The Conviction of Cora Burns by Carolyn Kirby

The question of nature versus nurture lies at the heart of Carolyn Kirby’s dark and fascinating debut novel, The Conviction of Cora Burns. Are people born good or bad or is it their upbringing that determines their behaviour? Is it inevitable that some people will commit acts of evil or does this depend on their early influences and the way they have experienced the world? These ideas are explored through the fictional story of Cora Burns.

Born in a prison cell, Cora is raised in Birmingham’s Union Workhouse before going on to work as a laundry maid in the Borough Lunatic Asylum. It’s not the best of starts in life and by the time Cora is twenty she has served a prison sentence herself. At the beginning of the novel, in 1885, she has just been released and is about to take up a new position as ‘between maid’ in the household of the scientist Thomas Jerwood – not her ideal job, but she quickly finds that other opportunities for women in her circumstances are very limited.

A fragment of a bronze medal engraved with the words ‘Imaginem Salt’ – a reminder of her childhood friend, Alice Salt – and vague memories of a crime so terrible she has blotted out the details from her mind are all she has left of her earlier life and she is determined to make a fresh start. As she settles into her new home, Cora begins to befriend Violet, a young girl who appears to be the subject of Mr Jerwood’s experiments. But is Cora being experimented on herself – and if so, what will be discovered? Meanwhile, she decides to track down Alice Salt, the friend she hasn’t seen for years but who she believes holds the key to that terrible incident in her past.

As well as the nature or nuture debate that I’ve already mentioned, the novel incorporates many other interesting issues and themes, such as the effects of poverty, the treatment of prisoners and the mentally ill in Victorian Britain, and advances in science, psychology and technology (particularly photography). All of these things have an impact on Cora’s story, which is told in non-linear form, moving backwards and forwards between her present situation in Thomas Jerwood’s household and her childhood in the workhouse. Interspersed with these narratives are Jerwood’s reports to a scientific journal describing his latest research and theories and occasional updates from another doctor whose work may also shed some light on Cora’s past.

This is not an ‘easy’ read – you do need to concentrate to keep the various strands of the plot straight and you also need some patience as it takes a while for the different pieces of the story to fall into place, but it’s definitely worth it in the end. I should also warn you that the crime in which Cora was involved is a particularly chilling one and is described in detail, but I think this was necessary in order to illustrate the worst of Cora’s nature. Despite this, though, I could also see that Cora had plenty of good qualities and I hoped that she would eventually be able to move on from her past and find some happiness. Whether this does happen or not I will leave you to find out for yourself.

Finally, I loved the decision to set the story in Victorian Birmingham! It made a nice change from the many books set in Victorian London. This was an impressive first novel and I will be looking out for more from Carolyn Kirby.

Thanks to No Exit Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Boy with Blue Trousers by Carol Jones

I love learning about the histories and cultures of different countries, so I was pleased to find that Australian author Carol Jones’ new novel, The Boy with Blue Trousers, is set in not one location but two – the mulberry groves of China and the goldfields of Australia – and introduces us to two women leading very different lives.

In 1850s China, seventeen-year-old Little Cat is growing up in a small village on the Pearl River Delta. Like the other girls in her community, she spends her days picking mulberry leaves and teasing out the threads from silkworm cocoons to produce reels of silk. It’s hard work, but it is the only life Little Cat has known and, now that she is approaching adulthood, she is growing nervous about what the future may hold. What sort of marriage will the matchmaker arrange for her? Will her husband and his family be kind? Will she have to go and live in another village far away from her own?

In the end, though, none of these things matter to Little Cat, because a disastrous encounter with the village headman, Big Wu, forces her to flee the country in fear of her life. Disguised as a boy, she embarks on a ship bound for Australia where she will join the hundreds of men heading there from China who are hoping to make their fortune in the goldfields.

Meanwhile, another young woman, Violet Hartley, has recently arrived in Australia. Violet, a governess, is trying to escape from her own past in England, and Australia seems like a place full of opportunities. When her first job, looking after two small children, proves to be not quite what she’d hoped for, she decides to accompany the Chinese immigrants on their journey – a decision that leads to her path crossing with Little Cat’s and tying the two separate threads of the story together.

