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In Chaucer’s London, betrayal, murder and intrigue swirl around the existence of a prophetic book that foretells the deaths of England’s kings. A Burnable Book is an irresistible thriller, reminiscent of classics like An Instance of the Fingerpost, The Name of the Rose and The Crimson Petal and the White. London, 1385. Surrounded by ruthless courtiers—including his powerfu In Chaucer’s London, betrayal, murder and intrigue swirl around the existence of a prophetic book that foretells the deaths of England’s kings. A Burnable Book is an irresistible thriller, reminiscent of classics like An Instance of the Fingerpost, The Name of the Rose and The Crimson Petal and the White. London, 1385. Surrounded by ruthless courtiers—including his powerful uncle, John of Gaunt, and Gaunt’s flamboyant mistress, Katherine Swynford—England’s young, still untested king, Richard II, is in mortal peril, and the danger is only beginning. Songs are heard across London—catchy verses said to originate from an ancient book that prophesies the end of England’s kings—and among the book’s predictions is Richard’s assassination. Only a few powerful men know that the cryptic lines derive from a “burnable book,” a seditious work that threatens the stability of the realm. To find the manuscript, wily bureaucrat Geoffrey Chaucer turns to fellow poet John Gower, a professional trader in information with connections high and low. Gower discovers that the book and incriminating evidence about its author have fallen into the unwitting hands of innocents, who will be drawn into a labyrinthine conspiracy that reaches from the king’s court to London’s slums and stews--and potentially implicates his own son. As the intrigue deepens, it becomes clear that Gower, a man with secrets of his own, may be the last hope to save a king from a terrible fate. Medieval scholar Bruce Holsinger draws on his vast knowledge of the period to add colorful, authentic detail—on everything from poetry and bookbinding to court intrigues and brothels—to this highly entertaining and brilliantly constructed epic literary mystery that brings medieval England gloriously to life.


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In Chaucer’s London, betrayal, murder and intrigue swirl around the existence of a prophetic book that foretells the deaths of England’s kings. A Burnable Book is an irresistible thriller, reminiscent of classics like An Instance of the Fingerpost, The Name of the Rose and The Crimson Petal and the White. London, 1385. Surrounded by ruthless courtiers—including his powerfu In Chaucer’s London, betrayal, murder and intrigue swirl around the existence of a prophetic book that foretells the deaths of England’s kings. A Burnable Book is an irresistible thriller, reminiscent of classics like An Instance of the Fingerpost, The Name of the Rose and The Crimson Petal and the White. London, 1385. Surrounded by ruthless courtiers—including his powerful uncle, John of Gaunt, and Gaunt’s flamboyant mistress, Katherine Swynford—England’s young, still untested king, Richard II, is in mortal peril, and the danger is only beginning. Songs are heard across London—catchy verses said to originate from an ancient book that prophesies the end of England’s kings—and among the book’s predictions is Richard’s assassination. Only a few powerful men know that the cryptic lines derive from a “burnable book,” a seditious work that threatens the stability of the realm. To find the manuscript, wily bureaucrat Geoffrey Chaucer turns to fellow poet John Gower, a professional trader in information with connections high and low. Gower discovers that the book and incriminating evidence about its author have fallen into the unwitting hands of innocents, who will be drawn into a labyrinthine conspiracy that reaches from the king’s court to London’s slums and stews--and potentially implicates his own son. As the intrigue deepens, it becomes clear that Gower, a man with secrets of his own, may be the last hope to save a king from a terrible fate. Medieval scholar Bruce Holsinger draws on his vast knowledge of the period to add colorful, authentic detail—on everything from poetry and bookbinding to court intrigues and brothels—to this highly entertaining and brilliantly constructed epic literary mystery that brings medieval England gloriously to life.

30 review for A Burnable Book

  1. 5 out of 5

    Jeffrey Keeten

    “There is no deception on the part of the woman, where a man bewilders himself: if he deludes his own wits, I can certainly acquit the women. Whatever man allows his mind to dwell upon the imprint his imagination has foolishly taken of women, is fanning the flames within himself -- and, since the woman knows nothing about it, she is not to blame. For if a man incites himself to drown, and will not restrain himself, it is not the water's fault.” ― John Gower, Confessio Amantis John “Dour” Gowe “There is no deception on the part of the woman, where a man bewilders himself: if he deludes his own wits, I can certainly acquit the women. Whatever man allows his mind to dwell upon the imprint his imagination has foolishly taken of women, is fanning the flames within himself -- and, since the woman knows nothing about it, she is not to blame. For if a man incites himself to drown, and will not restrain himself, it is not the water's fault.” ― John Gower, Confessio Amantis John “Dour” Gower. The great bard himself, William Shakespeare, used Gower as a character in three plays. Pericles, Prince of Tyre, Henry V, and Henry IV Part II . Geoffrey Chaucer in a moment of romantic lust wrote a series of poems for a young lady. Poets use their best gifts, words, when seducing pretty, nubile women. This book of poems came up missing and though in themselves they are not dangerous, he was writing couplets about the deaths of English kings, when another couplet about a living king is added the book goes from being an amusing fancy of seduction to treason. <“At Prince of Plums shall prelate oppose A faun of three feathers with flaunting of fur, Long castle will collar and cast out the core, His reign to fall rain, mors regis to roar. By bank of a bishop shall butchers abide, To nest, by God’s name, with knives in hand, Then springen in service at spiritus sung. In palace of prelate with pearls all appointed, By kingmaker’s cunning a king to unking, A magnate whose majesty mingles with mort. By Half-ten of Hawks might slender be shown. On day of Saint Dunstan shall Death have his doom.” The Prince of Plums of course is Richard II, the young King, untested, vulnerable. The year is 1385. Chaucer, soon becomes aware of the danger his wooing has placed him in. He has some of the most recognizable handwriting of the realm. He goes to his friend John Gower and asks him to retrieve the book, which has now surfaced in England, but he leaves out a few details regarding the potential inflammatory nature of the material in the book. Geoffrey Chaucer was still working for the crown at this point as a customs inspector and had just started writing the work that would immortalize him The Canterbury Tales. Gower is more conservative than Chaucer and though they are good friends he can’t help shaking his head over the continued problems his friends poetic libido lands him in. ”You’re remarkably careless with your poetry, Chaucer. And always have been.” In the 15th century John Gower and Geoffrey Chaucer were considered the fathers of English poetry on an equal platform. As the centuries passed Gower’s poetry was looked on as dull and didactic and his reputation suffered leaving Chaucer’s bawdier work reigning supreme over their period. Gower would not be amused. The book falls into the hands of a maudlyn, and is passed from hand to hand among them because none of them can read. They sense it is worth something. You might be asking yourself what does a maudlyn do? ”Eleanor Rykener grunted, spat, wiped her lips. The friar covered his shriveled knob. Wouldn’t meet her eyes, of course. Franciscans, they never liked to look. He dropped his groats on the straw.’“why thank you, Brother Michael,’ She said, her voice a sullen nip. The friar stared coldly at some spot on her neck, then shrugged on his cowl, edged around the old mare, and left the stall.” Bruce Holsinger mixes in pieces of language that has been long left behind. Swyving is what maudlyn’s do. Skincoin is the pay they receive. They work for the most part in Southwark which resides on the other side of the Thames. One of the whorehouses is called the Bishop’s Prick which is aptly named since the Bishop owns the property. The English language was growing by leaps and bounds in this period and Holsinger took full advantage of some of the juicer words available which adds some much appreciated spice to a convoluted plot. Gower starts his investigation with Katherine of Swynford who is the mistress of John of Gaunt Duke of Lancaster. Just a quick note on John of Gaunt. He was worth an estimated $110 billion dollars making him the richest man of this era and the 16th richest man to ever live. He was a very ambitious man and had designs on the throne of England(just not this time). There is very little that Katherine couldn’t find out in the process of servicing his desires. She didn’t have to be the richest man in the kingdom. She just had to control the richest man in the kingdom. Katherine of Swynford, the power was in the palm of her hand nearly every night. The problem of course is she is a notorious gossip. One must exchange if one is to keep receiving. News spreads quickly and soon more people are searching for this book. John Gower has to wade his way through assassins, French agents, butchers, prostitutes, figures at court, and ends up risking more than he could ever imagine when Chaucer first approached him about finding a little book. KIngs of this era were quick to swing the axe. Even just knowing about such an incendiary book could land a person on the chopping block smelling the stank sweat of the executioner as he prepares to lop off their head. And how pray tell does Sir John Hawkwood fit into this dastardly plot? Sir John Hawkwood was an English mercenary who worked for the Pope and for many other factions in Italy. He amassed a fortune in wealth and information. Bruce Holsinger is a medieval scholar at the University of Virginia and has written an entertaining book of the 14th century using the colorful, historical people of the period.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Annet

