29 May, 2011

Ruso and the Root of All Evils, by RS Downie. Book review

Penguin 2010, ISBN 978-0-141-03692-2. 435 pages. Also published as Persona Non Grata, and the author’s name sometimes appears as Ruth Downie. Try not to get confused.

Third in the Ruso series of historical mysteries, Ruso and the Root of All Evils is set in the south of Roman Gaul (the area around modern Nimes) in the early second century AD. All the main characters are fictional.

When Gaius Petrieus Ruso, a surgeon serving with the Roman Army in Britain, receives an urgent summons home from his brother in southern Gaul, he guesses that the family’s long-standing debt problems have hit a new crisis. On arrival, things turn out to be even worse than he thought. The letter was a forgery, and Ruso’s absence on active service was the only thing stopping Severus, the principal creditor (who, in a further complication, is married to Ruso’s ex-wife), from taking out a seizure order on the family home. Now that Ruso is back, the repellent Severus can go ahead and ruin the family – until he is mysteriously poisoned in Ruso’s study. Not only is Ruso now the chief suspect, as he tries to find the real culprit he discovers that the poisoning is only part of a murky web of fraud, deliberate shipwreck and murder – and Ruso may be its next victim.

Ruso and the Root of All Evils is very much in the same vein as its two predecessors, Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls and Ruso and the Demented Doctor, an enjoyable lighthearted mystery told with humour and wit. As with the previous two, the mystery is fairly slight and is constantly upstaged by Ruso’s complicated personal life. Ruso’s chaotic family have been a major off-stage presence in his life while he was stationed in Britannia in the first two books, and in this third instalment the reader gets to meet them at first-hand. Arria, Ruso’s spendthrift stepmother, doesn’t grasp – or has chosen not to grasp – that there never was any money for retail therapy and home makeovers, and is still trying to persuade Ruso that the house absolutely must have a new outdoor dining room. Marcia and Flora, Ruso’s two younger half-sisters, are scatty teenagers with a penchant for hanging round gladiators. Lucius, Ruso’s younger brother, is trying desperately to keep the farm afloat on a sea of debt, and his kind wife Cassiana is grieving for her brother Justinus (lost at sea a few months earlier in suspicious circumstances) and just about keeping up with her ever-expanding brood of children. They have no idea what to make of Ruso’s girlfriend Tilla, the beautiful British girl he rescued from slavery (see Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls), which is entirely Ruso’s own fault since he didn’t bother to tell his family anything about Tilla’s existence.

On top of this, Ruso’s elegant ex-wife Claudia is now the widow of the repulsive Severus, and as well as being another suspect she is wondering whether trying to get Ruso back might be a better bet after all – except that Ruso’s stepmother is attempting to get him to marry the rich and attractive businesswoman next door. It’s all reminiscent of a PG Wodehouse farce, except that the crime is murder and if Ruso doesn’t solve it his absurd, helpless, harmless family will all find themselves destitute and Ruso himself may end up being executed for murder. The seriousness of the situation makes a sharp, and at times jarring, contrast with the family comedy.

Tilla is even more of an enigma in this third novel than in the previous two, especially as she is out of place in this strange foreign culture and Arria keeps trying to treat her as a servant. She develops an interest in a strange new religion called Christianity – her first Christian prayer is priceless, not to be missed – much to Ruso’s alarm as he disapproves of Christians. Not surprisingly, her relationship with Ruso comes under strain (in fact, the more I see of Ruso, who can be astonishingly obtuse for an intelligent and decent man, the less surprised I am that his previous marriage ended in an exasperated divorce). The relationship between Tilla and Ruso reaches a significant milestone in this book, and it will be interesting to see how that works out in Book 4.

