Archive for July, 2009

Revelation

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009


By C. J. Sansom

The Short Take:

This is the fourth of Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake mysteries, and arguably the best so far. Set in Tudor London, it not only showcases a dicey string of murders, it also highlights the political and religious dangers of that era.

Why?

Crime mysteries in a historical setting deliver a double diversion: not only can you enjoy trying to figure out “who done it,” you also gain a keener insight into times long past. In our American era of religious freedom, the Tudor reign of Henry VIII is particularly fascinating… and frightening. Henry declared himself the head of the Church in England, but slowly drifted away from a Protestant stance to something much closer to his old Roman Catholic practices.

The result was from year to year you could be burned for heresy as: a) a Pope-follower, b) a radical Protestant, or c) a person totally confused about what to believe anymore. It was all subject to change with Henry’s next wife, or the beheading of his last advisor.

Drop into the middle of this the hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake, who would like nothing better than to stay out of political and religious controversies but keeps finding himself deeply embroiled. And in danger.

The best news is that if this is your first sojourn into Sansom’s books, you won’t feel like you’re missing something. There are some continuing characters and very slight references to previous cases, but Sansom does an excellent job of keeping his plots well contained between a single book’s covers.

A Little Plot:

A dear friend of Shardlake is murdered in a ghastly fashion and he vows to find the killer. This commitment drags him into a wider conspiracy to keep news of another murder from reaching the king’s ears in order to protect the marriage prospects of Catherine Parr, a Protestant sympathizer who has caught the king’s eye.

The powerful and Protestant-leaning Archbishop Cranmer charges Shardlake to solve these murders with the utmost secrecy. Shardlake soon discovers that the Book of Revelations has inspired what could become a string of dreadful murders and races to solve the case before the murderer strikes again… and again.

If that’s not enough, Shardlake has his own legal cases to deal with, including protecting a teenage boy who cannot quit praying and could easily be burned as a heretic.

Danger lurks everywhere and it’s up to Shardlake to protect everyone — including himself.

I couldn’t find a website for Sansom, but for some additional information and an interview with the author, please click here.

The Doomsday Key

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009


By James Rollins

The Short Take:

As you read along, it’s a solid, fast-paced thriller. Just what you expect from Rollins. Then you read about what’s true in the back. And suddenly you are scared out of your wits.

Why?

This is not the type of book I usually write about, even though I do read. I prefer to support books that might not be very well known, minor as my support may be.

James Rollins is beyond a best seller — he is a brand. His black-ops team of scientist/para-military types in Sigma Force fight evil as well as Washington. What’s not to love?

But here’s the thing: Though marketed as a thriller, Rollin’s books are actually more terrifying that anything Stephen King or Dean Koontz ever dreamed up. Why? Because the scariest things in his books are true. And these things are so scary they can keep you up at night, or send you into a life of complete dissolution since you know there’s no hope.

In his book The Last Oracle, Rollins revealed a lake so poisoned by radioactivity just to stand by it could kill you. And it’s located right over earthquake fault lines that could send this deadly mess right into the Arctic Ocean, poisoning Europe.

In this one, he makes a strong case for the inevitability for world-wide famine, food riots, and the complete destruction of civilization with some 90% of the population dying.

That’s certainly the scariest thing I’ve ever heard.

Koontz and King give you the shivers big time, but afterwards you turn up the lights and relax knowing their work is pure fiction. Rollins stays with you. Eek.

Commencement

Saturday, July 11th, 2009


By J. Courtney Sullivan

The Short Take:

If you found the friendships in Sex and the City more appealing than the clothes, this book is for you. No question. If you like smart books where girls grow into women, it’s for you, too. If you wish you understood women better, you definitely should read it, too.

Why?

There are five major characters in this book — the four close friends it follows. And Smith College. Especially Smith College. Smith is still for women only and life in this rarified environment is almost as exotic as residing among remote Amazonian natives. At least for most of us.

It was this exposure to an all-female-all-the-time existence that captured me. Not only does it shape personalities and futures, it also seems to create a whole new class of guilt: Women who have battled it through a co-ed university don’t seem to question their equality or their life decisions near as much as these Smith grads do.

