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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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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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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Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham

Read: 6 May, 2009

There was a tall pile of them on the sale table, just $4.99 each. I’d never heard of the title, or the author of that matter, but I had my allowance in hand. This was why I had come – to experiment, to sample the books no one else had wanted. $4.99 is nothing, really, especially for a hardcover. So I grabbed a pile of books, anything that looks interesting. I blew my entire allowance. It doesn’t really matter. If just one or two of these books turn out to be gems, they will have enough value for the entire pile.

I’m not sure why I picked this one. I don’t think I even bothered to read the jacket. The cover is interesting and it says “by the author of The Hours.” Hadn’t I heard that title before? I was sure it was a movie I had seen, maybe even liked.

I’ve been chewing my way through the pile of books I’ve bought in that way, but months went by before I got to this one. In the meantime, the bookstore marked it down to $2, and then only $1. The pile, sans my copy, never seemed to get any smaller. For whatever reason, this is a novel that has failed to catch the public’s eye.

But I like the cover. I like the dandelion parachute ball, green and glowing. I would see it on my shelf and try to imagine what the story could be about. With a name like Specimen Days, it could be just about anything. Horror, maybe? I think I confused The Hours with The Others.

I had just finished Witches Abroad. Discworld novels are safe; I know what to expect when I crack the spine onto the first page. I was ready for something different, unexpected, adventurous.

So I picked the glowing green dandelion parachute ball with the black background. Why not?

Specimen Days is not a novel, no matter what the cover says. Specimen Days is a meditation, a thought experiment. It glides through experiences like a breeze, offering no explanations and no resolutions. To call itself a novel, it experiences the world through three characters: the child, the woman, and the man. Each of these receives a chapter, an age, and a genre. The book is at once historical fiction, detective story, and science fiction. Somehow, the whole is held together by an experience of Walt Whitman. I won’t try to explain – I can’t. You’ll just have to read it for yourself.

I’m not surprised that Specimen Days can now be purchased for only $1 on the book’s sale table. It isn’t bad, it’s just so experimental, different, and genre-defying. It’s an experience of beauty and thought that can be both marvellous and uncomfortable. It isn’t a casual read.

That being said, it was a wonderful experience and I feel enriched for having been seduced by that glowing green parachute ball. Read it, give it a chance, and let yourself experience the touch of the literary numinous.

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Curse of a Winter Moon by Mary Casanova

Read: 20 March, 2009

Twelve-year-old Marius has been burdened with the care of his little brother, Jean-Pierre, ever since their mother died in childbirth. But Jean-Pierre was born on Christmas Eve and the villagers believe that he carries the mark of the loup garou – the werewolf. With the longest night of the year approaching and the villagers thirsting for heretic blood, will Marius be able to protect his little brother from the clutches of the Catholic Church?

POSITIVE: The story is short and reasonably entertaining. It’s obviously written for children in the 10-14 age range and makes for a great introduction to the Inquisition and schism between the Catholic and Protestant Churches. I could definitely see quite a few teachable moments scattered throughout the novel.

NEGATIVE: However, there just didn’t seem to be that much of a point to the story. I never felt swept into the story, or even that I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next. There just wasn’t much enthusiasm in the narrative. Admittedly, it could just be a subjective conflict with the narrative style, but I usually get swept into stories – even poorly-written ones. The ending fellt a little arbitrary as well.

Overall, I really can’t say that anything was bad about the story, it just didn’t take my interest. It’s a shame because the subject matter is definitely up my alley. As I said above, it’s worth reading if only for the teachable moments. It’s short enough that it doesn’t really need more of an argument than that for its usefulness.

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Marguerite Makes a Book by Bruce Robertson (illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt)

Read: 29 November, 2008

I picked up this book because the concept struck me as such a wonderful idea that I didn’t want to pass up the chance and risk not being able to find it (or of forgetting about it) when I have someone age-appropriate in the house to share it with. I’m really glad I did!

The book is superb, from cover to cover. The art is gorgeous. For some reason, a lot of children’s books have awful squiggly line art, as though kids wanted to see drawings that were apartment made by people at their artistic level. Maybe that’s true for some children, but I never appreciated being talked down to – even artistically. In this book, the illustrations (mostly watercolour, with some shiny gold detailing) are absolutely enchanting. They feature plenty of pictures detailing the process of making a book in the Middle Ages, as well as city streets and even maps of Medieval Paris.

The story itself is quite good, though fairly standard. Marguerite’s father makes books, but he’s getting too old. The deadline for a new book is coming up, but he’s broken his glasses, so Marguerite has to finish the book on her own. She walks around Paris shopping for the ingredients and then goes home to work on the book. The deadline comes and she’s finished it and the book is very beautiful and everyone is happy and proud of her.