The mystery, or rather two linked mysteries, is intriguing. One is the poisoning of Severus, investigated by Ruso, the other is the death of Cassiana’s brother Justinus in a rigged shipwreck, investigated by Tilla. At first appearing completely separate, the two sub-plots jog along independently for most of the book, and then converge in a dizzying rush of events in the last few chapters. The resolution happens so suddenly that I got lost and had to re-read a couple of chapters, and I’m still not entirely sure I understand the villain’s motive. Not that this matters, because the mystery is secondary to the charm of the book, which comes from the humour, the characterisation, and Ruso’s attempts to make sense of an illogical world.

Entertaining blend of historical mystery and lighthearted comedy, set in early second-century Roman Gaul.

25 May, 2011

May recipe: Stir-fried pork with asparagus and bean sprouts

The succulent green spears of asparagus are always welcome, appearing in May and June to herald the beginning of the summer vegetable season. Asparagus is usually cooked by boiling for a few minutes or steaming. You can also cook it in a stir fry, especially if using fairly young shoots.

Bean sprouts work well in stir fries, and are especially useful in spring when many vegetables are not yet in season. You can grow your own in a jam jar in a warm place, like the airing cupboard. They take about a week, and a tablespoon of seeds will produce about 4 oz of bean sprouts. If you haven’t planned that far in advance (!), some shops sell bean sprouts in packets, or you could use mushrooms instead.

Stir-fried pork with asparagus and bean sprouts

Serves 2

7 oz (approx 200 g) boneless pork steak
7 oz (approx 200 g) asparagus
Half a red pepper
Half a small onion
4 oz (approx 100 g) bean sprouts*
1 piece root ginger, approx 1” cube (approx 2.5 cm cube)
1 large clove garlic
2 Tblsp (2 x 15 ml spoon) light soy sauce
1 Tblsp (1 x 15 ml spoon) dry sherry or rice wine

Cut the pork into thin slices.

Wash and trim the asparagus, and cut into sections about 2” (about 5 cm) long. Halve the stalk sections lengthwise, leave the tip sections whole.

Remove the seeds from the red pepper and cut into strips. Wash the bean sprouts.

Peel and chop the onion. Peel the root ginger and shred into fine strips. Peel the garlic

Heat approx 1 Tblsp cooking oil in a wok or large frying pan.

Add the pork strips and stir-fry over a medium heat for approx 1 minute.

Add the chopped onion, ginger and asparagus stalks and stir-fry another minute.

Add the asparagus tips and chopped pepper. Crush the garlic and stir in. Stir-fry another 1-2 minutes until the meat is cooked and the vegetables soft and starting to colour.

Add the bean sprouts and stir-fry for about half a minute. Stir in the soy sauce and sherry and mix well.

Serve immediately with rice or noodles.

*If you can’t get or don’t like bean sprouts, you can substitute mushrooms. Peel and slice the mushrooms and add them along with the red pepper.

12 May, 2011

Moon In Leo, by Kathleen Herbert. Book review

Trifolium Books, 2011. ISBN 978-0-9568104-0-3. 402 pages.

Moon In Leo is set in Furness in northern England in 1678, against the background of the Popish Plot. Historical figures including the Earl of Shaftesbury, Earl of Rochester and Titus Oates play important off-stage roles, and others such as the Quaker Margaret Fox appear as minor characters. All the main characters are fictional.

Highly intelligent and educated by her father as a scholar in alchemy, Rosamund Halistan has expected that she and her beloved twin brother Stephen will carry on their father’s work together, unaffected by the political, social and economic troubles brewing in Restoration England. When an attempt is made on Stephen’s life, Rosamund realises that political turmoil is not some distant irrelevance but a real threat to her and her family. Trying to protect her brother and then in danger of her own life, Rosamund comes into contact with two contrasting men, the gentlemanly scholar and fellow-alchemist Simon Challis, and the notorious rake Henry Ravensworth. Both want to marry her, but Rosamund fears that one or both is an enemy with designs on her brother’s life and her inheritance. As treason and plot turn murderous, Rosamund must decide who – if anyone – she can trust.

