The Vanishing Witch by Karen Maitland

Oh, what a recipe for a book to read on a dark winter night!

A setting in Mediaeval England!
The Peasants Revolt of 1381 as a backdrop!
Witches  – and a ghost!
A touch of the Gothic!
And a very strong thread of suspense!

I have loved Karen Maitland’s novels in the past and, after being rather disappointed in the one before this one, I am so pleased to be able to say that this is a return to form.

The setting is city of Lincoln, where the wool trade is in decline and  rich and poor are feeling the consequences. The city and the period are wonderfully evoked, but at the heart of the story are the people. Because this is a very human story; a story of a family and community, jealousy and ambition, bitterness and retribution ….

Robert of Bassingham is a prosperous wool merchant and a pillar of the community. His dour wife, Edith, runs his home well; their elder son, Jan, is his father’s steward; and their younger son, 12-year-old Adam, shows great promise.

Caitlin, a widow newly arrived in Lincoln, asks him to advise how she should invest her savings.  She charms him, and very soon he is utterly smitten. He finds Leonia, her precocious 13-year-old daughter, just as charming, but he is wary of Edward, her arrogant and indolent adult son.

When Edith falls ill Caitlin is quick to offer support and practical help.

Is she acting from the goodness of her heart, or does she have some other motive?

untitledThere are new alliances formed and there are fallings out as the two families move closer together. There are also consequences that nobody could have foreseen.

Loyal servants, Beata and Tenney, are pulled into the situation.

Gunter, a poor boatman, fears for his son, Hankin, who has run away to join the revolt is involved too.

A stranger to the city is trying to reach Robert, trying to warn him, but there is always something in his way.

And there is a ghost, whose identity, whose purpose, will not be revealed until the story ends.

The characters are well drawn and defined, and the story twists and turns so cleverly as the narration moves between them. I had ideas, but I was never quite sure where the story was going to go, I never quite knew who was reliable and who was unreliable.

Each chapter begins a spell or a charm, taken from medieval texts and folklore; they’re fascinating, and they echo and emphasise the thread of fear and superstition that runs through the story.

I found much to enjoy: I loved Beata and the dramatic twist her story took; I was fascinated – and horrified – at the way Leonina’s character grew; I loved the atmosphere that Karen Maitland conjured up; and I really loved the way my perceptions shifted as different characters took their turn to tell the tale.

But there were things I found disappointing. The story around the Peasants Revolt was less effective than the story around Robert of Bassingham’s family; some revelations came too soon, and some of them weren’t as startling – or as convincing – as they might have been; and I couldn’t help the story could have been tightened up a little, that this book didn’t need to be quite as hefty.

But, that said, it was engaging from start to finish and utterly readable; a dark historical mystery, underpinned by solid research, that moves like a thriller.

It starts slowly but as the seemingly disparate strands are drawn together, it picks up pace and builds to an dramatic and incendiary final act.

This isn’t Karen Maitland’s best book, but I’m glad that she does what she does, and I know I’ll be picking up her next book next year.

The Falcons of Fire and Ice by Karen Maitland

I have found that, when I want to travel back to the dark ages, Karen Maitland is a wonderful guide. She has so clearly studied the period, she so clearly loves the period, and she conveys all of that in wonderfully imagined and told stories.

This one pulled me in straight away with high drama.

In Iceland an expectant mother found herself, and her unborn children, cursed when her husband killed the last white falcons on their mountain, breaking an oath and breaking old customs for financial gain.

And in Portugal Isabela, the daughter of the Royal Falconer, is shocked and distressed as she sees good men betrayed, tortured and murdered as the Inquisition took hold of her homeland.

It was stunning. Dark, visceral, and utterly believable. I was pulled found myself right at the heart of those worlds.

Eventually the Royal Falconer was betrayed and imprisoned on false charges. Isabela begged for mercy for her father, and the Inquisitors offered her a task to save his life. A near impossible task. She was to travel to Iceland and bring back two white falcons. Within the year.

