The Vanishing Witch – Karen Maitland

Published October 23, 2014 by bibliobeth


What’s it all about?:

The Vanishing Witch by Karen Maitland, author of the hugely popular Company of Liars will thrill fans of CJ Sansom and Kate Mosse with its chilling recreation of the Peasants’ Revolt. The reign of Richard II is troubled, the poor are about to become poorer still and landowners are lining their pockets. It’s a case of every man for himself, whatever his status or wealth. But in a world where nothing can be taken at face value, who can you trust? The dour wool merchant? His impulsive son? The stepdaughter with the hypnotic eyes? Or the raven-haired widow clutching her necklace of bloodstones? And when people start dying unnatural deaths and the peasants decide it’s time to fight back, it’s all too easy to spy witchcraft at every turn.

What did I think?:

This review comes with many thanks to the lovely people at Book Bridgr and Headline Press for allowing me to read the latest novel by one of my favourite authors, Karen Maitland. As fans of the author will know, she is a wonder at combining the turbulent times of the Middle Ages with a little bit of the supernatural, a recipe that always results in a gritty historical mystery that never fails to keep me on the edge of my seat. This latest offering is set in the 14th century in the city of Lincoln against the backdrop of the Peasants’ Revolt. Richard II is on the throne and poverty is rife across England so what does our King do to assist those in need? Well, listen to his trusted advisor John of Gaunt of course and introduce a new tax to be paid for every person over fifteen years of age in a household. Furthermore, the way in which the King’s Commissioners went about checking to see whether someone was over fifteen years was so lewd and crass that it is no surprise the peasants revolted!

Our foray into the medieval involves a host of wonderful and wacky characters, laid out for us at the beginning of the book by the author under the heading Cast Of Characters (obviously). This always fills me with slight trepidation as there seem to be so many to contend with, but like her other novels, Maitland tends to focus in depth on a select few. In The Vanishing Witch we learn about two families on either side of the poverty scale, the first a boatman called Gunter, happily married and living with his family just outside the city. He ekes a living by transporting cargo from place to place with the help of his son. The new tax really hits his family hard, being in quite dire straits to begin with, and their quest for survival is prominent throughout the novel.

The head of the family on the opposite side of the scale is a wealthy wool merchant called Robert who is married to Edith and they have two sons, Jan the elder, confident and brash, who will take over the family business in time and Adam, scholarly and quiet. Robert’s troubles first begin when he is approached for advice from recently widowed Caitlin. Poor Robert practically bursts with pride at the attention Caitlin shows him and as Edith becomes seriously unwell, torn between his loyalties to his wife and gullible to her womanly wiles, he allows Caitlin to slowly worm her way into his life, eventually becoming his wife when Edith dies. She brings along two children of her own, Leonia and Edward, the former casting her own spell over Robert’s young and impressionable son, Adam. Can Caitlin be trusted? What is her motive for integrating herself with Robert’s family? Is there something a bit spookier i.e. witchcraft going on?

I have so much praise for this novel I hardly know where to start! I loved the way that the author transported us to medieval England with so much authenticity that I could almost smell the streets, hear the noises and taste the swill. Prior to every chapter Maitland gives the reader a glimpse back into history with anti-witchcraft charms and spells that come directly from medieval writings and grimoires (medieval spell books). Here’s a taster of one of many that stood out to me:

“If a family member goes on a long journey, a bottle of their urine or their knife is hung on the wall. If the urine remains clear, or the blade bright, they are well. If the urine becomes cloudy or the blade tarnished, they are ill or in danger. If the urine dries or the knife falls or breaks, they are dead.”

