What I’ve Been Reading – Fiction

I’m still trawling my bookshelves to unearth old favourites long overdue a re-read, and Possession by A S Byatt certainly falls into that category. I think the copy I have at the moment is the third one I’ve bought, but I reckon I’ve read the book half a dozen times if not more.

This is such a complex book that you can revisit it countless times and still find some fresh insight. This time, what struck me was how deeply traumatised the Victorians were by Darwinism. We are so accustomed to the idea of evolution, and it has now become, by and large, disentangled from religion, yet for the Victorians, the notion that the world was not, as they thought, created a few millennia ago was literally earth-shattering. And even more heretical was the notion that human beings had evolved from ‘inferior’ life forms – there was no first man and first woman, God hadn’t had a hand in our creation – or at least, not in the way they had been raised to believe. It rocked their belief systems to the core, challenged their firmly-held ideas about life and death and morality, but it also created (ha!) a fascination for all life forms. The Victorians embraced Natural Science with fervour, they dissected things, they captured things and studied them. If evolution really was true, if Darwin was right, then they wanted to understand every little link.

The Victorians were the ultimate navel gazers, in other words. And what Byatt does so successfully in this book is link the Victorian propensity for introspection with the post-modernist intellectual movement, which dissected and studied and re-interpreted literature. Poor Roland and Blanche, they analyse their every thought and action and give it a post-this or post-that slant. They can’t even allow themselves to admit to an attraction without intellectualising it and down-playing it until what they feel fits into what they deem to be acceptable – a sort of androgynous mush, in other words, because their world can’t be sexual, it must be asexual – they take political correctness to whole new levels. And yet ironically, their Victorian counterparts, Christabel and Ash, are permitted to be wholly sexual, even though they themselves would probably be appalled at such an interpretation. So this really got me thinking in a different way.

But let me get back to the story. This is an absolute masterpiece. It’s a mystery, it’s a romance, and it’s told with breath-taking skill through the medium of poetry and diaries and letters. There’s a ton of other stuff going on. No doubt the next time I read it I’ll be distracted by another layer of the ‘possession’ of the title. But what makes me come back to it time after time is that it’s quite simply a fabulous, awesome read.

One thing I like about actual bookshops stocked with real books is that you can stumble across authors that are completely new to you. I particularly like Waterstones’ themed tables and the staff recommendations, and it’s here that I came across Tangerine by Christine Mangan. This was billed as Patricia Highsmith meets Gillian Flynn, which is why I picked it up, but though it didn’t quite live up to those heady heights, there was a lot in this book that I did enjoy.

The narrative is split between Alice and Lucy, two BFFs from college who were torn asunder by some mysterious event in their shared past. From the beginning, we’re not sure who to believe, Alice or Lucy, or even whether they could be one and the same person. So far, so Mr Ripley. Tangier in the 50s is a brilliant choice of setting, and there’s a touch of Honorary Consul in the ambiance which I really enjoyed. I did race through this. It was tightly-paced, well-written and evocative, and there WAS a mystery. But…

I’m not sure the dual narrative worked. There wasn’t enough distinction between Lucy and Alice – so little that, as I’ve already said, I wondered if they were one and the same. Alice came over as just a tad too whingy, and Lucy came over as just a tad too ruthless. There wasn’t enough space for any other secondary characters with any depth, so although you did get a real sense of fear and claustrophobia, you didn’t get any sense of this being encased in any sort of ‘real’ life. Just who was John, what was his mysterious job, how did the woman who may or may not have been his lover fit in? Lots of questions left unanswered, and for me, in this kind of book, they should have been addressed because the NOT explaining left me wondering how much of the story was supposed to have been real at all.

It would make an excellent film though. I liked it enough to be looking out for Ms Mangan’s next. And it was definitely a bit different, which is what I was looking for.

I think that The House Between Tides by Sarah Maine was a friend’s recommendation, and it’s another new-to-me author. I really enjoyed this, and were it not for an extremely annoying main character in the front story, it would have been a solid 5 stars on my Goodreads review.

