Friday, August 15, 2014

Lionheart - Sharon Kay Penman

Sharon Kay Penman is a giant in  the world of historical fiction. She is extremely prolific, having published thirteen books since her debut novel, The Sunne In Splendour in 1982. She is known for the detail of her research and the close attention to historic and character details that have been documented, as she develops her plots and introduces and develops the characters in her novels.

I became a fan when I read her Welsh Trilogy, a detailed story of the Welsh princes that tried in vain to keep Welsh autonomy at a time when the English King Henry III was trying to bring all of Wales under the control of England. I was struck by Penman's ability to weave engaging stories from the bare bones of historic fact about conquests, political maneuverings, and battles and political intrigue. She kept to historic fact while introducing life events that made characters more real, more human, and less iconic.

So, here I am at the end of the summer, wrapped up in the story of Richard the Lionhearted's crusade to save the Holy City from the infidels in the third crusade. It's all rough and tumble medieval warfare, political wrangling, and just a wee bit of romance, as Richard stops in Sicily to wait for his mother to deliver him a Spanish noblewoman , Berenguela of Navarre, who became his bride and queen. The political shenanigans that occur between the French King Phillip II (a Capet) and Richard, the various 'kings' of the islands of Sicily, Cyprus, and city-states in the Middle East (Acre, Jaffa, and Tyre), the Muslim emirs and sultans, and the various lords and noblemen within Richard's traveling army and court keep any reader of Penman constantly on their toes. I happen to love figuring out all the connections and familial and political ties. Others may feel there are too many mental gymnastics involved.

If, however, the medieval period is your cup of tea, I can heartily recommend Penman for her high quality stories! I know that when I finish Lionheart, I'll be champing at the bit to carry on with the saga of Richard's later life in her latest novel, A King's Ransom. It takes up Richard's life when he is captured and held ransom in Germany while on his way back from the Crusades, his later life with Berenguela, and his feuding with John, his infamous brother.

Oh, the life of the royals!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Dreaming Damozel - Mollie Hardwick

I recently watched a BBC mini-series about the Pre-Raphaelite art movement of Victorian England. It was a bawdy series that much romanticized the bohemian lifestyle of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and a cast of incidental characters that joined the brotherhood, as it grew in style and influence. Coming away from the viewing, I was curious about one of the models that became central to several of Rossetti's paintings - Lizzie Siddal.

In doing a bit of on-line poking, I found this mystery novel by Mollie Hardwick. It's funny how one thing leads to another when one pokes about on-line! Mollie Hardwick wrote extensively during the second half of the 20th century. She is, perhaps, best known for penning the novel adaptations of the popular BBC series 'Upstairs, Downstairs' - Masterpiece Theatre's 'early version' of the fabulously popular 'Downton Abbey'.

Anyway ... in addition to those novels, Mrs Hardwick also wrote a series of detective novels called the Doran Fairweather series. The Dreaming Damozel is the sixth in the series. The book centers around Doran, an antiques dealer whose shop is in transition. Her long-time partner has departed for life in London and a new career. Her shop is languishing in a 'stale antiques market' and she is restless to take the business to a different level. Poking about an estate sale, she comes upon a small oil painting that is strangely reminiscent of the paintings done by Dante Gabriel Rossetti at the time that Lizzie Siddal was beginning her relationship with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Ophelia - J.E. Millais

Of course, Doran is intrigued and as the plot develops, strange events occur that seem linked in a sinister way. Doran and her husband are drawn into a mystery that revolves around a dead woman found floating in the local river who is dressed in much the same way as the 'Ophelia' of Millais' painting, a chance contact who would like Doran to act as selling agent for a Rossetti piece that looks to be a study for one of his more famous paintings, a chance meeting with a young textile expert at a party in London, a consultation with a retired homicide detective living in Doran's village ... the plot thickens!

Like all stylized detective novels, these series of events build and tension increases to a frantic (as frantic as these types of stories ever get) point. Being new to the genre niche, I'm having fun reading Hardwick's brand of British mystery. I love the British 'voice' within the writing of Hardwick and within the dialogue she gives her characters. I also am happy to learn a little bit more about the art of the Pre-Raphaelite movement and its ties to early photography and photo-realism. A fun read that has helped while away a pleasant summer morning!

