They say we'll never know what happened to those men. They say the sea keeps its secrets . . .
Cornwall, 1972. Three keepers vanish from a remote lighthouse, miles from the shore. The entrance door is locked from the inside. The clocks have stopped. The Principal Keeper's weather log describes a mighty storm, but the skies have been clear all week.
What happened to those three men, out on the tower? The heavy sea whispers their names. The tide shifts beneath the swell, drowning ghosts. Can their secrets ever be recovered from the waves?
Twenty years later, the women they left behind are still struggling to move on. Helen, Jenny and Michelle should have been united by the tragedy, but instead it drove them apart. And then a writer approaches them. He wants to give them a chance to tell their side of the story. But only in confronting their darkest fears can the truth begin to surface . . .
Author Emma Stonex worked as an editor at a major publishing house before she left to write full time. She is the author of bestselling women’s fiction novels under several different pseudonyms, but The Lamplighters is her first novel under her own name, and her piece of literary fiction.
There is something about lighthouses that is both terrifying and reassuring - the calm light of the lighthouse guiding sailors safely to shore reassures, but the thoughts of the isolation amongst the great unknown of the sea, is hugely unsettling, if not outright terrifying.
In 2021, all lighthouses in the UK are automated, so only require occasional visits from lighthouse keepers in order to ensure that everything is working as intended. But back in the 1970's, the process of automation was only just beginning - and men would be sent to live on the lighthouses for months on end. This is where Stonex's novel takes root - contrasting the isolation of those on the lighthouse, with a similar sense of isolation felt by those women left behind.
The disappearance of the men is based on a far earlier tale - the true story of the Flannan Isles disappearance, back in 1900. Many things are carried over from that tale, but updating the story to the early seventies works remarkably well - allowing the story to breathe and grow without getting too bogged down in period detail.
Another benefit of updating the time period is that Emma Stonex is clearly trying not to solve the Flannan Isles disappearance, but is instead taking inspiration for her story set in a different time. It gives her free reign to create new voices for these men, and, perhaps more importantly, the women who were left behind after their disappearance. There is a rawness to how Stonex captures the drawn out grief and anger of these women, forever destined to not know what had happened to those they loved. For me, the relationships between these women were perhaps more interesting than those of the men on the lighthouse - the turbulent emotions of the women proving to be as dark and stormy as the sea that surrounds the lighthouse. In addition, the last year of lockdown, with many of us isolated and at home with maybe just one other person, can begin to feel just the slightest what those lighthouse keepers may have felt - no matter what luxuries you have, the knowledge that you can't go outside is still one that messes with the emotions and ones mental health, no matter what.
The prose encourages you to keep reading - but as things on the lighthouse began to reach a climax, I wasn't just gripped but fully transported - desperate to uncover what had happened and how things would resolve.
Stonex is clearly a huge talent and I anticipate this being just the start of an intriguing career - I'm hugely excited to see what she does next.
Poland, 1980. Anxious, disillusioned Ludwik Glowacki, soon to graduate university, has been sent along with the rest of his class to an agricultural camp. Here he meets Janusz, and together they spend a dreamlike summer swimming in secluded lakes, reading forbidden books - and falling in love.
But with summer over, the two are sent back to Warsaw, and to the harsh realities of life under the Party. Exiled from paradise, Ludwik and Janusz must decide how they will survive, but their different choices risk tearing them apart.
Author Tomasz Jedrowski was born in West Germany to Polish parents, and studied law at Cambridge and the Universite de Paris. He currently lives in France. Swimming in the Dark is his first novel, and my god - what a novel it is!
James Baldwin's sublime Giovanni's Room is a key touchstone of this novel, and the two share a lot - not only themes of queer love and escape, but both are exquisetely beautiful reads full of desire, discovery, and the bittersweet pain of first love.
