Blog Tour Review: The Familiars by Stacey Halls ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

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Today is the first day of the blog tour to celebrate the release of what’s been called “the most spellbinding debut novel of 2019” in paperback and I’m excited to share my thoughts. Thank you to Compulsive Readers Blog Tours for the invitation to take part and to Bonnier Zaffre for my gifted copy of this novel in exchange for my honest review.

SYNOPSIS:

In a time of suspicion and accusation, to be a woman is the greatest risk of all…

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 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 prove the physician wrong.  

As Alice is drawn into the witchcraft accusations that are sweeping the north-west, Fleetwood risks everything trying to help her. But is there more to Alice than meets the eye?

Soon the two women’s lives 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.

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MY REVIEW:

The Familiars is one of those books that is a work of sheer beauty. I was in love before I’d even read a word and could tell that reading it was going to be an experience. And I was right. It was lyrical, atmospheric, addictive, extraordinary and simply breathtaking; the story every bit as beautiful as the book.  I devoured it within a day – living within its pages and drowned in its words. A remarkable and unforgettable debut novel that was a joy to read. 

“The king has muddled wise women with witchcraft.”

Based around the true events of the Pendle Witch Trials, the author has blended fact and fiction to create a masterpiece. Though beautiful, it is also a dark story of prejudice, injustice and misogyny. It reveals how women were penalised for what they knew and helping others through things like midwifery. The men in charge were threatened by this and called what they did witchcraft so they could round them up and charge them with a crime where they’d created the perfect outcome – death whether you were guilty or innocent. The book also explores why so many women charged with witchcraft would confess and the lengths the witch hunters would go to in order to “prove” someone guilty. 

The novel also showcases other realities of life for women of that era. So much was expected so young and at just thirteen Fleetwood was married to her second husband,  without any say in the matter. At seventeen she’s pregnant with her fourth child and worried for her position if she doesn’t provide her husband with an heir. It was a sobering reminder of how little autonomy women had at that time over their bodies and their lives, and that their position was always precarious and dependent on men. I found it fascinating when Fleetwood observed that while she is seen as lucky to me married to a man with money and have her own household, poor women actually have more freedom – they are free to choose a husband out of love and aren’t traded as a way to climb the social ladder. I imagine no one would ever have expected Fleetwood to envy Alice’s position in life and it’s a reminder that things are all about perspective. 

“At four feet and eleven inches, everyone I met was taller than me, though I did not intimidate easily.” 

I loved Fleetwood. She is formidable, fierce and a fighter. I loved that she didn’t let her size stop her and coming in at four feet and nine and a half inches myself, I felt an affinity and solidarity with her from the start. She is a woman ahead of her time in how she sees the witch trials and I admired that she didn’t feel she could sit idly by and not do something; though I do think she finds this strength to act because Alice is her friend and midwife rather than a stranger. My heart broke for her losing three babies before we meet her and for all she had been through at such a young age. It must have been terrifying for her to be pregnant and not really know anything about childbirth except that a lot of women don’t survive. When I learned that she was based on a real person I fell in love with her even more and plan to find out more. 

“I felt the baby move, and was aware at once that while all three of us were here and alive now – Alice, the baby and I – one day very soon we might not be, and there was no way of telling which of us would make it.” 

I really  liked the strange friendship that grew between Fleetwood and Alice. At the beginning of the book, Fleetwood is  lonely and wants nothing more than to have a friend she can confide in, so she found what she needed twofold when she met Alice – a midwife and a friend. Alice is a more mysterious character but we do know she is strong, loyal and kind. I always got the sense she genuinely wanted to help Fleetwood.  Their relationship was the heart of the story and I felt more invested in it than any other relationship in the book. The author had me on tenterhooks time and again as the women put themselves on the line and remained steadfast in their support of one another. 

The Familiars was my 100th read of the year and is definitely in my top ten for the year. I was enchanted by the author’s flawless storytelling and was instantly transfixed. The agony, apprehension, fear, rage and determination dripped from every page. It is a gem of a novel that I urge everyone to read. 

