Saturday, December 22, 2012

A Christmas Garland, by Anne Perry

Ballantine Books, ISBN 9780345530745, October 2012

Thomas Pitt's Special Branch boss, Victor Narraway, wasn't always the head of Special Branch. Long ago and far away, he was a twenty-year-old British Army lieutenant in India during the Mutiny. As the youngest officer, and new to the unit he's now in, Lt. Narraway gets assigned a fairly nasty task: defending an Army medic charged with a horrible murder.

The medic was well-liked, but so was the guard who was killed. And this killing took place as part of the escape of a prisoner, who after escaping also slaughtered an Army patrol. Also, there's no evidence against the medic except that everyone else's location is positively accounted for at the time of the murder. He's the only one who could have done it.

It's an altogether nasty situation, and Lt. Narraway knows he's expected to not make too much trouble as the defense, and let the situation be resolved with no more pain than is absolutely unavoidable.

But it bothers him that there is no actual evidence against his client, and that his client is very, very convincing when he says he didn't do it. With less than two days to work with, Narraway starts investigating.

It's a clever mystery with an unexpected but convincing resolution.


I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

What's a Dog For? The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man's Best Friend, by John Homans

Penguin Press, ISBN 9781594205156, November 2012

There's a lot of interesting material here, and yet in the end I am deeply frustrated with this book.

Homans gathers together in highly readable form much of the most recent research on dogs, their ancestors, and their relationship with us. Teasing out the history of dogs, just barely genetically different from wolves, has been a tricky business, not least because early dogs and proto-dog wolves would not have been physically different from their wolf relatives in any way that shows up in the fossil record. It's a fascinating story, and almost as fascinating is the story of how hard it has been to get any real research on dogs. Dogs, you see, were until the last couple of decades too mundane and familiar for research on them to be "respectable." Homans has studied the research, interviewed the researchers, and attended the academic conferences, and has a lot of good information to impart.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Fox Tracks, by Rita Mae Brown

Random House, ISBN 9780345532978, November 2012

Jane Arnold rides again, this time in pursuit of a killer riding with her own hunt.

The first signs of trouble are far from Virginia, in New York City, where "Sister" Jane Arnold, her lover Gray Lorillard, and two of the young ladies recently graduated from Custis Hall, and now attending Princeton, are attending the annual Masters of Foxhounds Association dinner. During this New York interlude, Jane and Tootie visit a tobacco shop to buy a gift for Gray, and meet a charming, Cuban-born tobacco merchant.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

What Matters in Jane Austen, by John Mullen

Bloomsbury Publishing, ISBN 9781408820117, November 2012

Mullen gives us a wonderful trip through Jane Austen's novels, including the unfinished Sanditon, looking at obvious, non-obvious, and "I never thought to ask that!" questions about Austen's world, daily life, the behavior and relations of the characters.

What people call each other seems a simple and obvious detail, but it reveals a wealth of information about status in a class-conscious society, relationships between characters, and the formality that governed relations even between husband and wife. When characters violate the rules, it's not a throwaway detail. It reveals important information about the characters and their relationships. In Persuasion, Anne Eliot's sister Mary and Mary's husband are a rare case of husband and wife addressing each other by their given names. This isn't the norm as it is for us, or the sign of marital intimacy it is later in the 19th century. Instead, it's a symptom of the disrespect and frustration the couple feel towards each other.

Another aspect of daily life in Austen's world that's mostly alien to us now, where we don't have the same assumptions that Austen and her original readers did is in both the formality and the ubiquity of mourning. Strict rules governed what people could do and what they could wear when recently bereaved of their near and not-so-near relations and connections. Death was all too frequent, could come as the result of what started off as apparently a minor cold, and failure to observe mourning for family, connections, friends, etc., could cause offense and long-lasting ruptures between different branches of a family or formerly close friends.

This is a clearly written, engaging exploration of Austen's world, her fiction, and of what a daring and even experimental writer she was, creating major innovations in story-telling that are with us today.

If you enjoy Austen and enjoy going "behind the scenes" to see what makes a novel work, this is a fascinating, rewarding read.

Highly recommended.

I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.