A Book Dragon by Donn Kushner

Read: 30 September, 2012

Dragons must have a treasure to guard, or so says Nonesuch’s grandmother. But when Nonesuch finds himself alone and getting smaller, he embraces his new size and finds a new sort of treasure.

Over the course of the novel, Nonesuch travels through a number of time periods, stopping for longer stays in a Medieval monastery, and then again in the modern era. On the way, he passes through the War of the Roses, the Black Plague, the Fire of London, the dawn of the Age of Reason, and World War II (through the perspective of a Jewish character who left Germany for America).

As I was reading, I found myself thinking of how useful this book would be to help contextualize and introduce a number of different historical periods. This would be especially useful for homeschoolers to help provide a “path” through a lesson, for example.

I also found it useful in that it was relatively short and simply, but introduced more complex concepts and vocabulary. For that reason, I’d say it’s a great resource for young readers who are just getting into novel-length works.

Unfortunately, not a whole lot happens in the novel, and I have to wonder if it will keep a child’s attention. Most of the story involves Nonesuch exploring some new environment, complete with pages of description. Although it’s possible that if it’s incorporated into a lesson plan, this deficiency might be compensated for by the extra-libris activities.

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A Song of Ice and Fire #1: A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

Read: 6 January, 2012

Ever since HBO decided to put paper to screen, I’ve been hearing a lot about Game of Thrones. I’m not really “into” fantasy, in the sense that I don’t know how to find the good stuff and most of what I just pick up off the shelves (or read over someone’s shoulder on the bus) is truly quite awful. I’ve functionally given up while maintaining a dim hope for every new book I come across.

Boy, am I ever glad that I’ve kept an open mind!

Game of Thrones is extremely well written. The language flows and I was never ripped from the story by poor phrasing. Character development was very well done, with the characters at the end of the novel being quite different from the beginning but with no break in continuity. Secondary characters are given details that make them feel alive, making the fictional world feel alive and populated.

Of course, the book is long, very long, and longer still if the sequels are counted (and if you’ve committed to reading all of Game of Thrones, you’ve committed to the whole series because there’s a mighty cliffhanger at the end of the book), but I can’t think of anything that might have been cut out without hurting the story. Even action and battle scenes are kept to a minimum, with the focus quite clearly on the characters.

I also noted that the author clearly has a solid understanding of the medieval period, which further helped make the setting come alive.

I listened to Game of Thrones on AudioBook, read by Roy Dotrice. The reader was very good and used emphasis and voices effectively, so it was quite easy to follow along. The downside to listening to an AudioBook version is that the reader’s voice and the characters’ voice get confused, so it taints my perception of the characters.

I really enjoyed Game of Thrones and couldn’t put it down. It’s a substantial time investment and fairly complex, but it’s well worth it.

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Knights Templar Mysteries #21: The Death Ship of Dartmouth by Michael Jecks

Read: August, 2009

Amidst political turmoil, a man has been found dead in the road and a ghost ship has been found at sea. Meanwhile, the rebel Roger Mortimer has been sending out spies, threatening civil war.

I read this rather quickly while on holidays and the details were quickly forgotten. But I do remember quite enjoying it, despite being a little disconcerted by all the rape (and there truly is a lot of rape!).

Death Ship is a solid mystery with strong characters, and the historical fiction aspect is well executed. The violence, particularly against women, is realistic without being gratuitous.

All in all, a well-written novel and an excellent addition to any historical mystery collection.

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The Medieval Cookbook by Maggie Black

There are a few “medieval” cookbooks floating around, but this is the best I’ve seen so far. It’s the kind of cookbook that you can actually sit down and read through.

The recipes are divided by era, social class, and function. There’s a chapter on foods that were primarily associated with the cloister, for example, and a section for remedies. There are simple dishes with few ingredients that would be most appropriate for a side-dish or breakfast, and there are elaborate meals that belong more properly to a great feast.

Each recipe comes with a short introduction or with a contemporary passage describing the dish, followed by the ingredients list and instructions. Some license is taken with substitutions – sometimes multiple substitutions are indicated for choice – to deal with the fact that many of the ingredients are hard to find these days or no longer exist at all.

illustrations from contemporary sources are plentiful and printed in full colour, making this book a lovely source of medieval art as well.

