‘The Witches of New York’ by Ami McKay #TheWitchesofNewYork #bookbloggers #bookreviews

I’m a sucker for a cover and an interesting blurb, so I bought this book almost without thinking. Therefore, I haven’t read the prequel novels, however, this is fine as a standalone.

It’s set in 1880-81, and the historical backdrop of this story, which is for women, about women (although for men too, of course, if you enjoy an empowering read), is the transportation and erection (sorry) by men, of the mystical and undeniably phallic Cleopatra’s Needle in Manhattan.

Two hundred years after the witch trials in Salem, two witches, Adelaide Thom and Eleanor St. Clair open a tea shop in Manhattan, whose reputation builds a high society clientele, seeking cures, potions, and palmistry. Eleanor and Adelaide keep their secrets and are protected by these women in return. One of my favourite characters, Perdu, a raven, lives with Eleanor. He is not a bird.

Beatrice Dunn is a seventeen-year-old girl, with a dream of adventure and excitement. She makes a special wish, and soon afterwards, sees an advert for a job as an assistant in a Manhattan tea shop. The ad says that “those averse to magic need not apply.” It seems like just the opportunity she has been waiting for and, saying goodbye to her well-wishing aunt, she heads for Manhattan.

Beatrice becomes Eleanor’s apprentice, but her new life with the witches allows newly found powers to emerge. Adelaide, perhaps prematurely, introduces her to Dr. Quinn Brody who is a war veteran, newly arrived from Paris following the death of his father. He has become involved in the association in which his father was a member: The Fraternal Order of the Unknown Philosophers, which seeks to understand those phenomena which are inexplicable. Beatrice is introduced to a device of his, which she appears more than capable of producing results from, thereby drawing unwanted attention to the witches. Still at risk from dogmatic religion, these enlightened, self-assured, intelligent and independent women come under threat.

The differences between men who believe in the mystical, the unexplained and the spiritual, and women who do the same or less, is stark, disturbing and is explored at length. It is subtly done though and doesn’t seek to be divisive; simply to show.

During some musing, Dr. Brody, who is a thoroughly likeable character, wonders
“‘What is the weight of a soul? Where does it go when we die? Are there such things as ghosts? Can they speak to the living? What of spirits, demons, fairies and angels? Can dreams hold portents, visions, foretellings? Are witches real? Does magic exist?’

He thought if he could gain the answers he sought, he might publish them in a short book. It would be no doubt a risky endeavour, but wasn’t that the sort of risk that every scientist had to be willing to take? To profess truth despite the looming spectre of ridicule.”

Meanwhile, the highly esteemed Reverend Townsend has written a sermon, entitled ‘Against Intuition’ in which his train of thought is thus:

“Women often say they have a ‘knowing’, a ‘feeling’, that something is right or wrong. They’ll claim they’ve seen the answer to a great dilemma in a dream. Who are they to claim the gift of prophecy? What force compels them to speak such lies? More often than not their words are merely a ploy to get others to do their bidding. When caught, they say it was nothing but a silly, foolish game. They insist no one got hurt. But this sort of deceit is no laughing matter. It is a terribly crafty tool of women, especially when used upon trusting men – a tool of Satan himself. I say to all gentlemen, do not be fooled by women’s talk of intuition. I say to all women, do not be used by Devils as a mouthpiece for Satan’s foul words. The only special knowledge he’ll afford to you is misery.”

So, in 1880, the risks to a man of wondering and trying to prove such hypotheses included such horrors as ridicule. At the time, although the majority of witchcraft trials were over, the insane asylums were full. The book lists some of the reasons for women being committed and although I’ve seen these before, you’d need to read them to believe them.

This is a thought-provoking book, with an absorbing storyline, and appears well researched. I particularly liked the ‘witchy’ aspects; the family grimoire, the raven, the Dearlies, dreams, herbalism, tarot, palmistry, spirit mediumship etc. There are dark forces at work as well, but these are not related to the actions of the witches, rather those set against them who are willing to take matters into their own hands. There are some great female characters in the book; Beatrice and her Aunt Lydia, Eleanor, Adelaide, Mrs. Dashley and Mrs. Stevens. I liked the Bird Lady, and the ghosts are pretty fun too.

