Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Chatter of Maidens by Alys Clare

Alys Clare just keeps getting better and better. In her fourth Hawkenlye Abbey installment, The Chatter of Maidens, she surpasses her previous works easily with a complex and deliciously twisted plot. Abbess Helewise and her close friend Sir Josse d’Acquin join forces to discover the mysterious origin and truth behind the lies of three sisters who have come to Hawkenlye. The oldest, Alba, is a professed nun from an distant abbey that she refuses to name. She brought her two younger sisters to take the veil. Meriel and Berthe are more timid than she is and are also cowed by Alba, who is uncaring and disobedient.

Helewise suspects something is amiss with ‘Sister’ Alba, but when she chastises her for countermanding an order from her, the defiant nun takes a swing at her. At her wit’s end, the Abbess locks her up and sets off on a journey to find the abbey from whence she came, using what little clues she has.

Meanwhile, Sir Josse is laid up in the abbey’s infirmary, recovering from a near-fatal infection brought on by an old wound. Facing the brutal facts that he almost died, he must stay behind and continue his recovery while Helewise with two of the brother monks set out for Ely.

Clare takes her characters on an interesting journey through England’s fens and swamps where they find a Templar monastery and a strange abbey where the abbess seems to know Helewise’s intent before she tells her. They also find a burned out building with a body inside. Suddenly, Alba and her sisters are mixed up in murder.

Clare’s knowledge of religious communities in the twelfth century adds a new dimension to historical mysteries. She paints the grittier side of life in the cloister next to those more prosperous with stark vividness.

It’s also interesting to note the development of her main character. Although, the readers know she is in love with Sir Josse, Abbess Helewise is slow to realize it even though she is otherwise shrewd and intelligent. It is fun to see the upright and proper Helewise struggle with her own feelings, which conflict were religious vows. Will she ever realize that she is a woman, regardless of her vocation?

Clare always brings something new and unexpected in her novels. She brings the twelfth century alive with her words.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Shame on you, Pittsburgh!

It is a travesty that the Pittsburgh Steelers AFC championship win January 18, 2009 had to be marred by thousands of their fans’ rude behavior. What should have been a memorable experience has been forever sullied by those who feel that common rules of decency do not apply to them. Their conduct during such an event was reprehensible, incorrigible and unacceptable. Twice during the game, the Steelers’ organization broadcast announcements on the single huge viewing screen in the stadium urging fans to make it a “positive Heinz Field experience” for all fans. The announcement called for “integrity” and “respect for others”. Unfortunately, very few of their own fans heeded these words.

Among the offenses by the hometown:

• Physically assaulting fans (both male and female) of the opposing team
• Shouting obscenities and calling them names
• Making offensive gestures
• Cheering and singing when an opposing team’s player lay on the field injured
• Booing their own team when they were winning

These were not examples of a few rotten apples spoiling the bunch. No, this outrageous behavior was exhibited by the vast majority. The ones who did not make transgressions punishable by law did commit grievances that broke laws of dignity and courtesy. Male Ravens fans going to the restrooms were not allowed to relieve themselves unmolested. One Pittsburgh fan ceased his rude behavior only after being threatened with eviction for inappropriately touching a 16-year-old boy.

An extremely low number of locals did show a slight modicum of respectability by voluntarily switching seats with two Lady Ravens fans, who were being brutalized verbally and physically by the males and females around them. A security guard even recognized the physical danger they were in, but only acted when the game ended by escorting them out of the stadium.

Unsportsmanlike conduct like this is not tolerated in other stadiums where fans are respectable, such as Dallas Cowboys, Tennessee Titans, Baltimore Ravens and the Miami Dolphins. All conduct in a bit of good-natured teasing of opposing team fans, but there was nothing, absolutely nothing remotely good-natured in and around Heinz Field Sunday night.

Steelers fans do not have respect for their own city. Parking lots were littered with trash and junk left over from the numerous tail-gating parties with no regard for trash cans.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are a great football team and deserve the championship title and trip to the Super Bowl. But Big Ben and company also deserve much better fans.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Antiques Maul by Barbara Allan

When I started writing, another author with good intentions told me that parentheses should rarely be used "as in never". But Barbara Allan makes frequent and liberal use of them in her funny story Antiques Maul with hilarious results. I liked the novel as a comedy but not as a mystery.

Barbara Allan is the pseudonym of writing duo Barbara Collins and Max Allan Collins. Their sleuth (or main character, to be more exact) is Brandy Borne (oops! There I go. Using parentheses.) She and her overly dramatic mother decide to set up a booth at the local antique mall. Brandy's mother Vivian is sorely put out after being passed over for the position of director of the local theatre group.

Adding insult to injury, her best friend (albeit now former best friend) got the position. The antique booth is Brandy's way of keeping Vivian occupied. However, when the owner of the mall is brutally murdered, there's no stopping Mother.