Mollie Hardwick

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Alone at Night

Alone at Night

Tonight the stars called to me
I stood
Alone with my bare skin and nightgown dangling
And the window
And the bright stars

The air was cool against me
I watched
The breeze soft and insistent on the curtain
And the trees
And the cloud wisps

And the stars called and winked and whispered
I went
Into the night and across the damp grass
Down the field
To sit alone

And still the stars called to me
I searched
Plumbing the heavens for you and your blue eyes
Past the stars
Into the black

Far into the alone of night

written on the theme of 'alone'

Image: dohlongma's photos - Flickr

The Rathbones - Janice Clark

A tale of a family that lived by the sea - The Rathbones reads like fantasy, mythology, adventure, Gothic romance. How does one categorize this first novel by Janice Clark? Being a child of the television era, I felt a distinct Gothic feel a la Addams Family. Remember that wonderful old television program? Wacky, dark characters, strangely beautiful Gothic Morticia-like female characters, odd ball relatives, dark and sinister locations, comic relief, weird creatures that keep you wondering. This book has it all.

As I made my way deeper into the family history of the Yankee whaling family, I found myself wondering if I would read this book aloud to middle school students. Short of there being some sexual content that could be construed as questionable, I really felt that the story line would capture young adult readers (or listeners) with its fantastical feel.

At any rate, I think Janice Clark has come up with a winner. She has definitely plumbed Homer's saga, The Odyssey and that's okay. After all, one can't go wrong by emulating the classics, right?

So ... I wonder what she'll write next!

Citadel - Kate Mosse

Another exploration of the Christian and Cathar religious writings, the suppression of the burgeoning Cathar religious sect, and the archeological zeal with which their legendary hidden texts are sought form the basis for this latest novel by Kate Mosse. This time, the action revolves around the political division within France during WWII. The Vichy alignment with Nazi German invaders and the French Free Forces that were lead by DeGaulle and the partisan freedom fighters/resisters were in direct opposition. The people of the Languedoc region of France were equally divided. Informers for the Vichy /Nazi live side by side with those who support freedom from Nazi occupation. French Free Forces sympathizers form partisan resistance groups who help Jews escape Nazi arrest by leading them over the Pyrenees and into Spain or to the harbors along the southern French coast for escape by sea. Into this political quagmire, Nazi and Vichy political leaders push their way looking for supposed archaeological evidence of an Aryan race that is woven into the history of the early Cathar religious writings. They seek fragments of written Cathar texts hidden when Pope Innocent III declared a Catholic crusade against the sect and tried to wipe them out and establish conversion of the local peoples of the Languedoc. Other local historians look for the same religious relics to safeguard them from exploitation by Nazi forces and draw hope from a legendary 'ghost army' that will rise to help defeat the invaders and allow the Free French movement to retake control over France.

This is an involved novel. There are multiple stories going on here. A romance between a partisan fighter named Raoul and a young French woman named Sandrine. They meet when she finds one of his cohorts drowning in the local river, after escaping a horrid interrogation by local henchmen of the Vichy government. What did she witness? What did the poor man say to her before he was recaptured and murdered? What does Raoul know about the odd packet  found in his friend's apartment? Why does the local occupation force want that packet?

On another plane within the novel comes the story of a young monk from the 3rd century Lugdunum (Lyons) who is fleeing south through France with a sacred Christian text that he must keep safe and hide within the southern mountain caves. What is this text? Where does he hide it? Why must he be so secretive? These are the texts sought by the 20th century Germans and French. Who will find the texts and to what use will they be put?

The concept of time travel and reincarnation comes into play here too. Are Madeleine and Raoul and Baillard reincarnated Cathars who have come back to finish a sacred fight for freedom that has become wrapped up in World War II politics?

This is a good read,if you are a fan of archaeology, history, ancient religious myth and legend, and adventure.
I have read all of Kate Mosse's other novels, so it was a natural for me to grab this one. I enjoy her way  of weaving the past legends of the Languedoc region of France into the documented history of the place. I understand that her novel, Labyrinth has been made into a television mini-series. The characters of that novel appear in this latest novel (no spoilers) when Sandrine acknowledges that her dreams hold a powerful message to the French citizens in the resistance.

