Sunday, February 27, 2011

Bone House

Hi Flower.

Ah...the Read It Or Remove It pile is diminishing, my friend. That is satisfying. There have been bright spots and a few why-the-hell-have-I-been-dusting-this-piece-o'crap-for-the-last-four-years spots. My most recent bright spot was Bone House by Betsy Tobin.

Bone House is a historical mystery. The historical part of the book is the small English village setting in 1603. The mystery part of the book is the violent killing of the popular and pregnant prostitute, Dora. Dora's death weighs especially heavily on a young chambermaid from the local great house. This unnamed Maid is the novel's narrator. She was lucky to have gotten her job as maid to the elderly mistress and her deformed son, Edward. Her background is sketchy. Mom is the village midwife/healer and as such is both needed and feared. Mom's position has brought her into contact with the high and low of the village for good and bad reasons. Given Dora's profession she had many reasons to use the midwife's services. They were good friends and consequently Dora was a strong presence in the Maid's life.

The list of suspects in Dora's brutal murder is a who's who of the village including to the manor born Edward. When Edward requests the Maid's help to secretly commission a visiting painter to do a portrait of Dora they discover that her grave has been robbed. Dora's corpse is missing, why? Suddenly Dora's death is even more mysterious and sinister.

Tobin's Elizabethan village and it's citizens are well rounded. She uses a significant amount of detail regarding the daily life of the seventeenth century to set the mood. She easily excites interest in the habits, attitudes and beliefs of the period. The belief in the 1600's (any in many, many other centuries) in the inherent mental and physical frailty of women is used by Tobin to highlight the Maid's scant choices in life. She could emulate Dora's independence, even though it is founded on selling her body, or be forever indepted to either a husband or employer as a protector.

Bone House was an excellent read. It reminded me a little of The Observations. Each novel uses a sharp maid as a narrator, has a mystery at it's core and has quite a bit to say about how stifling and frightening it was to be a women in those times. Betsy Tobin has written a stimulating mystery, a provocative history and involving characters. That was the very nice, good news. The not so good news is that it is currently out of print as a paper book but you might find it in a second hand shop or as an e-book.


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution

Fleur my friend.

I have always thought that two of the most interesting women from the French Revolution were Vigée Le Brun (That's one of her self portraits on the right) and Maria Tussaud. Le Brun, a professional portrait painter at fourteen became a court painter to Marie Antoinette, was made a member of the Académie and when the Revolution began and her royal patronage put her in grave danger she managed to get herself and her daughter out of France. Sounds like the bones of a good book, right? And Maria Tussaud? Madame Tussaud? No explanation required.

 Author Michelle Moran was apparently able to read my tiny mind because she has written the edifying and engaging Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution. How nice of her.

Tussaud (her married name) was born Anna Maria Grosholtz in 1761 in Strasbourg, France. She spent most of her youth in Switzerland where her widowed Mother found work as a housekeeper to a Dr. Philippe Curtius. It was from Curtius that Tussaud learned wax modeling. Like Vigée Le Brun, Tussaud eventually became a favorite at the court of Louis the XVI. She lived at Versailles for several years under the patronage of the royal family teaching art and creating wax masks and figures for the aristocracy and celebrities of the day. When the Revolution came, Tussaud was imprisoned, sentenced to death and... sorry no more life story/plot information from me.

Moran does more with this novel than merely retell the facts of a unique life. She paints a picture of the society and climate in France in the late seventeen hundreds. The enormous chasm between the rich and the rest of France is laid out for the reader to experience. Not only the separations of wealth and poverty but education and opportunity also. Moran makes the coming Revolution a dramatic experience despite the basic knowledge a historical fiction fan brings to it.

Side by side with the thrilling details of Tussaud's life and times Moran writes knowledgeably about the evolution of Tussaud's art and her business acumen. The details of creating waxworks and Tussaud's education in the process are quite fascinating. The entrepreneurial and survivor skills that Tussaud had in spades were as crucial to her lasting success as were her artistic abilities. I was delighted that these aspects of Tussaud's story were not dismissed in a paragraph in order to scoot back to possibly racier experiences.

With the entertaining Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution, Michelle Moran has taken a famous name, a brand name, a name that has come to mean an object not a person and restored it's humanity.


