Published February 19, 2009
Falconer and the Ritual of Death by Ian Morson. This book is a testament to reappearances. It’s been a full decade since the last episode of Master William Falconer’s mystery-solving career, but Morson has been busy on other projects, including several Medieval Murderers compilations. Falconer is regent at Oxford University in the late 13th century when he is called upon by his friend, city constable Peter Bullock, to investigate a body discovered when masons begin tearing down some buildings for a construction project. The body’s reappearance after being hidden for twenty years means that Falconer must seek out those who might remember the events from two decades earlier. Morson uses a series of flashbacks from various characters, including the newly arrived regent himself, to describe that former period. At the time, Falconer defended the Jewish community, which was under suspicion for killing a young boy in a ritualistic manner, a charge that reappears freshly during this new investigation. Also reappearing is Saphira Le Veske, a widow who Falconer helped in a previous adventure.
Fans of Susanna Gregory’s physician and teacher, Matthew Bartholomew, who solves problems at rival Cambridge a century later, will see many similarities here. Falconer lacks Bartholomew’s medical skills and Morson’s books are about half the length of Gregory’s tomes, but the medieval academic settings are almost identical.
Published February 18, 2009
RocknRolla on DVD. A lot of the time our enjoyment of an event is affected more by our expectations than by the actual event. As Jason Zweig notes in his book, Your Money & Your Brain: “Your investing brain come equipped with a biological mechanism that is more aroused when you anticipate a profit than when you actually get one.” This phenomenon holds true with entertainment as well. I was not expecting much from this Guy Ritchie film about the London underworld. I was hoping it might be similar to last year’s The Bank Job and have some decent action and comedy. Instead, I was quite pleasantly surprised by its complexity. An aging, yet powerful, London mobster negotiates a huge deal with an aggressive Russian counterpart to build a large, downtown complex. The partnership is jeopardized when both parties, unbeknownst to each other, are the victims of robberies. Their interconnected quests for revenge eventually involve a supposedly dead drug-addicted musician and his former agents, a group of low-level hustlers looking for an easy score, a pair of hardened killers, corrupt politicians, and a secret police informer. The delicious Thandie Newton is more than eye candy as the Russian’s smart, tough accountant looking for a little excitement, but thinking she’s above it all. This film is certainly not as dark as the excellent Eastern Promises, but it shares some common elements and its intricate web of story lines is worth seeing.
Published February 17, 2009
Pressure is a Privilege by Billie Jean King with Christine Brennan. I wasn’t even ten years old when King defeated Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes before a huge Astrodome crowd and a national television audience, but I remember watching the match. I certainly wasn’t aware of its importance for women’s tennis, women’s athletics, and women’s rights in general. I just knew that King was a fierce and talented competitor and someone that any fledgling tennis player should try to emulate. More than thirty-five years later, King is still someone worth emulating, still promoting her sport and still fighting for the causes she supports.
In this motivational book, she traces her life story using the match with Riggs as the focal point. She relates each of the lessons she learned from her parents, coaches and friends and demonstrates how she was able to apply them in that specific contest and in her prior and subsequent successes. Topics include on using visualization, handling pressure, and making adjustments. Admittedly, some sections are better than others and there are few memorable and quotable passages like this one from King from another source that is part of my personal book of inspirational quotations: “I love the challenge, the opportunity to do my best at a critical moment. I think that’s the way champions feel.”
However, the introduction, which provides her remembrances of the early 1970s and the circumstances leading up to the match, is fascinating. She mentions that she was not trying to prove that women were better than men, but was “playing to prove that men and women had the same entertainment value, which why we should be paid equally.” I find it interesting that although all four majors now have equal pay, the topic of equal entertainment value is still being debated, especially as it pertains to evening match schedules.
Published February 16, 2009
Portrait of a Lady by Diane A.S. Stuckart. The second in this Leonardo da Vinci series is as entertaining as the first, though the mystery itself is not as complex. The master is still employed as chief engineer, artist, and director of entertainments at the Duke of Milan’s court. While returning from testing a portable bridge in a nearby stream, two of the apprentices, including our returning narrator, Dino, discover the body of a young woman underneath one of the castle’s towers. The victim is identified as a servant to one of the Duke’s wards, Contessa Caterina, and Leonardo and Dino suspect foul play. After a second of the Contessa’s servants is found dead beneath a tower, they contrive in insert Dino into the household in the guise of a new female maid. The list of suspects is rather sparse this time and the mystery ends with rather a convenient conclusion, but once again Stuckart does an excellent job of describing the activities of the artist’s workroom and the daily lives of the apprentices. More pages are spent in this volume on Dino’s internal struggles with first love and whether to continue working for Leonardo. Newcomers planning to read the entire series should definitely start with The Queen’s Gambit however, as many plot points from the first book are revealed in the second.
Fans of the artist should also note that Martin Woodhouse wrote a three-book series in the 1970s with da Vinci as the lead detective. I have not read them yet, but for those interested, Medici Guns is the first in the series.
