Book Review: The Leper of Saint Giles by Ellis Peters

* This review may contain spoilers *

The Leper of Saint Giles is the fifth book in the Chronicles of Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters.

Quick review (read on for full review)

Engaging and entertaining, this is a fast-paced mystery full of unforgettable characters. 4.5 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

Brother Cadfael has had no time to think about the grand wedding which is to take place in the church at Shrewsbury Abbey and is causing such excitement in the city. The groom is an aging nobleman; the bride a very young woman coerced into the marriage by her greedy guardians. But it soon becomes apparent that the groom, Huon de Domville, is a cold, harsh man — in stark contrast to his beautiful bride-to-be. Before the wedding can take place, a savage killing occurs, setting Brother Cadfael the task of determining the truth, which turns out to be strange indeed.

Favourite Quote

‘I have always known that the best of the Saracens could out-Christian many of us Christians.’

(From The Leper of Saint Giles by Ellis Peters, page 220)

Review

Another fantastic instalment in the series.

At the centre of the story are two young lovers: Iveta, a beautiful heiress and granddaughter of a great hero of the Crusades, and Jocelyn, the squire to the man to whom she has been betrothed.  Not many medieval marriages were love matches, but there is something about this one that has very many onlookers look at Iveta with sadness and pity as she arrives in Shrewsbury to marry the aged Huon de Domville. For all her wealth and status, she is at the mercy of her greedy guardians.

Cadfael, always, is wonderful as the main character.  Compassionate and caring, his observant nature ensures little passes him by and so when injustice strikes, he can be relied upon – by both readers and supporting characters alike – to the right the wrong if he can.  As for the other characters, they are all convincing and believable. The avaricious Picards, the passionate hothead Jocelyn, the hapless Brother Oswin, the kind and inquisitive Brother Mark…all are well-crafted.

Iveta’s character is the one that stands out.  She is very wishy-washy and weak, perfectly presented as the downtrodden maiden about to be forced into an unwanted marriage, which by the standards of the time is probably fairly accurate.  And, as the story unfolds she does become stronger, but those whose who like their heroines to be fiery and independent from the beginning may find it difficult to connect with her.

It’s easy to get lost in the sights and sounds of medieval Shrewsbury, the abbey and the surrounding area.  Historical descriptions are easy to envisage and the rich details of all the growing things that are encountered as the characters journey from one place to another are a treasure to read.

Leprosy, like the pestilence, was much feared in the middle ages, and those who suffered from it were segregated from healthy populations.  [A side note: this was another book I read during lockdown…] The disease is handled very sensitively in the story, as we meet lepers of all ages, at various stages of the disease.  Bran, a young lad at the leper house, has to be one of my favourite characters from across the series, and Lazarus is like a guardian angel.

The ending is one of the best of the series, where all threads meet with fairly explosive force and the truth comes out in its entirety.  Highly recommended for fans of historical fiction.  The next book in the series is The Virgin in the Ice, which is one of my favourite Cadfael books.  I’m excited to revisit this one, and hope to get around to it soon.

Rating

4.5 / 5


Sammi Loves Books Reading Challenge 2019 – I’ve chosen this book for challenge #17 in the list: a book that has been adapted for TV or film

Book Review: A Plague on Both Your Houses by Susanna Gregory

* This review may contain spoilers *

A Plague on Both Your Houses is the first book in the Matthew Bartholomew series by Susanna Gregory.

Quick Review (read on for full review)

A great first book in a series! Interesting characters and setting, and an engaging mystery.  Highly recommended for fans of Ellis Peters Cadfael books. 4 / 5

Summary (from back of book)

In the tradition of Ellis Peters, A Plague on Both Your Houses introduces the 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 is teacher of medicine at Michaelhouse, part of the fledging University of Cambridge.

In 1348 the inhabitants of Cambridge live under the shadow of a terrible pestilence that has ravaged Europe and is travelling relentlessly eastwards towards England. Bartholomew, however, is distracted by the sudden and inexplicable death of the Master of Michaelhouse – a death the University authorities do not want investigated. His pursuit of the truth leads him into a complex tangle of lies and intrigue that cause him to question the innocence of his closest friends – and even his family.

