Sunday, May 19, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Early Riser by Jasper Fforde

I read a review of Jasper Fforde’s novel Early Riser in the New York Times and, although it isn’t my usual fare, it sounded like a fun read. I’d never read anything by Fforde before, so I thought I’d start here.

Set in Wales, in a mash-up of future and present day, the novel depicts a world undergoing a post-climate-change Ice Age, or something like that. For sixteen weeks each year, temperatures plummet into the lethal below-zero degrees range. Fortunately, people have evolved to be hibernating creatures. They bulk up beforehand, sleep away the winter months, and, hopefully, emerge in the spring. But surviving hibernation is risky. Deaths in sleep were significantly reduced by the invention of a wonder drug, Morphenox, which prevents dreams. Dreaming apparently sucks away calories.

The Morphenox supply is limited, so access to it has to be purchased or earned. Access is highly coveted despite the well-known side effect of the drug. About 1 in 3000 users wakes up "dead." The body still moves about, but the people are zombie-like. If well-fed, these "Nightwalkers" are not dangerous but, when hungry, they become cannibals, a significant threat to a sleeping population.

Not everyone sleeps. In addition to Nightwalkers, there are Villains, RealSleep activists, Wintervolk, and Sleep Researchers, all dangerous to varying degrees. And there are the providers of Winter law and order, the Consuls.

Fforde does an extraordinary job building the world for the reader, letting it all unfold through the eyes of Novice Winter Consul Charlie Worthing. Chosen for his outstanding memory, Charlie is not the usual Consul material, not winter-hardened or tough. He’s far too honest, empathetic, and nice.

When Charlie’s mentor is summoned to Sector Twelve to investigate an outbreak of viral dreams, Charlie reluctantly follows. He finds himself stranded in a situation too bizarre to be summarized. The reader watches him blunder along, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing, guided only by an innate need to do the right thing, even if it’s the wrong thing.

The story is original, cleverly plotted, and very, very funny. The characters are quirky with wordplay that sometimes made me laugh out loud. Pop culture references pop up in unexpected places in delightfully absurd ways.

Part of the fun of the book is the way the plot zigs and zags, so I won’t give anything else away. But if you’re looking for something entertaining and different, this novel is highly recommended.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Witchcraft & Secret Societies of Rural England. The Magic of Toadmen, Plough Witches, Mummers and Bonesmen by Nigel Pennick

I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence my review.

Witchcraft & Secret Societies of Rural England. The Magic of Toadmen, Plough Witches, Mummers and Bonesmen by Nigel Pennick is a weird book.

The title and description caught my attention. The book is exactly what it says it is, but I was expecting something a bit different. Maybe I thought it would be more synthesized for a popular audience. Instead, it is a densely detailed collection of data written in a way that presents information without much analysis.

The book begins by laying out the geography of the region and how people utilized the land historically. Then it discusses various historical occupations such as drovers, blacksmiths, shoemakers, ploughmen, wise women, farmers, etc.. It seems each of these groups had secret societies with somewhat bizarre (though often overlapping) superstitions and rituals. They invested objects, particularly animal bones, with magical properties. And they liked to drink and chant almost Monty Pythonesque songs (that the author quotes in their entirety.)

The book is a treasure trove of anecdotal information. Those who love this sort of thing, particularly historical novelists who want accurate period detail, should find this a remarkable resource. However, it’s a difficult book to sit down and read through from beginning to end.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: The Golden Age of Burgundy: The Magnificent Dukes and their Courts by Joseph Calmette

I’m just back from an extraordinary vacation – a barge tour of canals in Burgundy. My husband and I were celebrating our 30th anniversary so we wanted to do something special.

I couldn’t head off to Burgundy without learning a little of the history. I wish I’d studied up more, but limited myself to the book, The Golden Age of Burgundy: The Magnificent Dukes and their Courts by Joseph Calmette. The book was first published in 1949 and the English translation was first published in 1962 and it’s written in a fairly dry, historical monograph style. It covers the time period between 1364 and 1477, a time when the Duchy of Burgundy vied for supremacy with the kingdom of France. For a while, it seemed Burgundy would surpass France in wealth, splendor, and power, or possibly even absorb France altogether into a Burgundian kingdom.

The dukes who ruled during this Golden Age were Philip the Bold, John the Fearless, Philip the Good, and Charles the Rash. Calmette gives a chronological account through the reigns of each of the men. It’s necessarily focused, concentrating mostly on the conflict with France, but demonstrating the reach of the Burgundian dukes. Their domains stretched from present day Holland and Belgium to Southern France and included parts of what is now Germany. The borders were constantly expanding and contracting due to a combination of war, diplomacy, and marriage alliances. The dukes were educated, well-read, and patrons of the arts.

