interested in Michelangelo, in the Renaissance, or just in very readable art history.
Yesterday I went on a day trip to Madison, Georgia - the town General Sherman is said to have found "too lovely to burn." It is filled with antebellum mansions, post-Civil War homes, and a lovely courthouse (it is the county seat of Morgan County) and downtown.
We left at an ungodly hour (7:30) and first arrived in Social Circle, Georgia, for an early lunch at the Blue Willow Inn.
The front entrance of the Blue Willow Inn.
It was sunny, but chilly (about 60F - I am a delicate Southern flower), and very windy. They have a large and elaborate buffet lunch.
About noon we arrived in Madison, which is southeast of Atlanta. Our first stop was Heritage Hall, which was built by the town's first doctor in 1811.
Heritage Hall, alias the Jones-Turnell-Manly House.
Dr. Jones moved to this brand new frontier town at 22, with his mother and wife and ten slaves, and after one year of medical school. He obviously prospered! There was a scary display of amputation instruments which his son, another Dr. Jones, used during the Civil War.
We then visited the Rogers House, built at about the same time, but by people not nearly as rich. At one time 18 people were living in its then 4 rooms.
The Rogers House.
We also visited a couple of other homes which are now public museums, and visited the lovely downtown, which has a beautiful courthouse from the 1890s.
Morgan County courthouse.
The names of the town inhabitants who have served in the armed forces are on bricks in the pavement, with the war noted, surrounding the courthouse.
Most of the downtown was rebuilt after 1870, and in brick, after a devastating fire in 1869.
One of Madison's downtown streets. We had a glass of wine at a cafe here in this stretch.
Not all of the homes date from before the Civil War - others were built afterwards.
The Hunter House, alias the "Gingerbread House," from the 1880s. Reportedly it has a ghost.
A couple were listed as "for sale," so if you've got a million or so to spare, you too could own one.
Now, the legend has it that General Sherman thought Madison was "too lovely to burn." This is not the case - for one thing, Sherman was never in Madison. He was leading the other half of the army, en route to the state capital at Milledgeville. The real story is that General Slocum, who was in command of the army who came through, found little that was of military interest there, so didn't burn much. (The union army destroyed the tracks of the Georgia Railroad in town and the train depot - both used to transport troops - as well as some bales of cotton and a factory which made shoes for the Confederate army. But they mostly left the houses alone.)
We got home about 7:30 at night, totally exhausted. But it was a lovely day.
If you took a soupcon of Harry Potter (orphaned protagonist has undiscovered magical gifts), a lot of Twilight (the local vampire is in lust with her because he thinks she smells terrific, and breaks into her flat to watch her sleep), and a good bit of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane (a so-called historian knows nothing about doing historical research; the magical past of her own family is an issue), you would have this novel. I think I'm still reading it because I can't wait to see the next nonsensical development. (Note: I love Harry Potter, Twilight amused me one night when I had a head cold and 12-year-old me was picking the books to be read, and Deliverance Dane was a massive waste of my time and the author's efforts.)
Also it was free. Which is good. Because the odds of my keeping this one are approximately 0% at this point; this baby's going back where it came from after I've wallowed in the insanity.
In This Grave Hour is the most recent "Maisie Dobbs" historical mystery, and about the dozenth or so in the series. This series began when it was 1929, and Miss Dobbs was first opening her detective agency in a quiet London square. It is now September 1939, Britain is at war with Germany, and Maisie has a new case - is someone murdering men who were refugees from Belgium when they were boys, 25 years ago?
Matters are complicated by her father having 3 child evacuees living with him down in the country - two boys whom he can handle, and a five-year-old girl who won't talk. An additional problem is that no one seems to know her name, who her parents are, or where she's from.
Maisie will investigate both cases, and come to suspect that her client is either lying to her, or not telling the entire truth.
This was a distinct improvement from the last one, Journey to Munich, which featured spies and Americans ex machina.
Racing the Devil is the most recent (I think) Charles Todd "Ian Rutledge" mystery. And it's a good novel, despite being #19 in a series. (I always get a bit dubious as a series goes very long. I'm looking at you, "... in Death.")
In 1916, on the eve of the Somme offensive, 7 British officers meet at an ad hoc cantina in a barn, and while getting drunk, find that they are all from the southeast of England, and are all auto racing fans. They agree that if any of them survive the war, a year after the war ends they will meet in Paris and race their cars down to Nice.
