Thursday, February 22, 2018

Winter Arrives--and My Review of What Angels Fear

Winter in Pine Valley

As winter finally arrives in Pine Valley with snow flurries and what we call "snail"--hail-like balls of ice that float to the ground like snow--reading in front of the fire with a cup of tea is the epitome of bliss. It's been a mild, mild winter so far, with highs usually in the 60s and even the 70s through most of December and January. Then finally in mid-February, winter decided to pay us a visit with lows in the mid-teens and highs in the 30s.

The woodburning stove is burning nearly 'round the clock, and the new wood splitter that Keith bought with our Christmas money from my parents is getting quite the workout. The huge pile of wood that Keith accumulated over the summer and fall months is slowly being split, the older stuff first, of course. Then we wheelbarrow each load to the front porch and from there we bring armloads into the house. 

So here's my newest read--the beginnings of a wonderful series set in the Regency period in England. I love the characters already and am looking forward to their next adventure. 

What Angels FearWhat Angels Fear by C.S. Harris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Set in 1811 London, What Angels Fear is a very interesting mystery (the first in a series) in which Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, is accused of the horrendously violent rape and murder of a beautiful eighteen-year-old stage actress--in a church, no less. As he seeks to clear his name, Devlin is forced to work with Kat Boleyn, also an actress and the woman to whom he proposed marriage six years earlier, who left him so that she would not ruin his life. Meanwhile, more and more "evidence" seems to pile up against the Viscount, and his intelligence work in the Napoleonic Wars serves him in good stead as he seeks the true murderer. All these events occur in the days prior to the Regency of the Prince as his father, George III, sinks further into madness.

Surrounded by political intrigue, familial ties that bind too tightly, his continued love for Kat as they work together to solve the murder of her friend and fellow actress Rachel, plus the fear that the killer will strike again, Viscount Devlin, along with the sneaky and bright urchin, Tom, peels back the layers of this crime only to find himself and Rachel in mortal danger as the end of the book approaches.

Well-written with deep character development and compelling suspense, I will continue reading this brilliant St. Cyr mystery series.

View all my reviews

Reading with you,

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Review: The Blue Castle

The Blue Castle The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I didn't read anything by L.M. Montgomery until I was in my mid-twenties and finally read the Anne of Green Gables series. And I was hooked. In my opinion, Montgomery writes the most beautiful prose in the English language. I've re-read the Anne series more times than I can count; my boxed set of paperbacks are nearly coming apart at the binding and the pages are well-yellowed with age and use.

I ran across this title when reading the Here in the Bonny Glen blog by Melissa Wiley, and she mentioned re-reading this book yet again. I quickly ordered it from the library and absolutely adored it!

Valancy Stirling is a character with whom I identified immediately. Her repressed childhood was nothing like mine, and I married young (at 19!). But I understand her love of nature and her longing for life to go beyond the boxed-in existence she was forced into through fear of what her family and the ubiquitous "they" might think. I cried with Valancy as she lived a life she hated and felt so fortunate myself in living in a place surrounded by natural beauty.

And I admired her reaction to the distressing medical news--her decision to go and truly LIVE her life the way she wanted. Ignoring the town gossip and her family's pleas for her to return home to her loveless mother and horrid aunt because she was making them "look bad." Leaving her home to "work"--no Stirling woman would ever stoop to work, for genteel poverty was far more respectable--shocked her family and the entire town. But only then does Valancy learn what it is to truly live.

This book is beautifully written and is ever so poignant; I found myself in tears more than once. Montgomery's beautiful prose combined with a heroine who suffers quietly for 29 years of her life and then finally breaks free of society's constraints to live at last!! I was in love!!

This is a book that I, like Melissa, will return to again and again.

View all my reviews

Reading with you,

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Ash Wednesday and Lent

Ash Wednesday marks the 40th day (not counting Sundays which are always a celebration of the Resurrection of Christ) before Easter. 

