#BookReview: The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

What’s it about?

1645. When Alice Hopkins’ husband dies in a tragic accident, she returns to the small Essex town of Manningtree, where her brother Matthew still lives.

But home is no longer a place of safety. Matthew has changed, and there are rumours spreading through the town: whispers of witchcraft, and of a great book, in which he is gathering women’s names.

To what lengths will Matthew’s obsession drive him?

And what choice will Alice make, when she finds herself at the very heart of his plan?

My thoughts

I was sent this book by the publisher and it was accompanied by a sprig of dried flowers (which may or may not have been lavender…I’m no expert) which at the time seemed an interesting marketing tool in order to make the book stand out.  However, now that I’ve read the book and understand the significance it seems somewhat weird! Did anyone else feel strange about it or just dismissed it as nonsense?

I’ve never read anything before about the witch trials so have no point of reference but as an historical novel this has a great sense of place and feeling with the language used being that of used in other books I’ve read of this time, and of course mixing a certain amount of fact with fiction it’s an interesting read.

I liked Alice as a character and felt she was ahead of her time; being prepared to stand up to those in power for those in less fortunate positions.  You can’t help but admire her resolve and strength of character even if some her actions were questionable.  When reading books like this it’s hard to get your head round how subordinate women were and how not confirming to the norm would have you being hanged as a witch.  I couldn’t quite grasp what Matthew’s motivation and driving force was: acceptance, revenge, disapproval?  This would make a good book club discussion.

I liked the book, I’m not sure enjoyable would be an appropriate word given some of the books content however.  This has the feel of what Kate Summerscale achieves in her books but on reflection she definitely has the edge but this is still a worthwhile read nonetheless if historical novels are your thing.

Book links: Goodreads | Waterstones | Amazon

Author links: Twitter | Website

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Source: ARC – many thanks!
No of pages: 368
Publisher: Viking

Book Review: The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

What’s it about?

What is the difference between friendship and love? Or between neutrality and commitment? Gustav Perle grows up in a small town in ‘neutral’ Switzerland, where the horrors of the Second World War seem a distant echo. But Gustav’s father has mysteriously died, and his adored mother Emilie is strangely cold and indifferent to him. Gustav’s childhood is spent in lonely isolation, his only toy a tin train with painted passengers staring blankly from the carriage windows.

As time goes on, an intense friendship with a boy of his own age, Anton Zwiebel, begins to define Gustav’s life. Jewish and mercurial, a talented pianist tortured by nerves when he has to play in public, Anton fails to understand how deeply and irrevocably his life and Gustav’s are entwined.

My thoughts

This was our book club choice for April and was an interesting but somewhat non-eventful read.

I’ve never read a Rose Tremain novel before, and although I’m not rushing out to read another, this is  a beautifully told story about the impact on families living in a neutral country during World War 2 but moreover about friendship, love and what it means to experience both, or in Gustav’s case to not experience his mother’s true love and how this affected him his whole life.

So yeah, most of this novel is quite sad.  I was instantly drawn to Gustav because of his upbringing.  The lack of emotion and love from his bitter mother Emilie, Gustav leads a life devoid of any real relationships; pinning his hopes on a childhood friendship that is very one-sided, because Anton, as an adult, is incredibly selfish and not very likeable, but Gustav persists in continuing the friendship.

There were some secondary plotlines which I found to be more engaging than the main thread.  A soldier tasked with only taking photographs on the day of liberation at Bergen-Belsen…heart-breaking and fascinating and I wanted more.  Gustav’s father died too early for me and I wanted him to have that child with the woman he was involved with as it would have made for a more dramatic climatic read.  I guess this wasn’t the author’s intention because the whole book reads on the same level, as if told on a plateau, with no highs till the end, so a bit of hard work to get there – do you get what I mean?

All in all, with too much of predictable cliché ending and the most interesting characters  not encouraged so the reader is left to imagine more for them made it just an ok read for me.

Book links: Goodreads | Amazon

Author link:  Website

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Source: Purchased
No of pages: 320
Publisher: Vintage

Book Review: The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor

What’s it about?

A city destroyed.

A killer exposed.

London, 1666. The Great Fire rages through the city, consuming everything in its path. Even the impregnable cathedral of St. Paul’s is engulfed in flames and reduced to ruins. Among the crowds watching its destruction is James Marwood, son of a traitor, and reluctant government informer.

In the aftermath of the fire, the body of a man is discovered in the ashes of St.Paul’s. But he is not a victim of the blaze- there is a stab wound to his neck and his thumbs have been tied behind his back. Acting on orders, Marwood hunts the killer though London’s devastated streets- where before too long a second murder is uncovered.

At a time of dangerous internal dissent, Marwood’s investigation will lead him into treacherous waters- and across the path of a determined and vengeful young woman.

