The Shadow in the Glass by JJA Harwood – an atmospheric story of a young woman taking risks in a Victorian world

The Shadow in the Glass by JJA Harwood

An incredibly atmospheric novel for a debut work, this book uses all the techniques of using the senses to describe a nearly there presence. Set mainly in a vaguely Victorian town house, where the damp and mold suggest disease and creeping decay, this is a book of the unexplainable, the opposite of the fairy tales the protagonist so loves. Eleanor was not always an overworked house maid, knowing what her master Mr. Pembroke is capable of where young women are concerned.  Her memories of his late wife are associated with better treatment, and she remembers especially the reading and writing she was encouraged to spend times doing, before her hands became work roughened. The library is her refuge, her way of escaping the claustrophobic household, where she feels vulnerable on so many levels. The amazing offer that she is made of seven wishes seem set to transform her life, but at a cost she cannot understand. Everything is seen through Eleanor’s eyes, even if she does not narrate the novel, but there seems to be more going on under the surface of this multidimensional novel. I found it a curious and compelling read, with its quicksilver sightings of a woman, a fear inducing step outside the room, the hints of blood in unexpected places. Mysterious and disturbing in a good way, I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this remarkable book.

When the book begins it describes how Eleanor creeps around a house at night that she used to have the run of, particularly to enter the library and read of places that she was once destined to visit with Mrs. Pembroke. As she returns to her room she has vivid dreams, but wakes to dampness all around, a chipped jug, and worst of all, her friend Leah, victim of Mr. Pembroke’s attacks, struggling into a corset in an attempt to conceal her pregnancy. As each maid in the house leaves under similar circumstances, she knows that it will soon be her turn for unwanted attention, or that he will turn his gaze to innocent Aoife. Feeling hopeless at her state, the chance to make wishes to free herself from the situation seems so tempting, if only it could be true. The cost is difficult to understand, and maybe if she is careful, thinks through what she actually wants and needs, she will be fine. Not that she will get much time, as events overtake her, as people move on with their lives, and Granborough House declines.

This is a book remarkable for its success in maintaining the sense of menace throughout, of subtly reminding the reader of the underlying threat to Eleanor, of the very real presence of other possibilities. The writing is exceptional, as it proceeds apace through the rooms of a house heavy with despair, as the small hints of clothing, physical objects, sore hands and so much more while addressing the overall themes. The library is a place of refuge, yet is also the scene of inner turmoil. Eleanor is an amazing character, strong yet vulnerable, pitted against forces she struggles to understand. I found this an engaging book on so many levels, and recommend it as an intense read of a young woman’s dilemmas.

The Death of Me by M.J. Tjia – A Heloise Chancey Mystery in Paris and London

 

Another Heloise Chancey novel, another chance to sink into a world of gorgeous Victorian dresses and the fashionable life of a highly intelligent and extremely well off courtesan. Heloise is more than a wealthy lady of fashion and the well organised woman who has her pick of society’s gentleman; she enjoys adventures which can, and do, draw on all her resources to investigate the suspicious and the missing. Within moments of this third volume of adventures which reintroduces her sparky attitude to life she is determined to solve the mysterious if risky spy world of Paris. Not that all is well in London where her faithful maid Amah must deal with her own challenges as the past seems once more to be threatening her present.

A terrific adventure in which the smells, sounds and sights of Victorian cities jostle with the enthralling Heloise as she takes risks in a fast moving and brilliantly researched setting where people and plot come truly to life.  

 

While this is the third book in the series, I am confident that it can be enjoyed as a standalone novel, which just might get you hooked on Heloise’s adventures. The small details of life, clothes and settings which are part of these novels shows a huge amount of not only research but also real visualisation and understanding of life in  Victorian London. Heloise narrates her story, remembering her feelings of trepidation and excitement as she puts on her disguises which she feels are necessary to her work, even when it means dressing as a young man. Amah meanwhile is observed as she finds that her past has real implications for her present. Dangerous times for both women make this an exciting read, especially as Heloise becomes stuck in an impossible situation.  

 

This book covers some excellent characters, including Mrs. White, Heloise’s friends  and the servants that keep the houses going. While one story ends a little abruptly, the story that relates to the Prologue, of explosions and murderous fantasies, develops into an intriguing and surprising story. This is a book which does not disguise the reality of death and desperation, though never in a gratuitous way.  There are hints of romance past and present, and Heloise’s relationships are always practical and reasonable. The details of beautiful clothes, expensive furnishings and special jewelry contrasts as ever with some of the less salubrious areas in which Heloise frequently finds herself. London and Paris are not just wonderful middle and upper class areas, but also places where poverty and survival are faithfully described.

