The Angel Makers

By Jessica Gregson
Publisher:Soho Press, (12/6/2011)

Average Rating:
Unleash it
3.75 out of 5 (4 Clubie's ratings)

Buy Now From
buy it now from Amazon
buy it now from Barns and Noble
buy it now from Indie Bookstore


When the men of a remote Hungarian village go off to war in 1916, the women left behind realize their lives are much better without them. Suddenly, they are not being beaten; they have time for friendships; they even find romance with the injured Italian soldiers staying just outside of town.

For Sari, an intelligent girl who's always been an outcast (her fellow villagers suspect her of being a witch because of her medical knowledge), it's the first time in her life she's had friends. When the men return at war's end, the freedom Sari and the others have enjoyed is suddenly snatched from them, and they realize they need to do whatever it takes to hold onto it. Sari puts her medical knowledge to use to off her husband. Then she helps one of her friends. And another. When the word spreads, she realizes her problems are only beginning. This creeping and hugely readable first novel is based on a true story.

"Like Tracy Chevalier in Girl with the Pearl Earring (1999), Gregson excels at developing strong, complex female voices; a swift plot; and a story that will hold readers from beginning to end."—Booklist

Like this book? Then you might also like these...


Nick's thoughts on "The Angel Makers"
updated on:2/5/2012

I thought this was a generally solid read. Set during World War I, which is an interesting and not often addressed period of history, it provides a unique take on what it must have been like when these small villages lost nearly all their men, husbands and sons, to the war. Sari is an interesting character that keeps the reader engaged, even if the story veers into pretty oddball territory. It is generally well written, though it does have its flaws. What stood out the most to me (and I may just have missed something), was that it took me at least 50 pages to figure out where this story was taking place. Cultural context means a lot in a story like this, so that is kind of an important tidbit. But overall, the story moves a good pace and kept me with it. It did seem kind of herky-jerky and uneven in the end, but still a unique and worthwhile story.

Unleash it

Ceci's thoughts on "The Angel Makers"
updated on:2/2/2012

The story raises some very provocative questions, which was enough to keep me hooked through the whole book: When is life so bad that you would be grateful for the upheaval of war? To what lengths would you go to restore the life war made for you once the war is over? Is there any basis to justify that? Generally dull writing, inconsistent characters, stereotypically stupid men, and weirdly indiscriminate use of the F-word otherwise made this a plodding read, though. Some standout, strong moments did save the book from being a stinker. The prologue, written in Sari’s voice, is wonderful and energetic. I wish the whole book had been written from this perspective. Sari is a bit dull in the third-person. Another standout chapter is later in the book, written from the perspective of one of the village husbands, and providing some heartbreaking nuance and emotion to that side of the story. Not my favorite read ever, but much to ponder and debate – so still a good pick for book clubs.   

Unleash it

Sam's thoughts on "The Angel Makers"
updated on:1/31/2012

Based on a true story, we watch as Sari, a town healer and outcast (she could be a witch after all), takes turn after turn in her life. From daughter and apprentice, to engaged orphaned, to respected nurse and friend, to "lover," to abuse victim, to killer, to… the reluctant Angel Maker. There is a little bit of something for everyone in this book. And, even though the plot seems a bit predictable, you will enjoy watching her transform and grow. This is a great book club book pick. 

Very Unleashable

Book Junky's thoughts on "The Angel Makers"
updated on:1/30/2012

Book club gold!! Interesting story line with sooo much to talk about and really great writing. What more can you ask for? Well, in the case of this town… not to get on anyone's bad side! What starts out as "necessity" and self defense turns into the ultimate power trip for some of these ladies, who will off you if you look at them cross ways. Oh, baby, is this a juicy book - and it's based on a real story!! What a kicker! Addressing such topics as: self respect, abuse, social conventions, the roles of the sexes, war, survival, friendships, lovers, love, motherhood, and oh yeah…. all the killings - you will not be bored reading this book. I can't wait to discuss this one at book club… especially the idea that Judit puts out there that "you always have a choice." But does she? Oh, it is going to be a fun discussion!


