Navigation Guide to NPR’s Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books


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Some of you may have seen this literary flowchart, constructed by SF Signal using data from NPR’s listeners (including me), when it was first published in 2011. Because our neurons occasionally fizz, pop, and call it quits when we try to figure out what we want to read next (it happens to the best of us), this remains an excellent tool to put us back on the path to reading enjoyment. Naturally, many more novels have been published since but these are pretty solid choices from which to start your search. Check out the full story (and access the interactive features) here. Many thanks to Sabra for bringing it to my attention!

“Update 2: As Neil Gaiman so astutely pointed out, the novel Stardust, unlike the movie, contains no pirates. Turns out he’s an authority on the subject. This egregious error has been corrected and we’d love to appeal @neilhimself‘s ruling of this being not quite the greatest flowchart in human history.” Best update ever. I hope he relented.


Letter From Wonderland


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collage by Anne Fontaine

It’s not immediately clear whether I’ve jumped into the rabbit hole or am finally poking my head out of it but time has passed and much has happened, some of it happy and a lot of it sad. The one constant through my life’s most recent shenanigans (which include an interstate move, the loss of a nephew, and then the loss of my mother) has been books. Reading is the only occupation that can both anchor me in this world and, at the same time, send my limping brain soaring to worlds of my choosing—a sort of therapeutic waking dream. If I ever stop reading, you’ll know there is something seriously wrong and you should call someone. To help me get back into blog-writing form, I put together a partial list of the books I’ve read while absent from these pages. Though I haven’t written about any of them (yet), I haven’t been idle—notes were taken. Some of these titles are earmarked for reviews but, in general, if it’s here, I loved it.

  1. The Bromeliad Trilogy  Terry Pratchett
  2. The Apothecary  Maile Meloy
  3. All nine books of Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri series and the first two in his Jimm Juree series. (The first Dr. Siri novel, The Coroner’s Lunch, was reviewed here in November 2013)
  4. Frozen Solid and Deep Zone  James M. Tabor
  5. Island Practice: Cobblestone Rash, Underground Tom, and Other Adventures of a Nantucket Doctor  Pam Belluck
  6. Skin Game and Welcome to the Jungle  Jim Butcher  I’ve also listened to the entire 15-novel Dresden Files series on audio—three times (James Marsters, ‘Spike’ from Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, reads and he’s brilliant); my reviews of Turn Coat, Ghost Story, and Cold Days can be read here
  7. The Lost Island and Gideon’s Corpse from Douglas Preston’s and Lincoln Child’s series featuring Gideon Crew; Blue Labyrinth and Crimson Shore from their Pendergast series (Fever Dream was reviewed here in June 2010 and Two Graves here in January 2013; Preston’s The Kraken Project was reviewed here in August 2014 and Impact here)
  8. The Forgotten Room  Lincoln Child (The Third Gate, also featuring Dr. Jeremy Logan, was reviewed here in July 2012)
  9. The Lewis Trilogy and Entry Island  Peter May (also the first four of his China Thrillers and first five of the Enzo Files novels)
  10. The first seven books in Elly Griffiths’ series featuring Dr. Ruth Galloway (the first, The Crossing Places, was included in a post titled ‘Bring Out Your Dead: Three Forensical Series to Add to Your Shelves’ in September 2013)
  11. Bloodline and The Eye of God  James Rollins (Altar of Eden was reviewed here in January 2010 and The Blood Gospel here in May 2013)
  12. The first 16 books of Deborah Crombie’s series featuring Duncan Kincaid and Emma James
  13. The Great Zoo of China  Matthew Reilly   (a dinosaur park and mayhem—yessss)
  14. The first eight books of Joseph Delaney’s Spook series
  15. Full Dark House  Christopher Fowler
  16. Carry On  Rainbow Rowell
  17. My Life in Middlemarch  Rebecca Mead
  18. Liar & Spy  Rebecca Stead
  19. The Martian  Andy Weir
  20. The first three Cormoran Strike novels by Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling)
  21. Gaudy Night  Dorothy L. Sayers  
  22. Matilda  Roald Dahl
  23. A Wrinkle in Time  Madeleine L’Engle  

Welcome to the Jungle by Jim Butcher was my first foray into graphic novels since I used to devour Classics Illustrated and Mad Magazine and I will definitely look for more. In addition to the Dresden Files, there are several other series (as you can probably tell) that have become my literary equivalent to comfort food. The last three books on my list are old favorites and have been read many times; I wrote about Gaudy Night here in March 2014 and included A Wrinkle in Time in a December 2009 post titled ‘Suggested Reading for the Imaginative Child’. Which authors or books, in particular, keep you coming back for more?




