Book Review: Warrior Daughter by Janet Paisley

Inspired by first century AD warrior women, Janet Paisley’s Warrior Daughter is a gripping adventure about one young woman’s struggle to survive in the harsh Celtic wilderness.

2,000 years ago on the Isle of Skye, a warrior is born.

Daughter of an Iron Age warrior queen, Skaaha is wild, headstrong and revered. But she is also a child, and when a chariot race leaves the queen dead and her menacing rival Mara in her place, Skaaha’s charmed life lies in ruins.

Vulnerable, her future imperilled, Skaaha seeks to forge a life beyond the new queen’s reach. But with rumour, fear and danger sweeping the island, she cannot remain unmoved. Broken by brutal misfortune, alone in a world of mistrust, Skaaha must unearth the courage to confront her enemies in defence of her people.

Illuminated by the great Celtic fire festivals, Warrior Daughter is inspired by the historical Scathach, a fierce warrior woman of the first century AD and forerunner to the equally ferocious Boudicca.

I read a lot of historical fiction, but this is the first novel I have read which could be referred to as prehistorical fiction. Set in the first century on what later became the Isle of Skye, Warrior Daughter tells the story of Skaaha as she struggles to forge her own way forward in a wild and often brutal world where enemies are not always easily seen.

I was struck almost immediately by the sheer amount of research the author must have done in crafting this novel. Paisley weaves historical detail into the narrative seamlessly, demonstrating an impressive understanding of a world so far removed from our own, from its druid beliefs to its calendar structured by ancient festivals and the lunar cycle. When combined with her superb, evocative prose, the impact was magical, effortlessly transporting the reader to the middle of the action, from spear fights to the great fires of Beltane. Her success in managing the subject matter so well must not be understated: it is one thing to bring alive documented history, but to bring alive a period and a people which predate recorded history so vividly, is quite frankly magnificent.

The story is structured around the stages of Skaaha’s life, from the death of her mother in childhood through to around the age of eighteen. Although it is a third person narrative, the focus is always on Skaaha, documenting the twists and turns of her life, the challenges and the hardships she faces. Some of the subject matter is agelessly familiar, such as growing up and coming of age, but much of it is not. Living in a matriarchal society of goddesses and warrior queens, Skaaha is revered as the child of Queen Kerrigen and the descendant of the Goddess Danu – an identity which raises her up among her own people but also makes her a target for vengeance, hatred and rivalry. At times the plot is very hard-hitting; a reflection of the times in which it is set, no doubt, but more sensitive readers may wish to exercise caution as graphic violence and sex are frequent features of the novel.

I found Skaaha to be a well-drawn and engaging character who I liked very much; she is a strong female heroine who is bold and brave, but also almost broken by her circumstances and the realisation of her own vulnerability. The story is supported by a fine and colourful cast of characters, from Skaaha’s moon-crazed aunt Jiya, to the wise and otherworldly Ruan, to the thoroughly hateful queen of spite, Mara. To be honest, I struggled to choose a favourite. Nonetheless, I always found myself rooting for Skaaha to find the courage she needs to succeed, to steer her own course and to become who she truly is. Whether she does or not…well, you’ll just have to read the book to find out.

An epic, heart-stopping prehistorical adventure which would work wonderfully as a film. Five stars.

Spreading the Word

Whilst all writers have their own hopes, dreams and aspirations, I think it is fairly safe to say that there are a few things which appear on all of our wishlists. Whether we are writing our first book or our fourth, we toil night and day, agonising over our creative efforts before eventually summoning the courage (after seemingly endless rounds of editing and proofing) to put our work out into the world. At that point, I think there are four things we all wish for:

  1. That readers buy the book.
  2. That readers read the book and enjoy it.
  3. That readers rate/review the book on Amazon, Goodreads etc.
  4. That readers tell a friend, family member, colleague or other acquaintance about the book.

