Book Review: The Odyssey

odysseySo with John Green starting his second run of Crash Course Literature, I realized there are a few classics I’d never read. The Odyssey by Homer being one of them. I snagged Robert Fitzgerald’s translation from the library and became enthralled. I wasn’t expecting it to be so easy to read! For being a 462 page poem, it flowed incredibly well and kept my attention the entire way through.

The Odyssey is the story of Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, who went away to fight in the wars in Troy caused by the abduction of Helen. This story takes place after the war is over, when everyone – or almost everyone – has gone home. Odysseus, through a series of mistakes and misfortunes, has been marooned on an isle for many years, and his family has begun to think he’s dead. Sons of most of the nobles in Ithaca have taken residence in Odysseus’ palace, courting his queen while eating his food and drinking his wine. His queen still waits for him, and puts off her suitors in a variety of ways. (The most famous of which being her claim that she must finish a weaving before taking a suitor, and while she weaves every day, she unweaves her work at night, but the suitors figure that one out and make her finish it.)

One thing kept bugging me through the entire story, though – while much is made of Odysseus being gone, and his trials, and the people waiting for him at home – the fact that his ENTIRE CREW OF SHIPMATES, heroes all, dies on the journey is somewhat glossed over. Maybe it’s my history as a military spouse, but what about THEIR families? There are surely women and children waiting in Ithaca for them as well, but nary a mention is made of them. Only the King’s story is important enough to talk about. In a 400 page book, is a paragraph about the other families too much to ask? I suppose, given how long ago the book was written, the fact that Homer writes sympathetically (albeit briefly) about a woman’s suffering for her husband might have been revolutionary on its own, and asking for some concern for anyone lower than a Prince would be unheard of.

That aside, it’s an amazing story. Here’s John Green’s take on it:

Book Review: Medea

medeaMedea
by Kerry Greenwood
428 pages
Published 2011 (First US publishing in 2013)
Historical Fiction

Medea is the first of three “Delphic Women” novels to be published in the US by Australian author Kerry Greenwood. It tells the story of Medea from the legend of Jason and the Argonauts. The version that everyone knows involves Medea, as a witch, helping Jason to steal the Golden Fleece in return for marrying her. The story goes that some years later, when he attempts to put her aside, she not only kills his potential bride, but also the children that she’d borne him.

Medea tells a different story. She is a priestess of Hekate, the Black Mother goddess. The story details her fall from that religion, her marriage to Jason, the death of their children, and her life after her marriage. It is an utterly enthralling book, and I am eager to see Greenwood’s other Delphic Women novels, which appear to be about Cassandra and Electra. Greenwood has a talent for keeping the feel of ancient Greek mythology while also making the characters accessible for the modern reader. She includes a chapter after the end of the story, in which she explains why and how she came to the conclusion that Medea was NOT responsible for the death of her children, despite every other popular story saying she killed them.

While Medea has often been painted as the villain of the story, Greenwood had me cheering for her the entire book, from the first time she was brought to the dark caves of Hekate as a toddler to when she mourned over the deaths of her children and slowly learned to love again. I enjoyed seeing one of the ancient legends from a woman’s point of view; none of them are ever told that way! I also found it really interesting how the book portrayed Herakles; he turned out to be one of my favorite characters!

I’d definitely recommend this book if you like retellings of mythology or ancient legends.

Edit: 2 years after publishing this review, I’m updating links and discover Kerry Greenwood is also the author of the Phryne Fisher murder mystery series, which Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is based on! I just finished marathoning that entire series on Netflix, it’s fantastic! What a crazy coincidence.

From Medea:

My mother gave birth to me in the darkness under the earth and died in doing so. I loved the velvety blanket of night before my dazzled eyes ever encountered light. And when I did, they say I wept, and the people said, “Here is a true daughter of Hekate!”

I am standing in the dark again, in the central room of my own place – no, of Hekate’s temple, which was once mine, before I went with Jason. Jason the thief, the pirate, the betrayer. Jason the stranger. I have left my own gods, my own tongue, my own beliefs, for too long….

