24 Jan 2013

Review of 'Unhallowed Ground' by Melvin Starr

Unhallowed Ground: The Fourth Chronicle of Hugh de Singleton, Surgeon 
"Thomas atte Bridge, a man no one likes, is found hanging from a tree near Cow-leys Corner. All assume he has taken his own life, but Master Hugh and Kate find evidence that this may not be so. Many of the town had been harmed by Thomas, and Hugh is not eager to send one of them to the gallows.
Then he discovers that the priest John Kellet, atte Bridge's partner in crime in A corpse at st. Andrew's chapel, was covertly in Bampton at the time atte Bridge died. Master Hugh is convinced that Kellet has murdered atte Bridge - one rogue slaughtering another.
He sets out for Exeter, where Kellet now works. But there he discovers that the priest is an emaciated skeleton of a man, who mourns the folly of his past life. Hugh must return to Bampton and discover which of his friends has murdered his enemy . . . "
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Opinion: By way of a brief introduction the series is set in the late 1300s (14th century) and the protagonist Hugh de Singleton is the younger son of a knight who trained as a surgeon (different from a physician) and was subsequently appointed Bailiff of the Oxfordshire Village of Bampton after treating the Local Lord. Bampton is a real village a short distance from Oxford, and most of Hugh’s sleuthing and medical work takes place in and around the region.

With this particular installment, the fourth in the series, I was generally satisfied. The crime itself is not described in graphic detail, nor does the author seem to delight in gory descriptions of brutal acts, and the aspects of social history are interesting. Some of the descriptions of medieval surgery and medical practice are also fascinating, as well as the everyday lives of ordinary folk. 
Yet the novel does seem to drag a little towards the middle. The main reason for this seems to have been that Hugh just did not have much to do, and so his daily life and routine just seems to have become part of the plot, and, whilst this work for a while, it cannot always hold one’s interest. Admittedly, it would not be much of a mystery novel if the case was solved easily or quickly, and the process of investigation is as important as the resolution, yet the story just seemed slow and plodding in parts.

Overall, ‘Unhallowed Ground’ was and enjoyable read, likely to satisfy lovers of historical fiction if their expectations are not too high. Those who expect the High Drama of political intrigue will be disappointed, but those who prefer ‘cosy’ rural settings may take to it more. As murder mystery it is good, though perhaps not the best, the most intriguing element may the protagonist belonging to a much misunderstood and underrated profession which the author has clearly taken trouble to acquaint himself with.

History: The historical elements seem to be well done, plausible and authentic- and appear to be well researched for the most part. The glossary is useful for the more unfamiliar terms. The one thing which does seem out of place is the accents of the characters- they seem a little- odd. I am not familiar the Oxfordshire accent, but I don’t think it sounds anything like one the lower class characters have in the novel, which seems like a bizarre mixture of West Country (Devon/Cornwall) and Northern.

Christianity/ Morality:
The novels in this series often include exploration of moral or religious subjects, which can help to add a somewhat deeper element to the story. In this case, Hugh has to confront his own prejudice when seeking out as supposed felon, and  his own beliefs are bought into question when it appears that the former murderer, blackmailer and thief has indeed repented and chosen to truly follow God.
Yet the conclusion of the moral dilemma which results solving of the murder is distinctly unsatisfactory, as well as morally questionable, which is the main reason why I gave this novel a lower rating than I perhaps would have done.

22 Jan 2013

Review of 'A Corpse at St Andrew's Chapel' by Mel Starr

A Corpse at St Andrew's Chapel: The Second Chronicle of Hugh de Singleton. Surgeon

"Alan, the beadle of the manor of Bampton, had gone out at dusk to seek those who might violate curfew. When, the following morning, he had not returned home, his young wife Matilda had sought out Master Hugh de Singleton, surgeon and bailiff of the manor. 
Two days later Alan's corpse was discovered in the hedge, at the side of the track to St Andrew's Chapel. His throat had been torn out - his head was half severed from his body - and his face, hands and forearms were lacerated with deep scratches. Master Hugh, meeting Hubert the coroner at the scene, listened carefully to the coroner's surmise that a wolf had caused the great wound. 
And yet … if so, why was there no blood?" 
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Opinion: By way of a brief introduction the series is set in the late 1300s (14th century) and the protagonist Hugh de Singleton is the younger son of a knight who trained as a surgeon (different from a physician) who was appointed Bailiff of the Oxfordshire Village of Bampton on the Weald after treating the Local Lord.

As medieval murder mysteries go, the Chronicles of Hugh de Singleton are rather good and generally seem to be clean reads.
Some description of murders does feature in this story. It is not particularly graphic (I would say the description of the crime on the blurb makes it seem gorier then it  was in the actual book).
 The characters do not seem to dwell on nor does the storyline rely overmuch on graphic and gory content, so overall there does not seem to especially objectionable for in this regard  a novel of this genre.

