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review 2017-03-11 20:52
An Unholy Alliance
An Unholy Alliance - Susanna Gregory

A Matthew Bartholomew Chronicle, Cambridge, England, 1350

 

He inserted a chisel under the lid and tapped with a hammer. The lid eased up, and he got a good grip with his fingers and began to pull. The lid began to move with a great screech of wet wood, and came off so suddenly that he almost fell backwards. He handed it up to Michael, and all five of them peered into the open coffin.
Bartholomew moved back, gagging, as the stench of putrefaction filled the confined space of the grave. His feet skidded and he scrabbled at the sides to try to prevent himself from falling over. Jonstan gave a cry of horror, and Cuthbert began to mutter prayers in an uneven, breathless whisper. Michael leaned down and grabbed at Bartholomew's shoulder, breathing through his mouth so as not to inhale the smell.
'Matt!' he gasped. 'Come out of there!'
He began to tug frantically at Bartholomew's shirt. Bartholomew needed no second bidding, and scrambled out of the grave with an agility that surprised even him. He sank to his knees and peered down at the thing in the coffin.
'What is it?' breathed Cymric.
Bartholomew cleared his throat to see if he could still speak, making jonstan jump. 'It looks like a goat,' he said.
'A goat?' whispered Michael, in disbelief. 'What is a goat doing here?'
Bartholomew swallowed hard. Two curved horns and a long pointed face stared up at him, dirty and stained from its weeks underground, but a goat's head nevertheless, atop a human body.

 

An Unholy Alliance is long, and it is slow, but if total immersion in mid-fourteenth-century Cambridge appeals to you and you are in no hurry to return to the modern world, this is your book.

 

Dr Matthew Bartholomew, our hero, teaches medicine at Michaelhouse to students who, in the years immediately following the Black Death, are desperately needed in the community but are mostly either less than gifted, or less than committed, or (as in the case of the Franciscans among his students) less than convinced about his unorthodox methods; for Bartholomew is a scientific practitioner before his time and is forever clashing with bigots and in very real danger of being accused of heresy. A nice typical touch comes at the beginning of the book when he notices a film of scum on top of the holy water in the stoup:

 

Glancing quickly down the aisle to make sure Michael was not watching, he siphoned the old water off into a jug, gave the stoup a quick wipe round, and refilled it. Keeping his back to Michael, Bartholomew poured the old water away in the piscina next to the altar, careful not to spill any. There were increasing rumours that witchcraft was on the increase in England because of the shortage of clergy after the plague, and there was a danger of holy water being stolen for use in black magic rituals. […] But Bartholomew, as a practising physician, as well as Michaelhouse's teacher of medicine, was more concerned that scholars would touch the filthy water to their lips and become ill.

 

The Michael referred to here is Bartholomew's sidekick, the gourmet Benedictine monk with an eye not only for a tasty dish but for a beautiful woman – as when he and Bartholomew call on "Lady Matilde", a well-known local prostitute, in the course of their investigation:

 

Matilde answered the door and ushered them inside, smiling at their obvious discomfort. She brought them cups of cool white wine and saw that they were comfortably seated before sitting herself. […] 'How may I help you?' she said. She gave Michael a sidelong glance that oozed mischief. 'I assume you have not come for my professional attentions?'
Michael, his composure regained now that he was away from public view, winked at her, and grinned.
'We have come to give you some information,' said Bartholomew quickly

 

A lovely scene, and beautifully written – though you must read the whole thing.

In fact, the book opens with the death of a prostitute, her throat cut in a churchyard as she makes her way home in the darkness, and this turns out to be but one in a series of murders, not all of prostitutes and some by garotting rather than throat-slitting, though there is a link: the small red circle painted in blood on the victim's foot.

 

This circle is the sign of a mysterious "guild"of devil-worshippers who meet in a local church, abandoned and decommissioned since the Black Death, one of a host of such cults that sprang up in the wake of the plague, when many had lost their whole family and God seemed to have abandoned his people and there were almost no priests left to minister to them.

 

But what apart from the circle on the foot is the link between the various victims? And who is organising this guild? What is his aim in all this? (Or her aim. A rather intimidating woman called Janetta is always there hovering in the background surrounded by a band of thugs.) Is it really satanism, or is he – or she – simply cashing in on people's helplessness and gullibility?

 

Slow, as I say, but memorable, and well worth the time spent reading it.

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text 2015-07-01 21:05
June Roundup
The Eloquence of Blood - Judith Rock
Sabriel - Garth Nix
A Darker Shade of Magic - Victoria Schwab
Naked in Death - J.D. Robb
Blameless - Gail Carriger
At Bertram's Hotel - Agatha Christie
The Awakening of Miss Prim: A Novel - Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera
Murder by the Book - Susanna Gregory
April Lady - Georgette Heyer

Best read: The Eloquence of Blood, by Judith Rock.  Another murder mystery featuring Jesuits and ballet, set in the Paris of Louis XIV. 

