Ah, the power of a recommendation! It can lead you to the best book you’ve read in ages or, worst case scenario, it can lead to you doubting the taste and/or moral compass of the person who suggested the book to you. Obviously, we don’t all share the same preferences when it comes to reading material (which would lead to a very dull world full of Psychological Thriller™ and Feel Good Romance™ titles) but I, personally, prefer to take my recommendations from people whose tastes I trust – even if I don’t always share them fully. I also enjoy finding new sources and the time I spent in our Leeds shop over Christmas introduced me to the reading habits of a whole new set of booksellers – I’m sure it was one of them who tipped me off to read Jess Kidd’s Things in Jars, I just can’t remember who. Possibly Laura on her shiny new blog? Which I am, obviously, following with interest…
This book has so many of the things that I love – a Victorian setting, a strong but flawed heroine, great supporting characters, a dash of humour and plenty to think about. It is set in London in 1863, just after the Great Stink and during the period where Bazalgette is transforming the sewage system below the streets of the capital. But the effluent of a growing city is not the only source of corruption and decay – we also see into a world of anatomists and collectors: men of science who consider themselves above normal morality and who are often greater charlatans than the circuses and freakshows which also abound. It is as part of this dark and fetid city that Bridie Devine works as a very unconventional detective, alongside her maidservant Cora, a six-foot bearded woman, and the ghost of a heavily tattooed prize-fighter, Ruby Doyle. Her latest case, to investigate the kidnap of a young girl, will lead her back into the murky world of collectors and cadavers she thought she’d left behind. Eventually she comes face to face with some of the horrors of the childhood we are shown glimpses of throughout the narrative.
I don’t give a lot of five-star reviews (although I’m fond of giving four stars…) because I often feel that I’m not quite getting the balance of plot, character and (usually a distant third, for me) language that I could wish for but this book certainly deserves the top rating. Not only was I gripped by the story – a fabulous blend of history and folk-lore which felt like magical realism to me – and enamoured of the characters (especially Cora and Ruby) but I was absolutely floored by the way Kidd uses words. The opening passages made me feel as if were reading Under Milk Wood for the first time again – which is the highest of high praise from me – and the language continued to delight and disgust, to amuse and enthral me to the very end. Bliss.
I have sometimes heard people say that they dislike studying literature (as opposed to just reading it) because they hate the idea of having to dissect books they have enjoyed: having to explain meanings, themes and characters. Now, maybe I was very lucky, but all the time I have spent – during school English lessons and through my degree course – I have never felt as if I have had to do this. Perhaps because of when I was studying (O levels in 1981 through to a BA in 1986) or the teachers I had, I felt that I never had to do anything more than read books and then explain what I liked (or disliked) about them. With examples, obviously. Almost as if my whole education was leading to a career in writing reviews and recommending books to people! This is definitely one of the things I count among my privileges – the fact that I got to spend three years reading some of the world’s greatest literature and that I can still think back fondly on almost all the books I read. I still think fondly of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Faulkner and Fielding: I will re-read Beowulf, One Hundred Years of Solitude or The Duchess of Malfi for fun even though I studied them – and, from what I hear, this isn’t always the case. Which could be one of the many reasons why I particularly enjoyed The Confessions of Frannie Langton – Frannie and I both find ourselves comparing her life to that of Moll Flanders.
The book begins with Frannie on trial for the murder of the wealthy couple she worked for. She is the talk of the day not only for her crime but for the further sins of being black and being rumoured to be the lover of the mistress, rather than the master, of the house. We then look back to Frannie’s childhood in Paradise, a plantation in Jamaica, her relationship with Langton, her owner, a gentleman interested as much in the ‘science’ of race as in growing sugar-cane, and to her eventual move to London. The format of the story is that Frannie is writing down the story of her life to help her lawyer attempt to defend her: which means we hear everything from her point of view. She doesn’t reveal everything as it happens though and, although some issues (such as her true parentage) become clear before she tells us herself, this means that we don’t know whether she has committed the murders she is accused of until the end of the book. In addition to her own story Frannie leads us through an exploration of many aspects of life in the early part of the 19th Century – slavery, its abolition and the prurient interest of the abolitionists in how slaves were treated; the rise of science and the way it is often manipulated to fit into religious, political or other ideological beliefs; the position of women whether they are rich, poor, black or even French. Frannie herself is fierce and outspoken – she knows that all the cards are stacked against her and she has nothing to lose by speaking her mind.
All in all this is a really impressive debut – great for fans of intelligent historical fiction which also explores social issues, like race, gender and sexuality, which are still of such importance today.
I’ve been having a busy week. With the start of the new month I’ve been trying to read some of the new Books of the Month which we are promoting (I’ve now read the fiction and children’s books, I’m eyeing up the non-fiction but I think the thriller may have to wait – non enough hours in the day!) and, of course, preparing for World Book Day. If I’ve been a bit quiet I’m going to ask for twelve class visits (that’s about 300 youngsters exchanging their vouchers this week) and an event with a massively popular Young Adult author to be taken into consideration….But now I’ve made it through to Friday I should have the energy to tell you about the fiction book of the month before I need to sleep for twelves hours straight!