The novel could be rather slow moving in places, as the process of detection and discovery often forms the basis of the story, and because the novel is mostly set in a small town, there is no very high drama. I could not really get on with the character of Hugh at first in this particular novel, as he  was in the habit of ogling and fantasising about women in a way that can make him appear rather too preoccupied with the opposite sex.
His other great love was food, which he also seemed to devote a great deal of attention to, and hated missing meals even when something like a little murder required his presence away from his lodgings in Bampton Castle. 
Towards the end, when he did not devote so much thought to these two things and started to do some serious investigation, Hugh seemed to grow on me a little better, and by the time I finished the novel I had read a later installment, so I had a more rounded view of him overall.
 Finally, Hugh’s swift recovery and resumption of duty after getting knocked on the head a number of times in this novel does not entirely seem realistic.  Not many people would be staying up all night to watch for a miscreant so soon after being knocked out I would have thought, and Hugh did just seem to keep getting spotted and swotted, even when armed with a dagger. 

History:  Hugh's eating red meat at Easter or Lent did not seem consistent with the religious teachings and customs of the time period. Aside from the above, the story did seem well researched, and fairly plausible, and the language not too jarringly modern. This said, and accents of some of the poorer characters who were not of noble blood did seem rather odd- not like Oxfordshire accents at all which is in the South of England. 

Christianity/Morality:  Even though Hugh does subscribe to the teachings of the 14th century scholar and theologian John Wycliffe, who did not believe in notions such as transubstantiation or the veneration of relics, Hugh does still attend some of the festivals which involve such as these, and is perhaps not quite so bold in admitting his religious sympathies as others. 
That said, I would not say that Wycliffe's ideology is prominent enough to give a 'Protestant' flavour, but not one that is too anachronistic and that the religious content of these novels is presented in such a way as too be off-putting for modern Protestants.

12 Jan 2013

Review of 'Lily's Plight' by Dianna Crawford and Sally Laity

 Lily's Plight: Book 3 of the Sisters of Harwood House 
"Journey to Pennsylvania backcountry during the French and Indian War. Indentured servant Lily Harwood has always thought of herself as a good Christian lass. . .until she is struck with a deeper, more profound plight than the war that rages around her. When her mistress’s husband returns home on a short furlough, Lily finds herself falling in love with him. As Lily is caught between passion and sorrow in harrowing times, can she find hope in the promises of God?"

This novel was the last in a trilogy; I have not read the preceding two titles, or anything else by the authors. Excitement of reading a new author for the first time aside, I was not overly impressed with this novel. 

It was not bad but I did not think it was anything special either, it seemed to me to be about the average, run of the mill Christian Historical romance, which was perhaps a little formulaic. Yes, the element of romance was sweet, and charming, but the concept of the Lily struggling with what she fears are inappropriate feelings for John who she really should not fall in love with, and every form of adversity threatening to keep them apart seems to have done before. Also, the fact that Lily first started to have feelings for John when he was still married, and he for her, that did seem a little inappropriate.

Overall, this novel was enjoyable enough, but it was really not my cup of tea’. There did not seem to be anything much to set it apart from other novels in this genre, but it is passable enough a light clean read. If you like these authors, and novels set in this period, it might be for you.

Lily and John are interesting characters, and some of John’s children were cheeky yet endearing little things, and there were some other interesting personalities- but- many of the inhabitants of John’s home in Beaver Cove and the surrounding settlements could have stepped off the set of Little House on the Prairie. They just seemed a little too sweet and perfect  and  the representation of their life on a rural settlements in the early 1700s seemed a little too idealised and nostalgic. Really, the only thing that made things difficult was them nasty Injins. 
The raids and attacks the Native Americans made on the settlements did add an element of risk and danger to make the story more exiting, which helped as it could appear a little repetitive and dull in places.
The daily routine of the characters did not really make for compelling reading all the time- perhaps the reason for the apparent dullness of some parts of the novel. Though such passages could provide a good opportunity for exploring deeper Christian and moral themes.

One aspect of this novel which I disliked was the stereotyping, or rather unfair generalizations of characters from certain backgrounds and lifestyles.
British generals and commanders for instance were presented as bungling fools would not help each other, and who literally had to be forced to take any kind of decisive action in the war. The only troops who were any good were the ‘Colonials’- in other words the Americans. Personally, I had hoped for a more objective and informed depiction of the British, but was rather disappointed in this regard.

Even some American characters fared little better, as those who lived in cities were frequently presented as having comfortable, affluent lives which made them shallow, selfish too concerned with the trivial. 
Finally, even as someone unfamiliar with American history, I kept wondering whether there really would have been such a pronounced difference between American and ‘British’ accents at this time. As the novel progressed, the use of various anachronistic terms by characters seemed to show that most of them were speaking modern American English. 

Thanks to Netgalley and Barbour for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book to read and review. I was not required to write a positive one, and all opinions expressed here are my own.
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