Mist Over Pendle

Title: Mist Over Pendle

Author: Robert Neill

Publisher:  Arrow

Pages: 405

Format Read: Paperback

In seventeenth century Pendle (Lancanshire, England) a group of women were executed for witchcraft. Robert Neill’s 1951 novel follows the events that led to the trial, introducing real people and real events as part of its story, and one wholly fictitious character, Margery.

You’re introduced to Margery right from the start. Her family considers her an anomaly, with a reddish glint in her dark hair and a crinkling smile. Her brothers are annoyed. Her sister is exasperated. All because the said Margery is too independent, too sharp, and too different from them for their liking. Who’ll marry a girl like that? Her brothers are worried, and since they have no parents, write to a distant relative to take Margery in for a while. Maybe, they reason, just maybe, this said older relative, will provide for her and secure her a good marriage alliance somewhere.

The relative in question is Roger Nowell, the first of the book’s many real historical characters.

To Margery’s relief, Roger Nowell also has a crinkling smile, and when she goes to stay with him in Pendle, things aren’t as bad as she thought.

But there are witches, or rumours of a family of women being witches. People die mysteriously, often raving. There’s Alice Nutter, a very, very enigmatic gentlewoman who makes Margery uncomfortable with her good deeds.

And of course there are the Demdikes, the supposed witches, who live in squalor and are almost unbelievably vicious. Given the rigidity of the times and the hostility of nearly everybody towards them, the Demdikes allow themselves to say and do things that get themselves whipped fairly often. They are not particularly likeable characters in the novel – neither the grandmother nor her squinting daughter, or the mutinous granddaughter.

It moves along slowly, this book – or at least I thought so. It takes time to fully get used to the writing style, and there are a lot of characters to keep track of. Sometimes you do get a little confused with who’s who. But some things are pretty clear. There are religious conflicts and rigid, puritan views that some characters hold. Roger Nowell is a man of justice, but he is repulsed by the squalor the witches live in. Superstitions and fear have a free run in 17th century Pendle.

Also…the Demdikes and other accused witches are somehow shown to be a little less than human. Their driving personality trait, it seems, is a marked maliciousness, with no redeeming qualities.

This is a very well-crafted historical novel, though, and some of the descriptions of Pendle are poetic. There is suspense (albeit long drawn out) and conflict and a good deal of insight.

Definitely worth reading!


The Bookish Life of Nina Hill


Title: The Bookish Life of Nina Hill

Author: Abbi Waxman

Publisher:  Headline Review

Pages: 352

Format Read: Kindle

So this was a fun and interesting contemporary read.

Nina Hill works at Knight’s, a bookstore in Los Angeles. She is an introvert, fights anxiety, and is frighteningly organized. Everything she wants to do in a day, she plans. And plans. And plans. So much so that if someone wants to ask her out for dinner, that someone will have to wait. For weeks even, as she finds that elusive free slot in her planner.

She’s also member of a trivia team that participates in trivia battles. Sometimes the team wins. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it gets disqualified because of something Nina says.

Life is all very neat and organized for Nina, until Fate throws a bombshell – she had a father, and a wealthy one.

Naturally, for someone raised by a single mother who was almost never there, the surprise was immense.

“The Bookish Life of Nina Hill” has a lot of things going on at once and I found it entertaining. Nina is an interesting and relatable character who much prefers books to people. Also, her organizational skills, according to her, help keep her life in order. Or were they actually throwing her into a chaotic rigmarole of inflexibility? As for the romance (of course there’s a romance!) it was very interesting to follow Nina’s conflicted feelings. Should she? Shouldn’t she? It leads to some disastrous consequences.

Some of the pop culture references though went over my head. There were many of them, and not all of them were, for me at least, easily identifiable. And Nina likes linking everything to something in a book or a T.V. show or a movie. At times, I had no idea what she was talking about.

And…it did seem she was a bit inconsistent characterization wise. She was supposed to be awkward around people, but when she did meet them, she was remarkably self-assured. Maybe her assumptions were all in her head.

