Book Review: A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger


A search for a book of prophecies takes Gower, commissioned by Chaucer, his friend, across London, getting caught up in murders, prostitutes and plots to kill the King.

I enjoyed this book, although not entirely.  Its brilliance is in the way that London is brought to life through the skill of the author. Holsinger’s London is gritty, dirty, violent, and hostile. Descriptions are vivid, not always palatable, but utterly convincing. It was a time when activities matched their street names, and Holsinger spares us no blushes. This is tremendous writing.  Most of these observations are delivered in the third person, as we are taken around with the cast of characters, whereas the protagonist, Gower, is delivered to us in the first person.  I am a fan of the first person narrative, but in A Burnable Book it jarred for me, as the narrative switched viewpoints between scenes in the book.  Since I never really felt that I connected with Gower, or really understood him, this first person narrative device did not quite come off.  I did not always like Gower, but I ultimately feel that I didn’t know him, and I wanted more from the writer here.

There is a huge role call of characters listed at the beginning of the book, which is always a bit off-putting to me.  It was, however, essential. There was little hope of holding onto all of the characters otherwise, particularly as few of the characters seemed to have the space to grow and develop.  Where they did, they were superb.  The best-drawn characters were Eleanor/Edgar Rykener (a transvestite) and Millicent Fonteyn (sister of a London maudlyn who gets embroiled in the story of the book), who added depth and colour to the complex plotting.

A Burnable Book is hugely plotted, as we chase a book of prophecies to kill the King across London, Italy and Oxford.  There are a lot of twists and turns, and sub-plots seem to cascade throughout the story.  It was engaging, but sadly not gripping. There is a risk that someone with less patience could become lost in the plots and characters and be tempted to give up.

A Burnable Book is a good read, with a wonderful level of observation in bringing to life a medieval London.  There are parts of the book that are brilliant – like the scenes of the procession on Prince Of Plums, or when Millicent and Agnes are trying to crack the code of the prophecies.  However, it is too complex a book with too few people to get absorbed in who might guide you through the plots. I believe Holsinger is planning another mystery for Gower, which I would read, hoping to learn more about the man himself.

The slow road to progress…

Back in January, I penned a blog about being a novice novelist, and kind of wishing that I wasn’t. Nearly three months has passed!  Where did the time go? How have I spent it, at least when it comes to the business of writing?

I’d fallen in love with a story that I came across when on holiday in Lanzarote, and for the past three months I have been in major research mode.  It’s set back in time, the 18th Century, and therefore I’ve been immersing myself in various texts (and various divergences, as already confessed to).  I have chased down many references, and read widely about the period.  I’ve made pages of notes, and have raised pages of questions.  The internet never ceases to amaze me, and through Project Gutenberg, I’ve been able to read some incredible extracts and books.  A copy of the 1824 Encyclopaedia Britannica being a real gem!  Google yielded a treasure of a website, giving me some ‘real’ names to draw upon; this has helped me begin to find my characters.

I’d say that in January, my research net was cast fairly widely, with a layer peeled back in February.  It was in February that I found the names, and so a hazy cast of characters was drawn.  Over the last few weeks I’ve done very little, because we were away in Iceland and then  for the last week, we’ve been away babysitting Baby George (our grandson).  I’ve been beginning to panic about the book, because I’m not working on it… Despite the fact that I can’t have done because of being busy (the ‘not good enough’ birch twigs are out for self-flagellation), which means the self-doubt looms, and the judge sitting on my left shoulder is chiding me ‘call yourself a writer, pah.’

When I can stop those disruptive thoughts, I realise that it’s like when you’ve formed a new friendship, and you really connect with the person, and somehow you’ve forgotten to call them.  I have the shape and form of these people, but I’ve forgotten what they sound like.  My mum is on her way for a visit, and I know that I won’t get the chance to do the plotting that I want to, but what I can do is bring them to life again.  Call them up, if you like.  I have decided that I shall re-read the first person account that got me so interested in the first place, and then read my notes around the characters.  I’ll let them come with me this week, as I explore bits of Cornwall with my mum.

I’ve also been thinking about style.  I really want to write in the first person, but I think the story will be better served in the third person, so I shall have to save the former technique for another work.  I’ve also been thinking about the story itself, and that I’m so determined to have it as a character-lead experience, rather than the events themselves… I much prefer to read this type of book, so I’d better jolly well write it too.  Writing book reviews I’m sure has helped me be more critical, and therefore more self-observant.

So, progress does feel a bit slow, but there’s no rush.  Life is to be lived, and I’ve had a blast travelling and being Granny.  I’m missing my work, but I need to accept that it’s really not that far away, and you can’t do everything!


Spring is in the air!


What a difference a couple of days of sunshine makes! It seems to have been an endless winter. Not the ‘proper’ cold of a winter, but one of a more modern kind. Global warming is to blame, apparently, but there have always been vagaries of climate. Anyway. We’ve had three months of hard hitting winter storms here in South West England, with only a couple of rain-free days in the whole of this period. And then last week, Mother Nature seems to have shunted the jet stream away from us and we’ve been basking under a little ridge of high pressure. This has brought us warm sunshine, and a certain air of spring.

The photo is of the Falmouth beaches, of Gylly Beach in particular, taken on Monday. It was amazing. People were not bent against the wind, head down, not speaking but were shedding layers and greeting each other with a cheery air. Dogs were bounding on the beaches in and out of the breaking waves, and Gylly beach was scattered with picnicking groups of students. My sister was staying, and we walked on to Swanpool beach, remarking on the sound of birdsong. A sound that has been absent of late – or lost against the roar of the wind. It really felt that everyone, man, bird and beast were out to greet the spring.

Are we so fickle that a dose of sunshine can lift the collective mood so much? There just seems to be more optimism about in the last days, like people have really cast off their dusty, heavy winter cloaks. I absolutely love the spring, because it heralds the season where it is truly pleasant to be outside – and for us, knowing that we will launch Whinchat back in the water, and we can plan for days afloat. Perhaps it is projection, but if enough people do that, then there is a collective behaviour that develops.

Every day there is more light in it. Next week the Spring Equinox is here, the clocks go forward not long after that. It’s all so positive. Fickle or not, I don’t much care. I want to sing about it as much as the birds!