The police think that the mall owner was attacked by her dog, Brad Pit Bull, but Vivian is not convinced. Everyone writes her off as a nutcase.

The story drags on. Brandy's ten year-old son Jake comes to visit during a school break. She manages to get the moody pre-teen to help them with their antique booth. She tussles with her (much older) big sister's best friend. Mom snoops between gossip sessions with her girlfriends and just carrying on like a big diva.

Antiques Maul focuses mainly on Brandy, Vivian and Jake through their adventures, buying merchandise, setting up shop and interacting with the locals in Serenity, where everybody knows everybody else's business. The mystery barely rates as a subplot.

There are only hints to a mystery for more than two thirds of the book as Vivian insists to anyone who will pretend to listen that Brad Pit Bull did not kill his owner.

When Jake disappears from a haunted house attraction, Brandy, close to hysterics, calls her ex-husband in from Chicago for help. Only after the kidnapper and accomplice are unmasked is the entire mystery (for real, now) laid out for the reader. Everything is played out in retrospect much like the Hardy Boys or Scooby-Doo. Where there was no mystery, now there is.

If you love a comedy, this book is for you. If you love a great whodunit, this isn't.

By the way, loafers aren't a giveaway anymore, guys.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Face Down Among the Winchester Geese by Kathy Lynn Emerson

Having met the lovely Ms. Emerson at Bouchercon 2008 in Baltimore, I deem it doubtful that she has first-hand knowledge of brothels in London during the reign of Elizabeth I. But after reading Face Down Among the Winchester Geese, I began to wonder. Kathy Lynn has brought the Elizabethan era alive in her previous novels featuring sleuth Lady Susanna Appleton with beautiful imagery and vivid descriptions. However, she outdoes herself in the third novel of the series. She describes the areas surrounding the brothels, their workings and their d├ęcor so vibrantly one would suspect she was there. Fortunately, this is obviously not the case.

‘Winchester geese’ is, according to Ms. Emerson, a reference to a prostitute or a woman who is considered to be one. When Susanna’s husband, Lord Robert is implicated in a murder of such a person, she begins to investigate. Not necessarily to clear her husband’s name but to find the truth so justice may be done. Her sleuthing takes her to the seedy side of the city where brothels reside. To her dismay, she finds out that a woman has been killed every St. Mark’s Day for several years and her husband and his friends haven’t been far from the body. Another disturbing fact that she discovers is that all the women had similar features.

Susanna grills her husband and his friends. Lord Robert gives her the identity of the assassin but Susanna is not convinced, finding his revelation too convenient for her satisfaction.

She forms an unlikely alliance with the madam of the brothel where the latest victim was found. The dead woman visited Susanna shortly before her death looking for Lord Robert. The madam is also a young woman who bears a remarkable resemblance to the previous victims, making Susanna wonder if she was the intended target.

As Lady Appleton digs further into the mystery, she begins to mistrust her husband more and grows suspicious of his reason for being in London. She discovers that he has papist tendencies and is trying to restore the Old Faith, the one supported by Queen Mary. She is horrified to find out just how far he will go, including kidnapping Lady Mary Grey, sister to the ill-fated Lady Jane.

Kathy Lynn Emerson churns out an exciting page turner in this third novel. As Susanna slowly uncovers Robert’s perfidy, Emerson pours on the intrigue and thrills, while Susanna and Sir Walter Pendennis chase down Lord Appleton and his hostage. She shows a knack for writing suspense, which is unfortunately absent in the first two novels; however those works are not lacking by any means. It seems that Emerson is developing a taste for excitement and bringing her readers along.

The subterfuge and intrigue in Elizabeth’s court in the first years of her reign gives Emerson plenty of fodder for the complex plot and characters, savory and unsavory, for Winchester Geese. It’s surprising that her Lord Appleton is one of the more treasonous of these vermin. It’s also interesting that Susanna appears to be wooed by one of her husband’s friends. Motherhood, an affection companion and wifely duties have rarely concerned her, but her servant Jennet’s happy domestic existence begins to tug at Susanna’s consciousness.

There hasn’t been this much development in Emerson’s characters since their introduction into the first novel, Face Down in Marrow Bone Pie. It makes one can’t wait to read the fourth novel.

The Servant's Tale by Margaret Frazer

My favorite part of The Servant’s Tale, the second installment in Frazer’s excellent Dame Frevisse series, is when a member of a traveling troupe of players quotes a line from Geoffrey Chaucer, which contains an expletive, to a nun. He immediately apologizes but Dame Frevisse is not offended. When she tells him of her connection to the great author, the player is stunned. It’s moments like these that make reading Frazer so enjoyable.