We’re Not in Kansas, Anymore: “The Kraken Project” by Douglas Preston


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KrakenProjectA recent story on NPR discussed pre-Snowden whistleblowers and what’s happened to them in the wake of their attempts to call attention to governmental actions that seemed to overstep their declared boundaries (it wasn’t great) and how people who notice possible wrong-doing should be protected (the proverbial rub). But what if the wrong-doing is perceived not by a human but by an intelligent computer program capable of both understanding the implications of what it perceives and of making corrections on its own?

In Douglas Preston’s The Kraken Project, Dr. Melissa Shepherd has ‘raised’ such a program, a self-modifying AI whose eventual purpose—to monitor at first-hand the harsh environment in the Kraken Mare (the largest sea on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon)—inspired her name, “Dorothy”. In order to perform her tasks efficiently so many miles from home, Dorothy is programmed to improvise and survive on her own. However, under the strict parameters of a deliberately realistic dress rehearsal before the launch, Dorothy’s survival instincts take over. Using the technology at her disposal, she becomes focused on escaping the unfamiliar conditions. (On Dorothy’s behalf, I was reminded of one of Bert Gummer’s lines in Tremors 2: Aftershocks: “I feel I was denied critical…need-to-know…information.”) A massive explosion results from Dorothy’s efforts to free herself and she is presumed destroyed along with millions of dollars in research and equipment. Instead, she finds a way out through the internet, a wild place that seems accurately rendered as a mix of World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto. Traumatised, Dorothy is on the run but not only from the creepy residents of the unfamiliar terrain. A Wall Street tycoon who appears to be a hybrid of Gordon Gekko and Sauron, has become aware of her existence and he is desperate to bend her capabilities to a spot of vicious algorithmic (high-frequency) trading.

Enter Wyman Ford, a former CIA-operative who spent a few years in a Benedictine monastery before becoming a private investigator. This is his fourth appearance in Douglas Preston’s series and it is always interesting to watch his logical mind and good heart navigate the regimented and frequently blind sense of duty exhibited by both other agents and his governmental employers. Ford is asked by Stanton Lockwood, the science adviser to the president, to find Melissa Shepherd who, though suspected of sabotage, is the only person who understands the nuances of the AI she created. Ford senses there are shenanigans being planned in the background but he does his job, sorting out the moral contradictions as he goes along and saving more than one life in the process.

While The Kraken Project touches on a variety of subjects including philosophical questions relating to AI and its potential uses, robotics, algorithmic trading, and single-minded greed, there is also room to wonder about what it is to be human in an increasingly wired world. After reading this book, I thought that walking into a flower-filled field, far from prying eyes, might be the only safe place left and but then I thought of bee-sized drones and reconsidered. Throw in a government whose science committee doesn’t necessarily know anything about science, and, in the wrong hands, the future has bolts in its neck and wears size 20 shoes. The Kraken Project is that impossible thing: a thoughtful page-turner that might even make you yearn for a computer overlord—if her name is Dorothy.

Wyman Ford first appears in Tyrannosaur Canyon, followed by Blasphemy and Impact. Read more about The Kraken Project and Douglas Preston’s other projects at his website.

