Saturday, January 15, 2022

Death and the Maiden by Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman: Reading Room Review


When author Ariana Franklin (Diana Norman) passed away in 2011, she had published four books in the Mistress of the Art of Death series. Beginning in 2007 with the stunning Mistress of the Art of Death novel, it was followed by The Serpent’s Tale, Grave Goods, and A Murderous Procession. Fans, including me, of this superbly written series were bereft at the loss of such talent and resigned to lingering storylines being left unresolved. 

This series features Adelia Aguilar, a young woman who, with her man servant Mansur, answers the summons from King Henry II of England for a forensic specialist doctor to come from Salerno, Italy to England and help solve an ongoing string of brutal child murders. Because the stories take place in the High Middle Ages, the latter 1100s, Adelia, as a woman, must keep her skills hidden and the credit given to Mansur. However, Henry II knows just how talented and knowledgeable Adelia is and decides to refuse her return to her native land. There is the character of Sir Rowley, who also serves the King, at first as his tax man and then as a bishop. Rowley becomes involved with Adelia, both personally and professionally, and they form a formidable team all the way around. 

The books have great story, characters, adventure, mystery, and history. The history of this time period, latter 1100s, is fascinating, and Franklin knew how to bring it to life with a brilliance of sufficient detail and precise language. Some of the history interspersed with the stories included Henry II and his Queen, Eleanor, Adelia’s limitations as a woman in Medieval Times, the intricacies of politics and religion ruling everyone, and the methods of both healing and examining the dead. The murder mysteries within all this context were clever and quite dark, but following the line of investigation that Adelia pursued in these dark tales was thrilling. 

So, when the decision was announced that there would be a fifth and final book in the Mistress of Death series written by Samantha Norman, Ariana Franklin’s daughter, there was great excitement. But, fans also recognized that Samantha Norman had big shoes to fill, even with the help of her mother’s notes. Death and the Maiden, the fifth and last book in the series was released in June of 2021, but I have only just read it. I sometimes drag my feet when I know a book is the last one by an author, as if I can make it last longer. I know that there are some mixed reviews on whether Samantha Norman successfully accomplished the task of standing in for her mother and giving us a book to tie up loose ends. I think she has. Oh, there are some quibbles I have, but overall I think that Death and the Maiden gives great satisfaction to the readers of this series.

Oh, those quibbles I mentioned. They mostly involve some questionable character choices. First, the fact that this last book revolves around Adelia’s and Rowley’s now grown daughter Allie. It could have been a disastrous choice to not feature Adelia as the lead here, but somehow it seemed right that the next generation through her daughter was stepping up to show what the future might hold for all of them. The only fault I had with this approach is that Norman kept referring to Adelia and Rowley as if they were old now, or certainly aging characters. Of course, in 1191, the 40s could be considered aging. I just think Norman made a few too many references to these two vital characters feeling their age. Again, the argument could be made that life in the Middle Ages was hard and that people aged faster, and as a result the life expectancy was fairly young compared to today. So, the matter of these choices made by the author may have bothered me a bit, but they did nothing to ruin my enjoyment of the story. In fact, I think that Allie was definitely up to the task as main character.

So, what happens in this last book? King Henry II is dead, Queen Eleanor is in France, and King Richard I is on the throne of England. The previous book, A Murderous Procession, takes place in 1176 when Allie is a child. She is now all grown up and studying under the tutelage of her mother in the art of forensic science and in healing. Adelia and Allie live comfortably near their friend Emma of Wolvercote Manor, and Rowley visits when he can get away from his busy duties as Bishop of Saint Albans. Life is, well, predictable, until a Gyltha’s sister Penda arrives from the Fens (Ely) with news that Gyltha is on her death bed, and if Adelia doesn’t accompany her back to Ely, Gyltha will surely soon die. Unfortunately, Adelia has just broken her ankle and can’t travel. Since Allie has been training under her, Adelia sends Allie with Penda. Adelia will have to wait out her ankle healing to join them in Ely.

Allie arrives in the village of Ely after a grueling four-day ride on horseback at an especially dark time. Not only is Gyltha gravely ill, but there have been teenage girls disappearing from the community and turning up much later in the river, dead. The locals attribute the deaths to accidental drownings, but, like her mother Adelia, Allie has the detective’s nose for sniffing out evil and feels that there’s something off about the disappearances and deaths. However, the first order of business is getting Gyltha well. Well-versed in the healing methods with which Adelia has been successful, Allie proves herself an able stand-in in treating Gyltha, and it’s not long before the beloved old wise woman is on the mend. 

