HISTORICAL//Crimson and Bone- Marina Fiorato*

Crimson and Bone (Jun) On New Year’s Eve, Annie Stride, a desperate and pregnant young woman stands on the edge of a bridge, contemplating the icy water below. As she’s about to step off the ledge, a gentleman appears in a hansom cab and saves her. What seems to be a blessing quickly turns into something strange…

This novel is being touted as one for fans of The Crimson Petal and the White (which I loved) and does have some similar themes: a Victorian prostitute is saved from poverty by a richer man with a good reputation- in this case, a talented Pre-Raphaelite painter, for whom Annie becomes a muse and his ‘wife’. But no matter what her new life brings her, she’s still haunted by her past- and the friend whose death led to Annie’s life spinning out of control. It’s a novel about one man’s obsession and the woman who is unwittingly trapped in a gilded prison- and I bloody loved it.

To be honest, this book had me at ‘Victorian’ and ‘Pre-Raphaelite’; I also noticed that the names of Annie and her protector Francis have a link to another famous Victorian person of interest (which I won’t give away here- you’ll have to read the book!) It’s a great book that really took me on a journey to Victorian London and Florence through wonderfully vivid descriptions, and there’s undercurrent of menace that lurked beneath the shiny, respectable exterior of Annie’s new world is ever present. It’s one of those stories where you know there’s something not quite right, but you can never quite put your finger on it- only for the ending to make you realise it all makes sense.

This is a satisfyingly brooding novel that never lets you trust yourself- or any of the characters- until the final page is finished.

 

BIOGRAPHY//The Rival Queens- Nancy Goldstone

The Rival Queens: Catherine De' Medici, Her Daughter Marguerite De Valois, and the Betrayal That Ignited a Kingdom (May):

It’s a rare thing for me to read historical biographies these days, but once upon a time these were my bread and butter. So much, in fact, that I once wrote about how difficult I found reading novels. Thankfully, my reading diet is a bit more balanced these days- but I do still love a biography of scandalous and/or outrageous women from history.  And I’ve always enjoyed reading about the French court, an obsession that’s been fuelled by my unashamed obsession with Versailles. However,  the events in Rival Queens happen the century before the glory of the Sun King (I recommend Antonia Fraser’s excellent biography of him, by the way) and focuses on another colossal figure from French royal history- Catherine de’ Medici.

Catherine was ruthless, especially when it came to protecting her power and her favourite son. The mother of three kings of France, she was a complex woman and one who would stop at nothing to ensure she maintained her grip on the throne. Unfortunately, this involved regularly throwing her children, particularly Marguerite and Francois, under whatever the sixteenth century equivalent of a bus would have been. She was not a nice woman, but then maybe it’s wrong to expect that she would be. You have to make hard decisions when you’re in charge of a nation state, I guess. Goldstone examines Catherine’s life as it entwines with that of her children, especially her youngest daughter, the feisty and rather wonderful Marguerite de Navarre (who is now my new favourite person.)

After being forced into a marriage with a man she didn’t particularly like, who was of the wrong religion, who apparently smelled permanently of garlic and who made no secret of his mistresses, Marguerite not only saved his life THREE TIMES, she also became a force to be reckoned with in her own right. As queen of Navarre, she took on her formidable mother and spoilt elder brothers with aplomb. Despite tragedy, imprisonment, a loveless marriage and a quite frankly horrendous family background, Marguerite’s humour shines through in the memoirs she left behind and that are quoted from here.

This is a biography with humour and wit within in. It’s not a dusty, dry book at all (some of the footnotes are knowing and wry) and Goldstone allows Marguerite’s voice to shine through; her historical personality is one of a silly woman led mainly by love (a similar fate to that of her long-suffering, one-time sister-in-law, Mary, Queen of Scots) and there is a clear attempt here to rescue her from this representation. I’m not sure how Catherine can be rehabilitated; indeed, her reputation seems to be going backwards as her daughter’s moves forward. She comes across here as an indecisive, untrustworthy and manipulative woman in thrall only to power and her favourite sons.

The only gripe I have about this book is that the illustration plates were shockingly pixellated, which is not cool. I like to actually see the faces of the people I’m reading about. However, this is a minor issue and should not put you off reading one of the most readable and accessible biographies I’ve read in years.