Isabela was fearful, of the dangers she would face if she took on the task and of the future she would face if she did not. She went, driven by a wonderful spirit and by the values that her father had instilled in her. And she turned into a heroine to cherish.

The story faltered as Isabela set off on her journey. There was still much to hold the interest. A travelling companion, who I knew but Isabela didn’t, had been charged with preventing her from completing her task. Others who might not be all that they seemed. And a few dramatic events along the way. But the drop in pace, the realisation that Isabela was bound to reach Iceland to bring the stories together and because there were more pages ahead than behind, left me space to notice a few things. That the language felt a little too modern – nothing blatant that I can point too, but a definite feeling. And that one or two elements were just a little too dramatic.

But when we finally reached Iceland I was swept away once more, as the two strands of the story met in a dramatic, and well thought out final act.

The conclusion gave some answers, and it left some questions dangling. Which felt right.

I found much to love. The wonderful mix of history, myth and legend. The facts and the old stories about falcons and falconry that were interspersed with the story. The drama and the storytelling. I felt the climate of fear in Portugal, I saw the beauty and the danger of the Icelandic countryside. Those very different worlds lived and breathed, and I learned much about history and the world that I hadn’t known before.

But I found the story of the Icelanders that was set against Isabela’s story overwrought and unengaging, and I found parts of Isabela’s own story a little predictable.

The concept was wonderful, and the evocation of time and place was wonderful. But all of that, and the high drama, rather overwhelmed the characters and the human story.

I can say that this is a gripping entertainment, but I also have to say that I don’t think it is Karen Maitland’s strongest work.

I’m still eager to see what she does next though, and I am impressed that she has found so many different stories from the dark ages to share.

2009: A Year in the Library … and a Year in the Pub


Let’s start in the library.

J. Kaye from J. Kaye’s Book Blog hosted the 2009 Support Your Local Library Challenge.

You could commit to reading 12, 25 or 50 library books in 2009. I went for the maximum, and I knew it wouldn’t be a problem.

Here are a few reasons why I love  libraries:

  • I am lucky to have a good public library service – I can order any book in the county or in a large reserve stock for just 50p.
  • I also belong to the wonderful Morrab Library. There are only 19 private subscription libraries in the UK and this one is just a few minutes walk from home.
  • I can still visualise where my favourite books were in the library when I was a child.
  • Without libraries I wouldn’t be able to read anything like as widely as I do.
  • I pass the library as I walk home from work. A little look around the shelves after a difficult day is wonderfully theraputic!
  • I like to think I can influence what the library stocks by ordering and borrowing books. I have been known to borrow under-borrowed books that I own to help their statistics.
  • Don’t book lovers have a duty to support libraries? If we don’t we can’t assume they will still be there and then how will people who can’t afford to buy books read and how will other people discover books?
  • I first met my fiancé in the library!

I’ve  read 106 library books this year.

Some wonderful new authors and a few books that I hadn’t heard of until I saw them on the shelves.

I’ve added some to my shelves since, there are more I’d like to.

And I’ve uncovered a few put of print gems.

The full  list is here.


And so to the pub

The 2009 Pub Challenge was hosted by Michelle at

Read at least nine books published for the first time in your country in 2009. I’ve done 3 rounds – 27 books.

Here they are:




(There are a few more I’ve read but not written about yet and, I suspect, a couple I’ve missed.)

Some great books – the ones I’ve starred are la creme de la creme!

The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland

The Owl Killers

The year is 1341. Ulewic is a village deep in the English countryside.

For centuries the village has been ruled over by both the lord of the manor and by the Owl Masters – a pagan cult empowered by fear and superstition to dispense a harsh from of law and order.

The arrival of the church changes little, but the next arrival changes much. It is a beguinage – a house of religious women – a new community outside the village.

Suddenly there are four factions that all, in one way or another, want control of the hearts and minds of the people of Ulewic. And, of course, that causes conflict.

Ensuing events are narrated by five characters: Servant Martha, the head of the beguinage; Beatrice, a troubled young beguine; Osamma, the cast-off daughter of the lord of the manor who finds a home at the beguinage; Father Ulfrid, the parish priest with a fatal flaw; and a village child.

