Bewitching novel explores folklore and superstition

Folk by Zoe Gilbert

‘Turn away from the heather slope, to the seaward side of the hill. Sniff the air, catch the smoke. The men and women are already lighting torches, passing them along the line. All the villagers of Neverness are here: fishers and farmers, shepherds and huntsmen, fowlmonger, fiddler, brewer and beekeeper, seamstress, midwife, miller and bard.’

The remote island village of Neverness is a world far from our time and place. Harsh winds scour the rocky coastline. The villagers’ lives are inseparable from nature and its enchantments. Verlyn Webbe, born with a wing for an arm, unfurls his feathers in defiance of past shame; Plum is snatched by a water bull and dragged to his lair; little Crab Skerry takes his first run through the gorse-maze; Madden sleepwalks through violent storms. The tales of this island community interweave over the course of a generation.

I was surprised to find that this book is more a collection of short stories than a straightforward narrative – a fact that makes sense when you realise Zoe Gilbert won the Costa Short Story Award 2014 and which seems to have put some reviewers off. However, once you get to grips with the structure, readers will soon find themselves under Folk’s dark spell.

Gilbert is a fantastic writer, there’s no doubt about that. She excels at describing the harsh, windswept village of Neverness in language that is atmospheric and wonderfully evocative, with a bewitching rhythm that makes each sentence into an incantation. The reader is plunged headfirst into a terrifying world where, it seems, anything is possible. The island of Neverness is a frightening place ruled by superstition and plagued by vestiges of dark magic.

I do wish that Gilbert had done more to elevate her characters above the stock types found in folk and fairy tales. I found them likeable but not altogether memorable; as we only spend one chapter with each character we don’t have enough time to get to know them properly. As such, it lacks the emotional connection that would make this a truly great book.

I did enjoy the interweaving of time and character, the way we are never quite sure how much time has passed but are given subtle hints to guide us. Our footing is never quite secure in Neverness; we can never be sure where we stand.

Each of these tales is bewitching and full of magic, but each also has dark and bloody edges. The images are stark and vivid, conjuring an atmosphere as beautiful as it is unsettling. Children become convinced their parents aren’t who they say they are, a boy is burned alive, and hysteria drives people to terrible actions. There is bound to be at least one story here that sends a chill down your spine.

Folk is strange and memorable and dream-like in its intensity. If you are interested in folklore, myths and superstition, I’d strongly encourage you to pick it up. It is not a book you will easily forget.

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

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New book releases May 2018

The Colour of Bee Larkham’s Murder by Sarah J. Harris

Synaesthesia paints the sounds of Jasper’s world in a kaleidoscope of colours that no one else can see. But on Friday, he discovered a new colour – the colour of murder. He’s sure something has happened to his neighbour, Bee Larkham, but no one else seems to be taking it as seriously as they should be.

This debut novel examines themes of isolation, bravery and morality, and has already been touted as one of the best books of summer 2018.

Release date: 3rd May

The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse

Carcassonne, 1562. Minou Joubert receives an anonymous letter at her father’s bookshop, containing the words: SHE KNOWS THAT YOU LIVE. Before Minou can decipher the message, a chance encounter with a young Huguenot convert, Piet Reydon, changes her destiny forever.

Mosse returns to the Languedoc setting of her bestselling trilogy (Labyrinth, Sepulchre, Citadel) with this first book in a new series. Promising adventure, conspiracies and betrayal, it sounds like the perfect beach read.

Release date: 3rd May

The House on Half Moon Street by Alex Reeve

Leo Stanhope is an avid chess player, assistant to a London coroner, in love with Maria, and hiding a very big secret. For Leo was born Charlotte, the daughter of a reverend. He fled his family home at 15 and has been living as a man ever since. But when Maria is found dead, Leo is accused of her murder.

This is the first in a new historical series set in Victorian London and has been described as ‘wonderfully atmospheric’.

