Wednesday, 29 October 2014

The Penguin Book of Witches - Ed. by Katherine Howe

This is a collection of real-life accounts of witchcraft starting with witches in the Bible and going right through to early modern England and colonial America.

From a manual for witch hunters written by King James in 1597, to court documents from the Salem witch trials of 1692 to newspaper coverage of a woman stoned to death on the streets of Philadelphia while the Continental Congress met, this is a treasury of historical accounts of accused witches that sheds light on the reality behind the legends. Bringing to life stories like that of Eunice Cole, tried for attacking a teenage girl with a rock and buried with a stake through her heart; Jane Jacobs, a Bostonian so often accused of witchcraft that she took her tormentors to court on charges of slander; and Increase Mather, an exorcism-performing minister famed for his knowledge of witches, this volume provides a unique tour through the darkest history of English and North American witchcraft. (text taken from Penguin Classics.)

With Halloween just around the corner I was in the mood for something a little bit spooky. However, I am not a fan of the horror genre so this collection of primary sources collated by Katherine Howe was exactly what I was looking for. Katherine is the author of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane which I read back in 2010 and really enjoyed.

She has annotated each chapter with insightful notes and explains the role witchcraft and cunning folk had in a medieval society. I enjoyed the way that she differentiates between superstition and morality in both English and American society.

I found it really interesting to chronologically move from Biblical accounts of witches right through to our current perception of witches complete in Halloween garb donned with a black pointy hat and broomstick. Ms Howe had put together a series of excellent first hand accounts and then leaves us to make our own judgement on witchcraft.

Incidentally, Bridget Bishop, who appears in the All Souls trilogy, A Discovery of Witches, Shadow of Night and The Book of Life, as Diana Bishop’s ancestor is also in this  book and her examination prior to her execution in Salem is also contained in this volume.

A comprehensive collection that has been well researched and is presented intelligently and will help readers to understand the phenomenon that was witchcraft in history. Worth reading.

ISBN:  978 0143106180

Publisher: Penguin Classics

Price: £9.09

About the Author: 

Katherine Howe, the direct descendant of two accused Salem witches, is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. She lives in New England and teaches American colonial history and creative writing at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

Friday, 24 October 2014

One Night in Winter by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Set in Moscow in 1945, Stalin is celebrating his victory over Hitler. But when shots ring out two teenagers lie dead on a nearby bridge. They are the offspring of Russia’s highest leaders and no one knows if this is murder, suicide or a conspiracy.

As answers are sought, the friends of the dead youngsters are questioned and a terrifying witch hunt begins. Do the parents of these young people have anything to hide and will they reveal secrets that their parents would prefer remained hidden?

This is the first novel that I have read by Simon Sebag Montefiore and I am fast developing a love affair with the work of the Montefiore family. Back in March I read The Summer House by Santa Montefiore, who is the wife of the author of this book, which I enjoyed every bit as much as I have this one.

It is evident from the scope of this book that Dr Montefiore has researched the background of this book thoroughly. He has written several non-fiction books including Young Stalin and it is obvious from this book that he is steeped in knowledge.

The plot is a labyrinth from start to finish and at no point did the tension ease up. I was gripped from the very beginning, not least because the author writes with such profound intelligence. Every single word was implicit to the story; every word of dialogue served to pull me further into the story.

I was also very moved by this novel. Some of the situations that the children found themselves in seem cruelly inexplicable and my heart also went out to the parents in this book. It takes immense skill as a writer to ensure a reader will engage with so many different characters within a book and the author is exceptionally skilled at this aspect of writing.

I often find myself confused by names when I read books set in Russia and my heart sank a little when I saw a glossary of characters at the beginning of this book as I felt it suggested that this would be equally confusing. However, whilst I found myself referring to it at the beginning of my reading I soon got to grips with who was who and was just immersed in the story.

This book was disturbing and entertaining in equal measure making for a hugely interesting, informative and intelligent read. I highly recommend this book and am looking forward to reading more work from this author.

