Tag Archives: Katherine Howe

Friday Faceoff – A Room Without Books Is Like a Body Without a Soul…

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This meme was started by Books by Proxy, whose fabulous idea was to compare UK and US book covers and decide which is we prefer. This week the theme is books, so I’ve chosen The Physic Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe.

 

physicbookofdeliveranceThis is the offering produced by Hyperion Books in May 2009. It’s a beautiful, eye-catching cover, depicting the old fragile book that has been passed down through the family. This is my favourite cover.

 

physicbookofdeliverance1This cover produced by Voice in April 2010 takes several of the main elements from the original design, but has included the figure which I think makes it look rather cluttered and messy.

 

physicbookofdeliverance2This cover, produced by Penguin, also depicts a book with another title – I’m assuming it’s for the US market – but the tone is way off. The book isn’t horror, but it is certainly grittier and more hardhitting than this rather flowery, fanciful design conveys.

 

physicbookofdeliverance3Whereas this German edition, produced by Page & Turner in August 2009, has gone to the other extreme. This cover suggests severed goats heads and frantic virgins tethered to the altar, which isn’t what this book is about, either. If I’d picked it up thinking that’s what I was getting I’d be thoroughly fed up, so it isn’t doing its job.

Review of The House of Velvet and Glass by Katherine Howe

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houseofvelvet&glassKatherine Howe’s impressive debut novel The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane was an enjoyable thought-provoking examination of the nature of witchcraft and mother/daughter relationships. She skilfully used the long shadow of the Salem Witch Trials in a fresh twist that had me pondering some of the issues she raised long after I finished the book. So, the questions has to be – does her new novel live up to this high standard?

1915, Boston. Sybil Allston is a young woman poised on the cusp of a tumultuous new century. But she’s living a life of quiet desperation with her father and wastrel brother in an elegant town house in the city’s plushest neighbourhood. Though her days are rich in creature comforts, she is still reeling from the loss of her mother and sister on the Titanic, which sank three years earlier.

Against this backdrop of Boston on the brink of change flash intimate moments of Sybil’s mother and sister on their final lavish evening on the Titanic, hours before the collision that would destroy the ship and claim their lives – lives revisited through the crystal ball of a medium.

I’ve skipped a chunk of the blurb that reveals too much of the plot – this finely crafted historical exploration of some tricky subjects deserves to be read without any spoilers taking the edge off your enjoyment. Howe is adept at using difficult periods in our past to tease out some contemporary problems – and the subject of drug addiction seems somehow more shocking when set against long dresses and Edwardian manners. She also looks at spiritualism, which enjoyed a huge upsurge in popularity during and after the Great War, when so many were bereaved without proper closure with their young men buried in the mud of Flanders’ fields.

Once more, Howe’s apparently gentle style is deceptive – the comforting glow of the past is nothing of the sort. Sybil’s angry guilt-ridden grief traps her just as thoroughly as the corseted expectations that dismiss her as a spinster, fated to run her father’s home and nurse him in his declining years. As for communicating with her mother, or stop her brother from his self-destructive behaviour – how can she prevail?

The answer Howe provides had my jaw dropping. She plays with our expectations and then flips them round, so that someone we had considered as one type, in actual fact was quite different. So, fascinating as Sybil is, she isn’t the character that ultimately snagged my attention in this layered story. It is the self-made Captain Allston whose compelling story slowly unfolds throughout the book – and makes his indifference to the more staid Bostonian customs completely believable.

In fact, there was only one anachronism that initially graunched – as first class female passengers, Helen Allston and her beautiful young daughter would have been almost guaranteed to have seats in the few available lifeboats. But as Howe herself confessed that this was a liberty she took with the historical facts in the Appendix, then she gets a pass on that one. This is, after all, fiction. And with a book that so beautifully creates the febrile atmosphere of that difficult time – if Howe knowingly tweaks the facts to suit her purposes, that’s fair enough. Particularly as she reckoned her readership was sharp enough to call her on it. That is a large part of the joy of this book – Howe’s intelligence shines through this atmospheric tale, better still, her writing assumes her readers will keep up.

So, to answer my original question – in case you hadn’t already guessed – the answer is a resounding yes. The House of Velvet and Glass is a worthy successor to The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. But don’t take my word for it – go out and get hold of a copy. You’ll thank me if you do.
10/10

Review of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe

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This supernatural historical thriller is set in 1991, with flashbacks to the era of the notorious Salem witch trials. Don’t worry, though. You will not have to endure the whole harrowing business all over again – Howe has managed to put an interesting spin on this much-visited subject.

While clearing out her grandmother’s cottage for sale, Connie Goodwin finds a parchment inscribed with the name Deliverance Dane. So begins the hunt to uncover the woman behind the name; a hunt that takes her back to Salem in 1692 and the infamous witchcraft trials.

But nothing is entirely as it seems and when Connie unearths the existence of Deliverance’s spell book The Physick Book, the situation takes on a menacing edge as interested parties reveal their desperation to find this precious artefact at any cost.  What secrets does The Physick Book contain? What magic is scrawled across its parchment pages? Connie must race to answer the questions – and reveal the truth abuot Salem’s condemned women – before an ancient family curse fulfils its dark and devastating prophesy…

deliverancedaneThis story does have its creepy moments, but it is far more bound up in the everyday with the oddness and discordant details sneaking in when you’re not necessarily paying attention. I really like the way that while in Connie’s viewpoint, we gradually become aware that things are not exactly normal. So when we are confronted with the more gruesome details – they really provide full shock value.

One of the recurring themes in this enjoyable story, is the relationship between mother and daughter – and how circumstance and genes can conspire to create friction between the generations. Connie and her hippie mother, Grace, certainly have been at odds throughout Connie’s life. I found the telephone conversations between mother and daughter one of the book’s highlights, both managing to be poignant and amusing at the same time.

In setting the book in 1991, Howe has been smart. This is before the computerisation of records had really got going and mobile phones are not widely used. So as a historical researcher, she spends hours combing through the primary source materials in cotton gloves and when alone in her grandmother’s derelict cottage, she is truly marooned in a way that these days with wireless internet and mobile phones would be almost impossible.

Howe’s connection to this story is more than just keen interest – she is related to two of the victims of the Salem witch trials, one survived and one didn’t. In these sceptical times, the accepted version for the Salem witch trials is that the whole sorry business was as a result of an overly repressive regime, raging teenage hormones and an hysterical reaction to both the power and the attention. But, what if there really was an element of magic clouding the whole issue? The contemporary accounts certainly absolutely believed that witchcraft was in evidence. And this is the premise that Howe uses as the foundation and starting point for her tale, providing her with an enjoyably original and yet plausible version of the Salem trials.

This is book, while not necessarily found parked alongside the other Fantasy offerings on the bookshelves, offers a delightful slice of supernatural happenings from a refreshingly original angle by an accomplished writer. If you are feeling a tad jaded with the genre right now, I suggest you look this book out. You won’t be sorry if you do.
9/10