    A tough book to read, certainly not a quick easy read. Many characters, tough sometimes old English language, several storylines so this is a book you really need your attention fully for. I am used to reading multiple books at the same time, but this book demanded my full focus. When I did that, it became better and better. Good solid historical story, crime & mystery, great background sketched of 14th century London. Dark and intriguing. 3.8 and looking forward to the next book on John Gower w A tough book to read, certainly not a quick easy read. Many characters, tough sometimes old English language, several storylines so this is a book you really need your attention fully for. I am used to reading multiple books at the same time, but this book demanded my full focus. When I did that, it became better and better. Good solid historical story, crime & mystery, great background sketched of 14th century London. Dark and intriguing. 3.8 and looking forward to the next book on John Gower which I will certainly get to read. More to follow. Yes, I would recommend this book to goodreads friends who love historical fiction. 'Medieval London with its murky, poverty-stricken streets...enjoyable and intelligent' - Daily Mail Bruce Holsinger is a professor of English language and literature whose books on medieval culture have won major prizes. London, 1385. A city of shadows and fear in a kingdom haunted by the spectre of revolt and ruled by a headstrong King Richard II. John Gower is a part-time poet and full-time trader in information and secrets. When close confidant Geoffrey Chaucer calls in an old debt, Gower can not refuse: Track down a missing book. What Gower does not know is that this book has already caused one murder, and has the power to distroy his and others lives. For its words contain the highest treason-a conspiracy to kill the king...

  3. 5 out of 5

    Terri

    Don't burn it! It is pretty decent. Once I got over my giggle fest at any mention of the road in London called Gropecunt Lane (immature I know, but I can't be a grown up about everything all of the time) I went on to delight in this charming and well written read. I can hardly even believe that it is a debut for that scholastic fellow, Bruce Holsinger, but it is. So believe it I must. The absolute strength of this book is its characters. Sure, the writing is adept majority of the time and the mann Don't burn it! It is pretty decent. Once I got over my giggle fest at any mention of the road in London called Gropecunt Lane (immature I know, but I can't be a grown up about everything all of the time) I went on to delight in this charming and well written read. I can hardly even believe that it is a debut for that scholastic fellow, Bruce Holsinger, but it is. So believe it I must. The absolute strength of this book is its characters. Sure, the writing is adept majority of the time and the manner in which the story laid itself out impressed me enough, but I liked the book for its memorable characters most of all. Then there is the meat of this book. Its reason for existing. The mystery plot. The mystery plot did its job. Enjoyable, educational and significant enough to keep me coming back for more. However, I would not say the outcomes sneaked up on me. I could see down the line what was coming. In saying that, I was not all that disappointed by knowing who was up to what and why they were up to it and what they would do with what they had when they wanted to get up to what they were up to... That is going to happen in every mystery. Some readers will guess, some won't. Just so happened that in this book, I guessed. I must not forget to mention another strength of this book that I overlooked earlier in this review. The description of setting and context. I am a sucker for a well strung bow. And A Burnable Book carried a qualified arsenal. The streets, the politics, but of them all, I think the portrait of life in the slums of London came through sharply. Even now, having finished the book a few weeks gone, that world of the London moll stays vivid in my mind. Bruce Holsinger did a fair job in A Burnable Book, to bring this particular era of medieval England to life and I cannot wait for the follow up book to be released. I get so jaded with sorting wheat from chaff in the genre of historical fiction. When a great debut comes along and I get the scent in my nostrils of even better reads to come, I celebrate them. And therefore I celebrate A Burnable Book. I hope to discover more of these quality debuts.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Ron Charles

    Forget Tom Cruise scaling the Burj Khalifa tower; the hot new super-agent is 14th-century writer Geoffrey Chaucer. Thrill to his daring Middle English rimes! Gasp at his mighty scansion! Here in the pages of Bruce Holsinger’s medieval adventure, that randy old poet finally gets the “Mission Impossible” cameo he deserves. “The Burnable Book” joins a heavy shelf of novels about intrepid literary folk. The popularity of this subgenre — “An Instance of the Fingerpost,” “The Shadow of the Wind,” “Ex L Forget Tom Cruise scaling the Burj Khalifa tower; the hot new super-agent is 14th-century writer Geoffrey Chaucer. Thrill to his daring Middle English rimes! Gasp at his mighty scansion! Here in the pages of Bruce Holsinger’s medieval adventure, that randy old poet finally gets the “Mission Impossible” cameo he deserves. “The Burnable Book” joins a heavy shelf of novels about intrepid literary folk. The popularity of this subgenre — “An Instance of the Fingerpost,” “The Shadow of the Wind,” “Ex Libris” and many elegant others — isn’t surprising. After all, there comes a time in the life of every poorly dressed bookworm — the Post-Walter-Mitty Phase — when it’s tiring for us even to fantasize about commanding a Navy hydroplane or saving lives in the ER. “Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages” of a different sort. We reach — carefully, so as not to wake the cat — for a lush bibliomaniac thriller. The cerebral heroes of these novels let us imagine that we might someday save the realm not by flying a helicopter through the English Chunnel, but merely by explicating a particularly knotty metaphor. Holsinger, a native of Fairfax, Va., takes on the novelist’s mantle draped in academic robes. A Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Humanities fellow, he teaches medieval literature at the University of Virginia. You do not want to challenge the good doctor to a “Canterbury Tales” trivia contest. After a decade of writing monographs such as “Lollard Ekphrasis: Situated Aesthetics and Literary History,” Holsinger seems the last author we’d turn to for exciting skulduggery. But perhaps all those years trying to engage sleepy college students with the details of Ye Olde England have taught Holsinger what the Summoner figured out 600 years ago: Don’t underestimate the value of a good fart joke. “The Burnable Book” takes place in 1385, when the walled city of London is still finding its footing after the Peasants’ Revolt four years earlier. As the Hundred Years’ War drags on, young Richard II faces myriad threats inside and outside his country. Who knows when fresh blood may flow between the Earl of Oxford and the king’s uncle, John of Gaunt? But this story scurries along the grimy underbelly of London and its surrounding towns. The complicated gearwork of the city turns through these pages in rich detail, as thousands of men, women and children struggle to scrape together enough coins to avoid starvation. (This was back in the good old days before unemployment insurance ruined everybody’s work ethic.) Butchers and spicerers, gravediggers and smiths, lawyers and friars: Holsinger choreographs the whole teeming economy — slicing, digging, pounding and scribbling away — along with many, many prostitutes servicing everybody from earls to bishops. The intrigue opens during a dark night on the Moorfields. A cloaked man is beating a young woman for information. Whatever he wants to know, she won’t tell him. She screams out two lines of an allegorical poem just before he finishes her off with a hammer. This doesn’t say much for the efficacy of poetry as a defense against blunt-force trauma, but it gets the novel off to a rousing start. That grisly death is witnessed by a prostitute who’s hiding nearby, clutching a manuscript wrapped in an embroidered cloth. Over the next several hundred pages, she and her fellow sex workers — maudlyns — struggle to figure out what to do with this book “worth dying for.” They’re an irresistible cast that includes a lucky whore whose “Pretty Woman” fantasy is about to collapse, an outrageous bawd who alternately weeps over her daughters and beats them into service, and an ingenious transvestite who switches identities according to each client’s preference. Slowly, they come to realize they’re holding an ancient book that has correctly prophesied the demise of England’s previous 12 kings. What’s worse, the 13th stanza offers a ghastly description of how Richard II himself will be butchered in just six weeks. Dangerous verse, indeed, at a time when “by statute of Parliament it’s treasonous to compass or even imagine the death of the king.” Soon everybody knows about the existence of this book and wants it, but the trouble with selling such a manuscript is that anyone suspected of having it keeps ending up dead. As the bishop of London has declared, “This is a burnable book.” Alternate chapters are narrated in the first person by Chaucer’s friend and fellow poet John Gower. Don’t worry if you can’t remember much of his 10,000-line Latin elegy, “Vox Clamantis”; Holsinger is a graceful guide to the 14th century, lacing his thriller with just the right seasoning of antique words and all the necessary historical detail without any of the fusty smell of a documentary. Building on the known record but confidently coloring in the lacuna, he depicts Gower in the shadow of grief. His wife has died, and his son has been forced to flee to Italy. While composing moralistic poems, he supports himself in a peculiar occupation: “I have become a trader in information,” he tells us, “a seller of suspicion, a purveyor of foibles and the hidden things of private life.” Gower’s entanglement with this dangerous tale begins when Chaucer asks him to find the missing book. “This job needs a subterranean man,” Chaucer says, “a man who knows this city like the lines of his knuckles, its secrets and surprises. All those shadowed corners and blind alleyways where you do your nasty work.” Gower knows better than to trust his old friend completely; something about this odd assignment smells worse than the Summoner’s breath. Surely, in his day job as comptroller of the customs for the port of London, Chaucer could track down the manuscript himself. Something else must be going on. “This book could hurt me,” Chaucer acknowledges. “It could cost me my life.” Oh, for the days when men died for poetry! But Gower can’t afford to be romantic about this assignment. Powerful forces — inside and outside the government — are already grasping for these 400 lines of inflammatory doggerel. Whether it’s authentic or forged hardly matters; it could be a rallying cry for political or religious revolt, a clue to a double-agent’s treachery or a way to falsely implicate a powerful friend of the king. In a perfectly plausible, 14th-century reimagining of our chaotic Web culture, Holsinger demonstrates how this ancient verse slips out of anyone’s control, gets replicated like some damning tweet all across England and takes on constantly shifting meanings among different readers — even while more bodies pile up. This was an age and a culture enamored of complex allegories and hidden meanings, but unfortunately the nested intrigue of Holsinger’s plot eventually grows ludicrously byzantine, which begins to sap the novel’s action even as the crisis nears. Political rivalry in London shatters into a dozen arcane conflicts involving the intricate interpretation of playing cards and embroidery. Couplets from the errant manuscript are repeated and explicated to soporific effect, as the story sprawls out to include the theological conflict with Wycliffe’s followers in Oxford, an elaborate side plot in Italy and several other story lines I struggled to track. Late in this hall of mirrors, Holsinger has Gower say, “I wondered who had come up with the ingenious contrivance,” but there can be diminishing returns to even the most ingenious contrivance. Puzzlemeisters, though, will love this. As will anyone who wants to sink into the sights and sounds of medieval England, a world that rises up here in all its strangeness — and its surprising similarities to our own era. We know Richard II will survive many more years regardless of what some clever couplet means, but as Chaucer’s pilgrims proved, the journey can be a lot more fun than the destination. http://www.washingtonpost.com/enterta...

