Daughters of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt – Book Review

Daughters of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharratt

In a time when the old ways of Catholicism were banned in England, Bess Southerns wants nothing to do with the dour new Puritan ways. The things that comfort her heart are the Catholic rites and rituals. When a spirit named Tibbs comes to her and promises her a future as a cunning woman, it is the old Latin prayers of Catholicism that Bess mutters to bring healing to those hurting around her.

Bess’s daughter, Liza, also has a spirit, but she denounces him before long; she is not, though, above living off of the payments from Bess’s healing work. The women know that what Bess is doing could be dangerous, both for the aspects of magic and those of Catholicism, but everyone in their village seems to accept Bess as a force of good. Besides, as poor as they are, they have little other choice. However, the religious and political climate is growing ever more precarious with the ascension to the throne of James I, a man who is obsessed with the occult.

“Daughters of the Witching Hill” is a fantastic read. I was thoroughly immersed in the world of rural 16th century England. The pattern of dialogue was somewhat archaic and at times a bit difficult, but once I got into the story, it only added to the sense of time and place. I bought in so completely to the world that Sharratt was showing me, that I could help stopping and comparing the lives of these women in Pendle Forest to that of the men and women of London and Queen Elizabeth’s court in the same general time period. I was astounded by the differences time and time again, and yet it all rang true.

One of the most interesting things about “Daughters of the Witching Hill” is that Sharratt does not assume that all who were accused of practicing witchcraft and magic were innocent. Whether or not the modern reader wants to believe in the efficacy of Bess’s potions and murmurings, she certainly believes that she is doing a form of magic, as do the people around her. I appreciated that Sharratt wrote this story in, what seemed to me, ambiguous enough of a way that it wasn’t really clear whether Bess’s mutterings worked any change on her patients, or whether there were other less supernatural forces at work. I could still accept the outcomes without having to suspend my disbelief and was still able to keep this novel squarely in the realm of historical fiction without having to venture into fantasy.

For a book about  accused witches, there was so much more here! Politics, religion, history, power struggles, the lives of everyday people – and women in particular. I highly recommend this book.

Buy this book from:
Powells.*
A local independent bookstore via Indiebound
.*
Amazon
.*

This review was done with a book received from the publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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Researching and writing a historical novel: bringing all the pieces together – Guest Post by Stephanie Cowell, Author of “Claude and Camille”

Giveaway closed

It begins with an utter fascination for a place, a time, an historical person: something that will not let you go. Claude and Camille began when I visited an art exhibition of the early works of the impressionists. I stood before one of Claude Monet’s paintings of a stormy seacoast and a weary horse making its way down the sand, and said “What sort of intense man painted that?” I was fascinated by the friendship between the young artists, all then unknown, and thought, “Who were the women who were close to them?”  Who loved this sexy, dark-eyed young Monet?

The idea for a novel begins perhaps with a few lines on paper and after a time grows into scenes and sections. Characters and place begin to emerge. And then the writer has the most passionate desire in the world to know every single thing about her historical characters and their times. When I first began to write historical fiction you spent long days in research libraries and haunted used bookshops. Since the internet you can find all sorts of information, or almost any old book, or find access to scholars who can help you.

I ended up buying sixty books on impressionism and Paris and reading and reading and haunting several art museums and walking the streets of Paris that Claude Monet walked and traveling to Giverny. You take all that research and combine imagination with it. The most challenging part for me is plotting the events which lead the characters to the last pages. Eventually you have a full novel and hopefully one good enough that an editor will offer to buy it.

The editor works with your novel, giving suggestions to strengthen it. Often a writer knows so much about her world and characters that she does not realize some of it is still in her head and not on the page. And of course friends have also read it and commented on how it could be strengthened. After that, the copy-editor points out that your heroine’s hair changes color from page 36 to page 94!

But when it is all proofed and printed between the covers with an evocative jacket, the writer hopefully has created a world for readers to enter and live in, a world deep and true and real which may take them on a remarkable journey to places and people all over time.

