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A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger

A medieval scholar takes a fictional turn in 14th-century London, in a story full of murder, literature, politics and intrigue.

burnable book

A young prostitute watches horrified from the bushes as a woman is beaten to death–then looks down at the book in her hands, placed there by the victim moments before. A London “fixer” and minor poet named Gower is asked by his friend Geoffrey Chaucer to track a missing book. The court surrounding the new and untested King Richard II worries over the new games of playing cards and a book rumored to contain a series of verses circulating London regarding the deaths of kings past and present. This one book that troubles bawdyhouse prostitutes, the royal court, bureaucrats, poets and criminals holds potentially great consequences for England’s future. It is treasonous, a “burnable book.”

Bruce Holsinger, a prolific and respected medieval scholar, turns his hand to fiction with A Burnable Book. His academic background makes him well suited to render diverse settings in 14th-century London, from the Southwark stews to the grand halls of Westminster. The young woman murdered outside the city walls is only the first victim, and Gower is not the only one searching for the book in question, for scruples are scarce when the stakes are so high: England’s royal command itself is under threat. Murder mystery, political intrigue and the engaging world of Chaucer’s London are brought to life with a cast of complex, sympathetic characters who are far removed from and yet also familiar to our modern world. Holsinger’s expertise with medieval times is put to good use in a thriller filled with suspense and literary taste.


This review originally ran in the February 25, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 quatrains.

Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde

lostAll those books on my shelves waiting to be read, and I couldn’t resist taking this one out from my local library and jumping in. You will recall that I enjoyed the first Thursday Next book on audio. I couldn’t find this one in that format, so text it is. I have some observations on the format, but first, what is it about?

Thursday Next is back, recently married, and pregnant. She and Landen are happy, but overwhelmed by the publicity linked to her successful but still controversial victory over Acheron Hades, which involved changing the ending of Jane Eyre. The forces of darkness are not through, however: Goliath Corporation wants Jack Schitt back (oh, these names!), and his brother Schitt-Hawse is not afraid to use some pretty ugly blackmail techniques to get him. Landen is in trouble, and Thursday will have to follow Schitt into Poe’s The Raven to execute both men’s safe return. And finally, Acheron Hades may be dead, but (shockingly) he had friends…

Everything I liked about the first book is here: silliness and hilarity, but also some rather sober statements on the ugliness of war, and an evil, all-powerful corporation that is both deliciously ogreish and frighteningly true to life. Not to mention that most central quality: that in this alternate world, books and literature are deeply important to everyone. This fantasy is deeply enjoyable for those of us who feel that way in the real world but who are, sadly, the minority.

What is better about book 2 than book 1 is that there is far more entering of books: in this edition, Thursday acquires the skill, with the help of the Cheshire Cat and Miss Havisham, of reading herself into any book she chooses. Thus we get to visit Sense and Sensibility and The Raven, and of course Great Expectations, as well as a few others, even unpublished manuscripts. Great fun! This aspect of the story’s possibilities (that is, the possibilities of Fforde’s delightful invented world) is not perhaps exploited fully; but the series continues, and I am joyfully anxious to read the next installment.

Format-wise, I loved the voices (and the accents) on the audiobook I listened to of book 1; but there’s a lot to be had in the print version of this one. For one thing, certain inhabitants of Book-World speak to Thursday in foot-notes, which only she can hear and which appear to me as actual foot-notes on the bottom of the page – the disjointedness of which was quite appropriate. I don’t know how that would have been executed in audio format. And there are other things: spellings, subscripts, and the like, that are very much printing jokes, and thus best (only?) enjoyed in print. So while I like the convenience of audio (and the accents!), this may be a series to read in actual book form. Which is probably how Thursday and her Book-World/JurisFiction cohorts would have it, anyway.


Rating: 7 pounds of cheese. (It fits, really.)