 

Right under that: Sabriel, by Garth Nix, and A Darker Shade of Magic, by V.E. Schwab, both fantasy titles with unusual magic systems and good world-building.

 

Weirdest: The Awakening of Miss Prim, by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera.

 

Worst: April Lady, by Georgette Heyer, which I'm tempted to down-grade to 2.5 stars, for the gratuitous anti-semitism.  (Are any money-lenders in Regency London, per Ms. Heyer, not Jews?  Are any of them decent people?)

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text 2015-07-01 13:35
June Reading Roundup
The Tapestry: A Novel - Nancy Bilyeau
The Chalice - Nancy Bilyeau
A Plague on Both Your Houses - Susanna Gregory
Wars of the Roses Trinity - Conn (england) Iggulden
Tyrant of the Mind - Priscilla Royal
Loyaulte: Stories of King Richard III: Tales of the White Boar 2 - J.P. Reedman
Tales of the White Boar: Short Stories and Poems About Richard III - J.P. Reedman
The Christian History Devotional: 365 Readings & Prayers to Deepen & Inspire Your Faith - J. Stephen Lang
Kisses from Katie: A Story of Relentless Love and Redemption - Beth Clark,Katie Davis
The Chronicles of Pauncefoot and Longshanks - David Stedman

It was a great month of reading for me with Nancy Bilyeau's books my clear favorites. 

 

I also finished up a couple of books that I've already featured in a few posts:

Wolf Hall on audio book and Linda Porter's The First Queen of England.

 

It's exciting to have finished more books than the 10 I'm able to feature! Before you know it, I'll be creating fancy images of my reading list like some of you creative folk out there!

 

What was your favorite read for June?

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review 2015-06-23 13:55
A Plague on Both Your Houses by Susanna Gregory
A Plague on Both Your Houses - Susanna Gregory

This was a book that had been recommended to me by several people as I lamented the fact that I had run out of Shardlake books to read. Some elements of Gregory's writing were reminiscent of Sansom's, even if I didn't feel quite the affection for Matthew Bartholomew as I did for Matthew Shardlake.

Bartholomew's story takes place significantly earlier than Shardlake's as well. The plague rages through England in 1348, and he finds himself one of the few physicians willing to treat and comfort the suffering poor. However, the plague is only the backdrop of the mystery that consumes Bartholomew's thoughts and threatens his life.

Residents of Michaelhouse at Cambridge are dropping like flies, and not just of the plague. As the bodies pile up, Bartholomew has suspicions of everyone surrounding him. He is intelligent, if a little naive, but is still shocked to the core when he discovers the truth behind the murders.

This plot is full of twists and turns, some of which are slightly implausible. I found it a fun read, satisfyingly sprinkled with historical tidbits. At times the story was too convoluted and the "Let's summarize what we know" moments were annoying, but it was a good enough introduction to make me want to read more about the selfless physician, Matthew Bartholomew.

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review 2015-06-16 00:00
A Poisonous Plot: The Twenty First Chronicle of Matthew Bartholomew
A Poisonous Plot: The Twenty First Chronicle of Matthew Bartholomew - Susanna Gregory I have a lot of books on my to-read list so it is rare that I am "waiting" for a book to come out. However, I find myself growing excited when I hear a new Matthew Bartholomew novel is due for release, and for the first time in quite a few years, found myself dropping it straight to the top of my read pile on release.

Gregory does not disappoint. The twenty-first entry in the ongoing mystery series and Matthew is showing every bit of the wear from the previous books, completely disillusioned with love and personal matters but holding strong to the core of him, the love of healing.

Cambridge is once again nearly aflame as the always-simmering tensions between town and university are once again encouraged, this time by a devious and remarkably clever antagonist. With half of the university pushing to decamp from cambridge for the fens, and a large portion of the town calling for exactly the same thing, everyone is at each other's throats. Add to this a strange disease running rampant through the town, an arrogant but incompetent doctor recently arrived, a noxious dyeworks opened in the city by Bartholemew's own sister, Michaelhouse's near financial ruin and a steadily increasing bodycount, and the stage is set for what could well be the end of the university, if not the entire town.

With such high stakes, and tempers flaring all over Cambridge, not even priests are safe from attack.

There is a lot to love in this book for fans of the rest of the series, with one stand-out being a more visible role being played by Dickon, the Sheriff's wild son, now ten years old and dying his face red like a devil, with his hair fashioned into two tiny horns. He patrols by day with his father, terrifying scholar and townsman alike.

Anyone who is a fan of historical crime novels will love this book, though if you've never read any of this series before do yourself a favour and begin, as they say, at the beginning. The journey is worth it.
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