That Bonesetter Woman by Frances Quinn

I loved this! I’ll admit that when I first saw that this was a novel about a female bonesetter in the 18th century, I had my doubts. Was this really something a woman would be able to do at that time or was this going to be another book, like one or two others I’ve read recently, based around a completely anachronistic idea that could never have happened in reality? Then I discovered that there really was a female bonesetter working in London in the 1700s: her name was Sally Mapp and her story has provided Frances Quinn with the inspiration for her latest novel.

That Bonesetter Woman begins with Endurance Proudfoot – known as Durie – arriving in London in 1757 with her sister, Lucinda. The unmarried Lucinda has found herself pregnant and, with Durie accompanying her, has been hastily packed off to stay with an aunt so that she can give birth away from prying eyes at home. Durie is not at all happy to be sent away; she had been on the verge of persuading her father, a bonesetter, to allow her to work with him as his assistant. Now it looks as though the position will go to her younger brother instead. This is devastating for Durie – with her large hands and feet, social awkwardness and tendency to always say and do the wrong thing, bonesetting is the one thing she’s discovered she’s good at.

Watching with a mixture of admiration and resentment as Lucinda overcomes her own personal crisis and launches a new career for herself on the London stage, Durie decides it’s time to take matters into her own hands. She’s determined to find a way to do the work she loves and nothing is going to stop her.

This is a fascinating novel, particularly as it’s loosely based on the lives of real people (like Durie, Sally Mapp was believed to have a sister, Lavinia Fenton, who became a famous London actress). I enjoyed reading about Durie’s work as a bonesetter – similar to a modern-day chiropractor or osteopath, I think – but what particularly interested me was seeing the obstacles she had to overcome to be allowed to carry out her work at all, the mistrust from patients on discovering that they were going to be treated by a woman, and the hostility she faces from the existing, exclusively male, medical community. Poor Durie experiences one setback after another, but her passion for bonesetting and helping those in pain really shines through.

Although Durie is not considered a great beauty like her sister, she does have love interests throughout the novel but her lack of self-confidence leads to her making mistakes and poor decisions. Nothing ever seems to go her way, but while things often look bleak for Durie I never stopped hoping that she would find happiness and success in the end.

As I come to the end of this review I realise there are a lot of things I haven’t mentioned – the vivid portrayal of 18th century London, the menagerie in the Tower of London, the subplot involving the Foundling Hospital – but there’s so much going on in this novel, I can’t include all of it! It’s a great book and I will have to find time to read Frances Quinn’s previous novel, The Smallest Man.

Thanks to Simon & Schuster UK for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 36/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

The Fugitive Colours by Nancy Bilyeau

A new Nancy Bilyeau book is always something to look forward to. I’ve loved everything I’ve read by her so far: her Joanna Stafford trilogy, about a nun displaced in Tudor England after the dissolution of the monasteries; Dreamland, set in a Coney Island amusement park; and The Blue, a wonderful historical thriller involving spies, art and the race to create a beautiful new shade of blue. The Fugitive Colours is a sequel to The Blue and another great read; the two books stand alone, so it’s not necessary to have read the first novel before beginning this one, although I would recommend doing so if you can.

It’s 1764 and Genevieve Planché, heroine of The Blue, is now a married woman running her own silk design business in Spitalfields, London. With the help of her two young assistant artists, Caroline and Jean, Genevieve is beginning to find buyers for her silk designs and is determined to make the business a success. However, she has not given up on her dream of becoming a serious artist and when she is invited to a gathering at the home of the portrait painter Joshua Reynolds, it seems she could still have a chance of achieving her ambition.

This in itself would have been the basis for an interesting novel – a woman trying to build a career for herself in what was still very much a male-dominated field – but there’s a lot more to the story than that. Due to the parts played by Genevieve and her husband in the recent search for the blue, their names have come to the attention of some very powerful people who are hoping to enlist them in further conspiracies. Yet again Genevieve is forced to wonder who she can and cannot trust, but this time one wrong decision could mean the end of her dreams, the loss of her business and even the destruction of her marriage.

