Archive for July, 2019

The Darwin Affair

Monday, July 29th, 2019

By Tim Mason

The Short Take:

This audacious historical fiction thriller (set in 1860) doesn’t limit itself to “cameos” by real, famous people, they are also among the lead characters–both good and bad. Rather cheeky, but I loved it.

Why?

As someone who has read many non-fiction books about evolution and natural history, the title alone sold me. However, it proved to be a rollercoaster of a thriller–enjoyable in every aspect.

But Darwin is just the beginning of historical figures in this thriller, which includes the prime investigator. After several characters refer to Inspector Charles Fields, the main protagonist, as “Mr. Bucket” I had to investigate. A quick google and I learned Charles Fields was very real, and Dickens wrote about him! He was also the inspiration for Mr. Bucket in Bleak House.

As the story progressed, other prominent people of Victorian times show up: Sir Richard Owen (bad guy), Bishop Samuel Wilberforce (not a good guy), and Prince Albert (good guy) are three historical figures with major roles. Of course, where there’s Albert, you must find Queen Victoria. Thomas Huxley, Charles Dickens, and Karl Marx also appeared.

While you often encounter historical fiction where dialogue and minor actions are attributed to known people, it’s unusual to read a book where famous figures are central to a murder conspiracy that is complete fiction. It’s a bold decision and a tasty one.

Of course, there are fictional characters as well, including the horrific bad guy Decimus Cobb (sporting a name Dickens would approve of) who is as ghastly as he is tenacious and skillful.

It all amounts to a fantastic read, with a plot that revolves around Prince Albert, Darwin, and the newly published Origin of the Species. Candy for me. How about you?

A Little Plot:

Charles Fields is helping to guard the carriage carrying the queen and her consort when a known ruffian raises his hand. Is it a gun? Fields reacts immediately, collaring the man but realizes it was a ruse and dashes off to protect Victoria and Albert. When the real would-be-assassin is apprehended he returns to the decoy only to discover the man’s throat has been slit and one ear surgically removed.

A few questions to bystanders and Fields believes he has stumbled upon a conspiracy that might reach into Buckingham Palace itself, but the rich and mighty are determined to stop his inquiries.

This is Mason’s first adult novel but he has written many plays. For more information about him and his works, click here.

Heroes

Saturday, July 13th, 2019

By Stephen Fry

The Short Take:

Fry gives the adventures of legendary Greek heroes like Theseus and Heracles a fresh retelling, losing none of the information but adding in delightful asides and cultural references. Their quests and feats leave modern superheroes behind. After all, they had to deal with vengeful gods as well as monsters and impossible demands.

Why?

As a child I loved Greek mythology but the kid-friendly versions I read were not nearly as Game-of-Thrones-ish (and more) as Fry’s retelling. His faithful (in content) retellings include the flaws and sometimes shocking details. What’s more, you realize just how rip-roaring these ancient tales are.

Fry’s modern language style gives you all the details but in a much more engaging fashion. His copious footnotes bring extra texture to these grand stories, stitching the legends of old to current events and locations.

In addition to the heroes mentioned above you’ll find Jason, Orpheus, Atlanta, Perseus, and more. Plus all the sidekicks, interfering gods, myriad monsters, and minor players (who often have major impact). It’s a terrific read that now has a permanent place on my bookcase.

A Little Plot:

Regardless of the hero you can bet someone sets him (usually a male) an impossible task in hopes he dies first. Don’t expect that to happen. But there’s usually tragedy at some point.

For more about Stephen Fry and his work (which includes much that is quite funny) click here.

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