Bleak but beautiful historical novel explores Irish folklore beliefs

The Good People by Hannah Kent

Alarm ran through her and she looked down at the child, his hair copper in the firelight. She was grateful that he slept. The boy’s difference did not show so much when he was asleep. The keel of his limbs slackened, and there was no telling the dumb tongue in his head. Martin had always said Micheál looked most like their daughter when asleep. ‘You can almost think him well,’ he had said once. ‘You can see how he will be when the sickness has passed. When we have cured him of it.’’’

Ireland, 1825. Nóra, bereft after the sudden death of her beloved husband, finds herself alone and caring for her young grandson, Micheál, who cannot speak or walk. In her desperation to discover what is wrong with him, Nóra employs the help of her new maid, Mary, and local healer, Nance. Together the three women will walk a dangerous path in which their folkloric beliefs wrap ever more tightly around them.

Last year I read Kent’s debut novel, Burial Rites, and loved its bleak atmosphere and the beauty of the writing. Second novels are famously difficult beasts and I had doubts Kent would be able to write another masterful story. But she has done just that.

I am in awe of Kent’s writing talent. She conjures the bleak and beautiful landscape of the Irish countryside in carefully chosen language that really packs a punch. It’s the kind of writing that makes you stop and take a breath and then re-read the same paragraph over and over because it’s so startling and moving.

Kent has created an immersive world in which folk beliefs control all aspects of everyday life. These beliefs are an attempt to make sense of a world where bad things happen for no reason. Characters hope that by appeasing the fairies, the Good People, that they can prevent such things from happening. It is a world governed by quiet rituals, with malice lurking just beneath the surface.

The Good People has many similar themes to Kent’s first novel. Like Agnes, Nóra is not always an empathetic character. Nevertheless, her grief over the loss of her husband is heart-wrenching and her desire to help her grandson is realistic and understandable. This makes it all the more uncomfortable for the reader as she begins to take her frustration out on Micheál, a helpless boy who cannot walk or talk and screams throughout the night for seemingly no reason at all.

Towards the end it feels as though Kent loses her way a little, but she manages to bring it all together again for a satisfying ending.

Kent succeeds brilliantly at doing just what historical fiction is supposed to do: plunging you into an entirely different world that somehow feels familiar. I did find it a struggle at first to get used to the rhythm of the characters’ dialogue and the frequent use of Irish phrases, but it didn’t take long for me to get past this.

The Good People is a character-driven novel with a fascinating setting, a haunting plot and lots of tension. This is a book you won’t easily forget.

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New book releases for October 2017

The Lost Village by Neil Spring

Notorious ghost hunter Harry Price has reluctantly reunited with his former assistant Sarah Grey to unlock the secrets of an abandoned English village called Imber. Each winter, on one night only, Imber’s former residents return to visit loved ones buried in the overgrown churchyard. But this year, something has gone wrong.

Spring returns to the characters of Harry and Sarah following the events of the brilliantly creepy The Ghost Hunters. October is, of course, the perfect time of year for a ghost story, and this one comes out just in time for Halloween.

Release date: 19th October

 

La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman

11-year-old Malcolm Polstead and his dæmon, Asta, live with his parents near Oxford. Across the River Thames is the Godstow Priory where the nuns live. Malcolm learns they have a guest with them, a baby by the name of Lyra Belacqua.

This has got to be one of the most anticipated books of 2017. Pullman returns to the world of His Dark Materials with the first volume in a new series that promises to be just as full of magic and adventure as The Northern Lights.

Release date: 19th October

 

The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris

Historian Lindsey Fitzharris recreates a critical turning point in the history of medicine, when Joseph Lister transformed surgery from a brutal, harrowing practice to the esteemed profession we know today.

I find the history of medicine endlessly fascinating and this new non-fiction book promises blood-soaked Victorian operating theatres and early experimentation with anaesthesia.

Release date: 17th October

 

The Mayflower Generation by Rebecca Fraser

The voyage of the Mayflower is one of the important events in world history. But the group of English Puritans who ventured across the Atlantic in 1620 had no sense they would pass into legend. Rebecca Fraser traces two generations of one ordinary family as they adapt to the challenges of life in America.

