Bright Blade (Byrhtnoth Chronicles #3)

Bright Blade coverBright Blade by Christine Hancock 

Her Grace’s rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: historical fiction

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds 

Length: 398 pp

Published by: Madder Press (8 Oct 2019)

Thegn Byrhtnoth owes allegiance to his lord, Ealdorman Athelstan, and his king Eadred. He is, however, less than thrilled to be ordered to participate in Ealdred’s attempt to retake the Northumbrian kingdom from the self-styled King of York. In the war, Eadred pits his army not only against the political North, but its people as well, giving his soldiers free reign to plunder, pillage, and rape indiscriminately. Byrhtnoth has issues with this, partly because it goes against his personal sense of honor. When Eadred assigns him to repair ships in Devon to bring to the war effort, Byrhtnoth finds himself in the middle of a battle to revenge himself upon a man who harmed his wife (in a previous book) and a quest to find his long-lost father. 

This novel is the third in the Byrhtnoth Chronicles series. While it was very readable and told a fast-paced story, I don’t think it is really good as a standalone. There are references to events from the prior two books that attempt to fill in the gaps, but it wasn’t really adequate for readers who haven’t read the whole series. Additionally, there were a few anachronisms, such as the term ‘girlfriend,’ which didn’t come into use until the 20th century. These are relatively minor quibbles, though, as the plot and action were engaging and the characters are generally intriguing enough to make readers want to learn more about them and what happens in their lives. 

The historical detail in this novel was precise and layered. I enjoyed reading about the Anglo-Saxon culture and the ways in which their political system worked. Some references to other very well-known texts, such as Beowulf, added depth to the story. Additionally, the details of the treatment of one specific wound (which I won’t detail further to avoid spoilers!) aligns with archaeological evidence from the Wharram Percy site, to the northeast of York. It always thrills me to read historical fiction that blends in actual practices and is based on evidence from the historical record. 

I didn’t see a lot of character development in this novel, but much of it may have occurred in the previous books. The story and writing were compelling enough that I plan to backtrack and read the first two installments in the series. The writing itself and structure of the book draw readers in and encourage them to keep reading, as the chapters are quite short. 

Overall, a very pleasing read about one of the most famous Anglo-Saxon lords. I look forward to reading the rest of the series, and the fourth book, anticipated later in 2020.

The Reckless Oath We Made

The Reckless Oath We Made coverThe Reckless Oath We Made by Bryn Greenwood            (WEBSITE, TWITTER)

Her Grace’s rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: literary fiction

I read it as a: hardback

Source: BOTM Club

Length: 436 pp

Published by: Putnam (20 Aug 2019)

Zhorzha ‘Zee’ Trego means well but still destroys everything she touches. She is a wreck, works menial jobs, and runs dope on occasion to make some extra cash. While in PT from a previous motorcycle wreck, she meets Gentry Frank. Gentry is on the spectrum and is convinced that he is a knight who is sworn to champion Zee. Together, they get swept up in a tragedy of events revolving around Zee’s sister and nephew, and choices they make will alter the rest of their lives.

This novel was a little like Gone Girl in that, with the exception of Gentry, there really wasn’t one likable character in the lot. But it was a terrific story and I couldn’t put it down. Zee is nothing but a hot mess and it is really frustrating to read. She is smart and could do so many better things with her life than wait tables and do the occasional drug run. Not that there is anything wrong with waiting tables, but I still feel bad for her and frustrated that she isn’t really trying to do something better when she has the talent / intelligence to do so. Maybe that is my own privilege talking but I just don’t get why someone in her position wouldn’t want to at least try to do something like go to college and get into a better socioeconomic status. She is really her own worst enemy and seems determined to make many of the same mistakes over and over. 

I loved Gentry. He is on the spectrum, speaks only in a quasi-Middle English dialect he learned from the SCA and medieval texts he reads, and is utterly convinced he is a knight whose purpose is to serve ‘Lady Zhorzha.’ He is well read and so imaginative. It was so sad to hear that people wanted to make him take meds to force him to talk ‘normally’, whatever that is, and to silence the voices he had. Hearing voices sounds scary to a lot of people but Gentry’s are harmless, as is he, and I am willing to bet a lot more people hear voices than will admit to it and do just fine. Maybe it’s because I am a medievalist, but I just had a big soft spot for Gentry and frankly think it would be fine by me if more men acted chivalrously. 

