Thursday, April 28, 2022

Monk's Hood (Cadfael Chronicles Book 3) by Ellis Peters

Publication Date:  January 1, 1996

Length: 287 pages

This is my third book to read in the Cadfael Chronicles. I remember coming across these books many times and not being very interested in trying them. I'm not sure exactly why except that I thought the time period was too unfamiliar to me then. After getting to know the 1100's a little better through other sources I am now hooked on her series! It's a little like reading Victorian Anne Perry novels but set in the middle ages: a great mystery, with a compelling main character, history, and wonderfully clever dialogue. What's not to love about that? Also, the font on the cover of the books is so beautiful. That is a really lame reason but if I'm being honest, it's a great visual draw to her books. 

The story begins in 1138 during the period in England known as The Anarchy. King Stephen and Empress Matilda are at war with each other although at this time Shrewsbury is fairly quiet. Cadfael is a middle aged monk who lives out his days in Shrewsbury Abbey. He is the herbalist and loves being in his greenhouse tending to his plants and helping the members of the Abbey when they are unwell and needing his medicinal help. In his former days he was a sailor, soldier, and Crusader who has seen much of the world, but has settled down to a quieter religious life. 

When the Bonel family moves into a house owned by the Abbey, Brother Cadfael is called to tend to Gervase Bonel who has taken ill. He tries to no avail to relieve his symptoms with a mixture containing the plant Monk's Hood, a deadly combination if not treated with proper care. While there, Cadfael recognizes his long ago love, Richildis, Bonel's wife. She has a son, Edwin, who hates his stepfather. When Bonel mysteriously dies, Edwin is accused and becomes a fugitive. Cadfael is determined to find out the truth owing to his unwavering pursuit of justice and his remembered love for Richildis. His quest takes him through many twists and turns including a trip into Wales, his homeland. With his usual wit and insight into human nature, Cadfael unravels the truth and is able to find justice. 

I've read some reviews of these books previously that say you don't have to read them in order. And while technically that is true I would consider doing so. There are recurring characters with distinct personalities that I would not appreciate as much if I just picked up a random volume. I think I'd still be very confused. There is a subtle humor in the way Peters writes and you see previous events build on one another in the way the characters interact. Brother Jerome, Prior Robert and Brother Mark are frequently included throughout the stories and serve to add humor and levity. Cadfael easily sees through the pious Jerome and has affection for his apprentice Mark. Without their original backstories from the first books I wouldn't really pay much attention to them. 

These books are pretty short and can be read quickly. However, I have found you really have to pay attention. There is a lot going on behind the words, meaning if my mind wanders I get lost quickly. The mystery part is not usually super involved but her style of writing is a bit like an old fashioned classic book I think. It is not as straightforward as more modern books and I like that because I find it expands my vocabulary and thinking skills. It is fun to try to unravel some of the sarcasm and deeper meanings as we are taken inside Cadfael's thoughts. And she is great at weaving history throughout the story. 

I'd like to finish them all eventually and will review more as I work my way through them. 



Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Uneasy Lies the Crown: A Novel of Owain Glyndwr by N. Gemini Sasson

Publication Date: November 1, 2012

Length: 434 pages

This book appealed to me because it concerns an area I know almost nothing about: Wales. And I certainly had no working knowledge of Medieval Wales. Studying Owain Glyndwr is probably standard history coursework if you are an English or Welsh child but I doubt here in America the average person could even find Wales on a map. So this book really intrigued me. Sasson has written several books on more obscure figures (Robert the Bruce, Queen Isabella) and I admire that willingness to take on lesser known subjects. This story also coincides with a time period in England that I find intriguing....the rise of Henry Bolingbroke and the involvement of the Percy family, specifically Henry Hotspur, the English knight. 

The story begins in the late 1300's with the birth and childhood of Owain Glyndwr, a Welsh son of a nobleman who traces his lineage to the great princes of Wales. Owain is happy and thriving with his family and expects to live out his days inheriting the land he lives on from his father although he realizes his father is beholden to the English King Edward III and wishes he did not have to leave them so often to fight in English wars. When his father dies of the flux while away fighting with the king's son, Edward the Black Prince, Owain is sent to live as a ward of the Earl of Arundel.  He eventually ends up in London where he studies law and becomes an apprentice of one of the justices there. He marries and has a family and is content to live out his days happily with them on his own land back in Wales. A dispute with a neighboring English marcher Lord sets off a chain of events that thrusts Owain into a leadership role he never intended on.

When Henry of Bolingbroke usurps the throne of his cousin Richard II, Owain is determined to fight for Wales and its independence. He is successful in battle enough that he eventually enters into an agreement with Henry Percy (Henry Hotspur) which comes with a heavy price. He finds himself unable to retreat from his warrior status and is drawn deeper and deeper into his role as an almost mythical savior of the Welsh people. We see his subsequent stubbornness and bravery as he tries to hang onto any small shred of land and castles against enormous odds.

