The Orchardist’s Daughter by Karen Viggers

orchardists daughter.jpgTitle: The Orchardist’s Daughter

Author: Karen Viggers

Genre: Literary Fiction

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: 4th January 2019

Format: Paperback

Pages: 400

Price: $29.99

Synopsis:A story of freedom, forgiveness and finding the strength to break free. International bestselling writer Karen Viggers returns to remote Tasmania, the setting of her most popular novel The Lightkeeper’s Wife.

Sixteen-year-old Mikaela has grown up isolated and home-schooled on an apple orchard in south-eastern Tasmania, until an unexpected event shatters her family. Eighteen months later, she and her older brother Kurt are running a small business in a timber town. Miki longs to make connections and spend more time in her beloved forest, but she is kept a virtual prisoner by Kurt, who leads a secret life of his own.

When Miki meets Leon, another outsider, things slowly begin to change. But the power to stand up for yourself must come from within. And Miki has to fight to uncover the truth of her past and discover her strength and spirit.

Set in the old-growth eucalypt forests and vast rugged mountains of southern Tasmania, The Orchardist’s Daughter is an uplifting story about friendship, resilience and finding the courage to break free.

~*~

Miki’s world has been one of isolation her whole life. She was home-schooled on a Tasmanian apple orchard, in the forests and mountains. When her life is altered by the ravages of a bushfire, she is forced into an even more isolated life by her brother Kurt. Kurt keeps many secrets from Miki – and ensures she never ventures out of the takeaway shop he owns and forces her to work in until the arrival of the new resident, Leon, a Parks Ranger whose presence starts to link Miki with other people in the town: Geraldine, and a family whose young son – Max – befriends Leon. Max’s father and friends are loggers, and Leon’s presence rubs Shane and his friends the wrong way.

2019 BadgeThe new guy in town, Leon finds he has few allies: Miki, Max, Geraldine, and Wendy – Max’s mother. They are the first people to welcome him and stick up for him in the face of hatred from the loggers, Shane and Kurt – and the story traverses several weeks and encounters between the characters, as Geraldine and Leon encourage Miki to leave the confines of her prison when Kurt is gone. Max faces a bully at school, and Wendy, like Miki, faces her own kind of isolation, and both face things that will eventually come to a head with a series of events that sees the coming together of a community.

In this story, the mountains and forest of Tasmania are as much characters as Miki, Leon and the others. It is a living, breathing, and natural character in this story. The human characters lives revolve around the forest and become connected by it – through the good and the bad, and what the forest can provide and take from them.  It is a love story of sorts – an ode to the forests and mountains of Tasmania and nature as a whole. It reveals the flaws in the people Miki and Wendy thought they loved and knew. The flaws and cracks in the small town are revealed slowly – through alternating chapters from the perspectives of Max, Miki and Leon, and the bonds that grow between them.

In this story, the focus is on personal growth, as well as community connection, and what isolation can do to someone and how it makes them feel – and the final chapters are filled with heart stopping moments that make you want to read on and find out what happens and how it all turns out. The rest, I enjoyed meandering about, and taking in the story slowly, but not too slowly, of course. It is the kind of book that can be savoured and devoured in equal amounts. Some sections need to be gobbled up, but some need time spent on them, and Karen Viggers has done this well – when you’re in each character’s life, you are wholly in their life, but at the same time, wanting to know how the others are doing. Seeing how they came together was very satisfying and I liked that the story focussed on friendships between Leon, Geraldine, Miki and Max, and used their backstories to build what it was that drew them to each other, and the flaws in humanity that can lead us to do the unexpected, and why.

I really enjoyed this novel  – it was complex and intriguing with a cast of characters who reflected a diverse selection of human nature, and showed what pressure can do to us – and the ways people respond differently to the same situation they might find themselves in.

Book Bingo Four – Historical

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And just like that, it is Book Bingo Saturday again, and I’m crossing off my next square. This is a blogging activity I do with Theresa Smith and Mrs B, and we’re aiming to fill thirty squares this year instead of twenty-five. There are couple that I have filled but as the review posts are not ready to go yet, I am unable to use them. I am able to fill historical this week, and there are many books I have that would fulfil this square, so it was a tough call to make, but I am filling it with a new book, The Familiars by Stacey Halls.

