One of my selections of books I highlighted in my 2019 What I Should Have Read post which I just managed to fit in before the end of the year where it ended up in 4th place in my Books Of The Year. Short-listed for a Costa Award (losing in the final judgement to Jonathan Coe) but victorious in the Irish Book Awards Eason Novel of the year this is Irish writer Joseph O’Connor’s 9th novel. I’ve not read his celebrated work “Star Of The Sea” (nor anything else by him) but I will be looking out for this to read this year as I feel I’ve made a real discovery here.
This is a beautifully written historical work which represents pretty much a love triangle between actor and impresario Sir Henry Irving, founder of the Lyceum Theatre, hugely popular actress Ellen Terry and “Dracula” author Bram Stoker. As well as his using various narrative techniques as in Stoker’s most famous work O’Connor drops seeds of inspiration throughout showing how Stoker came up with his iconic creation. Largely unknown as a writer in his lifetime, Stoker earnt his living as general manager and dogsbody in Irving’s theatre, attempting to find time to write against his employer’s wishes. All three characters are a little obsessed with one another and this proves fascinating reading.
Also fascinating is spotting the allusions to “Dracula”, some obvious (characters called Mina and Harker) and some more subtle and beautifully interwoven into the text.
It is the quality of the writing that makes this book a joy. O’Connor is good with multi-sensory lists which build such evocative pictures of the time. The narrative touches in at different parts of their lives and an undercurrent to all are the crimes of Jack The Ripper.
The main narrative thrust ends with the death of Irving but then there is a Coda which I initially didn’t warm to feeling it unnecessary but this change of atmosphere achieved here really drew me in and was so beautifully written that I felt close to tears at the end. For an author to change the pace and mood of the piece feels brave, for it to work so well is a real achievement.
Shadow Play was published in hardback by Harvill Secker in 2019. The paperback is due in May 2020.
This is a good quality debut historical novel rich in detail and with a good air of authenticity. Set in 1612 around what is now Lancashire and Cumbria this takes the case of the Pendle witches as its inspiration. Using the names of real life residents of Gawthorpe Hall and those accused of witchcraft at the Lancaster Assizes the author effectively conveys the paranoia and suspicion towards those who associated themselves with traditional remedies, paranoia which led to the accused naming names of others they believed were following witchcraft.
Fleetwood Shuttleworth is in her teens and has been married for a number of years already to Richard, Master of Gawthorpe Hall. She has endured miscarriages and while desperate to give her husband an heir is well aware of the precariousness of childbirth and fears for her own life. She encounters Alice whilst on a walk in their wood and Alice’s keen understanding of the properties of herbs leads Fleetwood to appoint her as her midwife. Meanwhile a local landowner has been accusing women of crimes associated with witchcraft, possibly in an attempt to curry favour with King James I, who is encouraging a national purge against “Daemonologie”. Is Alice a witch? Does she associate with those who follow witchcraft, who reputedly have animal familiars, and will she even be around by the time Fleetwood is due to give birth?
Narrated in first-person by the Mistress of Gawthorpe so we know that she survives her childbirth ordeal but nothing else is assured as suspicion, injustice and prejudice begins to sweep the locality. Stacey Halls gets this over very well, making you care for the main character and weaves a convincing tale. I will certainly be looking out for her next novel “The Foundling” due in February 2020.
The Familiars was published in 2019. I read the Zaffre paperback.
Karen Maitland is an author I’ve been meaning to get round to for some time. I have a few of her books unread on my shelves, I’ve been tempted into buying them by the darkness suggested by their titles and cover design. This, her second of her to date nine fictional works is subtitled “a novel of the plague” which with its mid 14th Century setting suggests a read rich in atmosphere and gloom, perfect for these unseasonal Indian Summer days!
I like the premise of a group of individuals with varying backgrounds and dark secrets in their pasts bonding together to escape the plague. The disease stalking and occasionally overtaking them is superbly done and adds to the atmosphere and tension of the novel. I realised midway through that I’m never as much of a fan of the “road” novel as I think I am. For some reason I like characters to get to their destinations rather than just travel there, books which focus purely on a journey such as “Lord Of The Rings” as well as countless others have not appealed to me as much as I would have liked. (Already I’m thinking of exceptions to that statement, Steinbeck’s “The Grapes Of Wrath” immediately springing to mind). I think this is a personal quirk which can affect my enjoyment but is not a slight on the quality of the story-telling.
It is narrated by a character referred to by the others as “Camelot”, a peddler in ancient relics of dubious provenance. Amongst the group fleeing to safety is a couple of musicians, a couple approaching parenthood, a magician and a very strange child with a talent for interpreting runes. A couple of my favourite characters get bumped off before their time which I found a little disappointing.
Long medieval travels inevitably means story-telling and there are a number along the way which gives the work a Chaucerian feel. There’s a mystical element appropriate for the beliefs of the time where even the Church acknowledged the presence of werewolves and vampires.
It is a heady mix of history, crime with a touch of fantasy and horror but the elements do not quite come together in the way I was hoping they would. It’s been a valuable introduction to the work of Karen Maitland and I am sure I will enjoy other of her novels even more than this. “Company Of Liars” just misses out on a 4* rating because I save that for those books I would be keen to read again and this is one that I’ve read, enjoyed and am ready to move on from.
Company Of Liars was published by Michael Joseph in 2008. I read the 2009 Penguin paperback edition.
Ambrose Parry’s “The Way Of All Flesh” was one of my crime novel highlights of 2018. I found its Victorian Edinburgh setting refreshing and the combination of an unpredictable crime set-up and a seamlessly incorporated history of medicine at the time was extremely effective. Two strong lead characters also helped, implying a lot of potential for this series.
This was Ambrose Parry’s debut novel but writing under that name is highly established crime writer Chris Brookmyre in collaboration with his anaesthesia expert wife Marisa Haetzman. This follow-up moves things on around a year with Dr Will Raven coming to the end of a tour of Europe and a violent incident in an alleyway before returning him back to the more familiar ground of Edinburgh where he has accepted the job of being his mentor Dr Simpson’s assistant. Here, he meets up again with another of Simpson’s employees, Sarah, but this time her circumstances have changed and it seems the authors are committed to keeping this couple who seem destined for one another apart.
The character of Simpson is based upon a real-life doctor noted for his discoveries with chloroform, which featured largely in the first book. Here, there is still experimentation with its usage, at one point it is served up as an alcoholic beverage but medically, anaesthetics have become more established and the issue now seems to be how to keep a patient alive after work has been done on them internally. Infection is the new priority.
The crime aspect comes via a woman not so keen on keeping the patients she is nursing alive and her narrative is interspersed throughout the text. I felt initially that the crime was taking a back seat compared to the medical history side of things but this is just Parry setting things up very nicely for us. Once again there were unpredictable twists and the novel builds just the way I always hope a crime novel will do.
Once again this is good quality fiction which is very readable, characters are developed (although Dr Simpson himself is more in the background) and I really want to know what is next for Will and Sarah. This series, in the space of two novels has established itself very well indeed.
The Art of Dying is published in hardback by Canongate on 29th August 2019 . Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.
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.
Little was published in 2018. I read the Gallic Books paperback edition.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’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.
Frederica was first published in the UK in 1965. I read the 2013 Arrow paperback reissue.
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.
Murmuration was published by Legend Press on 12th July 2018 . Many thanks to the publishers for the review copy.
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.
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock was published by Harvill Secker in 2018