A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger

This was an intricately plotted, historically accurate medieval mystery, full of intrigue, tragedy and rich characters. When a book of prophecies that foretells the death of the last twelve English kings and the current one, Richard II, is rumoured to be circulating in London, there are many ruthless folk out to retrieve it and for different reasons. Enter, stage right, one John Gower, who discovers the book is in the hands of those who don’t understand what it is they have or how dangerous it is – not just to king and country, but them. Tracking the book and the current holders proves more difficult than Gower could have foreseen, especially when other copies of the original start to manifest and Gower learns that not only is his best friend, poet, diplomat and customs official, Geoffrey Chaucer, somehow embroiled in what’s going on, but possibly his estranged son as well. Determined to save the king and, if he can, those he cares about as well, Gower risks life and limb, journeying from the pungent and grimy streets of London, the stews of Southwark, the halls of Westminster and the hallowed cloisters of Oxford to get to the bottom of what’s swiftly becoming a deadly game – a deadly game of death. Further afield, there are those plotting revenge and the presence of the book has just made the possibility they might finally get to serve it more desirable than ever. Filled with minute detail of the era, from fashions, political machinations and plots, real people of the period (rulers, politicians, poets, maudlyns, diplomats, mercenaries etc), I confess I first struggled with this novel as the desire to be authentic almost overwhelmed the story – a story that, I should add, presents London and, indeed England at that time as...

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Chaucer’s People: Everyday Lives in Medieval England by Liza Picard

If anyone knows how to breathe life into the past, to imbue the people, landscape, cities, trades and the nobility who rule over all of them with colour, drama and adventure, it’s Liza Picard. Her latest book, Chaucer’s People is no exception as she takes as her frame narrative the characters Geoffrey Chaucer introduces in his Canterbury Tales and frees them from the confines of his wondrous prose to teach us about the Middle Ages. Rather than explicating the uncompleted poem with its pilgrims and the tales they tell to help the trip from Tabard Inn Southwark to Canterbury Cathedral pass more pleasantly, Picard examines not just the individuals as Chaucer describes them, but the trades and roles of each of the pilgrims, setting them in a broader social and historical context. The book is divided into expansive parts, such as Country Life, City Life, The Armed Services etc. before chapters are given to the well-known pilgrims. Yet, this book isn’t about analysing the characters as Chaucer defines them or their tales reveal. Starting with Chaucer’s physical and sometimes psychological descriptions, she then delves into the characteristics of the pilgrims’ roles, trades or professions; how and where they fit into the broader medieval landscape and beyond. So, for example, she deals with the religious figures by outlining just how their various orders were established, when and where, the specific role say a friar, prioress, abbot or parson might play (eg she unpacks the Pardoner as someone who travelled to Rome to purchase indulgences for sins from the Pope then returned to England to sell them at an elevated cost (along with fake holy relics), thus profiting from people’s desire to seek penance for their spiritual offences. Picard makes it clear – as does Chaucer – that Pardoners and their...

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Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

Here are two reviews of historian and fiction writer, Ian Mortimer’s wonderful book written six years apart. I first read this book in 2013 – not once, but twice, when researching my medieval novel, The Brewer’s Tale. I loved it then and enjoyed it even more now as I commence research for my next fictional foray into medieval England and Europe with my new novel, tentatively entitled The Mostly True Story of the Wife of Bath. So expect a great many works of non-fiction about these times and fiction set in this period as well to be reviewed over the next few months! Original review written in 2013: Historian Ian Mortimer does something really interesting with this book: he sets out to recreate the period (the Fourteenth Century) as if he were writing a travel book for tourists as opposed to researching and explaining a forgotten time. In other words, he places the reader in the moment, advising you where to go, what to see, how to behave, speak, dress and what to expect should you happen to have the good fortune to be transported back to not-so-merry old England in the 1300s.  After my second reading of this book in less than a year, I wish I had access to Dr Who’s Tardis because, with Mortimer’s well-thumbed book under my arm, I would head straight for Exeter, where the book opens, prepared for the ordure of the aptly named, Shitbrook, the breath-taking sight of the cathedral, avert my eyes from the remains of criminals clinging to the gallows, and be careful not to stare at the bright and strange clothes the people are wearing, while tripping along the cobbles, one hand firmly on my money so a cut-purse does not take it.  Like many contemporary historians, Mortimer believes...