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The Familiars was reviewed on this blog here, and is set in 1612, against the backdrop of the notorious Pendle Witch Trials during the reign of King James I, son of Mary Queen of Scots. Here, the witch trials and attitudes to witches are shown through the eyes of women and those who were caught up in the trials and those who benefitted from the services of midwives, some of whom were convicted and executed as witches. it is an intriguing story, with themes and characters that aren’t often explored in literature about this period.

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At this stage, I am now one-sixth of my way through this challenge – five squares out of thirty have been completed, and the rest will hopefully fill up easily, though some may be a challenge, such as romance – I may have to settle for one that touches on romance. Given these categories are rather quite open, many books should be able to be stretched to fit each one.

Look out for Book Bingo Five around the second of March!

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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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Zelda Stitch Term Two: Too Much Witch (Zelda Stitch #2) by Nicki Greenberg

zelda stitch 2Title: Zelda Stitch Term Two: Too Much Witch (Zelda Stitch #2)

Author: Nicki Greenberg

Genre: Fantasy/Children’s

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: 4th February 2019

Format: Paperback

Pages: 272

Price: $14.99

Synopsis: Zelda Stitch is back in the classroom and ready to start Term Two. Will teaching be easier now everyone know she’s a witch? Or will there be more mischief than one witch can manage?

Goals for Term Two:
1. Be the best teacher I can be.
2. Keep my spells to myself.
3. DO NOT UPSET MELODY MARTIN.

What’s a witch to do? Zelda is likely to end up in a truckload of trouble if she can’t even follow the rules she sets herself. Especially when there’s an impressionable young witchling in the class, and the vice principal is on the warpath.

Soon both Zelda and the secret witchling are battling unruly magic, peer pressure and a seriously mean PE teacher. And then there’s the weird smell…

With the school camp coming up fast, Zelda has her work cut out for her. And as usual, Barnaby is only making things worse.

Will Zelda get to have her hero moment – or will she cause everything she cares about to disappear?

More magic, mischief and mayhem from Zelda Stitch, the wayward witch.

~*~

The new school term isn’t off to the best start. Zelda has a broken arm, her magic isn’t working as well as she’d like, and her cat, Barnaby, is being snarkier than ever. He seems to take great pleasure in watching her struggle with magic and everyday things, unlike Melvin, Briony’s cat, who is always kind and helpful. At school, Zelda has to contend with Principal Melody Martin, and her niece, Phoebe. Melody and Phoebe are also witches, and Zelda needs to follow her own rules to ensure the rest of the class doesn’t find out.

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On top of this, she has a snarky PE teacher to deal with, an upcoming school camp and Barnaby doesn’t seem to be making things easier for her – nor does her mother. Can Zelda help Phoebe and keep her own magic under wraps? Or will Zelda’s self-imposed rules shatter under increased pressure to be as normal as possible?

The second book in the Zelda Stitch series follows the same diary style format as the first one – a style that shows the world through Zelda’s eyes, and the story is told just as effectively and as enjoyably as if it were a straight narrative style. It engages the reader, and makes for quick, engrossing reading, as many books in this style do when they are written effectively by the author. Nicki Greenberg has done an excellent job using this style, as she captures Zelda’s voice, humour, observations and those of the other characters wonderfully.

As Zelda goes through her second term teaching, she faces more trials and triumphs while trying to balance teaching and being a witch. As her unpredictable magic seeps out, Zelda must find a way to work out which magic is coming from her, which magic is coming from Phoebe and if any is coming from Melody – before the school camp and before something goes really wrong. I’m really enjoying these books – yes, they are a quick read, especially for me, but they are also filled with fun, and whimsy. Zelda is a very entertaining character, and also very caring. She wants what is best for her class, especially Phoebe, and does whatever she can to follow her own rules and stay out of trouble. The plot follows this struggle very well, and captures the challenges of peer pressure and school – which even if you’re not a witch, can be very tough things to deal with. Showing how children cope with these issues in fiction, and through the lens of a young witchling shows children that it’s oaky to be scared, in an entertaining and accessible way using humour and sensitivity.

This is a great series for anyone who loves a good read or for younger readers who are just starting to branch out and read books on their own, or with a family member. I hope readers out there enjoy it.

