The Mercies | Kiran Millwood Hargrave

On Christmas Eve, 1617, a storm materialises off the coast of the small island of Vardø in Norway drowning most of the island’s men while out fishing. Eye-witnesses said the storm appeared out of nowhere, almost as if conjured by someone. Two women – Mari Jøgensdatter and Kirsti Sørensdatter were accused, interrogated and tortured for opening “… their ‘wind-knots’’ over the sea to make a boat sink..” .

The Mercies is based on this real event, as well as the Vardø witch trials which took place three years later at Vardøhus, the seat of power of the region. By the end of the witch hunt over eighty women had been burned at the stake. These women were put on trial, accused of sorcery, making pacts with the Devil and sleeping with demons while the men were out at sea. (Also read Jill Beatty’s piece on the witch trials on The Norwegian American website.)

Full review on TimesLive.

The library of legends | Janie Chang

This is the poignant and inspirational story of a group of university students who travelled across China protecting and preserving the Library of Legends, a collection of Chinese myths and folklore.

In 1937 Japan bombs the Chinese city Nanking (Nanjing), also home to Minghua University. Although this isn’t mentioned in the novel, the Nanking Massacre would take place after Nanking was captured by the Japanese in December 1937. The massacre occurred over a period of six weeks during which soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army would murder an estimated 40,000 to over 300,000 Chinese civilians.

Together with almost 500 of her fellow-students nineteen year-old Hu Lian has to evacuate Nanking and travel across the country trying to escape the violent Japanese onslaught. Not only do they have to keep themselves safe, they are also tasked with carrying the five hundred year-old Library of Legends – each assigned to carry a volume of the library.

“They faced a journey of more than a thousand miles, some of it through terrain that might be safe one day and enemy occupied the next. For them, it was the greatest adventure of their young lives.”

Janie Chang tells the heart-wrenching tale of their journey through the eyes of Hu Lian. Along the way she develops friendships, falls in love and suffers many losses. While fleeing she has to find her mother who left Peking, her hometown to travel to Shanghai – a city which would soon be captured by the Japanese. Hu Lian’s clouded family history poses an additional threat to her safety when one of the university staff, Mr Lee, hints at her father’s reputation as a Japanese spy and blackmails her into keeping tabs on her classmates who might be involved in communist activities.

Chang combines a part of China’s history and the rise of communism with traditional Chinese myths. Hu Lian realises that Sparrow Chen, the object of her affection Liu Shaoming’s maid servant is more than an earth-dwelling human and she and her master share centuries of unrequited love. Along the way they are met with various gods who take on human form and just like the students, they are also fleeing earth and are in a hurry to enter the gates of heaven before they close. These flights of imagination into the world of Chinese folklore serve as a welcome escape from the atrocities of war. But more importantly they underline the importance of story-telling.

The Library of Legends shows the strength and endurance of the human spirit when it is faced with something as savage as war. Chang provides a sensitive, yet realistic depiction of its destructive impact on ordinary people caught up in it.

“Parents abandoned daughters so that sons could eat. Some, too exhausted to carry their children anymore, left behind the smallest ones who couldn’t walk.”

Just like today, many people were uprooted by war and became refugees. The Second Sino-Japanese war displaced an estimated 80 to 100 million Chinese. Their plight is summed up by Sparrow Chen’s words:

“Right now they mourn the homes and possessions they had to leave behind … But soon, even though they can’t put it into words, they’ll understand they’ve also left behind the places that defined them. Where they were known because of their families and professions. Where they had a place in the world.”

As with her other work The Library of Legends also draws from her family history – in this case her father’s journey as a student with the library, just like Hu Lian. Chang grew up listening to stories about ancestors who encountered dragons, ghosts and immortals and this shows in this finely balanced work of real life and fantasy.

The Library of Legends is published by Harper Collins and this review copy was kindly provided by local publishers Jonathan Ball. You can also read more about Janie Chang’s other historical novels on her website.

A Song of Isolation | Michael J Malone

On the surface A Song of Isolation seems like a perfectly standard psychological thriller and you’d be right to initially assume as much. But after you’ve immersed yourself in the main plot and finished reading, the finer subtleties and underlying themes creep out from the furthest corners of your mind and rise to the surface, revealing the novel’s layers bit by bit.

A Song of Isolation deals with two main plot lines – the career of Amelie Hart, ex-actress and celebrity and the account of her boyfriend, Dave’s conviction as a paedophile. Both their lives are disrupted and altered in a monumental way by the thirst for celebrity and the promise of financial gain that comes with it.

In 2010 Amelie is stalked by an admirer causing her to constantly live in fear. Subsequently she gives up her career and celebrity status and attempts to live a normal live. Unfortunately life with Dave lacks the excitement she’s accustomed to and four years along the line she’s on the verge of ending their mundane relationship. When the police show up on their doorstep and Dave is arrested for having an inappropriate relationship with Damaris Brown, the next door neighbours’ eleven year-old daughter, events take a drastically different and unfortunate turn.

What follows is the harrowing account of the way the event changes Dave, Amelie, Damaris and their families. Despite Amelie’s loyalty towards Dave their relationship takes strain. Dave has to survive in harsh and dangerous prison conditions, an environment where paedophiles are seen as the lowest of low in the prison food chain. For Amelie it’s near impossible to get back to acting unless she distances herself from Dave. Instead she flees to France, her country of origin, to find her feet and a new life in Bordeaux. Unfortunately her past follows her there.

As the years pass we see Damaris grow up in a dysfunctional family with little security or love except from Uncle Cammy, her mother’s unsavoury brother. Claire Brown, now divorced from her husband Roger, has taken to the bottle while Damaris is trying to cope with her own psychological demons, the incidents with Dave buried far away. Aside from the three main characters Dave’s parents, Peter and Norma, play an important role in both Dave and Amelie’s lives. There’s plenty of tragedy to go around, especially surrounding Peter and Norma. Just when you think the characters have had their fair share, there’s another unfortunate twist. But this is the thread which runs through of A Song of Isolation and keeps it together – the fragility of relationships and the importance of trust. Two families are portrayed, each with their own issues, challenges and complications, but how they deal with them are worlds apart.

Both Amelie and Dave are in isolation, but while Amelie’s was a voluntary shift away from celebrity life, Dave had no choice in his imprisonment – it was decided by an eleven year-old girl’s testimony. In the end both inhabit their own prisons. The cover perfectly captures the melancholic feeling of isolation and despair with the deserted bicycle adding a ominous atmosphere.

Despite its haunting topic, A Song of Isolation is an effortlessly gripping read about the obsession of celebrity and it’s unfortunate, tragic side-effects.

A Song of Isolation is published by Orenda Books and this review forms part of a blog tour organised by Random Things Blog Tours. Thank you to Orenda and Anne Cater for the opportunity to read and review A Song of Isolation.

Click for a larger image of the A Song of Isolation blogtour.

About Michael J. Malone:

Michael Malone is a prize-winning poet and author who was born and brought up in the heart of Burns’ country. He has published over 200 poems in literary magazines throughout the UK, including New Writing Scotland, Poetry Scotland and Markings. Blood Tears, his bestselling debut novel won the Pitlochry Prize from the Scottish Association of Writers. His psychological thriller, A Suitable Lie, was a number-one bestseller, and the critically acclaimed House of Spines, After He Died and In the Absence of Miracles soon followed suit. A former Regional Sales Manager (Faber & Faber) he has also worked as an IFA and a bookseller. Michael lives in Ayr.