Tag Archive | Richard Abbot

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.

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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Undreamed Shores by Mark Hatton – (Guest Book Review by Richard Abbott)

The Bookworm is very excited to announce our first ever guest book review!  Richard Abbot over at Kephrath graciously agreed to do a 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.

Undreamed Shores, by Mark Hatton (Crooked Cat Publishing 2012) is a book I can wholeheartedly recommend to others.

Undreamed Shores cover imageUndreamed Shores is set at the start of the Bronze Age in northern Europe, somewhere between 4000 and 4500 years ago. It is fundamentally about exploration, on many different levels. Individual people, especially the central characters Amzai and Nanti, explore the spaces around themselves in many ways. As well as their physical space, they explore relational spaces ranging from intimacy and friendship to envy and hostility, through to the social spaces inhabited by different cultures and communities.

But along with that, the scattered groups of people inhabiting what we now call southern England and northern France, together with the islands in between, are starting to explore the lands and seas that separate them. Distances and gaps that seemed impossible to cross, except as legendary exploits by remote heroes, are becoming achievable. Above all, this story traces the way that love can bring about change at every level.

The results of this exploration are not always comfortable. This widening vision of the world gives intellectual and spiritual excitement to some people, but to others simply provides new groups of victims who can be dominated. Expanding horizons can lead to prejudice as well as understanding. This is a world where spontaneous fights based on short-lived personal aggression are starting to be replaced by organized violence initiated by a greedy few, calling out an answering response from settled communities and their leaders. War is coming.

However, war is not yet here, and those who prefer books about the deeds of great kings and their armies will not find them in these pages. Instead, what you will find is a sensitive and detailed description of a now-vanished society. The book is solidly rooted in archaeological knowledge and deduction, drawing on Mark’s academic career, without letting this wealth of background overwhelm the heart of the narrative.

The culture is introduced to us so vividly that I had to keep reminding myself that in fact these people have left us no written texts that might have been plumbed for Undreamed Shores, only artifacts scattered here and there together with the great stone circles, some of which originate from this era and some from later. I became thoroughly immersed in the account, and loved being drawn into this world. Indeed, I will never again be able to visit Abbotsbury, the Salisbury Plain, or the other places described, without having the sense that I am revisiting places that Amzai came to all those years ago.
Part of the Dorset coastline a few miles east of Abbotsbury
Part of the Dorset coastline a few miles east of Abbotsbury

Certainly my familiarity with some of the key locations helped a great deal, and gave an extra dimension to my reading. I did from time to time wonder how a reader would fare who did not know this part of the world. Much of the story would, of course, survive undiminshed, but I do feel that the addition of a simple sketch map would have enriched the book. A detailed modern map would have been inappropriate, but surely there would have been a place for a schematic one – not unlike the rough drawing which plays an important part of the plot.

On a purely technical level, there were a mere handful of typos – I noticed a few places where speech marks were omitted, and the occasional word was misspelled. But these slips were so rare in the text as a whole that they did not detract from my enjoyment.

I also thought that the ending was a little rushed. It was clear from fairly early in the story that a particular confrontation could not be avoided, and the reader’s memory is joggled about this numerous times as he or she reads on. Yet when it happens it is over rather quickly, and a different crisis is brought instead to the foreground. But that was also, to my mind at least, dealt with too quickly, and the book comes quite suddenly to its end. In part, my sense of disappointment here is one that readers will know well, where characters you have become deeply involved with are abruptly taken back into their own world, away from your own. That said, I still feel that a slower, more measured end would have better crowned such a careful and rich portrayal of personal and communal life in this era.

That said, the merits of the book far outweigh these minor reservations, and I have no hesitation in commending it to other readers.
Long Meg - a Bronze Age British stone circle from much further north
Long Meg – a Bronze Age British stone circle from much further north

I purchased it in kindle format from Amazon UK, but it is also available in paperback. Readers can buy it from any of the various Amazon stores, and also other retailers such as Barnes and Noble.