One-Minute Book Reviews

August 13, 2009

James Rollins’s ‘The Doomsday Key’ – Blarney About Celtic Myths and More

An elite military unit has to grapple with codes and ciphers to find an antidote to a bioweapon

The Doomsday Key: A Novel (Sigma Force Novels). By James Rollins. Morrow, 448 pp., $27.99.

By Janice Harayda

What if the ancient Egyptians had brought to the British Isles the antidote to a deadly fungus that was threatening to wipe out the world in the 21st century? And what if their knowledge had passed to the Celts and early Christians, who left clues to the remedy in codes, symbols or conspiracies that involve the Vatican, a U.S. Senator, and shadowy global terrorist group called the Guild?

These questions underlie James Rollins’s latest technothrilller, a book that shows that you can write better than Tom Clancy and still serve up blarney. Rollins doesn’t trade in Clancy’s jingoism and alphabet-soup of acronyms, and he shows more respect for the English language than many authors who have left their mark on this paranoid genre.

But he has his own problems in his sixth novel about Commander Gray Pierce and Sigma Force, a fictitious unit of the U.S. Department of Defense. Rollins allows a subplot about genetically modified foods to sputter out about 75 pages before the end, which slows the pace and works against satisfying resolution to the plot. He gives the same emotional weight to so many events – a firefight, a reunion between ex-lovers, an avalanche above the Arctic Circle – that you can’t feel all you should for any of them. And only a conspiracy theorist or the most ardent fan of The Da Vinci Code might love his mishmash of real or historical figures, places or objects: Merlin, druids, Stonehenge, Celtic crosses, Queen Nefertiti, the Domesday Book, the Knights Templar, Saint Malachy, Princeton University, the Abbey of Clairvaux, Pope Benedict XVI and more. A few of these might have been intriguing. As it, when an off-kilter Freemasonry symbol appears near the end, you wonder: Will a reference to the Kennedy assassination be next?

Best line: “In Israel, botanists grew a date palm from a seed that was over two thousand years old.”

Worst line: No. 1: “Her methods were brutal – like murdering the Venetian curator – but who was he to judge? He had not walked in her shoes.” No. 2: “So in other words, we’re looking for a bunch of pissed-off Druids.” No. 3: “Her apartment was on the third floor. Though small, she did have a nice view of the Coliseum from her balcony.”

Editor: Lyssa Keusch

Listen to an audio excerpt from The Doomsday Key.

Published: June 2009

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

July 1, 2009

‘We Women Were Not Made for Governing …’ — ‘We Two,’ a Biography of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert by Gillian Gill

Filed under: Biography — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:08 am
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A royal couple who combined an affair of the heart with affairs of state

We Two: Victoria and Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals.  By Gillian Gill. Ballantine, 460 pp., $35.

By Janice Harayda

We Two is something you don’t see every summer: a good beach biography. It’s not so dense and scholarly that you’d have to squint at agate-type footnotes through your Ray-Bans to make sense of it. But neither is it so lightweight that you might be embarrassed to carry it onto a beach even here in New Jersey, the proud home of Boardwalk attractions such as the Shoot the Geek concession stand that lets you fire paintballs at a luckless teenager dressed like a terrorist.

This book is rather the enjoyable story of two fascinating people: Queen Victoria (1819–1901) and Prince Albert, her cousin and husband,  and how they helped to shape the modern world during a marriage that ended when Prince Albert died of typhoid at the age of 42. We Two is is a love story but not just a love story, and Gillian Gill makes affairs of state as interesting as those of the heart.

Gill notes that Victoria won praise on an official visit to Paris when, from a box at the opera house, she waved to people below and then sat down again without a backward glance: “The crowd was impressed. Experts on protocol emerged to note in the French press that only a real queen never looks to see if her chair is in place.”

But Gill also gives vivid accounts of the domestic life of Victoria, who had nine children at the rate of one every two years, and the German-born Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. For all her privileges, Victoria felt so keenly the disadvantages of womanhood – and especially of child-bearing – that she wrote to her eldest daughter, “I think our sex a most unenviable one.”

