The Fever of 1721: The Epidemic That Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics by Stephen Coss

I love history when original documents are used to tell the story, letting us see what people were thinking, saying and letting us see how those thoughts played out in their actions. In The Fever of 1721, Coss does just that. Using diaries, news papers, pamphlets, letters, and government documents, Coss weaves a startling narrative about the fever of revolution that began to burn brightly during that year and the fever of small pox which hit Boston with such devastating force came together and fostered the fever of and American revolution.

The key players in our story are Cotton Mather, a Puritan minister, forever tarnished by his involvement with the Salem witch trials some 30 years earlier, Zabdiel Boylston, a doctor who having been convinced of the safety and efficacy of inoculation began using the procedure, first on his own children and slaves, and then on the general public to the consternation of more conservative doctors and government officials and James Franklin, who with his brother Ben Franklin were struggling to establish their printing business by creating a weekly newspaper that documented the struggles of the colony of Boston as they defied their English appointed governor even while suffering the devastating affects of the small pox epidemic.

The small pox epidemic highlighted the dysfunction of royal governance in the colony of Boston. England would send a governor to Boston and the colonists were expected to pay him, (mostly through a tax on tea, thus the Boston Tea Party was not only a revolt against taxes, but a revolt against having to pay the governor’s salary) but the governor whose loyalties were to England would often take positions that were contrary to the interests of the colony. Elisha Cooke, a savvy politician and a heavy drinker, began building a coalition, a voting block that would oppose and vote against the power of the governor, thwarting the governor’s efforts to create a docile and money making operation for England.  Cooke’s ability to create a block of voters, giving them more political power, would eventually culminate in the group known as the Sons’ of Liberty who would ultimately spearhead the revolt from English rule.

James Franklin also contributed to the political climate by writing philosophical pieces advocating freedom of thought, the right to disagree with those who hold political office. While Franklin was ultimately on the wrong side of the inoculation debate, his paper published accounts of the small pox epidemic, called out government officials who had tried to hide the fact of the contagion and in other ways used the power of the press to hold officials accountable. His vigor in defending the right of the colonists to decide their own political fate without oppression and his feverish defense of the free press laid the groundwork for the demands that were later incorporated into the Declaration of Independence.

This was a fascinating book, filled with the seeds of ideas that we now recognize as the basis of our Constitution but which at the time were radical and new. Sometimes we forget that 1776 did not just happen overnight, but that many people contributed, engaged, stood up and spoke out, often at great personal cost and we are now the beneficiaries of their articulated longings and courage.

Brenda’s Rating: *****(5 out of 5 Stars)

Recommend this book to: Everyone!

Book Study Worthy? YES!

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Posted in American History, History, Non Fiction | Tagged | 1 Comment

The William Marshall Series by Elizabeth Chadwick

William Marshall is known historically as England’s greatest knight. A skillful swordsman and warrior who was able to elicit unwavering loyalty from the men who followed him, Marshall was an acknowledged leader of his time. He also became a skillful statesman who served and was the power behind five English thrones.

When John FitzGilbert, William’s father, made the fateful choice to back Empress Matilda rather than King Stephen, life became very difficult for his family during what become know as The Anarchy. When King Stephen finally asserted control of England, Matilda’s supporters were considered traitors to the crown, and at age six, William was taken hostage by King Stephen as surety for his own father’s good behavior. His father ever defiant is famously quoted as saying that he had the “anvil and iron” to forge even better children as William is led away. Those were some of the last words William ever heard his father say.

From that ill fated beginning, William begins to forge his own life. Although penniless, William was able to be come a soldier of some repute and when, by chance, he saves the life of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, his life takes a dramatic turn. Grateful for his help, Queen Eleanor appoints William to tutor the heir to the throne, Prince Henry. this should have been an easy time for William but Prince Henry became impatient and defied  his own father, King Henry II. William, despite his reservations, continues to serve Prince Henry loyally and faithfully honoring his oath until the prince’s untimely death.  King Henry, is furious and heartbroken at his son’s defiance, but does not seem to hold William to blame and instead is grateful for William’s faithful and honorable service to his son. Escaping what might have been certain death for treason, William Marshall lives on to become one of the most powerful men in England.

