The Familiars -Stacey Halls

I had a slightly skewed weekend last week – working on Saturday but a full social whirl on Sunday and a day’s holiday on Monday. Retail does tend to mean that any two days off together counts as a weekend and this had the bonus that I got to spend one of those days with friends, food and then a night out with Rob. Sunday lunch in Leeds with two of our sometime guest reviewers (Rob and Charlotte) was excellent and then Rob and I headed over to Manchester to see a concert by an impressive set of folk musicians based around the Lost Words. This was a wonderful and moving experience – already splendid words and illustrations set to excellent music and sung by haunting voices – so if you get a chance to see it, go! If not the CD should be available soon and the book should be on any child’s bookshelf… Monday was then a slightly more practical day – I finally got my trainers out and had a short run, made some soup and caught up with Bex (who I’m sure will be back reviewing soon) – but I did finish it off with an author event over at Waterstones in Leeds. This turned out to be a fascinating evening with Bridget Collins (author of The Binding) and debut author Stacey Halls. Luckily I had already read both books so my TBR pile is, hopefully, getting slowly smaller.

9781785766114The title of the book, for me, comes not only from the idea of witch’s familiars (the devil taking the form of an animal such as a cat or toad) but also from the sad familiarity of women being punished for the terrible crime of not being men. This book is set firmly in 1612, the year of the Pendle Witch Trials, and largely in a large country house overlooking Pendle Hill itself.  The focus is on Fleetwood Shuttleworth (such a C17th name it had to be real!) who is seventeen years old, passionately in love with her husband Richard, and desperate not to have yet another miscarriage. She is seventeen and this is her fourth pregnancy – which, perhaps, sums up the difficulties of life for a gentlewoman of the time. Fearful for the life of her child, and her own, Fleetwood meets a young woman who has experience as a midwife (then, as now, essential through pregnancy as well as at the birth) but is then propelled into the chain of events which lead to the famous witch trials. The midwife, Alice, is able to help Fleetwood – with herbal remedies, calm good advice and practical support – but is unable to escape being caught up in an actual witch-hunt – again, summing up the hardships of the life of a poor countrywoman of the time.

The historical facts of the trials are covered well – no mean feat given that the author had to fit the timeline of the trials into the timeline of a pregnancy – but it is the friendship between the two women which really draws you into the book. There is mutual respect and support between them, despite the differences in their fortunes they both have something to offer the other. Obviously neither women is perfect (that would be a very dull character) but what occurred to me is that it is the men in the book who show all the faults usually ascribed to women: Richard, the husband, is weak and moody and local magistrate Roger Nowell is malicious and manipulative. At some points in the story it seems that large amounts of power rest with a child so, although we see the struggle as it was at the time, we also realise that the situation is quite anarchic. Without giving too much away by the end of the novel even the King’s authority is threatened by women who find themselves empowered by female friendship.

Jane

 

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The Lost Man – Jane Harper

Another book published on my birthday and this time by author who I’m relatively new to. I didn’t read The Dry until we covered it in our book group late in 2017 and in the year or so since then I’ve pounced on anything new that Harper has released. As has most of the rest of the book group – it was a popular choice. I have recently learned that, although Harper is now an Australian citizen and lives there, she was born in Manchester and has lived in both the North East and Yorkshire and I think this may show a little bit. The settings and characters are very much Australian but they are made clear and understandable to a non-Australian readership: this could be good editing but I like the think that Harper is a good Northern girl who has an eye to her roots…

9781408708217The Lost Man is a standalone novel rather than an Aaron Falk thriller (although there is a vague reference to a distant family link to the events in The Dry) and I was really glad to feel that I enjoyed it just as much despite the lack of Falk’s presence. I found him a fascinating character so it is good to know that I can enjoy the storytelling just as much without him. This story follows the Bright family in a hugely remote settlement – one brother, Nathan, lives on a struggling property and his two brothers are on the neighbouring (and much more successful) spread. When Cameron, the middle brother, is found dead by an old stockman’s grave the surviving siblings react very differently: Nathan is determined to find out why (or even if ) Cameron took his own life, while youngest brother Bub hopes to become more involved in helping his mother and sister-in-law run the business. The investigation and discovery of the dead man’s last movements follows a reasonably predictable path but the characters of the three brothers develop in a rather more organic way. Secrets from the past begin to explain why Nathan is a loner, Cameron is the golden boy and poor Bub is treated as the poor third. (I was checking through some other reviews of this book – most of them don’t even mention Bub’s name…..) As ever with Jane Harper the brilliant characters and immersive settings have as important a role as the mystery. And the mystery can only be solved by understanding both people and place.

