#BookReview River of Sins by Sarah Hawkswood @AllisonandBusby

9780749026196About the Book

July, 1144. The body of a woman is found butchered on an island a few miles upriver from Worcester – how did she get there, who killed her, and why?

Uncovering the details of Ricolde’s life and her past reveal a woman with hidden depths and hidden miseries which are fundamental to the answers, but time has cast a thick veil over the killer’s identity. The lord sheriff’s men have a trail that went cold over two decades ago, and evidence that contradicts itself.

Undersheriff Bradecote and Serjeant Catchpoll will need all their wits to solve this mystery.

Format: ebook (352 pages)                        Publisher: Allison & Busby
Publication date: 19th November 2020 Genre: Historical Fiction, Crime, Mystery

Find River of Sins (Bradecote and Catchpoll Mystery #7) on Goodreads

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My Review

As a huge fan of historical crime mysteries, I’m surprised it’s taken me so long to discover Sarah Hawkswood’s ‘Bradcote and Catchpoll’ series set in medieval Worcester. However, better late than never!  It also allows me to reassure readers that, despite being the seventh in the series, River of Sins can definitely be enjoyed without having read any of the previous books. There are a few references to earlier events and to the back stories of the leading characters, including some personal tragedies and longstanding enmities, but this in no way spoiled the book for me.

Hugh Bradcote, Undersheriff of Worcestershire and Serjeant Catchpoll make a great team. I get the impression that initial reservations they may have had about working together have been replaced by mutual respect and trust. Catchpoll has the street level knowledge of their patch, the keen eye of a detective and a reputation for taking no nonsense. Bradecote, on the other hand, may not have the detective nous of his sergeant but he has a keen sense of justice and can command the respect his status brings. In fact, they often deploy not so much a ‘good cop, bad cop’ strategy as a ‘toff cop, common cop’ approach with advantageous results. Walkelin, Catchpoll’s apprentice, brings youthful energy and some keen observational skills to the mix.

River of Sins has all the features of a police procedural but transported to medieval Worcester: securing the crime scene, gathering physical evidence, interviewing witnesses and identifying possible suspects.  There are plenty of the latter but the one thing missing, especially as events take an unexpected turn, is motive.  As Catchpoll observes to Bradcote, “There is no ‘why’, my lord, and that worries me. Until we have the ‘why’, I do not see my way clear to the ‘who'”.

As the investigation progresses, secrets from the past and hidden agenda are revealed along with tantalizing clues and false trails all enveloped in the atmosphere of medieval Worcester.  The author keeps the tension building with some dramatic scenes as Bradcote and Catchpoll close in on the culprit.

I really enjoyed River of Sins.  It’s a skillfully crafted mystery with plenty of period detail and two likeable leading characters. The good news is not only have I found a new historical crime series to follow but I have the six previous books to catch up on while I await the next investigation for Bradecote and Catchpoll, promised for 2021.

I received a review copy courtesy of Allison & Busby via NetGalley.

In three words: Assured, suspenseful, engaging

Try something similar: The Monastery Murders by E. M. Powell

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About the Author

Sarah Hawkswood describes herself as a ‘wordsmith’ who is only really happy when writing. She read Modern History at Oxford and first published a non-fiction book on the Royal Marines in the First World War before moving on to medieval mysteries set in Worcestershire.

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#BookReview Imperfect Alchemist by Naomi Miller @AllisonandBusby

Imperfect Alchemist blog tour Twitter

Welcome to today’s stop on the blog tour for Imperfect Alchemist by Naomi Miller. My thanks to Lesley at Allison & Busby for inviting me to take part in the tour and for my digital review copy via NetGalley.

Imperfect AlchemistAbout the Book

Two women. One bond that will unite them across years and social divides.

England, 1575. Mary Sidney, who will go on to claim a spot at the heart of Elizabethan court life and culture, is a fourteen-year-old navigating grief and her first awareness of love and desire. Her sharp mind is less interested in the dynastic alliances and marriages that concern her father, but will she be able to forge a place for herself and her writing in the years to come?

Rose Commin, a young country girl with a surprising talent for drawing, is desperate to shrug off the slurs of witchcraft which have tarnished life at home. The opportunity to work at Wilton House, the Earl of Pembroke’s Wiltshire residence, is her chance.

Defying the conventions of their time, these two women, mistress and maid, will find themselves facing the triumphs, revelations and struggles that lie ahead together.

Format: Hardback (352 pages)                 Publisher: Allison & Busby
Publication date: 19th November 2020 Genre: Historical fiction

Find Imperfect Alchemist on Goodreads

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My Review

Subtitled ‘A Novel of Mary Sidney Herbert, Renaissance Pioneer’, in Imperfect Alchemist the author creates a potpourri from elements that will be familiar to readers of historical fiction set in the Tudor period. There’s the risk of accusations of witchcraft against women with midwifery skills or knowledge of herbal remedies, the intrigue and power struggles of the Elizabethan Court, and the social constraints that present women with little option other than marriage, motherhood or a life in service. Throw in the study of alchemy, a little romance as well as famous historical figures such as Walter Raleigh and John Dee, and you have all the ingredients for an engrossing story. Although the book’s structure is clearly designed to replicate the stages of the alchemical process, allusions to alchemy can be found throughout the book.

Mary Sidney emerges as a vibrant character but one, despite her status in life, not immune from an arranged marriage, the tragedy of bereavement and the risks associated with childbirth. What seem like opportunities are often followed by setbacks or unintended consequences.  The equal of her brother Phillip when it comes to literary creativity, I particularly liked Mary’s passion for words. “Honing a phrase to embody a thought was her pleasure. Metaphors were her passion, her liberation from the literal constraints that framed her existence.”   

Mary’s determination to give female characters a more prominent role in works of literature sees her influencing the poetry of her brother, Philip (“her dearest soul and partner of the mind”) and even, the author contends, the work of arguably the most notable playwright of the period.  The Circle, the literary salon Mary establishes, attended by the likes of Edmund Spenser and Ben Jonson, she compares to an alchemical experiment in which materials are “blended and distilled until the union of like and unlike might yield perfect knowledge“.

The inclusion of a first person narrator, Rose Commin, gives the reader another perspective on Mary and provides the opportunity for secondary storylines as well as a touching if unconventional friendship between women from vastly different backgrounds.  Mary’s encouragement of Rose’s artistic talent also allows the author to explore another kind of transformational process.  As Rose observes, “The more I worked with colour the more readily I could understand the layering and mixing of shades in terms of my lady’s alchemy, where painstaking combinations of dissimilar ingredients could produce a harmonious end result”.

In Imperfect Alchemist, Naomi Miller transforms historical fact into the engrossing story of a remarkable woman who was clearly ahead of her time. Like her leading character, the author has “steeped existing material in the tincture of her own imagination” to create a story rich in historical detail.  If the book has made you interested in reading more about Mary Sidney Herbert as a character, do check out the author’s recommendations.

In three words: Immersive, authentic, fascinating

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Naomi Miller
Photo credit: John Crispin

About the Author

Naomi Miller is a professor of English and the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College, Massachusetts, where she specializes in Shakespeare and his literary “sisters” – women writers of the Renaissance. Imperfect Alchemist is her first novel.

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