And then the Black Death finally arrives…

Favourite Quote

Clenching his fists in frustration, he wondered whether he should have complied with Nathaniel’s request – applied leeches to his arm to remove the excess of humours, and read his stars to see what other treatment they might suggest.  But the man only had a hangover!

(From A Plague on Both Your Houses by Susanna Gregory, page 92)

Review

Cambridge of 1348 is brought to life vividly and with ease against the backdrop of the plague, in what might be consider another perfect choice for a lockdown read…

For the first book in a series, this grabbed me with both hands! The characters were engaging, the setting in place and time interesting, and the mystery entertaining.  Many plot twists and turns ensured that the story held my attention throughout and never once felt predictable.

Matthew is an interesting character.  Like Ellis Peters healing monk, Cadfael, they are both men who walk an unusual path in their chosen vocations.  Cadfael is A Rare Benedictine ( I couldn’t resist the reference! 😉 ) with a lifetime of worldly experience under his belt before donning his monk’s robes and this gives him a certain perspective on all that unfolds around him.  Matthew is a physician who spurns the widely “accepted” treatments of the day – leeches and star charts – for what we would clearly recognise today as medicine, thanks to his Arab teacher.

As Matthew is a physician, expect to read descriptions of the medical conditions that require his attention and his treatment of them. As the plague strikes Cambridge, many of these passages focus on the symptoms of the pestilence, which some readers might enjoy less than others. Personally, I didn’t find it to be too much, and I thought the spread of the disease and the effect it had on the people of the story was handled sensitively.

For an otherwise well-written, convincing story we seemed to slip a little towards medieval melodrama towards the end.  Here, the hitherto clever villains paused in the execution of their plan to explain all they had done to up to this point and the motives behind their actions, to ensure that everyone understood why they were doing what they were doing.  This seemed out of step with the rest of the story, and drew out the conclusion far beyond what I expected.

That being said, all loose ends were nicely tied up as we reached the last page, and the final act is certainly dramatic and exciting. The book, on the whole, finds a balance between action and ordinary life, and as the story progresses, the pace picks up nicely.

If you’ve got connections to Cambridge, especially the University (like the author of the book) you will find this an entertaining, captivating yarn.  If you are a fan of Cadfael, or are interested in medieval history and medicine, I think you will also enjoy this book. The next book in the series is An Unholy Alliance, and I’m looking forward to reading it very much!

Rating

 

Poetry Book Review: What the Owl Taught Me by Annest Gwilym

What the Owl Taught Me is Annest Gwilym’s second book and first full collection, published by Lapwing Publications in 2020.  My thanks to Annest for providing me with a copy of the collection in return for an honest review.

Quick Review (read on for full review)

Beautifully written and wonderfully lyrical. Evocative word choices and vividly described imagery combine to make this poetry collection a rich and rewarding read.  Highly recommended! 5 / 5

Summary (from author)

The book is written broadly on the lines of a bestiary, and in the tradition of bestiaries, includes some imaginary animals as well as real ones. It chronicles my lifelong love of nature and animals. It includes some animals which are often ‘demonised’ by people and our human-centric view of the world, such as wasps and bluebottles. By including these I wanted to show that they too have their own intricate, valid lives and vital roles in the world. In a couple of poems, I share some environmental concerns, as well as concerns about loss of species.

Favourite Quote

The poems found in What the Owl Taught Me were so quotable that I had a very hard time narrowing down my favourite to just one…

beyond the bright cathedral

of the sky, the dark is deep.

(From the poem “Crows”, What the Owl Taught Me by Annest Gwilym)

Review

When Annest Gwilym, editor of Nine Muses Poetry, offered me the chance to review her new poetry book, I jumped at the opportunity.  A couple of years ago, I reviewed her first poetry pamphlet, Surfacing, (you can read that review here) and so was very excited to find a copy of What the Owl Taught Me waiting for me in my inbox.