Gill’s prose, to put it mildly, doesn’t always sing. She has the pedantic habit of continually starting sentences with “However” and a weakness for projecting 21st-century clichés and psychology onto 19th-century royals. Thus we read that the daughters of a king had “dysfunctional” parents and that, in the days of Victoria and Albert, “full disclosure and transparency were not to be expected from royal persons.”

But Gill excels as a storyteller if not as a prose stylist and serves up a banquet of memorable tales, some involving almost comically soap-operaish behavior by royals. One story involves Prince Albert’s father, a notorious rake, who one night summoned a mistress named Pauline Panam to his favorite retreat.

“After a long walk in a violent rainstorm that soaked her to the skin, Panam waited outside the house alone for hours,” Gill writes. “Finally she was obliged to climb up a ladder to the duke’s window and, when this proved too short, to scramble onto a chair he lowered for her from his bedroom.”

Best line: “Since it was strictly forbidden ever to turn one’s back upon a member of the royal family, the key skill required of women at [Victoria’s] court was to walk gracefully backward, even when wearing a train and a headdress eighteen inches high.” We Two abounds details like these that make you see its era.

Worst line: “Dyed-in-the-wool conservatives among Cambridge graduates did their utmost to block the prince’s election [as chancellor of the university], but, happily, they failed.” But they probably weren’t too happy about how “happily” they failed.

About the headline: Queen Victoria’s comment about women and governing, as quoted by Gill, is:  “We women were not made for governing – and if we are good women we must dislike these masculine occupations; but there are times which force one to take an interest in them mal gré bon gré [whether one likes it or not] and  I do of course,  intensely.”

Published: May 2009

About the author: Gill wrote Nightingales: The Extraordinary Upbringing and Curious Life of Miss Florence Nightingale.

Furthermore: An otherwise favorable Wall Street Journal review found several small errors of fact in the book.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer, the book columnist for Glamour and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

May 8, 2009

May 8, 1945, Victory in Europe Day in London — When Searchlights Flashed a ‘V’ for Victory in Morse Code Across the Sky

Filed under: History,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:36 am
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“At the stroke of midnight, ships in Southampton docks sounded their horns and a searchlight flashed out the letter ‘V,’ for ‘victory,’ in Morse code across the sky.”

A national outpouring of joy erupted in England on May 8, 1945, Victory in Europe Day. Historian David Stafford describes the scene in London after the German surrender in his Endgame, 1945: The Missing Final Chapter of World War II (Little, Brown, 2007), an account of the final weeks of World War II and its immediate aftermath in Europe:

“There were celebrations, of course. Across Britain they began as soon as news of the surrender leaked out. Flags appeared in windows, shops shut down, and people poured onto the streets. At the stroke of midnight, ships in Southampton docks sounded their horns and a searchlight flashed out the letter ‘V,’ for ‘victory,’ in Morse code across the sky. By midday, huge crowds had gathered in central London, and St. Paul’s Cathedral and other churches were packed with worshippers. At three o’clock, Churchill broadcast to the nation and the Empire from his study at 10 Downing Street, declaring the end of the war and finishing with the exhortation: ‘Advance Britannia! Long live the cause of freedom! God save the King!’ Then, standing on the front seat of an open car and giving the victory sign, he was driven slowly through a dense and cheering crowd to the Houses of Parliament, where he repeated his statement to the Commons. When it was over, the crowd outside who heard it over loudspeakers sang the national anthem.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

September 30, 2008

The Body in the Outhouse — Kate Summerscale’s ‘The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher,’ the Winner of Britain’s Highest Award for Nonfiction, Reads Like Detective Novel

The Road Hill murder caught the eye of Charles Dickens and other novelists.

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective. By Kate Summerscale. Illustrated. Walker, 360 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Anyone who has slogged through some of the grimmer winners of the Man Booker Prize may look more kindly on British judges after reading this admirable winner of the U.K.’s highest award for nonfiction.