NATURE//Foxes Unearthed: A Tale of Love and Loathing in Modern Britain- Lucy Jones

Foxes Unearthed: A Story of Love and Loathing in Modern Britain (Apr):  I love foxes; I always have. I think is especially because I grew up in inner city Leeds and, alongside the magpies, starlings and sparrows, they were often the only ‘natural’ thing I came into contact with as a kid. Inner city kids tend to have a distrust of anything to do with nature, but I was interested in animals and flowers at an early-ish age, even if I didn’t know what to do or how to do it. I just knew I liked foxes. Even now I wear a silver fox pendant everyday. I’m disappointed by the fact that, even though I live (literally) on the edge of the woods, I’ve only ever seen one mangy fox in our garden in the three years we’ve been here.

Of course I was drawn to this book- not only was it on a topic dear to me, but LOOK AT IT. Isn’t it beautiful? I’d love a print of this fox on my wall.

The book is an exploration of foxes in British life- how historically they’ve been viewed by us, right through to their redemption via Fantastic Mr Fox and Springwatch and then through vilification by tabloids (‘Foxes bit my baby!’) and the pro-hunting lobby. As a result, Jones speaks to a variety of people from all sides of the debate; Chris Packham is entertaining.

I was fascinated by the way Jones was treated by the different factions- welcomed by hunt saboteurs, shunned by the hunters (despite being from a family with hunting connections) and accompanying a city pest controller. She manages to present all of these differing views in a fair, balanced way- although I came away depressed that what with politics as they are, we’re probably very likely to see a re-introduction to legal hunts; I’m pretty sure there are illegal hunts and, even though in this book there are stats that show that evidence that hunts help farmers is somewhat sketchy. I was also interested in the idea that if we were to eradicate foxes, we’d have a bigger problem with rats and mice, so it’s kind of swings and roundabouts.

The overriding message, though, is one of fascination and-maybe- even love. Yes, they’re a pain sometimes, but foxes are remarkable animals; Britain’s last large predator and one of its most adaptable native species, it seems like the fox is here for the time being at least.

FICTION//Homegoing- Yaa Gyasi

Homegoing (Apr):  Homegoing is a lush, far-reaching novel that tells the story of a fractured family tree across two continents and seven generations: a beautiful girl, born on the Gold Coast (modern day Ghana) on the night of a devastating fire, grows up to be the ‘wench’- or unofficial wife- of a British officer whose job it is to procure slaves for the late 18th century slave trade. At the same time as she lives a life of relative luxury in a fortress called ‘The Castle‘, her unknown half-sister  is suffering horrifically in the dungeons below, waiting for the day she will be shipped halfway across the world to work on American plantations. Each of the following chapters tells the story of the descendants of these two women: the loves, lives and choices each generation makes. Although this is a novel and each story is presented as a chapter, each felt more like a complete short story in its own right.

This is a novel that literally took my breath away at points; I found myself rushing home from work to snatch five minutes to read it whilst the house was quiet. I wanted to give this story my full attention. The struggle for survival, the theme of resilience and resistance runs deeply throughout the novel. The characters survive a multitude of challenges: slavery, racism, drug abuse, domestic violence, mental illness. But there is also hope in this novel- a young girl learns where she comes from, thanks to her grandmother; a young man convicted thanks to racism goes on to make a life for himself and his family. Like life, this novel is a rollercoaster and I loved every second of it.

The writing is wonderful- poetic and evocative. The family legacy runs deep within the narrative- it is not always obvious, but it’s there.  This is a rich novel that teaches as much as it engrosses. It has the potential to become very important indeed.

FICTION//See What I Have Done- Sarah Schmidt*

See What I Have Done (Nov):  I have been DYING to tell you about this book since I read it at the tail end of last year, but the publicist asked me to hang fire until March. It is now March. I can now tell you more about this novel other that the occasional tweet singing its praises.

Because OH MY GOD, it’s good. I see great things in this book’s future, I really do.

Everyone knows the poem about Lizzie Borden, right? ‘Lizzie Borden took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks. When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one.’ I remember first reading about this case as a kid in a book of unsolved mysteries and I’m pretty sure it sparked my life-long interest in true crime. It’s a case many of us are familiar with, even if we’re not so sure about the ins and outs of it.

The crime is told from multiple viewpoints, including Lizzie and her sister, which lends the story an air of confusion and danger- exactly how I imagine the Borden house would have felt in the aftermath of such a crime. Unreliable narrators mean that this is often a gripping, if somewhat uncomfortable read. After all, if you can’t trust the characters who act as your eyes, who can you trust? NO ONE. Of course, there’s never been a definitive answer to whodunnit (Lizzie was tried but acquitted, because according to the all-male jury no woman, let alone a respectable middle class spinster, could ever be so brutal as to murder her pillar-of-community father and obedient step-mother), but there is a sense that Schmidt has an idea of who committed the crime. Ultimately, though, it’s up to you to decide.

