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Book review: Sacrilege by S.J. Parris

Three of five stars

Some historical novels read like lighting; others trip lightly down their historical paths; still others plod, heavy and weighted with their historical sense and period sensibilities. Sacrilege by S.J. Parris is a plodder.

Giordano Bruno, former monk and current secret agent on behalf of Queen Elizabeth in the London establishment of the French Embassy, is surprised by the reappearance of his former love Sophia. Dressed in rags and disguised as a boy, she is on the run and accused of murdering her husband. She begs Giordano for his assistance: please go to Canterbury, discover who really killed Edward Kingsley, and clear her name. Giordano, still half in love and feeling some guilt over their past, obliges. He sets off for Canterbury, but not without a secondary purpose as assigned by the Queen’s spymaster Francis Walsingham: while there, he should look into rumors of a Catholic plot to unseat the Queen.

Once in Canterbury, and under an assumed identity with the aid of his court connections, Giordano begins his investigation. However, Canterbury harbors more secrets than a possible assassination plot and the identity of Kingsley’s murderer — missing and murdered children, a cultish devotion to the murdered St. Thomas Becket — and and such a questioning presence unsettles someone powerful behind the scenes. When he finds himself arrested and accused of murder himself, Giordano finds he must prove his own innocence as well as Sophia’s.

Parris tells a good story, rich with historic fact and period detail. The pace is steady and the language straightforward. This novel is third in a series, however. It’s a personal quibble, I suppose: this story stood well enough on its own, but given that Sophia’s and Giordano’s relationship had been previously established and explored, I felt I would have been better served and enjoyed the story more had I read the previous novels.

Many thanks to LibraryThing’s Early Readers program for the opportunity to read this book.

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Book review: Iago by David Snodin

Three of five stars

Remember what happened at the end of Othello? Yeah, me neither. At least, not in great detail. But that’s all right, because the events of Shakespeare’s tragedy are only tangentially important, in the sense that they provide the backdrop and impetus for the events in this novel.

In the aftermath of the murder of Desdemona and her husband Othello (yes, I know that’s not what happened in the play….just go with it), Iago, their accused murderer, is the subject of a vast and wide-ranging manhunt throughout Cyprus and Italy. Annibale Malipiero, the Chief Inquisitor of Venice, is especially interested in questioning Iago about the dual murder, and goes about it in a circuitous fashion.

Gentile Stornello, the teenage son of a rival Venetian household and a cousin to Desdemona, is accused of murder. He is arrested and brought to the fearsome Venetian prison, where he is tortured and questioned by Malipiero, among others, and thrown into a cell with a mysterious prisoner who refuses to speak to him for days, perhaps weeks. Time is fluid in prison, and poor Gentile is never really sure how long he’s been incarcerated. Eventually, however, the mysterious prisoner gives up his silence, and is revealed as Iago himself. Malipiero enlists young Stornello as his proxy, offering the young man his freedom and a dismissal of charges if he can discover the truth of the murder from Iago. And, after an engineered escape from prison and their subsequent flight across the length and breadth of Italy, Gentile endeavors to do precisely that.

David Snodin constructs his story brick by brick, carefully building upon this event and that occurrence, layer by intriguing layer, leading the reader down a certain path with startling surprises around every corner. It’s slow going at first, but the pace picked up about midway through, and the writing itself is lovely. I loved the rich period detail. I didn’t love the ample gore and violence, but accepted it as a necessary evil, er, plot device. Overall, this was a satisfying read, and I’d heartily recommend it to anyone with an interest in Shakespeare or historical novels.

Thank you to LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program for the opportunity to read this book.

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Book review: Sepulchre by Kate Mosse

Two of five stars

I picked up the Sepulchre audiobook from the bargain bin at the local megachain bookstore because I wanted something to listen to on a cross-country road trip and I didn’t want to spend a lot of money.

Let’s just say I’m glad I didn’t. Spend a lot of money, that is.

As with Mosse’s previous novel, Labyrinth, I wanted to like this story. Historical setting juxtaposed against modern setting, with a supernatural-ish link between them: just my cup of tea. As with Labyrinth again, the premise was better than the execution.

17-year-old Léonie Vernier and her older brother Anatole leave their mother behind and flee 1891 Paris for the country at the invitation of their Aunt Isolde, widow of their mother’s estranged brother. Anatole has some rather nasty people after him, and Léonie just wants to get out of the city for a while. Upon arriving at the country estate, the Domain de la Cade in Rennes-les-Bain, they settle in for a long visit. But all is not as it seems at the Domain, and the siblings, along with their aunt, may not have left all the danger behind them in Paris.

Jump to modern-day France, and meet 26-year-old American graduate student Meredith Martin, who is researching a biography on Debussy as well as her own family history. She has also come to the Domain de la Cade, now an exclusive hotel, in search of both a family connection and a Debussy connection. She is eerily familiar with the Domain although she’s never before visited. And soon she also discovers danger lurking for her in the recesses and grounds of the estate.