Somehow, this book reminded me of a fairy tale in a modern setting. Sure, there’s conflict and confusion, but not all of it was overly dramatic. And there are some piquant observations on people in general, and bookshops, and landlords who would really, really like their tenants to pay their rent.

All in all? A charming book.


A Sicilian Romance

Title: A Sicilian Romance

Author: Ann Radcliffe

Publisher:  N/A

Pages: 148

Format Read: Kindle

“The Sicilian Romance” by Ann Radcliffe is a gothic romance originally published in 1790. It is the story of the Mazzini family, who, as the novel explains in the opening, had a castle in Sicily. A traveler recounts the tale as he heard it in a miniature prologue that sets the scene quite nicely just before the story begins.

The count Mazzini, owner of the said castle, is a harsh and exacting man who has a beautiful and wicked second wife. He also has two daughters from his first wife, Emily and Julia. “A Sicilian Romance” mostly follows the lovely, angelically good Julia, and her trials and tribulations.

For she wishes to marry the young and earnest Hippolitus de Vereza. And her father, being the villainous, harsh man that he is, has other plans for her. She must marry the Duke de Ludovo, a rich and powerful man, and that is that.

And then there is count Mazzini’s second wife, the seductive, ravishing Maria, who for some reason cannot get Hippolitus to look at her. Naturally, in her grand scheme of things, he must not look at Julia either.

“A Sicilian Romance” is soft and dreamy, and easy to read. Yes, the romance is full of ‘melancholy’, it is full of tears and sorrow and Julia’s goodness. The villains are unquestionably villainous. The heroine has a disposition that is almost too good for the mortal world. There are plots within plots, mysteries in the castle, and picturesque landscapes.

The descriptions in this novel, especially during Julia’s flight from the castle, are vivid and lush. Characters are individual enough, even if their character traits are exaggerated. There is passion and gallantry and secrets. And a great many tears. It does seem that nearly everyone weeps in this novel. They are all very, very emotional souls. The plot is…entertaining, although I confess I did think there were way too many coincidences and chance meetings.

For all that, “A Sicilian Romance” was delightfully refreshing. I especially liked the dreamy quality of the setting and the straightforward storytelling. It does focus heavily on the melancholy, and the romance is a bit much.

But I’m so glad I read it.




Title: Dragonslayer

Author: Duncan M. Hamilton

Publisher: Tor Books

Pages: 304

Format Read: Kindle

Set in a faux-French medieval-esq setting, “Dragonslayer” features dragons and knights and mages, and frankly, it was engrossing. It is also the first in a trilogy of novels.

Guillot is a man of some disrepute. Once a feared and much renowned swordsman now fallen on hard times, he drinks his way to a hangover every single day. He drinks so much that his demesne calls him by name, refuses to address him as “Lord.” He drinks so much that he can’t get a flagon of wine at the inn in his own Villerauvais because the innkeeper has decided he has had enough. Very embarrassing.

All that changes though when a dragon is awoken from its deep slumber by a group of investigating busybodies who manage to disturb its rest and get themselves incinerated (and eaten) in the process.

Gill is thrust back into a world of politics and action that he thought he had left behind.

There is also Solene, a woman with magical skill who has the uncanny ability to defend herself in the most creative ways in a land where magic is more or less forbidden and greatly feared.

I thought “Dragonslayer” was engaging as it moved in and out of its characters’ lives. There is hope and tragedy and some humour. And what really set the plot going, for me at least, was the straightforward, clean storytelling. You may find a few familiar themes in this book. Outlawed magic. The great evil that has motives that go beyond what is obvious. A group of warriors dedicated to staving off said evil.

Nevertheless, all of that came together pretty well. “Dragonslayer” is fast paced and rather short, which actually works in its favour.

I did find a few too many “shrugged” and “nodded” especially towards the end of the novel and those were a bit distracting. There were a few moments too when the plot moved a little too fast. Characters figure stuff out too quickly, and the magic system, while very intriguing, is a little undefined to the point where characters need to figure it out themselves. Which also means non-healers can perform impossible bouts of healing without any training. That was odd.

In any case, I thought this was a very enjoyable book, and I’m really looking forward to the sequels, “Knight of the Silver Circle.”



