Saturday, January 31, 2009

Book Review: I'm Not the New Me by Wendy McClure

I'm Not the New Me was recommended to me several years ago by a friend. It was on my original To Be Read challenge book list, therefore I consider this a win for that first challenge. Sure, I didn't read it two years ago, at the time of the challenge, but it's now off my pile, so there's something to be said about that, right?

She recommended this to me as a memoir of a fat girl. She failed to mention that Wendy McClure is a fat girl with a blog. I've never actually read a memoir by a fat girl with a blog. Being one myself, it was a little jarring at first. Kind of like looking into the window of a shop and seeing your outfit on a mannequin.

What did I see? A lot of self-loathing and introspection. Did I see myself in her, though? No, not really.

The thing about being a fat girl is that I tend to base my opinions of myself in relation to how different I am to someone else. Okay, my arms are thinner than hers, I don't have a double chin like she does, oh god she's got nicer legs than me, etc. etc.

The thing is, I don't think I overly obssess about my fatness. Essentially, Wendy and I are the same person. We both work in publishing, we're both big girls, and we both write blogs. That's where the similarities stop, though. This is where I begin formulating an opinion about myself through her. Her weight is a major issue in her life. It haunts her from her earliest childhood memories and carries through into her adult life like a scale attached to her ankle.

I found myself disliking Wendy in parts of the book. Part of it is because she's so consumed by her own low self-esteem, but mostly it's because she has this successful online presence, yet she seems taken aback and suspicious of the other women who reach out to her through her website.

I realize this book is written in 2005, and a lot has changed in the mean time. The nature of the weblog itself has changed drastically and I'm sure Wendy's opinion of the community that grew around her is not nearly as negative as it once was.

But I still can't help but feel like she's really just a bit of a whiner.

Rating: Two Stars

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Rise of Digital Books—Should the Printed Book be Worried?

The topic at Booking Through Thursdays is one that I have already covered briefly in a previous post, but I think it bares rehashing. Ebooks are here to stay. Digital media is here to stay. I think that is something that we all have to get used to. Some people are already embracing the technology full tilt, while others are…dubious to say the least.

I think I fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. I’m curious about ebooks, although I haven’t actually read an entire one. I don’t own an ebook reader because I believe I have to make a conscious decision to go digital, and that time hasn’t come yet. I work in digital and internet in publishing, though. I’m part of the publishing world that is trying to convince readers that digital production is where books are headed to.

And the funny thing is, I can see it working.

When I first started my job, I was dubious to say the least about digital books. The only time I’ve ever read a digital book is on my computer, and I nearly went blind from the experience. It’s hard reading from a computer screen.

But when you shrink that computer screen down to the size of, say, a paperback novel, the argument starts to take a different shape.

And then there’s the iPhone. That shiny beacon of forward thinking is the advanced guard, the first in a long line of a new generation of personal computers that have the potential and the capability of convincing the world that you can read a book digitally. BlackBerry has already come out with a competitor called the BlackBerry Storm, and I dare say by the end of 2009 most major cellphone manufacturers will have a similar model. This is where we are headed, and it’s full steam ahead.

The iPhone is the greatest enemy to the printed book.

But that isn't to say that the print book is about to go extinct. I think there will always be a following of the printed word, but—as with everything else threatened by a newer, shinier version of itself—that following will gradually shrink over time. It may take generations, but it might happen.

Think about it—technology is guided by convenience. So, in twenty years time, when everyone is hooked into their personal mobile computers (because, essentially, that is what an iPhone is, is it not?), what will the reader be carrying? An iPhone AND a book, or just an iPhone with fifty books loaded into it, perfect for every mood, along with the capability to download another fifty in ten minutes, should her mood change?

I'm conflicted. I want to believe that the printed word is not dying, but it's hard to see the evidence to the contrary. I feel like I'm just clinging to my library at a moment when I should be embracing the changes.

So what will happen to the book? I predict the printed word will have a renaissance—the book will become a collectible once again. Books will be made with care, with proper material that can stand the test of time. Because if people aren’t buying throwaway paperbacks anymore, you need to change the look of them. Convince people that your books are worth the paper they are printed on again. Remind us why we covet the smooth, bleached pages, and the alluring scent of the ink.

