Monday, January 28, 2013

Quirky Characters Enrich Automatic Woman

Automatic Woman
Nathan Yocum
Curiosity Quills Press
August 2012

I requested Automatic Woman from netgalley on a whim, as I do like steampunk as a rule. I certainly was not expecting to meet someone like Jacob "Jolly" Fellowes. By his own admission, Jolly is fat, ugly and violent. The violent part comes in handy as he acts as muscle for the Bow Street Firm, chief thief catchers in 1888 London. The fat and ugly part is handy as well- Jolly quite often can intimidate people with his looks alone.

Jolly is called in to search for "the Swan", a remarkable automatic woman in an equally remarkable dance troupe built by Dr. Saxon, mechanical genius. Things very quickly go south and Jolly is accused of murder and on the run from both his employer, Lord Barnes, and the Metro Police. Charles Darwin, Bram Stoker and Dr. Conan Doyle romp through the pages of this shortish novel. Along with Jolly's love interest, a prostitute named Mary, Jolly must solve multiple mysteries and go up against some of the great minds of the age to avoid hanging.

I began the novel thinking that Jolly was simply a thug- one that I could never root for. But Jolly is also good hearted, a smart investigator and surprisingly erudite under all that thuggish veneer. Automatic Woman has some wonderful characters, chief among them Jolly himself.

3.5 Cogs

Friday, January 25, 2013

Scotland Yard in the Ripper's Wake

Alex Grecian
Penguin Audio Books
May 2012

After the failure of the Ripper investigation, the London Metropolitan Police, "The Yard" is in disarray and under fire from the public. The head of the twelve member Murder Squad has resigned in disgrace. Before leaving though he recommends that the Met hire a young constable from Devon, Walter Day. Walter's first case is the brutal murder of another member of the squad. The only case (among a welter of unsolved cases) that the murdered detective seemed to be working on was the disappearance of a young boy. While missing children in Victorian London are nothing unusual, this missing boy seems to be different, as he comes from a solid working class family that actually seems to care. Day teams up with Dr. Bernard Kingsley, the Yard's first forensic pathologist to find both the child and the killer.

While it had all the things I like in a historical novel- great period detail and well rounded, unforgettable characters- I think the episodic way that Grecian tells the story threw me off. I didn't really get very involved until the second part of the audio book and even then it jumped from periods of almost unbearable tension to periods of real tedium. On the whole though I liked it and will certainly read any future books in the series. Both Day and Kingsley are very attractive characters and the Victorian period with all it's grandeur and squalor has always been fascinating to me.

The Yard wasn't a mystery though, more a thriller, as we know the perpetrator right away. I liked the way that he tied up all the loose ends. The narrator was competent, but not great. It was much more a reading of the book and not a performance.

RATING- 3 Stars

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Into the Heart of Darkness

Jamie Mason
Gallery Books
February 12, 2013

2013 is starting out to be a very good book year. I have enjoyed the books I have blogged about tremendously, in very different ways. Three Graves Full is the one I couldn't put down though and read in just a couple of sittings. As a longtime Coen Brothers fan the publisher's description comparing the book to the work of the Coens was a lure I couldn't resist. Jamie Mason had me at the first sentence: "There is very little peace for a man with a body buried in his backyard.” If you are a fan of the dark humor of Fargo then Three Graves Full is just the book for you.

Jason Getty is a cipher really, a pale and doughy youngish man with no friends and no wife. The wife he had for seven years told him she was leaving him, did not love him any more and possibly never did. Three days later she died in an anesthesiology accident, leaving him a sum of money, not much but enough to buy a house and quit his job for a time. Jason describes himself as having suffered a courage-ectomy somewhere between childhood trauma and schoolyard bullying. A chance encounter with a stranger on a motorcycle and a careless act of kindness plunges Jason into a nightmare he can't escape. The stranger, Gary Harris, pretends to be making friends with Jason but he is really a con man and swindler who involves the unwitting Jason in his crimes and taunts and intimidates him for months. One day Gary taunts Jason beyond endurance and in a fit of "howling primal rage", Jason kills him and buries him in the back of his property.

