Holiday Gift Ideas | Four Novels and One Biography

Posted in books by Editor on December 21, 2012

This may be a list less of possible gift ideas than one of small self-indulgences, especially for those of you who struggle to fit in fiction. I make no claims for literary accomplishment (I haven’t read any of these — yet!), but it is interesting to see the eighteenth century put to fictional purposes or, in the case of the biography of Samuel Foote, to see how fiction could serve life within the eighteenth century. -CH

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Donna Leon, The Jewels of Paradise (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012), 256 pages, ISBN: 978-0802120649, $25.

13591693Donna Leon has won heaps of critical praise and legions of fans for her best-selling mystery series featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti. With The Jewels of Paradise, Leon takes readers beyond the world of the Venetian Questura in her first standalone novel.

Caterina Pellegrini is a native Venetian, and like so many of them, she’s had to leave home to pursue her career. With a doctorate in baroque opera from Vienna, she lands in Manchester, England. Manchester, however, is no Venice. When Caterina gets word of a position back home, she jumps at the opportunity.

The job is an unusual one. After nearly three centuries, two locked trunks, believed to contain the papers of a baroque composer have been discovered [the real-life Agostino Steffani (1654-1728), whose arias have recently been recorded by Cecilia Bartoli]. Deeply-connected in religious and political circles, the composer died childless; now two Venetians, descendants of his cousins, each claim inheritance. Caterina’s job is to examine any enclosed papers to discover the “testamentary disposition” of the composer. But when her research takes her in unexpected directions she begins to wonder just what secrets these trunks may hold. From a masterful writer, The Jewels of Paradise is a superb novel, a gripping tale of intrigue, music, history and greed.

In the judgment of Jane Jakeman, writing for The Independent (10 October 2012) . . .

Leon shows us the balancing-act required to mediate between the world and the spiritual life as a feature of the present as well as of the 18th century. From Steffano’s patchy biography, Leon has forged a fascinating historical mystery. Full of authentic detail and wittily recounted (Caterina’s sojourn at a British university with its badly dressed scholars is a joy), Leon’s 22nd novel has a freshness which indicates her delight in her subject, and perhaps celebrates a release from the treadmill of the Brunetti stories.

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Robin Blake, A Dark Anatomy (London: Pan Macmillan, 2011), 368 pages, 978-1250006721, $25.

dark-anatomy-2Bloodshed and mystery in 1740s England

The first Cragg and Fidelis mystery begins with Coroner Titus Cragg being called to the corpse of a lady, the wife of the local squire, when it is found in woods near Preston. Her throat has been cut. It is his job to call an inquest that will reach a right verdict, and the investigation that follows has a number of twists and turns as Cragg tries to discover the evidence the jury will need to consider . His friend Dr Luke Fidelis provides medical and scientific knowledge and his wife Elizabeth gives him staunch moral support, in face of determined opposition to his methods from the town’s corporation.

Christopher Fowler writes in The Financial Times (4 April 2011):

Beer and beef for breakfast, and the Devil come down to earth: we are in 1740s Preston, Lancashire. Titus Cragge, the local coroner, has been summoned to investigate the death of a “rough riding hoyden”, the squire’s wife Dolores Brockletower, who has plunged through a tree to lie gashed, bashed and part-buried in the soil at its roots.

George II might hold the throne in the capital, but out in the wilds superstition and hearsay rule. Cragge teams up with energetic young doctor Luke Fidelis and the pair take faltering steps into the as-yet-unknown science of forensic pathology. Soon they’re crossing swords with the victim’s husband, and discovering that the corpse has taken a walk.

Despite hinging on an improbable act of physics, coupled with an 11th-hour surprise that makes Preston seem rather exotic, this is rollicking stuff. . .

More information on the book and Blake are available at his website»

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Ian Kelly, Mr. Foote’s Other Leg (London: Picador, 2012), 462 pages, 978-0330517836, £17.

9780330517836In 1776 Foote’s was the most talked-of name in the English-speaking world. By 1777 it was almost unmentionable. Samuel Foote, friend of David Garrick and Dr Johnson, is the greatest lost figure of the eighteenth century; his story defies belief and has only been forgotten for reasons both laughable and shocking.

