Friday, December 16, 2016

Books for the Fireside

Alas, I let the week slip away in everything from holiday cards to preliminary typesetting for one of Five Directions Press’s spring titles—not to mention work—and even some reading for fun. So here is Friday, little more than a week before Christmas, and I have family arriving and no prewritten blog post. So I decided it was the perfect time for a recap of books read and scheduled to be read over the next month. Almost all are hidden gems: that is, good books by self-published or otherwise less well-known authors, any one of which can enrich your life by expanding your notions of books worth reading. For still more suggestions, see the monthly “Books We Loved” picks on the newsletter page at Five Directions Press. The most recent one went up just yesterday. After all, you may still have a bit of Christmas shopping to do....

I started out with Ann Swinfen’s The Bookseller’s Tale, first of her new Oxford Medieval Mysteries. Set in mid-fourteenth-century Oxford, the series features Nicholas Elyot. Set to become a scholar at Merton College, he chose instead to marry—at the time, one could not do both—only to lose his beloved wife to the Black Death. He now lives with his two children and his widowed sister and maintains a small scriptorium that supplies students with books to copy as well as a bookshop. On his way home one evening, he fishes a body out of the Cherwell that turns out to be that of a gifted young scholar. It soon becomes clear that the young man was murdered and that the authorities intend to do nothing about it. In post-plague Oxford, violence is not uncommon, but Nicholas’s inquiries expose a complex and troubling conspiracy in which the dead student has played at best a minor role.


The Bookseller’s Tale also introduces Emma Thorngold, cousin to the dead student and a gifted artist forcibly confined to Godstow Abbey as a novice. In The Novice’s Tale Emma, known to the nuns as Sister Benedicta, comes into her own. The abbess informs her that she has three weeks before she must make her final vows; when Emma protests, she learns that her stepfather has given her to the convent as an oblate, and she has no right to refuse. Nicholas offers to help, but Emma realizes that his intervention will increase the constraints placed on her. So she and her little Maltese dog make their escape in dead of night, only to be swept downriver in a storm. Before Nicholas can even begin to search, the abbey has alerted Emma’s stepfather, who arrives with killing hounds to hunt his errant ward down. And the battle is on, between Nicholas and the stepfather, as to who will find Emma first.


Caught up in richly described settings, rapid-fire plots, and sympathetic characters, I devoured these two books in no time flat. Alas, The Huntsman’s Tale is not due until March. But just as I was threatened with Swinfen withdrawal, I learned that today she released That Time May Cease, book 8 in the adventures of Christoval Alvarez, aka Kit. I have enjoyed this entire series—especially, as you might guess, Voyage to Muscovy—including The Play’s the Thing, which I have yet to review despite having finished it months ago. So I can’t wait to tackle That Time May Cease.

Before I get there, though, I have two other books in the queue: Marie Macpherson’s Second Blast of the Trumpet, which I featured in a recent blog post, “The Monstrous Regiment”; and Liza Perrat’s The Silent Kookaburra.<> I have started on Second Blast, where John Knox, just released from enslavement on a French galley, is frothing at the mouth to return to Scotland, where he plans to argue for the Reformed Faith despite opposition from the authorities. Fortunately for not only Knox but the reader (because his success would make for a very short book), Sir David Lindsay, a friend of Knox’s guardian and a closer relation than Knox knows, hauls him off to London on a grand scheme of his own. The support of a mercenary archer hoping to loot the spoils when Knox succeeds in overturning the Vatican promises future comic relief as well as potential skullduggery.

As for The Silent Kookaburra, I’m looking forward to this much more contemporary psychological drama and mystery from an author whose historical novels, especially Blood Rose Angel, I like very much. More on that soon.

In addition, my list includes Helen Rappaport’s Victoria: The Heart and Mind of a Young Queen and Daisy Goodwin’s Victoria. The first is history, the second fiction, but both are connected to the forthcoming ITV/PBS miniseries Victoria and are in preparation for my interview with Rappaport, scheduled for early January. They portray a Victoria we barely know: not the old lady in black who was not amused and mourned her dead husband until the day she died but a spirited, uncertain eighteen-year-old thrust at best semi-prepared into the most important world leadership position of her day while still fighting to separate herself from her mother’s overbearing attempts at control.

And when I finish all that, I can look forward to three unpublished titles by Five Directions Press: Ariadne Apostolou’s West End Quartet, Denise Allan Steele’s Rewind, and Gabrielle Mathieu’s The Falcon Strikes. So it seems that I will have material for quite a few more bookshelf posts in the months to come. Stay tuned!

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