Little – Edward Carey (2018)

 

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I think I have my ear fairly close to the ground when it comes to new books but I must admit that this one passed me by completely until researching my “Looking Around” post at the beginning of the year and finding Bookish Beck having it at number 3 on her Books Of The Year list.  Her enthusiasm piqued my interest.  I was not disappointed.

 Edward Carey has written a marvellously entertaining original fictionalised take on the life of the diminutive Marie Grosholtz, nicknamed “Little” who would achieve huge and long-lasting recognition following her marriage to a M. Tussaud.

 The tale begins in eighteenth century Switzerland when the orphaned child works for Dr Curtius, a wax-worker involved in medical models.  The two relocate to Paris and together with a tailor’s widow and her son move into an old building formerly used to house and exhibit monkeys.  This is the story of how the business repeatedly flourished and faded amongst the extraordinary backdrop of the French Revolution.  I waited until finishing the book before checking autobiographical details and much of the basis of Carey’s fiction is there.  It does seem that anyone who lived through and emerged from this time in French history would have a sensational story to tell and Marie is certainly no exception.

 Through a first-person narrative Carey has created an enthralling character I will probably remember forever.  Written with gusto and an eccentric energy “Little” will not be beaten down however bad circumstances get.  There’s a naivety and optimism which fuels this novel- she is certainly no “Little Nell” yet the skill of storytelling here will suggest comparisons to Charles Dickens.  Through this narrative a rich cast of characters is created and anyone looking for an original, gutsy historical novel will find this a delight.  Her account is punctuated throughout by pencil drawings which give the novel an added quirkiness and depth.

 I very much hope that this will be one of those books whose reputation will spread by word of mouth.  It  currently has a 93% 5 star rating on Amazon with just two detractors opting for four stars.  I fully expect to be mentioning it again in my end of year Top 10.

fivestars 

Little was published in 2018.  I read the Gallic Books paperback edition. 

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100 Essential Books – Things In Jars – Jess Kidd (Canongate 2019)

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I have read both of Jess Kidd’s previous novels and I was delighted to interview her for NB issue #90 following the publication of her debut. It was this book “Himself” (2016) that I expressed a slight preference for – a novel set in 1970s Ireland which absolutely fizzled throughout although both books have been very strong. “The Hoarder” (2018) had a modern West London setting and like its predecessor combined a good mystery with vibrant language, colourful characterisation and a supernatural element.

All of these factors are present in her third novel, with its setting always of particular interest to me, Victorian England, yet it is not just for this reason that I think that Jess Kidd has written her best novel to date and all that potential she has shown up until now has come into fruition with this hugely entertaining novel.

Like all of Kidd’s main characters to date Bridie Devine can see ghosts but here it’s just one, a half-naked ex-boxer she encounters in a churchyard who remembers her from her past. This supernatural touch is something which obviously means a lot to the author and I felt in “The Hoarder” it did not work as well as it had in “Himself” but the pugilist Ruby is a great character and becomes Bridie’s sidekick on some private detective work.

A child has been kidnapped from a country house in Sussex but it is soon apparent that this is no ordinary child and a gallery of rogues, richly-drawn characterisations worthy of the best of Dickens, seem to be involved in her disappearance. Bridie enlists the help of her seven-foot maid Cora, the spectral Ruby and crossing-sweeper Jem to locate the child.

I do read quite a few of these gutsy Victorian set novels and I’m aware that when they are done well they are likely to feature in my end of year Top 10. The actual case within  the novel recalled for me another female amateur detective Heloise Chancey in MJ Tjia’s series of novels but here with greater depth and the sheer vivacity of the language reminded me of Michel Faber’s “The Crimson Petal And The White” and (although set in late eighteenth century London) within its themes of “The Mermaid And Mrs Hancock” by Imogen Hermes Gower- both great favourites of mine, but this novel certainly has a life of its own.

I particularly like it when the history of a historical novel is incorporated seamlessly. Here we have the Victorian love of the unusual and freakish and the developments in medicine which attracted the honourable and the disreputable sitting beautifully in with what becomes a gripping mystery peopled with characters about whom I wanted to know so much more. I hope this novel will be the making of Jess Kidd and will get readers discovering both her other publications. The effervescence of her writing will stay with me for some time.

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Things In Jars is published in hardback by Canongate on April 4th 2019. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Confessions Of Frannie Langton – Sara Collins (Viking 2019) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Here’s a debut out in April with a big buzz about it which appeared in many highlights of 2019 listings (including my very own Looking Back Looking Forward … blog post) so I was delighted to get the chance to read an advance review copy.