P.S. The cover? Is she supposed to look like a waxwork? Is it supposed to be Tussaud? The palette is striking but the artwork and layout leave me cold. I think that given the drama of the life and times of Tussaud and the artistry of her work this cover should have been much better.

And. Just wondering but how many reviews of Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution will have the waxing pun? The reviewer will either be waxing or refer to author Michelle Moran's waxing on about Madame. It is a natural.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady

Hi Flower.

How do you feel about monster movies from the 1950's? I'm not a fan but I'm not a hater. I like the poster art from those films but I have no desire to spend time watching them. You have heard of and maybe seen Attack of the 50 Ft Woman. That title and revenge of the housewife theme play into the new novel The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady. My ambivalence toward monster movies in general almost made me not read this very good novel. Silly me. It is just as interesting to see what will make you turn away from a book as it is to see what will make you pick a book up don't you think?

In another of those marvelous anecdotes that becomes unburied and astounds us all it turns out that between 1945 and 1949, 800+ pregnant women were told by doctors at Vanderbilt University Hospital that the radioactive iron they were given was a vitamin that would enhance their health and that of their unborn children. The experiment was to see if the children would be protected from the radioactivity by the placenta. They weren't. In The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady author
Elizabeth Stuckey-French has imagined a revenge for one of those mothers.

Fifty years, a class action suit, a formal apology from Federal Government and the death of her eight year old child from cancer later, 77 year old Mary Ahearn is looking for a piece of her own back. She has searched for and found the obstetrician who gave her those lethal vitamins, Dr. Wilson Spriggs. Mary is determined to have her vengeance by killing Dr. Spriggs but she is not quite sure how to best to pull it off. She moves to Tallahassee to be near the doctor. She will ingratiate herself into his life somehow and is confident that a plan will present itself.

Dr. Spriggs is living in Florida with his son's very dysfunctional family. The son ignores the hurricane within his family to follow hurricanes on the computer. Two of the grandchildren have Asperger's Syndrome and the third will do anything for attention. The daughter-in-law is a worn out caregiver who would run away from her children if given half a chance. The doctor himself is as hateful as he has always been but he now has Alzheimer’s. He can't remember what happened ten minutes ago but he can remember enough of his past to help his grandson build a bomb in the shed.

Mary quickly infiltrates the Spriggs home, but killing the Doctor is a little more difficult. It's not that Mary lacks the will to do the deed, not at all. The opportunity for murder is elusive and killing Dr. Sprigg without being able to make him understand why has it's frustrations. So Mary turns her clever attention to destroying his family and that becomes very easy. Mary finds and exploits the weaknesses of each family member. It can be somewhat uncomfortable as a reader to watch these events unfold not only because some of the consequences of Mary's manipulations are repugnant but because at the same time they can be funny.

Elizabeth Stuckey-French does an remarkable balancing act in The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady. Is Mary justified in her revenge? Stuckey-French took that awful experiment perpetrated on those Mothers in 1945, grief, retaliation and brought in danger, humor (dark and light), the unpredictability of being human and came up with a story that is a uniquely entertaining look at morality.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


Hello Flower.

Wanting has been on my radar and taking up space in my house for close to three years now. It definitely qualifies as a Read It Or Remove It title. No longer will Wanting be a bridesmaid.

With incredible feeling and spare writing author Richard Flanagan intertwines his novel Wanting with the stories of several historical figures over the course of twenty five years in the mid 19th century with a young Aboriginal girl, Mary and the disappearance of an expedition trying to locate The Northwest Passage. Mary was the daughter of a Tasmanian chief. She arrives into the story when in the 1830's George Augutus Robinson comes to Tasmania as a mediator between the Tasmanians and the white settlers. Robinson's ideas on mediation involved corralling the remaining Tasmanians and placing them in camps. Sound familiar? None of these campers would still be alive forty years later.

While Mary's father was under Robinson's control in the death camps she is noticed by the Lieutenant-Governor of the colony Sir John Franklin, and his wife Jane and brought to live with them. They rename her Mathinna. Publicly it's seen as a incredible generous, Christian gesture by the Franklins. How wonderful of them to take in this backward, savage girl and educate her. Privately the childless Jane Franklin was desperate to have a child and thrilled to get Mathinna.