I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that these four wishes are important to any author writing in any genre, whether they are traditionally published, crowdfunded, or self-publishing. For the indie author, those last two wishes are particularly vital. Most indies, myself included, don’t have vast marketing machines behind them, or enormous budgets with which to procure such resources. Most indies rely on the internet, on social media, on reviews, on shares and ratings and that great old-fashioned thing, word of mouth, to maintain their book’s profile far beyond that initial burst of sales which comes with release day.

Why am I talking about this? Well, today I decided that I would write a post which plays my part in this. I am a writer but I am also a reader too, and over the past few years I have read some truly wonderful books by independent authors. Today I thought I would turn the spotlight on to them, tell you a little about their work and where you can find it. It’s all part of spreading the word!

K.J Farnham

K.J Farnham writes women’s fiction and contemporary romance. Her work includes her Click Date Repeat series and her most recent release, A Case of Serendipity. K.J has also written a YA novel, Don’t Call Me Kit Kat. I’m an avid reader of K.J’s work and have reviewed a number of her books on my blog (see here, here and here). If you like light, funny and enjoyable reads which will make you smile and lift your spirits, K.J’s romance novels are probably for you.

Find out more about K.J here.

 

Hillary DeVisser

Hillary DeVisser writes women’s fiction and romance. Her Coal Country series, which includes the books Fishing Hole, Copper Creek and Poets Pass, follows the fortunes of family and friends in a small mining town in Southern Illinois, where lives are not simple and there is always a good dose of suspense to be found. I read these books consecutively and just couldn’t put them down. If you like heartfelt, romantic reads which will have you clutching your chest at times, DeVisser’s books are probably for you.

Find out more about Hillary here.

 

Fiona MacBain

Fiona MacBain writes in the thriller, suspense and crime genres. Her books are one of my more recent discoveries, in fact it was only last week that I reviewed her second novel, Glasdrum, a crime thriller set in the Scottish Highlands (you can read my review here). In the past couple of days I finished reading Fiona’s first novel, the pacy women in jeopardy thriller Daughter, Disappeared set in Tunisia (review for this one is still to come). Both novels are gripping, exciting reads with unpredictable plots, and intriguing, challenging and at times downright grisly characters. If you like absorbing thrillers which you can’t put down, Fiona’s books could well be for you.

Find out more about Fiona here.

 

Campbell Hart

Campbell Hart writes crime fiction and noir, and has more recently released collections of ghost stories. His Arbogast trilogy, comprised of the novels Wilderness, The Nationalist and Referendum are crime novels set in central Scotland all featuring his gritty and completely unforgettable protagonist, DI John Arbogast. Campbell’s Arbogast books were one of my first forays into reading crime fiction and discovering that I did indeed enjoy the genre. The plots were framed within the context of recent memorable events in Scotland, from the freezing winter of 2010 through to the eve of the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014, making them immediately relevant and relatable. If you like well-constructed and engaging crime fiction, Campbell’s books might well be for you.

Find out more about Campbell here.

 

Marissa Campbell

Marissa Campbell writes historical fiction and contemporary romance. Her first novel Avelynn was published by St Martin’s Griffin and she has since gone on to self-publish a second novel in the series, Avelynn: The Edge of Faith, as well as a contemporary romance novel. The Avelynn books are epic adventures of magic, faith and survival in the dangerous and superstitious world of ninth century England and Wales. This wasn’t a period I was particularly familiar with before picking up these books, but Marissa’s spell-binding prose and memorable characters really brought it to life for me. If you like gripping historical fiction with a touch of the otherworldly, Marissa’s books are probably for you.

Find out more about Marissa here.

So, over to you! Tell me and your friends about your favourite indies by commenting here, or sharing this post and commenting on your own social media channels with the hashtag #SpreadTheWord

 

Book Review: Glasdrum by Fiona MacBain

One town. Five women. Dark events. 

