Annabel’s Shelves: C is for …

Soulless by Gail Carriger

Well after the disappointment of my first try of Calvino, I had another go at filling the first ‘C’ slot in my Annabel’s Shelves project. And I was delighted to find an author that kept me so entertained – I romped through this book, the first in Gail Carriger‘s ‘Parasol Protectorate’ series, and will look forward to reading the others in due course.

The lazy way to describe this book would be to compare it with others – a Victorian steampunk Sookie Stackhouse, or, The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters with added vampires and werewolves. This novel has all of the above – a Victorian setting, vampires and werewolves, it’s really funny and sexy too, but it was the promise of steampunk themes that really lured me in. For those less familiar with steampunk – it is a SF trope that introduces technology into a 19th century setting, but typically steam-powered; although only coined as a sub-genre itself in the 1980s, it owes its roots to H.G.Wells and Jules Verne.

Miss Alexia Tarabotti is on the shelf at 25. She inherited her Mediterranean looks from her father, an Italian, dead, and her mother only pays attention to her two younger and paler half-sisters. She also has no soul. What’s a girl to do?

As the novel starts Alexia is having about to have a snack in an ante-room at a ball when she is attacked by a vampire. This vampire is obviously new, and a ‘rove’ (not part of a hive) and doesn’t know the etiquette. Alexia accidentally kills him with her wooden stake hairpin. The Queen sends the head of the BUR, Bureau of Unnatural Registry, Lord Maccon to investigate. Maccon is a real hunk, rich too, and a werewolf. There is a sexual tension between the two each time they meet – which will be lots over the course of the novel.

It turns out that vampires and werewolves are disappearing all over the place, and new unaffiliated ones appearing. It also appears that whoever is behind all of this has found out Alexia’s secret – that she has no soul. Reputedly, she can negate paranormal powers by touching someone – and they’re out to get her! Maccon assigns her guards around the clock; she confides in her best friend Lord Akeldama – a really gay and old Rococo dandy of a vampire.

Lord Akeldama never drank anything but champagne. Well, that is to say, except when he was drinking blood. He was reputed to have once said that the best drink in existence was a blending of the two, a mix her referred to fondly as a Pink Slurp.

Alexia gets summoned to a meeting by the queen of the Westminster vampire hive – she is desperate to find out what’s going on in her parish. Maccon, hearing of other disappearances around the Home Counties, sends his second in command, Professor Lyall to investigate.  Meanwhile, Alexia meets a possible marriage prospect – an American scientist, Mr MacDougall, who is researching ways to measure souls. Alexia keeps her own status a secret.

We have the set up of the will they-won’t they romance between Alexia and Maccon (no prizes for guessing the result) amidst the adventure of solving the mystery of the disappearing/appearing vamps and lupes plus mad scientists. Once the initial setting up is done, the novel gallops pell-mell to its conclusion.

My only quibble was that we don’t find out how Alexia became soulless – we are just presented with it and its effects.  I hope we find out more in subsequent outings. The presentation of Britain as a progressive, forward-thinking country for accepting paranormal personages into society (provided they are registered) as opposed to America where they are not accepted at all was interesting. Queen Victoria is behind it, so I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Prince Albert is a vampire or something. This novel was great fun!  (8/10)

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D comes next…

Not so many to choose from on my shelves – but the new to me authors include:

  • Don DeLillo
  • Joan Didion
  • E.L. Doctorow
  • Helen Dunmore
  • Sarah Dunant
  • Nell Dunn
  • Joe Dunthorne
  • Lawrence Durrell
  • Jeremy Dyson (of Compton Vasey fame).

I have multiple titles by all of the above on the shelves. Suggestions welcome.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK via affiliate link, please click below:
Soulless: Book 1 of The Parasol Protectorateby Gail Carriger, 2009. Orbit paperback, 299 pages.

Annabel Elsewhere … again …

This post refers to my last new fiction reviews for Shiny New Books’s debut issue.  If you haven’t done so already, do pop over to the website, (and sign-up for the newsletter).  Thank you, and feel free to leave comments there or here.


