Friday, December 28, 2007

Queen's Ransom by Fiona Buckley

The third appearance of Ursula Blanchard, Lady of the Privy Chamber to Queen Elizabeth I, reads more as an action/suspense novel than a mystery/whodunit. Mistress Blanchard desperately wants to get away from the intrigue and dangers of court for a while. Queen Elizabeth, wanting to help her escape, sends her on a mission into France, a country on the verge of civil war. She gives Ursula a message to deliver to Queen Caroline, offering assistance and arbitration if war breaks out.

Ursula is accompanied by her former father-in-law, who is traveling to France to pick up his ward. Ursula has never gotten along with the father of her first husband Gerald and he has yet to forgive his son for marrying her.

The path they take through the country is meandering and takes time with back-tracking to cater to the young ward's whims. She is Helene, a sixteen-year old shrew, who claims she aspires only to be a nun. Ursula is not convinced, but she uses the girl's demands as a cover to contact her estranged second husband, Matthew de la Roche, a wanted man in England but living nearby in France. They manage to spend a few passionate hours together before the inn is set on fire. She helps Matthew escape and soon finds out that the men in her own traveling party were responsible for the arson. They were using her as bait to flush de la Roche out.

Seething with fury, she presses forward to Paris and delivers Elizabeth's message to Catherine. Before she can turn towards home, her own maid-servant is arrested and accused of plotting to poison Queen Caroline. To free Dale from the French prison and certain execution, Ursula races to Antwerp to find a treasure hidden two years earlier by her first husband. It is a large enough treasure to ransom a queen.

A merchantman with murderous Turks on his trail joined the group while on its way to Paris and now accompanies Ursula to Antwerp. With her intelligence and wit and his connections and worldliness, they outwit Turkish assassins and French mercenaries loyal to Catherine, bent on getting the treasure for themselves.

Back in the French Court, a meeting with an Englishman also carrying a message from Elizabeth to Catherine reveals just how deeply she has been betrayed by her own queen, making her decision about staying with her husband crystal clear.

In "Queen's Ransom", Ursula is not called upon to solve mysterious murders by person or persons unknown, rather to pierce the veils of secrecy, conspiracy and treachery to prevent her servant from being burned at the stake and to protect her husband from the queen's court from arresting him and taking him back to England. She finds herself surrounded by betrayal from all directions.

Fortunately, this novel is kept moving as Ursula travels to Paris, Antwerp and back to Paris, facing numerous and exciting adventures along the way. The story does not get bogged down while the reader waits for Ursula to interview suspects and search for clues. Her adventures keep up a fast pace and the result is an exciting page turner. Ursula Blanchard is the Elizabethan Renaissance equivalent of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan.

(previously published on

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Terror of the Spanish Main by Albert Marrin

Marrin’s non-fiction work on the pirate Sir Henry Morgan and his Buccaneers is a children’s book but it is well-researched and documented with copious references and bibliography.

It seems to be geared mainly for the teenaged crowd, who are more likely to enjoy the “gross-out” factor as Marrin describes various tortures inflicted upon the Spanish captives and the buccaneers’ victims. Younger audiences may enjoy it as well as it is rich with pictures and written sound effects like “KABOOM!”.

For older readers, however, these aspects tend to detract rather than add to the historical facts in the story. Marrin’s abundant use of clich├ęs, such as “hard nut to crack” or “shaken a hornets’ nest” become tedious (but remember it was not written for adults!).

Nearly one half of the book is devoted to the social climate and politics of the Western Hemisphere during the seventeenth century. For the remainder of the tome, Marrin relies heavily on three earlier works on Morgan, including the extraordinary account “The Buccaneers of America” by John Exquemeling.

Some of Marrin’s facts differed significantly from the other works of piratical history I have read. For example, Marrin dubs the pilot or helmsman of the pirate ship as the “sea artist”, a term I have never seen before. He also maintains that the golden earrings worn by the pirates were that their comrades could identify one another during the heart of mano a mano clashes. He makes no mention of earrings being worn because of superstition.

On the surface, “Terror of the Spanish Main” is a good historical resource for those wanting (or needing) a quick Readers’ Digest synopsis of Sir Henry Morgan. It is excellent for a homework project. For the pirate aficionados and enthusiasts, this book should be passed over for the more informative and detailed works listed in the bibliography.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

To criticize any of J. K. Rowling’s work would be akin to spitting into the wind, but in her first five novels (I know! I know! I’m just a bit behind on reading Harry Potter!) of the boy wizard, she has proven herself to be a very talented story-teller.

