Tag Archives: literature

Forensic Files Meets the Crusades

booksIt’s been awhile since I’ve reviewed anything. To be honest,  I haven’t read anything lately worth recommending. I know I’ve read plenty of good books in the past, so instead of searching a bookstore or the library looking for a noteworthy book, I revisited my bookshelf where I found a few I’d forgotten about.

I wondered why I hadn’t recommended The Mistress of the Art of Death, by Ariana Franklin, but after re-reading a few parts I remember why this one  doesn’t get brought up in a lot of my reading circles. The book can be difficult to read due to content. It’s chilling and morbid and the author goes into great detail when describing the murders and autopsies of children, so it isn’t one I would recommend to my grandma or friends with kids. If you can’t handle the suffering of children (in intense prosaic detail no less), you won’t make it past page two. For those of you who can look past this and appreciate a good murder mystery with a complex plot and intriguing characters, add this to your to-read list.

The story is about Adelia, a woman of modern science, who is summoned by the king to Cambridge, England to investigate a series of murders in order to prove the innocence of the Jewish population. She is forced to investigate undercover, because women are not allowed to practice medicine. If she is caught, she could be accused of witchcraft. With the help of her colleagues, and using the evidence she uncovers from the bodies of the slain children, she follows a long list of suspects that keeps her (and the reader) guessing until the very end.

Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres, and I love shows like Unsolved Mysteries and Cold Case Files, so for me, it was a treat getting to read something that reminded me of a medieval CSI.  I’m not a historian by any means; there are more knowledgeable reviewers who point out historical inaccuracies or character traits that they felt were too modern. Since I’m not a historian I will just give my perspective as a reader. I’m not sure how accurate the medical facts are, or if they are too modern, but I’m sure any inaccuracies are for the sake of the story and plot. I also thought the modern attitude of the main character, Adelia, was justified by the fact that she was raised by forward-thinking doctors. Adelia has been criticized as being too heartless and unfeeling to be convincing, but I think she comes off very natural for a woman who has spent her life studying death and medicine. She is not innately uncaring as she studies the bodies of the dead, but focused and methodical so she can look for important clues without being hindered or blinded by emotion. She is a character who is trained to block emotions in order to do her job.

Ariana Franklin does a wonderful job portraying the people and issues of that time, especially showing the clash of church law and science. Every step closer the character gets to finding the killer results in another step back as she is restricted by the church and social values. It’s equally frustrating for the reader as it is for the characters.

Ariana Franklin is a master of suspense. It’s never obvious who the killer is. The author keeps you guessing, even suspecting perfectly innocent characters. All the necessary factors of suspense are there: the stakes keep getting higher, the killer is always a step ahead, time is against them, not to mention a little romantic suspense–though this subplot was a big complaint of many readers. I actually enjoyed it for the most part. I think it is necessary to show that Adelia can feel just like anyone else. Just because she is practiced at pushing down her feelings doesn’t mean she doesn’t have any. If anything, the romance should have satisfied those who criticized the character for being too cold.  It also presents a realistic conflict for a woman of Adelia’s profession. If she  chooses to marry him she cannot be a doctor.

I would be hard pressed to find a  book more suspenseful and gripping. I was on the edge of my seat, turning the pages so fast, I sanded off the ends of my fingers. But to be honest, the pay off wasn’t great. For me, the end was a bit of a let down. I won’t give it away, but let’s just say that this long, drawn out cat and mouse chase that has been going on since the crusades wraps up really fast. Not only that, but the murderer doesn’t get a punishment equivalent to his crimes. The story also drags on too long after the murderer is found, but in the author’s defense, there were a lot of loose thread hanging.

For those of you who are worried this will be a heavy read, it isn’t as  bad as it sounds. The pace is good, and for being a morbid and depressing book, believe it or not, there is a lot of humor to lighten the tone.

I really felt like this book worked as a stand alone, but for those of you who enjoy this book, it is part of a series. I haven’t read any of the others, but if they are as good as the first, I might have to give them a try.

Happy Reading

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Writing, Housecleaning, and Life

As a writer, I’m always looking for a book to inspire and motivate me. Nancy Peacock’s third novel, A Broom of One’s Own makes me want to write . . . and clean my house. It is the unfiltered account of the life of a published author who struggles to find balance between life and work and making them coincide despite society’s (and her own) misconceptions about what it means to be a writer. Nancy Peacock knocks the dust off of the notion that the life of a published author is always glamorous like J.K. Rowling or Steven King. Although she is published, she continues to work while she writes. Currently she teaches writing, but her novel consist of reflections of when she was a housecleaner.