The Fugitive Colours is perhaps not quite as exciting and fast-paced as The Blue, but I found it equally gripping. Set entirely in London, it’s a very immersive book taking us from the Spitalfields workshops of the Huguenot silk-weaving community to the grand homes of the rich and famous and the nightlife of Covent Garden. While Genevieve and most of the other main characters are fictional, we do meet some real historical figures too – not just Joshua Reynolds but also Giacomo Casanova, the Earl of Sandwich and the fascinating Chevalier d’Eon. I particularly enjoyed the portrayal of the 18th century art world, the snippets of information I picked up (not coming from an art background myself, I didn’t know what ‘fugitive colours’ were, but now I do), and the insights into how difficult it was for women like Genevieve and the real-life Frances Reynolds, Joshua’s sister, to gain recognition for their work.

I hope there will be another book in the Genevieve Planché series as I think there’s certainly a lot more that could be written about her. If not, I’ll look forward to seeing what Nancy Bilyeau decides to write next.

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

This is book 21/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

Theatre of Marvels by Lianne Dillsworth

When the audience take their seats at Crillick’s Variety Theatre looking forward to an evening of entertainment featuring the Great Amazonia, a ‘savage queen’ captured in Africa, little do they know the act is a fraud. The ‘Great Amazonia’ is actually Zillah, a young mixed-race Londoner who has never been to Africa in her life. Zillah can see nothing wrong with what she is doing; she enjoys being the headline act, she’s being paid for her work and she’s making some powerful new friends, among them Vincent, Viscount Woodward, who is setting her up as his mistress. It’s not until she meets Lucien Winters, an African merchant and former slave, that she begins to question her actions and wonder whether there is a better life she could be leading.

Then, her manager Marcus Crillick unveils a new act – the ‘Leopard Lady’ – and Zillah’s eyes are opened to the full extent of Crillick’s cruelty and the way she and others are being exploited for financial gain. When the Leopard Lady goes missing, Zillah becomes convinced that she is being held captive somewhere and sets out to search for her – a search that will take her across Victorian London, from the bustling dockyards to the slums of St Giles and the elegant parlours of the upper classes. Meanwhile Zillah must choose between Vincent and Lucien and decide how she wants her future to unfold.

I enjoyed Theatre of Marvels, although it did seem very similiar at first to Elizabeth Macneal’s Circus of Wonders, another novel about the exploitation of ‘circus attractions’. However, this one is written from a very different perspective, allowing Lianne Dillsworth to explore different themes such as racial and class inequality and slavery. The thousands of black and mixed race people who lived in Victorian London are often ignored in fiction set in that period, but Dillsworth gives them a voice here through the characters of Zillah, Lucien and others. Zillah is a particularly interesting heroine as she is clearly struggling with her identity throughout the novel, feeling that she doesn’t truly fit in with one community or the other and trying to decide who she is and what she wants.

Although I felt that some of the characters, particularly the villain Marcus Crillick and Zillah’s friend and rival Ellen, were too thinly drawn, there were others I found much more interesting. I was intrigued by Vincent Woodward, as there were times when I thought he must genuinely care about Zillah, but I doubted from the beginning that he would have the courage to defy convention and commit to a future with her. I could only see their relationship ending unhappily. On the other hand, Lucien seemed to have a deeper understanding of Zillah and much more personal integrity, yet I never really managed to warm to him. However, I thought I had predicted how the story would end and was taken by surprise because it wasn’t quite what I’d expected!

While I would have liked to have seen more of the Leopard Lady and to have heard some of her story from her own point of view, I did enjoy getting to know Zillah. This was an absorbing and surprisingly quick read and I’ll be looking out for more books from Lianne Dillsworth.

Theatre of Marvels is published in the UK on Thursday 28th April 2022. Thanks to Hutchinson Heinemann for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 19/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

This is also my contribution to Reading the Theatre 2022 hosted by Lory of Entering the Enchanted Castle.

Rags of Time by Michael Ward

I love a good historical mystery, so I’m pleased to have had the opportunity to read Rags of Time, the first in a new series set in the 17th century during the final years of the reign of Charles I. Based on how much I enjoyed this book, I will certainly be looking out for the next one.

The story begins in 1639 with Tom Tallant, a young spice merchant, returning to London from India only to find that he has become implicated in a murder investigation. Wool merchant Sir Joseph Venell has been found dead in a meadow near his home in Kensington and it seems that Tom is the main suspect. Then another murder takes place, this time in the Tallant household, casting further suspicion on Tom. In order to clear his name, Tom must try to identify the real murderer – and for that he will need the help of Elizabeth Seymour, an intelligent and unusual young woman with an interest in astronomy and an addiction to gambling.

“The murder was just the beginning of the affair”, it says on the front cover of the book, and that is quite true because although Rags of Time at first appears to be a straightforward murder mystery, it soon becomes apparent that the murder is only one aspect of the story and for a while takes second place to an equally fascinating subplot involving a printing press and the distribution of seditious pamphlets. Remember that this is all taking place during an eventful and turbulent period of history, a time of tension between King and Parliament and unrest on the streets:

‘Each day and week we suffer treasonable talk on the street, attacks on our churches, seditious street-preachers, scandalous pamphlets on every corner and finally this…mutinous gangs of Apprentice Boys!’

I loved the recreation of 17th century London; there’s such a strong sense of time and place (without becoming overly descriptive) and with so much going on it’s the perfect backdrop for Tom’s adventures. Yet one of my favourite parts of the story relates to something taking place overseas – the ‘tulip mania’ sweeping Amsterdam in the 1630s and the notion of windhandel, or ‘trading in promises’.

As for the mystery itself, once everything starts to come together towards the end of the book, there are plenty of twists and turns and when the solution was revealed I was completely taken by surprise! I think there were probably a few clues but I didn’t pick up on them and didn’t guess either the culprit or how and why the murders were carried out. Although most of the focus of the novel is on Tom, I was pleased to see that Elizabeth also contributes to the solving of the mystery; I wasn’t sure I would like her at first and it took me a little while to warm to her, but I think she’s a character with a lot of potential, as is Tom himself. I hope to meet them both again soon!

Thanks to the author for providing a copy of this book for review.

Book 4/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Lost Boys of London by Mary Lawrence

This is the fifth book in a series of historical mysteries set in the Tudor period and featuring the character of alchemist’s daughter Bianca Goddard. I don’t think it’s essential to read all of the books in the series in order; I started with the fourth one, The Alchemist of Lost Souls, and had no problems in picking up the threads of the story and following the plot.

As The Lost Boys of London opens, Bianca’s husband John is away fighting in Scotland for Henry VIII, leaving Bianca in London, devoting her time to preparing herbal remedies in her ‘room of Medicinals and Physickes’. In the past, Bianca’s skills as a herbalist have led to her assisting Constable Patch with his investigations, and having played a part in solving several previous mysteries, her help is required again when a young boy is found hanging from the exterior wall of a church.

Finding a rosary wrapped around the boy’s neck marked with a set of initials, it seems there could be a religious motive for the murder, and this appears to be confirmed when a second boy is found under similar circumstances at another church. Bianca is determined to do whatever she can to find the murderer before he or she kills again – and she has a personal reason for wanting to do so as quickly as possible. Her own young friend, Fisk, who is about the same age as the other boys, has gone missing and Bianca is afraid that he could become the next victim.