Release date: 3rd May

Snap by Belinda Bauer

On a stifling summer’s day, 11-year-old Jack is left in charge of his two sisters in a broken down car while his mother goes to get help. But she doesn’t come back. Three years later, Jack is still in charge – of his sisters, of supporting them all, and of finding the truth about what happened to his mother.

As C.L. Taylor says, ‘no one writes crime novels like Belinda Bauer’, and her latest offering promises to be a gripping, terrifying thriller.

Release date: 17th May

The Perfect Mother by Aimee Molley

They call themselves the May Mothers – a group of new mums whose babies were born in the same month. Twice a week, they get together for some much-needed adult time. When the women go out for drinks at the hip neighbourhood bar, they are looking for a fun break from their daily routine. But something goes wrong, and one of the babies is taken from his crib.

This is another of the most anticipated books of the summer and there is already a film in the works starring Kerry Washington.

Release date: 1st May

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The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh

Imagine a world very close to our own: where women are not safe in their bodies, where desperate measures are required to raise a daughter. This is the story of Grace, Lia and Sky, kept apart from the world for their own good and taught the terrible things every woman must learn about love. And it is the story of the men who come to find them.

This literary debut has been compared to Hot Milk and The Girls, and has been called ‘eerie, electric, beautiful’ by author Daisy Johnson.

Release date: 24th May

The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton

The king’s three daughters know the only chance of resurrection for the struggling nation of Innis Lear is to crown a new sovereign. But their father will not choose an heir until the longest night of the year, when prophecies align. Refusing to leave their future in the hands of blind faith, the daughters of Innis Lear prepare for war.

Even in 2018 it’s still rare to find a fantasy novel that centres on female characters, so I have high hopes for this epic, blood-soaked debut.

Release date: 17th May

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

War orphan Fang Runin grew up with poppy. Her adopted family smuggles it, making a living on the misfortune of those addicted to its smoke. But when Rin’s parents force her into an arranged marriage, Rin refuses to accept her fate and fights her way to a prestigious military academy.

This powerful epic fantasy novel has its roots in the 20th century history of China, and Booknest has raised expectations by calling it ‘one of the best grimdark/military fantasy debuts of all time’.

Release date: 3rd May

The Outsider by Stephen King

When an 11-year-old boy is found murdered in a town park, reliable eyewitnesses point to the town’s popular Little League coach, Terry Maitland, as the culprit. DNA evidence confirms the crime was committed by this well-loved family man. But Maitland has an air-tight alibi. A man cannot be in two places at the same time. Can he?

Stephen King’s latest offering has been called ‘a compelling and chilling suspense novel’ – just what King does best.

Release date: 22nd May

Grey Sister by Mark Lawrence

This sequel to Mark Lawrence’s Red Sister sees Nona Grey struggling with the choice of which path to take: the red of a Martial Sister, the grey of a Sister of Discretion, the blue of a Mystic Sister or the simple black of a Bride of the Ancestor.

Although the first in this fantasy series, Red Sister, had its flaws, I’m still looking forward to the sequel to see where Nona’s path takes her next.

Release date: 17th May

Atmospheric Victorian mystery perfect for fans of Sarah Waters

The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin

To the right of the last wooden house, warped and stooping, there is a covered alleyway no wider than a whip thong. At the end of the alleyway there is a yard; small as a poke, never gladdened by the warmth of the sun. In the far corner of that yard, behind a door that hangs loose on its leather hinges, is a room. It is a small room with a brick and dirt floor. This room is the centre of my London.’

Out of the shadows of murky London comes Hester White, a bright young woman who is desperate to escape the slums. When Hester is thrust into the world of the aristocratic Brock family, she leaps at the chance to improve her station in life under the tutelage of the mysterious Rebekah Brock. But whispers from her past begin to poison her new life.

The Wicked Cometh is lauded as one of the most anticipated books of 2018, and with its promise of a gothic setting and wicked deeds I was sure I was going to love it. Parts of it I did love and overall it was a very enjoyable book, but the pacing was where it let me down.