Title: Chalice

Author: Robin McKinley

Publisher: Ace

Pages: 284

Format Read: Kindle

I don’t think I’ve read a novel centred around bees or a beekeeper before, especially not in the fantasy genre.

Chalice is a beautifully strange fantasy standalone that follows Mirasol, a young woman who finds herself in a position of power quite suddenly. Being the Chalice of a demesne is a new experience for her. All she has ever known upto that point is her lonely little cottage, her magical honeys and mysterious bees. But then she is made the Chalice, a part of the ruling elite of her demesne, and she has responsibilities.

And the demesne she lives in has troubles of all kinds. The Master who oversees them all has died, and his brother has taken his place. But the brother in question is a Priest of Fire, and not quite human. Everybody is wary, or afraid, or suspicious of him and his quiet ways. Except Mirasol.

With the troubles plaguing the demesne and agents of their Overlord threating them, Mirasol relies on her honeys and her bees to guide her.

It is not easy to describe the plot of Chalice but I was engrossed reading this one. Yes, there is more telling and less showing in the narrative, and it works well in Chalice. You’re not really sure where this demesne is, you’re not given a map and the lay of the land isn’t overtly explained. How this demesne called Willowlands is ruled isn’t exactly explained either.

Those worked in favour of the novel, at least for me. It reminded me of an old fairy tale, full of understated magic and a mysterious land that is somehow enigmatic and clear at the same time.

Mirasol is inexperienced as the Chalice, but intelligent, and a bit of a loner, and far less judgemental than some of the others she deals with on a daily basis. Her work as beekeeper is fascinating to read about, and her giant bee friends, overlarge and unpredictable, have a personality of their own.

Chalice isn’t overly dark, or gloomy or grim.

It is, as I said before, a strangely beautiful novel, a type of story I haven’t encountered many times before. That made it unique reading for me, and I’m pretty sure I’ll reread this one soon.

In short? Chalice was lovely.


Asterix and the Normans


Title: Asterix and the Normans

Author: René Goscinny, illustrated by Albert Uderzo, translated by Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge

Publisher: Orion Books

Pages: 48

Format Read: Paperback

So…just to shake things up a little, I’m going to focus on a comic book for this post. I’ve always enjoyed the Asterix comics and there are so many titles I’ve yet to read. They’re hilarious, masterfully drawn and vibrantly inked, and the just the sort of comic relief you need when the chips are down.

In these stories you are basically cast back in time to a not-quite-real little village in Gaul. The little village has, by its sheer indomitable spirit, remained independent of Roman control. The villagers are all indomitable (obviously) and they are hedged in by four Roman camps with soldiers who would rather be anywhere but here.

‘Asterix and the Normans’ introduces one more group of fabulously fearless people – the Normans. Their landing on the beach is discovered by Asterix and his friend Obelix, who are in the middle of entertaining Asterix’s nephew Justforkix. Justforkix is a snooty little rebel with a penchant for loud music. He gets along famously with the bard Cacofonix.

Who also has a talent for loud…what he thinks is music.

He is terrified of the Normans. Who also have interesting names. After all, who wouldn’t be amused by the mighty chief Timandahaf? Or his associates Fotograf and Chiffchaf?

Only the Gauls, including their chief Vitalstatistix, and his comrades Getafix, and Polyfonix, and  Operatix. They’re intrigued by the landing of the Normans and their dreams of conquest.

Justforkix thinks they’re all mad. The Normans are to be feared, not laughed at. They do not know the meaning of fear themselves, and there is nothing, or almost nothing, that can frighten them. Despite their best efforts to scare themselves.

The story all comes together very nicely in a plot that includes the bard Cacofonix. And a young Roman recruit who’s obsessed with preparing reports in triplicate. There are fights and brawls and Asterix eats a lot of meats in cream sauce before the Normans are given an opportunity to pursue their quest – they are here, after all, to discover the meaning of fear.

