New Read: The Plague Charmer

A year or so ago, I read Karen Maitland’s The Raven’s Head. While it was darker than I am used too, the real issue was the thoroughly unlikeable protagonist! However I was suitably impressed by the writing to want to read more. So I was thankful to have the chance to read another of her dark historical fictions: The Plague Charmer.

In this book, Maitland took me back to 1361 – thirteen years after the Great Pestilence ravaged England – to Porlock Weir, a small fishing village on the bleak Exmoor coast. After drought, an ill-omened black sun and afeared rumblings of the pestilence’s return, this beleaguered community is hit by a terrible storm, that smashes weirs, floods homes and blows in a half-dead woman. This mysterious stranger offers to help the villagers, but for a price no one is willing to pay. Shortly after the deadly sickness arrives and as fear turns to hysteria, the stranger’s cost no longer seems so unthinkable…

Maitland shows the following trials and tribulations of the villagers through the narrations of a varied assortment of characters: Will, the dwarf; Sara, a packhorse man’s wife; Matilda, a militantly devout woman; Janiveer, the woman from the sea; and some of the inhabitants of the nearby manor; who blockade the road, trapping the villagers, to protect themselves. Plus there are many more diverse characters for our narrators to interact with. Such a large cast did make it harder for me to make personal connections, but I did still become fond of Will and Sara, and it was interesting to have a large range of people from the Medieval social spectrum featured.

I also can’t fault Maitland’s eye for detail. She really has thought of every little detail and aspect, so that this tale of suffering, loss and fortitude with touches of the supernatural is brought vividly to life. After finishing the book, I was fascinated to discover in Maitland’s research notes that she took inspiration from many real Medieval places, events and people. So while this was still darker than I would prefer, I found myself absolutely gripped! The characters helped too, as they are well drawn and realistic: there are good, bad and murky in between characters. Plus Will was a great character to lighten the mood.

Overall, I thought The Plague Charmer was a compelling and completely believable dark historical fiction, with clever supernatural twists. I would definitely be up for reading more by this author. Good read.

Thank you to the publishers for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.

Have you read this? Or have you read anything else by Karen Maitland?


Re-Read: The Amber Spyglass

Over the Christmas period, I enjoyed a comforting re-read of The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman, the final book in Pullman’s ever popular His Dark Materials trilogy. (There is a considerable chance of spoilers in this post, so if you are unfamiliar with this series I recommend instead that you read my thoughts on the first book: Northern Lights).

Now Will is the bearer of ‘The Subtle Knife’, his father’s dying wish was for him to deliver this powerful and dangerous weapon to Lord Asriel to help in his war against ‘The Authority’. But Will couldn’t possibly think of going until he has found and rescued Lyra, from those who wish to stop her fulfilling her destiny, as Will and Lyra’s lives, loves, and fates are now irrevocably joined. Together they have their own battles to fight and inevitable journey to go on, that will even take them to the world of the dead…

And it was another real joy to follow the wild, spontaneous Lyra and the practical, selfless Will on their adventures. For me they truly are the best partners in crime and in this final book it is wonderful to see their friendship blossom into something deeper and richer. However this final book also has a lot more characters and threads, all of which have their own crucial part to play, going on at once, including: Lord Asriel, Mrs Coulter, the witch Serafina Pekkala, the armoured bear Iorek Byrnison, Dr Mary Malone and the ‘Mulefa’, Father Gomez, the angels Balthamos and Baruch and the dead…

Boy, I had forgotten just how much Pullman had stuffed into this book! On the positive side this makes for an intriguing, twisting tale which should really make for a rollercoaster ride but for me it doesn’t, and that is because many of these characters and threads have never been mentioned let alone explored in any detail in the previous books. Which for me, especially first time around, meant whole slow sections that felt like giant information dumps! Having said that though this time, being my second read, I did find it a lot easier to take everything in. However my true enjoyment still came from the simpler, central thread following Lyra and Will.