  5. 5 out of 5

    Dawn

    Over the last few years I've really jumped into the historical fiction genre and have managed to read a whole lot them. From classics to living masters to those with mass appeal and those without and quite a few first attempts at fiction. The last applying to this book. And if I hadn't already known that fact, I would never have found out from the quality of the writing or the story. This is a well written book by a man who really loves his subject. I absolutely appreciate that there are no info Over the last few years I've really jumped into the historical fiction genre and have managed to read a whole lot them. From classics to living masters to those with mass appeal and those without and quite a few first attempts at fiction. The last applying to this book. And if I hadn't already known that fact, I would never have found out from the quality of the writing or the story. This is a well written book by a man who really loves his subject. I absolutely appreciate that there are no info dumps, that everything you need to know is incorporated into the story in a believable way. I love the type of book that can really transport you to the time and era, that can make you understand the lives and feelings of the people, how they lived and survived, what it would have been like to live in that part of town or work in a certain trade. I think this story really did that. I also liked the mystery of the second story, the one in italics. That I didn't quite know what it was about or who it was about but that it revealed itself at just the right moments. For me it could get a little descriptive. Too many small aspects were explained in too much detail. And the end took too long in my mind, I just wanted to get on with it already. Some wonderful characters and fascinating history make this a very good read. I am happy to know that at least one more book with John Gower is in the works.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Faith

    Puzzles, enigmas, lies, spies, schemes and riddles - what a juicy story. This terrific book is about the search for a missing tome that contains a treasonous prophesy about the murder of King Richard II and is thus a "burnable book". Geoffrey Chaucer is one of many people searching for this book and he has enlisted the aid of his friend, a lawyer/poet/fixer named John Gower. Gower is a trader in secret information that he buys or obtains through blackmail or as payment for previous favors. It se Puzzles, enigmas, lies, spies, schemes and riddles - what a juicy story. This terrific book is about the search for a missing tome that contains a treasonous prophesy about the murder of King Richard II and is thus a "burnable book". Geoffrey Chaucer is one of many people searching for this book and he has enlisted the aid of his friend, a lawyer/poet/fixer named John Gower. Gower is a trader in secret information that he buys or obtains through blackmail or as payment for previous favors. It seems that everyone in London is in his debt. Gower is proud of his ability to control situations but the intrigues surrounding the burnable book are beyond his control. He is also unable to control his estranged son Simon who has been banished. This is the first work of fiction by the author, a medieval scholar, and the book is full of vivid period details. They lend atmosphere to the plot but do not overwhelm it. I never got the feeling that the author was forcing his research notes into the story. I am not an English history buff, so I appreciated the inclusion of a cast of characters, both real and fictional, in the beginning of the book. Sections of the book are separated by pages of a letter from a mysterious correspondent to an unknown lover. This letter gradually reveals the history of the burnable book. The burnable book is stolen several times during the course of this story. It's seekers have complex political, theological and personal motives for wanting the book or wanting to keep it from being found, including old grudges and new affronts. This book has a complex plot and a large group of characters including royalty and clergy in England, a group of mercenaries in Italy, and the prostitutes, butchers and merchants in the impoverished parts of London. Ultimately it is the powerless people who show their nobility by trying to do the right thing to protect the King and each other and who lose the most in doing so. Not everyone survives the search for the burnable book. The mystery surrounding the missing book (who wrote it, what does it mean, why does everyone want it, how did it get to England) is fascinating. This was a really good story, excitingly told and well written. I'll be happy to read the author's next book. I received a free copy of the advance reader's edition of this book from the publisher.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Jeanette

    Medieval in all senses. A most difficult of difficult reads. Nearly a 5 despite all the circuitous routes. Not all of them in swill of London lanes nor within just Southwark either. Dialect of 1385 mixed in turbulent parts of politics measured through personal sieves. Dark times. Death familiar and yet artistic erudite hubris is vibrantly alive to survive it. I do not recommend this except for those who refuse to judge one era's mores or culture by the values or laws of a much later time. Nor for Medieval in all senses. A most difficult of difficult reads. Nearly a 5 despite all the circuitous routes. Not all of them in swill of London lanes nor within just Southwark either. Dialect of 1385 mixed in turbulent parts of politics measured through personal sieves. Dark times. Death familiar and yet artistic erudite hubris is vibrantly alive to survive it. I do not recommend this except for those who refuse to judge one era's mores or culture by the values or laws of a much later time. Nor for those who are faint hearted. Not at all. Deep. Profound and more often than not wicked at the same time. Filled with ciphers, puzzles, puns etc. Verse as a central component to prophecy? The only book I've read by another author anything to this period supreme context was Instance of a Fingerpost.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Sharon