Another area of history that fascinates me is the arrival of early settlers in America, and this book sounds as though it will put people at the forefront of the story.

Release date: 19th October

 

Even the Darkest Stars by Heather Fawcett

Kamzin has always dreamed of becoming one of the Emperor’s royal explorers, the elite climbers tasked with mapping the mountainous Empire and spying on its enemies. When the eccentric River Shara, the greatest explorer ever known, hires her for his next expedition, Kamzin is determined to prove herself.

This highly anticipated debut novel is the first in a fantasy duology and promises plenty of adventure and nail-biting action.

Release date: 19th October

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Fools and Mortals by Bernard Cornwell

Richard Shakespeare is an actor struggling to make his way in a company dominated by his estranged older brother, William. As the growth of theatre blooms, their rivalry – and that of the playhouses, playwrights and actors vying for glory – propels a high-stakes story of conflict and betrayal.

This is a departure from the norm by bestselling author Bernard Cornwell, but I love historical fiction, particularly if it’s set in the Tudor period, and this one sounds particularly intriguing.

 

The Naturalist by Andrew Mayne

As a computational biologist, Theo is more familiar with digital code and microbes than forensics. But a field trip to Montana suddenly lands him in the middle of an investigation into the murder of one of his former students. As more bodies come to light, the local cops determine that the killer is either a grizzly bear gone rogue, or Theo himself.

This new release from well-known author Mayne promises thrills, suspense and violence aplenty.

Release date: 1st October

 

Origin by Dan Brown

Robert Langdon arrives at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao to attend the unveiling of a discovery that “will change the face of science forever”. But Langdon and several hundred other guests are left reeling when the evening is blown apart before the discovery can be revealed. With his life under threat, Langdon flees to Barcelona on a perilous quest to locate a cryptic password that will unlock the secret of the discovery.

We all know Dan Brown isn’t the best writer, but that doesn’t mean his books don’t make for enjoyable reading, particularly those featuring Harvard professor Robert Langdon. This will be Langdon’s fifth outing.

Release date: 3rd October

 

I Am Watching You by Teresa Driscoll

When Ella overhears two men flirting with teenage girls on a train, she thinks nothing of it – until she realises the men are fresh out of prison. But just as she’s decided to call for help, something stops her. The next day, she wakes up to the news that one of the girls has disappeared.

Sometimes you just need to cosy up with a thriller that really grabs you and will make you want to read it in one sitting. This book seems like just that type.

Release date: 1st October

 

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Illustrated Edition)

The third book in the Harry Potter series gets the illustrated treatment from Jim Kay, whose beautiful illustrations have already brought to life The Philosopher’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets. Personally, The Prisoner of Azkaban is my favourite in the series so I’m really looking forward to getting my hands on this one. This time, we’ll get to see the Knight Bus, meet Buckbeak and Sirius Black, and experience the iconic moment Hermione punches Malfoy in the face.

Release date: 3rd October

A fantastic piece of historical escapism from bestselling author Sarah Dunant

In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant

‘Beauty is your gift from God and it should be used and not squandered. Study this face as if it were a map of the ocean, your own trade route to the Indies. For it will bring you its own fortune. But always believe what the glass tells you. Because while others will try to flatter you, it has no reason to lie.’

1527. With their stomachs churning on the jewels they have swallowed, the courtesan Fiammetta and her companion dwarf Bucino escape the sack of Rome. They head for the shimmering, decadent city of Venice, where the sins of pleasure and the pleasures of sin lead them both down new and dangerous paths.

This was the only book of Sarah Dunant’s five Italian Renaissance novels that I hadn’t read. There was no reason to think that it would fail to live up to the expectation of her other great books, as In the Company of the Courtesan is a fantastic piece of historical escapism, a novel rich in the sights and sounds and smells of the 16th century.

This is a story where brutality and beauty go hand in hand. Dunant is never one to shy away from descriptions of blood and gore; the sack of Rome is described as intimately as any bedroom scene. The perfumed rooms of the wealthy are contrasted with the filth and poverty of the poorer parts of Venice, and during Fiammetta’s sensual morning routine she uses ingredients such as mercury and dove entrails to make her skin flawless and her hair shine. At every step Dunant never lets us forget the squalor beneath the splendour.

