Sunday, November 24, 2013

Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I'm a fan of the television show Bones. I'm also a fan of period novels, so Ariana Franklin's novel, Mistress of the Art of Death seems as if it was written for me. This is the story of a doctor from Sicily who specializes in analyzing corpses, just like Dr. Temperance Brennan on the TV show. Also like the show this doctor is a woman. Apparently, Sicily is progressive, for the twelfth century.

Dr. Adelia Aguilar comes to England at the request of the King of Sicily. It seems his friend, Henry II, the king of England has a problem. Someone has been killing children in the Cambridge region. The people of that area are blaming the Jews and Henry has been forced to put them in protective custody in one of his castles. Dr. Aguilar along with Simon, a Jew and Mansur, a Moor, eunuch, are tasked with finding the true killer so the Jews can go back to living their lives – or, more accurately, so Henry can go back to taxing the Jews.

The story takes place during a time in England when the church and the monarchy were in a power struggle. Here is an excerpt that reflects that struggle:

The king's voice rose in a wail that filled the gallery like a despairing trumpet. “Sweet God, forgive this unhappy and remorseful king. Thou knowest how Thomas a Becket did oppose me in all things so that in my rage I called for his death. Peccavi, peccavi, for certain knights did mistake my anger and ride to kill him, thinking to please me, for which abomination You in Your righteousness have turned Your face from me. I am a worm, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa. I crawl beneath Your anger while Archbishop Thomas is received into Your Glory and sitteth on the right hand of Your Gracious Son, Jesus Christ.”

Faces turned. Quills were poised in mid-account, abaci stilled.

Henry stopped beating his breast. He said conversationally, “And if I am not mistaken, the Lord will find him as big a pain in the arse as I did.”...

Franklin's characters are well developed and get involved in relationships that are messy and for that reason fascinating. I was hooked.

Mistress of the Art of Death, published in 2007, is the first book in a series and I plan to read more.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

The Kitchen HouseThe Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I glanced through a few of the reviews of The Kitchen House before writing my own. It seems the people who liked the book felt it was a well researched picture of the lives of slaves on a Virginia plantation in the late 18th century. The people who didn't like the book felt too many horrible things happened to the characters, making it a difficult read. It seems to me to achieve the former the latter has to be true. I put the book down a number of times when the story got too depressing, but in the end I was glad I read it.

The story is about an Irish immigrant who lost her parents and ended up as a indentured servant raised by slaves in the kitchen house of a plantation. It is also about the lives of those slaves. Although Lavinia is the principal character, the story often switches to the point of view of Belle, the illegitimate daughter of the Captain (the plantation owner).  Belle's mother was a slave the Captain found beautiful enough to purchase and “use.” Later on Belle was “used” by Marshall, the son of the Captain and Belle's own half brother.

Lavinia was one of the weakest main characters I've ever encountered. I know life was also difficult for the white women of that time, especially those who made poor choices with their men. But there are so many ways Lavinia could have acted to prevent some of the tragedies from occurring. When she did try she gave up too soon. Some of the other characters in the book referred to her as naïve, but her weakness went way beyond that. Most of her choices were painful to read.

What I liked best about the book was the Upstairs Downstairs picture of life on the plantation. I knew the slaves in the big house had it better than the slaves in the fields, but I'd never thought about the middle tier, in the kitchen house. And what was also interesting was the hardships endured by slaves who had fair owners. They had family and friends on other plantations, they were treated horribly by other whites in the community, and they were still property, even if their owners were good people.

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Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Light Between Oceans by M L Stedman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
There's a bit of Adam, Eve, and the apple tree in The Light Between Oceans. Early in the novel Isabel entices Tom to make a decision that affects the rest of their lives.

Throughout the book the decisions the female characters make seem to be responses to emotions while the male characters are more deliberate and thoughtful. I started thinking about this aspect of the novel when late in the story one of the minor male characters committed a betrayal and the blame was placed on his mother. The major characters are the same, specifically Isabel, whose reaction to the arrival of the baby as well as her anger as the book goes on are gut level responses. Yet all the characters in the book are complex and fully developed, so I don't think this hurts the novel. In fact, I think it makes it more interesting. I wonder if part of this is do to the time and place. The Light Between Oceans is set in western Australia shortly after World War 1. The difference between fighting in a war and the two tasks of waiting for loved ones then dealing with the emotional and physical damage done to them, would likely create a situation where the distinction between the ways men and women think would be exaggerated. This would be compounded by living in a rural area where gender roles are forced to be more distinct.

I listened to the audio version of this book and want to echo a comment made by other reviewers. The reader was hard to understand. I'm American, so part of this was my ear and his Australian accent, but more than that it was his decision to speak with a soft, introspective voice.

The book is emotional, sometimes even sappy, when drawing a picture of the relationship between young Lucy and Tom and Isabel. I was also bothered by a few coincidences. But overall I thought it was a great read. There were times when I couldn't stop listening, especially toward the end.

What is best about this novel is the beautiful, careful description of the isolated lighthouse island and how that setting is woven into the experiences of the characters. Here's the opening to the book:

On the day of the miracle, Isabel was kneeling at the cliff's edge, tending the small, newly made driftwood cross. A single fat cloud snailed across the late-April sky, which stretched above the island in a mirror of the ocean below. Isabel sprinkled more water and patted down the soil around the rosemary bush she had just planted.

“...and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” she whispered.

For just a moment, her mind tricked her into hearing an infant's cry. She dismissed the illusion, her eye drawn instead by a pod of whales weaving their way up the coast to calve in the warmer waters, emerging now and again with a fluke of their tails like needles through tapestry. She heard the cry again, louder this time on the early-morning breeze. Impossible.