    Two pieces of disclosure to get out at the very beginning: Prof. Holsinger was my instructor for an excellent class entitled "Plagues, Witches and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction." I also received an advance reader's copy of the book through his publisher. So, with all of that said: wow, what a ride! The story starts with the murder of a young woman and the theft of a ancient book that contains accurate prophecies of the deaths of England's kings -- and one about the current monarch, Richard Two pieces of disclosure to get out at the very beginning: Prof. Holsinger was my instructor for an excellent class entitled "Plagues, Witches and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction." I also received an advance reader's copy of the book through his publisher. So, with all of that said: wow, what a ride! The story starts with the murder of a young woman and the theft of a ancient book that contains accurate prophecies of the deaths of England's kings -- and one about the current monarch, Richard II. Poets John Gower and Geoffrey Chaucer are working on finding the book ... as is half of England's gentry, because the Duke of Lancaster is implicated in the plot. And who happens to find the book? A whore named Agnes, who witnesses the murder of the young woman. She tells her friend, a transvestite prostitute called Eleanor, about it. Holsinger uses the devices of the prostitutes (called maudlyns during the period, based on the contemporary pronunciation of Magdalene) to introduce us to the underworld of London and Southwark, then two different towns. Thus, we have something of an "Upstairs, Downstairs" look at the culture of the time through the eyes of characters both high and low. The mystery unfolds through the missing poetry, and I must admit that I was constantly surprised as facts and red herrings alike were introduced to keep the reader guessing until the very end. The book is well-researched, with Holsinger providing information on books and primary sources he consulted to create the novel. I highly recommend it for fans of historical mysteries; this is one of the finest I've read.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Linda Robinson

    The front of this amazing book has a list of characters, a map of London and surrounds, and begob!, a lineage flowchart. I was dismayed that I wouldn't be able to keep up with who's who and where's what. Before I was a third of the way into the book, I was flipping back to the first pages, eager to follow the trail Holsinger was blazing. I've claimed often not to like historical fiction, although Colleen McCullough's Rome series remains a favorite. A Burnable Book is the same sort of delightful The front of this amazing book has a list of characters, a map of London and surrounds, and begob!, a lineage flowchart. I was dismayed that I wouldn't be able to keep up with who's who and where's what. Before I was a third of the way into the book, I was flipping back to the first pages, eager to follow the trail Holsinger was blazing. I've claimed often not to like historical fiction, although Colleen McCullough's Rome series remains a favorite. A Burnable Book is the same sort of delightful experience. Holsinger brings the world of 14th century England to vivid life. He's a MIddle Ages historian, so in a real sense, he lives in the world he shares with us. We can hear the barkers at the gates of city buildings (with one particularly rich exchange between hawkers, including Our Lady of Stale Buns.) We live with the clawing greed of political climbers, the cloying odor of the stews, the clamor of Rose Alley, the calamity scheduled for St. Dunstan's Day if our main characters can't successfully sleuth. Holsinger loves the richness of this time in English history, and we can feel that emotion on every page. The players are written alive, grasping to keep breathing from The Court to The Ward of Cheap. An excellent read.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Jana

    Simon Vance, will you read me a story? UPDATE: And what a story! This worked for me on so many levels: I remember first reading Chaucer in high school and being so surprised at how bawdy and interesting he was. Much like the surprise of finding out that Shakespeare is this way as well. To spend time immersed in Chaucer's medieval England is about as fun as it gets. In real life last October, and in a book last week. I'm sure I missed many of the references, but I knew that I was in very good hand Simon Vance, will you read me a story? UPDATE: And what a story! This worked for me on so many levels: I remember first reading Chaucer in high school and being so surprised at how bawdy and interesting he was. Much like the surprise of finding out that Shakespeare is this way as well. To spend time immersed in Chaucer's medieval England is about as fun as it gets. In real life last October, and in a book last week. I'm sure I missed many of the references, but I knew that I was in very good hands and was ever so pleased when the dots connected. I quickly became very attached to one particular character. Here's a hint: I won't tell you his/her name. But all of them were fascinating: the narrator John Gower, Chaucer himself, and a cast of characters from highborn to low. 5*s for setting/atmosphere, characters & plot. Simon Vance is the perfect voice for the narration and I am sure it added to my enjoyment. Hooray for a sequel in the future! I look forward to meeting the author in Vermont next month.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Margaret

    I did not warm to the main character of John Gower at all. This could have been extremely detrimental to the book. However, the book was redeemed from the depths of medieval mediocrity by the transvestite and the whores. Wonderful, well rounded, extremely human characters who made the book a delight to read. The Prioress was also an excellent character whom I would like to have seen more of. The plot was a trifle dull and was the much over used device of a missing book that could be greatly damagin I did not warm to the main character of John Gower at all. This could have been extremely detrimental to the book. However, the book was redeemed from the depths of medieval mediocrity by the transvestite and the whores. Wonderful, well rounded, extremely human characters who made the book a delight to read. The Prioress was also an excellent character whom I would like to have seen more of. The plot was a trifle dull and was the much over used device of a missing book that could be greatly damaging to those in power. But the aforementioned whores wove through the plot so well that is was easy to overlook how cliched the plot actually was. Not so sure, however, that I would want to read another John Gower novel - unless the transvestive, the whores, and the Prioress were also major characters again.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Aly Abell

    I just got back from a trip to the fourteenth century, courtesy of A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger. Set primarily in London at the time of Chaucer (before he wrote Canterbury Tales), the book is a historical thriller that will keep you turning the pages. The main plot centers around a search for the “burnable book” of the title. Said to be written during the reign of William the Conqueror, the seditious book foretells the death of the English monarchs. Only the thirteenth prophecy has not yet I just got back from a trip to the fourteenth century, courtesy of A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger. Set primarily in London at the time of Chaucer (before he wrote Canterbury Tales), the book is a historical thriller that will keep you turning the pages. The main plot centers around a search for the “burnable book” of the title. Said to be written during the reign of William the Conqueror, the seditious book foretells the death of the English monarchs. Only the thirteenth prophecy has not yet been fulfilled – and it is about the current king! At the beginning of the novel, the book in question falls into the hands of Agnes, a maudlyn (prostitute), and Agnes enlists her sister Millicent and a friend (Eleanor Rykener, also known as Edgar) into helping figure out what to do with it. Meanwhile, Geoffrey Chaucer himself has recruited his friend and fellow poet John Gower into helping him find the book. It quickly becomes apparent that Chaucer is not the only one looking for the book, and bit by bit it seems like all the omens leading to King Richard II’s death are being fulfilled. The primary plot is supplemented by a complex web of numerous subplots, including the story of a girl from Spain, the ambitions of the mercenary John Hawkwood, and Rykener’s quest to rescue younger brother Gerald from a dangerous guardianship. The characters are well-developed, with believable interactions with each other. Holsinger gives us some glimpses of the life of royalty and other members of the upper class, but for the most part, the reader is immersed into the earthy lives of the maudlyns and others who struggle to survive in a harsh world. The fourteenth century really comes to life with the rich details of everyday living. Holsinger’s masterful use of language provides a definite medieval ambience, with selected Middle English words incorporated into the dialogue, but not so many as to make it difficult for a modern reader to decipher. Authors of historical fiction have artistic license to alter or embellish some details in the interest of creating a more compelling story, but there is the unwritten “rule” that the threads of history must remain intact if the work is to be called historical fiction rather than, say, historical fantasy or alternate history. When real historical figures are used as characters, they must remain true to the nature of the actual historical person. When not much is known about a historical figure, details may be made up, but the goal should be to try to recreate the person as he or she really may have been. I think Holsinger did a wonderful job in developing the Rykener character, who was a real historical person, but one about whom very little is known. My biggest qualm with the book is some discomfort with the character of John Gower. We know relatively little about Gower’s real life, but we do have a reasonably large corpus of surviving work that may provide insight into his nature, as well as some known key details of his life. The characterization of Gower as a combination of a blackmailer and a detective is not entirely convincing relative to what we do know of Gower’s actual life. Also, for someone who is supposed to be a devious and skilled snoop, Gower seems to make a lot of blunders and miscalculations. A Burnable Book is highly recommended to those who enjoy fast-paced thrillers as well to fans of historical fiction. This review is also available at http://wyrtwizard.blogspot.com/2014/0...

