Review: The Scribe of Siena, Melodie Winawer

Neurosurgeon Beatrice Trovato books a flight to visit her historian older brother Ben, who raised her after the death of their mother, in Melodie Winawer’s debut novel The Scribe of Siena. Ben dies suddenly of a heart ailment before her flight, but she decides to go anyway, this time to settle Ben’s estate. He had seemed so happy in Siena; he had finally found his home. Ben’s studies involved medieval Siena during the Plague (1347-1348). He had apparently uncovered some interesting information and was preparing to publish it before his death. Beatrice feels compelled to take on his work and protect it from rival scholars. As she takes up Ben’s research, she finds herself entranced by the story of fresco artist Gabriele Accorsi. She has Accorsi’s journal from the 1340’s, and as she studies one of his frescoes, she is stunned to find her own likeness in the corner. Before she knows what is happening, she is swept into the past, to Siena in the summer of 1347… right before the Plague is about to devastate Siena. Beatrice must figure out how to avoid catching the deadly disease and return home safely, but she finds herself even more entranced by the real Gabriele Accorsi than she was by his journal, and she establishes ties in medieval Siena as she becomes a scribe in the Ospedale, today a museum called the Santa Maria della Scala.

A few of the details and mechanics involved with time travel might bother some readers (admittedly me among them), but this was a pretty good read. For one thing, Winawer is a doctor herself, and the descriptions of Beatrice’s surgeries and medical knowledge rang true. Often when I read time-travel novels, the past is romanticized to such a degree that the parts when the protagonist is in the present are irksome (Diana Gabaldon is pretty guilty of this), but I found Beatrice’s present as interesting as the past she travels to. In fact, maybe a little bit more (but not by much). Winawer argues in her book that one reason Siena has maintained its distinctive “medieval” character is that its evolution was stunted by serious losses to the Plague. Siena may have lost up to half its population, more than other comparable cities in Tuscany. Winawer comes up with an appropriately sinister explanation for why, too. If the mechanism for time travel is a little fuzzy, at least the historical details are mostly accurate (admittedly, I found one big historical error that really bothered me), and the story moves along at a nice clip. Ben’s discovery, which Beatrice must uncover, makes for a page-turning mystery. The characters are well-drawn, though one in particular is quite a lot more credulous than seems logical, and in general they feel like real people (with the possible exception of a few caricatures, and you’ll know them when you see them). A Library Journal review touted on the book’s cover proclaims that “Readers of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander and Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring will be swept away by the spell of medieval Siena.” I can’t disagree with that assessment. In many ways, the setting of this book was as much a presence as the people that inhabit it, and I just love it when books have settings with strong character.

I received this book as part of my Cozy Reader box subscription. I’m not sure it would have been on my radar this soon (and perhaps not at all), if not for that subscription.

[rating:4/5]

 

My First Cozy Reader Box!

September Cozy Reader Box

I received my first Cozy Reader Box in the mail this week. My husband is a little worried about the boxes, but I promise there aren’t any more, my dear! I really loved this box. Take a peek inside.

Gayle Forman's Leave Me

First up, a hardcover of Gayle Forman’s Leave Me. I have read both If I Stay and Where She Went, Forman’s YA books, and loved them. This is her first novel for adults.

Bracelet

I loved this bracelet from Lily Brooke Vintage. I usually can’t wear bracelets because my wrists are small, and unless I get them sized especially for me or they are adjustable, they just slip off. This bracelet, however, fits just fine. It jingles pleasantly when I wear it, too. I love it.

Cookies

Some yummy-looking gourmet cookies from Lark. I have never seen these before. Coconut Butter and Salted Caramel Almond Chocolate Pearl. They look delicious!

Coffee

A package of whole coffee beans from Big Island Coffee Roasters. I am not the most savvy coffee drinker, but I hear that Hawaiian coffee is supposed to be very good. We tried some for breakfast this morning, and it’s delicious. I cut the flavor out when I took the picture, but it’s Maui Mokka with notes of “chocolate, brown sugar, and the aroma of baking cookies.” Mmm!

They also sent along a coffee lip balm.

Lip Balm

Finally, a therapeutic hot/cold corn bag from the Jack’s Meow.

Therepeutic Corn Bag

I had something like this before that I bought from a craft show, and it was great. You can use it warm—just heat it up in the microwave and put it on whatever spot is sore. You can also use this one cold. Put it in a freezer bag and let it get nice and cold in the freezer.

In addition, most of these folks included discount codes good in their stories for future purchases. The box includes a handy card detailing the contents, including retail price for each. It could be argued that some of the items might be purchased for less than retail (certainly the book could be). Still, the items add up to about $20 more than I paid for the box, and I doubt I would have been able to do better than that, even if I wasn’t paying retail. I liked everything in this box, especially that bracelet. The box is perfectly named, too—just the sort of cozy comforts a book nerd would want, but not necessarily the things you’d think to get for yourself. Love it!