In search of Andreas Vesalius

The King’s Anatomist by Ron Blumenfeld

 Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want to watch a man grapple with a life-long friendship that seems more contentious upon the friend’s death in the context of the burgeoning conflicts between the old and new.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 282

Publisher: History Through Fiction

ARC provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Scientific revolution with a touch of mystery

From the publisher: In 1565 Brussels, the reclusive mathematician Jan van den Bossche receives shattering news that his lifelong friend, the renowned and controversial anatomist Andreas Vesalius, has died on the Greek island of Zante returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Jan decides to journey to his friend’s grave to offer his last goodbye. Jan’s sentimental and arduous journey to Greece with his assistant Marcus is marked by shared memories, recalled letters, and inner dialogues with Andreas, all devices to shed light on Andreas’ development as a scientist, physician, and anatomist. But the journey also gradually uncovers a dark side of Andreas even as Jan yearns for the widow of Vesalius, Anne.

Giveaway

Enter to win a paperback copy of The King’s Anatomist by Ron Blumenfeld. The giveaway is open to the US only and ends on November 5th. You must be 18 or older to enter.


I’m going to start with a content warning here. The dissection scenes are very graphic and I found them too difficult to read. It wasn’t gratuitous, really, just more detail than I could deal with before starting to get nauseated. I skimmed those sections to get to the rest of the story.

There was a certain liberation, even joy, in seeing what we look like under our skins, in seeing our humanness through and through.

Ron Blumenfeld, The King’s Anatomist

Consider yourself warned. Now to the heart of the story. Ron Blumenfeld illustrates the foment of the Scientific Revolution, situated as it was in the context of the Renaissance and the Reformation, and the tension between the old way of looking to authority as having all the answers, whether the authority of the bible, church, or classical writers and the evolving way of looking to demonstrable evidence as the standard of proof for truth, particularly in the sciences.

The Spanish physicians still think that Galen has taught them all they need to know and see no merit in putting their clumsy hooves inside a corpse.

Ron Blumenfeld, The King’s Anatomist

In that sense, The King’s Anatomist is a great travelogue of the period, documenting landmark moments in the context of Jan trying to figure out just how his best friend’s life ended and to make sense of the relationship. The novel hits some high points and some big names in the journey to recreate Andreas Vesalius’s last year or so.

I had been living as if our friendship transcended time and mortality.

Ron Blumenfeld, The King’s Anatomist

There are some very witty bits sprinkled throughout the book, which, along with a very clear writing style, makes it a coherent and well-paced read. Blumenfeld does a great job of bringing a flavor of the language of the period into the style of the book, yet manages to keep it close enough to modern to keep the prose crisp. When I went back through the book, I was surprised by the number of very quotable lines throughout the text.

Reason is a precious gift granted to mankind, but in human relations reason takes us only so far. In the end it is faith in each other—trust, if you prefer the term—and the capacity to forgive that allows love to take root and endure.

Ron Blumenfeld, The King’s Anatomist

However, it has some issues as a story. First, the female protagonist, Anne, is more of a placekeeper than having any developed personality. Blumenfeld treats her in a very old-fashioned way, where she is the vague fulfillment of someone’s ideal of what love should be, but she’s not really a fully fledged character. The other major female character is Jan’s mother, whom we mostly hear about from Jan, and although he mentions the hold she had on him but Andreas helped break, that subplot is never fleshed out. So this woman, as well, is a flat cutout.

With his urging, I learned that I could safely lie to Mother because she thought it unimaginable that I would deceive her.

Ron Blumenfeld, The King’s Anatomist

On the other hand, Jan is very well-developed, as is the mutual school friend of Jan and Andreas, Antoine the bishop, and Jan’s associate/servant, Marcus. Each of them feels three-dimensional, motivated, and convincing. Andreas, though, who is the titular character, comes out a bit flat, partially because of the inconsistencies and omitted explanations of the end of his life. He is clearly driven, but even by the end of the book, I still didn’t feel like I had a handle on his character, but for the fact that he dominated the relationship with Jan and was a brilliant iconoclastic rebel.

I am grateful for my life as I am living it, and unapologetic about my circumstances.