I loved the way Gentry spoke and I don’t think it would be difficult for other readers to get used to it quickly. It’s not like it’s Linear A or anything, it’s just a little antiquated. Frankly, some of the ways Gentry speaks is easier to read than Shakespeare, and he wrote in early modern English. I would imagine it is even easier to listen to on audio than to eyeball read it, especially if one isn’t familiar with Middle English. Just let yourself skim over it or listen with half an ear and don’t worry about it too much, then it will be easy. 

Overall, while this was a frustrating read for many reasons, it was because Greenwood crafted an excellent story with realistic characters. All of them, even the ones I hated, were like actual people I have known. It was very nicely done, easy to read, and I highly recommend it.

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • Gentry singing a medieval version of ‘Roxanne’ – Roxanne! Thou needst not hang that lantern tonight. Roxanne! Ne wearen that cotehardie tonight.
  • Gentry trying to make friends with Uncle Alva’s guard dog: When I came up behind him, I could hear him doing the medieval version of Who’s a good boy. “Thou art a noble beast. ‘Tis right thou shouldst bristle, for thou knowest me not. But I bring thee meat that we might make amity twixt us.”

Who Fears Death

16064625Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (WEBSITE, TWITTER)

Her Grace’s rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: fantasy/ Afrofuturism

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 420 pp

Published by: Daw (1 June 2010)

In a future post-apocalyptic Sudan, genocide between different tribes still occurs. When a woman is raped by the military leader of another tribe, she wanders into the desert, hoping to die. When she discovers she is pregnant, she lives in the desert for years and raises her daughter to be strong and fierce. They eventually move into a town so the girl, Onyesonwu, can attend school. There, Onye learns that she has strange and frightening abilities, able to turn herself into animals or travel a spirit realm. Convincing the town’s shaman to train her, Onye soon learns that a powerful sorcerer is trying to kill her in order to prevent a prophecy from coming true, a prophecy that says Onye is the person who will change the fabric of her society. 

There is so much to unpack in this novel. On the surface, it can be read just as a fantasy/ post-apocalyptic story. But if you pay attention, you can see the seamless manner in which traditional legends, stories, and customs are woven in with technology like computers, capture stations, and GPS. The blending of the traditional and the technological is, I think, a commentary on contemporary Africa. I have never been to any country in Africa, but I know several people who have and from what they say, it seems reflective of various societies. I wonder if the connection to the traditional is simply too strong to abandon, despite the advances in technology available. 

***SPOILERS BELOW***Read More »

The North Water

The North Water coverThe North Water by Ian McGuire

Her Grace’s rating:  out of 5 stars

Genre: historical fiction

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: John Keating

Source: library

Length: 09:40:00

Published by: Macmillan Audio (9 May 2016)

In the 19th century, whaling ships often set out to the Arctic to bring back whale blubber and the furs of polar bears and seals. Henry Drax is a harpooner aboard the Volunteer, and Patrick Sumner is shipping out as the ship’s medic. Drax is a sick twist and Sumner is a disgraced army surgeon. When Sumner discovers that a cabin boy is being violently raped, and then later discovers the child murdered in the hold, it sets the two men on a collision course during this cursed voyage.

OK, so I know this was longlisted for the Booker in 2016. Neat. And yes, it absolutely had some beautiful writing, particularly when describing the scenery. But holy shit, y’all. This novel was chock full of unrelenting, vicious, gory violence. I am not a squeamish reader by any means, but the abuse and murder of children and cavalier slaughtering of animals, complete with many fully descriptive scenes, is more than I could handle this time. 

I KNOW the depictions of violence and casual disregard for animal life was historically accurate, but Jesus fucking Christ. I think the author was getting off on it or something. For example, the scene where the whalers killed a mother polar bear and captured her cub was horrific. Or this gem: 

Jones nods, takes a fresh blubber spade from the malemauk boat, waits for one of the sharks to come close enough, and then stabs at it, opening up a foot-long gash in its side. A loose-knit garland of entrails, pink, red, and purple, slurps immediately from the wound. The injured shark thrashes for a moment, then bends backwards and starts urgently gobbling its own insides.

