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.

 

CRIME//Ragdoll- Daniel Cole*

Ragdoll (Oct):  There are books that I see being mentioned loads on social media and this is one of them. I’m lucky enough to be able to sometimes get my hands on some of these books before they’re published. Some of them are worthy of the hype, some not so much. This one is one of the most hyped of recent months (it’s not published until February) and I can tell you now- this is going to be HUGE.

Imagine, if you will, that you’re a police detective newly accepted back onto the force after a traumatic experience. You’re divorced, living in a tiny flat… and a killer leaves a corpse nearby as a warning. Oh, and that corpse is made up of six bodies and there’s a list of future murders: names, dates and times- and your name is on it. What do you do? If you’re Wolf, you work doggedly to solve the crime, all while the media is watching your every move. As well as all that, you’re sort of involved in a dysfunctional relationship with your co-worker and the boundaries between you and her are really blurred. All fine and normal, yes?

This is a crime novel that takes the crime novel and has glorious, gory fun with it. It’s fast and funny, and it looks askance at our reality TV obsession with crime (there is literally a ‘death clock’, counting down the time until the next murder.) In an age in which we’ve just seen a reality TV star voted to the White House, it doesn’t really seem hugely far fetched, does it? And the media, led by Wolf’s ex-wife, is almost a character in itself. As a news junkie, I found this fascinating and frightening: I couldn’t tear myself away. A cliche, but it’s true.

Without giving too much away (you really need to read it yourself) I’d like to request a series, please. Thanks.

 

 

NON-FICTION//The Wicked Boy-Kate Summerscale

The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer (Aug):

I’m a huge fan of Kate Summerscale’s work and have been since The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. I’ve been hoping that she’ll write something that’s equally as brilliant and, although I’m not sure The Wicked Boy is, it’s definitely a good read that’ll keep you hooked until the end.

Like Mr Whicher, The Wicked Boy deals with a child murderer, but this time the suspects are known: a pair of brothers, aged 12 and 13, are accused of murdering their mother. Her corpse has been found upstairs in the family house during a heatwave a week after her death. In the meantime, the boys have been enjoying cricket matches at Lord’s and roaming the streets of West Ham in the company of a family friend. The older brother, Robert, is eventually brought to trial for the crime and ends up in Broadmoor.

The book, like others written by Summerscale, explores the class dynamics of Victorian society at the same time reading more like a novel. The timescale of the book runs from the 1890s to the 1930s and takes in topics as diverse as attitudes towards mental illness, World War I and the perceived effects of Penny Dreadfuls on young boys.

Although it took me a while to get settled into the narrative- after all, there was no ‘mystery’ here, the reader knows whodunnit straight away pretty much-this is the story of a young boy living a life which on the surface seems respectable, but which has hidden levels of brutality; in its way, this is a tale which unmasks many of the hypocrisies and hidden murkiness of late Victorian life. The story of Robert Coombes’ life is one of horror and redemption and it makes a compelling read. I loved it.

HISTORICAL// The Unseeing- Anna Mazzola*

The Unseeing (Jun):  One of my interests is in notorious murder cases… growing up, my mum would have true crime books around the house and when I was old enough, I was allowed to read them. As I’ve got older, I’ve been more interested in historical cases and I particularly enjoyed reading Judith Flanders’ The Invention of Murder (I have been reliably informed that it was!), which told the tale of how appearances and crime became so intertwined in the 19th century. I can’t remember if the Edgeware Road Murder was one that was included in the book, but it is the subject of Anna Mazzola’s debut novel.

The plot of the novel is a fictionalisation of the life of Sarah Gale, the co-accused in the trial for the murder of Hannah Brown. A young lawyer, Edmund Fleetwood, is charged with investigating whether Sarah has reason to appeal the death sentence that has been handed down; she has been found guilty of concealing the death and dismemberment of her love rival by James Greenacre, an altogether shady character. Desperate to save her life and her son, what will Sarah do in order to survive? And, most importantly, will Edmund be willing to fight for her life? Throughout, we meet a cast of characters that takes us throughout the ranks of society from the very poor to the top of government.

Told from the points of view of both Sarah and Edmund, the novel takes the reader through the murky world of London just before Queen Victoria ascended the throne. The contrast between Edmund’s middle class life and that of Sarah, stuck in hellish Newgate, is keenly observed and highlights the hopelessness that was rife in the legal system. Anna Mazzola is also a lawyer, and a legal eye is very much in evidence here, although it is worn lightly (there is no fear of heavy explanations of the law interrupting the flow of a good story!)

I very much enjoyed the novel; there are some pretty stonking twists, including one near the end about something which had been mentioned in passing and that I’d almost forgotten about. There were suspicions that were proven right, too. It was a highwire act of a story- enough to make the reader have those ‘aha!’ moments, but also those ‘where did THAT come from?!’- that make a story so exciting and enjoyable to read. It can be very easy for novels based on real life to list facts and lose the essential thread that’s so important when writing a good narrative. Thankfully, The Unseeing does not fall into that trap and is a very satisfying read indeed.

Review: The Secret Lore of London- edited by John Matthews*

The Secret Lore of London (Mar):

I don’t know if it’s because I grew up in Leeds, so visits to London were few and far between, or because as a kid I was obsessed with reading historical fiction, but every time I visit the Big Smoke (because I am, essentially, still a provincial) I am always slightly overwhelmed by the history represented by London.

This book is a companion for anyone wanting to explore the capital city’s mythology and folklore: there are essays here about the links between London and Troy; about how a mythological king gave up his head to protect the country (and became sort of linked to the ravens at the Tower); about the goddesses linked to the city’s people over the centuries. There is an essay here for everyone. There are guides to where you can find interesting relics of the folklore in the city and a museum guide, too.

I found the topics easy to dip in and out of (it’s more of a pick ‘n’ mix kind of a book, rather than  one that you would read  in a linear fashion, I think) and some essays appealed more than others; I especially found the pieces about the role of women interesting. However, I passed my copy on to a friend who has spent most of her adult life in London and she said that she was looking forward to reading about the places she knew well- and I think that’s maybe where most enjoyment can be gained from this book. If you know the city like a proper Londoner, I think you’ll enjoy peeling back the layers of history.

 

*Sent for review