This ability to see what was required by honor and rather than follow what seemed  expedient seems to have been William Marshall’s special gift. Throughout his remarkable life William was presented with numerous opportunties to choose between  honor, wealth or power and somehow he was able to remain faithful, loyal and honorable  throughout his life.

Elizabeth Chadwick, is a well known author in England whose books are now becoming more readily available here. Like Sharon Kay Penman, Anya Seton, Phillipa Gregory or Jean Plaidy, her books are remarkably well researched and are full of the most interesting details of  daily life and culture in the 13th century. Her characters are vibrant, and over the course of these six books we see William Marshall grow from childhood, manhood and on into full maturity and old age. Her ability to hold his personality and essence intact throughout the scope of his life is quite remarkable.

William Marshall left an indelible imprint on the world. Not only was he partially responsible for the Magna Carta, his descendents included the Stuart kings of England and Scotland and also George Washington and Winston Churchill!

If you love historic fiction then I highly recommend these six books, A Place Beyond Courage, The Greatest Knight. The Scarlet Lion, For the King’s Favor, To Defy a King, and Templar Silks, as well as many other books by Chadwick.

Brenda’s Rating ****(4 Out of 5 Stars)

Recommend this book to: Sharon and Marian

Book Study Worthy? Yes!

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The Tuscan Child by Rhys Bowen

Joanna Langley returns from London to her family home in the countryside to arrange for her father’s funeral.  Estranged for many years, Joanna realizes there is much about her father that she does not know. Among his effects she comes across an unopened letter addressed by her father to a woman named Sofia Bartoli in Tuscany. Joanna knows that her father’s plane was shot down over Italy during WWII and that he always walked with a limp from the injury he sustained in the crash, but she had never heard him mention a woman named Sofia. The letter had been returned to her father, as “addressee unknown,” but the message inside galvanizes Joanna into postponing studying for the bar exam and instead go to Tuscany so she can find out more about her enigmatic father and what happened to him during the war.

When she finally arrives in the tiny remote village indicated in the address on the letter, Joanna is transported to a quieter, more gentle world than London. Here people tend their gardens, savor their food, drink wine and press their own olive oil.  She finds a room where she can stay and begins to ask questions about an Englishman whose plane crashed nearby and about a woman named Sofia Bartoli.  She soon finds that her innocent questions are disturbing to the villagers who are unwilling to talk about what happened during the war  while she is viewed with suspicion for dredging up a painful past. But Joanna persists, for she knows the cost of painful secrets and she is determined to find the answers she was never able to ask for while her father was still alive.

This was a lovely read, with mouth watering descriptions of simple Tuscan food! I wish the author had included recipes of the food she so lovingly described.  Although somewhat predictable, the characters were nicely developed and the descriptions of Tuscany and its countryside were lovely.

Brenda’s Rating: ***1/2 (3/1/2 out of 5 Stars)

Recommend this book to: Marian and Sharon

Book Study Worthy? Sure, as long as you have some great Tuscan food to serve!

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The Girl In The Spider’s Web by David Lagercrantz

I loved Steig Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series with Lisbeth Salander as the incredibly broken but strong and smart heroine. When the dust finally settled after Larsson’s sudden death and a new writer was chosen to continue the series, I was skeptical.  It is an incredibly risky and tricky thing to ask another writer to take on another author’s vision, tone and style. But recently I broke down and read the first book by Lagercrantz and was pleasantly surprised.

Salander is on a mission to find her father, a Russian mobster and all around brutal misogynist, who tormented Salander, her mother sister. To follow his trail she penetrates the super secret computers at the headquarters of the NSA in Fort Meade Maryland, setting off alarms in the farthest reaches of the US government.

