Six Degrees of Separation from The Poisonwood Bible to …

I love doing Six Degrees of Separation, a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month the chain begins with The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, one of my favourite books. I’ve read it several times.

The Poisonwood Bible

Told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959, The Poisonwood Bible is the story of one family’s tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa.

I bought The Poisonwood Bible in Gatwick airport bookshop just before boarding a plane to go on holiday. So my first link in the chain is to another book I bought in an another airport bookshop waiting to board another plane:

Fortune's Rocks

It’s Fortune’s Rocks by Anita Shreve. I had never heard of Anita Shreve, but I liked the look of this book – and the fact that it’s a chunky book of nearly 600 pages, good to read on holiday. It’s set in the summer of 1899 when Olympia Biddeford and her parents are on holiday at the family’s vacation home in Fortune’s Rocks, a coastal resort in New Hampshire. She is fifteen years old and this is the story of her love affair with an older man.

When I looked at it today, I saw that it’s written in the present tense. Recently I’ve been writing about my dislike of the present tense – but I obviously haven’t always disliked it, because I remember really enjoying this book.

Wolf Hall (Thomas Cromwell, #1)

Another book written in the present tense that I loved is Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, the story of Thomas Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith, and his political rise, set against the background of Henry VIII’s England and his struggle with the Pope over his desire to marry Anne Boleyn. Historical fiction is one of my favourite genres, which takes me to my next link, another book set in the reign of Henry VIII –

Lamentation (Matthew Shardlake, #6)

Lamentation by C J Sansom set in 1546, the last year of Henry VIII’s life. Shardlake, a lawyer is asked by Queen Catherine (Parr) for help in discovering who has stolen her confessional book, Lamentation of a Sinner. It evokes the people, the sights, smells and atmosphere of Henry’s last year and at the same time it’s an ingenious crime mystery, full of suspense and tension.

Barnaby Rudge

The next book also combines historical and crime fiction – Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens, set in 1780 at the time of the Gordon Riots.  It’s a story of mystery and suspense which begins with an unsolved double murder and goes on to involve conspiracy, blackmail, abduction and retribution.

Barnaby Rudge is a simple young man, living with his mother. His pet raven, Grip goes everywhere with him. He’s a most amazing bird who can mimic voices and seems to have more wits about him than Barnaby. Grip is based on Dickens’s own ravens, one of whom was also called Grip.

Ravens form the next link-

The Raven's Head

to The Raven’s Head by Karen Maitland, set in 1224 in France and England about Vincent, an apprentice librarian who stumbles upon a secret powerful enough to destroy his master. He attempts blackmail but when this fails Vincent goes on the run in possession of an intricately carved silver raven’s head. The plot revolves around the practice of alchemy – the search for a way to transform the base soul of man into pure incorruptible spirit, as well as the way to find the stone, elixir or tincture to turn base metals into precious metals.

And finally to the last link in this chain another book featuring alchemy –

Crucible (Alexander Seaton, #3)

Crucible by S G MacLean, the third of her Alexander Seaton books. Set in 1631 in Aberdeen Robert Sim, a librarian is killed. Alexander investigates his murder and finds, amongst the library books, works on alchemy and hermetics – the pursuit of ancient knowledge and the quest for ‘a secret, unifying knowledge, known to the ancients’ since lost to us. S G MacLean’s books are full of atmosphere. I think her style of writing suits me perfectly, the characters are just right, credible well-rounded people, and the plot moves along swiftly with no unnecessary digressions.

My chain this month has travelled from Africa to Scotland via America and England, and spans the years from the 13th century to the mid 20th century. It has followed a missionary and his family, a teenager in love with an older man, and looked in on power struggles in Tudor England, and the pursuit of the secret to turn metal into gold.

Links are: books I bought to read on holiday, books in the present tense, crime fiction and historical fiction (and a combination of these genres), ravens and alchemy.

Next month  (June 2, 2018), we’ll begin with  Malcolm Gladwell’s debut (and best seller), The Tipping Point, a book and author I’ve never come across before.

The Plague Charmer by Karen Maitland

The Plague Charmer

Karen Maitland is a great storyteller.