The first things that struck me were the enchanting title and the beautiful, breathtaking cover, but when I read what the poetry book was about I just knew I had to read it.  Illuminated manuscripts but especially bestiaries have always fascinated me so a poetry book loosely based in the tradition of one was not to be missed.

Each of the forty poems came across as wonderfully lyrical. As I said in my review of Surfacing, “…the poet has a beautiful way with words, creating images that are easy to visualise,” and that remains true for What the Owl Taught Me. Fauna and flora, and landscapes and seascapes, all are vividly painted with evocative word choices.  The natural world is celebrated, and on occasion, mourned. The picture related in The Fox Road could be one in many an urban area across the country, where buildings and developments are sprawling ever outward at a cost to our green and wild spaces.

We are introduced to a wide range of creatures through the poetry, from the usual and regularly seen (I am loath to use the word “ordinary” here), to those more rarely encountered unless you live in a rural area or by the sea, and then there are those of the imagination.  Crows and starfish, herons and foxes, seagulls and pipistrelle bats, owls, mammophants, horses and so many more besides!

Some of the poems are gentle and warm, such as Encounter, whereas others remind the reader of what it means to be wild.  Here the descriptions are not muted or subdued, but neither are they overplayed nor excessively gory.  They just are, as nature just is

As I read Pipistrelle, a poem dedicated to the UK’s most common species of bat, I felt like the closing lines could have been written in the margin of a medieval text, which seemed to reinforce the idea of the bestiary.  This, of course, I loved!

The most powerful and evocative of the poems I found to be The Nightmare Bird, which blended the mythological with nightmarish description so easily and authentically that it could have come from medieval folklore:

Cauldron born, in the icy grip of Ceridwen. 

Moon-bitten, storm-struck eater of stars

and dreams, its scream strangles the night.

(From the poem “The Nightmare Bird” from What the Owl Taught Me by Annest Gwilym)

There is lightness to be found in the collection too…The Blackheart Malatrix had me smiling in places, as I read of all the things, some evil, some absurd, the creature would do (including stopping all the grandfather clocks in Milton Keynes!), until the very last two lines, which, punching out of nowhere, sobered me as I thought on the consequences this terrible creature wished to inflict.

Some of the poems are also visually striking. Still Life with Flotsam and Litter gave a voice to each flotsam and litter, one using found text, the other found objects and were presented in different ways. Then there was Wasp’s Nest, where the lines of the poem are shaped to form the shape of a wasp’s nest against the whiteness of the page, while Golden Child forms the shape of a ray.

If your idea of the natural world is of cuddly bunnies and fluffy lambs this might not be the read for you.  But if you want poetry that reflects the British countryside and its wildlife, as well as locations much further afield, not to mention the creatures of the poet’s imagination, you will find What the Owl Taught Me a rich and rewarding read.  Highly recommended!

To learn more about Annest’s poetry collection including how you can get your own copy, as well as read a sample of the poems (which I insist you must do!), please click here.

Rating


Sammi Loves Books Reading Challenge 2019 – I’ve chosen this book for challenge #14 in the list: a book of poetry or short fiction

Book Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

Quick Review (read on for full review)

Beautifully written, every sentence is infused with magic and enchantment. Highly recommended! 5 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe has neither the look nor the voice of divinity, and is scorned and rejected by her kin. Increasingly isolated, she turns to mortals for companionship, leading her to discover a power forbidden to the gods: witchcraft.

When love drives Circe to cast a dark spell, wrathful Zeus banishes her to the remote island of Aiaia. There she learns to harness her occult craft, drawing strength from nature. But she will not always be alone; many are destined to pass through Circe’s place of exile, entwining their fates with hers. The messenger god, Hermes. The craftsman, Daedalus. A ship bearing a golden fleece. And wily Odysseus, on his epic voyage home.

There is danger for a solitary woman in this world, and Circe’s independence draws the wrath of men and gods alike. To protect what she holds dear, Circe must decide whether she belongs with the deities she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.