Jane

Queenie Malone’s Paradise Hotel – Ruth Hogan

I have previously commented on how much I seem to have in common with Ruth Hogan (books, tea, illnesses, fabulous hair) and it seems that the similarities persist. Although she is a little older than me (only a couple of years) we are of a similar generation* and I don’t know if it is this that makes me love her books so much. But I do.  Another thing I may also previously have mentioned is how new books like to cluster together – how there are one or two dates each month when lots of big new titles are published. This month it is Thursday 7th and this has made me very, very happy because this is my actual birthday. So I have been reading the cream of February’s releases while having a few well-deserved days off and heading down to that London to visit my Mum and see some lovely art. Even better, some of the books are by authors I particularly enjoy (like Ruth Hogan and Jane Harper) so writing the reviews will, hopefully be an easy job.

42858128Tilda has returned to Brighton to clear out her late mother’s flat. They had a difficult relationship and she can only look back on her childhood with sorrow: her father leaving and then his death when she was seven, being uprooted and moved to a new town and finally, inexplicably, being sent away to school. But as we explore her life in more detail, both in flashbacks to her childhood, when she was known as Tilly, and as the adult Tilda, we see that her life was actually full of fun, joy and happiness – we just need to discover what it was that led to her mother’s rejection of her. Armed with her mother’s diaries and one of her neighbours, a local coffee shop owner and the eponymous Queenie, Tilda begins to question whether she remembers her childhood at all.

I don’t often try to work out what it is about a particular author’s writing that I like but, since I have loved all three of Hogan’s books I shall try and work it out. To start with I love the characters: in this book Tilly is an absolutely brilliant child character, funny, affectionate and, sometimes, achingly vulnerable. The adult Tilda is equally fragile, although she likes to think she is tough, but she is able to learn and grow through the course of the book. The other characters (I hesitate to call them minor…) are just as fascinating: Queenie herself is larger than life and a true force of nature and the rest of the staff of the hotel are an interesting bunch. In the present day we meet the utterly charming Joseph Geronimo, Daniel (the barista love interest) and Penelope Dane, her mother’s neighbour and a rather more level-headed and sensible link to the older woman. Talking of Daniel, another quirk of these novels is that, although they always seem to involve some kind of romance this is not the key element of the book. Instead of being embroiled in a series of misunderstandings and arguments Daniel is able to support Tilda through not only her emotional journey but also her mental health struggles. He is accepting of her past and her present and helps her to make her peace with both – rather than just a romance this is a supportive relationship from the start. This is, I think, the final reason I enjoy these books so much – they touch on all kinds of big issues (mental health, fractured familial relationships, learning to accept who you really are) but still have time to be funny – even a bit silly in places – and a bit magical. Having sadness in our lives doesn’t mean we are nothing but sad but having Ruth Hogan in my life always seems to make it a bit better.

Jane

Interstingly Ruth Hogan doesn’t share my birthday (unlike a fellow bookseller, a close friend’s daughter, another favourite author and Charles Dickens) but she does have the same birthday as my mum. Spooky 🙂

This is not the world we know but it is the world we made.

We know that I like a good post-apocalypse but, watching the news at the moment, it seems as if we could yet be heading towards, well, if not an actual apocalypse, at least some major changes to the way of life we have today.  Our climate is changing so we may need to think about altering our diets and lifestyles, our politics are becoming more fractured, and extremes – in both climate and politics – are becoming more common. I think I enjoy fiction which explores the consequences of terrible events because they can help us to explore how those events happen. What little things we let slide until they become big things, what the straws that eventually break a camel’s back look like when they are still green stalks.