With Gyltha’s recovery comes time for Allie to enjoy her surroundings of the Fens, the place she lived when a young child. She’s happy to be back, yet she can’t shake the feeling that something isn’t right in the peaceful setting. There are distractions from Allie’s concerns though, and the biggest one is Lord Peverill, who seems interested in Allie, which is rather what Rowley and Penda had planned before Penda took her away to the Fens. Penda is also teaching Allie archery skills, which Allie is quite enjoying. And, Allie has made a good friend in Hawise, Gyltha’s granddaughter. In fact, Allie is feeling a sense of independence she’s never felt while she was under her mother’s scrutiny. 

When a friend of Hawise’s goes missing and turns up dead at the river’s edge, Allie has a chance to examine the girl’s body before it’s taken away. What Allie discovers is that the girl was strangled and raped before ending up in the river. Surmising that it must be someone local who has kidnapped and murdered the girls, Allie and others realize how dangerous the situation has become. As Allie waits for Adelia and Rowley to get to the Fens, she is forced to do some digging on her own, as yet another girl disappears. Before this tale is over, the suspense will be as thick as the fog over the fens on an early winter morning. 

Although I am sad to see this series end, I am well pleased with how it ended. It is easy for me to imagine the lives of these favorite characters beyond the pages of Death and the Maiden. I think Samantha Norman deserves high praise for giving readers a final farewell and well written last journey. This series will always be one of my favorites with his setting of England during Henry II’s reign into Richard I’s. For further historical fiction set during these two reigns, check our Sharon Kaye Penman’s five book series beginning with When Christ and His Saints Slept. The Middle Ages have so much drama from which to draw stories and so much world-forming history to connect those stories to. I recommend starting at book one in the Mistress of the Art of Death series so that the history and characters can unfold chronologically. You're in for some great reading.  Enjoy.

Saturday, January 1, 2022

The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman: Reading Room Review


When I read last year's The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman, I was thrilled with its unique entry into the mystery/crime genre. Yes, I know. There have been senior citizen detectives or amateur sleuths before, but here was a group of septuagenarians living at a retirement home in Kent, England who have banded together to add some excitement to their lives by reviewing unsolved murder cold cases. Elizabeth, Joyce, Ron, and Ibrahim find murder and crime right under their noses though. The resourcefulness these four bring to the table is impressive, even to local constable Donna DeFreitas and her boss, DCI Chris Hudson, who by the end of the first book become friends of the Thursday Murder Club members. After falling hard for these characters and their witty camaraderie, I expected book two, The Man Who Died Twice, to be one of my best reads in 2021. Well, it was and then some. I saved this book until the end of the year, and I was rewarded with a read that ended the year on a very high note. 

Again, the investigations of our intrepid foursome are sizzlingly current and not of the cold, forgotten kind. I'm hesitant to give much information on the plots weaving throughout the book that find common resolution in the end. There's just too much to enjoy discovering in the story on one's own. The Thursday Murder Club becomes involved in a case spiraling in from Elizabeth's past, her past as a senior MI5 operative (spy). The first book hinted at Elizabeth's adventuresome and dangerous past, but book two lets the cat of her past out of the bag completely. She is contacted by a former spy associate who is still in the business, and he needs her help. He happens to be Elizabeth's ex-husband Douglas, who is hiding out in an apartment at Cooper's Chase. Douglas and another MI5 agent broke into the home of Martin Lomax, a middle man and money launderer for criminals all over the world. Lomax reports a bag containing millions of dollars of diamonds missing after the break-in and accuses Douglas of their theft. Being a marked man, Douglas has turned to the best spy he ever knew to get him out of his mess. Elizabeth and her friends decide to take on the task. Meanwhile, Donna and Chris are working to bring down the local Fairhaven drug king pin who happens to be a queen, Connie Johnson. Readers can expect cross-over action. One point of much interest is that Ibrahim will be doing any of his work strictly from his home, due to injuries he receives at the beginning of the book. The way he receives his injuries is yet a third part to the story, as there is retribution to be dealt out for it.