Most evangelicals do not celebrate Lent, and in coming from a more liturgical background, mostly Presbyterian and Methodist, I have marked Lent in one way or another since my college days at Point Loma Nazarene University. 

But about twenty years ago, I became quite passionate about celebrating the Church Year, including Advent and Lent. Partly from the wonderful book Celebrating the Christian Year by Martha Zimmerman (a pastor's wife) and partly from my interest in the Book of Common Prayer, I began celebrating Lent in great earnest. 

I was thrilled when our former church, Lake Murray Community Church, began to celebrate Advent, yet the pastors and elders would not mark Lent in any way. We celebrated Holy Week, but not Ash Wednesday or Lent as a whole. 

A few years ago, my Bible study leader at our evangelical church asked me to share about Ash Wednesday and Lent in our inductive Bible study. The pastor allowed it, but would not grant permission for another Bible study to join us. Here is a summary of my talk on Ash Wednesday and Lent which may be found in the links under the Meditative Meanderings header: On Lent

About six years ago, I spent Ash Wednesday at the beautiful Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside, the largest of the California Missions, with my dear friend Carmen. Our day retreat concluded with the Imposition of Ashes, marking us as Christ's Own as crosses were drawn on our foreheads with ashes, a Biblical symbol of repentance. 

This Ash Wednesday I plan to attend morning services at Larkspur House with Blessed Trinity Anglican Church. 

I find Ash Wednesday among the most moving of all the services of the year. As I humble myself, marked by repentance as belonging to Christ, I feel more His than ever, and I invariably weep at the poignant sweetness of being branded (albeit temporarily) as His. 

God has impressed upon me which habits to surrender to Him this Lent. It is going to be extremely difficult in fasting from these things, but that is the nature of Lent: to remove what may be impeding our relationship with Christ and allow better habits to take their place--habits which glorify Him. It's a time of spiritual housecleaning, and it takes much prayer, effort, and discipline to exchange one habit for another. 

"A nail is driven out by another nail; habit is overcome by habit."

A few other quotations I unearthed today and added to my second Quotation Journal: 

"The observance of Lent is the very badge of Christian warfare.... By it we gain strength against the prince of darkness, for it shields us with heavenly help."
--Pope Benedict XVI, from Non Ambigimus

I respect this idea of Lent being a tool of spiritual warfare, allowing us, through the power of Christ, to vanquish our enemy. 

"Renounce yourselves in order to follow Christ; discipline your body; do not pamper yourself, but love fasting."
--Saint Benedict, from Chapter Four of The Rule

This giving up of self is at the heart of Lent, allowing us the opportunity to change our hearts' perspectives, letting go of that which binds us to the world and grasping that which pulls us closer to the heart of Christ our Lord. 

Here is the Collect for Ash Wednesday from The Book of Common Prayer 2011. This Collect is prayed daily during the Lenten season until Maundy Thursday:

ALMIGHTY and eternal God, you hate nothing that you have made, and you forgive the sins of all who turn to you; Create and make in us new and contrite hearts; As we are truly sorry for our sins and admit our guilt, may we obtain from you, the God of all mercy, complete release and forgiveness; Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and rules with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. (Wisdom 11.23-26; Psalm 51.10)

So as I pray for myself in offering up some very pleasant diversions in order to focus more on Jesus, I pray for us all who celebrate the Christian Year to have a Holy Lent, one set apart for the glory of our Lord. 

Walking the pilgrim pathway with you,

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Shrove Tuesday 2018

As New Orleans and other cities across the nation and around the world celebrate Mardi Gras tonight, our family will settle for pancakes, our traditional dinner on Shrove Tuesday.

But what is Shrove Tuesday? 