"The Angel Makers"
By Jessica Gregson

Average Rating:
Unleash it
3.75 out of 5 (4 Clubie's ratings)

The Gentleman
The Gentleman
By Forrest Leo

 General reading guide discussion questions to be used with ANY book your book club or reading group might be discussing.
Clubie Submitted Discussion Questions
Have a good question? If your a clubie add one now.

Amazon Best Books of the Month, December 2011
The Angel Makers, Jessica Gregson's engrossing debut, fleshes out the bones of a bizarre true story. In a remote Hungarian village, brutish men's departure for World War I offers a welcome reprieve to their women—many have endured regular beatings (and worse). In the years of their husbands' absence, women's friendships deepen, and they find previously unimagined satisfaction in work and romance with Italian prisoners at a camp on the town's outskirts. Even Sari, the clever midwife's assistant suspected of witchcraft, succumbs to the charms of Marco. When Sari's injured fiancé returns from war a changed, frighteningly violent man, she makes a desperate decision to save herself and her unborn baby, poisoning her fiancé slowly enough to avoid detection. But other desperate women take notice, forcing Sari to choose between helping them perform similar deeds and being exposed as a murderess.

In truth, between 45 and 300 people were intentionally poisoned in Nagyrév, Hungary, over 15 years during and after WWI. Gregson's version of events is horrifically plausible and psychologically astute, and Sari makes a surprisingly sympathetic narrator. --Mari Malcolm

Jessica Gregson on The Angel Makers

From the very first moment I came across the story, I knew I had to write about it.

It was just a couple of paragraphs in a true crime paperback I'd picked up in a bored, slightly morbid moment, to read on a train ride. The bulk of the chapters were about lone, crazy serial killers, and so the outline of the events surrounding "The Angel Makers of Nagyrev" stood out. The bare bones of the story were intriguing: a female-driven murder plague in an isolated village, against the backdrop of the First World War. I was astonished that no one had written about it already!

Once I started to write, though, my story started to shift further and further away from what had been the main focus of the story--the murders. The more I wrote, the more interested I became in the part that came before: what could have compelled the real women behind the story to commit actions that seem, from an outside perspective, abhorrent and unforgiveable.

What were these women's lives like? What sorts of conditions might have led them to behave as they did? What was it about that place, and that time, that caused the women to succumb to such a strangely specific madness? I don't intend to excuse the actions of my characters, or the actions of the women on whom they are based, but I do try to show how easy it might be to move, step by step, outside the bonds of morality that keep (most of us) constrained.


"Like Tracy Chevalier in Girl with the Pearl Earring, Gregson excels at developing strong, complex female voices; a swift plot; and a story that will hold readers from beginning to end."—Booklist

“Unforgettable.”—Historical Novels Review

“It’s a testament to Gregson’s skill that she lures readers on board and makes us believe—even cheer on—the grisly twists. She might get away with it because she’s so careful with her pacing and character development. She doesn’t race straight to the guts; she instead gives us enough of village life to hook us, make us believe, make us care about Sari’s strangeness, and the village’s general sicknesses and plucky misery, before any angels are made. Furthermore, Gregson possesses an enviable talent for delivering a full character in just a few lines…. her prose hangs together well overall and demonstrates an elegant ability to shift perspective, an acuity with handling the passage of time, and a touch for simple, transformative moments of beauty.” —Fiction Writer's Review

“Gregson has created in Sari so curious a character that the novel, based on a true story, springs vividly alive.” Grade: B+ —Clevland Plain Dealer

"Basing her novel on a true story, Gregson draws the reader into Sari’s conflicted world…. Gregson’s cautionary tale is all the more chilling for its basis in reality.” —Curled Up With a Good Book

How can we make BookBundlz even better? Tell us what you think would make this website teh best for book clubs, reading groups and book lovers alike!

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.


