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.

 

 

 

My Faves – Book Review – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K. Rowling (Bloomsbury, 1997)

Does this book need any introduction?

Is there anyone alive who hasn’t heard of the Boy Who Lived?

Harry Potter is an orphan who lives in the cupboard under the stairs at his aunt and uncle’s house. That is until mysterious letters – delivered by owls – keep turning up at the door. Uncle Vernon is not impressed and doesn’t want Harry to read them, so he takes the family to a small island in a stormy sea, knowing that the letters can’t reach them there.

Except, he doesn’t anticipate the arrival of Hagrid, a friendly giant who crashes through the door of the house and utters the immortal words, “Harry – yer a wizard.”

And indeed, Harry is a wizard. A very powerful wizard as it turns out.

I LOVE this book. In fact, I LOVE the whole flippin’ series of Harry Potter books.

J.K. Rowling is an expert at world-building and is a master of the little details that just suck you into Harry’s world right from the beginning.

I know Harry Potter has been reviewed to death but I had to review the book that basically inspired me to write. To me, this book is perfection.

Probably the only time in my life I have been truly envious of someone else’s talent. Rowling is a master of plot and a magic weaver of worlds.

And yes, I’m 43 and I don’t care that it’s a book written for young adults. I love it anyway.

And to those who have a problem with adults reading the Harry Potter books, I don’t f*~king care! 🙂

Personally, I think you’re missing out but that’s just my opinion.

Why don’t you give it a try and see what happens?

FIVE STARS.

Great for those who love intricate fantasy worlds. Not so great for those…no, wait, it’s great for everyone!

 

 

 

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.”

No.

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.

 

 

So, you wanna be a writer? Bad reviews.

Imagine this;

You’ve spent three years writing your novel, polished it to within an inch of its life and are incredibly proud of your baby. You’re ready to publish. You press the button to self-publish (or it’s publication day for those who have gone the traditional way) and then wait.

The reviews (if you’re lucky/ unlucky) come rolling in.

Some are five stars. Others are one star.

One star?

Shit.

Pass me the vodka.

My writing sucks!

I’m never writing again.

I’m going to unpublish it.

I wasn’t made to be a writer.

I’m too shit at this! 

Does it sound familiar?

STOP!

Everyone gets bad reviews. I repeat EVERYONE. Even Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, and all the literary geniuses that have ever had the balls to put their work out there.

Have you looked at Goodreads recently? It can be brutal (as I’ve found to my expense! ha ha ha – pass me the vodka too!).

If the bad reviews get under your skin, my advice to you is, don’t read them. Straight up, stop. It’s not worth it. Don’t let it stop you from doing the thing you love.

See, the problem is, reading and writing are very subjective things. Everyone likes different things and you are not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. And you know what? That’s absolutely fine. They are not your people.

Go and find your people.

If you can stomach reading the bad reviews, sometimes you can use them as a learning tool. Is there something which every bad review picks up on? Do you agree with them? Can you change it? Do you want to change it?

But, be warned, using reviews as a learning tool doesn’t always work and can backfire on you spectacularly.

Here’s a sample of a review I received for Everlong (a paranormal romance I self-published a few years ago);

Whenever I read a Young Adult book I always ask myself “am I enjoying this book” and “would my teenage daughter enjoy this book?”.

The answer to both questions is “Not really.” Normally if I have gotten that far into a book and it has not grabbed my attention yet then I put the book away and never finish reading it. The only reason I didn’t is because I made myself resolution to finish reading 52 books this year and review them. However, I won”t review most books until I have finished them because sometimes the ending is better than the beginning. This book is a clear example of why I do that. This book gets off to a rough slow start but ends with a flourish. The end was good enough that I MIGHT just read the next book in the series to find out what happens next to Evie and Josh. Maybe the next book is a 4 star book or better.

This isn’t a particularly bad review. But, I asked myself, is there anything I can learn from this?

Not on its own, but several other reviews did mention that the start of Everlong dragged a little. As a few people mentioned this, it probably follows that the start is a little slow, doesn’t it?

So I changed it.

I restructured the novel to make it more interesting. I changed the title and the book cover. The new book, called Bones, has one review on Goodreads. It’s a 2 star.

Everlong, the original version has nine text reviews, and five of those are four or five stars.

Another reviewer, who gave Everlong five stars, wrote:

When Josh saves Evie from dying everything changes for them both. Mostly because Josh is the Angel of Death. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The story was very original and wonderfully written. I LOVED the forbidden chemistry between Evie and Josh. I really wanted them to be together. Of course, with Josh’s “profession” being together isn’t going to be easy. Josh is a very loving and sexy character! I loved how much he wanted Evie. I absolutely cannot wait for book #2! I highly recommend this book!!

See what I mean?

You can’t please everyone.

So, don’t even try!!!

And leave the reviews alone, even the good ones, because, in the end, it will do your head in!

The best thing you can do if you want to know what works and what doesn’t work in your writing is to get a team of BETA readers to read it BEFORE you publish. Or join a workshop for writers. If there isn’t one near where you live, well, why not start one up yourself?

BUT, leave the reviews alone.

Unless you’re like me and are a bit of weirdo! 🙂

 

 

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.

BEWARE SOME SPOILERS LURK BELOW!!!