Sir Franklin was one of those Victorians who seem to have done a bit of everything. He made his career as a naval officer and his name as an explorer. During Franklin's years as Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), from 1836 to 1843 he was viewed as too liberal by other officials but was popular with the locals. This may have led to his being removed from office. The Franklins returned to England and Franklin returned to exploration. His last expedition was in pursuit of The Northwest Passage. For a couple centuries the search for The Northwest Passage was the Golden Ticket numerous countries were after.

When the Franklin Expedition fails to return, Jane enlists the help of taste-maker and moral authority Charles Dickens to dispel the rampant rumors of cannibalism and cowardice that dog the doomed Franklin party. Dickens is mourning the death of one of his children, estranged from his wife and soon to fall in love with a young actress. He is also at the height of his success as an author, publisher and theatrical producer. Dickens denounces the rumors concerning the expedition in his magazine Household Words. He writes that whereas savages may give in to any desires a civilized man can withstand temptations and hold on to his honor.

~~Whew~~ That's a whole lot of story. Drama, twists, retribution and desires enough for a couple books.

Flanagan takes Dickens words on savages, civilization, and temptations and applies them to all of his characters. Flanagan is clever and talented enough to show us their actions through their own eyes while slowly over the course of the novel revealing his characters true selves and motives. He writes so beautifully about Tasmania it's easy to feel the European's lust to own the land for themselves. He does occasionally handle the colonialism and racial notes with a heavy hand but that seems to be the case in most historical novels about those subjects.

Wanting is a meticulously well told story about the effects of desire. For Mathinna, the Franklins and Dickens desires bring moments of happiness at incredibly high costs. They are forced to lead double lives. A public life that displays all of the Victorian virtues and a private life of guilt and brief pleasures at the expense of others.


Friday, February 18, 2011

A Red Herring Without Mustard

How about a mystery Flower?

A Red Herring Without Mustard could be a  vintage cookbook or a chef''s memoir about her journey to culinary excellence despite her bad choices in men and her Mum's appalling kitchen skills, but it isn't!! Yea! It's the new Flavia de Luce mystery and you know what that means...Joy, satisfaction and then the tears of parting for twelve months until the next new Flavia.

Our mini Miss Marple does it again. The mystery is clever, the suspects are intriguing, the settings are Golden Age of Hollywood perfection and the de Luce family and Bishop's Lacey citizens are eccentric and wonderful!

I don't need to bother you with plot details and more exclamation points. If you already know Flavia let me tell you that the third time's the charm, as was the first and second time. If you haven't been formally introduced yet what are you waiting for? Jump in and join the party.


Monday, February 14, 2011

The Invisible Mountain

Hello Flower.

It would take me months to tell you all that I do not know about Uruguay and since we have neither the time nor the interest let's talk about a novel set in Uruguay instead. It's The Invisible Mountain by Carolina De Robertis. The Invisible Mountain is my first experience with Uruguay, fictional or otherwise, and what a nice place to start.

This novel is a multi-generational look at Uruguay (with some side trips to Argentina) across most of the 20th century through the eyes of three women. All three will face the challenge of surviving with both her individuality and family intact according to the standards of her time. On New Year's Day 1900 there is a miracle in a small town of Tacuaremb in the Uruguayan countryside. The baby that had been missing for a year, Pajarita, flies down from the treetops and into her Grandmother's arms. Years later Pajarita will fall in love at first sight with a mysterious Venetian immigrant with a dark family secret. Their daughter, Eva, a fragile but determined woman will find a way despite incredible odds to follow her dream of being a poet. Eva's daughter, Salome, rejects her Mother's art and becomes an urban guerrilla during the violent unrest of the 1960's questioning everything but her own principles.

Carolina De Robertis has taken the time worn family saga, added a little magic realism, a little real life realism, a whole lot of good writing and created a bold, soulful novel. The writing in The Invisible Mountain is lush but never florid. Most of the males in the novel are devils tarred with the same brush but De Robertis keeps her females more dimensional. These women are each strong in their way but far from perfect. De Robertis has kept Pajarita, Eva and Salome true to their historical era. In doing so De Robertis makes the changing roles of her three women play very nicely against the drastic political changes in Uruguay and Argentina. The Invisible Mountain is a provocative and expressive introduction to Carolina De Robertis and Uruguay.