The Boy with Blue Trousers is written in the form of two alternating narratives, so that we spend one or two chapters with Little Cat before switching to Violet for a while and then back again. This allows us to get to know both characters equally well and to see how, although they are living in very different environments, they face similar struggles as unconventional, independent women who don’t conform to the expectations of their respective societies. I have to admit, I didn’t like Violet at all; while I did have sympathy for her situation and the loss of her reputation following an affair with a married man in England – unfair when the man involved didn’t suffer in the same way – I just didn’t find her a very appealing character, especially in comparison to Little Cat, whom I loved.

I had a few problems with this book – apart from not liking Violet, I thought the way in which her story came together with Little Cat’s and the reaction they had to each other felt odd and unconvincing – but I was impressed by the sense of place Carol Jones creates. I particularly liked the descriptions of the mulberry trees, river banks, alleys and courtyards of Sandy Bottom Village, Little Cat’s home in the Pearl River Delta, but the coastal landscape of Robetown in South Australia is also beautifully portrayed.

Carol Jones is not an author I’ve come across until now, but I see she has written another novel, The Concubine’s Child, set in Malaysia, which also sounds interesting. If any of you have read that one, let me know what you thought.

Thanks to Head of Zeus for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Bone China by Laura Purcell

Hester Why, the narrator of Laura Purcell’s latest gothic novel Bone China, is a woman with secrets. We know that Hester Why is not her real name, but what is the reason for her new identity? Why is she fleeing to Cornwall from London, who is she hiding from and how did she come to be addicted to gin and laudanum? These are questions we ask ourselves in the very first chapter and they are answered eventually, but first we must follow Hester to Morvoren House, perched high on the Cornish cliffs, where she is taking up a new position as nurse to Miss Louise Pinecroft.

Hester quickly discovers that her job is not going to be easy and soon she is asking questions of her own. What is wrong with Miss Pinecroft, who barely moves, never speaks and spends her days sitting in a cold room surrounded by china cups and plates? Who is Rosewyn, the strange, child-like young woman described as Miss Pinecroft’s ward? Is there any truth behind the claims of the superstitious servant Creeda that Rosewyn needs to be protected from fairies who are trying to steal her away and replace her with a changeling?

Bone China moves between three different timelines; as well as following Hester at Morvoren House, we also go back to an earlier time in her life, when she was known as Esther Stevens, and learn what went wrong in her previous employment, leading to her decision to run away and start again. Finally, in a third narrative we meet Louise Pinecroft as she was forty years earlier, when she and her father first arrived at Morvoren House after losing the rest of their family to consumption.

Laura Purcell has become known for writing dark, creepy Victorian novels and Bone China does have a lot of classic Gothic elements, including a gloomy, imposing clifftop house, family secrets and hints of madness. Despite this, I didn’t think this was a particularly scary or chilling story and although the exploration of Cornish folklore added atmosphere, I never doubted that the fairies and changelings existed only in legends and in Creeda’s stories. How much more spine-tingling it would have been if I had found myself feeling convinced that they could be real after all!

What I did find very disturbing and unsettling was the storyline set in Louise Pinecroft’s younger days, describing the work of her father, a doctor, who is looking for a cure for consumption (tuberculosis), the disease which took the lives of his wife and his other children. With Louise’s help, Dr Pinecroft carries out a revolutionary experiment, taking a group of prisoners who are suffering from the illness and lodging them in a cave beneath the cliffs where he claims the salty sea air will be good for their health. This part of the book was based on historical fact – cave air really was suggested as a possible cure for consumption at one time – and it was horrifying to read about the barbaric treatment of sick people due not to cruelty but to ignorance of modern medical procedures and a lack of understanding.

There are lots of interesting ideas incorporated into Bone China, then, but in the end I felt that the three threads of the story didn’t come together as neatly as they should have done. I also found the pacing uneven; in the second half of the book, the sense of mystery and carefully building tension of the earlier chapters was replaced by a sudden race to reach the conclusion. I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I’d hoped to, but I’m planning to read Laura Purcell’s first novel, The Silent Companions, soon and will see if I get on better with that one.

