Wednesday, February 8, 2012


Published 2011, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, ISBN 978--0-547-42752-2, 279 pages.

In this short, but powerful, historical fiction novel, Kimberly Cutter brings Jehanne d'Arc to life once again.  Joan of Arc, unarguably one of the most famous women in history, has been the subject of many historical fiction books.  Kimberly Cutter seems to find her way inside Jehanne's head and heart and writes about a human being, rather than a saint want-to-be.

Cutter's prose is sharp, succinct and effective.  Many of her sentences comprise of only 5 or 6 words, but deliver impact.  I found this an extremely readable novel, enjoying the lack of superfluous prose common in novels.

Cutter writes of a young girl, uneducated, living in terror of her father and their enemies, the Goddens and Burgundians, yet filled with the Spirit of God who receives visitations from Archangel Michael, St. Catherine and St. Margaret.  She has sworn to tell no-one of her visitations other than a weakling youth with a claim to the Crown of France, whom she must crown.  A seemingly impossible and incredulous commandment.

Throughout the entire novel, The Maid (Jehanne so named herself The Maid, as she believed her virginity was a deciding factor in the tasks God set before her) experiences an intense range of emotions:  conviction she has been chosen by God to reclaim France from the English; fear of failure; determination to do whatever necessary to follow God's commands; doubts that Satan has used her; valor on battlegrounds; frustration; disappointment; courage; rejection, temptation, betrayal, ostracism; and, finally, terror at the knowledge of her impending horrific death.

One tends to think of saints as people who are above human emotions, grounded and secure in their convictions, and forget, saints, just like the rest of us, belong to mankind.  Kimberly Cutter does an excellent job of reminding us.

One small drawback that brought me out of the novel on a few occasions was the use of contemporary slang, such as, "Screw plans."  written in dialogue.  I haven't researched this, but, somehow, I highly doubt such venacular was in use in the early to mid-1400's.

Cutter's Author's Notes and Acknowledgements detail an impressive research background on the subject of The Maid.

RATING:  **** (Excellent)

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


Published 2003, HarperCollins, ISBN 0-765-31430-4, 462 pages.

Set in Cologne in 1665, The Witch of Cologne commences with one of the central characters, Ruth bas Elazar Saul, a midwife delivering a child for a Catholic woman,  a very risky endeavor.  The Jewish community is tolerated, barely, in a quarter outside the city.

Canon Detlef Wittelsbach, born into a aristocratic family, believes his piety is of the mind, not the body, and, therefore, indulges in carnal pleasures.  In addition, he is a free thinker who, while outwardly adhering to the Roman Catholic Church, has differing beliefs for which he could be deemed a heretic.

The Spanish Inquisition is in full swing and Monsignor Carlos Vicente Solitario arrives in Cologne with warrants for three merchants and the midwife, Ruth.  The Dominican's interest in Ruth emerges from her mother's rebuttal of his attempted affections.  Although Ruth's mother is long dead, the Dominican harbors a need for revenge and seeks it in the death of Ruth at the stake as a witch.

Ruth herself has more than dabbled in current philosophy regarding religious tenants, having lived in Amsterdam disguised as a boy.  Fortunately, for her, the Dominican is unaware of her past exploits.  Unfortunately, for Ruth though, he is still determined to burn her as a witch.  She is put to torture and is rescued by mere chance by Detlef who, once he sees her, requests that he take over her inquisition.

Unable to deny himself, Detlef meets secretly with Ruth upon her release and they become lovers.  Thus, begins the saga of their sacrifices for the sake of their love and child.  They flee to Holland for relative safety, but betrayal hounds them.  While Ruth and Detlef's love is a main feature of the novel, I would not label this novel as a historical romance.

Hierarchy within the Church, political alliances with opposing European counties, betrayal, family loyalties all play a part in the plot of this historical fiction novel.  The result is an engrossing tale in which Learner is not afraid of exposing the world in all its ugliness, nor does she tie everything up with pretty little bows.

Several of the characters (not the main protagonists) are actual historical figures of the time.  Learner has deftly interwoven the factual with the fiction, leaving the reader with a real feel for the times.

Bonus points for the list of characters (there are plenty) and power structure of 17th century Cologne at the beginning of the novel.

Cautionary note:  There are many graphic erotic scenes.

Rating:  *** (Good)


Published 2005, HarperCollins, ISBN 978-0-7653-5973-9, 430 pages

Soul by Tobsha Learner is a novel that connects Lavinia Huntingon with her great-granddaughter, Julia Huntington.  Lavinia's story commences in Ireland in 1848, while Julia's begins in Afghanistan in 2002.

The premise and connecting theme in Soul is whether some people have genetic makeup that predisposes them to violence and lack emotional aftermath.  Julia herself has experienced this phenomen in Afghanistan when she kills an assailant and feels no remorse or repulsion.  She's heard rumors about her great-grandmother's equally ruthless nature.

Julia and Lavinia's stories parallel in that Julia is going through a messy divorce and Lavinia is enduring a messy marriage with a deviant husband.  Both loved their husbands dearly during their marriage, until calamity struck.

Julia, a scientist, is given a secret commission by the government to isolate the genome which would permit the government to put together a crack killer team that will act without compunction.  Lavinia is equally intelligent, but her husband does not permit her to use her intellect by assisting him with his studies of Amazon tribes.

Soul is a plodding novel that combines historical fiction with contemporary.  The action is slow.  When the climax does occur in both Lavinia's and Julia's lives, it is too late.  I found I had long lost any engagement I might have had with either character.

On a cautionary note, Soul contains a few graphic erotic scenes.

Rating:  ** (Okay)