Whilst the Gay love story is what drew me to pick this book up, the setting is just as fascinating - taking place in Poland in 1980, and allowing the reader a glimpse into the beginnings of the turmoil that, 9 years later, saw the Polish Worker's Party fall and Poland move into a full market economy.
I like to think my historical knowledge is pretty good, but I'm woefully under informed when it comes to Poland, so it was fascinating to have such an in-depth glimpse into the country's past. In terms of tone and setting I was reminded a little of An Honest Man by Ben Fergusson - one of my favourite books of 2019, and one that also deals with a gay love story under an opressive regime. However my knowledge of german history is decent, so that book was perhaps slightly less enlightening for me on that front - whereas Swimming in the Dark genuinely opened my eyes and has made me interested in the Poland of the mid to late twentieth century, helped hugely, I imagine, by the fact that the author was born to Polish parents who I imagine would have had first hand knowledge of some of the events and situations described in the book.
Jedrowski's prose truly envelops you in the story - I felt the warm summer haze of the initial chapters turn into the cold grey later in the book, and as a Gay man myself, I felt the emotional heart of this story incredibly deeply. I grew up under a far more accepting government in nineties england, but the themes that are explored here were easily related to stuff I went through as a teenager and a young adult, and, I imagine are fairly universal. I think I fell in love with Tomasz almost as much as Ludwik did - and that's a mark of how emotionally honest the author is in his writing.
My only real gripe with this book was that it wasn't longer - but that's a gripe that comes from pure selfishness - in truth it's a well balanced tale that's told with great care. I won't forget it in a hurry, and I'm eager to see what the author does next - he's certainly one to watch for me, and Swimming in the Dark is one of my favourite reads of 2020.
Pages of a weathered original sonata manuscript - the gift of a Czech immigrant living in Queens - come into the hands of Meta Taverner, a young musicologist whose concert piano career was cut short by an injury. The gift comes with the request that Meta find the manuscript's true owner -a Prague friend the old woman has not heard from since the Second World War forced them apart - and make the three-part Sonata whole again. Leaving New York behind for the land of Dvorak and Kafka, Meta sets out on an unforgettable search to locate the remaining movements of the sonata and uncover a story that has influenced the course of many lives, even as it becomes clear that she isn't the only one seeking the music's secrets.
Bradford Morrow is a novelist, short story writer, essayist, and editor of literary journal Conjunctions. He teaches at Bard College - a private college based in the state of New York. In "The Prague Sonata" he's written an epic, continent spanning book that's as evocative as it is moving - a book that's been years in the making but is absolutely worth your time.
My lack of knowledge regarding the history of the Czech Republic is shamefully limited, and it's not a country I'd ever visited - so had little idea of the events that would form the backdrop of "The Prague Sonata". Morrow not only informs the reader, but brings Prague to life in such vivid fashion that it becomes an important character in the book - as living and breathing as the two women who take most of the plot. As someone with a background that featured music heavily, I loved quite how integral music is to the plot too - and it helps to make this book a sensory experience in terms of time, place and sound. The characters are excellent, and the plot gripping - although slightly meandering at times. My only slight grumble is that it can be hard to initially grasp what time period a chapter is set in, leading to some initial confusion - but once the reader gets to know the characters better it becomes far easier to sense in whose company your spending a chapter. Apparently it took the author over ten years to research and write this - and it really shows, with words carefully chosen and technical terms with what is clearly a high level of expertise. At its heart though, "The Prague Sonata" is a tale about humanity - both the good and the bad, and takes the readers on a journey that's as well written as it is memorable. Here's hoping we don't have to wait a decade for Morrow's next book!
June, 1348: the Black Death enters England through the port of Melcombe in the county of Dorsetshire. Unprepared for the virulence of the disease, and the speed with which it spreads, the people of the county start to die in their thousands.