In The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, Kate Summerscale uses the conventions of the detective novel to tell the true story of the murder of a three-year-old boy whose body turned up in the servants’ privy of an English country house in the summer of 1860. And the device works remarkably well despite a few red herrings and questions that have eluded answers for more than a century.

All good writers try to give their books a healthy pace that often depends partly on suspense, but Summerscale goes beyond that. She has structured her book like an old-fashioned detective novel that includes clues hidden in plain sight and a startling twist in the final pages that casts the story in a new light just when you think you understand it.

The murder of young Saville Kent took place at Road Hill House, a 19-room Georgian dwelling in Wiltshire owned by Samuel Kent, a government sub-inspector of factories. On the night the child died, the elder Kent was home along with his pregnant second wife (the former family governess), four children from his first marriage and two from his second, and three-live in female servants. The evidence suggested overwhelmingly that one of those people killed the boy found in an outhouse with his throat slashed.

But there was no obvious motive for the crime, and the stymied local police sought help from Scotland Yard, which sent Detective-Inspector Jonathan “Jack” Whicher to Road Hill. Whicher quickly become convinced that he knew who killed Saville, but in trying to prove it ran up against obstacles than included a public scorn for his work, rooted partly in mid-Victorian notions of social class and family privacy. He found no vindication until five years later when the killer confessed. Some questions about the murder remain unanswered, notwithstanding a mysterious letter from Australia that arrived decades after his death and purported to set the record straight.

Summerscale may overplay the effect the notorious murder had the development of the detective novel, which might have evolved as it did regardless, but this doesn’t undermine her achievement. “This was the original country-hour mystery,” she writes, “a case in which the investigator needed to find not a person but a person’s hidden self.” Her careful mapping of that quest would make this book interesting even if the case had not influenced Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone and Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Modern crime stories – whether fiction or nonfiction – often reduce murderers’ motives to pop-psychological clichés that are absurdly inadequate to the savagery of the acts committed. By going back nearly a century and a half — before detectives had access to the temptations to facile analysis offered by Freud and Dr. Phil — Summerscale reminds us how much more there may be to it than that.

Best line: Whicher once captured a swindler “who had conned a London saddler out of a gun case, an artist out of two enamel paintings, and an ornithologist out of 18 humming bird skins.”

Worst line: “One evening Saville’s then nursemaid, Emma Sparks, put the boy to bed, as usual, in a pair of knitted socks.” The meaning of “then nursemaid” is clear, but the construction of the phrase is newspaperese.

Reading group guide: A Totally Unathorized Reading Group Guide to The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Sept. 30, 2008, in the post that directly preceded this one.

Published: April 2008 You can download the first chapter for free at www.mrwhicher.com.

Read interview with Kate Summerscale on Bookslut www.bookslut.com/features/2008_09_013387.php

Furthermore: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher won the 2008 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction from the BBC www.thesamueljohnsonprize.co.uk/. Summerscale is a former literary editor of the Daily Telegraph.

If you like 19th-century true crime, you might also enjoy Manhunt: The Twelve-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer www.jameslswanson.com.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. One-Minute Book reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

August 19, 2008

What’s the Difference Between Being a World Champion and an Olympic Champion in Your Sport? (Quote of the Day / Steve Redgrave in ‘Athens to Athens’)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:37 pm
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Steve Redgrave of Great Britain was the first person to win gold medals in five successive Olympics, a feat he achieved in men’s rowing events in Los Angeles, Seoul, Barcelona, Atlanta and Sydney. Redgrave has also been a world champion in his sport and compares the two honors in Athens to Athens:

“The Olympic Games are the ultimate challenge. Richard Burnell, himself a gold-medal winner in 1948, said to me after the first time I won in 1984: ‘You’re world champion for one year, you’re Olympic champion for life.’ That sums it up.”

