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.

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The Sea Hawk: Rafael Sabatini

★★★

First things first: I hope you all had a marvellous Christmas and a very happy New Year. I’ve spent a thoroughly self-indulgent few weeks with my family and am now looking forward to getting my teeth into 2014. End of year review posts and New Year’s resolutions are popping up all over the place and it’s been great to see which books captured everyone’s imagination (or failed to), and the various challenges people have in store for the coming months. Here at The Idle Woman there aren’t any planned challenges, which is to say that life will tick along much as usual: a mixture of the characteristic and the utterly random. And so: to the books!

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Frenchman’s Creek: Daphne du Maurier

★★★★

I haven’t read that many of Daphne du Maurier’s books, and in fact hadn’t read any at all until I borrowed Rebecca and Jamaica Inn from the library a couple of years ago. Both captivated me (although The House on the Strand, which I borrowed next, left me rather cold) and I decided to track down Frenchman’s Creek to complement them. I could have predicted that I would love it. Featuring pirates, cavaliers, disguise, adventure and a good dose of old-fashioned romance, it was a self-indulgent joy to read and has entered the Idle Woman Swashbuckling Hall of Fame.

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Red Seas Under Red Skies: Scott Lynch

★★★★½

The Gentleman Bastards: Book II

A debut novel like The Lies of Locke Lamora sets an uncomfortably high standard for its sequel to follow. It was witty, complex and gritty, while still managing to be warm and engaging, and it was one of the most unexpectedly enjoyable books I’ve read this year. I half-dreaded picking up Red Seas Under Red Skies; but I needn’t have worried. Lynch has done it again. To be precise, he’s managed to come up with something even more fun and extravagant than the first book.

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Life Among The Pirates: The Romance and the Reality: David Cordingly

★★★★

David Cordingly was a curator at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich for twelve years and was responsible for their 1992 exhibition Pirates: Fact and Fiction, which proved to be so popular that (rather than the planned run of four months) it stayed open for three years. As the public appetite for pirates was evidently so strong, he was invited to write a book on the back of the exhibition. Life Among The Pirates is lively and easy to read, and sets out to explore the gulf between the popular perception of pirates and the harsh reality, stretching from the Elizabethan privateers in the Spanish Main to the nineteenth-century Chinese pirates under the command of the savvy former courtesan Mrs Cheng. It’s a great introduction to the subject and has left me burning to finally read Treasure Island.

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Ship of Magic: Robin Hobb

The Liveship Traders Trilogy: Book I 

Time to return to Robin Hobb. I’m now onto the first book of her second trilogy, The Liveship Traders. These books are set in the same world as The Farseer, a long way further south, where the trading community of Bingtown lies between Chalced and Jamaillia. Bingtown could belong to an entirely different age than the Six Duchies. Here, rather than the medievalism of The Farseer trilogy, we have  trade and shipping and merchants’ colonies, with a distinctly seventeenth-century feel. The Six Duchies are mentioned occasionally, but mainly as a bitterly cold backwater (both in location and civilisation) that no one particularly wants to visit. The two trilogies aren’t completely separate, of course, but that’s something that doesn’t become obvious until a little later on, so I’m going to hold off until the next book.

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