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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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.

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.

Matt Haig’s new novel is sure to leave a smile on your face

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

‘I am old. That is the first thing to tell you. The thing you are least likely to believe. If you saw me you would probably think I was about forty, but you would be very wrong.’

Tom Hazard may look like an ordinary 41-year-old, but owing to a rare condition, he’s been alive for centuries. From Elizabeth England to Jazz Age Paris, from New York to the South Seas, Tom has seen a lot, and now craves an ordinary life. Always changing his identity to stay alive, Tom has the perfect cover – working as a history teacher at a London comprehensive. The only thing he must not do is fall in love.

Matt Haig had a tough act to follow after the phenomenal success of last year’s part-biography, part-self-help-book Reasons to Stay Alive. It was one of my favourite books of 2016, and one I have dipped in and out of repeatedly since buying it. So I was prepared to love How to Stop Time. Although it had its flaws, Haig has continued his winning formula of crafting believable, hopeful stories that leave the reader with a smile on their face.

Let’s get the flaws out of the way first. The premise is interesting but it’s been done before and Haig stumbles further into cliché by having his protagonist, Tom, meet various real life people along the way; he is hired by Shakespeare and sails the seas with Captain Cook, among others.

One of the things I love about Haig’s writing is the hope. His books are full of darkness but among all the shadows there are wonderful moments of hope and joy. There is hope in How to Stop Time, but it takes a while to get there and it becomes quite taxing to follow a character who spends so much time mourning the past.

However, there was a lot I enjoyed about this novel. There are moments of piercing insight that make you pause and put down the book as you contemplate their genius. Haig has always found a way to interpret the messy, confusing business of being human with language that is simple yet astoundingly perceptive. He understands people, and creates his characters in an honest and believable way.

With Tom having been alive for such a long time, he finds he is losing himself in the grand scheme of things, feeling smaller and smaller against the backdrop of the ever-rolling wheel of history. This book charts his journey to accepting that there is nothing he can do about the progression of time; he can only try to make the most of it, and lose himself in the pleasure of a moment.

Tom is also a member of the Albatross Society (so named because albatrosses were believed to live for a long time). The Society is formed of people like Tom and its purpose is to prevent ordinary humans, or ‘mayflies’, from finding out that there are people who can live to be 800-years-old. The Society added a much-needed thriller element to the story, with the increasing threat of the Society’s founder, Hendrich, hanging over Tom as the story hurries along to an exciting and tense ending.

Although it’s fairly obvious what’s going to happen at the end of the book, it still leaves you with a feeling of lightness, a desire to go out and live life and make the most of it all. Despite its flaws, it is life-affirming stuff and guaranteed to leave a spring in your step.

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

New book releases July 2017

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

Tom Hazard has a secret. He may look like an ordinary 41-year-old, but owing to a rare condition, he’s been alive for centuries. Always changing his identity to stay alive, Tom has the perfect cover – working as a history teacher at a London comprehensive. The only thing he must not do is fall in love.

This is easily one of my most anticipated books of 2017. I’m hoping Haig’s new offering is as full of hope and truth as his previous books.

Release date: 6th July

 

The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

Frank has a gift for finding his customers the music they need to hear. When he meets Ilsa, a mysterious woman engaged to another man, he falls in love. 12 years later Ilsa returns to find Frank. The shop has gone; no one knows where he is. All that remains is a series of clues, each one related to music.

Joyce is the author of the brilliant, heart-wrenching novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, and I can’t wait to read more of her charming, uplifting prose.

Release date: 13th July

 

Blackwing by Ed McDonald

The republic faces annihilation, despite the vigilance of Galharrow’s Blackwings. When a raven tattoo rips itself from his arm to deliver a desperate message, Galharrow and a mysterious noblewoman must investigate a long dead sorcerer’s legacy.

This is the first in a new epic fantasy series that has already received praise declaring it to be one of the best fantasy debuts of the year.

Release date: 27th July

 

Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown

It’s been a year since Billie Flanagan went on a hike and vanished from the trail. Her body was never found. Her husband and her teenage daughter, Olive, have been coping as best they can, but then Olive starts having strange visions of her mother that suggest she may not be dead after all.

This is a psychological thriller that has been compared to Big Little Lies, and it has already been called ‘clever and compelling’.

Release date: 11th July

 

The Goddesses by Swan Huntley

When Nancy and her family arrive in Hawaii, they are desperate for a fresh start. Nancy resolves to make a happy life for herself. She starts taking a yoga class and there she meets Ana, the charismatic teacher. As Nancy grows closer and closer to Ana, she knows she will do anything Ana asks of her.

This sounds like the kind of gripping psychological thriller that would make a perfect beach read.