The Plague Charmer is a fascinating medieval tale full of atmosphere and superstition. It’s a long but an unputdownable book, bringing the medieval world to life in all its brutality and hardship. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I received an uncorrected proof copy of this, her latest novel, from Lovereading. The book is set in Porlock Weir in 1361 where a village is isolated by the plague when the Black Death spreads once more across England.  Following an eclipse of the sun, as a storm rages along the coast, a ship is blown ashore bringing a dark stranger, Janiveer, to the village. She warns the villagers that the plague, raging in other parts of the country will soon spread to their village and offers to save them – but for a terrible price.

It’s a complex story, told from different characters’ perspectives, following the lives of Will, a ‘fake’ dwarf, Sara, a packhorse man’s wife and her family, Matilda, a religious zealot, and Christina at nearby Porlock Manor amongst others. It’s a tale of folklore, black magic, superstition, violence, torture, murder, and an apocalyptic cult – and also of love. As the plague spreads and more horrendous deaths pile up bringing  fear and hysteria, families are broken up, and hostilities surface as the village is isolated, left to fend alone.

I thought Will a fascinating character. He was not born a dwarf, but was subjected to horrific treatment as a baby, strapped into an iron bridle, compressed and deformed as he grew to form a squat little dwarf. He is remarkably free of bitterness and capable of more humanity than most of the other characters. Sara, too shows strength of character as she perseveres in her search for her two missing sons.

I like the Historical Notes, providing more detailed information about the period, the people and the location, as well as the legends, and the answers to the medieval riddles that head Will’s chapters. I particularly like the information about the plague and the various religious cults of the period. The Glossary is also invaluable, helping to flesh out the detail.

The Plague Charmer is a superb combination of historical fact and fiction. I really enjoyed reading this detailed and chillingly dark atmospheric book. It’s a memorable story with a colourful cast of characters, full of suspense and drama.

My thanks to Headline for also providing a proof copy via NetGalley.

  • Hardcover: 576 pages (also as an e-book)
  • Publisher: Headline Review (20 Oct. 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1472235827
  • ISBN-13: 978-1472235824

Amazon UK link

My Week in Books: 17 August 2016

This Week in Books is a weekly round-up hosted by Lypsyy Lost & Found, about what I’ve been reading Now, Then & Next.

IMG_1384-0

A similar meme,  WWW Wednesday is run by Taking on a World of Words.


Now:
 I am reading two amazing books right now – A Song of Fire and Ice Book 1 of A Game of Thrones by G R R Martin. I’ve now caught up with the TV series and I’m reading the first book. I am thoroughly enjoying it.Blurb:

Summers span decades. Winter can last a lifetime. And the struggle for the Iron Throne has begun. As Warden of the north, Lord Eddard Stark counts it a curse when King Robert bestows on him the office of the Hand. His honour weighs him down at court where a true man does what he will, not what he must ‘¦ and a dead enemy is a thing of beauty.

The old gods have no power in the south, Stark’s family is split and there is treachery at court. Worse, the vengeance-mad heir of the deposed Dragon King has grown to maturity in exile in the Free Cities. He claims the Iron Throne.

and I’ve also just started reading an uncorrected proof of The Plague Charmer by Karen Maitland, which is due to be published in October.Blurb:

1361. Porlock Weir, Exmoor. Thirteen years after the Great Pestilence, plague strikes England for the second time. Sara, a packhorse man’s wife, remembers the horror all too well and fears for safety of her children. Only a dark-haired stranger offers help, but at a price that no one will pay.

Fear gives way to hysteria in the village and, when the sickness spreads to her family, Sara finds herself locked away by neighbours she has trusted for years. And, as her husband – and then others – begin to die, the cost no longer seems so unthinkable.

The price that I ask, from one willing to pay… A human life.

Then: I’ve recently finished The Girl in the Cellar by Patricia Wentworth, one of my 20 Books of Summer. A ‘damsel in distress’ murder mystery. It wasn’t brilliant – my review is in this post.

Next: It will be one of the books from my 20 Books of Summer list. I’m not sure which one – maybe The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins.Blurb:

Rachel catches the same commuter train every morning. She knows it will wait at the same signal each time, overlooking a row of back gardens. She’s even started to feel like she knows the people who live in one of the houses. ‘˜Jess and Jason’, she calls them. Their life ‘“ as she sees it ‘“ is perfect. If only Rachel could be that happy.

And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Now Rachel has a chance to become a part of the lives she’s only watched from afar.