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Veil of Lies by Jeri Westerson

Veil of Lies is a medieval “whodunnit” that pits the wits of a disgraced knight against the equivalent of “the mob” as well as an elusive killer. The disgraced knight is one Crispin Guest, formerly of the House of Lancaster, but now of the less than salubrious streets of London. Known as “The Tracker”, against his better judgement, accepts a commission from a wealthy merchant who believes his wife is being unfaithful. Required to follow the man’s wife, what Crispin discovers confirms his employer’s concerns. When the merchant is found dead shortly after, suspicion falls on the lovely wife. But Crispin is not convinced by her guilt. When Crispin learns that the merchant was also in possession of a valuable holy relic, a veil believed to bear the impression of Christ’s face and which forces anyone in its vicinity to speak the truth, he understands there are darker forces at work. This is relic is something that other parties are willing to kill to possess. Suddenly, a great deal more than a wife’s honour and a man’s life is at stake. There’s no doubt Westerson brings the seamier side and brutality of this era London to vivid life in this tale of secrets, murder, and deception. The plot ticks along at a steady pace and with enough twists and turns to keep the reader guessing. As a hero, Crispin is somewhat wanting (which I also liked) as he struggles with his loss of status and the people he’s not only forced to reckon with daily, but how he’s perceived and treated by others as well. Crispin is an unapologetic snob who manages to seriously offend and thus offside those whose help and trust he needs, let alone those he likes. In that respect, the novel exposes the class system...

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Dead Memories Kim Stone #10 by Angela Marsons

At first I wasn’t sure what to make of this latest book in a marvellous series. Dead Memories starts with the discovery of two teenagers chained to a radiator in a block of flats, one of whom dies.  Regular readers of the series and those closest to Di Kim Stone know this is a recreation of a scene from her own traumatic childhood. Unwilling to believe someone is out to destroy her psychologically by making her relive past pain and unearth repressed memories, Kim initially refuses to counter this crime is about her. But when more murders that uncannily echo other scenes from her terrible upbringing occur, Kim is forced to acknowledge that someone is not only out to get her, but break her in the cruelest possible way. The question then becomes can she and her team discover who that might be before they succeed?  I love this series. Stone is a canny, tough cop who is also smart and rarely makes a wrong move. The writing is tight and the plots generally plausible. When I first began reading this installment, however, I found it hard to suspend my disbelief based on previous knowledge of the main character. Why would Stone be so vehement in denying what everyone around her knew to be fact: that this was a copycat crime designed to inflict deep psychological pain on her? I found her denial, her refusal to include members of her trusted team, who’ve done nothing but blindly and loyally follow her, frustrating to say the least. Fortunately, at some point in the novel, some of the more far-fetched elements (eg. interviewing anyone who might ‘hate’ her – it was very “high school” but I am not sure how else it could have been achieved) and Stone’s stubbornness receded into...

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Scrublands by Chris Hammer

Scrublands is a tightly plotted, brutal book that focuses on the aftermath of a mass murder in a small Riverina town near the NSW/Victorian border.  When burnt-out journalist, Martin Scarsden, arrives in Riversend to write about the tragedy that brought an already struggling town to its knees, little does he suspect that his ethics and what remains of his personal integrity will be compromised. Finding a place still reeling from the multiple deaths as well as the loss of the man who committed the murders, he tries to befriend locals with varying degrees of success. After all, these are people who have been hurt by media attention, used as fodder for sales, entertainment and ratings as opposed to understanding, and are naturally suspicious of Martin and his intentions.  But when Martin becomes more involved than he ever suspected he could and his career and that of his closest associates is put on the line in an effort to uncover the truth, Martin knows that he has to get the bottom of not only why a priest turned a gun on locals, but the other mysteries that are plaguing the area – no matter what the personal cost might be. This is a taut, terrific thriller that had me turning the pages well into the night. The descriptions of the town, the landscape with its bleak skies, unrelenting heat and the tangled scrublands and what they conceal, as well as the peculiar inhabitants with their various peccadilloes, was mesmerizing. You could feel the hot air burning lungs, the perspiration drying on skin, as well as the malaise that comes with coping with such high temperatures. The receding river, the desire for rain, for water, for life, haunts the book, as do the various secrets the townspeople keep, the gruesome deaths...

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The Rosie Result by Graeme Simsion

The third and final book in the Rosie series, The Rosie Result by Graeme Simsion is an absolute delight. Focussing on the return of the Tillman’s along with their 11 year-old son, Hudson, to Australia after a stint in New York, the reader becomes immersed in their struggles to re-establish their lives and careers after so long away. While Don and Rosie muddle along fairly well, for young Hudson, change is catastrophic. In his usual pragmatic way, Don sets about turning Hudson’s problems into a solution by embarking on what he terms, The Hudson Project; the primary objective being to ensure Hudson learns the life skills necessary to both fit in socially and ease his path in school and life.  But no matter how clever or resourceful a person is, even Don, or how passionate about a project, one can never account for humanity and different personalities, particularly those of young people. Don may care about this project more than any other, but does he possess the necessary skills to steer Hudson’s life in the right direction or is he the wrong captain for this ship? Alternately funny, heart-aching, poignant and forensically observant, this is a cracker of a read that I wish I hadn’t finished, I was so enjoying being in Don, Rosie and Hudson’s world. The novel is about family, otherness, difference and the lengths we go to in order to fit in (or not), it’s also about tolerance, love and kindness – something the world seems to be in rather short supply of sometimes and which is refreshing to read about, even in fiction – especially when the results are so all-encompassing and inclusive.  Cannot recommend this wonderful book...

