The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

This book was recommended to me by a dear friend with whom I often exchange reading ideas. Actually, she was staying with me as she was finishing this and I watched as she gasped, sighed and looked altogether satisfied with what she was reading, barely able to put the novel down. She didn’t need many words to persuade me to enjoy this book as well.

When I first simgres-1tarted reading this tale, I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it. Based on true stories of “fasting girls” from history, those who refused food and remained alive, claiming it was God’s work, this is a about an eleven-year old, clever and very sweet Irish girl who, though not eating for months, remains alive, claiming to be nourished by God. A British nurse, Lib, along with a Catholic nun, is sent to remain by her bedside for a fortnight to see whether or not the girl is fraudulent or a miracle. The story of what happens is told through Lib’s eyes.

To be sure (couldn’t resist), the writing was lovely, lyrical, and it was easy to be swept away by vivid descriptions of the Irish midlands, the brusqueness and almost fanatical devotion of the locals and the resistance to the British woman’s presence among them and the suspicion she brings in her wake.

Now that I have finished the book, it’s hard to remember why I felt that way. I think it might have been the religiosity underpinning the tale, the blind faith and the painful accuracy with which this was painted. It is frustrating indeed. Though, having said that, the wonderful superstition and pagan practices that were still extant in this period were marvellously realised. The reader sees the family, the wee girl at the heart, and the neighbours and local authorities who believe this child is God’s proof on earth, and their desperate need for God to be among them. Even the reporters sent to cover the story, err on the side of believing – with one exception, whom Lib befriends. Even so, the scope – in terms of setting – of the book is narrow. Almost all the scenes take place in the tiny, bare cottage of the family, the small hotel room of the nurse, or upon the wild bogs. There’s a sense of suffocation, especially as the child begins to become frail and weak and everyone remains in almost wilful denial about what’s happening.

As Lib’s frustration and confusion about what’s happening grows (is it a hoax or real?), she is uncertain who to turn to – is the nun is an enemy or friend? Is the reporter, who appears to share her cynicism to be trusted or is he just after a scoop?

The further I went into the narrative, the harder I found to leave until, like my girlfriend, I was gasping, sighing and unable to tear myself away.

Superbly written and, I realise, paced, this is a suspenseful, cloying yet stunning tale of faith, stubbornness, necessity, trust and betrayal.

Highly recommended.

 

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Pepy’s London: Everyday Life in London 1650-1703 by Stephen Porter

11987791Short, sharp and interesting, if sometimes a little dryer than the title might suggest, Porter’s brief history of London as it was immediately after the execution of Charles I, throughout the Interregnum and Oliver Cromwell’s reign, the leadership (!) of Richard Cromwell to the restoration of Charles II, James II’s time on the throne, the Glorious Revolution and the beginnings of the reign of William and Mary, is packed full of facts and observations.

Though the title suggests this is London as Samuel Pepys experienced and wrote about it, it’s more than that. It’s also a London on the brink of religious and political upheavals as suspicion and faith caused many tensions and riots. It’s a city enduring and moving with swiftly changing economic circumstances and robust and exciting scientific discoveries, as well as a place that was culturally enterprising and rich, as theatre, music, writing and art underwent another Renaissance.

Using Pepy’s life as a yardstick by which to measure the altering moods and landscape of the city, Porter offers a keen insight into the various people and events that helped to fashion London into what it is today. Whether it was intolerance for immigrants, appreciation and exploitation of other cultures, growing literacy, expanding borders as the Empire grew, trade, war, frosts, plague or fire, what is clear is that London was rarely if ever dull – whether you were gentry or from the lower classes.

The just over half a century covered really does encompass an amazing array of transformations  – and not just in terms of leaders and governing styles. Porter is such a good historian, my only beef with the book is that it is so dry at times and when you use the name Pepys in the title, I think it’s dryer than it has a right to be! Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this great overview. The illustrations are also terrific and really well explained.

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Sisters of the Fire by Kim Wilkins

29937614The second book in the Blood and Gold series, Sister of the Fire is set a few years after the thrilling events of the first book, Daughters of the Storm, conclude. Once more, we’re drawn into the lives of the five very different sisters as they hurdle towards their unknown and dark destinies. Whether it’s the fierce and loyal Bluebell who’s on a mission to locate a sword that’s been crafted for the purpose of slaying her and which she fears one of her sister’s possesses; or forlorn Rose, the princess set aside by her Trimartyr husband, King Wengest, and who’s forced to live away from the man she loves and with her aunt and son – that is, until she learns the life of her daughter, the indefatigable Rowan, is in danger. We also follow the struggles of Ash as she comes to terms with the terrible power she wields, the fate she sees for the realm and will do anything to prevent. Then there are the twins, Ivy and Willow. Weak and ineffectual in comparison to her sisters, Ivy has been given in marriage to a man she doesn’t love and whose chronic illness threatens to unbalance the city she holds in care for her beloved sons. Then there’s the zealot, Willow. Having turned her back on the faith she was born into, Willow has become a warrior-priestess for Maava and, in her efforts to prove herself worthy of her cruel god’s love, will do anything – even betray the family and kingdom who remain steadfast to her.