Golden State – Ben H Winters

9781780897264In a world full of ‘fake news’ the Golden State in Winters’ novel can seem like a utopia. The Golden State of the title is, obviously to us, California and the book is set after some kind of catastrophic event – as far as the people of the Golden State are concerned they live in the last inhabitable place left. Their survival is attributed to the fact that they adhere to the truth. At all times. In fact, more than that, they keep records of everything so that everyone agrees on what is real and true – they refer to it as the ‘Objectively So’. This situation is monitored by cameras, which are pretty much everywhere, and policed, in part, by the Speculative Service. They are the only people who are permitted to, well, speculate (since speculation is the act of considering and rejecting things which may not have really happened) and they can tell when people lie. Laszlo Ratesic is from a family who have worked and died for the service but his latest investigation, and his unwelcome new partner, will make him doubt himself, the service and even the truth itself.

This book is not just a fascinating blend of science fiction and Chandleresque hardboiled crime but also a look at what could happen if we try to replace our current world of ‘fake news’ with a benevolent dictatorship based on narrow focussed view of what the truth is. Let’s face it, any world where the truth is written in stone but works of fiction are banned doesn’t sound like much of an improvement to me.

The Last – Hanna Jameson

40048961In this book the end of the world is depressingly realistic. A nuclear war which happens because world powers mistrust each other and because financial power is hugely imbalanced. Well, I think that is why it happened, why our main character, a historian called Jon, finds himself in a remote Swiss hotel surviving after bombs begin to fall on the planet’s major cities. We see everything from his point of view – in fact we are reading his diary/historical record – so we know as much as he does. Which turns out to be not a lot. About twenty people have survived after the majority of guests and staff flee on the day the bombs start falling and they start to plan for an uncertain future. This future, however, is uncertain – food is running low, vital medicines even lower and then a body is found in one of the hotel’s four rooftop water tanks. Jon, who is already struggling with the situation decides to investigate this death – a young girl, unknown to the remaining residents – and starts to uncover some disturbing stories.

What I really enjoyed about this book was the fact that the survivors were a very human bunch. There are a couple who are your typical survivors – ex-army, survival planner types – but the rest are very, well, ordinary. A Japanese couple and their children, an Australian backpacker and a young student from England who just want to drink and take drugs to make the horror go away and then there is Jon himself. He wants to present an impartial document, for posterity, because he is a historian but we can see he is quite shallow, scared and pretty unreliable. He is given a set of master keys by Dylan, the ex-army member of hotel staff who has become their de facto leader, with the instruction not to tell anyone he has them. Jon immediately tells each person he meets. However, the group do manage to uncover some of the truth about events in the hotel in the first hours after news of the bombings began and both their past and their future starts to become clearer.

Jane

The Six Loves of Billy Binns – Richard Lumsden

We don’t live in the world of Logan’s Run – we, generally, don’t know how long we get to live for. We can affect our lifespan in many ways – by trying to live a healthy life, by avoiding life-threatening situations and so on – but in many ways it is out of our hands. It seems that life expectancy is increasing and more and more of us will live for over a hundred years but what will that be like? Will we value those who reach such an advanced age, and how will they be cared for when they can no longer cope on their own? We don’t know but we can read the Six Loves of Billy Binns and find out about the life, and loves, of one man…

9781472256683Billy Binns is 117. He was, as he reminds us through the book, the same age as the century, born just after midnight on New Year’s Eve just as 1900 began. He is living in a small care facility in West London and is fully aware that he is coming to the end of his, admittedly, long life: so he decides to think back over his life, focussing on the really important parts. He focusses on those he has loved. From the older woman who taught him about sex, to the woman he asks to marry him, and from his son, via a co-worker with her own tragedies to a woman who, in his later life, introduces him to the truly swinging Sixties. Five loves. Not a lot for such a long life but some have endured right through to Billy’s extreme old age although, of course, to have loved and then lived on so long means that Billy has also experienced many losses. His life wasn’t all about love though – like many lads of his time Billy lied about his age to sign up to fight in the Great War and his experiences there are horrific. He experiences great passion but also injustices and terrible sorrow: he has had experiences which seem both unbelievable and quite, quite possible given that he has lived through two world wars and great social change.

