The Island of Missing Trees, by Elif Shafak

My thoughts…

I loved this book. It was a Reading Group choice, but I had to drop out of the session so I don’t know what the others thought. I only know that it made me happy.

In 1974. two teenagers, from opposite sides of a divided Cyprus, meet at a tavern in the city they both call home. The tavern is the only place that Kostas, who is Greek, and Defne, who is Turkish, can meet in secret, hidden beneath the leaves of a fig tree growing through the roof of the tavern. This tree will witness their hushed, happy meetings, and will be there when the war breaks out and the teenagers vanish.

Why I loved it…

That lightest touch of magical realism placing the fig tree as storyteller was the making of the novel. I particularly enjoyed the fig tree mythology, there was a sense that sometimes the tree was boasting a little bit!

How pitch-perfectly the adolescent embarrassment was portrayed. Of course Ada could never go back to school.

What I learnt about Cyprus in the 70s – I really didn’t know the history behind this book apart from in a very general sense. I learnt a lot. I looked up too many things to list.

The love story felt so real.

Meryem and Ada working each other out. Food as love, and cultures colliding. Family growth and strength, and people learning to understand each other.

I will read more by Elif Shafak, I really enjoyed the writing style as well as the story.

Diary of a Provincial Lady, by E. M. Delafield

Reading my grandmother’s books

This post really is not a book review, it’s more of a wallowing in nostalgia moment. My father has recently started to clear some space in his bookcase-filled house. After an incident involving my childhood collection of Malcolm Saville books (it’s okay, I bought them back from the charity shop) I suggested that I might like a wee look through the boxes before he disposed of them?

In an otherwise unremarkable box full of 20th century poets, I found a small collection of old hardbacks inside a rather tatty briefcase, which I appropriated. The case and the books inside belonged to my grandmother, and they are all marked with her name and the date she read them on the title page.

Most of them are Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope and the Bronte sisters – those lovely between the wars small editions in dark blue, green and red. I will treasure them, and keep them, but I have already read them, many times in some cases.

I had not read Diary of a Provincial Lady before and I genuinely loved this gentle and very funny fictional diary. The self-effacing diarist – whose name you never know – is living in the depression, trying to keep up appearances, whilst baffled by her children and servants.

Granny was given this on her birthday in 1930, so she read it when it was brand new, and she obviously reread it quite a few times – it’s a much loved copy. I kept thinking about the period she lived in, and the fact that she had actually held and read the same book I was holding and reading. There’s a rather lovely continuity in that I think.

Just a thought to finish – is a book historical if it was written as contemporary, but we are reading it many years later?

The Appeal, by Janice Hallett

A murder mystery with an unusual twist

I didn’t choose this, I was given it by a friend who loved it. I’m always a little worried that these circumstances can turn into an awkward conversation that starts with “What did you think of the book?” but when she told me that it was epistolary I thought it was worth giving it a go.

There is a mystery to solve in the small town of Lockwood. It starts with the arrival of two secretive newcomers, and ends with a tragic death. Roderick Tanner QC has assigned law students Charlotte and Femi to the case. Someone has already been sent to prison for murder, but he suspects that they are innocent. And that far darker secrets have yet to be revealed…

I suppose it is epistolary, but in quite a broad sense. This is a murder mystery told in emails, text messages and reports, not to the reader, but to two young law students who have been given the case as a sort of test, the task is finding out if the wrong person has been imprisoned for the crime. That didn’t sound particularly realistic to be honest, but I suspended belief and continued.

The evidence is not all released to them at once, and we get to see their comments to each other and to their boss at the end of each section. It’s very clever and very readable as we work through the clues alongside Charlotte and Femi. There’s an amateur dramatic society, a hospital, a child with cancer and a fundraising scheme, and all the suspects are entangled within a small and rather claustrophobic community.

I actually really enjoyed The Appeal, the format made it a quick and easy read which didn’t make me think too hard. I was quite smugly satisfied with myself because I had solved most of it, but I hadn’t quite worked out all the nitty gritty by the denouement, so I didn’t get bored with it either.

