“The Witchfinder’s Sister” by Beth Underdown

Pub. Date:  April 25, 2017The witchfinder's sister

Publisher:   Penguin Books

In this historical fiction the character of the sister is fictional, but her brother, Matthew Hopkins, was a real person, and a real witchfinder.  He even had the title of “Witchfinder General” during the English Civil war (1642-1646).  (I had to google this to believe such a title existed).  I was hoping to learn a bit more about the war between the Royalists, supporters of King Charles I and the Parliamentarians, supporters of the rights of Parliament, but the author decided to just educate the reader on how the fear of witches was pronounced by the general fear in England at this time.

The story is narrated by the sister who is widowed and forced to move back home with her brother.  She quickly learns that home is no longer a safe place and that her brother has grown into an evil man who longs for power.  He insists that she be a part of his witch investigations.  The tale reads like a psychological horror story, but is all the more terrifying knowing that such events in history did indeed happen.  Hopkins was a frightening monster. “My brother, Matthew set himself to killing women…but without once breaking the law.”Matthew-Hopkins

The inhuman methods that Hopkins used in his investigations are difficult to read.  Women were tied to a stool and not allowed to sleep for hours, which often led to sleep-deprived confessions.  Females accused were pricked with special needles in their vaginas and if an animal licked the blood they were considered witches.   Another example where death was the only outcome was when suspects were tied to a chair and thrown into water: all those who “swam” (floated) were considered to be witches and were then hung.  Of course, when the innocent didn’t float they died a watery grave rather than by the gallows.  I believe we are all familiar with the days of the witch hunts, still, I didn’t expect to gasp in horror, as I did when reading exactly what went on during the so-called investigations.

The author, Beth Underdown, does an impressive job in taking the reader back into this ghastly time in history.  (Think of the Arthur Miller play and the 1996 movie version of the play “The Crucible”). I could feel the uncertainty and fear in the villages caused by a righteous lunatic.  Who would be next?  One daughter gave false evidence against a group of women who lived in her village with the promise that her mother might be spared.  I will leave you to guess if mother and daughter lived.

Underdown makes it easy to read between the lines, that the Hopkins’ witch trials had more to do with politics than potions, not to mention gender issues.  Now here we are in the year of 2017 and despite all that we know, we still can breed the hysteria that can create a monster.  I can’t help but wonder if humankind will ever learn.

 

 

 

A Bookish Quiz: Opening Lines Edition

An attempt at readers teasers that is fun.

Baking Thad Books

Ahead of the Bank Holiday weekend, I’ve pulled together a quick quiz. The name of the game is simple: Can you guess the book from the opening line?

Let me know how you get on in the comments!

Let’s jump right in…

OK that was an easy one to start with, they should get harder from here on in:

How’re you doing so far? We’re going to step it up now…

Last five now…

Final bonus question for you now. Good luck:

So how did you get on? Let me know in the comments!

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“Ararat” by Christopher Golden

Pub. Date:  April 18, 2017

Publisher:   St. Martin’s Press

Ararat

This novel originally caught my eye because the famous mountain located in Eastern Turkey has long been known for the place named in the Book of Genesis where Noah’s Ark came to rest after the great flood (Genesis 8:4). As the product of a Catholic school, how could I resist a novel with all sorts of biblical suggestions?  However, the main characters in this eerie tale are of all religions with diverse backgrounds.  I knew from the blurb that I was going to be reading a horror story.  Early into the book’s chapters, I was delighted to learn that the novel is well written.  I would say this is a literary horror tale (if there is such a genre).

The premise of the novel is that after an earthquake, on the top of one of the mountain’s sides, there is now an opening showing “something.”  There is a race between scientists, historians, religious leaders, and filmmakers all rushing immediately to Turkey.   They all want to be the first to explore the opening that just might lead to the famous ark.   Our protagonists are an engaged couple (one a Jew and the other a Muslim) who take on the dangerous mountain climb with the intention of co-writing a documentary.  They already had a bestseller on another one of their adventures together.  From the start of their climb up the mountain, there are tensions among the multi-ethnic crew with their different beliefs.  When the explorers, with their guides, arrive at the opening in the mountain they do discover the remains of an ancient ship that may or may not be Noah’s Ark.  In this cave-like ship, they discover many skeletal remains of humans and animals, as well as an ancient tomb with writing that dates before Jesus Christ.  On this expedition, a Catholic priest argues that they need to open this tomb because it just may be the greatest connection to biblical history ever found.  The Father’s suggestion is a big mistake because inside the container lays a 5,000-year-old horned cadaver, and once released all hell literally breaks out.  Think of the novel “The Exorcist” by William Peter Blatty.  If you didn’t read the book, I am sure you saw the movie.  Around this point in the novel, the hairs on the back of my neck were standing up.

