Red Dragon by Thomas Harris

Read: 20 December, 2009

Will Graham is tracking down the Red Dragon killer, but he needs a little help to get into the mind of the beast. It is Hannibal Lecter, a serial killer, who provides Graham with the dues he needs to solve the case. But Lecter has his own motivations, and Graham must outwit him if he’s ever to catch the Red Dragon.

This was an interesting story with some pretty good suspense. However, after having seen the movie, I found the character of Hannibal Lecter to be somewhat lacking. Anthony Hopkins was able to give Lecter an almost god-like presence, and to appear simultaneously enticing and frightening. His dialogue, his expression, everything about movie-Lecter made him the perfect monster. By comparison, book-Lecter seemed only half-developed. It was really quite disappointing, especially since the book format offers so much more opportunity for character development.

But the book was quite good, and it’s certainly an easy read. Certainly, a great choice for beach reading now that the summer is here.

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Mistress of the Art of Death #4: A Murderous Procession by Ariana Franklin

Read: 24 June, 2010

Adelia Aguilar has been enjoying a simple life with her daughter and friends, but King Henry II has come for her again. This time, he needs her to accompany his sister, Joanna, to Sicily. To ensure that Adelia returns when the task is completed, he keeps her daughter in England as a hostage. As the procession makes its way, strange things start to happen and Adelia is suspected of witchcraft.

There isn’t much to say about this that hasn’t been said for the last three books. If you’ve enjoyed the last three, you’ll enjoy this one too.

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Gaius Ruso Mystery #1: Medicus by Ruth Downie

Read: 15 June, 2009

Ruso has just bought a slave. He didn’t mean to, of course, but her master was treating her so roughly and she looked half-dead. Her arm is shattered and he doubts that she will live much longer, but still he bought her. Meanwhile, a woman’s body has been found and ,whether he likes it or not, Ruso must solve the mystery of her murder.

It is difficult to call Medicus a detective novel because Ruso really doesn’t do any investigating. Mostly, he just fumbles around in the dark, hopelessly inept in every area other than medicine, until the culprit is so unnerved by Ruso’s questions that he reveals himself. Those clues that Ruso does take credit for tend to be uncovered by his slave, Tilla, or openly confided to him. This bumbling detective style makes Medicus a delightfully whimsical and ironically funny story. It’s a novel only a Brit could have written.

I’m really not sure what attracts me so much to Medicus, but something certainly does. I couldn’t put it down and I ordered the next book in the series within minutes of finishing the last page. I loved that while the setting was so exotic, the issues dealt with in the novel are completely relevant today.

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Cadfael Chronicles #2: One Corpse Too Many by Ellis Peters

Read: 27 June, 2009

Cadfael does it again! When political strife leads to a mass execution, a murderer assumes that one corpse among many won’t be noticed. But Cadfael sees through this morbid disguise and, along with some new friends, he refuses to let the dead rest without justice.

As always, Peters delivers an excellent mystery with interesting characters and plot. Somehow, she manages to have a realistic and even dark plotline while still seeming innocent and unoffensive. There is also an element of feminist rebellion in the novel, as two women choose their own life paths.

Like most Cadfael novels, this is a pleasant and interesting read, a good mystery with good characters.

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Mistress of the Art of Death #1: Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin

Read: 12 June, 2009

Something evil has taken hold of Cambridge. A child’s body has been found mutilated, and now more children have gone missing. When the town finds an easy scapegoat in the local Jewish population, someone sends for a Master of the Art of Death, a sort of Medieval forensic examiner. What they end up getting is Dr. Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar of Salerno, a Mistress of the Art of Death.

Adelia’s character borders on the Mary Sue from time to time and a far too great amount of ink is spilled on her various traits. She is, of course, not classically beautiful, but even this has become a standard Mary Sue designation. On the other hand, the story is interesting – so interesting that I nearly forgot how one-dimensional our main character is.

This is not a mystery in the Holmesian sense. We are not presented with all the facts while the detective works it out and then fingers the culprit. Rather, it follows the more standard line of suspense novels that merely construct themselves around a mystery – a mystery that solves itself when the culprit reveals himself to the detective. And so Adelia discovers where the culprit can be found and so he reveals himself. In my own clearly constructed vision of what a mystery should be, I see this as a failure. However, it does appear to be fairly standard in the genre and, at least, Adelia does use her skills as an examiner to some extent when figuring out where do find the baddy.

