Archives for posts with tag: Witches

Is there enough cake in Fantasy fiction? I ask because my ideal comfort read would combine magic, romance and comedy with a beautiful setting and plentiful descriptions of delicious food – especially cake. I have recently found a book which does contain most of these elements – “The Witches of Cambridge” by Menna van Praag. She defines her work as Magical Realism and this is the fourth novel she has set in her home town of Cambridge, England. “The Witches of Cambridge” came out this month (May 2016) so it’s only available in hardback or as a reasonably priced ebook.

This story concerns an unusual group of people. Amandine, Héloise, Kat, Cosima, Noa and George have two things in common. They all live and work in Cambridge and they are all witches. Each of them has a different special power. Amandine, who teaches art history, can feel other people’s emotions. Her mother Héloise used to be able to see future events but hasn’t done so since she failed to predict her beloved husband’s death. Kat is a Professor of Mathematics who can turn formulae into spells while her younger sister Cosima bakes joyful magic into the food she serves at her Sicilian-style café, Gustare. Art student Noa perceives people’s deepest secrets. Kat’s best friend George claims that his magic can’t do anything much. When Amandine invites Noa to join the Witches’ Bookclub, which meets on the rooftops of Cambridge colleges, the evening doesn’t go well. Noa can’t help blurting out secrets that members of the group are trying to hide.

All the good witches have problems in their personal lives. Amandine believes that she has lost her husband’s love but she doesn’t know why. Héloise is starting to emerge from the numbness of grief but her husband’s ghost is still the dominating presence in her life. Kat fears that her secret love for George is unrequited and George doesn’t feel free to act on his true feelings. Cosima suffers from an inherited condition which makes pregnancy dangerous for her but she is determined to have a baby – even if it means misusing love spells. Noa sees her truth-telling gift as a curse, so when Brazilian artist and witch, Santiago, offers to change her, she leaps at the chance. Soon Noa is living an exciting new life in the London art-world, but is gorgeous Santiago too good to be true? There are shocks in store for all the witches and encounters with love and death. The power of the Cambridge Witches could save a soul, but only if they can shed their secrets….

Having studied and later taught at Cambridge University, I couldn’t resist a book called “The Cambridge Witches” but I was prepared to be critical of any mistakes in the background detail. I don’t think there are any. The boring bits of academic life have been left out, but that just helps to speed up the story-telling. Quirky areas of Cambridge town – such as Midsummer Common – are well exploited. The author is clearly writing about a place she knows and loves.  Menna van Praag is young, beautiful and successful but let’s not hate her for that because she endured a long struggle to get her work accepted and had to self-publish her first book  – “Men, Money and Chocolate” (great  title). She still has to put up with patronising reviews. I note that when a male author like Matt Haig writes warm-hearted, life-affirming novels (see my August 2014 post on “To Be A Cat”) his work is praised as profound, but when a female author does it her books tends to be dismissed as sentimental Chick Lit.

I do concede that if the sort of relationships you like to read about in Fantasy mainly culminate in rape, mutilation or gruesome death, this rather gentle novel probably isn’t for you. The focus is on the witches’ innermost feelings and much of the magic is of a therapeutic kind – such as “Break-up Brownies” made with pinches of magnolia for dignity and celandine petals for joys to come. Having said that, the story is darker than you might expect from the opening chapters. Cruel things happen to several of the characters and magic isn’t shown as able to solve all problems or prevent all ills. Some of the plot twists are rather predictable. Others may give you a jolt. You could class “The Cambridge Witches” as a Romance but it doesn’t just feature romantic love.  There are many different kinds of love in the story, including love between friends and siblings and between parents and children. Types of infatuation which can be mistaken for love are cleverly depicted and I like the fact that van Praag seems equally interested in lovers of all ages, from teenage Noa to sixty-something Héloise. The men in this book do tend to be either very nasty or very nice but the women are satisfyingly complex.

