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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