The Familiars by Stacey Halls

the familiars

I received a free ARC of The Familiars by Stacey Halls from the publisher in return for review consideration; receipt of a free copy has not affected my opinion or the contents of this review. The Familiars is a paranormal historical novel, due to be published by Bonnier Zaffre in the UK on 4th February 2019.

Below is the Goodreads synopsis of the book:

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 isn¹t supposed to read from the doctor who delivered her third stillbirth, she is dealt the crushing blow that she will not survive another pregnancy.

When she crosses paths by chance with Alice Gray, a young midwife, Alice promises to help her give birth to a healthy baby, and to prove the physician wrong. 

When Alice is drawn into the witchcraft accusations that are sweeping the North-West, Fleetwood risks everything by trying to help her. But is there more to Alice than meets the eye? 

As the two women’s lives become inextricably bound together, 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.

First off, the cover of this book is absolutely gorgeous. I was lucky enough to receive an ARC, and it’s just an overall lovely book. So if you’re attracted by shiny covers, this one will definitely pull you in!

Although I’m not a big reader of historical fiction in general, I do love witches, and I also enjoy historical fiction which deals with some of the ways women were oppressed in that particular time. In the early 1600s, this was through accusations of witchcraft, even when the accused women were likely just using knowledge of basic medicine they had learnt, which made use of herbs and the experience of generations before them. The Familiars has this at its heart, and I really enjoyed that element of the story.

I also really enjoyed-slash-was incredibly frustrated by the historical elements surrounding the trials. There’s religion at play, there’s monarchy and its power over a divided country, there’s the patriarchy, there’s so much. The historical setting is richly described and brings such depth to the story. I think this was my favourite element of the book. Halls’s scene setting had me engaged in the story right from the start, and also taught me about a period of English history about which I had very little knowledge.

Fleetwood, the story’s heroine, is desperate to carry a child to term, and though she brings family money to her marriage, she has little power compared to her husband.  The way that he has benefited from her is clear throughout the story, and will leave you frustrated and angry on her behalf. She’s also incredibly young, and I found myself being reminded that she was only seventeen, and feeling quite horrified by what she was going through. But it does make for satisfying reading as Fleetwood starts to realise that she has more power than she imagined, and tries to work out how she can best wield it.

Whilst Fleetwood is a solid main character, I found myself less engaged with Alice, who I think was really the more interesting character. As the story is told from Fleetwood’s perspective, we only experience Alice through her eyes, and with there being so much mystery surrounding her, I did find myself somewhat unsatisfied by what felt like a lack of depth in her character development. She felt more like a plot device designed to move Fleetwood’s story along than a fully realised character in her own right. I found the same true of the other secondary characters, and for me, this meant the book wasn’t as enjoyable as it otherwise might have been.

The Familiars is a well-written, engaging historical novel about a fascinating period in English history, with a side of witchcraft. I loved the setting and the main character, though I did feel that the secondary characters lacked depth. However, overall, I really enjoyed this book and would definitely recommend it to anyone enjoys historical fiction focused on women of the time, plus witchcraft!

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Pulp by Robin Talley


I received a free e-ARC of Pulp by Robin Talley via NetGalley in return for review consideration; receipt of a free copy has not affected my opinion or the contents of this review. Pulp is a queer YA historical novel, published by HQ Young Adult, an imprint of HQ, in December 2018.

Below is the Goodreads synopsis of the book:

In 1955, eighteen-year-old Janet Jones keeps the love she shares with her best friend Marie a secret. It’s not easy being gay in Washington, DC, in the age of McCarthyism, but when she discovers a series of books about women falling in love with other women, it awakens something in Janet. As she juggles a romance she must keep hidden and a newfound ambition to write and publish her own story, she risks exposing herself—and Marie—to a danger all too real.

Sixty-two years later, Abby Zimet can’t stop thinking about her senior project and its subject—classic 1950s lesbian pulp fiction. Between the pages of her favorite book, the stresses of Abby’s own life are lost to the fictional hopes, desires and tragedies of the characters she’s reading about. She feels especially connected to one author, a woman who wrote under the pseudonym “Marian Love,” and becomes determined to track her down and discover her true identity.

