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.

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 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.

Bodies of Light by Sarah Moss

This is the first book I’ve read by Sarah Moss, an author I had never really thought about trying until I saw so much praise for her latest novel, Ghost Wall, last year. Bodies of Light is apparently loosely linked to an earlier book, Night Waking, but I didn’t feel that I’d missed anything by reading this one first.

The setting for Bodies of Light is Victorian Manchester where, as the novel opens, a newly married couple – Elizabeth and Alfred Moberley – are moving into their new home. Even this early in their marriage, there are clues that suggest they might not be very happy together; Alfred is a painter who appreciates the finer things in life while Elizabeth is passionate about social reform and women’s rights. Their two daughters, Alethea (Ally) and May, grow up trying to please both parents, being asked to model for their father’s latest portrait one day and accompanying their mother on one of her missions to help women in Manchester’s poorest areas the next.

I really enjoyed the first half of this book; after a slow start I found that I had become completely drawn into the lives of the Moberley family. Each chapter starts with a description of a portrait painted by Alfred or one of his circle, giving an idea of what will follow in the pages to come, and I thought that was a nice touch. As the novel progresses and the children grow older, we see that Elizabeth, despite her good deeds in public, can be a harsh and unloving mother; to explain this, Sarah Moss spends some time at the beginning of the book showing us what made her the way she is, focusing on Elizabeth’s relationship with her own mother and the depression she suffered after Ally’s birth.

The second half of the novel is devoted mainly to Ally, as she goes to London to study medicine at the first medical school to accept female students. She is pushed into this career path by her mother, who believes very strongly that women – particularly ‘fallen women’ – should be entitled to request treatment from a female doctor and who likes the idea of her own daughter becoming one of these doctors. Ally is an intelligent young woman who loves learning, so she throws herself into her studies, but there is always a sense that she is doing this mainly to make her mother happy – and yet, whatever she does, it seems that Elizabeth is never happy.

I felt so sorry for Ally, who self-harms and suffers from nightmares as she is growing up, longing for some comfort and compassion from her mother but receiving only criticism and impatience instead, told that she has no right to complain about anything ‘because there is always someone else worse off.’ Interestingly, her younger sister May, who has the same upbringing, doesn’t seem to suffer from Ally’s anxiety-related problems, possibly due to the fact that Ally, as the eldest, has always felt under more pressure.

Once Ally had left home to begin her medical studies, I found the story a bit less compelling but still interesting. It certainly made me appreciate the educational opportunities that are open to women today and how difficult it must have been for those who were among the first to try to enter a field dominated by men. This is a fascinating book and I do like Sarah Moss’s writing, so I now want to read the sequel, Signs for Lost Children, as well as the earlier Night Waking, which I think tells some more of May’s story.

Blood & Sugar by Laura Shepherd-Robinson

This new historical mystery – Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s first novel – deals with one of the darkest subjects in our history. Set in 1781, it follows the investigations of former army officer Captain Harry Corsham into the disappearance of his friend, the lawyer and abolitionist Tad Archer. It seems that Tad had been about to uncover a secret that, once exposed, could damage the reputations of those involved in the British slave trade. Could someone have killed Tad to prevent him from telling what he knows?

Captain Corsham is determined to find out what has happened to his friend, but to do so he will need to continue Tad’s enquiries into a shocking incident which took place onboard a ship carrying slaves across the Atlantic. This brings him into conflict with some very powerful men who could destroy his hopes of a political career. But Harry Corsham is a man with principles and even when he, like Tad before him, begins to receive threatening letters and warnings, he refuses to walk away until he has discovered the truth.

There are many things I liked about Blood & Sugar. The setting and atmosphere are wonderful; with the action taking place partly in London, where Harry Corsham lives with his wife, Caro, and their young son, and partly in the nearby slaving port of Deptford, we see Harry move between both locations in search of answers to his questions. I loved the contrasting descriptions of Deptford, from the elegant homes of the wealthy slave merchants to the notorious dockside alleys with their brothels and opium dens.