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde (audio)

eyreaffairThe Eyre Affair is the first in the Thursday Next series of bookish mysteries by Jasper Fforde, and I am pleased to have discovered it. The alternate world inhabited by Thursday Next (our protagonist) is ingeniously imagined, fully realized, and great fun: centrally, books are very, very important, and justify an entire branch of law enforcement (which is, admittedly, sort of a stepchild in the law enforcement community, but we’ll take it). Extinct species have been recreated through genetic engineering: Thursday has a pet dodo bird named Pickwick. In a sobering parallel to reality, the Crimean War is ongoing; Thursday opposes it, having served, herself, and having lost her beloved brother in action. Wales is an independent republic. And on, but you get the picture: Fforde is a fine worldbuilder, and his is a world both hilarious and serious.

Thursday works as a LiteraTech, one of those book-police, and is still scarred by her experience in the Crimea, and the loss of her brother there. She remembers fondly her former fiancé, who lost a leg in the same battle, but can’t quite be with him, for reasons we have to learn as the book unfolds. Her father is a time traveler, put briefly, and we get occasional time-stopping visits from him which also color the alternative universe Thursday dwells in. She finds herself a villainous opponent in Acheron Hades, her former college professor and now professional criminal extraordinaire. He has special powers (appearing in various forms, impervious to gunshot wounds) and Thursday is uniquely able to combat him, although not without personal injury and great risk. Their conflict takes Thursday back to her hometown, where we meet her delightful inventor uncle Mycroft (he of the bookworms), and witness the (clearly inevitable) reunion with the former fiancé.

The genius of The Eyre Affair, in case I have not sufficiently made this point, is the world that Fforde creates. All the little details are charming, fun, and silly in the best possible way; the characters are likeable and real. Thursday’s trauma as a war veteran is believable and makes her a fuller character. Her uncle is sweetly flawed and fabulous. Only Landen, the former fiancé, might be a little saccharine; and this is the book’s only real shortcoming: where Fforde digresses into romance he tends to be a little too sweet. His skill is not particularly apparent in terms of plot. The mystery story is fine, passable, amusing – and the villain is deliciously evil, taking pleasure in evil for its own sake – an adequate vehicle for the characters and worldbuilding that are Fforde’s greatest strengths. The love story is a little bit pat, but who cares? Give me more Thursday Next, set in this outrageously entertaining alternate universe, and I will be happy. Oh, and audio reading by Susan Duerden is fun and perfect; I will be looking for her reading of the next book in the series as well.


Rating: 7 dodos.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just open your current read to a random page and share a few sentences. Be careful not to include spoilers!

eyreaffair

Sorry. I know I just teased you with this one recently, but it’s simply too much fun. See:

He patted the large book that was the Prose Portal and looked at Mycroft’s genetically engineered bookworms. They were on rest & recuperation at present in their goldfish bowl; they had just digested a recent meal of prepositions and were happily farting out apostrophes and ampersands; the air was heavy with them.

How could I have passed up the meal of prepositions and the farting of apostrophes? I ask you. Great fun, this world of Thursday Next!

Happy reading in 2013, kids! Year-in-review post coming later on today.

Friday

Well this has been a heck of a day! I’ve been intimately connected with my IT guy all day, for one thing (thanks Wes) and that’s just the beginning. But at least my library patrons have been pleasant all day.

I was looking forward to lunchtime today, not just for the usual reason :) but because I was interested to see what would happen with poor Justin, and whodunit? in Murder Past Due! Congrats to author James for getting me involved. The whole thing ended in what I consider to be a very Agatha Christie scenario: all the players in one room, with the Poirot-character asking increasingly perplexing questions in a crescendo of uncovered secrets, ending with the perpetrator very unwisely spilling all of his/her secrets and all the details of the crime, even the ones unnecessary to confession. There was a bit of a twist, of course, since librarian Charlie has been our cozy amateur detective all along, and the policewoman takes over at the end; but it was still satisfactory and adequately surprising. (The hints build towards the end, which I think is slightly less satisfying than an all-out oh-my-goodness surprise crook, but still.) I was sad that it was over; I was becoming a fan of our Southern-small-town characters and want to know them better. But, this is the beginning of a new series, we’re told, so I guess I’ll be back! While not the most serious or life-changing book I’ve read lately, it was entertaining and I don’t regret my time.

