The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

Purely by coincidence, I read this just after Emma Flint’s excellent Little Deaths, and despite the two very different settings, I was struck by the similarities. Both books are about men pursuing women at all costs, stopping at nothing to see them locked up, and both explore how easily mob mentality becomes whipped up. Increasingly, both of these themes seem disturbingly prescient.

In The Witchfinder’s Sister, Beth Underdown takes the historical figure of Matthew Hopkins, the self-proclaimed ‘witch-hunter general’ who records say sent at least 300 women to their deaths in just a couple of years. His motivation is mainly unknown, with the financial recompense from the villages he rid of witches suggested by some historians and his opponents as a key factor. With few records to give us any clues about Matthew Hopkins, and how he came to flourish, the author has invented Alice Hopkins, Matthew’s sister, who returns to Manningtree in Essex from London, pregnant and alone following the death of her husband. When they were growing up, Matthew was bullied by other children and shunned for the disfiguring burn marks on his face from a childhood accident. But now, he assists a group of powerful men who have suffered grievances, and have come to suspect witchcraft as the cause – and he enjoys this proximity to power. Alice watches, unable, or unwilling, to stop him, despite the urging of those around her. Penniless and with a baby on the way, she is dependent on Matthew’s charity. Anyway, witchcraft accusations are nothing new, but they’re usually thrown out before anything can happen. Also, she isn’t particularly fond of one of the accused women, having long worried that her late husband held a candle for her… but she has underestimated her brother’s zeal. As the number of women in gaol increases, Alice is no longer allowed to stand and watch, and is instead forced to take a more active role.

Whether Beth Underdown intended for modern parallels to be drawn between the witch trials of the 1600s, and the increasing polarisation of views of today, I don’t know. But as one of the accused muses ‘I suppose a person will confess to anything if they have not slept’, I found impossible not think of Donald Trump’s insistence that ‘torture absolutely works’. Initially convinced that ‘that can’t happen here’, Alice becomes increasingly complicit in her brother’s crimes, initially wanting to keep her head down, attempting to offset his mania through small acts of kindness, and only finding the will to stand up to him when it is too late. And that surely is the scariest bit – the age-old question: what would you do?

The book also subtly if intrinsically ties class and gender into the fear of witchcraft, with Alice’s mother in law theorising that rich men always expect those around them to resent their possessions and good fortune, and send ill-wishes their way. Alice herself ponders about how even insane and homeless men can be found gainful employment, but a lonely woman is a target. And Matthew’s witch-hunting zeal has as much to do with his hatred of women, as his piety, his unpopularity as a child, and his disappointment at not following his father’s footsteps to the ministry.

Well-researched, and genuinely unsettling, The Witchfinder’s Sister is a convincing, gripping and affecting account of the witch trials, exploring how fear and scapegoating spreads, why innocently standing by can never be so innocent, and how power becomes impossible to relinquish.

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown is published 2nd May by Viking

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

Interesting footnote. Whilst looking for a jacket image for this review, I discovered that there was once a very sweet-looking pub called The Essex Serpent near Covent Garden. It is now a shoe shop. That’s a shame…

The Essex Serpent opens with Cora Seaborne, newly widowed but not unhappy about this – indeed, the novel is punctuated with memories of Michael’s cruelties small and large, from plucking several hairs from her head and leaving her with a small bald spot, to pressing a candlestick against her collarbone hard enough to scar. Given a new lease on life, she departs with her devoted companion Martha and her obsessive son Francis for Colchester to look for fossils, inspired by the fossil hunter Mary Anning. There, to her delight, rumours abound of the mythical Essex Serpent, picking off the locals one by one on the Essex coast in Aldwinter. Cora is convinced that it could be a new species and determines to track it down. When she arrives in Aldwinter, she meets the vicar, William Ransome, who is determined to crush rumours of the Essex Serpent, seeing it as a distraction from real faith. Having initially been very suspicious of the other, Cora and Will develop an extremely close friendship – agreeing on nothing, yet inexorably drawn to each other.

