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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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The Power Of Optimism

You can’t pass a magazine stand or turn on the television without being bombarded with the latest and greatest longevity cure. The answer to a long and happy life can be found in  A Century of Wisdom.  In this book, Caroline Stoessinger conveys the life and lessons of Alice Hertz-Sommer, the world’s oldest living Holocaust survivor. Alice is 108 years old. One might wonder what wisdom is left in the mind of an old woman, but for Alice, older and wiser is trite, but true.

It seems that old age is a state of mind. Recently I’ve heard about a 105-year old woman who pumps iron at Anytime Fitness and a 100-year old who went hang gliding. Over a century old herself, Alice still plays the piano. To Alice, age is simply a state of mind. “My mind is young … what you see is only the outer face of a very old woman.”  In a century she has done a lot, though I don’t think she has gone hang gliding. She has seen the best and worst of humanity and unimaginable evil. At the end of it all, she still has a smile on her face.

She was ahead of her time when she was a young woman. Her attitude about parenting, dating, and sex were far ahead of her contemporaries, which makes her relevant to todays readers. She has something to offer readers of any age.

What’s her secret to longevity? “Experts” suggest the right workout, supplement, or super fruit will ensure a long life. Alice ate a simple diet every day until recently when she started eating meals on wheels, which probably has a lot of sodium, so I doubt that is her key. Her secret is music. Whenever something goes wrong, she plays Bach, and she is transcended above even the darkest clouds. Music is life-sustaining to her; it is her escape, yet she is not disconnected from the world. She constantly learns and experiences new things.

Her entire lifetime is condensed in a little over 200 pages, but every page is jam-packed with Alice’s wit, charm, and wisdom, not to mention  Stoessinger’s elegant and surprisingly upbeat writing style. Despite losing her family, possessions, and home during the Holocaust and her son decades later, her optimism, determination, and music allow her to overcome the worst circumstances and see the humanity in everyone–even those who imprisoned her at Theresienstadt. We could all use a daily dose of optimism and learn a lesson about life from Alice.

Happy Reading

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