Then we come to the final epic showdown between the armies of Lord Asriel and ‘The Authority’, and Lyra facing temptation and her prophesied destiny. Through out which Pullman showcases his Atheism: making it quite clear a world, or in this case worlds, without God and/or organised religion is a better one. Now I am a practicing Christian and I have to admit there was nothing that particularly bothered or upset me about all this – if Pullman wants to be an Atheist that is up to him and his opinions won’t affect my faith. On the other hand though, I can see how people could be bothered, upset or angered by some of his views shared in this book.

So overall The Amber Spyglass is still not my favourite, however I did find it easier second time around and it is still a fitting, bitter-sweet ending to a wonderful trilogy. While I didn’t plan it, this re-read has also aligned with the release of Pullman’s sequel The Book of Dust, which I now look forward to reading! Good read.

Have you read this? Have you read the new sequel, The Book of Dust?

New Read: The Shadow Queen

Having read and enjoyed The Forbidden Queen, The King’s Sister and The Queen’s Choice, three of her previous historical fictions, Anne O’Brien has become one of my go-to authors for my historical fix. So I was excited at the end of last year, to pick up her latest offering The Shadow Queen, which was released earlier that year.

In The Shadow Queen, O’Brien swept me back to 1340 to meet the beautiful, headstrong Plantagenet princess, Joan of Kent. She was the daughter of the attainted traitor, Edmund of Woodstock, the 1st Earl of Kent and first cousin to King Edward III. Joan has come to be better known to history as ‘The Fair Maid of Kent’, the wife of the doomed Black Prince and the mother of the child-king Richard II. However in her lifetime Joan’s reputation was not so good due to her ambitious nature and a string of salacious marriages!

First, at the tender age of just 12 years old, Joan secretly married Thomas Holland, a lowly knight, without gaining royal consent. This was followed only a year later by a bigamous marriage to the far more suitable William Montacute, the heir to the Earl of Salisbury, which was arranged by their mothers. With the chaos that ensured after all was revealed and the Pope was appealed to, to decide the matter, you’d have thought Joan would have learnt her lesson. But oh no! As a young widow, Joan went on to secretly marry Edward Woodstock, the son and heir of her cousin the king, again without royal consent or a Papal dispensation for their close kinship.

Of course if Joan had learnt from her mistakes and curbed her behaviour we wouldn’t have such a fascinating life to read about now! Previously, I have not read anything about Joan, so this was as much a history lesson as it was an entertaining read. O’Brien portrays Joan as an independent, passionate and ambitious woman, in a time where these were most unattractive traits in a woman. I couldn’t help but admire Joan who knew her mind from a young age and acted upon it, whatever the consequences, however I can’t say I particularly liked her because many of her actions are also rash and selfish.

Other characters it was interesting to read about was Edward Woodstock, the Black Prince who I had never read about before either. Also seeing Richard II and Edward IV young after having read about them as adults in O’Brien’s The King’s Sister and The Queen’s Choice. Plus it was Joan’s third son from her first marriage, John Holland, who went on to have his own salacious affair and subsequent marriage in The King’s Sister. I just love how O’Brien’s characters overlap in her books, which makes it possible for us as readers to see the bigger picture of the time period all from the perspective of the powerful, if often overlooked, women of the time.

Overall, I thought The Shadow Queen was a well written look into the rather thrilling and racy life of the ambitious Joan of Kent. I look forward to reading more by Anne O’Brien – I already have her The King’s Concubine waiting on my Kindle for me. Good read.

Thank you to the publishers for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.

Have you read this? Have you read any of Anne O’Brien’s other novels?

New Read: North and South

As part of The Classics Club, I enjoyed reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Cranford Chronicles, which is made up of the novellas: Cranford, Mr Harrison’s Confession and My Lady Ludlow. After them it seemed high time to read one of Gaskell’s full novels and it just so happened I had Gaskell’s 1854 novel North and South on my to-be-read shelf.

North and South tells the story of Margaret Hale, a young, clever and spirited young woman who is to have her comfortable life turned upside down. Firstly, by the marriage of her close companion and cousin, Edith, then by the shock revelation that her father wishes to retire from the church. This means the family must leave their quiet, rural vicarage, their neighbours and all they know to settle in the smoggy, bustling northern industrial town of Milton. Immediately on arriving Margaret has a ready sympathy for the discontented mill workers and their cause, which will sit uneasily with her growing attraction to the charismatic mill owner, John Thornton.