Digital books are here to stay, but they won’t kill the printed book entirely.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

I'm All Read Out

I fear I am in a literary slump. Currently I have several books on the go: Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore, I'm Not the New Me by Wendy McClure, The Tales of Beedle the Bard by oh, you know, and Don Quixote.

Two nights ago, tired of all of these books, I picked up Gina Showalter's The Darkest Night, the first in a trilogy of ancient Greek warriors cursed with the personified demons of Death, Violence, Pain, Lust, and I can't remember the last one, but I'm sure it's a doozy.

Yeah, I know.

Sometimes you just need fluff, though. I have been pushing myself so hard to read so many diverse things, that I just snapped. I haven't touched a library book in days, and I haven't so much as sniffed at the challenge list that I created for myself in December, apart from the half-hearted attempt at Montefiore's tome.

I don't know what it is, but I'm kinda read out.

Do you ever get that way? Do you ever push yourself so hard to read so much that you need to step back for a minute and rest your eyes? I do. Perhaps that's why I read so many books at once; I need to have a variety of books in order to match the mood I am in.

I don't apologize for liking fluff. And no one should have to. Genre fiction, trashy books, whatever you call it—sometimes they are the best remedy you can ask for.

I expect I'll get my mojo back soon enough. It's not like I've stopped reading entirely. The Darkest Night is half through already and The Darkest Kiss is waiting on my shelf, next in line!

Photo source: tabrandt

Thursday, January 22, 2009

E-Books are Catching On, New Digital Books Site from Chapters Indigo

Chapters Indigo (my former boss, loved you guys!) has just announced they will be launching a new e-books service called Shortcovers. They're betting on readers who are gradually turning away from the conventional book (clunky, undignified, hard to hold?) and towards their laptops and cellphones (shiny! digital! sexy!)

The site will offer free and paid digital content, much like (my current boss, love you guys even more!) Harlequin already offers, along with a host of other web 2.0 features—news articles, blogs, social networking, etc.

I'll be honest, I have not read a digital book ever. Well, does fanfiction count? I suppose that counts. Okay, scratch that; I have read a digital book, but not your traditional digital book. I'm intrigued by the idea, especially the mobile aspect. If I had the money I would probably already have a Sony Reader (Kindle, sadly, is not available in Canada as of yet.) Since I'm a poor bugger who needs to pay off her student loans though, I've got to stick to the traditional paper-and-ink. But the idea of storing several books in a tiny device that can fit in my purse for whenever and wherever is an enchanting one.

How about you? Are you already or are you thinking of taking the plunge into digital?

Image by libraryman.

Books I Want to Read: Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell

Josh Bazell's Beat the Reaper was recently reviewed by USA TODAY. And I'm left intrigued.

If you don't like extreme gun violence, blow-by-blow descriptions of surgical procedures performed by doped-up, angry doctors, the lack of care administered by bitter nurses, misdiagnoses and a huge dose of vulgarity, this novel is not for you.
~ Carol Memmott, USA TODAY
I'm not normally one for gore, but I can take written gore much easier than visual gore.

Booking Through Thursdays

Booking Through Thursdays asks:

Since “Inspiration” is (or should) [be] the theme this week … what is your reading inspired by?
Good question! My reading is mostly inspired by a combination of friends and my own stumblings through the internets. I'm basically a sponge, and it takes very little to get me to try a book. If you like it, or if you think I will like it, I will likely put it on the TBR pile. Alternatively, I read a lot on the internet as well.

When I lived in Hamilton, I used to go on the public library website and search through the new books, placing holds on things that looked interesting, or just writing them down on my list to come back to another day.

And when I worked at Chapters? Those were heady days...I never had so many recommendations from people in my life! It was truly amazing working in a bookstore because I got to talk about books with everyone (apart from those poor souls looking for webkinz.)

These days a lot of inspiration comes from the challenges I've joined, and the people at work who love to read as much as I do.

