Review: The Midwife’s Tale

The Midwife's Tale, Sam ThomasIt is 1644 in York, England; while most of the town’s citizens think the greatest danger sits encamped outside the city, midwife Lady Bridget Hodgson and her assistant Martha know better. Esther Cooper stands accused of poisoning her husband, and Bridget and Martha have just a few days to save their friend from her demise at the stake.

What starts out as an attempt to clear her friend’s name soon turns into a deadly game of cat and mouse for Bridget, with every investigation turning up more questions. Was Stephen Cooper really the man he claimed to be? Is Esther truly innocent? Who profits the most from keeping Stephen’s murder unsolved?

The Midwife’s Tale is a commentary on the nature of treason and the servant-master relationship, as well as a pretty good murder mystery.

An exciting read

Strong female characters are my favorite, and this book has two. Bridget is a twice-widowed heiress who spends her time delivering babies to wealthy and poor women alike and chooses to investigate a man’s death in order to prove her friend’s innocence; Martha is a servant girl turned thief to escape a horrifying life.

The Midwife’s Tale was nicely paced, with several well-done red herrings and twists that had me holding my breath. Bridget and Martha are likeable, flawed characters for whom I couldn’t help rooting.

But it could have been better

As much as I enjoyed The Midwife’s Tale, it simply can’t hold a candle to Arianna Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death series. Bridget and Martha were great characters, but they didn’t feel complete — the dozen or so other characters around the periphery even less so.

This is partly explained by the fact that the book is the first in author Sam Thomas’ Midwife Mysteries series — there’s a lot of exposition and backstory that has to happen. But I don’t recall getting that same feeling from Franklin’s series. Just because it’s a first book doesn’t mean the author should skimp on details.

More than a dose of social commentary

In many ways I feel like the author really wanted to write about the esoteric aspects of treason and explore the historical servant-master relationship, but his publisher convinced him it wouldn’t sell unless he wrapped a mystery around it — just like Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, but with far better success.

It’s positively miserable reading about the way that many of the characters treat their servants, or are treated by their masters.

Masters had power over their servants’ bodies, and short of murdering them (usually) could do whatever they wanted. This was considered by the courts and contemporary culture as the way it should be, with masters having near-divine power over their servants. A servant’s disturbing that belief — through running away or attacking or killing a master — was seen as the worst kind of treason: a betrayal of God’s plan and word.

In the end I found the mystery side of The Midwife’s Tale entertaining, but it’s Thomas’ commentary on contemporary culture that stuck with me. I hope he keeps writing — especially if his next book is non-fiction.

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“If you take a book with you on a journey…an odd thing happens.”

d50a67c9e2e5cc0c385084f5ad0fbdb7I’ve kept a commonplace book for over a decade, occasionally adding in snippets, quotes, or sayings that appeal to me. After adding a fresh piece of advice the other day (“Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.”) I glanced back through other recent entries and landed on this one from author Cornelia Funke:

If you take a book with you on a journey…an odd thing happens. The book begins collecting your memories. And forever after you have only to open that book to be back where you first read it. It will all come to your mind with the very first words: the sights you saw in that place, what it smelled like, the ice cream you ate while you were reading it…yes, books are like flypaper — memories cling to the printed page better than anything else.

I find this to be the most true — at least for me — when re-reading books I first read as a child: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series and Bread and Jam for Frances. I thumb through these books and I am a child again.

When I start thinking about travel and reading, though, the books that come to mind are the ones I’ve read in adulthood.

I read Under the Tuscan Sun while on a month-long sojourn in Prague, Czech Republic, and Maid to Match on an even more recent trip to Asheville, North Carolina.

This makes me long to travel more, to take in more sights and feelings that will then become inextricably linked with the stories I read. What a marvelous thing.

Is there a book you associate with specific travels or memories?

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Review: Sorry! The English and Their Manners

Sorry! The English and Their Manners, Henry HitchingsMost of us grew up hearing, “What do you say to the nice lady?” and “Don’t put your feet on the coffee table.” Having good manners was important, and we could almost always tell when someone hadn’t been brought up to have them.

But where exactly do manners come from, and who decides when they should change? Why do things like keeping your elbows off the table and sending thank-you notes matter so much to us?

In Sorry! The English and Their Manners, author Henry Hitchings examines the history of manners in England — and the peculiarities of the English character. A blend of history, anthropology, and personal anecdotes, Hitchings’ book is an in-depth (if occasionally dry) look at manners and what they say about those who practice them.

Still on the fence

Go with me on this: Sorry! was a lot like a fruit-filled danish.