And the joyful clubbing of baby seals. Or the near-orgasmic descriptions of whales blowing gobs of blood out their blowholes before they die, to the thrill of the men watching. And the multitude of excrement, both human and animal, or the vulgarity of the language (and believe me, I love a good fucking swear word). Is this really necessary? Again, I know this is the way it was back then, but there are ways to write that and still not be so enthralled with the violence. The gore and violence literally detracted and distracted from the plot. 

I read this as an audiobook and found myself gradually increasing the reading speed just to get it over with. The narrator did a fabulous job of it, though. Five stars to his performance. 

I once read the term ‘dicklit,’ and if ever there was a book to describe that, it is this one. Waiting to see how many men gather to explain why I’m wrong.

 

A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls coverA Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (Website, Insta)

Her Grace’s rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: YA, possibly a little younger

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Jason Isaacs

Source: my own collection

Length: 3:59:00

Published by: Brilliance Audio (23 Sept 2011)

All the spoilers below!

Connor O’Malley is a 13-year-old boy whose mother is battling cancer, only no one really calls it that. She is also dying, but no one talks about that, either. Every night since his mother started her treatments, Connor has had the same nightmare. One night, he wakes up and finds a monster outside his window. He had expected the one from his dreams but it wasn’t; it was an actual monster that comes from ancient British folklore. It tells Connor that he himself summoned the monster because he wants something from it. With each encounter Connor has with this creature, the closer he comes to the truth, painful and bright. 

I confess I bought this audiobook purely because Jason Isaacs narrates it and, since it’s a kid’s story, I figured I could just put it on and not pay much attention to it beyond being delighted to hear Isaacs’s lovely, gravelly British voice reading to me. I never expected that I would actually like the story, which I did, immensely. The story was not about cancer or illness so much as a study in grief from both a young boy’s perspective and his mother’s. It is about how childhood friendships shift during times of tragedy and how we learn who our true friends are. 

I really loved the theme of stories taking on lives of their own. The monster tells Connor that ‘Stories are wild creatures. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?’ I like this passage because it shows how stories can be interpreted differently by different people, how each person might take a wholly new meaning from it or react to it in an unexpected way. They may not even anticipate how they themselves will react until the story is told. Connor reacts more and more violently with each story the monster tells. If his situation had been different and he heard the same stories, undoubtedly his reactions would not have been the same. Similarly, when writing a story, I’m sure many authors don’t know exactly where their story will go, how it will end up. I can’t be the only writer who is often surprised by what my characters decide to do. Stories weave themselves into the fabric of culture and inform society at many levels; the monster is just highlighting that fact in ways Connor doesn’t always appreciate. 

Another big theme is truth. Connor’s mother has cancer. Truth. She is going to die. Truth. No one comes out and directly says any of this, beating around the bush about it, even though everyone knows what is going to happen. The monster helps Connor to see that the truth, though often painful, is the only way he can be healed, and that that is why the monster came. Not to heal Connor’s mother, but to heal Connor himself. Connor has to learn that the truth is the only way he can learn to let his mother go and also the only way to live through it. And he has to learn to forgive himself. Everyone lies to themselves sometimes, and to others. It is a human trait to ward off pain and to comfort themselves. But ultimately, facing the truth is the only way to relieve that pain, no matter how pleasant the lie is. 

Learning a little bit of woodlore is always an added bonus. There was a lot of discussion about the yew tree, which is what the monster is. Yew trees are what the dreaded English longbows were made from in the Middle Ages. The tree is symbolic of death, rebirth, and immortality likely because old yew branches that droop to the ground can take root and grow new yew trees and they are incredibly long-lived. There are a lot of churches in Britain that have yew trees around them, particularly in cemeteries. They are highly toxic and their needles can produce fatal results if ingested. The berries are also hallucinogenic and lethal. The tree can also symbolise silence, introspection, and aloofness, possibly because they’re very twisty trees with lots of nooks and crannies for solitary creatures to live in, or for ways to the Underworld in Celtic mythology. The Long, Long Life of Trees by Fiona Stafford would make an interesting companion read, at least her chapter on yew. 

As for the audiobook element, yes, I got it for Jason Isaacs. However, he honestly is an excellent narrator, doing various voices and accents with great facility. His performance draws listeners into the story swiftly and seamlessly. He is one of my favorite narrators, right alongside David Tennant, Simon Preble, Davina Porter, Wil Wheaton, and Simon Vance.

Strongly recommended, especially the audio version. 