So you can see, my inspiration comes from many sources. Every book has potential, as far as I'm concerned.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Book Review: The Fountain by Darren Aranofsky and Kent Williams

Darren Aranofsky’s The Fountain (published by Vertigo Comics in 2005) is a visually interesting over-sized graphic novel based on the movie of the same name. Published a year before the film was released, Aranofsky’s intentions were to preserve a part of his project just in case Hollywood “f**ks him over.” A prudent notion, considering his film was met with mixed (and confused) reactions.

Having never watched the film, I borrowed The Fountain from the library thinking I could read this instead and get pretty much the same thing, albeit with ninety percent less Hugh Jackman. The film runs at about an hour and a half; in today’s world of thirty hour Lord of the Ring marathons, this is a fairly quick watch. But at 176 big pages full of cool drawings, the graphic novel wins. I think I read this in under an hour.

As can be imagined, the story is similar to the film. It revolves around the same couple in three different time periods—1535 Spain and Central America, present day, and “the future” wherein we will all be riding around in giant space bubbles in the nude, if Aranofsky gets his way.

The central theme of all three stories is the loss of the great love. Tomas traipses through each time period, bellowing, crying and nearly stamping his feet in effort to save the woman he loves. Inevitably, they all die, though. Sorry, I didn’t give away the ending. It’s pretty much a given.

I wasn’t terribly impressed with the graphic novel, and I can understand why the film was met with mixed reviews. The story is a great idea. It has so much Romeo-and-Juliet potential, it could be Romeo and Juliet. But the execution falls flat on its face. The novel is drawn by Kent Williams, an artist widely respected in the industry. While some images are visually spectacular, there are parts of the graphic novel wherein background characters are little more than drawn lines. Perhaps one could argue that Williams and Aranofsky are trying to emphasize Tomas’s intense focus on his love, and so the rest of the world appears little more than hazy outlines, but it just looks unfinished.

See for yourself:

Each story ends with Tomas’s love dying in some fashion. In 1553, she sacrifices herself for the glory of her queendom. In the present day, she quietly dies in a hospital bed as Tomas receives word that they have found a cure for her cancer. Most bizarrely, in the future (remember, floating through space in a bubble), she is sacrificed to give life to the tree inside the bubble.

That I don’t get. The first two, I’m cool on. Tragic, romantic, ideas I can grasp. The final pair I can’t come to terms with. Why are they in that bubble? What’s the point of her dying if Tomas is just going to float through space alone?

Perhaps it’s just too meta for me.

Three stars

Monday, January 19, 2009

Best Social Networking Site for Readers?

Dear Author is asking bloggers to vote on their favourite social network for readers. Thus far, my favourite network Shelfari is coming in at fourth with only 16% of the votes. It does have it's issues. For one thing, I hate that it's so "widget-like". I would much rather it be more text-based like Goodreads or LibraryThing. I'm just not really in the mood to switch, though. It would mean having to export all of the books that I've selected in Shelfari and then importing them into a new network (i.e. selecting them all over again). They really have to offer me a good incentive to move my collection. It's not ridiculously large, but it would still take at least an hour out of my day to do that. Plus, I kind of really prefer the Visual Bookshelf on Facebook anyway. I keep that updated the most, and I even write reviews on it when the mood strikes.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Booking Through Thursdays

Booking Through Thursday asks:

If you’re anything like me, there are songs that you love because of their lyrics; writers you admire because their songs have depth, meaning, or just a sheer playfulness that has nothing to do with the tunes.

So, today’s question?

* What songs … either specific songs, or songs in general by a specific group or writer … have words that you love?
* Why?
* And … do the tunes that go with the fantastic lyrics live up to them?

You don’t have to restrict yourself to modern songsters, either … anyone who wants to pick Gilbert & Sullivan, for example, is just fine with me. Lerner & Loewe? Steven Sondheim? Barenaked Ladies? Fountains of Wayne? The Beatles? Anyone at all…

This is an excellent question! I love to sing, and songs with memorable lyrics tend to stay in my playlists much longer than songs with memorable melodies. There are songs that have been in my iPod Alphonse for years because I love to sing the lyrics.