This book was somewhat dry, examining the successes and shortcomings of each of the men as leaders and administrators, but showing very little in the way of their personal lives. Still, it was a wonderful book for providing sweeping historical context. Combining it with a vacation left me wanting to know more. I’ll have to go back!
Tower of John the Fearless in Paris

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: The Love Artist by Jane Alison

The Love Artist by Jane Alison is a gorgeous, lyrical historical novel about Ovid and his mysterious muse, Xenia.

Ovid is a classical Roman poet best known for "The Art of Love" and "Metamorphoses." About the time he was writing "Medea," a play of which only two lines survive, he was banished by Augustus Caesar to Tomis, on the western side of the Black Sea. The end of the world. His crime is not recorded but since his exile lasted until his death, it must have been significant.

Alison imagines the artist’s biography from this time, filling in the historical blanks by creating a relationship with an exotic, beautiful witch, Xenia.

After "The Art of Love," Ovid is not in the stoic Augustus’ good graces. His friends urge him to absent himself from Rome until things blow over, to help ensure the success of his new work, "Metamorphoses." Ovid sails across the Black Sea to the Caucasus. There he meets Xenia.

This young woman has grown up among strangers, so is always an outsider. Her earliest memory is of being cast out to sea in a basket by her mother to die. Xenia is raised by Phasians (an ancient Colchian tribe, according to Wikipedia) and learns to read, to heal, to tell fortunes, and to cast spells. She’s a witch, but that isn’t a bad thing. She knows who Ovid is. She reads his poetry. When she hears he has arrived in her town, she lures him to her.

The magical lure is probably unnecessary, because Ovid grew intrigued by her even before the spell after catching an accidental glimpse of her. Or maybe that was part of her spell. He begins stalking her even as she bewitches him. Before long, they become lovers.

The prose is dreamy and soft-edged and beautiful. Ovid is inspired by Xenia. As he studies her, his next work flows from his stylus. She knows he’s using her in this way, but it doesn’t frighten or annoy her (as it did a previous love of his.) Xenia wants to become part of his art. She knows Ovid’s words will make him immortal and she wants his words to immortalize her.

Ovid realizes it’s time to return to Rome. He needs Xenia to come with him. Xenia realizes Ovid is getting ready to leave, and she casts a spell to make him ask her to follow him. Thus far, they are working towards a common purpose, but there is mutual insecurity and desperate dependence going on, too. Once they arrive in Rome, things get nasty. Xenia is not thrilled with Ovid’s social whirlwind and the many women who occupy his sphere. Ovid realizes he can use her jealousy to his art’s advantage.

Ovid needs a patron and finds one in Julia, the embittered grand-daughter of Augustus. He begins manipulating Xenia’s suspiciousness and jealousy so that he can transform it into his art. Xenia is both aware and unaware of what he’s doing. They are completely entwined with one another’s lives, but they no longer trust each other. Ovid delves deeper and deeper into the dark psychology of the play he is writing, one with a horrific ending, and is urged by Julia to finish what he has started.

The novel is short and builds slowly, but the final chapters are riveting. Ovid is so self-absorbed, and so desperate to believe that his work will live on after he dies, that he starts to seem mad. Either that or evil. Or both. And Xenia will either succumb to his mad plotting or she must find a way to break free.

I could not put the book down until I knew how it would play out.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Duplicate Death by Georgette Heyer

I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence my review.

Duplicate Death by Georgette Heyer is the next re-release of a Heyer historical mystery by Sourcebooks. It follows the fortunes and misfortunes of the Kane family, introduced in They Found Him Dead, as well as the ongoing career of Inspector Hemingway.

It is fourteen years later. Timothy Harte, the too-curious, gore-loving young stepbrother of Jim Kane, the previous protagonist, is now grown up and engaged to be married. But his bride-to-be does not meet with his mother’s approval. Beulah Birtley has a secret past and no family to speak of. She works as a secretary/girl Friday for a social climbing newcomer, Mrs. Haddington. Mrs. Haddington has brought her strikingly beautiful daughter Cynthia to London to catch a wealthy, preferably titled gentleman. She has Timothy in her sights.

Things may have gone smoothly for Timothy and Beulah despite family disapproval and Mrs. Haddington’s scheming if an old friend of Mrs. Haddington’s (and possible new friend of Cynthia’s), Mr. Dan Seaton-Carew, had not been murdered at a duplicate bridge card party thrown by Mrs. Haddington.

The local police are quickly stumped and bring in Chief Inspector Hemingway, who is surprised and delighted to be reunited with Jim Kane and Timothy Harte. He is less delighted to find that Timothy’s fiancee is one of the primary suspects. He has encountered Beulah before, in a professional capacity.

There were numerous people at the party and several had opportunity to murder Seaton-Carew. A few even had motive, as Hemingway discovers. But it’s almost impossible to fit all the clues together. And, just when he thinks they may have it figured out, the person they believe to be the murderer is killed in exactly the same way.

