Finally, my last book for the Fall Into Reading Challenge 2009.  I made very good time despite adding two more books to the list.  But early as it is, I’ll have to wrap up as the Holidays draw near and my chances to read more books decrease as things are starting to get hectic.

I’ve wet my feet in breadmaking and I’m experimenting on perfecting scrumptious cinnamon rolls and ensaimadas (Filipino brioche) for gift-giving.    As I’ve never baked anything except for the occasional brownies, I forsee myself ambitiously wrestling with bread recipes, baking my day away, and snatching up my book only in between rising times.  So, let’s see how many more reviews I can dish out.

This book was a great finale to the challenge, albeit  a dark and brooding one.

Author :  Tobsha Learner

Publication Date :  January 2, 2007  (Mass Market Paperback)

Publisher :  Tor Books

ISBN-10: 0765350467

ISBN-13: 978-0765350466

No. of pages :  480

The Story :

Ruth bas Elazar Saul is daughter of the chief rabbi of the Jewish quarter of Cologne and a very good midwife with very unconventional methods.  Her  advanced  midwifery skills coupled with her studies in Kabbalah, taints Ruth’s reputation with suspicions of witchcraft in an era paranoid about heretics and devil worshippers.

She becomes the unfortunate target of the malevolent obsession of a Spanish friar and head of the Inquisition to Cologne.  Solitario takes his vengeance on an unknowing Ruth simply because she is the daughter of the woman who had jilted him and shredded his pride many years back.  Ruth is tried for witchcraft; but in the process gains the interest of the cleric, Detlef  von Tennen, cousin and close aide to the Archbishop of Cologne.

Detlef falls madly in love with Ruth and does everything in his power to avert her fate.  He succeeds and both start a love affair that in its time,  was unforgivable to both Jews and Catholics alike.  Amid this difficult union, Ruth and Detlef must struggle to live in a dangerous century at war with new philosophies threatening to overthrow its established beliefs, power and social structures.

The Review :

The book opens with “a woman writhing in labor”  which gave me the correct impression that I’d have a toe curling time with this one.

Learner is  an intense,  graphic writer who writes with a sensuality that is both raw and elegant.  Her torture scenes feel  horrendously realistic ; her descriptions of everyday life and her characterizations are rich and intimate, full of vivid details of seventeenth century Cologne, its lifestyle, its predominant psyche, and its prevailing social and religious atmosphere.

This novel is first and foremost a microcosmic representation of  a Europe inexorably marching toward the Age of Enlightenment, torn at one end by traditional society clinging tenaciously and fearfully to established institutions of power, thoughts, and morals and on the other, by radical philosophies and emerging new acceptances by free thinkers or the libertines of that time.

Solitario, the Spanish  Inquisitor, is the embodiment of the 17th century Roman Catholic Church, an institution reacting dangerously to threats to  its centuries-old European dominance by the emergence of new thoughts, values, mores and the new Protestant religion.  He is obsessed about bringing onto the Inquisition table  the Jewess, Ruth, and the breakaway cleric, Detlef, both of whom represent radical opposition to the faith which have begun to erode the Church’s right to absolute power.

Stories like these make me glad I was born in the 20th century, where we have education, modern conveniences, good medical knowledge and practices, and in most parts of the world, respect and freedom for all sorts of religions and ideas.  Imagine living in fear of torture and death because your ideas are heretically opposed to the prevailing beliefs of a Church which hold both  secular and spiritual domains in its grip.

It was also interesting for me to find out that Judaism has its own brand of occultism.  It has its own demons, grimoire, incantations, spells, and talismans.  The Kabbalah is practiced by a certain Jewish sect which does not find ready acceptance in the general Jewish populace; but nevertheless is a recognized albeit esoteric branch of the Jewish religion.

To Read Or Not To Read :

I have read reviews that slam this book for its love angle and gratuitous sex (which I didn’t find unwarranted at all).  The romance here is simply a support angle to the overall story of the book and is not the author’s point at all.  So if you are looking for a nice historical romance,  pass this up; this novel would be way out in left field.

However,  if you just want a well written story with a good historical background, The Witch of Cologne will be just the thing.  Although, be prepared for a very dark and somber tone (well matched with the era) throughout its entirety and for a substantial amount of graphic elements assiduously detailed in this book.