Paperback out September 24th

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Stacey Halls grew up in Rossendale, Lancashire, as the daughter of market traders. She has always been fascinated by the Pendle witches. She studied journalism at the University of Central Lancashire and moved to London aged 21. She was media editor at The Bookseller and books editor at Stylist.co.uk, and has also written for Psychologies, the Independent and Fabulous magazine, where she now works as Deputy Chief Sub Editor. The Familiars is her first novel. You can find her on Instagram @staceyhallsauthor and Twitter @stacey_halls

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As part of the media campaign for the paperback release of The Familiars, Stacey has asked people to use the hashtag #FWordsHavePower and share their powerful F words.  Below is an excerpt from her email:

Some of the most powerful words in the English Language begin with ‘F’. My debut novel The Familiars has F-words in abundance! For a start there’s Fleetwood, the main character, who is female and fiery, and her friendship with Alice, who may or may not have a fox familiar. There are themes of feminine fury, fates intertwined, failure . . . you get the idea.

These are the F words she shared to describe the novel: 

She asked us to share our own F words on social media. My F word was almost Fibromyalgia because it colours so much of my life, but instead I chose the word that describes who I’ve been since before I was born: 

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Comment below with your F word (keep it clean lol).

Blog Tour Review: A Shadow on the Lens by Sam Hurcom ⭐⭐⭐⭐

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Today is my stop on the blog tour for this debut novel. Thank you to Compulsive Readers for the invitation to take part and to Orion Publishing Group and NetGalley for my ARC copies of this book.

SYNOPSIS:

The Postmaster looked over my shoulder. As I turned to look I saw a flicker of movement from across the street. I felt unseen eyes peer at me. He walked away without another word. I watched as he climbed on his bicycle and sped away down the street. I turned back and looked over my shoulder.

Someone had been watching us.

1904 . Thomas Bexley, one of the first forensic photographers, is called to the sleepy and remote Welsh village of Dinas Powys, several miles down the coast from the thriving port of Cardiff. A young girl by the name of Betsan Tilny has been found murdered in the woodland – her body bound and horribly burnt. But the crime scene appears to have been staged, and worst still, the locals are reluctant to help.

As the strange case unfolds, Thomas senses a growing presence watching him, and try as he may, the villagers seem intent on keeping their secret. Then one night, in the grip of a fever, he develops the photographic plates from the crime scene in a makeshift darkroom in the cellar of his lodgings. There, he finds a face dimly visible in the photographs,  a face hovering around the body of the dead girl – the face of Betsan Tilny.

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MY REVIEW:

“He never left, he still remains. The demon of this village.”

Murder mystery meets supernatural thriller and gothic fiction in this chilling tale. Thomas Bexley is writing his story a decade after the events take place, using his diary entries for reference and we see extracts at various points in the book. He begins with a note addressing the reader directly and I loved the promises of the chilling, dark and sinister things to come. This is the first time he’s really spoken about what happened during that strange case and he admits to feeling concerned about how he will be viewed once he reveals the truth of all that transpired. 

Forensic photography is still in its infancy and Bexley, known in the field for his eye for detail and his gift for putting the evidence together, is a specialised investigator who is sent to assist with serious crime cases across the country. When Betsan Tilny is brutally murdered in the isolated Welsh village of Dinas Powys, Bexley is called to help solve the crime. But on his arrival he’s dismayed to find that those in charge seem to resent his presence. They’ve made up their mind who committed the crime and see Thomas as an unnecessary complication stirring up trouble and not understanding how they do things. 

Soon after his arrival Bexley has a sense of being watched, which only increases over time. He also comes down with a fever that inhibits his ability to work and forces him to take to his bed. And is it this fever that is making him imagine seeing the ghost of Betsan Tilny? He’s a man of science and doesn’t believe in such nonsense and decides that it is a manifestation of his fever.  But he can’t shake the fear that what he’s seeing is all too real and the victim trying to tell him something. Impeding his investigation is the unwillingness of the villagers to assist in the investigation. They’re hiding something, maybe even harbouring a killer, and Bexley is determined to get to the bottom of it.