Ron Blumenfeld, The King’s Anatomist

However, I never felt like the decisions Andreas made to the detriment of Jan were ever adequately explained in terms of Andreas’s motivations. Granted, Jan was hero-struck by Andreas and didn’t think critically about him until, it appears, the events that start the quest of the book, but because that was the main character arc in the story—Jan coming to a more realistic assessment of Andreas—it felt like those specific instances needed to be processed more fully by Jan so that he could accept Andreas’s flaws rather than simply fail to see them, as he had until that time, or to be stuck in an in-between place where Jan could not resolve the hero-Andreas with the kind-of-an-ass-Andreas.

If those who study nature—be they physicians, botanists, or astronomers—fail to guard against their human failings in the greater interest of truth and progress, then it will fall to others to correct the record.

Ron Blumenfeld, The King’s Anatomist

The breadth of the novel, though, is a lovely overview of the foment in the intellectual world of Europe at the beginning of the Reformation. Blumenfeld folds in several cameos of well-known figures of the era, which is fun, but what he does exceptionally well is to give a very clear sense of the cultural environment of the time: the reliance on Galen and authority, the taboos associated with dissection, the Inquisition, the various bits and pieces of the early phases of the European wars of religion (particularly Huguenots vs. French Catholics), the suspicion of witchcraft, and the interaction of politics and science (nope, there’s rarely anything completely new). The King’s Anatomist does an exceptional job of creating the context into which these medical and scientific advances began.

AMAZON | BARNES AND NOBLE | BOOKSHOPEBOOKSPUBLISHER

Some quickie reviews: Comfort women in space, rumors of a squirrel conspiracy, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

I’ve let these sit too long and just want to get some quick comments up before I forget everything! It’s one speculative, one cozy mystery, and a historical, so a mix of all the things!

The First Sister by Linden A. Lewis

r/suggestmeabook: I’d like a trip to the future where humanity is split into two battling factions and there are horrors in either group.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 351

Publisher: Skybound Publishing

Series: The First Sister Trilogy

ARC provided by NetGalley

Dystopic future scifi

From the publisher: This epic space opera filled with “lush prose” (Publishers Weekly) follows a comfort woman as she claims her agency, a soldier questioning his allegiances, and a non-binary hero out to save the solar system.

Voiceless women who fight each other for position, a disgraced soldier unjustly charged with losing a battle, and a missing son of the elite: these are the protagonists in Linden A. Lewis’s gripping drama placed centuries in the future. Each character is distinct and has a fascinating character arc, and the plot moves at the perfect place, with unexpected twists which are earned by Lewis’s ability to lay the groundwork.

Humanity has split into two groups. The Geans, on Earth and Mars, are ruled, at least in a large part, by the Sisterhood, a religious group which gives some women power by serving up their sisters as confessors and prostitutes to the military. The Icarii split away from Earth, no longer wanting to be involved in an endless war, and settled on Mercury and Venus (yes, there’s a magic element found on one of the planets that explains how that’s possible). The former are considered militant; the latter are technocrats who have manipulated their genes to survive, creating a separate species of humanity.

As is so often the case in the best science fiction, the postulated world reveals insights into our own, showing how both theocracies and technocracies can go wrong, showing how they impact the lives of the powerless. If that doesn’t appeal to you, it’s a great story as well, and I strongly recommend checking out this amazing book.


War of the Squirrels by Kristen Weiss

r/suggestmeabook: I want to watch an amateur sleuth figure out a murder while sorting out alien enthusiasts, retired spies, and rich kids.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 224

Publisher: Misterio Press

Series: Wits’ End Cozy Mystery

ARC provided by GoddessFish

Contemporary cozy mystery

From the publisher: All Susan wants is to get through this visit from her controlling parents without tumbling down a black hole of despair. But galactic forces are colliding at her whimsical B&B, Wits’ End, and her parents have plans of their own.