Meanwhile, Mikael Blomkvist is trying to save Millennium, the news magazine that he began. In spite of the magazine’s award winning journalism, it is now struggling financially and the new owner wants to change the focus towards fluffy celebrity focused stories rather than the hard hitting journalism that Blomkvist has staked his career on. One evening while he is mulling over what to do, Blomkvist gets a call from a reclusive scientist who is concerned that his artificial technology has fallen into the wrong hands. He asks Blomkvist to come to his home so they can talk, but before Blomkvist  can speak to him the scientist is killed by an intruder right in front of his autistic and disabled son.

Intrigued by his conversation, Blomkvist begins investigating and realizes that the scientist had been in contact with Salander and in fact it was she who had concluded that the scientist had been hacked and his AI technology stolen. Soon Blomkvist and Salander are working together to save the scientist’s autistic son and to protect the technology from falling in to the wrong hands. With the US government trying to track the hacker who breached their system and a beautiful but deadly woman getting in their way, Salander and Blomkvist must evade and distract as they try to untangle this deadly web of violence, corruption and deceit.

Lagercrantz does a fine job of carrying on the legacy of  Larsson. He has treated the main characters with care and respect maintaining their integrity while allowing them to grow and develop. Although I missed the soulfulness of Larsson, Lagercrantz has the potential to grow into his own voice and may, in the future, be able to offer a depth of his own. I look forward to reading Lagercrantz and his vision for this unique series.

Brenda’s Rating: ***1/2 (3 1/2 Out of 5 Stars)

Recommend this book to: Marian and Sharon

Book Study Worthy? Sure

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Posted in Fiction, Mystery, Series, Suspense, Thriller | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Talking to the Dead and Love Story with Murders by Harry Bingham

I have found a new series that really intrigues me! It features a female detective, DC Fiona Griffiths, who is quirky, smart, likes to think out-of-the-box, but is socially inept and often skirts the rules. Additionally, her adoptive father is a reputedly a criminal mastermind but although investigated on numerous occasions he was never convicted. As a result, DC Griffiths is an enigma to most of her colleagues in the South Wales PD, who don’t quite know how to relate to her vaguely suspect past and her brusque, odd ways.

In Talking with the Dead, Griffiths investigates the murder of a prostitute and her six year old daughter. Although it looks like a ordinary murder scene, among the detritus at the crime scene is a millionaire’s platinum credit card. Although initially things look pretty straightforward, Griffiths begins to suspect that there is more to the murders than it seems.


In Love Story with Murders, Griffiths and the South Wales police are called to investigate a human leg discovered in the garage freezer of an upper class suburb. Soon other body parts are found as well but they are from a black male and not a match to the leg which is white and female.

Throughout both investigations, Griffiths must go deeper into her own difficult past and soon we learn that that she has Cotard’s Syndrome, a mental delusion that makes a person think that they are already dead. After getting extensive therapy and having been hospitalized for a prolonged period of time, Griffiths is now trying to cope with her illness as well as negotiate her life. But her illness gives her a unique perspective, and it seems to motivate her even more to investigate and find the people who took the lives of the victims in her cases. Like another fan of these books I found Fiona to be one of “…the most complex, beautifully flawed and unique protagonist that I have encountered in any mystery novel.” But Bingham doesn’t stint on the supporting characters, either, and Griffith’s boss, her father, and her coworker boyfriend are each fully formed unique characters in their own right.

As I mentioned previously I have become leery of books that describe violence against women and these books do include some, but Griffiths doggedness to find the killers and bring them to justice along with her ability to relate to the dead seems to draw forth the humanity of these women who died in way that is very unique to this genre.

Brenda’s Rating: ***1/2 (3 1/2 out of 5 Stars)

Recommend this book to: Sharon and Marian.

Book Study Worthy? Yes

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Posted in Detective novel, Fiction, Legal Procedural, Mystery, Psychological Mystery, Romance, Series, Suspense | 2 Comments

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice: Or, On the Segregation of the Queen by Laurie R. King

Fan fiction seems to be a trend lately. It fills the gap between the release of a new book in a series by providing the back story behind some reference to a historical event  referenced in the novel, completes the character development of a side character or explores what might have happened if the character had made a different choice or decision. I first became aware of fan fiction during the Harry Potter years as audiences waited impatiently for the next book and easy access to new stories posted on the  internet helped fuel its popularity.

