Archive for May, 2008

The Templar, the Queen and her Lover

The Templar, the Queen and her Lover by Michael Jecks. Jecks may or may not know anything about submarines, but his medieval mysteries share many of the same characteristics as the best Tom Clancy thrillers. Both tend to be long, but quick reads as the pages fly by. There is usually a considerable amount of build up at the beginning as multiple characters and plot lines are introduced. As the story continues, the history of each character is described, giving more definition and contour to their personalities. The hero typically has a strong moral center with the physical and mental skills to act and think quickly and decisively. Finally, the pace of each book increases as the multiple plotlines eventually converge.

Jecks’ latest offering contains an incredibly complex spider web with four focal points: the English King Edward II, his lover Sir Hugh le Despenser, Edward’s estranged wife, Queen Isabella, and her brother, the French King Charles IV. Every other character in the book has a connection to at least one of these four and usually to more than one: either as an ally, as a servant, or as an enemy or threat. Isabella travels to Paris in 1325 to negotiate a treaty with her brother on behalf of her husband and our hero, Sir Baldwin de Furnshill, is assigned as part of her personal bodyguard. Also caught up in the court intrigues is a band of musicians, blackmailed into spying on the Queen. Intersecting these groups from a different direction are the survivors of a massacre at the Chateau Gaillard, the former prison of Charles IV’s first wife. As the entourage makes its way to Paris and the negotiations drag on, additional murders take place until Sir Baldwin, assisted as always by bailiff Simon Puttock, can make a clear picture of the mosaic of clues.

In this chapter of the series, Jecks shows his ability to develop a full range of characters, from the highest in the land to the lowliest prison guard. The sub-plot involving the musicians stumbles at times, but the story of the Chateau is quite interesting. The convoluted and ever-shifting allegiances at court will keep readers guessing.

Book of Secrets on DVD

National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets on DVD. On the same weekend the latest Indiana Jones chronicle was released in theatres, I decided to watch that more contemporary treasure hunter, Benjamin Franklin Gates (actually, I didn’t “decide” per se. It’s more like my name finally reached the top of the hold list at the library). It was also a coincidence that there is a Civil War connection in the movie as I watched it Memorial Day weekend, the holiday created initially to honor Union veterans who died in that conflict. I am not a big fan of Nicolas Cage, but he does better in action movies, and I did enjoy the first entry in this series.

In this episode, Gates is reunited with his security-hacking expert Riley Poole, his National Archives curator girlfriend Abigail Chase, and his father (Jon Voight) in an effort to clear his family name when one of his ancestors is mentioned in John Wilkes Booth’s diary as a conspirator in the Lincoln assassination. And there’s also the little matter of a golden treasure that Booth was supposed to find for a secret society supporting the Confederacy and is now being sought by a band of mercenaries led by the excellent Ed Harris. These types of movies definitely require audiences to suspend their normal beliefs, especially when Gates and his crew break into two of the most highly secure buildings in the world. Still, they are enjoyable adventures with bits of historical trivia and a few laughs as well. I especially liked the scenes at the Library of Congress, since I was once privileged to get a behind-the-scenes tour there myself.

The DVD from Disney contains previews which are irritatingly too numerous and lengthy and doesn’t contain any bonus features except audio commentary from the director and Voight. One bit of movie trivia: although the film used several historic locations for filming, the reenactment of Lincoln’s assassination was not done at Ford’s Theatre, but at Richmond Theatre in Surrey, England.

The Green Man

The Green Man by Kate Sedley. When your main character is a chapman, a pedlar traveling alone along the roads of the 15th century English countryside, it can be difficult to develop recurring secondary characters. However, during the long run of the Roger the Chapman series, Sedley has managed to bring to life Roger’s second wife, Adela, who somehow manages the household with three noisy children despite Roger’s frequent and long absences and rather variable income. There’s also the irascible Margaret Walker, Roger’s mother-in-law from his first marriage and Adela’s cousin. With Roger as not only the principal player in these chronicles, but also its narrator, the two strong female presences act as a counter-balance as times.