The silly pun of the name gives you a feel for what’s to come. Kirsten Weiss does a nice job of creating tension in a small town which has a disproportionate number of murders, and gives some really clear descriptions—to the point that I remember little scenes vividly six months after I finished the book (told you I was behind!). The traveling corpse is pretty cute, and the murder victim is appropriately dislikable. However, the tale stretches credulity, and the squirrels, well, they’re more or less in the background to create the pun and some silly shenanigans to keep the alien enthusiast motif. The earlier book(s) appear to play into the story more than I’d like for picking up one mid-series, as there are constant references to a prior event, but that’s on me for starting with the fourth book in the series (although I usually ask if prior books are required reading before picking up mid-thread).

Easy, quick read when you’re in the mood for something light.


Fiery Girls by Heather Wardell

r/suggestmeabook: I’m in the mood to watch immigrant girls overcome their differences for the common good.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 273

Publisher: Self

ARC provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Progressive era working women

From the publisher: In 1909, shy sixteen-year-old Rosie Lehrer is sent to New York City to earn money for her family’s emigration from Russia. She will, but she also longs to make her mark on the world before her parents arrive and marry her to a suitable Jewish man. Maria Cirrito, spoiled and confident at sixteen, lands at Ellis Island a few weeks later. She’s supposed to spend four years earning American wages then return home to Italy with her new-found wealth to make her family’s lives better. But the boy she loves has promised, with only a little coaxing, to follow her to America and marry her. 

This well-researched book occasionally falls a little flat. The transformations of the two protagonists, particularly Maria, feel a bit rushed, although the overall pace of the book is a little slow. It’s at its best when highlighting the efforts of the girls to unionize; the purely imagined parts are where it begins to flag a little. If you’re not familiar with the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, it’s a pretty good introduction to the tragedy and the women whose lives were radically changed by it.

Spotlight on: The Fey and the Factory Girl by Nadine Galinsky Feldman

 Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Giveaway

Enter to win a paperback copy of The Factory Girl and the Fey by Nadine Galinsky Feldman! The giveaway is open to US addresses only and ends on October 28th. You must be 18 or older to enter.

Pages: 360

Publisher: Self

Publication date: October 14, 2021

ARC provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

19th century Scottish Fantasy

From the publisher: Jane Thorburn straddles two worlds: her life as a “factory girl” in Scotland’s mills, and her birthright as fairy royalty. Abandoned by her parents as an infant, and uncertain about the true motives of the Fey, she learns to depend only on herself. All she wants is to be a great weaver and to maintain her independence.

The Fair Folk, fighting for their very survival, have other plans for her, as does the handsome and charismatic Robert Stein. What life will she choose? And will she even have a choice?

A historical fantasy inspired by the author’s ancestors, The Factory Girl and the Fey is an affectionate tribute to the women who helped fuel Scotland’s Industrial Age, from the workers to the poets…and to the Fey who remind us that magic is real when we believe in it.

Excerpt

Beitris continued to heat the poker. In the calm voice of one who spent many, many years calming nervous young mothers, she said, “This is nae yer bairn. This is a changeling. Whit ye’ll see will look strange, cruel even, but you must trust me. Set it in the cradle noo.” 

Still doubtful, Elizabeth placed the changeling in Jane’s cradle with the same care she would have given her own child. Stepping back to give the old howdiewife room was one of the hardest things she’d ever done. 

Beitris grabbed the now-hot poker in both hands, wielding it like a sword between her weathered arms as she moved toward the cradle.

“Dinna hurt her!” Elizabeth cried. 

Ellen grabbed hold of Elizabeth. “This isnae Jane, remember. Beitris will bring the real Jane back.” 

As she held on to Elizabeth, Ellen squeezed her eyes shut in anticipation of disaster. This was all her fault. She had caused this to happen, back on the day of the baptism. Until now she had managed to shut away the memories, but now they rushed forward to taunt her. 

That day dawned bright with sun and promise. Ellen arrived early to help. They dressed wee Jane in a white lace gown that had once been Elizabeth’s. Jane, tiny as a doll, swam in the dress, her head nearly disappearing amidst the layers of fabric. Ellen wished for more time to alter it, as Elizabeth was too fatigued and sad to do it herself. This would have to do, though. The town would likely gossip about the child’s ill-fitting gown, but that mattered less than giving her God’s protection as soon as possible.

