The Disappearing Spoon-Sam Kean

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First, this is later than usual–I usually post on Fridays–but I have a good excuse. I had a baby a week ago. He and I are both healthy and recovering well but it has impaired my blogging.

Fortunately, he isn’t really impairing my reading, since I was in labor for nearly 30 hours and sit up with him and feed him while I can read on my phone.

This week’s book is a nonfiction book about the periodic table. I will grant you that it’s not the most exciting sounding premise, but the book itself is fascinating. The author takes us through the table as the elements were discovered, telling stories about how they were discovered and facts about the elements themselves.

I can’t help but think I would have gotten more out of it if my chemistry knowledge was more than a single inadequate chemistry class in high school, lo, these many years ago. He explains the basic principles of chemistry and I could follow along with it, but still. I think a better chemistry background would have been tremendously helpful to me.

There are great stories in here, from stories about Marie Curie and other famous scientists, to the great push to create or discover new elements in the years following World War II, mostly based at the University of California at Berkeley, at least in this country. There were fierce rivalries with the scientists in the Soviet Union and in Germany, which led to a situation where for a while there were two names for many of the elements on the table and people had to resolve that issue so we could get a standardized table again.

This is an interesting book, easy to read, written in an engaging manner.

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For the Sake of Elena–Elizabeth George

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This is another one of the Inspector Lynley books. These books are good, and the characters are growing on me. It’s hard for me to think positively about the two main characters because they’re inherently unsympathetic, at least from my point of view. Inspector Lynley is a rich, titled aristocrat, which is basically the least relatable demographic. His sergeant is a working class woman who has a serious chip on her shoulder about working with him and is prickly, to say the least. Essentially, it’s been hard for me to really get into this concept.

But now, five books in, we’re starting to see either a change in my point of view or a broadening of the characters to the point where they are more or less sympathetic.

In this book, they’re called in to handle a murder that occurred at Cambridge. The victim is the suite mate of the daughter of Lynley’s supervisor, who was murdered on her morning run.

Murder mystery victims tend to be either highly sympathetic or diabolical, and in this case the victim falls closer to the diabolical end of the spectrum. She was struggling with the transition to university life, where she was re-establishing a relationship with her estranged father–a professor at the university–and his wife.

But she was still resentful of his absence in her life and tended to take up with men that would offend him. She was ostentatiously hanging out with the head of the deaf students association (she was deaf herself) which he hated because he wanted her to live like a hearing woman and not focus on her deafness. Unbeknownst to him, she also was carrying on with another professor, a married man.

In other words, there were plenty of people who had issues with her, from the wife of her lover to rejected suitors.

Like all these books, in the end the reason for her murder is very sad and tragic, and the entire situation is terrible and pointless. These books always pull on the heartstrings at least a little by the end of the story.

Death in the Floating City–Tasha Alexander

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I’d taken a bit of a break from these books as the last one was a bit boring to me. But this one grabbed and held my interest from the start, so either I’m in a better place for reading at this point or this book is better than the previous book in the series.

These books follow the adventures of Emily Asherton/Hargreaves (she gets married fairly early in the series) an amateur detective in Victorian England. Her husband is an agent for the country and therefore is involved in mysteries that have political importance.

In this case, though, they’re working on a non-governmental project. Her childhood nemesis has married into an old and exclusive Venetian family, and her father-in-law was recently murdered. Her husband fled the night of the murder, taking the household’s most valuable possessions, a group of Renaissance books, with him.

The entire situation is shady. Why did her husband run away? The books he took were specifically left to her in the old man’s will, and it soon becomes apparent he’s selling some of them off.

The situation seems to be tied up in a story from the Renaissance period, when a nasty feud between the family and a rival family was at its height. In true Romeo and Juliet fashion, the children of the rival houses fell in love. Despite their best efforts, the girl was married off to someone else, a man more than twice her age who was incredibly violent with her. After an abortive attempt to flee with her lover, she was sent to a convent and forbidden to have contact with anyone.

