The Italian Secretary by Caleb Carr

Sherlock Holmes has of course left an indelible mark on culture in the West. There are video games, TV shows, movies, and a horde of books that have dissected every facet of the stories by Conan Doyle. The original books have been reprinted a multitude of times, and a lot of authors have taken the opportunity to write their own additions to the Holmes universe, whether in the form of new mysteries or with a twist, as in  Neil Gaiman’s A Study In Emerald and Kim Newman’s The Hound of the D’Urbervilles, which featured Holmes more well-known enemy, Professor Moriarty.

The Italian Secretary doesn’t have any such alterations; it’s a straight mystery written in Doyle’s style (and therein lies the problem; more on that later). The story itself is set in the town of Edinburgh, and features mysterious doings at the Holy Palace of Holyrood. Deaths have been reported, and a mysterious note has summoned Holmes himself to investigate a crime that, it is suggested, may threaten the Queen herself.

The Holmes stories themselves are fun to read, but in my opinion their great flaw is the omnipotence of the Great Detective as far as allowing people to solve the crime themselves. He picks up on every clue, knows the name of everything and everyone he encounters, and has a massively wide array of skills. Those are staples of the series, but they make reading the old stories slightly annoying in my eyes,  writing a new mystery difficult, and reading one even more so. There’s little suspense or sense of danger to the main character obviously either, but if the surrounding people are well written that doesn’t matter.

That is in effect here, as Carr’s Holmes is always on top of the game and rarely puzzled by anything he encounters. He gathers information from everywhere, bringing out ideas and facts from the barest evidence. Again, I understand that it’s a tradition of the mysteries, but it can be grating at times. Mycroft Holmes shows up as well, but has little impact on the events apart from being the impetus for his brother’s involvement in the following investigation.

The story itself is an odd hodgepodge of ideas, mixing cruel noblemen, Scottish Nationalism, mysterious deaths, and the possibility of supernatural forces at work (which in itself is a dubious idea in Sherlock’s world, given his firm adherence to practicality and logic). The death of David Rizzio, a real murder that contributed to the downfall of Mary, Queen of Scots, is a central theme, and I would be willing to bet that the idea of using the assassination was in place first as a subject of the book and Carr built the Holmes mystery around it.

Caleb Carr is a good writer, there’s no denying that; his previous books were entertaining and vivid. It makes me wonder if his writing is stronger when using characters he has created or fleshed out himself as opposed to those who have been stamped so firmly into their places by many previous hands, including the original creator.

If you enjoy Carr’s writing or the Sherlock mysteries, by all means give The Italian Secretary a read, and I hope you enjoy it more than I did. The Holmes stories are an acquired taste, and it’s possible I haven’t gotten it yet. Perhaps I’ll try this one again some day.

As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.


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Crows: Encounters With The Wise Guys by Candace Savage

It’s always fun when you can discover an interesting subject in a book found by random at a yard sale. These hidden treasures are sometimes more valuable than a book from a store or as a gift, because you are basically getting the luck of the draw.

A recent outing rewarded the trip with a short but fascinating book about one of the most common but iconic animals: the crow. It’s an in-depth examination of the discovery that they have surprising intelligence and social skills. Their familiar place as messengers and emissaries of dark forces in stories and legends are no surprise when a clever brain is added to their shadowy feathers and diet of carrion.

Candace Savage is both educational and engaging in this book, detailing stories and experiments performed by scientists who study these birds. Crows have been documented to both perform problem-solving and use/create tools to get food, a behavior that was previously only seen in primates and dolphins. In addition, the crows demonstrate the ability to learn from each other by copying a technique that they observed another bird using to eat.

The social patterns and relationships of the birds are likewise analyzed, with the discovery that some demonstrated bonds that make no sense outside of some type of family attachment-grown birds that hang around the nest or come back months after they’re grown, bringing food and caring for the young ones.

Another fascinating area is the communication between birds. The crows are reported to each have their own calls and borrow noises from new acquaintances, as in the case of a couple of ravens who were given a new neighbor. At first the twosome ignored the newcomer, until the newbie learned to use the specific notes the other two sang. Once these were used, they accepted the new crow into their tiny flock.

Interspersed with the scientific data are various stories and legends about the crow, rook and raven, from a wide variety of cultures. All of them accord the black bird a place as a clever being, such as Huginn and Muninn, spies and messangers of Odin, lord of the Norse pantheon.