Life is not easy for the women of Glasdrum… 

A skeleton is unearthed, too many walkers are falling to their deaths off mountain cliffs, and the local pub doesn’t know how to make a decent raspberry daiquiri. 

Single mother Megan is a hill runner and cannabis dealer, an unlikely friend of well-to-do Finella, whose confident appearance hides struggles with her unpleasant husband and unruly children. 

Vicky is Finella’s child-minder, and when Finella’s husband starts digging about in her past, he discovers she has a secret. How far will she go to protect it? 

Glasdrum is a culture shock to Londoner Sarah, but she finds friendship with local journalist Catriona, recently returned to her home town but haunted by memories from her past. 

The women battle through daily life while the spectre of death looms over the town. Could one of them be living with a killer? 

I read a few books on holiday this year, but Glasdrum was by far my favourite. Set in a fictional town in the Scottish highlands,  Glasdrum makes for a masterpiece of pathetic fallacy – the backdrop is gloomy and grey, the rain is lashing down and summer is stubbornly refusing to arrive. I found the setting in particular to be very powerful and on more than one occasion found myself shuddering as MacBain’s prose made Scotland’s beautiful west coast seem suddenly so forbidding.

Glasdrum is a third person narrative pieced together from the points of view of several women as they grapple with tricky personal lives which are not made any easier by recent unnerving events, the deaths of hikers in the mountains nearby, and the literal skeletons found in the back garden. I found MacBain’s characters to be well-drawn, realistic and easy to relate to. I particularly liked Megan, a rough-round-the-edges single mum, whose unlikely friendship with well-to-do-but-falling-apart Finella injected just the right amount of humour into the story.

In addition to the heroines there are, of course, a number of villains in Glasdrum. I don’t want to say too much about them as I wouldn’t like to spoil the story, but suffice to say that for me there were one or two who I really loved to loathe. Whether they’re the murderers…well, you’ll have to read it to find out. Certainly, if you’re anything like me you won’t easily manage to guess ‘whodunnit’ – MacBain’s plot is a fairly complex one which takes the reader through a good number of twists and turns and keeps you wondering until the very end.

A gripping read, perfect for enjoying from the comfort of your sun lounger. Five stars.

Book Review: The Wages of Sin by Kaite Welsh

Sarah Gilchrist has fled London and a troubled past to join the University of Edinburgh’s medical school in 1892, the first year it admits women. She is determined to become a doctor despite the misgivings of her family and society, but Sarah quickly finds plenty of barriers at school itself: professors who refuse to teach their new pupils, male students determined to force out their female counterparts, and—perhaps worst of all—her female peers who will do anything to avoid being associated with a fallen woman.

Desperate for a proper education, Sarah turns to one of the city’s ramshackle charitable hospitals for additional training. The St Giles’ Infirmary for Women ministers to the downtrodden and drunk, the thieves and whores with nowhere else to go. In this environment, alongside a group of smart and tough teachers, Sarah gets quite an education. But when Lucy, one of Sarah’s patients, turns up in the university dissecting room as a battered corpse, Sarah finds herself drawn into a murky underworld of bribery, brothels, and body snatchers.

Painfully aware of just how little separates her own life from that of her former patient’s, Sarah is determined to find out what happened to Lucy and bring those responsible for her death to justice. But as she searches for answers in Edinburgh’s dank alleyways, bawdy houses and fight clubs, Sarah comes closer and closer to uncovering one of Edinburgh’s most lucrative trades, and, in doing so, puts her own life at risk…

I came across the Wages of Sin some time ago and, intrigued by its setting and subject matter, put it on my long ‘to be read’ list. Then, a few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to hear author Kaite Welsh read from her book at a Noir at the Bar event in Edinburgh. I loved what I heard so much that I went home and started reading this book straight away – a decision I’m glad I made, since I absolutely adored this story.

