Book Reviews: Company of Liars by Karen Maitland

Author: Karen Maitland
Title: Company of Liars
Publication Info: Delacorte Press (2008)
ISBN: 978-0385341691


Set in Medieval England just as the deadly pestilence is landing on the shores of that island nation, Company of Liars follows the travels of a group of nine who band together for safety as the first hope to find profit and then simply find safety with the plague – and maybe a wolf – licking at their heals. The characters are all archetypes of some sort but are fully developed as the novel progresses: the narrator and relic seller Camelot, the courtly musician Rodrigo of Venice and his moody apprentice Geoffrey, the cranky magician Zophiel, a young  painter Osmond and his pregnant wife Adela, Cygnus the storyteller who has a wing in place of one arm, Pleasance the healer, and the creepy albino child Narigorm who foretells the future by reading runes.

Maitland creates an overwhelming sense of menace as the company has to escape the pestilence and other external threats while not even knowing if they can trust their fellow travelers.  For each of the nine has a secret, some quite obvious, some less so but all compelling.  The conclusion of the novel is quite abrupt and leaves a lot of questions unanswered, which I’m okay with.  I was disappointed that after creating uncertainty between supernatural and rational explanations for the incidents that befall the company that Maitland comes down clearly on the side of supernatural in the concluding chapters.  That is, of course, if Camelot is a reliable narrator.

This is an excellent book full of suspense, intriguing characters, and a well-researched slice of life of the medieval world during the plague.  Many reviews compare it to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, but apart from being a band of travelers who tell stories the similarities end there.   I think the Doomsday Book by Connie Willis and The Plague Tales by Ann Benson are more complementary books to Company of Liars.

Recommended books: The Black Death by Philip Ziegler, Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, and The Plague Tales by Ann Benson
Rating: ****

Book Review: The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

Around The World For a Good Book selection for: Lebanon

Author: Kahlil Gibran
Title: The Prophet
Publication Info: Alfred A. Knopf (1973), Edition: 91st.  Originally published 1923.
ISBN: 394404289

I selected The Prophet as an Around the World For A Good Book choice for Lebanon but really I’ve been meaning to read this book for quite some time.  Especially since a I few years ago when I met Kahlil Gibran’s cousin and godson – also named Kahlil Gibran – on a sculpture tour of Forest Hills Cemetery.  The Prophet is a series of lessons given by a prophet to the townsfolk on topics varying from “Children,” “Self-Knowledge,” and “Good and Evil.”  It has many of the paradoxical formations found in many works of inspirational literature including Lao-Tzu’s “Way of Life”, the teachings of the Buddha and The Beatitudes of Jesus Christ.  Like those other works, it’s not really a read once and remember book, it’s more of a come back to again and again and find a different pearl of wisdom book.

Favorite Passages:

from “On Eating and Drinking”:

But since you must kill to eat, and rob the newly born of its  mother’ s milk to quench your thirst, let it then be an act of worship.  – p. 23

from “On Self-Knowledge”:

Say not, “I have found the truth,” but rather, “I have found a truth.”  Say not, “I have found the path of the soul.” Say rather, “I have met the soul walking upon my path.”  For the soul walks upon all paths. – p. 55

from “On Death”:

Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.  And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.  And when the shall claim your limbs, then you shall truly dance. – p. 81

Recommended books: Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, The Bible
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Wife of the Gods by Kwei J. Quartey

Around The World For a Good Book selection for: Ghana

Author: Kwei J. Quartey
Title: Wife of the Gods
Publication Info: New York : Random House, 2009.
ISBN: 9781400067596

Wife of the Gods is a murder mystery set in the Volta Region of Ghana, the first in what will be a series about Inspector Darko Dawson of the CID.  Dawson lives and works in Accra, the capital and major city of Ghana, but is called in to solve the case of the murder of a medical student who had been working with the trokosi – or wives of the gods – young girls who are offered up to the local fetish priest.  Quartey balances a lot of issues in this novel: the country versus the city, the folkways and superstitions that retain a hold on many Ghanains versus Dawson’s skeptical, modern beliefs, and Dawson’s haunted past versus his effectiveness of working on the case.  Dawson is an interesting character with contrasting qualities:  a family man, a hard-working detective yet prone to rages and fond of marijuana.  This is a interesting story that offers a glimpse into life in modern-day Ghana.  The mystery is pretty good too.

Recommended books: I have no specific reccomendations but please ignore all the comparisons to the works of Alexander McCall Smith. This book and The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agencies are good in their own ways, but the similarities are superficial.
Rating: *** 1/2