Beyond that, the four characters Sullivan created — April, Celia, Bree, and Sally — are unique and engaging personalities. Their stories and relationships grab you and keep you turning page after page. Want proof? I finished the book in a day and a half. For me, that’s exceptionally fast.

Sullivan lets events before and after Smith influence her women as well. As they each brought something different to their college, so they each found the Smith experience influenced their adult lives in different ways.

This is very much a feminine book. Therefore, every man should read it and maybe we’d have less of that talk about being from different planets.

A Little Plot:

Four women from different backgrounds find themselves on the same floor of a Smith dorm: a grieving neatnik, an engaged Southern belle, a driven women’s rights activist, and family-loving peace maker. At first, three of them are overwhelmed by the Smith version of femininity.  However, they quickly find their place as well as unshakeable support and love in their friendships.

Those friendships endure through several life-changing crises, but a mere marriage may break their bond. Does it? Read and find out.

For more about this book and its author, click here.

Mistress of the Monarchy

Monday, July 6th, 2009

The Life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster

by Alison Weir

The Short Take:

Weir writes very informative and beautifully researched biographies. With Katherine Swynford, she took on a real challenge — there is so little solid documentation about this important woman; but Weir did an excellent job of capturing Katherine’s world and the repercussions of her scandalous romance with John of Gaunt, a prince of England.

Why?

I admit to already being an Alison Weir fan and have read a number of her royal biographies. This one posed more of a challenge to the reader as Katherine Swynford is such a will ‘o the wisp in historical documents.  She seems to flit around the edges of this story about her life. After all, some of the strongest records of her life come from the financial account books of her lover, John of Gaunt, and the highly biased ravings of people who despised either John, the affair, or both.

Weir taps every resource to flesh out this remarkable story of a woman who lived through plague, a deadly revolt, and carried on a public affair with a married prince of England. Even better, she makes sure we understand that emotions, expectations, and life styles in the late 14th century were nothing like today. Her admonishments to remember that difference make this love story for-the-ages even more amazing.

A Little Plot:

Beware. Unlike my other reviews, I’m giving away the whole story here.  Katherine grew up in the royal court of England’s King Edward III and Queen Philippa. She probably knew John of Gaunt since childhood, but there is no evidence there was any early spark between them. The queen arranged for Katherine to marry Sir Hugh Swynford, a respectable though rather impoverished knight.  John of Gaunt, the royal couple’s second son, was married to a very wealthy English heiress, Blanche of Lancaster.

When John’s beloved Blanche died, he married Constance of Castile, the heir to the crown of Spain. Unfortunately, someone else had usurped that crown. John planned to win the crown in battle for himself and Constance. The marriage was strictly business.

And so the affair with Katherine (now widowed) began. Even after several bastard children it was still a subtle and ongoing affair, but it eventually became widely known. However, it wasn’t until their lives were in extreme jeopardy during a deadly peasant revolt that he abandoned Katherine.

But not forever. Once Constance died, he actually married Katherine — an act that was strictly unimaginable at the time. And their children became the direct forbears of the Royal Houses of York, Tudor, Stuart, and every British sovereign since 1461 (plus six U.S. presidents). Wow!

Caveats:


Because I want you to love Alison Weir, I suggest starting with another of her books before trying this one: The Six Wives of Henry VIII. Not only is there a lot more solid documentation for Weir to draw on, most people have at least a passing knowledge of Henry, Ann Boylyn and others. That all makes for more solid ground.

If you find Katherine interesting but want a more romanticized version of her life, I highly recommend Anya Seton’s Katherine. Written in the 1950s, it does apply modern concepts of love to Medieval lives and traces a full life where little is actually known, but Seton does a great job on capturing the grime and grueling lifestyle of the era. Yes, it’s a romance, but it’s one with a goodly amount of research behind it as well as imagination.

Finally, if you want to know more about Alison Weir, her outstanding biographies, or her royal novels, visit her site here.

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