Favourite Quote

We are sorry, we are sorry.

Sorry you were caught, I said. Sorry that you thought I was weak, but you were wrong.

(From Circe by Madeline Miller, page 171)

Review

I read Song of Achilles and was blown away by Madeline Miller’s writing.  So I knew I was going to enjoy this book, and I did.  But do I think it’s better than Song of Achilles?  That’s a tough question.  What I can say is that I came at these two books with quite a different mindset.  I didn’t like Achilles as I started SoA but that book transformed how I thought of him (I wouldn’t go as far as saying rehabilitated him in my mind, but he certainly became a little more sympathetic).  Conversely, with an interest (read: obsession) in paganism, witchcraft, ancient history and mythology, Circe had always been one of those figures I felt drawn to.  So in this instance, the question is: was the Circe of the book the same as the Circe I had imagined myself.  And the answer to that would be no?  Did I like the book any less because of it?  Certainly not!

This book is a masterpiece.  Beautifully written, every sentence is infused with magic and enchantment.  It is a tale of transformation, and a tale of power.  It is also a tale of loneliness and isolation (quite a fitting read during lockdown, don’t you think…)  It is a tale of love and loss, a tale of motherhood, a tale of witchcraft.  It is worth pointing out that the book is a retelling of Circe’s story as it is found in mythology, rather than an reimagining.

The island of Aiaia was evocatively brought to life with rich and vivid descriptions of the landscape and the fauna and flora.  It was certainly my favourite location of the book, though I enjoyed the trip to the palace of Knossos on Crete.

If you know the story of Circe, you will not be surprised by the cast of characters we meet as her tale unfolds.  Even though she is only a nymph, considered to be the lowliest of immortals, her life spans generations. Mortals, immortals and monsters…she encounters them all. But it is Circe herself who unremittingly captures the attention.  As a character, she is not perfect, far from it.  She can be benevolent, loving and kind, not to mention is resilient and shows us how to be self-reliant and independent.  Yet she can also be cruel and harsh and is responsible for terrible things, but she also is forced to endure terrible things too.  For a divine being, she is unquestionably human.

As I mentioned, this is a story of transformation where Circe becomes so much more than anyone expected and it terrifies those around her.  It is this, most of all, that I will take away from the book.  Our power, our witchcraft, is our own and with it we can find the strength and determination to achieve more than anyone else, or even ourselves, believe possible.  It won’t be easy.  As Circe says, witchcraft is drudgery, it’s dirty work, and it won’t always succeed at the first attempt, but that doesn’t mean it won’t ever work…

Highly recommended!

Rating

Book Review: Thornyhold by Mary Stewart

Quick review (read on for full review)

A richly described setting and an almost whimsically enchanting tale combine to create this gentle, charming read. 3.5 / 5

Summary (from inside cover)

To Gilly Ramsey, during her lonely childhood, the occasional brief visits of her mother’s cousin Geillis were a delight, appearing to the unhappy child like the visits of a fairy godmother. Years later, when Cousin Geillis was dead, and had willed her house, Thornyhold, to Gilly, the latter discovered that ‘fairy godmother’ was close enough to the truth. For Cousin Geillis, with her still-room, and her herbalist’s practice – and her undoubted powers – had long been known to the locals as a witch. And Gilly, inheriting ‘the witch’s house’, inherits, too, in spite of herself, her cousin’s reputation. She is approached by neighbours, some innocent, some not so innocent, but all assuming that she, too, is a witch, and a possible addition to the local coven. There is some truth in this, for Gilly, to her own surprise and discomfort, finds that in difficult moments she can call on power of a kind; it is as if Cousin Geillis is still somewhere in house and garden, weaving her own spells.

Gilly, once so shy and insecure, is gradually forced, by the very real powers at work in Thornyhold, to choose her own path through the enchanted woods. This, with the aid of an engaging small boy with a sick ferret, and then of his father, and even of her too-helpful nearest neighbour, Agnes, she finally does. Thornyhold, with its enchanted defences against evil, puts an end to loneliness and insecurity, and allows Gilly to move forward with confidence towards a new and satisfying life.

