The Familiars by Stacey Halls

the familiars.jpgTitle: The Familiars

Author: Stacey Halls

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Allen and Unwin/Zaffre

Published: 4th January 2019

Format: Paperback

Pages: 432

Price: $29.99

Synopsis: ‘Assured and alluring, this beautiful tale of women and witchcraft and the fight against power was a delight from start to finish’ – Jessie Burton, bestselling author of The Miniaturist.

Fleetwood Shuttleworth is 17 years old, married, and pregnant for the fourth time. But as the mistress at Gawthorpe Hall, she still has no living child, and her husband Richard is anxious for an heir. When Fleetwood finds a letter she isn’t supposed to read from the doctor who delivered her third stillbirth, she is dealt the crushing blow that she will not survive another pregnancy.

Then she crosses paths by chance with Alice Gray, a young midwife. Alice promises to help her give birth to a healthy baby, and to prove the physician wrong.

As Alice is drawn into the witchcraft accusations that are sweeping the North-West, Fleetwood risks everything by trying to help her. But is there more to Alice than meets the eye?

Soon the two women’s lives will become inextricably bound together as the legendary trial at Lancaster approaches, and Fleetwood’s stomach continues to grow. Time is running out, and both their lives are at stake.

Only they know the truth. Only they can save each other.

~*~

Fleetwood Shuttleworth is four years into a marriage that has thus far, produced no heir for her husband, and she is enduring yet another pregnancy when she takes on a young midwife named Alice amidst the Jacobean ear witch-trials under James I and VI of England and Scotland. The book sees Fleetwood struggle through a difficult pregnancy as Alice helps her as best she can, and as Fleetwood works to decipher a letter from her husband that indicates she will not survive the current pregnancy – but is there more to this letter than Fleetwood can tell, and will she confront her husband about it?

Simmering in the background are fears of witches, and accusations against entire families of women, and some midwives, The Familiars explores the stories and legends behind the Pendle witch trials – taking place in 1612, when this book is set, and accounted for about 2% of all witches who were executed. Taking on this historical period in fiction is very interesting – it is not one I usually see, and when it is, it is focussed on royalty, or the actual witch trials, rather than the people at the peripheral, and how the absence of a midwife accused of witchcraft affects a life. Also, I felt the term witch hunt was never more accurate, as these people were accused of something they never did, and where accusations between families and against people were dealt with swiftly and without much consideration based on the testimony of a child. Eerily, the case of Louisa Collins, discussed in an earlier blog post, rested upon the same kind of testimony. This resulted in twelve people being executed during the summer of 1612.

Where many witch trial stories and  novels focus on the actual trials, and the polarising sides of the accused versus the accusers, and who is right based on the evidence left behind recorded by the victors and winners in history, The Familiars takes real people – Alice and Fleetwood and those they know – into a realm where the women involved and affected directly and indirectly tell the story.

Primarily told through Fleetwood’s eyes, and where secrets are slowly revealed throughout the novel at the right time, and that makes for an intriguing plot and mystery that is woven throughout the story. The strength of the story is the very feminine and female driven character and plot – where the men – Roger and Robert, are only there on the side. in fact, for much of the novel, they are absent or travelling, allowing Fleetwood and Alice to take charge of the story. The simmering fear of witches felt primarily male in this story – Fleetwood, though concerned, was not as convinced as the men in her life.

Based on real people, it is interesting to wonder if the real Fleetwood was like her fictional counterpart, and how she definitely did react to what was going on around her. Historical fiction is always a favourite of mine, especially when it explores eras not often explored or perspectives we don’t often hear from.

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Beauty in Thorns Revisited – And Stepping into the World of The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in Canberra.