  13. 4 out of 5

    Amber

    I picked this book up because I loved the story of Chaucer when I learned about him in my English class. I was intrigued by this new spin on his story and was sadly let down. I did not finish this book. I'm usually the kind of reader that sticks with a book until the bitter end, but in reading this book I felt like the little dog chasing it's tail. The author kept adding characters and vaguely tying them into the plot; going back and forth between characters to describe one event from all of the I picked this book up because I loved the story of Chaucer when I learned about him in my English class. I was intrigued by this new spin on his story and was sadly let down. I did not finish this book. I'm usually the kind of reader that sticks with a book until the bitter end, but in reading this book I felt like the little dog chasing it's tail. The author kept adding characters and vaguely tying them into the plot; going back and forth between characters to describe one event from all of their perspectives and never really moving on. I feel like (as the dog) I would have eventually "fell down the stairs" of the plot so to speak or perhaps run into a wall. The author has a unique way of using his words to paint a picture and the prologue definitely gave me chills, but the book moved too slowly and I gave up on it. Sorry. I guess if you want to find out what its like you'll just have to read it yourself. A word of caution, this book is, how shall we say, R rated. If you aren't used to reading such things be prepared to be shocked.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Samantha

    This is a finely written novel that will pull you in and keep you guessing until the very end. I listened to this on audiobook, so there were a few times that I thought I must be getting close to the end only to be surprised by another plot twist. I am not a great reader of mysteries, so I will not say more than that I was shocked several times. The cast of characters in this book is large with intricately woven backgrounds. Each time a little connection was made, I was impressed by the author's This is a finely written novel that will pull you in and keep you guessing until the very end. I listened to this on audiobook, so there were a few times that I thought I must be getting close to the end only to be surprised by another plot twist. I am not a great reader of mysteries, so I will not say more than that I was shocked several times. The cast of characters in this book is large with intricately woven backgrounds. Each time a little connection was made, I was impressed by the author's cleverness. The main character is John Gower, close friend of Geoffrey Chaucer, who also makes several appearances. From transvestite London prostitutes to Italian papal legates, Holsinger ties them together expertly. The reader also gets glimpses of Richard II, John of Gaunt, and Katherine Swynford. Rich in historical detail and beautifully written, the mystery seems almost second to just dwelling in 14th century daily life. Everything centers around a book of prophesies, "The Book of the Deaths of English Kings" which John Gower is on a quest to locate. People are dying to get it...or because they have it. But does it really prophesy the death of Richard II? I would like to read this book again (rather than listen to it) because there was a lot to keep track of with the numerous characters, locations, and plot twists and connections. I feel like I just might have missed a few things. However, listening to it was also enjoyable because the Audible narrator was excellent. Different voices & accents made this book truly come to life, and his voice is so lovely I could listen to him read a dishwasher repair manual. Then there's that gorgeous cover! This is a great book for anyone who enjoys medieval history or mysteries.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Alicja

    rating: 4/5 What a fun and thrilling mystery! When I think I know what's going on, the plot twists and conspiracies and motivations were all turned upside down. Over and over again. I still have a few questions which I hope the next one (yup, there is a sequel in the making) will tackle. Its as exciting as 14th century can get outside a battlefield. We have Chaucer (yup, that writer we all studied in high school) mixed up in something, the murder of a French girl, curious maudlyns (prostitutes), l rating: 4/5 What a fun and thrilling mystery! When I think I know what's going on, the plot twists and conspiracies and motivations were all turned upside down. Over and over again. I still have a few questions which I hope the next one (yup, there is a sequel in the making) will tackle. Its as exciting as 14th century can get outside a battlefield. We have Chaucer (yup, that writer we all studied in high school) mixed up in something, the murder of a French girl, curious maudlyns (prostitutes), lawyers, and even the King. In the middle of these is a mysterious book of prophecies that can bring down the kingdom. And my favorite character is Elenor/Edgar. It is so great to have an awesome and fully drawn non-cisgender character in a book that isn't specifically centered around LGBT+ identities. She/he is a maudlyn whose accidental involvement in the case gives it a deeper dimension. It took some time for me to warm up to Gower, his personality takes some time to develop but once we started to find out the personal about his life I just couldn't help but love him too. He is the primary mystery solver (Gower PI?), and its through him that the whole story gets put together (mostly). This isn't what I typically read (historical mysteries or this historical era) but I am so glad I did. I loved the mystery and the characters and I'm definitely picking up the next one.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Anna

    "The best stories, it seems to me, are those that force us to ask the most difficult questions of ourselves. They want to be mined for these questions, even as they want our soul to mined for its will, in the way a priest mines it at confession. The poet is asking us to become our own confessors." Bruce Holsinger, A Burnable Book "The best stories, it seems to me, are those that force us to ask the most difficult questions of ourselves. They want to be mined for these questions, even as they want our soul to mined for its will, in the way a priest mines it at confession. The poet is asking us to become our own confessors." Bruce Holsinger, A Burnable Book

  17. 5 out of 5

    John

    “Yet there may come a time when your knowledge will betray you. A time when you will find even the brightest certainties – of friendship, of family, even of faith – dimming into shadows of bewilderment.” In A Burnable Book, unknown-before-to-me author Bruce Holsinger catapulted himself into a very limited pantheon of historical fiction authors to whom I think deserve a 5-star review. Any reader who enjoys Robyn Young (Insurrection), Richard Blake (Conspiracies of Rome), Iain Pears (An Instance o “Yet there may come a time when your knowledge will betray you. A time when you will find even the brightest certainties – of friendship, of family, even of faith – dimming into shadows of bewilderment.” In A Burnable Book, unknown-before-to-me author Bruce Holsinger catapulted himself into a very limited pantheon of historical fiction authors to whom I think deserve a 5-star review. Any reader who enjoys Robyn Young (Insurrection), Richard Blake (Conspiracies of Rome), Iain Pears (An Instance of the Fingerpost), or Robert Low (The Whale Road) would covet an opportunity to “swyve" with Holsinger’s thriller. Many thanks to the Ancient & Medieval Historical Fiction group for bringing it to my attention! A Burnable Book tells the tale of at least five separate protagonists whose fates ultimately intertwine around a manuscript, conceived by none of them but prophesies the high treason of the death of Richard II. Some may disagree, but the the five main characters and their respective tales, in my opinion, are: A violent English condottierio. A wandering Castillian baroness. An aspiring poet and blackmailer. A transgendered prostitute trying to save his brother. A forgotten, audacious mistress of a dead knight. At the beginning, because so much is going on and so many characters are introduced seemingly at once, I caution that A Burnable Book is not initially an easy read. In retrospect, the relatively difficult time I had deciphering who-was-actually-who added to the joy of reading the novel. That said, the reader should take time to contemplate carefully the initial 20 percent or so of the book and be-not-afraid to consult the list of characters presented in the beginning. “We live in an immense world, whole universes of taste and touch and scent, of voices commingling in the light, and dying away with the common dread that stands at every man’s door. Yet we perceive and remember this world only as it creates those single fragments of experience: moments of everyday kindness, or self-sacrificing love, or unthinkable brutality.” One should read this book.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Jane

    Actually 2.5. This started out as a 3 or 3.5, but as it progressed I became impatient with it. The premise of a treasonous [or 'burnable'] book, analogous to the prophecies of a Nostradamus, was interesting; gnomic verses are open to multiple interpretations. Each of thirteen prophecies tells of the death of one of England's kings, from William the Conqueror until the present Richard II. Richard II's regicide is predicted in the thirteenth prophecy. The others have already occurred. The novel is Actually 2.5. This started out as a 3 or 3.5, but as it progressed I became impatient with it. The premise of a treasonous [or 'burnable'] book, analogous to the prophecies of a Nostradamus, was interesting; gnomic verses are open to multiple interpretations. Each of thirteen prophecies tells of the death of one of England's kings, from William the Conqueror until the present Richard II. Richard II's regicide is predicted in the thirteenth prophecy. The others have already occurred. The novel is told partially from the perspective of John Gower, a poet, "trader in information", and friend of fellow poet and author Geoffrey Chaucer. Gower wishes to obtain the book, as do others, including a group of prostitutes. The women want to sell it to the man paying the most for it. Everyone wants to find out the identity of the assassin and prevent the king's death on St. Dunstan's Day. The book is wrapped in an embroidered cloth. To what extent is that connected with the book? The story spans England to Italy. After much deceit, political intrigue, treachery, more dead bodies, St. Dunstan's Day dawns, with the procession of the king and his court to hear mass. Will the assassination be prevented? For awhile, the first death, the search for the book, discovering the prophecies were written in a coded form, and the meanings were fascinating, but then explanations got tiresome and too arcane for my taste. I was irritated at the switching back and forth from Italian plot to that set in England. I absolutely did not like any of the business with the prostitutes; some of the descriptions were much too earthy for my taste. The characters were all very flat. I thought the story was poorly paced; good beginning, long, boring stretches, then a too rushed conclusion.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Bookish Ally