It is interesting to note the sources the author has used in the acknowledgements as well, particularly with regards to the Oz author L. Frank Baum.

All this having been said, I did make relatively slow progress. I did read a few chapters every day: I don’t know why, maybe life just got in the way this week, but it was certainly good enough to keep going back to, and a great read for this time of year.

‘A Discovery of Witches’ by Deborah Harkness #bookreview #ADiscoveryOfWitches #bookblogger

I did read a few of the Goodreads reviews after I bought this book, back in July 2018; the recent ones were a bit dismal about it; I may not have bothered buying it, had I read these before. That would have been a real shame, because this is a well-written and absorbing historical fantasy, which I am glad I have read; I suspect that Stephenie Meyer was holding Deborah Harkness’ beer while she was writing it (although I did actually quite enjoy Twilight at the time!). I’ve already put the sequel, Shadow of Night, on my Christmas list (if I can wait that long – experience says not likely).

The blurb reads, “Deep in the stacks of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, young scholar Diana Bishop unwittingly calls up a bewitched alchemical manuscript in the course of her research. Descended from an old and distinguished line of witches, Diana wants nothing to do with sorcery; so after a furtive glance and a few notes, she banishes the book to the stacks. But her discovery sets a fantastical underworld stirring, and a horde of daemons, witches, and vampires soon descends upon the library. Diana has stumbled upon a coveted treasure lost for centuries-and she is the only creature who can break its spell… 
 ..Diana is a bold heroine who meets her equal in vampire geneticist Matthew Clairmont, and gradually warms up to him as their alliance deepens into an intimacy that violates age-old taboos. “

I devoured this 600+page book in two and a half days flat; I couldn’t put it down for long. I was invested in all the main characters, and despite finding the romance aspect a little too suffocating for my taste, it didn’t spoil it for me. I have the same sort of issue with the Throne of Glass series by Sarah J Maas; while I enjoy reading it, and terrifically strong female characters are to be applauded, something about the relationships with dominating, fierce, brooding males, who are devastatingly attractive, doesn’t quite sit comfortably with me, however pulse-racing it is! And it is pulse-racing, albeit a slow pulse in Matthew’s case.

If I have any criticism of it, for me personally, it’s simply that there are slightly too many descriptions of what the characters are eating, drinking and wearing. Some of this of course, is necessary. I completely get that when preparing a meal for an alluring vampire, one may have to go the extra mile on researching a suitable menu and sourcing the ingredients, and how those, once having been assembled, are received by said Ancient.

However, we quickly learn that fine wines will be being quaffed, copiously and especially during the evening, and that Diana will be famished and wearing black leggings and a variety of turtleneck jumpers, and Matthew will be donning a cashmere sweater in one of all shades of monochrome. I thought that some of the extra unnecessary detail detracted a little from the storytelling.

There are many aspects which I really liked; I love a university library reading room for a start! It’s intelligently written; the academic in the author is evident. I found the alchemical references and the scholarly discussions within the university setting and beyond, absorbing and interesting. Some people who have reviewed it said that they found it boring, but I wouldn’t agree, despite the level of detail. I would qualify this by admitting that I have an enormously high tolerance for boredom. Now I think about it, I don’t believe I’ve ever actually felt bored in my entire life, and I’ve lived a very unremarkable one. I’m not sure what that says about me. So, I can understand why some readers got bogged down with it, but I didn’t at all.

There are some smart scientific ideas here too; I enjoyed the exploration of the evolutionary discussion. The threatening behaviour towards Diana feels realistic and the dialogue throughout is convincing. The fact that love is love, no matter who it is between and whose social sensibilities are offended, is well communicated and heartfelt. The descriptions of all the residences in the novel are rich and atmospheric; I particularly love Sarah and Em’s chaotic, unpredictable and riotous home. It’s also a good mystery; you really don’t know what exactly is going on. The suspense is well-managed and timed. The history is enjoyable too. It’s part Dan Brown in places, but I mean this as a compliment. It keeps the pages turning quickly and gives a bit of an education while it’s at it.

And it all goes all Outlander at the end, so I’m itching to get my hands on the sequel! It’s also been made into a TV series this year, so I’m sure to be watching that too.