Of course, as well as Billy’s memories of his past life and loves we also see his present – his day-to-day life in The Cedars, a small privately run nursing home. Like the past the present isn’t shown idealistically – we see what life is like for the residents in a home run with an absolute minimum of staff. Billy is fond of the two female carers, who are obviously very fond of their charges but overstretched, and has built up some friendships with other residents but the descriptions of the home – to those of us who have only ever known such places as visitors or staff – is slightly grim and depressing: over-heated, slightly shabby, with a hint of a stale smell and the television on far too loud. Although Billy’s early and middle-aged years are obviously a work of fiction his present is very plausibly real. Which proves to me that we need to hear the stories which older people have to tell before the lives which they led become nothing more than fiction to us.

Jane

 

 

Mr Doubler Begins Again – Seni Glaister

I think we have established certain genres of book which I particularly enjoy: dystopias and post-apocalypses, quirky novels (usually Scandinavian or French in origin but definitely the quirkier the better) and historical fiction. We also need to add to that list the kind of book that is moving, uplifting and full of more emotion than action – I understand there is a name for this type of story (up-lit) but I prefer to call them ‘the books that make me cry a bit, but in a good way’. I guess ‘up-lit’ is a bit more succinct but I favour rambling as a literary style (when writing, if not reading…). Sometimes it is the oddest, I could even say quirkiest, things that make me shed a tear but I was amazed to find that potatoes could be one of those things….

9780008284985Mr Doubler is a, well, mature gentleman who lives alone. He is also the second biggest potato grower in the country. Now, to some people that could mean he’s grown the second biggest potato or that he must be planning to overtake the person who grows more potatoes than him but neither is true. He isn’t in the potato growing business for the money – he has enough to get by – or just to be the biggest: he wants to change the face of potato cultivation for everyone. He isn’t lonely either, although his wife is long gone and his children only ever seem to visit in order to tell him he should sell his farm and stop potato farming, because he has a housekeeper, Mrs Millwood, who calls in each day. When Mrs Millwood falls ill, however, Doubler finds that although he can cope with the practical things she did for him (shopping, cleaning and the like) it is their conversations he really misses. So, from being a virtual recluse who never leaves his home, Mirth Farm, Doubler gradually learns to interact with the world again.

This was a lovely book – gentle but with some fairly big messages about loneliness, kindness and family. Doubler was a great character – a bit of a curmudgeon but willing to change – and just the sort I’d like to meet in real life, I think. I’m going to enjoy recommending this to people who’ve enjoyed Eleanor Oliphant, Hendrik Groen or Harold Fry and adding it to my list of books that made me cry a bit. But in a good way.

Jane

 

 

 

The Enchanted Hour – Meghan Cox Gurdon

I’ve always loved reading and, in fact, don’t think I can remember not being able to read for myself. One of the greatest joys of my young life was the point when I was allowed to stop following the school reading scheme (not sure which one it was but quite possibly the Ladybird Key Words scheme) and become a free reader. I do remember, quite clearly, that the very first book I chose was Enid Blyton’s Shadow the Sheepdog: happy days.  Another thing I’d be fairly sure of is that my love of stories, books and reading was instilled in me by my family (Mum has always been a bookworm too and Dad, although he didn’t live with us, worked for Hamlyn publishing) and teachers – I’m pretty sure that I was hearing stories even before I could read them too. And in this, it seems, I was luckier than many children are these days.

9780349422954Meghan Cox Gurdon is a book reviewer for the Wall Street Journal and also a mother of five. She has, therefore, a great interest in children’s books and the benefits of reading: this book is an investigation of the specific benefits of reading out loud, backed with some very interesting science. She talks to researchers, educators and other parents and writes very convincingly about what they see as the good that reading together, out loud, does. It is a shame in some ways that all the anecdotal evidence comes from adults (parents, teachers and so on) rather than children but I suspect they would all just agree that what they loved most about being read to was the attention, the closeness or even just the gift of a parent or carer’s time…

What was particularly moving for me was not necessarily just the parts about reading with children – although it did have me yearning to do more storytimes at work – but those sections talking about reading to other adults. Either partners sharing books or poems they loved or people reading to older relatives, a parent perhaps, who can no longer read for them selves. Like children, adults can benefit from those moments of attention, of closeness and of gifted time and I found it emotionally satisfying to realise that that gift can be given back to the parents who first shared a love of reading with their offspring.

Jane