Category Archives: Book reviews

Recommended Read – A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger

A stunning debut historical thriller set in the turbulent 14th Century for fans of CJ Sansom, The Name of the Rose and An Instance of the Fingerpost.

London, 1385. A city of shadows and fear, in a kingdom ruled by the headstrong young King Richard II, haunted by the spectre of revolt. A place of poetry and prophecy, where power is bought by blood. For John Gower, part-time poet and full-time trader in information, secrets are his currency. When close confidant, fellow poet Geoffrey Chaucer, calls in an old debt, Gower cannot refuse.

The request is simple: track down a missing book. It should be easy for a man of Gower’s talents, who knows the back-alleys of Southwark as intimately as the courts and palaces of Westminster. But what Gower does not know is that this book has already caused one murder, and that its contents could destroy his life. Because its words are behind the highest treason – a conspiracy to kill the king and reduce his reign to ashes…

A Burnable Book is a medieval thriller with London in 1385 as its main setting, but it is not London as we know it. It may surprise some readers to discover that it was really three cities at that time – the walled city of London with Southwark and Westminster beyond. Each of these areas is described in fascinating detail, from the houses to the places of work, the bishop’s palaces to the slums, the law courts to the brothels. Bruce Holsinger has conducted an incredible amount of research which enables the reader to feel that they are there, experiencing the sights and sounds and smells of medieval London. I found the detail of the developing legal profession particularly fascinating as the Inns of Court came into being during this period at the end of the fourteenth century. Here we learn something of the education system which underpinned this legal system, the serjeants-at-law and other members of the legal profession, all within the framework of a novel which keeps the reader engrossed until the last page has been turned.

A Burnable Book is set during a turbulent time in English history with renewed tensions with France, Scottish incursions to the north, and friction amongst nobles all vying for power. This political intrigue is the backdrop for a story with Chaucer and his contemporary writer, Gower, as two of its main characters. Whilst planning his Canterbury Tales Chaucer has written a fictional poem which is then taken and used by enemies of the king who present it as a prophesy of his death, then work to fulfil that prophecy. Can Gower prevent this from happening? (An interesting plot device is the use of playing cards, which were fairly new to England at this time, and which introduce an element which would not be out of place in a modern crime novel).

Mr Holsinger has created a believable cast of characters (some based on real historical figures), they are well rounded with strengths and weaknesses which we will all recognise and who are brought to life by well crafted dialogue which gives the reader a feel for the time without being too anachronistic and difficult to read.

A Burnable Book is a good read; there are admittedly one or two weaknesses in the plot but these can be forgiven by a reader who likes to immerse themselves in past times, and one cannot fault Mr Holsinger’s knowledge and ability to present this in a style which draws the reader in. If you like crime novels, thrillers, and history, then this is a book for you.

A Burnable Book can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Bruce Holsinger here

You can afind more of my Recommended Reads here

Recommended Read – Sworn Sword by James Aitcheson

January 1069. Less than three years have passed since Hastings and the death of the usurper, Harold Godwineson. In the depths of winter, two thousand Normans march to subdue the troublesome province of Northumbria. Tancred a Dinant, an ambitious and oath-sworn knight and a proud leader of men, is among them, hungry for battle, for silver and for land.

But at Durham the Normans are ambushed in the streets by English rebels. In the battle that ensues, their army is slaughtered almost to a man. Badly wounded, Tancred barely escapes with his life. His lord is among those slain.

Soon the enemy are on the march, led by the dispossessed prince Eadgar, the last of the ancient Saxon line, who is determined to seize the realm he believes is his. Yet even as Tancred seeks vengeance for his lord’s murder, he finds himself caught up in secret dealings between a powerful Norman magnate and a shadow from the past.

As the Norman and English armies prepare to clash, Tancred begins to uncover a plot which harks back to the day of Hastings itself. A plot which, if allowed to succeed, threatens to undermine the entire Conquest. The fate of the Kingdom hangs in the balance …

Sworn Sword is a novel set in the years immediately after the Norman invasion of England in 1066. The story of William The Conqueror and the battle of Hastings is well known although few people stop to consider the aftermath. The English did not take happily to their new rulers and there was discontent everywhere, but nowhere was this more evident than in the north. This novel deals with the early uprisings against the Normans which led to the ‘Harrowing of the North’.

In Sworn Sword the knight Tancred is involved with the battles for Durham and York in 1069, the first of the serious Northumbrian uprisings. An integral part of the plot revolves around a secret which could lead to the uprisings spreading throughout the kingdom and potentially to the defeat of the Normans and restoration of English rule. Can Tancred and his friends find out the truth behind this secret and save Norman England? (No spoilers here, but the secret is based on historical fact).

