Miranda Seymour: The Pity Of War

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England and Germany have been both close allies and bitter enemies over the past two hundred years.  In this book Seymour looks at the parallel histories of two great nations through the lives of a series of interesting and sometimes outrageous characters whose stories encompass this relationship.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book because although the history was known, the experiences made it seem so much more grounded in reality.  In particular the sufferings of the German nationals during the Second World War and the antics of the naive youth of the 1930s who visited Germany and became entranced by Hitler.

Little vignettes of extraordinary lives bring history alive!

C W Gortner: The Tudor Vendetta

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Brendan Prescott is languishing in exile in Switzerland until he hears that Queen Mary is dead and Elizabeth has ascended the throne.  Returning to England he is asked to undertake a personal and private mission for the Queen which leads him to the wilds of East Yorkshire.

Having read the first of Gortner’s books but not the second, I found it relatively easy to pick up some of the plot lines which was no mean feat as a character from the second tale plays a large role in this story.  The detail of Tudor life is impressive and the plot races along.  OK, it’s complete hokum from start to finish but it’s a fun journey.

Howard Jacobson: J

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Following an event the course of society has been changed. Everyone has quasi-Jewish names and the state controls life. I gave up at this point, about 15% into the book. Sorry but life is too short to carry on with this. I’m sure there is a group of book readers who really enjoy sub-‘1984′ style premises but the Jewish cliches and hints were so blunt and obvious that this book was becoming a drag.

That’s a personal opinion

Antonia Hodgson: The Devil in the Marshalsea

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Tom Hawkins is the son of an East Anglican cleric, expected to follow his father into the vocation, however Tom has a wild side and whilst studying at Cambridge he indulged in many vices. Denounced by his jealous stepbrother, Tom is cast off by his father and has ended up in London living the life of a rake and a wastrel. Unfortunately Tom is naive and moral which means that he incurs debt to such a level that he is threatened with prison. Gambling all on a final game of cards he wins but is robbed and thrown into the Marshalsea Prison.

The prison is a tough place to be, life hangs by a thread and the inability to pay for rent and board on the ‘Masters Side’ means almost certain death on the ‘Commons Side’. However a murder has taken place and Tom is charged with investigating this as the price for freedom. The regime running the Marshalsea is making a lot of money and any official investigation may bring that to an end. Tom struggles to find the truth as he is unsure of who to trust.

The depiction of life in 18th century London is excellent, the Hogarthian nature of life for all classes is shown. A man’s future is dependent on money and influence and the wheel of fortune throws individuals down as often as they are thrown up. Many characters in this book are drawn from life and the fictional characters are very believable. The plot is a little odd in the end but the journey to that ending is complex and enjoyable – a gripping little book.

S J Deas: The Royalist

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William Falkland languishes in a cell awaiting execution. He is a Royalist soldier captured by Parliamentarians and despite surviving battle he knows he cannot survive capture. Taken from his prison, blindfolded, he expects the worst but is actually shown into the presence of Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell has heard of Falkland, a man whose honour and morals transcend battle, and he tasks Falkland to look into a spate of suicides amongst the New Model Army stationed at Crediton in Devon. Neither prisoner nor loyalist, Falkland must try to get to the bottom of mystery which wraps paranoia and witchcraft around the troubles of a large army encamped in the remains of a small town through a cold and harsh winter.

Deas writes well, the evocation of cold is beautiful and realistic, the descriptions of prison and squalor equally so. The plot is clever and twists and turns seem completely integral to the story. The denouement less so. This is a well-researched book and it comes from a different sort of perspective to many in the ‘historical detective’ genre, in that it focuses on character and place rather than plot.

A promising start to a projected series.

Mel Starr: The Abbot’s Agreement

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Hugh is on his way to Oxford to buy a Bible – an expensive luxury purchase in the middle ages. His wife is due to give birth around Christmas and his life is content. On the way though he finds a dead body, eaten by crows but clearly that of a monk from the local abbey. Hugh is commissioned by the Abbot to find the murderer, his reward will be a Bible. However in searching for a murderer Hugh uncovers blasphemy in the abbey, is accused himself and realises that his monk was more involved with the sins of the flesh that at first glance.

I have read a couple of Mel Starr’s books and I find that there is the same problem, 200-odd pages of enjoyable whodunnit set in medieval times and a denouement that seems over in a couple of pages and is lightly sketched. That’s rather frustrating as Starr obviously has researched the books well and is comfortable writing in period, the characters are round and the plots actually quite tight. In this case I loved the fact that Hugh was convinced he knew all the answers but then suddenly realised that he know nothing and had to formulate a completely different theory.

Very entertaining but just not quite there for me