The Burning Times: A Novel of Medieval France

The Burning Times: A Novel of Medieval France

By Jeanne Kalogridis

Simon & Schuster

ISBN: 068486923-3

4 stars

Jeanne Kalogridis writes historical fiction that I love.  She mixes a little fact with a little fiction and adds a tiny bit of the paranormal.  The magical element never feels odd in her stories either and most times when I come across it, I go right along with it.  She blends everything so well.

I’ve read several of her books including: The Scarlett Contessa, The Devil’s Queen: A Novel of Catherine de Medici and Covenant with the Vampire.  My library does not have a huge back list for her, but I plan to seek out a few of others if I can.

In The Burning Times, we meet Sybille, a poor midwife with pagan ways who is forced into hiding and assumes the name and appearance of Sister Marie Francoise so she can take refuge among the Franciscan sisterhood.  She does this to escape the Inquisitors who wish to burn all heretics and those they deem witches.  She is eventually caught by the Inquisitors, and during the course of her imprisonment and interview with a young monk, her story unfolds and the powers she holds, she sees the future and can heal the sick, become clear.  It’s obvious to the other Inquisitors that she’s clearly a witch and should be burned but the young Monk Michael wants to hear her story not thoroughly convinced that she is what they all say.

The story is told through this interview and even if you think you know how it will end, the way in which the story is told keeps you interested.  Sybille won’t be rushed, knowing this will be her last chance to tell her story and that of her people.  There are others in the world with her powers and abilities and she wants the church to know that killing her will not end what they consider to be a scourge of heresy.

There’s an interesting mythology to this book that is more than just witchcraft. The pagan ideals of worship and belief in something higher added an interesting new level that ran against the stalwart beliefs of the church.  The historical elements — the Black Plague, the Hundred Years’ War, and the war between England and France — provided a nice background for the story to play out.

I love going back to read earlier works of an author I like.  While the writing quality of this particular book doesn’t compare to the book released this year, The Scarlett Contessa which I thought had a much better flow and felt much more cohesive, I like to go back and see how a writer evolved.  Don’t get me wrong, this is still a good book, but I can see how Kalogridis’s writing has changed over the years and I know that she will be an author whose work I continue to enjoy in the coming years.

Teaser Tuesdays

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.  The idea is to give everyone a look inside the book you’re reading.

Play along: Grab your current read; Open to a random page; Share two teaser sentences from that page; Share the title and author so that other participants know what you’re reading.

My teaser this week is from The Burning Times: A Novel of Medieval France by Jeanne Kalogridis.

“They moved steadily down out of the hills, the English, more than five thousand men, all told: lancers, foot soldiers, the much-dreaded archers with their bows the height of a man.  Dark locusts spilling out in irregular swarms, they had been on the march for months and no longer bothered with the precise lines of formal battle; nor did they need to.” (256)

What are you teasing us with this week?

My Favorite Reads – My Life in France

Alyce from At Home With Books features one of her favorite reads each Thursday and this week my pick is…

My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme.

From the inside cover: In her own words, here is the captivating story of Julia Child’s years in France, where she fell in love with French food and found her “true calling.”

From the moment the ship docked in Le Havre in the fall of 1948 and Julia watched the well-muscled stevedores unloading the cargo to the first perfectly soigné meal that and her husband, Paul, savored in Rouen en route to Paris, where he was to work for the USIS, Julia had an awakening that changed her life. Soon this tall, outspoken gal from Pasadena, California, who didn’t speak a word of French and knew nothing about the country, was steeped in the language, chatting with purveyors in the local markets and enrolled in the Cordon Bleu.

After managing to get her degree despite the machinations of the disagreeable directrice of the school, Julia started teaching cooking classes herself, then teamed up with two fellow gourmettes, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, to help them with a book they were trying to write on French cooking for Americans. Throwing herself heart and soul into making it a unique and thorough teaching book, only to suffer several rounds of painful rejection, is part of the behind-the-scenes drama that Julia reveals with in inimitable gusto and disarming honesty.

Filled with the beautiful black-and-white photographs that Paul loved to take when he was not battling bureaucrats, as well as family snapshots, this memoir is laced with wonderful stories about the French character, particularly in the world of food, and the way of life that Julia embraced so wholeheartedly. Above all, she reveals the kind of spirit and determination, the sheer love of cooking, and the drive to share that with her fellow Americans that made her the extraordinary success she became.

My thoughts: I have always wanted to be able to cook like Julia Child. Her love of food is contagious in this book and the frank almost off-hand way she tells the story is wonderful. It’s as if she’s sitting next to you telling the story. It’s more than just food but the way food becomes such a large and totally encompassing part of her, and her husband’s, life during their years in France and how a woman, who didn’t know how to cook at all, found herself the icon of French cooking.

I have one of her small cookbooks in my kitchen that is ratty, food stained, and dog earned. I reference it often when I’m trying to cook something I bought and realized had no idea what to do with when I got home. It’s called Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom and is by far one of the best cookbooks I ever bought. She has a way of breaking down a recipe so easily and making it sounds as if you can make the most complicated of dishes with ease.