In the estate of Develish, Lady Anne takes control of her people's future - including the lives of two hundred bonded serfs. Strong, compassionate and resourceful, Lady Anne chooses a bastard slave, Thaddeus Thurkell, to act as her steward. Together, they decide to quarantine Develish by bringing the serfs inside the walls. With this sudden overturning of the accepted social order, where serfs exist only to serve their lords, conflicts soon arise. Ignorant of what is happening in the world outside, they wrestle with themselves, with God and with the terrible uncertainty of their futures.
Lady Anne's people fear starvation but they fear the pestilence more. Who amongst them has the courage to leave the security of the walls?
And how safe is anyone in Develish when a dreadful event threatens the uneasy status quo..?
Minette Walters is best known as a writer of Crime novels - since the publication of "The Ice House" in 1992, she's won the Crime Writer's Association John Creasey award for best first novel, the Mystery Writers of America Edgar award, and the CWA Gold Dagger. Walter's now turns her considerable talents to another genre - moving into the realm of Historical Fiction with "The Last Hours", and sweeping her readers into the deadly, turbulent and terrifying world of a plague ridden middle ages England.
One thing that made Walter's crime books stand out was her grasp of character, and the viewpoints she used to tell her stories - they were never straightforward books packed with gore and violence, but often offered intriguing political and social commentaries alongside thrilling plots. That's something that, you'd think, would be somewhat trickier when plunging almost a millennia into the past and looking at the Black Death - but Walters is able to combine a truly engaging and well researched historical story with characters and threads that remind the reader of contemporary life.
A big part of this, is character - and the characters of Lady Anne, Thaddeus Thurkell and Giles Startout allow Walters to explore class, gender, race and religion in fascinating, compelling fashion whilst always ensuring that these themes are integral parts of the story rather than added on to give the book a contemporary relevance. Written with an urgent prose that pulls the reader through a vividly described landscape of death and destruction, the mix of rather incredibly drawn characters embroiled in a plot that, in its essence is a genuine battle for life and survival against the odds makes this a read that I was unable to put down.
Historical detail, a thrilling, fascinating plot and vivid, relatable characters, made this a read that I'll be recommending to all and sundry. I should warn that several plot strands are left very much open-ended, but that's only served to fill me with excitement for the upcoming sequel. Bravo Minette Walters - a brave change of genre, but one that has paid off in spades!
It’s 1592. Europe is in chaos. Religious factions have torn the region apart and witch-hunts have become a part of everyday life.
In the Company of Wolves follows three groups of travelers – a fearless female pirate roaming the North Sea, a priest and his wife escaping to England to avoid persecution, and a young thief from the slums of Germany looking for a better life. Each has a different reason for venturing out in such tumultuous times – fear, greed, family secrets.
Is the Werewolf of Bedburg still alive, roaming the countryside and killing innocent citizens? Many believe he’s still out there—that religious and political leaders have forsaken the truth in their cunning quest for power.
As each traveler searches for individual answers, these three seemingly separate stories converge in a place which may hold the key for them all. Based on true events involving one of the deadliest witch trials in European history, this tale of adventure, mystery, and the search for truth reminds us that, ultimately, no one is safe . . . in the company of wolves.
"In the Company of Wolves" is the sequel to "Devil in the Countryside" - a book I reviewed earlier in 2017 (review here). An intriguingly dark true story given the historical fiction treatment, it was a compelling read that blended excellent characterisation with a dark, genre-crossing plot. Cory has returned to that world and those characters in "In the Company of Wolves" - and it's a read that's just as compelling as the first.
In fact, it appears to me that Barclay has really hit his stride in "In the Company of Wolves". The interactions between characters seem more natural, and the pacing is fantastic, with the switching of viewpoints allowing for a huge amount of brilliant cliffhangers to crop up through out the course of the book. The distinct viewpoints are interesting enough that, whilst I was left eager to know what had happened to a character, I wasn't too annoyed when I was torn away from one journey and showed another - especially as, for a lot of the book, the individual chapters are rather short - allowing for a swift and interesting read that keeps the reader moving through this dark and dangerous world at considerable speed. It's a nice touch, and reminded me somewhat of the Victorian Penny Dreadfuls - dark stories told in quick, easily readable snippets.
