Friday, 8 December 2017

A Book for Readers Interested in the Lost City of Rungholt

'Die Letzten Tage von Rungholt' by Kari Köster-Lösche

In the coastal communities of Northern Frisia, an area now located in the state of Schleswig Holstein (Germany), everyone is familiar with the myths surrounding the lost settlement of Rungholt. According to local lore, the destruction of the once fabulously wealthy community was the divine punishment for its residents' self-indulgence and greed.

Marcellus Day in January 1362 marks the beginning of Rungholt's end. A devastating storm flood sweeps across the area, substantially altering the coastline and killing an estimated 100,000 across 30 distinct settlements. After three days the water finally recedes. Previously inhabited land is to this day buried under water and mud. Rungholt, a significant coastal settlement and regional trading hub before the flood, is believed to have been swallowed up by the Sea wholesale and has since become the subject of many a myth. Most of these legends connect the residents' moral conduct with the community's destruction and are undoubtedly the product of superstition. Yet, all folklore contains at least a grain of truth and the local legends surrounding the demise of Rungholt are no exception.

Kari Köster-Lösche, Die Letzten Tage von Rungholt, Publisher: Heyne, 1999

Researchers by and large agree that  Rungholt once existed: It is recorded on maps dating back to the mid-16th Century; and a number of official deeds from the same period also make mention of the location. Its population is believed to have numbered around 3000 residents. Whether their lifestyle was indeed as extravagant as legends claim, remains questionable. Battered by both the Plague and a decline in trade in the decade preceding the catastrophe, Rungholt had seen better days by the arrival of the 'Groote Manndränke' (engl: Grote Mandrenke).

Archeological evidence suggests that Rungholt's wealth was in large parts attributable to one commodity: Salt. Used widely to preserve food, salt from Rungholt's shores was traded as far afield as Flanders. Archaeologists believe that 'salt farming', i.e. the extraction of salt from the sea, developed into the mainstay of Rungholt's economy - with devastating consequences for its population. The large-scale extraction significantly contributed to the erosion of the area's coastline. By the time the flood eventually arrived, existing sea defences did not sufficiently protect the settlement and its residents.

Drawing on insights from archeological and historical research, Kari Köster-Lösche's fictional account of Rungholt's demise, Die Letzten Tage von Rungholt - (an English translation is not available, title freely translated: The Last Days of Rungholt), chronicles the months leading up to the catastrophic flood.

The character at the centre of Köster-Lösche's novel is Arfast Ketelsen, a free Frisian, who, by virtue of his profession as a salter, finds himself at the centre of a net of intrigue and greed involving a number of the community's key players, who are all banking on the ruthless expansion of the area's trade in salt to further their own agendas. When Arfast attempts to warn local dignitaries of the dangers of further intensifying the extraction at the expense of the community's safety, he attracts the wrath of local traders, the King's 'Staller' (King's Representative) and the clergy alike.

Avoiding to overload her readers with historical detail, Köster-Lösche manages to provide a scientifically backed, albeit hypothetical, glimpse into the dependencies of Rungholt's medieval society and the dynamics contributing to the unprecedented destruction of this coastal community. Arfast  adopts the role of the North Frisian Cassandra in his struggle against a well-connected posse of political and clerical decision-makers, who are all embroiled in an intricate web of corruption, greed and deceit. As can be expected, Arfast and his allies find themselves having to convince a complacent bunch of (mostly) ignorant residents, who are either unable to comprehend their concerns or do not dare to question the powers that be.

In an environment where unlawful executions, excommunication and witch trials are commonplace, readers accompany Arfast on a long and arduous journey to save as many lives as possible, avenge his father's murder and rescue his love interest from an arranged marriage. Köster-Lösche manages to squeeze a dense plot with a large cast of characters into a mere 429 pages. Whilst her story is crafted well in terms of pace, at times the characters' actions appeared a little forced. Nevertheless, for all those interested in the myths surrounding the rise and fall of Rungholt, the Atlantis of the North Sea, this might provide an interesting addition or an accessible starting point. 

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Book Review - Brother Cadfael, The Leper of St Giles (Cadfael Chronicles #5) by Ellis Peters

My younger self was going through a phase of reading cozy whodunnits with a preference for those set in England. And when this younger self spotted a paperback edition of Brother Cadfael 'in the reduced to clear'-pile of the station bookshop, it evidently couldn't resist. 

Ten years or so later my appetite for cozies has somewhat decreased and I probably wouldn't pick another from the series today. But as it's book clear-out time and I'm trying to complete a few more books before the end of the year, Brother Cadfael was allowed to accompany me on my commute.

Brother Cadfael - The Leper of St Giles by Ellis Peters
German Edition (Bruder Cadfael und der Hochzeitsmord, Heyne Verlag 1996)

The internet tells me that the Leper of Saint Giles is the fifth in the Cadfael series. It was originally published 36 years ago in 1981. My review of the book refers to the German 1996 print edition, originally published by Heyne in 1987, which is titled 'Bruder Cadfael und der Hochzeitsmord' (literally translated back into English: 'Brother Cadfael and the Wedding Murder'). I am therefore unable to pass comment on the author's English prose, but I enjoyed the translation by Dirk van Gunsteren.

