Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Devil’s Feast, by M.J. Carter. Putnam, 2017

In 1842 London, Captain William Avery finds himself inadvertently drawn into a possible murder investigation. At the end of a fantastic meal by celebrity chef Alexis Soyer at the Reform Club in the chef’s own rooms, one man sickens and dies. At first glance it looks like cholera, but a closer look at the symptoms proves it to be poison. And it turns out not to be the only incident; another death follows, and investigation turns up some possible non-lethal cases of poison before the first death.

Normally Avery’s friend Jeremiah Blake would be leading the investigation, but he’s vanished from the debtor’s prison where he was being detained. Avery worries that he doesn’t have what it takes to solve the case before more deaths occur. And he’s under the gun; in just a few days, the club will be hosting the son of the ruler of Egypt in a fantastic dinner with heavy political ramifications.

This is the third in a series of Avery and Blake mysteries.  Blake is the brainy Holmes of this detective duo; Avery is the Watson who tells the tale. And it’s a fun tale to read if you’re a foodie. Soyer was a real historical person. He was the first chef who become a celebrity; he was not only a brilliant chef, but quite an inventor of kitchen gear and an innovator; he created tools and methods that are still used today. He was a fiend for cleanliness in the kitchen, promoted the use of natural gas for cooking, and encouraged women to become chefs. He also had an oversize personality that made him the center of attention at a time when chefs were becoming stars rather than just unseen food makers. Soyer is the heart of this novel, even more than the murders are.

I loved reading this book, in large part because of Soyer and the research that went into the descriptions of the food and the way it was made. The murder investigation itself seems to take the back seat to the food, however, and I’m not sure if this is desirable in a mystery? I was fine with it, but not sure if every reader will be. There is a lot of time spent questioning everyone from meat suppliers to waiters; there is a surfeit of suspects in these crimes and it becomes a little scattered. I started having trouble remembering who was who in the kitchen. I’ve not read the first two books in this series but this seems like a fun series. 

The above is an associate link. If you click through and buy something- anything- from Amazon, they will give me a few cents. 

I received this book free from the Amazon Vine program in return for a fair review. 

Neither of these things influenced my review.  

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Forbidden Garden, by Ellen Herrick. William Morrow, 2017

Sorrel is one of the Sparrow sisters, a trio (once a quartet) of preternaturally gifted women who have a connection with plants. Their nursery in New England overflows with gorgeous plants that grow and bloom fast- that’s Sorrel’s realm. Another sister works with herbs and healing; the third can make any food related plant bear lushly. For this reason, Sorrel has come to the attention of a wealthy British manor owner. Kirkwood Hall has been renovated and made open to the public part time. All is lovely- except for one spot. The old Shakespeare garden lies in ruins, as it has for a couple of centuries. Within its walls, nothing grows. Sir Graham Kirkwood asks Sorrel to come over and make it right.

Once she gets there, Sorrel finds a happy extended family. There is only one grim spot- Lady Kirkwood’s brother, Andrew. An Anglican priest on sabbatical, he’s recovering- poorly- from a broken heart. He provides the romance in this combination romance/mystery, as Sorrel and the Kirkwood’s try to not just make the Shakespeare garden beautiful again, but to find out *why* it’s lain fallow for so many decades. Then there is the legend that any Kirkwood entering the garden will fall ill and die…

This is a pleasant enough story, with the extended family (that includes the head gardener, the inn keeper, and Lady Kirkwood’s brother) searching for clues while Sorrel designs and plants the garden. Basing it both on other Shakespeare gardens and glimpses of it in the tapestries, she creates a formal arrangement of parterres and knots that bursts into growth and bloom the minute she puts the plants in the ground. But things don’t work out easily; the garden’s curse is still alive.

As a gardener and a foodie, I couldn’t help but love the descriptions in this story. Herrick brings to life the look, feel, and scent of the plants. The meals the family eats are described just as lushly as the plants; I was hungry most of the time reading this! The mystery was interesting, although it largely came down to people deliberately hiding information. But the book is not without its faults; this is the second book of I assume a series, and as such referred constantly to events of the first book. Those references took up far too much of the narrative, and it’s far too repetitious. Also, for a mystery, it’s not a very tense story- it dwells on the relationships too much to make us worry much. It’s like the book couldn’t decide if it was a mystery or a cozy woman’s story. Still, I’m going to find the first book and read it. Because plants. 

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something- anything- from Amazon, they will give me a few cents. 

I received this book free from the LIbrary Thing Early REviewers program in return for a fair review. 

Neither of these things influenced my review.  

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, by Steven Johnson. Riverhead Books, 2016

Steven Johnson has a broad definition of ‘play’; he speaks not of just toys and sports but of anything that seems frivolous or unnecessary that brings happiness to people. He puts forth a pretty good argument that pleasant things were the driving force behind many of the world’s advances; we all know of how the lust for spices drove exploration, trade, and, sadly, slavery and colonialism, but there have been many similar events. When those same traders brought cotton fabrics back from India, women found them amazing and very desirable. Not only were the much cooler and more comfortable to wear, but they could be woven in lovely patterns. This led to cotton being planted in the New World- and of course led to the slave trade in America. The urge to automate weaving patterns in silk led Jacquard to developing punch cards to control the loom; those cards reappeared in the late 1950s and were a staple in all 60s and 70s computer labs. As soon as computers appeared, people wanted to use them to play games, which led to building bigger and better computers. It seems that people will go to great lengths for things that no one actually *needs*, but which add grace notes and interest to life. I love social history, and this was an interesting read. Some reviewers have complained that he doesn’t back up with sources, but there are fairly extensive notes and a bibliography. 

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something- anything- from Amazon, they will give me a few cents. 

This did not influence my review in any way.