Book Review – The Familiars by Stacey Halls

The Familiars by Stacey Halls (Zaffre Books, 2019)

I’ll put my hands up and be really honest and say I only picked up this book because the gorgeous cover caught my eye as I was wandering around a supermarket (yes, I’m one of those people – mea culpa :)). I read the blurb, it sounded good so I bought it.

I wasn’t disappointed.

The Familiars is the debut novel by author Stacey Halls.

Set in 1612, The Familiars is set against the backdrop of the very real events of the Pendle witch trials, and centres around Fleetwood Shuttleworth, the mistress of Gawthorpe Hall.

The young Fleetwood Shuttleworth is pregnant again after suffering several miscarriages. She’s anxious and desperate to provide her husband Richard with an heir. She discovers a hidden letter from a doctor with the awful prediction that she will not survive another birth.

In a desperate bid to keep herself and her baby alive she employs a local woman, Alice Gray, to be her midwife. However, as the witch hunts begin to gain traction it isn’t long before Alice is implicated in the use of witchcraft. How far will Fleetwood go to protect herself, her baby and her midwife?

The Familiars is an impressive debut novel by Stacey Halls. I felt it was a little shaky and slow in the beginning but not enough to stop me reading it. When the pace picked up there was enough intrigue and suspense to keep the story moving forward. However, I felt the conclusion of the story was a little bit underwhelming but this is probably because the story had to be set within the confines of what was acceptable for a Gentlewoman in 1612, so not necessarily the author’s fault.

Unlike the Goddess and the Thief by Essie Fox (see my review here) the heroine of The Familiars manages to be pro-active despite the restrictions of the time. This was a big plus for me. Personally, I find nothing duller than a heroine that does nothing!

Whilst The Familiars isn’t perfect, and despite the shaky start, I would recommend The Familiars. I think for her debut novel, Stacey Halls did a fantastic job.

4 out of 5 stars.

Great for those who like Historical Fiction that is set against real, researchable events. Not so good for those interested in the witch hunts and assizes as the drama takes place away from the actual trials. In other words, it might not be “witchy” enough for you.




Book Review – The Goddess and the Thief by Essie Fox

The Goddess and the Thief by Essie Fox (Orion Books, 2013)

The Goddess and the Thief was a book I’d put on my Christmas list last year because, as a book worm, a book is the perfect present.

I can’t remember how this book had come to my attention; whether it was a recommendation from friends on Goodreads, or whether it was from one of the many Facebook pages I have liked.

The blurb sounded promising. A girl, called Alice, is uprooted from her life in India and is made to live with her spiritual medium aunt in Windsor, in Victorian England. “Alice,” says the blurb, “is drawn into a plot to steal a sacred Indian diamond.”

After reading the novel The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge (which I absolutely loved) I thought The Goddess and the Thief would be right up my street.

Except, it really wasn’t.

Unlike The Lie Tree, the heroine of The Goddess and the Thief doesn’t really do much. She spends most of the novel in her bedroom, or locked in bedrooms, or completely in the dark. She is always reacting to things and not being proactive at all.

I get it. That’s her story arc – from someone who reacts to events to someone taking control – but it’s so boring! And annoying. And, SPOILER (so if you don’t want to know, please don’t read on) at one point she is sexually assaulted and she swoons after the man who raped her. Not cool, not cool at all. Very, very damaging stuff that. Very troubling to read and I’m not easily troubled by stuff.

The blurb on Goodreads tells says that The Goddess and the Thief is “A beguiling and sensual Victorian novel of theft and obsession.”


It may be a novel of theft and obsession but it really isn’t sensual. Creepy? Yes. Sensual…? Hell no!

And for that person at the back who is saying, “blimey, everyone is so easily offended these days!” F*#k off.

Only joking 🙂

I’m not easily offended, and, I’m not offended by this work. I just find things like this are so unhelpful.

Anyway, I give this book one out of five stars.

Many people on Amazon and Goodreads loved it. You might love it. It just didn’t float my boat.

Great for those who like beautiful prose (the first few chapters are beautifully written). Not great for those who like a pro-active heroine.



My Faves – Book Review – Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (Black Swan Books, 2014)

This book is simply amazing.

At the heart of the book is the question; What if?

The blurb asks:
What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?

Ursula Todd, born on a snowy February night in 1910, gets to relive her life over and over again, with glimpses of past lives (and futures) guiding her to make changes – sometimes for the good, sometimes the bad – as she re-takes her journey.


