The Moor by L.J. Ross

I am so enjoying this series by L.J. Ross, featuring the dashing and dishy DCI Ryan (reminiscent of Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley), his historian wife, sergeant Phillips and his partner, DI, Denise and their attempts to bring crime in Northumberland under control. It’s light, easy reading but without sacrificing good writing or steady plotting. Add to that the burgeoning attraction between Constables Lowerson and Yates and in this novel, a cold case which brings a circus and a young, cheeky waif into the gang’s sphere, and the stage – or Big Top – is set.

When 10-year-old Samantha O’Neill turns up on DCI Ryan’s doorstep one Sunday afternoon, claiming she’s had a returned memory of her mother being murdered, Ryan and his people take her very, very seriously. When they find a cold case and an unidentified body matching the description Samantha has given them, they pull out all stops to help the child they’re fast developing great affection for. But someone else is aware that Sam’s repressed memory has returned and though she’s being kept in a safe house, they’re searching for her, intending that her memories of that fateful afternoon will never completely return.

In many ways, this book (number 11 in the series) while a terrific addition to a fabulous series, felt like it’s main purpose was to introduce a new character to the regular cast and a potentially darker plotline that brings danger close to home – not that there’s anything wrong with that! Both were very well done and, certainly, the new character promises to be equal parts enchanting and frustrating while the other, more sinister storyline is sure to set hearts racing. My only concern there is why did have to be THAT character – especially when so much has already happened and the circumstances that made the threat a reality were brought about because of a rash (stupid) decision.

Still, I look forward to seeing where these storylines go and where Ryan and co will head next as well. I have grown very, very fond of these characters and this wonderful series.

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What the Wind Knows by Amy Harmon

Recommended to me by a dear friend, this time-slip novel about a young, grieving American woman, who journey’s to Ireland with her grandfather’s ashes only to find herself transported back into his history, is hauntingly lovely.

The book starts in 2001, when Anne Gallagher, despondent and lost over the death of her beloved grandfather, Eoin, fulfils his final wishes by taking his ashes back to his home country to spread them over the lake he loved.

Heart-sore, lonely, yet enchanted by this country she’d only ever known and loved through her grandfather’s stories, Anne is both mesmerised and lost. Knowing she is named after and resembles her grandfather’s mother strongly, she seeks solace in the few mementoes she has of her grandfather’s life, including a detailed journal written by the man who was like a father to her own grandfather, a doctor named Thomas Smith. Fittingly, while absorbed in the past and drifting through the present, Anne is wrenched back in time to 1921 and the height of the troubles in Ireland, when Michael Collins and those who believed in the future he saw are fighting for Irish independence – including Eoin’s father figure, Dr Thomas Smith.

These are dangerous times and moreso because there are those who would see Anne Gallagher  – the past one and the modern one – dead. Over the next few months, as tensions increase and Ireland draws closer to war – civil and with Britain, Anne finds comfort in the new life and loves she is forging, a healing and simultaneous remembering and forgetting that is both painful and joyous. But Anne knows she is living on borrowed time. As a child of the future, does she have a right to this past or is it one she’s lived before? Or will any chance of learning the truth be taken from her?

This is an exquisite story that is so easy to lose yourself in, even at its bleakest moments. Like so much good historical fiction, you also learn while reading it. Having an Irish grandfather who fled Ireland at this time (while being fired upon) it was easy to have sympathy with the causes being espoused. The conflict was bitter, confusing and caused so much heartache and bloodshed. All of this, and the inner turmoil it created, the families and friendships it tore apart, is beautifully explored. The reader sees the “troubles” through Anne’s eyes, someone familiar with the written history but swiftly learning that living it, with all its inherent danger, immediacy and pain, is altogether very different.

The love-story woven through it – or rather, love stories – there are a few and all with Anne at the centre – are really moving and relatable. So are the countryside and its warm, stoic and superstitious people.

A fabulous read that kept me awake until the wee hours so I could finish it and then beyond that while I wept a storm. A good one.  

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Pilgrimages: The Great Adventure of the Middle Ages by John Ure

For anyone interested in why and how so many kings, nobles, adventurers, religious people and laypeople left the relative safety of home and hearth to go trooping across countryside and continents on pilgrimages to various shrines throughout the Middle Ages, then this is a book you will thoroughly enjoy.

Taking each of the major shrines/destinations – from Santiago de Compostela, to Jerusalem, Walsingham, Canterbury, Lindisfarne and Cologne etc. – as well as some famous pilgrims (John of Gaunt, Canon Casola, the weeping and wailing Margery Kemp, the plagiariser, Sir John Mandeville and a few others), John Ure captures the essence of pilgrims and their journey, immersing readers in historic time and place.

Creating a context for each place and individual, Ure explores the nature of a particular site and what drew followers there. Explaining the type of pilgrims who ventures forth – the penitent, the militant, the tourist (though that word didn’t exist then, of course!) and even the secular, he describes the landscape and culture through which they would have travelled and the ways in which spiritual expectations might have been met or confounded. Ure also doesn’t hesitate to describe the less pleasant aspects and dangers of pilgrimages in the Middle Ages – everything from bandits and cutthroats, to conmen and women ready to rip foreigners off, to racism, sexism, and the dangers of losing baggage, succumbing to sea-sickness, disease and even death. The trade in relics and how and why these were so important to these sites is also dealt with. He also discusses the religiously-led pilgrimages from the Crusades, to the horrific Albigensian Crusade (when thousands of Cathars were brutally killed), to the so-called Pilgrimage of Grace in England.

