Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Unquiet Bones (sneak peek)

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old...or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today's Wild Card author is:

and the book:

The Unquiet Bones

Monarch Books (November 4, 2008)


Mel Starr was born and grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He graduated from Spring Arbor High School in 1960, and Greenville College (Illinois) in 1964. He received a MA in history from Western Michigan University in 1970. He taught history in Michigan public schools for thirty-nine years, thirty-five of those in Portage, MI, where he retired in 2003 as chairman of the social studies department of Portage Northern High School.

Mel married Susan Brock in 1965, and they have two daughters; Amy (Kevin) Kwilinski, of Kennesaw, GA, and Jennifer (Jeremy) Reivitt, of Portage, MI. Mel and Susan have seven grandchildren.

***No author photo available. The church pictured is The Church of St. Beornwald (part of the setting for The Unquiet Bones). Today it is basically unchanged from its medieval appearance. Except for the name: in the 16th century it was renamed and since then has been called The Church of St. Mary the Virgin.***

Visit the author's website.

Product Details:

List Price: $14.99
Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: Monarch Books (November 4, 2008)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0825462908
ISBN-13: 978-0825462900


Uctred thought he had discovered pig bones. He did not know or care why they were in the

cesspit at the base of Bampton Castle wall.

Then he found the skull. Uctred is a villein, bound to the land of Lord Gilbert, third Baron Talbot, lord of Bampton Castle, and had slaughtered many pigs. He knew the difference between human and pig skulls.

Lord Gilbert called for me to inspect the bones. All knew whose bones they must be. Only two men had recently gone missing in Bampton. These must be the bones of one of them.

Sir Robert Mallory had been the intended suitor of Lord Gilbert's beautious sister, Lady Joan. Shortly after Easter he and his squire called at the castle, having, it was said, business with Lord Gilbert. What business this was I know not, but suspect a dowry was part of the conversation. Two days later he and his squire rode out the castle gate to the road north toward Burford. The porter saw him go. No one saw him or his squire after. He never arrived at his father’s manor at Northleech. How he arrived, dead, unseen, back within--or nearly within--the walls of Bampton Castle no one could say. Foul play seemed likely.

I was called to the castle because of my profession; surgeon. Had I known when I chose such work that cleaning filth from bones might be part of my duties I might have continued the original calling chosen for me: clerk.

I am Hugh of Singleton, fourth and last son of a minor knight from the county of Lancashire. The manor of Little Singleton is aptly named; it is small. My father held the manor in fief from Robert de Sandford. It was a pleasant place to grow up. Flat as a table, with a wandering,

sluggish tidal stream, the Wyre, pushing through it on its journey from the hills, just visible ten miles to the east, to the sea, an equal distance to the northwest.

As youngest son, the holding would play no part in my future. My oldest brother, Roger, would receive the manor, such as it was. I remember when I was but a tiny lad overhearing him discuss with my father a choice of brides who might bring with them a dowry which would enlarge his lands. In this they were moderately successful. Maud’s dowry doubled my brother’s holdings. After three children Roger doubled the size of his bed, as well. Maud was never a frail girl. Each heir she produced added to her bulk. This seemed not to trouble Roger. Heirs are important.

Our village priest, Father Aymer, taught the manor school. When I was nine years old, the year the great death first appeared, he spoke to my father and my future was decided.

I showed a scholar’s aptitude, so it would be the university for me. At age fourteen I was sent off to Oxford to become a clerk, and, who knows, perhaps eventually a lawyer or a priest. This was poor timing, for in my second year at the university a fellow student became enraged at the watered beer he was served in a High Street tavern and with some cohorts destroyed the place. The proprietor sought assistance, and the melee became a wild brawl known ever after as the St. Scholastica Day Riot. Near a hundred scholars and townsmen died before the sheriff restored the peace. When I dared emerge from my lodgings I fled to Lancashire and did not return until Michealmas term.

I might instead have inherited Little Singleton had the Black Death been any worse.

Roger and one of his sons perished in 1349, but two days apart, in the week before St. Peter’s Day. Then, at the Feast of St. Mary my third brother died within a day of falling ill. Father Aymer said an imbalance of the four humors; air, earth, fire, and water, caused the sickness. Most priests, and indeed the laymen as well, thought this imbalance due to God’s wrath. Certainly men gave Him reason enough to be angry.