Sworn Sword is a fast-paced action and adventure story which will appeal to fans of Bernard Cornwell who enjoy realistic and historically accurate renditions of warfare. Mr Aitcheson is a historian whose knowledge of the period immerses the reader in all aspects of life in Norman England from life in the cities and on the road, to the political discord and rivalries which form the basis of the plot of Sworn Sword during the turbulent years following Hastings. The key events in the novel did actually take place and many of the key characters (Guillaume Malet, Robert de Commines, Eadgyth etc.) are real historical personages. Where the author has shown skill is weaving his fictional characters into this historical background to create a believable adventure story which is just the beginning of Tancred’s struggles as the Northumbrian risings grow stronger.

An enjoyable read.

Sworn Sword can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about James Aitcheson here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Recommended Read – Dictator by Robert Harris

There was a time when Cicero held Caesar’s life in the palm of his hand. But now Caesar is the dominant figure and Cicero’s life is in ruins. Exiled, separated from his wife and children, his possessions confiscated, his life constantly in danger, Cicero is tormented by the knowledge that he has sacrificed power for the sake of his principles. His comeback requires wit, skill and courage – and for a brief and glorious period, the legendary orator is once more the supreme senator in Rome. But politics is never static and no statesman, however cunning, can safeguard against the ambition and corruption of others.

Riveting and tumultuous, DICTATOR encompasses some of the most epic events in human history yet is also an intimate portrait of a brilliant, flawed, frequently fearful yet ultimately brave man – a hero for his time and for ours. This is an unforgettable tour de force from a master storyteller.

Dictator tells the story of Cicero, the great Roman statesman and orator, from the time he was forced to flee Rome to escape Julius Caesar to his eventual death*. Written in the style of a biography (purportedly by his former slave and secretary, Tiro) it gives us a glimpse into the tumultuous times which saw the death of the Roman Republic and the birth of an Empire. Tiro collated the works of Cicero as well as recording speeches in the senate verbatim (he developed the first system of shorthand, we still use some of his symbols today – &, etc., i.e., NB, e.g.), and it is his works which Robert Harris has drawn on to create his descriptions of the key characters in the early days of the Roman Empire, the political turmoil and martial conflict which they lived through.

It would be impossible to write about this period of history without a focus on politics, but Mr Harris cleverly entwines this with the personal lives of his characters, people whom he brings to life in all their complexity. We see their loves and hates, their strength of character, the ebb and flow of their allegiances; and it is these well-rounded characters who breathe life into this engrossing novel. Mr Harris is a skilful author who creates a believable Cicero, a man of lowly birth who rose to the greatest heights in the Roman Republic, a man of incredible intellect who had the gift of holding an audience in the palm of his hand with the strength of his oratory; a Cicero who we can all believe in and sympathise with. The descriptions of Roman life, the cities, travel by sea and on land, all are well researched and believable as Mr Harris utilises his apparently simple style to great effect, weaving a world which we can almost feel and smell and taste.

Many people believe that Cicero was one of the greatest Romans, not only as a politician and statesman but also a philosopher with deep insights into the human condition, a man who studied the ethics of the Greek masters and tried to apply them to his own time. All of this is portrayed in Dictator through Cicero’s own letters and speeches, bringing to life a man of personal courage whose strong principles had a profound impact on his world, for good and evil. I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in history and the human condition.

*I saw Dictator on the shelves in the library and it immediately appealed to me; it was not until I was half way through the book that I became aware that it is the final part of a trilogy about Cicero by Robert Harris. I enjoyed the book immensely and will definitely go back and read the first two parts – Imperium and Lustrum. If my review of Dictator appeals to you then I would recommend reading these two books first!

Dictator can be found on  Amazon

You can find out more about Robert Harris here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Recommended Read – Black Sheep by Susan Hill

‘Powerful… Poignant, bleak and haunting, this is a small masterpiece’ Sunday Mirror

Brother and sister, Ted and Rose Howker, grew up in Mount of Zeal, a mining village blackened by coal. They know nothing of the outside world, though both of them yearn for escape. For Rose this comes in the form of love, while Ted seizes the chance of a job away from the pit. But neither can truly break free and their decisions bring with them brutal consequences…

‘Gripping all the way to its unexpected end’ Spectator

This is a little gem of a book, short but gripping. Ms Hill describes the pit village in all its gritty reality – the home of tired people struggling day by day with the harsh reality of mining life, crowded housing, back-breaking daily labour; a place some feel compelled to stay whilst others seek escape. The houses are dirty, not from want of a woman’s touch but from the all-pervading coal dust which blackens everything, including the lives of people for whom mere existence is hard leaving little time for enjoyment or expressions of love.