A good read, I will pass it on to a charity shop and tell my friend that I enjoyed it. No need for the difficult conversation!

Infamous, by Lex Croucher

I love a happy ending

That moment of relief, followed by happiness when you realise that the second book is just as good as the first. Please tell me that Lex Croucher is going to keep writing these funny and heart-warming coming-of-age romances? I’m a bit addicted…

Rose and Eddie have been friends forever, but as they leave childhood behind things start to change between them. Rose starts to talk about marriage, but aspiring writer Eddie wants everything to stay the same. What will she do if Rose leaves her and she has no-one to listen to her stories?

It’s not ‘real history’, it isn’t pin-point accurate for the period, but that is not the point. Infamous is just joyfully itself. There will be Bridgerton comparisons, but ignore them. This is good in its own right.

The Women Could Fly, by Megan Giddings

Yet another book about witches…

I think there must have been a point earlier this year when I thought to myself “What shall I read next? I know, I’ll try a book about witches” and then I went out and got far too many of them. What can I say? This is another book about witches.

I’ve checked my shelves and I don’t think there are any more.

I requested this one from NetGalley, who kindly gave me an ARC, but perhaps I should have been a little more careful about reading the description. The Women Could Fly is a dystopian novel, a genre I normally avoid. Having said that, I’m always open to having my mind changed, and this book sounded interesting, so I gave it a go.

Jo lives in an America where women can still be accused of and burned for being witches. Her mother mysteriously disappeared when she was a child and she is black, both of which factors make her more vulnerable to accusation. In this version of society women must be safely married off before they reach thirty, thus losing all autonomy. Naturally, if they fail to marry they still lose it, having to undergo testing and supervision to make sure that they are not witches. Jo is twenty eight, and in a very dangerous position.

The novel was split into two places – the island of witches and the rest of America – and even the writing felt very different in the two. The interlude on the island was a bit odd, and I almost gave up at that point, but I’m glad I didn’t, because the last third of the book was the most intense bit, and I finished it in one go. It was a good, readable story that would probably appeal much more to someone who likes and chooses to read dystopia.

There were a few bits that bothered me – the relationships were all off-kilter, and although I realise that this was deliberate, I didn’t really like it very much. I did find myself wondering (when Jo and Angie discussed emigrating to Canada) why, if this was only a problem in America, people didn’t just leave?

The Women Could Fly will be published on the 18th August in the UK by Pan MacMillan.

All Women are Witches

This will be a short review, because I am still reeling from the joint impact of these two books, they both made me cry. I try to remind myself that it all happened a very long time ago, but then I look at the news and think maybe we still have a long way to go.

I have now read three books in a row where women are abominably mistreated by men, two of them set in the most shameful abuse of power that was the witchcraft trials. Of course no story based on either the Scottish or English trials ends well. These two have a bit extra in common, in that in both cases the central character is a very young woman, and both are real historical characters. I think it is so important to remember that the background to this fiction is not fictional.

Hex, by Jenni Fagan

It’s the 4th of December 1591

On this, the last night of her life, in a prison cell several floors below Edinburgh’s High Street, convicted witch Geillis Duncan receives a mysterious visitor, Iris, who says she comes from a future where women are still persecuted for who they are and what they believe.

Short, beautifully written and horrific.

It’s not hard to remember that Jenni Fagan is a poet, the language in this short but brutal tale of Geillis and Iris is what makes it so absorbing. It’s a story of manipulation and cruelty, pervaded with the sadness of foreknowledge. The brevity reflects Geillis’ short life and just makes it all feel so much more poignant, as we accompany her through her last hours. The North Berwick witchcraft trials are truly a blot on Scottish history.

England, 1643. Puritanical fever has gripped the nation. In Manningtree, depleted of men since the Civil War began, the women are left to their own devices and Rebecca West chafes against the drudgery of her days. But when Matthew Hopkins arrives, asking bladed questions and casting damning accusations, mistrust and unease seep into the lives of the women. Caught between betrayal and persecution, what must Rebecca West do to survive?

