Marie’s Reading: “The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors” by Dan Jones

templarsJones makes history so accessible and interesting, without sacrificing depth and scholarship.  His accounts are vivid and make great use of historical sources.  The Templars is about the order of the Templar Knights, including how the order was formed, their influence over the centuries, and the way they’ve been transformed into myth.

I went into this book knowing nothing about the Templars except that they existed.  The Knights Templar began as a group of knights dedicated to protecting Christians in Jerusalem, as well as the holy city itself.  They took vows of poverty and chastity, and lived lives similar to those of Cistercian monks.  However, they were also allowed to go into battle and to kill. In a very short period of time their power and money exploded.  When they finally fell out of favor, it was in spectacular and bloody fashion (short but not spoilered version: they ran afoul of the king of France, who did not trust the order…and was also in debt to them).

I have read several books about this era (about 1119 until about 1312), but always with a focus on England.  The Templars explains what was going on  in Jersualem and in Western Europe during the Crusades.  I especially enjoyed learning more about Spain and France during this period, and the capsule history of the city of Jerusalem was illuminating as well.  Again, after so many books from, say, Richard the Lionheart’s point of view, it was also fascinating to learn more about Saladin.

Jones finishes the book with a discussion of how pop culture has transformed the Knights Templar, and the way their legacy has shifted and turned to myth, which makes a nice bookend to the historical narrative.

If you enjoy narrative history and are interested in the Middle Ages, definitely try Jones’s work!  He also wrote the wonderful The Plantagenets and The Wars of the Roses.



TBR Challenge Update #10

I took October off for reading scary stuff for Horror Month and re-reading The Shining and IT and The War of the Worlds.  But I did manage to pick a few off the TBR list here and there!

Company of Liars by Karen Maitland.  I really liked The Owl Killers, so I wanted to come back to this one–I remember beginning it almost ten years ago and then never getting beyond the first chapter.  This is a loose retelling of The Canterbury Tales, set against the backdrop of the Black Plague in 1348.  I really enjoyed it!  The characters, each with a secret, are very distinct and well-drawn, and the atmosphere is great.

The Thing About December by Donal Ryan.  I went through a contemporary Irish fiction phase a few years ago, and added this one to my list.  I enjoyed it very much!  Johnsey, lives in rural Ireland, and he inherits the family farm after his parents’ deaths.  He’s a man who doesn’t quite fit in, and this makes for a melancholy read–it’s lyrical, though, with passages of beautiful writing and imagery.

Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions by Amy Stewart.  Why the shift to third-person narration in this third book?  One of the things I enjoyed best about the first two was being inside Constance’s head.  I really missed that in this novel.  I also missed the mystery element. But the story itself was fun, and ripped from the mid-1910’s headlines, with young women getting hauled into court on charges of “waywardness.”  As ever, funny and fun, with a nice pace and great characters.

I’ve managed to cross a few more off my list by beginning them and realizing that I’m no longer interested.  I’m in a bit of a fiction slump, but I’ve got some good nonfiction going: In the Great Green Room, a biography of Margaret Wise Brown, and Friends Divided, a new book about the relationship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.



TBR Challenge 2017 Update #3

Today in the continuing saga of reading my way through my Goodreads To-Be-Read list:

She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth by Helen Castor.  I’ve read lots of books about English history in my non-fiction group (see our list here), so I’m familiar with the women covered in this book (Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France, and Margaret of Anjou).  But it was great to see their lives and stories explored in a more fleshed-out way, particularly in the specific context of female leadership in England.

The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland.  I like historical fiction that has a good sense of time and place, but doesn’t get bogged down in detail–there’s a sense of reality that comes from the period detail being in the background, the everyday.  Maitland pulls that off well here, I think.  I also liked the novel as a suspense story, one that played on the tensions between the village, the ancient Owl Men, and the Benguinage.  It’s enthralling and atmospheric with a rich cast of characters.  And now I want to learn more about Beguinages!