The two characters at the heart of this story – the narrator Bucino and his mistress Fiammetta – are a wonderful double act, their relationship adding welcome flashes of humour to what is a dark tale at its heart. Fiametta is far more than just a courtesan; she has trained herself to be witty and intelligent, just as talented at playing the lute as she is at plucking her clients’ strings, and she is always searching for a way to further her status, always calculating how much she can get away with. Bucino, as a dwarf and therefore an outsider, offers a unique perspective tinged with sadness and pathos.

Dunant’s descriptions of decadently beautiful Venice made me long to visit the city. Her original characters rub shoulders with real people from the time period, including writer Pietro Aretino and the painter Titian. The ballrooms lit by candles placed between the ribcages of skeletons, the narrow twisting streets and waterways of Venice, and the vaulting Catholic churches are conjured so vividly that you will look up from the book only to be surprised that you aren’t standing in Italy.

Sarah Dunant is a wonderful historical fiction writer and, for those who have yet to read any of her books, In the Company of the Courtesan offers the perfect place to start.

New book releases for September 2017

Eight Ghosts: The English Heritage Book of New Ghost Stories

This collection of short stories is the result of eight authors being given after-hours freedom at their chosen English heritage site, immersed in history, atmosphere and rumours of hauntings.

There’s nothing I love more than a truly chilling ghost story, and these short stories from authors including Sarah Perry, Mark Haddon, Andrew Michael Hurley and Jeanette Winterson promise to be the perfect read for that time of the year when the nights start closing in.

Release date: 28th September

Queens of the Conquest: England’s Medieval Queens by Alison Weir

The first in an epic new series, this is the story of England’s medieval queens, stripping away romantic mythology to reveal the real lives of these royal women in the century after the Norman Conquest.

I’m a fan of Alison Weir’s historical fiction but I’ve never read any of her non-fiction. This new release promises to tell the untold and often ignored tale of England’s early queens.

Release date: 28th September

The Ravenous by Amy Lukavics

When the youngest daughter of the Cane family, Rose, dies in a tragic accident, her sisters are devastated. And when she is brought back from the dead, they are relieved. But soon they discover that Rose must eat human flesh to survive, and when their mother abandons them, the sisters will find out how far they’ll go to keep their family together.

This book sounds bizarre and horrifying in equal measure, and I can’t wait to sink my teeth into it.

Release date: 26th September

Lies She Told by Cate Holahan

Liza Cole, a novelist whose career has seen better days, has one month to write the thriller that could land her back on the bestseller list. As the lines between fiction and reality begin to blur, Liza’s husband is arrested for the murder of his best friend, forcing Liza to face up to the truths about the people around her.

I’m still searching for the 2017 thriller that will really blow my socks off; I’m hoping this one could do just that.

Release date: 28th September

The Blackbird Season by Kate Moretti

In a quiet town, a thousand dead starlings fall onto a school playing field. As journalists flock to the scene, one of them catches a teacher, Nate Winters, embracing a student. The student claims she and Nate are having an affair, sending shockwaves through the close-knit community. Then the student disappears, and the police have only one suspect.

Described as ‘harrowing’ and ‘a haunting mystery’, this book promises to be full of twists and turns.

Release date: 26th September

Eight Ghosts SV

The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God’s Holy Warriors by Dan Jones

Jerusalem, 1119. A small group of knights seeking a purpose in the violent aftermath of the First Crusade set up the Knights of Templar, a band of elite warriors. Over the next 200 years, the Templars would become the most powerful religious order of the medieval world.

I’m trying to read more non-fiction this year and, as I don’t know much about the Crusades, this book from historian and TV presenter Dan Jones sounds very intriguing.

Release date: 19th September

Best Day Ever by Kaira Rouda

Paul loves his wife. But he also wants to get rid of her. So he promises her a romantic weekend getaway, and with every hour that passes he ticks off another stage in his carefully constructed plan.

A new thriller from a bestselling author, this book has been described as ‘fast-paced, dark, and slightly disturbing’.