 This is Frannie Langton’s account of how she got away from being a slave at a sugar plantation in Jamaica in the first quarter of the nineteenth century and ended up in London on trial at the Old Bailey for the murder of her employers.

 It is very much a novel of two parts.  Although we know from the outset of Frannie’s predicament, the first half is set in Jamaica where as a child she was taken up from the plantation shacks to be a house girl, and then, after being taught to read and write by her bored mistress becomes a scribe and assistant for her master, Langton.  He is involved in disturbing experimentation to discover the difference between the anatomies of whites and blacks.

 Damaged by what she has experienced she turns up in London joining the household of one of Langton’s academic rivals where she is drawn by the attention paid to her by his French wife.

 Through a first- person confessional interspersed with extracts from the court case we begin to piece together what has happened, but very slowly, as Sara Collins certainly keeps us dangling.  This might actually frustrate some readers who’ll think they missed out on something important as part of the Jamaican narrative seems underwritten and only becomes significant much later on.  All is eventually explained.  Characterisation is rich and gutsy with some strongly developed minor roles.  Pace is generally good although for me it dipped in the early London sequence when the relationship between Frannie and Marguerite takes a prominent role.

 Readers loving Sarah Waters’ novels such as “Fingersmith”, “Affinity” and “Tipping The Velvet” should certainly be made aware of this novel and with Waters  moving towards more modern history in her novels in recent years there seems to be a gap which authors are keen to fill.  Two debuts from last year spring to mind Imogen Hermes Gower’s splendid “The Mermaid And Mrs Hancock” and Laura Carlin’s deliciously Gothic “The Wicked Cometh” which also has a female-female relationship as its focus.  I don’t think Sara Collins’ work is quite as good as either of these top-notch novels but it is a close-run thing with the Jamaican slave dimension adding another level of complexity and richness.  All in all, this is a superior historical crime novel that does live up to pre-publication expectations and should end up selling well.


fourstars
 

The Confessions Of Frannie Langton is published on April 4th 2019 by Viking.  Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Frederica – Georgette Heyer (1965)

 

heyerI’ve been meaning to read some Georgette Heyer since reading about her in Christopher Fowler’s “Book Of Forgotten Authors”.  Certainly less forgotten than most of the featured writers, she is regularly taken out in the libraries where I work and was a great favourite of my partner’s mother who was known to stay up the whole night whenever she re-encountered one of Heyer’s titles.

Selecting “a member of staff’s favourite author” from the Sandown Library Russian Roulette Reading Challenge gave me a chance and I chose one of her later historical novels published 44 years into her lengthy career.  I think I was fully expecting a strong Jane Austen influence and that is very much present in this Regency tale.

 After settling down with the endearing opening where the Marquis of Alverstoke tries to avoid hosting a ball to introduce young female relatives to “the ton” at the start of “the Season” and whilst doing encounters distant family members who he is pushed to feeling responsible for I did find myself getting restless.  Much talk of balls and society and possible suitors was making this feel a bit of a dense slog.  It was, however, livened by the odd set piece- a runaway dog, a Pedestrian Curricle ride.  I did begin looking out for unintentional double entendres, which is a sign I’m wandering when reading classic and historical novels- a childish habit I know.  This was because I was finding Frederica Merriville’s attempts to get her stunning sister, Charis, paired up with an eligible man a little too predictable.  However, mid-way through this book did come into its own with the stunning Charis (probably the least interesting character in the novel) taking a back seat as the two younger Merriville boys, Jessamy and Felix take a more central role.  There is real drama in an expedition to watch a hot air balloon and it is from this point that this novel really lifts off (pun intended!).

 I can’t say I got a real feel for the Regency London setting but there’s no denying the amount of research Heyer must have put into her works to get it sounding right.  There’s a joyous use of contemporary slang and terms, many unfamiliar but which do not need further explanation.  Characterisation really won me over and I couldn’t help but feel that if Jane Austen herself had produced this work that she’d feel rather proud of it.  It’s certainly a long way from Mills and Boon historical novels and to be honest I wasn’t expecting it to be.  It’s actually a book that demands hunkering down with making it a better autumn/winter at home read rather than an on the beach one.  I think if time and duties had allowed me to read it in a more concentrated way I would have got more out of it, certainly from the sections I was finding heavy going.  I actually think my late mother-in-law might have had the right idea.

 I now know that there is a lot to enjoy in Georgette Heyer and there are a lot of books to discover.  She wrote 38 historical novels, 12 detective novels and 4 contemporary novels.  Next time I might see how she fares in the world of crime.

 fourstars

Frederica was first published in the UK in 1965.  I read the 2013 Arrow paperback reissue.