Saturday, February 12, 2011

TheWinter Ghosts

Flower. Flower. Flower.

We have already established that I like chubby books. Trollope and Dickens won me over at an early age and that was that. Sorry to say that not only do I judge a book by it's cover but by it's page count as well. Enter author Kate Mosse. First came Labyrinth 528 pages. Book two was Sepulchre at 592 pages. I was thrilled to learn that Mosse had a new book out in February. Might it be 600 pages? 620? I couldn't wait. Could you hear my wail of disbelief and dismay when I got the book?

It's 288 pages? Are you nutting me? What is this a short story? And. And The Winter Ghosts is a stand alone novel, not part of the series that ties Labyrinth and Sepulchre. Is this my beautiful life? Is Kate Mosse mad at me?

Of course I read it anyway. I completely hearted Mosse's other two novels too much to let skinniness deter me. How grown up am I?

The Winter Ghosts starts like a classic spook tale with the arrival of a stranger. In 1928 Freddie Watson enters a bookshop in Toulouse clutching a letter written in a dead language. He then tells the shocked bookseller his story. Watson had not been able to get past his adored brother's death during WWI. After ten years of grieving, confusion, drifting and a mental breakdown he finds himself driving through the Pyrenees in yet another attempt at a cure or at least a diversion. It's snowy, there's a crash and then a touch of Lost Horizon, Wuthering Heights, Brigadoon, ancient French history, a beautiful woman, Medieval celebrations, locked towers, persecution and a ghost too.

You cannot help but compare The Winter Ghosts to its predecessor as you read it. From that point of view the plot is a bit predictable, but still satisfying. Looking at the novel as a stand alone it fairs better.  Mosse does an especially good job when writing about Watson's grieving. You can feel the weight of his bereavement and his self loathing at being the one to survive and not being able to master his emotions and move on. We already know how capable Mosse is at moving her novels between the centuries while maintaining our interest in both eras. The descriptive settings and historical tidbits that Mosse drops in the story are just as captivating as they are in her full size novels.

If you are a fan of Kate Mosse, fear not! If you have wanted to try Kate Mosse but you aren't a lover of doorstop size novels give The Winter Ghosts a try. Mosse has a strong sense of dramatic timing and is an exceedingly good, old fashion storyteller.

So...thanks Kate Mosse for giving me something very gratifying to tide me over until the last of the Languedoc Trilogy, Citadel comes along in September 2011.


Friday, February 11, 2011

Are You A Good Witch Or A Bad Witch?

Hi Flower.

When did witches, vampires and long lost manuscripts get so boring? So pedestrian? Perhaps when every fourth book in a publisher's catalog is sold to you as either "the next Twilight" or "Twilight meets The DaVinci Code". When your sales rep begins to use phrases like that you know that you are in for at least five years of Vampires being the hot thing. So be it. I don't have to read them I only have to sell them, right?

Once in a while (actually more like three times in a while) I fall for the next this or this meets that sales pitch and actually want to read what they are pushing as the next hot thing. Occasionally it does work out. Last summer I drank the company Kool Aid for The Passage, think The Stand meets The Road, and enjoyed that book. So... when A Discovery of Witches was pushed into my hot little hands I succumbed. I was waiting to read it, I was eager to read it, I read it.

Two words, my friend, Ho Hum. There are: witches, vampires, daemons, secret manuscripts and a long hidden curse... Hey guess what? The witch and the vampire fall in love. Oops! Sorry. Spoiler alert. Yeah right. Author Deborah Harkness can write. She has the mechanics to create a world with it's own paranormal rules and myths but not the imagination to make it fresh and new.

I can accept that books like everything else follow fashion and sales. I have been in the biz too long not to know that for every Angela's Ashes, The DaVinci Code and Harry Potter there will be thousands of wannabe misery memoirs, religious what if's and wizard wars. Nothing wrong with that. It's the way sales works. A few of the followers will be terrific, a few will be pretty good, a few will be OK and a few will be horrifyingly bad. Then somewhere in between all of those some unique, individual books will be published that won't let you afford a vacation but will delight you and reinvigorate your book lust.

P.S. The cover? Are you kidding me? Is this a novel or some quasi-scientific pile of silliness from Llewellyn about bringing the witch you were in another life into your current life? And. the U. K. cover? Hideous.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Have Your Say!