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In 2017, I was lucky enough to be approached by Penguin Random House to review Kate Forsyth’s book, Beauty in Thorns, the story of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and in particular, William Morris (Topsy), Ned Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and the women who inspired them:  Janey Burden, Lizzie Siddal, and Georgie MacDonald, and in the final section, Georgie and Ned’s daughter, Margot. Ned, Dante and William used the women in their lives as models for their paintings based on myths, literature and fairy tales – amongst other themes. Some of the most famous paintings by these artists feature in the story, and it opens with John Everett Millais painting one of the most well-known Pre-Raphaelite works, Ophelia, based on a character in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

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Kate Forsyth is my go-to author, the one I will always read and devour within days – her adult, young adult and children’s fiction. Beauty in Thorns focusses on the stories of the women – and how they affected the art, what they themselves created, and why they created what they did. The men still have a role and voice, but it is Lizzie, Janey, Georgie and Margot whose voices are at the front and centre of the novel. The intricate links between all these people and those who come in and out of their lives, end in tragedy in some cases, but happiness in others. The art they created was seen as radical for their time, and Kate Forsyth hints at this when the artists discuss progress and reviews and shows. Reading this the first time was magical, but when I found out that a selection of the paintings were going to be shown in Canberra, I knew I wanted to see them – and not just as images on a screen or in a book (though I did buy the guide and a book of Christina Rossetti’s poetry), and we headed down for a few days.

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Ophelia, by John Everett Millais, featuring Elizabeth Siddal.

Starting from many paintings I was unfamiliar with, I saw the progression of subject matter, from the everyday themes, to modern life, faith, truth to nature, romance, portraits, and the ones I knew about, the ones linked to myth, fairy tale and literature, the latter themes being the ones focussed on in Kate’s novel, and the ones that everyone heading to the Tate or this exhibition likely knows about, but all their art is exquisite and it’s easy to see why they chose to paint in this style, and why Kate Forsyth was drawn to them.

2019 BadgeSeeing the paintings for myself, and reading the book during my visit, brought them to life more than ever before. The book coming to life in this way was magical and enriching, and brought a new dimension to the novel, knowing what the end result of what had occurred in the novel, and knowing the stories behind the paintings, and the names of the models that weren’t always credited on the placards, but are mentioned in the guide, was very enjoyable.

I’ve linked back to my original review here too but being able to visit the world Beauty in Thorns is based on was amazing, and I have bought a few post cards to display in my room of my favourite paintings.

Enola Holmes Mysteries: The Case of the Peculiar Pink Fan by Nancy Springer

enola holmes 4Title: Enola Holmes Mysteries: The Case of the Peculiar Pink Fan

Author: Nancy Springer

Genre: Historical Fiction/YA

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: 4th February 2019

Format: Paperback

Pages: 185

Price: $14.99

Synopsis: Enola Holmes might be the much younger sister of Sherlock Holmes, but she manages to outsmart him at every turn, solving thrilling mysteries in her very own way…

Enola is thrown into a tailspin when she receives a desperate message from her old friend, Lady Cecily. Enola knows she must help her friend before it’s too late – but she doesn’t know how! This complicated case has Enola hunting down clues all over London until she finally discovers the awful truth: Lady Cecily is being held prisoner! Enola must risk her own freedom and join forces with her brother, the famed Sherlock Holmes, to free Cecily. Can Enola trust her brother, and can they save Cecily in time?

~*~

Four cases in, and Enola Holmes just gets better and better. Here, she is determined to help a young woman – Lady Cecily – from a forced marriage that her family has not agreed to. But Enola’s brothers, Mycroft and Sherlock, are still after her, and Enola must weigh up the risks of revealing herself to enlist Sherlock’s help. At this point, Sherlock has been trying to communicate with Enola, using the code she used with her mother, and he seems to be quite impressed with her – happily, much to Mycroft’s chagrin. The fourth novel in the series sees Sherlock steering further from Mycroft’s goals, and shrugging off his concerns about their sister as she forges her own path and proves she is just as clever and resourceful as Sherlock. Mycroft’s slow loss of control is evident, as Enola and Sherlock have a laugh at his expense – and I hope a bond will form between the two, where they continue to thwart Mycroft at every chance they get.

