The Familiars – Stacey Halls

“The ghosts of things that never happened are worse than the ghosts of things that did.”― L.M. Montgomery


I really enjoyed this book.

The old saying goes you should never judge a book by its cover, but I have to confess, that I often do – and it actually normally works out in my favour. I regularly pick up a book because I am drawn to the cover artwork – admittedly, I will always check out the blurb too, and if I like the sound of it as well I will normally buy. I’m sure there are books out there with beautiful covers and stinking interiors, but so far this method has worked fairly well for me. The Constant Nymph, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and The Unforgotten all found their way onto my book shelf because I fell in love with their covers.

This is another one to add to the list. I was drawn to the striking full cover wrap, the slinky fox and personal artefacts hiding amongst moonlit trees. The ‘familiar’ title (I’m so sorry) let me know the subject matter would be up my street, and the blurb reinforced my decision to pop the book in my shopping basket.

The Familiars is an evocative, haunting tale, set upon the backdrop of seventeenth-century industrial Lancashire, and the loosely based on the folklore of the Pendle witches. The place time, and characters are real, though the story is one of Halls’ own – a tale of two women’s fight for freedom in an age of oppression, subjugation and superstition.

Fleetwood Shuttleworth is 17 years old, married, and pregnant for the fourth time. But as the mistress at Gawthorpe Hall, she still has no living child, and her husband Richard is anxious for an heir.

When Fleetwood finds a letter she isn’t supposed to read from the doctor who delivered her third stillbirth, she is dealt the crushing blow that she will not survive another pregnancy. Then she crosses paths by chance with Alice Gray, a young midwife. Alice promises to help her give birth to a healthy baby, and to prove the physician wrong.

There were two things I loved about this book.

Firstly, the despair – and I don’t mean this is a heartless way at all; I love to be moved by a book. Fleetwood’s anguish was palpable – her fear at losing her child, what this would mean to her as a wife, but also as a mother. The abject terror at having something so personal so utterly out of her control. Combined with this, is the creeping suspicion of her husband. What are his motives? What’s he trying to do? What is his aim? And finally, her utter helplessness when trying to save Alice.

I was anxious for Fleetwood –desperately trying to save her unborn child, and indeed herself, while fighting against the oppressive force of male privilege. Knowing that Alice awards her the best chance of survival and of giving her husband the heir he so desires, but being helpless to save her, bound by the chains of her sex. I felt connected to Fleetwood, a part of her emotions – angry, sad, afraid, anxious, with a final burst of release and acceptance.

I also loved the darker, more mysterious element which emerged through the backdrop of the Pendle Witch Trials. I was drawn into the pages by the secrets which didn’t ever fully emerge: the fleeting familiars in the woods, the oppressive walls of Malkin Tower, the waking nightmares, the unknown horrors in Alice’s prison cell. I like the fact that some questions were left unanswered. Real life is so often mysterious – and though Halls wrote the book to answer some of her own questions, there is much that is left unanswered. This is an open book, for interpretation by the reader.

I’ve been struggling a lot with reading recently, and this book was just what I needed to get myself moving again. It’s engaging, but also easy and enjoyable to read. I consumed the whole thing in a few short days between Christmas and New Year while nursing a particularly fierce head cold. It was refreshing, after a dismal 2019 spent struggling through books I felt I ought to read, to rediscover the delight of a really good book.

A New Year’s Resolution…

I used to pride myself in reviewing every single book I read. When I struggled to find the time to put pen to paper, because I was desperately and incessantly applying for new work, revising for exams, or otherwise indisposed, I diligently stacked all my previous reads aside, awaiting review, as it were.

It took me a long time to shake this habit and to recognise that it is okay to read a book and then put it away, that not everything needs reviewing. While I’m pleased I made this realisation, I can also recognise that recently I’ve gone entirely the other way, and have fallen horribly out of touch with my literary self.

Last year was a particularly bad year for my reading list – though a pretty good year in all other respects. Full time work, marriage, and new, not altogether bad, habits, have somewhat monopolised my diary. And while I still do make time for reading in the hour or so I spend in the bath of an evening – old habits die hard – I don’t ever take the time to share my thoughts anymore. 

In 2020, I’d like to make more of an effort to put my thoughts to paper. I’m not one for making grand resolutions that are impossible to stick to – one blog a week is never going to happen so I won’t even think of it. If I can manage one post a month, I’ll have done myself proud. I’ve also recognised the fact that my previous reviews were really long (seriously), so going forward, I am going to try to keep my thoughts to a minimum – concise, to the point, and hopefully worth the read. 

I’ll kick things off this month with an amazing book I found, and subsequently inhaled, over the Christmas period – The Familiars by Stacey Hall. 


“Freedom of the Press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticize and oppose” ― George Orwell

Roger Martin is an ‘expendable’ young journalist.