I enjoyed every character in this book for different reasons. Some were so damn unlikeable, like Edward, that I had to keep reading to see whether they would get their come-uppance. Others, like Caitlin’s daughter Leonia, or the strange man dressed as a friar who begins to follow Robert, I was so intrigued by that I had to know their story. Friend or foe? You get the picture, I just had to know. The author certainly does not make it an easy journey for the reader and I was continually confused (in a good way!) over who to trust as page by page, a different secret emerges. Medieval England comes to life all over again in the safe hands and imagination of a fantastic author who not only knows what she’s talking about but makes it so exciting too!

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):


Short Stories Challenge – A Day In The Life Of Half Of Rumpelstiltskin by Kevin Brockmeier from the collection Things That Fall From The Sky

Published October 14, 2014 by bibliobeth


What’s it all about?:

This is the story of a fairy tale character, Rumpelstiltskin with a bit of a difference – there is only half of him.

What did I think?:

I was quite excited when I read the title of the fourth story in Kevin Brockmeier’s collection. I’m a bit of a fan of fairy tale re-imaginings and was curious to discover what spin the author had put on this one. In the original fairy tale, Rumpelstiltskin has a bit of a talent for spinning straw into gold. His gift comes in handy when a miller’s daughter is locked in a cell and ordered to spin straw into gold for the King of this particular land. The girl begs Rumpelstiltskin to help her and she hands over material goods like a necklace, ring etc each day until she has nothing else to give. The King then tells her that he will marry her if she will spin some more straw into gold and she pleads for the imp’s help one more time. He agrees if she will give him her first-born child. Of course, when she becomes Queen she does not want to give up her baby when Rumpelstiltskin comes to collect it and he says that he will not take the child if the Queen can guess his name within three days. The Queen does manage to guess his name after some sneaky spying and an enraged Rumpelstiltskin “in his rage drove his right foot so far into the ground that it sank in up to his waist; then in a passion he seized the left foot with both hands and tore himself in two.”

In this short story, we see a day in the life of “half” of Rumpelstiltskin due to the fact that he has torn himself in two. He seems to have some order to his life that also feels monotonous and quite sad. He is described as looking like “a banana with feet at both ends,” and gets around either by hopping or arching his body moving palm to toe. While he washes, we are treated to the full grisly detail of him squeezing the water from various organs and ligaments which are exposed (by the way did you realise that he is the only man he knows where the forearm is a hard-to-reach place?) then heads off to work for three hours as a replacement for damaged mannequins in a shop window. The sky, as in the other stories in this collection so far, plays a big part as Rumpelstiltskin gazes and ponders on it. The most fascinating part of the story for me was the letter from “the other half” of the imp where certain words are missed out but the reader can guess at what word should be in the empty space. It was such an ingenious device of the author and so well thought out that I couldn’t help but be impressed but I think you have to read it yourself to get an idea of what I’m talking about!

In the afternoon, Rumpelstiltskin gives a speech to a woman’s organisation on The Birthrights of First-Born Children “a topic in which he claims no small degree of expertise.” I absolutely loved this section of the story. Not only does the author make fun of the original fairy-tale, poor Rumpelstiltskin has to defend himself against a barrage of women getting their fairy-tales slightly muddled. No, he’s not The Big Bad Wolf. The author mixes his humour with quite a bit of sadness and by the end of the story, which was so poignant, I felt quite sorry for poor Rumpelstiltskin as he muses on life as half a person and wonders what his other half is doing. Again from Kevin Brockmeier, we have an absolutely fantastic piece of writing that is imaginative, touching and leaves you thinking about it long after the story ends. In short, I loved it!

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):


NEXT SHORT STORY: Looking Up Vagina by Jon McGregor from the collection This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You

Battle Royale – Koushun Takami

Published October 11, 2014 by bibliobeth


What’s it all about?:

Koushun Takami’s notorious high-octane thriller is based on an irresistible premise: a class of junior high school students is taken to a deserted island where, as part of a ruthless authoritarian program, they are provided arms and forced to kill one another until only one survivor is left standing. Criticized as violent exploitation when first published in Japan – where it then proceeded to become a runaway bestseller – Battle Royale is a Lord of the Flies for the 21st century, a potent allegory of what it means to be young and (barely) alive in a dog-eat-dog world. Made into a controversial hit movie of the same name, Battle Royale is already a contemporary Japanese pulp classic, now available for the first time in the English language.

