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.




Blackberry and Wild Rose – Sonia Velton

I’ve got my favourite historical periods when it comes to reading actual history books: anything before the Tudor era piques my interest (with settings between 1066 and 1500 pleasing me most) and I’m interested in learning more about the Regency period. Of course these are UK-centric names but I’m aware that there were many links with Europe during those times and I also like to read about non-British history – I’m still contemplating Norman Davies’ fascinating global history, Beneath Another Sky, which I read late last year and hope to review soon. When it comes to fiction, however, I seem to be rather more wide-ranging and can cover any time from pre-history (I loved Jean Auel’s books) to the 1950s and 60s. Anything after that is in my lifetime – I’m not calling that history! Anyway, Regency romances, crime fiction set in the Anarchy or novels set on bleak Essex marshes in 1893 are all fair game but I’m a bit light on the 18th Century. I’ve read books written in that time, during my English Literature degree, but not modern fiction set then so I thought I’d start with Sonia Velton’s story of Spitalfields silk-weavers.

36222190This is the story of two women: Sara Kemp who arrived in London as a naive young girl and was pounced on by one of the city’s many brothel-keepers and Esther Thorel, the wife of a silk-weaver. One rich and one poor but the two women have many things in common too – they each have less power than the men around them.  Sara has, obviously, been at the mercy of the men who visit the brothel and indeed it is dangerously brutal treatment at the hands (literally) of one punter which convinces her to leave even though the life of a servant doesn’t appeal after the relative freedom of harlotry but it is Esther’s story which reflects more subtle but equally real gender inequalities. She loves to paint and would love to see her designs made into the silks her husband’s journeymen produce but her work is dismissed as a mere accomplishment, her husband seems to think less and less of her as each month passes without any evidence of a pregnancy. He holds her background against her and, illogically, blames her for the loss of social standing he suffered when he married her rather than a more suitable Huguenot bride.

When both Sara and Esther become involved in the life of a pair of journeyman weavers, one of whom is using a loom in the Thorel household, they also become embroiled in the growing unrest between the Master-weavers and their workers, who are developing revolutionary ideas about fair pay and liberty.  In the ensuing violence both women discover where true power really lies.


A Snapshot of Murder – Frances Brody

The Kate Shackleton mysteries by Frances Brody are going strong – this is the tenth in the series – so I was interested what it is about them which has proved so popular. Some of it will be the nicely complicated plots, full of murder, scandal and intrigue but I suspect that some of the popularity is because of the glorious backdrop to those plots. I’m not ashamed to admit that I watch certain tv shows (like Poldark, Death in Paradise or Midsomer Murders) because they are shot in beautiful settings – if the plot drags or becomes too far-fetched I’ve something pretty to look at – so I can understand why this could be the case with these books. The settings are all very definitely ‘Yorkshire’ but also varied: they range from Harrogate to the mill villages of West Yorkshire and from the Dales to the Yorkshire coast – anyone who knows Yorkshire will recognise scenes; those who have yet had the joy of visiting ‘God’s own county’ will find plenty of ideas for an itinerary.

40023612A Snapshot of Murder opens in Headingley, Leeds, which isn’t a place I know hugely well apart from the area around St Michael’s Church and the Skyrack pub. Oddly enough, this is just where Kate Shackleton lives. The bulk of the book is then set in Howarth and Stanbury – villages I know well as they are just a few miles from my own home and popular tourist destinations because of their connection to the Brontë sisters – so I followed this story with particular interest. I also enjoy a bit of photography myself so the photography group plot was interesting – looking through a lens does certainly make you focus quite differently. The plot centres around Carine Murchison, a friend of Kate’s, and her fairly obnoxious husband Tobias: while the group are visiting Haworth (on the very weekend that the Parsonage first opened as a visitor attraction in August 1928) he is murdered. No-one will miss him but who killed him? Most of the group, and their hosts at Ponden Hall, have reason to want the man dead and we join Kate Shackleton as she delves deeper into their motives. Secrets are revealed about the realities of the Murchison’s marriage and their pasts and many suspects have to be eliminated from enquiries, including Kate’s young niece Harriet. Because we see all the angles (which are only gradually revealed to Kate) we are sure fairly early on who the killer is but, like a good episode of Columbo, this doesn’t distract from the telling of a good story.


The Witches of St Petersburg -Imogen Edwards-Jones

I sometimes ponder why it is I enjoy historical fiction so much and I think it is something to do with authors being able to portray a realistic sense of a particular era. Some people particularly admire the depiction of a place: I’m all about the time, it seems. Which means I do tend to concentrate on historical periods I feel I know reasonably well – Medieval, Victorian, Regency perhaps – so I do like to occasionally delve into eras I am not so familiar with. The years leading up to the Russian Revolution certainly fall into that category – I’ve a vague recollection of Tsars and an awful lot of peasants, Faberge eggs and Rasputin – so I decided I could learn something by reading Imogen Edwards-Jones novel set in the early years of the twentieth century.