ISBN: 978 0099580331

Publisher: Arrow

Price: £3.85 for the paperback version from Amazon.

About the Author:

Born in 1965 Simon Sebag Montefiore read history at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University, where he received his Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD).

Catherine the Great and Potemkin was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson, Duff Cooper, and Marsh Biography Prizes. Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar won the History Book of the Year Prize at the British Book Awards. Young Stalin won the Costa Biography Award (UK), the LA Times Book Prize for Biography (US), Le Grand Prix de la BiographiePolitique (France) and the Kreisky Prize for Political Literature (Austria). Jerusalem: The Biography won the Jewish Book of the Year Prize, from the Jewish Book Council (USA). Dr Montefiore's books are published in forty languages. 

He is the author of the acclaimed novels Sashenka as well as One Night in Winter. 

His next major history book will be The Romanovs: Rise and Fall, 1613-1917, out in 2016 in hardback, 2017 in paperback, followed by The World: a Biography. Dr Montefiore wrote and presented the BBC television series Jerusalem: Making of a Holy City, Rome: History of the Eternal City and his latest, a history of Istanbul: Byzantium A Tale of 3 Cities. 

A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and Visiting Professor of Humanities at the University of Buckingham, he lives in London with his wife  and their two children. 

(Author information courtesy of

Monday, 20 October 2014

Somewhere in Time by Richard Matheson

Set in 1971 Richard Collier stumbles across an old photograph of an actress long dead. However, Richard becomes obsessed with this image and seeks to find out everything that he can about Elise McKenna and thus he falls in love with this woman from the past who he has never met.

Yet, this image draws him back to 1896 where he meets Elise and her associates but will he be able to find the love with Elise that he was imagining in 1971?

This is a classic story and was made into a film starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour. I haven’t actually seen the film and I wonder if this might not flow better on the screen.

My reasons for suggesting this is that I really disliked the writing style of the first section of the book where the narrative is written in a kind of note form; short and sharp the way one might write a diary without the benefit of any adjectives or embellishments. However, I did like the plot. Obviously, it seemed implausible; the notion that one can will oneself back into the past was pure fantasy but created an interesting premise for the story of this book.

Most of all though I really disliked the way the characters were portrayed. Matheson may have been attempting to portray Elise as a celebrated actress but her performance as a character in this book I found decidedly wooden.

This book won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel and won critical acclaim but it simply felt lacking something for me. It may simply be that I do not read a lot of fantasy novels but time travel stories always intrigue me and I found the plot of this book interesting enough.

I am actually very keen to watch the film now because, as I suggested earlier, I think this might transfer very well to the screen. I think the characters may well appear more well-rounded in the hands of Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour.

If you enjoy fantasy or romance novels you may well enjoy this novel. Judging from the amount of positive reviews there are for this book it may well be that I missed the point somewhere along the line in reading this book. The plot was an interesting one and I am certainly willing to try other books of this genre. Any suggestions anyone?

ISBN: 978 0765361394

Publisher: Tor Books

Price: £5.99 for the paperback edition from

Monday, 13 October 2014

Top 12 Books

When I began this blog 12 months ago I had no idea what a fantastic reading journey I was embarking on. As I have previously said, I have read some marvellous books during that time and I wanted to share my favourites with you. So, in no particular order, here are my favourite 12 along with links to my reviews:

Looking at this list now I can see that of these 12 only one is by an author I have previously read. That means I have discovered 11 new authors that I consider wrote excellent books. I think it is time to start reading some of their other books. Don't you agree?

Friday, 10 October 2014

One Year On......

Today is a special day in the life of this blog.

Exactly, one year ago I wrote up my first tentative posting and committed myself to not spending any money on books for the coming year. It was quite an undertaking for me to go an entire year without buying a single book. I’m delighted to say that I stuck to my promise unerringly and kept a running total of how much money I would have spent had I bought the books that I have read throughout the year and I am delighted to say that I have saved a whopping:


I am amazed by this total as I had not realised exactly what my reading habits were costing me!