In this novel told in dual narratives, New York Times bestselling author Robin Talley weaves together the lives of two young women connected across generations through the power of words. A stunning story of bravery, love, how far we’ve come and how much farther we have to go.

I’d seen a lot of hype about Pulp around the bookish internet, so I was excited to pick it up. I’ve read some of Talley’s other books, with some mixed feelings about them. And sadly, Pulp was another that left me with mixed feelings, though I think a fair amount of that is probably my personal taste.

Pulp follows two parallel story lines. In modern day DC, Abby is struggling with her senior year of high school. She’s just broken up with her first girlfriend, and has some serious work to do in school. In the 50s, Janet has had her eyes opened to the fact that she might be a lesbian, something which, were she to be open about it, could place her in serious danger. The stories overlap when Abby delves into the world of lesbian pulp fiction, reads the book that Janet wrote, and becomes determined to discover what happened to its author.

As a historical novel, Pulp certainly brought home to me the dreadful realities of being gay in 1950s US. Janet reads as quite naïve to today’s audiences, but that only emphasises how very little information she had, and how few ways she had to get more information. She’s reliant on a whisper network, and on brave individuals willing to put themselves out there to try and educate her. It’s a chilling way to live, and given news coming from other places, such as Chechnya, it certainly made me grateful to be living in present day London, and more appreciative of the daily difficulties of people who came before.

The modern storyline, with Abby, is well-wrought, giving what felt to me like a realistic vision of a hugely stressed out senior who feels like everyone around her has a clear idea of what they’re doing with their lives, while she’s just treading water, trying to figure out where to go next. I could certainly relate to her in that way, and I think there will be plenty of other readers who feel similarly. Compared to Janet, Abby and her friends are incredibly worldly and knowledgeable, and learning about Janet’s story teaches Abby about how drastically things have changed in sixty years, and gives her some perspective on her own life.

The book also has commentary on what it means to be a writer, from both Abby and Janet’s perspectives. Without saying anything that would spoil the story, I definitely appreciated the lessons that Abby comes to learn about writing from investigating Janet’s life, and how books can mean hugely different things to their authors and their readers.

The reason I personally didn’t enjoy the book that much was because I struggled to connect to either of the main characters. I enjoyed reading about them, but didn’t feel particularly engaged with their stories. As I mentioned above, I think that’s probably a matter of personal taste. I’ve felt a similar way about others of Talley’s books that I’ve read, so I think it’s just that her writing doesn’t suit me personally.

Overall, Pulp is a well-written book with a great, diverse cast, which sheds light on a period of recent history which, from my knowledge, has been little touched upon by current YA novels. It offers an opportunity for modern readers to learn about the day to day experience of life as a queer person in the 1950s, as well as showing a modern teen who’s dealing with personal problems of her own. Though it wasn’t a book I enjoyed much myself, I think it would appeal to those who enjoy historical fiction, parallel storylines, and anyone who’s enjoyed previous of Talley’s books.

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The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner

The Sisters of the Winter Wood

I received a free e-ARC of The Sisters of the Winter Wood by Rena Rossner from NetGalley in return for review consideration; receipt of a free copy has not affected my opinion or the contents of this review. The Sisters of the Winter Wood is a fantasy novel which was published by Orbit Books, an imprint of Little, Brown, in the UK in September 2018.

Below is the Goodreads synopsis of the book:

Raised in a small village surrounded by vast forests, Liba and Laya have lived a peaceful sheltered life – even if they’ve heard of troubling times for Jews elsewhere. When their parents travel to visit their dying grandfather, the sisters are left behind in their home in the woods.

But before they leave, Liba discovers the secret that their Tati can transform into a bear, and their Mami into a swan. Perhaps, Liba realizes, the old fairy tales are true. She must guard this secret carefully, even from her beloved sister.

Soon a troupe of mysterious men appear in town and Laya falls under their spell-despite their mother’s warning to be wary of strangers. And these are not the only dangers lurking in the woods…

The sisters will need each other if they are to become the women they need to be – and save their people from the dark forces that draw closer.