Therefore, it is disappointing to leave them behind so early in this story as Roger heads north to Scotland as personal bodyguard to the Scottish Duke of Albany as he attempts to overthrow his brother King James with the help of the English Duke Richard of Gloucester. Albany is supposedly fearful of assassins, agents of either his brother or the English themselves and has asked specifically for Roger to protect him. As the trip progresses, Roger suspects that the Duke is not really in much danger and begins to question his real reason to be present on the journey. Upon arrival in Edinburgh, they discover that the political landscape has changed, necessitating a new plan of action for all those involved, including Roger.

This is not Sedley’s best work. The loss of Adela and Margaret is not made up by the extended presence of Albany and the other members of his entourage are not captivating. There is also a sub-plot with very little connection to the main action in which Albany has Roger investigate the arrest of one of his allies, a crime which Roger solves quite easily in less than twenty-four hours. The main mystery is not sufficiently complex and is also too easily resolved. Sedley has been able in the past to keep the quality of this series at a high level, but this chronicle misses the mark.

The Great Debaters on DVD

The Great Debaters on DVD. I never really cared about debate growing up. I understood the quiz bowls, spelling bees, and math contests. There were right answers and wrong answers. Debate seemed to be more about style and how you spoke rather than what you said and that emphasis made little sense to me. I didn’t comprehend the seemingly arcane procedures and certainly had no clue how judges determined the victor. Nowadays, the only debate exposure for most of us is the circus that is part of our political process. But after watching this film about the Wiley College debate team, I have a better understanding of these competitions and newly found respect for those that participate in them.

The movie, based on real events, is set at an all-black school in segregated Texas during the Depression years of the 1930s. Denzel Washington plays Professor Melvin Tolson, the demanding coach who tries to develop the minds and spirits of the four students who make up the Wiley team. He pushes them hard in order to get them ready to compete against the best black colleges and white schools as well. The film shows how the specific training they receive from Tolson in research, public speaking and rhetoric, when combined with their inherent abilities, leads them to become important members of their communities: a minister, a lawyer, a civil rights leader and shows the value of education in general as a way of improving one’s self and creating opportunities for a better future.

Washington is great in almost every role he takes, but he seems to excel in portraying real-life characters beginning with his Oscar-nominated role as Steve Biko, the activist in South Africa, in Cry Freedom and his Oscar-winning performance as Private Trip, a member of the Civil War’s first all-black volunteer company, in Glory. The list continues with Malcolm X, boxer Rubin Carter (The Hurricane), high school football coach Herman Boone (Remember the Titans) and most recently drug lord Frank Lucas (American Gangster).

The bonus feature, in which Washington interviews real graduates of Wiley and others who knew Professor Tolson, is excellent as well. Washington also directed the film and in this interview discusses some of the dramatic licenses that he and the producers took and his views on the changing nature of the art of debate.

Anitra Freeman’s Historical Mystery list

At one point in the past I contemplated creating a huge list of historical mysteries, but soon discovered that many others had already done so and there was no need to reinvent the wheel. TANGENTAL THOUGHT: How about a mystery set in prehistoric times where someone is killed in order to take credit for inventing the wheel? Something along the lines of Hyaenas by Sandy Dengler. I’ve mentioned some the best previously (Hurt’s [my review], Vink’s [my review], and Malo’s), but continue to find other lists out there. Freeman has a pretty basic chronological index of titles with author, character and setting information included, but her list also has some unique features worth pointing out. First, she includes links to reviews for many of the books. Second, for each significant era, she adds links to related sites, such as the Fictional Rome collection at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey (my review) and Feminae: an index covering journal articles, book reviews, and essays in books about women, sexuality, and gender during the Middle Ages from Haverford College. Third, and most important, I was surprised by how many authors I had never heard of that were on her list, including some that don’t appear in either Hurt or Malo. It is possible that Freeman is using a broader definition of historical mystery that others may consider as historical fiction instead, but there is no criteria information available. Unfortunately, since the site hasn’t been updated since 2002, she’s missing the recent explosion of authors and titles in this sub-genre and several of her links have gone dead. However, there are useful things to be found here and I am glad to add it to my blogroll.