Bexley is a serious, focused man who has no time to make friends or laze about. He’s there to do an important job in a thorough manner and will not let anything get in his way, not even being so sick he can barely stand. He was a great protagonist and I liked that unlike most others he saw no correlation between Betsan’s rumoured promiscuity and her death, reminding people repeatedly that nothing gives anyone the right to rape or kill another and nothing someone does mean they deserve such things happening to them. I was glad she had Thomas in her corner, fighting to find the truth and bring her killer to justice when others were glad of an easy way out and eager to brush the whole thing under the carpet. 

Councilman Robert Cummings is a loathsome character. He is the polar opposite of Thomas and seems completely uninterested in solving the crime. He makes no secret of the fact that he doesn’t want Thomas there, his repulsion of the victim, or that he’s made up his mind about who killed Betsan no matter what the evidence shows. He goes out of his way to prevent a real investigation and Thomas wonders if Cummings is the reason everyone is reluctant to talk to him. Like Thomas I was suspicious of what he really knew and what he didn’t want him to unearth. 

As truths were slowly revealed and the secrets of the village begin to be brought to light, the book became increasingly hard to put down. I was gripped and couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. A brilliant debut that is a superb mix of some of my favourite genres and one I would recommend. The atmospheric prose made me feel fully immersed in the story and there was an eeriness throughout. This is one of those books you need to read with the lights on. 

Publication Date: September 5th.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Sam Hurcom was born in Dinas Powys, South Wales in 1991. He studied Philosophy at Cardiff University, attaining both an undergraduate and master’s degree. He has since had several short stories published and has written and illustrated a number of children’s books. Sam currently lives in the village he was raised in, close to the woodlands that have always inspired his writing.

A Shadow on the Lens is Sam’s debut novel.

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Review: ‘The Girl at the Window’ by Rowen Coleman ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

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SYNOPSIS:

A house full of history is bound to have secrets…

Ponden Hall is a centuries-old house on the Yorkshire moors, a magical place full of stories. It’s also where Trudy Heaton grew up. And where she ran away from…

Now, after the devastating loss of her husband, she is returning home with her young son, Will, who refuses to believe his father is dead. 

While Trudy tries to do her best for her son, she must also attempt to build bridges with her eccentric mother. And then there is the Hall itself: fallen into disrepair but generations of  lives and loves still echo in its shadows, sometimes even reaching out to the present…

A hauntingly beautiful story of love and hope, from the Sunday Times bestselling author of The Memory Book and The Summer of Impossible Things.

MY REVIEW:

Rowan Coleman blends fact and fiction to create a breathtaking novel that captivated my soul. A story that is part non fiction, part gothic fiction, part historical fiction and part family saga, the writing is atmospheric, eloquent, lyrical and poetic with just the right amount of goosebump-inducing terror.

Told by multiple narrators over three timelines, this is the story of Ponden Hall and some of the many people who have occupied its walls. Built by the Heatons in 1540, the family have lived there ever since. It is also the place that Emily Bronte would come to use the library and where she wrote her classic novel, Wuthering Heights. The infamous house felt like a character in its own right, and it when it spoke it gave me chills. 

Trudy has always been fascinated with her ancestral home and with the Brontes – Emily in particular. As a young girl she would whisper her secrets to her, imagining her walking the halls as she did. Though Trudy is reluctant to live with her estranged mother Mariah, she is happy to be back at Ponden Hall as its always been home. She immediately feels a peace upon returning and, once again, speaks to it like an old friend. One day, Trudy makes a startling discovery – two pages of writing bound in leather, one of which she instantly recognises as being written by none other than Emily Bronte. The other was written by a girl named Agnes who says she used to live in the house two hundred years before Emily visited. What is Agnes’ story? And could this lead Trudy to the infamous and elusive second manuscript of Emily Bronte? 

This is the second novel I’ve read by this author. I fell in love with Rowan’s writing style when I read The Summer of Impossible things last year and after reading this book I know that it wasn’t a one off. Her prose is a joy to lose myself in every page is filled with heart and emotion. In this book there was the addition of the stunning scene setting – everything from the descriptions of the house and landscape to her mother’s appearance was vivid and immersive. 

