The English Monster: Lloyd Shepherd

★★★½

In December 1811, two horrific murders shocked London’s East End district of Wapping. The cloth merchant Thomas Marr and his family are found mutilated in their home: father, mother, shop-boy and baby. Mere days later, the Williamsons, proprietors of the King’s Head pub, suffer the same fate. Known as the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, these events really happened, as did the clumsy investigation by the Shadwell magistrates that followed. Lloyd Shepherd makes this the basis of his eerily compelling novel: an early police procedural mixed with an ominous ancient evil. As the people of Wapping clamour for justice, Constable Charles Horton of the River Thames Police Office – under the aegis of his ex-navy boss, John Harriott – embarks on an investigation that, before it ends, will have ushered him into the very darkest places of the human soul.

Continue reading

The Grand Sophy: Georgette Heyer

★★★★½

I’m currently ploughing through Deadhouse Gates, which really puts the ‘grim’ into ‘grimdark’, and needed something light and fluffy on the side. Enter Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy, a gorgeously warm-hearted story, with one of the most appealing Heyer heroines I’ve met so far. Having lost her mother as an infant, Sophia Stanton-Lacy has been brought up by her erratic diplomat father, Sir Horace. While most girls would be planning coming-out balls, Sophy has been playing hostess to officers and noblemen in Spain, Brussels and Paris. Capable, shrewd, game and compassionate, she makes friends easily and delights in helping those she loves – though her plots are rarely suitable for the faint-hearted. When Sir Horace is posted to Brazil, Sophy comes to stay with her aunt Lady Ombersley’s family in London. Expecting a poor little orphan, they are little prepared for the storm of personality that sweeps in among them. And this is only the beginning, for Sophy rapidly sees that her family have got themselves into a terrible tangle, which only she can solve…

Continue reading

Old Baggage: Lissa Evans

★★★★

It’s 1928 and the fight for women’s suffrage has faded from its revolutionary ardour in the 1900s into a muted movement, its core of fierce women gradually dropping off. All that remains are nostalgic talks and lectures which, all too often, preach to the converted or to those who’ve come for shocking tales of riots and hunger strikes. The world has moved on. A whole generation of young men has been wiped out in the War. There are other things to worry about than the political ambitions of a group of uppity women. Former suffragettes have married and had children, emigrated, or surrendered to personal demons. But, for Mattie Simpkin, the struggle never ended. This robust, good-hearted, forceful woman lives in a cottage (‘the Mousehole’) just off Hampstead Heath with her companion, meek Florrie Lee (who is, inevitably, nicknamed ‘the Flea’). Mattie is almost sixty, but is determined not to settle down and give up the good fight. Instead, galvanised by the discovery that young women no longer seem to have any kind of gumption or political engagement, she comes up with a plan to correct this – a plan which works wonderfully, except for one tiny, unforeseeable detail.

Continue reading

The Devil in the Marshalsea: Antonia Hodgson

★★★★

Thomas Hawkins: Book I

It’s 1727 and Thomas Hawkins is in trouble. Admittedly, this is pretty much the status quo for this roguish disowned son of a clergyman; but this time things are worse than usual. Having spent his meagre income on wine, women and gambling, Tom is in dire financial straits, but a chance win at the tables has brightened his mood. Now he can pay his rent, get his landlord off his back and carry on having a good time. But the world has other plans. Mugged and robbed in the stews of St Giles, Tom is left – once again – penniless, and his landlord is in no mood to be generous. Our bewildered young hero is dragged off to the infamous Marshalsea, the debtors’ prison in Southwark. Like hell, it’s easy to enter but hard to leave. And, like hell, there are demons loose within. As rumours of murder and ghosts spread around the prison, Tom is made an offer: find the murderer and he will be set free. But what if the murderer finds him first?

Continue reading

A Notable Woman: Jean Lucey Pratt

★★★★

The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt

I have decided to write a journal. I mean to go on writing this for years and years, and it’ll be awfully amusing to read over later.’ It was Saturday 18 April 1925 and fifteen-year-old Jean Lucey Pratt was making a start on her first diary. Unlike most teenage girls, she actually kept it up: sixty years later, she’d produced over a million words, encompassing national, local and family politics, her ambitions, the frustrations of being a clever woman in a man’s world, her friendships and, most movingly, her constant desire for love. Simon Garfield, the editor of her journals, came across her work as a participant in the Mass Observation project, which gathered the experiences of ordinary people across the country during and after the Second World War. But Jean’s personal diaries go beyond the social history contained in her consciously ‘public’ journals. Here is an intelligent, smart, hopeful woman, longing to live to her full potential – but also a fallible, flawed human being who makes poor decisions, lacks courage, and manages to have whole love affairs in her imagination with someone she’s never actually spoken to. She is inspiring, exasperating and pitiful by turn: a fully-realised, articulate and hauntingly familiar personality.  There is, I think, a little bit of Jean Lucey Pratt in all of us.