The tale is a first person narrative, told from the point of view of Sarah Gilchrist, a young woman with a difficult past who is determined to become a doctor, despite the barriers and social stigmas of the late Victorian society she inhabits. Welsh’s Sarah is well-drawn; she is brave, resilient and just the right amount of vulnerable. As a reader it was very easy to get inside Sarah’s head and to see her world as she saw it – as frustrating as that was, at times! There are some great supporting characters too, from the brooding Professor Merchiston to the catty and snooty Julia Latymer. Welsh does an excellent job of making even the most unlikable character a touch sympathetic, whilst ensuring that in terms of the mystery, the reader remains as blind to their worst flaws and darkest secrets as Sarah is, until that crucial moment when the truth and the killer is revealed…

The setting for the story is 1890s Edinburgh, and Welsh does a masterful job of evoking the sights and smells of the ancient city, thick with slums, and contrasting this with the orderly and more privileged (but no less debauched) new town. As a piece of historical fiction this novel is superb, with Welsh firmly setting Sarah’s sleuthing tale in the context of the time, tackling issues from poverty and deprivation, to the social conflict surrounding female emancipation and sexuality with impressive sympathy and accuracy. At times it was hard not to feel as though I had been transported back to 1892!

A highly enjoyable read – I am looking forward to the next installment in the series already. Five stars.

Book Review: Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu

Vivian Carter is fed up. Fed up with her small-town Texas high school that thinks the football team can do no wrong. Fed up with sexist dress codes and hallway harassment. But most of all, Viv Carter is fed up with always following the rules.

Viv’s mom was a punk rock Riot Grrrl in the ’90s, so now Viv takes a page from her mother’s past and creates a feminist zine that she distributes anonymously to her classmates. She’s just blowing off steam, but other girls respond. Pretty soon Viv is forging friendships with other young women across the divides of cliques and popularity rankings, and she realizes that what she has started is nothing short of a girl revolution.

This book was a rare experience for me for two reasons. One: it is a young adult novel, which is not a genre I tend to read. Two: I loved it so much that I read it in less than twenty-four hours. Vivian, a sixteen year old high school student from a small town in Texas, decides to start a Riot Grrrl-inspired zine called Moxie to vent about the sexism and harassment which is commonplace in her school. Vivian’s small act of defiance quickly grows into a movement, empowering young women (and men) across the school to challenge the behaviours and indeed the wider school environment which are both so patently unacceptable.

I am loathe to use the term ‘girl power’ but effectively, that is what this story is all about. The homage to the Riot Grrrl movement of the early 1990s is heart-warming and (for those of us of a certain age) a little nostalgic. Mathieu does a really good job of crafting an engaging, entertaining plot filled with interesting, complex characters. The protagonist, Vivian, is drawn very realistically; a typical sixteen year old girl who just wants to get on with her studies and keep herself out of trouble. However, she also cannot help but see the unfairness and discrimination going on all around her and ultimately rebels, and rightly so! She is joined by her friends and classmates, an interesting supporting cast who are all different but ultimately come together in mutual support and recognition that they are more powerful together than apart.

In terms of the plot Mathieu deals well with a range of issues which confront young women, from sexist jokes in the classroom, to the institutional sexism of targeting female students over their appearance, to the most sensitive and serious issues like sexual assault. I also liked that the story was not framed as boys versus girls; indeed, not all the young women in the story were keen feminists (at first, anyway) and not all of the boys were participating in the sexist behaviour, with some actually joining in with the Moxie revolution. The result is a realistic story about growing a movement, taking back control, and realising that we are all more similar than we are different. It is also a story about feminism and what it means to be a feminist in an age when people often talk about feminism as though it’s no longer relevant. I’m not normally one to quote at length from books but these few lines, when Vivian realises the power of what she’s started, really struck a chord with me:

“This is what it means to be a feminist. Not a humanist or an equalist or whatever. But a feminist. It’s not a bad word. After today it might be my favorite word. Because really all it is is girls supporting each other and wanting to be treated like human beings in a world that’s always finding ways to tell them they’re not.” 