Tradition called for someone to offer a gift of bread and cheese to the first person she met on the path to the church. Ellen volunteered, honored to play a role in this special ritual. Carrying Jane in one arm, light as a cloud, and the basket with the food offerings in the other, Ellen headed toward the kirk, with Elizabeth and Robert to follow a few minutes later. 

Ellen didn’t have to wait long before an old man, listing to the right and hunched over a too-short walking stick, ambled toward her. His clothes were rumpled and torn, and they hung on his gaunt frame. Poor man, she thought. Apoplexy had robbed him of his dignity. As she neared him, his face twisted in a grimace. Perhaps the news of a new, precious babe would help to cheer him.

Holding the basket out toward him she said, “Good sir, we offer ye a gift from this new bairn.” 

He stopped without speaking, looked at her, then at the baby, his face twisting even further into a sneer. “Pah!” He spat on the ground and walked away, leaving her standing with the basket still outstretched. Jane started to whimper and squirm. 

“Sir?” Ellen pleaded to his back. “Please, sir, dinna curse the bairn this way.” 

Yet he kept moving, ignoring her completely.  

“Whit shall we do?” she asked Jane, her knees shaking from the encounter. Jane responded only with sleepy sucking sounds. “Well, I see ye dinna want tae help me. I’ll have tae fix this myself.”  

Normally the streets bustled with activity as townspeople prepared for morning service, but today they were oddly empty. Ellen continued to murmur loving words to Jane as they walked, praying for someone else to cross their path. She walked to within a block of the kirk when a young couple appeared. The woman, not more than eighteen, was ripe with her own child. 

Ellen nearly dropped to her knees in gratitude and relief. Holding out the food offering with trembling hands, she said, “Good folks, this is a gift from a new bairn that we offer ye.” She hoped she didn’t look too desperate.

“Aye, of course,” the young woman said, patting her own belly. “May I see the lass?”

Ellen held Jane up and the woman drew in a sharp breath, her eyes alight with the sight of the young beauty. Her mouth twisted and turned, not in bitterness, but rather in protection. To express a child’s beauty aloud would invite evil influences.

“Thank ye,” the woman said. “We would be honored.” 

Her husband, who stood next to his wife, silent until now, accepted the basket of food, then tipped his hat and bowed to Jane. “Welcome tae the world, lass,” he said. Then the young couple continued on their way.

The baptism occurred as planned, and Ellen breathed easier, telling herself that no harm would come from tucking away the unfortunate details of the first encounter. Surely the goodwill of the young couple would render the old man’s bitterness moot and bring good fortune to the child. They would put the incident behind them, and no one needed to know. 

Yet the scene unfolding in front of Ellen in the tiny flat, with a new mother numb with fright and a howdiewife wielding a hot poker, was no mere bad dream. She moved her mouth in prayer, begging for forgiveness and hoping Beitris could bring Jane back home. Then she remembered her children were present, stunned silent but wide-eyed and open-mouthed. “Go back tae the flat,” she said. “We will protect wee Jane.”

About the Author

Nadine Galinsky Feldman is an author of women’s and historical fiction. Her novel What She Knew was a finalist in the 2016 Next Generation Indie Book awards. The Foreign Language of Friends was a finalist in the 2012 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, Chick Lit category. It was also named a Gold Medal Winner, Women’s Issues, in the 2011 eLit Book Awards.

As an editor, Nadine produced Patchwork and Ornament: A Woman’s Journey of Life, Love, and Art by Jeanette Feldman, which won the 2010 Indie Excellence Award for Best Memoir.

Her first book, When a Grandchild Dies: What to Do, What to Say, How to Cope, provided grief support to an underserved population.

When not working on her many writing projects, Nadine loves traveling, gardening, genealogy, and yoga. She lives in the beautiful Hudson Valley of New York state.


AMAZON | BARNES AND NOBLE | INDIEBOUND

Ginger Rogers’s less famous cousin

The Limits of Limelight by Margaret Porter

 Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Giveaway

During the Blog Tour, we are giving away some fabulous prizes!

Grand Prize Winner: Choice of an autographed paperback or an ebook or an audiobook, plus an acrylic 16-oz sippy “go” cup with straw.

2nd and 3rd Prize Winners: Choice of an autographed paperback or an ebook or an audiobook.