The Madness by Alison Rattle

This is a cracking YA novel set during Victorian times about a doomed between the classes romance.  Loads of authentic period detail about the Victorian seaside (that’s Clevedon pier on the cover) and bathing couple with a well-written main character made it a fantastic read with echoes for me of Andersen’s Little Mermaid. (8.5/10)

and …

one-plus-one-186x300The One Plus One by Jojo Moyes

Commercial women’s fiction as they tend to call it these days rather than chick-lit, is something I rarely read, yet – when I pick a good ‘un, I can’t get enough of it. I devoured this novel in one sitting, staying up in bed until after 2am to finish it.  The complications of modern family life with extended and split families living on the poverty line made this totally compulsive. (8/10)

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Source: Publishers – Thank you!  To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Madness by Alison Rattle, Hot Key Books, March 2014, paperback original 208 pages.
The One Plus One by Jojo Moyes, pub Feb 2014, Penguin hardback, 528 pages.

The game’s afoot once again…

The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz

The vogue for new writers keeping others’ literary characters alive has never been stronger. I would wager that no one character has continued to be written more about than Sherlock Holmes, although James Bond must be getting close.

Most of the non-Fleming Bond novels are, however, officially commissioned by the Fleming estate. This is not the case with Holmes, but that doesn’t mean that they are necessarily bad at all – Laurie R King’s Mary Russell books in which an ageing Holmes takes on a new female apprentice (my review of the first one here) are rather fab, but unauthorised.

house of silkWhich leads me to Anthony Horowitz’s novel The House of Silk which is fully sanctioned by the ‘Conan Doyle Estate Ltd’ – viz the red seal on the front cover of the hardback edition.

Horowitz will be mostly known to many as a writer of adventure novels for older children – The Alex Rider and Power of Five series are popular and, so I’m told, brilliant fun. He is also, however, the creator of two long-running TV detective series – The Midsomer Murders and the WWII-set Foyle’s War, and has long said that Sherlock Holmes has been his inspiration, so upon reflection – an ideal choice for continuing the Holmesian canon…

This was our November read for book group, and we discussed it last Monday over our Christmas curry outing. Despite a table laden with spicy delights, we did manage to talk a little about the book!

I won’t dwell on the plot suffice to say it is suitably complex, but clues are there, and you do get a sense of certain characters having a bad side to them. All the features you’d expect are present from the Baker Street Irregulars gang of urchins, to the peasouper fogs, opium dens, bent coppers, lots of nasty Victorian gents and murder.

The novel is narrated by Doctor Watson, as are all the Holmes stories.  After Holmes’ death at his home on the Downs, (not the Reichenbach Falls), Watson is recounting some of the stories he has not been able to tell so far, and had been kept in a vault for one hundred years – a neat little device to explain the new stories. (Yes, stories – apparently Horowitz is writing another.)

The book was easy to read, page-turning and thoroughly enjoyable, and everybody in our group liked it.  Indeed, it awakened an enthusiasm in several of us to read some of the originals (again). We would have liked a bit more Victorian detail in the locations, but that was a small quibble.

One thing we did discuss was whom we all envisaged our Holmes to be – you can’t help read a book whose lead character has been filmed so many times without a vision of one of these incarnations popping into your head. For some it was the ‘original’ Basil Rathbone, for others Jeremy Brett, for me Benedict Cumberbatch has superceded any other actor who may have played Sherlock in my mind; no-one went for Robert Downey-Jr.

So great fun and a good addition to the Holmes canon. (8.5/10)

Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The House of Silk: The New Sherlock Holmes Novel (Sherlock Holmes Novel 1)by Anthony Horowitz (2011), Orion paperback, 416 pages

The adventures of a gentleman thief

Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman by E W Hornung

Raffles 1977 TV seriesThose of a certain age like me, may well remember the 1970s TV series Raffles with some fondness. It starred Anthony Valentine (right) as the titular gentleman thief, and Christopher Strauli as Bunny, his sidekick. A pair of dinner-suited scoundrels fleecing a bunch of toffs to fund their own lavish lifestyle, combined with a bit of cricket, made for fun watching.  Since his first appearance in the late 1890s, Raffles has been adapted many times, notably in films portrayed by Ronald Coleman in 1930 and David Niven in 1939.

raffles 1After the dolour of reading Hardy’s Jude the Obscure for Book Group last month, we  chose its contemporary, the first set of Raffles stories – Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman for our February read – the two couldn’t have been more different.