Moon In Leo is set almost exclusively in the small area of the Furness peninsula in what is now south Cumbria (then Lancashire-over-sands), south of the main Lake District mountains and jutting out into the vast tidal flats of Morecambe Bay between the estuaries of the Leven and Duddon rivers (see map link here). So powerful is the sense of place in the writing that not only can every step of the action be precisely located, the landscape itself almost seems to be an actor in the drama, from the brooding hills around dark Frith Hall to the sunny farmland at Scales and the wide skies and mercurial tides of the Cartmel sands. (Lest anyone think that the quicksands and rip-tides are a melodramatic invention, Morecambe Bay can and does claim lives even today). Readers who know the area will recognise many of the locations, and readers who don’t will find themselves transported there by the writing. I’m reasonably familiar with the Coniston fells, less so with the plains and the coast, and I had great fun tracing the routes and places on a large-scale topographical map.

Rosamund Halistan is the central character, and most of the novel is told in third person from Rosamund’s viewpoint. So it is through Rosamund’s eyes that the reader sees most of the world, and forms a first impression of most of the other characters. Nothing is as it seems, however, and Rosamund often finds herself having to revise her original assessments – sometimes drastically so – as she learns more about the other people and the complicated relationships between them. Everyone is an individual with their own foibles and motivations, past history, values, hopes and desires. As the story unfolds, hidden connections are revealed, and Rosamund comes to realise that many people are far more complex than she originally assumed. For all her intelligence and learning, Rosamund has been educated for all her 18 years in an academic ivory tower, leaving her ill-equipped to navigate the world outside, especially when she comes into contact with the murky world of politics and plot. Warm-hearted and deeply loyal to her family and the philosophy in which she was raised, she is inclined to leap to conclusions that often turn out to be unfounded and lead her into trouble. Her cleverness and courage go a long way towards extricating her from problems, though she also has to rely on help from other, often unexpected, quarters. Rosamund’s alchemical philosophy is all about the search for truth and perfection, and this is neatly paralleled by her search for the truth about the events and people in her life.

As Rosamund, her father and Simon Challis are all practitioners of the occult, supernatural elements such as demons, visions, out-of-body travel through time and space, and use of a crystal ball to see and control distant events play a large part in the novel, almost tipping into historical fantasy. I say ‘almost’, because although these incidents are all too real to Rosamund and are central to her beliefs and actions, not all the characters believe in the occult and it’s largely left up to the reader to decide which beliefs to share. As one of the characters wryly observes, “He took a sigil [magical symbol used to conjure demons] to Chapel Island, but he also took a loaded gun.” Or “... they had a stroke of luck, as Harry would have put it. Rosamund would have said that the Power guiding the universe was looking kindly on their intentions.” Conjuring tricks and charlatanry feature alongside the alchemy and occult practices, and are just as readily accepted as real by some of the characters. Indeed, one of the most magical episodes in the novel is explicitly shown as an elaborate trick performed with benign intent and happy outcome. I wonder if there is a subtle point there about the nature of magic and belief.

The range of beliefs and cultures in the novel is a particularly attractive feature. As well as alchemy and black magic, there are roles for Puritans, Catholics, gypsies, rational materialism bordering on atheism, and a mother-goddess fertility cult closely tied to the traditional rhythms of the farming year. There is a range of political ideas as well, with Royalist versus Parliamentary rivalries left over from the English Civil War only a generation before, disputes over the royal succession, factions disaffected at corruption in government and licentiousness at court, and the egalitarian ideas of the Society of Friends*. The characters think and believe as well as feel, and there is a real sense of turmoil and political upheaval as competing ideas clash.

A list of characters at the front of the book is very helpful for keeping everyone straight, especially in the early chapters as different groups of people are introduced in quick succession. A hand-drawn map at the front is also useful for following the characters’ movements (and the 1:25,000 topographical map in the link above provides even more detail).

Compelling tale of a young woman’s search for truth and love, set in the romantic landscape of Furness in turbulent post-Restoration England.

*Also known as Quakers