    "Though faun escape the falcon’s claws and crochet cut its snare, when father, son, and ghost we sing, of city’s blade beware!" As this book begins we view the murder of a woman, whose identity we do not know by a man with an unknown identity who is described only by a rich description of his voice: “At first he is kind seeming, almost gentle with her. They speak something like French: not the flavor of Stratford-at-Bowe nor of Paris, but a deep and throated tongue, tinged with the south. Olives "Though faun escape the falcon’s claws and crochet cut its snare, when father, son, and ghost we sing, of city’s blade beware!" As this book begins we view the murder of a woman, whose identity we do not know by a man with an unknown identity who is described only by a rich description of his voice: “At first he is kind seeming, almost gentle with her. They speak something like French: not the flavor of Stratford-at-Bowe nor of Paris, but a deep and throated tongue, tinged with the south. Olives and figs in his voice, the embrace of a warmer sea.” We are viewing this through the eyes of Agnes, a street prostitute and so we launch into a complex tale of puzzles and intrigues, of stories within stories. There are so many characters and moving parts that at first I struggled to keep them all straight, I had to go back for clarity’s sake several times. Please do not take this as a criticism of the book-I think every character was richly outlined and fleshed out. Who did it? And to whom? For what reason? This is not a simple mystery or thriller but one densely layered (and may I interject, well researched) by a it’s author, a professor and scholar. For those interested in historic fiction of the Middle Ages, who long for details of an England so long ago, I confidently recommend this book, set in the time of Richard II, John of Gaunt, and Katherine Swynford.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth A

    I'd been saving this one, sure that I would love it. And you know what? If it were not for the fact that I listened to the audiobook, superbly narrated by Simon Vance, this would have ended up in my DNF pile. This is a historical mystery of sorts, set in London, circa 1385. I really liked the gritty atmosphere the author captures, but I was bored with the overall story. I'm not sure I've read Chaucer, or if I did in school, it's lost to the mists of time. Maybe if I was a Chaucer aficionado this I'd been saving this one, sure that I would love it. And you know what? If it were not for the fact that I listened to the audiobook, superbly narrated by Simon Vance, this would have ended up in my DNF pile. This is a historical mystery of sorts, set in London, circa 1385. I really liked the gritty atmosphere the author captures, but I was bored with the overall story. I'm not sure I've read Chaucer, or if I did in school, it's lost to the mists of time. Maybe if I was a Chaucer aficionado this would have worked better for me, but alas I am not. The story starts with a bang - a murder, a book, a mystery - but then seems to plod about trying to find it's way home. I absolutely loved the maudlyns and their part in this story, but could have cared less about much of the rest of it. It does pick up a bit towards the last several chapters, but I have little doubt that if I had read this in print form, I would have bailed about 50 pages in. So I'd give it 2.5 stars, and will round up to 3 because I so loved having Simon Vance read me a story again.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Peggyzbooksnmusic

    This is a bawdy, gritty historical mystery set during the reign of Richard II. The story is told from different points of view although the main character is poet John Gower who is also a "professional trader in information". He is contacted by fellow poet and bureaucrat Geoffrey Chaucer (I believe that this is before Chaucer published his famous writings) to find a book that prophesies Richard's II assassination. Lots of court intrigue surrounding the secondary characters such as John Gaunt, Ri This is a bawdy, gritty historical mystery set during the reign of Richard II. The story is told from different points of view although the main character is poet John Gower who is also a "professional trader in information". He is contacted by fellow poet and bureaucrat Geoffrey Chaucer (I believe that this is before Chaucer published his famous writings) to find a book that prophesies Richard's II assassination. Lots of court intrigue surrounding the secondary characters such as John Gaunt, Richard's Uncle, and Gaunt's mistress, Katherine Swynford. The author is Medieval scholar Bruce Holsinger and in my opinion he does a fantastic job of immersing the reader into life in 14th century London. His descriptions of the slums is especially realistic and some of the most memorable characters are the "common" whores and tradesmen. Looking forward to reading the next in this series.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Ashley Marie

    The time period made this interesting, but I zoned out a lot (sorry Simon). Indifferent by the end, unfortunately.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Lawrence

    Two sliding-doors moments in my life colour my response to this wonderful book. First, it's 2007, and having spent the past few years writing a scholarly book on the great fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman, I decided I needed to plot my escape from its wiles. I had found a small text whose appearances I was trying to trace, and typed 'commonplace book' into the library search catalogue. The top hit was the Winchester Anthology, a compilation of poems, sermons, and music produced in the 15th- Two sliding-doors moments in my life colour my response to this wonderful book. First, it's 2007, and having spent the past few years writing a scholarly book on the great fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman, I decided I needed to plot my escape from its wiles. I had found a small text whose appearances I was trying to trace, and typed 'commonplace book' into the library search catalogue. The top hit was the Winchester Anthology, a compilation of poems, sermons, and music produced in the 15th-16th centuries in a monastery. One of the items was ... a short excerpt from Piers Plowman (!), very much in keeping with the political prophecies of that era: 'When you see the sun amiss, and two monks' heads, and a maid have the mastery' and so on. Crazy stuff. Readers of Peter Ackroyd's The Clerkenwell Tales might remember these lines. This opened out a whole new world to me, one in which people all the way up to Thomas Cromwell were paying careful attention to what medieval poets had to say. (self-plug: interested readers can find out more in my new book The Myth of "Piers Plowman": Constructing a Medieval Literary Archive, Cambridge Univ. Press 2014, website here. Yes, I wrote another book on the poem.) Hilary Mantel lets this mode of culture slide by for the most part, but not Bruce Holsinger: The 'book' of his A Burnable Book is a collection of just these sorts of prophecies--ones that send the powerful and their minions and the whores and the poets in search of hidden secrets on the backstreets of London and Southwark in the mid-1380s. We get to know these prophecies well over the course of the book, and indeed they are written in a very good modern approximation of the alliterative lines of Piers Plowman. There is a wonderful moment when Geoffrey Chaucer in effect speaks Piers Plowman, the poem itself--wonderful in part because it works well in the novel, but also because it provides one of the many pleasures awaiting those who know not only Middle English literature but its modern scholarship too. For it Holsinger relies on a great 1995 essay by Andrew Galloway on riddling in Piers Plowman and in Oxford literary circles--and he acknowledges the work of Galloway among others as informing his portrait of John Gower, too. Those acknowledgments point out that such moments of recognition are there on nearly every page for teachers and scholars of Middle English poetry. This is all by way of saying that, while most readers will, and should, enjoy this as a cracking historical thriller, with twists and turns, plenty of the seedy underworld on the one hand and the riches of the nobility on the other, and wonderful characters of all types, it also comes to life because of its author's keep knowledge of the era and expertise in the art of narrative, for which Gower and Chaucer are such good models. There is also in here a serious argument about the ways in which we conceptualize history and our relationship to it. Here is where my second sliding-doors moment comes into play. Just over a year ago, I needed to update my address in the Modern Language Association and so logged on to its web page. Just then the MLA had announced its book prizes: and book of the year, as it were, went to Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve, one of the most blatant anti-medieval books to have been published, ever. The good, the modern, "swerved" away from the dark, the medieval: that's its thesis. I tweeted my discovery of this announcement, tagging two scholars I knew had been riled up about that book. Within a day, Bruce Holsinger's tweets captured the madness in hilarious fashion, simply by juxtaposing Greenblatt quotes with, well, facts. "In the Middle Ages, 'pleasure seeking had come to seem philosophically indefensible,' as the Wife of Bath's Prologue shows us. #TheSwerve" read one. "In the Middle Ages, 'the pursuit of pain triumphed over the pursuit of pleasure,' as demonstrated by medieval feasts, sex, and dancing." (You can see the archive here.) This comes into play in A Burnable Book in two ways. The most direct is that the wonderful male transvestite prostitute, Edgar/Eleanor Rykener (based on a real figure), is called a "swerver," a wonderful neologism that will remind any reader of medieval and Early Modern scholarship of the Greenblatt debacle. But more important is that the book itself mounts such a powerful argument against the vision of the medieval that the mainstream book reviewers, the ones that adored The Swerve, take for granted. This is a rich world very much in the image of our own--and a very 'medieval' one in that Holsinger really knows his stuff. He's not making this world up: what he does make up animates a world that anyone who cares can learn about. Anyone out there about to take my course on London Literature, 1380-1450: welcome to our guide. In that regard, while I have seen the comparisons of A Burnable Book with Eco's The Name of the Rose and Pears's Instance of the Fingerpost, which are quite apt, for my part I see this as a book very much of its moment: of, that is, the moment of Mandel and Greenblatt, one in which the 'modern' is so forcefully identified as originating in certain individuals who rose out of the dark, medieval world of communities and faith. A Burnable Book shows the Middle Ages to be just as much as a world of individuals as what came later, whatever Wolf Hall might want to believe. (For the record I love Wolf Hall, not least because its dedicatee is the keeper of manuscripts at the Huntington Library, responsible for the safe-keeping, and provision to scholars, of such treasures as Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Gower's Confessio Amantis, and ... Langland's Piers Plowman.) One last connection between the world of modern literary scholarship and that of the London and Southwark of A Burnable Book. In 1996, Holsinger edited a special issue of the journal English Language Notes devoted to "Literary History and the Religious Turn" (see here). "Many of the present contributors," wrote Holsinger, many years before Greenblatt's book, "would probably object that this putative religious turn is actually more of a swerve, the explicit and self-conscious dimension of an enduring religious preoccupation among theorists, historians, and critics of literary production." Indeed: and it is a preoccupation that manifests in the novel in the figure of John Clanvowe and the specter of John Wyclif, who lurk in the shadows of what is already such a shadowy world. But that's very much the world of Oxford, and is one of the intellect as much as or more than the spirit, as it were; in the London/Southwark of the novel the religious turn, or even swerve, hasn't really occurred. These are all on the whole indifferent to the church except as another form of institutionalized power, usually subject to abuse. I'm hoping that the sequel to this terrific novel takes on the Chaucer of the Parson's Tale as much as of Troilus; but regardless, I know I'll love it.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Nita Kohli