Three songs come specifically to mind, and I can even pinpoint the lyrics that I love. These are:

Ryan Adams’s Let it Ride—this entire song is fantastic. Twangy, dirty country; Ryan Adams tends to polarize people, they either love ‘im or hate ‘im. I lean more towards loving him. How can you not when he croons songs like these:

27 years of nothing but failures and promises that I couldn't keep / Oh lord, I wasn't ready to go / I'm never ready to go

That line specifically (and others that follow in the same song) fall off the tongue so easily that it’s difficult not to sing along with him. I picture myself as a barmaid-cum-country-singer whenever that song rolls around and I get to singing.

Then there’s a newer song in my playlist. City & Colour is a one-man band by the name of Dallas Green of Alexisonfire fame. If you’re into Canrock, you’ll know him well, but if you’re not, then…you’re missing out! Beautiful voice often coupled by just a guitar, he’s a great mellow singer-songwriter. Perfect for when you’re chilling at home, or (like I was when I first listened to his second album) on a long cross-country driving trip.

This song hits write at home because it describes me so well. Observe:

At least I know I'll never sleep at night. (Sleep at night) / I'll always lie awake until the morning light. (Til the morning light) / This is something that I'll never control. /My nerves will be the death of me.
Good melody, and lyrics I can relate to. This will be in my playlist for years to come.

Finally, the last song that I could think of is by my all-time favourite band Nine Inch Nails. Only was released on the With Teeth album, and I can recite the following to you as a poem if I didn’t know how to sing it:

Well the tiniest little dot caught my eye / And it turned out to be a scab / I had this funny feeling / Like I just knew it’s something bad / I just couldn’t leave it alone, kept picking at that scab / Like it was a doorway / Trying to seal itself shut / But I climbed through

Oooh gruesome imagery, eh? I love it.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Canadian Readers, Where You At?

Well, you aren't reading my blog, that's for sure. Chances are, you aren't reading much of anything. A recent poll commissioned by Canada Heritage of 1,502 people over the age of 15 revealed Canadians read an average of 17 books a year. 12 percent don't read at all.

I know none of this is surprising. Anyone with a television can tell you that reading is a dying hobby, if he bothered to turn away from the warm glow long enough to do so.

What’s surprising is that fifty percent of the people polled couldn’t name a single Canadian author. At all. Not even Margaret Atwood or Mordechai Richler.

I realize if you poll Canadian readers you'll have much better luck, but this is just shameful. I love CanLit, and there is a lot of it to choose from. You'd be hard pressed to find a genre that Canadians haven't written in. That's what makes CanLit (indeed, Canadian culture even) so inclusive—because we live in such a large country that includes so many different cultures, the nature of CanLit changes with its location. CanLit from B.C. is different from CanLit from Ontario, or Nova Scotia, or Quebec.

Despite this dismal poll, I think Canada has a really healthy reader culture. For instance, we have plenty of well-respected awards like the Giller and the GG's that help promote CanLit at home and abroad.

Plus, the CBC (another wonderful Canadian institution) holds a debate each year called Canada Reads. I started following Canada Reads a couple of years ago. Five books are chosen by five Canadian celebrity panelists, who are then asked to defend their choice. The week-long radio series airs on the CBC this year March 2 to 6, if you're interested.

This year one of my favourite artists, Sarah Slean, is a panelist. Previous panelists include Jim Cuddy (lead singer of Blue Rodeo), Scott Thompson (Kids in the Hall alumnus), Olivia Chow (Liberal MP), and Justin Trudeau (sexiest member of Parliament and son of late Pierre Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada).

Canada Reads is sort of the ultimate in CanLit selection, in my opinion. It's chosen by well-known Canadians, and presented by the CBC, the Canadian media. I don't always get to read every book on the list in time for the debates, and indeed, sometimes I just don't have an interest in the book, but it's always interesting and engaging.

Despite what the Calgary Herald thinks, CanLit certainly is not dead. The fact of the matter is, people just don't read any more. That doesn't mean that Canadian authors will stop writing, though. And as long as they keep writing, I'll keep reading.

Source: Calgary Herald by way of Book Ninja
Photograph by low.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Blogs to Newspapers: "Aren't You Dead Yet?"