Father Gregory of Blessed Trinity Anglican Church sent out the answer to this question via e-mail this week
to the Blessed Trinity family:

Although far less widely known than Fat Tuesday/Mardi Gras, the Tuesday immediately before Ash Wednesday is also known as Shrove Tuesday. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, which is sometimes referred to as "Shrovetide" in England. Observance of Shrove Tuesday can be traced back to at least AD 1000 and was originally observed as a day of confession and penitence in preparation for Ash Wednesday and Lent. Today, Shrove Tuesday is primarily observed among Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Methodists. The word shrove is past tense of shrive, a verb meaning “to go to confession and get absolved of sin.”

In the past few centuries, though, Shrove Tuesday has turned into more of a day of feasting in preparation for the fasting that is to occur during Lent. The feasting aspect of Shrove Tuesday originated due to the need to get rid of the foods/ingredients that are restricted during the Lenten fasting, such as sugar, leavened flour, eggs, etc. The need to use up these ingredients has resulted in Shrove Tuesday also becoming known as Pancake Tuesday, or, more simply, Pancake Day.

Although I've attended evangelical churches for the past twenty years, I've practiced Lent in one form or another since college. Even though they had both been raised Nazarene, my former roommates had taught me a bit about Lent in college, and for my first Lent I gave up my prime addiction: soda. Diet Coke was my coffee; I was drinking my first can at seven in the morning and downed them throughout the day to keep myself alert during classes and the long drive home as a commuter student. The wonderful thing was that after Lent, soda upset my stomach, so I've pretty much been on a soda fast since college--drinking water and tea is far healthier!

Lent is a time for spiritual housecleaning for me. I pray over what has a hold on my life in a possibly unhealthy way, and I ask God to loosen this thing's hold on me so that I can live a more balanced life, one devoted to loving and serving Him. In past years I've fasted from television, desserts, gluten, Facebook, fan fiction stories, reading novels, and other often non-traditional items. I don't reveal what I am fasting from during each Lent, but the idea is to not only practice self-denial and to free up time for spending with God that would be spent on less God-centered pursuits, but to offer up something I really enjoy to God as a sacrifice, allowing me to focus on Him and on how He desires to mold me into the image of His Son.

Lent prepares our hearts for the joy of Easter--the celebration of the Resurrection of our Living and Loving Lord. How can we truly celebrate without suffering just a little first? Through fasting and prayer, we draw closer to the heart of the One who loved us first.

Can we fast and pray at any time? Sure. But do we? Not enough--or at least, I know that I don't fast and pray enough. Lent reminds me to do so, to allow the Holy Spirit into the dark corners of my soul and do a spiritual "spring cleaning," showing me my sin so that I may confess it and be cleansed.

Renovaré, one of my favorite resources for practicing the disciplines of the historical church in a way that both glorifies God and grows my faith, has created a resource to guide us as we press into the season of Lent. The devotional booklet, Less Is More, prompts an intentional reflection on the aspects of our lives that stand in the way of walking in God’s spirit and encourages us to move forward in love. Each week, a classic spiritual discipline provides the entry point for self-examination, God reflection, and godly action: 
Confession: Less Guilt/More Grace
Solitude: Less Noise/More Listening
Fasting: Less Consumption/More Compassion 
Simplicity: Less Stuff/More Freedom 
Frugality: Less Spending/More Peace 
Intercession: Less Me/More Others 
Reflective Reading of Holy Week Story: Less Fear/More Love 
Renovaré hopes that the daily immersion in the life of God through these disciplines becomes a life-giving habit that extends well beyond this season of Lent.

To read more about Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, and Lent, check out my post On Lent using this hyperlink or by going to the "On Lent" page beneath my blog header.

I wish you all a Holy and Blessed Lent as we all draw closer to our Lord and King!

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Yay!! Caught up with Book Reviews!

Here we are! I am now completely caught up with all of my book reviews and will now post single reviews as I read and review each book on Goodreads.

Only a few of these are from 2017; the rest were read in January of this year. This collection is quite eclectic: an Advent devotional, an Anne Perry Christmas novel, a Dan Brown thriller, and the rest are Austenesque: three are variations of Pride and Prejudice, and the last is Austen's Persuasion from Captain Wentworth's point of view.