What immediately struck me about the relationship between Margaret and Mr Thornton is its similarity to Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy. Now I own they are very different as characters, however both pairs have in common that they are blinded by pride and led by their own prejudices. Margaret thinks he is cold, coarse and money driven, while Thornton believes she is haughty and misled. I actually liked both Margaret and Thornton, although I often found myself wanting to knock their heads together! So a delicious (if not sometimes infuriating) will they, won’t they narrative runs through out the novel.

But there is much more to North and South than a rocky love story. Within the story Gaskell also poses and explores fundamental questions about the nature of Victorian social authority and obedience: ranging from religious crises of conscience (Mr Hale); to the ethics of Naval Mutiny (Frederick Hale) and industrial action (Thornton and the mill workers). This is also an emotional rollercoaster which Gaskell so vividly and realistically portrays, that it made me feel I was right there alongside Margaret; as she fights her internal conflicts which mirror the turbulence that surrounds her.

For that reason this wasn’t a quick or easy read like Gaskell’s novellas were for me. I still enjoyed Gaskell’s detailed, meticulous and personable style with her eye for the small details, but I found this was less comforting than her previous stories. Instead with its hard-hitting issues, I found I needed to take my time to mull over and absorb it all. It actually took me from July to November to read three-quarters of this book, yet I whipped through the last quarter in a matter of days as the pace and drama really ramped up.

In conclusion, I thought North and South was a touching and important look into Victorian life, love and society, and the huge upheaval that arose from industrialisation. I suspect I will enjoy this even more on re-reading it. Good read.

Have you read this? Or anything else by Elizabeth Gaskell?

What’s in a Name 2017 – 6/6 (a title with a compass direction)

New Read: Season of Storms

Mid-Autumn felt like the perfect time to pick up another of Susanna Kearsley’s wonderful mystery novels: Season of Storms. Kearsley is one of my favourite authors – I simply love how her writing style is so comforting and familiar for me, like a favourite jumper. Sadly though it has been over a year since I read my last of her novels: Named of the Dragon!

In the early 1900s, in the elegant and isolated villa Il Piacere, Italy, the playwright Galeazzo D’Ascanio is inspired to write his most stunning and original play, for the beautiful, English actress Celia Sands: his love and muse. However the night before she was to take to the stage in the leading role, Celia disappeared. Now, decades later, Alessandro D’Ascanio is preparing to stage his grandfather’s masterpiece, and another young, beautiful English actress, who shares Celia Sands’ name, has agreed to star. Within a theatre in the grounds of Il Piacere, not only will Galeazzo’s play come back to life but so will secrets and ghosts from the past.

Initially, our protagonist the ‘new’ Celia Sands is reluctant to take the job because she has long avoided using her famous name to boost her fledgling career. Instead she has been known as Celia Sullivan so as to make it in her own right; which you can only admire her for. She only agrees when she learns that this is to be her old friend, Rupert’s last directorial role before he retires. Rupert and his partner Brian have been surrogate parents to Celia since she was a small girl, while her glamorous actress mother has flitted from place to place and man to man. They are joined in the production by dashing stage manager Den O’Malley; the famous actress Madeleine Hedrick and the roguish actor Nicholas Rutherford (Madeleine’s lover).

As soon as Celia stepped into the large, decadent and labyrinthine villa Il Piacere, with its impeccable gardens; stunning lake views and its handsome, compelling and compassionate master, Alessandro, I was completely swept away! Even more so when its past secrets start resurfacing and though Celia knows she should let the past go, in the dark, as she dreams, it comes back none the less; as if the first Celia is reaching out to her. Again I think Kearsley has weaved a mystery full of history, theatrical details, stunning settings, and a touch of romance and the supernatural. My only niggle would be the end which was a little anticlimactic, however there is reason for there not being a grand reveal so it really is only a minor niggle.

Overall, I found Season of Storms to be a wonderfully immersive and gripping mystery, that took me away from the cold and wet of the UK. I really must not allow another year to go by before I read more by Kearsley, and there is no excuse to either as I have The Firebird on my to-be-read pile, as well as a new copy of, my favourite, The Rose Garden lined up for a re-read. Great read.