Release date: 25th July

 

Darien by C.F. Iggulden

The city of Darien stands at the weary end of a golden age. 12 families keep order with soldiers and artefacts, spies and memories, clinging to a peace that shifts and crumbles. Here, amongst old feuds, a plot is hatched to kill a king.

From historical novelist Conn Iggulden – author of the Wars of the Roses series – this is the first in an epic new fantasy series that sounds perfect for fans of Game of Thrones.

Release date: 13th July

 

Final Girls by Riley Sager

They were the victims of separate massacres. Grouped together by the press and dubbed the Final Girls, they are treated like something out of a slasher movie. When something terrible happens to Lisa, Quincy and Sam finally meet. Each one influences the other. Each one has dark secrets. And each one will never be the same.

I love the idea behind this book and can only hope that the writing and the plot live up to the promise in the blurb.

Release date: 13th July

 

The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy

Every seven years something disappears in the remote town of Sterling: people’s reflections, the stars in the sky, the ability to dream. Aila realises that her mother may be to blame, but some secrets want to stay hidden.

This sounds like a very unusual debut novel, and has been described as ‘thick with mystery, buried secrets, and magic’.

Release date: 27th July

 

This Is How It Happened by Paula Stokes

After waking up from a coma, Genevieve can’t remember the car crash that killed her boyfriend Dallas, a YouTuber turned teen music idol. In the media everyone assumes the driver, Brad, is guilty. As she slowly pieces together the night of the accident, Genevieve starts to wonder if she was really the one at fault.

This sounds like it could be a very interesting novel, exploring themes about the way the internet is always watching and judging our actions.

Release date: 11th July

 

Where the Light Falls by Allison Pataki

Three years after the storming of the Bastille, the streets of Paris are roiling with revolution. Jean-Luc, an idealistic young lawyer, moves his family to Paris in the hope of joining the cause. Andre has evaded execution by joining the new French army. Sophie, an aristocratic widow, embarks on a fight for independence from her vindictive uncle.

With cameos from legendary figures including Robespierre, Louis XVI and Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, this sounds like an epic tale that will sweep readers off their feet.

Release date: 11th July

A feminist historical novel set in Victorian Edinburgh

The Wages of Sin by Kaite Welsh

‘If you had seen us taking tea, you would have assumed we were serious-minded but perfectly normal young ladies – New Women, perhaps, of the kind that had sprung up in the past decade, who fancied themselves equal to men in terms of intellect, but nothing that a good dose of marriage and motherhood wouldn’t cure.

1892. Sarah Gilchrist has fled from London to Edinburgh in disgrace and is determined to become a doctor. As part of the University of Edinburgh’s first intake of female medical students, Sarah comes up against resistance from lecturers, her male contemporaries, and her fellow woman. When one of her patients turns up in the university dissecting room as a battered corpse, Sarah finds herself drawn into Edinburgh’s dangerous underworld.

I was really looking forward to reading this book. It promised a dark plot, set in 19th century Edinburgh, with a female protagonist determined to become a doctor despite her family and society insisting that such a thing shouldn’t be allowed. In some ways, it delivered exactly what I was looking for. In others, however, it failed to impress.

I really enjoyed the feminist aspects of this novel. It offers an interesting perspective on the so-called ‘fallen woman’ and has plenty to say about the way marriage confines women and the dull lives they have in store once they find a husband. I particularly enjoyed the way Welsh presented the relationships between female characters, the way men and society conspire to turn them against each other.

I also enjoyed the way 19th century Edinburgh was brought to life on the page, with all its filth and poverty contrasted with the drawing rooms of the rich. We move from townhouses and the university to brothels and opium dens, with an interesting and varied cast of characters.

However, this novel did have its faults, foremost being the fact that Welsh didn’t seem to trust her readers to understand the rules of the Victorian society her characters inhabit. So she repeats how unfair life is to women over and over again, until I became completely exasperated by it. There is just no subtlety to it.

I have no idea how Sarah managed to get into the University of Edinburgh because she makes some terrible decisions that suggest she is in fact rather foolish. Gifted at medicine she may be, but in her everyday life her actions will have readers hanging their heads in despair. Shall I follow this suspected murderer down a dark alleyway? Should I deliberately seek to be alone with this suspected murderer when he has already threatened me? Of course! Why wouldn’t I?

The writing was average, with good atmosphere at times, and Welsh clearly wrote this novel with the intention of beginning a series featuring aspiring doctor Sarah Gilchrist. I can’t be sure whether I’ll be picking up the next instalment – it will depend on how good the plot sounds – but if you enjoy Victorian crime novels you’re sure to enjoy this one.

Many thanks to Tinder Press for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review