The Blue Pencil – David Lowther


David Lowther’s debut novel ‘The Blue Pencil’ was published in 2012 and encompasses the author’s love for historical fiction. It is 1936, Britain is in recovery, emerging from the depths of the greatest depression of all time and still reeling from the effects of the Great War. As expansionist forces in Germany threaten to turn Europe into a fascist dictatorship, the British government cling desperately to any hope of peace. The Blue Pencil focuses on the coverage of foreign events in London’s Fleet Street from 1936-1939, shedding a new light on the lengths the British Government went to, to hide the truth from the Great British public.

The book takes its name from the infamous ‘blue pencil’ traditionally used by editors and sub editors to show corrections. The dreaded receiving back of a piece of work covered in blue pencil akin to the corrections shown by teachers in secondary school is something most of us can relate to. These days the blue pencil has been largely replaced by a red pen. I’ve had many conversations with fellow writers over the despair of receiving a piece of work back covered in red ink.

The Blue Pencil is written in the style of a diary, and follows the life of recent university graduate Roger Martin.  Coming from a comfortable middle class background, and having just graduated from Cambridge, with a “good degree”, Roger feels he owes it to his parents to decide what he wants from life. Roger’s news savvy girlfriend awakens within him a renewed interest in international affairs, which sets him on the path towards his future career:

“The Spanish Civil War, and the interest in it from newsreels and newspapers changed my life. For the first time I became aware that there was life away from Cambridge and that greedy men wanted to seize power for themselves without caring two hoots about the quality of life for the majority of citizens.”

With support from his university tutor Roger writes to several newspapers, and soon lands his first real job as junior reporter at ‘The Globe’, a fictional left wing newspaper. Roger describes at length his first impression of the newspaper’s press office during his interview, and the effect that the atmosphere had on him:

“Everybody in the room seemed either to be talking into the phone or typing, and those phones not in use seemed to be ringing. The air was thick with smoke and most desks seemed littered with ashtrays, piled high to overflowing, and cups and saucers.”

Lowther’s description of the Globe’s offices particularly appealed to me, conjuring up vivid images of Lois Lane tapping away at her desk in the Daily Planet press office.

Roger quickly settles in to his new role and before long finds himself more or less leaving behind film and sport reviews for more important coverage of international affairs. He covers Hitler’s movements throughout Europe, attempting to make his stories as hot and hard hitting as possible.

As it becomes evident that the government is determined to strangle the press, Roger has a different aim in mind, to let his readers know the secrets the government is working so hard to cover up. Despite several warnings from those close to the Prime Minister, which put much more than just his job in danger, Roger insists on publishing nothing but the truth. When faced with confrontations with ‘the blue pencil’, the owners of the newspaper, and even the police Roger does not back down.

The Blue Pencil is an incredible story of the attempts by authoritative figures to suppress the press in what turned into the most devastating war in British history. The novel introduced me to a piece of history I knew nothing about. While Roger may be a fictional character I know that his unpleasant experiences at the hands of Chamberlain’s government, whether direct or indirect are Lowther’s description of a very real, and shocking truth.

I was particularly impressed by the detailed picture of the 1930s which Lowther presented; the level of research which must have gone into writing this book is truly incredible. The story is historically accurate but this goes far beyond the realms of European politics at the time. Lowther clearly put an awful lot of time and energy into discovering the entire time period. The journalists and reporters who Roger comes into contact with are all real people; the hard hitting news stories were actually published, including ‘The Tragedy of Guernica’ by George Steer. Lowther even keeps up to speed with the results of the Ashes, and the films of the time, often sporadically name dropping films and actors. This is all done so naturally that it feels as though one were actually living at the time of all these events.

Lowther’s unique writing style, which combines the commonplace with historical events, has the effect of drawing the reader into deep into the pages of the book. Through this method the main character grows, becoming a person that the reader relates to, and knows on an almost personal level. Roger travels to Berlin and relates first-hand one of the most horrific nights in Jewish history “Women were screaming, children were crying and the Nazis were celebrating”. He tells the reader of the anti-sematic rag, Der Stürmer with it vulgar caricatures of Jewish men. At the same time we are made aware of the way Roger feels, his terror and disgust, and the emotional exhaustion he felt upon returning to England. Roger is more than just a hard boiled reporter, he has a real life and is a person like any other, with a mother who worries if he is not home for dinner, and a girlfriend, with whom he goes on country outings, and trips to the cinema: “things quietened down for a while. I spent a lot more time with Jane. We saw Paul Muni in The Life of Emile Zola (Not bad) and Will Hay in Oh Mr Porter (very funny)”. Historical fiction is at its best when it is relatable to those who have not lived through the events in question, and Lowther’s original method of interlacing the poignant with the mediocre achieves just this.

Overall I would rate The Blue Pencil very highly, it was comprehensible and interesting and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I was captivated by Roger’s story, and drawn in by the realness of the characters and the situations; it really did feel as though I was stepping back into the 1930s. My one slight gripe is that there are multiple grammatical errors and spelling mistakes throughout the text, which is a shame. That said the mistakes were not so frequent as to ruin the book for me, and I would definitely still recommend it to others.

Many thanks go to Sacristy Press for providing a free copy of the book for review.