Review – A Burnable Book

A Burnable Book by Bruce HolsingerLondon, 1385, and a supposedly ancient book of poems prophesying the death of England’s newly crowned king, Richard II, is making the rounds. While the book, and its seditious poems, becomes the talk among English high society, John Gower, an English poet and bureaucrat, learns about the book from his friend Geoffrey Chaucer in a shadowy bar when the two meet to talk. Chaucer, in a spot of trouble and looking for help from Gower, asks his friend to find the book saying it will cause him grief if it falls into the wrong hands. Unfortunately, Chaucer fails to mention the most pertinent information, leaving Gower to find out it’s a “burnable book” — a treasonous work that can get one killed for having just seen it let alone asking around about its existence.

Gower knows London inside out with contacts everywhere and he’s not afraid to pay for the information he needs. Knowing little about the book he’s after puts him in the dark, a place he isn’t used to being. When he starts asking about the work, he runs into a wall but he keeps at it becoming increasingly curious, and worried, about what the book contains. What he finds are more questions — none of which can be safely answered.

While the book is discussed secretly in dark palace halls, in the London slums, it falls into the hands of several unknowing individuals who don’t understand how valuable the book is but they know that people will commit murder to get their hands on it. As information about the book makes an unruly circle back to Gower, he finds himself questioning his love for his family, his circle of influence, and why he’s even looking for the book. If Gower finds the book will it stop the death of King Richard II? Are the prophecies true or just rambling notes between lovers?

Holsinger is a first time novelist but he’s no stranger to writing or the medieval world in general. He’s a medieval scholar, and you can tell by the details. He doesn’t overwhelm the reader and does an excellent job bringing the London of 1385 to life. In a few instances, the descriptions are so real you wish you could unread them, especially when the story moves to the slums and the living conditions. Then again, it’s also what brings this story alive and makes it so good.

I have to talk about the characters because it’s an amazing array of individuals. Yes, Geoffrey Chaucer is in this book but he’s not the whole book and I like that he’s a minor character in some ways. John Gower on the other hand is a nice mix of courage, self-assurance, self-doubt, and loathing. I like that he questions himself, his life, and his family. This whole episode with the book changes everything for him and makes him question what he’s doing in London and the life he’s built. By far the most fascinating characters though — the women of the London slums. These women are some of the most interesting in the book, and certainly some of the most devious when it comes to hiding the book and finding it again. The descriptions of slum life take this book from being a nice bit of historical fiction to very accurate descriptions of historical life.

The best part of this book, apart from the characters, is the mystery itself. First, it’s a mystery about a book — what reader doesn’t love that! Second, thanks to the cast of characters, the book passes through so many hands that even the people who know the truth about the book don’t know what’s happening. In the interest of preserving the mystery, I’ll stop there but think tangled web and you have a great sketch of this book.

If I’d been asked to write a three word review of this book it would have read — read this book. And that’s my final conclusion — read this book.

A Burnable Book

By Bruce Holsinger

William Morrow

ISBN: 9780062240323

Review – Bellman & Black

Bellman & Black by Diane SetterfieldAs a child, William Bellman once took aim with his slingshot, and on a lucky shot, took down a rook. While the moment was just a blink in time, faded by the years, the rooks never forgot, even after William did.

Working his way through life, successful in almost all his business endeavors, he begins to let himself think he’s a lucky man. But William’s not. A chance meeting with a stranger changes his life forever and he enters the business of death with an unseen partner.

I’ll say this, Bellman & Black is an interesting book. There are some strange twists and sad moments (it’s not a happy book by any means) and it is, overall, a dark novel. I read it on the train on a snowy evening and it was the perfect companion on that ride. It could have easily been the worst book choice ever if I’d been traveling on a warm, sunny day though. It all depends on your mood for this one. I know that’s true for almost all books and most people but I feel it’s particularly true in this case.

Setterfield is a great writer. A dark and dreary and somewhat strange writer but ultimately, a strong writer who can evoke that sense of time and place complete with subtle drama. She gives you just enough to imagine her world before she twists it ever so slightly. However, there are times in this book where it began to feel a bit repetitious. Something about Bellman repeating figures and tasks over and over began feeling, well, like he should be doing something else and she didn’t know what that was.