Recently however fan fiction is becoming more main stream and new authors are paying homage to previous authors or characters and creating completely new works based on the originals. Horowitz in the Magpie Murders, paid homage to Agatha Christie, using her plot line in a modern setting. In this book, Laurie King, takes the characters, settings and basic framework of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Homes series and has inserted a new character and then restarted from where Doyle left off.

Mary Russell nearly trips over Sherlock Holmes in one of her tramps across the countryside. She quickly deduces who he is and what he is doing-research on bees, and impresses Homes with her insights. Orphaned at a young age, and now living with a most tiresome aunt, Mary revels in learning from Holmes just as much as he enjoys teaching her the deductive skills for which he is so famous.  Mostly retired and rusticating in the countryside Holmes didn’t realize how much he longed for stimulating conversations and the excitement of seeing a young mind grow and develop under his tutelage

Putting her new skills to use, Holmes and Marry help the local police solve several crimes with great success. Then the daughter of an American couple is kidnapped and while Mary and Holmes are able to track the girl and rescue her, the ringleader of the kidnapping escapes beyond their reach.

Soon Mary is accepted into one of the colleges in Oxford and moves there to continue her studies and must put on hold helping Holmes solve cases. But stange things keep happening to Holmes, Dr. Watson and Mrs. Hudson and it soon becomes obvious that some malevolent force is putting them in danger. Then Mary begins to notice that she is being  followed and her rooms and things searched. As Holmes and Marry join forces to find out who is behind these actions they begin to see an evil as great as Moriarity’s plotting against them.

King does an incredible job in keeping the Conan Doyle ethos intact, while inserting a new character into that milieu. Mary, although a woman of her time, is smart, strong and a bit socially odd, but she is the perfect foil to Holmes’ whose own social oddness and sense of superiority keeps intimacy at bay. The clash between them is amusing, yet touching and King allows Doyle’s characters, who have been locked in time, grow and develop in ways that seem completely natural. I really enjoyed this book and look forward to reading the next Mary Russell and Holmes adventure!

Brenda’s Rating: **** (4 out of 5 Stars)

Recommend this book to: Marian, Lauren and Sharon.

Book Study Worthy? Sure!

Read in ebook format.



Posted in Detective novel, Historical Fiction, Mystery, Psychological Mystery, Romance, Series, Suspense | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

A Conversation About Violence Against Women in Fiction

I have numerous books in my queue waiting to be blogged. One is The Current by Tim Johnson. It is a story of two college aged women who are pulled from an icy river on the outskirts of a small town in Minnesota. One survives but the other freezes and drowns. It soon becomes clear that these women were targeted to be killed in a way that is reminiscent of another murder of a woman ten years earlier. The surviving woman begins to investigate on her own but soon finds that the killer is not finished yet.

Johnson writes well, his characters are well developed, the plotting is impeccable and you are kept guessing to the very end. This should be a book I enjoy, but I can’t.

I am finding these type of novels more and more problematic because crimes like these against women really happen. Johnson, of course, is not alone in using real crimes as fodder for their novels. Which is probably why I have several of these kinds of novels waiting in my queue to be blogged.

In this age of #MeToo, my interest in novels about women who are victims of assault, rape, kidnapping, abuse or murder is waning. Not only waning, but I feel a visceral disgust for them. I find it horrifying that what is supposed to be fiction is often ripped from the headlines and that women are disproportionately victims of these crimes both in reality and fiction. In their own way, I am beginning to see that these novels are part of the problem, because they seem to normalize portrayals of women as victims and in some pernicious way seem to indulge and give voice to the men (and it is always men) who do these horrific things.

I think we need to rethink what we are doing, even in fiction in this age of #MeToo. Both men and women should be alarmed at this tendency to portray men as misogynists who delight in hurting, controlling, raping and killing women and women should be disgusted that we are taught to fear men, to have to constantly look over our shoulders, to never feel safe, to have to question our own strength while seeing ourselves portrayed as victims of horrific crimes. Surely we are better that this? I certainly hope so!

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