Murmuration- Robert Lock (Legend Press 2018)

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I have a thing about piers. As soon as I step onto one with all that planking where the sea is visible through the slats I always get a rush of the sense of history of the place far more than I would with a building. I remember very clearly standing on the beach whilst a burning Brighton Pier blazed in an incredibly sombre recollection. I spent many late afternoons in Brighton watching the swallows swoop and swirl around the ruins of the structure. The pier in Shanklin where I now live was destroyed in the big storm of 1987, washed into the sea taking with it generations of history and memories. All this, the sense of history and the growth and decline Robert Lock has incorporated into this debut novel. And the swooping of the swallows has given this book its title and its starting point. This is why I was delighted that Legend Press sent me a review copy.

The swallows’ movements recall a number of historical points of the life of the pier and its inhabitants at an unspecified seaside resort. We begin magnificently in 1863 with the recent erection (pun intended) becoming the home of bawdy music hall comic Georgie Parr, an evocative characterisation and a life more than tinged with tragedy. We move to 1941 where the pier is used as an observational outpost and the swallows become involved in a wartime miracle. There’s a less successful mid-60’s section with the pier coming to the end of its golden era and onwards to the 1980’s where local archivist Colin Draper seeks to solve a pier-based mystery whilst coping with the declining health of his mother in a painfully sensitive, touching section and then on again to present day where loose ends are tied (perhaps a little too tightly).

The undeniable quality of this book lies in its great sense of time with the pier standing as a central focus to these very human lives. The writing is of a high quality and Robert Lock shows he has what it takes to become a significant writer of historical fiction. Plot-wise the combination of detective story with the odd touch of magical realism doesn’t quite flow quite as masterfully as other elements in the book but this is a strong debut and would be a thought-provoking quality holiday read. I polished off a chunk of it on the seafront in front of Ryde Pier and it felt very fitting to Robert Lock’s vision of the British seaside, past and present.

fourstars

Murmuration was published by Legend Press on 12th July 2018 . Many thanks to the publishers for the review copy.

The Mermaid And Mrs Hancock – Imogen Hermes Gowar (2018)

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The second book I have read to make it onto the shortlist for the 2018 Women’s Prize For Fiction.  I was very impressed with Kamila Shamsie’s “Home Fire” with it making number 6 on last year’s Top 10 books.  Expect this one also to be in my end of year best read countdown.

 Here we have a debut novel for ex-Museum worker Imogen Hermes Gowar and with her background of archaeology, anthropology and Art History she has certainly followed the perennial advice to write about what you know and seamlessly incorporated aspects of her experience into a right rollicking novel.

 Set in London of the 1780’s I had slight concerns that it might be overly twee, as perhaps implied by the title.  I actually chose to read it, however, because of this title, as it brought back echoes of “The Ghost And Mrs Muir” a delightful 1947 movie starring Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney.  This, however, is no tale of a transparent salty sea dog and actually feels closer to a modern slant on WM Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair”.

 It is no plot spoiler to say that for much of the novel Mrs Hancock is Angelica Neal, a high class prostitute whose protector has died leading her to face re-entry into society in order to find the next potential wealthy man who will support her.  Angelica is fabulous and has to face the realisation that she might not be the attraction she once was and may end up once again in the “nunnery” of another great character, Mrs Chappell.  Meanwhile, merchant Jonah Hancock is presented with a withered object, claimed to be the remains of a mermaid in compensation for a lost ship.  This exhibit becomes, for a short time, the toast of London and draws the attentions of both Mrs Chappell and Angelica.

 This is all done so well and Mr Hancock’s ascendancy because of his mermaid is an absolute joy to read.  What is slightly less successful for me is when a little fantasy element creeps in during the final third.  I know why the author does this but it doesn’t work quite as well when we lose the very real feel of eighteenth century London society with all its hypocrisies and limited attention spans cooing over Mr Hancock’s desiccated piece of exotica.

 This is an ambitious novel which works beautifully.  It’s the kind of gutsy, spirited writing that I love with rich characterisation and a real feel of a love for history and literature.  It is an extremely impressive debut.

fivestarsThe Mermaid and Mrs Hancock was published by Harvill Secker in 2018

100 Essential Books – The Wicked Cometh – Laura Carlin (Hodder & Stoughton 2018)

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“If I have learnt one thing from my life in London, it is that sometimes it is necessary to descend to deceit, and that those who survive have the wit to know that.”

