Monday, January 28, 2013

The Hangman's Daughter by Oliver Potzsch: CSI in Medieval times.

The Hangman's Daughter is a murder mystery back in the days well before CSI or even Sherlock (though several centuries after Brother Cadfael). Schongau, Germany in the 1600's is the setting. This happens to be one of my favorite areas of Germany, so it was fun to revisit it in a different era, sort of like a time machine.

An orphaned village boy is murdered, and witchcraft is suspected. The local midwife, who has saved the lives of village mothers and brought village babies into the world is accused, arrested, and to be "questioned" regarding the crimes. Jakob, the local Hangman, is determined to unravel the mystery, and save the woman who helped his wife give birth to his children from being burned at the stake. At the same time, he is the one, who by his very job, who must apply the persuasion (aka torture) that accompanies the village Aldermen's questioning to produce a confession of witchcraft.

The book bears the title of The Hangman's Daughter, though, not The Hangman. It is Jakob's daughter Magdelena, and university trained doctor Simon, who help Jakob in his investigation. Magdelena is the kind of character I like: smart, feisty, adventurous, inquisitive, and willing to go against the norm for the cause of justice.

I really liked the slice of history shown in this story. It always fascinates me that the wise women, or herbalists, who saved so many lives, were the very ones accused of witchcraft when something went wrong. Given that logic, and given the state of our world today, should we jail all the physicians to fix the ills of the world?

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

Wow. Just wow.

Here's a book that I was just too damn cheap to buy full price, even though the cover blurb grabbed me when I first came across it. So, I waited my turn at the library, and finally got lucky when the audio version was added to the collection (still haven't gotten my call for the hard copy.) This was no problem for me, as I enjoy audio versions, both when driving or for listening to when I'm doing tasks around the house. For this book, though, I invented tasks as an excuse to listen. When those ran out, I just sat like a lump and followed Hazel and Gus through their days.

This is a book that reaches out and grabs your heart from the get-go. Green has created powerful characters, brought us into their everyday world, and made it vibrant, heart-wrenching, and beautiful. This is not always an easy task, for there's very little about cancer that is beautiful. But there is a great deal that is glorious in the two young people in this story. Synopses abound. Go read one if you wish, but it cannot adequately prepare for how engaging this story is.

A bonus to the audio version is that there is an interview with Green. I really appreciated his insights on the story, writing, life with cancer, and more. I also found out that he has done an audio version of the book, primarily for the fans of his vlog, who wanted to hear his inflections to the story. The audio version I listened to was superb, and as Green said, he was much happier to hear Hazel say, "you're so hot" in a female voice than in his lovely baritone.

Oddly enough, while reading this, I also read of Neil Gaiman's participation in  An Evening of Awesome at Carnegie Hall presented last week by Hank and John Green.Watch the video, and you'll get to hear the stars of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (which also involves Hank Green) read the wonderful section in the museum (won't say more because of spoilers.)

10 out of 5 stars. Yes, I liked it.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Farewell Dorothy Parker, by Ellen Meister (Release date Feb 21, 2013)

Disclaimer: Every time I saw or thought of this book, "Just One of those Things" * began running through my head. And now it's in your head, too. Just one of those things, I guess.

On to my thoughts of this book. I'm a Dorothy Parker fan. I think we're a dying breed. So when I read that Ellen Meister, who is also a Dorothy Parker Fan, upon seeing all the Jane Austen spin-offs, had written a book around one of her literary favorites, I was in. 

The premise of the story is clever. Movie critic Violet Epps, as fiery in her reviews as she is timid in her real life, manages through a quirk of fates, to unleash the ghost of Dorothy Parker. Violet's personal life is a bit of a mess in just about every aspect: love, family, work. The quick witted Mrs Parker jumps in to help Violet strengthen her resolve, grow a backbone, get some courage, which is both helpful and horrific. In turn, Violet works to get the ghost to resolve some issues.

The story itself is an interesting mix of Parkerisms, historical facts, and poignancy. Violet's love life is a mess because of her timidity. She also is involved in a nasty battle for the custody of her beloved niece, orphaned the year before when Violet's sister and brother-in-law died. Plus she has a cut-throat assistant at the office to deal with. But her relationships with the niece, love interest, and co-worker ring true. This reader was able to follow her emotional growth, even though I did cringe each time Dorothy interfered as there were some disasters when she did so.

There were a few minor plot developments that irked me, but overall, I had fun reading this. I even pulled a couple of books of Parker's writings off the shelf to add to my "to be read" pile. My main problem with stories that revolve around a literary or historical figure being involved in a fiction book is that I often don't like how they are portrayed. While this characterization did not always match up to mine, it was fine. And probably, if I had met Mrs Parker in person, she would have terrified me.

Many thanks to Library Thing and to the Publisher for sending this AR copy my way. 3.5 our of 5 stars.

*As Dorothy Parker once said to her boyfriend: "Fare thee well!"
As Columbus announced when he knew he was bounced: "It was swell, Isabelle, swell!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson (spoiler free)

When you've committed yourself to a series which was written over the course of 22 years, there are a great many emotions that come into play with the final book. First and foremost for me, was the sadness that Robert Jordan was not with us to see the series completed. His death in 2007 was a huge loss to literary and fantasy fans, especially to those of us who knew him personally. However, if Robert Jordan could not finish the series himself, his sagacious widow/editor Harriet McDougal, and Tor Books selected Brandon Sanderson to weave together an ending. Sanderson used Jordan's ideas, notes, scattered writings, and dictation, with the expert assistance of Ms. McDougal and Jordan's two assistants (aka Team Jordan) to bring the series to its conclusion.

The story that began all those years ago, with three boys and a girl leaving the Two Rivers, drew to a close for me today. I can't say that I was as enamored of the final book as I was with the first, but given the length of the series, and the length of this book (909 pages hardback; 33 CDs in the audio version, both of which I read/listened to in the course of this journey), that's not surprising.  Some of my favorite characters got less page-time than I would have liked. Character development was a bit uneven for this reader, and there was a bit more telling than showing as to the strengths/weaknesses of some. It was sad to say goodbye to many, though given this is an all-out fight for good against evil, and not a romance-chick lit, I knew that some friends would spin out of the pattern. It's been fun to speculate how much of the book was penned or envisioned by Jordan, how much by Sanderson, including who survived the Last Battle. Certainly, (and for this I am quite grateful), Sanderson did not try to imitate Jordan's style, and there were times that some of his writing tics were clear. I also found myself missing some of Jordan's familiar ones (she said with arms folded under her breasts.)

The final book leads up to the Last Battle, good versus evil. And though there was fighting both before and after, the chapter bearing that title was 200 pages long.  I am not a great military historian, but even so, the battle played out across the pages with clarity. I'd been listening to the audio version prior to 37, so was grateful to have the map in the hard copy to help orient myself during the fighting. I still am uncertain how some characters got from point A in one scene, across the field to point B in another, but am determined not to give spoilers with my continuity concerns, or fan-girl questions.

There were some moments of brilliance, which helped to outweigh any dissatisfaction I had. Some of the cursing was among the most colorful I have ever heard (and enjoyed.) I draw comfort though, in the thought that  there are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. The wind will continue to blow; the Wheel will continue to turn. The Wheel of Time, and all it has brought me, will continue to weave through the threads of my days. Tai'shar Jordan.

Disclaimer: I am a relative of a member of Team Jordan.