Helen McIver’s BookScapes

The Beggar King by Oliver Potszch
(3rd in the The Hangman’s Daughter series all translated by Lee Chadeayne)

beggar-kingThese books were published earlier in Germany, with several more installments expected.   Interestingly the story is based in part on the author’s family history as descendents of a Bavarian executioner. The Beggar King follows on from The Dark Monk which also follows almost directly on from The Hangman’s Daughter and, while each can be stand alone, I also strongly recommend reading them in order as I had a much more vivid picture of the Hangman from the first tale, which resonates throughout The Dark Monk. You don’t forget the humanity of the man from the first tale. And you need to know that especially in the predicament of the Beggar King.

The Dark Monk takes place in the winter of 1660 with the three main characters (the executioner and healer of Schongau, Jakob Kuisl, his daughter – newly apprenticed midwife – Magdalena, and the physician’s son, Simon). They interpret a trail of riddles and myths after a local priest is poisoned (beware sticky donuts) while untangling their social lives.

This is a fun historical ride through the Knights Templar (more along the lines of the Da Vinci Code) balancing mystery, historical detail, romance and drama. Medieval life is rather accurately (brutally) portrayed (I still feel cold), the tale is a bit convoluted, while also being somewhat predictable.

In the Beggar King, it is 1662 and the action takes place in the Imperial City of Regensburg where Jakob travels to visit his sister whom he believes gravely ill. He finds her dead and is framed for her murder. And while he faces the torturous devices he knows all too well, there is honor among hangmen. Fortuitously, Magdalena and Simon arrive, having run away together after tumultuous village life. It is only through the underground network of beggars and thieves that they all uncover a larger plot. You are experience the reality of life in medieval times, and this is a fascinating account of an amazing historical city.

This installment felt a little more contrived than the previous: for smart characters they do some very inconsistent things. I winced at a few anachronism/slang terms. I did enjoy meeting the characters again and look forward to each case. Note that my copy had a teaser of the next installment and I am already hooked.

Jakob reminds me Gaius Petreius Ruso (a Roman army medic and amateur sleuth) of the Medicus series by Ruth Downie (but an earlier Roman time period primarily set in England). I am impatiently awaiting the release of the fifth book Semper Fidelis in January 2013.

This Books was read as an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) supplied by the publisher.


Book of the Moment:
(A spotlight on  Robert Burns)

1319771748824Every January for the past three decades I have read poetry of Robert Burns. The 25th (Burns’ birthday) is the second largest Scottish celebration, not only in Scotland, but around the world. I have held a Burns Supper for many years, ranging from family dinners of 10 to over 80 friends and family. This year is no exception and we will share food, drink and fellowship in honor of the poet. So I was delighted to see a new edition of Burns’ Poetry and Songs to peruse as I prepare for another celebration.

The Poems and Songs of Robert Burns has a new forward and description of his life (and times) which most people will find useful and I was relieved to see was less opinionated/dated and more practical with a perspective of his work, his “Scottishness” and his accomplishments.

This biography shows him as a keen observer of the human condition, with his words sometimes humorous, poignant, romantic, insightful or satyric. He became a man of the people, a symbol of independence and of the nobility of all mankind.

Many of the poems are familiar to the reader, from Auld Lang Syne to Tam OShanter. Importantly there is a glossary of many of the Scots words which will help in translation! Most people don’t realize how important Burns was to rescuing Scottish folk music, but also creating it. As such, the printed versions here, while lovely, do not even begin to do the songs justice. Please find the music/cds of Jean Redpath (awarded OBE for her astonishing and beautiful musical renditions of Burn’s work), or Andy M. Stewart’s CD of a selection of Burns’ best known works (I still think of this as a definitive album). And the song/poem rendition of Scots Wae Hae by the New Zealander Steve McDonald still gives me chills. This volume does provide an easy access to Scotland’s National Poet.

Statue of Burns at the National Portrait Gallery

Statue of Burns at the National Portrait Gallery

Henry James: A life in Letters Philip Horne (ed)

We were reading Henry James in our Literature into Film bookclub at the Library, and as complimentary reading I got this out of the library. What a delightful find, especially with footnotes! I liked the fact that this is a ‘real and best biography’. I hunted for the people he corresponded with that I knew and liked (RLStevenson, Edith Wharton, HGWells) before heading to read about people he knew and discussed (e.g. Hopper). Horne is also a wonderful biographer of James, and has a series of books on him.
This was also ‘appropriate’ reading selection because Henry James was of scottish and irish ancestry, and last week was the Burns Supper all around the world, in recognition of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet. So I was of course reading Burn’s poetry, reciting some as well. Haggis was even made for the occasion.