What did I think?:

My sister and fellow blogger Chrissi Reads bought me this book as a gift as I had been wanting to read it for a long time after watching the Japanese film which has become a cult classic. I read it as part of my August Real Books challenge and was so glad that I finally managed to get round to it as it’s quite a powerful read and stayed with me a long time after I had finished. When The Hunger Games series came out it was compared to this as the premise is very similar i.e. a group of teenagers killing each other until one remains (the victor). But believe me, Battle Royale is a hell of a lot darker and is probably not a young adult read.

Before the story begins the author provides a list of the 42 students that have the misfortune to be chosen to participate in a government experiment that will lead to 41 of them being killed. I have to admit I was slightly nervous at this point due to the fact that they were all Japanese names and I was worried that I would get a bit muddled and not be able to remember whom each character was. The story opens with all 42 classmates who are on a bus on a study trip. Fairly soon, we see this is not the case as each classmate one by one passes out. When they come round they are sat in a classroom and Shuya, who seems to be our main character at this time notices that all of his classmates have a strange metal collar around their necks including himself and when he tried to remove it it will not budge. A man enters the classroom wearing a badge which Shuya notices that means he is affiliated with the government. He informs the confused and groggy students that they are all here today to “kill each other,” and have been selected for the “Program.”

“a battle simulation program conducted by our nation’s ground defense forces, instituted for security reasons. Officially known as Battle Experiment No 68. Program. The first program was held in 1947. Fifty third-year junior high school classes are selected annually to conduct the program for research purposes. Classmates in each class are forced to fight until one survivor remains. Results from this experiment, including the elapsed time, are entered as data. The final survivor of each class (the winner) is provided with a lifetime pension and a card autographed by the Great Dictator.”

Obviously this doesn’t go down too well with the students, and two of them are killed before the “game” officially begins. Let me just warn you that this book is incredibly gory and definitely not for the weak of stomach. It’s probably the most violent thing I have read and yet I couldn’t help myself turning the pages, curious to find out what would happen in the end. Each student is given a pack chosen randomly containing food, water, a compass, a map of the island they are on, and the inevitable weapon. Unfortunately, each weapon differs and depending on the pack they were given, it could contain a rifle or a kitchen fork. Hmm, makes the death scenes slightly different, I suppose? The collars round their neck are also of great importance. First of all, some of the areas of the island will be forbidden at certain times and if a student happens to be in that area at the forbidden time, the collar round their neck will explode. The collar cannot be removed, will explode if it is tried to be removed and is a way of tracking the students by the organisers so they are aware of their whereabouts at any given time. There is also a time limit on the collars, and if no-one is killed within twenty four hours all collars will explode and there will be no winner. Let the “game” begin….

I did enjoy this novel and thought the translation provided by Yuji Oniki was excellent. Each chapter is fairly short which made me want to read on further and I liked how at the end of the chapter an ominous little sentence was provided telling you how many students remained. I was surprised that I didn’t get confused over the mass of Japanese character names, and loved that I got a little insight into a few of the characters personalities, despite some of them being incredibly warped. As I’ve mentioned before, the story is extremely violent and some of the death scenes wouldn’t feel out of place in a horror film so if you’re a bit sensitive to that kind of thing, this book is probably not for you. For me, I’m really glad I read it, the novel is graphic, compelling and quite hard to put down. I can definitely see why it has become a bit of a pulp classic and urge those interested to see the film as well as reading the book.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):




Challenge: Short Stories October to December

Published October 9, 2014 by bibliobeth

images (14)

It’s that time again short story fans! This is what I’ll be reading short story wise from now until the end of 2014.