Each narrative voice is distinct and compelling and the story makes some fascinating twists and turns. There is much going on, but it would be unfair to say too much.

What I will say is that the Dark Ages are vividly brought to life, that the writing is simple and effective and the that the plot builds to a conclusion that provides both resolution and freedom to wonder what might happen next.

The presence of both pagan beliefs and Christianity provides much food for thought. This is often a very dark book and it shows human nature at its worst – the mysterious Owl Masters are particularly sinister. Yet it is also a book with much to say about the power of faith.

The Owl Killers isn’t quite perfect – the symbolism is a little heavy handed, a few characters just a tiny bit predictable and the ending doesn’t quite find the twist it needs to make it great.

But it does have ideas to think about wrapped up in a distinctive and compelling story – and more than enough strengths to leave me more than satisfied, and looking forward to Karen Maitland’s next book.

Teaser Tuesdays / It’s Tuesday, where are you ?


Just quote a couple of spoiler-free sentences the book you’re reading to tempt other readers.

Here is mine:-

“He didn’t know where or when, he didn’t know what his punishment would be, but he knew that there would be one. A dead owl had been left in front of his door in the middle of the night.”

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by MizB


My name is Giles and I live in the village of Ulewic. I am in trouble. Real trouble. The Owl Killers have given me a sign that I am to be punished. I should never have bedded that girl. I’ve though about running, but I’m bound to Lord D’Acaster. And even if I could get away, even if I could lie low for the year it would take to become a free man, they would take their revenge on my mother. I have stay and face them. There is no other way.

It’s Tuesday, where are you? is hosted by raidergirl3.

This all comes courtesy of The Owl Killer by Karen Maitland.

Library Loot

I have had an excellent week at the library. Two long awaited reservations arrived ,and I spotted two more gems on the shelves. All are historical, so please come with me on a journey through time:

We start in the 14th century:

The Owl Killers

The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland

“England, 1321. Deep in the heart of countryside lies an isolated village governed by a sinister regime of Owl Masters – theirs is a pagan world of terror and blackmail, where neighbour denounces neighbour and sin is punishable by murder. This dark status quo is disturbed by the arrival of a house of religious women, who establish a community outside the village. Why do their crops succeed when village crops fail; their cattle survive despite the plague? But petty jealousy turns deadly when the women give refuge to a young martyr. For she dies a gruesome death after spitting the sacramental host into flames that can’t burn it – what magic is this? Or is the martyr now a saint and the host a holy relic? Accusations of witchcraft and heresy run rife while the Owl Masters rain down hellfire and torment on the women, who must look to their faith to save them from the lengthening shadow of Evil … a shadow with predatory, terrifying talons.”

Karen Maitland’s debut was one of my favourite books of last year and I have been looking forward to this one. Doesn’t it sound wonderful? And isn’t the cover lovely?

And then we travel forwards, to the middle of the 19th century:


McNaughten by Sian Busby

“The winter of 1843 is one of bitter strife for England. The nation is on the brink of ruin and revolution, the government struggling to stand firm against the rising chaos.
Out of this apocalyptic landscape emerges a young Scotsman, Daniel McNaughten. He has been on a journey, a descent into his own despair, mirroring the tribulations of society at large. His journey will end in London, with the death of an apparently innocent man. One freezing day in January, he takes a shot at the Prime Minister’s Private Secretary, Edward Drummond, as he makes his way to Downing Street. The incident rocks the nation. Has the assassin perhaps mistaken Mr. Drummond for the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel? And who is this McNaughten? A dangerous political radical – possibly the agent of an entire network of revolutionaries – or a religious fanatic? Is he a lunatic, or merely a victim of the collective madness that surrounds him?”

I love the period and this is based on a true story I know nothing about.

