A monthly list with reviews of the books I’ve read, I like to keep a record (I have a little notebook too, I just can’t fit everything into my brain any more). I also hope my two’pennorth might help other people who are looking for a good read.
If a book wants to lead me off on a writing spree then I think, why not go with it! Earlier in March I wrote a short memoir of my own, kicked off by Lucy Mangan’s excellent ‘Bookworm’. You can find that post here.
March reading also included a crime thriller and a novel about the Witch hunts in 17th Century Essex. Not very cheery fare but bloody good reads all the same.
Dead of Winter : Gerri Brightwell Salt Publishing
Dead of Winter is a crime novel with a blackly comic heart. From the point we first meet the damaged people at the heart of this story; Mike Fisher and his friend Grisby I did that under the breath laugh, that “huh huh!”, at some of the situations they find themselves in. Don’t expect laugh out loud stuff, but the account of the two of them trying to covertly dump and hide a bright blue tarpaulined lump into a white landscape is very much in Cohen Brothers territory (I can’t imagine Gerri Brightwell isn’t a fan of the Cohen brothers films; Dead of Winter brought them very much to mind – especially ‘Fargo’, both the brilliant 1996 film and the later TV adaptation of it).
Fisher is the (anti)-hero of this tale; a down on his luck cabbie in small town Alaska. Fisher’s wife has left him for another man, taking their daughter with her, he is put upon by his stepmom and his cab controller. He lives in a trailer with his old dog next to the pile of timber he’s supposed to be building a house from, and his only friend appears to be Grisby. Grisby has issues of his own – not least around the illegal prescription pharmaceuticals he deals in. Like Quoyle in Annie Proulxs ‘The Shipping News’, Fisher is an emotionally beaten man who’s almost never referred to by his first name, and appears to be just about as unlucky.
The bad luck keeps on coming. One night Fisher finally deals with some distraught calls he had from his daughter – he goes round to the house and discovers her stepfather shot in her bathroom, and his daughter gone. Cue a non-Arthurian quest to find the missing Breehan and try to find out what happened.
The sense of COLD in this book is palpable (maybe because the writer was born in Devon, I expect you notice the cold more if you move to Alaska from the South West of England!). The cold is a character in itself. It can kill you pretty quickly, just as a gunshot can – and there are plenty of those too. Though this novel is violent in parts the violence is not the thing the story hangs on – it’s a deeply dark comedy of errors; a lot of those involved have the wrong end of the stick about people they’re about to put a bullet into.
This came in my Ninja BookBox . I’m very impressed with what I’ve had from them so far. Much as I love to stand in front of a bookseller’s shelf for hours it’s also nice to be given a book by a trusted source; “here read this, you might like it, tell me what you think!”. Ninja Bookbox support indie publishers – often you can’t find books published by the smaller presses on the high street – so do check them out, and expand your reading horizons.
Ninja Book Box are sold out of Dead of Winter but you can buy it here.
The Witchfinder’s Sister Beth Underdown Penguin
From 21st Century Alaska to 17th Century Essex. Never let it be said I’m constrained by genre – I always enjoy a good historical novel and this is one of them. I do buy things from Amazon occasionally too.
In this enthralling novel Beth Underdown shows us the unfolding events of the witch hunts and trials of 1645-6 through the eyes of Matthew Hopkin’s sister Alice. There is little evidence that Hopkins ever had a sister, but he did have several siblings and it is from here Underdown takes the character of ‘Alice’- a witness who did not have exist – to bring us into the 17th century and into the middle of the Witchfinder General’s entourage
Alice returns from London after the death of her husband Joseph (we discover her short marriage was not without secrets and misfortune) and that of her mother, to stay with Hopkins at The Thorn. There is already an atmosphere of suspicion; surrounding Alice’s marriage, her brother’s childhood disfigurement, their mother and father’s behaviour. 17th century Manningtree is what one of my former professors called a “curtain twitching society”. The claustrophobia of a small late medieval town is palpable – malicious gossip, old grudges being settled in the name of law, order and religion.
We see the horror unfold through Alice’s eyes. Not only is she a witness, she is also coerced by Matthew – both physically and psychologically – into participating in the witch hunts; the searches, the watching and walking (a method of torture by sleep deprivation) and a swimming*. Alice is horrified by what is happening about her at the hand of her brother, yet bound to him as a woman with no money or property and who is trying to protect the one young woman she thinks she can save, she is powerless to stop him.
The author weaves together history and fiction perfectly in this first novel. there are many issues raised about with which society struggles to this day; misogyny, coercive control, abuse of power. Perhaps that’s why the events of this one terrible year in late medieval Essex, and the later trials in Salem, continue to be so fascinating today.
Next month will no doubt contain even more witchy goings on, as I’ve just begun the Deborah Harkness trilogy ‘A Discovery of Witches’. I’m not entirely obsessed with the supernatural you know. Just a *bit*…
*Some information here on witch hunts through the ages: https://www.historyextra.com/period/the-war-on-witches/