I particular enjoyed his chapter on Margery Kempe, a figure I knew well from other reading. I can only imagine what a chore it would have been having her company on a pilgrimage and the lengths some of her fellow travellers went to in order to rid themselves of her is humorous but also understandable. As for those souls who succoured and protected her, I can only hope they earned extra pardons for their forbearance! But what an amazing character she was.

Each chapter offers the reader a new place and person and thus additional insights into these medieval journeys. The writing is fresh and vivid and the examples so well drawn.

The final chapter is dedicated to Ure’s own pilgrimages – not so much spiritual (though he acknowledges one cannot help but be affected by these locales and the history contained therein), but certainly physical as he visits all the holy sites mentioned in the book. I was deeply affected by the last story he tells when he visits the Monastery of St George in Syria. A fitting conclusion to a marvellous and really interesting book.

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Company of Liars by Karen Maitland

Pestilence is sweeping England, having arrived on its shores from Europe and sparing few. Camelot, a scarred and old medieval pedlar of relics, is doing a reasonable trade as the superstitious and religious seek any talisman they can to ward off fear and sickness. Against his better judgement, Camelot finds himself in the company of a group of strangers, all brought together through circumstance and forced to travel across England, doing everything in their power to avoid not only the judgment of the plague, but the deadly force that appears to be following them.

Told from Camelot’s point of view, this tale, set during 1348, is gripping. Over a period of months and across the desolate and literally dying English landscape and villages, we’re introduced to a disparate group of people – from Zophiel, the sharp-tongued and angry magician and his curmudgeonly horse, to Cygnus, the one-armed story-teller, a pregnant woman and her painter husband, a pair of talented Italian musicians, a troubled midwife, and the silver-haired Narigorm whose reading of the runes and strange prophecies fill them all with foreboding. As the reader gets to know each character and the dreadful secrets each person carries, we’re also plunged into the terrible realities of pestilence-torn England and the impact all the deaths and the superstitions they arouse have on society. The historical details are masterfully woven through the tale; the belief systems – both Christian and pagan – are juxtaposed and their power to influence behaviour – good and bad – are sharply and terribly drawn.

This was a marvellous book, beautifully written which draws you into this strangely claustrophobic world where friends are strangers, strangers potentially deadly and lies are safer than the truth… or are they?

For lovers of terrific books, mysteries and well-written and researched history. Sensational.

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The King’s Concubine by Anne O’Brien

In this novel, Anne O’Brien undertakes a difficult task – resurrecting one of the most notorious women in British royal history – King Edward III’s mistress, Alice Perrers. She not only gives her a voice, but emotional depth, purpose and places her within the context of both the judgemental court and period. The result is, frankly, stunning.

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Not much is known about Alice Perrers, a woman whose humble origins remain shrouded in mystery and yet who nevertheless rose to become one of the most powerful and influential women in the court of King Edward III. Freely called avaricious, “ugly”, a “whore” and a variety of other unflattering names, there’s no doubt that Alice used her position as the king’s concubine to her advantage but, as Warner has made clear in this fictitious account of her life, what other options did she have?

Literate and clearly an astute business woman, Alice becomes a damsel to Edward’s wife, Queen Philippa, by all accounts, a woman beloved by the people, court and, above all, the king. History tells us that even though the king adored his wife, he took Alice as his mistress. Warner seeks to explain the rationale for this in an original and believable fashion.

As Alice’s star rises, she also attracts a great deal of jealousy and resentment. She is a commoner and, worse, she (because, of course, it’s always the woman’s fault) is making a fool of the queen by seducing the king. Aware her status is subject to change with no notice, Alice accumulates property as well as tokens of the king’s affection earning her even more enmity from within the ranks of the nobles – male and female. While the king lives (and, indeed, the queen), she is protected but, as the years pass and, firstly, Philippa dies and the king’s frailty increases and his mortality becomes ever more evident, it’s clear that Alice has to look to her future and that of the four children she bears the king.

Without spoiling it for those who don’t know the little history there is, what Alice does to protect herself and her children is dangerous and the consequences should she get caught, dire. Warner joins the existing dots the contemporary chronicles give us, telling the tale from Alice’s point of view.

Not always likeable, the reader nonetheless grows to understand this pragmatic, strong woman and you cannot help but admire even her poor choices as Alice herself is the first to chide herself for bad decisions and seeks to own them and set them to rights. I found myself championing this thoroughly maligned woman and so appreciate Warner’s take on her story and the unfair epitaphs this resilient, honest and hard-working woman earned.

As I was reading, I couldn’t help but liken her to another strong woman of the time – albeit a fictitious one – Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath – also an astute business woman who uses the means available to her – not only marriage and sex, but within those, her other formidable talents, to create a comfortable existence. It was no surprise then to read in Warner’s very brief notes that some historians (I admit, I haven’t found one yet) believe Chaucer’s portrait of the wife was loosely based on Alice. I like to think the feisty wife was an amalgam of a few women of the time, but there’s no doubt, Alice would have been tempting to immortalise in poetry the way history and then men who recorded it denied her anything but a toxic place.

Altogether, this was a fabulous book that allowed a defamed woman, denied her voice and rights in history, a chance to shine – not always in a positive light, but with understanding, compassion, toughness and an awareness of the limitations the times she lived in created. It also points to the fact that though women of the era were largely marginalised and oppressed, there were still those who challenged, overturned and even worked within the patriarchal structures and were thus able to advance, survive and even thrive. I’m thinking specifically here of John of Gaunt’s mistress, Katheryn Swynford – but there are many others just in that period (Margery Kemp, Julian Norwich etc) as well as Alice Perrers – and it’s wonderful to read Herstory as much as it is History.

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