Mistress of the Art of Death, by Ariana Franklin

It’s 1171, Cambridge, England. Children are disappearing, and the townsfolk blame the Jews. To prevent a wholesale slaughter, the sheriff has moved every Jew in the area to his castle for their protection. But the locals are angry, and it’s only a matter of time before they act. Meanwhile, the children are turning up–dead. Tempers flare, and the populace is howling for justice, retribution, blood.

Enter Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar. Sent by the king of Sicily, she’s a Salerno-taught physician who specializes in postmortem studies–she’s a doctor to the dead. She, her companion Mansur, and the Sicilian king’s fixer Simon are tasked with solving the murders and restoring peace to the Cambridge fens.

But England is not Salerno–anti-Semitism runs rampant, doctors are mostly quack-medicine peddlers frowned upon by the all-powerful Church (suffering is sent from God, they reason, so only God can relieve it. Looking elsewhere for a cure suggests a lack of faith–or worse), and women doctors are even worse: at best ostracized, more likely to be branded witches and dealt with accordingly.

Adelia and her companions have to tread carefully–let no one know what she really is, or why they’re really there. But she finds a few unlikely allies along the way–and one incredibly likely suspect, a tax collector named Rowley Picot. As her suspicions mount and tensions rise, can she find the killer before they strike again, before the villagers storm the castle, before the Church brands her a witch and a heretic?

This book is wonderful; I love it. It’s a great mystery with an equally great protagonist, set in a much under-used era. This history is pretty accurate, which (for the most part) adds a wonderful aspect to the story. It’s accuracy, however, can make some parts uncomfortable, especially because at that time in history anti-Semitism was everywhere and it’s upsetting to read about how acceptable and prevalent it was, even in England where they weren’t actively persecuted.

But I do highly, highly encourage you to read this book: for the history, for the place, and to discover just why Adelia merits the title of Mistress of the Art of Death.

Favorite Line:

And however vile the creature it was laid for, a trap was always a trap.

Don’t read if:  you take issue with determined career women, 12th century England, Crusaders, relics, or incredibly smelly dogs.

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Stiff, by Mary Roach

(Note: In a bit of a departure from the norm, today we’re looking at nonfiction.)

Ever wondered what happens when you die? Well, this book has all the answers (Oh, except for life-after-death type stuff. No idea what happens there.). This book is all about what happens to a body when its owner has shuffled off this mortal coil, no matter what they choose to have done to the empty husks they leave behind.

The primary focus of Stiff is cadaver research–in other words, what happens to bodies when they get donated to science. And let me tell you, it’s absolutely fascinating. It’s also (rather surprisingly, considering the subject matter) not even remotely ghoulish, morbid, or distasteful.

It’s a fairly good, detailed overview of what, exactly, will happen to a donated cadaver. Science depends so much on cadaver research. Medical students need hands-on training in anatomy; entomologists need to know insect life-cycle timelines to help in criminal investigations; researchers need to be able to test vehicle safety and land mine protection gear. Without cadaver donations, there’d be no airbags, no body farm, and surgery would be done by people who have no idea of what the inside of a human body actually looks like.

But it isn’t only about the research. Organ donation is discussed. It also covers the history of embalming and the desire to slow–or even stop–decay. The book also explores other options, from cremation and interment to less common practices, and what those processes actually mean.

Somehow Mary Roach has found a way to take a significant societal taboo and turn it into an informative, irreverent, and highly entertaining read. She makes the lives of the dead both touching and funny; never once crossing the line into disrespect or crudeness.

So if you’ve ever thought about donating your body to science or wondered what it involved, or debated the merits of cremation vs. burial, read Stiff. It just might change your view of death.

Favorite Line:

And that if there’s any danger, which I like to think there isn’t, we’re all doomed, so relax and have another Snickers.

Don’t read if: you hate bodies, researchers, gelatin, or spoilers.