The author does a wonderful job of making the reader feel as if the characters are the last people on earth, I could feel the cold and frostbitten body parts, see their teeth chattering, sense their claustrophobia and paranoia as they desperately try to rid themselves of the supernatural creature that they seemed to have awoken.   The atheists and the religious come together to help one another escape the cave inside the top of the mountain.   They make their descent during an out-of-control blizzard.  In a way, “Ararat” reminded me of the 1970s escape-disaster movies (“The Towering Inferno” or “The Poseidon Adventure”) where the protagonists try to save lives, subdue panic and escape a burning building or a ship’s watery grave knowing that only a few or possibly none will survive.

I started reading the book on a drive up to rural Vermont.  I decided to stop so I could finish when I arrived at my destination, which is a cabin on a mountain in what could be a scary environment.  I wanted to make the most of this tale.  To read it in the cabin at night, with the wind blowing, and the coyotes howling which I knew would enhance my goosebumps.   I enjoyed my goosebumps.  The author did what he intended: he scared the bejeezus out of me.    Yet, finishing the story, cuddled up under a blanket, in the pitch black darkness of a rural area while listening to the rain pound the cabin, I found myself disappointed with the ending.  Oh, I most certainly felt scared, but I expected more.  I felt that the ending became a familiar plot where a beast can assume the shape of its victims.   This is a story that has been told hundreds of times on cable TV shows aimed at an audience that cannot get enough of Zombie stories. I would have preferred an ending that relies less on monster movie gimmicks and more on reality-based, catechism-induced horrors.   However, the writing is so super in this book I have to recommend you give “Ararat” a spine-chilling try.  The author will give you a harrowing look at battling ancient evil forces and demand that the reader questions the existence of God, Michael the archangel (found in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), as well as the fallen angel, known as Lucifer.  Be prepared to be terrified.

Find all my reviews at https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/4793025-martie-nees-record?shelf=read

“All Things Cease To Appear” by Elizabeth Brundage

So many different thoughts went through my mind while reading this novel.  First, I All Things Cease To Appearresigned myself to read another contemporary thriller (not my fav) that needs to be reviewed.  Then early in the book I thought “this is very well written,” more literary than bestseller-like.   Next, the story became Gothic, a genre I do enjoy.  Plus, it also has a noir feel which is another genre that I love to get lost in.  So, to my surprise, I am pleased that I read this book.  It is not until the very end of the story that I find criticism with the tale. But I am getting ahead of myself.

The story begins with a short chapter describing an old farmhouse and all the people that once lived there.  The first family that we meet is a married couple with three sons trying to keep the farm alive in horrendous conditions born from poverty.  The parents die in the house and the boys are left orphaned.  The next family who moves into the house is a young married couple with a little girl.  They buy the farmhouse for almost nothing since it went into foreclosure.  The town’s people held that against the young couple.  The new owners are city people who move to the country for the husband’s job as a professor at a small college.  The “whodunit begins in the first chapter when the professor comes home from work and finds his wife murdered in her bed.  The three sons who first lived in the farmhouse are in all other chapters of the book.

There are no quotation marks anywhere in the novel.  The author expects the reader to be smart enough to know who said what.    I enjoyed this style of writing it keeps me on their toes.   There are many characters in this book that can feel overwhelming, but they are tied together nicely, and I enjoyed each one’s part in the plot.   It read similar to “Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Strout, where the characters were interconnected short stories.   In addition, the author adds a large dose of irony into her novel.  The professor’s boss is a big fan of Emanuel Swedberg who is best known for his book on the afterlife, “Heaven and Hell” written in 1758.