Crows: Encounters With The Wise Guys is not a long book; only about 105 pages. But it is chock-full of fascinating stories and facts about these ubiquitous yet uncommonly-fascinating birds that we see every day. I would recommend it to anyone interested in animal intelligence, birds, or just nature in general. I can guarantee that you will learn something new about the members of the Corvus family.

As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.


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The Making of the Prefident 1789 by Marvin Kitman

I’ve already written a review of Kitman’s other book, George Washington’s Expense Account, and I said then I was gonna write this one up as well. I’ve enjoyed both of these books a great deal, both for the depth of historical detail and the breezy tone in which it educates the reader. Incidentally, that’s not an error in the title-Kitman says that in the past that’s how they spelled President, so that’s how he did it, and so then shall I.

The book details the path by which George Washington ascended to the White House. Born a poor boy with rich neighbors, he was apparently a meticulous study of math. He became a surveyor, buying land with the money he earned.  After his marriage to one of the wealthiest women in the colonies, he entered politics as a rich land & slaveowner who served in the Virgina House of Burgesses, where he did exactly nothing. His military career as a major in the Virgina militia started with a lost battle against the French & Indians, which resulted in the creation of  Fort Necessity, which was placed in the middle of a valley during a pouring rainstorm.

This uniform came in handy later when the Continental Congress was busy deciding who should be their commander in chief against the British. He wore it every day (and evidently had a real taste for dressing well). During the discussions, he wined and dined with many of the power players of the day, some of whom would later have positions in his administration. He also had a great love of dancing, sometimes for hours, with the wives of his hosts.

After much politicking and the promise to serve without pay, Washington was unanimously chosen as commander over John Hancock. Kitman records that Washington was not a natural leader and had some difficulty inspiring his men (not helped by Congress’ slowness in paying). The book has an engaging battle-by-battle discussion of each of the battles Washington commanded. His military career as leader of the colonial troops was not the best-he had many more defeats than victories, which was not due entirely to his own skill.

Washington is generally seen as a model Prefident, a man without scandal or sin. The man was generally loved in his time and is in ours, enjoying overwhelming adoration from the people past and present, ranging from a drastic uptick in “George” as a baby’s name to poems and the suggestion of “His Excellency” as title. Kitman does an amusing job of painting in the shades of our first Prefident. For example, he goes into detail about the pleasures of the day that George would have enjoyed. Washington, as did many men of the day, drank a LOT. An average day’s alcohol consumption in Philadelphia is recorded as “cider and punch for lunch; rum and brandy before dinner; punch, Madeira, port and sherry at dinner, punch and liqueurs with the ladies; and wine, spirit and punch till bedtime, all in punch bowls big enough for a goose to swim in.” During the 178 election, his agents supplied booze to 391 voters: 28 gallons of rum, 50 gallons of rum punch, 34 gallons of wine, 46 gallons of beer, 2 gallons of cider royal.

There were also the suggestions of many affairs Washington had with both notable ladies of the time, bolstered by their own letters about him.  A few names of possible paramours are Kitty Greene, Sally Fairfax, Eliza Powel and many others. While there’s no direct evidence of any dalliances between them and Washington, Kitman offers a lot of educated conjecture and correspondence to support his theories.

Kitman does an excellent and in-depth examination of Washington’s early life, military & election campaign, as well as the schemes and tricks apparently used to gain him the Prefidency, all without losing his respect for Washington or suggesting he was the wrong man for the biggest job in the world.  He quotes and uses a massive amount of documents for this book, and the fun tone of his storytelling doesn’t diminish the hard facts he brings to the table. Oh, and did I mention the foreword by John Cleese? That’s just the topping on the delicious historical cake.

As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.

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In The Devil’s Snare by Mary Beth Norton

Growing up as I did just down the road from Gettysburg, I’m well aware of the deep impact and fascination that history can hold for people. However, certain events seem to become rooted in an unchanging mythological shorthand in our minds by the media and society which aren’t changed unless we make an explicit effort to learn more about them: Columbus discovering the New World. The shootout in the O.K. Corral. The Salem Witch Trials.

Common lore that we all “know” says that women were burned at the stake for deals with the devil, that the accused witches were all women, and that it was solely confined to Salem. The first part is totally wrong: no one was burned in Salem. Twenty-four people died: nineteen by hanging, one by pressing under large rocks, and five died in prison. Eight of those who died were men. The accused ranged from a 75-yr-old woman to a little girl of 4, and numbered powerful and influential people among their number as well as the “usual suspects” of old women who had quarreled with their neighbors. And there were accusations in other towns besides Salem such as Gloucester and Salisbury, and even a group of them in Connecticut.

