The Familiars – Stacey Halls

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

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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. 

Tbc…

The Grotlyn – Benji Davies

I am a little late to the party with this one – but I love it all the same!

It was the cover that first drew me to this book. Some might call it clichéd, a sparse bedroom, complete with gas lamp, lit only by the pale glow of the moon, a wrought iron bed, a tiny, pale figure peeking above the heavy sheets. I think it’s timeless. This is exactly the kind of cover, and theme I would like to have for my children’s book – if I ever get around to finishing it…

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I know when the Grotlyn’s been
Slipping through your house unseen…

The Grotlyn is a new(ish) rhyming picture book by lyrical genius and acclaimed children’s author Benji Davies. This is more than a book about things that go bump in the night though, it’s beautifully illustrated, playfully constructed and comes complete with an important life lesson for all children afraid of the dark.

As much as parents might like to try to stop their little ones watching scary movies or frightening YouTube videos, some ghostly goings on in story books is almost like a rite of passage. You know as soon as you see the cover of a creepy children’s book that it’s not going to be ~that~ scary, but I’m willing to bet that the majority of children who own this book were hoping it would be…

The story itself, though short and sweet, is loaded with suspense created by Davies atmospheric Victorian-esque illustrations, and simple, almost creeping, rhyming style. The two combine to create a spooky yet playful scene – a mysterious shadow slinking through the smog slicked city streets, slipping from page to page, raising the neck hairs of all it passes.

The Grotlyn.

This mysterious creature is causing quite a stir among the townsfolk, and has even stolen a pair of PC Vickers’ knickers.

So what could it be?

Don’t worry, the Grotlyn isn’t some horrific Babadook type – and this book is not going to make any little Klaus’s dance with the likes of Freddie Krueger.  As the, equally magnificent, trailer for this tale so cleanly alludes:

But what at first we think to be
The eye does blindly make us see.
So don’t be scared to sleep – to dream!
For things are not quite what they seem.

Rest easy with the knowledge that the creeping, crawling, knicker-stealing culprit in the story poses no harm, and will be easily, and perhaps hilariously, revealed to be something much less scary than the name ‘Grotlyn’ conjures up.

I can say no more.

I don’t like to judge a book by its cover – but I 100 per cent did with this one and it completely paid off. I won’t be gifting my copy of this book to any little people, quite simply because I want to keep it for myself. That said, I think that ‘The Grotlyn’ is the perfect book for sharing with little ones who like a thrill.

The Future: A Very Short Introduction, by Jennifer M. Gidley

41724522An attempt to analyse and condense something which encompasses everything that is yet to come feels like an exercise in failure, and yet I hold in my hands a book which does just this. A wonderfully concise and brilliantly written book, The Future: A Very Short introduction by Jennifer M. Gidley takes a look at the future by travelling into the past – a literal oxymoron if ever there was one. To understand the future, says Gidley, we must look backwards, beginning with the emergence of theories of linear time in Ancient Greece. Within the book Gidley introduces the reader to the future as a concept, exploring prophecies and predictions from throughout history, discussing the potential for machine- vs human-centred futures and highlighting the reality that is ‘multiple futures’.  The future is inevitable, but our treatment of it doesn’t have to be; by exploring ‘the past of the future’ and its links with ‘present-day futures’, says Gidley, we are better prepared to create wiser futures for tomorrow.

This review was first published online for E&T Magazine 

‘The End of Ownership’ by Aaron Perzanowski and Jason Schultz

If you buy a book at the book shop, you own it, and are free to do exactly as you wish with it. You might be surprised to hear that the same is not true of ebooks and other downloaded media. In fact, as Aaron Personowski and Jason Schultz discuss, the digital world is an incredibly complicated place when it comes to ownership.

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Chances are if you own an iPod, Kindle or even a desktop or laptop you are no stranger to the world of the digital download. It is becoming more and more common to simply pay for a digital copy of a song, book or film, rather than worrying about cumbersome physical objects. Who even has time to wait for an Amazon delivery these days, anyway? The digital download has done wonders for the instant gratification of consumers, but at what cost? Like it or not, each time you click ‘pay now’ on a digital purchase, you are entering a new and confusing world, rife with rules, regimes and regulations that restrict how you interact with your downloads.