She never answers, but still, I talk to her all the time. Listen, I tell her. I’ve made mistakes. When it first started, sometimes I would try to pretend that I was helpless in all of it, that I’d been buffeted by fate; that as surely as those eight women are twisting in the wind now, in my way, I’ve been twisting in the wind my whole life. It’s not true, though; it’s just a lie that I told myself when I wasn’t feeling strong enough to face up to what I am, and what I’ve done. In truth, I’ve made my choices, and my hand is strong in all of this. Without me, none of this would have even started.
I’m twenty-eight, but I look older, and that doesn’t even come close to how old I feel. That’s not so unusual where I come from. In the city, I’ve heard that women are cosseted and coddled, treated like elaborate ornaments or playthings. Here, we carry our parents and our husbands and our children on our backs; we’re the dumping ground for all of life’s shit. Judit taught me that early on, and nothing I’ve gone through since has gone any way towards disproving it. They used to wonder why I was still alive; in the villages, people regularly kill themselves over less than I’ve endured.

When I was small, maybe eight or nine, Katalin Remény, aged sixteen, drowned herself because she was pregnant without a husband. She was hauled out of the river – at a time when bodies in the river were far rarer than they have been recently – and at her funeral her body was paraded through the streets, surrounded by howling mourners, but of course she had to be buried outside the churchyard because of her sins, and later, Judit and my father went to pour boiling water over her grave, to stop her from stalking the village in death, as suicides are said to do.

Judit came to speak to me a few days after Katalin was buried, and I remember she was hissing and spitting with fury: she told me that what Katalin had done was pointless and meaningless, that having a baby without a husband was only a sin in the eyes of those people who want to control women, and that, in any case, if a woman ever found herself with a baby that she didn’t want, she could always come to Judit and Judit would take care of it – though, at that age, I only had a vague idea of what ‘taking care of it’ meant.

Like with most of Judit’s rages, it was born out of a desire to protect me, and it worked. Katalin took up residence in my mind, a symbol of the opposite of everything I was going to be; a mindless, sacrificial lamb, caring more about the opinions of a few stupid villagers than her own life. I knew that I would never give up my own life if there were any alternative left to me in the world, and as it’s happened, I could never be accused of failing to seek out as many alternatives as possible.

That’s at the root of it all, I explain to her: my survival instinct, my will to live. That’s behind all the choices I’ve made. I could have given myself up at any number of points, and I suppose it would have saved lives. But not my life, and not her life, and that’s all I’m looking out for. I’ve learnt that it’s too painful and dangerous to care about much else.

Is it odd that I feel like this, given the twenty-eight years I’ve had? Maybe I should have accepted the bitter slice of life I got as something easy to surrender. But once I got it between my teeth, I was never going to let it go without the most violent struggle. What’s good about life? Ask me that when you’re watching a summer moon, bloated and white, floating over the plain. Ask me that when you’re looking into my child’s face. Of course, there are terrible things too, and sometimes – often – they outweigh the good. But you can’t have beauty without a bit of terror.


Chapter One

Sari is fourteen years old when they carry her father out, carry him through the village lanes, his face bare and blank to the wide sky, carry him through the summer wildflowers that bloom alongside the river, carry him to the cemetery. It is a public end for a private man, infused with the drama that makes village life bearable; a final chance to be the centre of attention, something that Jan Arany had never sought. Sari doesn’t cry, because that isn’t her way; instead, she wraps a cloak of silence around herself, and lets the other village women do the wailing for her. Her silence almost gives the impression of absence. It is misleading.

Her father had been a Wise Man, respected, a táltos, and they’d lived for all of Sari’s life on the outskirts of the village, in a wooden house with steps that creaked, the grass in front of it worn thin by the feet of villagers in search of cures, help or salvation. Her father had been a big man, tall, broad-shouldered, light-haired – unusual in that place – a wide face like the sun, Sari thinks: warm, but remote. The villagers had loved him and feared him in equal measure. They just fear Sari.

As long as she can remember, she’s been skirted by whispers wherever she goes. Her father had tried to explain it. ‘It’s because they loved your mother,’ he said, but that’s never made sense to Sari. She loves her mother too, a wraith-figure whom she’s never met, only heard about, and woven her image out of stories and imagination; a young woman – barely older than Sari now – who had left her family, smiling, to marry Jan Arany. Still smiling, she’d swollen with Sari inside her, and then split open at Sari’s birth, and died.