The Manningtree Witches, by A. K. Blakemore

Longer, beautifully written, still horrific.

I didn’t know about the Manningtree trials in particular, but this novel too is based on fact. Manningtree is where the self-titled Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins started his campaign against the poor and ostracised women left with no recourse after the Civil War created poverty and widowhood in small villages and communities all over England. Rebecca West’s mother Anne is loud, outspoken and not afraid to wield a curse, their neighbour Elizabeth Clarke is elderly, forgetful and inclined to live in the past when her husband and children were alive. The goodwives of the village distrust these outsiders, and when things go wrong, they need someone to blame.

Both books are going onto my keeper shelf, I will probably reread them sometime, but not together.

The Mad Women’s Ball, by Victoria Mas

Wielding insanity as a weapon

I have had this book for a while, but it was lingering at the bottom of my unread stack until I saw a couple of reviews which intrigued me. The true joy of reading book blogs is the review that captures your imagination, or the special feeling when you discover a blogger who reads what you do. It’s a wonderful way to find books that you haven’t heard of, but which are just your thing. So thankyou to booksandbakes1 and BookBloggerish for your enthusiasm, because I loved The Mad Women’s Ball. To my shame it was genuinely quite dusty when I pulled it out of the heap.

The Salpêtrière asylum, 1885. All of Paris is in thrall to Doctor Charcot and his displays of hypnotism on women who have been deemed mad or hysterical. But the truth is more complicated – these women are often inconvenient, unwanted wives or strong-willed daughters. Once a year, a grand event is held – the Mad Women’s Ball. For the Parisian elite, it is the highlight of the social season; for the women themselves, it is a rare moment of hope.

The Mad Women’s Ball is fiction woven around a real institution – the Salpêtrière asylum – and it’s inmates and staff. The uncomfortable dynamic between those in power and those who are powerless is obvious from the start. Whether they be doctors determined to prove their diagnoses and treatment methods, or husbands, fathers and brothers willing to commit women who are inconvenient or intransigent, the whole balance is tipped towards men. The women in this place have no say at all.

Eugénie is confident in her privileged life, she is testing her boundaries, and stretching to the limit what her father will allow. She has a dangerous secret, and when it is revealed, her father takes her to the Salpêtrière. Geneviève is a nurse there, a position she loves, but she is gradually brought to the realisation that what she believes in and supports may be unjust and wrong. Naïve Louise is innocently day-dreaming of the day she will marry and be taken away, Thérèse knits shawls for the other inmates and watches over them protectively.

All these women are a close sisterhood supporting each other whilst hiding their true selves. The annual Costume Ball is just another form of disguise. One night each year when they can dress up, dance and dream, and perhaps escape.

The Mad Women’s Ball was a little bit more Gothic than I had expected it to be – very dark in places – but really, really good. I have since learnt that there is a film too, although I think I need to let the book settle for a while before I watch it.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, by V. E. Schwab

Or why immortality is a bad idea

This book has been on my radar for quite a long time, and I know a lot of people really, really loved it, but I’m afraid I wasn’t one of them. Don’t misunderstand, I didn’t actively hate it and I finished reading it (I don’t hesitate about not finishing a book I don’t enjoy), but I was disappointed that I felt it did not live up to the hype. A lot of bloggers and booktubers and readers on tiktok (which I really do not understand) picked up on this one, maybe the fault is in me because I expected it to be something really special, I am usually more wary of those very enthusiastic book reviews.

France, 1714: in a moment of desperation, a young woman makes a Faustian bargain to live forever and is cursed to be forgotten by everyone she meets.

Thus begins the extraordinary life of Addie LaRue, and a dazzling adventure that will play out across centuries and continents, across history and art, as a young woman learns how far she will go to leave her mark on the world.

Addie makes a bad deal with one of the old gods (or is he the devil? It’s a tad smudged) in order to evade arranged marriage and forever drudgery. In exchange for her soul some time in the future she is given immortality and the chance to explore farther afield than her small rural village, but the inevitable downside is that no-one remembers her.