Sisters of the Winter Wood is another book that I’d seen all over the place, and I was intrigued by the story. Following two sisters as they come to learn things about their family they’d never even dreamed of, this is a hugely vivid story which pulls the reader into their world.

The main characters are the two sisters, Liba and Laya. They’re very different people, and this is emphasised throughout the book. They have different personalities, they want different things, and they approach the world around them differently. I enjoyed how we were able to see the world through two very different perspectives, and how much more depth that brought to the story. I also liked seeing the secondary characters from these differing viewpoints. Particularly given the nature of some of those characters, it really emphasises how personal perspective influences how we see the world.

As the story develops, we learn more about their town through the experiences of Liba and Laya. They’ve always felt comfortable there, though they’ve known that being Jewish sets them apart from others, and it’s heartbreaking to see that change over the course of the story. Rossner, I felt, did a brilliant job in showing the creeping changes that came over the town and its inhabitants, and how it took relatively little to bring old tensions to the surface. I think this was the aspect of the story I appreciated most, though it’s also one of the saddest elements of the book.

There are a number of themes in this book, all of which I think are woven together skilfully by Rossner. It’s a coming of age story for the sisters, with life-changing consequences for both. It’s a story about otherness, and the inherent lack of security that comes from being other in a place that, whatever the surface might show, might not always be safe for you. It’s also about family and what that means – is it blood, is it upbringing, is it the people you’ve chosen to be around you? As an overall story, I think Sisters of the Winter Wood is both honest and hopeful, and a very apt fantasy tale for our current era.

All that being said, I didn’t love this book as much as I wanted to, or as much as I feel like I should have. However, I would put that down to personal taste rather than anything else here. And the reason I say this is because there wasn’t anything particular that I actually disliked about the book, and in fact there’s a lot about the book that I think is really good; it just wasn’t for me.

Sisters of the Winter Wood is certainly an intriguing addition to current fantasy offerings, and I think it will appeal to anyone looking for a fantasy story that’s very relevant to the current world we live in. It’s got sisterhood, it’s got family secrets, and a whole lot of magic. Although it wasn’t the book for me, I think it has a lot to recommend it, particularly if you like your fantasy a little darker, but without the violence that often comes with that.

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The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee

The Lady's Guide

I received a free ARC of The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzie Lee from the publisher in return for review consideration; receipt of a free copy has not affected my opinion or the contents of this review. The Lady’s Guide is a queer YA historical novel, published by HarperCollins in the UK in November 2018.

Below is the Goodreads synopsis of the book:

A year after an accidentally whirlwind grand tour with her brother Monty, Felicity Montague has returned to England with two goals in mind—avoid the marriage proposal of a lovestruck suitor from Edinburgh and enroll in medical school. However, her intellect and passion will never be enough in the eyes of the administrators, who see men as the sole guardians of science.

But then a window of opportunity opens—a doctor she idolizes is marrying an old friend of hers in Germany. Felicity believes if she could meet this man he could change her future, but she has no money of her own to make the trip. Luckily, a mysterious young woman is willing to pay Felicity’s way, so long as she’s allowed to travel with Felicity disguised as her maid.

In spite of her suspicions, Felicity agrees, but once the girl’s true motives are revealed, Felicity becomes part of a perilous quest that leads them from the German countryside to the promenades of Zurich to secrets lurking beneath the Atlantic.

This is the sequel to Lee’s The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, which I absolutely flew through in anticipation of reading this one, and absolutely loved. This book focuses on Monty’s sister, Felicity, who wants to be a doctor, and isn’t going to let the social standards of Regency prevent her from reaching her goal. There’s some adventuring, a little bit of magic, and a whole lot of very satisfying comeuppances for the people who think they can control Felicity.

Overall, this was a really enjoyable book. Felicity was a great side character in the first book, and it was great to see her more fully fleshed out here. It’s super satisfying to watch her work so hard to achieve her goals, and to see her character grow and develop as the story goes on. As well as seeing more from Monty and Percy, we get some great new secondary characters who accompany and support Felicity, plus some new bad guys. The action motors along all the way through, and I was never in danger of being bored or losing interest.