‘I didn’t want her to die,’ Sari would say to her father, after someone or other had hissed witch behind her back.

‘I know,’ he said, ‘But they just think it’s unlucky, that’s all.’

That’s not all, though, and Sari knows it, though she’s always appreciated her father’s kindness to pretend otherwise. Sari understands that she is odd, that there’s something in the way she holds herself, in the way she looks at people, in the things she says and the things she knows, that isn’t what the rest of the village considers right and proper. She envies the girls she sees walking through the village, arm in arm with easy familiarity, but she can’t see how to get from where she is to where they are, how to change her behaviour in order to be liked. The only concession that she makes these days is her silence. Keeping her mouth shut gives the villagers fewer new stories to tell about her, but as with most villages, many of them are all too happy to tell the same stories over and over again.

It happened the day her father died, too. It was morning, and Sari was at the door of the Mecs house in the noise-choked heart of the village, buying a bottle ofczerenznye from Dorthya Mecs. As she reached out her hand to take it, she heard the voices – distinct, clear, dominated by Orsolya Kiss’s high, nasal drawl. Hearing her name, Sari moved her eyes without turning her head, and saw Orsolya, one hefty buttock hoisted onto the edge of the Gersek porch, leaning and grinning, surrounded by three or four other women. Two, Sari saw, were Orsolya’s best friends, Jakova Gersek and Matild Nagy, flanking her like bodyguards; one of them she didn’t recognise, but the shape of her face recalled Orsolya’s, and Sari remembered hearing that Orsolya’s cousin from Város was visiting. Well-practiced at avoiding notice, Sari softened her body slightly, fitting herself easily into the swoops and shadows of the narrow, slanted lane.

‘She’s never quite been right,’ Orsolya was saying, the mock sorrow in her voice unable to hide the underlying glee at being the bearer of a good story. ‘A terrible trial for her father, who’s a good man. And her mother—’ Orsolya paused to raise her eyes piously to heaven, the other three following suit, ‘– Monika was a good woman. Her death was tragic, so young, but, forgive me, sometimes I thank God that she never had to live to see what her daughter is.’

‘What does she do?’ Orsolya’s cousin whispered, in the hushed, excited tones of the consummate gossip.

The exchange was wearyingly familiar to Sari, a ritual song of call and response. She realised she was frozen, one hand holding the bottle of alcohol, as she met the eyes of Dorthya, who raised her eyebrows and gave a slight sympathetic shrug. Sari withdrew her arm, but remained rooted to the spot, listening, still. Which one will it be, Orsolya? she asked silently. The one where I drive the dog mad because it won’t stop shitting in front of our house? The one where I put the curse on Éva Orczy’s baby because I think she looks at me oddly? The one about me having a birthmark in the shape of an inverted cross on my back? Or maybe something new that you’ve dreamt up? Come on, Orsolya, Sari challenged. Surprise me.

‘Well, I saw this one with my own eyes,’ Orsolya said, and Sari relaxed slightly. She’d heard this one, and it was almost comforting to hear it repeated; it had taken on the soothing quality of a fairy tale. ‘She must have been four or five,’ Orsolya continued comfortably. ‘It was Sunday, and we were in church. It was summer, maybe late July, or August, and you know what the flies are like then – anyway, there was a big old dongó buzzing around Sari, and she was swiping and swatting at it, like children do, but it wouldn’t leave her alone. So finally, she sat up straight, and just stared at it – this fly – and that wa...
 Apple iTunes

Jessica Gregson has a degree in Anthropology from Cambridge and a Masters in Development from London School of Economics. Jessica has worked as a policy advisor for the home office and a humanitarian worker in Sudan. Jessica has just started a PhD at the prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

Also, Don't Miss BB's
Author News Page!
Look for advice on everything from how to get your book published to promoted. We are looking to help you get the word out about your book!

Check out our...

of the Month