“The Order of the Phoenix” opens with Harry, trapped with his relatives during the summer, struggling to hear any news of Lord Voldemort’s reappearance or activities. Instead, what little information he can pick up is rather detrimental to Professor Dumbledore and himself. Nobody believes the Dark Lord is back and Potter is branded as a narcissistic glory-seeker. This attitude toward Harry persists through much of the novel and eventually becomes tiring, since only his closest friends believe him.

As usual, Potter has a different Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Delores Umbridge (sounds like umbrage?). She is quite odious and seems to have the upper hand on everyone on staff including Professor Dumbledore. She quickly enforces many new rules on the Hogwarts students and fellow professors. Professor Umbridge often locks horns with Professor McGonagol, a worthy adversary, usually with unsatisfactory results.

Hermione Granger points out that Professor Umbridge’s class objectives do not include actually practicing spells to use against the Dark Arts. She and Ron Weasley manage to convince Harry to teach them and “one or two” others these spells, since he has gone up against Lord Voldemort more than once.

At least we get to see Harry showing some passion and emotion in this year at Hogwarts. Teaching his fellow students spells, falling in love an dealing with the temperament of teenaged girls, his anger towards Umbridge and Snape, the absence of Hagrid and being barred from playing Quidditch all fray Harry’s nerves.

Soon with the help of a former antagonist and from a strange classmate, opinion of Harry begins to turn, but it isn’t until he and a handful of friends confront Voldemort and a group of Death-Eaters in the halls of the Ministry of Magic, that the wizard world finally comes to its senses.

Rowling also deepens the characters of Hermione Granger, Ginny Weasley and perpetual whipping boy Neville Longbottom. We see the depth of Hermione’s intelligence and cunning as she engineers Professor Umbridge’s downfall. It is great to see once quiet and shy Ginny Weasley snap at Harry in fury. And Neville outgrows himself and becomes a force to be reckoned with. The young wizards and witches along with Ron Weasley step out of Potter’s shadow and prove themselves to be formidable as well.

However, Draco Malfoy and his cohorts among the Slytherins make frequent but seemingly obligatory appearances to antagonize Potter. Nothing new at all here.

As I read through Potter’s interactions with his professors, I wondered how much Rowling fashioned the teachers after her own experiences in school. Certainly, everyone can relate to Professors Snape and Umbridge.

“The Order of the Phoenix” is a fun and wild ride. It lacks the many adventures and characters of “The Goblet of Fire”, but stands tall above the first four with its thrills and chills. It will have you cheering the wizards, while jeering and sneering at the Death-Eaters. It will leave you hungry for more.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Murder on the Boulevard by Anne Sloan

Set in 1912, Anne Sloan’s “Murder on the Boulevard” gives the reader a rather intimate look into the city of Houston, Texas during the years before WWI and the time of suffragettes. For those who are familiar with present-day Houston will enjoy reading about well-known street names and the wonderment of the characters as they gawk at buildings up to sixteen stories high!

Sloan’s heroine Flora Logan is summoned back to Houston Heights from New York City after being banished by her father four years earlier. The mystery surrounding her father’s death and the fate of his marble company bring her back in contact with family and friends that she left behind. On the train ride from New York City, she meets a young millionaire pumping big bucks into Houston’s skyline and his lawyer.

Flora’s adventures bring her in frequent contact with the lawyer Max Andrews and, much to her chagrin, begins to fall for him, entirely against her feminist ideals. She alternately views him as charming then antagonistic.

As she begins to probe into her father’s death, Flora finds hints that there may have been some shady dealings within his marble company. The secretary her dad hired seems to have duties outside the office that aren’t exactly aboveboard. What disturbs Flora the most is the man indirectly responsible for her banishment is a supervisor, also hired by her father. Before she was sent away, Flora had made a trip alone to Beaumont when her parents had left town on a short trip. For a young woman to travel unaccompanied was unheard of in those days. A business associate of her father’s gave Flora a ride from the train station in Beaumont to an isolated place of botanical interest to her, promising to return for her later in the day. When he failed to show up, Flora walked back to town, only to find out that her parents had returned early. Finding her not at home, they had alerted the police departments all over southeast Texas for her.