As quoted by David Miller in Athens to Athens: The Official History of the Olympic Games and the IOC, 1894–2004 (Mainstream, 2003). Miller is a former chief sports correspondent of the Times of London. Steve Redgrave’s Web site is www.steveredgrave.com. Richard Burnell won a gold medal in the double sculls with Bert Bushnell.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

August 14, 2008

What is Potato Peel Pie? ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:20 pm
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Not sure how much I’ll be able to say The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Dial, 288 pp., $22) by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows because I have a slight conflict of interest involving one of its prime movers. But I can tell you that this epistolary novel about the deprivations of ordinary Britons just after World War II (when food rationing meant that some people had to fill up on things like potato peel pie — pie filled with potato peels instead of the desired-but-unavailable items — instead of their usual fare) is already a big hit little more than two weeks its publication. As I’m sorting it out what else I can write, you can read an excerpt here www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=90251891.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 16, 2008

Tina Brown’s ‘The Diana Chronicles': Now in Paperback

Diana Spencer was nine years old when her father sent her to a boarding school where she won “perhaps the most endearing airhead award ever: the prize for best-kept guinea pig.” With such sharp observations, Tina Brown comes close to pulling a rabbit out of a diamond tiara in The Diana Chronicles (Broadway, 576 pp., $15.95, paperback). Brown tells us little that hasn’t been said by others about Diana’s character and motivations. And what she says often comes from sources that are unnamed or so dubious that they might not have made it past the fact-checkers at Vanity Fair or The New Yorker, magazines she used to edit. But The Diana Chronicles is far better than earlier biographies by Andrew Morton, Lady Colin Campbell and others – not just because it is livelier and more comprehensive but because Brown finds the middle ground between axe-grinding and hagiography. Click here to read a full review of the book oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/07/09/.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.Janiceharayda.com

June 12, 2008

New British Library Lets You Check Out a Person Instead of a Book

Filed under: Current Events,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:49 am
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But will you respect yourself in the morning if you take them to bed with you?

A new London “library” called the Living Library lets you check out a person instead of a book. David Baker writes in the Times Online:

“The idea, which comes from Scandinavia, is simple: instead of books, readers can come to the library and borrow a person for a 30-minute chat. The human ‘books’ on offer vary from event to event but always include a healthy cross-section of stereotypes. Last weekend, the small but richly diverse list included Police Officer, Vegan, Male Nanny and Lifelong Activist as well as Person with Mental Health Difficulties and Young Person Excluded from School.”

Read more about it here: women.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/women/the_way_we_live/article3790377.ece

Thanks to The Librarian Edge on del.icio.us del.icio.us/TheLibrarianEdge for this one.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 29, 2008

English on the Outside, American on the Inside – Sleuth Maisie Dobbs Returns in Jacqueline Winspear’s ‘An Incomplete Revenge’

A World War I battlefield nurse-turned-private-eye looks into a series of unexplained fires in a village in Kent

An Incomplete Revenge: A Maisie Dobbs Novel. By Jacqueline Winspear. Holt, 303 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

For a sleuth in Depression–era England, Maisie Dobbs acts remarkably like a modern American. She relies less on gathering tangible clues than on asking personal questions that Brits of her day – or any day – would have answered with nowhere near the speed they do in this book. And instead of favoring Holmesian deduction she tends to heed her unerring instincts, honed by her work as a World War I battlefield nurse and her training as a professional psychologist.

But for all its incongruities, An Incomplete Revenge is a stellar cozy, the name often applied to the type of mystery that has an amateur female sleuth and no gratuitous sex or violence. This is a book you can give your mother for Mother’s Day without worrying that she’ll disinherit you because it turns into snuff on page 167.

In her fifth outing, Maisie Dobbs travels from her home in London to a troubled village in Kent, where she investigates a series of fires and petty crimes for a friend who is hoping to buy property there. It’s the season for picking hops, the bitter herb essential to beer-making, and migrants have streamed into town on trains known as a “Hoppers’ Specials.” Some locals blame those outsiders or an influx of gypsies for the unsolved crimes in the village. Maisie isn’t so sure — and not just because there’s Roma blood on her late mother’s side of the family — and goes after the truth.

