Book review: Heresy by Sharan Newman

Heresy (Catherine LeVendeur, #8)Heresy by Sharan Newman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the eighth in the Catherine LeVendeur mystery series. Overall, the series is fabulous. It is fabulous not only because of the depth and accuracy of the historical research but also because the series depicts the lives and conditions of Jews during the Middle Ages. This interesting (and often heartbreaking) perspective is unusual, especially for a mystery series, and fascinating. The author doesn’t presume to apologize for the attitudes she describes (and, indeed, there is no apology needed–facts are facts), nor does she attempt to modernize the characters’ outlook.
This particular mystery is interesting because one of the main characters is Astrolabe, the son of Abelard and Heloise. As someone whose mind is not suited to deep philosophical or theological debate (which I discovered when reading Abelard’s writings for a college course many years ago), I was relieved to learn that neither was Astrolabe’s. 🙂
The mystery itself is not the strongest part of this particular book (historical mysteries often have this issue), but the discussion about the religious factions, Astrolabe (and Heloise’s) places in the world, and the ramifications of the Crusade are knowledgeably described and well-integrated into the story.
The main character, Catherine herself, is a delightfully imperfect person, and the secondary characters–all of whom you have gotten to know throughout the series–continue to grow and deepen.
I highly recommend this series and this book. The series is best read in order.

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Book review: To Wear the White Cloak by Sharan Newman

To Wear The White Cloak (Catherine LeVendeur, #7)To Wear The White Cloak by Sharan Newman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was reminded recently by a professor of medieval English literature that the author of this mystery series was “a real historian.” In fact, the professor hadn’t even realized that the author had written a historical mystery series, being only familiar with the author’s academic work.
This is one of my favorite mystery series, and one main reason is that the series highlights a little-covered aspect of medieval life, which is the treatment of Jews in the Middle Ages. The topic is handled well, without judgment and within the context of its time. Catherine LeVendeur, the main character, is delightfully out of the mainstream, raised in a convent run by Abbess Heloise (of Heloise & Abelard fame) and who has Jewish cousins. (You’ll have to read the series to discover how that happened.) She is unorthodox for her time in many ways, but the author does not make the mistake that many do, and Catherine’s lack of orthodoxy is limited to what would have been tolerated during the time period. She is constantly praying that her Jewish relatives come to the true faith so as to not condemn their souls to everlasting hell.
In this particular mystery, a dead man is found in the house of Catherine and Edgar (her husband), wearing a white cloak, similar to the Templars’ outfits. Was the dead man a Templar? If so, why don’t the Templars know who he is? At the same time, a threat from the past comes back and threatens Catherine with exposure about her Jewish relatives.
The mysteries are often secondary to the fascinating look at medieval life from the view of the merchants. The author interweaves historical details beautifully, and you never feel like you’re reading out of a history textbook. The characters are all well drawn with fully realized personalities.
If you like historical mystery series, I highly recommend this one. Even if the period isn’t necessarily compelling, the unusual angle this mystery series takes on medieval life is well worth the read.
The series is best read in order but is well worth your time!

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Book review: The Difficult Saint by Sharan Newman

The Difficult Saint (Catherine LeVendeur, #6)The Difficult Saint by Sharan Newman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Catherine LeVendeur mystery series is one of my favorite historical mystery series. In addition to the impeccable research and the excellent quality of the writing, what makes this medieval mystery series stand out is that the author incorporates into the series the medieval treatment of Jews. She neither softens nor tries to justify the persecution of Jews during the Middle Ages, but she does try to make the reader see the persecution from the medieval mindset.
This book is an excellent addition to the series (which is best read in order). Unlike in previous books where the persecution is opaque and non-violent, the Church’s push towards a crusade has ignited anti-Semitism throughout Europe, and Catherine and her family are caught between the personal (Catherine’s sister is accused of murdering her newly married husband) and the political (the increasing violence against Jews). The author even throws in some Cathars to add to the religious complications.
As always, the characters are interesting and well-rounded. The mystery is interesting and the religious issues well explained.
I highly recommend this series!

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Cursed in the Blood by Sharan Newman

Cursed in the Blood (Catherine LeVendeur, #5)Cursed in the Blood by Sharan Newman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am an avid fan of the Catherine LeVendeur mystery series and have been for years, but I only recently picked it up again with this 5th book of the series. The reason is that some years ago, I had peeked at the last few pages of this book (I know, but I can’t help myself), saw the sad outcome, and decided I didn’t need that type of ending in my reading.
That was several years ago and while I still am not happy about the ending, I am extremely glad that I picked the series up again. I had forgotten how well the author writes, how compelling her storylines are, and how impeccably researched her history is. Together, the three produce a product that is difficult to put down.
What is particularly well done in this series is the author’s depiction of how Jews were treated in the Middle Ages. This is obviously not showing humanity at its finest, but it is a topic that is rarely handled by medieval novelists. The author makes no judgments (medieval anti-Semitism does not translate well to the 21st century) but handles the issue with a factual approach that in no way detracts from the tragedies that ensued. As always with this series, the characters come alive off the page.
If you are a fan of medieval mysteries, I highly recommend this series. They are best read in order so that you get the full depth and nuance of the characters.

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