I’ve tried a couple of the recipes over the years and enjoyed them. I’d love to throw a “Period Party” someday to really make use of this book.

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Gil & Alys Cunningham Mystery #3: The Merchant’s Mark by Pat McIntosh

Read: 10 December, 2010

Gil Cunningham is eagerly awaiting a shipment of books. But when the barrel that was supposed to contain literature turns out to have a human head floating in brine instead, he and his companions become enmeshed in yet another mystery.

Another great addition to the series!

There’s a bit more supernatural stuff (a ghost this time), but it’s still manageable in quantity.

I like that Gil’s station changes between the books. Each book is an isolated mystery, of course, but the character development is continuous throughout the series. I’ve really enjoyed watching Gil’s relationship with Alys grow and change – which it does in a delightfully realistic and sensible way – as well as their accumulation of companions – first a baby, then a dog. I look forward to reading the next books in the series!

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Gil & Alys Cunningham Mystery #2: The Nicholas Feast by Pat McIntosh

Read: 3 December, 2010

Soon after the events in Harper’s Quine, Gil Cunningham participates in his old university’s Nicholas Feast. But during the day, a young student is found dead. Because of his success in catching the killer in Harper’s Quine, Gil is asked to solve this murder as well. Joined by his love, Alys, and her father, he immerses himself in politics and espionage to find justice for a student no one seems to have liked.

I bought this book, along with the next two in the series, as soon as I had finished the first one, but I didn’t read it for quite a while. In my silliness, I loved Harper’s Quine so much that I was afraid of burning through the series too fast!

This was an excellent addition to the series! Once again, the mystery was interesting, and I love the relationship between Gil and Alys (not to mention Alys’s father). I’m not a fan of the supernatural element (the titular Quine from the last novel seems to be psychic – although like most psychics, his pronouncements are vague enough to be of absolutely no use), but it’s low-key enough that it can be easily ignored. Besides, the rest of the story more than makes up for it.

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The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by Howard Pyle

Read: 24 November, 2010

When we found out we were having a son, I started reviewing my planned reading lists for gender-interest. That’s when I realized that my knowledge of “boy books” is woefully inadequate. I have oodles of “strong willed girl finds her place in society as she transitions into womanhood” books – more than enough to fill any childhood. I certainly want my son to be exposed to these kinds of books, but I realized that I was going to have to expand my repertoire to include at least some books that aren’t about girls getting their first periods if I was going to make a life-long reader out of this kid.

I decided to start with the classics of boy’s literature, and that’s how I ended up reading Robin Hood.

It was fantastic! Even though there was a serious lack of menstruation, there was more than enough exciting adventure to compensate.

The book is told as a series of short stories that build on each other only very loosely. Each one is an adventure involving Robin Hood and his companions; many of them tell how a particular individual came to join Robin Hood’s gang.

The stories are exciting and full of action (and more than a little violence). They are also full of witty arguments, which are often very clever and funny. I found myself laughing out loud more than a few times!

Robin Hood is a sort of trickster figure, often seen playing pranks on others that sometimes backfire.

It’s a great book! I’ll definitely be recommending it to my son once he’s at least put diapers behind him. It’s a children’s book, but it’s certainly worth the reading for adults too!

PS: Given what I knew already of the Robin Hood legends, I was surprised to find out that Maid Marian is such a non-character – at least in this rendition. She’s mentioned a few times as Robin’s girlfriend, but that’s the extent of it. I don’t think she even makes an appearance in the story, and we certainly never learn any biographical details about her!

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Gil & Alys Cunningham Mystery #1: The Harper’s Quine by Pat McIntosh

Read: 11 September, 2010

I think that anyone who pays some attention to my reviews here would easily be able to guess that I love mysteries and I love historical fiction. So when I came across Harper’s Quine as a book that offers both, I had to buy it. But, as is so often the case, it sat on my shelf next to a whole lot of other unread books as I tried mightily to catch my reading rate up to my shopping rate.

