#BookReview The Plague Charmer by Karen Maitland

ThePlagueCharmerAbout the Book

1361. An unlucky thirteen years after the Black Death, plague returns to England.

When the sickness spreads from city to village, who stands to lose the most? And who will seize this moment for their own dark ends?

The dwarf who talks in riddles?
The mother who fears for her children?
The wild woman from the sea?
Or two lost boys, far away from home?

Pestilence is in the air. But something much darker lurks in the depths.

Format: Paperback (562 pages)  Publisher: Headline
Publication date: 6th April 2017 Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

When you pick up a historical novel by Karen Maitland you can confidently expect a great sense of atmosphere, fascinating historical detail, an intriguing array of characters and a touch of the supernatural or mystical. The Plague Charmer delivers on all those counts.

The Plague Charmer was written way before the pandemic but having lived through it we can now perhaps understand a little better the fear and uncertainty the inhabitants of Porlock Weir experience when ‘The Great Pestilence’ returns. As the plague wreaks havoc in the village, one of the characters remarks, ‘I don’t reckon we’ll ever see weddings and happiness again after this. Feels like the whole world is dying’. When you add to the return of the plague – which on this occasion is attacking primarily the young and fit, and more men than women – a prolonged drought, ferocious storms and a total eclipse it’s not surprising that the villagers become fearful and a sense of hysteria spreads. And you can understand how readily they might believe someone who says they know a way to save them and rid them of the plague – for a price. Or that they might believe those who proclaim the plague is God’s way of ridding the world of sinners sparing only the ‘chosen’ ones. The latter forms a rather chilling storyline but one, as the Historical Note explains, that is based on historical fact. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking of the conspiracy theories that circulate on social media, preying on people’s fears and of how easy it is, in times of uncertainty, for individuals to manipulate others whether fuelled by religious zeal or a lust for power.

One of my favourite characters was Will, a dwarf or, to be more precise, a ‘fake’ dwarf. Who knew there was such a thing? The details of how that would have come about are actually quite shocking but his presence in the story is a neat way for the author to explore the theme of difference. He also has a wicked sense of humour – I loved the nickname ‘The Holy Hag’ he gives to one of the women in the village – and is adept at riddles. So is the author, it seems, as riddles or medieval proverbs appear at the start of each chapter. And, yes, the answers are at the back.

Like a lot of the author’s novels, The Plague Charmer is a fairly chunky book but it weaves together so many intriguing storylines and is populated with so many interesting characters that it never feels like a slog, at least it didn’t to me. Although I’ve read a couple of Karen Maitland’s historical novels I haven’t read them all and that’s certainly something I plan to correct.

In three words: Atmospheric, mysterious, immersive

Try something similar: The Last Hours by Minette Walters

K J Maitland Karen MaitlandAbout the Author

Karen Maitland travelled and worked in many parts of the United Kingdom before settling for several years in the beautiful medieval city of Lincoln, an inspiration for her writing. She is the author of over twenty books. She now leads a life of rural bliss in Devon. Karen also writes as K J Maitland. (Photo: Goodreads author page)

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#BookReview Island of Secrets by Patricia Wilson

IslandofSecretsAbout the Book

‘The story started at dawn on the fourteenth of September, 1943 . . .’

All her life, London-born Angelika has been intrigued by her mother’s secret past. Now planning her wedding, she feels she must visit the remote Crete village her mother grew up in.

Angie’s estranged elderly grandmother, Maria, is dying. She welcomes Angie with open arms – it’s time to unburden herself, and tell the story she’ll otherwise take to her grave.

It’s the story of the Nazi occupation of Crete during the Second World War, of horror, of courage and of the lengths to which a mother will go to protect her children. And it’s the story of bitter secrets that broke a family apart, and of three enchanting women who come together to heal wounds that have damaged two generations.

Format: Paperback (496 pages)    Publisher: Zaffre
Publication date: 18th May 2017 Genre: Contemporary Fiction

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My Review

Today is the 79th anniversary of the real life events that inspired the author to write Island of Secrets – an atrocity that took place during the German occupation of the island of Crete in WW2. For me, this was the most powerful part of the book. The story is revealed gradually by Maria to her granddaughter, Angelika. At one point Angelika is told to ‘be patient and everything will become clear’ and the reader needs that patience too which is a pity because the experiences Maria reveals are moving and compelling. They include some harrowing scenes which at times make difficult reading, even more so once you realise they are based on fact.

Prompted by her forthcoming wedding to her boyfriend Nick, Angelika has travelled to Crete to try to discover why her mother Poppy left the island so suddenly many years ago and why she has been estranged from her family ever since. It’s a period of her life Poppy has been reluctant to talk about, yet Angelika seems determined to delve into the past in a high-minded belief that she is doing her mother a favour and trying to ‘ease her pain’.  In fact, her efforts have just the opposite effect and it’s only later that Angelika concedes that perhaps her search for answers is a means of distracting herself from her own worries about her personal life.

The reasons for Poppy’s flight from Crete, when eventually revealed, are rather melodramatic in nature and only vaguely connected to the wartime storyline. I confess at this point in the book I got rather confused with all the different members of Angelika’s Cretan family and could have done with a family tree, although the way the storyline develops means I understand why the author would not have wanted to include this.

The modern day storyline involving Angelika’s concerns about her relationship with Nick held less interest for me; her wedding preparation woes seemed lightweight compared to the wartime story. I found Angelika rather immature for a woman of thirty-seven and there were details that I found unrealistic, such as the fact that Angelika has apparently never needed to see her birth certificate for any reason, for instance to obtain a passport. Her sudden interest in her family history and her expectation that people she’d never met or had any communication with would want to come to her wedding was not very credible.

There were lots of things about Island of Secrets that I enjoyed, especially the wartime story that was clearly the product of extensive research and felt really authentic. However, overall it did feel as if there were three different stories fighting for my attention.

Island of Secrets is one of the books on my list for the 20 Books of Summer 2022 reading challenge, and yes, I do know summer is officially over.

In three words: Powerful, authentic, dramatic

Try something similarAt the Breakfast Table by Defne Suman

Patricia WilsonAbout the Author

Patricia Wilson was born in Liverpool, has lived on Crete and is now settled on Rhodes. She was first inspired to write when she unearthed a rusted machine gun in her garden – one used in the events that unfolded during World War II on the island of Crete. The now elderly women involved in those events told Patricia their story, and her celebrated debut Island of Secrets was the result. (Photo: Twitter profile)

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