The Raffles stories are narrated by Bunny Maunders, and the first one, The Ides of March, tells how Bunny who is on his uppers and near suicidal, meets his old school pal Arthur Raffles. Desperate to save his reputation, when Raffles suggests a burglary will solve both’s financial woes, Bunny goes along with it, and so starts his life of crime.

In the following chapters, Raffles and Bunny have many adventures, sometimes only escaping by the skin of their teeth. They steal jewellery, paintings and more and end up on an ocean liner after a giant pearl…

Raffles is also a sportsman; cricket is his game, and he is, Bunny tells us, ‘a dangerous bat, a brilliant field, and perhaps the finest slow bowler of his decade,’ but is not really interested in the game per se, for ‘What’s the satisfaction of taking a man’s wicket when you want his spoons?‘ To Raffles, cricket is a game of mental exercise, looking for weak spots and using your cunning in bowling – all good practice for thieving.

Raffles never does anything for anyone else; Bunny is only tolerated because he can’t do jobs alone.  This amoral quality made one of our group give up on him after just a couple of the stories, and it stands out in one tale where another thief is onto Raffles, and he and Bunny contemplate what more they can do…

 ‘What more?’ said Raffles. ‘Well, murder – for one thing.’
‘A matter of opinion, my dear Bunny; I don’t mean it for rot. I’ve told you before that the biggest man alive is the man who’s committed a murder, and not yet been found out; at least he ought to be, but he so very seldom has the soul to appreciate himself. Just think of it! Think of coming in here and talking to the men, very likely about the murder itself; and knowing you’ve done it; and wondering how they’d look if they knew! Oh, it would be great, simply great! But, besides all that, when you were caught, there’d be a merciful and dramatic end of you. You’d fill the bill for a few weeks, and then snuff out with a flourish of extra-specials; you wouldn’t rust with a vile repose for seven or fourteen years.’

Raffles’ lack of morality aside, we mostly enjoyed these tales which are entertaining, but lack a je ne sais quoi, something that a certain great detective has in spades, which brings me to Sherlock Holmes …

You see, Hornung was Doyle’s brother in law, and this volume is dedicated to him. Raffles comes across as something of a parody of Holmes, but he is no Moriarty. Bunny is no Doctor Watson either; he hero-worships Raffles and happily lets himself be Raffles’ doormat.  We found ourselves wishing that Raffles had more to him, a bit more Holmes, a dash of Flashman perhaps.  It is not quite enough that Raffles’ marks mostly deserved what they got.

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman by E W Hornung. Atlantic Crime Classics paperback, other editions available.

The Glass Books Trilogy – an awfully fun adventure!

The Glass Books Trilogy by G W Dahlquist

Bantam in the USA, reputedly paid début novelist Dahlquist an advance of $2,000,000 for the first two installments in this series. Although the first was well received, apparently they lost shedloads of money on the deal. Penguin, the books’ publisher in the UK, also published the first volume with a big fanfare.

Initially it was only available on subscription, in ten limited edition weekly installments – the covers of which got darker in hue as the story progressed. The last one arrived just in time for Christmas together with a special sheet of wrapping paper. A standard hardback followed, but no prizes for guessing that I discovered it in time to get the installments! (See below).

The third volume is just out in hardback, and I’ve been immersing myself in it and its companions this summer. Having read the first when it came out, I just reminded myself of the names and places of it and how it ended. The three together total over 1900 pages of tremendous adventure and fun.

So what are the books all about?