Finally, finally, it was time to give Harper’s Quine a turn, and I immediately regretted that I had waited so long!

Gil Cunningham is expected to enter the priesthood. But when he becomes mixed in with a murder investigation, he is led to meet the lovely Alys, his future becomes rather less than certain.

I really enjoyed this books for quite a few reasons. The biggest is that the mystery is solvable by the reader – pay attention while Gil gathers clues, and it’s possible to figure out the murder rather early on. It’s a little frustrating to see Gil continue to stumble about in ignorance, but it’s immensely satisfying to be proven correct at the end. These are my favourite sort of mysteries!

Another aspect I really enjoyed was the relationship with Alys. Alys is an active participant in the mystery solving. She’s smart, capable, and contributes a lot to the detective work. But at the same time, this doesn’t feel anachronistic. Unlike Rowland’s Uechi Reiko, Alys is not a modern feminist trapped in the past. She’s a strong woman, but she’s still plausible. And, as a woman, she has many responsibilities. While her father and lover are out having great adventures, she must remain mindful of her household and its need to be continuously managed.And she can’t just “do it all” – there are times when she can’t get to a particular task that’s relevant to the mystery because she is occupied with being the lady of the house.

If I had to look for a flaw, it would be with the fate of the baddie. I’ve complained about this before, I know, but I find it rather distasteful when the baddie(s) meets with a gruesome end. I understand that it’s supposed to be cathartic, or some such nonsense, but it just strikes me as barbaric. A simple hanging, while only slightly less brutal, would at least have the benefit of being that age’s expression of justice.

But leaving that aside, this was a truly remarkable book, a rare gem. I can’t recommend it highly enough to anyone who is a fan of mysteries and/or historical fiction!

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Saga by Jeff Janoda

Read: 1 April, 2010

In Medieval Iceland, two farmers fight over a piece of land. When Ulfar turns to a local chieftain for help, he sets in motion a series of events, of schemes and counter-schemes, that will not be put to rest until much blood has been spilled and the political landscape of Swan’s Fjord has been changed forever.

Saga is a wonderful book based on the old Icelandic sagas. The story is fantastic and the storytelling does it justice. Janoda manages to build and maintain suspense. and the climax is masterfully pulled off. He also manages to capture the element of “cabin fever” in a landscape that forces families to be indoors for many months each year. This was one of those books that I felt sad to finish, wishing it could have kept going. Definitely a rare treasure of a book and highly recommended!

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Welsh Princes #1: Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman

Read: 18 March, 2010

Joanna, King John’s illigitimate daughter, is married to prince Llywelyn Fawr of Wales to secure an alliance. But John didn’t count on his daughter falling in love. When the relations between the two men start to deteriorate, Joanna is caught between her love for her father and her love for her husband.

As Wikipedia points out, one of the draws of Here Be Dragons is that it’s virgin territory; there are very few novels out there about historical Wales and, I confess, it was a milieu that I knew almost nothing about.

The historical aspects of the novel were fabulous, but it did occasionally cross into the territory of romance. Fair enough, I realize that many do like that sort of thing, but I found it rather boring and frustrating. Apparently, it’s a staple of the romance genre that people who are in love absolutely refuse to communicate with each other and, instead, simply assume the worst of the other person. I’ll never understand how this sort of thing came to be called “love” in our culture, but there you have it.

I realize that I’m not one to complain given how wooden and choppy my own writing style is, but I found Penman’s style in this book to be rather difficult to read. She has the awful tendency to force what should have been several sentences into one, joining them awkwardly. For example, she writes: “He even tried to forget the atrocity stories that were so much a part of his heritage, tales of English conquest and cruelties.” It works fine for effect now and then, but she uses it nearly every other sentence!

The book is meticulously researched and Penman is able to really bring the setting to life. The story, although about a class that is all-but extinct living lives that are so unlike anything we are familiar with, is, at the same time, very accessible. The conflict of allegiance between one’s parents and one’s spouse is something that I think most readers would be able to sympathize with.

Despite it’s flaws, I’d put Here Be Dragons as one of the better historical fiction novels on the market, well worth the read for anyone interested in the Middle Ages.

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