THE WITCH OF NAPOLI by

10 03 2015

Witch of Napoli

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley
in exchange for an honest review. Thank you

A young reporter named Tomasso publishes a convincing photo of an Italian medium, Alexandra Poverelli, levitating a table, and it causes such a stir that the scientist/psychiatrist Professor Camillo Lombardi comes all the way to Naples to investigate the claim. To his astonishment, she proves she can do far more than simply levitate tables.

Result? She and the young reporter, Tomasso, who has fallen in love with her, are taken on a tour, first of Italy and then of the capitals of Europe, by the wealthy Professor Lombardi. Many are convinced by her. Others are either sceptical or fanatically against her – including the representative of an English society which investigates mediums, a repulsive character bent on engineering Alexandra’s downfall.

The novel is based on the life of Eusapia Palladino, who is dismissed in Wikipedia as a fraud (but then so is homeopathy!). However, in this story her powers are certainly genuine. That she can and does accomplish seemingly supernatural feats is not in doubt. The only question is how. Is she really in communication with the dead, or is there some other quite different explanation?

An interesting point is that this (the whole “medium” thing) is often seen and presented – especially in its late 19th-century context – as part of the supposed war between science and religion. In fact the Church is quite as much her enemy as the scientific establishment. More so. Many scientists did – and do – have an open mind (and so they should, for that after all is the scientific method), her sponsor, Professor Camillo Lombardi, being such a one, whereas no one from the Church (as represented in this novel, at least) showed any sign of an open mind.

It is an enthralling story, and it was a brilliant decision to use young Tomasso as the narrator, to watch it all unfold through his eyes, the eyes of one who loved the much-abused but still tempestuous Alexandra for who she was and not what she could do.





Magnus (review)

6 02 2015

Originally posted on BETTER THAN SLEEP:

Magnus coverThis is the story of Magnus Erlendson, Earl of Orkney in the Twelfth Century; or rather (as it says in the book) “half-earl”, for there were two heirs, Magnus and his cousin Hakon Paulson; the story of Magnus, the mystic, who cares for the seal injured by hunters, who sits in the prow of a ship reading a book during a great sea battle, and was born to be a saint.

But he was also born to be Earl of Orkney, and half the islands support him. There is civil war, during which the islanders are reduced to poverty and despair. In the end, after three years of fighting, Magnus is killed by treachery when he agrees to meet his cousin for peace talks.

George Mackay Brown, who died in 1996, was primarily a poet, and this is his most poetic novel, a long prose poem. He was also a…

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GHOSTLY MURDERS by Paul Doherty

29 01 2015

Ghostly MurdersThis is the fourth and in some ways the best yet of Doherty’s series of novels based on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Ghostly Murders is in fact the Poor Priest’s tale (his other tale) a ghost story in which two brothers, both young, both priests, get caught up in the aftermath of a horrifying crime involving some Templars who were fleeing for their lives at a time when all the world had turned against them.

But of course, before that tale can begin, the pilgrims must settle down for the night. And this particular night they find themselves caught in an evening mist close to dangerous marshes on which they can see lights (“corpse candles”) flickering in the growing darkness, so they decide to stop in a nearby village. Only the village is deserted, and has been since the Black Death thirty years earlier, and not only deserted but downright eerie, and not made any less so by the pilgrims themselves.

‘Let’s pray,’ said Mine Host, ‘to St Thomas à Becket whose blessed bones we go to venerate at Canterbury!’

The Miller gave a loud fart in answer, making the Carpenter snigger and giggle. Nevertheless, the pilgrims grouped closer. The Summoner moved his fat little horse behind that of the Franklin. He was not just interested in the Franklin’s costly silk purse, white as the morning milk. Oh no, the Summoner smiled to himself: he, like some others, was increasingly fascinated by this motley group of pilgrims making their way to Canterbury in the year of Our Lord 1389. All seemed to be acquainted with each other and the Summoner definitely knew the Franklin. They had met many years ago on a blood-soaked island. He was sure of that, as he was sure that the Franklin had had a hand in his father’s death. He would have liked to have talked to his colleague the Pardoner but he was now suspicious for the Summoner had recently discovered that the Franklin and the Pardoner were close friends. Indeed, this cunning man, with his bag full of relics and the bones of saints slung on a string round his neck, was certainly not what he claimed to be.

Behind the Summoner, the Friar, nervous of the cloying mist, plucked at the harp slung over his saddle horn. As he played, the Friar glanced furtively at the Monk riding alongside him. The Friar closed his eyes and strummed at the harp strings, calling up a little ditty he had learnt, anything to drive away the fears. He did not like the Monk sitting so arrogantly on his brown-berry palfrey: that smooth, fat face, those dark, soulless eyes and that smile, wolfish, the eye-teeth hanging down like jagged daggers. Who was the Monk? Why was the Knight so wary of him? And the latter’s son? The young, golden-haired Squire, he always kept an eye on the Monk, hand on the pommel of his sword, as if he expected the Monk to launch a sudden assault upon his father, the Knight. Was the Monk, the Friar wondered, one of those strigoi mentioned by the Knight in his tale? Did the Monk belong to the Undead? Those damned souls who wandered the face of the earth, finding their sustenance in human blood?