Most physicians ascribed the imbalance to the air. Father Aymer recommended burning wet wood to make smoky fires, ringing the church bell at regular intervals, and the wearing of a bag of spices around the neck to perfume the air. I was but a child, however it seemed to me even then that these precautions were not successful. Father Aymer, who did not shirk his duties as did some scoundrel priests, died a week after administering extreme unction to my brother Henry. I watched from the door, a respectful distance from my brother’s bed. I can see in my memory Father Aymer bending over my wheezing, dying brother, his spice bag swinging out from his body as he chanted the phrases of the sacrament.

So my nephew and his mother inherited little Singleton and I made my way to Oxford. I found the course of study mildly interesting. Father Aymer had taught me Latin and some Greek, so it was no struggle to advance my skills in these languages.

I completed the trivium and quadrivium in the allotted six years, but chose not to take holy orders after the award of my bachelor’s degree. I had no desire to remain a bachelor, although I had no particular lady in mind with whom I might terminate my solitary condition.

I desired to continue my studies. Perhaps, I thought, I shall study law, move to

London, and advise kings. The number of kingly advisors who ended their lives in prison or at the block should have dissuaded me of this conceit. But the young are seldom deterred from following foolish ideas.

You see how little I esteemed life as a vicar in some lonely village, or even the life of a rector with livings to support me. This is not because I did not wish to serve God. My desire in that regard, I think, was greater than many who took a vocation; serving the church while they served themselves.

In 1361, while I completed a Master of Arts degree, plague struck again. Oxford, as before, was hard hit. The colleges were much reduced. I lost many friends, but once again God chose to spare me. I have prayed many times since that I might live so as to make Him pleased that He did so.

I lived in a room on St. Michael’s Street, with three other students. One fled the town at the first hint the disease had returned. Two others perished. I could do nothing to help them, but tried to make them comfortable. No; when a man is covered from neck to groin in bursting pustules he cannot be made comfortable. I brought water to them, and put cool cloths on their fevered foreheads, and waited with them for death.

William of Garstang had been a friend since he enrolled in Balliol College five years earlier. We came from villages but ten miles apart -- although his was much larger; it held a weekly market -- but we did not meet until we became students together. An hour before he died William beckoned me to approach his bed. I dared not remain close, but heard his rasping whisper as he willed to me his possessions. Among his meager goods were three books.

God works in mysterious ways. Between terms, in August of 1361, He chose to do three things which would forever alter my life. First, I read one of William’s books: SURGERY, by Henry de Mondeville, and learned of the amazing intricacies of the human body. I read all day, and late into the night, until my supply of candles was gone. When I finished, I read the book again, and bought more candles.

Secondly, I fell in love. I did not know her name, or her home. But one glance told me she was a lady of rank and beyond my station. The heart, however, does not deal in social convention.

I had laid down de Mondeville’s book long enough to seek a meal. I saw her as I left the inn. She rode a gray palfrey with easy grace. A man I assumed to be her husband escorted her. Another woman, also quite handsome, rode with them, but I noticed little about her. A half-dozen grooms rode behind this trio: their tunics of blue and black might have identified the lady’s family, but I paid little attention to them, either.

Had I rank enough to someday receive a bishopric I might choose a mistress and disregard vows of chastity. Many who choose a vocation do. Secular priests in lower orders must be more circumspect, but even many of these keep women. This is not usually held against them, so long as they are loyal to the woman who lives with them and bears their children. But I found the thought of violating a vow as repugnant as a solitary life, wedded only to the church. And the Church is already the bride of Christ and needs no other spouse.

She wore a deep red cotehardie -- the vision on the gray mare. Because it was warm she needed no cloak or mantle. She wore a simple white hood, turned back, so that

chestnut-colored hair visibly framed a flawless face. Beautiful women had smitten me before. It was a regular occurrence. But not like this. Of course, that’s what I said the last time, also.

I followed the trio and their grooms at a discreet distance, hoping they might halt before some house. I was disappointed. The party rode on to Oxpens Road, crossed the Castle Mill Stream, and disappeared to the west as I stood watching, quite lost, from the bridge. Why should I have been lovelorn over a lady who seemed to be another man’s wife? Who can know? I cannot. It seems foolish when I look back to the day. It did not seem so at the time.

I put the lady out of my mind. No; I lie. A beautiful woman is as impossible to put out of mind as a corn on one’s toe. And just as disquieting. I did try, however.

I returned to de Mondeville’s book and completed a third journey through its pages. I was confused, but t’was not de Mondeville’s writing which caused my perplexity. The profession I thought lay before me no longer appealed. Providing advice to princes seemed unattractive. Healing men’s broken and damaged bodies now occupied near all my waking thoughts.