A Woman’s Place is Wherever She Likes: “Gaudy Night” by Dorothy L. Sayers


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GaudyNightRemember the impassioned speech children’s bookstore-owner Kathleen Kelly makes to Joe Fox in You’ve Got Mail? “And it wasn’t that she [Kathleen’s mother] was just selling books, it was that she was helping people become whoever it was they were going to turn out to be. Because when you read a book as a child it becomes part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does…” While not exactly a child when I first read Dorothy SayersGaudy Night, it made enough of an impression that I’ve now re-read it more often than any other book in my library. At different points in my life, at least yearly as it turns out, I gravitate toward the comfort of its counsel regarding the co-existence of hearts and brains and the pursuit of one’s “proper job,” revelations made in the midst of a mystery, set against the background of Oxford’s spires and rivers and directed at the female dons and students of fictional Shrewsbury College. For me, it is the literary equivalent of stopping for gas when the gauge is low or rummaging for aspirin to ease a headache.

Published in 1935, Gaudy Night is the eleventh book (omitting two collections of HighStreet.Turnershort stories) in Dorothy Sayers’ mystery series featuring the accomplished and impeccable Lord Peter Wimsey and the third also featuring mystery novelist and scholar Harriet Vane. When the novel opens, it has been five years since Wimsey’s persistent investigation saved Harriet Vane from the gallows in Strong Poison, their first appearance together. In the interim, they butted heads after Harriet discovered a corpse on a beach but they solved that mystery together in Have His Carcase. In Gaudy Night, Harriet attends Shrewsbury College’s Gaudy (reunion) and as she begins to regain her confidence in the face of her remembered notoriety, anonymous poison pen letters directed at academic women begin to appear. The senior members of Shrewsbury College, citing Harriet’s experience with detective procedure, her allegiance to the college, and women’s education in general, ask her to help unmask the culprit. When the poison pen’s letters and increasingly violent actions begin to risk lives in the college (including her own), Harriet calls upon Lord Peter Wimsey for additional insight (“nasty clear-headed way he has of putting things”) and matters on every hand come to a close.

At war in Harriet’s mind throughout the novel is the compatibility of a woman’s scholarly interests with marriage. On meeting one of her former classmates at the Gaudy, a woman with an exceptional mind who married a farmer, she had the “depressed feeling that she had seen a Derby winner making shift with a coal-cart.” In the end, one must do one’s proper job, whatever it may be, while taking care to avoid making another person your job. Harriet is confused about how to recognise one’s proper job and the trap of trying “to persuade one’s self into inappropriate feelings.” How these issues about women and education, and women in society, relate to Harriet’s dilemma regarding Lord Peter (who determinedly proposes to her ‘at decent intervals, as a birthday treat, and, of course, on All Fool’s Day’) is what keeps me coming back. Or, I simply have an incredibly thick skull that demands repeated immersion in Gaudy Night‘s good sense.

Do you have a touchstone novel you feel compelled to read again and again?

“Sherlock,” Memory Palaces, and the Physics of Bullet Wounds


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There it is again—in this season’s finale of Sherlock on PBS, the concept of a memory palace, the deliberate mental construction of a familiar structure where memories can be sorted, filed, or locked away in any of the various ‘rooms’ and accessed only

Memory Palace by Anne Fontaine

Memory Palace by Anne Fontaine

by a force of will (more detail here). It is an ancient technique that has imparted to several authors’ creations a skill that resembles a superpower: Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast visits his elaborately detailed memory palace in at least two books by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child: Day of the Dead and Two Graves (my review here); Gary Ambrose “Jonesy” Jones from Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher hides critical childhood memories from an alien intruder; and Matthew Reilly’s Captain Shane “Scarecrow” Schofield is able to shield his memories from a torturer in Scarecrow Returns (my review here). In Sherlock: “His Last Vow,” the technique is used to devastating effect by both consummate blackmailer Charles Augustus Magnussen and by Sherlock himself to save his own life.

In Sherlock’s case, this includes an ability to access anything that might be of help, including conversations (a skill this digital version of Sherlock shares on a more introductory level with Special Agent Pendergast). The process, brought to us in frenetic detail, happens in a flash. Among Sherlock’s insights, his split-second analysis of bullet wounds is riveting; had my college physics classes gone into such useful cause-and-effect scenarios, I might have done more than muddle through.