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 – Different Seasons by Stephen King

Different Seasons by Stephen King (Hodder Paperback, 2012)

This book is a collection of four Stephen King Novels; Hope Springs Eternal (Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption), Summer of Corruption (Apt Pupil), Fall from Innocence (The Body), and A Winter’s Tale (The Breathing Method).

Hope Springs Eternal

This is my favourite of the four stories. It’s a beautifully written novella that first came to my attention through the film, Shawshank Redemption.

Hope Springs Eternal is the story of Andy Dufresne’s stint in Shawshank Prison for the murder of his wife and her lover, told through the eyes of Red, a fellow inmate. At times, Hope Springs Eternal is horrific to read as we see Dufresne attacked by The Sister’s, a gang of prisoners who prey on the vulnerable, and his treatment at the hands of the guards and the Governor, especially when Dufresne uncovers evidence to prove his innocence. Essentially though, Hope Springs Eternal is a story about hope as Dufresne clings to his innocence and the idea that, one day, he will get out of prison.

Summer of Corruption.

This has also been made into a film called Apt Pupil starring Sir Ian McKellen.

Apt Pupil begins as thirteen-year-old Todd Bowden uncovers evidence to suggest a neighbour, Kurt Dussander, is actually a fugitive Nazi war criminal. Instead of turning Dussander into the authorities, Bowden manipulates and blackmails him into sharing stories about the horrors and atrocities he committed in the Second World War.

As the story progresses, the pair form a sort of friendship or bond that brings the worst out in each other. Being reminded of his past reignites Dussander’s dark side. In turn, Bowden’s destructive bond with the Nazi encourages and grows Bowden’s own dark side. The result is horrific.

Summer of Corruption is horrific, but also strangely absorbing.

Fall From Innocence

This was my least favourite of the four novellas. As with the above two stories, this novella has also been made into a famous film called Stand By Me.

Fall From Innocence is set in 1960 in the fictional town of Castle Rock, Maine, and follows a group of boys as they set out to find the body of a twelve-year-old boy, Ray Brower, who went missing and is presumed dead. The story is narrated by the adult Gordon Lachance and is told from his point of view.

This is a coming of age tale. A story of boys from dysfunctional families coming to terms with where they come from and the harsh realities of life and death.

Personally, I found this story a little bit boring (sorry, not sorry) but I know many of you will disagree.

A Winter’s Tale

Now, this little story tucked at the back of this large novella is a bit of a strange one to review as it seemed to be vastly different from the three preceding stories.

The Breathing Method follows David, a Manhattan lawyer who is invited by a senior partner of the law firm to join a mysterious Gentlemen’s club where the participants are encouraged to tell stories.

On one such occasion, Dr Emlyn McCarron tells the horrific story of a woman who is determined to give birth to and raise the illegitimate child she is carrying, whatever the cost. The Breathing Method refers to the technique that McCarron teaches her to keep her calm during childbirth and which has an unintended and gruesome consequence when the woman is involved in an accident.

A Winter’s Tale is very atmospheric, a chilling tale which really is a story within a story. I just wish it had been longer!

Conclusion

This anthology collection is well worth delving into. I would give it 4 1/2 stars out of five simply because I found The Body a little boring (however, I know many of you will disagree!)

Great for those who love to read about real-life horror. Not so great for those wanting some of that supernatural horror King writes so well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review – The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (Sceptre, 2014)

David Mitchell’s Bone Clocks has been a difficult book to read and review. I think this is partly to do with the fact that it’s actually a series of six interconnected novellas that vary a great deal in terms of tone and genre.

The first novella, A Hot Spell 1984, is, in my opinion, the strongest. It focuses on Holly Sykes, a very likeable character, who decides to leave home after an argument with her mother. I think if David Mitchell had stayed with Holly Sykes’ story I would have loved this book right until the very end.

That’s not to say I didn’t fall in love with some of his other characters – Ed Brubeck, and Crispin Hershey (despite their flaws) were favourites of mine – but I would have preferred more on each of them.

I found myself completely lost in The Horologist’s Labyrinth, but not in a good way. The science fiction and concepts in that novella went completely over my head, although this is probably more to do with my lack of knowledge in this area rather than anything lacking in Mitchell’s writing.

I felt overwhelmed by all the different words and ideas in this section but continued reading anyway because of Mitchell’s talent.

I felt that the last novella, Sheep’s Head, was a little too preachy about the environment and man’s destructive side, although I did enjoy the fact that it was told from Holly Sykes’ perspective as she was my favourite character. I didn’t like seeing her grow old though; I would have preferred the book to end on The Horologist’s Labyrinth, whilst Holly was still in her prime rather than having her face the Apocalypse scenario as well. Not that I don’t like reading about older characters, but it was just a step too far for me in this particular novel. Too much had happened to Holly and I just wanted Mitchell to give her a break!

I did like this book (I must have because I read it quite quickly) but I didn’t love it. It was too much of a genre-bending novel for my taste. Therefore I would probably give it 3 ½ stars out of five.

Great for those who like genre-bending thoughtful and provocative novels. It’s certainly a great adventure!

Not so great for those who like a little bit of light reading that doesn’t take too much thought. Be warned – you may end up with a headache! Also not a good read if you don’t like to be introduced to too many characters.