This is primarily, for me, a book about love, and all the forms it can take, from friendship, and its ensuing friendly jealousies, to romantic love, requited or otherwise. Will is devoted in his love for his beautiful wife Stella, yet the deep friendship and love that builds between himself and Cora is something different and indescribable. Luke Garrett, the doctor and Cora’s close friend, loves Cora unrequitedly, but eventually finds solace in his friendship with a colleague. It is also about how love can motivate us, and change us – from George Spencer, who becomes an ardent defender of slum dwellers because of his love for the working class and socialist Martha.

It’s also a book about perceptions, and how we make assumptions and interpret signs as we wish to. Cora and Will have almost hilarious preconceptions of what the other will be like before becoming fast friends. And of course, everyone has their own ideas about the eponymous Serpent and what it means.It’s also about our own perceptions. Many of the characters are initially set up as Victorian stereotypes, from the working-class Martha, who is educated and an ardent socialist, to Stella Ransome, set up as the beautiful and frail, not-long-for-this-world vicar’s wife, but who subverts our expectations.

The Essex Serpent is beautifully written and warmly funny book, with the most stunning and evocative descriptions of nature and landscape – which has made the prospect of a holiday in Essex oddly tempting. It’s a clever and enchanting story about people, how we function and interact with each other, and with the world around us.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry is out now, published by (appropriately) Serpent’s Tail

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

A confession. Not having been alive at the time of the 1976 heatwave, part of me always sort of resents books about them. We had one in London around 10 years ago – my father had to stand next to the drain with a bucket when we were showering so there was water for the plants, and Ken Livingstone recommended we didn’t flush loos ‘unless necessary’. Ripe ground for fiction surely? But I digress. This resentment doesn’t stop me actually enjoying the books in question, it’s just a small insight into my personal follies. 

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep is a book about mysteries, about how communities draw together, and the secrets our neighbours keep. When Mrs Creasey goes missing, ten year old Grace and her loyal friend Tilly decide to take matters into their own hands. Following advice from the vicar (sort of), they set out uncover as Brownies to ‘find God’ in their neighbours’ houses, on the logic that if they find Him, Mrs Creasey will return. Periodically, the perspective changes to that of the neighbours: Mrs Forbes, bullied by her sinister and controlling husband; Eric Lamb, still mourning the death of his wife; and Mr Creasey himself, who has withdrawn into obsessiveness following the disappearance of his wife. And it’s through them that we get to know Mrs Creasey. In addition, mysteries skip through the pages: a baby who was kidnapped many years ago, an unexplained fire, and suspicious meetings held at the British Legion. And Walter Bishop, one of the neighbours who keeps himself to himself, suspected by everyone of various misdemeanours, and shunned and persecuted accordingly. Is Walter Bishop one of the goats of the title, banished by the Lord for not looking after him? And who are the sheep? 

I found this a wonderful book to read, captivating, perceptive, funny, and with beautiful turns of phrase, such as that Mrs Morton is ‘rattling like a pebble in a life made for two.’ Grace is joy to read as a narrator – convincingly childlike, as she bosses Tilly around, and muddles through, and yet innocently wise as she observes the neighbours’ hypocrisies and absurdities. For instance, in the village hall following church, ‘No one mentioned Jesus. In fact, I don’t think anyone would have noticed if Jesus had walked in, unless He happened to be accompanied by an Artic roll.’ A very special debut. 

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon is out now in paperback from Borough Press. 

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

It’s funny the number of people I’ve spoken to about this book who have immediately said that growing up, they always assumed that the Underground Railroad was a literal Underground Railroad. And then, usually at an embarrassingly older age, they realised that no, the slaves did not escape on the Tube. It’s this idea that Colson Whitehead plays with in his extraordinary novel. 

