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.

Amours de Voyage by Arthur Hugh Clough – A book for the Persephone Readathon

This week Jessie of Dwell in Possibility is hosting another of her Persephone Readathons. My choice of book this time proved to be very different from any of the other Persephones I’ve read, for several reasons. For one thing, it is one of only a few Persephones written by a man. With an original publication date of 1858, it must also be one of the oldest books they publish – the majority are from the first half of the twentieth century. Finally, it is written in verse, something which filled me with trepidation as I’m not really a fan of narrative poems (although, to be fair, I haven’t read all that many of them).

Anyway, Amours de Voyage follows a group of people who are visiting Italy during the political turmoil surrounding the fall of the short-lived Roman Republic in 1849. Their story is told in the form of letters written in hexameter verse and divided into five cantos. One of the letter-writers is Claude, a young man who is spending some time in Rome as part of his ‘grand tour’ and keeping a friend, Eustace, updated on everything he has seen and experienced. It seems that so far Rome has entirely failed to impress him:

Rome disappoints me much; I hardly as yet understand it, but

RUBBISHY seems the word that most exactly would suit it.

And then:

What do I find in the Forum? An archway and two or three pillars.

Well, but St. Peter’s? Alas, Bernini has filled it with sculpture!

I love Rome and ‘rubbishy’ is certainly not how I would describe it, but Claude is the sort of person who appears not to like or admire anything or anybody. This includes his fellow tourists, particularly the Trevellyns, who find Rome ‘a wonderful place’ and are ‘delighted of course with St. Peter’s’. This is Claude’s initial impression of the Trevellyns:

Middle-class people these, bankers very likely, not wholly

Pure of the taint of the shop; will at table d’hote and restaurant

Have their shilling’s worth, their penny’s pennyworth even:

Neither man’s aristocracy this, nor God’s, God knoweth!

As he gets to know the family better, however, he changes his opinion slightly and the tone of his letters to Eustace starts to suggest that he has fallen in love with Mary Trevellyn. Through Mary’s own letters to her friends Louisa and Miss Roper, we learn that although her own first impression of Claude was that she thought him ‘agreeable, but a little repulsive’, she is also beginning to change her mind:

Yes, repulsive; observe, it is but when he talks of ideas

That he is quite unaffected, and free, and expansive, and easy.

Unfortunately, before a romance has time to develop, violence breaks out on the streets of Rome and the Trevellyns leave the city just before it becomes besieged by the French. Claude has no intention of fighting for or against the Roman Republic (he doesn’t have a musket, he tells Eustace, and even if he did, he wouldn’t know how to use it) so he sets off in search of the Trevellyns instead. Due to bad luck and a series of misunderstandings, they keep missing each other as they move around Italy. Will Claude and Mary ever be reunited – or has the opportunity been lost forever?

I found Amours de Voyage much easier to get through than I had expected; it hasn’t become a favourite Persephone but it was still an enjoyable one and the rhythm, structure and colloquial language make it very readable. Despite Claude being such an annoying character, the way his story plays out is quite sad and moving as he begins to regret not speaking to Mary and telling her how he felt while he had the chance. Mary could have made the first move, but she knows that Claude ‘thinks that women should woo him; Yet, if a girl should do so, would be but alarmed and disgusted.’

The poem’s historical background is interesting too. Arthur Hugh Clough himself was in Rome in 1849 during the siege so was writing from personal experience, which explains why the parts of the poem that deal with the conflict – such as Claude’s account of witnessing a priest being killed and Mary’s description of Garibaldi riding into the city – feel vivid and authentic. I know nothing about Clough as a person other than the little I’ve been able to find online so I don’t know to what extent the rest of the story is autobiographical or how much of himself he put into Claude’s character.

Amours de Voyage endpapers

Because Amours de Voyage is in the public domain, it is available as a free ebook from sites like Project Gutenberg, but the Persephone edition has an introduction by Julian Barnes, illustrations, and gorgeous endpapers, taken from a woven dress silk from 1850. It isn’t a Persephone that gets much attention, so if you’ve read it (in any format) I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Things in Jars by Jess Kidd

What an unusual book! Not having read anything by Jess Kidd before, I didn’t know what to expect from this new Victorian mystery, but I immediately fell in love with the playful writing and imaginative plot. I knew as soon as the ghost of a tattooed boxer arose from a tomb in Highgate Cemetery that this was going to be no ordinary detective novel.

The story takes place in 1863 and our heroine is Bridie Devine, a former surgeon’s apprentice from Dublin who, since arriving in London, has built a new career for herself as a private investigator. At the beginning of the novel, Bridie – ‘A small, round upright woman of around thirty, wearing a shade of deep purple that clashes (wonderfully and dreadfully) with the vivid red hair tucked (for the most part) inside her white widow’s cap’ – is asked to look into the disappearance of Christabel Berwick, a little girl whose strange physical characteristics make her a valuable prize for those who collect curiosities and oddities. With the ghost of boxer Ruby Doyle by her side, Bridie must try to find Christabel before she becomes a ‘thing in a jar’.