The Anarchists’ Club by Alex Reeve

One of the first books I read this year was Alex Reeve’s The House on Half Moon Street, the first in a new mystery series set in Victorian London. I enjoyed it and couldn’t wait to meet its hero, Leo Stanhope, again. Now that I’ve read the second book, The Anarchists’ Club, I’m pleased to say that I enjoyed this one just as much as the first. If you’re wondering whether it’s necessary to read the series in order, I don’t think it’s essential…you will have a better understanding of Leo and his background if you do, but otherwise both books work well as standalone mysteries.

Catching up with Leo again at the beginning of The Anarchists’ Club, it seems that not much has changed in his life. He is still renting a room above a pharmacy, still working as a hospital porter, still meeting his only friend Jacob for an occasional game of chess. One day he is helping out in the pharmacy when a woman comes in to buy some bromide. Lacking the money to pay, she asks for credit, but Leo refuses, telling her she will have to speak to the owner. It’s only a brief interaction but one which Leo will remember forever, because a few days later he receives a visit from the police. The woman, Dora Hannigan, has been murdered and a scrap of paper with Leo’s name and address on it has been found on her body.

Among the suspects is John Thackery, a man Leo knew many years ago – when he was quite literally a different person. If John makes his former identity known, the whole new life Leo has built for himself could be destroyed, so he agrees to give John an alibi in return for his silence. Has Leo done the right thing or is he allowing a murderer to walk free? The only way to be sure is to investigate the murder himself…

Leo’s investigations lead him to, as the title of the book suggests, a club of ‘anarchists and socialists’ with whom the dead woman had become involved. I was slightly disappointed that we don’t find out as much about these people and their work as I’d expected; although the division between the rich and poor in society is one of the book’s main themes, the mystery itself doesn’t really have much to do with any of that. As with the first novel, the most interesting aspect of the story is the character of Leo himself. Although he is known as Leo Stanhope now, he grew up as Lottie Pritchard before deciding as a teenager that he could no longer continue living as a woman and denying who he really was. Being transgender in the 19th century is not easy and a few words from someone who knows the truth – someone like John Thackery – could ruin everything for him. For Leo, though, being true to himself is worth the risk and the danger. As I am not transgender myself and, as far as I know, Alex Reeve isn’t either, I can’t really say whether the portrayal of Leo and his thoughts and feelings is accurate or not, but it does feel believable to me.

The books are narrated by Leo in the first person and I find him a very likeable character. For obvious reasons, he tries not to attract too much attention to himself and has a quiet, unassuming nature. In this second novel, I loved his relationship with Aiden and Ciara, Dora Hannigan’s children, whom he befriends and tries to look after once it becomes obvious that nobody else is going to. This is particularly touching because there are so few people in Leo’s life whom he still cares about or who care about him, having become estranged from his parents and sister after making the decision to leave his life as Lottie behind.

I was also pleased to meet Rosie Flowers, the pie maker, again; I said earlier that Jacob is Leo’s only friend, but that’s not quite true because although Rosie and Leo exasperate each other at times, they formed a close bond during their investigation of the previous mystery and work together to try to solve this one as well. I’m hoping to see them both again in future books; I haven’t seen any news of a third Leo Stanhope mystery yet, but I will certainly be looking out for it.

Thanks to Raven Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book #3 read for this year’s R.I.P. event.

The Canary Keeper by Clare Carson

Clare Carson has previously written a trilogy of thrillers (the Sam Coyle trilogy) set in contemporary Orkney. I haven’t read those, but the title and cover of her new novel, The Canary Keeper, caught my attention and when I investigated I found that this one is a historical crime novel, still set in Orkney but during the Victorian period. I love a good Victorian mystery, so of course I had to give it a try.