The books I have read have come to me through a variety of ways; my wonderful local library, books which have been sitting on my shelves for ages, friends have loaned me books, publishers and authors have sent me books for review and my family and friends who have given me books as gifts for my birthday etc. I am very grateful to all those people who have contributed to my year of free reading in one way or another.

I also want to say a big thank you to all of you who have been reading this blog and to my followers and friends on Twitter, Facebook and Goodreadswho have made this such a fun experience. I have greatly enjoyed this challenge and sharing my thoughts on the books I have read with you all. As a consequence, I have discovered some great new authors and am looking forward to reading other books which they have written. Now that my year of literary abstinence is complete I am looking forward to investing in some of those books.

Initially, I committed to writing this blog for a year. However, I have so enjoyed the process that I would love to continue to share my thoughts on my reading with you all so I am intending to continue with the blog………but with a difference!

As well as book reviews I would love to share with you other items of literary interest including author bios and interviews, news of literary festivals, upcoming books etc. If you have any suggestions of what you would like me to include in this blog then please do let me know.

I would really like to kick off my second year of blogging by reading some of your favourite books. Do you have a favourite author? A favourite book? Please let me know by leaving a comment below and kick start my new year of blogging.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

Set in Paris in 1482 the story of Quasimodo, the deformed bell ringer of Notre Dame, is a familiar one. He is shunned by all for his grotesque appearance until Esmeralda, the beautiful dancing gypsy, takes pity on him. So begins Quasimodo’s love for Esmerelda, but there are others who are watching her closely and whose motives are far more sinister.

I am always reluctant to review books that are classics as everything that needs to be said about them has essentially already been said by others and probably much more eloquently than I will.

This book was a re-read for me. I read it about 20 years ago immediately prior to taking my children to see the Disney film at the cinema and I can remember feeling incredibly moved by the novel and the ending has stayed with me ever since.

At the time, I had not seen the original film which was made in 1939. If you have watched either of these films it is essential to get those images out of your head prior to reading this. At no point does Quasimodo shout “The bells, the bells made me deaf” as depicted by Charles Laughton in the 1939 version of the film.

Neither can I begin to comprehend how the Disney Corporation took such a dark story and turned it into something suitable for children (although I must confess that I do love the film and have happy memories of watching this with my children.) However, in the book, Esmerelda is a 15 year old girl who is being lusted after and pursued by a priest. It was a huge undertaking to take this premise and turn it into something Disneyesque suitable for children. They were successful in this but largely at the expense of the essence of the story.

I have been afraid of re-reading this book because I loved it so much on my first reading and I was worried that my illusions would be shattered if I read it with the addition of two decades of life experience behind me. I recently explained this to my youngest son who went straight out, bought me a copy of the book and told me to read it again and see whether I felt the same.

I had forgotten how descriptive the book is. There are times where there are just pages and pages of descriptive prose that does get rather tiresome. The whole first section of the novel is devoted to describing the history of Paris. The language is incredibly dated too, bearing in mind that the story is set in 14th century France, but I soon found that I not only adapted to this old-fashioned narrative but actually rather enjoyed it.

Work through those two things and it leaves an amazingly enthralling story which I enjoyed every bit as much as my first reading. It was an immersion into the grown up world of fairy tales; Beauty and the Beast set in 14th century Paris.

It was also humorous in parts, hauntingly atmospheric, the characters vivid and unforgettable. It also considers themes still relevant today. The book deals with love in its many forms, corruption and inequality. My conclusion is that it is not an easy read but well worth making the effort and persevering with.

Will I ever read it again? Give me another 20 years and I probably will.

ISBN:  978 1853260681

Publisher: Wordsworth Editions

Price: £1.99
Total saving so far: £373.74

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Lincoln Book Festival

I just wanted to update you all on my recent trip to the Lincoln Book Festival.  I attended the final two days of the festival with my husband and we both thoroughly enjoyed our time there.