What makes this novel so enjoyable is the author’s observations. Her observations are honest and witty, and often poignant. Cleaning houses is not something she enjoyed and certainly not usually considered an interesting topic to write about, but I was gripped by this novel from the first page by her wisdom and the nuances of her descriptions. She didn’t just describe a house, she described the feel of it, the personality of the rooms and the inhabitants. For instance, she describes a house where a woman collects bears. She doesn’t simply make a list of all the bears she has, but focuses on one in particular. She could have just said it had burgandy fur and gold button eyes, but she mentions how she believes they were put on him by mistake in the factory, and how she gave him a hug when he fell off the bench when she was vacumming because she “felt he needed one.” She doesn’t just notice cobwebs that need dusting or toilets that need scrubbing. She scrutinizes behaviors, patterns, feelings, and characteristics of the people around her.

Whether a writer or a housecleaner, no matter what you do for a living, you can appreciate A Broom of One’s Own. I enjoyed reading it so much, I’ve already read it twice. I plan to put it back on the shelf, let it get dusty (as I am not as diligent a cleaner as Nancy), knock the dust off and read it again. Nancy has alot to say about writing, housecleaning, and life. She proves, you can be a writer, no matter how you make your living.

Happy Reading

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A Worthy Predecessor

Creating141694600 modern versions of classic stories seems to be the latest literary fad, though these recreations usually replace several characters with sea monsters, zombies, or vampires. Character foibles such as pride and prejudice seem like harmless vices compared to the doom of a zombie apocalypse. When I heard there was a modern version of  Jane Eyre,  sin werewolves and parody, I rushed to the library to reserve my copy. I was given only two weeks to read it since it was on a wait list. I was worried that two weeks would not be enough time to get through all 480 pages, but that turned out not to be a problem as I couldn’t put it down. I not only found time to read it, I made time. I read it before bed, during lunch, during work (when I should have been working).

Margot Livesey’s writing is witty and inspirational. Her word choice is perfect, barely an unnecessary word or sentence. She has the gift of suspense, pacing, and sentence flow that pulls the reader gently through the story like a boat effortlessly floating on a river. I’ve never read such vivid imagery. The descriptions are mesmerizing. Wherever Gemma travels you feel as though you could be there, especially when she describes the sea.

The Flight of Gemma Hardy  can be appreciated even without reading  Jane Eyre as it stands alone without the other book’s context. The parts where the author changed the story do not harm the plot or disgrace the original. For instance, there was no mad woman in the attic. If anything the changes prevent the possible monotony and over predictability of always knowing what’s going to happen. For me, a lot of the enjoyment came from noting where the novel alluded to the original. There is enough old and new content to satisfy any reader.

The characters really come to life in this modern version of one of my favorite classics. The characters are sympathetic and almost seem real. Because it is set right before the feminist movement, you get a character that is refreshingly independent, yet not too far ahead of her time. The story is about Gemma Hardy, a girl who finds herself and learns forgiveness and understanding. Life is challenging for Gemma, which makes her identifiable; however, she is strong in the face of hardship.

Margot Livesey’s novel is a worthy predecessor; it does not fall short of the original. I’m not sure that anyone could have written it better. If you want a book that will be memorable, gripping, and absorbing, this is one that you will read and then cherish alongside the classics.

Happy Reading

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The Magic Of Money

Money is magical: it can be turned into anything you want. A dollar can become a tea or soda; yesterday I turned five dollars into cheesecake; and a while ago, I turned three dollars into a book. I found Breaking the Bank at the bargain section of the bookstore. Yona Zeldis McDonough’s best-selling novel is all about money. Going through a financially difficult time after losing my job, I thought the book’s protagonist might be relatable as she struggles as a single mom to stay afloat. The story is about Mia Saul, a woman whose life takes a downscale turn after her husband divorces her. Things start to look up, at least financially, when a magic ATM machine gives Mia free money. Yes, I’m aware of how corny that sounds, but the story is as modern as it is magical. The characters and their struggles are relatable, the pace is good, and the plot is intriguing enough to make you want to find out what happens next.

On the cover of the book it says, “There’s what money can buy and what it can’t.” I don’t think this is an appropriate theme for the novel. After all, it seemed like money solved a lot of her problems. She is able to buy her daughter Eden’s affection with clothes from Barney’s, become famous, start a college fund, get an awesome job, and move into a great house on East fifth St. Her problems weren’t caused by money. All of her mistakes she makes on her own: getting drunk a lot, sleeping with her ex-husband, constantly arriving late to pick her daughter up from school, not being able to remember the teacher’s name, cheating on her awesome boyfriend with a loser. Of course, her flaws make her more realistic and relatable, and she does have some redeeming qualities: she loves her daughter and gives a lot of the free money from the ATM to people who need it.