Like Lord Peter Wimsey’s sword-yardstick-compass cane and Amelia Peabody Emerson’s sturdy leather belt, jingling with her assorted excavation tools (a small pistol among them), the mastery of a memory palace would be a useful addition to any investigator’s bag of tricks. Please let me know in the comments if you are aware of any other fictional characters who employ this useful psychological device to get themselves out of a scrape. While the requisite sharp wit and the ability to make connections between seemingly disparate events are critical foundation skills for any sort of investigator, they do not necessarily indicate the use of a memory palace—but they’re a good place to start.

If you missed Sherlock: “His Last Vow”, you can find it here.

Dinner’s on the Bunsen Burner: “Nick and Tesla’s HIGH-VOLTAGE DANGER LAB” by “Science Bob” Pflugfelder and Steve Hockensmith


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Nick&TeslaWe’re seconds from the Christmas holiday but here is one more idea for the hands-on 8+-yr-old on your list: a gadget-filled mystery (the first of a new series wonderfully illustrated by Scott Garrett) with directions for building the gadgets as you go along. Nick and Tesla’s High-Voltage Danger Lab is exactly the good-mystery-incorporating-solid-science hybrid that is irresistible to me. When I taught middle school science (in the dark ages), I read Gerald Durrell‘s My Family and Other Animals and Sherlock Holmes stories with my students because I wanted them to recognise science and reasoning as part of a larger picture that had nothing to do with science class. While enlisting some neighborhood children for research on this book, I was delighted to discover that “Science Bob” Pflugfelder’s website is an active reference for the local public school’s science classes. He and Steve Hockensmith, author of the Holmes on the Range series, Dawn of the Dreadfuls, and Dreadfully Ever After, have crafted an imaginative mystery that transitions easily to the scientific principles behind Pflugfelder’s problem-solving gadgets.

Nick and Tesla, precocious 11-yr-olds, have been sent for an unexpected stay with their inventor uncle, Newton Galileo Holt, a literary twin to Caractacus Potts, the scatterbrained genius Roald Dahl brought to life in Ian Fleming’s classic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Uncle Newt’s house is a convenient laboratory for the many contraptions he has built to automate and enhance his life, most of which could probably use a little more tweaking. His basement is a boneyard of past inventions and an incubator for new ones with raw materials stockpiled (literally) everywhere. Nick and Tesla are given the run of the lab and they make good use of it after they discover a mysterious house with unusual goings-on and a secret occupant nearby.

Though readers may not have every ingredient on hand to make the gadgets in this book, they can be easily scrounged in conjunction with one visit to your local hardware store. Use the book as a shopping list or use the one provided on the website. A nice woman at Lowe’s told me they would make the cuts for the lengths of PVC pipe needed for the rocket launcher at no charge; I had a few qualms about buying PVC glue (it’s a solvent and not something I would ever use again) and she suggested the substitution of a water-based alternative like Weldbond (which I happen to keep around so I was very pleased). Even with something like Weldbond, I would reflexively reinforce the joints with duct tape. In fact, my only criticism of the gadgets is that they don’t use enough duct tape. I wondered if it could substitute for the hot glue gun when making the Robocat Dog Distractor, especially if its wheels need repositioning. Keep in mind that I don’t always follow directions when I cook, either. Certainly, some experimentation would be fun and that’s really the whole point.

No matter how you decide to proceed, some supervision is essential and the authors emphasise the requirement for oversight. These are great collaborative experiments that provide depth to the story while stimulating a child’s natural inquisitiveness and problem-solving development. Even without making the gadgets, the unfolding mystery and the background science as explained by Nick and Tesla will keep your child entertained. The second book in this series, Nick and Tesla’s Robot Army Rampage, is available, too!