On now to the early years of the 20th century:

The Crimson Rooms

The Crimson Rooms by Katharine McMahon

“Evelyn is a young woman who has defied convention to become one of the country’s pioneer female lawyers. Living at home with her mother, aunt, and grandmother, Evelyn is still haunted by the death of her younger brother James in the First World War. Therefore when the doorbell rings late one night and a woman appears, claiming to have mothered James’s child, her world is turned upside down. Evelyn distrusts Meredith at first, but also finds that this new arrival challenges her work-obsessed lifestyle. So far her legal career has not set the world alight. But then two cases arise that make Evelyn realise perhaps she can make a difference. The first concerns woman called Leah Marchant whose children have been taken away from her simply because she is poor. The second, Stephen Wheeler – a former acquaintance of Daniel Breen, her boss – has been charged with murdering his own wife. It is clear to Breen and Evelyn that Wheeler is innocent but he won’t talk. After being humiliated in court, Evelyn is approached by a dashing lawyer called Nicholas Thorne. She is needled by his privileged background and old-fashioned attitudes, but despite being engaged, he cannot seem to resist sparring with this feisty young female. In the meantime, Meredith makes an earth-shattering accusation about James. With the Wheeler case coming to a head, and her heart in limbo, Evelyn takes matters into her own hands.”

Another period I love. I like the sound of the story and I’m hoping to learn a little about how women established themselves in the legal profession.

And finally, a few decades forward, to the years just after the war.

A Little Stranger

A Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

“In a dusty post-war summer in rural Warwickshire, a doctor is called to a patient at Hundreds Hall. Home to the Ayres family for over two centuries, the Georgian house, once grand and handsome, is now in decline, its masonry crumbling, its gardens choked with weeds, the clock in its stable yard permanently fixed at twenty to nine. But are the Ayreses haunted by something more sinister than a dying way of life? Little does Dr Faraday know how closely, and how terrifyingly, their story is about to become entwined with his.”

This must be one of the most anticipated books of the year. I was tempted to rush out and buy a copy, but I restrained myself and placed an order at the library instead. It arrived a couple of days ago, reading is well underway and I’ll be writing something at the weekend.

And then, with just a hop, a skip and a jump, we are back in the present day.

Do you like to travel in time? Do you have a favourie period?


Have you read any of these? What did you think of them?

And what did you find in the library this week?

See more Library Loot here.

2008 Year End Review: My Top Twelve Books

ten-talesBest Book Made Up of Short Pieces: Ten Tales Tall and True by Alasdair Gray



novel-about-my-wife1Best Novel set in the Here and Now: Novel About My Wife by Emily Perkins



company-of-liarsBest First Meeting with an author: Company of Liars by Karen Maitland




crowded-streetBest Book reissued in the year: The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby




love-childBest Flight of Fancy: The Love-Child by Edith Olivier




queen-emmaBest Journey Into The Real Past: Queen Emma and The Vikings by Harriet O’Brien



glass-of-timeBest Journey Into an Imaginary Past: The Glass of Time by Michael Cox




servantsBest Novel for Producing a Warm Glow: The Faithful Servants by Marjory Sharp




drivers-seatBest Not Quite Contemporary But Not Quite History Book: The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark



harriett-freanBest Book Received as a Gift: The Life and Death Of Harriett Frean by May Sinclair



gargoyleBest Book Outside My Usual Range:The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson




wreath-of-rosesBest Virago Modern Classic Not Already Mentioned: A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor




Please don’t ask me to pick an overall winner – I really can’t!

The 2009 Pub Challenge


The 2009 Pub Challenge is being hosted by Michelle at

It’s a challenge to read at least nine books published for the first time in your country in 2009. The rules are here.

I have read some great new books this year and I’m looking forward to more next year as well as picking up ideas from others.

I have had a look at what’s due out next year in the UK and I can already see four books that I want to read asap:

The Girl Who Played With Fire, by Steig Larsson
(UK release 6th January 2009)

Devil’s Brood, by Sharon Penman
(UK release 5th February 2009)

The Owl Killers, by Karen Maitland
(UK release 5th February 2009)

Delicate Edible Birds: And Other Stories, by Lauren Groff
(UK release 2nd July 2009)