The author’s love of Ponden Hall, Wuthering Heights, and the Brontes shines through every page of this novel. I’m ashamed to say I’ve never got around to reading Wuthering Heights but have since bought it, as well as another based on Heathcliff, and can’t wait to read them and learn more. Her passion is contagious.

Having three narrators from different timeline was a choice I loved. I really liked each of them and thought each woman brought something important to the story. Though each was born hundreds of years apart and lived very different lives, they were also similar in many ways. Both of the older timelines were well researched and felt authentic. I felt like I was actually reading things that Emily Bronte and a girl from the 1600s had written and experienced. The supporting characters were all just as well written as the narrators. I loved young Will particularly and enjoyed the honesty he brought to the story in a way that only a child of that age can. He was unafraid to ask difficult questions or say things adults avoided and never doubted that the things he saw and experienced were real. He gave Trudy a reason to carry on after Abe’s death and a reason to return to Ponden Hall. Without these things she may never have made her discoveries.

I also really enjoyed the flashbacks that told Trudy and Abe’s love story. I liked the fact that Abe was a real character we got to know and not just Trudy’s late husband or Will’s late father. Those stories also gave us greater insight into who Trudy is, why she hadn’t returned to Ponden Hall in so many years, and why she and her mother are estranged. I have wondered about the author’s inspiration for how they fell in love as it was so romantic, wistful and funny. 

In The Girl at the Window the author has blended fact with fiction to create a haunting and enchanting story. It was a book where I relished every word and never wanted it to end. I don’t think I can do more to describe how much I love this book or how exquisitely written it is, so I’m going to finish by saying that you should go read this book now! Just be prepared to fall in love. 

Thank you to Ebury Press and Penguin UK for my gifted copy of this book.

Out now.  

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Rowan Coleman lives with her husband and five children in a very full house in Hertfordshire. She juggles writing novels with raising her family. She longs to live at Ponden Hall.

She is the bestselling author of THE MEMORY BOOK, WE ARE ALL MADE OF STARS and the critically acclaimed THE SUMMER OF IMPOSSIBLE THINGS. 

Find out more about Rowan at http://www.rowancoleman.co.uk, Instagram, Facebook or Twitter: @rowancoleman.

Review: ‘The Confessions of Frannie Langton’ by Sara Collins ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

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Happy Paperback Publication Day to the lovely Sara Collins and one of my favourite books this year.

SYNOPSIS: 

1826, and all of London is in a frenzy. Crowds gather at the gates of the Old Bailey to watch as Frannie Langton, maid to Mr and Mrs Benham, stands trial for their murder.

The testimonies against her are damning – slave, whore, seductress. And they may even be the truth. But they are not the whole truth.

For the first time Frannie has the chance to tell her story. It begins with a girl learning to read on a plantation in Jamaica, it ends in a grand house in London, where a beautiful woman waits to be freed.

But through her fevered confessions, one burning question haunts Frannie Langton: could she have murdered the only person she ever loved?

REVIEW:

“I would never have done what they say I’ve done, to Madame, because I loved her. Yet they say I must be put to death for it, and they want me to confess.But how can I confess what I don’t believe I’ve done?” 

This remarkable debut novel is one of those books that reaches into your soul. Forbidden love, secrets, lies, obsession, madness, brutality, rage and murder. This book is filled to the brim with them all and takes you on an unforgettable journey as alleged murderess Frannie Langton tells her story. 

The Mulatta Murderess is what the papers have called her. But her name is Frannie Langton. The former slave is standing trial for the murders of her Master and Mistress, George and Marguerite, but says she couldn’t have done it because she loved her mistress. But that’s all she will say. She offers no evidence of her innocence, nor any defense. Instead, she writes her so-called confessions that tell the story of her life from her beginnings on a Jamaican plantation to the present day as she awaits judgement.

“Reading was the best thing and worst thing that’s happened to me.”

