It’s a Mystery: The Janus Stone, by Elly Griffiths

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ruth Galloway is a skilled forensic archaeologist working in Norfolk, England, the site of many iron age and Roman settlements. Ruth is single, stubborn, and tough, and now, she’s pregnant. The father is Detective Harry Nelson, as stubborn and tough as Ruth, and married. As she’s struggling to decide if and when to tell him, Ruth is called to examine the skeleton of a child found buried under a doorway at a demolition site where Roman ruins have been uncovered. An ancient sacrifice to the god Janus, or the more recent burial of a murder victim? The case gets even more perplexing when a second child skeleton is unearthed, this one without its head, and when the skull is found in an old well, things become downright sinister.
elly-g-janusstone_hres-us-wpcf_275x415
Elly Griffiths has turned out a complex plot rich with intriguing characters, some recurrent and others case-related. Her Norfolk is a watery, frequently misty county with just the right atmosphere for a murder mystery and she seamlessly works in lots of mythology and folklore. The tension ramps up incrementally for both Ruth and Harry, personally and professionally, and there is no shortage of possible perpetrators with viable motives. The final chase scene is masterful. The book has one major flaw, in that even after being on the receiving end of multiple threats, the usually intelligent and rational Ruth continues to return to the dig site alone at odd hours of the day. But it’s worth overlooking in favor of enjoying a gripping first rate mystery.

View all my reviews

 

Biography: Insubordinate Spirit, by Missy Wolfe

Insubordinate Spirit: A True Story of Life and Loss in Earliest America 1610-1665
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The title of this study is a bit misleading. Yes, there is information on the life of Elizabeth Fones Winthrop Feake Hallett, but there is much more info on the 17th century Puritan experience in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York (Amsterdam). With respect to Elizabeth, there is a dearth of evidence about her day to day existence, and Missy Wolfe has unearthed a bit more with a few interesting personal letters and diaries written by “Bess” and her family, especially her eldest daughter. Especially elucidating are their exchanges with John Winthrop, Jr. who, as Ms. Wolfe described him, was a true “renaissance man”, scientist, medical specialist, political innovator, and man of reason. There are sections on the founding and development of Greenwich and Stamford, which came about only following lengthy wrangling between the English and Dutch over the borderlands between their respective colonies. In and amongst these sections, Wolfe manages to establish Elizabeth as an independent thinker who had the courage to resist conformity regardless of the personal hardships that the Puritan government visited upon her as a result.

Missy Wolfe is an amateur historian, and as such, she sometimes uses anachronistic language and repeats timeworn myths. Elizabeth, for example, didn’t “date”, and colonial women did not turn into torches because their home fires ignited their clothing as they worked over the flames. Still, there are things to be gleaned from this narrative, particularly in the many details about the Native Americans living in the Greenwich area during Elizabeth’s time there; Ms. Wolfe also provides information about some of the names in the town of today that are directly related to them. Pinpointing the location of her last dwelling site, on a promontory that stood above Hell Gate, is interesting as well. The author also fleshes out the personality of John Underhill, infamous for his part in the Pequot massacre. At the end of the book, she reports what is known about the lives of the descendants of the key figures in her narrative.

View all my reviews

Historical Fiction: Friends of the Wigwam, by John William Huelscamp

Friends of the Wigwam: A Civil War Story

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Friends of the Wigwam is the debut novel of Civil War historian John W. Heulskamp, who is particularly interested in forgotten heroes of that conflict. The first section of the book relates the formation the strong friendship of six young men and women, and follows their experience of the social and political friction that leads to the war’s outbreak. The fact that these characters are based upon real people increases the impact of this section, which is further enlivened by the appearance of such soon-to-be icons as Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas, and Ulysses Grant. As the plot moves forward into the heat of battle, poignant in itself, knowing the backstory of the friends makes reading of their struggles even more so. Perhaps my favorite character is Jennie (Allie) Hodges, who fought as fiercely and courageously as any man and whose true gender was never discovered during the war years, and it’s great that her contributions are now being recognized.

Wigwam is a promising debut, but it is clear that Mr. Heulskamp is a novice at writing fiction. Many of the passages are overly descriptive, for instance, and his choice of words (quaint hands, stout uniform) sometimes baffling. But practice makes perfect, and with his skill at research and plotting, those are flaws that can be corrected.

View all my reviews

Historic Buildings of Coventry, CT

Fellow museum guide, interpreter, and teacher Dan Sterner travels all throughout Connecticut photographing the thousands of 18th and 19th century buildings that remain in our 163 towns. He posts the pictures with descriptions and historical information on his web site, town by town. Dan recently put up some pages about what’s to be found in Coventry, which was founded in 1712 and still has more than 400 old places, many in fine condition,  along its roads and byways. He generously agreed to permit me to link up to that page here on You’re History. I’m including the Coventry index here, but there’s a complete index of all the places he’s visited on Historic Buildings of Connecticut .