The story begins in London in 1855, with the body of Tobias Skaill being found dumped in the Thames. Witnesses report seeing the body thrown from a canoe – surely the work of an Esquimaux! The suspect has disappeared without trace, but it seems he may have had an accomplice: Birdie Quinn, a young Irishwoman who was seen walking in the area at the time. We, the reader, know that Birdie is innocent; she had only met Tobias for the first time the day before when he had tried to give her a message. Her presence by the river that night was a coincidence and she has certainly never had any dealings with Esquimaux. But how can she prove her innocence?

Birdie knows that when the law catches up with her, she will hang, so she turns for help to Solomon, a policeman with whom she was recently in a relationship before they went their separate ways. Solomon advises her to get away from London for a while – and with evidence linking the dead man with the Orkney Islands off the north-east coast of Scotland, that is where Birdie decides to head. Can she uncover the truth surrounding Tobias Skaill’s death and identify his killer in time to clear her own name?

The Canary Keeper explores so many interesting ideas and topics. First, there is Orkney itself and the many traditions, myths and beliefs that are unique to those islands and their people. Then there is the famous Arctic expedition led by Captain John Franklin in search of the North-West Passage, ending in tragedy when both ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, are lost. The Franklin Expedition takes place just a few years before the events of The Canary Keeper and as Birdie begins to investigate she find several surprising links between the doomed expedition and the murder of Tobias Skaill. The fur trade also plays a part in the story and, in the London sections of the book, we learn about some of the trade guilds and livery companies of the period.

Clare Carson also creates some interesting characters, at least on the surface. I found Birdie quite a likeable heroine and I enjoyed her scenes with Solomon, hoping that they might decide to give each other a second chance. There’s also Morag, whose unconventional lifestyle leads to her being labelled a witch, and the widowed Margaret Skaill who is determined to keep her husband’s shipping business going despite her inability to read and write. And yet, none of these characters ever came fully to life for me; there was a disappointing flatness throughout the novel, which I blame on the fact that it is written in third person present tense, probably my least favourite way for a novel to be written. I often find that it puts a distance between the reader and the characters and makes it difficult to engage on an emotional level, although maybe that’s just me.

There’s also a paranormal aspect to the novel, with Birdie experiencing visions and flashbacks, but I didn’t feel that these scenes added anything to the story. This could have been a fascinating book – and at times it was – but it wasn’t really for me.

This is book 10/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

Thanks to Head of Zeus for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The House of Hardie by Anne Melville

The House of Hardie is the first in a trilogy published between 1987 and 1990 and telling the story of several generations of the Hardie family. In this novel, set towards the end of the Victorian era, we meet Gordon Hardie who, ever since running away to sea as a boy, has dreamed of becoming a famous explorer and discovering new lands. Gordon has been back in England for several years, working in the family wine business in Oxford, but has informed his father that this won’t be a permanent arrangement as he intends to set off soon on a voyage to China in search of a rare and beautiful flower.

Meanwhile, Gordon’s younger sister Midge is preparing to begin an exciting new adventure of her own. She has been offered a place at Oxford University, with permission to attend tutorials and lectures – as long as she is chaperoned by an older woman at all times and sits separately from the male students. Midge is determined to make the most of the opportunity she has been given, but she finds an immediate distraction in Archie Yates, a young man who couldn’t be more different from herself. As the grandson of a marquess and with no need to worry about his future, Archie has little interest in studying and plans to spend his time at Oxford having fun. While Midge embarks on a romance with Archie, her brother Gordon also falls in love – with Archie’s sister, Lucy Yates. Because of her class, Lucy’s life has so far been much more conventional and constrained than Midge’s, but she longs to get away from her grandfather’s country estate and experience more of what the world has to offer.

The two storylines – one following Midge’s relationship with Archie and the other Gordon’s with Lucy – move forward in parallel with each other, a few chapters at a time spent on each one. I enjoyed getting to know three of the characters, at least; I didn’t like Archie at all and couldn’t understand what an intelligent woman like Midge saw in him! The book was much more than a simple romance, though, with lots of interesting issues covered through the stories of the main characters. First, there was women’s education and how progress in that area was slowly being made, while still being very far away from equality with men. We are shown how frustrating it must have been for Midge to be allowed to study at Oxford and take examinations like the men, yet not to be awarded the equivalent degree just because she is a woman. It’s even more ridiculous that she is forced to use separate entrances to the university buildings, that she has to bring a female companion with her to tutorials and that she could be sent home in disgrace if she is caught alone with a male student, however innocent the circumstances.