The story pops back and forth between these eras in a fairly logical pattern and is entertaining enough. I had some difficulty with character differentiation: the reader, whose name escapes me at the moment, had a convincing French accent although she made little distinction between the female voices. She did not give Meredith an American accent, which did not help. I found Léonie annoying, whiny, and overly childish for her age. I didn’t care much for any of the female characters, which is unfortunate since the story was essentially theirs. In fact, I didn’t care much for any of the characters. If I’d had been reading a hard copy rather than listening while driving across Oklahoma, Texas, and the desert Southwest, I’d have put it down and found something else. As such, I was a captive audience. But I breathed a sigh of relief — “Thank heavens that’s over!” — when I finished the last disc just as I pulled in front of the hotel where I would be staying in California. It’s hard to say whether the relief came more from being done with the drive or the book.

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Book review: Ill Met By Moonlight by Sarah A. Hoyt

Ill Met by Moonlight (Shakespearean Fantasies, #1)Ill Met by Moonlight by Sarah A. Hoyt
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

William Shakespeare, aged 19 or 20, a small-town schoolteacher, comes home one day to find his wife Nan and his infant daughter gone. A small log lies in baby Susannah’s crib, giving him the only clue to their whereabouts: they’ve been snatched by the Fair Folk.

Quicksilver, heir of Oberon and Titania, comes home to find his his parents murdered and his throne usurped by his brother, Sylvanus. He enlists young Will in a scheme of revenge, with Nan as both bait and reward.

Alternating between happenings in the world of Faerie and events in Stratford-upon-Avon, we follow Will’s desperate search for Nan, Quicksilver’s desperate quest for vengeance, and Nan’s indoctrination into the ways of the Fey.

It’s possible I might have liked this book better had I read it in one sitting. It’s a short thing, less than 300 pages, but even at that it felt too long. None of the chief characters, save Nan, engendered much sympathy. Quicksilver especially annoyed me — arrogant, duplicitous, selfish, and self-righteous, he had no qualms about using and deceiving a “mere mortal” to his own ends, and I never quite bought the idea that he fell in love with Will. Will, even given some leeway for his youth, seemed much too wishy-washy and easily led. Only Nan seemed to have any strength of character.

Still, on the whole, it’s not a bad story, a decent way to spend a few hours if you don’t have anything better to read.

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Book review: Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin

Mistress of the Art of Death (Mistress of the Art of Death, #1)Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In medieval Cambridge, England, four children have been murdered. The crimes are immediately blamed on the town’s Jewish community, taken as evidence that Jews sacrifice Christian children in blasphemous ceremonies. To save them from the rioting mob, the king places the Cambridge Jews under his protection and hides them in a castle fortress. King Henry II is no friend of the Jews — or anyone, really — but he is invested in their fate. Without the taxes received from Jewish merchants, his treasuries would go bankrupt. Hoping scientific investigation will exonerate the Jews, Henry calls on his cousin the King of Sicily — whose subjects include the best medical experts in Europe — and asks for his finest “master of the art of death,” an early version of the medical examiner. The Italian doctor chosen for the task is a young prodigy from the University of Salerno. But her name is Adelia — the king has been sent a mistress of the art of death.

Adelia and her companions — Simon, a Jew, and Mansur, a Moor — travel to England to unravel the mystery of the Cambridge murders, which turn out to be the work of a serial killer, most likely one who has been on Crusade with the king. In a backward and superstitious country like England, Adelia must conceal her true identity as a doctor in order to avoid accusations of witchcraft. Along the way, she is assisted by Sir Rowley Picot, one of the king’s tax collectors, a man with a personal stake in the investigation. Rowley may be a needed friend, or the fiend for whom they are searching. As Adelia’s investigation takes her into Cambridge’s shadowy river paths and behind the closed doors of its churches and nunneries, the hunt intensifies and the killer prepares to strike again… (publisher’s blurb)

Medieval Europe — especially medieval England — fascinates me. It’s almost a given I’ll like any novel set in that milieu. That being said, this is an exceptional story with an exceptional heroine.

Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar is the adopted daughter of a prominent Jew in Salerno. Having decided at an early age she was not meant for marriage, and so indulged by her family, she devoted herself to the medical arts, specifically the art of forensic autopsy. Upon being sent to England at the request of her King, she and her companions join a train of other travelers on their way to Cambridge — a train which contains an ailing Prior Geoffrey, who subsequently reaps the benefits of Adelia’s medical knowledge, albeit in such an embarrassing fashion he goes along with the conceit that her Moorish companion Mansur is the doctor who treated him. This aid to Prior Geoffrey, however, provides a small measure of protection and oversight to the foreign trio upon arrival in Cambridge, as they step on toes and break class boundaries in their quest to uncover the truth of the children’s ghastly deaths.