9781788544023This is a big and slightly rambling novel centred around two sisters, Militzia and Stana, who marry into Russian nobility. They are princesses from Montenegro – then, as now, a small and unregarded country – but are seen as being far less worthy of attention than native-born Russians. They are called the Goat Princesses, to smell of goats and to be involved in witchcraft – it is easy to see why the early part of the book, when Tsar Alexander III’s court led a life of glittering formality. However, when the new Tsar Nicholas inherits the sisters ingratiate themselves with his socially distant young wife. They continue to become more influential as the Tsarina, after the birth of four daughters, becomes desperate for a son – they introduce her to first to a French mystic called Philippe and then, possibly fatally, to Rasputin. In the second half of the book Militzia in particular engages in a power struggle with Rasputin – who she believes she created with her magic – and gradually comes to join the growing group who are trying to get rid of him by any means possible.

I enjoyed this book, although it did slow down in places, and I feel I learned a lot about the history of the period. I’ve since spend a little time on the internet checking out the details of the characters: Militzia and Stana, Philippe and the various members of the Imperial court are all real and the sisters did have a dark reputation. Even the decadence of the court, drugs and all, seems to be based on reality  – one of the facets of the age which did surprise me was the stark contrast between the modern age (telephones, cars, aspirin) and the older ways. Largely this was the difference between the educated and the peasantry but even the rich and privileged were in thrall to superstition.



The Last Hours & The Turn of Midnight – Minette Walters

Now for a bit of unashamed historical fiction covering an era I am hugely interested in – the Black Death. Call me odd, but I’ve been interested in the history of disease for some time – Guns, Germs and Steel is a fascinating read – and one of my favourite books ever involves time travel to a plague-ridden village near Oxford in 1348. What I find most interesting is the way people cope during such an event – how they deal with the disease, how they explain its existence to themselves and, tellingly, who they blame for the outbreak.

35820576In The Last Hours, the first of Walters’ forays into historical fiction, the Black Death sweeps through the county of Dorset in the summer of 1348. The Lord of the manor of Develish is away at a neighbouring estate, arranging the marriage of his only daughter, and his wife, Lady Anne, takes the bold decision to isolate the community to prevent the disease spreading. This comes as a shock to Sir Richard when he returns, with only three of his retinue left, and to his steward, trapped within Develish’s moat, and enrages his daughter, a thoroughly spoilt  fourteen year old who idolises her father and seems to loathe her mother. The estate serfs and servants, however, love and admire Lady Anne who, since her arrival as a teen bride has worked to improve their lives. Her greatest admirers are Gyles, eventually the only survivor of Sir Richard’s trip, Thaddeus, the illegitimate son of one of the more feckless serfs and Isabelle, a young girl who acts as a maid to Eleanor, Sir Richard’s daughter: but it won’t be easy for a woman of Saxon heritage to lead her people during such a time of peril. Their seclusion doesn’t prevent them from pondering the cause of such devastating sickness (given the times the majority are willing to blame sinners and blasphemers) or from there being a murder within the village. Eventually dwindling supplies lead one brave man to lead a small group to search for food, other survivors and answers: but greater dangers seem to remain within the community as Eleanor continues to fight against her mother’s rule.

9781760632168We read the Last Hours for our Book Group in October and one comment we all had was that the ending was fairly abrupt. The version I read even said ‘to be continued…’ which was a little frustrating. Luckily the second volume was available – albeit just in hardback – so I dove straight in to discover what became of Lady Anne, Thaddeus, Gyles and the rest of the people of Develish. Thaddeus and the young men who left the estate in the first book report back on the terrible consequences of the plague – deserted villages, unburied dead and crops left to rot in the fields – and the whole community is aware of the bands of villans (ironically, mostly nobility rather than actual villeins, or peasants) who are travelling the countryside taking whatever they can find: food, gold and women. However, after surviving the worst of the sickness it seems that many of the serfs are now starting to contemplate what the future will bring – the work they were forced to do as virtual slaves of the nobility will have to be done by a much reduced workforce so could they now be in a position to demand a better life. Maybe even freedom. To do this they need to go back out into the wider world and to make things happen.

I enjoyed the glimpse of history Walters gives us in these books – with the added touches of gruesome detail of victims of both the Black Death and villany which you’d expect from the author of numerous crime thrillers – and I enjoyed the way that she has thought about the attitudes to gender, class and religion of the times. While the Black Death obviously didn’t do away with the power of the church or medieval attitudes to women and the labouring classes I find it easy to believe that some people began to question the status quo. My only quibble would be that I think the pacing of the two books was a bit uneven – lots of discussions of Church versus faith, whether women having any power is a sign of witchcraft or heresy etc mixed in with the more dramatic scenes – but I’m not sure I could identify which scenes could be cut. Maybe instead of a two book series it should have been spread out over three slightly less weighty tomes – but then, of course, I’d have to have waited longer for the satisfying conclusion to the story of Lady Anne and Thaddeus Thurkell, and the other inhabitants of Develish.