The way that van Praag combines compassion with sharp analysis when writing about her female characters, and the emphasis on the little comforts of daily life, made me think of her as a mildly pagan version of Elizabeth Goudge (see my September 2012 post on Goudge’s classic children’s novel “The Little White Horse”). van Praag is a very sensual writer. I don’t mean that her work is erotic (though there are a couple of steamy sex scenes in this novel) but that she revels in sensory appreciation of the world and is excellent at describing how things look, sound, feel or taste. The visual arts are important in this novel and van Praag made me see Santiago’s mesmerising seascape paintings which remind Noa “of Turner’s tranquil sunsets, with a slightly sinister edge, as if sharks swim in the purple seas and black crows caw through the red skies.” We’ve all read about corruption and fraud in the art-world but this book comes up with an entirely new form of art-crime. The joy of reading and discussing books with like-minded people is celebrated in this novel and plays a major role in Héloise’s recovery – though not quite in the way she expects. Then there is the food…

The wonderful tastes and aromas of Cosima’s Café Gustare reminded me of my own favourite Sicilian café (it’s called Dolce & Salato if you are ever in Cheltenham). Food is shown as a tangible expression of love, such as the picnic Cosima prepares to share with her adored husband – sour cherry and chocolate cupcakes, goat’s cheese and pesto pizzas, orange oil canoli, and lemon and lavender cake. Cosima’s magic melds traditional herbalism with the Great British Bake-Off. The book even includes full recipes for delights such as “Spicy Chocolate Cake – To Ensure Wishes Come True” and “Very Simple Sicilian Biscuits – For Domestic Bliss”. In the early stages of the plot, van Praag gets a lot of humour out of the wrong person eating an enchanted biscuit. Later food plays a more poignant role, summing up someone’s character. Café Gustare definitely joins my list of Fantasy places I should love to visit.

I wasn’t entirely convinced by this novel’s modish argument that keeping secrets from people close to you is always harmful. I think I’ll still plump for traditional British reticence. Nor does “The Witches of Cambridge” have as strong a central concept as van Praag’s last two Cambridge-set novels – “The House at the End of Hope Street” (a magical sanctuary for women who need a new start in life) and “The Dress Shop of Dreams” (a shop where the clothes endow women with qualities they lack) but if you love cake (and aren’t currently on a diet) this book is a mouth-watering treat. Until next time….

















I’m declaring December my month to recommend lesser-known Fantasy Classics written for children. In honour of a new feline in our household (blue-silver Norwegian Forest kitten, Lilith) I’m starting with Ursula Moray Williams’ stories about a cat called Gobbolino. As a Christmas bonus, I’m recommending two books – `Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat’ (1942) and `The Further Adventures of Gobbolino and the Little Wooden Horse’ (1984). The first of these was illustrated by Moray Williams herself and the second by the incomparable Pauline Baynes. Both are still in print as paperbacks or as luxury edition hardbacks.

Gobbolino and his sister, Sootica, are the kittens of a witch’s cat. Pure black, green-eyed Sootica is looking forward to learning magic and becoming a proper witch’s cat like her mother but Gobbolino has been born different – he has blue eyes and one white paw. Even worse, Gobbolino longs to be an ordinary kitchen cat and says that, “I want to be good and have people love me.” Gobbolino soon finds himself rejected by his own mother and all the witches of the Hurricane Mountains.

Alone in the world, Gobbolino searches for a family to take him in. He thinks that he has found a loving home in a farmhouse but is soon expelled for being a witch’s cat. Gobbolino wanders the world, staying for a while with many different people including a group of orphans, the crew of a sailing ship, an invalid princess, a damsel in a tower and a travelling puppet-show. Every time he thinks that he has found a home, Gobbolino is forced to move on simply for being what he is. In the end his journey takes him back to the mountains where he was born. Can Gobbolino ever find a place where he belongs?

`Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat’ is a book which manages to be both timeless and distinctively of its time. Modern children (and adults) often find older books too verbose and slow-moving. There is no danger of that here. Moray Williams’ simple prose and snappy dialogue are still easy to read. The story fairly zips along with something new and dramatic happening in every chapter. Though some episodes, such as Gobbolino’s stay with an old man whose passion is winning prizes at cat shows, seem more modern than others, the book is essentially set in a Fairy Tale world which doesn’t date. Nor does the central theme of Gobbolino’s struggle to find acceptance in a society that is prejudiced against him. `Once a witch’s cat always a witch’s cat’ he is told.

