Shelf Control #267: The Familiars by Stacey Halls

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Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

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Title: The Familiars
Author: Stacey Halls
Published: 2019
Length: 344 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Young Fleetwood Shuttleworth, a noblewoman, is with child again. None of her previous pregnancies have borne fruit, and her husband, Richard, is anxious for an heir. Then Fleetwood discovers a hidden doctor’s letter that carries a dire prediction: she will not survive another birth. By chance she meets a midwife named Alice Grey, who promises to help her deliver a healthy baby. But Alice soon stands accused of witchcraft.

Is there more to Alice than meets the eye? Fleetwood must risk everything to prove her innocence. As the two women’s lives become intertwined, the Witch Trials of 1612 loom. Time is running out; both their lives are at stake. Only they know the truth. Only they can save each other.

Rich and compelling, set against the frenzy of the real Pendle Hill Witch Trials, this novel explores the rights of 17th-century women and raises the question: Was witch-hunting really women-hunting? Fleetwood Shuttleworth, Alice Grey and the other characters are actual historical figures. King James I was obsessed with asserting power over the lawless countryside (even woodland creatures, or “familiars,” were suspected of dark magic) by capturing “witches”—in reality mostly poor and illiterate women. 

How and when I got it:

I bought the e-book sometime in late 2019.

Why I want to read it:

They had me at “witch trials”! I just read another book about accusations of witchcraft in the 1600s (although set in Boston in the Colonies, not in England), and the topic is just so fascinating. I love that this one is focused on real people from the period, and that it delves into the issue of witch-hunting being a facade for systemic misogyny.

I picked up a copy of The Familiars after seeing a few glowing reviews from book bloggers whose tastes tend to be in sync with my own. I’m glad I “rediscovered” this book on my dusty old virtual bookshelf — bumping it up to must-read status!

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!


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Book Review: The Hour of the Witch by Chris Bohjalian

Title: The Hour of the Witch
Author: Chris Bohjalian
Publisher: Doubleday Books
Publication date: April 20, 2021
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A young Puritan woman–faithful, resourceful, but afraid of the demons that dog her soul–plots her escape from a violent marriage in this riveting and propulsive historical thriller from the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Flight Attendant.

Boston, 1662. Mary Deerfield is twenty-four-years-old. Her skin is porcelain, her eyes delft blue, and in England she might have had many suitors. But here in the New World, amid this community of saints, Mary is the second wife of Thomas Deerfield, a man as cruel as he is powerful. When Thomas, prone to drunken rage, drives a three-tined fork into the back of Mary’s hand, she resolves that she must divorce him to save her life. But in a world where every neighbor is watching for signs of the devil, a woman like Mary–a woman who harbors secret desires and finds it difficult to tolerate the brazen hypocrisy of so many men in the colony–soon finds herself the object of suspicion and rumor. When tainted objects are discovered buried in Mary’s garden, when a boy she has treated with herbs and simples dies, and when their servant girl runs screaming in fright from her home, Mary must fight to not only escape her marriage, but also the gallows. A twisting, tightly plotted thriller from one of our greatest storytellers, Hour of the Witch is a timely and terrifying novel of socially sanctioned brutality and the original American witch hunt.

I have read quite a few books by Chris Bohjalian by now, and without fail, they’re always interesting, unusual, and thought-provoking. And while most of the books I’ve read by him have been contemporary fiction, I’ve also read two terrific historical novels (The Sandcastle Girls and The Light in the Ruins), both of which shed light on important and disturbing historical periods and show these periods through the eyes of ordinary people.

In The Hour of the Witch, the author goes several centuries into the past to bring us a story set in the Puritan settlement of Boston in the 1600s. If you’ve read stories of the early Colonial days, then the moral code and rhythm of the community’s life may feel familiar.

Mary Deerfield, at age 24, is married to a truly awful man, Thomas Deerfield, a miller. Thomas often comes home “drink-drunk” and berates her, intimidates her, and beats her. His violence escalates over time, as does his verbal cruelty — but apparently no one sees his abhorrent behavior but Mary. Their servant girl Catherine appears to be enamored of Thomas, and Mary feels such shame about her marriage that she hides her bruises and keeps the violence a deep, dark secret.