If you've ever wanted to be a published journalist, but haven't been lucky enough yet, you might have your chance now. If you have a blog, that is. 'Course, everyone has a blog these days. This plant has a blog. My sister has a blog. If you don't have a blog, you should just stop reading.

BUT, if you do have a blog, and you live in San Francisco or Chicago, you might find your posts published in a new local paper. It's called The Printed Blog; the paper aims to publish blog posts from local writers and journalists. It's the 'best of the web on the newsstand.'

Oh, newspapers. You're sure trying hard, aren't you? I'm not saying this is a death knell, but...well, it's a death knell.

Blogs are interactive. They don't end at the end of the entry because the reader can choose to browse the links provided in the blog, find similar blogs, browse the writer's blogroll, or even the post history. Newspapers are static and hard to edit or comment on. Besides, do I really want to read last week's news in the paper when five new entries have been posted on the internet?

What do you think of this aggregate of blog posts in print form?

Book Review: Zot:! The Complete Black and White Collection by Scott McCloud

Zot! is a comic created by Scott McCloud, who is better known for having written and drawn Understanding Comics, a comprehensive work on the creation of comics. I found Zot! The Complete Black and White Collection at my my library after not finding a book I was looking for. I seem to have this allergy that prevents me from leaving the library empty-handed. So, I chose Zot!

Zot! is a series that combines the superhero elements of classic comic books with the newer genre of real-life, relationship based graphic novels. I suppose if you were to ask me the difference between a comic book and a graphic novel, that would be it, although that's not necessarily always the case. The definition of a graphic novel and a comic book is highly debated, and this review isn't where I would necessarily lay my lines down about that.

Anyway, I digress.

Zot! tells the story of a blonde-haired superboy named Zot who comes from an alternate earth, and his relationship with Jenny Weaver, a teenage girl from our own earth. The first half of hte collection is comprised of the 'superhero' stories in the series. Zot (real name Zachary Paleozogt) battles a host of villains who are all in some form or another caricatures of the villains McCloud grew up on.

The second half of the collection deals with more introspective, personal stories. McCloud deviates from the classic superhero format by literally exiling Zot in Jenny's (i.e. our) earth and moving the focus away from him. Entire issues of Zot! are devoted to characters that were introduced as minor players in previous issues, such as Ronnie, a comic book obsessed school friend, or Terry, Jenny's best friend who comes out in an issue.

Zot! was published in comic form from 1984 to 1991, and the stories that McCloud introduces, if you look at the time he was writing and drawing them in, are ground breaking. My favourite story has to be Jenny and Zot's first time. The story is left open to allow the reader to decide for themselves if anything actually happens.

What I liked most about the collection was McCloud's commentary. He provides insight into his drawing habits and his personal thoughts about each story. You can really tell he's an incredible perfectionist and it pains him in some ways to publish this collection, warts included. Personally, I didn't think there were any warts, but I'm not an artist, let alone a graphic novel artist. I liked knowing what he thinks of his own stories.

The stories themselves were fun to read. While not terribly complicated by any standards (McCloud admits that he had little knowledge of how to write a story when he first started drawing Zot!), they're interesting and humourous, as well as touching. I could understand Jenny's (I want to say motivation here, but it's not a play...c'mon Olga, work that vocabulary!) desire to flee her world and live in Zot's, where everything is just better. We've all been there before, and we don't have to be fifteen to feel like that.

The characters also made Zot! a good read. Each one, be it a villain or a friend, has a story and they're all interesting. I could go on and on. Seriously, if you happen to stumble upon this collection at the library, I suggest you take it out. It's not McCloud's best work, but it's a really great read nonetheless.

Rating: Four Stars

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Booking Through Thursdays

Booking Through Thursdays asks:
It’s a week or two later than you’d expect, and it may be almost a trite question, but … what were your favorite books from 2008?
For someone who hasn't been tracking every book she's read in 2008, this is kind of a hard question.

For light and fluffy reads, I would have to go with Deanna Raybourn's Silent in the Grave. A good mystery, and really good chemistry between the characters made it an instant fave with me, and I've started to convert people as well.