The whole setting reminds the Poor Priest of another Kentish village, Scawsby, and when prevailed upon to tell a tale he tells them of the strange events in Scawsby during his time there.

In fact, he tells them, it had all begun much earlier, in 1308, in the reign of the present king’s grandfather. A group of Templar Knights, fleeing from London to the coast, had been lured into just such treacherous marshes on just such a misty evening and there, mired and helpless, set upon by robbers led by the local lord of the manor and the parish priest, intent on seizing the Templar treasure.

‘We have been trapped,’ one of the knights whispered. ‘They have led us into a marsh.’

‘There must be paths!’ Sir William exclaimed. ‘Just like the one we are standing on.’ He grasped his sword tighter. ‘The Virgin, the Veronica?’ […]

An arrow whipped out of the darkness and took him full in the shoulder.

All the Templars are killed, but as he dies, their leader, Sir William Chasny, shouts “in English, in Latin, in French, ‘We shall be watching you! We shall always be watching you!‘”

Seventy years later, following the suicide of the previous incumbent, a new young priest, Philip Trumpington, comes to the village with his brother, Edmund. There, he is confronted by the past, for the church is full of ghosts, both good (the murdered Templars) and bad (especially the ghost of Romanel, the priest who organised the massacre), and full of voices whispering ‘Spectamus te, semper spectamus te! We are watching you, we are always watching you!’

As if the ghosts were not enough, there is also an attack on the village by a band of French marauders. But why on this small inland village? Can they too be after the Templar treasure?

Another of Doherty’s seemingly inexhaustible stream of wonderful minor characters makes an appearance in this book: the coffin woman. Read it, if only for her!

She is old and seems to know more about what happened seventy years ago than she is telling. What was her part in all this, wonders Philip.

The tension builds as Doherty skillfully blends his three story lines: the pilgrims, Philip and his brother, and their predecessor Romanel.

But unlike Romanel, the Poor Priest is not interested in “treasure on earth”. Will he therefore prove immune to the evil that has corrupted the souls of and led to the death of so many others?





A TOURNAMENT OF MURDERS by Paul Doherty

7 01 2015

tournament-of-murdersThis is the third in Doherty’s series of novels based on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales,following on from An Ancient Evil and A Tapestry of Murders . This time the franklin tells the tale, and it begins on the bloody field of Poitiers where Sir Gilbert Savage, an English knight, has been mortally wounded. He orders his squire, Richard Greenele – our young hero – to leave the field and return at once to England. There, Richard (who had always believed himself to be an orphan of unknown parentage) is to go to Colchester, where a lawyer holds a letter for him written by his father and due to be delivered to him now that he has reached the age of eighteen. This letter will solve the mystery surrounding his birth and his family – who he is. When he gets to Colchester, he finds the city stricken by the plague, the lawyer dead, and the lawyer’s beautiful daughter, Emmeline, alone and terrified in the boarded up house.

The letter she gives him tells of murder and treachery, and of the deaths of his mother and father on an island off the north-east Essex coast which had been his father’s property until he was wrongly convicted of murder and treason. Richard travels there with Emmeline and two other companions he has picked up on the road, a royal verderer and master-bowman who rescues him when he is attacked by outlaws in the forest, and a charlatan warlock whom they save from being hanged.

It is the middle of winter, the great house is derelict and the island seems deserted; but the group are haunted by ghosts, and, it turns out, by living men: a band of vicious outlaws intent on murder and a weird hermit, Buthlac, who remembers Richard’s parents.

‘Your father!’ he exclaimed, one bony finger outstretched. ‘Aye, you have his face, the Lady Maria’s eyes. I thought that when I first saw you.’

‘So why did you try to kill me?’

‘I protect the island,’ Buthlac replied defiantly. ‘Oh, they come across the bridge there looking for plunder, wanting to set up house, even though royal proclamations say this island and all on it belong to the Crown.’ The hermit’s face broke into a wicked smile. ‘But I scares them off. You see, I am the ghost. I am the spirit of the woods. If they shelter in the house, strange fires begin, strange sounds in the night.’

‘You didn’t try that last night,’ Richard commented.

‘There were too many of you and I was curious. You didn’t look like Moon-people or outlaws and old Buthlac was curious. I sits and I watches.’

‘Did you see the knight?’

Buthlac’s eyes grew cunning.

‘Did you see the knight?’ Richard repeated. ‘He charged me across the open field.’

‘Oh, I sees him all right,’ Buthlac replied slowly. ‘But, there again, you see, Master, just because I play at ghosts and demons, doesn’t mean …’ He stared round the trees fearfully. ‘Oh, no, you take Buthlac’s words seriously, it doesn’t mean the real demons don’t prowl here.’