It is a wildly humorous story that reads quickly. I am not going to compare this title to the other Asterix stories, nevertheless, I found it relaxing. And funny. There is a whole cast of characters to wade through but they’re so uniquely individual that you remember them all, even with their names. There’s a cadence about the whole thing, a richness to the pages that makes every reread a joyous one.


Witness for the Prosecution and Selected Plays


Title: Witness for the Prosecution and Selected Plays

Author: Agatha Christie

Publisher: HarperCollins

Pages: 348

Format Read: Paperback

Agatha Christie needs no introduction really. Her books and plays are immensely popular and she is, quite deservedly, the queen of crime fiction. I’ve enjoyed the books by her that I’ve read (although I’m a long long way from reading them all!). Her easy to read style has a natural flow  that really brings suspense to life.

Coming to the book I had in mind for this post…this is a collection of four of her plays. The volume I have has Witness for the Prosecution, Towards Zero, Verdict, and Go Back for Murder. I rather think I enjoy her plays more than the novels.

Witness for the Prosecution is arguably the most famous, and the play that led me to purchase this book many years ago. There’s a murder trial in progress. The wife of a man accused of murder, Romaine, has a few tricks up her sleeve when she testifies against him. But then again, tricks sometimes go awry…

Towards Zero was a novel that was adapted into a play by Christie herself in 1956. This one deals with a murder, a man caught between two women, jealousy, and mystery, all during a gathering at Gull’s Point. It raises a lot of questions about who did what and is a study in suspense and psychology.

In Verdict, the professor Karl Hendryk is a carer to his wife Anya, an invalid. Much tension follows as someone else, a young woman named Lisa, enters the picture. Lisa is, purportedly, here to look after Anya and perhaps help the professor out. And then there’s another young woman, Helen, who seeks private lessons with the professor. Passions simmer.

Go Back to Murder is the last play in this collection, and this one started out as a novel as well titled Five Little Pigs, with Hercule Poirot in it. The play differs a little I think. Caroline is in jail for murdering her husband. Her daughter, Carla, finds a letter from her mother declaring her innocence…and the letter leads her to investigate what really happened to her father.

To sum up…I greatly enjoyed these plays. There’s suspense and a study of human emotions and its impact on rational and irrational behaviour. Fascinatingly written plays that really make you think, and it is, I believe, exactly what made them stay on in my memory after so many years.




Title: Ivanhoe

Author: Sir Walter Scott

Publisher: Tor

Pages: 531

Format Read: Paperback, Mass Market

Some books, for inexplicably inexplicable reasons, stay on with you for years. Ivanhoe, for me, is one such book. The first time I read it was many years ago and it has stayed with me since – that story of knighthood and jousting and romance and its intricately immersive medieval world that was fascinating . And frankly, the story of Wilfred of Ivanhoe’s redemption was an exciting one.

You follow the feuds and rivalry between the Normans and the Saxons in Ivanhoe. The evil prince John of England wants to crown himself king in the absence of the righteous Richard. And Richard returns from the Crusades, discovers the plot, and must defend his throne. Only he needs allies, and he finds one in Wilfred of Ivanhoe.

The story is pretty fast paced and full of adventure, although I confess I had to read a few pages to really get used to the style. It is a little archaic but eminently readable. Once you do get going though, you’re plunged into a world of bloody feuds and battles, knights and outlaws and a dash of romance. Ivanhoe, that fallen hero, holds strong in his darkest moments and his quest to reclaim his lost glory is as engrossing as it is exciting.

The characters are very well defined, from the tragic heroine Rebecca and the intrepid Richard to the fiery Rowena. As for Ivanhoe, he is a typical knight – chivalrous and loyal and righteous and sometimes infuriating in his steadfast, almost zealous devotion to knightly honour.

And perhaps that is one reason, and the main one, that really hooked me to Ivanhoe – you experience a range of emotions reading the work. The characters (and the events of the story) exasperate, sadden, and draw your sympathy. Some events cheer you up, others not so much.

Through it all, Ivanhoe remains an exciting tale that I enjoy rereading. And that, I think, is what makes this book so very likeable and a classic.