The plot in short: The benedictine monastery of St Giles is the setting for a lavish wedding ceremony. Before the spectacle is about to go ahead, the groom is found murdered and one of his knaves is framed as the prime suspect. Cadfael promptly sets out to solve the case, exonerates the knave and implicitly endorses a second murder. His reconstruction of the events lead him to investigate the movements of colourful characters connected to the victims, including a mistress turned Benedictine nun and a mysterious leper.

Map of Shrewsbury and Environs - Brother Cadfael and the Leper of St Giles by Ellis Peters  (CadfaelChronicles No 5), photo of German Edition (Bruder Cadfael und der Hochzeitsmord, Heyne Verlag 1996)

This 253-page Cadfael is an undemanding, short read. At least in my world, murder mysteries of this length enjoy an easier ride than most other genres. Due to their relative brevity (cozy mysteries are usually no longer than 400 pages), I tend to finish them in a timely manner, reading larger chunks over one to three days to ensure continuity. Had the book been longer, I might have lost interest.

The Leper of Saint Giles fits the textbook definition of a cozy. I enjoyed aspects of reading  the descriptions of the setting (Shrewsbury in the 12th century) and a few tidbits on herbal medicine and monastic life in medieval England. The plot is very well timed, but predictable. The characterisations tend to split the cast into black and white.

Will I read a Cadfael again? - I probably won't hurry to get my hands on another instalment in the near future. At the same time, it's worthwhile mentioning that Ellis Peters is a prolific author and I wouldn't be put off by the prospect of reading another novel of hers, something unconnected to the Cadfael chronicles though.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Book Review: Darcy's Utopia by Fay Weldon

A 90s book. So nineties, it's unbelievable...

Fay Weldon, Darcy's Utopia

Darcy's Utopia ended up on my '2017 clear-out pile' but was one of the more entertaining reads over the past six months. (This says a lot about my rather constrained, clear out-focussed reading list.)  

A full review will be coming up at some point, when I can be bothered to think of something to say about the book ... or find the time to write it down.

In the mean time, my initial verdict: Fay Weldon was actually not quite as annoying as some of the other authors, I had the misfortune of making acquaintances with recently. 

I'm looking at you: Milton Hartoum, and you, Elizabeth Kostova! (Kostova's epically long and equally disappointing 'The Historian' proved to be a tedious, hard slog and Milton Hartoum's 'Orphans of Eldorado' is taking way too long to finish, considering its length of a mere 164 pages. That should say a lot about Weldon's competition in my current reading pile.

Darcy's Utopia charts the ascent and decline of Weldon's heroine, Eleanor Darcy. For the most part, Darcy's story is relaid through a series of interviews she gives to two journalists,  Hugo Vansitart and Valerie Jones, who in turn hook up with one another for the duration of their research of Eleanor's life story, leaving children and partners behind to pursue a short-lived fling.

The book was released in 1991 and whilst I was not particularly smitten by the actual plot, I found this to be quite an entertaining glimpse into the United Kingdom's not so distant past.  Darcy's Utopia aspires to be a lot of things, part societal satire, part comedy, but it failed to  impress me in the end. 

Weldon's heroine starts life as Apricot, a child born out of wedlock on a council housing estate in post-War London with a slightly confusing family background. Through a series of relationships, Apricot climbs the social ladder to finally become Mrs Eleanor Darcy, wife of a high profile economist and adviser to the prime minister.

As briefly mentioned already, I enjoyed this book mainly because of its accounts of society in post-War Britain from the 1950s onwards. I also enjoyed Weldon's writing style. Did I care about the characters or the story? Not really.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Book Review: Deadly Decisions (Temperance Brennan #3) by Kathy Reichs

I picked this one up cheap from a second hand bookshop over ten years ago. Having made the decision to embark on a reading challenge that involves reading all the books on my shelves, which 

a) have been there for too long (i.e. more than five years) and 
b) have been earmarked for a clear-out after reading, 

'Deadly Decisions' by Kathy Reichs fulfilled both criteria.

Deadly Decisions, Temperance Brennan #3 by Kathy Reichs

Despite never having read any of the books in Reich's Temperance Brennan series, I somehow knew that I wouldn't enjoy it. Previous attempts to get into the story never worked out and I gave up about two pages into the book.

Book Review: The Children's Hour by Marcia Willett

Before I begin, I should point out that I have read the 2007 German paperback edition of Willett's 'The Children's Hour', titled 'Das Spiel der Wellen'. The book turned up in my kitchen after it was cleared out by one of my neighbours. He left it with me, since I am the only German speaker in the neighbourhood.