The Western Wind is a piece of historical fiction – which made it an obvious choice for me – but it is very different from most of the books I usually read in this genre. The setting is the late 15th century, so in the Mediaeval period I love, but it isn’t a story of lords and ladies. This is a tale told by a village priest about the disappearance of the village’s most pivotal man: while not part of the nobility Thomas Newman owns most of the land and has been caring for the whole community of Oakham for many years. His loss will hit them all hard and most of the story tells how the rest of the Oakham residents come to realise the extent of their loss. The story, in many ways, is simple – the loss of one man whose personal faith wasn’t enough to make up for the death of his wife and child – what I really loved was the detail of village life. This isn’t the 15th century seen from a castle or an episode of Cadfael but one full of mud and hunger and with the constant threat of an early death. Which means that you can really understand the power the Church held over the population – if everyday life could be fatal (from an infected wound, childbirth, disease or just plain starvation) the eternal life promised to those who die in a state of grace gains a whole new importance. Finally, I was fascinated by the structure of the novel – moving backwards through four days of investigation into Newman’s disappearance gradually revealing the truth. Clever and hugely readable.
I had a slightly skewed weekend last week – working on Saturday but a full social whirl on Sunday and a day’s holiday on Monday. Retail does tend to mean that any two days off together counts as a weekend and this had the bonus that I got to spend one of those days with friends, food and then a night out with Rob. Sunday lunch in Leeds with two of our sometime guest reviewers (Rob and Charlotte) was excellent and then Rob and I headed over to Manchester to see a concert by an impressive set of folk musicians based around the Lost Words. This was a wonderful and moving experience – already splendid words and illustrations set to excellent music and sung by haunting voices – so if you get a chance to see it, go! If not the CD should be available soon and the book should be on any child’s bookshelf… Monday was then a slightly more practical day – I finally got my trainers out and had a short run, made some soup and caught up with Bex (who I’m sure will be back reviewing soon) – but I did finish it off with an author event over at Waterstones in Leeds. This turned out to be a fascinating evening with Bridget Collins (author of The Binding) and debut author Stacey Halls. Luckily I had already read both books so my TBR pile is, hopefully, getting slowly smaller.
The title of the book, for me, comes not only from the idea of witch’s familiars (the devil taking the form of an animal such as a cat or toad) but also from the sad familiarity of women being punished for the terrible crime of not being men. This book is set firmly in 1612, the year of the Pendle Witch Trials, and largely in a large country house overlooking Pendle Hill itself. The focus is on Fleetwood Shuttleworth (such a C17th name it had to be real!) who is seventeen years old, passionately in love with her husband Richard, and desperate not to have yet another miscarriage. She is seventeen and this is her fourth pregnancy – which, perhaps, sums up the difficulties of life for a gentlewoman of the time. Fearful for the life of her child, and her own, Fleetwood meets a young woman who has experience as a midwife (then, as now, essential through pregnancy as well as at the birth) but is then propelled into the chain of events which lead to the famous witch trials. The midwife, Alice, is able to help Fleetwood – with herbal remedies, calm good advice and practical support – but is unable to escape being caught up in an actual witch-hunt – again, summing up the hardships of the life of a poor countrywoman of the time.
The historical facts of the trials are covered well – no mean feat given that the author had to fit the timeline of the trials into the timeline of a pregnancy – but it is the friendship between the two women which really draws you into the book. There is mutual respect and support between them, despite the differences in their fortunes they both have something to offer the other. Obviously neither women is perfect (that would be a very dull character) but what occurred to me is that it is the men in the book who show all the faults usually ascribed to women: Richard, the husband, is weak and moody and local magistrate Roger Nowell is malicious and manipulative. At some points in the story it seems that large amounts of power rest with a child so, although we see the struggle as it was at the time, we also realise that the situation is quite anarchic. Without giving too much away by the end of the novel even the King’s authority is threatened by women who find themselves empowered by female friendship.
I’ve got my favourite historical periods when it comes to reading actual history books: anything before the Tudor era piques my interest (with settings between 1066 and 1500 pleasing me most) and I’m interested in learning more about the Regency period. Of course these are UK-centric names but I’m aware that there were many links with Europe during those times and I also like to read about non-British history – I’m still contemplating Norman Davies’ fascinating global history, Beneath Another Sky, which I read late last year and hope to review soon. When it comes to fiction, however, I seem to be rather more wide-ranging and can cover any time from pre-history (I loved Jean Auel’s books) to the 1950s and 60s. Anything after that is in my lifetime – I’m not calling that history! Anyway, Regency romances, crime fiction set in the Anarchy or novels set on bleak Essex marshes in 1893 are all fair game but I’m a bit light on the 18th Century. I’ve read books written in that time, during my English Literature degree, but not modern fiction set then so I thought I’d start with Sonia Velton’s story of Spitalfields silk-weavers.