This novel is not due to be published until February 2018 but I’m giving you plenty of warning as you should be adding it to your to-be-read-lists for it is an absolute gem of a novel.  Regular readers will know that I have a huge soft spot for big, Dickensian style Victorian-set novels like Sarah Waters’ “Fingersmith” and Michel Faber’s “Crimson Petal And The White”.  I’ve been a little disappointed by some offerings in this area over the last year so (particularly the much-acclaimed “The Essex Serpent”) and others including Australian author M J Tjia’s crime series debut “She Be Damned”(2017) and Canadian Steven Price’s doorstep sized “By Gaslight” (2016) showed promise but neither quite pulled off the authentic feel of London in the nineteenth century.  If they did not live up to my expectations this debut from Derbyshire resident Laura Carlin certainly does.  I think she has got everything more or less spot on here and has written an authentic historical novel and a really good thrilling page-turner.

Young people have been going missing from the London streets for some time and eighteen year old Hester, the narrator of the novel, has fallen on hard times.  An incident in Smithfield Market leads her to an association with a family who could provide her with a future or who may bring about further downfall.  The story builds beautifully, and although the situations and characters may feel familiar for Dickens fans Carlin puts it all together in a way which is inventive, thrilling and feels new.  It is rich in atmosphere throughout.

At the heart is a relationship between Hester and the daughter of the family, Rebekah Brock, who has been persuaded Pygmalion-like to educate Hester in a plan arranged by her brother Calder, a leading light of The London Society for the Suppression of Mendicity and it is this connection between the two women which will attract all Sarah Waters fans to this novel. 

Like Dickens, secrets are revealed gradually by characters brought in to move the plot along and Hester’s account turns into a quite extraordinary tale of grim London existences underneath the cloak of the respectable and socially acceptable. The last third sees the plot move up a gear considerably as revelations follow one after another and the danger Hester puts herself into had me holding my breath.  The plot twists keep coming giving the real feel of a Dickens serialisation

This novel is proof alone that Carlin is a major new talent and her brand of literary historical fiction should provide her with big sales.  I absolutely loved it. 

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The Wicked Cometh is due to be published by Hodder and Stoughton on 1st February 2018.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Sanctuary Seeker – Bernard Knight (1998) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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The first in a set of ten Bernard Knight books I purchased from “The Book People” quite a while ago has at last been taken down from the bookshelf and read.

It is the opener to Knight’s “Crowner John Mystery” series about Exeter based King’s Coroner Sir John de Wolfe.  Set at the end of the twelfth century this is the first medieval novel I’ve read for quite a while.  I overdosed on Bernard Cornwell’s a while back and decided I needed a break from the hard existence, the mud and the travelling to and fro but all that is certainly present and correct in Knight’s novel.

He has set up a good character here for a historical crime series and you can tell there’s certainly a lot of mileage in Crowner John (the other nine books on my shelves also tell me that, not to mention the other five which take the series up to 15 with a prequel to this novel 2012’s “Crowner’s Crusade” being the latest).  Whilst reading this I was reminded of another historical sleuth Gordanius The Finder in the Roma Sub Rosa series by Steven Saylor, set in Ancient Rome which I must pick up on again.

In 1194 it was decreed that all counties should appoint coroners.  This caused conflict in areas between the existing law officials, the sheriffs, with duties being split between the two.  In Knight’s Devon circumstances have meant that John de Wolfe is the only crowner for the county and this professional tension is further notched up as the sheriff is his brother-in-law and there is no love lost between the two.  Home life is already strained by John’s relationship with his wife, the sheriff’s sister Matilda, which causes John to look elsewhere for comfort.

It did take me a while to get into this book and in common with a number of historical crime novels it is based around a number of set pieces on the legal practices of the time.  Here it is the ability of an accused person to seek sanctuary for forty days from a church; the process of “amercement” whereby a village can be fined for not following the legal powers granted to the coroner to the letter and, most memorably in this book, Trial by Ordeal.  This old practice was eventually abolished by the Pope some twenty years after this novel was set and here it is used to prove guilt.  It was a barbaric ritual where the accused would have to complete a task, which would likely lead to serious maiming or their death but may prove innocence, if for some reason the inevitable medical repercussions did not occur.  This is rather like the well-known treatment of witches in ducking stools where if they lived they were found guilty but if they drowned they were deemed blameless.  John is opposed to such practices which are still deemed to be worthy by the Church and his brother-in-law.

A body of a recently returned Crusader  is found in the village of Widecombe and Crowner John together with sidekick Cornishman Gwyn of Polruan and clerk Ralph, a defrocked priest are required to hold an inquest to ascertain responsibility for the death.  Bernard Knight was himself a Home Office pathologist who carried out thousands of autopsies so he is certainly writing what he knows. The historical aspect of his old job is obviously a passion and he certainly brings twelfth century Devon to life.  He had been writing novels since the early 60’s, a number as Bernard Picton, but it is from here onwards that he really begins to make his name.  This is a good, solid introduction to a historical crime mystery series.