I got some great mouthfuls of delicious humor and interesting factoids, but had to muscle through a lot of dry, flaky bits first.

Much of the history was…well, dull. Which is not something I say lightly. History is important, but at 320+ pages I found myself wishing for a little less of it.

Like every other American, I think the world revolves around me; it could be that Hitchings’ focus on English manners made it less interesting. It was harder for me to point to a particular manner and feel empathy, a “Hey, we do do that!” moment.

There are some standout moments, though, like this 1558 advice from Giovanni della Casa:

Nor should you look in your handkerchief after blowing your nose, ‘as if pearls or rubies might have descended from your brain.’

In the end, Hitchings boils down the purpose of manners into a desire to make others comfortable (or avoid making them uncomfortable):

…the ability to evaluate and regulate the effects we have on other people is a part of a fine awareness of ourselves.

So in other words, having good manners is just good manners.

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Review: The Castle Behind Thorns

The Castle Behind Thorns, Merrie HaskellCastle Boisblanc — the Sundered Castle — has been abandoned for decades. Ripped nearly apart by an earthquake and surrounded by tall, vicious brambles, the castle is desolate and uninhabited. Until now.

The last thing Sand remembers before waking up inside the destroyed castle is a fight with his father and a wish to a long-dead saint. With no way to call for help and no way to escape on his own, Sand does the only thing he can: plants a garden and repairs the castle’s forge to mend or create the items he needs to survive.

Sand is not a master smith, but the items he repairs somehow end up better than new: a stuffed hawk reanimates, a jagged hole in the courtyard disappears. And then there’s Perotte, the lost heir to the throne, whose bones once resided in the underground crypt.

This is the work of magic — but does it come from the castle’s guardian saints, or from within Sand and Perotte themselves?

Fabulous Middle Grade fiction

The Castle Behind Thorns is the second book by Merrie Haskell that I’ve read. Both it and The Princess Curse do a wonderful job of taking traditional fairy tale elements and recombining them in new ways.

Sand and Perotte are grown-up for their age — a product of medieval life — but Haskell includes plenty of sulking and spats to convince anyone that we’re truly reading about young teenagers.

The book treats its subject matter with a maturity that belies its Middle Grade classification. The writing is complex, foregoing talking down to its young reader audience in favor of exploring “themes of memory and story, forgiveness and strength, and the true gifts of craft and imagination.”

Merrie Haskell is a writer whose works I wish were written sooner — they’re the kind of stories I longed for and would have inhaled as a kid, just as I do now. Her characters (especially her female ones) are strong, funny, smart, and the kind of role models I think all children and young teenagers should have.

Read The Castle Behind Thorns (and The Princess Curse) to your kids, nieces and nephews, students, friends’ kids, and to yourself. They’re beautifully written, fun, and deeply engaging no matter your age.

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Review: Maid to Match

Maid to Match, Deeanne GistIt’s 1898, and Tillie Reese is about to attain her lifelong dream. Being a housemaid at Biltmore — the palatial home of George and Edith Vanderbilt — is more than she could have ever imagined, and now she has the chance to become lady’s maid to Mrs. Vanderbilt herself.

There’s just one problem: Mack Danvers, Biltmore’s newest (and most handsome) employee. Romance amongst the staff is frowned upon, and Mack is definitely interested in causing trouble.

Mack is a good man, despite his prickly exterior. And when he and Tillie uncover a terrible secret at the local orphanage, there may be more at stake than their jobs.

When in Rome…

I spent last week in what some would call “the Deep South,” visiting Charleston, SC and Asheville, NC. There was a lot to take in, but I found myself most interested in the history of Biltmore, the absolutely enormous home built by George Vanderbilt in the mountains just outside Asheville in the late 19th century.

In its heydey it took dozens of servants to keep Biltmore running smoothly. Touring the basement, servants’ quarters, pantries, and kitchens was my favorite part, and I wanted to keep myself immersed in that world.

A truly lovely read

Lo and behold, Maid to Match appeared. Written by Deeanne Gist, it’s a fictional story in a real-world setting; it kept me in the world of Biltmore while adding in the extra bonuses of mystery and romance.

The book’s cover belies the story’s serious nature. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of stolen kisses and longing glances and romantic shenanigans — but Gist also folds in seamlessly a well-crafted mystery. It’s even a little bit heartbreaking.

It was extra fun for me because I went where Tillie does: the tapestry gallery, the servants’ dining hall, the long drive up to the main house. It made me feel closer to the character and even to Biltmore itself.

Maid to Match is a little bit fluff, a little bit history, and all heart. A perfect read anytime, on vacation or not.

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