Authors Aaron Perzanowski and Jason Schultz use their book to delve into the complex, jargon-ridden world of the rights of digital consumers, to uncover the mystery of whether we can really be considered ‘owners’ of our digitalia. As the owner of a physical object you enjoy certain freedoms; if you have a collection of print books, you are free to annotate them, modify them, or even destroy them if you want to. The same however, cannot be said to the ‘owners’ of downloaded goods.

Every time you buy an ebook from Amazon or a song from iTunes you sign an end-user licence agreement (EULA) – let’s be honest, you have probably never read it – the contents of which are far removed from the freedom we enjoy with physical ownership. Consumers do not actually own digital purchases, they license them and have the permission to read, listen to, play, or watch them. Slightly more worrying is the fact that the company providing the software used to access these files effectively has control over a user’s digital library.

Here’s an interesting case. In July 2009 Amazon remotely, and without warning, wiped (irony of ironies) George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ and ‘Animal Farm’ from all Kindle ereaders, following a dispute with the publishers.

Small fry, perhaps? Permissible collateral damage? Well, what happens when devices, or corporations, become obsolete? That’s what happened to HDGIANTS Inc, a former distributor of high-quality audio and video files. When it went bankrupt, its servers were switched off, and with that, portions of the digital libraries of thousands of paying customers evaporated.

So how content should consumers be with their content? A bookshop cannot, as Schultz and Perzanowski point out, creep into your house in the middle of the night and reclaim the contents of your physical shelves – so why can digital providers? Is it fair that book lovers and audiophiles are charged prices akin to a physical copy for a digital download that is completely at the mercy of publishers and licensers? What is the benefit to the consumer of opting for digital files? Are the benefits of reducing waste and getting instant gratification really worth it?

‘The End of Ownership’ presents the confusing world of the digital consumer in wonderfully accessible prose, replacing hideous jargon with the simplest of analogies, from thieving bookshops to the goblins from Harry Potter. It will answer the questions you have regarding digital ownership, and it’s inevitable that more than a few of them have never even crossed your mind.

In an increasingly complex world, plagued by unreadable (certainly unread) terms and conditions, it is more than a little refreshing to have something explained in good, plain English.

This review was first published online for E&T magazine.

Head in the Cloud – William Poundstone

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What’s the point in knowing anything when facts are so easy to look up? In this new release from Oneworld Publications, William Poundstone sheds light on the importance of knowledge, even when Google is just a stone’s throw away.

It is often said that we are living in an information age. Gone are the days of trawling through text books and library archives to find the material to complete your latest homework assignment. The internet possesses all the information you could ever need – and then some. Pick up your smartphone or connect to your computer and you have a wealth of data available at your fingertips. But while it’s true that it is incredibly easy to look up facts on Google, it’s not so easy to remember any of them. Some have argued that having such a wealth of information available to us is making us stupid.

In his new book, ‘Head in the Cloud: The Power of Knowledge in the Age of Google’, William Poundstone turns this theory on its head. Being better connected doesn’t necessarily mean we are better informed and the internet is not making us stupid, he argues. Rather, it is making us less aware of what we do not know. We’re living, Poundstone believes, in the golden age of rational ignorance. People are more interested in the lives of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West than bothering to learn who painted the Mona Lisa and millennials use acronyms such as BTDTGTTAWIO (been there, done that, got the t-shirt and wore it out), but are unable to recall the single word uttered by the raven in Edgar Allen Poe’s famed poem.

So what does being well informed actually mean? Does it really matter?

Speak to any self-proclaimed gamer and you will likely tap into a wealth of information that’s missing from the mind of the average Joe. Perhaps you don’t have a clue what processor lurks within your PC, or how to overclock the latest Nvidia graphics card, and why would you? Unless gaming happens to feature high on your list of priorities, you’ll probably never need to know this random information.

Equally, some of you will have got through life just fine without ever having known the catchphrase of Poe’s raven. If someone was to ask you who invented Post-It notes, what year Tinder was developed, or what the fastest land mammal on earth is, you could retrieve the answer from the cloud within a fraction of a section of clicking ‘search’ on Google. This poses the question: ‘What’s the point of knowing anything when facts are so easy to look up?’