For nonfiction, hands down, it has to be Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food. Informative, inspiring, horrifying, yet uplifting. It made me want to hide in a farmer's market and not come out until the spring.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Book Review: Stuck in the Middle: 17 Comics From an Unpleasant Age edited by Ariel Schrag

Stuck in the Middle: 17 Comics from an Unpleasant Age collects the unpleasant, embarrassing, and often humourous memories of a group of artists from the junior high years. Best friends, horse camp, betrayals, first kisses, and parachute pants all combine to breathe life into the childhood memories that so many of us try and repress. It’s true. We all have, to varying degrees, really effed up stories of pre-teenage years.

In the spirit of Stuck in the Middle, I give you a tale of my own from those tender years when I thought in all honesty I would grow up to be the bride of Leonardo DiCaprio (or one of the Backstreet Boys.)

I never went to middle school, but that didn't prevent me from going through similarly painful juvenile rights of passage. As a child my family moved around a fair bit. By the time I was in the seventh grade, I was in my sixth grade school. As everyone knows, moving not only uproots you, it also turns you into the newest pariah of any given school. I don’t blame my parents for changing my schools very often, but I certainly know that I will never do the same to my own children.

In the seventh grade, after moving once again in the summertime, I happened to be close enough to go back to my very first elementary school. Figuring that I would at least have somewhat of a connection to these group of children, I begged, whined and complained until I was enrolled in St. J’s once again.

Of course, nothing ever goes right, especially not when you’re the new kid. I was immediately ostracized by former friends, having made the grave mistake of leaving on a bad note the first time around—I stole a robin’s egg from my class and was caught. That was the very last thing my schoolmates remembered about me before I moved away, and so I was the pariah once again.

But, I was resourceful. I made friends quickly, girls who came to St. J’s long after the incident, and thus had no memory of my egg-stealing.

Fairly soon I was fully embraced by a group of about five or six girls. The number of us changed constantly since we were always not speaking to this girl or that girl, but for the most part we got on really well.

The problem with prepubescent girls is, they are like mercury. Moods and alliances could change in an instant, without provocation. We were like ticking time-bombs, ready to go off at one another.

This became a harsh reality for me one evening. Out of nowhere I received a phone call from R.—she accused me of making fun of her voice. Bewildered, having done no such thing, I denied it vehemently, but there was no use. I was already a Benedict Arnold. The news spread quickly—Olga’s a teaser. And that was that.

The next day at school I was ignored by all of my friends, left to stew in the mess that I had made for myself by allowing myself to become a target.

Heartbroken, I was forced to tell my mother the details (after being yelled at on the phone once again by a friend the following night). My mother was livid, and no doubt even more bewildered than I was, having received a hysterical and no-doubt confusing explanation from a distraught pre-teen.

The next day, she took me to school. Instead of dropping me off, she went down to the schoolyard with me, and—to my horror—bitched out the very girls who had ostracized me for the past thirty-six hours in broken English.

God bless my mother. She was my greatest champion, fighting that battle as best she could with half-finished sentences growled at the girls. At least they had the courtesy of looking shame-faced.

I was convinced this was the end of my social life completely. R. and the rest of the girls apologized half-heartedly in front of my mother. When she left, I was left alone once again.

But then something miraculous happened. At lunchtime, I was invited to sit with them. Once more I was welcomed back into the fold, and in the blink of an eye all was forgotten. There was no need to discuss what just happened—it was over! Why bring up the pain, when we could just move on with our lives and share a bag of Doritos and talk about our crushes again?

I’ve never been able to forget that event, even though the details have become fuzzy. I still don’t quite get what happened, but it serves as a reminder that middle school—your thirteenth year especially—is f**king scary. You couldn’t trust anyone, and you couldn’t be trusted. That best friend who just yesterday was braiding your hair over lunch, could be pointing the finger of blame on you today.

I’m glad I’m not thirteen anymore. This collection of comics from that unsettling age is a great journey down memory lane, but it makes you think about your own hellish recollections. The best part of the book is knowing that everyone goes through the same thing—no one gets out of middle school without having been scarred by it.