I’m not a huge reader of historical fiction, so I can’t really comment on the accuracy of Lee’s portrayal of the times, but I certainly enjoyed her interpretation of it. I think that, on the whole, Lee strikes a good balance between representing the period and creating a story that’s enjoyable for modern readers. This is partly accomplished by challenging, through the characters, many of the contemporary sensibilities of the time involving race, class, gender, colonialism and so forth, and partly by bringing a gorgeous level of detail to her writing, so that we can easily imagine ourselves in this world.

In the character of Felicity, we have some great aro-ace representation, and I personally appreciated seeing her question herself when confronted with social pressures, but ultimately realise that she does know herself and what she wants, and that she can stick up for herself. This is part of Lee’s challenging of contemporary views and social expectations, and it made this ace-spec reader very happy to read. However, this is tempered somewhat by the continuing issues that she has with Monty and Percy’s relationship, which is something that was in the first book as well. On the one hand, it’s definitely understandable that a woman of her time might hold views that we now see as as bigoted and homophobic. Particularly where Felicity herself is coming into her own identity and wants to be allowed to live as she wants, it’s frustrating to not see her grant the same acceptance to her brother.

If you’ve not read The Gentleman’s Guide yet, I would definitely recommend picking that up, and then heading straight into this book. It’s such an enjoyable read, and even if you’re not typically into historical fiction, it’s worth giving this one a shot if you’re in the mood for women who know their worth, and will go through as many challenges as necessary to reach their goals.

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A Hidden Hope by Laura Ambrose

A Hidden Hope

I received a free copy of A Hidden Hope by Laura Ambrose directly from the author in return for review consideration; receipt of a free copy has not affected my opinion or the contents of this review. A Hidden Hope is a queer romance novella, self-published by the author in October 2018.

Below is the Goodreads synopsis of the book:

Natalie and El used to be writing critique partners, sharing their work chapter by chapter. Falling in love off-page was like the next part of the story. But after a huge falling out, three years have passed in bitter silence.

When they both appear at a science fiction convention in London, Natalie, a struggling writer, wants nothing to do with El, the hot debut novelist who sold her book at auction under a male pseudonym. But over the weekend, ignoring each other–and their attraction–proves impossible, not least because they have several panels together. Can El hope to atone for the mistakes of their past, and is Natalie willing to let hope fly?

Firstly, if you’re interested in this book, I would highly recommend checking out A Frozen Night as well; A Frozen Night is a prequel to A Hidden Hope, exploring the first time that Natalie and El meet IRL after becoming critique partners online. All the backstory you need for A Hidden Hope is within the novella itself, but it’s a great story in and of itself, and lovely to see how the characters have changed from the first to the second story.

Although it’s short, A Hidden Hope really packs a punch in the feelings department. Moving back and forth between Natalie and El’s perspectives, we learn about their lives now, the argument that brought their relationship to its current status, and follow them as they explore the possibility of a second chance. I felt truly engaged with both characters, and particularly Natalie in her aggrieved, somewhat bitter state at the start of the book. There’s a good balance of tension and relief, and the conflicts within the story feel realistic and organic. There’s great chemistry between the two characters, and it sizzles throughout the story, whether they’re angry at one another, or something else entirely.

As someone who’s attended a few conventions in her time, I absolutely loved the setting, at a London-based SFF convention. It’s a great backdrop to a story such as this, with all the gossip and the interconnected webs of people, and the spectre of people watching Natalie and El all the time. It’s also great to have a story following people who are so passionate about what they do, and who are surrounded by people who share those passions.

The other important storyline within A Hidden Hope is that of writing, and what it means to be a writer in a contemporary setting. We see the struggles of the mid-list author worried about getting her next book published, and the author whose debut has snagged them a huge advance, but that comes with its own problems too. For anyone hoping to get published, this book has great lessons about the industry, and about what it means to be a writer, in whatever form that takes for you.

If you’re looking for a quick read that’s full of romance, fun, and geekery, A Hidden Hope is definitely worth picking up, and I would also recommend checking out the prequel as well. I for one hope to read more of Natalie and El’s adventures in the future!

