A Plague on Both Your Houses

A Plague on Both Your Houses (Matthew Bartholomew, #1)A Plague on Both Your Houses by Susanna Gregory
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My rating: 3.5 stars. A good start to a series with room for improvement. I think I like Matthew, but there is not a lot of character development. The plot doesn’t really go anywhere either – you won’t learn anything before Matthew does. An awful lot of dead bodies in the first chapter, and that is before the plague hits! I’m not sure I was convinced by the final reveal, but it was a good twist. Where I thought the book shined was in the author’s depiction of the plague, though there were times I felt like she tried a little too hard to include everything she learned in her research. Still, I would read more of this series.

Book description: A Plague on Both Your Houses introduces physician Matthew Bartholomew, whose unorthodox but effective treatment of his patients frequently draws accusations of heresy from his more traditional colleagues. Besides his practice, Bartholomew teaches medicine at Michaelhouse, part of the fledgling University of Cambridge. In 1348, the inhabitants of Cambridge live under the shadow of a terrible pestilence that has ravaged Europe and is traveling relentlessly towards England. Bartholomew, however, is distracted by the sudden and inexplicable death of the Master of Michaelhouse, a death University authorities do not want investigated. His pursuit of the truth leads him into a complex tangle of lies and intrigue that forces him to question the innocence of his closest friends, even his family. And then the Black Death finally arrives.

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Plague Land

Plague LandPlague Land by S.D. Sykes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Setting: England, Kent, Somershill (fictional manor and rural village)
Time: 1350, two years after the plague has ravaged the country killing half the population.

Chapter One: “It was a hot summer’s morning in June of this year when I first saw them – advancing towards Somershill like a band of ragged players. I would tell you they were a mob, except their numbers were so depleted that a gaggle would be a better description. And I would tell you I knew their purpose in coming here, but I had taken to hiding in the manor house and keeping my nose in a book. At their head was John of Cornwall, a humourless clenched-fist of a man, whose recent appointment to parish priest rested purely upon his still being alive.”

Criticized for being too modern in tone, it was a style that worked for me. It gave a breezy, humorous counterbalance to the dark and macabre time period. Oswald is an anomaly in his time – an atheist and rational thinker with a tendency towards what today would be Zen Buddhism. As the author pointed out in a historical note “there is evidence of unbelief from those times – though it is difficult to gauge the true extent of this, as you were likely to have kept any scepticism to yourself. But even if doubts were rare, impiety certainly was not.” It worked for me, and I think actually makes the Middle Ages perhaps a little more accessible to modern readers. The historical details were otherwise spot on, with all the filth, superstition, and brutality. The black humor and over-the-top characters made me think of a television sit-com. I think it would translate very well to film or television. The mystery was satisfying, even if Oswald seems a bit slow at times, with a nice twist at the end. I definitely look forward to more in the series.

Book description: Oswald de Lacy was never meant to be the Lord of Somershill Manor. Despatched to a monastery at the age of seven, sent back at seventeen when his father and two older brothers are killed by the Plague, Oswald has no experience of running an estate. He finds the years of pestilence and neglect have changed the old place dramatically, not to mention the attitude of the surviving peasants. Yet some things never change. Oswald’s mother remains the powerful matriarch of the family, and his sister Clemence simmers in the background, dangerous and unmarried. Before he can do anything, Oswald is confronted by the shocking death of a young woman, Alison Starvecrow. The ambitious village priest claims that Alison was killed by a band of demonic dog-headed men. Oswald is certain this is nonsense, but proving it—by finding the real murderer—is quite a different matter. Every step he takes seems to lead Oswald deeper into a dark maze of political intrigue, family secrets and violent strife.

The Valcourt Heiress

Valcourt Heiress, TheValcourt Heiress, The by Catherine Coulter

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I am not at all sure I want to dignify this book with a review. I am utterly perplexed by all the 5-star reviews out there, and all I can say is this is SO not my genre. Romances (not the same thing as love stories in my categorization) are silly. This book is sillier than silly. I can’t call this historical fiction by any stretch of the imagination, so I have settled on fantasy. As far as romances go, this one was pretty tame with one utterly unbelievable sex scene. If I hadn’t been listening in the car, this would have been a did-not-finish at that point. It started out as a not bad adventure story, some cute characters, some humorous dialogue. But then it seemed to completely change direction in the second half with the appearance of Merry’s mother, a witch. Not just herbs and potions – but actual magic seemed to be involved. There’s a bit of mystery, and a twist at the end that I didn’t see coming. So two stars. Adequate entertainment if you just want a light read, but don’t set your expectations too high. There are apparently recurring characters from previous books in the “series”. I read this thinking it might be a fun read for my book club, as the library has it as a bookclub-in-a-bag kit. But no, I won’t be recommending it.

Book Description: When Garron of Kersey returns home from the king’s service to claim his title as Baron Wareham, he’s shocked to find Wareham Castle very nearly destroyed by a man called the Black Demon. According to the last starving servants still clinging to life inside the castle walls, the Black Demon was looking for silver belonging to Garron’s brother Arthur. Among his remaining servants is the enigmatic Merry, said to be the bastard child of the castle’s priest. Garron quickly realizes that she is much more than a servant: She reads and writes and makes lists, just as he does. Together they bring Wareham back to its former splendor. But this is only the beginning. Did Arthur have a cache of silver? Who is the Black Demon? And the biggest question of all: Who is Merry?