Class differences are also explored. The Yates family are upper class people with titles and estates, whereas the Hardies are wine merchants with a background in trade. It doesn’t matter that the Hardies still have a comfortable lifestyle and a nice home and that they are decent, hardworking people; because of the class system, the marquess will never consider them to be good enough for his grandchildren. Gordon and Lucy believe that love should be able to transcend these boundaries, but for Midge and Archie their difference in status will prove much more challenging.

Travel and exploration form another important part of the plot. Most of the final section of the book is set in China where Gordon is hunting for the lily he hopes will make his name as an explorer and botanist. This is fascinating and reads almost like a Victorian travel memoir, describing the scenery, the culture and the people our characters meet along the way. However, the feel of the novel changes at this point with the decision to leave Oxford – and Midge and Archie’s storyline – behind. The balance and variety of the earlier chapters are lost and I finished the book feeling a bit less enthusiastic about it than I had at first. I did enjoy The House of Hardie, though, and I have a copy of the second book in the series ready to start soon.

Thanks to Agora Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Adventurers by Jane Aiken Hodge

I’m enjoying working my way through Jane Aiken Hodge’s novels but, as I suppose is the case with many authors’ work, I’m finding that the quality varies a lot. The Adventurers (first published in 1965) is certainly much better than the last one I read, First Night, but not as enjoyable as Marry in Haste, Watch the Wall, My Darling or Strangers in Company.

The novel is set towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars when, following the Battle of Leipzig in 1813, the defeated French army begin their retreat through Germany. The von Hugel castle lies in their path and seventeen-year-old Sonia von Hugel hides in the hayloft as her family and servants are massacred around her. When the violence is over, Sonia escapes from the castle disguised as a boy, intending to make her way to her aunt’s home across the mountains. Stopping at an inn along the way, she has an encounter with the mysterious Charles Vincent, who makes her an offer which causes her to change her plans and agree to accompany him to France instead.

In England, meanwhile, we meet Lord Denbigh and his nephew Philip Haverton, who are preparing to travel to France on diplomatic business. What will happen when their paths cross with Charles and Sonia’s? What is their connection with Sonia’s friend, Elizabeth Barrymore? And, most importantly, where does Charles keep disappearing to without explanation?

As this novel, like many of Aiken Hodge’s, is set in the Regency period, it’s difficult not to make comparisons with Georgette Heyer. The opening sequence, with the heroine dressing as a boy and meeting the hero at an inn – and the misunderstandings that follow – is exactly the sort of storyline that will be familiar to Heyer readers. After this promising beginning, though, the story becomes much less Heyer-like, with very little humour and lightness and a more serious, sombre feel. The politics of the period also form quite an important part of the novel, with Napoleon facing defeat and a plot to restore the Bourbon monarchy gathering pace.

I have described Charles and Sonia as the hero and heroine – and it did seem that way at first – but I quickly began to lose interest in them, especially as Charles was absent for such long sections of the novel (for reasons I found too easy to predict). It was disappointing that their plan to travel across Europe as ‘adventurers’, making their living from winning money at cards, didn’t really come to much and there was far less adventure in the book than I had hoped for. One character who did interest me was Elizabeth Barrymore; I felt that it was her story rather than Sonia’s that the author really wanted to tell. She is given a romantic interest of her own and although I found the way it develops predictable as well, I thought it was more engaging and more moving than Sonia’s – a story of mistakes, regrets and second chances, a bit like Anne Elliot’s in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Aiken Hodge wrote biographies of both Austen and Heyer, so it’s not surprising that their influence can be seen in her work.

The Adventurers is not a favourite by this author, then, but I did enjoy getting to know Elizabeth and learning a little bit about the political situation in Europe in the aftermath of the Battle of Liepzig.

Thanks to Agora Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.