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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Ali Land’s debut novel asks: is blood thicker than water?

Good Me Bad Me by Ali Land

‘Forgive me when I tell you it was me. It was me that told. The detective. A kindly man, belly full and round. Disbelief at first. Then, the stained dungarees I pulled from my bag. Tiny. The teddy bear on the front peppered red with blood. I could have brought more, so many to choose from. She never knew I kept them.’

Annie’s mother is a serial killer. The only way she can stop her is to hand her in to the police. As her mother’s trial looms, the secrets of her past won’t let Annie sleep, even with a new foster family to give her a fresh start. Now, surely, she can be whoever she wants to be. But blood is thicker than water.

This book is gripping from the first page to the last, building up suspense until the reader’s every muscle is tensed with dread at what is going to happen next. It’s undeniably very dark, with some troubling subject matter, but it’s perfect for those who like their thrillers to unsettle and make their skin crawl.

The twists and turns aren’t exactly surprising but Land’s writing more than makes up for it. She knows that a few carefully chosen words can be more powerful than paragraphs of description; splashes of blood on a child’s discarded clothing are more disturbing than seeing the body, and peering through the keyhole can be more terrifying than throwing open the door. It’s claustrophobic and so immersive you’ll find your heart racing and your breath catching in your throat.

Annie is an incredible narrator, struggling to forget who she was and focus on who she might be. But her mother’s presence looms over everything she does, every word she speaks, and despite her best efforts she finds herself slipping back into old habits. She is adept at manipulation, knows just what to say and how to act to get what she wants, but her damaged childhood means she isn’t always in control of herself.

All the characters surrounding Annie are also realistically portrayed. Even those who veer towards stereotype have enough flawed edges to mark them out from the crowd and make the reader care about what happens to them.

The plot does require some suspension of disbelief, but if you’re able to let that go you’re sure to find lots to enjoy here. Good Me Bad Me is an incredible debut novel, and I would highly recommend it.

Jay Kristoff’s Nevernight features a compelling heroine hell-bent on revenge

Nevernight by Jay Kristoff

“You’ll be a rumour. A whisper. The thought that wakes the bastards of this world sweating in the nevernight. The last thing you will ever be, girl, is someone’s hero.”

Mia Covere is only 10 years old when she is given her first lesson in death. Six years later, she takes her first steps towards keeping the promise she made on the day that she lost everything. But the chance to strike against such powerful enemies will be fleeting, so if she is to have her revenge, Mia must become a weapon without equal.

I have conflicted feelings about this book. It took me a good 150 pages to get into it and, after that finally happened, I mostly enjoyed reading it, but there were problems at every turn.

The fantasy genre is full of stories of young boys and girls training to be assassins (two of my favourites are The Name of the Wind by Philip Rothfuss and Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb) and Nevernight didn’t feel as though it had anything new to add. It borrows too heavily from books in the same genre to be truly unique.

Kristoff has a serious case of purple prose. He frequently uses convoluted similes and metaphors that made me want to put the book down and severely hindered my enjoyment of the story. The descriptions often didn’t make sense – ‘If her face were a puzzle, most would put it back in the box, unfinished’ – and Kristoff’s determination to make every scene overly dramatic only added to this problem.

It also felt a lot like cheating for Kristoff to include footnotes which often took up half the page detailing the history of the world the story takes place in. One of the hardest challenges for a fantasy writer is to avoid the dreaded info dump, and footnotes felt like a new way for Kristoff to do just that. More than anything they disrupted the rhythm of the story.

The world itself is interesting and definitely has potential, but the more I read the more it seemed that there was nothing magic couldn’t do. Want to look more beautiful? We have a spell for that. Mortally injured? A spell can fix that. Dead? We can bring you back with a spell. It became exasperating because, although the characters were in terrible danger, you knew it was going to turn out alright in the end.

There are parts of this book that I really liked. The city of Godsgrave is an intriguing setting I would have loved to see more of and the protagonist, Mia, is a compelling heroine hell-bent on revenge. I also enjoyed the political aspects of the novel, which were reminiscent of A Game of Thrones.

I’m undecided whether I will read the rest of this trilogy (the second book has just been released) but, either way, I won’t be in any hurry to do so.

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.

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.

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.