This is supposed to be a ghost story but in reality, it’s a story about a haunted man. Is the book as strong as her first book, The Thirteenth Tale? No, but I think it’s an introspective story on the things that haunt us.

Bellman & Black

By Diane Setterfield

Atria

ISBN: 9781476711959

 

Thoughts on The Love Artist

The Love Artist by Jane AlisonThe Love Artist by Jane Alison was assigned for an online class I took in the fall of 2013 called Plagues, Witches, and War. The first few weeks of class were spent reading articles and chosen chapters so I was excited to get to the books that were going to be discussed as part of dialogue sessions with the authors. However, I was slightly apprehensive about this book. While I like antiquity, I don’t always like reading about antiquity. Something gets lost in translation for me and I somehow end up being disappointed, so I went in a bit skeptical about whether or not I would enjoy a story about the Roman poet, Ovid.

When I’m wrong, I’m wrong.

I fell in love with this story. It was a bit slow for me to get into. Obviously, I needed to let a few thoughts go before I was able to get lost in it. Once lost, I was sold — even about the magical realism that doesn’t always work but works so very well in the context of this story. I prefer when magical realism is subtle and rolled into believable traits and actions of the characters and that’s what happened.

Basic premise. Ovid, a Roman poet, travels to the Black Sea, and while there, he meets a woman. He becomes obsessed — almost possessed by his obsession — and feeling so inspired by her and their relationship that he brings her back to Rome with him. Xenia, a woman like no other, with no need or want to become a woman of Rome, practices her arts as if she never left her isolated island home. A witch? Maybe. A healer? Also. But what she is a mystery and she remains that way, especially to Ovid who in the thralls of his latest work, becomes even more entangled in a web he can’t get out of.

The Love Artist is not a fast moving story. As a reader, you spend a strange amount of time navigating Ovid’s ego which grows only larger with thoughts of immortality,  knowing he’ll be read far into a future he can’t imagine. The love part of the story isn’t love either. Is there admiration? Some. Is there manipulation? A whole lot, actually. There’s jealousy and raw emotion. Deceit. While the action is very little, it’s not what moves the story. The emotions of the characters push it forward to a conclusion.

One of the interesting things about this book being part of the class was having the opportunity to hear the author talk about the book and her inspiration. What seemed to interest her most was the fact that there is no record of why Ovid was banished from Rome by Augustus. She makes an attempt at filling in the details with this story and her interpretation as to why it might have happened. It’s an interesting thought for a story catalyst. I, personally, liked that she didn’t go so far as to fill in the blanks about why he was banished. I liked that sense of mystery surrounding the ending. It fit so well with the mystery that was Xenia, the mystery that was the future, and the mystery that was their life together.

So, final my thought is this: while I wasn’t initially sold on the story, I was sold by the end and the by the way Alison wove a mystery around a historical figure.

The Love Artist by Jane Alison

Picador

ISBN: 9781429962193

Review – Silent on the Moor

Silent on the MoorI started this series with book five, I think. It was a few years ago so I’m fuzzy on details but I remember enjoying it immensely even though I knew very little of the characters. Based on that one book, I decided the series was worth a look and started at the beginning, like one should when they read a series. This is book two in the Lady Julia Grey series following Silent in the Grave, and if you happen to like your historical fiction tied up with a bit of romance, try these books.

Lady Julia Grey, once more far away from Nicholas Brisbane, takes off with her sister to his home in the country to get re-acquainted, and more. Things of course, aren’t what they seem at Brisbane’s Yorkshire home, Grimsgrave. The estate, old and moldy, is falling down and the once proud family that used to own it is more than strange. Julia, after snooping around, manages to get herself involved in a family mystery and let’s face it, sometimes things are better left unsaid. From there, everything goes downhill.

Can I just tell you how much I like Brisbane? He’s moody, slightly unpredictable, and well, hot and lovable. Yes, there’s a reason Julia becomes all unladylike in his presence. I don’t usually go for these sorts of things in books but I think I found my guilty pleasure and I don’t care. I want to read more of these and I will. Bring on book three, library!

Silent on the Moor

By Deanna Raybourn

Mira

ISBN: 9780778326144

Review – Circle of Shadows: A Westerman/Crowther Mystery

Circle of ShadowsLately, everything I want to read is a series and a suspense filled historical mystery at that. I want that back story, the intimacy between characters, rich historical details, and a strange murder to be solved of course. Luckily for me, I found all those characteristics in Robertson’s Circle of Shadows.