At times this book had me in tears (in Germany where she gives her sick child a “glass capsule”, before taking one herself so that they might die together and avoid the invading Russian army (I run to death, and death meets me fast, And all my pleasures are like yesterday) or when she dies with her beloved brother at home when still young after contracting flu).

This is, at times a hard book to read, but there is beauty in its sadness. As one reviewer said, “Life hurts like this”. And it does.

Life After Life is a bleak look at what makes us human and the choices we make. This book is wonderfully written and totally immersive. It’s a fantastic work of historical fiction that will be in your thoughts for weeks and weeks afterwards.

Great for those who want to read something beautiful and deep. Not so great for those who dislike gimmicks and find it boring going over the same territory again and again.

Book Review – Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss

Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss (Granta Books, 2014)

I put this book on my Christmas list after seeing it recommended on a literature page on Facebook. I can’t remember why it piqued my interest now because it’s not a book I would usually choose for myself.

Bodies of Light is a historical novel set in Victorian Manchester and revolves around the two Moberley sisters, Ally and May and their parents, the evangelical “Mamma” and their painter father.

It’s a difficult and thought-provoking read about family and familial abuse. We start the novel with the marriage of Elizabeth to Alfred Moberley and the domineering presence of Elizabeth’s mother who likes to assert control by doing things such as putting a stone in boots and lacing them up tight so that “each step will remind you how you have disappointed us.” She even keeps a basket of stones in the hall just for the purpose. “Mamma’s methods,” remarks Elizabeth, “are not exactly violent but she does believe in the salutary effects of pain.”

I thought this first section of the novel was slow and rather drawn out but, it is rather important as we see the cycle of abuse continue when Elizabeth has her first child, Ally. As Ally grows we see Elizabeth transform into her mother and in turn, inflict pain upon Ally. I was slightly troubled that Elizabeth is shown to have post-natal depression – not because I think we shouldn’t talk about it (we definitely should!) but because I didn’t want it to seem as if the depression was an excuse for the violence inflicted on Ally. It wasn’t used as an excuse and Moss handled the subject brilliantly.

Alexandra Harris states, in her review of Bodies of Light, (in the Guardian, 19th April 2014), “Moss is too challenging a novelist to allow us simply to despise Elizabeth. We must respect her tough commitment to her work as she pushes into the brothels and asylums of mid-Victorian Manchester’s dismal underworld.” I don’t agree. Whilst I admire Elizabeth’s work, I despise Elizabeth more for knowing that she can show more kindness, more generosity to those who aren’t of her own flesh than to her own children. Not to say the “fallen” shouldn’t be helped, of course, just that to not show your own children love and affection and then to show it to others is something I have a great deal of difficulty with. At one point, Elizabeth takes in a child who has been exploited as a prostitute, but then Elizabeth seems completely oblivious to the fact that her own daughters could be in danger. One of them is even coaxed into taking her clothes off by her father’s painter friend so that he can paint her. As you can probably tell, this novel messed with my head in several ways!

Ally manages to escape Manchester and moves to London to study as a doctor. This section was riveting for me, as a woman, seeing how Victorian women had to fight to achieve anything. Although, the ending did seem a little rushed as she meets and marries, Mr Cavendish. Ally still has intentions to study as a doctor, but, it just didn’t sit right with me for her to marry quite so easily (not that there’s anything wrong with marriage). Perhaps it was just the way it was slotted in at the end. It does give the novel a “coming full circle” feeling as it begins and ends in marriage. I just hope Ally doesn’t go on to transform into her mother!

Even at the end, Mamma casts a shadow over the marriage proceedings even though she doesn’t attend. There’s an over-arching sadness that broke my heart in this novel. A child, even as an adult, still desperate for her mother’s affection and acceptance. I have a particular interest in the motherhood myth and the way mothers are presented in society and what happens when a mother has a personality disorder. I have written about it myself in my Bones, Ashes and Dust Trilogy. It’s also the subject of another novel I’m working on.

And yes, these types of mothers do exist!!

Overall, I’d give Bodies of Light 3.5/5. The historical detail is fabulous and even taught me a few things I didn’t know about the plight of women in Victorian England (and Paris). The subject of family and familial violence was handled well, although, sometimes it was drawn out a little.

Good for those who don’t mind thought-provoking literature and discussions on familial abuse with a great dollop of historical fiction. Not so great for those who want a little bit of light reading.

Further Reading: