What I’ve Been Reading – Fiction

I make no secret of the fact that I absolutely adore Kate Griffin’s Kitty Peck novels and I was looking forward to the last in the series, Kitty Peck and the Parliament of Shadows, with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. The novels are so dark that there was a very good chance Kitty would end up in the same place she put Danny or her grandmother in the previous books, which I didn’t think I could bear. But on the other hand, was Kitty headed for a Happy Ever After – I just wasn’t sure.

This is the fourth in a series, and though you could read it stand alone, there are so many loose ends from the previous books that you’d be confused and more importantly, you’d lose out on some of Kitty’s amazing journey, so I would highly recommend you start at the beginning. There is, in the opening of this book, quite a chunk devoted to catching up in the form of a letter from Kitty to Sam, clearly specifically designed as a reminder or crib sheet, and this is my one and only criticism of the book – I didn’t need reminding, I just wanted to get stuck in – but I completely understand why it was there.

So, on to the story. It’s dark and angsty as you’d expect. Kate Griffin portrays the sordid, rotting underbelly of Victorian London without any attempt to add gloss. There are opium dens and brothels to suit every revolting taste, from children to flaying. There’s ‘stand ups’, gin bars where the aim is oblivion, pure and simple, not pleasure. There’s food that gives a whole new meaning to street food! I love the way the author contrasts the view of the music halls from the customer perception of glitz and glamour to the reality of smelly, shoddy costumes, bitter rivalry, hand-to-mouth existence, and of course, the skin trade that allows the artistes to make ends meet. But she also shows the human side, the care the artistes have for each other, the more tender relationships, the grim struggle for a performer too old for their act but unable to retire.

The Kitty Peck books are dark, but they are also heart-warming. And funny. Very, very funny. There’s slapstick, there’s rapier wit, there’s Kitty’s own particular view of the world, and the whole is served up with a huge dollop of irony. Kate Griffin uses the Victorian melodrama stereotypes and turns them on their heads, on their sides, and then sets them backwards. Kitty, the Limehouse Linnet, is a very young woman in a very old and established man’s world. She’s a working class lass fighting the Establishment with a very big ‘E’, the Establishment with a very secret ‘E’ in the form of the Barons, and her own sex too, because Kitty simply refuses to fit into the various boxes everyone wants to place her in – not even Sam. There’s murder in this book and a mystery. There’s a long lost brother who ironically would prefer to have been a sister. There’s even an element of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom meets steampunk. And there’s tons of dark and devious doings. But not a single thing turns out the way you think it will. Just when you think you’ve guessed where the story is going, you come slap up against a blank wall. Right up until the final twist.

I know, I’ve said nothing at all about the story, but that’s because it’s too good to give away. It’s all I wanted, more than I expected, and the ending – perfect! Of course I want more of Kitty Peck, but I think that is enough. I would love to see this series made into a film or even better, get the full treatment as a serial. I’m sorry to say goodbye to Kitty, but I can’t wait to see what Kate Griffin writes next.

I wanted some comfort reading over Christmas, so treated myself to the next in a couple more series, both with a Georgian theme. The Mesalliance by Stella Riley is the second in the Rockliffe series, and one of those books that makes you go ahh, at the end. This is good old-fashioned Regency romance in the style of Georgette Heyer (which is a compliment, not a criticism), and I enjoyed every minute of it. Adeline is a brilliant heroine, and Rockliffe her perfect hero. Yes, there were a million comparisons that could be made to Heyer, not least of which was the similarities between the characters of Rockiffe and Monsiegneur, the Duke of Avon, but I didn’t mind that. I’m assuming it was a deliberate tribute, and it worked. But don’t get me wrong, Stella Riley is no plagiarist. Her writing is fresh, and the romance is much more centre stage and emotional than any of Heyer’s. A totally feel good book, and a series I will definitely be returning to.

The Corpse Played Dead by Georgina Clarke is the second Lizzie Hardwicke book, featuring the bizarre sleuthing duo of a high class courtesan and one of Fielding’s early Bow Street detectives, and I enjoyed it as much as the first one.

Lizzie was once a respectable young woman from a well-to-do family whose lust for life, and seduction by her uncle, forced her to quit her home and take up earning a living on her back. What I really like about the way Lizzie is portrayed is that there’s no faffing about when it comes to how she makes her money – it’s mostly vile, it leaves her battered and bruised and exhausted, and it’s a constant battle between her and the other courtesans in their establishment, to keep her place in the pecking order (pardon the unintentional pun!). There’s no deep female friendship in the brothel, though there is mutual respect and comradeship. It’s a business, and it’s not only a case of serving the clients, it’s about keeping up appearances, preserving the chasm that separates the courtesans from the street walkers and the myriad of other sex workers.

This could so easily be glossed over or compromised, but Georgina Clarke does neither of those things, and I really respect her for that. What’s more, she manages to make Lizzie not only realistic but likeable. We’re drip fed just enough of her background to be furious on her behalf, but also to root for her – she wants to be independent, in her own way she refuses to compromise, and while she’s pragmatic she’s also got a sound notion of her own values. Lizzie is an excellent, if unconventional heroine.

And Inspector Will Davenport is a great foil for her. He too has a past history, though we learn little more about that, and he too is in his own way a man of honour and integrity. He’s not above using our Lizzie for his own purposes – in this story he puts her in a lot of personal danger – and (mostly) he puts the law above any personal goals. He also really fancies her and is determined not to let that show. Until the end of this story when – ah, but that would be telling.

Of the murder mystery at the centre of this book, I was less convinced. There’s a huge cast of characters and a lot of twists and turns, some of which for me stretched credulity. But it didn’t really matter, because I loved the story overall and for me it was all about Lizzie and Will. Can’t wait to find out what they get embroiled in next.

Finally, something very different – though still historical – Love is Blind by William Boyd. I adore Boyd’s books, and I positively hoovered this one. Brodie Moncur (what an amazing name, second only to the eponymous Logan Mountstuart) is a piano tuner. Lika Blum is a wannabe soprano who lives with her lover, John Kilbarron, who has a very possessive brother/manager in Malachie. Brodie falls for Lika. Lika isn’t free. And that’s the bones of it.

But there’s so much more. We have a picaresque story in the Tom Jones tradition, of a hero’s journey across Europe in search of love and work. We have a love affair – or is it? Who does Lika love? Who is Lika? We have any number of baddies, including Malachie (or is he a goodie?) and Malky, Brodie’s vile father. And we have music, and the art of piano tuning – who would have thought that could be an enthralling subject!

This is classic William Boyd. A pager-turning, twisty turny story with fabulous main characters and a colourful cast of walk-ons. I didn’t see the ending coming, and it left me in tears. I wanted more of Malky and Brodie’s huge family. Actually, I just wanted more in the end – as in, I didn’t want it to end. Loved it.

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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