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • You do not write your life with words…You write it with actions. What you think is not important. It is only important what you do.
  • Stories are wild creatures, the monster said. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?” 
  • Don’t think you haven’t lived long enough to have a story to tell.
  • Stories are important, the monster said. They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth.” 
  • You were merely wishing for the end of pain, the monster said. Your own pain. An end to how it isolated you. It is the most human wish of all.” 

 

 

 

Case Histories

16243._sy475_Case Histories by Kate Atkinson (WEBSITE)

Her Grace’s rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: mystery

I read it as a: paperback

Source: Public Library

Length: 310 pp

Published by: Back Bay Books (1 Sept 2004)

This first installment in Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series introduces, well, Jackson Brodie, private detective and former detective inspector. Case Histories starts off with three different stories being introduced to readers by way of short chapters outlining the characters and reasons we should be interested in them. In short, they are given as case histories. The various stories cross paths in one way or another, whether through a chance encounter in a park or simply through the character of Brodie himself, acting as detective for all parties. The stories are all varied, from a missing child in the ‘70s to a murdered young woman in the ‘90s to an axe murderer’s sister looking for her lost niece. 

I enjoyed this a great deal. I had read one of Atkinson’s books a long time ago, Life After Life, and was bored to death by it. I’m not sure if it was just that I wasn’t in the mood for that particular book at that particular moment or what, but I didn’t like it. I steered clear of her books after that, but decided to give this series a go when I came across the BBC series Case Histories, starring my current mega crush Jason Isaacs. I loved the show and thought I would try the titular series, and I am very glad I did. Atkinson’s writing style might take a little getting used to, but it reads easily and the stories were fun.

I have to say that for such an alpha male, Jackson sure gets his ass kicked plenty. I think it is funny, but it was also perhaps established with the very first time he is introduced in the book, when he’s sitting in his car listening to a ladies’ talk show, thinking about his daughter, who he loves, his ex-wife, who really did one over on him, and he is watching a woman to find out if she’s having an affair. He is complex because he is very much an alpha male – former soldier, former cop, current private detective – but he also is ruled by the women in his life and he seems quite happy for that to be the case. He’s protective of most people he comes across, even if he doesn’t really like them. 

This story also took a look at different ways to grieve and to think of people who are no longer here. Theo idealized his daughter, Laura, even though she wasn’t perfect. He himself seems to think that it is surprising she was his daughter because he thought she was so perfect. He said to himself that he loved Laura more than his other daughter, Jenny. I think if he had not had such a clear image of her in his mind he would have had an even harder time with his grief because he would have had to reconcile Laura’s imperfections with the image he had of her. Probably he would have felt even guiltier for not loving his other daughter as much, too, since he could have had a closer relationship with Jenny. The Land parents clearly favored Olivia over her three older sisters, and it was obvious to them all. It made Olivia’s disappearance harder on her sisters because she was their favorite, too, and there was nowhere for them to go to visit her or remember her. The not knowing is, I think, harder than knowing for sure someone is dead, because you don’t know what is happening to them, what kind of life they are living, or if they even remember you. It would be so much worse, in my opinion, not to know the fate of a loved one than to know for certain they were dead. Lots of complexity in the various plots, which is fantastic. Most mysteries seem kind of one-dimensional to me. This one is more literary than a lot of others I’ve read. 

I am looking forward to reading the rest of the series!