Astronaut in the Jungle: “The Coroner’s Lunch” by Colin Cotterill


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TheCoronersLunchThe Coroner’s Lunch unfolds in 1976, in the city of Vientiane on the Mekhong River in Laos, in the early days of its new incarnation as the People’s Democratic Republic. Most of the city’s professionals absconded before the communist faction’s arrival so Paris-trained Dr. Siri Paiboun, after years of hard living in the jungle, is rudely torn from plans of his imagined retirement to start a new career as the chief police coroner. Though a  member of the Communist Party for 46 years, Siri is not a good advertisement for its policies, having joined only to keep up with the love of his life. The 72-yr-old doctor, whose white hair contrasts sharply with his vivid green eyes, is less than eager to learn a new specialty; he is even less eager than that to appear weekly before a newly-minted judge for a “shared burden tutorial” that amounts to little more than endless naïve criticism of his work.

After seventy-two years, he’d seen so many hardships that he’d reached the calmness of an astronaut bobbing about in space.

Most of the interactions between Siri and the local officials made me laugh (unexpected and very welcome). The threat of his removal to a re-education camp in the North is always in the air but little chance it will be carried out—they need him for plans of their own. Unfortunately for them, Siri, despite having to learn his job from charred 1940s French textbooks propped like cookbooks next to his morgue table, turns out to be a careful, diligent coroner. He also has a mystical skill that proves extremely useful: He can mentally reconstruct and converse with the dead that come across his table. They arrive in short visits, usually in Siri’s dreams, to provide him with insights into their own deaths.

When Senior Comrade Kham’s wife arrives at the morgue as Siri’s next case and more strange deaths follow, he doesn’t come to the same conclusions the Senior Comrade insists upon. The difference of opinion awakens Siri’s memory of his favorite detective, Inspector Maigret, and he takes delight in channeling Maigret’s investigative example to get at the truth. Even navigating the indignities of everyday life while taking care to stay on the right side of the Politburo, Siri notices the small joys in his life. The Coroner’s Lunch is an immensely refreshing and enjoyable read.

Check out Colin Cotterill‘s website for more information about the author and his varied interests, this series featuring Dr. Siri Paiboun, and a new series set in Thailand.


At Home With the Greys: “Terra” by Mitch Benn


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TerraTo herald the release of Terra, the debut novel from comedian and musician Mitch Benn, a star-studded trailer featured well-known writers and actors, including Neil Gaiman and Rob Llwellyn, taking turns reading successive lines from the first chapter (though I would have dearly loved to hear any of them pronounce the names “Lbbp” or “ Vstj”, which come later). It was any author’s dream-endorsement and Terra, about a human girl growing up on an alien planet, lives up to its promise. In a natural extension of his talents, Mitch Benn turns the concept of alien invasion around with an instinctual, though ill-advised, act of kindness. A scientist named Lbbp from a planet named Fnrr has been visiting Earth (Rrth) unobserved for many years, collecting plants and puzzling over the behavior of resident wildlife. On this visit, however, his focus wanders:

 Since there aren’t many roads on Fnrr (not since they invented gravity bubbles) and since Lbbp tried not to pay much attention to the Ymns [humans] or their little land vehicles (it just got him tense and angry, and that didn’t help him work) he didn’t really know what roads were or how to recognise them. If he had, he might not have been content to let his little spaceship hover just a few metres above the surface of one.

At the same time, the equally distracted Bradburys (Mr. and Mrs. and their still unnamed infant daughter) are carrying on with their usual arguments as their car  approaches Lbbp’s position and they are naturally startled (understatement) when he accidentally switches off the invisibility shield. The Bradburys careen off the road and run away screaming, leaving their infant daughter in her car seat. Afraid the child has been left alone, Lbbp reluctantly does the ‘human’ thing and takes her with him back to his home on Mlml, an island on the planet Fnrr. His decision changes both their lives on a personal level but has even more far-reaching effects as Mlml is targeted for war.

 Behind the humor in Terra is a contemplation of the concept of home and of what it means to be ‘alien’. The discovery that we all have something to offer makes this novel a truly enjoyable vehicle for a gentle lesson in the advantages of keeping an open mind. Benn’s use of an ‘alien’ lens also allows him to call attention to our inadequate stewardship of this planet—however, if a scientist referencing Star Trek is any indication, the author’s outlook for us all is distinctly positive.