The characters are what drive these books and provide the witty dialogue and inventiveness of the investigations. Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim, and Ron find friendship and purpose in their “golden” years by using their brains and individual skills to show just how valuable they are. We come to know this group as interesting, vital people, not ready to be put out to pasture or ignored. Of course, they must deal with mortality, as they do live in a retirement home where death is no stranger, and they can’t help but think about their own at times. Yet, the reader will see far more optimism here than negativity. These sleuthing friends display an energy that defies age. And, there are younger characters, too, who make this story sing. The give and take in the relationship between Donna and Chris is delivered brilliantly through their entertaining dialogue. Donna has arrived in her boss’ life at just the right time for him, and the Murder Club has made a timely arrival in Donna’s life as well. In The Man Who Died Twice, these two characters reveal more of themselves, and when Donna introduces Chris to her mother, we gain another dimension to Chris that endears him to us even more.

One of the vehicles Richard Osman uses so cleverly in this book, and the last, to move the action forward is Joyce’s journaling. Her journal entries fill in blanks for us and help to bring loose ends together in what the Murder Club is doing in their investigation. It also gives us a more personal and fleshed out view of Joyce, such as her relationship with her daughter, and the others. The journal serves as a smooth segue from one scene to another, while enhancing our emotional investment in the characters. Readers will be pleased to see Joyce make great strides from Elizabeth's shadow in book two. 

I had heard amongst the buzz circulating around this second book that it was even better than the first. I think what prompts that statement is that readers are past the introductory phase with these favorite characters and are now deep into their hearts and minds. And, it's the expansion of the character base, too, getting to know Elizabeth's husband Stephen better and Ron's grandson Kendrick and Stephen's chess partner/Elizabeth's heavy lifter Bogdan. It's easy to think of The Man Who Died Twice as even better than The Thursday Murder Club because we now feel right at home at Cooper's Chase Retirement Village.

My Favorite Reads of 2021

The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman  The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams  The Night Hawks by Elly Griffiths  The Playground Murders by Lesley Thomson  The Last Thing to Burn by Will Dean  Fogged Off by Wendall Thomas 

The Hollywood Spy by Susan Elia MacNeal Untrue Blue by Emma Jameson  State of Terror by Hillary Rodham Clinton  Shot Caller by Jen J. Danna  The Postscript Murders by Elly Griffiths  Murder in Material Gain by Anne Cleeland

Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby  The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell God Rest Ye, Royal Gentlemen by Rhys Bowen  A Gingerbread House by Catriona McPherson  We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker  Clark and Division by Naomi Hirahara

Death at Greenway by Lori Rader-Day  Body Zoo by J.D.   Allen  Under Pressure by Sara Driscoll  The Distant Dead by Lesley Thomson  A Ghost in the Garden by Elly Griffiths  Death by Equine by Annette Dashofy

The Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny  The Guide by Peter Heller


The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams (2021)

The Last Thing to Burn by Will Dean (2021)

The Night Hawks by Elly Griffiths (2021)

Fogged Off by Wendall Thomas (2021)

Untrue Blue by Emma James (2021)

The Postscript Murders by Elly Griffiths (2021)

We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker (2021)

A Gingerbread House by Catriona McPherson (2021)

State of Terror by Louise Penny and Hillary Rodham Clinton (2021)

The Night She Disappeared by Lisa Jewell (2021)

The Hollywood Spy (Maggie Hope #10) by Susan Elia MacNeal (2021)

The Playground Murders (The Detective's Daughter #7)  by Lesley Thomson (2020)

The Distant Dead (The Detective’s Daughter #8) by Lesley Thomson (2021)

Body Zoo byJ.D. Allen (2021)

Shot Caller by Jen Danna (2021)

Death at Greenway by Lori Rader-Day (2021)

Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby (2021)

Murder in Material Gain by Anne Cleeland (2021)

Clark and Division by Naomi Hirahara (2021)

Under Pressure by Sara Driscoll (2021)

God Rest Ye Royal Gentlemen by Rhys Bowen (2021) 

The Man WhoDied Twice by Richard Osman (2021)

The Ghost in the Garden (A Girl Called Justice Book #3) by Elly Griffiths (2021)

Death by Equine by Annette Dashofy (2021)

Favorite Books Including the Pandemic After-Effects

The Madness of Crowds (Inspector Gamache #17) by Louise Penny (2021)

The Guide by Peter Heller (2021)