Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Viper Wine, by Hermione Eyre. Hogarth, 2014

Venetia Stanley and her husband, Sir Kenelm Digby, were real people. She really did die mysteriously. Wealthy ladies of the time really did buy and apply and ingest all sorts of potions guaranteed to make them youthful again- or, at the very least, arrest aging. Digby really did have Anthony Van Dyck paint her portrait after her death.

In this book, Digby’s mind picks up on voices from the future. He has a radio mast in his backyard, although it’s 1632. Sometimes he sees his estate, Gayhurst, as it will be in four centuries, used for Alan Turing’s Enigma Machine. Perhaps this is why he frequently seems to be not quite all there. Venetia, once thought a great beauty, is now facing being thirty years of age- ancient, to the people of that era. She has two children; she cannot be the fascinating and beautiful woman she once was. And, sadly, that’s all she knows how to be. When she hears of potions that can make a person young and beautiful, she begs her husband-an alchemist- to make her some. When he refuses, feeling that she is so beautiful she could not be improved upon, she seeks help from her circle of women friends at court. Despite youth formulas sometimes horrible side effects, most of the ladies of the court are using them. And some of them really work.

I’m not sure the decision to make this story magical realism really worked. While the fact that the potions really functioned - how they could ruin a woman as easily as make them young- added to the story, I didn’t feel that the 21st century bleeding through really added anything. It was, as they say in The Simpson’s, “Weird for the sake of weird”.

I felt sorry for Venetia; she was merely fulfilling the role given to titled women in those days, but her inability to be anything *other* than a beauty was frustrating. She was a good mother, but even that was background to her looks. The time slippage allows the author to draw parallels to our age’s obsession with youth and the things women will go through to stave off the signs of aging, but it wasn’t really needed. It was pretty obvious what her view of that was without it. The prose is lovely, but the whole thing just didn’t come together in the end. It was, sadly, boring. 

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something, Amazon will give me a few cents. This in no way influenced my review. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Heart Healers: This Misfits, Mavericks, and Rebels Who Created the Greatest Medical Breakthroughs of Our Lives, by James Forrester, M.D. St. Martin’s Press, 2015

Until sometime mid-20th century, the heart was considered off limits to the surgeon. No really good medicinal interventions existed- digitalis can only go so far. Heart disease of any sort- inborn, caused by injury, or created by the ravages of time and beef- was considered a fatal diagnosis. Then a few doctors and surgeons took chances. Catheters were threaded through veins to the heart. Hearts were stopped and restarted with electricity. The blood flow was bypassed from the heart and aerated- at first by running it through monkey lungs (that one didn’t work well). Artificial heart valves were developed, and a method of delivering them through the artery rather than cracking open the chest. Stents to open arteries came along, as did drugs to lower cholesterol to slow the development of atherosclerosis. Clots were busted and pacemakers inserted. All of this has happened in a relatively short time; mere decades. The cardiologists who developed these methods all went beyond what anyone thought was possible at the time, and sometimes their first attempts left the patients dead. But they tried again and again until the problem was solved.

The author, a cardiologist himself, writes fluently about the subject. He makes it as interesting as a thriller novel; he has the ability to give technical details and make them easy to understand. He never gets bogged down; the doctors and the patients come alive. If you like medical history, you’ll love this book. 

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something, Amazon will give me a few cents. 

I received this book free from the Amazon Vine program in return for an unbiased review. 

Neither of these things influenced my review.  

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The King’s Sisters, by Sarah Kennedy.

In England in 1542, Henry the VIII was king. He’d just executed his fifth wife, Catherine Howard. As self-proclaimed head of the Church of England, formed when he denounced the power of the Pope to say he couldn’t divorce his first wife, he had seized the assets of the Catholic churches and dissolved the monasteries and convents. While he made provisions for the care of the displaced monks and nuns, they remained under his authority. Catherine Haven, this books protagonist, found herself married and widowed by 1542 (this is the third book in a series- I need to find those, so I can find out how she got around the proscription against former nuns marrying), and is now serving in Anne of Cleves’s household; she is also pregnant by Benjamin Davies. Given Henry’s state of mind- of distrust of women in general- this could be disastrous. They cannot wed without Henry’s permission, and he is very apt not to give it. Catherine finds herself waiting for Benjamin, trying to hide her growing belly and wondering if they will manage to marry or if she’ll be punished for having sex, while taking care of Anne of Cleves’s household.

The past comes alive in this book. The minute details of everyday life are illuminated. The sights, sounds, and, yes, smells (not good) of living in those days are described vividly. The endless labor that was done if a person was not royal. The subservient position of women- Catherine’s barely teen son finds it his place to tell her mother how to behave. The fact that people’s lives depended on the king’s whim. This realism, and the tension, is the heart of the novel; the plot itself is fairly simple. Wait, then ride horses for days on end, hoping to outrun the King’s agents. It’s a good book, but it has the feel of a sort of ‘bridge’ from the second to the next one.       

This book will not be released until September 29, 2015. It is not up on Amazon yet for preorder.