She refused to implicate the man and therefore brought “shame” to the family, resulting in her exile. Four years later, that same man is now working at the marble company and appears to have no remorse or conscience about his abandonment of her.

Flora’s stay in New York City has put her far ahead of her friends’ ideals of marriage, men and womanhood, and sometimes put her in conflict with the Houstonian way of thinking at that time. Her training in botany gets her into as much trouble as her liberated woman views do. It was unusual for a woman to have any type of advanced education.

Her wit, intelligence and spunk help her solve the mystery, but those characteristics are what draw the reader to Flora. Ms. Sloan has developed a character that we like, cheer for and sympathize with. The confrontation between Flora and her father’s secretary was a great scene, but too brief and the only one in the book. More pages like this could help bring out Flora’s personality much more and would make reading more fun, as well.

We can see how far our culture has progressed from the attitudes a century ago, as Flora rages against the limited expectations of women, who were raised to be wives, mothers and homemakers and not to think for themselves or have opinions.

“Murder on the Boulevard” is a pleasant and enjoyable read that does not take itself too seriously. It remains well-grounded and charming.

(previously published on

Thursday, December 13, 2007

"The Strange Death of Mistress Coffin" by Robert Begiebing

In 1684, the body of a young woman, who had been violated horribly, is found in a New England river. The tagline of the book states that the story is based on an actual unsolved murder from Colonial American records. However, Mistress Coffin reads more like historical literature than a murder mystery.

Begiebing is an English professor at New Hampshire teaching American Literature (at the time of the copyright), so his writing style reflects the writing of the latter half of the seventeenth century. As historical fiction, the book is superbly written and paints a colorful picture of Colonial life, as a stream of people continues to pour into New England seeking new beginnings and possible fortunes.

As a mystery, it falls flat. No words were wasted on building suspense, as there was no sense of urgency to find the murderer, since the book takes place over the course of over thirty years. When the final solution is revealed in the final pages, the reader is left wondering why we had to wait so long for such a mundane and unsurprising finish, especially when Richard Browne (the "sleuth") was informed halfway through the book. The widower Coffin had pursued a suspect in his wife's murder, but dropped proceedings against him. In this, Begiebing makes no sense, when Browne reveals the conclusion to his children.

In most novels when the author has based a fictional story built on the backbone of actual events, a note is written at the end of the book, informing the reader of the facts surrounding the mystery. The author discerns which characters are real and which ones are fabrications. Begiebing does nothing of the sort, frustrating those of us who enjoy knowing the research and planning it took to put the novel together.

However, since Begiebing's strength is Colonial America, he concentrates on recreating the style of that era. Nearly one-sixth of the book is dedicated to Mistress Coffin's journal, which is given to Browne by the deceased woman's husband. Here the reader is treated more to the literary musings of a frustrated and abandoned young woman than clues to solving a brutal murder. Lines such as "What a mystery is the heart inflamed with desire!" [page 96] appear throughout Coffin's journal as well as Browne's own thoughts as he falls deeper in love with the main suspect's wife: "For you see I have not written to relate such descriptions of the turmoil and delights of these seaborne rocks which I temporarily inhabit, but rather to tell you that I can no longer pretend the indifference of mere proximity or even friendship toward you." [page 192].

Such writing may be a bit high-brow for the casual mystery buff, but literary aficionados will love it.

The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin

David Laskin's meticulously researched novel of the Dakota/Nebraska blizzard of 1888 is a heart-wrenching yet beautiful work of literature. He painfully describes the struggles of early settlers from Norway, Sweden and German Russia as they left their homes and countries behind for the promises of easy and fertile farming in the Great Plains of the United States, along with the monetary rewards for their labors. These emigrants found life here not to be anything like the U.S. railroads had ensured, for it was their brochures that lured people across the seas. Land was abundant and free, but many settlers still struggled through harsh seasons. Laskin follows several families from the beginning of their sojourn to the harsh reality of their destination.