One thing I found quite interesting is the view of religion in the novel. Adelia is an Atheist. But somehow, Franklin manages not to make this seem anachronistic. Adelia is an ‘Old Atheist’ – she’s polite about it and she is, still, half-immersed in the religious worldview. Even so, here is a novel that presents Atheism explicitly and in a positive light, without attacking religion or religious authority (a prominent religious figure is Adelia’s good friend and supporter), and without making a big deal of it. It was refreshing to read!

Another aspect that I found very interesting is the resolution of the romantic sub-plot. Adelia does not simply marry her beau, sublimating herself and her career. Rather, she simply decides to indulge in her love and her sexual desires in a way that allows her to preserve her independence. Again, it was refreshing to read, as it isn’t often that women are allowed a happy ending that is not marriage and loss of self.

Overall, Mistress of the Art of Death is an interesting and fast-paced read. While characterization may not be Franklin’s strength, she does manage to distract the reader with and interesting setting, a suspenseful plot, and lots (and lots and lots) of ichy gore.

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Mistress of the Art of Death #2: The Serpent’s Tale by Ariana Franklin

Read: 7 July, 2009

In Serpent’s Tale, we find that Henry II’s mistress has died. Naturally Adelia, who now has a baby in tow, is called to solve the mystery.

In many ways, Serpent’s Tale is an improvement over Mistress of the Art of Death. The plot is more of a mystery in the detective sense and Adelia does, actually, solve it and finger the culprit. There is also considerably less Mary Suism. The addition of the baby raises the stakes for Adelia, making the novel more suspenseful.

In addition, Serpent’s Tale kept many of the good bits of its predecessor. There is still the interesting view of Henry II and the low key but definitely present feminism. Overall, this novel is a very interesting read.

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The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

Read: 28 November, 2008

Having been a huge fan of the movie version for years, my approach to the book was understandably loaded. I already had an image of what the characters would be like and how the plot would unfold. As I read, I kept referring back to the movie and comparing the two versions – sometimes favourably and sometimes not. Ultimately, however, I realized that the two are entirely different entities, having only some plot elements and names in common.

Overall, I found the characterizations of the movie to be more enjoyable, from a purely emotional stand-point. I don’t think any film has ever captured the awkwardness of growing up quite so well as Adso’s kitchen scene with the village girl! Sean Connery’s William was the familiar figure of the innocent and slightly naive genius. And then there’s Ron Pearlman’s Salvatore – a character the book version can only be a poor foretelling of.

In the novel version, however, the characters didn’t come through as much – perhaps because they were more realistic and didn’t draw quite so much on stereotypes and archetypes. On an intellectual level, this worked just fine. On an emotional level, however, I just had too much trouble bonding with any of the characters for it to really work. That being said, I don’t know how much of this is because of the movie version’s taint.

The novel is long and slow (an intentional feature, if the appended essay is to be believed), but it is never tedious. The rythm is steady and only as slow as it needs to be. Whenever I would feel myself just starting to get bored, something would happen. Eco showed an incredible sense of pace in that sense – every scene is exactly as long as it needs to be.

All in all, it’s a great novel. It is, however, very dense. I am glad that I waited until now to pick it up because I think that I would have been turned off by it had I tried any earlier. It’s a wonderful novel to read for someone who has been studying Medieval history as a hobby for quite a while and wants a good illustration of the complexities of society/theology.

My recommendation would be to try reading it, but to put it down immediately if it seems to dense or boring. Try it again later. It would be a terrible shame to predispose yourself negatively to the experience simply because you tried to get into it too early.

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Hygiène de l’Assassin [Hygiene and the Assassin] by Amélie Nothomb

Read: 24 September, 2008

This is my second Nothomb book. My mother joined a French reading club a while back that read this and Stupeur et Tremblements. Once done, she sent me these two books to read. I read the first right away and then waited an eternity before getting to Hygiène.

It’s a great book. I love Nothomb’s writing style. She uses almost no narrative, the vast majority of the story revealed through dialogue. It reads almost like a play, except that the speakers are not named. Yet, because her characters stand out so strongly and so uniquely, I was never confused as to who was speaking. It’s amazing, also, that so much drama comes through in a story with next to no action. It’s like reading a battle narrative, on the edge of my seat, watching a sparring match in which one seems to be the winner, then the underdog turns the tables, then the initial winner gains an advantage, etc.

It’s a strange book. The first half introduce us to Prétextat Tach, a dying author being interviewed by a series of journalists. The second half is entirely different as one journalist is able to work her way beyond all Tach’s masks and reaches the dark past and insanity he hides. It’s sad, hilarious, and completely ridiculous all at once.

I don’t know if there are any English translations of this book. If there are, I highly recommend giving it a read.

I am at a complete loss as to how to label this book. I apologize for the absurdly poor choice I’ve made, but I see none better.

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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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