A unique aspect to this book is how Sasson weaves back and forth from her story of Owain to the writings of the Welsh poet Iola Goch. After certain chapters she gives primary source excerpts from the poet's book in which he writes of the exploits of Glyndwr. It is always an added bonus for me to have the thoughts of actual living people from the day in an historical fiction novel. Goch clearly presents Glyndwr as a mythical King Arthur of sorts and so it isn’t exactly an unbiased account. Still, it is a nice touch to the story. 

I enjoyed this book simply because it was new material for me. I hadn't ever found another book on the subject in historical fiction and so I knew I was bound to learn a lot. Sasson is a good writer and has done remarkable research. I appreciated the way she consistently gave the year at the beginning of each chapter as it kept me focused and able to more easily follow the timeline of events. Her willingness to show the human side of her main character was nice as he is not presented as all saint or sinner. He has affairs and fathers children out of wedlock and is torn between his wife and lover. He is shown as loyal to friends and fellow countrymen while also being willing to come to terms with the English if necessary. In the end, she conveys the frustrations and conflict within him as he tries to decide what to do when surrender seems to be the only way out. She also does a good job of immersing one in the harsh weather and terrain of Wales. Fighting through a Welsh winter was not for the faint of heart. I was chilled to the bone just reading certain parts!

I think there could have been a bit more in depth description of some of the battles. The story often got confusing for me since I do not have a working background knowledge of Welsh history. I found myself having to look up certain parts of the story to better understand what was going on. Sometimes I felt the author took for granted that readers would know more than is realistic given that this subject, time, and place are pretty obscure for the average person. Overall though I thought she did a nice job of telling the main story of his life and evoking a sense of atmosphere and history. There were parts of the book that had me sad and depressed for Owain and his men. When things become dire for them and they still soldier on it is hard not to be awed by their courage and conviction.

I look forward to reading her books about Robert the Bruce and Isabella. Having researched much of the material from the Glyndwr novel she has earned my trust that her historical research is solid and accurate. You will learn so much from this book about a forgotten warrior and his cause. I find myself much more sympathetic to the Welsh and want to read more about their long struggles for independence.


Thursday, April 21, 2022

Of Lands High and Low by Martha Keyes


Publication Date: October 17, 2020

Length: 322 pages

This is my second book to read by Martha Keyes. I stumbled across her books when I was looking for something to read between Outlander books. I wanted a book set in Scotland with a bit of romance and mystery to tide me over. Her books are easy to read and enjoyable if you are looking for a break from the 1,000 page novel.  Even though the characters aren't as fleshed out as those in a longer epic I found them to be quite good. The storylines are unusual and original and in this one I learned quite a bit about smallpox before vaccination was available. She also does a great job with local dialect and making the characters seem authentic to their time and location.

This story is set in Scotland in 1794. Doctor Graeme MacNeill is a Highlander who has returned to the Lowlands to settle things with his estate, Pitcairlie House, recently inherited by him on the death of his Uncle David. He'd never expected to acquire it because until recently Catholics were not allowed to inherit land and were unwelcome in the Lowlands. His plan is to sell it as quickly as possible and  return to the Highlands where he practices medicine and feels at home. Unfortunately his Uncle David neglected to resolve a land dispute with the neighboring Findlay family and Graeme must turn his attention to this issue before he can think of selling. He decides to confront things head on and introduce himself to the Findlays, believing they can work things out in both their favors. 

There he encounters Isla Findlay, the niece of the neighbor in question. She has been raised to believe Highlanders are barbarians and her town of Craigmuir is highly suspicious of the newcomer. But Isla has secrets of her own. She never knew her mother and only knows she is the daughter of a Highlander herself and that her mother was disgraced for the relationship. She does not feel she belongs with her family and lives between two worlds. She and Graeme begin a friendship and when a smallpox outbreak occurs in Craigmuir they work together to help the suffering residents. 

I thought Keyes did a great job of letting their relationship build slowly and realistically. It wasn't love at first sight and it is only as they experience the heartbreak of working through the smallpox epidemic that they come together in a meaningful way. The descriptions of medicine during the 18th century were interesting and engaging and very educational. It is clear Keyes did her research on this topic and on how suspiciously people would have behaved toward any new ideas in life saving techniques. I found myself sad for those who lost loved ones and she evokes a real sense of the harshness of life and death. 

Sometimes the book got a bit melodramatic for me and repetitive in spots but overall it was a good read. It was definitely more serious than her previous book, The Widow and the Highlander.  When I read historical fiction I am most impressed with and more likely to return to authors who stick to the facts of the day and Keyes certainly does that. She has a good grasp of the land, the people, and the social mores of the day. And I'm always up for any book set in Scotland in the past. Also, her books are clean, free of cursing and gratuitous sexual content. That is rare these days and appreciated. While I'm supportive of some of it in certain books I find that is often highly unnecessary and this is a book I'd let my teenager read. I will be reading more of her books in the future.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell


Publication Date: June 30, 1936

Length: 1,037 pages

My favorite novel.....and always will be! There is no other like it. It is a masterpiece.