Gobbolino’s misadventures are often amusing but there is an under-layer of sadness as the affectionate little cat faces rejection after rejection. Moray Williams wrote this book during some of the darkest days of World War Two when the ordinary joys of home and family life were not something that could be taken for granted. In the late 1930s thousands of refugees had arrived in Britain, where many of them still faced prejudice because of their race or nationality. I’m guessing that `Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat’ was inspired by the plight of refugee children who needed new homes. If so, I think that Moray Williams intended her story to be both an appeal to people’s generosity and a message of hope. Gobbolino does, in the end, find a new family. Given the current refugee crisis in Europe, his desperate quest for a home seems topical again.

During her long life (1911-2006) Ursula Moray Williams wrote over 60 books but her most famous is `Adventures of the Little Wooden Horse’ (1938). This was one of my `comfort books’ when I was a small child. It tells of a hand-carved toy horse who meets with both cruelty and kindness as he tries to win a fortune for his maker, Uncle Peder, who has been put out of business by mass-produced toys. In 1984 Moray Williams put her two favourite characters into a new novel – `The Further Adventures of Gobbolino and the Little Wooden Horse’. At the start of this story Gobbolino receives a message from his wicked sister, Sootica, begging him to come and help her. Sootica has always been loyal to him, so Gobbolino sets out for the Hurricane Mountains. Deep in a forest, Gobbolino encounters the Little Wooden Horse who helps him to endure the long journey. The pair face dangers, such as a haunted church and pack of fierce hounds, but when they finally reach the mountains the situation is not what Gobbolino expected…

The leading characters make a well-contrasted pair because Gobbolino is nervy and highly emotional while the Little Wooden Horse is quietly brave and steadfast. Their `Further Adventures’ may lack the poignancy of the earlier books but I think the story will still charm and surprise many readers. Just when Sootica’s witch seems set to be the villainess of the piece, Moray Williams makes us feel sorry for this lonely old lady. The delightful drawings by Pauline Baynes, who was the original illustrator of books by C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien (see my post on `Smith of Wootton Major’, August 2012), are a great bonus. Not many artists could rise to the challenge of illustrating the line, `The younger bats sat down and cried’  but Baynes does. So, if you are looking for heart-warming stories to read to your children over the Christmas holidays, the Gobbolino books could fit the bill. Until next time ….


P.S. In case you are wondering, I’m sure that my naughty Lilith would rather be a witch’s cat than a kitchen cat.


As it is still the time of year for things that go bump in the night, this week’s recommended book features numerous encounters with ghosts and other supernatural beings. `Young Woman in a Garden’ is a collection of fourteen stories written by American author Delia Sherman over a period of twenty-five years. The 2014 paperback and ebook were published by Small Beer Press – do check out their short but superior Fantasy list.

One of the words I would use to describe this collection is – diverse. The stories in `Young Woman in a Garden’ feature a remarkable variety of settings, supernatural beings, genres, moods and styles. The settings range from Tudor England to contemporary America by way of 19th century Paris, London, Louisiana and Massachusetts. In this book you will encounter both helpful and dangerous ghosts, witches, fairies and loup-garous (French speaking werewolves), a merman, the daughter of a seal-maiden and a wizard, and a girl made out of printed pages. One of the tales is a Steampunk adventure (`The Ghost of Cwmlech Manor’) and there are horror and ghost stories which teach useful lessons such as always be suspicious if an old house is too cheap (`The Red Piano’),  avoid wearing gems which belong to eastern idols (`The Parwat Ruby’) and don’t become a lighthouse keeper – it never ends well (`Land’s End’). There are love stories full of gender and sexuality surprises and there are stories, such as one about a choir which sings up an angel (`Sacred Harp’), which don’t easily fit into any known category. Some of the tales are light-hearted with plenty of humorous touches (`Nanny Peters and the Feathery Bride’, `The Fairy Coney-Catcher’); others are melancholy (`La Fée Verte’, `The Maid on the Shore’).

Sherman is capable of writing in many different voices and styles. Almost too capable, as if the author is hiding her true self below this surface cleverness. If it wasn’t for Sherman’s talent for characterization, some of the stories would read like challenging exercises set to a creative writing class – such as write a story in Elizabethan English (`The Printer’s Daughter’) or in Bayou dialect (`The Fiddler of Bayou Teche’). In `The Printer’s Daughter’ a magical helper speaks in the words of the two books she is made from, one religious and one bawdy, and her salty dialogue is very convincing. I’ve no idea whether the narrative voice in `The Fiddler of Bayou Teche’ is authentic (`Come here, cher, and I tell you a story’) but it charmed me. In `The Parwat Ruby’, the challenge was to write a Horror story in the style of Anthony Trollope set in the world of his Palliser novels. Fortunately, I think this amusing story works even if you’ve never read a word of Trollope and aren’t familiar with characters like Lady Glencora and Sir Omicron Pie. If you are, there is added pleasure in finding out how Sherman manages to inject magic into the prosaic lives of the Pallisers and their circle.