The knife blade gleams, and I try the blade. I feel the sting as it slides along my thumb. It is very sharp. I can hear the children laughing as they play.

How did I come to this?

More Nerdfighter-y stuff

In the same vein as my last post, I’d like to plug another Youtube channel. This is one I only discovered a couple of days ago, and promptly watched all the videos. It’s called “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” and it’s a retelling of Pride and Prejudice as a vlog. It’s also absolutely AMAZING. It was produced by Hank Green, of the vlogbrothers, and he won an Emmy for it. (Learning he’d won an Emmy for something is what brought it to my attention.) It’s hysterical at times, and tear-inducing at others. It’s beautifully done.

I’m a big fan of re-imaginings of old stories. I’ve read (and own!) Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. I have not yet read Android Karenina, but it’s on my list! In finding the Amazon links for what I just listed, I also discovered several more – Mansfield Park and Mummies, Little Vampire Women, and Jane Slayre. Given my unending love for Jane Eyre, I will DEFINITELY have to get my hands on that last one! There also appears to be both a sequel and a prequel to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Looks like I have whole new slew of books for my to-read list!

(Edit: There’s now a movie in the works of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies!)

I’m not sure why I love retellings of Pride and Prejudice so much – maybe because the plot is very similar to Much Ado About Nothing, which is my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays. I love the back-and-forth verbal sparring between two prickly characters. (Perhaps because it reminds me of my relationship with my husband!)

Without further ado (see what I did there?), the first episode of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries:

Book Review: The Dark Monk, The Beggar King, and The Poisoned Pilgrim

dark monkThe Dark Monk
by Oliver Pötzsch
463 pages
Published 2009
Historical Fiction/Mystery

The Beggar King
by Oliver Pötzsch
466 pages
Published 2010
Historical Fiction/Mystery

The Poisoned Pilgrim
by Oliver Pötzsch
496 pages
Published 2012
Historical Fiction/Mystery

I cracked open the pages of The Dark Monk with a certain amount of satisfaction and glee – to be rejoining a world I lost myself in with The Hangman’s Daughter – to catch up with characters I’d fallen in love with some months ago – is always a heady feeling. I reviewed The Hangman’s Daughter on this blog already, and mentioned I’d be looking for the sequels. On my last trip to the library, I happened to see all three of them, so I snagged them with a grin that made my husband laugh. Pötzsch has continued his amazing storytelling in these three books, and I’m still amazed that books originally written in German can flow so well – lyrically, even – in English. I’m sure that’s in large part due to the excellent translation work of Lee Chadeayne.

beggar kingJakob Kuisl (the hangman of Schongau), his daughter Magdalena, and her beau Simon Fronweiser are again up to their old tricks in these three books, letting their curiosity lead them into mysteries they perhaps should have stayed clear of. In The Dark Monk, the three find themselves embroiled in the hunt for lost Templar treasure. In The Beggar King, Jakob is framed for the murder of his sister, and must prove his innocence with the help of Magdalena and Simon. The Poisoned Pilgrim takes place a few years after The Beggar King, and involves the three attempting to prove the innocence of one of Jakob’s oldest friends. Woven throughout the mysteries are portrayals of everyday (and not so everyday!) life in 17th century Bavaria, from taking care of the sick to child-rearing to executions.

One thing that continues to impress me about the books is how they treat torture. Torture to achieve a confession is a regular duty of a Hangman, but it’s not treated lightly in these books. It’s described, and it’s treated as a horrible thing, but it’s also not so descriptive that it crosses the line into gore. It’s a mark of Pötzsch’s skill that he can take a man that does this regularly – tortures and executes people, even people he knows are innocent, if he can’t get out of it – and makes him likable. He makes us sympathize with him.