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Top Ten Tuesday – 27th November

I’m doing the Top Ten Tuesday meme, which is now hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, and the theme for 27th November is…Platonic relationships in booksI love when platonic relationships are given a true focus in books, so this is a great topic for me!

  1. Just Visiting by Dahlia Adler – this YA contemporary about two best friends trying to make decisions about colleges is truly wonderful. Adler treats their friendship with such respect and really lets it shine
  2. The Rachel Peng series by KB Spangler – this series is full of platonic relationships, and is really all about found family. Go, read them all, now!
  3. The Cheerleaders by Kara Thomas – there’s an unexpected friendship that becomes hugely important to this story, and I loved it. It really grounded the main character’s story, and took things in a direction I wasn’t expecting
  4. Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst – there’s a great friendship in this book between one of the main characters and her ex-boyfriend, and it’s lovely to see people staying friends with their exes
  5. Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik – at the core of this book is the relationships that develop between the three main characters, and I just love it
  6. A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers – I can’t say too much about the platonic relationships in this book without spoiling things, or spoiling the previous book in the series, but it’s truly a book all about friendship
  7. The Winnowing Flame series by Jen Williams – there are a lot of characters in this series, and a lot of complex relationships, but they’re all brilliantly developed by Williams, and I can’t wait to see what will happen to them in the final book in the series
  8. The Seven Shores series by Melissa Brayden – although these are romance novels, the heart of the series is the friendship between the four main characters, and I love how it ties the whole series together
  9. Summer Bird Blue by Akemi Dawn Bowman – there’s a gorgeous friendship in this book between the main character and the older man who lives next door to her aunt. That kind of intergenerational friendship is sorely lacking in fiction, and it’s a hugely important part of this lovely book
  10. Ash Princess by Laura Sebastian – there’s a platonic relationship in this book that I sense is going to become even more important in the second book and I’m really looking forward to seeing how that goes

I could definitely have put more books on this list, but these are some of the first ones that came to mind!

What are your favourite bookish platonic relationships? If you’ve got a Top Ten Tuesday this week, pop the link in a comment and I’ll check it out!

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Top Ten Tuesday – 20th November 2018

I’m doing the Top Ten Tuesday meme, which is now hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, and the theme for 20th November is…Thanksgiving/thankful freebie, and I’m just going to pick ten books that I’m thankful for!

  1. The Rachel Peng series by KB Spangler – you all must be tired of hearing me go on about these books! But I love them, and I’m thankful for their mix of science, thriller, friendship, and queer romance
  2. Final Draft by Riley Redgate – I only read this book this year, but I’m thankful for a main character who made me feel incredibly seen
  3. Solitaire by Kelley Eskridge – this book had been on my TBR for ages, and I’m thankful for its incredible plot, and how brilliantly it lived up to my expectations
  4. The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily R Danforth – I finally have my own copy of this amazing book, and I’m thankful that it’s come to the forefront again with its brilliant adaptation
  5. The Secret Place by Tana French – another book that I recommend all the time! I’m thankful for its incredible representation of the friendships of teenage girls, and the strange isolation of all girls’ schools
  6. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas – I read this book only a few weeks ago, but I’m thankful for its incredible writing, and a story that’s just so relevant in our current time
  7. The Court of Fives series by Kate Elliott – the audiobooks of this series are great, and I’m thankful for the thoughtful entertainment they gave me while I was travelling
  8. The Cheerleaders by Kara Thomas – another one that I keep recommending, and I’m thankful for the lessons it’s taught me about pacing and plotting
  9. When We Were Bad by Charlotte Mendelson – another old favourite, I’m thankful for a main character who really speaks to me, and for a family that makes me both sad and thankful for my own, tiny family
  10. A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers – I spent roughly the last fifty pages of this book crying, and I’m so grateful for that, and for the way this book talks about friendship and humanity and what it means to be alive

I’m thankful for all these books, for various reasons, but they’re all books that have brought something lovely into my life and really stuck with me.

Have you read any of them? What books have made you thankful? And if you’ve got a Top Ten post this week, pop the link in a comment below and I’ll check it out.

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