But her lover had, apparently, attempted to end the feud by leaving her some money. And apparently by Venetian law (at least in the Victorian era, per this book, don’t quote me on any of this) if the inheritance was never claimed, it can still be claimed at any point, even hundreds of years later. And that’s what the murder was about, and that’s why the son stole the books, on the theory that there is a clue to what the inheritance was and how he could prove it.

I enjoyed this book. It was a fast, fun read and the story of the Renaissance lovers was quite touching.

Queen Isabella–Alison Weir

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I love history. I was a history minor in college, in fact. And I love Alison Weir, who writes really engaging, compelling nonfiction that reads almost like fiction (she’s moved into historical fiction, as well, so be aware of which one you’re choosing if you’re picking up one of her books) but is full of actual historical data.

I feel like I might have read this book many years ago but apparently a lot didn’t sink in because much of this felt new when I re-read it recently.

You probably know of Isabella already–she was the French princess in the Braveheart movie–but almost all of what they showed you in the movie was ridiculously inaccurate. For example, she didn’t even land in England until after the old king died, and she was only 12 at that time, making her longstanding affair with William Wallace an impossibility.

However, the general concepts of Isabella as presented in the movie are more or less on point. She was a fierce woman, for sure. Her husband was not a strong leader or a good king, and his favorite/likely lover was indeed murdered, although not by his father.

In essence, what you had was a situation where Isabella, raised in the most powerful empire in the world, whose father and brothers were all strong leaders, was sent to England and forced to defer to a man with no leadership skills and frankly HORRIFIC judgement. She made the best of the situation, because she was a clever and resourceful woman, and supported him through his many issues. She, along with everyone else in the kingdom, hated his boyfriend/favorite. The king showered his favorite with land and titles, and allowed him to act like a royal himself. Eventually, of course, the nobles had enough and captured and illegally executed him. The king was angry but not powerful enough to do anything about it.

Then there was a brief period of relative peace and prosperity.

Until the king found a new favorite. Then it was the same story all over again, only this time the king was showering his favorite and his favorite’s father with prizes and the favorite managed to talk the king into stripping Isabella of her property. The property is what provided her income, with which she paid for her food, clothes, attendants, and so on. No property, no money, no food. It was a terrible situation.

But then the king got involved in a dispute with France, where her brother was on the throne. Unbeknownst to the king, she’d been smuggling letters to France for months, complaining about her situation. Her brother suggested that the king send her to negotiate a truce, and the king–with his TERRIBLE judgement–thought that was a solid idea.

Wait! There’s yet more terrible decisions coming along. Part of the deal she struck with France involved the king having to swear loyalty to the French king for the lands he owned in France. The king would have to go to France to do that in person. But the Despensers, his favorites, were strongly opposed to this idea, because they remembered what happened to the last favorite and didn’t want to be alone in England for any period of time. Ask yourself, what is the single worst choice the king could make here? Answer: send his 12 year old son and heir to France to swear fealty in his stead.

Now we have a situation where Isabella, thoroughly pissed off, is sitting in the most powerful court in the world, with the backing of her brother who is the most powerful ruler in the world, and she has in her possession the heir to the throne of England.

The king tried to salvage the situation by sending scolding letters to her, her brother, and their son. And she said, get rid of the Despensers and everything is cool. Clearly the smart move would be to do what she wanted. Just as clearly, the king refused. Because he was an idiot.

In the end, she raised her own army and invaded England, overthrowing the king and putting her son on the throne with her and her new paramour (for which she took ALL KINDS of crap from basically everyone, considering the medieval stance on adultery) acting as the power behind the throne.

Unfortunately, they went a little wild and crazy with the power and eventually her son deposed her boyfriend and made her sit quietly for a few years until he was sure she was done involving herself in politics.

She’s taken a lot of heat in the past for being aggressive and adulterous, but I think that invasion was a solid idea. They were willing to essentially let her starve to death, but she managed to outmaneuver them and replaced a terrible king with what turned out to be a good king. And it’s not like she was ever going to go back to live with her husband after he was deposed. If she lived today she’d have gotten a divorce and no one would even blink at the boyfriend.

If you like history and aren’t opposed to non-fiction, this is an interesting and fun read.