This is one of my favourite types of book, a back story containing a mystery and a front story with angst. The back story, set on a mythical island near Skye reminded me of stories I’ve read about the effect of incomers on Lewis and Harris. Big tycoon comes along to small island and builds a house that takes no account of centuries of crofting traditions. There were some lovely lyrical descriptions of the island and a good dose of politics in this story. And a love story too!

Fast forward to the front story, and we have a weak-willed female who has inherited the island, and who seems incapable of finishing a sentence when it comes to her boyfriend, yet is happy to speak her mind to total strangers on the island. I wanted to throttle her. The book has been compared to Rebecca, and I’d agree that this character and the infuriating second Mrs de Winter were a matching pair of wet blankets. It was such a shame, because it seemed so unnecessary – save to draw out the ending of the story. But I enjoyed this all the same, and I will look forward to this new-to-me writer’s next book.

I actually bought The Limehouse Golem by Peter Ackroyd thinking it was a historical account of a real murder (I have a number of Peter Ackroyd’s histories and biographies), and only when I started reading it realised it was a work of fiction – and an excellent one too.

The story is told through a number of narrative strands, which include first and third party accounts, courthouse excerpts, with the odd foray into the most peculiar life of Inspector Kildare (who I longed to see more of) and the star of stage, Dan Leno. There are two murder stories – Elizabeth Cree has murdered her husband, and then there’s the Limehouse Golem himself – or itself! Ackroyd weaves fact and fiction, having Karl Marx play a walk on role with a number of other historical characters, and the way he tells the story leaves you guessing (or it did me anyway) right up until the end.

It’s a complex narrative structure, but he makes it seamless, the different threads woven neatly one into the other, giving you just enough each time to keep you turning the page. The life of the Victorian hall’s is brilliantly evoked as the cast work their way from one theatre to another each night to do their turns. They’re a sleezy but proud lot, and some of those stage or pre-show scenes reminded me of the fabulous film Topsy Turvy, which gave the same insights, of a world apart, a bit above and also a bit below the rest of the world.

I won’t say any more, since I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment if you choose to read it, but I’ll certainly be looking out for more of Ackroyd’s fiction and I would really love to see the film of this one.

And so on to some new releases from favourite authors. The problem when you’re eagerly awaiting a new book in a series you’re enjoying, or a new book by a favourite author is that sometimes they simply can’t live up to your high expectations – Liane Moriarty’s Nine Perfect Strangers was a case in point for me. But The Blood by E S Thomson, the third Jem Flockhart book, might be my favourite to date. (I’ve previosly reviewed the other two, Beloved Poison and Dark Asylum.)

Once again, there’s a nice balance between the character development and the murder mystery, and once again we get to see inside a different aspect of ‘medicine’ in Victorian Britain. This time, apothecary Jem and architect Will become embroiled in the murder of another apothecary (and opium addict), who was posted aboard The Blood, a hospital ship at the docks for ill sailors. As ever, it’s a complicated plot, with medical men of dubious morals in search of fame and fortune, experimenting on the weak and helpless, and as ever there’s a strong sub-plot relating to the seamier, poorer, exploited side of London’s underworld – this time the prostitutes who work the docks.

The issues of sexploitation in many forms underpins all of the Jem Flockhart stories, and it’s one of the themes (handled with delicate irony) that I most enjoy. Jem is a woman working in disguise in a man’s world. Will, her best friend who wants to be her lover in many ways is the more ‘feminine’ of the pair – he faints at the sight of blood, he carries smelling salts, he can’t hold his drink as well as Jem, and he blubs more! In this book, Jem meets a black woman who has the guts and the bravado to do the same work as she does, but without disguise, and instead of lauding her, Jem is confused by her emotions – she wants to admire her, but she can’t help thinking it’s wrong. Jem doesn’t think of herself as a woman – so what is she? This question comes to the fore when Will finally declares his own feelings for Jem, forcing her to look more closely at herself – and then, characteristically, to run, because there are some things brave, clever Jem doesn’t want to confront. She wants things with Will to stay as they are. She wants, too, I think (though I could be wrong) to retain her superior position in the pharmacy’s food chain, above Will and the rest of them. So she trashes poor Will’s feelings by confiding her secret to someone else, knowing full-well that he’s going to be mortally offended, wanting to hurt him, but not wanting to lose him. In her personal life, Jem has none of the clear sight that serves her so well in her professional life.