Foote’s rise to fame was based on three unrelated accidents: his extraordinary gifts as an impressionist, a murder within his family which he turned into a true-crime bestseller, and the loss of his leg after a disastrous practical joke. Out of this was born the most singular career in stage history. He flouted convention in transvestite roles, evaded the censors by selling his scurrilous satires as ‘Tea Parties’, wrote a series of plays for one-legged actors – accordingly not much revived – and established London’s Theatre Royal, Haymarket. Then came two scandalous trials that rocked Georgian high society. Trials of such magnitude they kept America’s Declaration of Independence from the front pages of the London papers.

In a unique conflation of biography and social and medical history, award-winning historian Ian Kelly uncovers the hidden world of ‘the Hogarth of the stage’. From Sheridan to Dickens to Dudley Moore, Foote’s influence continues, but Mr Foote’s Other Leg is not just a tragicomic tale of this Oscar Wilde of the eighteenth century, it is also the story of the first media storm, the first true-crime bestseller, the first victim of celebrity culture, and a joyous hop around the mad theatre of London life – high and low.

Anne Sebba writes in The Telegraph (24 October 2012):

This is a stunningly good and long overdue biography of a man largely forgotten today. Why he has been out of the limelight for so long remains a puzzle. His plays may be conceived as dated, yet Kelly makes the case that they are important for the way they ridiculed vanity and class pretension. But his real claims on posterity come from his courageous refusal to bow to convention or artistic safety, which, in the end, destroyed him. It is this trait that commands our attention, Kelly insists. It is hard to think of anyone who could have written his life story with greater sympathy, understanding of his talent and the difficulties he faced.

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P.D. James, Death Comes to Pemberley (New York: Knopf, 2011), 304 pages, 978-0307959850, $26.

29book"Death Comes to Pemberley" by P.D. JamesA rare meeting of literary genius: P. D. James, long among the most admired mystery writers of our time, draws the characters of Jane Austen’s beloved novel Pride and Prejudice into a tale of murder and emotional mayhem.

It is 1803, six years since Elizabeth and Darcy embarked on their life together at Pemberley, Darcy’s magnificent estate. Their peaceful, orderly world seems almost unassailable. Elizabeth has found her footing as the chatelaine of the great house. They have two fine sons, Fitzwilliam and Charles. Elizabeth’s sister Jane and her husband, Bingley, live nearby; her father visits often; there is optimistic talk about the prospects of marriage for Darcy’s sister Georgiana. And preparations are under way for their much-anticipated annual autumn ball.

Then, on the eve of the ball, the patrician idyll is shattered. A coach careens up the drive carrying Lydia, Elizabeth’s disgraced sister, who with her husband, the very dubious Wickham, has been banned from Pemberley. She stumbles out of the carriage, hysterical, shrieking that Wickham has been murdered. With
shocking suddenness, Pemberley is plunged into a frightening mystery.

Inspired by a lifelong passion for Austen, P. D. James masterfully re-creates the world of Pride and Prejudice, electrifying it with the excitement and suspense of a brilliantly crafted crime story, as only she can write it.

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Lloyd Shepherd, The English Monster: or, The Melancholy Transactions of William Ablass (London: Simon & Schuster, 2012)2012), 432 pages, 978-1451647570, $16.

booksTwo moments in England’s rise to empire, separated by centuries, yet connected by a crime that cannot be forgiven . . .

London, 1811. Along the twisting streets of Wapping, bounded by the ancient Ratcliffe Highway and the modern wonder of the London Dock, many a sin is hidden by the noise and glory of Trade. But now two families have fallen victim to foul murder, and Charles Horton, a senior officer of the newly formed Thames River Police Office, must deliver revenge to a terrified populace.

Plymouth, 1564. Young Billy Ablass arrives in the busy seaport with the burning desire of all young men: the getting and keeping of money. Setting sail on a ship owned by Queen Elizabeth herself seems the likely means to a better life. But the kidnapping of hundreds of human souls in Africa is not the only cursed event to occur on England’s first official slaving voyage. On a sun-blasted Florida islet, Billy too is to be enslaved.

Based on the true story of the gruesome Ratcliffe Highway murders, The English Monster is a breathtaking voyage across centuries, from the Age of Discovery to the Age of Empire, illuminating what happens to Britain as she gains global power
but risks losing her soul.

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