Favourite Quote

I suppose my mother could have been a witch if she had chosen to. But she met my father, who was a rather saintly clergyman, and he cancelled her out.

(From Thornyhold by Mary Stewart, page 7)

Review

Set during the years following World War II, this book is made up of a little bit of everything: a journey of self-discovery, witchcraft, fantasy, romance, suspense, sadness and even comedy, and that makes it quite a difficult book to place, I think.  What I can say, is that I enjoyed it.

Gilly Ramsey’s early life is bleak and lonely due in no small part to her parents.  Her mother comes across as cold and distant and her father is preoccupied with his duties as a clergyman.  I couldn’t help but wonder as I read, if either had really wanted a child.  The only glimmer’s of light the young Gilly receives come in the form of her mother’s cousin, Geillis, after who she is named.  She appears, often out of the blue, and comes across as if not a little strange, at least a little unusual, and naturally, she is.  Gilly’s life is influenced and shaped greatly by these three people, and it rather sadly, takes the death of them all to come into her own.

The witchcraft described in the story is of the hedgewitch variety – country herbalism, folklore and low magic.  I could read endless passages on the magical and medicinal properties of growing things.  The English countryside is richly described: flora and fauna, Stonehenge, the ruins of an old house, villages and hamlets, farms, fields and woodlands.  But it is Thornyhold that captures the attention and the heart: an old cottage (though fairly sizeable in dimension) surrounded by forest and wildlife.

The pace felt quite slow to begin with, and reading about Gilly’s childhood was not particularly fun, but as the years moved on and she arrives at Thornyhold, Gilly not only discovers who she really is – compared with who she has had to be her whole life – but learns about the strange and mysterious Cousin Geillis.

I would love to have had more information about Cousin Geillis’ relationship to Gilly’s mother, and even how her mother felt about her cousin.  Did she envy her life and freedom? Was she jealous of Geillis’ apparent closeness to her daughter?  As I moved through the story, I thought there might be more to this storyline than kindred spirits, but if there was, it never materialised.  And, as I wasn’t completely convinced by the romantic element to the story, or how the suspense element was resolved, yet overall enjoyed reading the book, 3.5 stars sounded like a fair rating.

Rating

3.5 / 5

 

Short Story Review: The Adventure of the Illustrious Client by Arthur Conan Doyle

* This review may contain spoilers *

The Adventure of The Illustrious Client is a Sherlock Holmes short story by Arthur Conan Doyle.  It is the first story in the collection, The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes.

Quick Review (read on for full review)

A good, gripping story with an interesting mystery and unexpected ending. 4 / 5

Summary

Sir James Damery seeks out Sherlock Holmes on behalf of an un-named yet illustrious client.  The case is a delicate one.  Violet de Merville has fallen madly in love with Baron Gruner, a highly intelligent man, believed by both Sir James and Sherlock Holmes to be a murderer.  Violet is determined to marry the Baron, no matter what anyone says about him and even after the man himself apparently lays bare his chequered past.  Can anything be done to make Violet realise what she refuses to see?

Favourite Quote

I couldn’t decide between these two:

‘Johnson is on the prowl,’ said he. ‘He may pick up some garbage in the darker recesses of the underworld for it is down there, amid the black roots of crime, that we must hunt for this man’s secrets.’

(From The Adventure of The Illustrious Client by Arthur Conan Doyle, page 15)

*

‘Woman’s heart and mind are insoluble puzzles to the male. Murder might be condoned or explained, and yet some smaller offence might rankle.’

(From The Adventure of The Illustrious Client by Arthur Conan Doyle, page 16)

Review

I am slowly making my way through the Sherlock Holmes stories, although not in chronological order.  Currently, I am moving back and forth between the short story collections, The Return of Sherlock Holmes and The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes, and having just recently finished the short novel A Study in Scarlet (you can read my review here), plan to start the next Sherlock novel, The Sign of Four, soon.