Runners-up (5): Reproduction vintage Ginger Rogers & Fred Astaire postcard, plus author-autographed bookplate.

The giveaway is open internationally and ends on October 6th. You must be 18 or older to enter.

From the publisher: Pretty Oklahoma teenager Helen Nichols accepts an invitation from her cousin, rising movie actress Ginger Rogers, and her Aunt Lela, to try her luck in motion pictures. Her relatives, convinced that her looks and personality will ensure success, provide her with a new name and help her land a contract with RKO. As Phyllis Fraser, she swiftly discovers that Depression-era Hollywood’s surface glamour and glitter obscure the ceaseless struggle of the hopeful starlet.

Lela Rogers, intensely devoted to her daughter and her niece, outwardly accepting of her stage mother label, is nonetheless determined to establish her reputation as screenwriter, stage director, and studio talent scout. For Phyllis, she’s an inspiring model of grit and persistence in an industry run by men.

While Ginger soars to the heights of stardom in musicals with Fred Astaire, Phyllis is tempted by a career more fulfilling than the one she was thrust into. Should she continue working in films, or devote herself to the profession she’s dreamed about since childhood? And which choice might lead her to the lasting love that seems so elusive?

Excerpt

“We’ve been studying our fellow passengers,” Ginger explained to her mother. “There’s one lady who wears a monocle and carries a tiny dog and speaks with a veddy, veddy affected accent. We’re convinced she’s pretending to be English.”

She plopped onto the narrow sofa that opened into a bed, clutching pen and paper, and crooked a finger. “Come here. I’ve got a present for you, but not one I can put in a ribbon-wrapped box. You’re getting a new name. To use professionally.”

Helen cast a questioning look at Lela.

“There’s nothing wrong with Helen Nichols,” her aunt declared. “It’s elegant and refi ned, and easy to pronounce. Four syllables, like Ginger Rogers.” With a smile for Helen, she added, “That nickname you gave her when you were a tot turned out to be perfect for show business. Spicy and strong, that’s my girl.”

With a twitch of her auburn head, Ginger opined, “Helen is pretty enough, but not unique or memorable. If she dislikes what I came up with, I’ll keep thinking.”

“What is it?” Helen wanted to know.

“Phyllis. Fraser—with an ‘s.” Ginger handed over the paper. “It has alliteration. You’re an English scholar, you know what that means. I think it suits you. We’ll try it out when I introduce you to people at RKO-Pathé. When you go home, you can be Helen again. Write it out. An actress has to practice her autograph.”

She followed instructions. Dissatisfied with the plain P and F, she tried a more graceful, fl owing version. “How’s this?”

“Perfect!” Ginger placed a beautifully manicured finger on the paper. “Write it again. And again. I want that whole sheet covered—front and back—before we get to Salt Lake City.” With a glance at her mother, she added, “We’re calling her Phyllis from now on, so she’ll get used to it.”

That night when she settled into her bunk, the new name echoed in her mind, keeping time with the steel wheels pounding the steel rails. 

Phyl-lis Fras-er. Phyl-lis Fras-er. Phyl-lis Fras-er.

About the Author

MARGARET PORTER is the author of more than a dozen works of historical fiction, including The Limits of Limelight (September 2021) and the award-winning Beautiful Invention: A Novel of Hedy Lamarr. Her critically acclaimed novels have been translated into several foreign languages. Other writing credits include nonfiction, newspaper and magazine articles, and poetry. She studied British history in the U.K. and afterwards worked professionally in theatre, film and television. Margaret and her husband live in New England with their dog, dividing their time between a book-filled house in a small city and a waterfront cottage located on one of the region’s largest lakes. When not writing, she keeps busy reading, tending her extensive rose gardens, or playing the mandolin.

More information is available on her website and blog. You can also connect with her on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and Goodreads.


AMAZON | APPLE IBOOKS | AUDIBLE | BARNES AND NOBLE | BLACKWELL’S | BOOK DEPOSITORY | BOOKSHOP.ORG | BOOKS-A-MILLION | CHAPTERS | HUDSON BOOKSELLERS | INDIEBOUND | KINDLE | KOBO