I started this series, because I liked the idea of a reimagination of a classic, set in the same time period that would lead readers into the originals. When done right, retellings of fairy tales and classics are enjoyable, especially when the execution makes sense with what has come before, or the shadows and ghosts of the original are evident, whilst allowing the new characters to fulfil their purposes. The Enola Holmes Mysteries fulfils these both wonderfully, whilst still allowing Sherlock, Mycroft and Dr Watson to exist in Enola’s world. They have to – they link this to the originals, and give a fresh voice, as the originals are told only from Watson’s perspective, and only the world and cases occupied by Sherlock and John – not many in their peripheral worlds.

Together, and apart, Enola and Sherlock, in this story, are an amazing pair of investigators. They are much more alike than they have thought up until now, and it seems from this novel that Enola may have an ally in Sherlock, but perhaps they will also be in competition with each other – something I feel Sherlock – both in this incarnation and in the originals – would and will find amusing as time goes by. It would be very fun to see if they eventually do join forces and do all they can to flout and drive Mycroft spare – as siblings do – and perhaps finally prove to Mycroft that he shouldn’t be underestimating his sister – she is a great character, and shows a whole new side to the Sherlock Holmes canon.

Enola Holmes Mystery: The Case of The Bizarre Bouquets (Enola Holmes #3) by Nancy Springer

Enola Holmes 3.jpgTitle: Enola Holmes Mystery: The Case of The Bizarre Bouquets (Enola Holmes #3)

Author: Nancy Springer

Genre: Historical Fiction/YA/Crime

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: 4th February 2019

Format: Paperback

Pages: 192

Price: $14.99

Synopsis: Enola Holmes might be the much younger sister of Sherlock Holmes, but she manages to outsmart him at every turn, solving thrilling mysteries in her very own way…

Everyone knows Dr. Watson is Sherlock Holmes’ right-hand man – so when he goes missing, it’s a shock. Even Sherlock hasn’t the slightest clue as to where he could be. Enola is intrigued but wary; she’s still hiding from her older brothers and getting involved could prove to be disastrous. But Enola can’t help but investigate, especially when she learns that a bizarre bouquet – with flowers all symbolizing death – has been delivered to the Watson residence. Enola knows she must act quickly, but can she find Dr. Watson in time?

~*~

Enola Holmes is still hiding from her brothers, using her wits and a variety of disguises to evade them at every turn, and solve cases that the police, and her brother, Sherlock are unable to solve. Still in 1889, it has been six months since she left their care, in search of her mother and a life no predicated by societal norms and expectations. Living in lodgings, she discovers that Sherlock’s colleague, Dr John Watson has gone missing. Undertaking her own investigation, Enola discovers several bouquets delivered to Joh’s wife, Mary – and uses her knowledge of flower meanings to decipher what they mean. In doing so, she finds out that John’s life is in danger – so she sets about following the person who delivers the flowers – and what she discovers will hopefully save John’s life.

Coming back to Enola Holmes was delightful. I love the original Sherlock Holmes stories and novels, as well as the Robert Downey Jr movies. Here, though, Nancy Springer has put a new twist on the stories. Where most retellings position the quirky detective and his long-suffering partner in contemporary settings – Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in modern London, or Elementary with Johnny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu in modern day New York, this one still sits in the late 1880s, but posits the idea that Sherlock and Mycroft had an unknown sister, someone who society wasn’t aware of, but would soon become aware of.  The original Holmes stories are told from Watson’s perspective – and I have read them all, and the only family member I recall being mentioned is Mycroft, Sherlock’s brother. So, it is plausible to think Sherlock may have had a sister.

Again, Enola manages to evade her brother’s as she investigates John’s disappearance, and those who are linked to what happened. She’s a wonderful character, who despises the expectations of a Victorian girl, yet uses what she has available to her, and the norms of Victorian society to her advantage, as well as her knowledge of flowers and ciphers to form her various identities. These are quick reads, and of course, it is inevitable that Enola will solve the case as the main character. Aimed at children and young adults, these are great books for any age group, and can be appreciated by fans of the original as well as introduce a new audience to Sherlock.