I actually enjoyed reading about Addie wandering through history, I could have dealt with more of that, but I’m afraid I was completely lost once we hit the love story in the current time – it felt like it should be such a small thing compared to what had passed and what was to come.

Henry writes down what Addie tells him and publishes a book entitled, you guessed it, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, and the whole concept of the story within a story should have appealed to me, but I had already lost interest at this point. The character of Henry seemed so lightweight compared to Addie and Luc.

I know lots of readers love this book, the length of my library waiting list was evidence of this, but it just wasn’t the right book on the right day for me.

Godmersham Park, by Gill Hornby

What it was really like for the governess

There are way too many books that romanticise the role of the governess in Regency Britain. It must have been a pig of a job, totally dependent on the whims of your employer, and often only taken on out of sheer necessity. I did some research a few years ago during which I read a lot of letters and journals written by governesses and companions. I don’t remember reading a single happy account.

On 21 January 1804, Anne Sharpe arrives at Godmersham Park in Kent to take up the position of governess. At 31 years old, she has no previous experience of either teaching or fine country houses. Her mother has died, and she has nowhere else to go. Anne is left with no choice. For her new charge – twelve-year-old Fanny Austen – Anne’s arrival is all novelty and excitement.

Gill Hornby has written a fictional biography of a real person – Anne Sharpe the governess of Jane Austen’s niece – based on Fanny Austen’s own diaries which she kept throughout her life. This is an intricate and delicate story of a woman who has to make the best of her situation, whilst hiding secrets and ill health that would lose her her place. She finds a kindred spirit and builds a strong friendship with Jane Austen, Fanny’s favourite aunt and very much the poor relation.

I think I would describe Godmersham Park as a thoughtful read, a novel about people who you became closer to as you learnt their stories. It’s always a little dangerous to fictionalise real people, but in this case it works very well, because it is all set within such close parameters. The claustrophobia of a country house is really well portrayed and Godmersham itself is part of the character set, from Anne’s small and decidedly not private bedchamber, to the dining room where she may or may not be welcome to dine. Her role as governess – not servant, but not family or guest is truly heart-breaking at times.

The novel only covered the period of those few years that Anne Sharpe was actually at Godmersham. I wanted it to continue after she left, to follow the rest of Anne’s life, but it was not to be. I was consoled by the very detailed Author’s Note at the end. For a reader like myself who needs to look up anything that might possibly be historical fact, this was a bit of a godsend, and I learnt that the friendship between Anne and Jane continued, and that they kept in contact until Jane Austen’s death.

I had an advanced reader copy, thanks to Netgalley and Random House UK. Godmersham Park will be published on the 23rd of June (yes, I have run this one a bit close). Definitely a must for the Jane Austen fans.

Half a Soul, by Olivia Atwater

Orphans and embroidery scissors

This was a lovely bit of light escapism, just when I needed it.

Half a Soul is set in an alternate Regency London, where our heroine, Dora is up for her cousin Vanessa’s Season. Dora had the emotional side of her soul stolen by an elf when she was just a child, which left her to live her life with no inconvenient emotions, but with the common-sense, literal side of her soul. Her aunt and the society ladies feel that this makes her a bit of an embarrassment.

When she encounters Lord Sorcier Elias, she finds someone else who is as out of step with the world as she is – he is brusque and rude, and has no time for the conventions and hypocrisies of polite society. She joins him in helping his friend investigate the mysterious sleeping plague that is affecting workhouse children. Can they discover what is going on before it’s too late? And what connects Dora, Elias and these children?

The embroidery scissors are, by the way, vitally important to the plot.

A bit of a cross between the darkness of the goblin market and a classic Regency romance, I thoroughly enjoyed this, and I have now bought the next two in the series. If you sign up to Olivia Atwater’s newsletter there are a couple of free novellas too. The Lord Sorcier which tells the story of how Elias gained his title, and The Latch Key, set some years later. Definitely worth downloading.