The main question of the trials has obviously been not whether the suspects were true witches, but why the accusations were made, and why were they believed and pursued with such fervor. Both of these questions have been meat for many scholars and historians, and the explanations have ranged from a need for attention by the largely young, female ranks of the accusers (a group who were near the very bottom of the Puritan social ladder) to hallucinations brought on by fungus in their rye bread. The whole truth behind their motives and what actually happened will never be known, but an intriguing theory is presented by Mary Beth Norton in her book In The Devil’s Snare.

In it, she examines not just the pattern of the “attacks”, but also the legal proceedings and courtroom drama that accompanied them,  the aftermath of the flurry of executions, but also the larger picture of the area and the way it may have contributed and influenced the entire incident. Specifically, she contends that the outbreak of hostility and attacks by local Native Americans and French trappers could have left a psychological scar on the minds of the people of Salem, making the suggestion of an assault by unseen malevolent enemies that much more believable.

It was a time of trouble and discontent. King Phillip’s War & King Williams’s War had meant that the settlers had endured nearly two decades of battle and harassment by an enemy they saw as being inhuman monsters. Lack of a newspaper meant that information about attacks traveled by infrequent letters or more commonly by word of mouth, with some gory embellishment undoubtedly thrown in to spice things up. Most of the accusers in the trials had either lived on the frontier before war touched the area, or had relatives who had lived or died there. Likewise, many of the judges and overseers of the trials had a connection to those armed conflicts, and were ready to accept supernatural aid as a reason for the brutal attacks and victories of their enemies.

Norton suggests that these attacks and the reports of others created a kind of hysteria in the accusers, causing them to lash out at those they had heard disparaged by others or with their own connection to attacks. Many of the complaints mention the presence of a “black” man presiding over evil ceremonies, a word commonly used during that time and place to refer to Native Americans. Indeed, the famous writer and clergyman Cotton Mather himself stated that the witches called Satan the “Black Man”, and “they generally say he resembles an Indian.”

Reports of skirmishes and the political fallout caused by these incidents, as well as the martial description of  ghostly covens by the accusers and confessors reinforce this idea, and Norton has done an exhaustive job of researching and collecting contemporary accounts of the events leading up to, during, and the sudden collapse of the whirlwind of activity during the events in Salem. More impressively, she presents all of this information in a readable, detailed voice that’s both enjoyable and solidly clinical in the best way.

She offers a plausible and fascinating explanation for the actions of all involved. It doesn’t excuse or condone the death and misery caused by the accusers and judges, but the psychological pressure and turmoil present in the area, as well as the religious teachings of their leaders and their desire to make their home into a paradise makes the behavior of all involved much more understandable.

History can be endlessly fascinating if handled properly, and brain-killingly dry if the writer doesn’t have the needed talent or passion. Norton has both, and I’d happily hand this book to anyone interested in American history in general or Salem in particular.

As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.


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Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

I’m a proud atheist to the bone, and happy to be one. I’ve got no grudge against organized religion. Some philosophical and ethical questions, but I’m mostly content to say “To each his/her own.” However, even beside all of that, Three Parts Dead asked a question and sketched a situation that I hadn’t considered, but it made me intensely interested to see what happened next: What do you do when your first day on the job as a necromancer involves a dead god?

Tara Abernathy was kicked out of the Hidden Schools, just before being cast back to earth. Abelard is a lowly novice who was the man on watch when the Eternal Flame went out. Together, under the direction of Tara’s boss from the mystical firm of Kelethres, Albrecht & Ao, they set out to answer the three simple questions that pop up in any suspicious death: Whodunnit, how, and why? The fact that the who is Kos Everburning, god of the city of Alt Coulumb, does make it a little trickier.

To make things more difficult, the god’s followers and contacts all over the world depend on Him for power, whether it’s simple prayer or an agreement that His flame will protect their ships. Most of the other Gods are dead in a terrible War some years past, and so the pool of suspects for the passing of Kos is even wider than otherwise…

I’ve heard said quite often (and have probably said myself) that one of the most important parts of any fantasy is setting up a good system of magic. If magic can do A, but never B, your reader will enjoy and understand the story a great deal more than if they can simply wave their hands and create bullets or dragons or bring people back from the dead. (This is part of the reason comic book characters like Dr. Strange are so tricky, btw).

This is an idea that Mr. Gladstone clearly took to heart. The system he has created for both magic and religion is intricate and yet easy to understand. I would be amazed to learn that he hasn’t spent any time studying the law, because it’s a very structured and revolves around Contracts, finding the truth in court, and balancing the give and take of power. The fact that this is his first book is amazing-it’s very polished and confident.