Yet love is there, buried deep in the close-knit community, whether it be the love of family or the love of neighbours. Ms Hill describes how support is offered to those who find it hard to make ends meet, and for those who are affected by the tragedy which all mining communities fear (no spoilers). Black Sheep is a bleak novel in many ways, yet that bleakness holds the reader through the atmospheric descriptions and the well-written characters. The reader will find themselves sympathising with Rose whose options were so limited that there was little hope of her ever finding a way out of the gruelling life which her mother had lived, and with Ted who finds the path out of the village to the clean air of the hills and the fulfilling life of working with animals. But will he be able to hang on to his freedom or will duty call him back?

The ending of this short novel is as moving as it is unexpected. Anyone who is familiar with Ms Hill’s work will not be expecting a hearts and flowers love story, but her deceptively simple style evokes a depth of understanding of people placed alongside the allegorical view of life as three levels of existence. Her description of Mount of Zeal – the ‘hell’ of the pit, the ‘world’ of the Middle Terrace, and the ‘Paradise’ that awaits those who can escape to the upper slopes of the hills which surround the pit and beyond – reflect the struggles that we all undergo in life. This book will not be for everyone, but I urge you to try it. Whether you read it as a simple tale of village life or look for deeper meaning, Black Sheep is a book which  will stay with you long after you turn the last page.

Black Sheep can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Susan Hill here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Recommended Read – The Woman in the Photograph by Stephanie Butland

An empowering, thought-provoking feminist novel that will change the way you see the world. Perfect for fans of Elizabeth Day, Claire Fuller and Joanna Cannon.

1968. Veronica Moon, a junior photographer for a local newspaper, is frustrated by her (male) colleagues’ failure to take her seriously. And then she meets Leonie on the picket line of the Ford factory at Dagenham. So begins a tumultuous, passionate and intoxicating friendship. Leonie is ahead of her time and fighting for women’s equality with everything she has. She offers Veronica an exciting, free life at the dawn of a great change.

Fifty years later, Leonie is gone, and Veronica leads a reclusive life. Her groundbreaking career was cut short by one of the most famous photographs of the twentieth century.

Now, that controversial picture hangs as the centrepiece of a new feminist exhibition curated by Leonie’s niece. Long-repressed memories of Veronica’s extraordinary life begin to stir. It’s time to break her silence, and step back into the light.

The Woman in the Photograph takes the reader on a journey exploring the development of feminism in the UK from the 1960’s to the present day. It is innovative, thought-provoking, imaginative and moving. By following the career of Veronica we live fifty years of social history, charting the changing roles of women and discovering how far they have come yet how far they still have to go. The ‘descriptions’ of photographs that Veronica takes at key moments in feminist history give a real snapshot (pun intended!) of a particular time and place and are a testament to the authors descriptive writing and the clarity of her well-drawn characters.

Ms Butland has conducted in depth research for this novel which is crammed with information yet is never wordy or didactic, instead the reader experiences those years through the eyes of three very different women – Veronica, Leonie, and Erica – and is drawn into their lives and loves, their hopes and fears, their successes and failures. The Woman in the Photograph is unapologetic in this focus on the individual in the feminist movement but should not be seen as a simple history, it is so much more than that. This novel is also about the human heart with love and loss at its centre.

I must admit that when I first picked up The Woman in the Photograph I was not sure if it was for me, fearing that it might attempt be too moralistic and push feminism on the reader, but that is not the case. If you take the trouble to pick up this book you will certainly learn about the history of feminism but also enjoy a jolly good read.

The Woman in the Photograph is available on Amazon

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Recommended Read – A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir

Two women separated by time are linked by the most famous murder mystery in history, the Princes in the Tower.

Lady Katherine Grey has already suffered more than her fair share of tragedy. Newly pregnant, she has incurred the wrath of her formidable cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, who sees her as a rival to her insecure throne.

Alone in her chamber in the Tower, she finds old papers belonging to a kinswoman of hers, Kate Plantagenet, who forty years previously had embarked on a dangerous quest to find what really happened to her cousins, the two young Princes who had last been seen as captives in the Tower.