This is turning out to be a very good series, and one that will surely have fans clamouring for the next instalment. I look forward to seeing how Enola continues to evade her brothers, and if, potentially, she ends up working with Sherlock, and both of them driving Mycroft to despair.

Challenge Check-in: January 2019 

In an effort to keep on top of my check in posts this year, I’m hoping to do monthly wrap ups, and break downs every fifteen books where possible. These Challenge check-ins will allow me to track my progress and determine how many books I read each month to make my end of year posts easier to write.

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#AWW2019 – Australian Women Writers: six books so far

  1. All the Tears in China by Sulari Gentill – Reviewed
  2. Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner – Reviewed
  3. Vardaesia by Lynette Noni – Reviewed
  4. Saving You by Charlotte Nash – Reviewed
  5. Zelda Stitch Term Two: Too Much Witch by Nikki Greenberg – Reviewed
  6. 99 Percent Mine by Sally Thorne – Reviewed

General challenge: Fourteen books completed.

  1. All the Tears in China by Sulari Gentill
  2. Bella Donna: Coven Road by Ruth Symes
  3. Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner
  4. Bella Donna: Too Many Spells by Ruth Symes
  5. Dragon Masters: Treasure of the Gold Dragon by Tracey West
  6. Vardaesia by Lynette Noni
  7. Best Foot Forward by Adam Hills
  8. Saving You by Charlotte Nash
  9. Zelda Stitch Term Two: Too Much Witch by Nicki Greenberg
  10. Australia’s Sweetheart by Michael Adams
  11. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Volume One: Squirrel Power by Ryan North
  12. 99 Percent Mine by Sally Thorne
  13. Enola Holmes: The Case of the Bizarre Bouquets (Enola Holmes #3) by Nancy Springer
  14. Enola Holmes: The Case of the Peculiar Pink Fan (Enola Holmes #4) by Nancy Springer

#Dymocks52Challenge

#Dymocks52Challenge: Fourteen books read so far.

  1. All the Tears in China by Sulari Gentill
  2. Bella Donna: Coven Road by Ruth Symes
  3. Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner
  4. Bella Donna: Too Many Spells by Ruth Symes
  5. Dragon Masters: Treasure of the Gold Dragon by Tracey West
  6. Vardaesia by Lynette Noni
  7. Best Foot Forward by Adam Hills
  8. Saving You by Charlotte Nash
  9. Zelda Stitch Term Two: Too Much Witch by Nicki Greenberg
  10. Australia’s Sweetheart by Michael Adams
  11. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Volume One: Squirrel Power by Ryan North
  12. 99 Percent Mine by Sally Thorne
  13. Enola Holmes: The Case of the Bizarre Bouquets (Enola Holmes #3) by Nancy Springer
  14. Enola Holmes: The Case of the Peculiar Pink Fan (Enola Holmes #4) by Nancy Springer

 

PopSugar Challenge: Nine categories ticked off so far.

 

A book written by a musician (fiction or nonfiction): Best Foot Forward by Adam Hills

A book with a plant in the title or on the cover: Bella Donna: Coven Road by Ruth Symes

A book with an item of clothing or accessory on the cover: 99 Percent Mine by Sally Thorne

A retelling of a classic: Enola Holmes: The Case of the Bizarre Bouquets (Enola Holmes #3) by Nancy Springer

A book about someone with a superpower: The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Volume One: Squirrel Power by Ryan North

A book with SALTY, SWEET, BITTER, or SPICY in the title: Australia’s Sweetheart by Michael Adams

A book that’s published in 2019: Vardaesia by Lynette Noni

A book featuring an extinct or imaginary creature: Dragon Masters: Treasure of the Gold Dragon by Tracey West

A book featuring an amateur detective: All the Tears in China by Sulari Gentill

A book with a two-word title: Saving You by Charlotte Nash

Book Bingo: Seven read, and four squares ticked off.

