The Manningtree Witches – A. K. Blakemore (2021)

Winner of the 2021 Desmond Elliott Prize which is given to the best debut novel and a book I highlighted in my 2021 round-up of “Books I Should Have Read”.  At the time I mentioned “A quick look at Amazon reviews suggest some readers have not really got it which might make it a bit of a Marmite novel.”  Well, having now read it it’s time to reveal where I am on the love/hate divide and just like the actual yeast extract spread, I love it.

I do have a bias towards historical novels, 7 years of reviewsrevues have taught me this.  The 1640’s setting is going to tick boxes for me.  I also like it when there is a fiction/fact overlap, particularly in the use of characters (most existed here) and documentation.  The author weaves in (but does not overdo) statements from the 1645 Witch Trials.  I have a taste for darkness, and the work of the Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins certainly brings that but perhaps the main reason I am giving this debut five stars might have been the reason it turned off some readers.  The language is rich, detailed and poetic, just occasionally over-wordy, this award-winning poet certainly came up with a few words I had never heard before.  I actually felt this added to the depth of the novel and enriched the sensory experiences such evocative language conjures up.

This is the narrative of nineteen year old Rebecca West, daughter of Anne, who has her own local nickname, the Beldam West, a good-natured woman who keeps an eye on the less fortunate including the ancient one-legged Old Mother Clarke, but who doesn’t suffer fools gladly.  Her occasional clashes with neighbours does not help her when Witchfinder Matthew Hopkins takes over the local inn and begins his puritanical interfering into the lives of these country folk in Manningtree, Essex.

Plot-wise we know what it going to come.  A group of women will be singled out and victimised and manoeuvred into confession.  Rebecca finds herself in this situation because of her mother and others she associates with and not even her blossoming relationship with Hopkins’ Secretary, Matthew Eades will help.

Characters are strong here, some of the women are adept at saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.  I felt myself both cringing and full of sympathy for them.  The author has avoided the stereotypical baddie in her creation of Hopkins which we might have expected from horror films (and some of the criticism aimed at this book has been because of this) but her depiction of him as misguided and hypocritical rather than out and out evil makes him seem more rounded as a character.  There is often black humour in the townsfolks’ dealing with him and the situations he brings about. 

The subject matter was always going to win me over but A.K Blakemore’s poetic recreation of this dangerous world was so rich.  The evidence sought to prove consorting with the Devil is ludicrous and the seventeenth century prejudice, hypocrisy and victimisation still resonates in this world we live in.  The author, in her Afterword, acknowledges areas of the world where individuals are still murdered because of accusations of witchcraft.  This is a potent debut.

The Manningtree Witches was published by Granta in 2021.

Books I Should Have Read In 2021

It’s time for the annual namecheck for 10 books which I didn’t get round to reading in 2021 but I think I should.  Perhaps they are books I’ve intended to read since publication or titles that passed me by and which I’ve only found out about recently in end of year lists.  If a title makes this list it stands a fair chance of being read in the following year.  Since publishing What I Should Have Read in 2020 I’ve got round to reading 60% and do have the other 4 on my bookshelves ready to be discovered, hopefully, in 2022.  I must admit this list isn’t filling me with quite the same sense of excitement as last year’s did which may be seen as a negative but could also be because I’ve got round to reading more books that I really wanted to read during the year so I’m not having the same sense of having missed out.  Here are the ten titles in alphabetical order of author’s surname.

Will She Do?- Eileen Atkins (Virago)

This has proved to be the celebrity autobiography of the year.  While many celebrities churn out writing having barely lived much life, esteemed actor and Dame of the Realm Eileen Atkins has waited 87 years to produce “Act One Of A Life On The Stage” and what stories she will have to tell!  It has been described as being  “Characterised by an eye for the absurd, a terrific knack for storytelling and an insistence on honesty, Will She Do? is a wonderful raconteur’s tale about family, about class, about youthful ambition and big dreams and what really goes on behind the scenes”. This is what an autobiography should be.  I can’t wait to read it. 

Manningtree Witches – A K Blakemore (Granta)


A novel from a poet, this has appeared on a lot of best of the year lists and the subject of seventeenth century witch trials certainly appeals to me.  This book won the Desmond Elliott Prize for the best debut novel and I’m quite fascinated that it is being highlighted as a real sensory experience.  The trial follows closely the original transcripts which feels for me reminiscent of Graeme Macrae Burnet’s really impressive “His Bloody Project” which was gritty and combined history and fiction in this way infusing his account with poetic vibrant language. I may be barking up the wrong tree and A K Blakemore’s novel might not resemble this at all. A quick look at Amazon reviews suggests some readers have not really got it which might make it a bit of a Marmite novel.  I will have to read it to find out.  

The Heron’s Cry – Ann Cleeves (Macmillan)

I read and really enjoyed “The Long Call” this year, which was my introduction to Ann Cleeves’ writing and the first of her new Two Rivers series to go alongside her “Vera” and “Shetland” works.  The TV adaptation also had its plus points but did seem to deviate a little unnecessarily away from the feel of the book.  I’m kicking myself because after months of this being in high demand in the libraries where I work there was a copy sitting on the shelf,  I dithered because I have quite a bit lined up to read at the moment and he who hesitates truly does miss the boat (I’m strangling proverbs here to delay the inevitable) as when I went back for it the book was no longer there.  I think it might very well have been the perfect read for the gap between Christmas and the New Year but I won’t know!  I will seek it out in 2022.

