Book Reviews
by Edward Pettit
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The Bibliothecary
a blog of literary endeavour
October 1, 2006, Philadelphia Inquirer

"A could-be biography of Sir Thomas Malory"
Malory: The Knight Who Became King Arthur's Chronicler
By Christina Hardyment
HarperCollins. 634 pp.

In
Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T.E. Lawrence recounts an episode
when he and his tattered Arab force take refuge with no food or
fuel - 28 men - in two reeking rooms. His men suffer, but the
indefatigable Lawrence has a talisman: "In my saddle-bags was a
Morte d'Arthur. It relieved my disgust. The men had only physical
resources." For Lawrence, Sir Thomas Malory's prose epic
Le
Morte Darthur
is a spiritual resource. Its chivalric stories give him
hope in the face of despair. The
Morte inspires Christina
Hardyment in much the same way. Her biography of its author
treats the
Morte as chivalric scripture. It "still has lessons to teach us: lessons about taking personal
responsibility, being loyal and tolerant, defending the weak - that 'generosity of spirit.' "  
Read the entire review
October 4, 2006, Philadelphia City Paper

The Meaning of Night: A Confession
By Michael Cox
W.W. Norton. 672 pp.

The treat of the novel is that it doesn't pretend to be more than it
is, a sensationalist page-turner, and it delivers on almost all counts.
I have trouble giving examples of what I found most engrossing or
delightful because I would not want to spoil any of the plot's
intricacies. The plot is like a wicked tree in a bewitched forest,
slowly wrapping its branches around an unsuspecting reader, its
roots rising from the earth like tendrils to trap its victims. And best
of all, the narrator is a paranoid, psychotic murderer. What more
fun do you want from a book on a cold, autumnal night?
Read the entire review
October 22, 2006, Philadelphia Inquirer

"'Cold Mountain' author fails in his second novel"
Thirteen Moons
By Charles Frazier
Random House. 422 pp.

At one point, Will Cooper builds a magnificent home,
modeled on one of the great plantation houses of Thomas
Jefferson. Then he leaves it and wanders the country. Not
quite aimlessly: He is on a sort of quest to find Claire. But
while the knight-errant of medieval romance encounters evil
knights and strange beasts, Cooper just wanders,
encountering very little of interest. At this point, the narrative
itself also becomes unmoored. The plot drifts rudderless
across currents of print, the reader just begging for something
to happen. Ultimately, nothing does. As compelling to read
as
Cold Mountain was, Thirteen Moons compelled me
only to wish for its end.
Read the entire review
January 7, 2007, Philadelphia Inquirer

"Faerie lore befitting science and fantasy"
The Ladies of Grace Adieu
By Susanna Clarke
Bloomsbury. 224 pp.

The Secret Commonwealth of
Elves, Fauns and Fairies
By Robert Kirk
NYRB Classics. 144 pp.

Most of the stories are set in 19th-century England, and the
title story even includes Jonathan Strange in a supporting role.
A couple are set in the 16th and 17th centuries, and one is a
medieval folktale of John Uskglass, the once and future Raven King who bridges the realms of
faeries and humans. The collection started a little slowly for me, but as I read on, the flow of themes
began to seduce me like a faerie charm, binding me ever more tightly, one slight band at a time. The
humans in Clarke's tales are forever threatened by an unknowable world that coexists with their
own. Sometimes the two clash with a kind of devilish humor, like Shakespeare's Puck pulling the
stools out from under unsuspecting milkmaids. Sometimes the clash is malevolent, and pain and
death are at stake. Through it all, Clarke writes with witty aplomb. The threats seem real, but let's
have another cake with our tea before we face wrack and ruin.

                                    If the stories of
Ladies serve to add more flavor to the world of                 
                                     
Jonathan Strange (as if the footnotes finally did get their own book),
                                    then another recent book will also fit the bill -
The Secret                           
                                     Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies
by Robert Kirk. But          
                                     
Secret Commonwealth is no invention of Susanna Clarke, an               
                                    imagined book to flesh out the backstory of her novel. Robert Kirk
                                    was an Episcopal priest in the Scottish Highlands during the late 17th
                                    century who made a serious study of the folklore of his parishioners.
                                    The extended essay was left as a manuscript at his death and published
                                    in the 18th century and in the 19th by both Sir Walter Scott and
                                    Andrew Lang.
                                    
Read the entire review
February 4, 2007, Philadelphia Inquirer

"A boy's dark story of magic"
The Book of Lost Things
By John Connolly
Atria. 339 pp.

At its heart,
The Book of Lost Things is a coming-of-age tale.
The innocence of childhood is tested and David must learn to
overcome his fears. But the author asks much deeper questions
of his reader, questions that challenge the very concept of
"childhood innocence." What of the jealousies and desires of
children? Are children corrupted as they grow older? Can
maturation itself be labeled corruption? Is innocence something
achieved or is it innate, a pure center at the heart of every child? In subverting fairy stories into tales
of horror, Connolly has created a framework that complements David's own maturation. David
must relearn the stories to find his way, but must also come to grips with his own inner demons.
The Book of Lost Things is an intense and satisfying book for the dark nights of winter.
Read the entire review.
Feb 22, 2007, Philadelphia Inquirer

"Mystery opens underbelly of Philadelphia society, 1842"
The Conjurer
By Cordelia Frances Biddle
Thomas Dunne / St. Martin's. 306 pp.

Biddle pays a great deal of attention to the manners and mores of
her upper-crust characters. She delineates how their social
practices shape their behavior, as well as the very philosophies by
which they live, from the correct color of a gown for a particular
season or occasion to the correct room in which one should
receive particular visitors. I was a little leery that I had stumbled
into one of those cozy mysteries written for little old ladies who
live in quaint country cottages (with several cats). But the action of the novel soon took a decidedly
grim turn.

Kelman, the investigator, is also on the trail of a serial killer who has been murdering child
prostitutes in the city's brothels. The conjurer of the title, Eusapio Paladino, seems to be channeling
the victims while he performs seances at dinner parties of wealthy citizens (during which he also
entices the wives of his high-society patrons to become his mistresses). Indeed, all of Biddle's
characters have secret inner lives that chafe at the severe restraints with which their society has
bound them. Most acquiesce. Some, like Martha, seek to break free. Some twist their desires into
murderous impulses that trail them like shadows through the murky alleyways of the city at night.
Read the entire review.
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