The Small Hand: A Ghost Story by Susan Hill.  I’m now officially doing a Susan Hill feature for Horror Month, so check back then!

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne.  I own this.  I have owned this for years.  I tried once again to get into it and once again I’ve failed.  At least I’ve now watched the movie “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.”  Which is kind of like saying, “I haven’t read the book but I’ve seen the Wishbone episode.”

Medieval Women by Eileen Power.  I think this was on my list because of the many books I’ve read for my nonfiction book group about the Middle Ages.  Not sure where I heard about it, but glad I picked it up!  It’s a collection of lectures Power gave about different aspects of women’s lives in the Middle Ages, including women’s roles and functions, and the gulf between the ideal and the lives of actual women.  Gives a lot of cultural and intellectual context to lots of books I’ve read, both fiction and nonfiction.

Full disclosure: I am technically still in the act of reading She-Wolves and The Small Hand, but I’m going to finish both so they count.

To see previous updates on this challenge, click here and here.  Or just click the TBR Challenge 2017 tag at the bottom of the post.

Next up is another classic I have read the first three pages of at least four times (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and an 800-pager called The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy.  But it’s “a brilliant, multifaceted chronicle of economic and social change” according to The New York Times.  So maybe it will go quickly?

To-Read List Currently Stands At: 823.



26 Books to Read in 2015: #20

Today’s challenge book is #20: A book everyone but you has read.

And that book is:

name of the rose

Seriously.  Everyone on the planet has read this except for me.  I asked around.  There are hermits in Siberia who have read The Name of the Rose.  Tribes otherwise untouched by modern civilization in the Brazilian rainforest have read it.  People who can’t read have read it.

Even though you’ve probably read this already, too, I’ll go ahead and tell you about it anyway.

This brilliant historical mystery has been on my list for a very long time.  I’m so pleased that I finally took the time to read and savor it as it deserves.  There are so many layers, so many textures, so many sections of Latin, so many references and allusions, so many characters, so much of everything in this novel.  It’s weighty, in ideas and structure and in prose.  On top of it all it’s a wonderfully crafted murder mystery.

Set in 1327, the story follows novice monk Adso as he accompanies the British William of Baskerville to an abbey in northern Italy to represent the Pope in upcoming negotiations. Soon after they arrive, however, monks in the abbey begin turning up dead, and William turns detective.  That’s the bare bones of the plot.  The meat is in the atmosphere, the allusions, the structure, and the many books within books.

To be perfectly honest, I felt like New Watson quite a bit while reading. (comic courtesy Hark! A Vagrant)
To be perfectly honest, I felt like New Watson quite a bit while reading.
(comic courtesy Hark! A Vagrant)

The Name of the Rose is a masterwork of fiction, positively Pyncheon-esque in its levels and ideas.  It’s a book that demands care and attention and absorption.  And probably a re-read or two.  Or three.


Marie’s Reading: “Hild” by Nicola Griffith

hild-204x300The novel Hild takes its inspiration from the life of Saint Hilda of Whitby.  Very little is known about her, and what little we have comes from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English.   Hilda (called Hild in the novel) was the founding abbess of the monastery at Whitby, and figured prominently in Britain’s conversion to Christianity.  Hild was known for her wisdom, such that kings came to her for advice.  That’s all we know.

So Griffith, in sweeping and detailed style, decided to use a novel to fill in the holes in Hild’s story.  Her girlhood, coming of age, and role in the king’s family and household are explored here, as well as her relationships with both warriors and priests.  All in all, it’s a grand effort with a fantastic sense of place and a few great characters.  This is certainly a novel for those who enjoy plot over character development, and appreciate lush scene-setting in their historical novels.

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Marie’s Reading: “The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England” by Ian Mortimer

I love the concept of this book.  Mortimer takes a rather Tralfamadorian view of history, in that he wants us to think about medieval England as a place that still exists somewhere in time, as a vital, real place rather than a mere collection of dates or a costume drama.  I heartily agree with and enjoy this approach.

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