 

I always enjoy these wonderful mysteries which maintain a fine pace and momentum, which means that they are never easy to put down. I have raced through this one, and would be eager to read any future adventures. Despite being quite slim books, they pack a lot of adventure in. Heloise is a marvelous creation, and her character develops well throughout the book. I recommend this book to all fans of historical crime and mystery, and Heloise Chancey is a character to watch for.   

 

Those with really good eyesight may spot that I’m actually quoted on the cover of this book, which is very exciting. This is a series of books which is developing brilliantly, and I am hopeful of more to come.

Miss Marley by Vanessa Lafaye – A dreamlike book of Victorian London life for women

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“A Christmas Carol” by Dickens is dominated by one fact: Jacob Marley is dead. This book takes that fact and gives a completely different view; that of a sister who loved him, feared for him and was loyal in every respect. A hauntingly beautiful book about a young woman who saw the painful reality behind a life devoted to monetary profit at the cost of everything else, Lafaye has created a character who can stand next to the much loved characters of Dickens’ well known story. Bitterly hard, sad and full of longing, this is a book that manages to convey a hope far beyond usual romantic endings. I was pleased to receive a proof copy of a short novel which nevertheless has an enormous emotional impact.

This book conveys an atmosphere of Victorian London which strives to be festive, despite the bleak existence of a significant number of its inhabitants. Jacob and Clara are children who have fallen on hard times, slipped through any safety net of family life as their unfortunate parents have died. They have, however, so much hope of a return to a pleasant and comfortable life. Jacob fiercely protects his sister, promising her that “tomorrow will be better”, as she gazes fascinated at a dolls’ house representing a world that now only exists in her memory. Tragically, their only chance survival comes at a cost, and while Clara is grateful for the chance, she realises disturbingly early that Jacob is changing. Women in this short book are given the perspective that love, hope and compassion are the key to life, and this is in sharp and significant contrast to the men’s view of the world.

While I have read a lot of Dickens, I have often been disappointed in his depiction of female characters. This book triumphantly overturns that problem, making Clara and indeed Belle real people, who come to dominate the novel in their steadfast attachment to the men that they love. This is a book of the sights, sounds and tastes of London, in all its challenges and humanity; the small bits of food and money, the contrasts between rich and poor, the constant quest to live better lives. It undoubtedly has a dream like quality, as Clara appreciates the beauty of the flowers, of the seasons, of people around her. This is in sharp contrast to Jacob, who also longs for better things, but is frightened of loss in so many ways. His desire for a better life for himself and his sister at whatever the cost means that he can continually justify himself by saying “It’s nothing personal. Just business” even though he acknowledges that others suffer. The sharp contrast between rich and poor, compassion and business gives a resoundingly clear motive for the much loved classic story of Scrooge and his redemption. This is an admirable book, conveying the reality of a way of life that many have tried to capture, and more than establishing an additional and significant character in the much loved world of “A Christmas Carol”.

We have returned from a pre Christmas break in the real North, when I got to Barter Books (some lovely things there) and visited a couple of lovely little towns in Scotland. Yes, I had a haggis roll for lunch! Now for more Carol services, University and teaching planning and writing so many cards…

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry – An intense read!

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This is an enormous, intense book. Not in terms of length, although it is over four hundred pages long, but in terms of subject matter, themes, ideas and characters. It is not a quick read, as passages need to be savoured and ideas thought through. This is a fascinating and detailed book, with fantastic descriptions of the thin barrier between land and sea, truth and fiction, attraction and the sadness of loss. It is an historical novel with vivid descriptions of not only time and conditions, but of the mind sets of a world full of challenges to the accepted order. This novel deals with courage, questions, love, disturbed minds and bravery.  While sometimes there is a danger of the narrative arc becoming lost within the character’s agendas and the moving descriptions, overall it is a fascinating novel.