She also gives us a wonderful view of a priory during the disastrous reign of Henry VI and the struggles and hardships faced by the peasants. She creates a plethora of colorful characters: a poor woman with a boozing husband, a self-effacing novice nun, a lusty laundress and an overbearing arrogant crowner. The number of characters alone could bog down a story, but Frazer’s writing style is amazing. She spins a wonderful tale of desperation during the post-Christmas season of 1434, the peasant woman desperate to raise money to right her husband’s wrong during his bouts of drunkenness, a group of travelers desperate for an audience and Dame Frevisse desperate to find the murderer before he or she strikes again and before the crowner arrests the wrong person.

What makes Frazer so enjoyable to read is her ability to pull the reader into the imagery she creates of fifteenth century England with its customs, beliefs and the lifestyle of its citizens. The reader is pulled into the story and feels like a part of the events. Frazer makes you feel the chill in your feet as Frevisse crosses the freezing courtyard or the stone cold floors of the sanctuary in her thin shoes. You feel the feeble warmth of a low fire as it tires to chase the coldness from your bones as the players do.

The second novel of the Frevisse sequence introduces the travelers who become the main characters of her spin-off ‘A Play of’ series. In both series, we see life from some of the humblest and destitute beings on earth; a nun with a vow of poverty and a group of players dependent upon the benevolence of equally impoverished people.

The Servant’s Tale opens with the players bringing a man seriously injured in a cart accident to the nuns. He is the husband of the peasant woman, a servant in the priory. Although he seems to be on the men, he dies suddenly. Then her oldest son, a chip off the old block, is killed after a brief barroom fight with a player.

Frevisse sees easily that the crowner will blame the player, especially after a nun is killed after a run-in with the members of the troupe. Dame Frevisse is eager to prove the innocence of the players because they remind her of the travels she took in her youth with her family.

The aging but worldly-wise prioress, Domina Edith warns her against being too anxious to clear their names that she becomes blinded to the truth.

Fighting a cold, the frigid weather and even an angry mob of townsfolk, Frevisse races against time to solve the murders before the crowner makes his own misguided conclusiosn.

Margaret Frazer has a growing number of novels in this series. With stories like these, one wonders why there haven’t been TV shows or movies from her works.

The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry into the Salem Witch Trials by Marion L. Starkey

The back cover of the edition I read stated that Ms. Starkey “applies modern psychiatric knowledge to the witchcraft hysteria” which plagued Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. Although Starkey’s work is obviously well-researched and is historically authentic, it is neither an enquiry nor a psychological evaluation with new insights into the mass panic caused by several seriously disturbed young girls. She poses question after question to the reader yet puts none of her own conclusions or hypotheses to any of them.

The Devil in Massachusetts is elegantly written based on Starkey’s research of actual trial transcripts, historical records and publications of the time. However her penchant for asking questions, double negatives and placing subordinate clauses at the beginning of sentences does cause the reader to double-back much of the time to re-read passages to understand her message.

The absence of any meaningful dissertation on the population may be a moot point in this post 9/11 world, whatever conclusions could be drawn in Starkey’s 1949 publication. Still it would be interesting to know what caused several young girls, ages eight to eighteen, to suddenly fall into convulsing fits and claim they were being tortured by invisible imps. They ‘cried out’ members of the community, mostly women, as their tormentors.

Arrests were issued and carried out with frequency to bring the accused before magistrates who firmly believe in the existence of witches. More disturbing than the girls made-up hysterics was the courts’ complete buy-in of the ‘spectral evidence’, unseen witches and wizards observed ONLY by the afflicted girls. And they weren’t the only ones. Families of the accused disowned their relatives at the mere thought of being related to a witch, even if the woman had never shown any behavior remotely reminiscent of witchcraft. Others stood by their loved ones, bringing countless witnesses to testify on their behalf. Cooler minds did not prevail as the shrieks and howlings of pre-teen girls gave precedence over more knowledgeable and sane people.

Other towns in the Salem area such as Andover and Ipswich encountered similar episodes but by now sanity began to take hold and these cases were dismissed as quickly as they began.

The self-important Massachusetts preacher Cotton Mathers got caught up in the hysteria as well and through his own reticence and culpability, failed to rescue a man whom he concluded to be innocent. In later years, he managed to attach his name to saving the souls of condemned pirates, a crime with more tangible and concrete evidence against the accused.

Despite the lack of any new insights on the Salem witch trials, The Devil in Massachusetts is a great glimpse into the mass confusion, terror and murder in pre-colonial New England. It does cause one to recall the old adage about history repeating itself, but if Starkey did not enlighten us onto the psychological reasoning behind the panic, are we repeating it now? The days of hunting witches to hang them or burn them at the stakes are over. But what about our current ‘witch hunts’ against persons of difference race, religion or sexual orientation?

I guess the answer to the first question is ‘yes’.