Tag Archive | 5 Star

Guest review – A Swarming of Bees by Theresa Tomlinson

Well bibliophiles, Richard Abbott over at Kephrath is back with another guest review.  His book In a Milk and Honeyed Land was published by Trafford Publishing and is available on Amazon.  You can visit Richard’s website by clicking here.  As always, the Bookworm is happy to have Richard’s input!

I really liked A Swarming of Bees, by Theresa Tomlinson, and have no hesitation in awarding five stars. The subject matter, the presentation, the writing style: all of this came together just right for my taste. And it had a couple of maps, which always please me. These help the reader become oriented in the community of Whitby, called here by the Old English name of Streonshalh. For those who are not familiar with English geography, Whitby is on the east coast, in the modern county of Yorkshire, looking across the North Sea towards Scandinavia. Somewhat later than this story, it would be part of the Viking-dominated region called the Danelaw (as in The Bone Thief), but at this time it was in Northumbria, a large swathe of land ruled from Bamburgh.

Bamburgh Castle from the beach

The (Much Newer) Bamburgh Castle from the beach

The historical setting is in the immediate aftermath of the Synod of Whitby, in 664AD. This was a key moment in British Christianity when the fledgling native church, which had been isolated from Europe after the collapse of the Roman empire, was brought back under the authority of Roman Catholicism.

Now, many today might regret the loss to the church of the Celtic flavour of faith that this caused, but at the time, church unity was considered more important than insisting on an opinion. Individual Christian leaders might (and did) regret the loss, and expressed it by withdrawal to isolated communities, but there was no church schism resulting from this event.

Anyway, A Swarming of Bees has this event, and the resulting shakeup of church leadership, as part of the background. But for many of the individuals who are central, the choice is not between Roman and Celtic Christianity. Rather, it is between any sort of Christianity and their continuing allegiance to the older beliefs. The British Isles were – and in many ways still are today – a meeting place for many different styles of life and faith.

This intersection of culture, and the different ways people approach it, is at the heart of Theresa’s book. Abbess Hild, leader of the religious community, is willing and able to bridge the potential gap of religious experience in order to integrate the community rather than divide it. She is an inspirational figure, successfully threading the difficult line between compassion and compromise.

The plotline is basically a murder mystery, with the detective role played by the abbey herbalist Fridgyth. She personifies many of the tensions and insecurities of the age, and I found her an endearing character who it was easy to identify with. Along with that, the frequent references to, and recipes for, herbal and folk medicines give depth to her experience. Regarding the murder mystery, there are some echoes here of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, though the motives here reflect the turbulent political and social setting of the times, rather than the religious extremism that Eco likes to target. As such, the story, and the motives of the various protagonists, are much more accessible to a modern audience.

Mixed farming and moorland in the north of England

Mixed farming and moorland in the north of England

But the mystery is only part of the subject matter, and only part of the charm of this book. More prominent are the everyday difficulties and triumphs faced by the inhabitants of Whitby – both within and without the abbey walls. It is a time when plague ravages the land, leaving whole communities decimated, orphaned, and struggling in its aftermath.

This lends a sense of perspective to the grim events within the abbey – for many lay people living nearby, there are much more urgent survival challenges. In any age it is easy to interpret drastic events as divine commentary on momentous, perhaps questionable, decisions, and this era was no exception.

Theresa blends poetry in with her prose, faithfully mirroring the Old English alliterative style – I personally found this a great source of delight. It is a style which held sway in this country and elsewhere in Europe for a long time, before (many years later) being supplanted by the accentual and rhyme-dominated patterns which are much more familiar to many people. But in the world of Streonshalh, the traditional patterns of verse are alive and well, and used powerfully and beautifully by Caedmon and others to bridge the pre-Christian and Christian views of creation.

All in all, a very satisfying book to have read – and which I am sure I will re-read in a while. Five stars, definitely.

You can visit Richard’s website by clicking here.

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The Bone Thief by V.M. Whitworth – (Guest Book Review by Richard Abbott)

Well bibliophiles, Richard Abbot over at Kephrath is back with another guest review.  His book In a Milk and Honeyed Land was published by Trafford Publishing and is available on Amazon.  You can visit Richard’s website by clicking here.  As always, the Bookworm is happy to have Richard’s input!

Let me first say that I really enjoyed this book and have no hesitation in awarding five stars. I had come across the title a little while ago, but was prompted to actually read it through a book club – and am extremely glad this happened!

In Wessex

In Wessex

The Bone Thief is set in tenth century England, at a time when there was no united kingdom but rather several different regions under separate leadership.

The region I know best, having lived in it for many years, is Wessex – in the south – whose capital at the time was Winchester.

The main character, Wulfgar, a junior but well-trained priest, grew up there. But the story really begins in Mercia, a great swathe of the west of the country stretching roughly from the Thames north through the Midlands.

And most of the central events take place in a Viking controlled region known as the Danelaw, covering much of the east of the country from London northwards to Leicester and York. Quite apart from the political difficulties this caused, it had a lasting impact on religious life, as it separated two major centres of Christianity from each other.