Cora is a slave on a terrible plantation in Georgia, shunned even by the other slaves. When her fellow slave Caesar asks her to run away with him, Cora is initially reluctant, but three weeks later she agrees, thinking of her mother, the only runaway slave who was never caught. And from the moment when Cora and Caesar flee the plantation, boarding the Underground Railroad, to the final poignant chapters, we barely draw breath. The pair emerge in South Carolina, initially a paradise until a sinister scheme for controlling the black population is revealed. Cora keeps on, finding herself in North Carolina, where Negroes have been banned altogether, and where she must hide, Anne Frank-like. And on it goes. Cora keeps on, occasionally finding happiness, finding love, finding refuge, but with the terrifying slave hunter Ridgeway always on her heels, determined to catch her as he failed to catch her mother. 

Throughout the book, even the bit-players are fleshed out, from Ridgeway and how he became the most successful and feared slave hunter in the South; to Stevens, the Doctor and bodysnatcher; to Ajarry, Cora’s grandmother who was transported from her village in West Africa; to Mabel, the runaway who is both Cora’s driving force and the object of her burning resentment for abandoning her as a baby. The far reach of slavery, and how it interlinks in all their lives, and the lives of everyone in the United States, is thus sharply highlighted. 

The Underground Railroad does not spare us a detail of the horror endured by the slaves on the plantation, the runaways, the free blacks, or even the white people who assist them, however reluctantly or self-servingly. The stark, pared-back prose never lets us forget that Cora’s ‘freedom’ hangs on a knife edge, or that violence, murder and lynchings can be found around every corner. 

With a breathtaking pace which would put a traditional thriller to shame, at once playfully inventive and almost unbearably poignant, The Underground Railroad is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year. 
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is out now, published by Fleet. 

Children of Icarus

I’m a huge fan of myths. I studied Latin at school, right up to A Level and I devoured stories of the Minotaur, Daedalus and Icarus and Hercules (yes, the Disney version). So when Georgia mentioned this book from Curious Fox, I knew it would be right up my street.

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“It is Clara who is desperate to enter the labyrinth and it is Clara who is bright, strong, and fearless enough to take on any challenge. It is no surprise when she is chosen.

But so is the girl who has always lived in her shadow. Together they enter.

Within minutes, they are torn apart forever. Now the girl who has never left the city walls must fight to survive in a living nightmare, where one false turn with who to trust means a certain dead end.”

Think Maze Runner meets Gladiator when it comes to this book. A group of teenagers, thrown into a maze to become Icarii, though we never really know if that’s actually a goal they should be striving for. The creatures and dangers of the maze are horrendous, we are closed in, just like the narrator to its narrow walls and we are equally nauseated by watching what happens to the other teens around her.

I’ve got to say – at times I found the narrator a little too… pathetic? She freezes whenever faced with danger, she is silent to the point that it ruins her future and she doesn’t seem to get over this at all. But then, if I was shoved into a maze like this, I think I’d be pretty useless too. Plus, it’s a little refreshing to read someone who isn’t automatically the reluctant hero (Katniss, Harry Potter etc.)

I don’t want to give anything away, but as we watch the narrator in the maze, navigating through the various people she meets, we realise how much of an impact family, friends and emotional ties have in this incomprehensible maze. Everyone has a role, everyone has a story and they are fighting just to survive which must be exhausting when there is no hope of anything more. I actually enjoyed these quieter moments more, when you saw the effect their situation could have on their personality and mental state. Yet these moments were matched with throes of action.

I loved the rumours of the maze – the stories of what might happen to you and the mysterious creatures and possibly, people, who roam it. When our narrator is out on her own, we learn so much more and the tension towards the end of the book is palpable. You know, just like the narrator, that we are close to finding out the truth, to finding out what’s at the end of this trail of clues. And then the book ends – infuriating but brilliant because all I want to do is pick up the next in the series to find out what is happening.