My thoughts

This was our latest book club read and one which held such promise and one which we were all looking forward to reading.  I initially started with an audio book copy but I switched half way through to the Kindle version.  Unfortunately I didn’t enjoy the narrator’s voice, it was flat and dull and didn’t work for me. However with hindsight, it matched the story.

If historical fiction is your thing then the factual parts of this novel will really please but therein ends the pleasure I’m afraid.  The book couples mysterious deaths during the period of the Great Fire of London but this book is so much more about the history rather than the mystery; which really isn’t a mystery in the regular sense.  If you like books or TV series such as Columbo whereby you know the culprit and are being lead through the mystery as the detective discovers what’s going on then this will appeal.

Marwood is a pretty dull and uninteresting character and narrated in the first person, the only real character of substance is Cat/Jane and is only given a third person narrative which is a shame and so I didn’t find myself having any real engagement with the characters or empathy towards them.  Although the time period and the historical aspects were the most interesting parts there’s possibly too much historical content and description which is somewhat repetitive; once a place has been described once, I don’t need it to be repeated the next time someone goes there.

The mystery is rushed, all very coincidental with a predictable end.  If you enjoy historical fiction I’d recommend Sarah Waters over this one (but it did make for a good book club discussion).

Book links: Goodreads | Amazon

Author links: Website | Twitter

Small print for info
Source: Purchased
No of pages: 400
Publisher: Harper Collins

Book Review: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

the-snow-childWhat’s it about?

Alaska, the 1920s. Jack and Mabel have staked everything on a fresh start in a remote homestead, but the wilderness is a stark place, and Mabel is haunted by the baby she lost many years before. When a little girl appears mysteriously on their land, each is filled with wonder, but also foreboding: is she what she seems, and can they find room in their hearts for her?

Written with the clarity and vividness of the Russian fairy tale from which it takes its inspiration, The Snow Child is an instant classic.

 

My thoughts

This was our book club read for December (yeah I know, I’m way behind on my reviews),  and in all honesty it wouldn’t be a book I’d choose for myself, but that’s the whole point of book club reads.  Being set mostly in Winter itself, it was a perfectly timed read.

All in all, it’s a bit of a strange one this, there’s no contest that it’s beautifully written which sets and explores the haunting and stark landscape but it’s the whole is it a fairytale or isn’t it? Is it real or isn’t it, and is Faina real or just imagined?  Regular readers will know I don’t really do magical realism, in the sense I like books that are cut and dried, so this one was never really going to appeal, nevertheless for the most part I enjoyed it.

I particularly liked the scenes involving Esther (Jack and Mabel’s neighbour) who was such a lively, extrovert character that she really woke the book up because the scenes involving Jack and Mabel tended to be slow and quite repetitive, in fact, a lot of the book is repetitive with Faina’s comings and goings and the daily slog in trying to survive in such a wilderness.

I’m taking from this book that essentially Faina saves Jack and Mabel; before she came into their lives they were just existing but by the end they were living again.  Perfect for fans of the magical realism genre but just not my preferred type of read so I had to persevere to finish.

Book Links: Goodreads | Amazon

Author Links: Website | Twitter

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Source:  Borrowed from library
No of pages: 432
Publisher: Tinder Press


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Book Review: Thin Air by Michelle Paver

thin-airWhat’s it about?

The Himalayas, 1935.

Kangchenjunga. Third-highest peak on earth. Greatest killer of them all.

Five Englishmen set off from Darjeeling, determined to conquer the sacred summit. But courage can only take them so far – and the mountain is not their only foe.

As the wind dies, the dread grows. Mountain sickness. The horrors of extreme altitude. A past that will not stay buried.

And sometimes, the truth does not set you free.

My thoughts

This was our book club read for December and as we hadn’t read a ghost story I was strangely looking forward to being scared.

mmm well in that sense it was a tadge disappointing as it wasn’t scary at all.  I’d had expectations of it keeping me awake at night or playing on my mind at other times of the day but it’s not that kind of ghost story.  It is however very atmospheric and haunting in a sense that any place that that’s so white, silent, dangerous and desolate would be.

I appreciated the time that must have been spent on the research and the authenticity the book has, the historical aspects of climbing, the pain, the endurance, the equipment they had as this was all really interesting stuff.  Some parts were even a little humourous; there’s a scene where they’re all taking tea at something like 15,000ft which seems somewhat absurd but so very British and of its time.

As I was reading I couldn’t stop picturing the movie Vertical Limit throughout even though that’s set in modern times but it just helped me visualise the difficulties and extremeness of the task they had set themselves.

Overall a good historical novel based on climbing but don’t go into it expecting to not be able to turn out the light at night – you’ll be fine!

As a side note, all the others in the group enjoyed the book also but comments were passed about the cost of the book (which was £10 on Amazon and someone paid £13 in Waterstones at the time of purchase in late November 2016).

Book links: Goodreads | Amazon

Author links: Website | Twitter

Small print for info
Source: Purchased
No of pages: 240
Publisher: Orion


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