Tag Archives: Scotland

The Book of Madness and Cures – Regina O’Melveny

In Renaissance Venice, a brilliant and unusual young woman is the only female doctor permitted to practice. She is the companion, research assistant and student of her father, himself a renowned physician. Gabriella Mondini is passionate about her healing work and the knowledge she and her father are assembling into his magnum opus, The Book of Diseases, a compendium of everything known about medicinal plants, highly imaginative cures, folk remedies, bezoars and other medical marvels. And then her father disappears.

The Book of Madness and Cures is Gabriella’s search for her elusive father and for her own identity. He has been journeying for some unspecified purpose for ten years, writing to her sporadically from various university towns in Italy, Scotland, Morocco and then vanishing. Soon enough, without the sponsorship of her famous father, the physician’s guild withdraws permission for Gabriella to practice. Over her mother’s protests, she sets out with two longtime family servants and her own medical chest to retrace his steps.

Regina O’Melveny’s richly layered novel is crammed with details of the hardships of travel, the learning of distinguished physicians at some of Europe’s great universities, the stubborn hope of an intrepid young woman that her beloved father will be found alive, her growing dismay as she tracks disturbing stories of mad behavior and begins to suspect that some family curse may have set him in flight from her.

Very dense book but a real story with fleshed -out characters, a colorful  historical canvas and a classic journey to the interior of the self.  Gabriella is single-minded in her search, curious about the amazing breadth of knowledge that begins to unfold for her, faithful to transcribing all she discovers into a book of her own, worthy of publication. It works on many levels. Nothing cliched–and wholly believable, if startling and dramatic, plot developments. The Book of Madness and Cures is well-named on a number of levels. I would re-read it for the vast amount of information I probably missed tackling it as a one-day read.

The Book of Madness and Cures: A Novel   Regina O’Melveny | Little, Brown and Company   2012

In Bed with a Highlander – Maya Banks

In my quest to decipher just what inspires a seven-figure advance to a romance novelist, I tucked into a different series by Maya Banks. In Bed with a Highlander was definitely a better story than the  quasi-military pandering and weird paranormal oddities in the last Banks book I read. This one has a classic story of gruff lord of the keep–laird in this case as we are in Scotland–falling under the spell of the obstinate and spunky young woman who enters his protection unwillingly but eventually romps with great enthusiasm in his bed. Plots of regicide, internal perfidy, threats and violence abound. The characters were as unstable as romance characters usually are–tough and then unaccountably shy and then tough again, no real substance to them. But attractive, volatile, highly-sexed, multi-orgasmic and beset by battles at every turn.

The oddest thing is the way these books are slapped together and marketed, as if the story there is exists only to fill the pages with predictable dangers and sex–and then more danger and more sex, punctuated by startling moments of personal enlightenment in which the main players admit that they love each other. It’s a convention of the genre; it’s fine. But the cover! The cover of In Bed… was truly weird. A battle-scarred Scottish laird, muscled and shaggy, is depicted as a hairless, shirtless bodybuilder from Venice, California wearing a pair of shorts. The heroine, a Scottish bastard with green eyes, Celtic curling hair and clothes of the period is a sinuous Asian vamp with long dark hair and a sort of blue teddy-like thing that has just a little too much fabric in it to be from Victoria’s Secret.  Does this indicate that the publisher believes the intended audience for a Scottish period romance is too stupid to require more than half-naked bodies in a clinch set against a backdrop of green tartan? Tacky.

I’m getting this genre a bit now.  I’ll probably need a few more books to suss out why it is so appealing as a storyline to so many people.  Romance sells like hotcakes–hot romance like hotcakes with real maple syrup. Is it Cinderella for grown-ups, or Sleeping Beauty maybe? I’m puzzled at the flattened-out nature of it but that might just be because I’m not reading more complex, nuanced versions of the basic plot. Murder mysteries are more satisfying, in general, although the badly written ones are as bad as anything unreadable, whatever the genre. So, no more contemporary military types with their bulging jeans and Wal-Mart spectrum of emotions.  I might hunt for historical romantica so there is at least some marginal world-building to examine in between the sighs, moans, poisoned goblets of ale and clashing of bloody swords.

In Bed with a Highlander (McCabe Trilogy)   Maya Banks | Ballantine Books  2011

Unfinished Portrait – Anthea Fraser

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Unfinished Portrait by Anthea Fraser isn’t so much a who-dunnit? as a where-is-she? Writer Rona Parish is commissioned to produce a biography of Elspeth Wilding, a celebrated painter who disappeared more than a year before, leaving her studio, unfinished work and family behind. Rona hesitates—she is a series amateur sleuth who gets dragged into more mayhem than she can handle–afraid that this story could be more than a simple book. But she succumbs and, naturally, the baffling disappearance takes center stage. Elspeth’s trail lures Rona outside her picturesque village of Marsborough to towns in the surrounding countryside, to London and even to the Scottish coast.

Elspeth Wilding is, or was,  a reclusive, egocentric, wild talent and everyone has a tale to tell about her, many of them unflattering. Rona struggles to maintain her comfortable, event-free life, lunching and dining nearly every day with friends, her twin sister, and her artist husband who lives at home part time and in his studio across town, where he teaches art students several days a week. Rona’s dog needs constant walking. Her sister collects a difficult but attractive boyfriend with a connection to Wilding. Wilding’s family members do and don’t know what happened to her. And all is not as it seems in the art world or in Wilding’s world.

An old friend, a dramatic suicide, a greedy possibly-corrupt celebrity, a loyal housekeeper, divorced parents with new partners, a Scottish hideaway and some old masterpieces complicate the plot. The book is a UK print and is written in British vernacular, which makes it more interesting. Rona’s life of pubs, wine bars, interior design and fashion shows is upscale and moderately privileged—she seems to have a readymade journalism job for the times when she doesn’t feel up to the work of biographies so the story bears a tinge of fairytale. She doesn’t work especially hard nor ask very penetrating questions of her sources.

A murder that seems, and is, senseless lends sudden urgency to solving the mystery but the resolution comes pretty much out of nowhere and doesn’t feel organic to the plot. The concerns of the characters don’t come across as terribly urgent, the evil is grafted on, and the end is not entirely satisfying. Fraser creates a world of fortunate people who are more or less unmindful of their advantages and so it’s hard to get too worked up about their problems. Unfinished Portrait is an undemanding read with lovely Britishisms and an okay but uncompelling mystery that you cannot solve but that is ultimately revealed in detail. Could have been stronger. I’m going to reserve judgment until I plow through one more of her mysteries with a different protagonist, to see whether she dashes off finales as casually in all of her novels.

Unfinished Portrait (Rona Parish Mysteries)   Anthea Fraser | Severn House  2010