So here we go with the last collection of book reviews for a while!

A Quest for Mr DarcyA Quest for Mr Darcy by Cassandra Grafton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this novel as it unfolded, chapter by chapter, on Cassandra Grafton's blog--and I adored every moment of it!!! Wednesday mornings became the highlight of my week as a new chapter awaited my attention in my inbox.

The premise of this story is quite different: Mrs. Bennet and Lydia are dead; Kitty and Mary are married, and Mr. Bennet along with his two elder daughters, move away from the gossip of Lydia's failed elopement with Wickham (Elizabeth never visits Pemberley in this variation) to far-away Derbyshire, renting a modest home on Pemberley's grounds while Mr. Darcy and Georgiana travel Europe on an extended tour.

After trying for a year to forget Elizabeth, whom he last saw at Rosings, Darcy returns to find out that she is now his neighbor. Darcy also returns to Pemberley not only with Georgiana but also with Bingley's two young sisters, the twins Olivia and Viola who are quite the handful...and the complete opposite of their elder sister Caroline whom they have been driving insane with their open manners and fun-loving spirits.

And following soon on their heels arrives the family of a young lady Darcy has been considering marrying; that Darcy heir is much needed, and if Darcy can't have Elizabeth, then he doesn't much care whom he marries. But the young lady pales in comparison to Elizabeth who starts developing feelings for Darcy once she sees his tender care for his staff and tenants and his overall generosity of spirit and depth of character.

But a mystery (or three) haunts the Bennets and Pemberley: Mr. Bennet's mysterious trips to a nearby town, a seeming "ghost" seen by the twins (who chase after it), and threatening notes implying blackmail. Can Darcy protect Elizabeth and Jane while pursuing Elizabeth under the nose of the young woman to whom he was supposed to propose?

This story is quite deliciously long, extremely well-developed, and is a thoroughly enjoyable and believable variation on Austen's beloved Pride and Prejudice. Brava, Cassandra!!

A Christmas Return A Christmas Return by Anne Perry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A lovely new Christmas book by Anne Perry, A Christmas Return takes Charlotte Ellison Pitt's spunky and difficult octogenarian grandmother, Mariah Ellison, on a Christmastime trip to the country to assist an old friend, Rowena, with an unsolved rape and murder case of a 14-year old village girl which also resulted in the death of Rowena's husband...while Rowena has been suspected of her husband's suspicious death for the past twenty years. But the villages's well-respected doctor was tried for the girl's rape and murder and was acquitted. Nevertheless, he returns on the twentieth anniversary of the crime to "prove" his supposed innocence "once and for all."

Mariah teams up with Rowena's thirty-year-old grandson to unearth unassailable proof of the doctor's guilt...not only of the rape and murder of the girl, but of the murder of Rowena's husband, the doctor's lawyer who had refused to defend him at the last moment...and was found crushed by a bookcase in his library the next day.

This return is difficult for Mariah and requires much courage from Rowena and her grandson in clearing Rowena's name while proving the guilt of the doctor. This short Christmas novel is filled with suspense and wonderful character sketches--a delightfully wintry mystery, indeed!

The Dawning of Indestructible Joy: Daily Readings for Advent The Dawning of Indestructible Joy: Daily Readings for Advent by John Piper
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Given my Anglo-Catholic leanings, I wasn't so sure about an Advent devotional written by an evangelical Baptist (and I definitely wasn't sure about praying through *two* Advent devotionals!), but this lovely little book by John Piper went along very well with my Advent with the Saints devotional.

I was given *two* copies of this devotional by Father Gregory (the Great) of Blessed Trinity, and I handed the other to Pastor Noble Weeks, the pastor of our non-denominational Village Missions church, and the only church in our small mountain village. He and his family enjoyed the devotional very much. When I spoke to his wife, she mentioned that they usually celebrated Advent as a family--very cool!! :)

The readings are short and simple, reminding us of the power of God in the Incarnation of Christ. The focus is on JOY (which I really, really needed this Advent!!), and I may read/pray through it again next Advent.