A real draw of these books is that Barclay shines a light on historical events that have been all but forgotten - and shining a light on the "Trier Witch Trials" makes for immensely fascinating reading. The characters drawn from history are brought to life with considerable skill, joining the already impressive fictional creations of the author in order to guide the reader through dark, dramatic but ultimately incredibly well researched historical events
Things feel a little unfinished towards the end - but I'm sure they'll be resolved well in Book Three, which I'm already looking forward too! Thanks to Cory for the copy - and make sure to pick up "Devil in the Countryside" first in order to make sure you know what's going on!
1792: the blood begins to drip from the guillotine. The French Revolution is entering its most violent phase, and threatens all Europe with chaos. In the age of the mob, no individual is safe.
The spies of England, France and Prussia are fighting their own war for survival and supremacy. Somewhere in Paris is a hidden trove of secrets that will reveal the treacheries of a whole continent.
At the height of the madness a stranger arrives in Paris, to meet a man who has disappeared. Unknown and untrusted, he finds himself the centre of all conspiracy. When the world is changing forever, what must one man become to survive?
Robert Wilton works as an author and, rather surprisingly, an international diplomat. Over the years he's worked in both Kosovo and Albania, and it's clear that his experience in international relations and the internal workings of countries allows him to create books full of fascinating, complex characters and well developed worlds for those characters to live in.
His latest, "Treason's Spring" is a prequel to "Treason's Tide" - a book set during the Napoleonic Wars. Here Wilton takes things back to the French Revolution - a turbulent period evoked remarkably well by the author. Into this world, Wilton throws in mysteries, murders, and characters so vital they draw the reader swiftly into the plot, forming a tight grip on them as they move through the fast paced and often thrilling events that occur. Page turners like this can often be high in plot but rather low in quality - but there's no cause for concern here. Wilton's writing has a rich, slightly old fashioned feel to it, which when combined with his eye for historical accuracy leads to a read that's as informative as it is thrilling and transportive. Set to be the first part of a trilogy, I'm looking forward to book two - many thanks to the publishers for the copy.
Valiant Gentlemen reimagines the lives and intimate friendships of humanitarian and Irish patriot Roger Casement; his closest friend, Herbert Ward; and Ward's extraordinary wife, the Argentinian-American heiress Sarita Sanford.
Valiant Gentlemen takes the reader on an intimate journey, from Ward and Casement's misadventurous youth in the Congo - where, among other things, they bore witness to an Irish whiskey heir's taste for cannibalism - to Ward's marriage to Sarita and their flourishing family life in France, to Casement's covert homosexuality and enduring nomadic lifestyle floating between his work across the African continent and involvement in Irish politics.
When World War I breaks out, Casement and Ward's longstanding political differences finally come to a head and when Ward and his teenage sons leave to fight on the frontlines for England, Casement begins to work alongside the Germans to help free Ireland from British rule
Sabina Murray is a Filipina American screenwriter and novelist - the recipient of various awards and fellowships, and a Professor at the University of Massachusetts. Murray has written historical fiction before, but never anything quite as impressive in size and scope as "Valiant Gentleman" - it's been described as her Magnum Opus, and I can certainly see why.
Roger David Casement was an Irish civil servant, activist, nationalist and poet - and, until shortly before his execution for treason, the holder of a knighthood.
Herbert Ward was a sculptor, writer, illustrator and explorer, and a close friend of Roger Casement. Before reading "Valiant Gentleman" I had a vague awareness of Roger Casement and his infamous "Black Diaries", but had no knowledge of Herbert Ward at all. The friendship that the two had spanned countries and decades - making it one worthy of the attention that Murray has lavished on it in this epic of a novel.
