Thursday 21 October 2021

The Lighthouse Witches by C J Cooke

On the island of Lon Haven off the Scottish coast stands an old, decommissioned lighthouse. This was in its turn built on the remains of an ancient broch underneath which lay a cave where, during the 1600s, women accused of witchcraft were imprisoned awaiting trial and execution. It's a place the locals fear, and keep well clear of, but now (1998) it's been bought, and the new owner has employed an artist to help turn the forbidding tower into a writer's studio. 

Liv Stay doesn't believe in witches or ghosts, but there's certainly something spooky about the lighthouse she's been commissioned to paint. She's barely settled into the adjacent cottage before strange things start to occur, and within months her and two of her daughters have disappeared, like so many islanders before them. The surviving daughter, Luna, has spent her life moving between foster homes, keeping well away from Lon Haven, trying to forget what happened there, but over 20 years later she's drawn back to the island when one of her sisters is found at last - but not having aged at all. 

I'm always on the look out for good supernatural stories, and I thought from what I'd heard online that this would be one, but overall I feel it disappointed.

It starts excellently. The author builds up the atmosphere of strange goings-on, of sightings of a small unknown child, of possible tell-tale signs of witchcraft activity gradually and carefully - enough to keep the reader intrigued; not so much that it seems completely over the top. The island's inhabitants tell of dreadful things happening in the past - the disappearance of children and their replacement by changelings - and hint that it still happens. It's enthralling; very dark and gothic, mixing terror and superstition.

But then - half, maybe three-quarters, of the way though I realised what the plot twist was, and from then I just wanted the characters to hurry up, see what was obvious to me, and solve the mystery. A bit like guessing the murderer in a whodunnit, it took the edge of the latter part of the book. 

Friday 15 October 2021

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E Harrow

"There's no such thing as witches. But there will be."

Once upon a time there were witches to be found in every town and village, but after systematic pursuing of anyone suspected of witchcraft everyone assumed that it was a thing of the past, not to be found in the modern world of 1893. But unknown to most, it lingered on in nursery rhymes and songs sung to children, and when the Eastwood sisters decide to pursue witchcraft as a means of gaining women's independence they find many people coming forward with knowledge of the old ways and eager to support them. Obviously they have opponents - most noticeable and dangerous being the new mayoral candidate Gideon Hill, a man who, despite his opposition to witchcraft, seems to command even shadows to do his bidding. The sisters must put aside their differences and work together as maiden, mother and crone to survive.

I totally adored The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Alix E Harrow's debut novel, and was hoping to find the same enchantment with The Once and Future Witches, but while I found it an enjoyable read it somehow didn't have the same magic. I suspect this is something extremely personal and quantifiable so don't let me put you off. The story is an intriguing one, set against a backdrop of a subtly-altered late 19th century when women were campaigning to be given the vote. In part it's about the freedom of women (and even men) to act and love as they choose; in part it's about the return of witchcraft to further those aims. 

Thursday 7 October 2021

Winter Flowers by Angelique Villeneuve

 translated by Adriana Hunter 

As the first world war is drawing to a close, Toussaint Caillet finds himself heading home from the Val-de-Grace military hospital where he's been undergoing facial reconstruction for wounds received two years before. At home wait his wife Jeanne and Leonie, the daughter he barely knows. Their reunion should, they feel, be a time of utter joy, but both feel separated and changed by the years they've spent apart. Short, but moving, the story follows them, particularly Jeanne, as they attempt to build a new life when their future has been snatched away.

It seems to me, though it could just reflect my reading, that there are more books written about soldiers coming home from war, than there are about the necessary adjustment that has to be made by the women to whom they return. Winter Flowers places the emphasis on the wife, Jeanne, as she attempts to re-connect with the almost-stranger who has returned from war. While her daughter Leonie struggles to find a resemblance between the photograph of the handsome father in soldiers' uniform and this newcomer with his masked face, Jeanne can't seem to recognise him at an emotional level. His injuries have turned him into an uncommunicative, morose man; his mask, which is supposed to protect the world from the sight of him, also becoming a way to hide from the world.

Throughout the war both Toussaint and Jeanne have kept secrets  - to spare the other from the horrors of the battlefield, or to hide the shortages of food and fuel that Paris is suffering from. These are comparatively small harmless deceits but they add to the gulf the two of them must now bridge. Slowly, gently, the story follows them as they reassess the missing years, and find a way to go forwards.

Monday 4 October 2021

Night Waking by Sarah Moss

This book has been sitting for far too long (years!!) on my TBR pile. One of so many that I've acquired (I think I won it in a competition) and never read. In this case, I think what slightly (and rather oddly) put me off was that everyone I knew said how good it was, and I didn't want to be let down, and them to be proved wrong.

Well, I didn't have worried. It is brilliant!

  Anna and her husband, both academics,  are spending summer on a remote Hebridean island belonging to her husband's family. Other than their family, and some visitors who arrive later, the place is deserted, and the idea is that the isolation will be good for them, allow them to get on with research and book-writing but while Giles disappears much of the day observing puffins, Anna has to juggle the demands of childcare - a toddler who still doesn't sleep through the night, and a seven year old pre-occupied with worries about global warming or natural and man-made disasters - with her writing about the perceptions of childhood, and how to best bring up children in the eighteenth century.

The novel starts as a sharply observed portrayal of a sleep-deprived mother in fear of losing her academic self under the weight of motherhood. In Anna's first person narrative, Moss carefully treads the tightrope between love and despair, dark humour and hysterical tears; the struggle to get through each day, longing for peace and quiet to pursue her own interests, alternating with exhaustion when the children eventually sleep.

And then, when the bones of a child are found buried in the garden, there's a mystery added, and research into Giles' family history helps Anna find a way out of her situation. Plus the visitors to the holiday cottage on the island give Anna a change to see motherhood from the outsiders point of view, and perhaps gain some perspective on her own life.

It's so, so good; a book which kept me enthralled, though maybe it's best not read while you've got sleepless children of your own.