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The Sanctuary Seeker was published in 2008 by Pocket Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

Crimson & Bone- Marina Fiorato (Hodder & Stoughton 2017)

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I really enjoyed Marina Fiorato’s last novel “The Double Life Of Kit Kavanagh” which was a vibrant account of an extraordinary gender-challenging woman who, away from the author’s fictional account of her life, became the first female Chelsea Pensioner in tribute to her distinguished military service.  Here Marina Fiorato returns to purely imaginative historical fiction, taking her inspiration for her main character the young woman portrayed in John Everett Millais’ painting “The Bridesmaid”.

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Fiorato recasts this woman as Annie Stride, a prostitute whom we encounter at the beginning about to recreate the recent suicide of her only friend by jumping off Waterloo Bridge.  She is stopped by a passer-by, Francis Maybrick Gill, a Pre-Raphaelite artist who nutures Annie as his model and muse.  There is a simmering tension throughout as Annie attempts to put her miserable past behind her whilst something is askew with her relationship with the artist.

The plot moves from Central London to Florence as Gill takes Annie with him for further inspiration.  His main theme is the fallen woman throughout history and Annie finds herself his Mary Magdalene.  There’s admittedly a slight dip in interest when the novel first moves to Italy but the author makes up for that with an excellently handled last third.

When I moved into my new house I was delighted to find a Camelia in the garden, but after this I’m not so sure as the flower here plays a slightly menacing role, becoming overly dominant in Annie’s new life, from its cloying smell to the artist’s obsession with Alexandre Dumas’ “La Dame Aux Camelias”.

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Plot, characterisation and atmosphere are handled here so well that this book confirms Marina Fiorato’s reputation as a strong historical story-teller.  She gets across the darkness and obsession present throughout the novel very well indeed and never overplays her hand, avoiding the melodrama it could so easily have become.  Like the best historical fiction, the history is incorporated seamlessly creating a seductive yet chilling tale.

fourstars

Crimson and Bone is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 18th May 2017.  Many thanks to the publishers for the advance review copy.

Burial Rites – Hannah Kent (Picador 2013) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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A little while back I read Australian author Hannah Kent’s second novel “The Good People”,  a dark sombre tale set in nineteenth century Ireland with superstition and folklore battling against religion and common sense.  A friend, who read and loved it recommended I seek out Kent’s debut and I am very glad I have.

This writer can certainly do atmosphere.  The claustrophobic smoke-filled peat huts of village Ireland are here replaced by the darkness, freezing conditions and damp wool of nineteenth century Iceland.  Like “The Good People” Kent has used a real-life case for this historical crime novel.  Here it is the plight of Agnes Magnusdottir whose claim for infamy is that she was the last person to be executed for murder in Iceland in 1834.

Following a spell in prison after the death of two men Agnes is sent out to lodge with a local official’s family to await her beheading and to get access to a local minister who would attempt to set her back on the right path.  Agnes had previously spent some time in the area where she had met a young Reverend who she nominates as the man to meet with her. With an Icelandic winter approaching escape from her situation is unlikely and she becomes involved with the work of the family in their preparation for winter.

Her tale is largely told in the one room of the farm with the family and workers, understandably wary of the murderess in their midst, listening in.

This is some debut with Kent totally abandoning the “write what you know” advice to recreate nineteenth century Iceland.  She had spent some time in the country as an exchange student.  This was when the location of the real-life Agnes’ execution was pointed out to here but this novel obviously required a vast amount of research and immersion into the environment to give its intense atmosphere and make it totally convincing.  Her absorption of Icelandic sagas is incorporated into the narrative style of the novel.  This is backed up with good use of documents and reports, which I’m loving in crime novels at the moment and which was the real strength of “His Bloody Project” another nineteenth century tale of murder in a small, isolated community.

The fate of Agnes and the truth about her incarceration is central to the novel and the theme of the woman outside the norm being seen as somehow wicked is a fairly universal one for the time when it was set.  Agnes could have indeed worked as a character in Victorian England but what Kent would have not been able to achieve is this intensity, the claustrophobia, the darkness and dampness nor the vivid impression of the life of these Icelandic folk.

If asked to choose between the two I might give “The Good People” a slight edge because I really enjoyed the way it incorporated Irish folklore into the story.  These two novels show Kent as a writer with so much potential.  I  was also fascinated by the author’s account of the writing of this novel in the back of the paperback edition I read.

fourstars

Burial Rites was published by Picador in 2013.