The Middle Ages Unlocked by Gillian Polack and Katrin Kania

There are so many really good books written about the Middle Ages, both general and specific which, collectively, are fabulous resources for students of history, writers and those with just a general interest in a long and fascinating period. This book came with huge and exciting claims by a well-known writer of fiction, so I was thrilled to get a hold of it and, even though it is slightly out of the period I am homing in on at the moment (the mid to late 1300s), I hoped it would provide a solid general overview of the previous two to three centuries.

In some ways, the book does exactly this. It covers roughly the eleventh through to the end of the thirteenth century and examines topics such as religion, literature, education, music, women and men’s roles, trade etc. However, where some general books also give very specific and detailed examples of the information they are relaying, sadly, this book did not. Or, rather, when it did, it was superficial to the point of not being very helpful. It was also very dry in parts. While I did enjoy some aspects of it, I have found other books on this period (eg. anything by the Guises, Judith Bennett’s works, Paul Strohm, Terry Jones, Alison Weir, Liza Picard, Barbara Hanawalt – just to name a few), to be more in-depth, better written and, frankly, far more useful as both starting points for developing an understanding of this era but also for advancing it. Where it did serve well was as a reminder of the most important and significant aspects of this era.

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Tidelands by Philippa Gregory

A huge fan of Gregory’s work, I was so excited to see that not only had she written a book in the third person, but had moved away from her wonderful fictive histories of various British royals to focus on an “ordinary” woman and her family. Only, the beautiful Alinor is anything but ordinary, as a young priest deposited on the shores of anti-Catholic England in 1648, just when the country is in the midst of Civil War and the King imprisoned, and who is tasked with an important mission, realises the moment he encounters her.  

Alinor is a wise-woman, a healer who acts as a midwife for her local community and is entrusted with their health and well-being. The mother of two children, her bully of a husband is believed lost at sea. Not quite a widow and not quite married, when she finds the priest, James, and leads him out of the marshes and to safety, she knows something momentous and dangerous has been set in motion.

As the weeks go by and rebellion grows even while the tidal community go on with their daily grind, James and Alinor’s secret bond grows. But these are hazardous times to be a Catholic, a monarchist but, above all, it’s a perilous time to be a wise-woman, especially a beautiful one.

This book is a slow burn. Gregory takes great delight in presenting the reader with the minutiae of Alinor’s life as well as that of other villagers. I really enjoyed the initial slow-pace, the context against which the wider political and social turmoil receded into the background. The writing is mostly lovely and it’s very easy to imagine Alinor and the rest of those who dwell in the liminal spaces between land and sea. Where I struggled a bit was with how repetitive some of the dialogue became. Characters kept repeating themselves, sometimes over and over – to each other and even with their thoughts. I found this a little distracting and even skimmed a bit when this occurred.

Overall, this is a good read with an ending that segues nicely into the next book in what promises to be a series worth following.

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The Wife and the Widow by Christian White

Having thoroughly enjoyed White’s debut novel, The Nowhere Child, I couldn’t wait to read his latest. As usual, life got in the way and it wasn’t until work was put aside for Christmas that I was able to treat myself to this marvellous and structurally clever novel and immerse myself in its mystery.

Set on an island off the coast of Victoria Australia, the action occurs during winter, when most of the tourists have gone and the residents are left to live their usual lives. When a body is found, not only does the town begin to whisper and those whose lives are affected by the murder rush to cover up long-held secrets, but the newly minted widow arrives to pick up the pieces and discover what led to her husband’s death – a man, it swiftly becomes apparent, she didn’t really know as well as she thought.

Atmospheric, wonderful, stark and evocative prose, this is a book that will hold you in thrall as it slowly builds to a conclusion that when you see it coming will impress you for its craftiness.

Another wonderful read from White – I cannot wait to see what he produces next.

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The Night Fire by Michael Connelly

This is the third book in the Harry Bosch and Renee Ballard series and, like the other two, it’s a cracker.

Semi-retired, Harry is still keeping his finger in the investigation pie when his old mentor, John Jack Thompson, dies, leaving him with a murder book for an unsolved case. Harry calls upon Renee to see if they can crack the 20-year old death of a young man.

But, the further they delve into the case, the further aspects of Thompson’s life and character are revealed, aspects that don’t represent him in such a positive light. Conflicted, but determined to uncover the reasons the murder book was removed from archives, both Harry and Renee start to wonder, is it because Thompson wanted the case cracked or was it to ensure it never got solved?

Once again, Connelly is able to meld the lead characters’ past and present, adding richness and depth to not only Harry and Renee, and also Harry’s brother, the Lincoln lawyer (who makes an appearance), but the cases they’re working. The social and cultural scene of LA is fabulously set as are the changes that twenty years has wrought. The dialogue is smart and real and what I really love about all Connelly’s books is there is a logic to the investigation and the steps Harry and Renee take that demonstrates not only their intelligence, but the barriers they encounter and how they need to be overcome if possible. Connelly also never steers away from exposing his main protagonists’ weaknesses and flaws as much as their strengths, and we love them all the more for it.