In A Nutshell :

Learner’s unconventional writing style marries quite well with her  objective of presenting a glimpse of medieval Europe in the cusp of social change, a dark and fearful transition for many,  when institutions of power, both political and religious, clawed desperately to maintain the status quo.  The story poses intelligent questions, some of which must have influenced how modern Europe evolved.

Don’t let the suggestive cover fool you into thinking this book is a shallow, sleazy read.  The book has the complexity and depth that makes it interesting and well worth your while — a perfect example  to heed the the adage:   “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

My Mark  :  Outstanding

This should be the last book in my list for the Fall Into Reading Challenge 2009.  I’ve finished the challenge but it’s a whole month earlier than the deadline, December 20.  So, I’ve decided to stretch my list.  See my additions here.

Author :  Anya Seton

Date of First Publication  :  1965

First Publisher :  Hodder and Stoughton

This Edition’s Publication Date :  May 1, 2006

This Edition’s Publisher :  Chicago Review Press

ISBN-10: 1556526008

ISBN-13: 978-1556526008

No. of pages :  448

The Story :

A young noble, Rumon, makes his way to England in his quest for Avalon when he is thrown into Merewyn’s way and through a deathbed promise  is forced to take responsibility for her.   Merewyn has been brought up to believe she is a descendant of the legendary King Arthur; but Rumon knows the truth of her barbaric and pagan bloodline.

In the course of their lives in England, Merewyn falls in love with him; but Rumon is oblivious as he gives his heart and soul to the beautiful Queen Alfrida.  After  his ill-fated affair with her, he slowly comes to love Merewyn as well.  But his love, just as hers before,  is thwarted by events.  And thus spins the saga of their love through their lives.

The Review :

There is something about old books and the way they are written that imbues them with  a charm all their own.  Avalon is such a book, first published in 1965.  I picked this up because the author, Anya Seton, was one I had admired after reading Katherine.

Both books showcase Seton’s style of romance which pits love against circumstance.  Her romance is more realistic and mature,  less involved with the fluff that makes for fairy tale finishes.  Love has to navigate through uncontrollable events life throws in the way.  Endings are poignant but not the totally happily-ever-after kind that rarely happens, if ever, in real life.   The feeling is satifsying, though,  in the sense that we get a better grip on how versatile and enduring true love can be.   In this particular novel, love for more than one person is possible although it exists in  different shades and gradations, dependent on character and chance.

Many readers  will enjoy the vivid backdrop of this story.  The 10th century comes alive with Seton’s characterization of real historical figures like Queen Alfrida, King Ethelred the Unready, Saint Dunstan, and with her accounts of how life was in a European era that saw Viking invasions and explorations.

To Read Or Not To Read :

Although not as good as “Katherine“, which was an outstanding read, “Avalon” is also a beautiful story in itself; but, it isn’t for every romance reader.  A mature reader would appreciate the emotions and the way the story unfolds rather than judge the characters’ likability quotient, as a younger reader would.  This is not a syrupy, shivery love story; but one that carries more depth as it plays out in the harsh circumstances of medieval life.

My Mark :  Very Good

Years ago, my sister and I read and enjoyed “Pillars of the Earth” immensely (see review dated Feb. 3, 2009), a wonderful epic by Ken Follet.

World Without End“, its much-touted sequel , was therefore a must-have for me;  so I was so happy when my sister gave me this book for my birthday.

Author :  Ken Follet

Published Date : October 7, 2008

Publisher :  NAL Trade

ISBN-10: 045122499X

ISBN-13: 978-0451224996

No.  of pages :    1, 024

The Story :

It is 200 years after the story of the Kingsbridge Cathedral in Pillars of the Earth“.   Fourteenth century England is recovering from the Great Famine, under a new king, Edward III. The Roman Catholic religion has reached its peak of power and influence in medieval life so that the priory of Kingsbridge is now a major political, commercial and social factor in the huge, bustling town. It is against this backdrop that the story begins.

Four children witness a desperate struggle and death in the forest. In their terror, all four make a pact to keep it a secret. Merthin, especially, is entrusted by the surviving knight of the whereabouts of a dangerous letter, the contents of which can mean anyone’s life if he is discovered knowledgeable of it.