    What a journey to the fourteenth century England! This book took me to an era and showed me two sides of a city - one that is bright with its Kings, poets, chancellors and the other is dark with its maudylns and butchers filled with filth and dirt. But, even where all looks bright, the city is full with people with deception as their second nature. Every one has a secret and all of them hold their secrets hidden close to their heart. From the very first page of the book till its end - the book do What a journey to the fourteenth century England! This book took me to an era and showed me two sides of a city - one that is bright with its Kings, poets, chancellors and the other is dark with its maudylns and butchers filled with filth and dirt. But, even where all looks bright, the city is full with people with deception as their second nature. Every one has a secret and all of them hold their secrets hidden close to their heart. From the very first page of the book till its end - the book does not fail to intrigue its readers. Plot "Who'd have thought it? The very King of England, by the cross, and his life in the hands of five whores!" The book begins with a murder of a girl for a book. A book that will soon be searched by people in and around England. It contains a list of prophesy that foretells the death of kings of England. The last one predicts the assassination of the king at present - King Richard. With the book lost and King's life at stake, bureaucrat Geoffrey Chaucer turns to his friend and his fellow poet John Gower to find the book. Gower trades in information and knows England like back of his hand - no one can be better suited for this job. But, who would guess that the book searched by everyone would end up in the hands of a prostitute. The conspiracy gets deeper, Gower becomes the last and only hope that can save the king. What I like Ohh...where to begin with what I liked? The writing, the plot, the suspense, the characters or the attribute of beautifully interwoven facts and fiction. There was so much to love, appreciate and enjoy in this book that I can't even begin to explain. This book is a well researched and with its vivid description the readers would find themselves traversing the streets of fourteenth century London along with Chaucer and Gower. Coming to the characters, I would say no one can be trusted. Chaucer is poet and a romantic but that's not all. Gower, a trader of information, in the process of finding the book, finds himself in situations where his skills appear of no use. The writing in this book is fantastic and there were parts that I re-read because they were so magnificently written. He wrote of characters feelings in way that you can't help but admire. "I stared, and it struck me almost violently how far my poise and skill had plummeted over the last weeks. And how pathetic it must have appeared that John Gower, who fashioned himself the great trafficker in men's secrets, had freely handed three of his own to the keeper of Newgate." What I did not like This is not something I disliked but something which confused me here and there. And that is - a large number of characters! There are so many characters in the book that it sometimes became extremely difficult to keep account of who is who. But, I guess, the author knew that the readers might face this problem and hence at start of the book he included 'Cast of Characters' - a comprehensive list of all the characters in the book along with some details. And I often referred to this list! My final thoughts on the book I don't remember when was the last time when I felt a rush of adrenaline in the last few pages of the book. Today it happened - near the climax with only twenty or few more pages remaining, I felt the urge to just skip to the climatic scene and see what happened in the end. My heart was beating fast and I was eager to know how it will end and the wait to know it was killing me. The few pages appeared like long distance from the truth and conspiracy that would surface. I began reading fast to complete excruciating journey to the page where the suspense unfolded. This book kept me hooked throughout and I never found it slow or boring. I feel this book would be fantastic as a movie and I hope someday it is made into one. Though, if that happens then, as usually the case with movies-based-on-books is, the expectations would be high. If you enjoy historical fiction with inclusion of some reality and you enjoy thrill and suspense in your book, then this should be your next read.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Ellen Gail

    4.5 history-mystery-britishy stars! A cloth, a book, a snatch of verse. Which is worth dying for? Bruce Holsinger's debut novel is a total winner! Set in 1385 England, the plot centers about a treasonous book of poems that prophesies the deaths of English kings, including one that hasn't happened yet. Using a mix of real historical figures and a dose of imagination, the plot is fantastic. It's mysterious without being unnecessarily withholding. It effectively builds suspense and the twists and rev 4.5 history-mystery-britishy stars! A cloth, a book, a snatch of verse. Which is worth dying for? Bruce Holsinger's debut novel is a total winner! Set in 1385 England, the plot centers about a treasonous book of poems that prophesies the deaths of English kings, including one that hasn't happened yet. Using a mix of real historical figures and a dose of imagination, the plot is fantastic. It's mysterious without being unnecessarily withholding. It effectively builds suspense and the twists and revelations feel natural. It reminds me a bit of The Thief Taker and the kind of mystery it attempted to build. A Burnable Book is much, much better and more successful all around. You must convince your readers that your characters are flesh and blood rather than words on dead skin, that their loves and hatreds and passions are as deep and present as the readers' own. Your task is to delight, to pleasure, to lift your reader to another sphere of being and then strand him there, floating above the earth and panting for more lines. A big reason why the plot is so successful is the characters. The main character John Gower, (yes that John Gower, poet & close friend of Geoffrey Chaucer, who is also a prominent character here) acts to tie the supporting cast together, while being a good character on his own. While he's not my favorite, I found his relationship with his son Simon to be especially interesting. "The very king of England, by the cross, and his life in the hands of five whores!" My favorite characters were easily the whores of The Pricking Bishop and Gropecunt Lane. Agnes, Millicent, Edgar/Eleanor, Bess, and Joan are all fabulous characters. They are written with such honesty; free to be greedy, selfish, brave, loving, bitter, whatever. They are useful to the plot and each other and thoughtfully written. Special awesome character nomination to Seguina d'Orange. I would happily read a story from her perspective. (view spoiler)[Even though I know how her story ends. Sob. (hide spoiler)] Regret paints the memory in infinite hues, all blurring to a leaden grey with the passing of time. If I have a few nitpicks, it's that (view spoiler)[Simon was a spy all along. I don't think it was a bad plot move actually, just unnecessary. (hide spoiler)] Also the last few chapters were a bit "here's a big long explanation that ties everything together." However, there was nothing glaringly bad or annoying. Zero book ruiners! The sequel The Invention of Fire comes out next month and I'm so freaking excited! This doesn't end of a cliff hanger and stands alone as a solo novel really well, but there's plenty of room for more! In summary of my ramblings: excellent historical mystery. Great characters. Sequel now please.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Kimber