For a year and a bit Jason suffers the tortures of the damned, guilt and the overpowering fear of discovery. He begins to snap out of it when no one comes inquiring about Gary. He becomes aware that his property is in bad shape and decides to have some landscaping work around the house- not anywhere near the grave at the back of the property. Shouldn't be a problem right? Not unless the landscapers find two graves just under his bedroom window, graves that Jason did not dig. The cops know he had nothing to do with the two graves but want to bring in cadaver dogs to check out the rest of the property. When Jason makes the decision to dig up Gary in the few hours grace that he has it sets off a series of events that would be farcical if they weren't so horrifying. Many people are drawn into the action, from the connections of the people in the two extra graves, to the cops and one cop's dog, Tessa.

Most of the book is told through internal dialogue but it is amazingly cinematic. I had such clear images in my head while reading- sometimes grisly and horrible ones. Three Graves Full is not for the faint of heart, believe me. But if you enjoy a convoluted and gripping tale of human good and evil, you should run out and get it. The characters jump off the page and the language is often lovely and lyrical; many passages I just stopped to savor and appreciate.

Thanks to netgalley and Gallery Books for an advance reading copy.

RATING- 5 shovels

Friday, January 18, 2013

Another visit to historical York- several centuries later

The Midwife's Tale
Sam Thomas
St. Martins Minotaur
January 2013

The Midwife's Tale is a wonderfully well researched historical mystery set in the city of York in 1644. England is embroiled in its' civil war with the Parliament's armies outside the nominally Royalist stronghold of York. However, York is a city divided  between Royalist sympathizers and Parliamentarians, none more so than the city council itself.

The Midwife of the tale is Bridget Hodgson, herself somewhat an anomaly for the time, as she is a twice widowed gentlewoman of independent means. As a licensed Midwife of the City she has a degree of autonomy unusual for a woman of the times. She can go places and ask questions that no other woman would dare in the pursuit of her duties. She is a Protestant and one committed to her faith, but longs for the relative safety and calm of the previous years, when King Charles I was not challenged and beset on all sides.

Bridget becomes embroiled in mystery and politics when her friend, Esther Cooper, is arrested for the poisoning murder of her upstanding Puritan husband. Esther is tried in a travesty of a trial, and condemned. The Royalist Lord Mayor of York, determined to make a point, sentences her based on the little used "petty treason". Esther has killed her "lord and master" and therefore will be burned at the stake and not hanged as is usual. She declares that she is pregnant and Bridget is called in to verify the pregnancy. A pregnant woman cannot be executed until she is delivered, which gives Bridget time to prove that her friend is not guilty. Not much time though, as the Lord Mayor gives her a two day ultimatum. If she does not change her diagnosis he will find another midwife who will. Bridget is aided by her new maidservant, Martha, a woman with decidedly unconventional views and dangerous secrets of her own. The search for the truth takes Bridget and Martha from the lowest alehouses of York to the seats of power and wealth in the city.

Based on an actual historical character of the times, Bridget is a vivid and admirable woman, not perfect but innately generous and kind, with a backbone of steel. The supporting characters are also vividly drawn and come alive on the page. The Midwife's Tale has a decidedly feminist point of view that I greatly appreciated. The life of a woman in those times was hardly worth living, reviled and repressed on all sides by religious authority and societal convention, as has been the case thoughout much of recorded history. The truth of that repression is well told in The Midwife's Tale and 17th century York springs to life in all its' lively squalor. The addition of a well crafted mystery makes for a cracking good read.

The Midwife's Tale is highly recommended for lovers of mystery and historical fiction. It is an outstanding debut novel from Sam Thomas- a writer to watch.

RATING- 4.5 Stars

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Ruth Downie's Semper Fidelis (Gaius Petreius Ruso #5)

Ruth Downie
Bloomsbury US
January 2013

I have been eagerly awaiting the release of Semper Fidelis, #5 in Ruth Downie's Gaius Petreius Ruso series, set in Roman Britain. I was especially eager as we spent the week after Christmas in Corbridge, Northumberland and visited the major Roman excavation there. I had a much better idea of what a Roman town in Britain looked like and it added to my enjoyment of an already favorite series. Corbridge also brought home the rigors of Roman Legion life. Northumberland is no place to be in a tunic and cloak in the winter months!