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The Blue Orchard by Jackson Taylor – Book Review

The Blue Orchard by Jackson Taylor

Verna Krone’s family has very little money and her father is of a very advanced age. In order to help support her parents and younger siblings, she has to leave school at the age of 14 in order to be the hired girl for another family. Unfortunately, the man of that house is completely unable and unwilling to keep his hands to himself, and Verna finds herself ‘in trouble.’ Although a potion from a midwife keeps the neighbors from finding out what was done to Verna at the hands of her employer, this was all simply the beginning of her trouble with men.

Verna pretty much has one crappy job after another – and during the Great Depression – and one crappy boyfriend after another. Eventually, though, she manages to make it through nursing school and ends up employed by a a black doctor, Dr. Crampton, who is not only in the center of political life, but also the purveyor of ‘illegal surgeries’ to end unwanted pregnancies. As  Dr. Crampton’s political influence begins to wane, Verna’s life begins to fall apart.

This was a very interesting story, made even more interesting based on the fact that this story was based largely on the story of the author’s grandmother – right down to her name. Knowing that this was a largely true story gave it much more power. That being said, I thought it got just a little bit slow in the middle. I think that much of her soul-destroying work history could have been elided, as I thought her early story and her time working for Dr. Crampton were the most interesting aspects of her story.

Although I think the work could have been a little shorter, the storyline was very interesting and the writing was fantastic. Taylor writes “The Blue Orchard” in present tense which can occasionally pull me out of the story, but I think that in this case it lent itself to a feeling of immediacy and envelopment in Verna’s life. I was so engaged in the story that I actually had to go back after finishing the book to see whether or not Taylor had continued to use present tense throughout the entire novel, because I honestly had no idea.

A very interesting novel about a woman trying to make her way in the world during a very difficult period, and constantly questioning her own beliefs about the prevailing mortality of her time. Recommended.

Buy this book from:

Powells.*
A local independent bookstore via Indiebound
.*
Amazon
.*

This review was done with a book received from the publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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Claude and Camille by Stephanie Cowell – Book Review

Claude and Camille by Stephanie Cowell

Claude Monet was an impetuous young man, determined not to spend his life in his father’s store. Originally a caricaturist, when Claude is challenged by a painter friend to try landscapes, he falls in love with painting and knows he has found his life’s work. Although Monet was convinced of his own talent and that of his friends, Parisian society failed to recognize them in the same way. The artists were always short of money and hounded by their debtors. In the midst of his attempt to make a living from his art, Claude met a beautiful young woman named Camille working in her uncle’s bookstore. Convincing Camille to model for him begins a great, loving, and often rocky relationship between the great painter and his muse.

Okay, I really enjoyed this book. I know it is sort of trendy for people who are serious about art to hate on the Impressionists these days, but I love them. Actually, Impressionist works are pretty much the only paintings I like to look at. However, apart from learning about pointilism in 4th grade (we learned about and tried our hand at many Impressionist styles, but pointilism is the only one I distinctly remember), I really knew almost nothing about the Impressionists, and particularly about how the movement began. In a day when one can buy Monet’s water lilies emblazoned on almost anything, it seems strange to think that he was not an immediate success in his art. In fact, though, the entire school of Impressionism failed to meet with success for quite some time.

I think Monet’s lack of initial success was the most interesting aspect of the book for me, because it so strongly informed his relationships. For instance, Claude loved Camille deeply, but his lack of ability to provide adequately for them put a strain on their marriage that was exacerbated by her bouts of depression and her childhood growing up very well off. The other major set of relationships in the book was between Monet and his Impressionist friends. I loved the tension between them supporting one another with their limited resources and their pain over their lack of success as young men.

“Claude and Camille” gives historical context to Impressionism, contains a (complicated) love story, and includes equally complicated and yet rich relationships between friends, what’s not to like? Highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells.*
A local independent bookstore via Indiebound.*
Amazon.*

This review was done with a book received from the publisher for a blog tour.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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