Good Morning Flower!

It's time for me to be heard and everyone else too. Sourcebooks is asking for opinions on the cover designs for their new Georgette Heyer books. How fun is that? You go to this site, have a look, cast your vote and have your say about the choices. We all judge books by their covers so don't pass up the opportunity to do it when a publisher will listen.

 By the way I love the publishing/re-issue program Sourcebooks has with authors like Georgette Heyer, Daphne du Maurier, R.F. Delderfield and Edith Pargeter among others. If Sourcebooks is interested in my thoughts on authors to publish as well as cover designs I would like to recommend Taylor Caldwell and Fannie Hurst.


Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Winter Queen

Hi Flower.

Sometimes it all comes together, you know? The inspiration, the story, the writing and the reader. This time is was a trilogy by Jane Stevenson: The Winter Queen, The Shadow King and The Empress of Last Days. As novels, these books are terrific. As historical novels this series is brilliant.

Starting in the 1640's in the Netherlands and using the Thirty Years Year as a backdrop, the first novel, The Winter Queen, follows the fortunes of two exotic royals: Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia and Pelaguis van Overmeer the heir to the Youba Kingdom of Oyo. Elizabeth has been dethroned and is angling for the return to power of her house. The daughter of James I (son of Mary Queen of Scots and heir to Queen Elizabeth I of England) and sister to Charles I, she had been one of the most sought after Princesses in Europe. Now after the death of her husband and the loss of her throne she is desperate to use what power and connections she has to see her son restored to power and her other children's futures secured. Pelaguis was brought to Europe years ago as a slave. At the start of the novel he has recently been given his freedom by his former master. Pelaguis has been educated in theology and spent his life working on a study of the merits of indigenous plants. The two come together when Elizabeth learns of his reputation as a scholar and a reader of oracles.

Age and politics have led Elizabeth and Pelaguis to believe they are past romantic relationships at this time in their lives but they are not. As unlikely as a relationship between Elizabeth and Pelaguis (who is an invented character) seems the it's a testament to Stevenson's skill that you believe in it and want it to succeed. These are two unusual main characters in historical fiction. They are old, very old for their time. That alone is a wonderful change of pace. These are people who have lived most of their lives before we met them. They are also flawed. Their mistakes are of their own making. Youth and the manipulations of others are not their excuse.

As the series moves to The Shadow King, Stevenson brings us the story of the son of Elizabeth and Pelaguis, Balthazar. Baltahzar knows the secret of his birth but it's of little use to an educated, bi-racial, doctor and clandestine Prince in Holland in the 17th century. In his struggles Balthazar makes an intriguing enemy who is his equal in ambition and flaws, Aphra Behn. Aphra is one of the real historical people that Stevenson brings into these novels. Aphra, a live-by-your-wits schemer who has been credited with being the first woman known to have made her living by writing. (Makes you wonder why there hasn't been a novel about her, right?) Stevenson uses Aprhra as a catalyst for Balthazar. It is her discovery of his secret and threats to make it public that force him to take greater chances in his life.

A true disciple of the Enlightenment, Balthazar is convinced that he is the equal of any other man and can be of benefit to his community, but what is his community? Barely acknowledged in The Winter Queen, race and prejudice sit at the forefront of The Shadow King. Balthazar is viewed as an oddity, a diversion in high society and something to be treated with disdain and fear everywhere else. After he is unable to sustain a medical practice in Holland he attempts life as a planter in Barbados. He is forced to purchase slaves in Barbados to survive and fails there both economically and morally. Balthazar finally settles in an unwelcoming London finding a way to practice his gifts with medicine and raise his family.

In the series finale, The Empress of Last Days, Stevenson moves the story to contemporary academia and takes us through a young student and an Oxford don's discovery of this past and it's potential ramifications for the British monarchy. The student, Corinne is a Dutch graduate student. The don is Michael Foxwist a man disillusioned in his profession by college politics. In the course of her research Corinne discovers some obscure 17th century theological and botanical writings. These lead her and Michael to an equally obscure play about a marriage between a royal and a slave by Aphra Behn and from there to a mysterious scientist named Melpomene Palelogue who might be the last descendant of Elizabeth and Pelaguis and therefore the Queen of England.