In short, this was a highly entertaining, relevant and powerful read. Five stars.

Book Review: Black Wave by Michelle Tea

Grungy and queer, Michelle is a grrrl hung up on a city in riot. It’s San Francisco and it’s 1999. Determined to quell her addictions to heroin, catastrophic romance, and the city itself, she heads south for LA, just as the news hits: in one year the world is Officially Over. The suicides have begun. And it’s here that Black Wave breaks itself open, splitting into every possible story, questioning who has the right to write about whom. People begin to dream the lovers they will never have, while Michelle takes haven in a bookshop, where she contemplates writing about her past (sort of), dating Matt Dillon (kind of), and riding out the end of the world (maybe). 

New from Michelle Tea, novelist, essayist, and queer counter-culture icon, Black Wave is a punk feminist masterpiece and a raucously funny read for everyone … except, perhaps, for Scientologists.

Black Wave is a story which dances on the blurred lines between fiction and memoir in order to examine the crux of a very pertinent question: who has the right to tell a story, and about whom? The narrative through which this examination takes place is undoubtedly entertaining, following the fortunes of Michelle, a twenty-something gay writer living a fairly drugged-up and alcohol-enabled existence against the backdrop of a late-nineties San Francisco on the verge of environmental collapse. When Michelle makes a clean break and heads to LA, it also coincides with the pronouncement that the end of the world is nigh. From there, things get very weird, very quickly.

To be truthful with you, reader, I’m still grappling with how I feel about this book. Structurally it almost operates as two shorter novels, with part one set in San Francisco and part two in LA and there is a sense of detachment from the first part as the reader moves to the second. This was perhaps intentional but as a reader I felt bereft of some of the characters I’d got to know in part one, who were barely mentioned again. It is also written as a third person narrative, which again fed into the overall sense of detachment. Given that Tea was clearly wishing to play around with the memoir concept, this would have worked better for me written as a first person narrative. I think this would have made it easier to read, as well as allowing the reader exclusive access to Michelle’s mind which, from a third person perspective, was sometimes pretty unfathomable.

And yet, despite my difficulties with these aspects of how the book was written, I kept reading. There is no doubt that the plot is compelling: the journey of this individual through the end times is not one which can simply be abandoned halfway through. In addition, Tea’s creation of a sense of place and time is outstanding: I could almost see the toxic waste, the rotten trees crawling with infestation; I could feel the dirt and smoke of the polluted air on my skin.

Despite my frustration at trying to understand Michelle at times, I found her to be well-drawn, realistic and complex. Some of her decisions and development sometimes felt a little abrupt; for example, in one brief chapter later on in the book we are suddenly informed that she has now stopped drinking. Given the apocalyptic backdrop sudden changes were mostly forgivable but as aforementioned a different narrative choice might have served to smooth the reader’s path a little.

Finally, there is no doubt that this book has its funny moments, and the celebrity cameos are second to none – well, it is LA and Tea is playing around with the ‘who can write about whom’ question.

If you like stories which mess with your mind a little and leave you with a sense that you don’t quite know how to feel about them, then Black Wave could well be for you. It’s a slightly baffled 3 stars from me.

Book Review: A Case of Serendipity by K J Farnham

Ruth Bateman is at her wit’s end. If Bucky’s Beans doesn’t stop spamming her phone with discount codes for frou-frou java concoctions, she’s going to flip. After multiple failed attempts to unsubscribe, Ruth takes to the company’s Facebook page to vent her frustration over the never-ending texts.

When attorney, Henry Mancuso, stumbles upon Ruth’s complaint, he has no idea that a simple Facebook scroll is going to change his life. Now, he has to get Ruth to agree to a class action lawsuit when she’s just looking for some peace on her mobile device—not a drawn-out case against a coffeehouse giant.

As Ruth and Henry battle the legal waters, a friendship full of fun and spontaneity blooms. But could something more be brewing between these two and this coffeehouse case?