The last chapter focuses on the little girl who is now all grown up and in her last stages of  training to become a surgeon.  The reason why the ending is a bit of a disappointment for me is that I thought the author was attempting to add romance into the plot.  In hindsight, it may have been karma (if I explain it would be a spoiler).   Still, all in all, this is a literary spellbinding page-turner that is a ghost story, as well as a psychological thriller.   Was I displeased with the ending? Yes, that is true.  Did I need to sleep with the lights on?  Yes, that is also true.  Read the book and see if you cease to appear.

Find all my reviews at https://books6259.wordpress.com/

“The Dining Car” by Eric Peterson

Pub. Date:  Nov. 1, 2016

Publisher:  The Independent Book  Publisher Associationthe dining car

The narrator of this novel is a once-famous college football star whose career ended after an accident.  Once he recovers, he is employed as a bartender on an elaborate, old-fashioned railroad dining car owned by a rich, alcoholic, eccentric man.  This character is modeled after legendary Lucius Morris Beebe (1902-1966).  Beebe, as our protagonist, was an American author, gourmand, railroad historian, syndicated columnist and a notorious socialite.  Reading about the absurdity of this sort of insanely rich life through the eyes of a regular Joe, our football player, will give the reader many a chuckle.

The book is called “The Dining Car” because our gourmand, the protagonist, refuses to ride on an airplane.  He writes that airports treat people like cattle, touching them in ways that one should be able to sue over. (I laughed many times over his opinionated statements he makes in his column).   So instead he buys an old Pullman railroad car and travels solely on his vintage private luxury dining car, which is straight out of the 1930s.  He has his own personal top-tier chef and his own bartender who is always decked out in a white jacket.  Both are at his beck and call twenty-four hours a day.  Our quirky gourmand always starts his day with some kind of decadent breakfast that would clog anyone’s arteries. Of course, breakfast is served with a Bloody Mary.  The food and alcohol continues until the end of the day, when he finally drops off in a stupor.  He surrounds himself with the rich and famous who are beyond wealthy, as well as beyond obnoxious.   We really should dislike them.  Yet the writer somehow makes them into endearing characters to chuckle over.  We also should dislike the protagonist because he is such a self-absorbed narcissist.  But despite all his flaws, the reader will come to love him because his wit and charisma are as big as his appetites.

The farcical situations he accidentally finds himself in are so ridiculous one cannot help but laugh out loud with him rather than at him.   When meeting his 11-year old niece for the first time, his magazine’s Board suggests he give her a teddy bear.  They do not suggest this because it will be a kind gesture, but because it will be a good photo-op.  First, they buy a talking Smokey the Bear doll by mistake.  Then they try to feminize the bear with a hat and dress.  When he hands the bear over to the child (of course, he is as drunk as a skunk), the hat is no longer on the bear’s head.  Then the bear’s voice mechanism jams and he begins laughing uncontrollably.   So what observers witness is a man laughing at Smokey in a dress.  This is how he inadvertently manages to get himself in trouble with the LGBT community who think he is poking fun at transgender people.   The scene reads like an updated “I Love Lucy” episode where everything goes wrong and is misinterpreted creating simply silly slapstick humor.

I could have happily read about the fictional Beebe’s overindulgent lifestyle and his hilarious antics throughout the whole book.  But the author adds romance, chef spying, a sister in politics, murder, and an orphaned niece into the plot.  The niece is written as if she is 6-years old instead of 11-years old.  Her character felt rushed in as a means to influence the bartender’s fate.  I did not feel a connection to her at all.  Nor did I care if the football player falls in love with his co-worker or a celebrity chef.    By adding in these other characters, I felt that the author is trying to write a bestselling book, not realizing that he already has one.  For me, these characters with their subplots felt like filler.  One sees the author putting his plot-driven fingerprints all over a delightful, character-driven novel.   Nevertheless, I recommend that you treat yourself to a delicious book with course after course of scrumptious meals served with signature cocktails that will leave you hungry for more travels on “The Dining Car.”