The Wicked Cometh has been billed for fans of The Essex Serpent but it has far more in common with Sarah Waters’ fabulous melodramatic Victorian novels than Sarah Perry’s more subtle, character-driven debut.

Carlin is fantastic at creating atmosphere, conjuring the filthy slums of Victorian London where the sun never shines and danger lurks around every corner. Her meticulous research is evident in the 19th century slang in the dialogue, adding another layer of realism to the story.

Carlin has successfully emulated the tone and style of Dickensian novels. Our plucky heroine Hester is rescued from the slums and whisked away to a life of safety and contentment – or so it first seems. The descriptions are beautiful and unique and the darkness of the story is lightened with dashes of humour.

The problem most reviewers and readers have picked up on is the pacing. The plot doesn’t really get going for a good 150 pages and, with Carlin’s antiquated style, those 150 pages feel even longer than they are. At times I felt almost suffocated with the weight of descriptions. This is Carlin’s first novel and you can tell she suffers from a serious case of overwriting; large chunks of the novel would have benefited from an editor with a red pen to cut the unnecessary and improve the flow of the chapters.

Despite its flaws, the characters were engaging enough to keep me reading. Hester is a determined and intelligent young woman, and her search for escape from the poor circumstances she has found herself in leads her on an exciting and poignant journey. She is likeable and interesting, and readers are sure to enjoy spending time with her.

The ne’er-do-well characters populating the slums of Victorian London are also brought vividly to life and add layers of intrigue and mystery to the plot.

I really enjoyed the ending of this novel. The central mystery kept me going through the slower parts of the novel so I was thrilled that it had an exciting and unpredictable resolution. It will require some suspension of disbelief, but what else would you expect from a Victorian melodrama?

Fans of Sarah Waters need look no further for their next read than this gothic Victorian mystery novel.

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

Dark and disturbing thriller about the power of family ties

The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel

‘On the nights my words cut deepest, sliced quick and deadly as scalpels, her eyes practically bulged from her face, and I was filled with a rotten, hellish joy because at least she was finally looking at me. At least she finally, finally saw me.’

The Roanoke girls seem to have it all. But there’s a dark truth about them which is never spoken. Every girl either runs away, or dies. Lane is one of the lucky ones. When she was 15, over one scorching summer at her grandparents’ estate in rural Kansas, she found out what it really means to be a Roanoke girl. Lane ran, far and fast. Until 11 years later, when her cousin Allegra goes missing, and Lane has no choice but to go back.

If I was asked to describe this book I would say it was a cross between the sweltering atmosphere of The Dry by Jane Harper and the twisted themes of Dark Places by Gillian Flynn. The story is set in the small town of Osage Flats, surrounded by miles of empty, dusty countryside beneath a scorching sun. The atmosphere is claustrophobic and creepy. Never once are you allowed to forget the heat, the threat just around the corner, and the feeling of dread only increases as you are drawn further into the story.

Lane is a compelling narrator, a woman struggling with a past that has twisted her emotions until love and hate have become irrevocably intertwined. Like Gillian Flynn’s protagonists, she isn’t always likeable; she hurts people just because she can and she runs away instead of confronting her issues. Lane isn’t cookie cutter; she isn’t the clichéd ‘strong female character’ who so often populate thrillers and crime novels. She is flawed but her broken edges make her fierce. Dare to cross her, and she goes for the jugular.

The writing is deliciously dark, drawing you into the story and making it impossible to look away, even when you wish you could. At times it’s a little on-the-nose and could have used more subtlety, but overall I really enjoyed it and would definitely read more from this author in the future.

Engel moves smoothly between past and present, managing to make both sides of the story equally engaging. The ending is satisfying, if a little predictable, and ventures into twee territory at the very end, which is a real shame considering the darkness of the rest of the novel.

The Roanoke Girls is a story about the power of family ties and the kind of secrets that corrupt from the outside in. An unsettling read, and one you’ll continue to think about long after turning the final page.

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

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.

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.