Inferno Inferno by Dan Brown
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This fourth adventure of Robert Langdon (I haven't read the third yet) was edge-of-your-seat from the very first scene. The plot revolves around Dante's Inferno, a book I haven't read since 1989, but I very much enjoyed the setting of Florence and later Venice and then at last, Istanbul. And all of the art and art history!! I wish that there was a full-color illustrated edition of this book so that each time a work of art was mentioned (which happened extremely frequently), we could see exactly the work of art Brown described to us. The research that Dam Brown invested in this novel is staggering; not only does the book deal with Dante's poem in extreme detail, but all of the art associated with The Inferno and the history of each artifact/museum/cathedral that held significance in this work is mind-blowing!

Some reviewers have stated that all of the exhaustive detail about Dante's life and work and about the art, architecture, and holy places slowed down the adventure of the novel, but I found that slowing down to drink in the details paced the novel extremely well. I was interested in every detail Brown gave, every description we saw through Langdon's eyes, and the people--the characters--were so rich and believable and imaginative. I spend many an extra "spin" in my jacuzzi because I was reluctant to put down this book until I reached the end of a chapter...and then the end of the next chapter, and so on. A compelling read about a serious problem that we face in the modern world, and a brilliant lunatic's plan to save humanity that must be stopped before thousands, even millions die--not a bad way to spend the last part of my evening for the past three (nearly four) weeks!

Mr. Darcy's Fault: A Pride and Prejudice Vagary Novella Mr. Darcy's Fault: A Pride and Prejudice Vagary Novella by Regina Jeffers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A short novella by Regina Jeffers, one of the most talented and (thankfully) prolific authors of Jane Austen Fan Fiction (JAFF), presents a story of Mr. Darcy's rescuing Elizabeth, but in such as way that he compromises her, and they must marry. Elizabeth comes to harm while reading Darcy's letter as she walks between the parsonage and Rosings Park, and in the emergency, Darcy's letter flutters away, only to be picked up by none other than Wickham. But Elizabeth is not happy with being forced to marry although Mr. Darcy obviously is not upset at the results of his compromising rescue. But as Elizabeth slowly becomes accustomed to the idea of marrying Fitzwilliam Darcy, the man she swore (to his face) she would never marry, trouble appears in the form of Wickham who wishes to steal away the only woman Darcy has ever loved....

Regina Jeffers seems to write her many variations of Austen's novels with ease; the different variations seem to tumble from her pen (or keyboard) with compelling characters and twisty-turny plots that keep us on the edge of our seats until, at last, all is well between Darcy and Elizabeth once again. I have become quite the fan of Regina Jeffers' many Austenesque novels and novellas, and this particular "vagary" is one of her best. I would give it a "5," but I tend to save that perfect score for classics...such as the original Pride and Prejudice. But if I could, I would give this one the score of 4.5. :)

In the Wilds of Derbyshire In the Wilds of Derbyshire by Jann Rowland
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this very different variation of Pride and Prejudice in which Elizabeth is persuaded to go to Derbyshire to mentor her young cousin Olivia. Elizabeth wants to get away from Longbourn, for Jane has returned from her wedding trip with Bingley a very changed woman, one who barely speaks to her family and no longer confides anything to Elizabeth. Bingley is just as flummoxed by Jane's changed demeanor as Elizabeth is. So Elizabeth sinks into depression which is relieved by meeting her uncle and cousins--but her aunt, Mr. Bennet's sister, remains removed and sometimes rude. Elizabeth's uncle--a gentleman farmer but in reduced financial circumstances due to the wasting of his demesne by his grandfather and father--is also neighbor to Mr. Darcy who stayed with Georgiana rather than visiting with Bingley in Hertfordshire. Elizabeth and Olivia's deep and abiding friendship with Georgiana puts her in Darcy's view, and he quickly starts to esteem her. And then more secrets, cunning plans, and diabolical schemes are unearthed as the story progresses.