On top of the misery of this abusive behavior, Mary has not conceived, despite five years of marriage. Her “barren” state subjects her to even more abuse from Thomas, not to mention public scorn and mistrust. If she’s barren, it must be God’s will — and could that be because she’s in league with the Devil?

“Women who are barren often act strangely. It would be like an owl that couldn’t fly: it would be antithetical to our Lord’s purpose, and the animal would, by necessity, go mad.”

Mary’s troubles grow further when she innocently accepts a gift from her father, a successful importer — a set of silver forks. But in the Puritan view, these are “the Devil’s tines”, since a three-pronged implement resembles a pitchfork, and those who use the Devil’s tines must therefore be suspect of inviting in evil.

When Mary finds a pair of forks buried in her garden, she suspects that someone is trying to curse her, and when Catherine observes her in the garden with the forks, Catherine immediately suspects that Mary herself is in league with the Devil.

Thomas’s violence eventually causes severe injury and Mary flees to her parents, taking the unprecedented and dangerous step of petitioning the elders for divorce. In the book’s two sections, we see two different trials, each giving us a horrifying view of what passes for justice at that time. The magistrates follow their own set of rules, accept as evidence hearsay and superstitious signs, and have no respect for women — especially not a barren woman like Mary, who, by their logic, must be guilty of something bad in order to be deemed unworthy of bearing children.

If it sounds like a no-win situation for Mary, as well as any woman who’s unusual and perhaps not quite meek enough, that’s because it is. You can see where Mary’s situation is headed, even when she doesn’t quite believe it, and we readers know early on that Mary’s legal case as well as her domestic situation will go from bad to worse.

The Hour of the Witch presents a fascinating view of Puritan life, although it doesn’t exactly feel new or different to me. I’ve read enough history books and articles about the period to have a pretty decent sense of what a woman’s life would have been like at the time, and the notion of an outspoken woman being accused of witchcraft isn’t exactly startling.

The Puritan phrasing makes the dialogue feel slow and heavy throughout the book, with characters exclaiming such things as “Thou canst not believe that!” and “Do what thou likest” and “I thank thee”. Maybe that’s supposed to be authentic speech, but it feels awkward, especially when a character later in the book says “I feel bad that she has been dragged into this”, which could be something said in a 21st century heart-to-heart.

I did really like Mary as a character, although she makes some unwise choices along the way — but for the most part, these just illustrate how very little control a woman of the time would have had over her own life, and how even the slightest step out of line could lead to life-threatening consequences.

The Hour of the Witch feels a little simple in comparison to some of the more twisty-turvy plots I’ve read by this author, but I still enjoyed reading it. Despite the sometimes slow pace, I was invested in the outcome and had to know Mary’s fate.

If you’re interested in this era in US history, then I’d definitely recommend checking out The Hour of the Witch!

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Buy The Hour of the Witch at Amazon

Book Review: The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs by Katherine Howe

New York Times bestselling author Katherine Howe returns to the world of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane with a bewitching story of a New England history professor who must race against time to free her family from a curse

Connie Goodwin is an expert on America’s fractured past with witchcraft. A young, tenure-track professor in Boston, she’s earned career success by studying the history of magic in colonial America—especially women’s home recipes and medicines—and by exposing society’s threats against women fluent in those skills. But beyond her studies, Connie harbors a secret: She is the direct descendant of a woman tried as a witch in Salem, an ancestor whose abilities were far more magical than the historical record shows.

When a hint from her mother and clues from her research lead Connie to the shocking realization that her partner’s life is in danger, she must race to solve the mystery behind a hundreds’-years-long deadly curse.

Flashing back through American history to the lives of certain supernaturally gifted women, The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs affectingly reveals not only the special bond that unites one particular matriarchal line, but also explores the many challenges to women’s survival across the decades—and the risks some women are forced to take to protect what they love most.

The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs is a sequel ten years in the making, following the author’s 2009 debut novel The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, and the story itself picks up 10 years later too. Former graduate student Connie Goodwin is now a history professor at Northeastern University, under consideration for tenure and living happily with her boyfriend Sam Hartley, whom she met during the events of the first book.

Sam’s feelings are hurt by Connie’s continuing refusal to discuss marriage. What he doesn’t know is that Connie is descended from a line of witches going all the way back to 17th century Salem, and that the male partners of the women in the family all seem to die young, in tragic circumstances. As their relationship becomes complicated in new ways, Connie is determined to find out the truth about the curse, and discovers a startling secret: there is actually one woman in the family’s history who managed to break the curse for her own husband.