As I said before, I am an atheist. I mention this because it’s in a fascinating way woven into the plot. Tara is a Craftswoman, one of the magic-users who depend on their own power for their work, as opposed to the users of Applied Theology who call on their gods for assistance. The Crafters were on one side of the God Wars, battling deities who felt that the humans were getting too powerful. Tara herself wasn’t there, but she follows their ideas. She doesn’t understand religion, and while she respects the immensity and raw power of Kos, she doesn’t worship any god and prides herself on her reliance on her Craft, and therefore on herself. Abelard is dedicated to his god, and feels a terrible emptiness when the flame has gone out. His love for Kos and simple reassurance in the warmth of his god’s presence is endearing and comforting, and certainly made me look at my ideas and conceptions of religion a little more closely. Both viewpoints are explored and treated with equal validity and respect.

Both Tara and Abelard, and in fact all of the characters in Three Parts Dead are strong, interesting, and very well-made. Tara loves her Craft, but does some questionable things with it, hesitating and second-guessing her actions (but not her power) all the while. Her backstory is very intriguing, and she’s both cold-blooded and idealistic enough to fulfill the role of being a good hero. And the villain of the piece is a quite disturbing fellow with a clever plan and a horrible history with Tara herself.

Writing a fantasy novel is hard. Writing a good mystery is likewise very difficult. Combining the two genres, therefore, has to be exponentially more challenging-you must not only create the world, but also the laws, courts and policemen that inhabit it, a much more formidable idea than simply laying out a murder in New York or Sydney, a place where we have at least a passing familiarity with the world and the way people in it will react in certain situations. In a fantasy world, the only limit is your imagination, and that is a plant that needs the right conditions to bloom properly, as it has in Three Parts Dead.

As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.

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Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Life’s full of regrets, mistakes, lost opportunities and bad memories. Sometimes you can see them in someone’s eyes or the way they act, but sometimes they’re hidden under nonchalance and a bright smile. But imagine if you couldn’t hide it-if everyone could see your past sins in a physical form?

That’s part of the premise of Lauren Beukes’ excellent novel Zoo City. People who have committed a violent act, almost always a murder, are connected with an apparent representation of that crime in the form of an animal. This can take the form of anything: a Butterfly, a Mongoose, a Turtle, a Cougar. The animals are a species that belongs to the person’s geographic home, and they come with burdens and advantages. People with animals can call on the gifts of their animal in a small way. They get a specific gift as well, such as being able to track down missing objects once they’ve met you (and vice versa) or sucking in your happy memories.

The downsides include the fact that if you get too far from your animal, there’s intense discomfort and anxiety. If your animal dies, you are devoured by a formless shadow called the Undertow. And of course there’s the obvious prejudice and dislike; the “animalled” or “zoos” are killed automatically in China, and in the US are second-class citizens subject to intense genetic scans and check-ins with the government.

In South Africa, where the story takes place, the zoos have a modicum of respect. There’s a housing development called Zoo City where many of them live, and while it’s not a palace it’s a community. That’s where Zinzi December makes her home. A former journalist and wild child/drug addict, Zinzi makes a living tracking down lost objects and sending out scam emails to pay off her debts. She would also make Kristen Bell die of envy, because Zinzi’s animal is a Sloth that is usually found draped around her shoulders. It’s the result of her brother’s death, and part of the reason for her downward slide.

Today however, things are different: she’s been hired to find a missing teen pop star, her last client ended up dead, and she’s low on options. She has a few contacts, the burden of her obvious bad past in cuddly animal form, and plenty of determination and strength to unravel the real crime, using both her smile and her Sloth to make things right.

As is usual with these stories she soon learns that she’s in very deep water. Everyone with an animal (and everyone without) has a secret they’re not telling us, and they fact that they’re seen with suspicion by “normal” people means an extra level of distrust toward each other as well. At the same time, the presence of the animals leads to some funny moments that are sketched in as deftly as the thrills and horror that also abound

I’ve read a good amount of urban fantasy, starting with Jim Butcher’s Dresden FilesZoo City is easily one of the best examples of the genre I’ve yet encountered, and I highly recommend it to anyone. This book sports accolades from Bill Willingham and William Gibson, as well as an Arthur C. Clark Award. All of these are impressive and well deserved. Beukes’ style is quick and sharp, mixing local language and information about zoos with a cynical, bright-eyed examination of the grim world in which she lives, and the difficulty of walking about with your sins out for everyone to see. Tonight I will likely dream of what my own animal would be in her world.