Memoirs are not a genre I frequent but having watched Julia on PBS for years I had to read this book. It’s just as funny as she is on the show and the stories she tells about learning French, learning to cook, and finding her way in a country and culture very foreign to her is unforgettable. Not only a good cook, she’s a great story-teller as well.

This book was finished after Julia died in 2004 by her grandnephew Alex Prud’homme but none of her voice is lost. The photographs are absolutely fabulous as well.

I don’t have copies of The Art of French Cooking but if you were to ask me what two books I covet most in the world, it would be The Art of French Cooking, Volumes 1 and 2. I should admit that I don’t cook a lot of French food and rarely follow a recipe, I mostly look at recipes for ideas, but these are two books I know I would find use for.

The Conquest

The Conquest

The Conquest

By Elizabeth Chadwick

St. Martin’s Press

ISBN: 0-312-15497-6

3.75 stars

In 1066, England finds itself overrun with Normans. Ailith, a young Saxon woman and the wife of a blacksmith, is living a content life even while her home country is invaded — until she loses both her husband and infant son on the same day. Her life comes to a halt and she sees no way to move on. In a few short hours, she goes from being the mistress of her own home to wet nurse to a Norman friend and living almost as a servant in their home.

Ailith’s life becomes even more complicated and unhappy by a wedding proposal from a man she despises. When a womanizing Norman named Rolf makes her mistress of his household of his newly acquired lands, she jumps at the chance at a new life. Ailith and Rolf soon fall in love and a daughter, Julitta, is born. When circumstances change quickly, Ailith is forced to make the difficult decision to leave Rolf and her life behind.

Elizabeth Chadwick is a writer I like a lot. I tend to fall in love with her characters and their intricate relationships. In this book, I liked Ailith. She was strong and proud but is also deeply scarred and vulnerable. She gets moody and dark but has every right to feel the way she does after all she lost. Rolf, on the other hand, while likable, seems to think more of his horses than anything or anyone else. He spent too much time brooding and fantasizing about other woman for me to really like him.

The story is told in two parts. Ailith’s life and then her daughter Julitta’s. However, the story shifts abruptly and characters feel like they just disappear. Rolf, for instance, while he was still mentioned, only shows up to marry off Julitta, unsuitably I might add, and is gone again. The two stories, while connected, didn’t feel integrated and I felt like I was reading the same story with a few new characters thrown in.

But, all the above being mentioned, I still found myself liking the story. There’s romance — which I found I didn’t always get into even when large parts of the story hinge on two people finding happiness or at least of few hours of pleasure — and a lot of horses in this one. Although, I think maybe I had my fill of hands running down flanks for awhile. I don’t mind the romance part, I think it was just too much for me this time around. Chadwick is great at the historical details though and she does draw you in. You want to yell at her characters and cheer them on at the same time. While I don’t think this will rank up near the top as one of my favorite books of her’s, I don’t plan to stop reading her novels.

Disquiet

Disquiet

Disquiet

By Julia Leigh

Penguin Books

ISBN: 978-0-14-311350-8

5 stars

Disquiet is a tiny book with an enormous footprint.

It starts with a reunion but there’s nothing happy about it. It starts with a birth that quickly turns into a funeral which keeps getting delayed. It’s about neglect, abuse, ambivalence, and sadness so deep it’s all consuming that it brings everything and everyone to a halt.

Olivia shows up at her mother’s house in rural France with her two children who have never met their grandmother. She’s running away from her abusive husband and has no place left to go. Upon answering the door, her mother informs her that her brother, Marcus, and his wife Sofie, will be moving in with their new baby. She expects the two to arrive with the child at any moment. Unfortunately, the homecoming of Marcus and Sofie is a tragic one — the baby is stillborn. Sofie treats the child as if it it were still alive and refuses to bury the baby causing everyone in the house great distress. Her behavior is disturbing and wrenchingly sad as the same time. You feel horrible for her and at the same time want her to say goodbye and let the child go.

In a short amount of time, several lives collide and no one knows what to do or is in any position to take control leaving you feeling just as disturbed, scared, sick, hurt, and as crazy as everyone in this book.

Disquiet is an amazing book. There are no frilly descriptions, no soft language to cover any of the harsh realities of life, and, at the end, you feel the need for a warm smile and possibly even a hug. Leigh is a fantastic writer. If you see her book, pick it up.

The Coral Thief

The Coral Thief

The Coral Thief

By Rebecca Stott

Spiegal & Grau

ISBN: 978-0-385-53146-7

2.5 stars

Daniel Connor, a young medical student from Edinburgh, is on his way to Paris to study at the Jardin de Plantes. During his journey, he meets a mysterious and beautiful woman — Lucienne Bernard — and while he contemplates her and her strange theories, she steals his letters of introduction, coral specimens, and mammoth fossils. He reports the theft of the artifacts to the police and somehow finds himself wrapped up in a mystery full of evolutionary theories, coral, and odd bits about Napoleon.