We also meet a wide range of characters from very different backgrounds, including magistrates, politicians, mayors and surgeons, prostitutes, innkeepers, sailors and servants. Many of the latter group are black, which is interesting because I think we tend to forget (or are not aware of) how many black people there were living in eighteenth century Britain. It is estimated that there were more than twenty thousand in London alone, yet they rarely appear in fiction set during that period. As for the slavery aspect of the story, there are parts that are not easy to read, as you can probably imagine – particularly when we hear about what happened on the ship, something which is based on a real incident. But unpleasant as it is, we can’t ignore the fact that slavery did happen and I think it’s important that we remember and learn from it.

I was very impressed with this book at the beginning. I liked Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s writing, the mystery seemed intriguing and I was starting to draw comparisons with one of my favourite historical crime authors, Andrew Taylor. However, as the plot continued to develop, I thought it became far too complicated and I struggled to remember who had said what to whom and what the various motives of the characters were. Towards the end, there were so many threads to tie up that everything seemed to take forever to be resolved (and there were one or two revelations which added very little to the overall story and weren’t really necessary, in my opinion). I also felt that as there were so many characters to keep track of, they really needed to be better defined – instead, I thought they were thinly drawn and not very memorable.

I’m disappointed that I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I thought I would at first, but I still think there were more positives than negatives and as this is the author’s first novel I would be happy to read more.

Thanks to Pan Macmillan for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The House on Half Moon Street by Alex Reeve

The House on Half Moon Street is both an interesting historical crime novel set in Victorian London and a sensitive exploration of what it means to be transgender in a less enlightened time. This is apparently the first in a planned series and I will certainly be looking out for the next one.

Our hero, Leo Stanhope, is a coroner’s assistant in 1880s London. As the novel opens, the body of a man washed up by the Thames has been brought to the hospital where Leo works. Identified as Jack Flowers and believed to have fallen into the river accidentally, the man’s death seems to be an unfortunate tragedy, but not something which affects Leo personally. However, the next body to arrive is that of a woman – a woman who happens to be the love of Leo’s life, Maria Milanes, and who appears to have been murdered.

Before her death, Maria was a prostitute at a brothel on Half Moon Street, but that didn’t matter to Leo. He loved her and knew that she loved him. Maria was one of the few people he had trusted with his secret, one of the few people who knew that Leo Stanhope was born Charlotte Pritchard. Now Maria is gone and Leo vows to find out who has killed her. Joining forces with pie maker Rosie, Jack Flowers’ widow, he begins to uncover some links between both deaths – but at the same time he must ensure that his own secret is not uncovered, because the truth could have serious consequences.

On one level, as I’ve said, this is a compelling and well-constructed murder mystery. Although I found the pace a bit slow at times, I did enjoy watching Leo move around Victorian London, looking for clues in the Half Moon Street brothel, playing chess with his friend Jacob and word games with his landlord’s daughter in the pharmacy where he lodges, or paying a visit to the midwife and abortionist Madame Moreau, whom he hopes may be able to shed some light on the situation. All of these people and locations are vividly described and all play their part in Leo’s investigations.

Leo himself is easy to like and to warm to; he narrates his story in the first person, letting us into his mind and his heart. I know things are not perfect for transgender people today and that they still face a lot of prejudice, obstacles and challenges, but I can hardly imagine how difficult life must have been for people like Leo who lived more than a hundred years ago. I admired him for his courage in being true to himself and not just continuing to be someone he was not; I was sorry for the sacrifices he’d had to make in adopting his true male identity and the lack of support he received from those he should have been able to rely on; and I was afraid for him too, because he is in such a vulnerable position.

I should warn you that due to the nature of the story, the type of mystery it is and Leo’s vulnerability, the novel does become very dark in places. Although I didn’t find it unnecessarily graphic or violent, there are still a few scenes which are quite disturbing. The Victorian era was certainly not the safest time in which to live if you were seen as different in any way. I’m sure Leo will have more ordeals to go through as the series progresses, but I hope there will be some happiness in store for him too.

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