Thanks, Dan, great work!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Buildings Index

Boston Turnpike
12 Brigham’s Tavern (1778)
1064 Nathaniel Root House (1809)
1630 Coventry Grange Hall (1834)
1746 Second Congregational Church (1847)
1747 Loomis-Pomeroy House (1833)
1804 Pomeroy Tavern (1801)

Bread & Milk Street
21 Jacob Wilson Tavern (1735)

Main Street
1129 Capron-Philips House (1864)
1134 Booth & Dimock Memorial Library (1913)
1141 Former Methodist Church (1867)
1171 First Congregational Church (1849)
1195 Coventry Visitors’ Center (1876)
1220 Bidwell Hotel (1822)
2011 Daniel Rust House (1731)

North River Road
290 John Turner House (1814)
941 Charles Hanover House (1825)

South Street
2187 Elias Sprague House (1821)
2299 Nathan Hale Homestead (1776)
2382 Strong-Porter House (1730)

It’s a Mystery: The Bookseller, by Cynthia Swanson

The Bookseller

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Kitty Miller is a trailblazer. Nearing middle age during the 1960’s, she’s unapologetically single, the co-owner of her own Denver book store, and enjoying her simple, independent lifestyle. True, her social life has dwindled and her business is struggling because the new mega shopping centers have drained business traffic from downtown. But Kitty and co-owner Frieda are life-long best friends, and life is good. Then, Kitty finds herself spending her sleep time in another world, where, as
Katharine, she’s married to the hunky Lars and raising their family of triplets. Soon she can’t quite distinguish which of her lives is “real”, and sets out to investigate how her memories and experiences in both might just intersect.

The plot of The Bookseller proceeds with alternating chapters, first in one world, then the other. The general social tone of the early 1960’s is captured in both settings, before Beatlemania changed so many things. Kitty wears slacks, for example, though many women frown upon that. Her parents are conventional, supportive, and homebodies. There isn’t much detail about the bookstore, however, and not much talk about books, so the title doesn’t seem quite apropos. The pace is slow until the final third of the book, when Kitty/Katharine begins trying to pin down the facts. One of Katherine’s sons is presented as autistic, this in the days before special education, and while some of his problems are handled realistically, others are glossed over. This is a book loaded with little mysteries, and the denouement occurs abruptly, with an outcome opposite to the one I expected. The cause of the entire episode is left for the reader to infer.

A promising debut novel.

View all my reviews

It’s a Mystery: Eye of the Storm, by Marcia Muller

Eye of the Storm
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Eye of the Storm is the 8th title in the PI Sharon McCone series. which to date contains more than thirty entries. Sharon is confident in her professional skills, but a bit bummed by the trough into which her personal life seems mired. She hasn’t seen her sister Patsy in quite some time, and when she sends an SOS requesting her help, Sharon travels to Appleby’s Island in the Sacramento Delta. Patsy is working with friends to convert the decrepit mansion, complete with its own ghost, into a posh vacation resort, and a series of puzzling disturbances is threatening the viability of the plans. Sharon runs into the front edge of an massive and ominous storm on her drive, one that will play a big role her investigation.

This is a fairly straightforward, almost simplistic plot. The book’s opening gets seriously bogged down with a much too detailed back-story about Patsy and Sharon’s life long relationship. Once on the island, thing start to pick up. The ghost makes several appearances, but it’s still a while before the first of two murders occurs. The second is fairly predictable. Now the story morphs into a variation on the locked room scenario, as Sharon frantically works to uncover the killer’s identity. The suspense builds, but only mildly.

For me, the show was stolen by the time period in which it is set, at the end of the era just before the advent of the personal computer and cell phone. Sharon’s job, though she doesn’t, of course, know it, is much more complex in terms of information gathering and communication than it would be now, especially when the power goes out.

Marcia Muller has been honored with several prestigious awards. Her competent character, Sharon McCone, was a ground breaker at a time when nearly all fictional PIs were men. There are also several strong females in the story, and interestingly, a very weak man. Though somewhat dated, Eye is a fun look back at the way things were.

View all my reviews

Historical Fiction: Fates and Traitors, by Jennifer Chiaverini

Fates and Traitors

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jennifer Chiaverini is making a name for herself as the author of novels about quilts, but I prefer her works about historical characters, among them Mary Todd Lincoln, Elizabeth Keckley, and Julia Grant. My favorite among the historicals is The Spymistress, which told the story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a truly courageous woman who managed to spy for the Union while living in the midst of Confederate Richmond.

Fates and Traitors, which is scheduled for publication in September, caught my interest because it features John Wilkes Booth and some of the important women in his life. The plot traces the trajectory of Booth’s decision to assassinate President Lincoln, from the points of view of his mother and sister, one of his sweethearts, and Mary Surratt, at whose home the conspirators met. Chiaverini makes use of the slender evidence available about Booth’s relationship with these women to flesh out the story line, which was a bit too romance-y for my liking, but she managed to make it interesting and factual enough to sustain my interest. There is nothing really new here, but it was edifying to read about Booth as a real person rather than the demon he is usually portrayed as being. The title, which is a bit clumsy, I think, refers to a vision Booth’s mother experienced when John was born, in which he was fated to become famous. Lucy Hale, thought by many to have been his fiancee, comes across as incredibly naive; while her family thinks Booth is a bounder, she remains blind to many signs that he was up to no good.

Fates and Traitors has not supplanted The Spymistress in my estimation, but it was an interesting and divergent picture of the Booth I’m accustomed to reading about. It left me with the impression that if he had been more respected as an actor, his life might have taken a far different course.

View all my reviews