The Friday evening session kicked off with an interview with Paul ‘Smiler’ Anderson talking about his recently published book Mods: The New Religion. Paul spoke about his personal discovery of the Mod movement during the late 1970’s revival. He also spoke about his many interviews with the Mods of the 1960’s which covered everything from fashion, music and their iconic scooters. I really enjoyed listening to Paul speak and his down to earth portrayal of the movement was fascinating.

The evening then progressed to an interview with Jenny Boyd. Jenny was a model in the 1960’s alongside her sister, Patti Boyd, who married George Harrison, and subsequently, Eric Clapton. Jenny herself was the inspiration for Donovan’s classic song, Jennifer Juniper. She spoke about her fascinating visit to India with the Beatles to visit the Maharishi and gave those of us who didn’t experience the decade at first hand a real insight into the times and attitudes of the young. Jenny has written a book called It’s Not Only Rock ‘n’ Roll in which she records the thoughts on creativity of 75 iconic musicians.

The following evening began with a presentation from Hannah Greig on her book The Beau Monde. Hannah is multi-talented. As well as being an author, she lectures on the 18th century at the University of York and is a historical adviser for film, television and theatre productions. Hannah accompanied her talk with a power point presentation which illustrated her content perfectly and gave us a real insight into what being fashionable in the 18th century really meant.

The festival concluded with Simon Heffer in conversation with Roger Hudson. Simon is the author of several books, his most recent of which is High Minds: The Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain. These two lovely chaps sat and discussed Britain of the 1840’s; a period of vast change socially, religiously and politically. I found this talk particularly interesting as my dissertation during my university days was on this period of history. I was a bit startled to realise how much of my degree I had forgotten but Simon has certainly reinvigorated my own interest in the period and I am sure his book will be in my book collection very soon.

All the books were available to purchase and the authors made themselves available for signing.

My only regret of the festival is that I wasn’t there for the whole thing as my experience was fantastic and I can well imagine that we may go again under our own steam. I would thoroughly recommend to anyone within striking distance of Lincoln to consider going next year.

Thank you to everybody at the Lincoln Book Festival and Omnivore Magazine who made this visit possible.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Disobedience by Naomi Alderman

Ronit left London to carve out a new life for herself. In New York she is a successful career woman, who smokes and drinks and is in a relationship with a married man.

When her father dies she has to return to London and the close-knit community of her childhood. She causes outrage within the Orthodox Jewish community that she left behind but Ronit finds herself questioning her past. When she meets with her childhood friend, Esti, she is forced to confront the issues that she ran away from and also to consider her future. What was intended as a quick visit to sort out her fathers effects has life changing consequences for Ronit.

I enjoyed this book very much. Set within an Orthodox Jewish community this book is in turns very serious and laugh out loud funny. The author clearly has a good understanding of her setting for this novel. She grew up in Hendon where the novel is set and was part of a community such as this. It is her background that has enabled her to describe so clearly this closed community and to do so with both poignancy and tenderness.

Each chapter begins with Jewish teaching and enables the reader to understand the motives and thoughts of the characters involved. Ronit’s behaviour to others is often outrageous and unkind but I found myself really liking her and being drawn to this character; for she is so ordinarily human and faces all the difficulties and self-doubts many people do in one situation or another.

It also deals with some interesting themes. I have seen this book described as being about same sex relationships but I think it is about so much more than that. For me, its main theme was that of self-acceptance within a judgemental environment and places this book in a whole new dimension. Ms. Alderman has written with understanding and sensitivity and has a clear affection for her characters and the dilemmas they individually face.

As added features the books includes an interview with the author and a selection of recipes typical of that which might be eaten in Jewish households during the Sabbath, some of which I have cooked and can recommend.

I loved this book and as a debut novel I think is fantastic. It is no surprise that this novel won the 2006 Orange Award for New Writers. Her style is reminiscent of Zadie Smith and Monica Ali and anyone who has read and enjoyed their work will like this book. Naomi Alderman has published two other novels since this one and I can’t wait to get my hands on them. An excellent novel and one that I highly recommend.

ISBN:  978-0141025957

Publisher: Penguin

Price (based on today’s price at £7.19

Total saved so far:  £371.75