I shall attempt to concentrate on themes and character rather than give too much of the plot away. One note before I start, despite the assertion that you can read the volumes out of order (there is a too short synopsis at the beginning of the third), you should only read them in the published order, especially to experience the adventure as our heroine Miss Celeste Temple does…

The era is Victorian, the location is an unnamed city – much like London, but in a continental sort of way – a bit Dutch, Danish, Germanic too. The story opens at the Boniface Hotel where a young plantation heiress, Miss Temple, is recently arrived pending her marriage to Roger Bascombe. When the engagement is ended with no reason given, Celeste feels the need to investigate, and ere long she gets herself into a bad crowd of debauched aristos which the boring Roger had been drawn into, known as the Cabal.

At a masked ball at Harschmort House, the home of the Cabal’s millionaire backer, Lord Vandaarif, Celeste meets the other key characters – both good and bad who play a huge part in her future. There’s the sensitive military doctor Abelard Svenson, personal physician to the Prince of Macklenburg and Cardinal Chang, a killer for hire with a natty fashion habit – and they’re the good guys!  The villains are even more colourful – we meet the Comte d’Orkancz – a classic mad scientist firmly in the steampunk mode, and the Contessa di Lacquer-Sforza, a raven-haired, lusty Venetian who is playing the Cabal at their own game; here Celeste meets the Contessa for the first time…

Miss Temple turned to see the woman in red, from Roger’s car. She no longer wore her fur-collared cloak, but she still had the lacquered cigarette holder in her hand, and her bright eyes, gazing fixedly at Miss Temple through the red leather mask, quite belied their jewelled tears. Miss Temple turned, but could not speak. The woman was astonishingly lovely – tall, strong, shapely, her powdered skin gleaming above the meager confines of the scarlet dress. Her hair was black and arranged in curls that cascaded across her bare shoulders. Miss Temple inhaled and nearly swooned from the sweet smell of frangipani flowers. She closed her mouth, swallowed, and saw the woman smile.

The Comte has invented a new drug using mineral indigo clay – something Macklenburg has in abundance. This is used to make blue glass, a means to enslave and brainwash by putting people through a alchemical Process, or via blue glass cards, which can store memories and hypnotise anyone who views them and by which you can drain memories and then someone else can experience them, and once viewed, never forgotten.

The blue glass cards are very useful to the Cabal – programmed with erotic memories, users can have an orgy in their own heads. The effects can be lasting in a receptive mind, which horrifies the prim Miss Temple when she is subjected to a card containing some of the Contessa’s erotic adventures, which adds a certain frisson to the procedures!

The Cabal are out to overthrow the existing regime, using the corrupting influence of the blue glass process and the books, sowing chaos everywhere. Celeste finds herself linking up with Svenson and Chang to stop them – three against many. Their lives changed forever, the trio embark on an adventure, which will put their lives at risk countless times and take them to the limit of their physical being.

If the first volume is about the discovery of the Cabal and their plans, the second takes them out into the wider world with the trio individually searching for the key glass book, the third finally brings them together again.

Celeste, Chang and Svenson take it in turns to tell the story. All three volumes could have done with some editing, but they certainly are pageturners – once started, I had to finish. The sheer amount of action on each page is dizzying, be it fighting, spying, scheming, and not forgetting a lot of racy moments! The plot is totally convoluted, and the cast of supporting characters so huge, that you are always in danger of totally of losing where you are. Frankly, it doesn’t matter – as long as you believe that Miss Temple, Chang and Svenson are always doing the right thing.

My favourite characters were Chang and the naughty Contessa, visualising the dandy assassin Chang as Gary Oldman, (surely a great casting suggestion). While I couldn’t see a particular actress as the resourceful Contessa, she is definitely in the mould of ‘the woman‘ from the Sherlock Holmes mystery A Scandal in Bohemia – Irene Adler.

I think I enjoyed the first book the most for its mix of sheer inventiveness and heady action. The second was naturally perhaps rather transitory but certainly darker, setting up the grand finish in volume three, for as in Harry Potter, the Dark Lord of the Cabal must be defeated.  The epilogue also leaves some intriguing possibilities open for further adventures.

If you’re tempted to embark on this journey, do start at the beginning. If you enjoy The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, you’ll likely get on with its sequels.  If you do, I hope you’ll find it as much fun as I did.