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • Novels gave you a completely false idea about life, they told lies and they implied there were endings when in reality there were no endings, everything just went on and on and on.
  • God and Sylvia had been on speaking terms for almost as long as Amelia could remember. Did she really think he spoke to her? She was delusional, surely? At the very least a hysteric. Hearing voices, like Joan of Arc. In fact, it was Joan of Arc she used to speak to, wasn’t it? Even before Rosemary died or Olivia disappeared. Had anyone ever entertained the possibility that Sylvia was schizophrenic? If God spoke to Amelia she would presume she had gone insane.
  • It was an education (although one Jackson had already been subject to) because Theo was extraordinarily good at documenting the banal details of failure, the litany of tiny flaws and cracks that were nothing to an outsider but looked like canyons when you were on the inside – “He buys me carnations, carnations are crap, every woman knows that so why doesn’t he?” “He never thinks to run a bit of Toilet Duck round the bowl, even though I leave it out where he can’t miss it and I’ve asked him, I’ve asked him a hundred times.” “If he ever does any ironing it’s ‘Look at me, I’m ironing, look how well I’m doing it, I iron much better than you, I’m the best, I do it properly.’” “He’d get me my breakfast in bed if I asked him to, but I don’t want to have to ask.” Did men know how much they got on women’s nerves?
  • Boys took a long time to become men but daughters were women from the kickoff.
  • What did you do when the worst thing that could happen to you had already happened – how did you live your life then? You had to hand it to Theo Wyre, just carrying on living required a kind of strength and courage that most people didn’t have.
  • What if reincarnation existed, what if you came back as a pedophile? But then what would you have had to do in the first place to deserve that? What did the holy girls come back as? Flocks of doves, groves of trees?
  • But Jackson couldn’t make Marlee safe, he couldn’t make anyone safe. The only time you were safe was when you were dead. Theo was the world’s greatest worrier, but the one thing he didn’t worry about anymore was whether or not his daughter was safe.
  • “She’ll spend it on drugs,” she said to Julia as they walked away from the girl. “She can spend it on what she wants,” Julia said. “In fact drugs sound like a good idea. If I was in her position I would spend money on drugs.” “She’s in that position because of drugs.” “You don’t know that. You don’t know anything about her.”
  • “Is ‘macheted’ a verb?” Amelia asked Julia. “Don’t think so.” Well, that was the end then, she was Americanizing words. Civilization would fall.
  • A lot of people thought Theo spoiled his girls, but how could you spoil a child – by neglect, yes, but not by love. You had to give them all the love you could, even though giving that much love could cause you pain and anguish and horror and, in the end, love could destroy you. Because they left, they went to university and husband, they went to Canada and they went to the grave.
  • There was that survey, years ago, that found that women didn’t feel threatened by a man carrying the Guardian or wearing a CND badge. Jackson had wondered at the time how many rapists started carrying a Guardian around with them. Look at Ted Bundy. Stick your arm in a plaster cast and women think you’re safe. No woman was ever truly safe. It didn’t matter if you were as tough as Sigourney Weaver in Alien Resurrection or Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2, because wherever you went there were men.
  • The clavicle was tiny and fragile, like an animal’s, a rabbit or a hare, the broken wishbone of a bird. Jackson kissed it reverently because he knew it was the holiest relic he would ever find.
  • “To my friend, Mr. Jackson Brodie, for being kind.” He had cried when her solicitor had read that out to him. Cried, because he hadn’t been particularly kind to her, cried because she didn’t have a better friend, that she had died alone, without a hand to hold. 

Angels in America

51vmgruhwl._sl500_Angels in America by Tony Kushner

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: contemporary literature/plays

I read it as an: audiobook (audio play?)

Narrator: National Theatre Broadway cast

Source: public library

Length: 06:53:00

Published by: Random House Audio (14 May 2019)

A two-part play, Angels in America focuses on gender identity, social justice, and AIDS in the time of the Reagan Republican counter-revolution. It features various storylines of several people living in NYC, primarily Prior Walter, Joe Pitt, his wife Harper, Roy Cohn, and Belize. Each person is struggling to make sense of themselves, often hiding who they really are, and the miseries and fears that go along with denying your true self. 

This was a brutal read. It was set in the 80s, my childhood, so when it was actually happening, I was too young to understand or care about issues like AIDS, the gay community, or why it is so important not to cover up your identity. I also wouldn’t have understood why that was sometimes the only way people could survive. Although it was a painful story to hear, I am so glad I did. My favorite character was Belize, so quick to tell you just what he thinks but at the same time also quick to care for another person, even if that person just royally offended or insulted him. We need more people like Belize in the world.

I have never listened to a play on audiobook before, though I’ve certainly been to several live performances. I didn’t know what I would think of the experience, but it was fantastic! The cast was amazing, of course, and the way the narration and stage directions were delivered made it really easy to follow. I would definitely listen to more plays on audiobook. 