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Bella Donna: Too Many Spells (Bella Donna #2) by Ruth Symes

bella donna 2.jpgTitle: Bella Donna: Too Many Spells (Bella Donna #2)

Author: Ruth Symes

Genre: Children’s Fiction

Publisher: Piccadilly/Allen and Unwin

Published: 7th January 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 192

Price: $14.99

Synopsis: Be who you really are . . . whoever that may be!

Half the time Bella Donna is a regular girl at a regular school with her regular friends – animal-mad Sam, and pink fan Angela. The rest of the time she’s a young witch learning to cast spells and living with her adoptive mum Lilith, and Lilith’s niece Verity. Bella is working very hard at learning her spells, as she’s desperate to win the Spell Casting Contest. But a new teacher at school, Miss Rowan, is making her nervous. Witchlike things are happening in the classroom, and Bella knows it isn’t her.

Beautifully illustrated throughout by winner of the Egmont Best New Talent award, Marion Lindsay.

~*~

The second in the Bella Donna series picks up soon after she has found her Forever Family with Lilith, and new friend at school, Angela. This time, Bella Donna has decided to enter the Spell-Casting Contest, but just as she receives the invitation, strange things begin happening at school. They start with the disappearance of her teacher, Mrs Pearce, and the arrival of Miss Rowan – whom everyone but Sam – Bella’s best friend – seems to like.

As Bella spends her time going to school, and learning spell-casting, as well as working towards winning the Spell-Casting Contest, she begins to notice strange things happening. Animals behaving strangely, and odd spells happening around school. Is Bella Donna responsible for this, or is there another cause?

This was another fun novel in a series that is starting to come out in Australia on the seventh of January. Bella Donna is such a fun character, who is allowed to make mistakes, and be scared. Her coven show understanding and care towards her – she is still a very young witchling who has only recently found out she is a witch. Aimed at children and young adults, I think this is a series that can be enjoyed by anyone who enjoys a fun and quick read, told using language that neither intimidates nor talks down to the reader – it finds that happy medium that works well for a vast majority of readers.

This is a series that shows readers of all types that it is okay to be who you want to be and shows readers that they can achieve their dreams and goals – even if they have to take a different path to other people achieving their goals.

Hopefully I can read the rest of this series, as I really like the characters and want to see where they go.

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A Very Murderous Christmas by Cecily Gayford (editor), Various

murderous christmas.jpgTitle: A Very Murderous Christmas

Author: Cecily Gayford (editor), Various

Genre: Crime/Mystery

Publisher: Profile Books/Allen and Unwin

Published: 28th November 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 240

Price: $19.99

Synopsis: We wish you a very murderous Christmas…

The Christmas season is one of comfort and joy, sparkling lights and steam rising from cups of mulled wine at frosty carol services. A season of goodwill to all men, as families and friends come together to forget their differences and celebrate the year together.

Unless, of course, you happen to be harbouring a grudge. Or hiding a guilty secret. Or you want something so much you just have to have it – whatever the cost. In A Very Murderous Christmas, ten of the best classic crime writers come together to unleash festive havoc, with murder, mayhem and twists aplenty.

Following Murder on Christmas Eve and Murder under the Christmas Tree, this is the perfect accompaniment to a mince pie. Just make sure you’re really, truly alone …

~*~

Christmas is usually a time for merriment and cheer, family and friends. The last thing one might associate with Christmas, and Christmas stories, is murder. Yet here we have ten short stories by some of Britain’s most well-known crime writers throughout the years. Instead of the ghosts visiting Scrooge, or magical stories about Santa Claus and his reindeer, here are ten stories about murder and crime that take place during the festive season, delving into the darker side of the holiday, whilst trying to keep it a little light, and with references to the well-known stories we read and watch every year.

From Margery Allingham, to Anthony Horowitz, and Arthur Conan Doyle, the stories utilise well-known characters in shorter stories than the novels the characters appear in, or as in the case of Sherlock, a snippet from one of the longer stories written in the nineteenth century. The stories traverse town, city and countryside, and various decades, but all have one thing in common: they all take place at Christmas, or near Christmas, and revolve around a murder – which doesn’t always have a link to Christmas, though some feel like they might, others are more based around the human fallacies and reasons that lead to murder — they are more about thy how, and who than the why in these stories – and they lead to all kinds of conclusions and methods of finding out whodunnit – one story even delivers the clues to the reader to work out who is guilty, and then provides the explanation at the end – handy if you didn’t realise this was the aim of the writer – A Problem in White by Nicholas Blake. This was a very clever way of telling the story, and I wish I had realised when I started the story – it would have been fun to solve the crime as I read.