Another word that I would use for this collection is – leisurely. Sherman’s writing is the literary equivalent of the `Slow Food’ movement, so if you are the sort of reader who is always in a hurry to get to the exciting bits of any plot, `Young Woman in a Garden’ won’t suit you. Even I find a few of the stories, such as `La Fée Verte’, too long and sluggish. You’d think that a love affair between a courtesan and a prophetess in war-torn Paris would make for an intense and thrilling read but it doesn’t. In other tales, such as `Miss Carstairs and the Merman’, the slow pace and absence of melodrama seem right and necessary. Years ago, I was privileged to read an early draft of this story and I remember being mightily impressed by the quality of the background detail and the solidity of the central character – frustrated amateur naturalist Miss Carstairs, who on the day of her mother’s funeral `ordered a proper collecting case, a set of scalpels, and an anatomy text’. When Miss Carstairs manages to collect and study a live merman, he seems as real as any specimen described by Charles Darwin. A lesser writer might have made Miss Carstairs younger and nicer and developed this plot into a romance but Sherman gives us a more mature and interesting heroine and a more profound type of interspecies communication.

This is a collection full of memorable female characters. Some are formidable, like the crotchety choir mistress in `Sacred Harp’, kind-hearted swamp witch Tante Eulalie who treats werewolves for rheumatism and mange, and quilt-maker Nanny Peters, a woman with such cool nerves `she didn’t need an icehouse – she’d just put the milk jug under her bed and it’d keep a week or more’. Others, like the brutally orphaned `Maid on the Shore’ and abandoned albino girl, Cadence (`The Fiddler of Bayou Teche’), are fragile and vulnerable but find the strength to defeat their enemies. One of my favourite stories is the delightfully titled `Walpurgis Afternoon’ in which a mysterious house with a fabulous garden suddenly appears in the middle of an ordinary suburb. It is inhabited by a couple, Ophelia and Rachel, who happen to be witches and the unsatisfactory lives of several of their neighbours are transformed during an eventful wedding party. That brings me to my third word for this collection – transformative. In almost every story, a supernatual encounter transforms the outer or inner life of the central character. The down to earth narrator of `Walpurgis Afternoon’ claims that, `Fantasy makes me nervous.’ Parts of `Young Woman in a Garden’ probably will make you nervous (especially if you have a piano in your home) but this collection may also surprise and enchant you. It could even transform your outlook. Until next time….





This week I’m recommending `A Hat Full of Sky’, a wise and sensitive novel by the king of Comic Fantasy, Terry Pratchett. If wise and sensitive aren’t words you associate with Terry  Pratchett, perhaps you haven’t read much (or any?) of his work. `A Hat Full of Sky’  (2004) is less well known than many of his Discworld novels because it was published as a children’s book. It is the second in a sequence of four novels about young witch, Tiffany Aching. The sequence began with `The Wee Free Men’ (2003) and the third and fourth books are `Wintersmith’ (2006) and `I Shall Wear Midnight’ (2010). They are all available in every possible format but the audio version of `A Hat Full of Sky’ read by Tony Robinson is particularly good. As a bonus there is now an album by folk-rock band Steeleye Span based on the Tiffany Aching novels. It’s called `Wintersmith’ (2013) and one of the tracks features Sir Terry talking about why witches shouldn’t cackle. (I’m so pleased that he got knighted for services to literature that I’m going to use his title throughout this review).

At the start of this novel, eleven-year old Tiffany leaves her beloved home in the Chalk hills to begin her training as a witch. There are several things about Tiffany that make her unusual even among young witches. She has already rescued two boys from the Queen of Fairyland and become the temporary Kelda (ruler) of the Chalk Clan of the Nac Mac Feegles, a host of boisterous blue pictsies. The Feegles continue to feel protective towards their `big wee Hag o’ the Hills’ and keep a constant watch over her. These feats have even impressed the formidable  Granny Weatherwax. Witches don’t have a leader and Granny Weatherwax is the leader they don’t have. Tiffany has some uncommon powers and one of these, the art of stepping outside of herself, attracts the attention of a hiver – an ancient group mind in search of a body. The chief Feegle, Rob Anybody, realizes that Tiffany is being followed by something dangerous but his wife, the new Kelda Jeannie, forbids him to go after her.