Sword of Shadows

47863903Sword of Shadows  by Jeri Westerson (WEBSITE, FACEBOOK)

Her Grace’s rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Genre: historical fiction

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Netgalley 

Length: 224 pp

Published by: Severn House (20 April 2020)

We are nearing the end of the adventures of Crispin Guest, disgraced lord and knight, self-created Tracker of London. In this tale, Crispin and his apprentice Jack Tucker are hired by Cornish treasure hunter Carantok Teague to assist him in finding a long lost sword. It turns out to be none other than Excalibur that Teague seeks. Crispin is, of course, skeptical, but takes the job as he needs money, as always. Teague leads them to Tintagel, the fabled birthplace of King Arthur, to seek the sword. While there, two men in the castle guard are murdered, and Crispin is sidetracked from the search for the sword to investigate the deaths. Along the way, he encounters Kat Pyke, his one-time lover, as well as a host of young women jilted by one of the murdered men, and a hidden village in the forest full of Druids. Exactly what Crispin needs to have an interesting time.

Anyone who knows me at all knows I have a particular soft spot for Arthurian legend. Mixing that in with one of my favorite historical fiction series is like human catnip to me. The murder investigation element of the story takes a fairly normal course, and certainly not all is as it first appears. The Arthurian element was fun because who hasn’t thought about that sword in the stone or of where its final resting place might really be? I did feel that the Athurian sections were not as well fleshed out as the rest, but that just adds to the mystery a bit. And the surprise at the end with the old caretaker was a delight. 

Jack is grown now and Crispin is letting him take the lead on a variety of tasks that he wouldn’t have before. I’ve said it before and will say it again here that it is good to see Jack grow from a mischievous young boy to an honorable, dependable man. If she wanted to, Westerson could easily continue her medieval noir novels with Jack as the protagonist and new Tracker, with Crispin making cameo appearances. I think she has no such plans, but it is still fun to consider, as well as the final story in the series. I know how *I* hope Crispin’s tale ends, but we shall have to wait and see what Ms Westerson thinks about it! 

Strongly recommended! 

Catch-Up Round: Book Club edition

122943In the Country of the Young  by Lisa Carey (WEBSITE, TWITTER, FACEBOOK)

Her Grace’s rating:  4.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: magical realism/ ghost story

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 286 pp

Published by: Perennial (1 Oct 2000)

In the late 1800s during Ireland’s Potato Famine, hundreds of Irish immigrated to America and Canada on ‘famine ships.’ One ship, the Tir na Nog, ran aground off the coast of Maine and most aboard died, including a young girl, Aisling. In modern times, artist Oisin MacDara lives an almost hermit life in the woods of Tiranogue Island. He rarely has any contact with other people and the islanders have come to accept him on his own terms. On Samhain night, Oisin lights a candle and leaves his door open, as tradition dictates, and from the mist comes a girl. Oisin had been able to see ghosts and spirits in his youth, but lost the ability when his twin sister died. In all the years since, Oisin has tried to figure out how to bring his Sight back. Now, it seems he is able to See spirits once more, or at least one spirit, who enters his life on Samhain night.

Carey’s novel is a delight. It is atmospheric and gothic, full of Irish myth and tradition. Readers get a sense of disbelief at first when Aisling wanders in out of the shadows, and, very slowly, come to realise the girl is the same as the one who died on the famine ship. As Aisling’s stay with Oisin becomes longer, she begins to grow at an astronomical rate, catching up to her adult self and gaining the experiences she missed out on in life. Oisin reluctantly takes on the role of provider, by turns pleased for and interested in the companionship and resenting her presence in his quiet, solitary life. With the help of an open-minded and trusting neighbor, Deirdre, Oisin is able to give Aisling a lifetime of experiences in what he knows will be the limited time available to her.

The character development here was extraordinary. I loved seeing Aisling’s growth and how she changed from a scared little girl into a self-confident young woman. Oisin, too, changed and grew to accept love and help from others. I identified with him a lot since I am also a very solitary person and don’t trust easily. 

Various themes of loss, mental illness, sexuality, and inflexible social customs made for some very rich discussion during this particular book club meeting.

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • It’s the same as day turning to night. Your life is like the day, and after death comes, it’s all different – not worse or better, just different – because, as at night, the world no longer looks the same. It’s why twilight is the holy time, when day and night come together, and the living and the dead can meet one another on the road.
  • “It’s wrong to spend your life afraid, Oisin,” she said. “No matter what you see.”
  • What that night became for her was the moment she stepped away from all her definitions and into herself. Suddenly it no longer mattered who she was, only that she was. She stopped editing her thoughts and analyzing her actions. When she looked in the mirror, her brown eyes were tired or angry, often amused, but no longer plain. Beneath the fears and posing, she had been there all along.
  • Doesn’t he know that every minute counts? That waiting is often the same as missing a lifetime?
  • My mom says if you wait for people to read your mind, most of them will hear only your silence. … Which is why I have to tell you something,” Gabe says. … “When I’m old enough to have my first love, I’m going to remember you. Is that okay?”