Laskin's portrayal of the Signal Corps, which served as the weather forecasting entity of the time is very reminiscent of Erik Larsen's phenomenal Isaac's Storm. The Signal Corps at the time of the blizzard of 1888 and the Galveston hurricane of 1900 (Larsen's work) was rife with politics, drama and bureaucracy. Regulations had to be followed to the letter. Words like "cold front" and "hurricane" were only to be used under strict circumstances or forbidden entirely. The men of the Signal Corps, who took daily readings of temperature, barometric pressure and wind speed, were often arrogant to the point of delusional. So confident were they in their abilities to predict the weather that they felt the weather phenomenon had ceased to be a mystery. The main observer in The Children's Blizzard does not or refuses to recognize the clear and concise data that is available to him that a massive and dangerous blizzard is descending from Canada. Just like the Signal Corps in Galveston that fateful September in 1900 who considered the Cuban weather observers to be far less knowledgeable than them and actually tried to suppress information from Cuba that an enormous hurricane was heading for the Texas Gulf Coast.

What makes The Children's Blizzard much more tragic, even though a more deadly blizzard struck New York City a few years later, was the fact that so many of the Dakota/Nebraska victims were children. The storm hit on an unusually warm day in mid-January just as school was let out for the day. Scores of children were caught unaware on the open plains. Some were lucky and found shelter and safety. So many were not and froze to death.

Laskin interviewed survivors' descendants and scoured hundreds of historical records, newspaper accounts and genealogical charts to piece together an hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute recreation of the unfortunate settlers as the ferocious storm hit, changing their lives forever. He tells the stories of teachers trying to save students, frantic parents wandering out in the storm to find children and siblings trying to protect each other as the blizzard became so violent that survivors said that you couldn't see your hand in front of your face.
It is heart-breaking to read the accounts of men and women who lost children after thinking they were safe at school only to find their frozen bodies the next day. Laskin pulls no punches in describing parents' grief in the days following the disaster.

Fortunately the Great Plains have not known a tragedy like this since weather forecasting models can more accurately predict weather patterns and warn citizens ahead of time. Modern technology has also advanced such that severely frost bitten or frozen people may be resuscitated. Had such conveniences had been realized then, the death toll would certainly have been lower.

Laskin's acknowledgements and sources, which are cited at the end of the book, are nearly as exciting as the story itself. The resources he relied upon to reproduce such intricate tales seems almost insurmountable. But in The Children's Blizzard, Larsen weaves a story that feels like a suspense novel but tugs hard at the heartstrings.

(previously published on

Friday, December 7, 2007

The Jekyl Island Club by Brent Monahan

Brent Monahan’s mystery, ‘The Jekyl Island Club’ is a great glimpse into the lives of the incredibly filthy rich in the last years of the nineteenth century. The setting is Jekyl Island off the coast of Georgia near Brunswick, which was the playground for the ultra-wealthy such as J. P. Morgan and Joseph Pulitzer, both of whom appear in the novel.

The story opens as a member of the club is found murdered and Morgan tries to pressure the local sheriff, John Le Brun, into concluding it was an accidental death by a poacher. An open and shut case. Le Brun, not one to be bullied, insists on a thorough investigation to find the murderer but also what the millionaires are hiding on their exclusive resort. With his somewhat duplicitous deputy Warfield Tidewell, Le Brun sets out interviewing the members on the island and, at length, uncovers some very ugly truths and politically motivated agendas. President McKinley visits the club during the events in the mystery but never becomes more than a peripheral character and exits the story without incident.

Although the details and facts behind the island and club, its members and the political climate of the time are historically accurate and wonderfully written, the story tends to drag for much of the book. Since clues to the murder are few and no one is willing to cooperate, the sheriff and deputy spend most of their time interviewing and re-interviewing club members, making little progress.

The most entertaining part of the novel is Monahan’s portrayal of Joseph Pulitzer, the news tycoon, as aging and nearly blind but still sharp and very witty. I’m not certain how precise the depiction is but this Pulitzer adds much to the story, with his jokes and over-bearing ego.

The story does pick up the pace a bit after one of the club’s servants is murdered in what appears to be a random act of burglary at a bar on the mainland. The action moves along from that point with the sheriff and the deputy finding more clues and finally gaining respect among the titans of industry.

The conclusion, however, is rather complicated, which is a sharp contrast to the rest of the story. For the first three-fourths of the book, the sheriff and the deputy find very few clues and even fewer are given to the reader when, in the last chapters, the bulk of the evidence is found. The sheriff reveals the solution in a long and meticulous monologue during which the reader is as impatient with him as are Morgan and Pulitzer, when they angrily urge him to get to the point.

It is an entertaining read, despite the lull in action. The characters are colorful and the writing is superb. One can get a great lesson in U. S. history if one is paying attention. This certainly was much more enjoyable than any history text book.