But time is not on Kate’s side – nor on Katherine’s either …

The use of dual timelines has become a common plot device in the last few years, but what makes A Dangerous Inheritance different is that rather than having one timeline in the present and the other in the past both of the main characters in this novel are historical figures from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Katherine Plantagenet was the daughter of Richard III, Katherine Grey was the granddaughter of Henry VII, and what is interesting about them is that they are each descended from one of the two men who could have been responsible for the deaths of the sons of Edward IV, the infamous ‘Princes in the Tower ‘. In this novel both young women are trying to find out the truth about the disappearance of the princes, and about the role which might have been played by their family members.

As a respected historian Ms Weir has used countless primary sources to weave together the lives of these two young women who found that having royal blood can be more of a curse than a blessing as they each posed a threat to the Tudor monarchs who needed to secure the succession. It would be easy to criticise both Katherines for bringing some of the problems on themselves through their own actions, but the reader should not forget that these were teenage girls who fell in love and suffered for it. As we follow their stories we find ourselves immersed in the life of the royal courts which are brought vividly to life by Ms Weir, every aspect is conveyed in rich detail from fashion to food, accommodation to customs, and much more besides.

If the stories of these two young women are not interesting enough in themselves the author uses their imagined access to both primary and secondary sources written within 100 years of the deaths of the princes to weave together a compelling murder mystery. What did happen to the sons of Edward IV? Did they die of natural causes? Were they murdered? Where were their bodies? Were they killed on the orders of Richard III or Henry VII? Or did they survive to pose a threat to the Tudor monarchy? Ms Weir again uses her commanding knowledge of the period to present both sides of an argument which has intrigued people for more than 500 years, and whilst the protagonists in this novel come to their own conclusion history itself still cannot prove one way or another what happened to the unfortunate princes.

If you are fond of novels set in the Tudor period or enjoy a good ‘whodunnit’ then I think you will enjoy A Dangerous Inheritance.

A Dangerous Inheritance can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Alison Weir here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

The Fire Court by Andrew Taylor

Somewhere in the soot-stained ruins of Restoration London, a killer has gone to ground…

The Great Fire has ravaged London, wreaking destruction and devastation wherever its flames spread. Now, guided by the incorruptible Fire Court, the city is slowly rebuilding, but times are volatile and danger is only ever a heartbeat away.

James Marwood, son of a traitor, is thrust into this treacherous environment when his ailing father claims to have stumbled upon a murdered woman – in the very place where the Fire Court sits. Then his father is run down and killed. Accident? Or another murder…?

Determined to uncover the truth, Marwood turns to the one person he can trust – Cat Lovett, the daughter of a despised regicide. Marwood has helped her in the past. Now it’s her turn to help him. But then comes a third death… and Marwood and Cat are forced to confront a vicious and increasingly desperate killer whose actions threaten the future of the city itself.

The Fire Court is an engaging ‘who dunnit’ set in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London. The fire which ravaged London in 1666 is well known, as are some of the buildings designed by Sir Christopher Wren to help with the rebuilding; yet how many of us have ever taken the time to think about the aftermath of the disaster? How was it decided who owned which patches of rubble? Who would be responsible for re-building? And, above all, where would the money come from to re-build? I must admit that I have given little thought to that in the past and am grateful to Mr Taylor for introducing me to the Fire Court.

Set up by the king to untangle the complicated ownership/leases/sub-leases etc. the Fire Court was made up of a number of judges who gave their time for free to find the most equitable way to get the re-building underway as quickly as possible. Surprisingly for the 17th century there was very little corruption and the work went ahead swiftly. It is against this backdrop that the story of The Fire Court takes place.

The author has conducted an unprecedented amount of research into the Fire Court itself and 17th century London in general which immerses the reader in a city full of the rubble and ash of the fire, the dirt and smells of the Restoration, the filthy streets, the bridges and the river, the clothing and food which were a part of everyday life. He also shines light on the position of women in a society which still saw them as chattels yet where some women were already attempting to achieve a more independent role. In this realistic world we are introduced to James Marwood as he becomes embroiled in a legal battle for ownership of and therefore permission to re-build the Dragon Yard, a battle which leads to murder and through which we follow Marwood and Cat Lovett on a search for truth and their own survival. This is a well-crafted murder-mystery novel with twists and turns which keep the reader guessing to the very end, and well worth a read on so many levels.

(I was given this novel as a gift and was part-way through before realising that it is the sequel to Andrew Taylor’s novel The Ashes of London but it is a novel which stands well on its own.)

The Fire Court can be found on Amazon

You can find out ore about Andrew Taylor here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here