 

5730888The Unit  by Ninni Holmqvist 

Her Grace’s rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: dystopian 

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 268 pp

Published by: Other Press (9 June 2009)

In this dystopian society, when people reach a certain age (50 for women, 60 for men), and have no family or an irreplaceable skill, they are sent to live in ‘reserve banks’, like retirement homes. It is not optional and everyone goes if they didn’t have children in their life. Dorrit Weger dutifully checks into the Second Reserve Bank Unit on her 50th birthday. From there, she makes new friends among the other residents, engages in experiments with new drugs and therapies, and eventually begins making donations as needed and required to the outside community. She and her fellow residents are there to provide their organs to people who need them and who have been deemed of more value to society. 

This was fascinating, if somewhat derivative of many other dystopian novels. As with many books dealing with the lives of women in the future, this society has decided that people who have never had children are ‘dispensable’ and are therefore a perfect group upon which to experiment with new drugs or psychological therapies, forcing them to donate organs to indispensable recipients until they make their final donation, usually their heart or lungs. It is terrifying because I can see something like this happening. What was the most disturbing of all was how quickly the Unit’s residents accepted their fate and even managed to convince themselves that it was for the good. 

It was also just…sad…since Dorrit only found love for the first time once she entered the Unit and it would necessarily be cut short by the practices they are enduring. While I do NOT think one has to have a great love to have a great life or to be complete, it is sad when someone wants that and only finds it at the end of her life. 

There is a lot of material to unpack about what makes a life or a person worthwhile and fulfilled. Why is having children the be all and end all of a person’s worth? It takes no skill at all to have a baby. I always look side-eye at anyone who says having their children was their greatest accomplishment. Really? I LOVE my child but having her took no particular skill on my part. I’m prouder of the things I’ve written, dragged out of my brain by sheer determination, persistence, and force of will, because those things took a lot of effort. Saying this does not mean I am not proud of my daughter. I am proud – of HER accomplishments and the person she is becoming, not of simply having her. See the difference? And who is to say what I accomplish is somehow more important than, say, my friends who have chosen to remain childless? It’s not like we aren’t overpopulated as it is. Humans are like cockroaches. We’re all over the fucking place. It’s just a scary thing to think that people might one day be valued on their ability to reproduce rather than on their actual ability to contribute. 

This was another excellent book for a book club. There were so many things to consider from ethics, love, the value of a human life, and spirit. We had a very lively discussion for this one!

There were many lines that I highlighted while reading this, but the one below sums up everything perfectly for me:

  • “People who read books,” he went on, “tend to be dispensable. Extremely.”

The Land Beyond the Sea

31568110The Land Beyond the Sea by Sharon Kay Penman (WEBSITE, FACEBOOK)

Her Grace’s rating:  5 out of 5 stars

Genre: historical fiction

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Edelweiss+

Length: 688 pp

Published by: Putnam (3 March 2020)

Many people are at least a little familiar with the Crusades, Richard the Lionheart, and Saladin. Far fewer, I would wager, know about the life of Balian of Ibelin, a Frankish lord born in the Levant. Penman tells his story in The Land Beyond the Sea. The timespan of the novel is actually fairly short, beginning when Balian is a young man. Penman takes readers on a journey among the Poulain, the people born in the Levant and descended from the Crusaders who remained in the region after the First Crusade; she shows us the complex and surprisingly collaborative interactions between the Poulain, the migrant Crusaders, and the Saracens, which influence the local politics to an extraordinary degree; and she demonstrates, above all else, that history is not always what we’ve learned from school. 

Balian’s story here starts with his relationship with King Baldwin, known to history as The Leper King. The two had a relationship built on respect and Balian rose high at the court in Jerusalem as a result of Baldwin’s favor. Balian also had a good relationship with Saladin himself, as well as his brother, Al-Adil, one of Saladin’s most trusted advisors. These relationships came into play at the height of Balian’s influence, when he convinced Saladin to accept Jerusalem’s peaceful surrender after a prolonged siege that would have left thousands of civilians dead or sold into slavery. 

