#BookReview Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

WakenhyrstAbout the Book

“Something has been let loose…”

In Edwardian Suffolk , a manor house stands alone in a lost corner of the Fens: a glinting wilderness of water whose whispering reeds guard ancient secrets. Maud is a lonely child growing up without a mother, ruled by her repressive father.

When he finds a painted medieval devil in a graveyard, unhallowed forces are awakened.

Maud’s battle has begun. She must survive a world haunted by witchcraft , the age-old legends of her beloved fen – and the even more nightmarish demons of her father’s past.

Format: ebook (359 pages)          Publisher: Head of Zeus
Publication date: 4th April 2019 Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery

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My Review

Wakenhyrst is described by the publishers as ‘a darkly Gothic thriller’ and there are definitely Gothic elements although I had to keep reminding myself the book is supposed to be set in 1911.  The style in which Edmund’s journals are written, his misogynistic views and even the domestic routine of Wake’s End seemed to me to evoke the 19th century rather than the years running up to the First World War. Similarly, the odious Dr Grayson’s outdated medical notions didn’t seem to belong in the 20th century.

The main part of the book consists of chapters from Maud’s point of view, interspersed with entries from her father’s journal and, later, excerpts from the writings of a medieval mystic, Alice Pyett (who is based on the English Christian mystic, Margery Kempe).

Edmund comes across as a monster, a man unable to control his sexual appetites and who is exacting to the point of obsession about how the household at Wake’s End should be run. His treatment of Maud’s mother amounts to what we would today recognise as coercive control, seeking to manage every aspect of her life: what she wears, what she eats, even how she identifies herself. He is also disdainful of his daughter Maud, a fact she only discovers much later.  Given her father’s belief there is no benefit in educating a woman, Maud is forced to make surreptitious visits to his library to satisfy her quest for knowledge. Despite everything, she matures into an intelligent and independent-minded young woman, readily embracing the theories of Charles Darwin and becoming increasingly disenchanted with religion.

The author creates an eerie and unsettling atmosphere using the vast, lonely fen that surrounds Wake’s End particularly well. It becomes one of the manifestations of Edmund’s increasing madness. ‘I kept catching whiffs of the fen itself: a swampy rottenness that seemed to come and go, making it doublt distracting.’  We witness Edmund’s increasingly paranoid imaginings, namely that a devil, like that depicted in the so-called Doom painting uncovered in the local church (think Hieronymus Bosch’s ‘The Last Judgment’), has been set loose. ‘I could feel the demon’s presence in the grounds: watching, waiting. It wants to stop me. It shall fail.’  He becomes convinced the fen is home to this demon leading him to research arcane rituals associated with exorcism, some of which are extremely gruesome.

Those familiar with the ghost stories of M.R. James will feel at home with scenes describing some of the events that so disturb Edmund, such as the grotesque carvings in the church (‘The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral’) or his conviction that something is hidden in the ivy that cloaks the walls of Wake’s End (‘The Ash Tree’). ‘This morning when I sat down in my study with a book, I was disturbed by a furtive scrabbling at the windowpane. It wasn’t the tapping of a bird; this sounded more like claws. On raising the sash, I thought I glimpsed something scuttling off into the ivy.’ 

The reader witnesses Edmund’s deteriorating mental state which manifests itself in a kind of religious mania.  He increasingly sees parallels between his experiences and those of Alice Pyett and, later the life of St Guthlaf, to whom the local church is dedicated. He also has strange dreams and hallucinations. But are the displaced objects, the strange sounds or the obnoxious miasma evidence of the presence of supernatural beings or the work of human hands?

Having become her father’s secretary after her mother’s death – a death she holds her father reponsible for – Maud gains access to his journal, secretly reading his daily musings and, as a result, learning some shocking truths about his sister’s death and his increasingly deranged thoughts. She becomes fearful of what her father might be capable of and afraid for those around her, especially a young man employed in the household to whom she has become close.

Of course, the reader already knows what Edmund is capable of from the book’s prologue which describes the climactic event of the book, even if it does cast doubt on Maud’s role in it.  Only a few previously undisclosed details are saved for the end of the book, as Maud finally agrees to publication of the full story in order to counter the ‘lies’ contained in the newspaper article published in 1966 that opens the book, but also for the more practical reason that she needs to fund repairs to Wake’s End. For me, the framing device reduced the feeling of suspense that I hoped the book would deliver. I already knew what was going to happen and that it was the product of madness;  the next 300 pages were just about telling me why. However, I know  I’m in a minority here and many other readers have loved it.

I received a review copy via NetGalley.