As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.

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Dr. Mütter’s Marvels by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz

A well-known quote by British writer L.P. Hartley goes “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Nowhere is this more evident than in the field of medicine, where advances in technology and technique arrive at dizzying speed. Doctors make breakthroughs that ripple around the world, wiping out diseases and making the most challenging injuries easy to treat and cure on behalf of their patients. These ideas and procedures, such as sanitary instruments, a good bedside manner,  anesthesia, and even a good bedside manner seem commonplace and unworthy of mention today.

It was not always so, of course. There was a time when surgery was done in an open room in front of an audience of medical students for their education. No electricity, sterile instruments, or even painkillers save a few cups of wire were available, and afterwards you were bundled up in your same dirty clothes and hustled into a carriage for a bumpy ride home. The surgeon in question would then turn to his next patient, using the same tools and wearing the same apron, and giving the terrified patient no idea of what the doctor was about to inflict on their body, no matter how they screamed or struggled. And if you were a pregnant woman, things were even worse.

Enter Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter, a young man who determined that the main goal of a man of medicine should be to treat people needing surgery as equals before, during, and after the procedure. He would calmly and gently explain to you what was to be done at least a week in advance, show the instruments to be used, and advise you what you could do to assist him. During the operation he would work quickly and efficiently, keeping eye contact with you whenever possible, and giving you a reassuring touch on the shoulder if needed. Afterwards he would direct you to a bed for rest and recovery, stopping in several times over the next few days to check up on your progress.

All of which was totally unknown to the practitioners of surgery at the time. Indeed, you could set out your shingle as a doctor without any medical training whatsoever, and medical science in America, as I have mentioned, was far behind the level we enjoy today. You didn’t even need a medical license in Philadelphia until the end of the 19th century. Infectious disease was disputed, medicines were not standardized, bleeding and leeches were heavily promoted, and treating a fever with a cold bath would have been seen as murder.

Mütter tried to change all of it. After studying in France, he arrived in the city of Brotherly Love determined to use what he had learned to become a surgeon, and most importantly to dedicate those skills to helping those considered monsters: people with deformities such as the Widow Sunday, a French woman who grew a long brown horn from her forehead to her chin, or people suffering from severe burns that rendered them incapable of moving their heads and fearful of the public. Mütter prided himself on doing his best to ensure that these individuals would live happier lives through the groundbreaking use of skin grafts and deft cutting; the more terrible the case the greater he dedicated himself to its resolution.

Not content with simply using his abilities to help others, Mütter became a teacher of surgery, instructing others in his methods of cleanliness, empathy and hard work. Where medical teachers of the time generally dictated their wisdom so that the listeners could write and repeat it verbatim, Mütter encouraged dialogue and the asking of questions by his students and offering cadavers and patients with lesser problems for their use in practice. It is to his credit that many of them went on to have prestigious medical careers, applying his ideas to their own fields and patients with great success.

When he felt death was near, Mütter set about ensuring that his vast collection of bodies, specimens and medical equipment would not be lost, but instead would be placed somewhere they could be used to educate and inform future generations as to both the strangeness of the human body and the need for empathy when faced with individuals burdened with those quirks and afflictions as well as hopefully a desire to treat them with the same kindness Mütter himself tried to instill in his students. (I am ashamed to admit that I assumed they were a collection for his personal amusement or a “conversation piece.”)

Cristin Aptowicz has done a stunning job in shining a light on the life and career of this unappreciated pioneer in surgery. Weaving together his life story, the state of medicine at the time and political and professional rivalries with his colleagues, Ms. Aptowicz has done more than simply writing a biography of a remarkable man or educating her readers about the giant strides Mütter made in his field. The crisp, clear words easily make the individuals described understandable and approachable, and the descriptions of the procedures and practices of the time are both vividly grotesque and enthralling.

The book is likewise peppered with portraits of the individuals mentioned in the story, diagrams of Mütters’ patients, and quotations from the good doctor himself, all of which add to the remarkable work that was done by both the subject and author.

After his death at the age of forty-seven from both inherited and chronic illnesses, Dr. L. Beecher Todd lamented the fact that the story of Mütters’ compassionate personality, remarkable skills, dedication to healing and admirable teaching methods might be lost to history if no “able hand” was there to write “the biography of this great and good man” so that his name might become a “household word of American Surgery.” Dr. Todd can rest easy in that regard; Ms. Aptowicz has done as amazing a job in chronicling the life and work of Mütter as the man himself did for his fortunate patients.

As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.

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