The First Book of Lankhmar


Title: The First Book of Lankhmar

Author: Fritz Leiber

Publisher: Gollancz (Fantasy Masterworks)

Pages: 762

Format Read: Paperback

The First Book of Lankhmar is actually a bind-up edition of the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories. Not all of them, because there’s also a Second Book of Lankhmar. I’d like to talk about the first bind-up edition in this review.

Basically, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are mercenaries from the world of Newhon. Their tales were written over a period of decades, from the 1930s to the 1980s. The First Book of Lankhmar introduces these two with origin stories and includes many of their escapades in classic sword and sorcery style. There’s adventure and derring-do and a whole lot of scrapes.

Fafhrd is a barbarian warrior from the icily cold and aptly named Cold Corner. He is something of a rebel and he leaves his clan with a seductive stage performer and thief named Vlana. The Mouser is an orphaned wizard’s apprentice who is framed by a duke. He too escapes, with the duke’s daughter.

In ‘Ill Met in Lankhmar,’ the third story in the book, the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser meet in the foggy, decadent city of Lankhmar. They become fast friends, and from then on, adventure follows adventure.

Each of the stories in The First Book of Lankhmar is distinct and only loosely connected with the others. The mercenaries find underwater cities, are recruited by the apparently all-knowing mages Sheelba and Ningauble, and deal with tragedy and death, a misogynistic guild of thieves and shrines to dark powers. They also travel to parallel dimensions and find themselves in ancient Greece. The story I found especially intriguing in this collection is ‘The Bazaar of the Bizarre.’ There’s a play of illusion and greed, and creatures from other worlds selling glittering objects that are not what they seem.

As far as characterization goes, well, it is rather basic. Fafhrd and Gray Mouser are unique but a lot more emphasis is laid on their adventures. Also…there aren’t many female characters here, and if they do make an appearance, they are usually unidimensional. The stories are only loosely connected to each other, and sometimes the past adventures of these two heroes are described in a sentence.

The book is divided into sections, but there should have been a table of contents at the beginning. Or an index at the end. The edition I have has neither, although the sections have their contents listed.

Even so, these stories are very entertaining and fast paced in an action packed, old world style.


Christine of the Fourth


Title: Christine of the Fourth  

Author:  W.E. Eastways

Publisher: Retro Press (Retro Classics)

Pages: 190

Format Read: Hardcover

Basically, ‘Christine of the Fourth’ is a school story. Originally published in 1949, ‘Christine of the Fourth’ is, I understand, part of a series of books set in a boarding school called Greycourt. Now I haven’t read the other books in the series (I have never found them), but I do have ‘Christine…’ and although this story is a continuation of events from the previous books, I did not have trouble following its narrative.

In some ways, Greycourt is reminiscent of Enid Blyton’s St.Claire’s. Both are boarding schools for girls, and both have an intriguing cast of characters.

Sheila of ‘Christine of the Fourth’ has just returned to the boarding school when the book opens after spending a year away from it, and re-joins her peers in the fourth form. And that is where she meets the impossible, rude, and quick witted Christine her classmates cannot stand. Sheila takes it upon herself to befriend Christine and bring out the best in her, much to everybody else’s amusement and irritation.

As far as protagonists go, ‘Christine of the Fourth’ alternates between Sheila and Christine. Sheila is the quintessential do-gooder with infinite patience. She puts up with Christine’s barbs and insults and veiled attacks and that confuses Christine.

Christine, on the other hand, in a complex character. She resents her school; her father is in jail for a crime she thinks he did not commit; she feels her classmates are snooty and she longs to be back with a group of people she had lived with prior to joining the school. She despises her benefactor, the young and gentle Mrs. Cameron for reasons only she understands.

As the story moves on, Christine goes from being defiant and rude, to confused, to defiant again, and then…the girl discovers that there is more to the world than her narrow, rigid view of it.

‘Christine of the Fourth’ is focused on its characters, especially Christine, and her doubts, and hopes, and fears as she navigates the comfortable and cheerful life at Greycourt. The story does lag a little towards the end and events are paced very slow. However, this is a tale of hope and redemption and happiness that is charmingly old-world.

It makes me want to read the prequels…if only I could find them.