These four children grow up to be a nun, a knight, a master builder, and a serf’s wife. The story chronicles the paths of these four characters and how they each figure in each other’s lives, throughout a dark century fraught with the Black Plague, the Hundred Years War, the absolute control of religion, and the strong power of social and gender hierarchy at that time.

The Review :

The Good :

The book starts out very strongly with the first few chapters in Follet’s descriptive and thrilling writing style that promises this to be another brilliant epic, in the footsteps of Pillars.

One’s interest is piqued by the the author’s indugence in his characters,  pitting them against a gamut of conflicts arising from political maneuvering, medical ignorance, religious mores, male superiority, etc. Most of the time, it was interesting to see how these characters faced the roadblocks life gave and how compromises and choices were made to make one’s way.

This obstacle-compromise technique actually drives the plot and Follet keeps the pace relentlessly,  so that one can’t help but turn page after page to find out what happens—-what will the character do?

The Bad :

Unfortunately, though, Follet overdoes this obstacle-compromise formula, and this is where the book’s downfall begins.

Three-fourths into the book (about 800 plus pages in), the pace still does not let up.  By this time, the reader’s satiety for drama and conflict has been reached.  The cup hath runneth over. Tedium starts to set in.  By now, you may be weary of the constant barrage of situations the characters have to hurdle.   You may even start to wonder whether the author is as weary as well, having to dish out drama after drama.  It begins to feel as if Follet is trying too hard now and the story starts to take on the qualities of a huge soap opera.

Moreover, you may now come to realize that none of the characters have been well developed at all. Pretty much cardboard cut-outs of bad and good figures, they remain the same all throughout. If they are bad, they are thoroughly bad; if good, they are always good. They are entirely predictable and almost devoid of dimensions. This gets pretty annoying, by the way, when you’re way into the book and the characters cease to be endearing or even interesting anymore.

The Ugly :

Finally, towards the last few pages, you may start rolling your eyes at the incredulity of more problems surfacing out of nowhere and needlessly, I may add, so that there isn’t any slack (ex.  Merthin’s daughter Lolla having a huge teen-age tantrum and running away).   You might say, “Huh?…another one? But it’s almost over!”

I’m beginning to think of the inappropriateness of the book’s title, “World Without End.” It should have been “Woes Without End”.

You may also start cringing at how the author chose to resolve some conflicts for the conclusion (ex. Gwenda and Annet – terribly corny; Lolla and Caris – equally cheesy).  Actually, Follet tied up individual story endings with neat fairy-tale bows, that you can’t help but roll your eyes again.

Another thing:  The secret that was supposed to tie the characters together (as per the blurb at the back of the book)  never adequately functions as a bonding agent and is hardly a major factor in the story.  It actually seems like an aside and so loses its impact in the end when the author pulls it out to function as one of his spectacular closures.

What happened to Follet? His endings here are so unlike him. Seems like he himself was fed up with his own great big tome and he just couldn’t care less how he ended it, as long as he ended it.

The worst part of this book is really its conclusion.

To Read or Not To Read? :

Although touted as a sequel,  this story is very independent of  Pillars and can be read on its own.

It’s quite an entertaining page-turner most of the way but it does go downhill drastically a quarter of the way toward the end, which is so frustrating after you’ve spent your time reading more than 800 pages.   However, if you like TV soap or unending drama, then you’ll love this book.  The story is in keeping with major historical facts. Follet’s vivid descriptions bring up the sights, sounds, and smells of the 14th century and in this, he does not disappoint.

However, if you abhor one-dimensional characters or as I have mentioned,  long drawn out dramas, keep away from this novel.   Your money and time will be well spent on something else.

The Bottom Line :

I believe I am in the minority here with my dismal review of this bestseller.  To me, it was a story that began and progressed very well through most of the way, then suddenly fell flat on its face and came up disappointingly mediocre on the last quarter leg toward the finish line.

The sudden downturn in quality left me with a contemptuous feeling for the book and  I walked away sorry that what could have been another great effort of  Follet had gone to waste with thoughtless and tacky plot turns and additions in the last several pages.

I’m rather ambivalent about how I should rate this book.   To have enjoyed it more than half of the way and to dislike it only near its conclusion should prompt me to give this novel a better score.  However, I think I should rate it according to the lingering feeling that it has left me with…and that is disappointment.

My Mark :  Mediocre