Thursday, 17 April 2014

The Best of The Review: Favorite Posts From the First Half Year (Volume VIII)

Sons of the Wolf~~Paula Lofting

It was truly so difficult to choose two--just two!!--entries for our favorite blog posts; there really were so many I loved--from books I liked the sound of and wanted to read, to reviews of works I might not otherwise have given a second look, but was drawn in by the reviewers' ability to get me to see new possibilities. In the end I decided to go with the ones that came to mind most fluidly and frequently when trying to decide on which constituted my favorites.

To that end I went first for Linda's review of Sons of the Wolf. I already had a close bond with this book, oddly enough one that before I read feared I would not enjoy. This pre-Conquest era is not one I remember much of from school and I was, I admit, a bit intimidated. In the end I not only loved the novel but grew to care about the characters and, as Linda writes, "Thankfully there is a sequel coming." I also loved Linda's descriptive review which also succinctly guides readers through the "how it came to be," and she does a fantastic job of it.

There is a village in pre-Norman Sussex called  Horstede which  has been invaded by a time traveler, or so it seems. I am tempted to speculate that not  even a member of Regia Anglorum like author Paula Lofting could create a story like Sons of the Wolf unless she had lived among them.  I suspect that in spirit, indeed she has.  Her novel  is the product of a writer who not only loves her subject and knows it well, but also knows her craft.  As I read the opening pages, I can smell the woodsmoke and feel the warmth of the greetings of the villagers as protagonist Wulfhere and his right hand man Esegar return from a bloodly battle as the opening curtain rises.  I remain a captive of the story until its final page, and best of all, beyond. Thankfully there is a sequel coming.

Any meticulously researched and authentically presented historical  novel set in a well known milieu faces the risk that devotion to historical truth  may become its own spoiler. Such is not the case with Sons of the Wolf. To avoid the common pitfall,  Lofting has masterfully selected two characters from the pages of Doomsday Book about whom little is known. The only references is to their names –Wulfhere and Helghi—and the amount of land they owned. Their respective societal ranks can be guessed from a notation as to the size of their respective estates. The balance is  Lofting’s creation.

Wulfhere is the thegn of Horstede and Helghi’s superior in rank. Helghi also  is a landowner but a tier below his rival. Their families have been fueding for years, and the conflict brings out the worst of each. Their  abiding hatred forges their destiny and contaminates others. Wulfhere is a  good man who seeks to do the right thing, but he does not always like it. Helghi is the consummate villain,  obsessed with bringing Wulfhere to his knees, and willingly sacrifices the future and the well-being of his family to do so.

When the historical character Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex and brother-in-law of King Edward seeks to reconcile Wulfhere and Helghi, he sets events in motion that make matters worse.
After I read the initial four chapters of the book I put it down, not because I did not like it, but because I was utterly unfamiliar with its historical context.  My intense study of British history is framed by the  Plantegenets on one end and the Marlboros on the other. What I knew of the Norman invasion could be  summarized in a  line  from the 1953 movie Young Bess.  Says adolescent  Elizabeth, "England has never been invaded, except by the Normans, who do not count because they were us."  What I knew of Anglo Saxon Britain would have scarcely filled a journal page. I  profited from  spending  a few minutes on Wikipedea,  and once I had a better understanding of what transpired in Britain in the years immediately prior to 1066, I was ready for a breathtaking, violent, fast and furious and often heart-rending ride through the years before the Normans came.

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The Witch Finder~~Blythe Gifford

Here Louise also snares me with her ability to capture the intrigue of a book, and I was interested in the topic as well. She takes us to a dangerous time and points to the author's skillful use of privileged position and dramatic words to draw us into the events and follow the players as they make their way through their own world. This book is the very next on my to-be-read list and I plan to reward myself with it at the end of the month when I make several deadlines. Books make fantastic rewards!!

“It’s October 1661, Scotland, the Borders – Hoofbeats woke her, sending her heart tripping fast as the horse, even without knowing who rode. Nothing good rode at night.”

These are the opening lines to a story that will take you into the realms of the witch finder.

The horrors of not being able to make someone believe that you are innocent, when those around you see you as guilty. Blythe Gifford cleverly draws the reader into the story, pitting the searcher against the searched.

The opening lines of a book, for me, are very important. They have to set the scene, hook me in, and make me want to turn the page. Blythe Gifford’s The Witch Finder does that for me. It is not a book that I would instinctively choose, but the cover intrigued me. First of all it has a teaser – “He’s a haunted man. She’s a hunted woman.” The title of the book overlays the picture in a bright yellow font that catches the eye; encouraging the reader to view the picture that sits behind it; a woman cloaked in black. So, being naturally curious, I had to read it. 

Margaret is our protagonist, hiding her mother who has been sent mad through interrogation in Edinburgh by the witch finder called Scobie.  They are living in a small, remote, barely furnished cottage out along the road from the village of Kirktoun. Here she could keep her mother safe and away from prying eyes and questions. Blythe has the reader feeling sympathetic towards both Margaret and her mother from the outset. We feel her panic as the witch pricker comes riding past her home. Will Margaret’s mother be found? Will Margaret be accused of being a witch? Nail-biting moments carry the reader page by page. We are taken into the realms of interrogation, and the bitter futility of declaring innocence.

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