This is the story of two women: Sara Kemp who arrived in London as a naive young girl and was pounced on by one of the city’s many brothel-keepers and Esther Thorel, the wife of a silk-weaver. One rich and one poor but the two women have many things in common too – they each have less power than the men around them. Sara has, obviously, been at the mercy of the men who visit the brothel and indeed it is dangerously brutal treatment at the hands (literally) of one punter which convinces her to leave even though the life of a servant doesn’t appeal after the relative freedom of harlotry but it is Esther’s story which reflects more subtle but equally real gender inequalities. She loves to paint and would love to see her designs made into the silks her husband’s journeymen produce but her work is dismissed as a mere accomplishment, her husband seems to think less and less of her as each month passes without any evidence of a pregnancy. He holds her background against her and, illogically, blames her for the loss of social standing he suffered when he married her rather than a more suitable Huguenot bride.
When both Sara and Esther become involved in the life of a pair of journeyman weavers, one of whom is using a loom in the Thorel household, they also become embroiled in the growing unrest between the Master-weavers and their workers, who are developing revolutionary ideas about fair pay and liberty. In the ensuing violence both women discover where true power really lies.
The Kate Shackleton mysteries by Frances Brody are going strong – this is the tenth in the series – so I was interested what it is about them which has proved so popular. Some of it will be the nicely complicated plots, full of murder, scandal and intrigue but I suspect that some of the popularity is because of the glorious backdrop to those plots. I’m not ashamed to admit that I watch certain tv shows (like Poldark, Death in Paradise or Midsomer Murders) because they are shot in beautiful settings – if the plot drags or becomes too far-fetched I’ve something pretty to look at – so I can understand why this could be the case with these books. The settings are all very definitely ‘Yorkshire’ but also varied: they range from Harrogate to the mill villages of West Yorkshire and from the Dales to the Yorkshire coast – anyone who knows Yorkshire will recognise scenes; those who have yet had the joy of visiting ‘God’s own county’ will find plenty of ideas for an itinerary.
A Snapshot of Murder opens in Headingley, Leeds, which isn’t a place I know hugely well apart from the area around St Michael’s Church and the Skyrack pub. Oddly enough, this is just where Kate Shackleton lives. The bulk of the book is then set in Howarth and Stanbury – villages I know well as they are just a few miles from my own home and popular tourist destinations because of their connection to the Brontë sisters – so I followed this story with particular interest. I also enjoy a bit of photography myself so the photography group plot was interesting – looking through a lens does certainly make you focus quite differently. The plot centres around Carine Murchison, a friend of Kate’s, and her fairly obnoxious husband Tobias: while the group are visiting Haworth (on the very weekend that the Parsonage first opened as a visitor attraction in August 1928) he is murdered. No-one will miss him but who killed him? Most of the group, and their hosts at Ponden Hall, have reason to want the man dead and we join Kate Shackleton as she delves deeper into their motives. Secrets are revealed about the realities of the Murchison’s marriage and their pasts and many suspects have to be eliminated from enquiries, including Kate’s young niece Harriet. Because we see all the angles (which are only gradually revealed to Kate) we are sure fairly early on who the killer is but, like a good episode of Columbo, this doesn’t distract from the telling of a good story.
I sometimes ponder why it is I enjoy historical fiction so much and I think it is something to do with authors being able to portray a realistic sense of a particular era. Some people particularly admire the depiction of a place: I’m all about the time, it seems. Which means I do tend to concentrate on historical periods I feel I know reasonably well – Medieval, Victorian, Regency perhaps – so I do like to occasionally delve into eras I am not so familiar with. The years leading up to the Russian Revolution certainly fall into that category – I’ve a vague recollection of Tsars and an awful lot of peasants, Faberge eggs and Rasputin – so I decided I could learn something by reading Imogen Edwards-Jones novel set in the early years of the twentieth century.
This is a big and slightly rambling novel centred around two sisters, Militzia and Stana, who marry into Russian nobility. They are princesses from Montenegro – then, as now, a small and unregarded country – but are seen as being far less worthy of attention than native-born Russians. They are called the Goat Princesses, to smell of goats and to be involved in witchcraft – it is easy to see why the early part of the book, when Tsar Alexander III’s court led a life of glittering formality. However, when the new Tsar Nicholas inherits the sisters ingratiate themselves with his socially distant young wife. They continue to become more influential as the Tsarina, after the birth of four daughters, becomes desperate for a son – they introduce her to first to a French mystic called Philippe and then, possibly fatally, to Rasputin. In the second half of the book Militzia in particular engages in a power struggle with Rasputin – who she believes she created with her magic – and gradually comes to join the growing group who are trying to get rid of him by any means possible.
I enjoyed this book, although it did slow down in places, and I feel I learned a lot about the history of the period. I’ve since spend a little time on the internet checking out the details of the characters: Militzia and Stana, Philippe and the various members of the Imperial court are all real and the sisters did have a dark reputation. Even the decadence of the court, drugs and all, seems to be based on reality – one of the facets of the age which did surprise me was the stark contrast between the modern age (telephones, cars, aspirin) and the older ways. Largely this was the difference between the educated and the peasantry but even the rich and privileged were in thrall to superstition.