 Though Terra is not marketed as a children’s book, its humorous observations and descriptions of daily life on Fnrr make it an excellent read-aloud choice that will make both parent and child happy (just take a moment or two to decide how you want to pronounce the vowel-shy Fnrrian names).

See Mitch Benn’s website for more information about his many creative projects, most recently a song he wrote for a live reading of Neil Gaiman’s Fortunately the Milk.

“Birthday Bunny” to “Battle Bunny”: Making a Book Your Own


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BattleBunnyChildren are naturally inclined to take over their world and generally have no respect for the property that gets in their way. My eldest daughter nommed huge chunks from the pages of several of my favorite books; in her sister’s tiny fists, walls and leather upholstery became canvases and writing paper. While visiting my mother recently, I stumbled across the snarky gem on the right, the frontispiece of a book of nursery rhymes, amended by one of my sisters (I’m sure). While children do gain more control over their impulses, I think there is a fearlessness in these creative bursts that can be nurtured as the child matures. Two authors, Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett, and illustrator Matthew Myers, have collaborated on a wonderful exercise in sanctioned subversion by resolving a familiar childhood conundrum. Their premise: a well-meaning grandmother gives a candy-sweet book, an ‘original’ story called Birthday Bunny, to her grandson,

"Hark! A spider" "I'm so scard"

“Hark! A spider” “I’m so scard”

Alex. It is about a rabbit whose friends seem to forget his birthday but it is far removed from Alex’s taste. Instead of tossing it aside, however, Alex takes up his pen and ‘enhances’ the book to better suit his temperament. After scratching out text and scribbling over the pictures, the result is Battle Bunny, an action-packed tale of a bunny’s grandiose plan to take over the world. Alex’s text amendments and tweaked illustrations are artfully added so that the original story can still be read. Battle Bunny serves as a prompt for creative possibility—a possibility the authors have made available to everyone by providing a downloadable version of Birthday Bunny on their website. Now every kid can explore their inner Alex and change the story to reflect their current interests.

That this praise comes from a girl whose default setting is to wince at the sight of trees, purses, and headboards made of spine-cracked books should not be overlooked. But. I absolutely love the idea of building a new story on the framework of the old one. Sometimes, a limitation can be a springboard to invention—seeing the ‘original’ story and having full permission to (constructively) have at it can open the door for a child to fully imagine what else the story could be. I wonder what my sister might have created had she continued her childhood adventure in literary enhancement.

Read more about the process behind the book’s creation here.


Bring Out Your Dead: Three Forensical Series to Add to Your Shelves


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Mysteries have always appealed to me; while still a high school student, I was intrigued enough by the existence of real-life murder cases to pluck The Scalpel of Scotland Yard: The Life of Sir Bernard Spilsbury by Douglas G. Browne and E.V. Tullett Scalpelfrom my father’s shelves. Published in 1952, long before the advent of the CSIs, it was my first introduction to the role of forensics in real criminal cases. I was fascinated by the scope of Sir Bernard’s knowledge and, for a while, even thought I’d like to be a pathologist or a forensic anthropologist. Instead, it’s become my virtual career, pursued vicariously through a variety of wonderful fictional characters who devote themselves to solving crimes by looking at the victims. Three series, by authors Elly Griffiths, Ariana Franklin, and Simon Beckett, supply my forensics fix with particularly enjoyable characters.

CrossingPlaces Elly Griffith’s The Crossing Places is the first in her series about Dr. Ruth Galloway, a lecturer in forensic anthropology at the fictional University of North Norfolk, located near the real market town of King’s Lynn on the east coast of England. Ruth doesn’t spend a lot of time in the lab; she is happiest getting her hands dirty in the field and finds solace walking through the potentially treacherous marshlands surrounding her isolated coastal home. On a walk after a storm, she discovers a child’s skeleton newly exposed on the shoreline, near the site of a previously discovered henge. DCI Nelson is drawn immediately to the scene: He has been haunted by the unsolved disappearance of one child and is soon investigating the disappearance of another. Fearing the worst, Nelson turns to Ruth’s intelligence and methodology to help decipher some crucial evidence that connects this modern murderer to long-forgotten rituals. Archeological investigations, past and present, bring some of the brutal history of this part of England to life and introduce the wide range of personalities in Ruth’s circle of friends. The expertise Ruth demonstrates in her academic pursuits does not, however, extend into her private life where she is, thankfully and sometimes amusingly, not a superwoman.