Harriet Westerman is home at Caveley with her family attempting to forget the sorrowful events of the past few months. Hurtful rumors have plagued Harriet and she’s done her best to pretend none of it has bothered her but it has. All she wants now is quiet but when a letter arrives from her sister, Rachel, the quiet home life Harriet longed for evaporates. Rachel’s husband, Daniel Clode, has been accused of murder and Rachel needs her help. Harriet calls for her close friend, Gabriel Crowther, who is just as bothered and dismayed by the news as Harriet. Crowther, a reclusive anatomist and Harriet’s partner in several investigations, accompanies her to Germany and the Duchy of Maulberg, a strange little court that prides itself on its opulence but is a place they will need every observance of etiquette to remain safe.

While traveling to Germany, Harriet and Crowther look over the facts of the case and find it all too strange to believe. Daniel had been found with the body of Lady Martesen, a favorite of the Duke of Maulberg, completely incoherent and bleeding from a cut on his wrist. The theory of the local district investigator is that Daniel felt remorse after killing Lady Martesen and tried to take his own life. A theory Harriet and Crowther adamantly don’t believe. Daniel remembers nothing of the evening; especially not the murder or how he even came to be in the room with the dead woman. Crowther, a man all too familiar with the details of murder from his anatomy work, knows that the woman wasn’t killed by Daniel because she was in fact drowned — a pronouncement that throws the entire investigation into upheaval on their arrival.

After their arrival in Maulberg, Harriet and Crowther, and their traveling companions, are quickly schooled in the court etiquette which is rather more complex than what they’re used to in England. It will take every bit of decorum not to be thrown in jail with Daniel in the eccentric court where asking questions seems to be a nonstarter.

Making the case even more dangerous is the appearance of a man Harriet hoped never to see again alive — Manzerotti — the man who ordered the death of her beloved husband. Manzerotti is a spy caught up in the same case as Harriet and Crowther although no one but Manzerotti knows the details and he isn’t sharing.

The dynamic between Harriet and Crowther is what makes this series for me. Harriet is an outspoken woman who has no trouble saying what’s on her mind and acting on impulse — an unusual trait for a woman of the 18th Century. Crowther, on the other hand, would prefer to be alone with a corpse shunning pretty much everyone but Harriet. Their relationship is odd but makes the cases they get involved in so much more interesting for their personalities. The appearance of Manzerotti shakes Harriet’s rather stable emotions in this case, and while Crowther isn’t the most effusive of men, he is when it comes to protecting and helping Harriet, or at least keeping weapons out of her sight when Manzerotti enters a room.

I’ve read previous books in the Westerman/Crowther series and if you have as well, you’ll be happy to know this one lives up to the others. While the setting is interesting, it’s also slightly creepy, the way a murder setting should be. If you’re a fan of Robertson and the Westerman/Crowther series, this one is a good addition and one to be read.

In addition to this blog, I also do reviews for The Book Reporter website. The above review was done for the Book Reporter which can be found here. The book was provided to me by the publisher.

Circle of Shadows: A Westerman/Crowther Mystery

By Imogen Robertson

Pamela Dorman Books/Viking

ISBN: 9780670026289

Review – Lords of the North

Lords of the NorthThis is the third book in the Saxon Stories series following The Last Kingdom and The Pale Horseman. I’ll try to avoid spoilers but you know the drill.

Uhtred helped Alfred win his last war against the Danes, but now, Uhtred is bored and tired of Alfred and his priests. Feeling unappreciated — Alfred rewarded him for his war efforts but minimally at best — Uhtred buries his hoard and leaves for the north with plans to capture Dunholm, a northern stronghold. After he inadvertently frees slaves, he also frees the region’s king, Guthred, and he now the men he needs to help him win Dunholm. Except, the gods are no longer smiling on Uhtred and his life, which had been running relatively smoothly, once more takes a strange turn when Guthred sells him into slavery. In an odd twist of fate, his only ally in the north, Hild, a former nun, convinces Guthred she must return to Alfred in Wessex and her nunnery. Upon returning to Alfred, she becomes Uhtred’s only hope for rescue.