Week beginning 6th October

 Looking Up Vagina by Jon McGregor from the collection This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You

Week beginning 13th October

The Pool by Daphne Du Maurier from the collection The Breaking Point

Week beginning 20th October

Partial Eclipse by Graham Joyce from the collection Tales For A Dark Evening

Week beginning 27th October

The Fly And Its Effect Upon Mr Bodley by Michel Faber from the collection The Apple: New Crimson Petal Stories

Week beginning 3rd November

Busted by Karin Slaughter (stand-alone)

Week beginning 10th November

Nocturne by Kazuo Ishiguro from the collection Nocturnes: Five Stories Of Music And Nightfall

Week beginning 17th November

The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter by Angela Slatter from the collection A Book Of Horrors

Week beginning 24th November

The Call of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft from the collection The Definitive H.P. Lovecraft

Week beginning 1st December

The Common Enemy by Natasha Cooper from the collection The Mammoth Book Of Best British Crime Volume 7

Week beginning 8th December

Note To Sixth-Grade Self by Julie Orringer from the collection How To Breathe Underwater

Week beginning 15th December

A Terribly Strange Bed by Wilkie Collins from the collection Stories To Get You Through The Night

Week beginning 22nd December

Mrs Todd’s Shortcut by Stephen King from the collection Skeleton Crew

Week beginning 29th December

Everything I Knew About My Family On My Mother’s Side by Nathan Englander from the collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank

The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini

Published October 8, 2014 by bibliobeth


What’s it all about?:

Amir is the son of a wealthy Kabul merchant, a member of the ruling caste of Pashums. Hassan, his servant and constant companion, is a Hazara, a despised and impoverished caste. Their uncommon bond is torn by Amir’s choice to abandon his friend amidst the increasing ethnic, religious, and political tensions of the dying years of the Afghan monarchy, wrenching them far apart. But so strong is the bond between the two boys that Amir journeys back to a distant world, to try to right past wrongs against the only true friend he ever had.

The unforgettable, heartbreaking story of the unlikely friendship between a wealthy boy and the son of his father’s servant, The Kite Runner is a beautifully crafted novel set in a country that is in the process of being destroyed. It is about the power of reading, the price of betrayal, and the possibility of redemption; and an exploration of the power of fathers over sons—their love, their sacrifices, their lies.

A sweeping story of family, love, and friendship told against the devastating backdrop of the history of Afghanistan over the last thirty years, The Kite Runner is an unusual and powerful novel that has become a beloved, one-of-a-kind classic.

What did I think?:

I can’t believe I have only just got round to reading this fantastic novel. I’ve had it on my TBR pile for so long, and have actually read the authors two other books without having read his debut and arguably most famous work. The story involves two friends Amir, the boy from the rich side of the tracks and Hazara who lives in poverty with his father as Amir’s fathers servants. The boys are of a similar age and are brought up to play together although it is instantly obvious with whom the power lies in the friendship. Hazara worships the ground his friend Amir walks on and even though he is not given the same opportunities, would do anything his friend asked of him. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Amir, and he takes advantage of his elevated status on a few occasions. On the worst occasion (don’t worry, no spoilers here for those that haven’t read the novel), Hazara is involved in a terrible incident and Amir stands by and does nothing. This turns out to be a mistake that will haunt Amir for the rest of his days, even as he grows up and moves to America, forging a successful career for himself in writing. When an opportunity arises for Amir to redeem himself (although perhaps too late?), he seizes it, rescuing Hassan’s son from a terrible and unimaginable future with some familiar faces.

