A Morbid Taste for Bones: Ellis Peters

★★★★

The Brother Cadfael Chronicles: Book I

In 1977, forty years ago, Edith Pargeter published the first book in her Cadfael series, which combined her talents as historical novelist (under her real name) and mystery writer (under the nom de plume Ellis Peters). Set in her native Shropshire, the story features the eponymous worldly-wise monk, whose adventurous youth has given way to a comfortable middle age at Shrewsbury Abbey. Here he finds himself solving a series of crimes in and around his foundation. Those who grew up in the 1990s, like me, will remember the cuddly Sunday-night ITV adaptation with Derek Jacobi as the sleuthing monk. Cadfael was almost certainly my introduction to murder mysteries and I know that I read some of the books as a teenager, though I don’t remember them now. I was delighted to find the first seven novels in the series during a recent tip to the Book Barn, and decided it was time to refamiliarise myself with them.

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Friendly Fire: Patrick Gale

★★★★

After reading Facing the Tank, I was keen to try some of Patrick Gale’s other novels. By chance, I stumbled across Friendly Fire, which is set in the same town and focuses on the grand old boarding school, Tatham’s, at its heart. Gale admits in his author’s note that the school is a thinly-disguised version of his own alma mater at Winchester, and perhaps that’s why the story shimmers with a kind of nostalgia. Like an adolescent version of The Lessons crossed with The Secret History, it follows the formidably bright Sophie and her friendship with the fascinating, flamboyant Lucas across the course of three tempestuous years. It’s a tribute to intense adolescent friendship, a tale of trying to find one’s place in a confusing world, and – perhaps above all – a love-letter to what happens when a thirsty mind meets a classical education.

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Vixen: Rosie Garland

★★★

This was on my library wishlist even before I read Rosie Garland’s Night Brother, and without knowing a thing about it. I was just intrigued by the title and tantalised by the cover: I thought it might be a bit like Emma Geen’s Many Selves of Katherine North, but of course I was thinking too literally. Set in the Devon village of Braunton in the plague year of 1349, it in fact tells the story of Thomas, the village priest; Anne, his housekeeper and would-be wife; and the strange, mute girl who is discovered half-drowned in a bog after a terrible storm. As Death draws its wings close around Braunton, these three find themselves at the heart of a struggle between small-mindedness and broad vision, played out in microcosm in the kitchen and barn of Thomas’s meagre home.

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Daughter of the Wolf: Victoria Whitworth

★★★½

This is the most recent novel by Victoria or V.M. Whitworth, also author of the Wulgar novels. I wasn’t entirely blown away by The Bone Thief, but I found much more to enjoy in this story set in what’s becoming a rather familiar world: Anglo-Saxon Northumbria. It is 859 AD, two centuries after the days of Edwin and Oswald, and while King Osberht maintains an uneasy peace from York, his noblemen quietly test their strength and the sea-wolves harry the eastern coast. In Donmouth, where a hall and minster both fall under the authority of the lord’s family, Radmer and his feckless younger brother Ingeld divide worldly and heavenly power between them. And Radmer’s daughter Elfrun, struggling to make the transition from girl-child to woman, is about to find herself elevated to a terrifying level of responsibility.

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The Buried Giant: Kazuo Ishiguro

★★★½

Gosh, what a strange novel. Part historical fiction, part fable, this book feels wilfully enigmatic, its meaning hovering just beyond reach, like a shattered reflection in water. This is only the second of Ishiguro’s novels that I’ve read (the first, some years ago, was Never Let Me Go) and so I’m not sure which elements are typical of his writing and which merely adopted for this book. One thing which the two books have in common, though, is that an apparently simple story turns out to have a much deeper significance. I have a sneaking suspicion that The Buried Giant has several layers, so this post is primarily an attempt to tease out meaning from this dreamlike tale of an ancient British past.

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The Bone Thief: V.M. Whitworth

★★★

Wulfgar: Book I

I seem to be drawn to early medieval historical fiction at the moment. The Bone Thief has been floating on the edge of my awareness for a while so, when I spotted it at the library the other day, I decided it was time to find out more about it. Happily, it turned out to offer a useful sequel both to the tale of (St) Oswald told in the novels of Edoardo Albert, and to the story of Alfred’s struggle against the Danes, as narrated by Bernard Cornwell in the Uhtred novels. It’s a perfectly engaging adventure story, even if I couldn’t escape the niggling feeling that the characters never quite come to life.

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Dunstan: Conn Iggulden

★★★★

This was a welcome chance to delve back into the unfamiliar world of early medieval England, as well as a long-overdue introduction to the writing of Conn Iggulden. Several of his other novels are waiting on my shelves and it’s just chance that Dunstan got there first. I should add that I knew nothing about St Dunstan before reading this, although if I had, I would surely have felt a kind of proprietary interest in him, as a local Somerset lad and the man responsible for Glastonbury Abbey’s first flowering. Iggulden gives us a thoroughly worldly saint, shrewd, ambitious and unscrupulous, very rarely sympathetic and yet always fascinating: the partial architect of a new, united England.

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Vindolanda: Adrian Goldsworthy

★★★★

One of my forthcoming scheduled reviews questions the current trend for historians to write historical fiction. It’s become something of a fashion but it doesn’t always work: good historians may tell stories with novelistic flair, and good historical fiction writers have to get their facts right, but the two genres do demand a different skill-set. Not everyone can make the transition from one to the other. So I was amused to see that Adrian Goldsworthy, the celebrated historian of the Roman Empire, has decided to try his hand at a novel. Naturally, I couldn’t resist; and I’m pleased to report that Goldsworthy is one of the rare breed who can make the leap. Focusing on the men based at the forts along the northernmost frontier of Roman Britain, he tells a story full of battles, diplomacy and honour, with a very enjoyable ‘odd couple’ pairing at its heart.

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Oswiu: King of Kings: Edoardo Albert

★★★★

The Northumbrian Thrones: Book III

In this third and (currently) last instalment in The Northumbrian Thrones, the ramifications of Oswald‘s untimely death spread across the feuding kingdoms of Britain. It is now 642 AD and the unification that seemed within reach during the reign of Edwin has crumbled away. Even Northumbria is no longer united. Oswald’s younger brother Oswiu faces a long, hard battle to secure his kingship against the mightiest ruler in the land: Penda, ambitious and ruthless king of Merica. But Oswiu has one advantage that Penda lacks: the posthumous, miracle-working reputation of the murdered Oswald.

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The Ladies of Llangollen: Elizabeth Mavor

★★★★

Like the Chevalier d’Eon, the Ladies of Llangollen came my way thanks to a work project. When trying to find an introduction to their lives, I judged that Elizabeth Mavor’s book seemed the best option, despite now coming across as slightly dated (it was published in 1971). Yet, for all that, it presents a thorough and sensitive discussion of these two remarkable women, who created an idyllic lifestyle together on their own terms and in defiance of social convention. Drawing on the Ladies’ own journals and correspondence, along with the letters of their immediate circle, newspaper reports and other documents, Mavor’s book isn’t just the sound introduction I was looking for, but an admirably unbiased and scrupulously fair double biography.

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