29 Sept 2013

To Birmingham Castle by Alicia Willis

To Birmingham Castle 
Comrades of Honor Series Book 1
June 2012, 480 Pages 

One could perhaps call To Birmingham Castle  a ‘coming of age’ tale recounting the exploits, challenges and adventures of Robert Fitzhassaltine and the young men who come to be his squires on their journey to manhood, and eventually knighthood (for the latter anyway)learning about courage, honour, loyalty and even finding love along the way.
 There were some interesting historical details, especially regarding weapons, armour and fighting techniques, and occasional French or Latin phrase demonstrates the author’s research in these areas.
 That said, there were some inaccuracies and errors which may have been due to deficiencies in the secondary sources themselves, rather than anything else.

That said there were a few references which I stood out for me as an English person like knights coming from cities or towns which would have been relatively small and insignificant at this time- including Birmingham.

The one major issue I had was the writing style, which I could really not get in with. Essentially it was written in the style of the Victorian novels of Howard Pyle and G Henty with much of the dialogue pseudo-Middle English in style. So the characters will say things like ‘verily, methinks thou art right, beausire’.

It’s not just the archaic language that I had the problem with, (I have read actual Middle English- though not for a prolonged period). There was the way in which the book was written, which seemed a very narrative style telling rather than showing. I personally found it hard-going and slow some of the time, or perhaps rather simplistic or repetitive in style.
 I perhaps prefer my characters more complex than some of the ones here were, some of whom seemed altogether too perfect,  and some of the scenarios just seemed rather implausible. Like the way in which a miscreant was able to get into the castle apparently easily and kidnap the Lord’s daughters (who could do nothing but scream) and make off with them by the hand into the forest, or the characters seeming to recover from even relatively serious injuries incredibly quickly.

When the author did ‘show’ the character’s emotions it was almost always in some descriptive passage such as ‘fear and concern mingling in his eyes’ or ‘his whole mien portrayed his feelings of combined expectation and anxiety’. Without meaning to be personal or over-critical, could the author not have used some other way to describe the characters feelings or body language, and is it even possible for people to portray such a range of emotions with only their eyes?

Altogether, To Birmingham Castle is generally a satisfying ‘old style’ adventure tale, with a sound (and not theologically dubious) Christian theme. I think I was genuinely able to engage with it in parts. I could I think have given a higher rating had the writing style been different, especially considering the book was pushing 460 pages.
I would be interested in reading the second book in the series and might be interesting to see how the character of Nathanial the page of Sir Robert who seemed to do little but cry in this book, develops.

24 Sept 2013

Rules of Murder Julianna Deering- Audiobook

 Rules of Murder Julianna Deering 
Drew Fathering Mysteries 1
August 1 2013, 336 Pages

Having read two of the author's previous titles (part of a Medieval trilogy) , and as a fan of Marple, Poirot and other classic mysteries I was excited about Rules of Murder the first of a new series by the author. In some ways it didn’t disappoint, with the 1930s setting, details and the aristocratic protagonist reminiscent of the above. Simon Vance, narrator of the audiobook version of this title which I listened did well as (An)drew Fathering, although his American accent, and other regional linguistic variations were not always so convincing. That said, Vance has narrated a number of other titles, so his style of reading and voice was not boring or  monotonous and good enough to keep the listener engaged for eight and a half hours.

Drew and Madeleine’s characters were interesting enough, and the notion of them using and works of a 30s mystery writer to guide them in their amateur sleuthing. Yet those of us not familiar with the works of ‘Father Knox’ might find these references obscure. Books set in Britain by American authors can sometimes have their pitfalls, such as stereotyping, and a lack of understanding for cultural or linguistic differences. I think the author pulled it off well for the most part, with the exception perhaps of some of the characters like Inspector Birdsong, who seemed like a stereotypical Londoner (at least his accent in the audiobook made him seem like this) reminiscent of Inspector Japp of Poirot, and only a few notable Americanisms in the character’s speech. 

The main issue I had with this story was its complexity. I understand that in a good whodunit it should not be easy to guess the perpetrator, but in this there seemed perhaps to be too many false starts, twists and turns, possible murderers, suspects or red herrings, and sometimes the story just seemed a little hard to follow. Perhaps this was due to the fact that it took me some time to listen to the story, and there was sometimes a gap of several days before resuming it, but though I grasped the basic thread of the story it could seem a little hard to keep up. 

Also the later crimes themselves perhaps seemed a little unnecessary, and when the story was concluded there was a particularly gruesome detail which I found off-putting. The Christian content was not always prominent, and consisted mostly of Madeleine discussing spiritual matters with Drew whose religion was mostly ‘cultural’.  There was no real gospel message per-se, but the underlying Christian theme was there, and the notion of how Madeleine’s faith helped her deal with some of the pain her character experienced. 

Altogether Rules of Murder is generally an original and clean mystery story inhabited by some colourful characters and a pair of unlikely sleuths (though I’m not entirely sure if some of Drew and Madeleine’s public displays of affection would have been deemed acceptable for an unmarried or non-engaged couple of their social status at this time). I wouldn’t call it a ‘cosy’ mystery due to some issues towards the end, and which may be off-putting and render it not according to everyone’s taste.
Would I read the next book in the series? That may be an open question...
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