A friendship grown in the Belgian Congo, Murray writes the two men at the heart of this relationship with considerable skill, bringing them to vivid life and writing these fascinating, brilliant men with the care that their respective histories have earnt them. Whilst the friendship is at the heart of the book, Murray takes care not to let this read become fully male dominated, with Ward's wife Sarita entering the narrative and providing POV chapters that are wholly illuminating - shedding light on the two men as well as creating a fascinating character in Sarita herself.
Over the course of their lives and adventures, both men make decisions that surprise and baffle the reader - and the path that Casement ends up on is one that is often difficult to understand. Murray does an admirable job of conveying the motivations and passions behind the choices, but stops short of placing any judgements - instead imbuing the characters with so much life, and the novel with so much detail, that the reader is well placed to consider the moments that drove these men to their very different paths in life. Some of the situations may be uncomfortable for readers - but topics such as colonisation, betrayal and treason are never handled anything but fairly.
It is a huge book - there's no denying that. But it's one that's hugely readable - with a compelling plot drawn from life, fascinating characters who the reader will no doubt be keen to read more about, and resulting in a novel that serves as an admirable tribute to a friendship that crossed oceans. Many thanks to the publishers for the copy.
It’s 1588, the height of the Reformation, and a killer is terrorising the German countryside. There are reports that the legendary Werewolf of Bedburg has returned to a once-peaceful land. Heinrich Franz, a cold and calculating investigator, is tasked with finding whomever — or whatever — the killer might be. He’ll need all the help he can get, including that of a strange hunter who’s recently stumbled into town. Though they’re after the same thing, their reasons are worlds apart. And through it all, a priest tries to keep the peace among his frightened townsfolk, while a young woman threatens his most basic beliefs. In a time when life is cheap and secrets run rampant, these four divergent souls find themselves entwined in a treacherous mystery, navigating the volatile political and religious landscape of 16th century Germany, fighting to keep their sanity — and their lives.
Cory Barclay is an author, songwriter and guitarist from San Diego California. “Devil in the Countryside” is his second novel.
Now, I love a bit of historical fiction. I’m a big history fan, and when done well, historical fiction can shine a light on events of the past, whilst creating new and exciting situations for the reader – something Cory Barclay has most certainly done on this occasion. “Devil in the Countryside” is a dark read -full of death and gore, but Barclays expertly balances this out – the overwhelming darkness of the world that surrounds these characters is brightened out, at least initially, by the motivations and personalities of the characters who fill this book. All are compelling – none are straight forward and all have very individual personalities, meaning that the distinct viewpoints that Barclay employs throughout the book are easy to follow. These characters are layered and well developed – all regularly make decisions that are not always easy to empathise with, but Barclay sells their motivations and drive to the reader well. It’s particularly fascinating to see how the characters develop alongside the plot – seeing the effect that the investigation at the core of the plot has on the characters is particularly compelling, and drives the reader towards the compelling conclusion.
In terms of historical fiction, Barclay manages to keep this a relatively light read – he doesn’t go overboard on exposition, but one still comes out of this read feeling relatively enlightened on the subject of the Germany of the late 1500’s. Little facts and details are dropped in throughout, and whilst there are a few pages that are fairly heavy on sharing facts with the reader, one is invested enough to not care – and in fact they add a good level of depth to an already compelling story.
A skin prickling, puzzling, page turner – “Devil in the Countryside” is a fun read and Barclay is an author with a strong command of language and a talent for fantastic structuring a cracking story – bring on the sequel!