What has stayed with me more than anything in the months since I read this book is the use of language. I have honestly never read a novel so creepy and unsettling. Little things like clocks and pigeons become threatening and defining. This is a novel that is as claustrophobic as the house in which the crime itself was committed. It’s also a clever way of conveying the sense of underlying madness and hysteria that the Borden sisters had to deal with as they closed themselves off from media sensation that was going on around them. You really understand the oppressive atmosphere in which the narrative takes place and the toll this takes on the already strained relationships between those who live in the Borden household after  the horrific murder.

It’s a quiet menace that runs through the novel and one that resonates eerily afterwards. That’s the appeal of this novel, I think. It’s not a big, showy novel that smacks you in the face from the first page, but one that slowly creeps up on you and, by the time you’ve finished, you realise that it’s firmly embedded in your brain. Good stuff.

Oh, and you’ll never look at mutton in the same way again. Promise.

 

FICTION//His Bloody Project- Graeme Macrae Burnet

His Bloody Project (Feb):

Well, this is a clever little book- sort of like a Scottish version of Rashomon. What is the truth? Who do we reveal the truth to? Do we hide it from ourselves?

In this novel, Burnet creates a murderous ancestor of his own- seventeen year old Roderick Macrae, a boy whose entire world is contained in the tiny Highland village he has lived in all of his life. Caught up in one of those feuds that seem to be woven in Scottish legends, he finds himself accused- and admitting- a terrible triple murder. So far, so typical murder novel. Except that Burnet has created archival documents- witness statements, trial transcripts, newspaper articles and, most intriguingly, Macrae’s confession document, ‘written’ at the behest of his defender and counsel. In it, Macrae admits what he has done and why, but other pieces of the puzzle come to light as you read that make you wonder whether what you believed earlier is the God’s Honest Truth.

I liked the piecemeal feeling to the book; I’m a huge fan of non-fiction work and I admire the fact that this feels very authentic. The author has had to weave in viewpoints and voices from a range of characters, as well as create the harsh landscape of 19th century Highland Scotland. It’s a brutal way of life that’s not without some hope (Roderick is a gifted student who does have a chance at a different life.) Events in the novel are explored from different viewpoints and I found myself guessing and my sympathies constantly shifting. I also found myself feeling heartbroken for the women in the novel; life on a croft was apparently hard, brutal and short and so much is left to the reader to infer.

The quote on the cover says that this is ‘Scotland’s answer to Scandi noir’, and I’m not sure that’s true. (Also, can we stop comparing stuff to Scandinavia?) What it is, though, is an exploration as to what it is to be honest, and of the ties of family, loyalty and community. It’s a short but dense novel and one that I’ll be recommending to anyone who will listen.

FICTION//A Dangerous Crossing- Rachel Rhys*

A Dangerous Crossing (Feb):  I’ve always found the 1930s fascinating- a glamorous world on the cusp of irreversible change and the lives of people unwillingly  hurtling towards that change always makes for fascinating reading. This book is a story of people on a life-changing journey: physically, as they leave for Australia for new lives and metaphorically, as war looms and follows them wherever they go.

Lily, a young woman travelling on an assisted passage ticket, is leaving her life as a waitress and her secrets behind in a bid to start a new life in a strange on the other side of the world. As she becomes used to life on-board the ship, the old ways of class and privilege become blurred and allow Lily to socialise with people who would not usually give her the time of day. She becomes embroiled in scandal, love affairs and a mysterious disappearance during the course of the voyage, as well as confronting her past and the realities of her future.

The characters are relatable, yet somewhat unpredictable; there was a point about halfway through where I gasped when I suddenly realised that one character was not at all who I thought he was, although I was not entirely sure until the end what that meant. The novel is full of things you think you know with certainty, only to suddenly find the rug very cleverly and swiftly pulled from beneath your feet. I loved not being able to predict the who/what/when/where/how of this book. It really is stellar writing and not at all what I was expecting (I think I was ready for a Poirot-esque drawing room mystery on a ship…) Imagine a Golden Age of crime story, but brought up to date for an audience hooked on tense thrillers and you’ll have this book.

I loved this book whole-heartedly. Rachel Rhys is the alter-ego of Tamar Cohen, a writer whose dark psychological novels I have read and enjoyed. What amazes me is how effortlessly she has slipped into her Agatha Christie-esque other self; this really is like reading a completely different author and I enjoyed every second of reading it. I honestly didn’t want it to end. I am very jealous of those who have yet to read it.