I enjoyed these three books just as much as I did the first. The action is well-paced, the plots are well-thought out and complex, and the characters are rich and enjoyable. It’s easy to see the amount of research Pötzsch has put into his setting, and the books are richer for it. I love this series.

pilgrimFrom the back of The Dark Monk:

1660: Winter has settled thick over a sleeping village in the Bavarian Alps, ensuring that every farmer and servant is indoors the night a parish priest discovers he’s been poisoned. As numbness creeps up his body, he summons the last of his strength to scratch a cryptic sign in the frost.

Following a trail of riddles, hangman Jakob Kuisl, his headstrong daughter Magdalena, and the town physician’s son team up with the priest’s aristocratic sister to investigate. What they uncover will lead them back the Crusades, unlocking a troubled history of internal church politics and sending them on a chase for a treasure of the Knights Templar.

But they’re not the only ones after the legendary fortune. A team of dangerous and mysterious monks is always close behind, tracking their every move, speaking Latin in the shadows, giving off a strange, intoxicating scent. And to throw the hangman off their trail, they have made sure he is tasked with capturing a band of thieves roving the countryside, attacking solitary travelers and spreading panic.

From the back of The Beggar King:

1662: Jakob Kuisl, the hangman of a village in the Alps, receives a letter from his sister calling him to the imperial city of Regensburg, where a gruesome sight awaits him: her throat has been slit. When the city constable discovers Kuisl alongside the corpse, he locks him in a dungeon, where Kuisl will experience firsthand the torture he’s administered himself for years. As nightmares assail him, Kuisl can only hope to prevail on the Regensburg executioner to show mercy to a fellow hangman. 

Kuisl’s steely daughter, Magdalena, and her young doctor paramour, Simon, rush to Regensburg to try to save Jakob, enlisting an underground network of beggars, a beer-brewing monk, and an Italian playboy for help. Navigating the labyrinthine city, they learn there is much more behind the false accusation than a personal vendetta: a plan that will endanger the entire German Empire. 

From the back of The Poisoned Pilgrim:

1666: The monastery at Andechs has long been a pilgrimage destination, but when the hangman’s daughter, Magdalena, her doctor husband, Simon, and their two small children arrive there, they learn that the monks have far larger concerns than saying Mass and receiving alms. It seems that once again the hangman’s family has fallen into a mysterious and dangerous adventure.

Two monks at the monastery experiment with cutting-edge technology, including a method of deflecting the lightning that has previously set the monastery ablaze. When one of the monks disappears and his lab is destroyed, foul play is suspected. Who better to investigate than the famed hangman Jakob Kuisl? But as the hangman and his family attempt to solve the mystery of the missing monk, they must deal with the eccentric denizens of the monastery and villagers who view the monks’ inventions as witchcraft that must be destroyed at all costs.

Book Review: The Ruins of Lace

ruinsoflaceThe Ruins of Lace
by Iris Anthony
326 pages
Published 2012
Historical Fiction

The Ruins of Lace is told from 7 different points of view, and while at first they appear disconnected, they slowly touch each other, then weave in and out, like lace itself. The story revolves around the creation, sale, and smuggling of banned lace in 17th century France. The points of view are a lacemaker, her sister, a girl who once ruined a pair of lace cuffs, the man who loves her, a lace-smuggling dog, a border guard, and a petty noble fighting for his inheritance.

As much as I’ve read about 17th century France, the clandestine lace trade was one aspect I really didn’t know about, so it was interesting to see how it impacted common folk and nobles alike.

While not as spell-binding as some books I’ve read, The Ruins of Lace was definitely thought-provoking. What drives an otherwise good man to smuggle lace and risk his honor/title/fortune/life? Without the viewpoints of the lacemaker and the smuggler’s dog, you could imagine lace-smuggling to be a victimless crime. Including the viewpoints of those two was brilliant – you can’t say the man who needs the lace isn’t hurting anyone. If there wasn’t such demand for the banned lace, girls wouldn’t sit in convents and go blind making it 24/7.