‘Elmet’ by Fiona Mozley #Elmet #bookreview #bookbloggers

“Elmet was the last independent Celtic kingdom in England and originally stretched out over the vale of York….But even into the seventeenth century this narrow cleft and its side-gunnels, under the glaciated moors, were still a ‘badlands’, a sanctuary for refugees of the law”

Remains of Elmet
Ted Hughes

Elmet was the ancient name for an area which, more or less, encompasses the West Riding of Yorkshire; roughly from York to just south of Doncaster. This is where I live now, and with chagrin, I realised that I had never heard of it, other than in place names of which, I suppose, I had thought nothing.

Elmet, is then associated with that which is far removed from recent history, and this, along with the above quotation from Ted Hughes, sets the scene for this dark, heart-rending, immersive and brilliant debut novel from Fiona Mozley.

We begin Elmet near the end, with our narrator, Daniel, who is alone and heading north, in the bleak hope that he has taken the right path. His situation is desperate.

He has never been alone before, but neither has he been much in company. Without a mother from an early age, he and his sister, Cathy, have lived with Daddy. Daddy builds a house near the woods with his bare hands, manipulating wood like a master craftsman would have done centuries ago, before such skills became at the behest of the wealthy or to make novelties and trinkets. Daddy is almost a figure of legend; not Robin Hood perhaps. Maybe Little John; built like a giant. He belongs to a world before modern laws and social norms; he broods with a simmering violence, he disappears for days on end. They have enough money to survive. He moves on the very outskirts of society, he bareknuckle fights, and resolves local disputes in lieu of the law. Daddy is feared and revered, and feared some more, yet he is unfailing gentle with his children.

Daniel and Cathy are removed from mainstream school, after an incident involving Cathy. In an effort to provide some level of education, or perhaps just to keep them safe while he spends time away, Daddy takes them to Vivien, who is a reclusive friend of their mother. She has a warm and comforting home, but she is not motherly; rather awkward. We don’t really get to the bottom of this relationship; it’s mysterious between her and Daddy. Cathy can’t stay to read or learn, she’s not interested, and leaves to go outside every day. She is like Daddy, she belongs to, and is a force of, nature. Cathy is the tragic heroine of this novel; she’s extremely complex and has, if anything, a greater animalistic anger than Daddy.

Daniel is said to be like his mother, and indeed he is gender fluid, unconcerned about any physical difference between men and women. At home he is the care giver and the home maker, and he is accepted and appreciated for his way of being, without comment or prejudice. He loves to be at Vivien’s. It is here that he can see a future for himself, different from his past.

But they don’t own the land where their house is built, and there is a man who does, who cares very much about ownership and fealty. Mr. Price is the local landowner; rich and influential, and always gets his own way. He inspires fear in a different way to Daddy. While one lives outside of the societal norms, the other, it can be imagined, hides in plain sight. His children are in a prestigious private school and no doubt he can function in far higher society than Daddy. Morally, we are uncertain of Daddy, but we are in far less doubt with Price.

Who can control the most fear? The concluding chapters of Elmet are brutal and tragic. There is a great deal of inequality in the book, the social, the economic, the balance of power, the ability to determine what will happen, when, and how. Unbridled fury though, is the great equaliser, where all bets are off and the outcome becomes unpredictable. There is one part which I found to be like Lord of the Flies in reverse; where the children, in one moment of clarity, are horrified by the actions of adults, in a place where the law holds no sway.

There is a restless quality to this novel; comfortable moments are short-lived. The language is poetic and lyrical; some sentences are so profoundly beautiful, or laced with such visceral brutality, that I had to read them again, just to appreciate the skill with which they have been written. Much of the speech is in the vernacular. We talk funny in Yorkshire, finding the determiner ‘the’ unnecessary in most situations. ‘Doesn’t’, ‘wouldn’t’ and ‘couldn’t’ don’t require all their syllables when vocalised, and the word ‘was’, is invariably ‘were’ regardless of whether the subject is singular or plural.

And yet, the story on another level, is told so level headedly. Daniel has none of the anger in him that the other characters have. He is faced by choices, paths he could take, and although he thinks he is cowardly sometimes, his bravery is part of what makes this book so very powerful and so sad. The final, bleak observation, as a product of all he has experienced, nearly brought me to tears. One of my favourite reads this year.

Winner of the 2018 Polari First Book Prize and Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2017.