Things in Jars is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read so far this year. It reminded me, in different ways and at different times, of The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, The Essex Serpent and Once Upon a River, but written in a style that makes it all Jess Kidd’s own. Bridie is a wonderful character; I admired her for her independence and intelligence but had a lot of sympathy for her as well, as the story of her troubled childhood unfolds in parallel with the 1860s one. Her romance with Ruby (as far as you can have a romance with a man who isn’t alive) is both moving and mystifying. Ruby claims to have known her for years, but Bridie can’t remember him. Who is he – and why has he come into her life again?

The secondary characters are excellent too, all described with Dickensian detail, from Bridie’s seven foot tall housemaid Cora Butter with the ‘unnerving glare’ to her landlord, the elderly bell maker Mr Wilks, who has the look of ‘something that has been carefully varnished and then put away for a long time’. The descriptions of London – sometimes written from the perspective of a raven flying over the rooftops – wouldn’t be out of place in a Dickens novel either:

The raven levels off into a glide, flight feathers fanned. Slick on the rolling level of rising currents and down-draughts, she turns her head, this way and that. To her black eyes, as blacked as pooled tar, London is laid out – there is no veil of fog or mist or smoke-haze her gaze cannot pierce!

Below her, streets and lanes, factories and workhouses, parks and prisons, grand houses and tenements, roofs, chimneys and tree tops. And the winding, sometimes shining, Thames – the sky’s own dirty mirror.

As for the mystery of Christabel’s disappearance, it really takes second place to the setting and the characters and the humour, but it was interesting enough to keep me gripped until the end, wondering what the little girl’s fate would be. I also enjoyed the way legends of the mythical Irish being known as the merrow were worked into the plot.

I would love Jess Kidd to write another book about Bridie Devine but, failing that, I will have to look for her previous novels, Himself and The Hoarder. Although they sound very different from this one, I am looking forward to reading more of her work!

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

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

In the author’s note that opens The Confessions of Frannie Langton, Sara Collins remembers reading books like Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre on the small Caribbean island where she grew up and asking the questions: “Why couldn’t a Jamaican former slave be the star of her own gothic romance? Why couldn’t she be complicated, ambiguous, complex? Why had no one like that ever had a love story like those?’ Frannie Langton is Collins’ attempt to redress the balance and give that Jamaican former slave her very own story in which to star.

The novel opens in 1826 with Frannie – or the ‘Mulatta Murderess’, as she has become known – awaiting trial at London’s Old Bailey for the murders of her employers, George and Marguerite Benham. Frannie, who had been a maid in the Benham household, had been found lying in bed, covered in blood, beside Marguerite’s dead body. She has no idea how she came to be there and is sure she couldn’t possibly have killed her beloved mistress, yet all the evidence suggests that she is guilty. While she waits for her fate to be decided, Frannie looks back on her life and recalls the sequence of events that have led her to this point.

Frannie remembers her childhood, growing up on the Langtons’ sugar plantation in Jamaica (ironically called ‘Paradise’) and describes the circumstances that meant she received an education that would usually be denied to a slave. Later, when Mr Langton returns to England, he takes Frannie with him and she looks forward to new experiences and new opportunities. On their arrival in London, however, she is handed over to the Benhams to become a servant in their home and finds that life is not much better here than it was on the plantation. The one bright spot in her life is her relationship with ‘Madame’ (Mrs Benham), but as we already know from the opening chapter of the book, that relationship will end in tragedy.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton is Sara Collins’ first novel and I’m sure it’s going to be a big success for her. It has been given a beautiful front cover, which stands out even amongst the many other beautiful covers that are around at the moment and the book has already been getting lots of very positive reviews since its publication last week. I didn’t love it as much as most other people seem to have done, but that’s probably because it wasn’t really what I’d expected. I thought the crime element would have been a more important part of the story, but the murder and the trial are confined mainly to the final few chapters, and I’m not sure I would agree with the description of the book as a gothic novel either, although I suppose it would depend on what you consider gothic to mean.

I did find Frannie an interesting and engaging heroine with a strong narrative voice and although there were some parts of her story that I felt I’d read many times before (bearing in mind that I do read a lot of historical novels set in the 19th century), Frannie’s background and unusual circumstances mean that we are seeing things from a slightly different angle. Having one white parent and one black, Frannie never really fits in with the other slaves on the plantation – especially when she is given an education and an enviable position as house slave – but she knows she will never be accepted by most white people either. As you can imagine, she experiences a lot of cruelty and prejudice in her life and this is quite a sad story at times – and also quite disturbing, particularly the descriptions of the ‘scientific experiments’ and research carried out by Frannie’s two masters, Langton and Benham.

Sara Collins writes beautifully and I was struck by sentences like “A man writes to separate himself from the common history. A woman writes to try to join it…” and “A good scientist merely searches for the answer to the question posed, but the one whose name history will record reaches for the questions no one has even thought to ask”. And of course, as a fellow book lover, I appreciated Frannie’s love of literature and her determination to read all the books she could get her hands on. But was Frannie really responsible for the deaths of George and Marguerite Benham? You will need to read her confessions to find out…

Thanks to Penguin/Viking Books for providing a review copy of The Confessions of Frannie Langton and for inviting me to take part in their blog tour.