Release date: 7th September

The Mile End Murder by Sinclair McKay

In 1860, a 70-year-old widow named Mary Emsley was found dead in her home, killed by a blow to the back of her head. What followed was a murder case that gripped the nation, a locked room mystery which baffled even legendary Sherlock Holmes author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The case has finally been solved by author Sinclair McKay, in this captivating study of a 19th century murder.

I do love a bit of true crime and this Victorian murder mystery sounds right up my street.

Release date: 7th September

Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen King

All around the world, something is happening to women when they fall asleep; they become shrouded in a cocoon-like gauze. If awakened, the women become feral and violent. In West Virginia, the virus is spreading through a women’s prison, affecting all the inmates except one.

I’m not a huge fan of Stephen King, but any new release from the master of horror (plus his first full-length collaboration with his son) deserves a mention.

Release date: 26th September

Don’t Let Go by Harlan Coben

15 years ago in small-town New Jersey, a teenage boy and girl were found dead. Most people concluded it was a tragic suicide pact. The dead boy’s brother, Nap Dumas, did not. Now Nap is a cop, but he’s a cop who plays by his own rules, and who has never made peace with his past.

I have a soft spot for Harlan Coben; his books are always fun and easy to read (even if all his female characters are the same person) and his standalone novels are often his best.

Release date: 26th September

Philippa Gregory’s new novel shows women navigating dangerous political waters

The Last Tudor by Philippa Gregory

‘I love my father because I know that he will never die. Neither will I. We are chosen by God and we walk in His ways, and we never swerve from them. We don’t have to earn our place in heaven by bribing God with acts or Masses. We don’t have to eat bread and pretend it is flesh, drink wine and call it blood. We know that is folly for the ignorant and a trap for papist fools. This knowledge is our pride and glory.’

This is the true story of the three Grey sisters: Jane, Queen of England for nine days; Katherine, whose lineage makes her a threat to the rightful succession; and Mary, a dwarf disregarded by the court but all too aware of her position as a possible heir to the throne.

I’m a huge fan of Philippa Gregory, particularly her Tudor novels, and she has claimed that this one will be her final story in a popular series spanning 11 books.

Gregory has once again proven why she is the queen of historical fiction. Her characters are women navigating dangerous political waters, aware that even taking the precaution of closing all the windows and doors isn’t enough to ensure they won’t be overheard by spies. Even an innocent remark can lead to a charge of treason, and the monarch is able to hold men and women in the Tower at their leisure without charging them of any crime.

The Grey sisters are each very different. We have pious Jane, an innocent but devout girl at the heart of a treasonous plot to sit her on the throne of England; wilful and light-hearted Katherine, who marries for love against the Queen’s wishes; and Mary, little in stature but possessing more dignity than anyone else at court. Around these three characters Gregory crafts an intriguing story of family and treachery, jealousy and passion.

The most interesting aspect of this novel is its exploration of the ‘last Tudor’ referenced in the title: Queen Elizabeth I. When most people think of Elizabeth they imagine her as queen in a time of glory and momentous change, when Shakespeare was writing, the New World was just discovered, and the monarch presided over a court full of the brightest minds of their generation. Gregory’s novel shows an altogether different side of Elizabeth, painting her, through the eyes of the Grey sisters, as vain, vindictive and needlessly cruel.

The main problem in this book is that the narrators spend such an awful lot of their time locked behind bars, unable to even make contact with anyone outside. As such we hear of the important political events taking place in England from characters who aren’t actually witnessing them first hand.

The other aspect of this book I had trouble with is the fact that there is next to no character development. We are introduced to each of the Grey sisters at the start of the novel, and they remain the same until the very end. I prefer my characters to change over the course of a story, watching them develop and grow, and that is something the reader definitely doesn’t get from this book.

Despite its flaws, Gregory has once again succeeded in what she does best: taking real women from history and giving them a voice. She has stuck to her traditional formula and as such her fans will find much to love here. I’ll be keen to see what she comes up with once she frees herself from facts and comes up with her own original characters.

Many thanks to Simon & Schuster for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Natasha Pulley’s second novel is a charming book full of magic and wonder

The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

Although I hadn’t been shot at for years, it took me a long time to understand that the bang wasn’t artillery. I sat up in bed to look out of the window, half-balanced on my elbows, but there was nothing except a spray of slate shards and moss on the little gravel path three floors below. There had been a storm in the night, huge, one of those that takes days and days to form and gives everyone a headache, and the rain must have finally worked loose some old roof tiles.’

