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.

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She Be Damned – M J Tjia (Legend Press 2017) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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I have a big old soft spot for novels set in Victorian London.  I love the mix of classes, the hypocrisy of the wealthy and the poor struggling to get by through any means.  From Dickens to “Fingersmith” to Michel Faber’s “Crimson Petal And The White” this kind of fiction has the tendency to end up amongst my all-time favourites, especially when there is a strong female lead to stand against the patriarchal society.

Enter Heloise Chancey, main character in the first of a proposed historical crime series by Australian author Tjia.  This is the first full-length novel for a Brisbane-based novelist much lauded for her short stories and novellas.  Heloise is a strong, complex character- a well off courtesan with a background on the stage and as a celebrated beauty, posing as a widow, who helps out an aristocratic private detective with his cases.  Heloise is able to move fairly effortlessly thorough the ranks of society from the upper echelons who may have used her courtesan services, their wives who cannot imagine these services and to those who have remained in the less respectable strata of society, the “renters” in the brothel houses where Heloise passed through in what is evidently a very rich back story.  As such she is a character who has been carefully thought out for a series of novels.

In “She Be Damned” she is asked to investigate a missing girl who has left home after revealing her pregnancy to her family and where her only option is to sink towards harder times.  Prostitutes are being mutilated and murdered around the Waterloo area and Heloise gets caught up with all of this.

Interspersed with the narrative are the back-story experiences of Amah Li Leen, Heloise’s oriental maid and this is done in such a way that we know she will be a supporting character in subsequent mysteries.  Tjia keeps a lot up her sleeve about both characters, good for the future but not without risks as by holding back too much in an introductory novel these characters may end up not as well-rounded as we’d like.  I think the author just gets away with this, but only just in the case of Amah.

There’s a fair evocation of nineteenth century London.  It’s not as drenched in atmosphere as I might have wanted but there can be a tendency to over-egg this leading to cliché and melodrama, both of which are avoided here. 

All in all it’s a very readable introduction to a series and I would certainly seek out follow-ups.  I don’t think Heloise Chancey is going to challenge my favourite investigators but I certainly enjoyed spending time in her company.

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She Be Damned was published in the UK in August 2017.  Many thanks to Legend Press for the review copy. 

Queer City – Peter Ackroyd (2017) – A Real Life Review

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With this book Peter Ackroyd eases himself into my Top 3 most read authors from the last 22 years that I’ve been keeping count. This is the 11th book of his I have read (plus there’s a couple I’ve read twice). The crowning glory of his 30+ year writing career (so far) is his monumental “London: The Biography” (2000), the best history of a geographical location I have ever read and my Book of The Year in the year I read it. Some of his London-based fiction has also been first-class.

So you can probably tell I would be excited to read this publication. I had anticipated another large volume but when I saw it in a bookshop I was surprised that it looked rather slim (232 pages + bibliography and index). That made me a little concerned and I was hoping that it wasn’t made up of material taken from “London: The Biography”. It isn’t; it’s a completely new history subtitled “Gay London from the Romans to the present day”. What I like about Ackroyd’s historical non-fiction is how it feels learned and academic and yet how very readable it all is. “London”, given its size might be a book a reader might just dip in and out of but I read it like a thriller and relished every word.

Well, here, I’m going to start with a personal gripe. I’m not thrilled by the title. Ackroyd defends his use of the term “Queer” as the word now commonly used by academics and “Queer Studies” appears in universities. A recent exhibition (and book) celebrating “Queer British Art” appeared at around the time of this book’s publication at Tate Britain and the word also appears now as the Q in the abbreviated LGBTQIA (although some will say it’s for “questioning”). The word rankles with its association of dodgy men in raincoats but I’m going to let it go and find out just what is in between the covers.

Ackroyd encompasses the raison d’etre behind the book with his final words: “This book is a celebration, as well as a history, of the continual and various human world maintained in its diversity despite persecution, condemnation and affliction. It represents the ultimate triumph of London.”

What was it about this city which led to its being, throughout time, a magnet for its sexually curious residents? According to Ackroyd; “The city was known to be both a jungle and a labyrinth where gay life could flourish, each street leading to another and then another; there was no end to the possibilities or to the adventures. It provoked the restless need to explore.”

He takes a chronological view of these Gay Londoners. For a good chunk of early history there were no terms for “homosexuality” and people just did pretty much what they did without labels. There is also a marked difference between genders. Lesbianism was never made illegal (Queen Victoria reputedly refusing to acknowledge its existence) and over the centuries Ackroyd makes mention of a number of instances where female partnerships caused little storm and they were occasionally even married by confused clergymen, sometimes by one impersonating a male in a ruse which might not be discovered until after her death. There have also been times when homosexuality was more ignored than tolerated, especially at Court (there’s been more than one gay royal) and within the Church but generally the plight of the gay man has not been especially happy. Obviously the nature of using existing evidence means that Ackroyd’s research will tend to be on incidents which moved over into public knowledge and these will most likely be court cases when something has gone wrong. There’s the odd surprising fact, however. He states that in terms of population, there were probably as many “gay bars” in 17th Century as in 21st Century London.

For many gay men, as we know, their sexual identity led to ruin and shame, punishment or their murder. Many faced public wrath at pillories and public hangings and Britain was slower than most to adopt change. By the eighteenth century much of Europe had abandoned execution for the “crime” of being gay. Britain, alarmed by the Continent and especially by France clamped down further in a bid to establish its separation from Europe (given events over the last year can’t stop the hairs rising on back of my head just a little here). Homosexuality was seen as “a foreign vice. It was un-English” (never mind that the French referred to certain sexual practices as “anglais”). The last two men hanged in England died in 1835 but the death sentence was not actually abolished until 1861.

After this date you might not hang for it but; “It is arguable that in the first half of the twentieth century, however, gays of both sexes were subject to a level of prejudice and intolerance not seen before in Western history, entrapment, imprisonment and sudden police raids became familiar characteristics of London life.”

So not especially a joyful celebration here then. I think Ackroyd does rush through the twentieth century somewhat in his race towards equality. I think I was expecting a little more focus on those places that had real history and importance for gay people. (Coincidentally, this was catered for, to some extent, by Channel 4’s “Britain’s Great Gay Buildings” first shown on 24th June 2017). Ackroyd seems more confident with dealing with the academic evidence than the popular culture which steeped places like Heaven, The Royal Vauxhall Tavern and The Black Cap. He does look to the future at what equality and gay marriage will end up meaning to the more subversive “underground” aspects of London (the “twilight world” that the News Of The World and Sunday People used to refer to) which is rapidly disappearing as we all settle down to domestic environments.

This is often a very readable, undeniably racy account of our capital city and its more diverse residents. There’s some wonderful characters along the way and far too many meet unhappy ends. It’s a good read but do not expect it to have either the magnitude or scope of “London: The Biography”,

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Queer City was published by Chatto and Windus in a hardback edition in May 2017.