Two new reviews in Shelf Awareness, 6/38/2011: Revenger and The Wild Life of Our Bodies

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John Shakespeare, brother of Will, former Intelligencer for Walsingham, finds himself drafted back into the spy business in this sequel to Martyr. Approached first by the malevolent McGunn, agent of Lord Essex, John is determined to refuse until contacted by Secretary Robert Cecil, who asks him to take Essex’s commission and become a double agent. Reluctantly, John agrees, his skills creaky after five years’ absence from the spy game.There are many plotlines in this novel, each essential and intriguing and connected in some way, and Clements has succeeded in resolving them with style and a sure touch. There’s the Catholic arc, as important politically as personally since John’s wife, Catherine, adheres to the old religion, the danger of which drives a wedge between them; there’s the Lost Colony of Roanoke; there’s the question of Essex poisoning his wife to marry Arabella Stuart, the lady next in line of succession; there’s the hold that McGunn has over Essex.

Clements gives his readers ground-level experience of Elizabethan England–detailed, fascinating and often appalling–as these various storylines arc towards their conclusions. In the process, the reader meets some extraordinary characters: loyal and resourceful Boltfoot Cooper, John’s man; priest-hunter Richard Topcliffe, who’d dance a jig at the idea of feeding the whole Shakespeare clan to dogs–if he weren’t such a Puritan; Joshua Peace, Searcher of the Dead (think Tudor M.E.), calm among his bodies. This work is the second in the John Shakespeare, Intelligencer series, and is reminiscent of C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series–not quite as grim, but just as superbly entertaining. —Judith Hawkins-Tillirson, proprietress, Wyrdhoard books, and blogger at Still Working for Books

Discover: A delicious tangle of Tudor politics, intrigue and murder.

Bantam Books, $25 hardcover, 9780385342841





Biologist Dunn has produced a fascinating, wide-ranging, frightening and ultimately hopeful book about our human species. Dunn has drawn precise connections between the world 4.4 million years ago, the many similarities we share with other species evolving along with us and the overwhelming onslaught of contemporary diseases of the body and mind.Agriculture, he suggests, was “a desperate act of post-apocalyptic sustainment” and not the continual improvement as we usually view it. The move from individual hunting/gathering to intensive dedicated farming, over time reduced our variety of foodstuffs to the current alarming 75% deriving from just six plants and one animal. Potato famine, anyone?

More puzzle pieces: as humans have “improved” health, we have opened the door to an array of devastating illnesses. Indoor plumbing removes our intestinal worms, and the ancient balance between whipworm and gut immune response flounders, producing Crohn’s (first diagnosed in the 1930s). Leaf-cutter ants, diabetes, sickle-cell anemia, snakes, predators, hairlessness, xenophobia–all these and more are pieces of Dunn’s argument.

Dickson Despommier’s graduate students, spurred to action by the thought of a hungry, hot, arid, treeless Earth of 2050, began intense research into the requirements of urban farming and proposed dedicated 30-story buildings integrating organic agriculture and wildlife into city life. They found that just 150 such “farms” could sustain New York City, saving many millions of dollars in energy costs as well. If humanity is to have a future that is living and not just surviving, surely it is to be found in the rewilding of our cities, our lives and, yes, our guts. An excellent book and unexpectedly wry! —Judith Hawkins-Tillirson, proprietress, Wyrdhoard Books, and blogger at Still Working for Books

Discover: Among many other fascinating things in this fascinating book, how leaf-cutter ants can save the world and restore life worth living to our species.

Harper, $26.99 hardcover, 9780061806483

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