Jane Stevenson employs a wide historical perspective when telling these peoples stories. She takes all of her exiles: Elizabeth, Pelaguis, Balthazar, Aphra, Michael, Corinne and Melpomene and through their lives illustrates: the Thirty Years War, the plague, Calvinism, slavery, colonialism, Restoration London and the lives, politics and economy of tradesman and royals in the 17th century. These novels are a masterclass in the history of the 17th century and how to write historical fiction. Not only does Stevenson gracefully display her scholarship but she does it in the context of plot and character development with emotional power and intellectual style. This is not bed hopping, pages of description of dresses, sword fight fiction. Stevenson has taken a moment in history that merits no mention in textbooks and expanded it in unexpected ways.

The Winter Queen and The Shadow King could each be read as successful, stand alone novels. I'm not sure that is the case with The Empress of Last Days. That said the story Stevenson tells needs Empress to bring it to completion. It can sometimes happen in a series that subsequent novels do not live up the first one in the series. The first in any series has whatever skills the author has plus the element of discovery for the reader that can never be duplicated in any susequent volumes. Think of these three books as one, dive in and be up to your eyeballs in reading joy and admiration.

Happy x3

P.S. I am also a big fan of an earlier mystery novel by Jane Stevenson, London Bridges. That was the first book of hers I read and what made me find The Winter Queen trilogy.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Daughters of the Witching Hill

Hi Flower.

I have some Good news bad news. Daughters of the Witching Hill. I've heard positive things (and seen good sales) about author
Mary Sharratt's novels for a while. Daughters is her fourth historical novel. She has been on my To Do list since Vanishing Point came out and looked...well, had a pretty cover. ---I wish I could say the say for Daughters by the way. Ick. It looks like a collection of boring writings you might have to read for a class.

This novel is a what if, fictionalized account, inspired by true events retelling of the Pendle Witch Trails of 1612. In Sharratt's Pendle grandmother Bess and granddaughter Alizon lead a life on the margins. They are under no ones protection and therefore suspects in everything and anything negative that occurs in the local community. Bess supports her small family with healing, herbal medicines and some fortune telling. She is also schooling Alizon and neighbor Anne in her craft. When a magistrate manipulates Alizon into a confession of witchcraft, things go from hard to incarceration.

This was a well written novel. The plot and characters were strong and entertaining if predictable. Daughters of the Witching Hill could have used more editing to tighten up the plot and lose some occasional heavy handed description about the herb-ology. It did not engage me enough to want to read more of Sharratt myself at this time but I did have the brilliant idea to pass the book on to fifteen year old niece O. She devoured it. It has become a favorite for her. Which leads me back to the good new bad news. Good news is that Daughters of the Witching Hill is an excellent choice for a teenager with an interest in historical fiction. The bad is that is was not an excellent choice for me.


Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Tea Lords

Hi Flower!

How could I possible resist a title like The Tea Lords? It screams historical fiction, colonialism, exotic lands and of course tea drinking which I do all the time. A possible perfect fit. Was I right? Aren't I usually?

The Tea Lords was written by Hella Haasse. Are you familiar with her novels? She's written many. Haasse lives in the Netherlands and published her first novel in 1945. So what's that? 66 years ago. In those 66 years this is only her fourth book to make it into English and only three of these four have been published in the U.S. That's sad for readers of first rate historical fiction but maybe an opportunity for a publisher.

Dutch colonialism in the East Indies (now Indonesia) is the setting for The Tea Lords. Rudolf Kerkhoven, a young rule follower from Holland, goes to the East Indies in the 1870's to join his Father's tea plantation. Rudolf has all the virtues of his age. He is: conservative, honorable, frugal, hard working and aspires to always do the right thing. He has all the prejudices and self importance of his age also. Those attributes will never allow him to see his choices as anything but proper. Gradually Rudolf falls in love with his new home. He marries a lawyer's daughter from Jakarta, Jenny, and over the years through great effort and great thrift makes a success of the plantation.

Jenny brings a vague touch of the first Mrs Rochester to The Tea Lords. Jenny was island born and raised. She sees the Dutch colonists for the opportunistic interlopers that they are and not as the saviors and adventurers they see themselves to be. There are secrets to Jenny's family unknown to Rudolf when they marry. One of those secrets will come to life slowly as Jenny gets further away from the coastline she grew up on and spends more time in the close humidity in the interior of the island at the plantation.