For many mystery writers, that would be the beginning and end of the story. Winspear goes further in An Incomplete Revenge. Her several plotlines neatly weave together topics as diverse as gypsy lore, violin-making, equestrian care, the Kentish landscape and the effects of a World War I zeppelin bombing on rural England. But these subjects never become a drag on the plot or devolve into a history lesson. Maisie may be American on the inside and English on the outside, but she inhabits a world uniquely her own.

Best line: Maisie reflects as she sees gypsy women cooking while wearing big white aprons: “The apron, Maisie knew, was worn less to protect clothing from stains and splashes than to provide a barrier between the body of the cook and the food to be eaten. In gypsy lore, if food came in close proximity to a woman’s body, it was considered mokada – sullied – and not worth the eating.”

Worst line: Winspear’s dialogue is occasionally too expositional. A friend of Maisie’s says: “So, despite Ramsay MacDonald being pressed to form a National Government to get us through this mess, and well-founded talk of Britain going off the gold standard any day now, there’s still room for optimism – and I want to move ahead soon.” Then there’s the passage in which Maisie tells her father, “Dad, I’ve been thinking about Nana,” and he replies, “Your mother’s mother?”

Published: February 2008 www.jacquelinewinspear.com

Reading group guide: At us.macmillan.com/anincompleterevenge.You can also read or listen to an excerpt at this site.

Furthermore: Winspear grew up, in part, in Kent, and lives in California. Her honors for the Maisie Dobbs series include an Agatha Award (given by Malice Domestic to books that, like Christie’s, have no gratuitous sex or violence).

For an English perspective on Maisie Dobbs, read this post by Michael Allen of the Grumpy Old Bookman blog grumpyoldbookman.blogspot.com/2006/03/jacqueline-winspear-maisie-dobbs.html. For more on hops, visit the site for America Hop Museum www.americanhopmuseum.org in the Yakima Valley.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 29, 2007

Raise the Drawbridge and Lower the Portcullis! It’s David Macaulay’s Captivating ‘Castle’

A Caldecott Honor Book about the making of a medieval castle in Wales still appeals to children three decades after its publication

By Janice Harayda

This afternoon I found myself in the children’s section of our library with an 8-year-old friend whose mother had agreed to let me to pick out a book for him while she visited the adult stacks. The book I thought Cory might like wasn’t on the shelves. But David Macaulay’s wonderful picture books about the making of large structures – Cathedral, Pyramid, Castle and the new Mosque – stood near its spot.

Cory loves to read – especially The Invention of Hugo Cabret – but hadn’t seen these treasures, which helped to win a MacArthur grant for their creator. So I pulled a few of Macaulay’s books off the shelves and handed them to him. Cory gravitated right away to a picture of how a drawbridge works in Castle (Houghton Mifflin, 74 pages, $9.95 paperback, ages 7 and up), a Caldecott Honor Book about the construction of a medieval castle in Wales.

So I returned him to his mother with three of Macaulay’s books and checked back later. Cory was still poring over Castle – specifically, a picture of soldiers who seemed to be underground. I wondered if they were digging a moat. But Cory pointed to a witty drawing of several of their comrades, who were to trying to reach the ramparts. He explained that if “the enemy” couldn’t scale the castle walls, they tried to tunnel their way in. This he had just learned from the book.

I don’t know if every child reacts this way to Macaulay, a superstar in the field. But by now millions must have been captivated by his intelligent texts and intricate and amusing black-and-white cross-hatched drawings. And Castle, first published in 1977, makes an especially good introduction to his work, because it feeds interests kindled in children by fairy and folk tapes. Houghton Mifflin recommends it for 10-to-14-year-olds, but I’d give it to 7-to-9-year-olds and let them grow into it if they’re not quite ready. The pictures will draw in the younger children even if some words are unfamiliar. Just ask Cory.

Links: www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Macaulay and www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com

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© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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