I enjoyed this book more than The Alchemist of Lost Souls. I thought the mystery was stronger and more interesting, with its exploration of topics such as religious conflict, the rivalries between the clergy of various churches, and child poverty in Tudor London. Also, although the previous book included some magical realism elements, which didn’t entirely work for me, there didn’t seem to be anything like that in this one and I thought that was a good decision as the plot was strong enough without it. As well as following Bianca’s investigations in London, there are some chapters describing John’s adventures as a reluctant soldier in the Scottish borders during the war known as the ‘Rough Wooing’ and this added some variety to the novel, taking us away from London now and then to see what was going on elsewhere.

Sometimes the language used is not right for the setting (English houses don’t have ‘stoops’, for example) and I found that a bit distracting, but otherwise the atmosphere is convincing enough and it’s always interesting to read about the lives of ordinary, working-class people in the Tudor period as a change from all of the books dealing with the royal court. Oh, and I love Bianca’s cat, Hobs!

This is apparently the final book in the Bianca Goddard series. I received a copy for review via NetGalley.

The Foundling by Stacey Halls

Stacey Halls’ new novel, The Foundling, begins on a cold November evening in 1747 with Bess Bright about to make a very difficult decision, one no new mother should ever have to face. She has brought her illegitimate baby daughter, Clara – less than a day old – to London’s Foundling Hospital and is planning to leave her there. Aware that, as an impoverished shrimp seller, she has little to offer her daughter but hunger and hardship, she is sure Clara will have a happier childhood at the Foundling, where at least she will be fed, clothed and educated. As she walks away from the hospital, leaving her baby behind, Bess consoles herself with the knowledge that it needn’t be forever; she has left a token – half of a heart made from whalebone – as proof of identity if she is ever in a position to bring Clara home again.

After six years of working hard and saving every penny she can, Bess returns to the hospital to collect her child, dreading being told that Clara has died of some childhood illness. Nothing can prepare her for the shock she receives when she enters the Foundling and is informed that her daughter has already been claimed – by someone who gave her name as Bess Bright and knew about the whalebone token. Bess is horrified. What has happened to Clara? Who has taken her little girl and what have they done with her?

I was very impressed with The Foundling, my first Stacey Halls novel. Although there wasn’t as much mystery as I would have liked and some of my biggest questions were answered a lot earlier than I’d expected, I was still kept in suspense wondering whether there would be a happy ending for Bess and her daughter or whether fate would have something else in store. I liked Bess and loved the descriptions of the London in which she lived and worked, from her lodgings in Black and White Court, where the alleys are ‘choked by coal smoke’, to the lively fish markets of Billingsgate where she and her father sell their shrimps.

However, this is not just Bess Bright’s story. It’s also the story of another woman, Alexandra Callard, a widow who is leading a very different sort of life in another part of London. Apart from attending church, Alexandra hasn’t left her elegant townhouse for years and neither has her little girl, Charlotte. Just the thought of going outside and walking along the street fills her with fear and she’s convinced that her child will be safer indoors too. Then one day, a friend persuades her to employ a nursemaid to help with Charlotte and the arrival of a new face in the household poses a threat to the secure little bubble Alexandra has built around herself.

I didn’t like Alexandra as much as Bess, but bringing a second narrator into the story – especially one who lived in such a different world – added variety and the chance to see things from another perspective. Unlike Bess, Alexandra doesn’t have to worry about money and has everything she needs within the four walls of her luxurious home, but due to her mental health problems her life is still not very happy. We eventually find out what has caused her agoraphobia and I did have a lot of sympathy, but I still found her a cold and rather selfish person.

As well as the two contrasting views of Georgian London, The Foundling explores several other interesting issues, particularly what it means to be a mother and what sort of environment is the most suitable in which to raise a happy, healthy child. The way the book ended was probably the best outcome, but I think there were at least two other possible endings and either could have been used to make a valid point. Having enjoyed this so much, I will have to read Stacey Halls’ previous book, The Familiars, about the Pendle Witch Trials.

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.