The Clockmaker’s Daughter – Kate Morton

Although my main interest, in terms of fiction, tend to be history, science fiction or contemporary issue-led novels, I do quite enjoy the odd romance. Obviously if I can combine the love story with one of my favourite genres, or just make it really quirky, all to the good so I’m not sure why I’ve never read any Kate Morton before. Maybe I felt they sounded a little formulaic? They always involve multiple generations, a grand house, which is usually rather run down, and a mysterious secret waiting to be revealed – none of which are bad things but, somehow, I’d never taken the time to try one. Morton’s most recent book, however, adds some interesting bits into the mix. Art and the Victorian era: much too ‘me’ to resist…

9780230759282The house in this novel is Birchwood Manor and we see it first as the home of Edward Radcliffe, a young artist who is at the heart of the Magenta Brotherhood (an avant-garde art movement in the mid-1800s) who visits with other artists, his sisters and his muse, Lily Millington. During the book we see the group spending a summer of art, creativity and romance at the house which ends abruptly with the death of Radcliffe’s fiancée (who turns up, uninvited…). The modern-day part of the story centres on Elodie Winslow, an archivist who, it seems, would rather deal with the reassuringly boring nature of old documents than plans for her own wedding. The items she finds – a lovely old leather satchel containing a sketchbook and a picture of a beautiful young woman, a photograph of her mother and a male friend, taken just before her tragic death and a collection of tapes of her mother’s work as an acclaimed musician – all, eventually, link back to the events at Birchwood Manor over a century earlier. In between is an ill-fated school for girls and an escape from war-torn London and, in the present day, we also have a young man secretly searching for an heirloom missing since 1862.

I enjoyed this book as both a historical novel and as a mystery. The romance side was interesting, and actually less of a feature than I was expecting, and there is an intriguing hint of a ghost story too. Maybe this is the secret to Morton’s huge success – this is her sixth bestseller since winning the Richard and Judy Best Read of the Year in 2007 – a bit of something for everyone. Or maybe, just refusing to be limited to one genre…


Silence of the Girls – Pat Barker

I used to live and work in Durham, in the University bookshop. It’s a beautiful city and I loved working there (although I lived in a pit village outside the city – the centre was way beyond my budget as a bookseller living on my own). I really enjoyed working with academics and students (no, honestly, I loved it), we coped with the waves of tourists who replaced students in the summer and, best of all, we had our own literature festival. It was, as they say, small but perfectly formed – all the bookstalls were done by me and one other bookseller (with Rob providing the motorised transport of books to venues) – and attracted some pretty big names. As I recall there were probably about a dozen or so events over a week and the biggest name we got was Richard Dawkins. Which is pretty big. I also recall wearing a Mog costume for one event (I think I wore it, but seem to recall a photo of me with Mog so maybe it was Michael in the suit) and dressing up in medieval kit for another (I vaguely recall it may have been a kids event based on a Robin Hood theme…). Happy days. Anyway, one person who was a bit of a shoo-in for the festival was Pat Barker, because she was a local author. This was, I think, after the publication of Regeneration but before Barker won the Booker with Ghost Road so she was a biggish name but not huge. I’m happy to say she is also a lovely person (the festival used to invite us booksellers along to the post-event meals, all the authors were polite to us but Pat Barker was especially friendly).

38470228In The Silence of the Girls Barker returns to the wartime setting she worked with so well in the Regeneration trilogy but with a few key differences: this time she is focussing on the events of the Trojan War and she writes largely from the point of view of the women whose lives are so brutally changed by the conflict. Life for women in this period is a bit of a mixed bag. The women of the upper classes have all the material benefits – palaces, jewels, beautiful clothes, the best food and wine – but they don’t have the freedoms we take for granted. They can’t walk around freely, they have to be heavily veiled, and they are not free. Even the women who are not slaves are the property of their fathers or husbands – the only women who are not property are the prostitutes and they are, effectively, treated as common property. Of course the main character, Briseis, Queen of a city near Troy, doesn’t realise that her life is as good as it will get. She is very young and feels dominated by her mother in law but this is nothing compared to her life once the Greeks have defeated her city. The men and boys are killed – even pregnant women are slain in case the child they carry is male – and the women are now become the property of the Greeks. Briseis is awarded to Achilles as a trophy – property once again, but now she has no power or status and, in fact, becomes a pawn in the struggles between Achilles and the Greek king Agamemnon.

The history here is told well – I don’t know the Iliad that well but I’m pretty certain Barker sticks to the events within it – but the real meat of the book is Briseis and the way she survives what life (and the Trojan War) has thrown at her. Her inner strength as she submits, in body at least, to the change from Queen to bed-slave; her determination to stay alive, even as some of the women who share her fate chose suicide; her certainty that, even though she must share the bed of a Greek hero, and may even grow to love or respect them, she is still a Trojan woman. And, thanks to Pat Barker, the voices of those Trojan women are silent no longer.