Armed with this knowledge, Connie races against time to crack the mystery of the “weather work”, the elusive and seemingly highly dangerous spell that once upon a time saved her ancestor’s mate. Connie applies her scholarly skills as she unearths manuscripts and deciphers centuries old clues, this time enlisting friends, colleagues, and her own mother in a desperate attempt to get it all right.

The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs is a great second chapter in Connie’s world. It’s quite fun to see her 10 years after the original book, now established and respected as a professor, mentoring up and coming grad students of her own. And it’s wonderful to see the enduring love between her and Sam, who is a lovely, kind, and sexy man. The interludes in which we see episodes from Connie’s family’s past are really engaging in their own way as well, although it’s definitely sad to see the persecution of these women who were considered different from the norm.

I enjoyed the characters, the plot, the research, and the historical elements, and the magical aspects are presented in a matter-of-fact way that still manages to have an eerie, otherworldly feel.

I suppose you could read The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs as a stand-alone, but you’d be missing out on big chunks of Connie’s personal history as well as all that family history. I’d strongly recommend starting with The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, and continuing on from there. Well worth it!

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The details:

Title: The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs
Author: Katherine Howe
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
Publication date: June 25, 2019
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Audiobook Review: The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare

Witch of Blackbird Pond

The newest edition

Growing up in Connecticut, reading The Witch of Blackbird Pond was an absolute must. For years, I’ve remembered reading it back in my school days, and I know that I loved it at the time, but I couldn’t have told you much about it except for the barest of bare bones…. until now!

I was looking for a new audiobook this past week, and doing a Halloween-themed post about witches brought this children’s classic to mind. What a treat! I’m so thrilled to have revisited this terrific story.

In The Witch of Blackbird Pond, it’s 1687, and Katherine (Kit) Tyler sails into Wethersfield, Connecticut to join the household of her last remaining relatives, her Aunt Rachel and Uncle Matthew, and their two daughters, Judith and Mercy. 16-year-old Kit has lived all her life in Barbados, raised by her loving grandfather, but after his death she’s left with nothing, and leaves her beautiful island behind to start a new life among the Puritans of New England

Kit is taken in by her family, but has a hard time fitting into the rigid, restrictive life she finds in Connecticut. Her only sense of joy and freedom comes through her secret visits to the old Quaker woman, Hannah Tupper, who lives alone in a small cottage in the meadow by Blackbird Pond. Hannah is both feared and scorned by the townspeople, and despite being warned away, Kit’s visits to Hannah soon lead to danger for both of them.

I'm pretty sure this is what the book looked like when I read it eons ago!

I’m pretty sure this is what the book looked like when I read it eons ago!

I simply love this book! The language is incredibly descriptive, especially the depictions of autumn in Connecticut, and Kit’s first encounter with snow. But really, the entire thing is so well written. The words paint such a picture of Kit’s life, contrasting the Puritan bleakness with the lushness of the tropical islands.

The characters are distinct and memorable, from Kit’s kind-hearted cousin to the wealthy boy who courts Kit to the poor, hungry child who views Kit as a refuge and friend. Likewise, the plot is sharp and well-developed. The story moves along at a steady pace, but never rushes. The author manages to build drama and tension into the story, even while portraying simple moments like fixing a roof or teaching children to read their ABCs.

As for the audiobook, narrator Mary Beth Hurt does a lovely job bringing the story to life. Her voice is well suited to Kit, and yet she also pulls off the crackly old voice of Hannah and the childish voice of the young girl, Prudence. The pacing is quite good, and I felt so engaged by listening that I found myself taking the long way home just so I could listen a bit more while I drove.

Enough gushing. If you’ve never read The Witch of Blackbird Pond, you’re missing out! It’s never too late, though — the story feels fresh and exciting, even all these years after its publication. And if you’re like me, having read the book ages ago, give yourself a treat and re-read it or listen to the audiobook. I’m so happy that I did!

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The details:

Title: The Witch of Blackbird Pond
Author: Elizabeth George Speare
Narrator: Mary Beth Hurt
Publisher: Laurel Leaf
Publication date: 1958
Audiobook length: 6 hours, 24 minutes
Printed book length: 256 pages
Genre: Historical fiction (young adult)
Source: Library (Overdrive)