1859. Merrick, a crippled smuggler working for the East India Company, heads deep into uncharted territory to find cinchona trees, the only source of the quinine that can cure malaria. Surrounded by local stories of lost time, cursed woods and living rock, Merrick must separate truth from fairytale and find out what befell the last expeditions.

Last year Pulley released her debut novel, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, to outstanding reviews. It was one of my favourite books of 2016, so my expectations were high for The Bedlam Stacks. Fortunately, Pulley has written her second novel in the same vein as her first and is clearly on to a winning formula.

Pulley seamlessly blends historical fiction and fantasy, whilst hopping through various other genres including thriller, steampunk and sci-fi. The plot takes the reader on an adventure into the fantastical wilds of Peru, where lamps are made of golden pollen, statues move freely, and no one crosses the salt line separating the town from the forest for fear of disappearing.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this book were the characters. They seem so real and empathetic that you can easily imagine them stepping off the page and reaching out to shake your hand. The intimate, delicately written moments between characters are so awkward and realistic that you can’t help but fall in love with them. Merrick is a highly empathetic character, a man with an edge who is searching for a new purpose in life. In Peru he meets Raphael, a young priest, and their growing friendship is a delight to watch unfold.

As with The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, there is much more to this book than first appears. An adventure it may be, but it is also a heartfelt exploration of time, identity and friendship. The fantasy elements sit easily alongside meditations on duty and the contrasts between different cultures. Science and fantasy walk side by side, intertwining in wondrous ways and creating a beautiful tapestry of a story.

It does take a while to get started so it requires a fair bit of patience to muddle through the short sentences and long-winded descriptions in the opening chapters, but Pulley soon hits her stride and plunges you into an immersive, fantastical world.

Pulley writes with flair and imagination, juggling a complicated plot with apparent ease. If you’re looking for escapism, look no further. This is a charming book, full of magic and wonder, and I urge you to pick up a copy.

Many thanks to Bloomsbury for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

First fantasy novel from historical fiction author Conn Iggulden

Darien by C.F. Iggulden

No one wanted to be cast out, to have to go to the city for work. There were no good endings there, everyone knew that. When young girls ran off to Darien, their parents even held a simple funeral, knowing it was much the same. Perhaps to warn the other girls, too.

The city of Darien stands at the weary end of a golden age. Here, amongst old feuds, a plot is hatched to kill a king. It will summon strangers to the city – Elias Post, a hunter; Tellius, an old swordsman; Arthur, a boy who cannot speak; Daw Threefold, a chancer and gambler; Vic Deeds, who feels no guilt; and Nancy, whose talent might be the undoing of them all.

Darien is the first fantasy novel from historical fiction powerhouse Conn Iggulden. I only discovered Iggulden this year and am halfway through his Wars of the Roses series, which I absolutely love. When I heard he was crossing over into fantasy I was beyond excited to see what he would come up with. Though Darien isn’t without its flaws, there is lots here for fantasy fans to enjoy.

The world Iggulden has created is interesting enough to keep the reader engaged, but I wish he had gone into more detail. The political system of 12 ruling families wasn’t really explained and the magic system was interesting but also could have benefited from more detail. 350 pages isn’t really enough for an epic fantasy novel and it seems Iggulden made the choice to sacrifice world-building in order to spend more time fleshing out his characters.

Which explains why the characters are the strongest part of this book. They each have their own motives and have interesting backgrounds, and keep the reader emotionally engaged in the outcome of the story. The only place where Iggulden falls down is with Nancy, who comes across as the archetypal Strong Female Character and is subjected to a forced and unnecessary romance.

Iggulden is a master at pacing and the final conflict displays his skill at writing battle scenes while never losing sight of his characters’ human nature. It is a tense, exciting finale and one that will have you eagerly anticipating the next in the series.

Darien is not the perfect fantasy novel, but it was a good opening to a series, leaving enough questions unanswered to make you want to come back for more. I just hope Iggulden fleshes out his fantasy world a little more with the sequel.

Many thanks to Penguin for sending a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.