This book has absolutely everything I consider a great novel to be: drama, tension, heroes and villains and bags of emotion. This is set against a war-torn Afghanistan crumbling as the monarchy is abolished and hopeful for a new start as the Taliban regime is implemented. I love a book where I can have the opportunity to learn about different cultures and customs and everything feels so authentic, as if the reader is smack bang in the middle watching everything unfold around them. Some reviews have criticised the character of Amir as being selfish and spoiled, and yes, of course he is, but it is his efforts to try and right a wrong carried out years ago that redeem him in my eyes and give him that flawed, imperfect and “normal” feeling I love in a character. The father-son relationship between Amir and his Baba was also really intriguing which I enjoyed analysing as the story went on. This is truly a very emotional read, and at parts, I actually had to put down the book and take a few breaths before I continued and when finished, I was emotionally drained but strangely satisfied. There is obviously the horror of war in a way that a lucky Westerner like myself would find hard to understand but I felt almost grateful to the author for bringing it to my attention, reminding us that we are fortunate in so many ways. Beautiful and unforgettable, I think this novel will haunt me for a while and I fully intend to re-read it at some point. My only question is: why on earth did it take me so long to read it in the first place?!

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):


Short Stories Challenge – I Am An Executioner by Rajesh Parameswaran from the collection I Am An Executioner: Love Stories

Published October 4, 2014 by bibliobeth


What’s I Am An Executioner all about?:

The title story in this collection is about a newly wed executioner who isn’t exactly living in “marital bliss” after his new wife learns of what he does for a living.

What did I think?:

Another weird and wonderful story from Rajesh Parameswaran, another thumbs up from me! The collection is titled I Am An Executioner: Love Stories, and if you’ve read my previous three reviews on this collection, you’ll probably get that it’s not the lovey-dovey, fluttering eyelids, happy ending sort of love that the author explores. Oh no. In fact, some of the stories explore a darker form of love which can be quite disturbing, unique or just plain crazy! The characters themselves all have flaws or could be termed “anti-heroes,” and especially in the case of this story, I don’t think we are even meant to like our main protagonist. Our narrator for this tale is an executioner working with convicted criminals on Death Row and is oddly proud of what he does for employment. When the story begins, our executioner is newly wed but when his wife finds out exactly what he does, she is furious, disgusted and believes she has been tricked into the marriage. It probably doesn’t help that the two met on a dating website, and the executioner was a bit liberal with the truth regarding his looks, height, personality etc. As the first few weeks of their marriage passes by, it is obvious that there is no honeymoon period for this couple. The wife remains cold, distant, refuses to allow her husband into the same bed with her and further along seems to exist in a state of extreme depression where she does not wash or change clothes but lies in bed all day, adamant that her husband must not touch her.

The executioner himself is a highly complex and intriguing character. I’ve already mentioned the sense of pride the executioner has in terminating the lives of the Death Row inmates but what is even odder is that he wants to be-friend every prisoner prior to their execution. We are told that he has been evaluated by a psychiatrist as being “deeply disturbed,” and that he has been married before however there was an incident involving his first wife that remains unexplained. When a young girl is admitted to the Row, he goes through his usual procedures of trying to make friends, but becomes angry when she refuses his friendly advances. This, coupled with his new wife also refusing to come near him, leads him feeling extremely frustrated. She does appear to thaw when the executioner tells her about the young girl and even visits her at the prison and is present on her execution day. However, the sentence of hanging has been changed to something unimaginable which our executioner takes in his stride, of course and, as a result, it seems as if their marriage is destined to be doomed.

Once again, the author provides a fascinating story about a different kind of love with a narrator so terrible yet so readable that I couldn’t put it down until the dramatic finale. The executioner – what a character! He gave me chills down my spine and the serious heebie-jeebies but I kept lapping it up, wanting more. I also loved the author’s use of language with the voice of the executioner, a sort of stilted, pidgin English that might be distracting for some readers but I thought it was very effective. Each story in this collection so far has been so remarkably different with its own unique twist that I find it hard to believe that this is a debut collection. Beautifully weird, this is definitely an author to watch out for and I’m really excited about the rest of the collection.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):


NEXT SHORT STORY: A Day In The Life Of Half Of Rumpelstilskin by Kevin Brockmeier from the collection Things That Fall From The Sky

Delusions Of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference – Cordelia Fine

Published October 3, 2014 by bibliobeth


What’s it all about?:

A vehement dismantling of the latest pseudo-scientific claims about the differences between the sexes.