At moments, I hated that we never knew who the narrator was. But mostly, I loved her elusiveness – a characteristic that lends herself to a new role by the end of the book. The excitement that builds as you realise what she might become, and the chances she might have in the maze is great.

This novel mixes the classic labyrinth and its monsters with new trials, relatable characters and an intriguing plot. Though at times I was frustrated with our narrator, I’m desperate to find out the truth behind the Icarri and what secrets the maze holds.

Children of Icarus by Caighlan Smith is out now from Curious Fox.

The Muse by Jessie Burton

The term ‘difficult second novel’ seems a cliche now, rather than something to be overcome. I for one would have readily forgiven Jessie Burton if she hadn’t delivered a book as breathtaking as The Miniaturist, an outstanding and ambitious novel, only disappointing for not having ‘Miniaturist 2’ hot on its heels. Luckily, we have nothing to fear. 

The Muse opens in London 1967 with Odelle Bastien, who has lived in London for five years after travelling over from Trinidad. Like many children of the colonies, she had been taught that it was her Motherland, and was where the opportunities lie. Odelle dreams of being a writer, inspired by the BBC’s ‘Colonial Voices’ but her writing has been put on hold and she sells shoes in Dolcis. All of this changes when she applies for a typist role at the Skelton Gallery – not only is she paid more, but the undemanding job gives her plenty of time to write in the afternoons. The job also introduces her to the mysterious Marjorie Quick, her boss. 

Odelle is a prickly character – an obvious result of struggling to find her place in London, where she faces racism, both overt and covert. But she is also passionate, and Quick clearly sees something in her that she is determined to unlock. Everything changes when Lawrie, who Odelle had met at her friend’s wedding tracks her down at the Skelton – partially to invite her out, and partially to have a painting he has recently inherited valued. The painting turns out to be a lost masterpiece by a hugely talented Spanish artist who disappeared during the Spanish Civil War. Based on Quick’s reaction, Odelle senses that there is more to this story – but Quick is intent on keeping her distance. 

The narrative then takes us to 1936 in Southern Spain. Olive Schloss and her parents have moved to Arazuelo. Olive is an artist of evident talent who has just been offered a place at the Slade – but her father, an art dealer seems to have institutionalised the idea in her that women can never be artists. Olive knows with certainty that her paintings will never be taken seriously. Into their lives come half-siblings Isaac and Teresa Robles, for reasons that remain ambiguous and with explosive consequences. The result of this is the painting that Odelle puzzles over thirty years later. The mystery is unraveled tantalisingly, heartbreakingly, but ultimately satisfyingly. 

As I said previously, in my opinion, The Muse easily lives up to its hype. It’s beautifully crafted, emotionally compelling, huge ambitious – but also a serious page-turner. Odelle is a terrific first person narrator. She is not without her foibles – stubborn, proud, but also vulnerable and still trying to find her place in the world, in contrast to her friend Cynth, who works with her in the shoe shop – but loves the job and seems utterly happy in her her own skin. Odelle seems determined not to wear her education lightly – dropping literary references in, even in moments of tension – ‘her centre could not hold.’ She is frustrated by her white acquaintances’ determination to dismiss the racism she suffers and initially struggles to express herself honestly at the start of the novel. 

The Spanish sections of the narrative are just as, if not even more engaging. Odelle is no cypher, whose purpose is purely to uncover the mystery behind the painting – but the intrigue, and the sense of dread that builds in the bucolic paradise inhabited by the Schlosses and the Robles, and the feeling of history is hugely compelling – and with far more emotional. 

Jessie Burton has written, and spoken, very eloquently and movingly about her experience of suffering from severe anxiety after the publication of The Miniaturist. Consequently, the artist’s experience is a clear theme throughout the book: the feeling of desperately wanting approval, whilst not wanting to put oneself out there. The fear of vulnerability comes through very strongly: the characters put up fronts, hide behind others because they fear criticism, or feel that they personally are an unacceptable face for art. And then art can be reinterpreted, re written, misunderstood. At one point, Odelle mentions a Times piece which reinterprets the painting as a political allegory – with the knowledge we have from the story, we can chuckle at this idea, but it’s also a touching and thought-provoking take on the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, how the horror was internalised and tucked away: ‘Murderers still live ear their victims’ families, and between neighbour and neighbour twenty ghosts trudge the village road. Sorrow has seeped into the soil, and the trauma of survivors is revealed only by their acts of concealment.’