Vol 1 (8.5/10), Vol 2 (7/10), Vol 3 (8/10)

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I bought the first two, and got the third from the publisher – thank you.
To explore further at Amazon UK, please click below:
The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters – Penguin pbk 2006, 784 pages
The Dark Volume – Penguin pbk 2009, 528 pages
The Chemickal Marriage – pub July 2012, Viking Hardback, 528 pages

Aaarrr! Here be Pirates, Aaarrr, me hearties!

This Easter, I shall be hotfooting it to the multiplex to see the latest film from the ever-wonderful Aardman (or should that be Aaarrr-dman, sic) Animations which is called The Pirates – Band of Misfits (Trailer here). With an all star cast of voices including Hugh Grant as the Pirate Captain and Salma Hayek as Cutlass Liz, it will be brilliant, I’m sure.

The film is based upon the first two in a series of delightfully silly books by Gideon Defoe, who also wrote the screenplay.  There are now four in the series, with a fifth due later this year.  I always prefer to read the book(s) before seeing the movie when I can and just happen to have these ones waiting for me in the TBR, Aaarrr!

The first, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists was published in 2004, and concerns the scurvy crew of the unnamed ship being sent on a wild goose chase in search of gold by Black Bellamy, the Pirate Captain’s worst foe, and instead bumping into Charles Darwin, and Mister Bobo, his Man-Panzee – a trained monkey who has become more human than most men.  Having sunk The Beagle, The pirates agree to go back to England with Darwin so he can show off Mister Bobo, and also search for Darwin’s missing brother Erasmus…

‘I should say we’d reach England by Tuesday or thereabouts, with a decent wind behind us. It would be a lot quicker than that if we could just sail straight there, but I was looking at the nautical charts, and it’s a good job I did, because it turns out there’s a dirty great sea-serpent right in the middle of the ocean!  It has a horrible gaping maw and one of those scaly tails that looks like it could snap a boat clean in two. So I thought it best to sail around that.’
Fitzroy frowed. ‘I think they just draw those on maps to add a bit of decoration. It doesn’t actually mean there’s a sea-serpent there.’
The galley went rather quiet. A few of the pirate crew stared intently out of the portholes, embarrassed at their Captain’s mistake. But to everyone’s relief, instead of running somebody through, the Pirate Captain just narrowed his eyes thoughtfully.
‘That explains a lot,’ he said. ‘I suppose it ‘s also why we’ve never glimpsed that giant compass in the corner of the Atlantic. I have to say, I’m a little disappointed.’

Once back in England, the Pirates and Darwin go off hot-foot to London where they get into all kinds of trouble. Highlights include an encounter with the Elephant Man, and a brilliant chase through the Natural History Museum.

The Pirate Captain is very bad at remembering names, so there are running jokes aplenty with the names of his crew.  Much is also made of the pirates’ obsession with eating ham, the quality of the Pirate Captain’s beard, and as the book’s blurb says, it “is one of the very few books to deal with the weighty issue of science v religion, whilst also featuring lots of roaring and running people through.

I also loved that the inside covers are illustrated with wonderfully batty maps and the jokes continue in occasional footnotes and several appendices.  This book was very silly indeed, and I chuckled all the way through – it was plunderful stuff, Aaarrr!  (9.5/10)

The second, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Whaling, has had Whaling substituted for Moby Dick in the new paperback edition, (bit obvious, why didn’t they re-name scientists Darwin while they were at it?)

In this adventure the pirates get to travel across America to get the money to repay Cutlass Liz the loan for their new boat, and failing at Las Vegas, they join the hunt for Moby Dick.

Although there were some brilliant jokes and nice set pieces to the second adventure, reading it back to back with the first made it too much of a good thing, and not quite as sustainedly funny for me.  The Appendix is brilliant though!  I shall have a gap before embarking on reading the others in the series.  (8.5/10)

Recommended for anyone who enjoys a good chuckle, and likes playing spot the joke.