I feared a leap into the unknown. Oxford was full to bursting with scholars and lawyers and clerks. No surprises awaited one who chose to join them. And the town was home also to many physicians, who thought themselves far above the barbers who usually performed the stitching of wounds and phlebotomies when such services were needed. Even a physician’s work, with salves and potions, was familiar. But the pages of de Mondeville’s book told me how little I knew of surgery, and how much I must learn should I chose such a vocation. I needed advice.

There is, I think, no wiser man in Oxford than Master John Wyclif. There are men who hold different opinions, of course. Often these are scholars Master John has bested in disputation. Tact is not one among his many virtues, but care for his students is. I sought him out for advice and found him in his chamber at Balliol College, bent over a book. I was loath to disturb him, but he received me warmly when he saw t’was me who rapped upon his door.

“Hugh . . . come in. You look well. Come and sit.”

He motioned to a bench, and resumed his own seat as I perched on the offered bench. The scholar peered silently at me, awaiting announcement of the reason for my visit.

“I seek advice,” I began. “I had it in mind to study law, as many here do, but a new career entices me.”

“Law is safe . . . for most,” Wyclif remarked. “What is this new path which interests you?”

“Surgery. I have a book which tells of old and new knowledge in the treatment of injuries and disease.”

“And from this book alone you would venture on a new vocation?”

“You think it unwise?”

“Not at all. So long as men do injury to themselves or others, surgeons will be needed.”

“Then I should always be employed.”

“Aye,” Wyclif grimaced. “But why seek my counsel? I know little of such matters.”

“I do not seek you for your surgical knowledge, but for aid in thinking through my decision.”

“Have you sought the advice of any other?”


“Then there is your first mistake.”

“Who else must I seek? Do you know of a man who can advise about a life as a surgeon?”

“Indeed. He can advise on any career. I consulted Him when I decided to seek a degree in theology.”

I fell silent, for I knew of no man so capable as Master John asserted, able to advise in both theology and surgery. Perhaps the fellow did not live in Oxford. Wyclif saw my consternation.

“Do you seek God’s will and direction?”

“Ah . . . I understand. Have I prayed about this matter, you ask? Aye, I have, but God is silent.”

“So you seek me as second best.”

“But . . . t’was you just said our Lord could advise on any career.”

“I jest. Of course I, like any man, am second to our Lord Christ . . . or perhaps third, or fourth.”

“So you will not guide my decision?”

“Did I say that? Why do you wish to become a surgeon? Do you enjoy blood and wounds and hurts?”

“No. I worry that I may not have the stomach for it.”

“Then why?”

“I find the study of man and his hurts and their cures fascinating. And I . . . I wish to help others.”

“You could do so as a priest.”

“Aye. But I lack the boldness to deal with another man’s eternal soul.”

“You would risk a man’s body, but not his soul?”

“The body cannot last long, regardless of what a surgeon or physician may do, but a man’s soul may rise to heaven or be doomed to hell . . . forever.”

“And a priest may influence the direction, for good or ill,” Wyclif completed my thought.

“Just so. The responsibility is too great for me.”

“Would that all priests thought as you,” Wyclif muttered. “But lopping off an arm destroyed in battle would not trouble you?”

“T’is but flesh, not an everlasting soul.”

“You speak true, Hugh. And there is much merit in helping ease men’s lives. Our Lord Christ worked many miracles, did he not, to grant men relief from their afflictions. Should you do the same you would be following in his path.”

“I had not considered that,” I admitted.

“Then consider it now. And should you become a surgeon keep our Lord as your model and your work will prosper.”

And so God’s third wonder; a profession. I would go to Paris to study. My income from the manor at Little Singleton was L6, 15 shillings each year, to be awarded so long as I was a student, and to terminate after eight years.

My purse would permit one year in Paris. I know what you are thinking. But I did not spend my resources on riotous living. Paris is an expensive city. I learned much there. I watched, and then participated in dissections. I learned phlebotomy, suturing, cautery, the removal of arrows, the setting of broken bones, and the treatment of scrofulous sores. I learned how to extract a tooth and remove a tumor. I learned trepanning to relieve a headache, and how to lance a fistula. I learned which herbs might staunch bleeding, or dull pain, or cleanse a wound. I spent both time and money as wisely as I knew how, learning the skills which I hoped would one day earn me a living.


  1. I love historical mysteries! Might have to give this one a try!

  2. Jenclair,

    It does seem right up your alley. I haven't read the book, yet, but I'm looking forward to it.


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