Soon it’s off to the house for some sweet rest before off to the races all weekend! Next weekend I’m taking a vacation that involves some racing as well as some live music and some just-for-fun riding, but I also hope it’ll involve some reading!! as I’m getting behind. (For one thing, I still have yet to start Henrietta Lacks which I really did intend to readalong with Kristi; but I think she’s very busy and thus a slow-ish reader too, so maybe there’s hope.)

Today, by the way, marks six months at my new job here at the Patient Family Library. It’s been rewarding and I’m glad to be of service. Here’s to more of the same, er, better.

current book mystery

So I’m still working on Murder Past Due, by Miranda James.

First, about the author: Miranda James is a pseudonym for Dean James, Associate Director of Collection Development at the HAM-TMC Library (that’s the Houston Academy of Medicine – Texas Medical Center, whew), and he’s general manager at Murder by the Book, a local bookstore. Since I work in a library in the Texas Med Center too, we’re neighbors; he’s also a fellow alum of the University of North Texas Library & Information Sciences program. Aren’t you surprised he hasn’t come by to meet me yet? Maybe after I write about his book. Maybe if I say nice things. :)

Really, I am enjoying it. It’s decidedly a “cozy” mystery: our amateur detective hero is a retiring and kindly man, and a librarian (if you can believe it); his Maine coon cat, Diesel, who has been mentioned here before, adds a warm fuzzy note, almost literally. It’s a comfortable and, well, cozy story. I have to admit that compared to the last few book-related mysteries I’ve read, it’s more believable and realistic; more of a mystery novel, if you will, and less a novelty. I’m engaged in the story. I make my way happily along on my lunch breaks, all the while mourning over the stack of books piling literally up around me as I go about my daily routine… not enough time to read, as usual.

I haven’t even started Henrietta Lacks. The new Connelly isn’t here yet but you can bet that’ll move to the top of the stack! Also I finally came across a copy of A Darkness More Than Night the other day – the final Connelly novel that I haven’t read. So that’s in the stack, but I have some time to let that one rest, seeing as how it was first published in 2001! I’m racing my mountain bike this weekend and the next… pretty busy in general, in fact, also with the readers’ advisory class I’m taking right now and loving by the way. Be patient with me, forgiving reader, and I’ll keep you up to date as I move along. As I tell my patrons here at the library, there are too many good books in the world for anyone to read them all. But I do my best.

more book mystery books.

Just finished Untitled: A Booklover’s Mystery, by Julie Kaewert, and only to find out at the end that it’s the third in a series… oh well. I’m actually completely unfazed by the concept of reading a series out of order; I’ve done all of Michael Connelly’s out of order, gasp, and enjoyed them thoroughly. At any rate…

Untitled was enjoyable. It was a brisk little read (well, it took me a while because I only read it on lunch breaks!) and would fit into the category of “cozy” mysteries, because it was more cute than bloody. Not that there isn’t a fair amount of injury; our hero Alex Plumtree is a veritable pincushion and, like the Terminator, keeps getting up and keeping on. But it’s not graphic in the least.

Set in England, Alex is a printer in the family business, along with his brother, Max. Alex is lucky enough to be planning a wedding with Sarah, a beautiful (on the inside and out) American. The brothers discover an ancient and rare book in the family library – one of its kind, in fact, and only rumored to exist in a few bookish circles. This particular book, though, turns out to have ramifications in international relations from the 15th century all the way up through the present, and in Alex’s personal life. First he is initiated into some very elite circles of bibliophiles, and then things get really alarming; more than one powerful party seems to want Alex’s book and isn’t going to let Alex stand in its way. Thus the pincushion.

The storyline twisted and turned enough to wear me out a bit; but you won’t guess what’s coming too many times. It was a “cute” read; Alex strikes me as a touch goofy and overly impressed by titles and family history, but then he is British after all. It kept me entertained! I won’t seek out more of the Booklover’s series but I would pick one up if it crossed my desk.

 

And… what crossed my desk today is By Hook or By Book, by D.R. Meredith. The front reads, “a mystery reading group is being strung along by a killer…” …right up my alley! So that’s up next when I finish Murder Past Due which I have just started.

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