The story opens with the death of a character, almost to the relief of his wife, Cora Seabourne. 1893 is a year of discovery and change as people question the beliefs and understandings of decades, when even the natural world seems to be revealing its secrets. In her quest to find freedom and fossils, Cora and her faithful companion Martha encounter a clergyman in Essex, William Ransome. His coastal parish of Aldwinter is beset with fear of a giant serpent which is said to emerge from the sea to kill and devour people and animals. The events of New Year’s Day preface the novel, as a man is killed in mysterious circumstances at the edge of the sea.  The fear is real for those who live in this place where living and dying seems to be dictated by the mysterious and unknown. William’s parish is full of the fearful, and his fixation with a carved serpent in the church comes to dominate his own view. His family is remarkable, with his daughter desperate to further her understanding of the world around her, and his wife Stella becoming obsessed with the colour blue. Meanwhile the doctor that attended Cora’s husband, Luke, is fixated on her and the quest to perform the most seemingly impossible of operations.  His friend and benefactor, Spencer, is influenced into becoming involved in the plight of London’s poor and their appalling treatment by Martha, and he becomes involved in the whole story of Cora’s friendships. The intense relationship between Cora and William defies description as they acknowledge each other’s preoccupations and responsibilities, while the triumphs and tragedies of so many other people rage around them.

There are so many themes and issues within this novel that one read through is insufficient; Perry keeps a hold on the book’s essential ‘strangeness’ only with difficulty. It holds so many issues in tension, such as women’s changing roles, the conflict between faith and fear, the rights of those people who barely exist in London being denied access to good housing. Each character, however incidental to the plot, is well described, so that it can feel a little overwhelming. This book has many great aspects, descriptions and ideas, but it can be a tough read and frequently I needed to check back on characters. There are whole lines of narrative, such as the medical breakthrough in a first operation of its type that almost deserve a novel of themselves.  This is in all senses an amazing book, far more than an historical novel, and definitely worth the effort of reading it. If anything, it has so many ideas that it can sometimes be difficult to read, despite being beautifully written from the standpoint of various characters. I suggest clearing more than a few hours to savour it!

Yes, I know that everyone has already read, reviewed and discussed this book. I have even heard Sarah Perry talk about it twice at various book festivals, so I have got a signed copy (thanks to a friend who climbed onto a stage where she was busy signing them!). It was only last week that our book group actually got round to discussing it. Virtually everyone said that they had read it, but it was universally agreed to be a strange book and a challenging read. I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of “Melmoth”, and promise I will read it considerably quicker when I do!

Kitty Peck and the Child of Ill Fortune by Kate Griffin

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If you remember a novel called “Kitty Peck and the Music Hall Mystery”, this book is the sequel or second one of a series concerning a Victorian Music Hall empire which did not hold back on detail. The first book was remarkable for the clever way it described the London streets and buildings in intense detail, but without unnecessary padding. The people around young Kitty are also described with honest realism, old or young, scarred and beautiful. Kitty’s situation at the end of that novel is a stunning surprise to all, but I think it would be possible to read this present book with enjoyment as a standalone novel.

“Paradise” is the ironic name of an area of London’s less salubrious back streets, riverside, buildings containing dubious businesses, and the three Music Halls in which Kitty and a number of the main characters work. The running of this business involves not only obvious accountancy skills which are undertaken by the “Beetle”; a legendary character, but the moral grey areas of exploitation of people. This is a book which contains violence and fear, tension and deceit. Several characters are not what they seem on various levels, and there are some confusions which inevitably involve the reader in flipping back to check for clues. It is told from Kitty’s point of view, and there are splendid details of her newly acquired dresses, contrasted with the less than neat circumstances that she finds herself in throughout the novel. A small child is in peril, other people die, and this is high melodrama of the most dramatic kind. Family members give Kitty problems, but in the same way she begins to understand the pressure that they have been facing.

This is genuinely a tense, gripping read which holds the reader’s interest from beginning to end. Kitty Peck in this book is not really affected by many romantic distractions herself, even if her companion Lucca is afflicted. There are so many challenges to face on so many levels that Kitty must develop independence and self -belief fast, even if she becomes overwhelmed by the whole picture. She emerges as brave and immensely resourceful which is good as danger threatens everywhere, and she can only depend on herself ultimately. I confess that ending is haunting, and perhaps best not read late at night. This is a grim book in many ways, though totally absorbing. I do not want to spoil it for anyone, but there is another book just out which always suggests that Kitty survives.

This is a book which would be enjoyable for anyone who enjoys historical novels with mystery and adventure. Perhaps far fetched, perhaps the whole idea of a fiercely independent woman with such power is anachronistic, but it is a stirring and enjoyable book which I recommend highly to both fans of this genre and those keen to discover more about Victorian London from an impeccably written novel.