If I could give this story a 4 1/2, I would; it's beautifully written, masterfully plotted, and the characters are realistic and utterly entrancing and compelling. This Darcy, while still serious, has a healthy sense of humor and sense of the absurd. Elizabeth is entrancing as always, providing a bright and loving example to both Olivia and Georgiana, encouraging them to become strong young women of grace and compassion. The story is set almost completely In the Wilds of Derbyshire and is a wonderful read.

Captain Frederick Wentworth's Persuasion: Jane Austen's Classic Retold Through His Eyes Captain Frederick Wentworth's Persuasion: Jane Austen's Classic Retold Through His Eyes by Regina Jeffers
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

To read Persuasion from Captain Wentworth's POV would be amazing, but then to take the story of Frederick and Anne into the future is even more marvelous!! Frederick reviews his whole relationship with Anne via flashbacks, and then we move forward with the couple as Napoleon once again threatens England with war. Once Napoleon is taken care of for good, the Wentworths continue in their happily-married life which is not without occasional adventure!

This book was delightful from the very first scene which places us in a battle on the high seas as Frederick and his crew pursue a French ship; Anne remains hidden during the battle to keep her safe. And from there the flashbacks begin. We see their first meeting, their almost instantaneous love for one another, their relationship as it moves toward his proposal, the meeting with Sir Walter (which obviously does not go well), and Frederick's anger at Anne when she lets him go, "for his own good."

He thinks he truly hates Anne when he returns to Somerset eight years later, and he does what he can to show her his dislike. He is petty at times--and knows it--but he wants Anne to see what she gave up. His flirtations with Louisa Musgrove are all about showing Anne that he wants a different type of woman, one who knows her own mind. Yet he also pities Anne in her subservient position at Uppercross Cottage with her sister Mary's selfish ways. And he admires Anne as she cares so compassionately for her nephews.

Through the events of Lyme, Frederick finally realizes that Anne is the only woman for him, but he seems to be committed to Louisa after her injury. But after all is sorted, Frederick follows Anne to Bath, only to find her being courted by her cousin, Mr. Elliot, her father's heir. What will Frederick do to gain Anne's mind and heart which he does not realize have always been his for the asking.

And then we get to see their married bliss and adventures that occur after the wedding--so much!!! But I don't want to spoil any surprises.

Regina Jeffers has written yet another amazing variation/continuation of Austen's works, this time with Persuasion, Austen's final book which was published posthumously. Ms. Jeffers tells a compelling and incredible story of love lost and regained, stronger than ever, and we fall in love once again with Anne and her captain.

I don't often give scores of "5" to works that aren't classics, but this version of Persuasion nearly improves upon the original. To out-Austen Miss Austen herself is a difficult accomplishment, but Regina Jeffers has done it. Brava!

* * * * *

Happy reading!

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Guess What? More Book Reviews!

Yep, it's time for another round of book reviews as I try to catch up with my book reviews to the point that I can post book reviews of one or two titles each week. So here are my latest round of reviews from 2017 as I slowly make up for lost time. In fact, I may need just one more post like this to be totally caught up!

This week's post includes two Jane Austen variations, one Jane Austen mystery, two medieval mysteries, and one former bestseller. So here we go!

The Angel of Longbourn The Angel of Longbourn by Jann Rowland
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a sweet variation of Austen's Pride and Prejudice in which Darcy becomes ill with typhoid fever while riding horseback in the rain from London to Netherfield and falls from his horse. He is discovered by the intrepid Miss Elizabeth Bennet who was out walking in the rain and arranges for the handsome stranger's removal to Longbourn. Elizabeth begins to admire the gentleman whom she nurses until he regains consciousness as she is the only of the Bennet girls to have previously contracted typhoid fever.

Once Darcy awakes, he and Elizabeth find that they have much in common, and Darcy will have to regain his strength at Longbourn and not be removed to Netherfield, despite Miss Bingley's, and later, Lady Catherine's, objections. What will happen as Darcy's and Elizabeth's attachment continues to grow as he convalesces?