Find all my reviews at https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/4793025-martie-nees-record?shelf=read

“The Last Neanderthal” by Claire Cameron

Pub. Date:  April 25, 2017The Last Neanderthal

Publisher:   Little, Brown and Company

This is a novel about the makings of the female species. There are two female protagonists. One lives in the present and the other lives forty thousand years ago. The author, Claire Cameron, weaves the two females’ very different lives together in flashbacks and flash-forwards. Cameron writes her novel as if it is a thesis, with a theory that needs to be proved. Her hypothesis is that our ancestors were strikingly similar to the humans of today. Her end notes have an impressive list of references on the subject, showing that she did her homework. In the hands of a lesser author, this dissertation-like focus could be the book’s weakness. Instead, her storytelling skills are so good that it is the book’s strength. It reads as a historical fiction, a mystery, a fast-paced suspense tale with taboo sex, and a love letter to the human race, with an emphasis on the female ability to create life.

The modern day woman is a pregnant archaeologist who is racing to get grant funding to continue her work on Neanderthal artifacts before her baby is born. The bones she finds in her dig are of two bodies and they are a shocking discovery because they are of a female Neanderthal and a human male buried together, positioned as if embracing. In the distant past, the Neanderthal teenage girl is also pregnant. She is racing to find shelter before her baby is born. It is crucial that this baby lives since she knows that her species’ numbers are low. Her mother taught her that her reason for being born is to reproduce so the “family” can continue. (Family here can mean their immediate family but is also used as their word for all Neanderthals). It is clear to the reader that the female bones found by the archaeologist are the bones of the female Neanderthal protagonist. Both the Neanderthal girl and the modern day woman have very difficult births, one without her partner, in a country where she doesn’t speak the language, and the other alone in a hole in the earth during a snowstorm. Both almost lose their life giving birth and have to decide whether to save their own life or the life of their unborn baby. This type of choice always makes for a thought provoking and heart-tugging read.

By itself, the story of the modern day heroine would have been a good feminist tale, asking if working women can have it all—a fulfilling career and family life? The author adds in a postpartum psychosis episode, and the Archaeologist begins to think about killing her baby. This temporary madness makes for an interesting story but it has been written before in “All She Ever Wanted” by Rosalind Noonan and other stories on this subject. But the story of the Neanderthal girl is so intriguing that I sometimes became annoyed when the next chapter focused on the Archaeologist. In the girl’s story, I became lost in the world of 40 thousand years ago, when the last families of Neanderthals roamed the earth. They were incredible people, and I choose to call them people because of what I learned in this book. Yet, they had an animal-like fairness to them that modern humans do not have. Unless desperate, they never killed a baby animal. They understood that this would disrupt the balance of the order of life because then the baby bison would not grow and continue the circle of life.

I became fascinated with other side stories in the novel too, such as the girl’s friendship with a tiger too old to hunt. He would come to visit her like a pet and she would give him strips of meat, usually cooked. (The Neanderthals would eat raw meat immediately after a successful hunt but once brought home the carcass is cooked). The Neanderthal girl and the tiger jointly knew that if it came down to it, one would kill the other even though they were friends. It is survival of the fittest with a certain kindness and respect. Another character that intrigued me is a boy child that the mother Neanderthal takes in when she finds him lost and orphaned. He became a much loved family member even though they see him as an odd looking child as well as rather strange. He had impressive qualities that they did not have. Something about his arms allowed him to throw and hit a target as only an adult could. Unlike the others, who rarely use their voice to communicate in words, he chattered all day long, driving the others crazy. And a difference that made this reader laugh out loud is that the family worried that when his time came he will never find a mate, because he is such an ugly looking male, no female would find him attractive enough to want him. (Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I guess Neanderthals were not physically attracted to humans’ facial features).

I will not share what happens to each of the female heroines or their babies. It would be a spoiler. I will share that one of my favorite parts in the Archaeologist’s story is when she is in labor and couldn’t talk with the doctor so they locked eyes and somehow managed to communicate without words, just as the Neanderthals did. This book makes me want to pay attention to my own forgotten senses lost from lack of use. I often joke that my sinus and spine pains can tell me when the weather is about to change. Could this be how modern Homo sapiens modified our alertness to nature? And can we once again regain instincts that we have lost? The author made me truly feel for our ancient ancestors as if they were my relatives and not just extinct creatures that I once read about in a history book. This is a powerful novel that made me often tear and sometimes laugh, all while exploring the concept of what makes us human?

 

Find all my reviews at https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/4793025-martie-nees-record?shelf=read