Cathedral of the Sea

Cathedral of the SeaCathedral of the Sea by Ildefonso Falcones

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is everything I love about historical novels and family sagas: big, sweeping, panoramic, enough history to understand the context, enough detail to put me in that time and place, characters that I care about, a little romance, a lot of adventure, and a satisfying ending. This caught my attention in connection with my Moby-Dick project because it had the word “sea” in the title. Other than that, there is no connection. It is not a sea story. For information and pictures of the cathdral see http://www.aviewoncities.com/barcelon… . I listened to an audio recording of the book. Otherwise I would have been stumbling over the pronunciation of Spanish names and places. It had me sitting in my garage on multiple occasions after driving home from work because I didn’t want to stop the narrative. Arnau begins life as the son of a runaway serf, joins the guild of the bastaix (porters who unload the cargo from the ships in the harbor) who carry stones from the quarry to the building site on their own time because of their dedication to the Virgin of the Sea. Through Arnau’s eyes, we see life in Barcelona during times of famine and plague, relations with the Jews, the Inquisition, war, the growing maritime prosperity of Catalonia and the merchant classes, and the role of religion and faith from differing perspectives. Arnau is a good man at his core, but he is not above exacting revenge on those who have harmed him and those he loves. Well researched, I did not mind the historical asides, and learned a lot about a less familiar region of medieval Europe.

Description:
In the tradition of Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, here is a thrilling historical novel of friendship and revenge, plague and hope, love and war, set in the golden age of 14th-century Barcelona. Arnau Estanyol arrives in Barcelona and joins the powerful guild of stone-workers building the magnificent cathedral of Santa Maria del Mar, while his adoptive brother Joan studies to become a priest. As Arnau prospers, he secretly falls in love with a forbidden woman. When he is betrayed and hauled before the Inquisitor, he finds himself face-to-face with his own brother. Will he lose his life just as his beloved cathedral is finally completed, or will his brother spare him?

The Founding

The Founding (The Morland Dynasty, #1)The Founding by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Four stars is perhaps generous, but I like family sagas and I like historical fiction where history is actually the focus. This is book 1 of a now 34 book series intended to cover British history from the middle ages through WW2 through the eyes of a fictional family. The author says on her website (www.cynthiaharrodeagles.com) “I wanted to include…not just the kings, battles and Parliaments, but how people lived, what they wore and ate, how they gave birth and died, how they built their houses and related to their servants, how they traveled, what they believed in.” Although the fictional setting of the Morland family is near York in England, the original Morland home in this book (Micklelith House) was based on Tretower Court in Wales. If I ever get back to Wales, this will be on my itinerary: http://www.gardenvisit.com/garden/tre…

And, although there is not really a plot, and the characters are mostly pretty flat and one-dimensional, I immediately wanted to reread the book after finishing it. I don’t know if that’s because I wanted to continue to immerse myself in the time period details, or because of some vague sense of having missed something that would make the story more complete. I do wish the publisher had included the royal family genealogy tables along with the Morland family tree provided, but I suppose that can be found readily enough. The political background of The Founding includes the reign of Edward IV and Richard III, and yes, the famous Princes in the Tower. The main character, Eleanor (nee Courteney) is strong-willed and ambitious. She will put the family fortunes ahead of every other consideration, even at the cost of the lives and happiness of her own children. She is arrogant and selfish, but yet she does elicit some sympathy and even admiration. Oh! and of course I liked that her personal device was a white hare.

I would like to have seen a lot more development of the characters, maybe over three books instead of one. The harrowing story of Eleanor’s daughter, Isabella, could have been a book in itself. Her strange son, Richard, and his wanderings could have been another fleshed out story. As it is, the book covers more than 50 years during the tumultuous Wars of the Roses. I will probably pick up the next book at some point to see how this fiercely Yorkist family survives the Tudors.

The Innocent

The Innocent (War of the Roses, #1)The Innocent by Posie Graeme-Evans

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have recently become addicted to the Australian television drama McLeod’s Daughters created by Posie Graeme-Evans, so when I discovered she is also an author I had to check it out. The Innocent is the first of a trilogy about a romance between Edward IV and a fictional illegitimate daughter of the ousted Henry VI, Anne de Bohun. It isn’t a bad book, but it isn’t particularly good either. It is a light sort of romance with a historical setting and lots of period atmosphere (if not always accurate.) It is also light on any actual history or plot/character development. The heroine, Anne, is entirely too good to be true. There is no evident “reason” for why these two love each other, other than some sort of “occult” fate or destiny. Quite implausible in my opinion. The characters are shallow and predictable. And the consummation is disappointing. The Piers/Aveline thread in the first third of the book did a good job of creating tension, but once it was resolved it had no bearing on the rest of the story. If you don’t care about historical accuracy or believable characters this is a nice sort of book to lose yourself in for awhile, but I don’t think I will be reading the sequels.

Book Description: The year is 1450, a dangerous time in medieval Britain. Civil unrest is at its peak and the legitimacy of the royal family is suspect. Meanwhile, deep in the forests of western England, a baby is born. Powerful forces plot to kill both mother and child, but somehow the newborn girl survives. Her name is Anne. Fifteen years later, England emerges into a fragile but hopeful new age, with the charismatic young King Edward IV on the throne. Anne, now a young peasant girl, joins the household of a wealthy London merchant. Her unusual beauty provokes jealousy, lust, and intrigue, but Anne has a special quality that saves her: a vast knowledge of healing herbs. News of her extraordinary gift spreads, and she is called upon to save the ailing queen. Soon after, Anne is moved into the palace, where she finds her destiny with the man who will become the greatest love of her life — the king himself.