Sex-based discrimination is supposedly a relic of the distant past. Yet popular books, magazines, and even scientific articles increasingly defend continuing inequalities between the sexes by calling on immutable biological differences between the male and the female brain. Why are there so few women in science and engineering, so few men in the laundry room? Well, they say, it’s our brains. Drawing on the latest research in developmental psychology, neuroscience, and education, Delusions of Gender rebuts these claims, showing how old myths, dressed up in new scientific finery, help perpetuate the status quo. This book reveals the brain’s remarkable plasticity, shows the substantial influence of culture on identity, and, ultimately, exposes just how much of what we consider “hardwired” is actually malleable, empowering us to break free of the supposed predestination of our sex chromosomes.

What did I think?:

In my other, non-blogging life, I work as a scientist and every so often you’ll see a review popping up on my blog about a non-fiction book I’ve read that has more than likely been science-y. I’m also a firm believer in gender equality and women’s rights so Delusions of Gender seemed like the perfect mix of science and feminism which encouraged me to pick it up. I found it to be a fascinating read which I learned a lot from and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in the differences between our two genders. The book is divided into short chapters with intriguing titles such as “Why You Should Cover Your Head with a Paper Bag if You Have A Secret You Don’t Want Your Wife to Find Out,” “Sex and Premature Speculation,” and “Gender Detectives.” With titles like these you may want to read this book already but let me assure you that the author backs up the humour in her writing with clear facts, possible theories and very strong evidence that lends a note of seriousness into why exactly we still have gender inequality in a modern, 21st century society.

You’d think we’d have come a long way in achieving more rights for women since say, the nineteenth century yet consider this point that the author makes in the introduction. An English clergyman called Thomas Gisborne wrote a manual called “An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex,” and noted that things such as legislation, political economy and the conduct of government should be assigned to men as they have “the powers of close and comprehensive reasoning, and of intensive and continued application.” Whereas, females enjoy “powers adapted to unbend the brow of the learned, to refresh the over-laboured faculties of the wise, and to diffuse the enlivening and endearing smile of cheerfulness.” Ladies, I hope you are extremely insulted right now. But then Fine encourages us to move forward 200 years and look at The Essential Difference written by Simon Baron-Cohen, a Cambridge University psychologist who states “the female brain is pre-dominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems.” Hmm… sounds pretty much the same thing as what Gisborne was trying to say in the nineteenth century?

Throughout the book, Cordelia Fine investigates how different males and females really are. Are we all so hard-wired into our gender that there is no wiggle room in terms of qualities we should possess? Is it really a man’s world? Is it absolutely pointless for a woman to even consider a top level management job as it requires stereotypically more aggressive characteristics that for a woman is considered unattractive? I did enjoy the way that the author discredits work carried out by Baron-Cohen, and theories from the author of A Female Brain, Louann Brizendine that seem to want to put males and females in their own little boxes. For example, the assumption that a woman can use more areas of the brain than a man i.e. multi-tasking, was an experiment based on only 14 brains and the conclusions weren’t even statistically significant? In this way, a lot of experiments dealing with differences between the sexes have used just a few subjects, or made scientific “guesses,” depending on what their own stereotypical views were.

This is a brilliant and fascinating book, injected with a little bit of wit and sarcasm which I always appreciate in a non-fiction book and which I think is needed when dealing with this subject which can sometimes be a little bit touchy. I don’t think Baron-Cohen or Brizendine will be amongst her fans if they ever read it but I really enjoyed the way she picked apart neurosexism and shone a light upon the shadier areas of gender research. Oh, and you don’t need to be a scientist to read or enjoy this, it’s very accessible without being patronising.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 666 other followers