Rating: Four Stars

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Book Review: Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin (aka Diana Norman)

Mistress of the Art of Death has been in my TBR pile since its publication. In fact, it probably should have gone on my TBR Challenge list at least a couple of years ago, but the list is so long, it sort of got lost in the depths of it.

Like a lot of books that find their way into my TBR pile, this one happened to casually announce itself through my former job as a sales girl at the local big-box bookstore. I would scower the shelves and the display tables for something new and interesting (and there was always something new and interesting), then write down the title or the author to take home. My pockets were full of slips of paper by the end of most of my shifts.

Despite the fact that I would ritually spend half my pay cheque on new books, I never picked this one up. I thought about it during my weekly trip to the bookstore. As I was checking out the graphic novels, for some reason my eyes shifted to the next shelf over. Lo and behold, there it was, staring me in the face.

Mistress is set in twelfth century England. Four children from Cambridge and the surrounding area have been kidnapped and murdered in a horrible fashion. The first child was found crucified and the local Jews have been accused of the murders. Cambridge, incensed by these brutal killings, force the Jews to flee to the castle, where they are protected by the sheriff, but not before Chaim, Cambridge’s most successful moneylender (and the unfortunate soul who discovers the first murdered child), is lynched, along with his wife.

King Henry I is shrewd—he is not interested in seeing the most profitable citizens of his kingdom expelled or massacred. Not when there are wars to be won and coffers to be filled.

His answer arrives in a pilgrimmage. An unlikely trio arrive in Cambridge: Simon, the best investigator the King of Naples can send, Mansur, a Moor, and Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar—mistress of the art of death. Salerno, home of Europe’s best medical experts, is where they come from, and they are commanded to find the murderer, and (hopefully) exonerate the Jews.

Adelia is a wonder—a female doctor in a world where even male doctors are considered an oddity, she is faced with the task of examining the corpses to determine who could have committed such a heinous act, while evading the notice of the Cambridge townfolk. It isn’t always easy to avoid notice, being the only group of foreigners in town.

Of course, this is Adelia’s story. But Franklin does not allow the other characters to become one-dimensional. They each have their quirks, which makes the book much more than just a mystery—it’s a novel about ordinary people in a historical setting reacting to extra-ordinary circumstances.

Child-killers are rare even in today’s society. To find your community invaded by a serial killer during that time must have been a truly frightening experience, and you can see how such events can create monsters and demons to frighten us in the dead of night. Indeed, Franklin ultimately turns him into a demon by his ritual--when he kills he transforms himself into an animal by wearing a pair of antlers, and he lures children to his den with jujubes, the Pied Piper of the fens.

I enjoyed learning the history of the fenland people, their accents especially. At times it was hard to get the gist of what they were saying, and I can only imagine how much harder it would have been for poor Adelia.

I didn’t enjoy Mistress right from the beginning. For one thing, the book’s language is frilly. But as the mystery soon enfolded, I was quickly sucked in. It’s part-CSI thriller, part-historical fiction, with a dash of romance thrown in to round it out completely. I’ll add The Serpent’s Tale on the TBR pile, because I like Adelia a lot and I’m interested to learn more.

Having also read Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, I have a greater appreciation for the history as well. Franklin’s novel paints a different side of Henry I—in Mistress he is more than just the instigator of Thomas รก Beckett’s death, he is a sensible and fair king who struggles with the limits of his own power. He also has some of the best lines in the book.

Definitely worth a read if you’re interested in the time period, or enjoy medical mysteries.

Rating: 4 stars

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Booking Through Thursdays

Booking Through Thursdays asks:

So … any Reading Resolutions? Say, specific books you plan to read? A plan to read more ____? Anything at all?

I only have one reading resolution this year--do it more often. Some people say I already read too much, but frankly I don't think there is such a thing. Perhaps my resolution should be that I would like to read more of my own writing? So I secretly want to write my own novel. Who doesn't, frankly.

As for things I really want to read, I'm eagerly awaiting the release of Deanna Raybourn's Silent on the Moor. Lovely series, can't wait to have it in hand.