The Adventure of The Illustrious Client was a good story.  The storytelling ensured the tale was gripping and the mystery itself was certainly an interesting one.  As for the ending, it was certainly unexpected.

Out of all the Sherlock Holmes stories I have read so far, this one, I think, has the most interesting and memorable characters.

Kitty Winters was probably chief amongst them.  I would love to have known more of her back story.  One of my favourite descriptions from this story is that of her and Violet being like fire and ice.

The Baron made for a very engaging antagonist; a dangerous rogue but well-educated, with a niche interest in Chinese pottery.  He was also very brazen and sure of himself, admitting to Sherlock that yes, it’s all true but there is nothing you can do about it!

An entertaining read, indeed!

Rating

Book Review: What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge

Quick Review (read on for full review)

I thought I would enjoy this book so much more than I did, but alas, I didn’t.  If I’d read it as a child, which I hadn’t, I wonder if I might have enjoyed it a little more…1 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

Katy Carr intends to be beautiful and beloved and as sweet as an angel one day. For now, though, her hair is forever in a tangle, her dress is always torn and she doesn’t care at all for being called ‘good’. But then a terrible accident happens and Katy must find the courage to remember her daydreams and the delightful plans she once schemed; for when she is grown up she wants to do something grand…

Favourite Quote

“To-morrow I will begin,” thought Katy, as she dropped asleep that night. How often we all do so! And what a pity it is that when morning comes and to-morrow is to-day, we so frequently wake up feeling quite differently; careless or impatient, and not a bit inclined to do the fine things we planned overnight.”

(From What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge)

Review

I’ve not got many good things to say about this book, and I’m quite disappointed by that, especially after liking my revisit of The Secret Garden. I had high hopes for this, given its popularity.  Growing up, I recall it was a favourite of a number of friends, and I was often encouraged to read it by family and friends and teachers but I was too preoccupied with other books of my own choosing to do so.  I preferred mysteries, horror and crime stories, even then. 😉

The main problem I found was it came across as a little dated. It’s very much a product of its time and lacks the timelessness of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women in comparison (which, is another book I’m hoping to re-read soon).   Little girls should be good, pretty, obedient, well-presented…you get the idea.  There were also a few troubling passages in the book that I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable with, such as views on disability and what it is to be a good person.

It didn’t help that I didn’t like Katy very much. I found her annoying and frustrating.  At one point in the story, I actually gasped in shock at something she had done – I’ll not mention here for fear of spoilers, though I’ll happily discuss it in the comments, should anyone wish to.  The only words to describe it: terrible and harrowing.

I felt a lot of sympathy towards Aunt Izzy, though I can imagine, reading this as a child, I too would have seen her as the enemy of all things fun.  The perspective of age here plays its part.

I do wonder if I had read it as a child – and if I had liked it then – I might have enjoyed it more now.  Revisiting it with fond recollections might have made me more amenable to Katy and better able to tolerate the things about her that I didn’t like.   Of course, it is worth pointing out it’s a children’s story and not being a child, I am not the intended target audience for this book.

Only after writing the first draft of my review did I learn, on reading other reviews on Goodreads, that the title of the book is in fact a play on the name of a family of insects (katydid).  Which explains the opening of the story, something I did not get at all at the time.  So I come away from this book having learned something – always good!

Will I be reading more from the Carr series of story by Susan Coolidge? The next book is What Katy Did At School.  My answer: Not any time soon…

Just a note: I listened to an audio dramatization of this book from LibreVox.  The dramatization was well done, but it was the story itself that I didn’t like – I just want to make that clear.  As I mentioned when reviewing The Secret Garden, finding favourite quotes is harder to do for an audiobook compared to having the text in front of you.  So I cheated a little and searched the ones listed on Goodreads, but only picked one that I could actually recall.

Rating

 


Sammi Loves Books Reading Challenge 2019 – I’ve chosen this book for challenge #20 in the list: a book written by an author that has the same initials as you