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The Last by Hanna Jameson

The apocalyptic book, The Last, by Hanna Jameson, is one of the most original, thought-provoking and believable I have read in a long, long time. Starting with an ending – the ending being that of the world as the lead character, historian Jon Keller attending a conference in Switzerland, knows it. Without giving you a chance to draw breath, Jameson plunges readers into the chaos, fear and uncertainty that governs the lives of those who survive a nuclear holocaust in the immediate aftermath. But rather than try and treat the end of the world in a large scale manner (as some writers have very successfully done – I am thinking particularly of Max Brooks’ (no relation) World War Z – it is dealt with as a microcosm. The reader experiences the results of catastrophic war and destruction of major cities around the globe and death of millions, and the surreality of life for a small, unrelated group as they try to take stock of the present and, indeed, the future, in a remote Swiss hotel. With the internet unavailable, last messages from loved ones sporadic or confusing, communication with the outside world is impossible and, as time passes and resources become scarce, not only do the survivors have to start to fan out and search for food and other necessities, but it swiftly becomes evident other survivors in the area are doing the same. Only, unlike the veneer of civility the remaining hotel guests are trying to maintain, these other people won’t hesitate to take what they want. But when Keller discovers a body in a water tank on the roof of the hotel, he swiftly understands that the threat he fears from outside could well be harboured within their sanctuary’s walls. As he seeks to discover the identity...

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The Winter World by A.G. Riddle

Having read and thoroughly enjoyed A.G. Riddle’s Pandemic series, I couldn’t wait to read his latest, Winter World. Not  only do I love the visceral thrill of eschatological narratives and their exploration of geo-political machinations as well as emotional and psychological trauma and challenges of facing the end of the world as we know it and how people react, but the notion of the earth becoming a winter wasteland (and the reasons behind this) were fascinating to me – very Day After Tomorrow-esque. This tale of the earth’s rapid change from varied climate and where power is concentrated in familiar regions to one where mass immigration from First World centres to formerly third world countries is told from two points of view. The first is that of an astronaut/scientist and commander, Emma, and a brilliant doctor and roboticist (among other things) James, who commences the book in a federal prison. The way Riddle tells the story of earth’s epic struggle to survive an attack that will destroy all life is at once personalized through these two characters and the relationships they form with their families, colleagues and each other, but also far-reaching. He cleverly keeps the pace moving by leaping the story forward and avoiding what some sci-fi narratives do (albeit some do it very well), bogging the reader down in extraneous scientific detail that show the author’s grasp of technical complexities as opposed to serving the story. We are given some of the science and for this Luddite, it appears to work. But it is the story that captures you – as well as demands you suspend your disbelief – as James and Emma and the brilliant people they work with fight to battle an alien enemy no-one predicted and who is ruthless in the extreme.  My only...

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The Stone Circle by Elly Griffiths

The Stone Circle is the 11th book in Elly Griffiths fabulous series featuring archaeologist Dr Ruth Galloway and terse DI Nelson. Like its predecessors, it’s packed with mystery, complex interpersonal relationships and murder. In this novel, a body is found buried in a recently unearthed stone circle. While the circle is of ancient origins the body definitely isn’t. Enter both Ruth and Nelson whose expertise is required to firstly age the body and then discover who the culprit is. When a cold case is reopened, it’s not long before suspects come to the fore. But when the most prominent of these is murdered, Nelson and his team have to work harder than ever before someone else is hurt – or worse.  As usual, Griffiths excels in developing her characters – the regulars and even those introduced because of the central plot. Ruth, Kate, Nelson and his family’s dynamic becomes even more tangled and emotionally fraught as revelations and decisions regarding the future are made and then disregarded. I think Griffiths does real justice to the notion that it’s possible to love two people at once – two good people who don’t deserve to be hurt. While Nelson is torn between the two women in his life and his very different families, there’s no doubting his love for them or the fact he’s a good person who can make bad decisions (like other characters in the books). I also like that the women are represented as strong and proud, not passive vessels to Nelson’s wishes or desires.  The ending to this novel feels a little rushed – not in terms of the plot, which is nicely played out, but in relation to the main recurring characters. I wish the editors had allowed Griffiths the chance to flesh it out just...

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Karen Brooks's books on Goodreads
TallowTallow (Curse of The Bond Riders, #1)
reviews: 29
ratings: 489 (avg rating 3.79)

VotiveVotive (Curse of the Bond Rider #2)
reviews: 10
ratings: 154 (avg rating 4.25)

The Gaze of the GorgonThe Gaze of the Gorgon (Cassandra Klein, #2)
reviews: 1
ratings: 14 (avg rating 3.78)

The Kurs of AtlantisThe Kurs of Atlantis (Cassandra Klein, #4)
ratings: 15 (avg rating 4.12)

Rifts Through QuentarisRifts Through Quentaris
ratings: 12 (avg rating 3.56)