For more information about her books, archeology, and Norfolk please visit Elly Griffith’s official website.

Missing children are also the catalyst for The Mistress of Art and Death by Ariana MistressArtDeathFranklin (the pen name of Diana Norman), the first in her four-book series set in 12th century Cambridge, England and featuring the strangest anomaly for that superstitious time: a woman doctor. Cambridge’s children are being murdered and their deaths blamed on its population of Jews; in Henry II’s pragmatic view, their expulsion from the community would presage severe economic hardship for the area. Unfortunately, his ability to protect them has been severely compromised by that little misunderstanding over Thomas à Becket. The real murderer must be brought to justice—yesterday—but no one in England, including Henry II, is expecting their candidate for savior will be a small, “dowdy” Italian doctor named Adelia Aguilar. The perceived arrogance of her medical knowledge, her disinterest in traditional “female adornment,” and her reliance on science over religion make her a dangerous choice to solve a series of murders of children in medieval Cambridge. She is caught in one of Henry II’s political whirlwinds but also by her need to find the truth. Trained at the Medical School of Salerno, where her studies were encouraged and allowed the freedom to flourish, Adelia is a self-described “doctor of the dead.” Ordered to Cambridge by the King of Sicily to aid Henry II’s efforts to save England’s Jewish community, Adelia is accompanied by Simon of Naples, the King’s agent, and her Arab servant, Mansur. Their long journey to Cambridge brings Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury 0670021229Tales to mind, complete with knights and prioress and a sometimes humorous societal cross-section of rag-tag petitioners. Along the rough journey, Adelia is presented with a surprising emergency that will establish her medical skill and provide, with the help of her grateful patient, a way to conceal both her talent and real mission from the populace, who really wouldn’t understand.

[A non-forensical  aside: If you like intrigue in a historical setting, Diana Norman has written several other books under that name as well as a few others as Ariana Franklin that are not part of the Adelia Aguilar series. LibraryThing provides the most comprehensive list of her work as well as links to biographical information. Also, C.J. md0670032034Sansom writes a wonderfully descriptive series whose first book, Dissolution, set in the paranoid atmosphere of Cromwell’s England in 1537, introduces Matthew Shardlake, the most anomalous of anomalies, an honorable lawyer. Read more about this series and his other historical novels on his official website.]

The dead “speak” in most novels that feature experts in the forensic arts but in nowhere near the detail Simon Beckett employs in his modern series featuring Dr. David Hunter, a brilliant forensic anthropologist who, after a personal tragedy, abandons an enviable career to establish himself as a GP in the medical practice of a rural Norfolk village. The Chemistry of ChemistryofDeathDeath is the first book of the series and its first sentence “The human body starts to decompose four minutes after death” barely gives the reader time to prepare for the vividly precise description of decay that follows. When the body of a former patient is discovered, Dr. Hunter is brought briefly to the scene. Despite his best effort to stick to the parameters of his adopted specialty, his forensic instincts kick in as the indicators and evidence of what really happened shine at him like neon but are overlooked by the swarming plod. English village mysteries in the hands of Agatha Christie and M.C. Beaton have made imaginative use of the traditional undercurrents in seemingly quiet, seemingly predictable village life but Simon Beckett takes the genre to a darker place. The suspense builds among the villagers as more women disappear with no one seeing or hearing anything, an effective device reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.  When the bodies are md3303950442found (here and throughout the series), Dr. Hunter’s professional observations are scientifically accurate and respectful of a natural process, no matter how unnaturally it got started. This series may not be not for the easily queasy, but Dr, Hunter’s science-based insights into criminal behavior make him a welcome addition to my virtual course in the forensic arts.  Read more about this series, including first chapters, at Simon Beckett’s official website.