Part of a series of Christmas mystery anthologies, A Very Murderous Christmas is an exciting and intriguing series of stories exploring a darker side of the festive season in cosy mysteries that also celebrate the festive season in a different way to we have come to expect from the many Christmas stories and movies that are available to us to read and watch during the festive season.

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The Turn of Midnight by Minette Walters

turn of midnight.jpgTitle:  The Turn of Midnight

Author: Minette Walters

Genre: Historical Fiction/Mystery

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: 24th October 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 472

Price: $32.99

Synopsis:For all those who love Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, and Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders comes the worldwide-bestselling Minette Walters’ compelling and fascinating historical novel of the Plague years.

As the year 1349 approaches, the Black Death continues its devastating course across England. In Dorseteshire, the quarantined people of Develish question whether they are the only survivors.

Guided by their beloved young mistress, Lady Anne, they wait, knowing that when their dwindling stores are finally gone they will have no choice but to leave. But where will they find safety in the desolate wasteland outside?

One man has the courage to find out.

Thaddeus Thurkell, a free-thinking, educated serf, strikes out in search of supplies and news. A compelling leader, he and his companions quickly throw off the shackles of serfdom and set their minds to ensuring Develish’s future – and freedom for its people.

But what use is freedom that cannot be gained lawfully? When Lady Anne and Thaddeus conceive an audacious plan to secure her people’s independence, neither foresees the life-threatening struggle over power, money and religion that follows …

~*~

Picking up soon after the end of The Last Hours, which came out last year, The Turn of Midnight begins in 1348, and ends in 1349, during the dark days of the plague coming to England, and devouring the land and people, except for those sheltering in the demesne of Develish, overseen by Lady Anne after the death of her husband, Sir Richard. Out on a journey to find survivors and information are serfs led by Thaddeus Thurkell, whom she trusts on this quest, and eventually will head out on a quest of her own to help him. Back at home, her daughter Eleanor is ill, and needs care and help to survive in the absence of her mother. As the novel progresses, truths and scandals threaten to come out about Thaddeus, Eleanor, and religious leaders continue their plot against Lady Anne, threatened by her knowledge and authority as a woman who oversees Develish. The Turn of Midnight is the epic conclusion to The Last Hours and wraps up the threads that began in that book and leads to a conclusion that is satisfying and enjoyable, ensuring that the characters all get their stories wrapped up and resolved nicely.

This duology explores a time in history – medieval history and the plague, known as the pestilence throughout the novel, and the dynamics of power between the classes – the nobles and the serfs, and the religious figureheads, and their roles in the demesne, as well as gender and the ways the religious figures try to use claims of heresy, and other accusations against Lady Anne to take over – will they succeed, or will the demesne remain in Lady Anne’s control?

Allied with Lady Anne are the household staff she leaves in charge of Eleanor and the household, much to the chagrin of the religious factions. In the fourteenth century, religion played an important role, and despite being religious, Lady Anne’s skills and desires to teach Eleanor and Isabella were frowned upon by the church. It is also a novel of humanity at its best and worst. At its best, Lady Anne’s decision to bring in the healthy people of all classes and ages, saving her demesne from the plague. It is a novel filled with history, and intrigue, and mysteries that are woven in and out, throughout each perspective that is told, back and forth between the quest and the demesne and what is happening, ensuring that story is given a full body and dense, yet amazingly intricate threads and characters that revolve around a variety of issues around gender, class and religion that are still in play today, and that still affect people all around the world today in a variety of ways.

Like other historical fiction, the themes are universal, ideas around humanity and destruction, but placed in a different setting, and testing people in different ways and with different societal implications and challenges that change and evolve over time. It is one of those novels which is dense and intense, yet at the same time, summons you and begs you to read on, because there is so much to know, so many unanswered questions that need to be resolved. It does this nicely, and in a satisfying way that shows the expectations of people are not always right, and that people who try to undermine those they wish to will not always succeed.

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