Last Call – Elon Green (Celadon)

A True Crime title which I am really interested in reading.  It passed me by totally when it was published in March this year.  I saw a recommendation on an American site and thought it was only available over there but a quick look at Amazon shows it’s available in the UK from Celadon Books.  Subtitled A True Story Of Love, Lust And Murder In Queer New York this is another book with a great critical buzz including from Good Housekeeping Magazine who gave it a Best True Crime Of All Time nod.  It’s an examination of an elusive  serial killer in the 1990’s who targeted gay men.   It is a reclaiming of the victims, hopefully in much the same way as Halle Rubenhold reclaimed the victims of Jack The Ripper in “The Five“.  Looking at this book again I don’t know whether to just go ahead and buy it now or wait until the paperback is published at the end of May 2022.  It may feel like a long wait!

The Appeal – Janice Hallett (Viper)

Quite a bit of “the appeal” of this book is in the cover which called to me on a table of recently published titles in Waterstones earlier this year and that must have been the case for a lot of people as this debut clambered up the best-seller lists and ended 2021 as the Sunday Times Crime Book Of The Year.  We all need a bit of cosy crime and this is what I feel this book offers. It has the look and feel of a bit of classic sleuthing but with uses modern technology to unfold the narrative (through e-mails, text messages, even post-it notes) which offers a fresh twist.  It’s been called Agatha Christie for the 21st Century and I’ve certainly read a good share of the original this year with the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge and am looking forward to discovering this classic/modern combination. 

The Corfe Castle Murders- Rachel McLean (Ackroyd Publishing)


This feels a little of an odd choice for me, the start of a series of which the first four books seemed to have appeared already this year, which could be a case of the author churning them out but is more likely because of the difficulties involved in getting work published.  The author believes she is straddling the genres of the thriller and literary fiction giving us a crime series which will make us think.  DCI Lesley Clarke is transferred to rural Dorset, so a great geographical location.  Corfe Castle is such an evocative place to set a novel and is underused in fiction so this will provide a great starting point for the series.  The fact that, hopefully, the whole reviewsrevues shebang is upping sticks and relocating to Dorset in 2022 gives this an added appeal for me.

Mayflies – Andrew O’ Hagan (Faber & Faber)

I’ve read Andrew O’Hagan before and really enjoyed him (his 2004 echoing of the child star Lena Zavaroni in “Personality”) and since then his reputation has grown.  Although classed as fiction there must be enough of O’Hagan here for it to be classified as “autobiographical prose” which led it being awarded this year’s Christopher Isherwood Prize for books of this category.  Set in Scotland of the mid 80’s and present day this focuses on a group of teenage lads who form a strong bond. Its depiction of male friendship, rarer in fiction than you might think, has been applauded and is described as both “joyful” and “heart-breaking” which is not an easy combination to pull off and I am fascinated to see how well Andrew O’Hagan does this.

Final Revival Of Opal & Nev- Dawnie Walton (Quercus)

A book which made it onto Barack Obama’s Books of the Year list and has received fulsome praise from Kiley Reid, Ta-Nehesi Coates and Sara Collins, all whose books I have enjoyed.  I find the idea of music based fiction appealing even if, in reality, it does not always come up with the goods. Here we have a reunion between black punk artist Opal and British singer/songwriter Nev who team up in New York City in the 70’s and consider a 2016 comeback.  Presented as a fictional oral history by a journalist this was described by the NY Times as “A packed time capsule that doubles as a stick of dynamite.” 

 Burning Man – Frances Wilson (Bloomsbury Publishing)


D H Lawrence is an author who seemed to be going increasingly out of fashion and feeling irrelevant to our modern world.  Frances Wilson’s biography seems to be going some way to stop the rot and reclaim Lawrence for the modern reader.  Subtitled “The Ascent Of D H Lawrence” it has appeared on a significant number of Best of the year lists.  Richard Holmes described it as “a brilliantly unconventional biography, passionately researched and written with a wild, playful energy ” which makes it sound like a must.  As a teenager studying for A Levels and in the first year of my degree course I was a little bit obsessed with D H Lawrence whilst finding myself being challenged, frustrated and bored at times by his work. This felt like a new relationship with fiction at the time, that I did not always have to see eye to eye with the author. As an adult I have revisited him only periodically and I have been thinking of reading more of him to see what I think about his often strange arguments and beliefs with the hindsight of life experiences.  I think Wilson’s biography could be an excellent way to get back into his work.

Still Life – Sarah Winman (Fourth Estate)

I already have two unread Sara Winman’s on my shelves, “When God Was A Rabbit” and “Tin Man”, both of which have been recommended to me a number of times but seeing this book as the choice on BBC2’s “Between The Covers” makes me think I should get reading this author pretty sharpish.  The Australian booksellers Dymocks has named it as their book of the year.  A sweeping saga located in Florence and London, Helen Cullen from The Irish Times describes the author as “the great narrator of hope“, we could all benefit from a bit of that after this year!