Continue reading

Gloriana: Michael Moorcock

★★★★

Or, the Unfulfill’d Queen

I genuinely didn’t think I was going to like this. I’ve only had one encounter with Michael Moorcock before and that was in my early teens, when I found a copy of Behold the Man among my dad’s 1970s sci-fi books in the attic, and was promptly traumatised. Not that I was religious or anything like that. I was just shocked to see Jesus and the Virgin Mary depicted in such a way. What an innocent I was. Youthful shocks have an impact, though, and I’ve steered away from Moorcock ever since, thinking him far too weird for me (I have the same feeling about Alasdair Gray). But times change. I recently found myself looking at Gloriana in the library. It was an allegory, a fable, a Tudor history set in an alternate universe, an Elizabethan extravaganza. Why not give it a shot? So I did. And, Reader, I liked it. There was one scene I didn’t like, true, but for the most part I was utterly absorbed by this sprawling, dense jungle of a book, which wears its affection for Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast very clearly on its sleeve. A seething stew of sex and sycophancy, full of tunnels and intrigue and secrets and bravos and debauchery and honour and twisted goodness and dreams and hope and horror… it defies description.

Continue reading

Queen’s Gambit: Elizabeth Fremantle

★★★★

I read Elizabeth Fremantle’s Girl in the Glass Tower two years ago and, ever since, I’ve meant to get round to her other Tudor novels. While Glass Tower focused on Arbella Stuart and Aemilia Lanyer, Queen’s Gambit is set considerably earlier, at the very end of Henry VIII’s reign. Obese, unpredictable and narcissistic, the king rules over a nervous court employed in the unpredictable task of catering to his favour. He has just executed his fifth wife, the giddy and silly Catherine Howard, and the great families of the realm are hopefully pressing their nubile daughters under his nose. But Henry has had enough of young women. His eyes have turned to maturity and good sense: the twice-widowed Katherine Lanyer, born Katherine Parr. Katherine is bright, gentle and wise: wise enough to want nothing less than to become queen. But, when the King calls, he must be answered; and soon Katherine finds herself at the heart of the Tudor web, ministering to a man whose precarious favour can disappear in a flash. Thoughtful and well-crafted, this novel brings the claustrophobia of the late Henrician court to life.

Continue reading

False Lights: K.J. Whittaker

★★★★

I always love getting recommendations. Honestly, it brightens up my day every time. When RT enthused to me about this book, I realised it was already in my TBR pile and promptly moved it to the top of the list. And I’ve devoured it at high speed. It opens in 1817, two years since Napoleon scraped a narrow victory at Waterloo and placed his brother Jérôme on the English throne. Now English curfews are enforced by French troops and English patriots executed by French guillotines, and discontent is rising. We follow three characters into the heart of this powder-keg: Kitto Helford, an aristocratic fourteen-year-old with patriotic ambitions; his older brother Crow, the laconic Earl of Lamorna, whose withering arrogance hides a soul traumatised by war; and Hester Harewood, the resourceful daughter of a dashing (black) naval officer.

Continue reading

An Almond for a Parrot: Wray Delaney

★★★

Some weeks ago, I wrote that I was weary of Victorian jail-fiction, so you may think it strange that here I am, posting on another novel about a woman in prison. But this is different to the likes of The Corset: there are no naive lady visitors, no stern matrons, nor are we in the prim 19th century. No: it’s 1756, in the very bosom of the Georgian age, and this is a racy fable full of rogues and ladies of the night, and touched with odd, piquant flashes of magic. Tully Truegood is in Newgate, awaiting trial for murder, her life briefly secured by the child growing under her heart. She has been many things – a daughter, a whore, a sprite, and a magician – and, as she waits, she feels a compulsion rising in her to tell her story to the one man, now long absent, that she’s ever loved.

Continue reading

Nutshell: Ian McEwan

★★★★

Imagine that you’re privy to a murder plot: a fiendish, heinous plan to kill your father. Imagine that one of the conspirators is your own mother. Even worse, her accomplice is your uncle, your father’s own brother, who has slipped happily between the prematurely-vacated bed-sheets. And imagine, in this horrific scenario, that there’s absolutely nothing you can do but listen as the scheme unfolds along its pernicious course. That’s the fate of our narrator in this brilliant, playful novel, who is rendered powerless by virtue of being a nine-month-old foetus within his mother’s womb. A cross between Hamlet and Look Who’s Talking really shouldn’t work, but this does, triumphantly: it’s one of the most sumptuously-written books I’ve read in ages.

Continue reading