Marcia Willett - The Children's Hour, 2007 German paperback edition titled 'Das Spiel der Wellen'

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Review: Dark Satanic by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Originally published in 1972 Dark Satanic is the first book in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Occult Tales series and the prequel to The Inheritor. Throughout her life Bradley was an incredibly prolific writer and is, of course, better known for both the Darkover and Avalon series. Given the sheer quantity of Bradley's written output, it should come as no surprise that some of her books lack in the quality department.

Anyone familiar with her wider work will be aware, Bradley published a great number of books and short stories that can best be described as 'fragments' or literary experiments, in which she was trialling new plot lines, developing characters and experimenting with new themes. Rather than retaining these fragments in a drawer, Bradley was happy to see them published - in later years most often inside one of her short story collections and anthologies. Yet, at times her ventures into new territory were published as stand-alone books or republished and marketed as sequels and / or prequels to other novels.  Dark Satanic belongs into the latter category.

Dark Satanic, Marion Zimmer Bradley 

The story unfolds in Manhatten where James Melford, a publisher, and his wife Barbara share an apartment with James's ageing mother (Mother Melford) and her friend, Dana, who temporarily stays with the Melfords while house hunting. 

Shortly before his untimely death, one of James's authors, Jock Cannon, visits James in his office at Blackcock Publishing in order to deter James from publishing Jock's recently completed expose on New York City's satanic subculture. As a result of researching  satanist circles, Jock is now subjected to intimidation and harassment by as yet unidentified forces, wishing to prevent the information in his book from becoming public. 

When Jock suddenly dies of a heart attack, James, still determined to publish his book, decides to investigate further. He remains unconvinced by Jock's warnings until James himself starts receiving threatening calls and unexpected late-night deliveries. 

Meanwhile, Barbara, who not only has a rather strained relationship with her mother-in-law but is also deeply uncomfortable with Dana's presence in the apartment, experiences strange goings-on, too. At first, she doubts her own sanity, but as the story unfolds, she becomes increasingly suspicious of Mother Melford, her confidante and their behaviour towards her. 

Admittedly, in Dark Satanic Bradley is not giving us her best. Quite the opposite. The spelling mistakes in my copy alone indicate the absence of any serious editing and suggest a turbo turnaround from initial manuscript to publication. The characters remain flat and abstract and the story seems to plot along, giving the impression that Bradley, whilst writing, forgot where she wanted to take the story. 

Following the introduction of Claire Moffat's and Colin MacLaren's characters, which assume the roles of dei ex machinae, Bradley moves on to plant the seed of the sequel, thereby not so subtly preparing her readers for further literary ventures into the worlds of good and evil, the forces of black and white magic, religious ceremonies and satanic rites. This is somewhat reminiscient of The Fall of Atlantis, 

The Fall of Atlantis, Marion Zimmer Bradley, photo courtesy of Clarice Asquith

Atmospherically and thematically, the setting and subject matter of Dark Satanic evoke associations with Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby, which was published in 1967. Rosemary's Baby became the best-selling horror novel of the 1960s and thanks to Polanski's adaptation of the book, which was released in 1968, it remained a trendsetter in the genre for years to come.

As a literary product, Dark Satanic can best be described as a gothic pulp, tapping superficially into Levin's market by ripping various elements off Rosemary's Baby. Considering the poor quality editing, I would not be surprised to find out that Bradley was under a very tight deadline when writing Dark Satanic and she made use of this to explore a rough idea for a new series. In later editions the book is marketed as the prequel to The Inheritor, which was published in 1984 and received overwhelmingly positive reviews. The success of The Inheritor undoubtedly boosted sales of Dark Satanic, resulting in its republication in 1988. 

All in all, Dark Satanic certainly deserves a place in any MZB fan collection, especially to satisfy the needs of the completist collector. All others are best advised to skip the book and read The Inheritor instead. 

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Cover Art by George Barr, Maren,Tim White, Darrell K. Sweet et al.

An eclectic selection of sci-fi and fantasy artists have created the covers for Marion Zimmer Bradley's books and anthologies.

The below is a selection of cover art for MZB's publications. The photos are taken from the paperback hardcovers. The entire pictures are available here, featuring works by George Barr, Tim White, David A. Cherry, Richard Hescox and Maren, whose actual name is Mariano Pérez Clemente. 

Whereever possible information on the cover artist and edition has been included. Sadly, the cover art the for The Forest House (MZB's Avalon Series) remains uncredited in the edition by Michael Joseph.

George Barr, Darkover Landfall

Marion Zimmer Bradley: Darkover Landfall - 1972
Publisher: DAW Books, Inc.
This edition: 15th printing (first printing, December 1972)
Cover Art by George Barr
For a review of Darkover Landfall, please click here.

Summary and Review: Mind to Mind by Betty Shine

Mind to Mind is the first of several Betty Shine publications to be reviewed on this blog over the coming months. Originally released in 1989, with Mind to Mind, Betty aims to provide a broad overview of her work as a spiritual healer, medium and clairvoyant.

Mind to Mind by Betty Shine

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