Vast in scope and setting (the reader is taken from rocky shores, craggy islands, deserted towns, bustling cities to mystical forests and arcane castles), Sisters of the Storm is a tour de force of the imagination. Each of the main women in the story, and the men who either exploit or love them fearlessly, as well as the children the women love unconditionally (if not always well), are masterfully realised and sometimes brutally rendered. Wilkins doesn’t shy away from exposing their great strengths and tragic and even irritating weaknesses. You believe in these people, these flawed, majestic beings and the goals they pursue, and their need to forge or at least control their fates to the best of their ability. Just as they love with great ardour and conviction, so the reader does too, as we segue from one sister’s path before stumbling upon another’s, championing their individual or collective causes or mourning their dreadful decisions. The prose is evocative, moving and, at time, violent.

There’s no doubt, Wilkins, as story-teller par excellence, has a flair with words – a few well chosen ones conjure the depths of despair, the ache of maternal or passionate love, the fury of betrayal. Likewise, landscape is rendered minimally but with no less impact. You hear the ocean, smell the forest, and enter the bloody battles with your heart racing and your senses afire. The novel is imbued with wildness, mystery and beauty and these are carried through every page of this marvellous conclusion to a terrific series.

I also appreciated the fact that as you reach the final lines, not all doors are closed, not all paths end. I hope Wilkins returns one day to tell more tales about these divergent, complex sisters’ and their families, and the epic, but always recognisable world she’s created.

PS. I also have to say, I think the cover is simply stunning and reflects the contents beautifully…

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The Gilded Lily by Deborah Swift

30338626This is the companion book to Deborah Swift’s, The Lady’s Slipper and can be read after it or as a stand-alone. Set in a wonderfully realised Restoration London in 1661, it tells the story of two sisters, Ella and Sadie Appleby, who flee their small village after the suspicious death of Ella’s employer and go to London to seek work, a new life and as a way of ridding themselves of the property they’ve stolen from Ella’s dead employee. After all, what good would it serve him?

But life in London is cruel and unforgiving. While the girls find employment, their mistress is a tyrant, and Sadie’s facial deformity makes her both stand out a target for pitiless jests and attention. Unhappy with their lot, when Ella is invited by the wealthy business dealer, Jay Whitgift to front a new venture he’s devised, it seems her luck has changed… But Whitgift is not the gentleman Ella thinks he is. Worse, her dead employee’s twin is determined to bring his brother’s killer or killers to justice, even if it means following the two young sisters to London and tracking them down himself. Such a thing shouldn’t be too hard, not when one has a red birthmark across her face…

Bringing history and cluttered, dirty London to life, Swift has written a wonderful story of loyalty, love, sisterhood, family, treachery and hope. The historical details are seamlessly woven into the sisters’ story and the setting is realistically and marvellously drawn. Carefully plotted, filled with rich characters that have their flaws and strengths, this book is hard to put down. It’s a treat for those who love historical fiction or simply a damn fine story.

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Conspiracy by S.J. Parris

19613980The fifth book in the Giordano Bruno series, Conspiracy, has everything we’ve come to love and expect from these fabulous novels by S.J. Parris: an excellent hero, toxic politics, intelligencers trying to outwit, outlast and out survive each other and, of course, the continuous deadly and vexatious issue of the 1500s: religion.

Yet, what I love about this series also left me, in Conspiracy, a little bit irritated at times too. In that, a great deal of the plot was driven not by Bruno’s intellect and ability to read signs and people (as has happened in previous books), but by his propensity in this one to make critical errors and find himself in deep trouble and even outright danger. The good Dr Bruno kept repeating the same mistakes and trusting and/or putting his faith in those everyone except him knew he shouldn’t. Rather than solving dilemmas, he stumbled in and out of them – and then, lo and behold, did the same thing again! This became quite frustrating. However, in terms of the richness of the book and the pleasure gained from reading it, these are small criticisms.

The year is 1585 and Bruno is a reluctant returnee to Paris. The effete Valois, King Henry III is on the throne, his mother, Catherine di Medici rules from behind with an iron fist, controlling her son and his policies and all the while, the ambitious Guise family do what they can to promote rebellion and arouse dissatisfaction with the king and his court. In other words, France is not unlike the England Bruno left behind, something the presence of many English Catholic exiles and spies also makes apparent. Yet, Bruno is not pleased to be back.

Deciding he needs to make peace with Rome if he’s to have a future, Bruno seeks out a priest he knows (who also happens to be a member of the radical Catholic League) in order to beg him to facilitate the reconciliation process. When this priest is found brutally bashed and is only able to utter one last word, “Circe”, to his friend, Bruno, before he dies, suspicion falls on the Italian doctor and the Hugenots.

This being a Bruno story, more deaths follow and though he knows it puts him in danger, Bruno agrees to help the King and the Duke of Guise (who approach him independently and quite dramatically) to track down the murderer. But what if it’s those asking for his help who are guilty?

From dank and stinking prison cells to court masques, monasteries, libraries, boudoirs, the streets of Paris, the Seine, and hotel rooms, Bruno needs to pull out all stops – physical and mental – to solve these murders and before the killer or killers set their sights on him.

Written in its usual fine style, this is a solid addition to the series, even if Bruno’s silly decisions and the repetition of events and consequences did get a tad tiresome. The historical detail is superb and the book ended with a wonderful possibility that will no doubt lead our erstwhile philosopher down more fantastical and dangerous paths.

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