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I bought my copies. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists
The Pirates! in an Adventure with Moby Dick

Book Group Report – In search of dragons …

Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch

This story of young Jaffy Brown and his adventures, starting with an encounter with an escaped tiger, was another really good book group choice.  We all throroughly enjoyed this impeccably researched and ultimately rather gory tale of exploration and shipwreck in Victorian times.

The Guardian’s review of the book tells a little more about Jamrach himself – for he was based upon a real person; also some of his customers… the artist Rosetti bought a wombat from him for instance, which I do remember reading before somewhere.

After he meets the tiger, Jaffy goes to work for Mr Jamrach, an animal dealer, and learns the business starting with mucking out, under the watchful and sometimes bullying eye of Jamrach’s other apprentice Tim Linver. Tim will become like a surrogate older brother to Jaffy, and Jaffy will fall for his sister. We all loved this section of the book which brought the very Dickensian East End of London to life vividly. Although his animals were kept in, by our modern standards, cramped conditions, Jamrach came across as paternal to them and his lads, but was obviously a shrewd operator too.

All too soon this part of the story ended, as Tim, and then Jaffy, sign on as crew for a three year voyage which will search for dragons in the East Indies on a whaling ship.  Our book group’s Christmas read last year was Moby Dick, and Birch’s novel certainly rivals Melville’s in its adventure and tragedy on the high seas.  Indeed, both stories were inspired by the true story of the whaling ship, the Essex which was sunk by a sperm whale in 1820, and the ordeal of its survivors.

The crew of Birch’s Lysander come to life too, from gruff Dan to madman Skip and the slightly aloof captain, whose name escapes me (having lent the book out);  Jaffy and Tim soon slot into the crew.  When the going is good, life is very good for the sailors, but when things turn bad – well … you know what happens.

All of our group would have liked to know more about Jamrach himself, he is really only a titular presence.  We would have been fascinated to hear more about how he got into the business and where his animals came from (apart from the komodo ‘dragons’ that is).  That would have made a rather long book though.  Jaffy’s coming of age is not a conventional story, but has a fitting conclusion, although you can never take the sea out of a sailor … We’d recommend it as a book group read. (8.5/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch (60% off the paperback at time of writing!)
Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Incoming – Real lives …

I haven’t done an incoming post for a while, but I bought a book at the weekend that I’m so looking forward to dipping into over weeks to come, then another brilliant sounding book arrived from the OUP (thanks Kirsty)…

Once I’d picked up Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone by Eduardo Galeano, translated by Mark Fried, to have a gander, that book was never going to be put down.

It’s a chronological history of the world from creation to the present day. However this book is so different – it’s told in narrative vignettes by the bystanders and observers, those behind the scenes – those normally overlooked by conventional histories. From the ass in the stable when Jesus was born to Maradona’s ‘hand of God’, history is given a different spin in around 600 little parables. The majority are less than a page long, many have just a few lines, the style simple like parables, but one thing they do have is a moral bite.  One of the longer vignettes lists major companies that supplied Hitler’s regimes, another details a list of monstrosities before revealing they’re in Hieronymous Bosch’s paintings.  Many of the stories are bound up in myths, legends, beliefs, faith(s) and, in a big way, man’s failings. On my first flick through, there aren’t many happy moments in this book, yet I know I will be fascinated by it, and it will spark many questions…

Then today, another book arrived, which is also a collection of vignettes. London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew  originated in the 1850s as a series of articles for a Victorian London magazine.  Each investigates the life of a different kind of street seller, tradesman and the criminal underclasses, with first hand accounts, interviews, observations and some great investigative journalism.  This collection samples the four volumes that the original went to, together with some great original illustrations. I can tell this is going to be another great book to dip into, and being a book from the OUP, it has some great background features.

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To buy these books from, click below:
Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone by Eduardo Galeano, trans Mark Fried
London Labour and the London Poor by Henry Mayhew

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P.S. The winner of my giveaway from last week, as picked from the hat by my daugher is – Winstonsdad.  I’ll be in touch.

The First Detective Novel

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

This was my bookgroup’s Christmas read – we like to pick something classic for festive reading. This was a popular choice, as several of us, me included, have read Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, the real-life Victorian murder case which inspired Collins.