Over all, the story is original, frustrating, entertaining, gripping, relatable, and sometimes even corny. I like most of the characters, especially Fred’s tarot card reading mother. I even like the main character, despite the fact that most of her actions make me cringe, but I hate Patrick (the loser she cheats on Fred with). He is probably the worst character in the book. He just serves no purpose, and the story would be better without him.

I don’t think there is a lot money can’t buy. It certainly can buy happiness, as it did for Mia Saul, and only three dollars will buy you this book.

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Sure To Be A Favorite

The Heroines, by Eileen Favorite, has been sitting on my bookshelf for months. I finally blew the dust off and cracked the cover for the first time. I found this book at the dollar store for the price you would pay for a book at a garage sale. It was well worth every penny, all 107 of them. I’ve heard it said that you can’t judge a book by its cover, so I guess you also can’t judge one based on where you bought it.  I was surprised by how good it was. It quickly became one of my favorite books.

The story is about 13-year-old Penny Entwhistle, a rebellious, physically awkward girl who has a typical love/hate relationship with her mother who runs a bed and breakfast. Her teen angst seems typical at first, but her relationship issues with her mother stem from the attention her mother gives to the inn’s guest—Madame Bovary, Scarlet O’ Hara, and Catharine Earnshaw, to name a few. If the names sound familiar, it’s because they are all heroines from novels who arrive at the inn to take a break from their stories. They sip tea, whine, and swoon until they return to their own plots. For the most part, Penny stays out of their lives, because interfering with the heroines could change their stories, but when one heroine, Deirdre, lingers too long, Penny becomes jealous of the attention her mother gives her and decides to get rid of her. So Penny embarks on a journey almost as tragic as the heroines’ stories.

The novel has appearances from some of literature’s greatest leading ladies. There was one heroine in particular that I wished had stayed at the inn, Elizabeth Bennet from  Pride and Prejudice,  but there is a funny scene with Scarlett O’ Hara—probably one of the most dramatic heroines of all time.

For those of us who don’t like to wait for the story to get going, the plot starts promptly on page seven. The story cuts right to the chase—a chase in the woods that is. By page 72, we find our main character in a psych ward. There’s never a dull moment, and I was engrossed until the end. I actually don’t care for the end though. The author wraps everything up in an Epilogue, explaining what happened to every character and what happened years later. I hate that.

The storytelling is excellent and the plot itself is one of a kind. I really liked how the author pays attention to sensory detail, describing the smells and sounds and sights in every scene. And the characters and their interactions are so natural and realistic, especially Penny and her mother. I recommend this book, especially to those like me who took literature courses in college. It was pleasantly nostalgic revisiting heroines from great literary works and meeting new ones.

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Everyday Life After Death

It was the title that brought my attention to Anne Tyler’s latest book, The Beginner’s Goodbye. (Had the book not been front faced I wouldn’t have noticed the title because the author’s name was larger than the title on the book’s spine.) Intrigued, I cracked the cover and read the synopsis on the jacket flaps (having nothing to read on the back cover—not even a review, blurb, excerpt, or quote—just a large photo of the author). The synopsis is ordinary enough (middle-aged widow must come to terms with his wife’s death) until it mentions the deceased wife making ghostly appearances. And so, it earned a place in my cloth library sack.

The story is about Aaron Woolcott who becomes a widow when his wife dies in a freak accident. He works at a publishing company that publishes a beginner’s series (hence the book title); however, there is no beginner’s guide for this novice widower. Dorothy, his deceased wife, begins to make brief ghostly visits, seldom speaking or even interacting with him at all, but each visit helps him with his journey of loss and recovery and teaches him how his emotional withdrawal impacts his relationships.

The story hooks you from the Kafkaesque opening sentence, “The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted.” The supernatural element is not out of place in this otherwise realistic story about every day occurences following the death of a spouse. If anything, I believe Anne Tyler allows the reader to decide if Dorothy is a ghost or if Aaron imagines her to come to terms with his loss and find peace, especially since their last moment in life together was arguing about a box of Triscuits. Despite the heavy subject and ghostly encounters, the novel is still pleasantly light, witty, and realistic, not dark or over sentimental.

With only 198 pages, the novel has been criticized for being too short, but I don’t think it needs to be any longer than it is—especially given the lack of time people have these days to devote to reading. As a full-time worker and mother of a three-year-old with a list of chores to get done, I appreciated that I was able to quickly read this in my spare time. There is one drawback to the short length: I will miss the office staff of Woolcott Publishing. They all have quirks and unique personalities, like the characters of  The Office.  I couldn’t get enough of them. There was one blemish that I couldn’t quite get over. It was difficult to imagine Aaron middle aged. He seemed older, not because of his physical disability, but because of the way he acted. Other than that, I believe  The Beginner’s Goodbye  is a unique story, and all 198 pages are worth reading.

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