Tiffany has been assigned as an apprentice to a witch called Miss Level, who happens to have two identical bodies. In spite of this, Tiffany finds life with Miss Level rather dull. Most of her time is spent on ordinary household chores and on doing good to the local villagers. Tiffany was hoping for `serious witch stuff’ such as `guarding the world against evil forces in a noble yet modest way’ rather than clipping old men’s toenails and dealing with children with runny noses. Worse still, when she is invited to join a Circle of young witches, their bossy leader Annagramma dismisses Tiffany as an ignorant nobody. After Jeannie has a change of heart, Rob and the Feegles are sent to protect Tiffany but by the time they get there it’s too late. Tiffany has been taken over by the hiver, which makes her do some very uncharacteristic things. Miss Level, the Feegles, and Granny Weatherwax all help the young witch to fight the hiver, but in the end only Tiffany can deal with the monster in her head.

`A Hat Full of Sky’ is set in a very British part of  Discworld. Sir Terry has captured the bleak beauty and  magical strangeness of  the real English chalklands, with their extraordinary hill-carvings such as the famous White Horse of Uffington which `is not what a horse looks like, but what a horse be.’ Although this is Comic Fantasy the story is realistic about the harshness of agricultural life and Tiffany is a very convincing farmer’s daughter able to milk goats, make cheese and help deliver lambs. Younger readers will identify with Tiffany’s embarassments and crises in confidence as she tries to cope with her new life as an apprentice witch. Older readers shouldn’t be put off by the fact that the heroine is only eleven during this novel. Smart and ambitious Tiffany, with her three levels of thought and her mystical  link to the Chalk and its people, is an interesting character at any age. When she makes mistakes, the consequences are always going to be dramatic.

Writing for children, Sir Terry is equally inventive but rather more disciplined than in his adult novels. He sticks to telling a strong story about the central character and doesn’t just toss in anything that appeals to his rumbustious sense of humour. In `A Hat Full of Sky’ the  broad humour is mainly confined to the antics of the Feegles. These little blue men who love fighting, thieving and drinking, and are terrified of having to explain themselves to dominant females, are basically comedy Scotsmen. When I first  began reading this series I was determined not to laugh at the`Wee Free Men’. I failed. Perhaps it’s my Celtic blood, but I couldn’t help being charmed and amused  by these daft creatures and touched by their loyalty to Tiffany. Even this strand of the novel is given depth by the plight  of the Kelda Jeannie, who has had to leave her own family for ever to become the lone female voice of common sense among the wildly irresponsible Feegles.

One of my main reasons for choosing this particular novel is that it provides such a good introduction to Discworld’s witches. Sir Terry is famous for writing novels about wizards (starting with `The Colour of Magic’) but in my view his witches are more remarkable and appealing. If you are looking for an older woman as a role-model you could hardly do better than cunning Granny Weatherwax, a witch so tough that `when some vampires bit her they all started to crave tea and sweet biscuits’. The witches in `A Hat Full of Sky’ may be eccentric and gossipy and much more competitive than they pretend, but most of them are a force for good. Not Good with a capital  G as in some grandiose war between Good and Evil but good as in making a practical difference in ordinary people’s lives. Sir Terry has drawn on the traditional role of  the village `Wise Woman’, with her skills as a midwife and herbalist, and he is shrewd about why, even in our world, people still want to believe in magic.

There are some witches in the story, like awful Annagramma, who try to practise Magick with K and think it’s all about fancy spells, glittery amulets and dancing in circles but Granny Weatherwax shows Tiffany that `A witch deals with things’ and that `the soul and centre of witchcraft’ is healing the sick, comforting the dying and caring about people, including the stupid, mean and ungrateful ones. Tiffany must learn to help the apparently undeserving and to accept rewards that she doesn’t think that she deserves. A Discworld witch must take  responsibilty and show compassion. Oh, and wear a very tall pointy hat. I wish there were more witches like them in our world.  If I had a teenage daughter, I would strictly forbid her to read `A Hat Full of Sky’ – in the hope that she would immediately do so. Until next week…