Interestingly, it turns out that the benefits of staying well-informed extend much further than being everyone’s go-to teammate in the monthly pub quiz. Poundstone reports results of internet surveys analysing the rate of public knowledge, with outcomes suggesting that better informed individuals are, on the whole, healthier, happier and quite significantly wealthier. Not only this, but factual knowledge is heavily correlated with personality traits, including political opinion. Did you know, for example, that those who are able to locate a country on a map are less likely to be in favour of invading it? This is just the very tip of the iceberg when it comes to ill-informed voters.

‘Head in the Cloud’ is hilarious, humbling and brutally honest, and will likely make you doubt yourself, and everyone around you. This book is not merely a declaration of the woes of an ill-informed public, it also serves to highlight the benefits of broadening your horizons, offering insight and advice on how to best use todays media to stay informed. If you take only one thing away from this book, let it be the knowledge that there is no such thing as irrelevant information and that you could probably benefit from a little more time spent with an atlas, encyclopaedia and Oxford English Dictionary.

This review was first published in print for E&T magazine

Fluke: The maths and myths of coincidences – Joseph Mazur

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Whether surprising, creepy, or downright weird, we all love to hear about coincidences, but just how usual are these seemingly uncanny events that so often creep into our daily lives? In this new release from Oneworld Publications Joseph Mazur aims to find out by delving into the mathematics behind coincidence.

Picture this: you are sitting in a café in Agios Nikolaos on the island of Crete when you hear a familiar laugh at a table nearby. You look over and lock eyes with your own brother. You had no idea he would be there, and he is just as surprised to see you. Of all the places in the entire world, what are the chances that you two have ended up in the same place, at the same time, seemingly unbeknownst to one another? It seems hugely unlikely, and yet this is exactly what happened to author – and coincidence enthusiast – Joseph Mazur, back in 1968. Uncanny isn’t it?

This story is just the kind of thing the average mind laps up with delight. Coincidences make magnificent stories, be it a crazy tale of pure luck that unfurled just because you happened to be in the right place at the right time, a thrilling near miss, or a series of hugely unfortunate events. Tell a crowd a story of coincidence and they will response with surprise and wonder. Yet far from being unusual, coincidences are actually fairly commonplace. In fact, even the finest coincidence can be explained as mathematically predictable.

Of course, coincidences are not solely of the ‘uncanny’ variety. On any given day, we encounter a stunning variety of factors that dictate the path our lives will follow, and a five second change in routine could see you meet the love of your life, or get crushed to death by a falling flowerpot. The ‘what ifs’ of life fill everyone’s existence, with even the most logical mind susceptible to obsessing over the smallest factor which could hold the key to changing the course of history. You could spend your life trying to understand coincidences that govern life, but as Mazur’s beloved Uncle Herman once put it: “Everything that happens just happens because everything in the world just happened.”

In Fluke: The maths and myths of coincidence, author Joseph Mazur attempts to demystify the mathematics that dictate coincidence, to show the reader that if there is any likelihood that something could happen, no matter how small, it is bound to happen to someone at some time. After all, in terms of population, the world is a really, somewhat inconceivably huge place.

Through a delightfully written collection of some of the seemingly strangest coincidences, we learn that it is possible for a person to win the lottery four times, fans of plum pudding move in similar circles, and, in the case of George Washington at least, dreams really do come true. Mazur combines stories of coincidence with practical mathematical methods of appraising the likelihood of events occurring, exploring the nature of coincidence frequency to explain why they happen, and more importantly, why we are still so surprised by them.

The key to understanding coincidences is in mathematics, but the author concedes that there could be an element of fate in any situation, some larger entity at work governing the coincidence that we encounter throughout our lives. After all, it sometimes feels good to believe that there is a grand plan governing that which we cannot explain, and no one wants to believe that the coming together of soulmates is dictated by maths. What’s more, when you write a book on coincidences, you notice more than ever, Mazur muses, after having accidentally vacuumed up page 2072 in his 2262 page dictionary. The very page he would later need to look up the word serendipity. Now what are the chances of that?

This review was first published on online for E&T magazine.