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It's nice to *not* have Darcy and Elizabeth at loggerheads; their relationship grows quite naturally, much like Bingley's with Jane. I rarely give 5 stars to non-classic novels, but I found this variation to be soothing and just what I needed at this time. A lovely story!!

Angels & Demons Angels and Demons by Dan Brown
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read The Da Vinci Code years ago before the movie came out, and while the adventure and suspense were compelling, the church history mistakes (or misinterpretations) rather ruined the book for me. My secular library book discussion group didn't care for my church history views, either.

But since this book deals with the fictional election of a new Pope and the return of the fabled Illuminati, the science-is-religion group that boasted the membership of Galileo, Bernini, and so many other Renaissance scientists and artists, I was able to "take the ride" of this book and enjoy the sense of suspense and the compelling characters thoroughly.

In fact, this book was sooooo intriguing that I found myself sitting in the spa long past my normal twenty minutes (and once for over an hour!) because I just couldn't put it down. A wonderful novel of adventure, history, religion, and suspense. Definitely recommend!

A Trail of Ink A Trail of Ink by Melvin R. Starr
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the third "Chronicle of Hugh de Singleton, Surgeon" by Mel Starr and is entitled A Trail of Ink; however, it is the fourth mystery in this series that I've read. I purchased the second and fourth chronicles from our library book sale and have obtained the first and now the third book in the series from our state-wide library "LINK+" program; this copy came from Contra Costa in Northern California (east of San Francisco) while I live but twenty miles north of the border with Mexico.

But back to this medieval mystery...

As I had already read the fourth chronicle, I knew the outcome of several plot lines already, but it was nice to see them unfold in detail rather than gather the major points in a quick summary as the fourth tale began. Unlike the other three chronicles I've read of this series, this tale took place mostly in Oxford as Hugh seeks twenty books (precious possessions in those days!) belonging to Master Wyclif of Canterbury Hall. As Hugh has often consulted Master Wyclif on matters both mysterious and personal, it was enjoyable to have a plot focused solely on this Oxford professor whose revolutionary theology sparked the pre-Reformation in England. I have often come across Wycliffe in my studies of church history, so his theology was not new to me.

But one of the aspects of this series that I most enjoy is the rhythm of life structured around the Holy Days of the Church and the way in which medieval life was drenched in Christian thought and practice. I enjoy also the gentle unfolding of these mysteries which may take weeks or even months to solve...which is much more realistic than the few days or perhaps a week devoted to many modern mystery novels. Mr. Starr has captured not only the slower cadence of life in medieval times but also the focus of medieval thought and life centered on worship and the Church Year. As a confirmed Anglican, I am pleased to know the dates of Michaelmas and Candlemas along with many of the other Saints' Days and other Holy Days.

This story opens dramatically with the missing books which are the basis of Master Wyclif's livelihood as well as his continued studies as a theologian and philosopher. These chronicles have such a realistic tone about them as Hugh can be taken down wrong paths as he tries to solve the various crimes that come his way. He has an aptitude for solving mysteries, but he is not exceptionally intelligent as many sleuths are; he often must be pointed into a more promising line of inquiry by Master Wyclif or Lord Talbot or later, Kate Caxton. Yet Hugh de Singleton is a gifted surgeon, and here he shines. It is his intellectual curiosity and his need to do right by God and his fellow beings that drives him in solving mysteries. Sometimes he regrets certain steps he has taken, but he always rectifies his mistakes along the way. He is a humble man, a true man, and an ordinary man thrust into extraordinary circumstances due to his life's work as a surgeon and also as Lord Gilbert Talbot's bailiff in the village of Bampton (within a four hours' ride of Oxford).

I hope to search out more books in this series, and it seems that our LINK+ system carries the first nine of the ten books currently available. I'll order the fifth and work my way through the rest as I continue to follow the "Chronicles of Hugh de Singleton, Surgeon."