I loved the use of Frannie writing her own story and how it wasn’t chronological. The switches in the timeline skillfully wove the past and present together in a way that felt fresh and compelling. It also increased tension, foreshadowed events, and kept us guessing while also answering some questions in piecemeal. The excerpts of trial testimony sporadically inserted into the book were the perfect way to provide flashes of another perspective while showcasing the many prejudices and uphill battle Frannie was facing in her case.

This story deals with many important and hard to digest issues from the era, such as slavery. Though as a house girl Frannie is spared things such as working in the fields in the searing heat each day, she is still treated as less than human. And when Miss-bella, her Mistress on the plantation, decides to teach Frannie to read and write she feels lucky and doesn’t heed the warnings from Phibbah, another slave, that an educated negro is a threat to the white man. But she soon learns Phibbah was right. Reading the appalling brutalities that Frannie and other slaves are subjected to is hard at times but it is an important and potent part of her narrative. 

“I was all anger. Anger a drumbeat. Anger,  steady as rain on glass. Anger, like a hot spurt of blood from a wound.”

At an author event I attended back in May Sara Collins said, “novels for me come from characters” and talked about how she didn’t have a book until she knew her characters. This is evident for me in what a complex and wonderful character Frannie is. She’s honest, raw and flawed. She’s brave and intelligent. She refuses to be told what her life will be and dreams of more. Perhaps the most prolific part of Frannie’s narrative is anger. She talks about her rage at being looked down on, when she witnesses injustice and at being told she can and will only ever be a slave. She is very self-aware about her anger and there are times she’s ashamed of it, but overall she owns and accepts her rage, even seeming to be fuelled by it. You see it present in varying ways throughout her life and I have a lasting image of her hands cramping into fists by her sides. With all this anger you’re probably thinking she’s obviously guilty, but what I love about this book is it turns so many assumptions on their head. As you read it isn’t so hard to imagine that maybe she didn’t do it. Most of the time I understood her fury and thought I would have felt the same in her shoes. 

The other characters in this novel are all equally well written. While her Masters were very different, they were also both vile, evil men who mistreated her and I despised them both. She had a very different relationship with each of her Mistresses: Miss-bella was someone I loathed but also pitied at times. She taught Frannie to read but knew the danger that brought and she still mistreated her in other ways. Madame Marguerite was the woman Frannie loved and who she claimed was in love with her. She is a selfish and self-indulgent character but other than that I found myself vacillating between many feelings about her over the course of the book as although Frannie is in love with her and clearly worships her, as an outsider you see how she manipulates, uses and even puts Frannie in danger by her actions. 

“My life began with some truly hard things, but my story doesn’t have to, even though nothing draws honesty out of you like suffering.”

Though this is one of my favourite books I’ve read this year, I’ve found this review hard to write. So much happens and it’s hard to know what details to give without spoiling it and to eloquently describe how this book made me feel. But I needed to write this review, to tell others about this incredible story.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton shows us the worst of humanity but also some of its kindness. We see loneliness, hopelessness, desperation, brutality, anger and death, but also strength, hope, love and passion. It’s a haunting, beautiful, somber, eye-opening, emotional and penetrating story that gives a voice to those that have been forced to remain silent and muted. At the time the book is set people of colour were seen as less than human and race is a big part of this story, but for me, this is overwhelmingly a story about what it means to be human. How the differences in our skin don’t change the way we feel, love or dream. And a reminder that how the way we treat others says much more about ourselves than anyone else. 

Sara Collins’ debut novel is a masterpiece and is not only one of my favourite books this year, but ever. She deserves every bit of the accolades and recognition coming her way. It’s been two months since I finished it and I still find myself often thinking about Frannie and her story. I also can’t stop telling people they should read it. I definitely fell a bit in love with the imperfect but wonderful Frannie and her story and am going to be the first in line for a ticket if I get my dream and they make it into a film. 

Out now.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sara Collins studied law at the London School of Economics and worked as a lawyer for seventeen years. In 2014 she embarked upon the Creative Writing Masters at Cambridge University, where she won the 2015 Michael Holroyd Prize of Re-creative Writing and was shortlisted for the 2016 Lucy Cavendish Prize for a book inspired by her love of gothic fiction. This turned into her first novel, The Confessions of Frannie Langton.