Now they’ll see; she’s much more than just the girl on the train’¦

The Ravens Head by Karen Maitland

I loved Karen Maitland’s medieval mysteries, Company of Liars: a novel of the plague and The Owl Killers and although I didn’t think The Vanishing Witch had quite the same magic spark I still enjoyed it. So when Lovereading offered me a proof copy of The Raven’s Head for review I was keen to read it.

Publisher: Headline Review
Publication date: March 12, 2015
ISBN: 9781472215055

Summary from Karen Maitland’s website:

Vincent is an apprentice librarian who stumbles upon a secret powerful enough to destroy his master. With the foolish arrogance of youth, he attempts blackmail but the attempt fails and Vincent finds himself on the run and in possession of an intricately carved silver raven’s head.

Any attempt to sell the head fails ‘¦ until Vincent tries to palm it off on the intimidating Lord Sylvain ‘“ unbeknown to Vincent, a powerful Alchemist with an all-consuming quest. Once more Vincent’s life is in danger because Sylvain and his neighbours, the menacing White Canons, consider him a predestined sacrifice in their shocking experiment.

Chilling and with compelling hints of the supernatural.

My thoughts:

Set in 1224 in France and England this is a dark book. I found parts of it very uncomfortable and disturbing to read and yet also very compelling. Life in the medieval world was cruel and brutal and The Raven’s Head describes that world in minute detail, evoking the superstitious fear of the period.

The story is told from the three main characters point of view -Vincent, Wilky, a young boy taken from his family to live in a monastery in Norfolk where unspeakable terrors await him and the other young boys, and Gisa also living in Norfolk, working in her uncle’s apothecary’s shop. Their lives are connected through Lord Sylvain who is trying to find a way to bring the dead back to life and the abbot, trying to find the elixir of life – both experimenting with alchemy.

Karen Maitland provides a cast of characters and sets out the historical background and provides notes and a glossary on the practice of  alchemy during the Middle Ages, all of which I found indispensable. Each chapter is headed by a quotation taken from the writings of early Christian and Islamic alchemists – most of which I found incomprehensible.

She explains that alchemy was a dangerous practice, many chemical experiments could go horribly wrong – as in this book. Alchemists worked in secret. It was mystical, as they searched for the means to transform the base soul of man into pure incorruptible spirit, as well as physical, searching for the stone, elixir or tincture to turn base metals into precious metals.

Although long this is a fast-paced book and I read it quite quickly.  I enjoyed the historical setting and even though it took me right to the edge of my comfort zone as far as reading horrific detail the rest of the book made up for that in terms of a well constructed storyline and believable characters. Once I began I had to finish the book.

The Vanishing Witch by Karen Maitland

I found The Vanishing Witch by Karen Maitland a little slow at the beginning, although it’s full of interesting and well drawn characters, set in Lincoln during the reign of Richard II. It’s the time of the Peasants Revolt, a time of murder and mayhem and when suspicions of witchcraft were high as people started to die unnatural deaths, but it just didn’t have the magic spark that I’d enjoyed in her other books that I’ve read – The Company of Liars and The Owl Killers. It’s a long book of nearly 500 pages and it’s not just the beginning that’s slow, but it picks up towards the end.

The story revolves around Robert of Bassingham, a rich wool merchant, and his family – wife Edith and sons, Jan and Adam. All is fine until Robert meets Catlin, a wealthy widow, who comes to him for advice. Catlin is, of course, not as kind and good as Robert thinks she is and Robert’s family soon suffers because of his involvement with her. There are many other characters, including Gunter and his family. Gunter is a river boatman, struggling to make a living, burdened by heavy taxes he can’t pay. His life goes from bad to worse.

I liked the elements of the supernatural and suspicions of witchcraft in this book and the historical setting. There are several narrators, including a ghost and each chapter is headed by weather-lore, anti-witchcraft charms and spells taken from medieval ecclesiastical writings, recorded British folklore and from medieval spell books known as grimoires. For example this is the heading for Chapter 2:

If you fear that you are in the presence of a witch, clench both your hands into fists with the thumbs tucked under your fingers. Then she cannot enchant your mind.

Now that advice could be useful!