Dreams and Expectations Dreams and Expectations by Wendi Sotis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I own two of Wendy Sotis' variations and continuations of Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and I have loved them both, especially All Hallow's Eve. So when I came across a few more of her books in the Kindle Store, I couldn't resist.

What I loved about Dreams and Expectations is that Darcy and Elizabeth fall in love practically at first sight. While each is the other's "dream come true," Darcy has much higher expectations for his marriage and cannot conceive of marrying the daughter of a seemingly minor country gentleman. But Elizabeth has a few surprises up her sleeve...and a few connections that Darcy does not know fact, Mr. Bennet, Jane, and Elizabeth have kept the secret from the rest of the Bennet family so that Mrs. B will not broadcast her elder daughters' noble connections all over Hertfordshire.

Yet Elizabeth has already turned down one noble suitor, experiencing the backlash of the ton's wretched gossip, and she has sworn never to marry as a result. Once Darcy realizes that his beloved Elizabeth indeed is nobly connected, he must convince her to trust him...and to trust that she will not suffer at the hands of the British nobility again.

I rarely give variations of Austen's novels the score of "5" because I save that level for true classics....such as Pride and Prejudice itself. But this variation was compelling from the very first page, and just as Darcy fell in love with Elizabeth at first sight and she was also attracted to him when she first set eyes on him, so I, too, fell in love with this story immediately and could barely put it down. I had to stop myself from reading it at night so that I wouldn't stay up until dawn finishing the whole thing at once. It's a charming, charming variation of Darcy's and Elizabeth's love for one another as they try to balance their dreams of one another with society's expectations of them and their expectations of each other.

Brava, Ms. Sotis!!!

Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor by Stephanie Barron
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This mystery started a bit slowly, but I quickly found it to be quite compelling. Jane Austen is invited to spend the holidays with a dear friend who was lately married when a tragic death occurs. It was soon discovered to be murder, and Jane's friend the Countess is accused of killing her much-older husband of only three months. The Countess charges Jane to discover the identity of the real murderer, and Jane discovers clue after clue which seemingly leads to greater confusion than greater clarity. But in the end, Jane helps to unmask the real killer, solving not only the Earl's murder but also the murder of a young maid as well.

I enjoyed this fictitious portrayal of Jane Austen, a woman mired in genteel poverty who just refused the hand of a Mr. Collins-like suitor and escapes Bath and her family only to find herself at the center of a murder investigation. Her keen observations, her quick wit, and her dogged determination make this mystery intriguing and compelling. A wonderful read!

The Tainted Coin The Tainted Coin by Melvin R. Starr
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This fifth chronicle of medieval surgeon Hugh de Singleton, also bailiff to Lord Gilbert Talbott, has Hugh solving the mystery of the death of a man, badly beaten, who was found at Saint Andrew's Chapel. Hugh tracks the clues to a nearby village where he discovers quite a treasure trove of Roman coins and jewels, plus the man's betrothed, a young, pretty widow with two sons. Hugh must find out who is after the deceased's treasure, protect the betrothed as the miscreants who attacked the dead man believe that she knows the location of the treasure, and shield his own wife and daughter from the miscreants, one of whom is well-known to Hugh and Kate, his wife.

I am enjoying this series more than I can say. The mysteries are interesting, and Hugh is a humble man who makes his fair share of mistakes--after all, he is a surgeon, not a detective. But his role as bailiff places the solving of crimes on Lord Gilbert's lands among his responsibilities. The details of medieval life are fascinating: the glossary at the beginning of each book explains much about the various church bells that tell time for the surrounding communities, the foods eaten (and Hugh enjoys his meals!), etc. We readers are immersed in medieval life in such a natural way that the 1360s in Oxfordshire feel almost familiar.

I am thrilled that there are at least twelve books in this series, and they're all available through our statewide library system. Yay!! I'm ordering volume 6 right away....

Reading with you,


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