Heyer’s mysteries are entertaining brain teasers, complete with wry humor and sweet romance, but she belonged to a different time. The novel is dated in some of its language and prejudices, so be prepared.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: An Artless Demise by Anna Lee Huber

I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

I’ve been eagerly awaiting book 7 in Anna Lee Huber’s The Lady Darby Mysteries series: An Artless Demise. This is a superb series with complex plotting, well-rounded sympathetic characters, vivid historical setting, and a lovely romance.

Lady Kiera Darby is a talented portrait painter whose first marriage was a nightmare. Wed to an older man, a prominent anatomist, she was brutally abused physically and psychologically as he forced her to view his cadaver dissections and sketch them for an anatomy book he was writing. Cadavers were hard to come by legally, so her husband purchased them from "resurrectionists" (grave robbers). When even these were difficult to find, the body snatchers sometimes resorted to murder.

Lady Darby’s husband was caught up in one of these murder scandals. Although she was innocent, she found herself ostracized by polite society. Traumatized and, thankfully, widowed, she retreated to her sister and brother-in-law’s country estate.

In book one, she becomes embroiled in a murder investigation and there she meets inquiry agent Sebastian Gage. Handsome, charming, intelligent and open-minded, Gage is the perfect match for Kiera, though it takes them a while to figure that out. They embark on a crime-solving partnership, falling in love and wedding over the course of the next few books.

Now back in London, Kiera is pregnant, rediscovered as a popular portraitist, and finding friends in the ton. This newfound calm cannot last. First, there is significant political upheaval as Tories and Whigs argue over the Reform Act, and then another "burking" incident occurs. A young boy is murdered so that his corpse can be sold for dissection. The purchasers notice that the body is too fresh and send for the law.

The boy is one of the "Italian Boys," poor young immigrants who labor in the poorest areas as virtual slaves. His murder draws attention to the plight of child poverty and enslavement. It also refocuses the spotlight on resurrectionists and reawakens the scandal surrounding Kiera.

If this weren’t enough, young lords--sons of influential men--are also starting to be murdered in fashionable parts of the city. Fear mounts that these men were targeted for burking as well. London is about to erupt in panic.

Kiera and Gage race to solve the crimes while dealing with a boatload of emotional issues of their own. Once again, their levelheaded detecting carries the plot while the ongoing development and deepening of their relationship provides an emotionally satisfying read.

Start the series with book one, The Anatomist’s Wife. The books are addictive!

Sunday, March 24, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Flotsam by Erich Maria Remarque

It’s been eight years since I read All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, a truly extraordinary classic novel about WWI. I loved the book, yet it never occurred to me to look to see what else he’d written. I’m embarrassed to admit I just assumed he’d written this one great book and nothing else of note. How wrong I was!

Flotsam is a novel about German refugees during WWII. Primarily Jews and political "criminals," thousands of people were forced to leave Germany, stripped of their passports, to become unwanted, country-less exiles. Some are little more than children deported along with their parents. Without papers, they are unable to find work or permanent residences and so live lives of hunger, uncertainty, fear, and often despair as they are deported again and again across the borders of Austria, Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, and France.

The story begins in Austria and primarily follows two men as they navigate life along the borders. The first is a political dissident named Steiner who was forced to leave his beloved wife Maria behind when he fled Germany. He is a man of steady nerves, many talents, and an innate goodness. The second, Kern, is a twenty-one-year-old man tossed out of Germany with his parents. His father is Jewish; his mother is not. She was allowed to stay in Hungary because she had been born there. His father was deported and Kern lost track of him before he, too, was deported.

Steiner and Kern meet when they are both detained in Czechoslovakia and kicked across the border to Austria. Steiner takes Kern under his wing for a short while before they separate. Kern manages to find a temporary residence in a boarding home for refugees where he meets a young Jewish refugee, Ruth. The two form a bond. They link their fates to one another and quickly fall in love. Love sustains them in the trials ahead.

Like All Quiet on the Western Front, this novel is another masterpiece of historical fiction demonstrating human suffering and resilience. By relating the day-to-day struggles of refugees, it draws the reader into their lives and forces us to empathize. Flotsam realistically portrays the characters’ humanity, their kindness to one another, the constant tension of being displaced, and the simple relief in finding a safe -- though always temporary -- haven. The novel tugs at the heart and conscience of a reader who takes the security of citizenship for granted.

Flotsam is at times a hopeful novel, showing how some – even most -- people are innately good and will help those in need as best they can. People can look at injustice and recognize it for what it is. But there are too many others who will not only steal from or cheat the vulnerable, but will also take pleasure in being cruel.

Steiner is a survivor, a philosopher, and a cynic. But he is generous to those in need. Kern and Ruth are young and still hopeful. Kern is too trusting, which costs him at times, yet he does not become embittered. Despite their setbacks, Kern and Ruth do not abandon hope.

The novel shows the fates of other refugees who drift in and out of the lives of the three protagonists. Some survive. Some disappear. And some succumb to despair. It’s a beautiful novel, at once heart-wrenching and uplifting. Published in 1939, Flotsam is as relevant today as it was then.