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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Ashes to Ashes and Family Ties

Ashes to Ashes by Mel Starr is the latest in a series about medieval surgeon Hugh de Singleton.  I have not read any of the previous books in the series, but enjoyed this one.

Set in the 14th century, Hugh studied at Oxford and in Paris; for his time, Hugh has a most advanced medical education. 

In 1349 and again in the 1360's outbreaks of the Black Death devastated the population, creating a shortage of labor and social upheaval.  This post-plague setting adds to the interest of the novel.  

Labor is now a valuable commodity and there is more mobility as peasants/serfs/villeins move to find work, leaving behind land they had been bound to for generations. Feudal tradition is still strong, the hierarchy is still firm and powerful, but great changes are in progress.

 Some of the previous books cover how Hugh came to settle in the village of Bampton, which is a real village not far from Oxford.  Surgeon and bailiff to Lord Gilbert of Bampton Castle, Hugh is an intelligent and mild-mannered man with a young family.

When charred bones are found in the remains of a bonfire, Hugh must discover the identity of the body and whether or not murder was done.  The book gives wonderful historic detail about medieval law and justice, the social hierarchy, the way the church and religion affected people's lives, details of "croft and toft," and medical treatment in the late 1300's.  The details are woven in to give the reader a feeling of the dynamics of the time.

Just a sidebar--Hugh uses lettuce seed to induce sleep.  So did real medieval surgeons.    

Character development could be better--especially as there are some interesting minor characters who deserved more depth--but an engaging mystery with great historical detail.

(The title brings to mind the nursery rhyme associated (though inaccurately) with the plague and the bonfire (bone fire) to create allusive references to the effects of the plague.)

NetGalley/Lion Fiction

Medieval Mystery.  2015.  Print version:  256 pages.

Family Ties by Nicholas Rhea, originally published in 1994, had a new release in October.   

Hmmm.  I found Detective Mark Pembleton a little annoying.  A nice guy, dedicated, etc., but at times he got on my nerves.

An American Vice President is to visit England in search of his ancestors, and Pembleton is in charge of the British security detail.  Doing a little advanced research, Pembleton discovers that one of the VP's ancestors was murdered in 1916.  

That part of the mystery was intriguing, and I enjoyed the untangling of the details.

Nicholas Rhea is best known for his Constable book series which led to the Heartbeat British television series that ran from 1992-2010.

NetGalley/Endeavor Press

Police Procedural.  1994/Oct. 2015.  Print length:  201 pages.


  1. Ashes to Ashes sounds really interesting, especially given the profession of the protagonist. I hadn't known that about lettuce, by the way. Annoying main characters can be a problem, but I'm glad you somewhat enjoyed Family Ties, Jenclair.

    1. Can you imagine what it must have been like to be injured or ill in that time period? At least Hugh was a good physician for his time--but what limited tools with which to work!

      Detective Pembleton wasn't always annoying, but :) he did get on my nerves at times.

  2. It's the historical aspect of Ashes to Ashes that makes it intriguing. Such a unique combination. And it sounds like you don't have to start with the first book in order to enjoy the series. :) I like that, too.

    1. No, I didn't feel that I missed any important information in Ashes to Ashes. There were no cliff-hanger situations, just occasional mention of Hugh's training and his work for Lord Gilbert. I might be interested in the earlier novels, but this one worked perfectly well without having read the previous entries in the series.

  3. The historical setting and the protagonist's profession make Ashes to Ashes sounds like an intriguing read!

    Annoying characters do make me cringe but sometimes they do make the characterisations more interesting, depending on the plots. It's good to hear that Family Ties is still an enjoyable read despite Detective Mark Pembleton. :)

    1. Reading about history always makes me grateful for modern sanitation, medicine, and technology. :)
      The time period of Ashes to Ashes makes me even more grateful!

      Detective Pembleton is a good man and a dedicated one, but sometimes his dialogue didn't work for me. :)

  4. Both of these sound interesting enough even though they may have some flaws. I am reading one book set in Roman times and it also features a medic. Very interesting and make me curious if some of the methods they describe were really in use!

    1. You are reading Medicus, right? I bet it is interesting to read about what medicine was like in Roman times.