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 –
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This newest biography of Geoffrey Chaucer, the medieval poet, diplomat
and court official is a tour de force. Whereas other biographies of the poet
have examined what can be gleaned of this amazing man’s life from various contemporary
documents, art, funeral effigies, family trees, etc. as well as his marvellous
fictive works, Marion Turner starts with the premise that one writes what one
knows, drawing on the familiar to compose fiction and fabliaux. Assuming this
was also what Chaucer did, even when translating and appropriating other sources,
she uses his works as a primary source (as well as many, many relevant contemporary
documents and the work of chroniclers) to make sense of the various events in his
life. Afterall, whether it was to whom he dedicated a piece of work or a character
like the real-life Harry Baily owner of the Tabard Inn in Southwark who hosts
the Canterbury Pilgrims, Chaucer wrote what and who he knew. As a consequence, this
biography not only takes on a rich and new relevance as Turner invites us to
examine everything Chaucer worked upon and rewrote and reworked, such as his tribute
to the Duchess, Blanche Lancaster, The
Book of the Duchess, or his translation and retelling of The Romance of the Rose or his
unfinished and arguably greatest or best-known work, The Canterbury Tales, as a critique of both his own life and the times.
Further, as Turner delves deeper into Chaucer’s works, she also deconstructs
them and their meaning, providing another layer of denotation to not just
Chaucer’s life, but his poetry. So this book is both biography and a wonderful
The title alludes to the fact that though Chaucer was a Londoner by
birth and for most of his life, a man of the court, streets and castles and
estates beyond, he was also very much a man of the world, traveling to various foreign
ports for king and country, negotiating royal marriages, loans, fighting wars, able
to speak other languages (naturally, French and Latin, but also Italian),
meeting with despots, mercenaries and nobles. He also encountered the works of some
of the greatest writers of the era and allowed them to influence his writings –
Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio among them. He was perceived as a man of worth –
not because of his birth, but because of his formidable talents and skills and
his ability to dine with princes and paupers. So much so, he was ransomed for the
kingly sum of 16 pounds when he was captured by the French when still very
young. He was a man of the world as much as he was of the kingdom of his birth.
Patronised by John of Gaunt and paid annuities by three kings, Chaucer
bore witness to many great and tragic events of his age: royal ascensions,
falls, death, births, the plague, wars, famine, riots and rebellions as well as
unjust and just behaviour. Married to Philippa, the sister of John of Gant’s infamous
mistress and later wife, Katherine Swynford, he was also close to the centre of
power in more than physical ways. Chaucer witnessed the best and worst of human
behaviour and relationships and among all walks of life – what love, war,
power, avarice, lust etc can do to people, how it can bring out the best and
worst – and never lost his fascination for writing about these and the people
who experienced them.
Able to remain on the right side of the monarch and the powers surrounding
him for most of his life, Chaucer, though famous within his own lifetime, also
managed to fly under the sometimes very taut and tense radar surrounding his
primary patron, Gaunt, who was variously accused of treason, plotting against the
king and was, for an extended period, the most hated man in England as the
peasants (and others) blamed him for all the country’s perceived ills. So bad did
feelings run, that during the Peasants Revolt of 1381, and which it’s likely
Chaucer witnessed from his rooms above Aldgate, Gaunt’s main residence, the
palatial and beautiful Savoy, was utterly destroyed.
It’s testimony to Chaucer that, unlike other Lancastrian cronies during
the 1380s and 1390s, he managed to stay in the king’s (Richard II’s) good
graces and thus avoid punishment, exile or death when so many others failed.
Turner beautifully extrapolates how and why this may have happened – in no
small part due to Chaucer’s great understanding of human nature and ability to
walk in others’ shoes regardless of birth, education, beliefs, and even sex –
all of which we’re privy to through his works. Perhaps the greatest irony is
that while Chaucer was able to describe in allegorical and rich detail the
pathos, sadness and joy love can bring, and place in his character’s mouths all
sorts of notions about amour and marriage, his own doesn’t appear to have been
Despite this, his children went on to accomplish things their middle-class
father, the son of a vintner, could once have only dreamed and which Chaucer,
with his focus throughout his works on “gentillesse” as a worthy quality,
despite rank, would have nonetheless appreciated. Some of the greatest
bloodlines, houses and nobles descend from Chaucer’s grand-children. But the
greatest gift he left us, and which Turner mainly celebrates and helps us to
appreciate even more, are his works. But it’s as the “father of English
Literature” that he’s best remembered – the man who gave the English their own poetry
and voice in their own language, with eloquence, imagination, humour and beauty.
This is a fabulous, erudite piece of scholarship that’s also beautifully
written and easily understood. A wonderful addition to the Chaucer canon and a
great read for anyone interested in history, poetry, literary analysis and, of
course, the enigmatic, clever and always creative, Chaucer.