Uhtred is a bastard in many ways, except when he’s not, and that can be a lot of the time. He’s a lord in his own right, except he has no land and the land that is his is being ruled by his uncle who usurped Uhtred’s father. Uhtred wants his land back and going north is his way of signaling to Alfred that he’s done with the war. Alfred isn’t ready for that to happen yet, and while he won’t admit it, he needs Uhtred more than Uhtred needs him. While Uhtred might be unreliable, when he makes an oath he won’t break it and Alfred keeps using that one very loyal part of Uhtred. Uhtred knows it but keeps letting it happen because he knows it’s the only way. To be fair though, Uhtred keeps using the oaths to his advantage as well so it’s fair play on both sides.

This is the third book in the Saxon Tales and I have a huge lag between books. Not because I wasn’t enjoying the series, I have been, but I forgot about the series until my last visit to the library when I decided to pick them up again. Cornwell is a favorite when I need some historical fiction, even though he can be a bit on the brutal, bloody side. Then again, he is writing about a very brutal time in history so it all fits. Besides, I like Uhtred. He’s surprising in that he’s extremely loyal, can be a very good guy when he wants to, which happens more often than he cares to think about, and he’s a bit of a softie, especially when it comes to the ladies. I swear, this man is always falling in love. It never gets mushy though which is what I like.

Here’s to the fourth book — Sword Song.

Lords of the North

By Bernard Cornwell

HarperCollins Publishers

ISBN: 9780060888626

 

Review – The Black Country

The Black CountryA small English village sustained by coal mining and strange superstitions is slowing sinking into the mines that crisscross under the village. It’s a rather bleak place. When a child and his parents go missing, the local constable, knowing his limitations and resources, asks Scotland Yard to help. He wants to uncover what happened to the family and figure out if the eyeball found by a young girl in a bird’s nest belongs to one of the missing.

When Inspector Day and Sergeant Hammersmith arrive from Scotland Yard, they are stunned by what they find and it’s not just the eyeball that has them confused — no one in the village will talk about the family or anything else for that matter and there’s a strange sickness taking over the place. Some are willing to blame it on superstition and others seem happy to pretend everything is normal. Day wants answers but meets a solid wall of silence in the form of Blackhampton’s residents. Hammersmith has the same luck when questioning people and unfortunately seems to be coming down with the same strange illness afflicting almost half the village. Calvin Campbell, a visitor to Blackhampton that no one knows, but oddly everyone seems to trust, becomes a focal point for Day’s investigation but he can’t pinpoint any connection and Campbell, like the rest of the residents, won’t talk.

The Black Country is Grecian’s follow-up to The Yard, the first book in the Scotland Murder Squad series. Even though this is the second book in a series, it stands on its own just fine. Grecian creates an eerie atmosphere from start to finish, and I have to say, and without giving anything away, the killer here is creepy and unexpected. I didn’t want to believe it but there it was fitting in perfectly with the dark overtones of the book. In fact, I like when that happens and I find myself surprised. Grecian didn’t let his characters off easy and as a reader I appreciate that.

The village of Blackhampton is the perfect setting — far away but not completely uncivilized yet cocooned enough to hold tight to old superstitions. The coldness of the people is much like the weather and the aloof way they deal with the disappearance of a well-known family is telling. Even the offhand way they think of the mines and the fact that the village is slowly sinking into the very thing that sustains the place and is slowly killing its residents tells you what sort of place it is. Day and Hammersmith aren’t prepared for the living in this place and yet it’s the dead that brought them there. Something is very wrong with not only the place but the people.

Then there are the secrets. Everyone in Blackhampton has something to hide be it an affair, a past, or a murder. People go missing in Blackhampton and there’s always a reason given and a reason accepted by the residents. It’s interesting to see how the village manages to block out change and progress yet holds dearly to old beliefs that no longer hold any ground.

Grecian’s first book made my to be read list when it came out. I didn’t get to it but jumped at the chance to read his second. I’m glad I did because it’s a satisfying read and I plan to go back and follow-up on the first book. It defiantly deserves a look. If you enjoy dark mysteries, The Black Country is worth a read.

 In addition to this blog, I also do reviews for The Book Reporter website. The above review was done for the Book Reporter which can be found here. The book was provided to me by the publisher.

The Black Country

Alex Grecian

G.P. Putnam’s Sons

ISBN: 9780399159336