Published February 6, 2009
Queen of the Flowers and Death by Water by Kerry Greenwood. The selection of books and dvds at the library has been rather tepid lately, so I ventured back to Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series once again. These two books are good examples of an author can display variety within a somewhat formulaic series. Most of the Fisher books follow the same basic plot: a central mystery plus a secondary sub-plot, Phryne engaging in a sexual dalliance with a “pretty young man,” and a fair bit of Australian late-1920s historical information and language in a light-hearted style. Yes, there are frequently murders and the dirty underbelly of Melbourne is exposed, but somehow Phryne, her companion Dot, the rest of her extended household seem to float above it. In the first of these two stories, Phryne has been named Queen of the Lady Mayor’s celebratory Bazaar and Parade complete with a quartet of flower maidens. The primary mystery occurs when one of the young ladies disappears days before the event. The solution to the mystery itself is relatively uncomplicated without a crescending climax, but the story departs from the norm in that despite the presence of a circus, carnival and parading elephants, the tone of this book is much darker than any of the others I’ve read. Phyrne and her associates, Bert and Cec, spend considerable time with the city’s major criminals or on dark, lonely beaches or rescuing young girls from dangerous situations. The second book is much brighter as Phyrne and Dot take to a cruise line between Melbourne and New Zealand to solve a series of jewel heists. Phryne is completely in her element, rising late in the morning before mingling with the well-to-do victims and suspects on board, each with their own secrets and jealousies. The absence of several of the recurring household characters is balanced by an interesting array of crew members including an all-female band. The “Golden Age” atmosphere prevalent just prior to the Great Depression is well-described here and there is also a lot of Maori history and culture. The solution is a bit far-fetched, but there is a nice, unexpected twist even after the case is solved. Fans of sea-going mysteries will enjoy this one. One common feature to both books is that Greenwood ends each chapter with copies of letters. Readers will want to pay close attention to the letters in the first adventure as they have a direct bearing on the secondary plot and the those in the second follow the sea-going theme, but I haven’t been able to determine a more subtle connection, if one exists.
Published February 4, 2009
Born Standing Up by Steve Martin. Martin has a new movie coming out on Friday, his second attempt at performing one of the most fantastic comedy roles ever created, the bungling French detective Jacques Clouseau. Martin brings his own style to the character and although it pales in comparison to the original work done by the marvelous Peter Sellers, it has some merit and is worth seeing. What is interesting about this autobiographical book is that one gets to see how Martin’s comedy developed from its most embryonic stages to the point where he was the most popular performer in the world at one point. Martin is an incredibly intelligent man and his story is like watching a pyramid being built, each stone sliding into its perfect spot. One sees how each experience growing up contributed to his understanding of comedy and performing, whether it was taking philosophy classes at various Southern California colleges, watching his co-workers at Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm or reading books on vaudeville. The story continues through his days at Saturday Night Live and the beginnings of his movie career and ends with his mother’s death in 2002. Unlike the punchline-driven I Killed, this work is much more academic in nature. It should be part of any course curriculum related to humor and required reading for anyone considering a career in comedy because it shows how much hard work and intelligence is necessary to be a professional comedian.
Published February 3, 2009
Dewey by Vicki Myron with Bret Witter. Like a lot of public libraries, my local branch has a special shelf just for current best sellers. It is mostly populated with the latest romantic novels, spy thrillers or political and investment tomes in vogue, but occasionally I’ll see something different. Last week, I saw a title called Dewey: the small-town library cat who touched the world. Well, I’m a cat person and I used to work in libraries. I thought this might be interesting and I’m always on the lookout for books I can give to my sister the vet. Myron is the Spencer, Iowa library director, who on a cold, January morning in 1988 found a shivering kitten in the book drop box of her library. After Myron convinced the staff and the library board that the kitten would not be a problem, Dewey Readmore Books became a integral part of the Spencer library for the next eighteen years, entertaining patrons of all ages whenever they visited the library and gaining much publicity throughout the world.
The book is part autobiography about Myron, part biography of Dewey himself, a lot of local history about the town of Spencer and the state of Iowa, and a bit about how public libraries work. There are lots of wonderful anecdotes about how Dewey would interact with staff and visitors, greet people at the door, sit in their laps, ride the book carts, climb onto shelves, desks, and lights and how Dewey’s warmth and love for everyone helped the farming town through some difficult economic times.
Dewey’s willingness to wait by the front door for Myron, to follow patrons around the building, to instinctively know what time of day it is, to demand attention by dislodging materials on desktops and his finicky eating habits all remind me of my mother’s cat, Kringle, who displayed several dog-like tendencies. I’ve never worked in a library with a cat, but one of our local furniture stores has a resident cat or two that attract customer attention and admiration.
To learn more about the Library Cat Society, please contact Phyllis Lahti at P.O. Box 274, Moorhead, MN 56561-0274.