I'm a sucker for folklore, religious intrigue, and the history of the Languedoc region ... feel the same? This would be a great  vacation read.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Dinner - Herman Koch

There is much to recommend about this book. Let me start with that. Then, let me tell you that this book left an ache in my heart and a sour taste in my mouth. I so wanted the story to end with satisfaction that all parties had 'done the right thing' - but they didn't. And in that about face taken within Herman Koch's searing story line, I was left with questions about the state of the 'class structure' in today's world, about parenting and what we parents will do to protect our kids, about honesty and trust within marital relationships, about the ethics of money and just what it will buy, about dispensible morals and our willingness to rationalize all sorts of bad behavior in ourselves and our loved ones. 

Mr. Koch poked a sharp stick at the innards of our social conscience when he wrote this story. Several chapters into the book, I was thinking of several high profile crimes that have piqued world-wide curiosity and thought, "Oh, he is taking inspiration from those cases." Making the connection between the disappearance of a young American high school student in Aruba, the brutal death of an English student in Italy, and the brutal beating of an elderly man on the streets of New York, I was still shocked at the callous and haunting crime that is at the center of the parents' confrontation in The Dinner

Koch's development of the characters around the dinner table is masterful. The novel is narrated by Paul Lohman, a high school history teacher on leave for erratic behavior toward students and lesson presentation. He and his wife, Claire have a fifteen year old named Michel. Paul has a no nonsense form of delivery, a sharp sense of humor that is laced with sarcasm, social irony, and a bit of a bitter sense of social cynicism. So, it's with this 'voice' that the story unfolds and it's through the lens of Paul's character that we begin to form opinions about  Paul's wife and son, his brother, Serge and Serge's wife and children, the people in the restaurant they are visiting, and the various other characters that Paul discusses. 

No spoilers, but things are not what they seem ...

This would be such a good book for a book group discussion, as there are so many issues that Koch throws at the reader. I wish I would happen on an on-line discussion ... any takers?

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Provence, 1970

Oh, to be a fly on the wall ! How many times do we utter that old statement when we wish we could be present at key points in time with famous or infamous folk ? Luke Barr has given his readers the distinct feeling of being that fly on the wall in the kitchens, restaurants, dining rooms, and offices of the key bon vivants, food writers, and culinary icons of 20th century American foodie culture. His gleanings from his great-aunt's notebooks, letters, diaries, and business correspondence have given him a rich source from which to weave an overlapping picture of a meeting of the foodie greats in Provence during 1970.

From M.F.K. Fisher's (Barr's relation) travels between Paris and Provence with her sister, Norah to momentous meals with Richard Olney to rescuing James Beard from the diet clinic and taking him to Julia and Paul Child's La Pitchoune for a French-style chicken dinner and wine feast, the reader is treated to the events, the commentary between the players, the rivalries and side bar ranting about each other, and insight into their growing notion of a burgeoning American cuisine that takes its roots from the rigor of French food preparation techniques, a use of the freshest seasonal food items, and a more fluid and flexible use of what's available in developing menus and less reliance on strict recipe regimen. We see the peckishness of Beard, who bridles at having to address his health problems and struggles to make a dietary lifestyle change, the overt snobbishness of Richard Olney when he dines with the Childs and M.F.K. Fisher, the ruminations of Julia Child as she makes the transition from 'the French chef' to embracing more techniques from world cultures and their cuisines and thus, opens the way for American cuisine to develop its melting pot persona. It's all a fun and almost gossipy romp through those few weeks when the greats converged on the south of France and cooked their way toward a bit of a food revolution.

This has been an intriguing book with a strange consequence. The evening before I reached the chapter on the dinner at Julia and Paul Child's French vacation home, I made SB and I a dinner of roasted chicken, potatoes, and green beans. Far humbler than Julia's roasted chicken, gratin dauphinois pommes de terre, and haricots verts, but the same main ingredients just the same! I do think I will be making her gratin dauphinois potatoes soon, as a tribute to the grande dame of American cuisine and all her cohorts.

Good job, Luke Barr.