In three words: Atmospheric, eerie, dark

Try something similar: The Bone Flower by Charles Lambert


Michelle PaverAbout the Author

Michelle Paver was born in central Africa but came to England as a child. After gaining a degree in Biochemistry at Oxford University, she was a partner at a City law firm, until she gave that up to write full time. She is the author of the bestselling, award-winning series that began with Wolf Brother. The series has sold over 3 million copies in 36 territories, with acclaimed audio editions read by Ian McKellen. Wolfbane is the final book in the series. Like the others it can be read as a standalone story. (Photo: Twitter profile)

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#BookReview The Weather Woman by Sally Gardner

The Weather WomanAbout the Book

Neva Friezland is born into a world of trickery and illusion, where fortunes can be won and lost on the turn of a card.

She is also born with an extraordinary gift. She can predict the weather. In Regency England, where the proper goal for a gentlewoman is marriage and only God knows the weather, this is dangerous. It is also potentially very lucrative.

In order to debate with the men of science and move about freely, Neva adopts a sophisticated male disguise. She foretells the weather from inside an automaton created by her brilliant clockmaker father.

But what will happen when the disguised Neva falls in love with a charismatic young man?

It can be very dangerous to be ahead of your time. Especially as a woman.

Format: Hardback (496 pages)                 Publisher: Head of Zeus
Publication date: 10th November 2022   Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

The fact the heroine of the book, Neva, can predict the weather might give you the idea this is a book with a strong element of fantasy. However, although Neva’s gift is inexplicable, it seemed to me she just has a different way of seeing the world. In fact she struggles to comprehend that others cannot read the clouds as she can. ‘Her gift, she thinks, outdoes rational thought, making her an island utterly disconnected from others.’ Her gifts don’t stop with forecasting the weather because she also perceives people’s emotions in the form of colours – what we might now describe as synesthesia – and is a chess prodigy.

Initially her weather forecasts are treated with sceptism but gradually the person she has come to think of as her father, Victor Friezland, realises her predictions are always right. You could bet your house on the fact that if she says it’s going to rain at a certain hour on a certain day, it will. However Regency England isn’t ready for someone who can predict the weather, and certainly not if that person is a woman. And received ‘wisdom’ is that the weather is a product of chaos, not something that can be predicted by scientific, or any other, means.

Although constructed with the best of intentions in order to protect Neva’s identity, Victor’s Weather Woman automaton turns her predictions into purely a source of entertainment – or means of personal gain – for the aristocracy, not something that could be of genuine benefit. ‘Again she thinks of mariners who sail into storms and ships that are wrecked on rocks. What use is this gift, what use? she asks herself.’ And Neva longs to discuss her views with others, especially her observations on the impact of human activity on the weather. ‘I think perhaps the vapours produced by the industries of men can change the colours in the sky.’ However, as we are frequently reminded, this is a world run by men. As a result, Neva adopts a male persona – Eugene Jonas – whom she thinks of as her ‘second skin’, allowing her to go where a woman cannot. However, as it turns out, the brilliance of her disguise has unintended consequences.

From the early focus on Neva’s weather forecasting ability, the later part of the book introduces a mystery element and a number of romantic story lines. Some of these are incredibly touching and may leave you slightly tearful on occasions. The colourful cast of characters gives the book a real Dickensian feel with some of my favourites being Ebenezer Ratchet and his dog, Old Bones, and the formidable fixer-in-chief, Mrs Dent. I also had a soft spot for the lovelorn Mr Gutteridge, Victor’s legal advisor. And I particularly liked how the author included a number of characters in unconventional relationships (for the times) such as Mr James, who advises Neva on how to convincingly pass as a man, and Lady Elizabeth Wardell. There are characters for whom you will feel sympathy and those for whom you will feel no sympathy whatsoever.

There are wonderfully whimsical elements to the book, such as a chess-playing bear and a bet involving a live herring. There are also brilliant descriptions of London life including the frost fairs on the River Thames that open and close the book. All in all, The Weather Woman is a delightful historical novel with some unforgettable characters.

I received a digital review copy via NetGalley.

In three words: Charming, imaginative, romantic

Try something similar: The Doll Factory by Elizabeth MacNeal


Sally GardnerAbout the Author

Sally Gardner grew up and still lives in London. Being dyslexic, she did not learn to read or write until she was fourteen and had been thrown out of several schools, labeled unteachable, and sent to a school for maladjusted children. Despite this, she gained a degree with highest honors at a leading London art college, followed by a scholarship to a theater school, and then went on to become a very successful costume designer, working on some notable productions.

After the births of twin daughters and a son, she started first to illustrate and then to write picture books and chapter books, usually with fairytale- or otherwise magical subject matter. She has been called ‘an idiosyncratic genius’ by London’s Sunday Times. (Photo: Twitter profile)

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