And ghastly they are. The clues on the bodies and the manner of their deaths lead Adelia and her companions to a specific local geographical feature, but it’s a dead end. Thus frustrated in their efforts, Adelia and Mansur more or less set up shop as a physician and his assistant while Simon — who, although Jewish, has an easier time asking questions and acquiring information — mingles with the community and pursues the investigation. Then Simon turns up dead. And Adelia and Mansur are no longer even relatively safe.

Franklin has created some lovely memorable characters in Adelia and her companions, as well as in the townsfolk: Ulf, the young boy who steals his way into Adelia’s affections; Gyltha, his grandmother, hired to cook and care for the trio in their rented accommodation; Prior Geoffrey, alternately bemused and bewildered by Adelia’s uncommon and forthright manner; Rowley Picot, tax collector, king’s man, suspect, and thorn in Adelia’s side. Lots of period detail, an amazing depth of research, and stellar writing make for a wonderful medieval whodunnit.

I already have the second book in this series, and intend to purchase volumes three and four. I had hoped it would continue for many many years, like Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael series, but sadly Ms. Franklin passed away in January 2011.

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Book review: The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma

The Map of TimeThe Map of Time by Félix J. Palma
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ah, where to begin…

Perhaps with Jack the Ripper, whose murder of Mary Kelly sparks the suicidal despair of young Jack Harrington which opens the novel. Perhaps with H.G. Wells, whose novel The Time Machine plays a pivotal role not only in saving Jack Harrington’s life, but in saving literary history. Perhaps with Gilliam Murray, who was inspired by Wells to market his own method of time travel to the London public. Perhaps with John Merrick, or Bram Stoker, or Colin Garrett of Scotland Yard, or any number of other players, both historical and fictional, that populate this sweeping steampunk portrait of Victorian England.

It’s virtually impossible to synopsize this story without giving away its twists. So let me just say this: between the covers of this book you will find two love stories, a murder mystery, a fabulously complex swindle, clanking steam-driven automatons, a tale of African adventure, a discussion of the contradictions and paradoxes of time travel, and much bouncing about through time to witness future events or set past events right.

I began reading this book late one Friday evening. I stayed in bed reading it the following Saturday morning…in fact, it was nearly 12:30 PM when I finally looked up after consuming nearly 400 pages. Yes, it’s that good. The remaining 200+ pages were sped through the following Saturday morning, and left me wanting more more more.

So go! Buy it. Read it. Love it.

Many thanks to LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program for the opportunity to read this book.

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Book review: The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor

The Anatomy of GhostsThe Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Books are not luxuries. They are meat and drink for the mind.”

This quote from John Holdsworth, a major character in The Anatomy of Ghosts, is a simple truth. And The Anatomy of Ghosts is a twelve-course feast.

Holdsworth is a widowed bookseller, haunted by his failures as a parent and husband, eking out a living in 18th century London selling used volumes from a handcart. One day he is approached by the emissary of Lady Anne Oldershaw, offering him the position of curator of her late husband’s library, with the obligation of cataloguing and placing a value on its contents in anticipation of its bestowal upon university. This seemingly simple task has a corollary obligation: return Lady Anne’s son Frank to sanity, and thus restored, to London.

Young Frank has been committed to a sanitarium because he insists he has seen a ghost while at school in Cambridge. Holdsworth retrieves him from the hospital and sets him up in a secluded country cottage. While Frank whiles away his time in the fresh country air, Holdsworth is delving into the fact of the ghost…for Frank’s ghost was Sylvia, the deceased wife of Philip Whichcote, and the circumstances of her death are questionable, at best.

Holdsworth is a reluctant sleuth, bound by contemporary conventions of place and social structure, but his curiosity is driven in part by his unresolved guilt over the deaths of his own wife and son, and he oversteps his bounds so carefully those above him in social strata barely notice. He uncovers a secretive society whose chief object is debauchery and blasphemy, and sniffs out a connection between young Oldershaw, the deceased Sylvia, Whichcote, and numerous other players of high rank in the small theater that is Cambridge University. Everything, everyone, is connected, whether or not they are aware of the connection.

Andrew Taylor tells his multi-layered story with clarity and precision. His attention to detail, his ear for dialogue, his creation of character, all are wicked sharp. This sentence, for example, tells the reader everything one needs to know about both individuals mentioned: “The doorstep was whitestoned every morning by a gangling maid named Dorcas, a poorhouse apprentice who feared Mrs Phear far more than she feared Almighty God because He at least was reputed to be merciful.” Sights, smells, sartorial details — all lovingly exposited almost to the point of wishing for a kerchief of one’s own to hold to one’s nose. The Anatomy of Ghosts is a rare treat for a lover of historical fiction and a lover of mysteries. Both are exquisitely contained within this one volume. If I had to make a comparison between them, I’d say with The Anatomy of Ghosts, Andrew Taylor has outdone Caleb Carr’s The Alienist.

Thank you to LibraryThing‘s Early Reviewers for the opportunity to read this book.

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