Ruso is a surgeon with the Twentieth Legion and is married to a British woman, Tilla (actually Darlughdacha, but I agree with Ruso that Tilla is much better). Ruso is a very good man with insatiable curiosity but Tilla is his conscience. Ruso longs for nothing more than a peaceful life but does not seem to be destined for peace.The combination of curiosity and conscience has gotten them into a great deal of trouble before, but never to the extent seen in Semper Fidelis. The Emperor Hadrian is visiting Britain and the Twentieth Legion in Eboracum (York) and Ruso has also gone north to inspect the medical facilities there. When he arrives he discovers evidence of abuse of new British recruits leading to deaths and suicides. While Ruso is no longer an investigator and does not want to be, his sense of duty is aroused. His and Tilla's questions lead him to the Centurion, Geminus. He is forcibly warned off by Geminus, who not only is a highly placed figure, but is related to the Legion's Tribune, the ambitious Accius. When Ruso makes the mistake of taking his concerns straight to the Emperor and Geminus turns up dead, who better to take the blame for the murder than Ruso? Stripped of rank and imprisoned, Ruso is in deep trouble and Tilla is not much better off. As only officers can be married she is no longer his wife and loses all the protection of that status.

Many vivid new characters are introduced; the Empress Sabina, Hadrian and an assortment of Britons and Roman soldiers. Tilla even picks up a stray, a remarkably dim camp-follower named Virana. Ruso's friend, Valens, makes a short appearance and also, less welcome, Metellus, spymaster and general snake in the grass. The trademark dry humor is very much present but not to as great an extent as in earlier books. I think this is because Ruso's and Tilla's situation is so very serious. I was getting very anxious about it for a time.

 I highly recommend the series but it is very important to read the books in order: Medicus, Terra Incognita, Persona non Grata and Caveat Emptor. The series is tremendously enjoyable and Semper Fidelis does not disappoint.

RATING- 5 Imperial Eagles

Monday, January 14, 2013

An Biography of the Elusive Georgette Heyer

Georgette Heyer
Jennifer Kloester
January 2013

I am latecomer to the Regency "romances" of Georgette Heyer but have been reading both the books and listening to the audio books available on audible. I had read many of her mysteries years ago but they had not prepared me for the wit and charm of her comedies of manners set in the Regency period. As I am one of those people who like to know something about the personal lives of those authors I admire, I was surprised to learn that Georgette Heyer had made it her mission to obscure any information about herself.

Jennifer Kloester was given exclusive access to the remaining papers of the Heyer estate and has constructed an interesting survey of Heyer's writing life. As for the woman herself, she succeeded in keeping her personal life just that- personal. I was left with an impression of a woman that I would not have liked very much. The title of the first part is "The Young Edwardian" and it seems that she remained that throughout her life. She carried all the class-consciousness, prejudices and manners of that period through two World Wars and all the social upheaval in Britain during the first half of the Twentieth Century.

To her great credit, Heyer assumed the responsibility for the support of her mother and two brothers after the relatively early death of her much loved father. It was a responsibility that both she and her husband, Ronald Rougier, seemed singularly ill-suited for. Money, or the lack thereof, was a major preoccupation with her, but never did it seem to occur to her to cut back on her lifestyle or get really competent advice on financial matters. I found the first half of the book somewhat heavy going because of the continual financial difficulties. After Rougier had set up as an attorney and in fact become a Queens Counsel did financial pressures let up somewhat. By that time Heyer had also become an extremely successful author worldwide.

Georgette Heyer seems to have been a woman of extreme contrasts. She could be very kind to some of her readers and scathing to others. She was loyal to her family but seems to have been able to cut off old friends and advisers without a backward glance. The portrait that her correspondence paints is that of a woman who is somewhat emotionally cut off. So how does one reconcile her emotional distance with the witty and wise novels that continue to be loved today? I don't know. In the end I don't think it matters. There are a selection of family pictures sprinkled throughout the book and one of them is indicated as Georgette Heyer's favorite picture of herself. It shows an open faced, smiling and happy woman. I think that is the real face of Georgette Heyer, perhaps one that only her loved ones saw.

RATING- 3.5 stars