Five of them survive to make the race, held in November 1919. But one of them ends his race in a terrible accident, and they go home not in triumph but a bit saddened.
Now, it is the autumn of 1920, and the police down in Surrey are concerned, because they have had an auto accident that makes no sense to them. The local rector died in a crash, but it wasn't his car; it was the local squire's. Also, there are traces of green paint on the rear of the car. Was the rector forced off the road? Why was he driving the car, in the first place? Was the "accident" not so accidental?
So they call in Scotland Yard, and the Yard sends down Inspector Rutledge. He must unravel a truly twisty tale, full of murder, attempted murder, blackmail, and kidnapping.
Partway through, I figured three or 3 1/2 stars for this one, but Todd managed to pull all the strings together very nicely and made a very solid finish. At least one evening I stayed up until "gulp" o'clock reading it.
The dance everyone's doing here in SC after the Gamecocks' win over Baylor tonight. (The song is "Keep on Dancing," a #4 hit for the Gentrys in 1965.)
Chuck Berry, father of rock guitar (1926-2017). (This song is "Sweet Little Sixteen," a #2 hit in 1958.)
Hag-Seed is Margaret Atwood's entry in the "novelists take on Shakespeare's plays" lineup, and is her take on The Tempest.
Felix, the director of a Canadian theater festival, and a lover of Shakespeare, is planning his latest extravaganza: a production of The Tempest, starring a teenaged gymnast as Miranda. And then he finds his assistant has betrayed him and taken his job. His daughter, Miranda, has just died, at age 3. He is a broken man.
And so, using an assumed name ("Mr. Duke"), he goes off into the wilderness to become a hermit, living only with the spirit of his dead daughter. After a while, he revives enough to stalk his former assistant on the internet, as the latter goes from success to success. He also eventually becomes the leader of an inmate rehabilitation program, teaching literacy and job skills, down at the local prison.
His teaching method: staging Shakespeare. The prisoners are both cast and crew (the "job skills" part) for plays like MacBeth and Julius Caesar. His next production: The Tempest.
And then he finds out his former assistant, now a government minister, is going to be attending the performance. And a plan forms in his mind. One that will involve some of the special skills of his cast, who include pickpockets, ex gang enforcers, black hat hackers, and a crooked accountant.
I dithered between giving this 3.5 and 4 stars. The writing is pure Atwood. The plot, however - it's that fourth act that gives me pause. Is it as good as Oryx and Crake or The Handmaid's Tale? No. Is it still an interesting and entertaining novel? Yes, absolutely.
Currently $1.99: An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser. 2010: Odyssey Two, by Arthur C. Clarke. A Passage to India, by E.M. Forester.
Currently $2.99: The Cruelest Month, by Louise Penny. Berlin Diary, by William L. Shirer. Edward III: The Perfect King, by Ian Mortimer. The First World War: A Complete History, by Martin Gilbert.
Captain Blood is a marvelous tale of a doctor unjustly sentenced to ten years of slavery in Barbados, his escape to piracy, and his vendetta with both the Spanish and King James II of England. If I had been an adolescent reading this in the 1920s, when it was published, I could not have failed to give it at least four stars.
It is, however, nearly a century later, and I had to dock it for the persistent racist comments, not only about blacks (or "negroes," as this book calls them), but also anyone who isn't an Englishman. For example, our omnicient narrator is astonished that Captain Blood's father was not a drunkard, because he was Irish.
On the other hand, if you want good clean swashbuckling fun, and are willing to overlook the above problem (as the book being a product of its time), this is a corker of a read.
It also a produced a fine movie in 1935, starring two relatively unknown actors, Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. (It made both their careers.)
Murder Offstage is a first book in a series ("Posie Parker Mysteries"), and, indeed, is a first novel.
It rather reads as a first novel - the plot is too complicated and frenetic, and only barely avoided having the kitchen sink involved. Murder! Diamond thieves! Kidnapping! Smuggling! Counterfeiting! And to top it all off, a Criminal Mastermind with a cat in his lap.
Alas, not this one.
Did I mention the tired "soused aristocrat with a secret" trope and a plot that just doesn't make terribly much sense?