Sunday Selection

I’m currently reading The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier and Almost Invincible: a biographical novel of Mary Shelley.  But I like to think about the books I’ve got waiting to be read. They are:

books for Oct 2014

  • The Sittaford Mystery by Agatha Christie – set in a remote house in the middle of Dartmoor, a group of six people gather round a table for a séance. The spirits spell out a chilling message of murder. This is an early Agatha Christie book, first published in 1931 and is one I’ve been looking for, for ages.
  • A Short Book about Drawing by Andrew Marr. This is a library book and I have already flipped through it and read little bits. It has colour photos of his paintings along with his ideas about the differences between fine art and drawing, the mechanics of drawing and how drawing and painting can help us to think and see the world differently and so on. It looks fascinating and I’ll read this very soon I think.
  • Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb – this is free on Kindle at the moment. I know that other book bloggers like Robin Hobbs’ books and I’ve been thinking of trying one myself. This one is the first in the Farseer Trilogy. I’m not sure what to expectIf you’ve read it what do you think?
  • The Vanishing Witch by Karen Maitland. Another library book I’ve borrowed – this one from the mobile library. I loved Company of Liars and The Owl Killers, so I’m expecting great things from this book – I hope I won’t be disappointed. It’s set in the reign of Richard II, the time of the Peasants Revolt, a time of murder and mayhem and when suspicions of witchcraft were high as people started to die unnatural deaths.

The thing is that I want to read them all right now!

The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland

I can’t remember how I first came across Karen Maitland‘s books, but after I’d read Company of Liars I was hooked and bought The Owl Killers, a tale of witchcraft and pagan superstition set in 1321.

Karen Maitland has written four medieval thrillers, Company of Liars, The Owl Killers, The Gallows Curse, and Falcons of Fire and Ice, with The Vanishing Witch to be published later this year. She also writes joint medieval crime novels with a group of historical authors known as the Medieval Murderers.

I was going to summarise the novel but I think this description on Fantastic Fiction does it very well:

‘The Owl Killers’ is a novel of an embattled village and a group of courageous women who are set on a collision course – in an unforgettable storm of secrets, lust, and rage.

England, 1321. The tiny village of Ulewic teeters between survival and destruction, faith and doubt, God and demons. For shadowing the villagers’ lives are men cloaked in masks and secrecy, ruling with violence, intimidation, and terrifying fiery rites: the Owl Masters.

But another force is touching Ulewic – a newly formed community built and served only by women. Called a beguinage, it is a safe harbor of service and faith in defiance of the all-powerful Church.

Behind the walls of this sanctuary, women have gathered from all walks of life: a skilled physician, a towering former prostitute, a cook, a local convert. But life in Ulewic is growing more dangerous with each passing day. The women are the subject of rumors, envy, scorn, and fury, until the daughter of Ulewic’s most powerful man is cast out of her home and accepted into the beguinage – and battle lines are drawn.

Into this drama are swept innocents and conspirators: a parish priest trying to save himself from his own sins.a village teenager, pregnant and terrified,a woman once on the verge of sainthood, now cast out of the Church … With Ulewic ravaged by flood and disease, and with villagers driven by fear, a secret inside the beguinage will draw the desperate and the depraved – until masks are dropped, faith is tested – and every lie is exposed.’

My View:

The Owl KillersA long, historical novel well founded in its time and place; the historical detail is easily absorbed within the story, without feeling intrusive. There is a glossary of medieval terms and words at the end of the book which also helps to flesh out the detail. The story does indeed come alive through the descriptions of the physical and emotional lives of the characters in the small isolated community where the villagers have interbred – a sign of their belonging is their webbed fingers. Superstition, fear and belief in the supernatural rule their lives.

The novel is told through five narrators, which means there is a rounded picture of events, portraying the characters through their own eyes and also showing how they appear to others. I thought that was particularly well done, illustrating the tensions and misunderstandings between the characters.

The suspense builds as the tension increases, and I began to wonder if all the narrators were to be trusted. Fear of the ‘outsider’ is prevalent, the struggle for power dominates and the outsider is seen as the cause for events, such as floods, famine and disease, outside the villagers’ control. Religious and pagan beliefs clash, and the equality between men and women is challenged.

I found The Owl Killers a compelling story, at the same time down to earth and grounded in reality, yet mystical and mysterious and tragic as it explores the struggle to survive and the battleground between the old pagan beliefs and Christianity.