The first time I read Gone With the Wind I was twelve years old. I honestly didn't understand much of it but I remember being determined to finish it anyway. The movie had made a huge impression on me since the age of eight and I knew the main characters and events enough that it made me want to try to attempt to read it. A few years later at the ripe old age of eighteen I tried again. This time I was able to fully appreciate the story. I remember being surprised at how much of the book was not included in the movie and how much richer the characters seemed. I also learned more about the Civil War from the Southern perspective and previously couldn't have cared less about it. As a child the descriptions of the gowns and parties, plantation homes, interactions between husbands and wives, and their children stuck with me in a way few books have been able to replicate. I've read it a total of four times and might read it again someday.

The novel's opening line is one of my favorites..."Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm." It encapsulates the entire story right from the beginning. We forget that Scarlett is "not beautiful" because throughout the book she seems to be able to convince almost everyone that she is THE most beautiful and exciting woman in the world. 

When the story begins, Scarlett O'Hara is sixteen years old. It is 1861 and so far the war is not real to her in any meaningful way. It is a nuisance interrupting her life of parties and balls and attention from handsome men. She is holding court on her front porch with the Tarleton twins who are on this day more interested in discussing the possibility of war than in paying attention to Scarlett. Her mood changes abruptly when one of them casually mentions a barbecue being thrown by the Wilkes family and the special announcement forthcoming; specifically that Ashley Wilkes will formally announce his intention to marry his cousin Melanie Hamilton. The twins are baffled by Scarlett's reaction of stony silence and eventual abandonment of them as she struggles to process this alarming news. It is this moment that drives the plot forward from here on out. Scarlett has already determined Ashley belongs to her and no one else. Her decisions throughout the book revolve around this idealistic dream and serve as the catalyst for many of her dramatic circumstances.

On the day of the barbecue Scarlett attempts to get Ashley alone and pour out her true feelings. Not only is he not swayed by her emotions he reiterates to her his plan to marry Melanie. Scarlett angrily banishes him from her presence and it is here she officially meets her nemesis, Rhett Butler. His sarcasm and refusal to coddle Scarlett's tearful tantrums over her loss of Ashley set the tone for their relationship and its subsequent battle of wills to come.

The war proceeds whether she wants it to or not and Scarlett is thrust into a hell unimaginable to her just months before. She is married, widowed, and a young mother all in a short time and although she has support from relatives and those around her she refuses to be grateful in any meaningful way. Gone are the days of parties, beautiful clothes, and adoring attention and she struggles to process the reality of her new existence. We see her slowly grow from young, selfish, innocent Scarlett to older, selfish, battle hardened Scarlett. Her struggles do not take place on the battlefield but rather in the daily war for survival amid a backdrop of death and destruction of her beloved Georgia. She begins to see her way of life slipping away and those around her succumbing to depression and despair for their lost world.

It is after the war ends that we see her stoicism and work ethic emerge as she refuses to concede to a life of quiet suffering and dignity that her former neighbors and kinsman adopt. She is baffled by the idea of refusing to do business with Yankees or anyone else who can further her economically. As she says, "the war is over and I intend to make the best of it....even if they are Yankees." With business savvy and manipulation she manages to remarry (another man she doesn't love) and start a sawmill with Ashley Wilkes. This while living in Atlanta and also attempting to salvage the fields of her beloved childhood plantation home, Tara. Her obstinance and tenacity are to be admired but also lead to a series of events that see her in regret for the consequences of her behavior. Throughout the book Scarlett and Rhett dance around their attraction for each other and eventually come together and fall apart again. There are more babies born, plantations built, businesses acquired and hinted infidelities. Rhett tries again and again to win her heart but Scarlett stubbornly manages to thwart their relationship success every time. They are two ships passing in the night and are unable to be vulnerable enough for long enough to have a real marriage. The book's famous ending line is almost as wonderful as the first one, "I'll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day!"

Reading this review so far one would think the novel is just one long romance. And yes there is a lot of romance and unrequited love for sure. But it is so much more. I learned so much about the Civil War and about the feelings of the South during Reconstruction. In our current world Gone With the Wind is being branded as racist, insensitive, and out of touch. I think this is the wrong way to look at it. It is above all else a snapshot in time of how a southerner viewed the world around them. Margaret Mitchell based her book and characters on actual people she'd known and loved. Aunts, Uncles, grandparents who sat and told her personal stories of the war and hardships they endured before, during, and after. We should listen. Just because we might not always agree or like everything we hear does not negate what they have to say. Changing the narrative is dishonest. This book is not meant to give the northern perspective, the abolitionist perspective, or the perspective of those who struggled for freedom and Civil Rights in later times. It is what it is. And it should be respected as such, including the descriptions of plantation life. 

If you want a true expose on slavery or the caste system this is not the book for you. It was never meant for that. But it does allow you a rare glimpse into a world gone by from an author whose relatives lived it and were actually there to see it fall. To read and enjoy it is not championing the "lost cause." It is preserving a section of history told from the side of the conquered. We deserve to hear their story too. And a little romance, drama, and feminine charm thrown in makes for an amazing epic you will never forget.