The book is quite educational: going through several Medieval trades (including tanner and herbalist) and explaining in fairly good detail what goes into making a book. There’s an explanation of how each colour is made, how the actual painting is done, what the “paper” is made out of, etc. And then there’s all the added information contained in the pictures themselves, such as what a Medieval street might have looked like, how people dressed (depending on class), and so forth.

If I had to pick something negative to say about the book, it would be Marguerite’s treatment of the tanner. It only lasts a page, but she just comes off as being rather rude. I suppose it’s historically accurate, but it just isn’t very nice. Then again, that just opens up a nice time to talk to kids about treating everyone with respect, even if their job makes them very stinky.

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Justin de Quincy Mysteries #4: Prince of Darkness by Sharon Kay Penman

Read: 10 September, 2008

This is the fourth in Penman’s Justin de Quincy mystery series, but the first of her novels that I’ve read. In some ways, it was a shame because it gave me the feeling of falling into the story mid-way. The novel is definitely readable without having read any of the previous books, but since a lot of the characters are reappearances, I fear that I might know too much should I ever decide to read the previous novels in the collection. For those terribly curious, I started with this book because I found it for $2 at a Chapters inventory liquidation sale.

The fact that the order in which fate had me pick up the series is the biggest complaint that I can make about Prince of Darkness is quite telling. It was a fantastic novel with great characters. It was definitely one of those “can’t put it down” books – so much so that I missed my bus stop by about 20 minutes today while finishing it up. Justin is a delightful character – believable yet naive – making his relationship with his daughter heartbreaking.

The only weakness of the novel is how it deals with climactic scenes. There are a few parts where potential action is skipped over entirely and the final “catch the bad guy” scene felt somewhat limp compared to the build up it received. Certainly, Penman’s strength is in character, exposition, and presenting a living and utterly plausible world. It was an added bonus I felt that I recognized some of the Gieses’ books in her descriptions.

It was interesting the way Penman skips travel narration altogether. Justin will say that he wants to go to X location and the chapter ends. When the next chapter begins, he’s in X already. I don’t think I’ve ever seen travel handled quite so abruptly and I’m not quite sure how I feel about it yet. When the novel first opened, I found it confusing. I didn’t know if this was a flashback, a different set of characters, if I’d missed something. A couple times, I found myself having to read nearly a full page before I could confidently situate myself in the narrative. After the first couple chapters, though, I became accustomed to it and it no longer confused me. Once this happened, I somewhat enjoyed not having to let go of the action every time an exposition scene would have been found.

The mystery wasn’t as good as I would have hoped. There certainly was one, but there was no discernible method to the gathering of clues and the thinking out of the whoddunnits. It really didn’t matter all that much. I found myself so interested in the characters that I forgot about the mystery entirely.

In any case, it was a great novel. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in Medieval historical novels, character driven novels, or political intrigue. Mystery lovers may be disappointed, however.

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Cadfael Chronicles Prequel: A Rare Benedictine by Ellis Peters

Read: 30 August, 2008

Overall, I didn’t like it quite as much as A Morbid Taste for Bones. I think that Ellis Peters might just be one of those authors who is better suited for the longer narrative format. That being said, these stories were still great fun to read.

I love that Brother Cadfael doesn’t always wrap up his cases by catching the perpetrator and turning him/her over to the authorities. Sometimes, he decides that the crime is legitimate and helps the criminal escape. Sometimes, he doesn’t reveal who did it at all. In other words, he solves the mystery and makes things right, even if that means being on the wrong side of the power structure (and, sometimes, especially if it means going against the power structure). He’s a great character and far more complex than the usual detective who just wants to restore order, whatever the moral situation.

I had expected stories that showed Cadfael before he joined the monastic order. Instead, only one story fits that, and I found that the Cadfael character didn’t come through very clearly until the end of that story – once he had decided that he would join Shrewsbury Abbey. The rest of the short stories are like the novels, following an already established brother of the abbey. So we never get a good look at Cadfael in his previous life (in fact, I got more of a sense of that life by reading A Morbid Taste for Bones!) and we never get to see him learning about the abbey and trying to fit in. It’s a whole area that would have been great to read, so it’s a shame that it was skipped over.

Either way, these were great stories and I highly recommend them for any Brother Cadfael fan. I would also like to say that the illustrations in my copy are absolutely beautiful. They are drawn in the medieval style, but have something of the modern to them – it’s hard to describe. But they did add a great deal to my enjoyment of the book.

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