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.

 

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.

 

The Brontë Project//Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life- Samantha Ellis

Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life (Feb):  As I get older, Anne Brontë just makes loads more sense to me than her sisters. The sensible, shy and youngest Brontë sister was the only one who could make a job stick, who saw the world from the view of a working woman. Sure, I thought I liked Emily best- and she still has her moments, especially when it comes to her poetry- but Anne just grows more and more relevant to me as I grow older, even though she was younger than me when she died.

It’s in this spirit that Samantha Ellis writes this book. Sure, there have been tons of Brontë biographies and a few have made a good go at writing about Anne, even though there is scant evidence of her life outside of her work- none of the Gondal stories she wrote as a child with Emily survive, only five of her letters are known and there’s no existing manuscript of her masterpiece, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, that survives, possibly thanks to Charlotte destroying a lot of her work after her death. In truth, it would be easy to see Anne as some kind of a ghost, slipping her way through literary history. Ellis remarks in her book that staff at the Parsonage Museum state that they are rarely asked about Anne- more people apparently ask where Heathcliff is buried. (Bloody Heathcliff.)

In contrast to previous biographies, Ellis looks at Anne Brontë not through what is there and then filling in the awesome gaps left by the silence, but rather by exploring the different people in Anne’s life. Ellis is a playwright and these chapters feel almost like character studies- but they work. It’s a clever idea that allows her to weave in information about Anne’s life and the society in which she lived and how that is ultimately reflected back in the novels she wrote. A chapter on the Brontës’ beloved servant Tabby (always one of my most favourite people in the Brontë story, mainly because I imagine my own relatives being from good, honest Yorkshire stock like Tabby’s own family) allows Ellis to explore how Haworth and its surroundings shaped the work of the Brontës. A chapter on Anne’s father Patrick, much maligned by Gaskell and who to me has always seemed like a sweet man trying his best, means we get a look at the role of the clergy in his lifetime and how this shaped the upbringing of the sisters and their infamous brother. Each person in Anne’s life is here and the lessons that they bring to her work- and to us- feel like they have messages that are still relevant in today’s messy world.

Like her previous work, Ellis weaves her own exploration of Anne Brontë’s work. It’s a deeply personal tale of discovery for the author, too. Somehow, I think Anne would have liked that. She wanted her work to be a lesson for the reader, to help how they view the world. What she didn’t realise is the impact that she would keep on having nearly 200 years later.

 

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.

Why, yes, I am probably the only person you know who didn’t love The Essex Serpent.

The Essex Serpent (Jan) DIDN'T FINISH:  I got about 150 pages before the end of The Essex Serpent before giving up. In theory, this book- about an eccentric Victorian widow-turned-fossil hunter- should have gripped me. It had all the ingredients I usually love in a novel. It was Waterstone’s Book of 2016. EVERYONE seemed to love it. It has a nice cover.

But nope.

I can’t put my finger on why exactly I disliked it. The characters didn’t really grab me, but that’s not always put me off before. The writing was good, although I was driven to distraction by one character’s obsession with blue, which reminded me of Tim’s ‘blue bloody walls’ outburst in Spaced. But, ultimately, the whole thing bored me. I had an inkling as to how it would end, who would die and so on. I found myself bored and it’s a shame because I so wanted to like it. So many of my friends have adored it and I… didn’t. Maybe it’s because I was reading another book set in Essex (The Witchfinder’s Sister) or I wasn’t in the mood, I don’t know.

I do know that I have form for hating very popular books (oh, hai, Disclaimer and Gone Girl!) and I’m very vocal about what I do like (I am DYING to tell you about See What I Have Done, but I’ve been sworn to hold my typing fingers til March.) I guess I’m just a bit out of the loop on this one.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

 

Secret Diaries Past & Present- Helena Whitbread and Natasha Holme

Secret Diaries Past and Present (Jan): For my entire life, my grandma- Helena Whitbread– has been studying the life of Anne Lister, a remarkable Yorkshire woman who wrote a prolific diary in code. The diary held a secret- Anne, an upstanding citizen and landowner, well known in her hometown of Halifax, was a lesbian. What my grandma was working on (and some of my earliest memories are of her on her electric typewriter) was one of the earliest surviving records of lesbianism. I remember being fascinated by the code- it’s tiny and cramped and almost illegible if you don’t know what you’re looking at- and later, after I read the translated diaries, I was fascinated by the woman herself. She really does feel like an extra relative.

I’ve read most things my grandma has written, so I was pleased to get my hands this latest project, a Q+A with modern diarist, Natasha Holme. Natasha has written a diary-also in code, also dealing with her sexuality- since she was thirteen. This book looks at the two diaries together and discusses how diarists approach their work.

It is interesting to compare and contrast the two diaries, written 200 years apart but with so many similarities, through the use of an interview between Helena and Natasha and extracts of both diaries presented side by side. The discussion of the lives of Anne and Natasha (and, of personal interest to me, my grandma!) was very interesting. Although much in the world changes, some things stay the same it seems.

This is a book for those who enjoy reading diaries and maybe want to learn more about what motivates someone to write them; a chance to peek behind the curtain perhaps. There are also rumours that Sally Wainwright is to write a series about Anne Lister; you might want to get in there before it gets huge and find out more about coded diaries now- you could do worse than start here.

 

NON-FICTION//A Very British Murder: A curious history of how crime was turned into art- Lucy Worsley

A Very British Murder (Oct):  I love Lucy Worsley and will watch pretty much anything that she does. I will also read anything she writes too- I just find her a really knowledgeable and friendly presence on screen and on the page. I remember watching the programme connected to this book when it first came out (it’s recently been repeated, I think.) I was also drawn to this book because a) I seem to be reading a lot of crime novels at the moment and b) research is afoot.

In the book, we’re taken on a journey through crime, crime reporting and crime fiction, starting from Thomas De Quincey and the Ratcliffe Highway Murders in Georgian London and ending with George Orwell’s ‘perfect murder’. Throughout, lots of famous cases- Whicher, Maria Marten, various poisoners- are referenced and cross-referenced with the art that they inspired. It’s a treasure trove for the whodunnit buff, but there’s not really much here that hasn’t been covered elsewhere- most notably in Judith Flanders’ excellent The Invention of Murder (in fact, Worsley credits her as a consultant on the programme.) However, Worsley’s upbeat tone makes this a rollicking read if you’ve not read Flanders’ book, or it’s been a while since you read it.