Books of a Feather: 07/18/18
Books of a Feather by Kate Carlisle is the tenth of the Bibliophile mysteries. The focus this time is the work of John James Audubon, or more precisely, people who worked under him. There are two books in play, a folio of Birds of America: Audubon's famous life sized watercolors that were painted from 1820-1824 around the United States and then engraved and printed in England, a smaller collection sketches, also by Audubon, but of a lesser calibre. At the gala unveiling of the restored Audubon masterpiece, the man who hired Brooklyn to restore the book of sketches is found dead.
In the middle of all of this are two brothers who her boyfriend claims as friends. They are British-Chinese but one of them goes by his Chinese name and the other goes by the translation of his name, Crane. These two brothers are the weakest link in the book. Although one brother is now living full time in China and the other remains in Britain, they were both raised and educated in Britain, meaning their mastery of English should be equal and on a par with Stone.
Crane's decision to go by the translation of his name seems off to me. Sure, he's living in Britain and his translated name sounds like a common English surname but it still strikes me as a decision to link him to the bird theme of the book and to open him up to numerous awkward introductions where people call him Mr. Crane.
Outside of fiction where Crane's approach happens all the time, I've never met a person who will go with the translation of their name as their English language name. Instead, they either pick something that sounds enough like their actual name but is easier to spell and say in English. Or they go with the Pinyin transliteration of their name. So for Crane, 鹤, he'd be something like Hugh, or he'd be Hè (using Mandarin as an example).
The fact that he has a bird name (as do his other siblings) could have been better worked into the plot. Brooklyn lives and works in San Francisco. Finding someone who could read Chinese wouldn't be that difficult. Or she could rely on Google translate which is decent in a pinch.
The other weakness of this book is the way Audubon is presented. He is a lot more famous now than he was when his Birds of America was printed. The entire mystery hinges on assistants Audubon might have had. Yes — big named artists did have apprentices who would learn how to paint in their masters' style, thus allowing a single artist to take on loads of commissions that a single artist would never be able finish. At the time that Audubon's book was first finding a printer and was first being serialized, there is no evidence that he was that level of artist. He is said to have had a young assistant while he was out doing the initial sketches but that was in the Ohio Valley and southwards, not in England.
One last complaint, though this is with the book design itself. The bird on the cover is a blue jay. We don't have them in California yet the book is set in California. A California scrub jay or a Stellar's jay would have been more appropriate.