In short, I absolutely adored this book and found it very difficult to put it down once I started reading. A Case of Serendipity is a contemporary light romance novel which focuses on Ruth, a quirky divorcee and Henry, a workaholic lawyer, who are thrown together by fate after Ruth becomes the lead plaintiff in a case against Bucky’s Beans Coffeehouse.

The novel is a first person narrative and each chapter alternates between either Ruth or Henry’s point of view. This choice of narrative works well and gives the reader the opportunity to really get to know both of these characters who, thanks to Farnham’s flawless style and effortless descriptions, are extremely well drawn. Farnham has a real gift for creating likable characters, the sort of characters who make you want to go along with them for the ride, who make you want to root for them. Ruth and Henry are no exception and by the end of the novel I struggled to decide which I found more endearing; off-beat Ruth with her wild hair and appreciation of life’s simple pleasures, or Henry with his neatness, seriousness and intensity.

The story itself is absolutely delightful – without giving too much away, this is a real ‘feel good’ novel, a genuine light romance about two people who seem to complement each other so perfectly that you can’t imagine them not ending up together. Whether they do or whether they don’t…well, you’ll just have to read it to find out.

If you like romance without erotica, well-rounded, likable characters and uplifting plots then this book is for you. Highly recommended – five stars.

A Case of Serendipity is Farnham’s fourth novel, and will be released on 20th March. It is available for Kindle pre-order at the special price of 99p on Amazon UK.

Book Review: Nasty Women by 404 Ink

Nasty Women is a collection of essays which address the question of what it is to be a woman in the twenty-first century. Edited and published by new, independent Scottish publisher 404 Ink, the collection was put together in the aftermath of and in response to the election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency. The editors’ note explains that they wished to make a stand against this, to give a platform for voices speaking against the hatred prevailing across the globe and to show that in an age of ‘post-truth’ real experiences still matter.

I found the experience of reading Nasty Women enjoyable, challenging and thought-provoking. The twenty contributors tell their stories and explain their perspectives with such candour that it is impossible not to be affected. A range of experiences are covered and a huge diversity of subject matter is explored; disability, sexuality, race, religion, class, gender, all relating very sharply to the twenty-first century context.

All reading is, of course, subjective and like any other reader I did find some particular favourites, some essays which resonated with me or challenged me most. I adored Becca Inglis’s Love In A Time of Melancholia – like Inglis I am a grunge and Hole enthusiast and found her reappraisal of Courtney Love, her life and work and her exploration of her own attraction to Love’s music and celebrity highly relatable. I loved Alice Tarbuck’s Foraging and Feminism: Hedge-Witchcraft in the Twenty-First Century – not only did this appeal to my sensibilities as a witchcraft scholar, but I loved the sense of power that Tarbuck described in returning to the understanding of nature, to the rediscovery of old gifts. I was also deeply affected by Jen McGregor’s Lament: Living with the Consequences of Contraception – this essay and McGregor’s sense of betrayal by something which was supposed to symbolise liberation and progress stayed in my mind long after I had read it.

Irrespective of the stories they were telling, however, I loved the way that the essay format meant that the women themselves, as essayists, were placed firmly at the centre of their own stories: the subjects of the lived experiences, the ones in control of the narratives. These were their stories; as a reader I might not always be able to relate, but I could certainly learn something.

An excellent and thought-provoking read. Five stars.

Where did the last two weeks just go?

Happy Friday, folks! So, two realisations struck me this morning. The first was that it is only ten days until Christmas (I know, how on earth did that come around again so quick?!!). The other was that  it has already been two weeks since Ethersay was released. I just can’t believe where the time has gone, which I suppose is what happens when you’re busy. And no doubt about it, these last two weeks have been an absolute whirlwind, between the launch, doing online events, and taking bookings for future events, I’ve barely had chance to draw breath!