The Tea Lords is an big,old fashioned, completely satisfying novel, rich in detail and authority over it's subject matter. It moves at it's own pace introducing many characters and developments. Haasse's writing is subtle and precise making the story paramount. There is sufficient, interesting explanation of the economics, politics and farming of the time to give the novel flavor and make it specific to it's setting. The natives verses colonists aspects are heartfelt and illuminating but this is ultimately a family saga. Haasse based this novel on documents and letters from the Dutch families who lived and farmed in Indonesia in the 19th century. She called this book "a novel but not fiction".

I ordered The Tea Lords from a U.K. bookshop. So far it's not available from a U.S. publisher. To be honest given how few and far between any books of Haasse's have been translated into English I doubt this one will brought out over here. The Tea Lords is worth the effort and expense to import personally but you could also start with the three of her titles that are available here: In A Dark Wood Wandering, The Scarlet City and Threshold of Fire.


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Owl Killers

Happy Ground Hog Day Flower!

How do you feel about 6 more weeks of winter? I'm OK with it as long as it's only 6 more weeks. What a winter we've had so far. Good weather for reading but not for anything else.

Have you read Karen Maitland? She won me over with her novel Company of Liars. It is a kind of seamy underside of Canterbury Tales while it catches the Plague. In The Owl Killers Maitland goes back a little further in time to 1321. The Black Plague was about twenty years away but the Little Ice Age had already begun so... Good Times.

If I were alive in 1321 first of all at my age I'd be practically immortal but beyond that odds are that I would be: uneducated, widowed, have had several children two of which might have made it to adulthood, poor, malnourished and have a myriad of health problems. I would not be the spirited daughter of a great house used to better family connections through marriage, a preternaturally insightful healer or midwife or the secretly scholarly daughter of an academic who knows how to turn straw into gold. In short I'd be a character in a Karen Maitland novel and not one novel from any other writer of historical fiction covering the Middle Ages that I can think of. That is a big part of the reason that I am drawn to Maitland's books, her everyman approach. I do like a novel about all those daughters but I find Maitland's just regular folks take on history fascinating.

Set near Norfolk in the tiny village of Ulewic, The Owl Killers is an intensely atmospheric, well written novel with a very interesting look at Paganism verses Christianity. The village is not so secretly ruled by the local Lord of the Manor and the Owl Masters. The Masters are a hold over from pagan/tribal times. It is society of men who behind their masks and cloaks govern through terror and torture. The presence of the Church in Ulewic has done nothing to erode the power of the Owl Masters. The villagers themselves live a desperate hand to mouth existence the poverty of which is exacerbated by the Masters.

New to Ulewic is a beguinage. A beguinage is a combination group home, safe house made up of Christian lay women who work together to support each other but this is not a Church sanctioned organization. Despite a few good turns these women are able to do for the villagers this new community is looked at with distrust and suspicion. The beguinage is made up of women from all walks of life from the Good Novel Character Department: a cook, a healer/midwife, a former prostitute, a potential saint, peasants, etc. A group diverse enough to establish a variety of life experiences, opinions and backstories.

The malevolent Owl Masters in particular are scornful of the beguinage. Their ill will goes beyond threats after talk of witchcraft at the beguinage begin. How could they not be witches when their livestock and crops are spared just as those of the village fail. Things escalate when the daughter of the Lord and a local pregnant girl join the beguinage and for unknown reasons the village priest suddenly needs to cover his tracks.

As in  Company of Liars, Maitland divides her story between several characters in The Owl Killers. These alternating narrators and their unique perspectives and motives add a larger view of life and authenticity to the story. At times the storylines get a little slack and the plot wanders a bit but Maitland's attention to detail and setting are excellent. She makes 1321 a picturesque horror show of poverty, famine, ignorance and calamity. A great place to visit but you wouldn't want to live there--at least until she writes another novel.

Ta-Da! Maitland has another novel coming out!

The Gallow's Curse. It's due on in the U.K. in March. No release date for the U.S. yet.

P.S. As with Maitland's Company of Liars, I much prefer the U.K. cover to the U.S. cover. The U.S. cover is muddled and a mash of distracting elements. The U.K. cover is beautiful--great type and a gorgeous design.