The usual, highly successful, Doherty mix of medieval murder and magical menace. I am really enjoying reading this series again.





A TAPESTRY OF MURDERS by Paul Doherty

7 01 2015

tapestry-of-murdersIn this sequel to An Ancient Evil (the knight’s tale) in Doherty’s series of novels based on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the man of law tells a story about the events which followed the death of Isabella, Dowager Queen of England and mother of Edward III. She was also the daughter of the French King Philip IV (yes, that Philip – the persecutor of the Templars and the Jews), and known as “The She-Wolf of France”. Many years earlier, she had led a rebellion against her husband, Edward II, and after he had been murdered she ruled England in his stead, with her lover, the English nobleman, Mortimer.

However, her son grew up, as sons will. He had Mortimer arrested and executed, and he incarcerated Isabella in Castle Rising, an impregnable fortress in a remote part of East Anglia. Twenty-eight years later, she died. But she had a secret, a secret that her son, the king, was desperate to prevent from getting to France and from being made public.

In his tale, the man of law, Nicholas Chirke, recalls those days, when, as a young man setting out on his career, he was called upon to act for the defence in a murder case that turned out to be only one of a series of murders all revolving around this precious secret so long guarded by the dead queen.

Not much in the way of occult phenomena here (unusually for this series) – apart that is from one very believable ghost – but a very real (indeed authentic) medieval mystery, set against the background of sleazy streets and taverns (and larger-than-life characters) that Doherty has made his own.

They left the tavern and hired a ride on a cart going up Fleet Street. The day was cold but the thoroughfare was packed with carts fighting to get in or out of the city. Pedlars with packhorses and sumpter ponies and wandering priests and scholars thronged around them. Crippled beggars, clutching makeshift wheel barrows, hurried into the city to take up their usual positions for the day. At Fleet prison, just past the stinking city ditch, the execution cart was being prepared to take convicted felons up past Farringdon into West Smithfield. The prisoners were bound hand and foot and some – a woman sentenced to be boiled for poisoning her husband with burnt spiders, a footpad guilty of stealing a silver crucifix from a church in Clerkenwell, a river pirate and two counterfeiters – had placards slung around their necks advertising their crimes. The red-masked executioner tried to drive off the bystanders and onlookers with his whip, helped by the sheriff’s men with their tipped staves. A drunken bagpipe player had to be helped to his feet so that he could give the death cart a musical accompaniment to the execution ground … …

Better than any film.





MURDER OFFSTAGE by L. B. Hathaway

16 12 2014

Murder OffstageAnother young woman sleuthing in London in the aftermath of the Great War. Posie Potter inevitably invites comparison with Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs and Gillian Winscott’s Nell Bray, and it has to be said that though this is a competently written cosy detective story in the classic early-Agatha-Christie tradition, it is not in the same class as those others I mentioned. Although Posie has been a nurse on the battle field and experienced the horrors of trench warfare at first hand, there is none of the trauma and nightmares here that seemed so right in the Maise Dobbs novels. Nor is the plot comparable to that of, say, the superficially similar Stage Fright by Gillian Winscott. A priceless diamond with a curse on it stolen from a rajah is hardly original.

On the other hand, it was the first in the series, it is very promising, I do like Posie, and I suppose “cosy” should mean just that, “cosy” – so, yes, I will definitely be reading the next Posie Parker Mystery.





AVIGNON by Marianne Calmann

23 11 2014

Avignon coverThis is a strange book. There are so many different characters and so many different things going on that it reads more like a soap opera than a novel. But then the same might be said for that greatest of all historical novels “War and Peace”. We jump from Cardinal le Gor with his page and his moral problem (his relationship with his page) to Pope Clement with his sister and his health problems and his moral problem (he had feelings of guilt about what others called “his spendthrift ways”; for instance he had spent billions trying to make Avignon and the Palais des Papes more beautiful and impressive than anything in Rome); to Thoros Bonivassin, the Jewish physician who is summoned one night to the Pope’s bedside then disappears; to Blanchette, Thoros’ beautiful sister-in-law, who is in love with him, not Astruc, her husband, Thoros’ brother; to the high official in the Pope’s household who is obsessed with a Jewish woman (that same femme fatale, Blanchette) and fathers a son on her, then undergoes a terrible penance for this “sin”. And many, many more.

The scene switches from one to the other and back again as we follow their lives and get to know them all and to feel at home in Avignon (and especially in the Papal Palace and the Jewish ghetto known as the Street) during 1347-8, the year leading up to the arrival via Marseilles of the Black Death. The last third of the book shows how they respond in their various different ways to this catastrophe. Should Thoros, the physician, go into Avignon or remain in the Street (which will be sealed off). Should they flee the Street and Avignon?

Great history if not great art (though I’m not too sure about that distinction), well written and, as I say, full of people. Highly recommended to those who feel curious about medieval Avignon, and life (especially life for Jews) under the French popes. After reading this, you would feel at home there.








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