The labyrinthine politics of the court are described in detail and were an interesting change of pace, for me anyway, from the court politics I’m more used to reading about. I understand the politics of periods like the Wars of the Roses, the Tudors, or the Plantagenets, but I had never read anything set in the medieval Levant. Penman does a thorough and highly accurate job of showing these twisting intrigues. It was a bit surprising to me to learn how much the European and Saracen societies mingled and cooperated with one another. I think I had this vague notion that the two societies were mostly segregated from each other because of the religious wars between them. I think my favorite thing was learning just how closely tied the societies were and how much they had in common. Though, really, that shouldn’t surprise me at all, since rationally I knew the region was something of a melting pot; I just hadn’t really thought much about it. 

Related to that, I was fascinated by the way they treated each other. For example, once Saladin accepted Jerusalem’s surrender, he allowed the people to put forth a ransom rather than have them all shipped off to the slave markets in Cairo. Of the roughly 15,000 people who were too poor to help raise a ransom and would have been sent into slavery, he released 7000 of them, then granted his brother, Balian, and Patriarch Eraclius gifts of 1000 slaves each, which they immediately manumitted. The way the Saracen guards/escorts treated the group who was able to leave Jerusalem was also wonderful to read. They took good care to protect them, even though they were defeated enemies; however, Saladin had ordered them to treat them well, and so they did. In Penman’s extensive Author’s Note, she indicated, rightly, that she would have been hard pressed to believe that if it had been described so only in Saracen chronicles, but the description came from several Christian chronicles. 

Also, Penman has a great talent for taking her characters, whether fictional or historical, and making readers care about them. I was so sad when William of Tyre died; I felt awful for and was sad when Baldwin died, because he was so brave in facing his illness; I was furious when Guy de Lusignan did, well, all the stupid things he did; I loved and was grateful to Anselm for his unflinching service to Baldwin. So many other examples. Even though these people, the ones who were real anyway, died nearly 1000 years ago, Penman breathes life into them, brings them springing forth with their wonderfully messy, complex, endearing, irritating humanness. 

All in all, while I have come to expect nothing short of amazing writing and research from Sharon Kay Penman’s books, it is nevertheless a delight to dive into a new book of hers and discover that her reputation as a precise and vivid storyteller remains intact and well-deserved. 

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • “You can get Amalric to pay his ransom.” Others might have found that answer cold, uncaring. Agnes did not. Her mother was simply recognizing the reality confronting them, as women had been compelled to do down through the ages. 
  • William suddenly found himself on the verge of tears, almost as if he knew he’d just been given a precious gift, a memory of the young king at a perfect moment in his life, one that held no shadows or dread, only bright promise. 
  • “This is the first course, honey dates stuffed with almonds. I am sure you’ll like them if you give them a try.” Balian leaned over and put a date on the other man’s plate. The knight let it lie there untouched. He was gazing at it as if it were offal, not a delicacy sure to please the most demanding palates, and Balian began to entertain a fantasy in which he held Gerard down and force-fed him every date in Outremer. 
  • He gestured toward the arrow with a grimace, saying it was only a flesh wound. [Was this a deliberate reference to Monty Python and the Holy Grail?? If so, well played, Ms Penman, well played.]
  • Almost as if sensing how dark his thoughts had become, Cairo padded across the chamber and nudged Baldwin’s hand with a cold nose. He’d noticed years ago that the dog never touched his right hand, the one without feeling; it was always the left, crippled but still capable of sensations. How did Cairo know? [Another thing I love about Penman’s writing is how she always portrays the dogs as noble and loving. Dogs are so much better than we are. We do not deserve dogs.]
  • [Balian playing with his children upon arriving home from battle] Once his father had boosted him up onto his shoulders, he whooped with delight, and for reasons he was too young to understand, that moment imprinted itself upon his memory. Long after he was grown, with sons of his own, he would recall very little of their flight from Nablus. But he would vividly remember the afternoon that his father came home and made him fly.
  • He wondered if the other man had acted impulsively, moved by the misery of the enslaved Franks. Or had he always intended to make this request, confident that his brother would welcome an opportunity to display mercy again? … Balian smiled, realizing he’d never have the answer to that question. He could answer another question, though, one that he’d pondered since their first meeting in Salah al-Din’s tent at Marj al-Safar. They shared neither the same faith nor the same blood. But al-Malik al-Adil Saif al-Din Abu Bakr Ahmad bin Ayyub was his friend.