Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Associates of Sherlock Holmes edited by George Mann

This collection edited by George Mann is the third he has produced for Titan Books and features a number of writers well known for their Sherlockiana such as Lyndsay Faye and James Lovegrove as well as those such as Simon Bucher-Jones who is presenting his first Sherlock Holmes story here. Unlike many other stories set in the universe of Arthur Conan Doyle which present the cases from Watson's viewpoint as Doyle did, here we see Holmes and Watson through the eyes of others; including Inspector Lestrade, Irene Adler and many more. It allows many of the associates, clients and villains to tell their own stories for the first time. The collection opens with a new story from fan favourite Lyndsay Faye as she allows Police Inspector Stanley Hopkins who appeared in Doyle's "The Adventure of Black Peter" to tell us a brand new tale of body parts dredged from the Thames in "River of Silence" There are some brilliant supernatural touches too courtesy of Jeffrey Thomas and Tim Pratt.
Titan are undoubtedly the best and most enthusiastic publisher of Sherlockiana and this collection is a fantastic idea although some stories are less successful than others. This collection is also a wonderful showcase of the work of some great new (to me) authors of crime, science fiction and fantasy. I will certainly be exploring more of the work of some of the authors I have encountered here. Fans of Sherlock Holmes won't be disappointed and in fact I went back to the original stories with new insight.
Perfect for fans and new readers alike.
Thanks to Philippa Ward from Titan Books for a review copy of this book.
Associates of Sherlock Holmes is published later this week. 

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Harrowing by James Aitcheson

The Harrowing of the North is a famous phrase familiar to many of us as the tactic used by William the Conqueror to quell rebellion in the North and ensure the conquest of England was complete. In this novel James Aitcheson shows us the personal side of this tactic, as the land is cleared and the people; men, women and children are murdered, often in the most cruel and gruesome of ways.  We meet five individuals; Tova a maid and her mistress Merewyn who are fleeing Merewyn’s husband’s family, Beorn the warrior who rescues them from a Norman attack, Guthred a former priest and Oslac a wandering storyteller. As the people of the North flee the approaching Normans so these five must also make their way Northwards to Hagustaldesham (Hexham, Northumberland).
The storytelling is brilliantly framed with each part of the book covering one day of travel and the various characters telling their stories each evening as they prepare to rest, a style not dissimilar to The Canterbury Tales. In this way we get an insight into each character and understand their perspective on the situation. The author does not shy away from the truth of the bloodshed and cruelty of events and it becomes clear that although they are fleeing the Norman army who have destroyed their homes, they are also each fleeing from their past. The storytelling is wonderful each character tells their story in their own voice but the pace never flags, the plotting is taut and the characterization deft. James Aitcheson is a fantastic writer who has brought to vivid life a dark period in English history, shining a light on ordinary people and the impact on them of historical events. 

Published by Heron Books 2016
This review first appeared in The Historical Novel Review

Ascension by Gregory Dowling

Gregory Dowling’s fifth novel; his first foray into historical territory, is set in mid 18th Century Venice and introduces a charming protagonist in the form of cicerone or tour guide Alvise Marangon. Having grown up mostly in England Alvise makes guiding British tourists his specialty but he gets more than he bargained for when he offers to guide the young Mr. Boscombe and his tutor Mr. Shackleford.
Soon Alvise is entangled in the city’s criminal underbelly finding himself arrested, robbed, beaten up and finally persuaded to join the city’s secret network of spies to uncover a criminal threat that goes to highest levels of Venice’s aristocratic society.
This is a wonderful page turner with a fabulous cast of characters from the gambling dens to the theatres, the booksellers to the taverns, the courtesans to the gondoliers. Alvise is able to use his innate sense of theatre and charm to move fluidly between all the classes and this also makes him a perfect spy.

Dowling’s storytelling is superb and the sights, sounds and smells of 18th Century Venice are brilliantly realised. Although the plot is resolved the book has the feel of the first in a series so I hope there will be a return for Alvise. This book would be ideal for fans of Diana Bretherick and Robin Blake.
Published by Polygon 2015.
This review originally appeared in Historical Novels Review Magazine

A Ghost's Story by Lorna Gibb

A Ghost’s Story is an intriguing book, as it presents the tale of Katie King not a famous medium but a famous ghost. Although it is Lorna Gibb’s first work of fiction there are a number of real people included in the story. There is correspondence between Bob Loomis, Senior Librarian at the Magic Circle and the author herself who has received the Katie King ‘spirit writing’ from the Magic Circle archive, this writing is interspersed with a manuscript from an Italian Bookshop named after Katie King and the academic notes of Adam Marcus who had been investigating the manuscript prior to his death.
The narrative is in the voice of John/Katie King a celebrated spirit who visited a number of mediums during the 19th and early 20th century when séances and an interest in the spirit world were at their peak. Moving between America, Britain, Russia, Italy, France and Canada we observe Katie’s growth as she gradually begins to affect her surroundings, to be heard by those she is drawn to and even to enter into the mediums she visits.