I won’t go into the plot, I don’t want to spoil it, but the murder mystery at the heart of it is excellent, fascinating and macabre – all that you’d expect. I thoroughly enjoyed this, and once again I’m left eager for the next book in the series. If you’ve not read this seriesI highly recommend it – but do go back to the start.

Kate Morton is another auto-buy author for me, so I snapped up The Clockmaker’s Daughter, but this one didn’t work so well for me as her other books. As ever, Ms Morton creates an intriguing setting, with the house, garden and location every bit as much a main protagonist as the actual characters. I’m not going to say much about the plot, simply that it is multi-stranded straddling several periods of time – several more than usual – and that there’s a mystery at the centre of it.

So much so Kate Morton, which is yay! The house is beautifully described, you want to wander through the gardens, and you want to know, right from the start, what the relationship is between Elodie the archivist, the photo and artist’s satchel she finds, and the house. Again, so far so Kate Morton. Yay!

But for me, there were simply too many strands of story in too many different time periods. It’s not that I mind complexity at all, but I felt they simply couldn’t be done justice to. They were linked, but I kind of lost interest in my frustration at not getting to the words which got more into the characters’ heads and their stories. I felt distinctly short-changed with some of them, and a little bit frustrated.

My second reservation is to do with the main ‘narrator’. As I said, I don’t want to give anything away, but while I have no objection to this particular form being used, and at the start I actually really liked it, after a while it became a bit of an annoying device and it felt less and less believable.

And my final disappointment lay in the ending. Aside from it being way too rushed, I was left feeling a bit unsatisfied. Ends were tied up only loosely, there were too many of them, and as a result I had a little bit lost interest in some of them, simply because I hadn’t had time to warm to the characters or to become emotionally invested in them. One of the biggest strengths in Ms Morton’s previous books is her ability to draw you in, to make you intrigued in the unfolding of the story not only because you want to know where it goes, but because it matters so much to the main protagonists. And this crucial element was missing in this one. However, you can’t blame an author for wanting to experiment and to test herself. She did with this one. It may not have worked as well for me as her previous books, but then I’m judging her by her very own high standards. And I’m still already looking forward to the next one.

Another author new to me, and another friend’s recommendation was Death and the Harlot by Georgina Clarke. I do love an unusual murder mystery and this certainly qualifies. Set in Georgian London, the detecting is done by a courtesan teaming up with a widowed Bow Street Runner. This is London at its seamiest, with a wide range of ladies of the night plying their trade in high-class brothels, in cheap rented rooms and on the street. And the streets are filthy! This book takes no prisoners when describing the mud and the slime, the dead dogs and the human waste that everyone has to pick their way through. The eponymous Lizzie lives of bread and cheese and pies with dubious contents because very few people could actually afford to run a kitchen, and the vast majority of her co-workers have to anesthetise  themselves with gin or opium just to get through their working day.

There’s none of the blood and guts of forensic medicine and autopsies in this book, but there’s plenty of blood and guts nonetheless. It’s not for the faint hearted or squeamish. But if you can cope with a strong dose of historical reality, then it’s worth it. It’s a story that is clearly setting up a series, and there’s a lot about our Lizzie that we don’t know. She’s been a good girl done wrong, but she’s a fighter, and at the end of this first book it’s clear that the way is being paved for her to leave the brothel and make her living as a detective in her own right. One of the reasons (probably the biggest one) that I’m looking forward to the next story is to see how she gets on and to find out more about her back story – and I’m also, I have to admit, hoping that she gets on with avenging that too!

As to the crime – it was of lesser interest, and it felt a bit unnecessarily complicated to me. I lost track of who had done what to whom, and at times I wasn’t that bothered. But then I am not one of those people who reads whodunnits in order to try and beat the detective to the punch. There were a few too many coincidences for me, and an element of stretching credibility a little too far in Lizzie’s involvement too, which is why for me this was a four and not a five star read. That said, it was an excellent racy romp with some solid history and a lot of social points made – though not hammered home! I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I’ll definitely be looking out for the next one.

These are just a few selected highlights of the fiction I’ve been reading. You can read all my reviews, good, bad and indifferent, over on Goodreads. If you’ve ready any or all of these, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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