Friday, February 26, 2021

The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time by John Kelly


Reviewed by Ambrea


Although I’ve dabbled in a few other genres, I recently veered back to epidemics.  (Look, I just can’t seem to help myself.)  This time, I picked up another book with a massive subtitle:  The Great Mortality by John Kelly.


Yes, I decided to tackle a book on the plague.


The modern world knows it as the Black Death, the bubonic plague, or yersinia pestis; however, in Asia and Europe during the fourteenth century, it was known simply as the “Great Mortality” or the “Year of Annihilation.”  It spread far and wide – and quickly.  As John Kelly points out, “Despite the enormous size of Eurasia and the slowness of medieval travel…the plague spread to almost every corner of the continent in a matter of decades.”  By 1347, it had arrived in Italy and, by 1350, it had reached as far as Portugal, Scotland, and Scandinavia.


Records, of course, are sparse during this time and records that have survived aren’t without error; however, Kelly does an admirable job of stitching together the various stories of victims and survivors to create a comprehensive narrative.  The Great Mortality often delves into primary resources, relating first-hand accounts, and it uses a variety of materials – ledgers, cemetery purchase records, wills, court documents – to explain just how terrible life really was during the Black Death.


Basically, here’s the gist of the whole book:  everything was awful and it was a horrible time to be alive – not that you’d live very long to experience it.  I can’t even verbalize how grateful I am to live in a world where hygiene is the norm and science has given us wonderful things like antibiotics, vaccines, and soap.


The Great Mortality is a very interesting and engaging book.  I enjoyed learning about the history and science of the bubonic plague, and I liked reading accounts from witnesses who did – and didn’t – survive.  I was fascinated (or, maybe, horrified?) to learn there are actually different kinds of bubonic plague and it can morph into pneumonic plague, which scholars and scientists suspect happened during the Black Death.


Overall, I think it’s a pretty great book for learning about a truly terrible time with history.  It’s packed with resources and interesting history, but it isn’t difficult to read.  It does feel like it’s viewed through a very European lens; however, since much of the book took place in Europe, I let it slide a bit.  It does have a tendency to bounce around through time and space, but it isn’t particularly detrimental to the narrative.


It also has footnotes.*


*Fun fact:  I love a good footnote.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Nevermore: Appalachia, Covid, Our Malady, Doctors Blackwell, Kevin Wilson, Darynda Jones


Stories about Appalachia, trailblazing ladies and combusting children were amongst the topics covered this week.  


Shelved: Appalachian Resilience amongst Covid 19:  Jeanne G’Fellers, Cindy O’Quinn and nine other Appalachian authors came together to publish this anthology of essays, fiction and poetry that have been born from the effects of the Covid 19 pandemic on Appalachia.  Our reader recommended this slender book and stated that it is a very quick read.


The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Women Brought Medicine to Women and Women to Medicine by Janice Nimura.  Our reader was quite taken by this meticulously researched biography of the first two female doctors in the United States, sisters Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell.  Unconventional to say the least, these two trailblazers fought not only a medical system that denigrated women, but societal pressures involving slavery and social reform.  Our reader was fascinated by this biography and recommends it. 


Another look at the medical system, Our Malady:  Lessons in Liberty from a Hospital Diary by Timothy Snyder, was reviewed by our next reader.   This non-fiction book is a recounting of the author’s experience being sick and his treatment in the American medical system.  On December 29, 2019 the author fell horribly ill.  He went to the ER and for a terrifying number of hours involving transport to different hospitals, repetitive testing procedures, mistaken diagnoses and communication lapses, the author was unsure if he was going to live to see the next day.  One of his friends, a Black doctor, was with him, but (the author guesses) because she was a Black woman, no-one paid any attention to what she had to say.  The author reflects on the current state of the medical industry in America and how fragile health and life truly are, and makes the strong argument that we will only achieve freedom in this country when health is considered a human right.  Our reader highly recommends this enlightening, infuriating, hopeful book. 


Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson was the next book to be reviewed.  This quirky fiction book tells the story of the friendship between Madison and Lillian, who were roommates and friends at a boarding school.  Years pass, and Madison contacts Lillian with a job offer to be nanny to Madison’s stepchildren.  The only catch?  The children spontaneously combust when upset.  Whatever could go wrong?  Our reader liked this quirky, humorous book and recommends it to anyone looking for some escapist reading.  


Another reader recommends the Grave series by Darynda Jones for some funny, sexy, mindless reading.  This paranormal romance series revolves around Charley Davidson who is a part time private investigator and full time Grim Reaper.  Charley sees dead people and tries to convince them to “go to the light”, but sometimes (especially if they have been murdered), they don’t want to move on until their case has been solved.  First Grave on the Right was Jones’s debut novel, and has to date been followed up with twelve more books in the Charley Davidson series.  Our reader highly recommends this breezy, fun book series.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Mimi Lee Gets a Clue: A Sassy Cat Mystery by Jennifer Chow


Reviewed by Jeanne


Trying to get a pet grooming salon off the ground isn’t easy.  Mimi Lee has just opened her shop, “Hollywoof” (Slogan:  Where We Treat Your Pets Like Stars) and is hoping to make some connections with an upscale group of ladies so that word of mouth will bring in the clients.  She soon notices an odd thing when more than one Chihuahua seems to have some health issues, but is distracted by a cat her sister pretty much dumps on her.  Mimi isn’t at all enthused about the idea—she prefers dogs—and the large white cat doesn’t seem any more pleased with her than she is with him.  He especially doesn’t like the name she gave him, Marshmallow. 

And he tells her so.

Either that, or she is losing her mind which she admits is a possibility. Before she can ponder this development, she is distracted by a customer with a Chihuahua who needs grooming.  The dog seems a bit off, somehow. When Mimi learns that this one came from the same breeder as another young Chihuahua with health issues, she decides to check out the guy’s operation to see if he’s running a puppy mill.  Her reception is about what you would expect:  Russ Nolan is in no mood to deal with some nosy groomer.

Russ turns up dead, of course, and Mimi’s contentious visit puts her at the top of the suspect list.  Good thing she is able to call on a cute lawyer friend for legal aid or else she may find herself out of business and behind bars.

This is a first in series books, so part of the time is spent on set-up rather than plot.  Like Marshmallow, I was a tad put off by Mimi’s declaration that she prefers dogs so I wasn’t quite sure how we were going to get along but by the end we were doing just fine.  One mystery that isn’t explained is how Mimi is able to “hear” Marshmallow, but that may be addressed in the next book.  (I am gullible so I’ll believe almost anything; I bring it up because Mimi wonders a little but doesn’t seem to ask follow up questions.) This one had a lot of ground to cover with Mimi’s back story and her family.  Her mother, Ma, is a definite scene stealer and I enjoyed some of the cultural touches with food and family dynamics.  I also appreciated a little glimpse behind the scenes into the world of pure bred dogs.

But of course for me the star is Marshmallow, grumpy though he may be. He may have his reasons.   I have high hopes that we’ll learn more about him in subsequent books.  And speaking of which, the second book in the series, Mimi Lee Reads between the Lines, is due out November 2020.