The Fire Waker

The Fire Waker by Ben Pastor. This is a complex, well-written mystery set near the end of the reign of Emperor Diocletian. With the enormous expansion of the Roman Empire, Diocletian decided to divide the realm into four separate parts, each with its own capital. The goal was to decentralize governmental bureaucracy away from central Rome and bring it closer to militarily important frontier regions. Although this goal was reasonably achieved, when it came time for the next generation of emperors to assume power, the political in-fighting that characterized Rome throughout its history returned and eventually led to civil war.

It is just before this tumultuous transition period occurs that Pastor’s second book featuring Aelius Spartianus takes place. Spartianus is a colonel in the cavalry on assignment with Diocletian’s court to be his envoy to the other three rulers, to research and write histories of previous emperors, to report on the execution of the Edict of Maximum Prices (an anti-inflationary measure that summarily failed) and to investigate any unusual events that might have political ramifications. Persecutions of Christians were still rampant and so when Spartianus hears of a miracle worker called Agnus the Fire Waker and his deaconess Casta, he attempts to seek them out. However, his official duties as envoy take him to the court of Maximian in the city of Mediolanum, where he discovers the murder of a local judge. Again, before he can solve this case, he is reassigned back to the front lines as the army must face a rebellion along the Danube. He continues to pursue Agnus, Casta, and the judge’s killer, avoid become involved in any treasonous conspiracies, and bring some semblance of balance to his family life.

The book is enjoyable, but it is not a quick read for several reasons. First, Pastor’s use of vocabulary can be a bit weighty at times. Second, the font size for the hardback edition is a bit smaller than normal. Finally, the multiple plots, assignments and locations give the book energy, but can also be confusing. In addition, Pastor uses not only a straight narrative form, but also letters between Diocletian, Spartianus, his family and other characters and also exposes readers to Spartianus’ personal notes and observations. This style of using multiple perspectives and voices, also employed by Beverle Graves Myers in The Iron Tongue of Midnight, Ruth Downie in Terra Incognita and Stephanie Barron in A Flaw in the Blood, can be a fresh way to provide additional information, but can be upsetting for some readers.

This series is set a mere decade before the Claudia series by Paul Doherty and many of the historical figures are present in both. It is interesting to compare how they are represented by different authors.

Golden Legacy

Golden Legacy by Leonard S. Marcus. It seems to have become a habit that once each year I venture into the realm of non-fiction and nostalgia to find a title describing the history of a company or industry with relevance to my youth. Last year it was “The game makers : the story of Parker Brothers from Tiddledy Winks to Trivial Pursuit” by Philip E. Orbanes and in 2006 it was “The playmakers : amazing origins of timeless toys” by Tim Walsh. Orbanes’s book was quite good and Walsh’s history of the 20th century U.S. toy industry with lots of trivia about classic toys and games made my Book Awards list. In comparison, this year’s business biography of the Golden Books publishing empire was a disappointment.

The book is extremely well-researched and includes several hundred photographs of book covers and the people who created them. However, in looking at these images I discovered very few titles that I remember reading as a child and, therefore, the personal connection that I was anticipating did not materialize and my interest in the subject matter declined. Marcus spends entirely too much time listing almost every Golden Book title and the author and illustrator of each work. His year-by-year approach quickly becomes repetitive and dull. Of far more appeal is the first chapter on the foundation of the company (named the Western Printing and Lithographing Company) by Edward H. Wadewitz in Racine, Wisconsin with two of his brothers and printer, Roy A. Spencer. Also deserving of more pages were the company’s marketing agreements with partners such as Disney and Johnson & Johnson, its contentious relationship with certain librarians and literary critics and its financial decline in the 1980s and 90s.


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