So, today’s post is all about taking stock and saying thank you. Thank you to everyone who has bought Ethersay in the last two weeks. Thank you to those who managed to get along to the launch or who participated in my online party or one of the online events which I guest-hosted. Thank you to those who have liked and shared my posts about Ethersay on social media. Thank you to all those who have been in touch with me to tell me how much you enjoyed the book. Thank you to those who have left a review on Amazon, Goodreads or somewhere else on the internet. And thank you to those who have told a friend about Ethersay, or who have bought it for a friend or loved one as a Christmas gift.

All the advertising in the world does not come anywhere near the power of word of mouth and personal recommendation. This is true for all writers but especially important, I think, for indie authors – without a vast marketing machine at our fingertips we are so, so reliant on people talking about our books. So, once again, thank you.

I have been absolutely blown away by the great reception that Ethersay has received, and really delighted by some of the reviews readers have left. Here are a few quotes from what readers have said on Amazon UK and US:

“A book you can lose yourself in on a winter day…I have honestly never read anything like it.”

“I was hooked from the start. Strongly recommend.”

“Exciting and well-paced.”

“The way King infused Scotland’s political history into the story was brilliant, and all the mystery, suspense, and drama kept me intrigued and clutching my chest at times.”

As a writer, there is no better reward than hearing that someone has enjoyed your book. So, I’m going to say it again, thank you!

 

Book Review: The Words in my Hand by Guinevere Glasfurd

The Words in My Hand is the re-imagined true story of Helena Jans, a Dutch maid in 17th-century Amsterdam, who works for Mr. Sergeant, the English bookseller. When a mysterious and reclusive lodger arrives – the Monsieur – Mr Sergeant insists everything must be just so. It transpires that the Monsieur is René Descartes.

This is Helena’s story: the woman in front of Descartes, a young woman who yearns for knowledge, who wants to write so badly she makes ink from beetroot and writes in secret on her skin – only to be held back by her position in society.

Weaving together the story of Descartes’ quest for reason with Helena’s struggle for literacy, their worlds overlap as their feelings deepen; yet remain sharply divided. For all Descartes’ learning, it is Helena he seeks out as she reveals the surprise in the everyday world that surrounds him.

When reputation is everything and with so much to lose, some truths must remain hidden. Helena and Descartes face a terrible tragedy and ultimately have to decide if their love is possible at all.

This was one of those books which took me a while to get into. The story begins slowly, the focus almost entirely upon maid Helena and her mundane (although not uninteresting) routine, to the point where the reader begins to wonder if they will ever enjoy more than a fleeting glimpse of Monsieur Descartes. In those early chapters, we do see plenty of mid-seventeenth century Amsterdam, with Glasfurd’s rich descriptions leaving the reader feeling as though they are in the midst of it all. Nonetheless by a third of the way through the book, I was beginning to wonder when the story would begin.

Patience, however, proved to have its rewards and as the story between Helena and Descartes took off, the value in those earlier chapters becomes clear. We learn, for example, of Helena’s thirst for knowledge, her eagerness to learn to write and, implicitly, her determination to improve her lot. Glasfurd’s fluent and engaging prose paints a clear picture of Helena’s character and by the end of the novel I was heavily invested in her, sharing her triumphs, her tribulations and her disappointments.

By contrast, Glasfurd keeps Descartes at arms’ length. There is always an air of mystery about him; a sort of unknown quantity. I suspect that this was intentional but at times it could be frustrating – for reader and Helena alike! Nonetheless, the relationship which develops between Helena and Descartes is as heart-warming as it is unconventional, albeit still constrained by the social norms of their time, a fact which was always going to be to Helena’s great disadvantage. The ending is quite a punch in the gut for even the most stoic bookworm and, reader beware, don’t look up either Descartes or Helena on Wikipedia until you have reached the end, otherwise you will spoil the ending!

Overall, an enjoyable and thought-provoking read, slow to start but well-written and vividly drawn. Four stars.