Have you read this? Have you read any of Susanna Kearsley’s other novels?

R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril XII – 4/4

New Read: Assassination at Bayou Sauvage

After reading Blood on the Bayou by D. J. Donaldson last year, I was eager to read more from this series. So I was absolutely thrilled when I was offered a copy of Assassination at Bayou Sauvage back in April. (Although this is a series, it is suggested that these books can be enjoyed as stand alones too).

As we moved deeper into Autumn, I felt it was the perfect time to join chief medical examiner, Andy Broussard and criminal psychologist, Dr Kit Franklyn for another mystery in the colourful New Orleans. While Broussard is left reeling from the shocking shooting of his uncle Joe at a family picnic, Kit has to step up to investigate the disappearance of a young woman. Soon what seemed like two clear cut cases is thrown into doubt, as Kit’s first solo efforts soon lead back to the murder of Uncle Joe. Sensing the horrendous magnitude of this case, Broussard has to try to move past his emotions to help his colleagues and friends to uncover the truth before it’s too late!

Again Donaldson immediately drew me in and completely immersed me into this detailed, meticulous and graphic, although I felt it was never gratuitous, mystery. It was also great to reunite with Broussard and Kit, who already seem like old friends to me. Although the narration is still split evenly between these two protagonists, it definitely felt like this was more Kit’s investigation; who is temporarily deputized to help the NOPD cope with a work slow-down. This gives Kit the opportunity to really show what she can do intellectual, physically and mentally, as she is pushed to her limits by not just the case but also by the bullies who support the slow-down.

What I also really loved again was the setting – I have always had a fascination with the Deep South of the USA, especially after watching the first series of HBO’s True Detective, and these books play right into that. In fact, the setting almost becomes another character because it is that good and integral to the story. I thought Donaldson brilliantly brought to life the setting and totally made me feel like I was there: feeling it’s hot, humid weather; eating its delicious food; meeting the colourful, eclectic people; and travelling to the smaller communities out in the crocodile infested wetlands.

Overall, I found Assassination at Bayou Sauvage to be another deeply engrossing, audacious mystery which I loathed to put down and absolutely whipped through. I would definitely like to read more Broussard and Franklyn mysteries. Great read.

Thank you to the publicist for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.

Have you read this? Or any other mysteries set in the Deep South?

R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril XII – 3/4

Goodbye October, Hello November 2017

Hello my fellow bookworms, I hope you are all well? Now we are well into Autumn, my favourite season, I have enjoyed wearing my comfy boots and scarves; drinking copious amounts of hot chocolate and snuggling up with comforting and mysterious books. On top of that, I went with my class on their residential, outdoor school trip and I took part in a Fit Steps class led by the lovely Ian Waite (Strictly and It Takes Two)! However getting back to books, here is what I read:

Fiction: 2          Non-Fiction: 2

Over the best part of the month, I indulged in a comforting re-read of The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman, the second magical book in Pullman’s ever popular trilogy: His Dark Materials. After this I continued my reading for the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril event, as I zipped through Assassination at Bayou Sauvage by D J Donaldson, another deeply engrossing mystery with Andy Broussard and Kit Franklyn in New Orleans.

Alongside these fictions, I also read two non-fictions. First I lost myself in Queens of the Conquest by Alison Weir, a fascinating history of the early Medieval queens. Then on the last day of the month, I finished Plant Based Cookbook by Trish Sebben-Krupka, in which I have sticky noted lots of great looking veggie soup and stew recipes I fancy trying.

Pick of the Month: Assassination at Bayou Sauvage

Altogether that is four books completed in October – an average amount for me but the quality was particularly high. Through out the month, I continued to dip in and out of the classic North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. Also at the end of the month, I find myself a good way into Season of Storms by Susanna Kearsley and I have started Christian non-fiction Crazy Busy by Kevin Deyoung, for the return of my church’s book club next month.

In November, I look forward to celebrating Bonfire Night and my mum’s and stepdad’s birthdays. Oh and hopefully lots more reading too!

What did you do and read in October? What are your plans for November?