(previously published on

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Dark Fire by C. J. Sansom

C. J. Sansom's second novel, featuring hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake, "Dark Fire" is set in the latter days of Thomas Cromwell as King Henry VIII's marriage to Anne of Cleves continues to decline. Cromwell engineered the marriage (the king's fourth) between Henry and Anne, mainly by over-embellishing the beauty of Anne. Henry was repulsed by Anne's homeliness and Cromwell was soon out of favor.

To reverse his descent, Cromwell has learned of a substance known as "Greek Fire" or "Dark Fire", a liquid that can set a ship aflame stem to stern in seconds and schedules a demonstration for the king. Gambling that this could be his path back into favor, he charges Shardlake to retrieve the formula from the men who had given Cromwell an earlier demonstration of the Dark Fire's power. Matthew is extremely reluctant to become involved in Cromwell's schemes but the earl has managed to stay the execution by press of one of Shardlake's clients, a girl accused of her young cousin's murder.

The girl Elizabeth is the niece of a friend of Matthew's and he has hired him to defend her even though the evidence against her is overwhelming. Elizabeth has not spoken a word since the alleged murder of her cousin Ralph. Even the threat of a slow agonizing death has not loosened her tongue. She is on her way to the press when Cromwell intervenes.

Matthew is grateful for the two-week reprieve to try to prove the young girl's innocence, despite her grandmother, surviving cousins and the uncle with whom she was living, viciously assert that she murdered her sweet endearing cousin in cold blood with no more motive than being cruel.

Adding to Shardlake's discomfort is a street-wise young man Barak who has been charged by Cromwell to assist Matthew's search for the Greek Fire. They find the men claiming to have the formula brutally murdered. The assassins seem to be one step ahead of Shardlake and Barak at every turn of the mystery and make several attempts on their lives. Who hired the thugs is the big question facing Shardlake and his cohort. One suspect is a wealthy young lady of a family that has fallen out of favor with the king. She catches Matthew's eye and it seems that she likes him in return, a feeling quite alien to the deformed lawyer.

Their two-week deadline draws closer and they realize that the Greek Fire is a fraud concocted to disgrace Cromwell in front of the king. Shardlake is pulled in all directions as he and Barak search for the conspirators behind the fraud and investigate the murder of Elizabeth's cousin.
In the final conclusion, the person behind the Greek Fire hoax is revealed to Shardlake and Barak just as they are to be silenced permanently. They barely escape only to find they are too late. Cromwell has been sent to the Tower.

Quickly before Cromwell's supporters are rounded up as well, Matthew and Barak confront Elizabeth's ice-cold grandmother with the hideous truth about her grandson's death and in the process nearly lose their lives again.

This novel is more exciting and contains more action and physical exertion for Shardlake than Sansom's previous work, the excellent "Dissolution". In both, Sansom paints a gritty and candid picture of London in the last years of Henry VIII's reign. His portrayal of Newgate Prison is as graphic as Anya Seton's in "Devil Water" (reviewed earlier), picturing it as a stinking, reeking Hell-hole that few emerged alive.

Lifestyles and prejudices are laid bare as Barak's Jewish heritage (although his family converted generations ago) puts him at a greater disadvantage than dark color of the apothecary Guy's skin. Shardlake believes that his deformity is something that can finally be overlooked by a beautiful lady, but finds out that the lines between classes cannot. One of the best scenes was a vicious but all-too brief exchange of words between Elizabeth's venom-tongued grandmother and the Lady Honor, the woman who captures Matthew's heart. The grandmother brutalizes Shardlake when she discovers he has a lady with him even though he is humpbacked. Lady Honor bares her claws, defending Matthew, and proving that she is more than a match for the old hag.

Vanity also knows no bounds as Sansom describes the era's use of the poisonous nightshade, which in small doses dilates the pupils of young girls' eyes to enhance their loveliness. This fact is what ultimately helps Shardlake save himself and the life of his friend Barak.

Sansom's work continues to amaze and entertain. As he develops Shardlake, we find the hunchback lawyer becoming an upright and stalwart hero. There are other sleuths with handicaps: Bruce Alexander's Sir John Fielding and Caroline Roe's Isaac of Girona both of whom are blind; but Matthew Shardlake seems to be the most fragile, whose main weakness is his heart. However, he is resilient and tough and stands tall even next to Susanna Gregory's Matthew Bartholomew.

(previously published on