All in all, a very good book on a little-known aspect of 17th-century France. The differing points of view are a little confusing at first, but once you settle in and know the characters, it’s fairly easy to follow the storyline.

From the back of The Ruins of Lace:

The mad passion for forbidden lace has infiltrated France, pulling soldier and courtier alike into its web. For those who want the best, Flemish lace is the only choice, an exquisite perfection of thread and air. For those who want something they don’t have, Flemish lace can buy almost anything – or anyone. 

For Lisette, lace begins her downfall, and the only way to atone for her sins is to outwit the noble who now demands an impossible length of it. To fail means certain destruction. But for Katharina, lace is her salvation. It is who she is; it is what she does. If she cannot make this stunning tempest of threads, a dreaded fate awaits. 

A taut, mesmerizing story, The Ruins of Lace explores the intricate tangle of fleeting beauty, mad obsession, and ephemeral hope.

Dark Angels by Karleen Koen

darkangelsDark Angels
by Karleen Koen
530 pages
Published 2006
Historical Fiction

I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, but what I do read tends to be based on medieval-to-renaissance England and France. The era of Kings and Queens and courtiers and courtly intrigue. Dark Angels fits solidly into that framework. It’s actually the prequel to a previously published book, Through A Glass Darkly, which I haven’t read yet but definitely will now! Koen weaves a masterfully written tale of a maid of honor to King Charles II of England‘s queen. Alice Verney is incredibly intelligent, cunning, and ambitious. At the same time, she has friends, and she will go out of her way to protect them as long as they don’t betray her. When the Princess of England, her current Lady, falls ill and dies in France, Alice returns to England to a court she hasn’t been part of for two years. Some things have changed, some haven’t, and Alice must muddle her way through politics that have been shaped without her hand in order to find her footing again. Between the raising of a new King’s mistress, a sudden wedding, the murder of a notorious transgender Madam, and the possibility of war, the book is a volatile tale that drew me in and kept me there.

I wrote and scheduled two reviews for this blog, in order to give myself a couple of days to read this longer, more substantial book, and then promptly stayed up until 4 am to finish it in one go! The glittering court of Koen’s imagination held me spellbound from the first page until the last. I loved Alice, then hated her, then loved her again. Koen had me both laughing with Alice and crying with her when tragedy struck. Alice is, at turns, arrogant, vulnerable, jaded, and a girl in love. She is an enchanting protagonist and one I look forward to seeing more of.

If you enjoy historical fiction, if you enjoy reading about the royal courts of England and France, I highly recommend Dark Angels. Koen reminds me of Philippa Gregory, though more vibrant.

From the back of Dark Angels:

Alice Verney is a young woman intent on achieving her dreams. Having left Restoration England in the midst of a messy scandal, she has been living in Louis XIV’s Baroque, mannered France for two years. Now she is returning home to England and anxious to re-establish herself quickly. First, she will regain her former position as a maid of honor to Charles II’s queen. Then she will marry the most celebrated Duke of the Restoration, putting herself in a position to attain power she’s only dreamed of. As a duchess, Alice will be able to make or break her friends and enemies at will.

But all is not as it seems in the rowdy, merry court of Charles II. Since the Restoration, old political alliances have frayed, and there are whispers that the king is moving to divorce his barren queen, who some wouldn’t mind seeing dead.  But Alice, loyal only to a select few, is devoted to the queen, and so sets out to discover who might be making sinister plans, and if her own father is one of them. When a member of the royal family dies unexpectedly, and poison is suspected, the stakes are raised. Alice steps up her efforts to find out who is and isn’t true to the queen, learns of shocking betrayals throughout court, and meets a man that she may be falling in love with – and who will spoil all of her plans. With the suspected arrival of a known poison-maker, the atmosphere in the court electrifies, and suddenly the safety of the king himself seems uncertain. Secret plots are at play, and war is on the horizon – but will it be with the Dutch or the French? And has King Charles himself betrayed his country for greed?