I got it because the setting, 1921 London, and the supposed focus (the theater scene), but I doubt I'll read another one, frankly.
The Secret History of Wonder Woman is an interesting read - it has great ideas about the history of American feminism, and why it's been grinding gears since the 1970s in many ways, but what it does do, and do well, is take a look at "First Wave" feminism, and at William Moulton Marston.
And who was he?
He was the creator of Wonder Woman.
And he was a very strange man. And his most famous creation reflects him in many ways.
William Moulton Marston headed off to Harvard just as the battle for woman suffrage was getting very heated in the US. Ironically, the women voters in those states which allowed it re-elected Woodrow Wilson in the exceptionally tight presidential election of 1916. (Without the female vote in a handful of states, America elects Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes instead.) Margaret Sanger and her sister, Edith Byrne, found the organization that would become Planned Parenthood. Alice Paul's American suffragettes are chaining themselves to the White House gates. NAWSA is leading the charge for the 20th Amendment - the woman suffrage amendment.
While a Harvard undergraduate, studying psychology, he invented a lie detector (based on blood pressure readings), but failed to patent it. He married the girl down the street, Elizabeth Holloway, and they both went to law school (he at Harvard, she at Boston University - because "those dumb bunnies at Harvard wouldn't take women"). After law school, he also got a Ph.D in psychology from Harvard, and went off to the academic world, where he taught psychology at places like Columbia and Tufts. (Elizabeth Holloway, who got the M.A., but may have done most of the work for Marston's Ph.D, went to work for companies like Encyclopedia Britannica, McCalls magazine, or Metropolitan Life Insurance.)
At Tufts he met Margaret Sanger's niece, Olive Byrne, and after she graduated, gave his wife an ultimatum: either they all three lived together as a threesome, or he would leave her.
She chose to stay.
Marston, who truly did think of himself as a feminist, certainly did not live in a matriarchy. One wife, Elizabeth, worked twelve hours a day in Manhattan, supporting the entire family. The other, Olive Byrne (they explained her presence as "their widowed housekeeper, Mrs. Richard"), raised the four children the women had by Marston. When she was not writing puff pieces about Marston in Family Circle. Marston, meanwhile, hung around the house, mostly in his underwear, only dressing up for the occasional client visit. (He had been blacklisted from academics, for a combination of his very esoteric psychological theories and the rumors about his sex life, and had then failed to make a success of himself in Hollywood.) His attempts to get the FBI interested in his lie detector only succeeded in getting J. Edgar Hoover to open a file on him.
And then, as the 30s turned into the 40s, he noticed that Americans were reading an insane number of comic books, and saw his opportunity.
And he created Wonder Woman.
The first female superhero. A feminist role model. And also a reflection of some of Marston's other interests - she's almost as interested in detecting lies as he was, for one thing. She's kind of kinky. (He got a ton of interesting fan letters.) And she was an enormous success.
She hit hard times, however, when Marston died in 1947. She was given to writers who either didn't know or didn't care what her backstory was, and were certainly not feminists. The strip's "Wonder Women of History" segment was abruptly cancelled.
By the late 1960s, she had been remodeled into a shadow of Emma Peel, and lost her superpowers.
And then she was reclaimed by "Second Wave" feminists, like Gloria Steinem. ABC television came calling.
Meanwhile, American feminism splintered, and 1972, and the launch of Ms. magazine, with Wonder Woman on the cover, was the high ground never to be recovered.
And, Lepore claims, that's all Wonder Woman's fault. Having set out to prove that Wonder Woman was molded by American feminism, and, I would say, having done so, she fails to prove (and doesn't really try) to prove that Wonder Woman then molded American feminism in her own image.
Like I said, she makes the argument, but presents no evidence that I would call substantial. Ms. debuted with Wonder Woman on the cover, yes. But that doesn't mean that American feminism was now being modeled on Wonder Woman. Frankly, Wonder Woman is a strong image (what American doesn't recognize her?), and that's what a magazine always wants for its cover - a punchy graphic that makes a statement.
Lepore provides almost fulsome detail about anything connected with Marston. He led a fascinating life. The material on Wonder Woman, and on American feminism, after Marston's death is almost perfunctory.
Lepore got access from DC Comics, as well as permission to use, copious numbers of illustrations from 1940s Wonder Woman strips. They make fascinating viewing.