I was shocked to find Harry admits to being almost 70 in the book. Seventy! While it’s clear Harry is struggling with the notion of retiring, I think they’ll be a revolt when Connelly eventually allows our erstwhile hero to surrender his badge (properly). I’ve no doubt when that happens (and not too soon, I hope!), it will be with a bang and not a whimper.

Another fabulous addition to a taut, gripping and great series. 

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Silver by Chris Hammer

Silver, the second novel by Chris Hammer, commences virtually where his first, Scrublands, finished. Journalist Martin Scarsden is enroute to Port Silver, the place he grew up and where, with his new partner, Mandalay Blonde and her baby boy (who have gone ahead) he hopes to start afresh. But fate has other plans. 

When an old friend is brutally murdered in the hallway of the flat Mandy was renting on the day Martin arrives in town, he understands that not only are the ghosts he thought he’d laid to rest when he left Silver all those year ago still waiting to haunt him, but fresh spectres are set to destroy the plans he hasn’t even set in motion.

In the initial stages of the murder investigation, Mandy is both key witness and suspect, so Martin determines to prove her innocence. While Mandy may have blood on her hands, all is not as it seems – not in Martin’s relationship, his past and the terrible secrets it holds, nor the town he’s avoided for so long. When another horrifying event causes a media scrum to descend upon the tiny town, Martin finds himself not only reporting the story as it unfolds, but becoming, as is his inadvertent way, very much a part of it. But will he be able to write the happy ending he so desires?

This was a much denser book than Scrublands. The plot is thicker and, as a consequence, the exploration of character is as well. This worked both for and against the novel and sometimes, the story seemed to tread water as it became burdened with telling – mainly character backgrounds, as interesting as some were – rather than showing. Still, the writing is clear, evocative even, and the way Hammer represents the media, the drive to break the news, even at the expense of those who find themselves thrust into the spotlight, the ruthless behaviours and strategies deployed, is excellent. I also like that Scarsden and Mandalay are deeply flawed humans. It makes them both frustrating and real. I enjoyed this and look forward to seeing where Hammer takes us and possibly Scarsden next. 

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The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman

Book two in Philip Pullman’s new trilogy, a trilogy that functions as both a prequel (Book One, La Belle Sauvage) and a sequel to his original Dark Materials series, is a deeply disturbing and at times very dark read that sees the main characters from La Belle – Lyra, Pan and Malcolm, thrown into personal and professional turmoil as their world and lives are threatened, before being catapulted into momentous journeys.

Commencing with a murder that Pan bears witness to, it’s a while before the significance of the death becomes apparent. What’s of concern to the reader is not only the fact that Lyra and Pan can separate (those who’ve read The Amber Spyglass will recall the heart-wrenching circumstances that facilitated this ability), but that they’re at terrible odds with each other. Now twenty, Lyra is a student at Jordan College in Oxford and, despite what happened to her in childhood, is filled with the new, rationalist and materialist philosophies of the latest academic and literary “celebrities”, notions which cast doubt on what Lyra has not only experienced, but sees around her on a daily basis. This makes Pan totally despondent as he tries to debate the futility and absurdity of these viewpoints. But whatever Pan says, it simply makes Lyra more determined than ever to try and adhere to them. Initially, the tension between the two is just disheartening to read, but when you begin to understand this isn’t simply a personal change in perspective for Lyra, but part of a much broader way of thinking and being, and which links to the growing might of the Magisterium, then it’s apparent much darker forces are at play.

When Lyra is forced from her lodgings under a slim pretext and Pan, fed up with what she’s become decides to go on a quest for her “imagination”, which he is convinced has been stolen from her, Lyra is left with no choice but to find him. Only, where Lyra believes he’s gone is linked to the murder Pan witnessed, the political and power plays moving in the wider world and, most strangely, the fact that a certain genus of rose, which can only be grown in parts of Asia, is being wiped out.

What follows, is a mighty quest that sees Lyra, Pan and Malcolm Polstead, who in his role as an agent of Oakley Street as well as someone who cares deeply for Lyra, crossing England, Eastern Europe and entering incredibly dangerous territory. In the meantime, moves are afoot to disband those who would protect what’s been important in the past – academic freedom, the right to free speech and faith – as the Magisterium and the men behind it rise to incredible heights and gain unprecedented control. Not only are they seeking to quash any kind of resistance, but put an end to those who represent that: the central figure being Lyra Silvertongue.

While the book plumbs some terrible depths – I am thinking particularly of a scene on a train with Lyra and some soldiers, as well as veiled and real threats levelled at all the main players – there are also some enriching and warm acts of kindness to offset these. They occur among friends and familiar characters (many of whom tread the pages of the book), but in a heartening gesture, often among strangers, some with no agenda but wishing to be of aid. But what is most exciting in this book is following Lyra’s quest – not so much the physical one she undertakes to find Pan, but the spiritual and psychological one she embarks upon as slowly and surely her eyes are (re)opened to what she’s wilfully closed them: The Secret Commonwealth.

This is a highly political, deeply engaging read that keeps you turning the pages and often while on the edge of your seat. A fabulous addition to an incredible series. I cannot wait to see where Pullman (and Lyra, Pan and Malcolm – and the rest!) take us next.

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