I started reading well before Christmas, but somehow didn’t gel with the book at first, getting rather bogged down in the first fifty or so pages. I found the story of the jewel’s extrication from India in the prologue a little turgid, and then the start of the first segment a bit slow… So I put it down and resumed reading on New Year’s Day. This time it matched my mood and I was able to get into it again easily, and this time I really enjoyed it.

I’m not going to expound on the plot, but this novel of a crime in a country house has a bit of everything. Someone present that night must be the culprit – and we get to meet them all. What is truly original is that the story is told through the testimonies of key characters at the various stages of the plot. Setting the scene and getting a major chunk is Gabriel Betteredge – the Verinder family’s trusted retainer, and he introduces us to all the characters including the virginal Rachel; the prodigal Franklin Blake who brings the Moonstone to the house; the scullery maid with a murky past, Rosanna Spearman; and Franklin’s rival for Rachel’s affections – Godfrey Ablewhite amongst others. Betteredge also introduces us to the useless local bobby, and the brilliantly clever detective Sgt Cuff who soon appears to be getting to the bottom of things once on the case. But even Cuff’s investigations don’t go to plan …

By the way, I read the new Oxford World Classics edition, which has explanatory notes, a chronology, bibliography and an introduction by John Sutherland – which helpfully you are told to read after the novel. (Shouldn’t they have made it an afterword then?).

Those of our book group who finished it also throughly enjoyed it – although I don’t know how Alex managed to cope with reading it on his iphone! I’ve been left rather keen to read more of these sensation novels. Great stuff. (8/10)

The Truman Show meets Dickensian melodrama

Pastworld by Ian Beck

Welcome to Pastworld.  Imagine that London has been reinvented as a theme park; that Dickensian London has been recreated in every detail. Rich tourists undergo immersion training, get costumed and are then brought in by airship to become ‘gawkers’ in this new, old world. Caleb, son of Lucius Brown, one of the park’s original imagineers, is due to arrive for his first visit with his father.

Pastworld is peopled by the ‘residents’, most of whom officially live and work there as Victorians, giving the punters an authentic experience. But there are also some unofficials – pickpockets, fences and entertainers, plus ‘The Fantom’, who has taken on the unofficial role of Jack the Ripper and is working with a band of ‘ragged men’ to strike terror throughout the city. The park’s owners are very, very worried indeed, and they send in a detective to hunt him down.

The last piece of the puzzle is seventeen year old Eve who lives with her father Jack; she has no memories of anything before the age of fifteen. In Truman Show style, she doesn’t know she is living in a theme park. However she is never allowed to go out on her own and is beginning to wonder why. Jack returns from an excursion out and starts to explain a little to her:

‘I have to tell you something, Eve’ he said, in an unsteady voice. ‘You may often have wondered why I look after you so carefully. The truth is that someone is after us. They have been for a long while now. I have deliberately kept this from you, Eve, just for your own protection. I have always been so very, very careful for you. But anyhow this bad, bad person has got a sniff of you, and as soon as it can be arranged we will have to move somewhere else. Somewhere far from here.’
He stood and paced up and down in a twitching panic. I could make no sense of it at all. Here was my mystery.
‘How would such a dangerous person know anything about us?’ I said.
‘He knows,’ Jack said nodding. ‘As I said, he’s got a sniff of you.’
Something alerted me in those repeated words: ‘A sniff of you’. That surely meant it is not ‘us’ at all but just me alone, myself – someone is especially after me. It was suddenly clear to me.
I am a deep secret.
I am a hidden person.
I am to be kept safe for ever. I was a fairy-tale princess, like Rapunzel, locked away from the world in her high tower.

This is the first novel for young adults from children’s author Ian Beck, which has plenty for grown-ups to admire too. I thoroughly enjoyed its cultural touchstones, murderous action and twisty plot. I particularly liked the interleaving of the futuristic and Victorian milieux which resulted in much more than a straight-forward melodrama. Without spoiling anything, there is plenty of room for a sequel (please?).

If you’ve read The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters by G W Dahlquist and enjoy teen fiction, you’d certainly like this book. (9/10)