Written in a vivid lyrical style the sense of passing time as Katie witnesses the changes in the places and people she visits and tries to be perceived and believed is beautifully rendered. Gibb’s research is meticulous and the unusual framing makes this a genuinely compelling read. This book will appeal to anyone with an interest in Victorian spiritualism but its unique style will undoubtedly mean its appeal will be much broader.
Published by Granta 2015
This review originally appeared in The Historical Novel Review Magazine. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

House of Shadows by Nicola Cornick

Everything about this book was guaranteed to entice me from the title to the cover to the tag line 'Dark secrets lie just around the corner..' but most of all the blurb which not only hinted that this is a time-slip novel but recommended the book to fans of Barbra Erskine and Kate Morton. That was it, I was sold so even though the publishers were kind enough to send me an e-galley I just had to get a print edition too.
The book opens with The Winter Queen Elizabeth Stuart, a fascinating woman who I think simply doesn't feature enough in history or historical fiction. Nicola used a setting she knows well Ashdown House where she works as guide and with some poetic licence she has told the story of the house and some of it's occupants, real and imagined. This is my favourite kind of historical fiction mixing the magical and the mystical with the past and the present. In the present day Holly is searching for her missing brother Ben who vanished at Ashdown Mill where he was researching the family tree. Holly begins a desperate race against time to find her brother and discover the secrets about this fascinating place.  Holly discovers a diary written by a 19th Century occupant of the house before it was burned down and from this point Nicola Cornick weaves the three different timelines together skillfully in this deftly plotted book. Wonderful characters and excellent storytelling.
Published by Harlequin Mira. 

River Road by Carol Goodman

Carol Goodman is one of my favourite authors. She is a literary chameleon capable of writing gothic chillers, YA fantasy, romance and gripping crime. This book will not disappoint avid fans but will also appeal to those who have never read her before. River Road is a psychological crime thriller about a small town college professor Nan Lewis who is driving home in a snowstorm when she feels something hit her car. She convinces herself that it was just a deer but then she finds out that a brilliant student of hers, Leia Dawson has been knocked down and killed in a hit and run accident and she was found on River Road, just where Nan hit a deer or did she?
Goodman slowly reveals the secrets of Nan, Leia and the various other people in the cast of fascinating characters in this twisty, page turning novel. We learn that Nan's daughter was killed in a hit and run seven years before and since then Nan's marriage has disintegrated and her career has stalled. She's a creative writing professor who is unable to write. Her grief has left her psychologically paralysed and consumed by guilt. An intriguing mystery and several well developed characters will keep readers turning the pages in Goodman's first book with British publisher Titan. Ideal for fans of Liz Nugent or Elly Griffiths.
Thanks to Titan Books for a review copy.

The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo by Catherine Johnson

Cassandra is a beautiful young lady bored and restless she longs for adventure. Mary Wilcox is a young woman who has been ground down by society, poverty and men, she is ready for change. Fred and Edmund are privileged young men with the world at their feet. Everyone has their place and everyone has a role to play. But what happens when a young woman decides to play a different role? Inspired by a true story this is the tale of a young woman who turns up at small village in England apparently unable to speak English. Taken in by a local wealthy family who decide that she is an exotic Princess, she is subject to experimentation and media speculation. As the questions come thick and fast how long will it be before the origins of Lady Caraboo will be discovered.

Catherine Johnson's wonderful new book was shortlisted for the YA Book prize although it missed out on the final prize; which went to Sarah Crossan. (The Irish ladies are winning all the prizes recently!) Nonetheless Lady Caraboo is an astonishingly powerful tale that combines gritty storytelling; the opening is stomach churning, with romance, friendship, self discovery and a portrait of Georgian England that you can feel yourself sinking into. There is squalor and splendour in equal measure. This is not an easy read. The treatment of women and of the poor is upsetting and vividly written. I am a huge fan of Catherine Johnson's writing and I highly recommend this book and all her books. Perfect as a companion to Pride and Prejudice or Frankenstein or if you enjoyed Frances Hardinge's The Lie Tree.

Thanks very much to Clare Kelly from Penguin Random House for a review copy.