I didn’t care for Daniel. He was sexist and ignorant and I found I needed to remind myself that this was normal for the time period (1815), at least the sexist part. The main problem I had with him was that he was always complaining. Once he began to mature, he became easier to like but not by much. Lucienne is a very interesting characters though. An evolutionary philosopher and thief, she is always hiding something and is never afraid to step out of line and state sometimes the obvious and sometimes the most arcane of thoughts, especially for a woman at the time. She’s refreshing as far as the story line goes here.

Napoleon plays an odd role and one that never fits into the story for me. The short diary entries add nothing and left more questions (mostly why they were there in the first place) than answers. The vague connection does nothing for the story.

The mystery/thriller sort of ending ramps up quickly and is fairly exciting compared to the rest of the book. I do wish there had been more of that and a little more about the fossils, theories, and why Lucienne felt the need to steal them because I found that part of the story interesting but overall it sort of fell flat for me.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

By Muriel Barbery

Europa Editions

ISBN: 978-1-933372-60-0

5 stars

Renée Michel is the concierge at number 7 rue de Grenelle, a luxury apartment building in Paris. She is short, self-described as ugly, and can be onerous. She’s also brilliant. An autodidact, with interests in philosophy, art, and Japanese culture, she spends her days watching and ruminating about the building’s tenants. Ever careful to keep her secret hidden, she goes about playing the dumb concierge and scrutinizing others in her diary.

Paloma Josse is a precocious 12 year old girl who lives on the fifth floor of number 7 rue de Grenelle. She has come to the realization that life is not worth living and on her thirteenth birthday, she will end it all and, to punish her family for making her life such drivel, will burn the apartment. Much like Renée, she goes about her life hiding her talents from the world, finding it easier to just be plain and ordinary in terms of knowledge. She begins a diary of profound thoughts to convince herself that her plan is sound and explain why life is not worth living.

When a new tenant moves into the building, everyone’s life is changed. Ozu is Japanese and quickly finds a kindred spirit in Renée and also Paloma who both unknowingly share a deep interest in Japanese culture.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is one of those rare books that makes you stop and look around. We move through life so fast that we sometimes don’t appreciate the people around us that we see everyday. Renée and Paloma are those two people. They’re both hiding from the world because they don’t believe that anyone can appreciate them and it’s sad to think that they’re hiding what is most important, not only to them, but to others. In a way they don’t want people to know who they truly are but when they find their lives intersecting, it becomes all the more wonderful.

The first 100+ pages of this book contain a lot of rather dry philosophy. I have never been one to read philosophy, so I will admit that some of the profound nature of there theories was lost on me and made me wonder when it would move on. When that change takes place, it happens fast, and you become fascinated by the characters in this book. Everyone with their own problems hurrying to get somewhere always passing Renée as if she were invisible and, in some cases, barking orders as if she were nothing more than a dog. Her observations are insightful and wonderfully funny.

When I finished, I felt sad that things at number 7 rue de Grenelle had changed the way they did. Renée, Paloma, and Ozu are immensely likable characters and they way they hide from everyone else is part of their mystique. You revel in getting to know them and how they react to the rest of the tenants.

While the beginning is a bit slow and sometimes dreary, I thought The Elegance of the Hedgehog was one of the best books I have read in a while. It’s witty, funny, and smart. Barbery’s writing style is wonderful and I have added Gourmet Rhapsody to my reading list which features characters from The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

The Black Tower

The Black Tower

The Black Tower

By Louis Bayard

William Morrow

ISBN: 978-0-06-117350-9

3.5 stars

What happened to Louis the Seventeenth, the young Dauphin of France? A child when he and his family were taken prisoner by the French people, his body was never identified after his death was announced. In 1818, years after his supposed death, the monarchy has been restored but the city is still tense and citizens unsure of their new rulers.

Hector Carpentier is a medical student living with his mother and the borders they share their house with when Vidocq, a well-known and well-feared detective, approaches him on his way home one afternoon asking why a dead man had his name. Hector has no answers and Vidocq wants them. He drags him along on his investigation, disguising him when necessary, and pulling him deeper into the mysterious disappearance of the young Dauphin. When a young man is found who may indeed be the true Dauphin, Hector is torn between finding the truth and wanting to protect the terrified and simple man.

I don’t read many mysteries but I found this one to be rather satisfying. I didn’t care as much for the characters as I did the setting here though. I like stories from this time period and anything where Marie Antoinette is featured. She doesn’t play a big part here, it’s more her memory, but I found the mystery surrounding the events of those times appealing.

Vidoq is a great detective character. He’s a former criminal and part of a new plain clothes police division in Paris. He obeys no rules, is uncouth, and terrifying in his means. Torture has no negative connotations and he feels liberal use is what is called for when dealing with criminals. He’s not a likable person, although he has his moments, but he does add a dark and unsuspecting air to the story.

If you’re looking for a quick, entertaining read, The Black Tower works. It moves fast, the setting is interesting, and the characters are engaging.