On the borders of Mercia

Whitworth captures this division of the land beautifully via use of dialect (still mostly alive today in regional British accents) together with the occasional use of specific Norse words and phrases.

This puts you as reader in the same place as Wulfgar – most of the text is readily understandable, some parts need a bit of puzzling out, and for some you have to deduce from context or the helpful explanations of other characters.

The main plotline is straightforward – Mercia needs religious relics to boost the residents’ flagging morale, and Wulfgar as a bright but rather timid cleric is chosen to find and retrieve something suitable.

But the outworking of this plot is fascinating, as Wulfgar is forced to continuously reassess who he can trust and who he cannot. The people he meets – both friend and foe – are memorable and compellingly drawn, and are instrumental in leading him to rethink his original rather naive view of the world.

Trust and faith are at the centre of this book. One of the many reasons I loved the book is that religious thought and feeling is treated realistically and sympathetically by Whitworth. Wulfgar and others struggle to live according to their ideals, in the midst of great challenges and difficulties. Often they fall to meet their own expectations. They are neither blindly literal nor cynically manipulative in their faith; rather, it shapes, constrains and illuminates their lives in creative and credible ways.

Wulfgar’s travels are actually over quite a small part of the land, but the story touches on the whole sweep of the British Isles and beyond. Key friends and enemies come from towns across much of southern and central England. One of Wulfgar’s travelling companions is from Ireland. Meetings with the Vikings bring in links with Scandinavia. And the relics themselves – of Saint Oswald – contain other historical echoes from the north. As a child Oswald fled from Scotland, and then grew up with the monks of Northumberland. He reigned as king from Bamburgh, and helped set up a Christian centre of learning on Lindisfarne – another region I am very fond of. Despite the seeming narrow sweep of Wufgar’s journeys, the future United Kingdom with all its multicultural diversity is already starting to emerge.

Lindisfarne

Lindisfarne

There were some stylistic features I did not like. In the first part of the book Whitworth uses a device of having sudden short paragraphs to arrest attention, which rather breaks up the reading experience.

But as the book gets properly under way this device is abandoned, and the text starts to flow in a smoother and more engaging way.

Quite why this irregularity was left after editing I am not sure, but once this habit is dropped the prose reads much more fluently and is less intrusive. A glossary and some historical notes round the work out nicely – the only missing feature is a map, but it is easy enough to find something suitable online if you are curious.

I would thoroughly recommend The Bone Thief to anyone keen to engage with this period of history, as seen through the eyes of an educated but rather unimportant figure. The major political and military events of the age – the formation of the Danelaw, for example, or its ultimate absorption into a whole nation, are hinted at in conversation, memory, or expectation, but are not described in depth. You will not find descriptions of great battles or Viking raids – you will walk alongside a person, and a nation, trying to find out how to live in a culturally diverse world poised on the brink of substantial change.

Five stars, without a doubt.

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The Decoy Princess – Book Review

The Decoy Princess

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So this is a little bit of a departure from my normal reviews.  I strive to review and promote indie authors.  I came across this review that I did for Dawn Cook/Kim Harrison’s The Decoy Princess.  It is the first book review that I ever did, so I figure that I’d share it with you guys.  I hope you enjoy!

The Bookworm’s Review

I must admit that when I first picked up this book, I was expecting your typical romance fantasy faire. I was pleasantly surprised. The Decoy Princess departs from the predictable premises and gives the reader an intriguing story. The book follows the adventures of Tess, whose world is turned upside down upon learning that she is not really royalty but only a pawn used to protect the real princess.

The story starts with a decidedly spoiled Princess Contessa (Tess) dragging her steward/body guard throughout the streets in order to shop and find a wedding gift for her future husband. The reader is shown a flighty girl obsessed with the thought of marrying and obsessing over what she views as her inadequacies when it comes to romance. But then the whole story is twisted by an not so chance encounter with a gypsy caravan. This is where we find out that he steward/protector Kavenlow is much more than he seems.

Upon returning to the castle, Tess finds that her betrothed has arrived weeks early. But in a story where no one is quite what they appear to be, the Prince has other plans for the kingdom. He kills the king and queen upon learning that Tess isn’t the crown princess at all and that Kavenlow has been sent to fetch her. Tess must fight her own feelings of shock and betrayal as Prince Garret has sinister plans for his soon to be wife.She escapes the monster who kills her parents only to be pursued by his loyal servant, Jeck, who has a couple of secrets of his own.

The story truly is a chess match on a grand scale. Watching Tess graduate from pawn to player is an amazing journey. I really enjoyed how the author was able to lure me in with a story that was familiar and then take it into a new and exciting direction.  For me the story has major re-read value.

The Bookworm gives this book 5 Stars out of 5.

Did you like this review?  Check out our previous reviews of Goddess-Born and Dragon Fate.  Follow us on twitter @ErinEymard.  Also feel free to check out a categorical list of our previous posts.