I hope nobody will be put off reading The Muse by the hype surrounding it – this is a remarkable story of love, authenticity, betrayal and ownership. Tense, human and exhilarating, this book deserves to be very widely read whilst we await ‘Miniaturist 2’ (I’m sure they’ll come up with a better title).

The Muse by Jessie Burton is published 30th June by Picador

Wolf by Wolf

Wolf by Wolf is an incredible book – full of adventure, passion, history and powerful characters and writing. It’s one that I’ll keep thinking about for months and years to come – a fantastic novel.


wolf by wolf

“Over ten years since the Nazis won the war, 17-year-old Yael has one mission: to kill Hitler. But first she’s got to get close enough to him to do it. Wolf by Wolf is a captivating YA alternative history thriller, selected as the BBC Radio 2 Book Club title for 4th January 2016 and perfect for fans of The Book Thief.

Once upon a different time, there was a girl who lived in a kingdom of death. Wolves howled up her arm. A whole pack of them – made of tattoo ink and pain, memory and loss. It was the only thing about her that ever stayed the same. Her story begins on a train.

Experimented on by scientists during her childhood in Auschwitz, Yael escaped from the concentration camp with the unique ability to change her appearance at will. The only parts of her which always remain are the five tattooed wolves on her arm, one for each of the people she’s lost. Now she is intent on getting revenge and achieving her goal: to kill the Führer and change history forever. But to get close enough she must win an epic and gruelling motorcycle race from Berlin to Tokyo – disguised as someone else…”

I had this book on my Kindle for a good month before I opened it up, simply because I had so much else to read (mostly for work). I was actually in a bit of a slump, I kept starting books and giving up  because I just wasn’t bothered – books I’ve come back to and loved since. But when I read the first few paragraphs of Wolf by Wolf, I was hooked. I kept being drawn back to my Kindle to read.

The time period is one I will never tire of, I inhale wartime fiction, and read Birdsong at least once a year. But I loved the twist Ryan puts on it, I love that we see a Jewish girl who is strong, resilient and who fights back. It was so interesting to read what the world might have been like if the Nazis had won the war. I loved the slight sci-fi edge too, it’s so light that it feels incredibly realistic, and completely believable.

Ryan’s characters are complex and powerful, I followed Yael’s romance, I adored the brother-sister relationship that she had to endure as Adele and the fierce adventure too. That’s what adds a new dimension onto this book: the bike racing. It’s like Storm Rider set in an alternative post-WWII period and it’s utterly unique and brilliant.

You have the politics and emotion of the Nazi time period, the emotion of the family relationships and what the wolves mean to Yael and the thrill of the long endurance of this race and its final goal. The twist is heartbreaking but so clever and you’re left hanging in the balance at the end of the book.

It was nice to read a book about a Holocaust victim which shows them as people outside of the camps and not only that, but strong, vengeful and important. At times she didn’t feel like a victim at all but you remember why she is there, what has happened which is true and you’re shook with anger, and even guilt, once more. It felt great to be seeking revenge on Hitler with Yael and that’s what makes the book so fantastic, a fiction adventure which has basis in reality, it’s like an alternative ending to history, a re-imagining, which makes it so easy to feel real.

The combination of tension, vivid detail, historical insight, pain, action and emotion makes this book totally different from anything I’ve read and it was an utterly fantastic read – brilliant characters with writing which didn’t let up for a second, I was completely immersed in their world and the story and am so excited to read Blood For Blood out in October.

Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin is out in paperback on 5th May.