    This is one of those books. The ones that when you flip the last page and contemplate what you just read make you wonder, "How in the name of all that is creative did he come up with that?" I wasn't sure of my feelings during the first few chapters of A Burnable Book. I was confused. There were so many characters and places and I was still trying to get my mind wrapped around Medieval vernacular and practices. However, I soon found myself unable to put the book down. I was fascinated by the chan This is one of those books. The ones that when you flip the last page and contemplate what you just read make you wonder, "How in the name of all that is creative did he come up with that?" I wasn't sure of my feelings during the first few chapters of A Burnable Book. I was confused. There were so many characters and places and I was still trying to get my mind wrapped around Medieval vernacular and practices. However, I soon found myself unable to put the book down. I was fascinated by the changing points of view. I don't very often find books that switch from third person to first person depending on the subject matter of the chapter. Usually multiple view points stick all to one POV. In A Burnable Book it was a brilliant way to connect the reader to the main character and yet still allow the reader knowledge of events going on away from the person of John Gower. Maybe the overload of information - places, people, events - at the beginning of the novel are to make the reader really feel the confusion and sense of unknown that Gower felt when set upon his quest by his best friend Chaucer? If so, it worked. The more that Gower discovered about the mysterious missing book at the centre of the plot, the more I, as the reader, wanted to know the rest. As soon as I thought I had figured out such things as Princes of Plums, long castles, thistles, swords, fawns and hawks, I would turn another page and be proven wrong. This narrative weaves among kings and commoners, mercenaries and maudlyns, bishops, bawds, and butchers, . It twists in one direction while hinting to you, the reader, to look in a completely different way. Right when you think it is the end and all is solved...it isn't...and off you go again. I am definitely looking forward to more from Bruce Holsinger.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Gretchen

    I really wish Goodreads would invest in a half star system. I think this book was better than three stars but not quite four stars. I found certain parts to be brilliant (view spoiler)[ for example the letter exerpts that we later find are written by Seguina d'Orange. The description of Prince Edward "Their lord, a prince from a northern land, was a hard man, with a pale face that might have been cut from stone. A forked beard fell from his chin like two waterfalls of molten lead, and in him the I really wish Goodreads would invest in a half star system. I think this book was better than three stars but not quite four stars. I found certain parts to be brilliant (view spoiler)[ for example the letter exerpts that we later find are written by Seguina d'Orange. The description of Prince Edward "Their lord, a prince from a northern land, was a hard man, with a pale face that might have been cut from stone. A forked beard fell from his chin like two waterfalls of molten lead, and in him the lady sensed a certain cruelty, a flow of dark intention beneath the rituals of courtesy the situation demanded". (hide spoiler)] . For the most part, I found myself slightly bored. It just seems like there was a lot of work leading up to the main conflict. (view spoiler)[ Once I reached the part of the story in which Richard II is threatened on St. Dunstan''s Day, I felt like I was reading a dramatic version of the movie Clue. Everyone is standing around trying to figure out who done it. (hide spoiler)] I felt Chaucer's character was a little weak especially when you really consider the role he played in everything.I rather enjoyed the maudlyn characters and I would have liked to have seen a little more out of them. I can envision a television series in which Gower works with the maudlyns to solve various crimes all over London. Seriously, I would watch. I feel like this book serves as a great jumping off point for future books about John Gower or even the various maudlyns. Now that we know who everyone is, real "adventures" can start. The only question I am left with at the end of the book (and it's entirely possible that I missed the mention) is (view spoiler)[ What happened to Simon?> (hide spoiler)]

  28. 5 out of 5

    Kirsten

    Political intrigue! Machinations! Powers struggling for the British Crown! All set in the reign of Richard II. I read this book as part of the Goodreads Choice Awards challenge. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that it was a mystery/thriller set in one of my favorite periods. A few years back, I had read a wonderful historical novel about Katherine Swynford: Katherine by Anya Seton and this book had Katherine in it as well as other players: Geoffrey Chaucer, de Vere, Duke of Lancaster, Oxf Political intrigue! Machinations! Powers struggling for the British Crown! All set in the reign of Richard II. I read this book as part of the Goodreads Choice Awards challenge. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that it was a mystery/thriller set in one of my favorite periods. A few years back, I had read a wonderful historical novel about Katherine Swynford: Katherine by Anya Seton and this book had Katherine in it as well as other players: Geoffrey Chaucer, de Vere, Duke of Lancaster, Oxford, etc. The storyline is also very gripping. A book comes to light that predicts the death of Richard II. This brings out all the players in a struggle for the Crown. Being King in Britain in Medieval times was very perilous. This takes place at least one generation before the infamous War of the Roses and many of the factions are being set in place at this time. It is also a great mystery/thriller. I can't wait to read the next book in the series.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

    I'm a big fan of historical fiction but this debut novel did not wow me. The storyline and plot were interesting enough but I found the alternating POVs less than compelling and there were a lot of characters randomly explaining what they've done (think "I'm the dastardly villain who must now narrate my diabolical plot in order to give the hero time to save the day" kind of stuff) that irked me. Average, at best. I'm a big fan of historical fiction but this debut novel did not wow me. The storyline and plot were interesting enough but I found the alternating POVs less than compelling and there were a lot of characters randomly explaining what they've done (think "I'm the dastardly villain who must now narrate my diabolical plot in order to give the hero time to save the day" kind of stuff) that irked me. Average, at best.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Faith Justice

    This one takes a while to get into, but is worth the effort. Setting his story in 1385 during the reign of Richard II of England (son of "The Black Prince" Edward), Holsinger provides us with a huge cast of characters (44 are listed in the front matter) spanning all classes from royals and aristocrats to poets and bureaucrats to prostitutes and apprentices. In this sprawling mystery, a dangerous book prophesying the death of the king is circulating in London. People high and low are looking for This one takes a while to get into, but is worth the effort. Setting his story in 1385 during the reign of Richard II of England (son of "The Black Prince" Edward), Holsinger provides us with a huge cast of characters (44 are listed in the front matter) spanning all classes from royals and aristocrats to poets and bureaucrats to prostitutes and apprentices. In this sprawling mystery, a dangerous book prophesying the death of the king is circulating in London. People high and low are looking for it--for their own political and profitable reasons--and the bodies are piling up. Holsinger cycles through points of view (POV), providing more clues and building his story layer by layer, keeping the reader guessing. I particularly liked the recurring interludes that tell a continuing story in a bardic voice, that--at first--seem to have nothing to do with the book. Because they are printed on grayscale background (and easy to find by flipping through the book), I was tempted to read this story-within-a-story first. I'm glad I resisted the temptation. That thread gets woven into Holsinger's complicated tapestry and is particularly satisfying. I appreciated the obvious research that establishes this story firmly in its time and place. Holsinger (a professor of Medieval Literature) does his homework and provides meticulous details about food, clothing, architecture, court manners, religious ritual, and societal attitudes which enrich the story. I found the dialects and slang of the lower classes a bit rough going at first, but it was obvious from the context what the characters were saying and my reader's ear soon caught up. The weakest of the writing trilogy (character, plot and setting), in this book, is character. Because Holsinger has such a wide cast, it is difficult to go too deep. His supporting characters are expertly differentiated with a few interesting details. Of his POV characters, the most vivid and admirable is a transvestite prostitute Edgar/Eleanor. His only first person POV character is the historical figure John Gower, poet and life-long friend of Chaucer. I found him opaque. He is supposed to be amoral, a spider with a web of coerced informants; but he seemed to be the hapless dupe, manipulated by his friends and son, and constantly in the dark. It's only at the end, he pulls all the threads together, which made him feel more like a plot device (and stand-in for the reader) than a fully-fleshed character. Altogether, I enjoyed this read, both the craft and the story. I received this book, through an Early Reader program, from the publisher. The opinions expressed in this review are my own.

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