Lib Wright, a young English nurse, arrives in an impoverished Irish village on a strange mission. Eleven- year old Anna O’Donnell is said to have eaten nothing for months, but appears to be thriving miraculously. With press and tourists flocking to see the child, the community looks for an outsider to bring the facts to light. Lib, an educated sceptic trained by the legendary Florence Nightingale. Her job is simple: to watch the girl and uncover the truth. Repelled by what she sees as ignorance and superstition, Lib expects to expose the fast as a hoax right away. But as she gets to know the girl, over the long days they spend together, Lib becomes more and more unsure. Is Anna fraud, or truly a ‘living wonder’? Or is something more sinister unfolding right before Lib’s eyes, a tragedy in which she herself is playing a part?
Emma Donoghue is an Irish writer, now based in Toronto. She’s published over 13 books, the majority historical fiction much like “The Wonder”, but she’s best known for her 2010 novel “Room”, a tale of captivity and freedom, the film adaptation of which won four Academy Awards. Now, I have to admit that I wasn’t the biggest fan of “Room” – it’s clever and moving, but I struggled somewhat with the fact that it was mainly told through the child’s perspective – a literary device that I found worked hugely well in getting across a harrowing situation without making the reader too uncomfortable, but for some reason I never enjoy child narrators all that much. However, Donoghue’s historical fiction is always thrilling – strong, compelling characters thrown into plots often drawn from real historical situations. So I was exceptionally pleased to be asked to review “The Wonder”for the Social Book Co, and it’s an example of Donoghue’s capability for taking historical situations and crafting fictional stories around them – and it’s a cracking read as a result.
“The Wonder” follows the genuine Victorian phenomenon of “Fasting Girls” -pre-adolescent girls who claimed to be able to survive indefinitely long periods of time without any sustenance, often linked with a deep religious belief and supposed miraculous powers. Some never truly had the truth behind their fasting explored – many died. Emma Donoghue explores this phenomenon with a skillful, careful touch. Whilst main character Lib is a sceptic, Donoghue is careful to never poke fun at the heavy religious beliefs of those in the small town of Athlone. Instead, they explore and investigate the situation along with Lib, learning to love Anna, the strange little girl at the center of events. It’s hard to go too much into the plot without spoiling things, but the reader is kept on their toes throughout, revelations and mysteries gradually revealing themselves throughout. The climax is compelling – the epilogue a slight disappointment for me, but only because parts of it felt rather rushed.
War rages across the land. In the wake of Magna Carta, King John’s treachery is revealed and the barons rise against him once more. Fighting with them is the Earl of Locksley – the former outlaw Robin Hood, and his right hand man Sir Alan Dale. When the French enter the fray, Robin and Alan must decide where their loyalties lie – with the king or their land. Death may wait for us all, but can Robin Hood pull off his greatest ever trick and cheat the Grim Reaper one last time just as England needs him most?
Now, as someone who has been a huge fan of the Robin Hood myth throughout my life, the one thing I’ve always found frustrating is the death of Robin Hood. It may be sweet and tender, but it always seemed a little weak, more of a postscript to the stories than a real ending. So when I heard that the last book in Angus Donald’s brilliant Outlaw series, I was, understandably, a little worried!
I shouldn’t have been though. Donald has crafted an epic end to his series – one that brings the characters together one final time, in a journey filled with excitement, betrayal, love, and emotion. I won’t go too much into the plot for fear of spoilers, but suffice to say that this is a masterfully written book that will please fans of the series immensely – the series has always been leaps and bounds ahead of other Robin Hood adaptions due to the huge amounts of humanity and personality that Donald injects into his characters. People here love, die, make mistakes, grieve and form complicated relationships with each other, meaning that their drama is never overshadowed by that of the Kings and Crusaders fighting throughout, but all comes together to form books that have been constantly exciting, and made an old legend into a contemporary tale about brotherhood, corruption, love, and the choices that shape the path of our lives.
As for The Death of Robin Hood – I’ll say that it’s everything I feared, and also everything I hoped for. A little vague, I know, but hopefully you’ll understand when you read it. I’ll miss this series – it’s been an epic ride, and I for one will miss journeying with the fantastic characters that Donald breathed new life into. Many thanks to the publishers for the copy.