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Beloved Classic: Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner – AWW2018

Memoir about a non-famous person: Australia’s Sweetheart by Michael Adams

Crime: All the Tears in China by Sulari Gentill – AWW2019

Comedy: Best Foot Forward by Adam Hills

 

January Round Up

Book Author Challenge
All the Tears in China Sulari Gentill #AWW2019, Book Bingo, overall, PopSugar, #Dymocks52Challenge
Bella Donna: Coven Road Ruth Symes PopSugar, general, #Dymocks52Challenge
Seven Little Australians Ethel Turner #AWW2019, Book Bingo, general
Bella Donna: Too Many Spells Ruth Symes general, #Dymocks52Challenge,
Dragon Masters: Treasure of the Gold Dragon Tracey West general, PopSugar, #Dymocks52Challenge
Vardaesia Lynette Noni #AWW2019, general, #Dymocks52Challenge, book bingo, PopSugar
Best Foot Forward Adam Hills Book Bingo, general, PopSugar, #Dymocks52Challenge
Saving You Charlotte Nash #AWW2019, #Dymocks52Challenge, general, Book Bingo, PopSugar
Zelda Stitch Term Two: Too Much Witch Nikki Greenberg general, Book Bingo, #Dymocks52Challenge, #AWW2019,
Australia’s Sweetheart Michael Adams General, Book Bingo, #Dymocks52Challenge, PopSugar
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Volume One: Squirrel Power Ryan North General, PopSugar, #Dymocks52Challenge
99 Percent Mine Sally Thorne General, PopSugar, #AWW2019, #Dymocks52Challenge
Enola Holmes: The Case of the Bizarre Bouquets (Enola Holmes #3) Nancy Springer General, PopSugar, #Dymocks52Challenge,
Enola Holmes: The Case of the Peculiar Pink Fan (Enola Holmes #4) Nancy Springer General, #Dymocks52Challenge

Yet Another Reading Challenge: #Dymocks52Challenge

#Dymocks52Challenge

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Just to add to my challenges, I’m also taking part in the #Dymocks52 Challenge this year – which will also give some overlap with the other challenges I am doing. It will merely add to my goals to complete, and I will certainly bypass it within the first half of the year, but it will at least allow me to get through all my quiz books, review books and TBR piles around my room.

With the basic goal of reading one book a week for this challenge, I hope to do at least this and more with everything else I have to do. And all you need to do to participate is use the hashtag #Dymocks52Challenge on Twitter and Facebook, and update as you go with the titles you read – only once a week if you adhere to the one book a week minimum.

Best of luck, and I will aim to update you on my challenges and their progress as I go throughout the year, with various types of check points to help with my end of year posts, as I found this helped last year with my Australian Women Writer’s Challenge wrap up posts.

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Jane Austen Reading Challenge

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This year, I am adding another challenge to my list. This one will be more of a casual one, that I will disperse throughout the year. Inspired by a blog called Bunny’s Girl, and her challenge to read six Jane Austen novels and six Jane Austen inspired novels between January and December of 2019, I am hoping to at least read the six novels by Jane Austen and if possible, some inspired by her novels, but with this one, I have decided not to specify a number.

I plan to start with one of Jane Austen’s novels – I haven’t decided yet but I plan to read each of the following six written by Jane Austen herself:

Pride and Prejudice

Emma

Sense and Sensibility

Northanger Abbey

Mansfield Park

Persuasion

Following this, or perhaps in between each one, I plan to read books that have been inspired by Jane Austen’s novels, or non-fiction books about Jane Austen, such as biographies as part of the challenge. I have not decided what all of these will be yet, but here are a few that I hope to look at:

Lost in Austen by Emma Campbell Webster

Jane and Me: My Austen Heritage by Caroline Jane Knight

Austenland by Shannon Hale

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler

This will be more of a casual challenge that I am aiming for, and won’t stress if I don’t get to some of the books, or can’t find Jane Austen books I am interested in  – of course there will be many choices, but I will be looking for ones I enjoy first and foremost – this may take some of the pressure of, as I won’t be forcing myself into a specific book to check something off, and hopefully these books will also check off some other categories in my other challenges.

I’ll try and post updates here as I go along throughout the year, hopefully once a month.

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