The Fourteenth Letter by Claire Evans

With its eye-catching cover, Victorian setting and promise of “a labyrinth of unfolding secrets”, Claire Evans’ debut novel The Fourteenth Letter sounded like a book I really needed to read!

The novel opens in June 1881 with the murder of Phoebe Stanbury at a party to celebrate her engagement to Benjamin Raycraft, son of the wealthy Sir Jasper. The killer, a naked man covered in mud with a strange design tattooed on his chest, disappears after committing the crime and it seems that nobody is able to shed any light on his identity or why he may have wanted to kill an innocent young woman. Detective Harry Treadway is given the job of investigating the murder, but the deeper he delves into the mystery, the more bizarre and complex it becomes.

Meanwhile, William Lamb, an inexperienced, timid young lawyer, goes to visit an eccentric client in his partner’s absence – and ends up in possession of a casket of old papers written in Latin and a cryptic message which means nothing to him. His visit is witnessed by Savannah Shelton, an American woman who has been paid to watch the house, but who is employing her and what do they want? At another house in London, Mildred is applying for a position as governess, then changes her mind when the interview doesn’t go as planned. How are all of these events connected? There are no obvious links at first, but slowly the truth is revealed as the story begins to unfold.

When I first started to read The Fourteenth Letter, I was fascinated. There were so many intriguing characters and so many strange things happening all at once. However, the constant switching from one storyline to another made it difficult for me to settle into the story and after a few chapters I began to wish we could spend a little bit longer with one character before moving on to the next. As I’ve said, the various strands of the plot do start to come together eventually but I would have liked it to have happened more quickly.

Being set in the 1880s, the story takes place during an exciting time in history, a time of great advances in science and technology. Sir Jasper Raycraft’s house, Ridgeside, is described as a famous residence with all the latest scientific developments such as electric light. I immediately recognised this as a description of Cragside in Northumberland, a National Trust property I have visited several times, and I was pleased to have this confirmed when I reached the author’s note!

However, for a novel set in Victorian London, I thought there was very little sense of time and place. Although there are references to historical and political events of the period, I never felt fully immersed in the world Claire Evans had created and it didn’t help that I couldn’t quite manage to believe in Savannah Shelton as a convincing character. William Lamb, though, is a great character – not a typical hero at all – and it was interesting to watch him develop and grow as a person over the course of the story.

Although this is certainly a very unusual and imaginative novel, I didn’t like it as much as I’d hoped to. Maybe I was just not the right reader for this particular book; that happens sometimes and it doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t a good book. I’ve seen some very positive reviews so clearly other readers are finding a lot to enjoy in The Fourteenth Letter!

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.

Andrew Hughes: The Coroner’s Daughter

I found so much to love in The Coroner’s Daughter! A strong, resourceful heroine with a passion for science; an interesting historical setting – 19th century Dublin; and a twisting, turning mystery to keep me guessing. Just like Andrew Hughes’ first novel The Convictions of John Delahunt, which I read and loved a few years ago, this is another great book which manages to be both highly entertaining and darkly atmospheric.

The story takes place in 1816, known as the ‘Year Without a Summer’. The city of Dublin is shrouded in fog and when a frosty July is followed by snow in August, people are at a loss to explain what is going on. Eighteen-year-old Abigail Lawless, however, has conducted her own research into the phenomenon, linking the unseasonable weather to a volcanic eruption on the other side of the world. As the coroner’s daughter, Abigail has always possessed a natural curiosity for anything scientific – and is particularly interested in her father’s work, performing autopsies to establish the cause of death.

When a young servant in a neighbouring household is accused of murdering her newborn baby – and is found dead before the inquest can be held – Abigail is sure there is more going on than meets the eye. She easily discovers the identity of the maid’s lover, but this is only the beginning. The strict religious sect known as the Brethren has been increasing in size and power since their influential leader, Mr Darby, arrived in Dublin the previous year. As she continues to investigate, assisted by her father’s young Scottish apprentice, Ewan Weir, Abigail becomes convinced that the Brethren are connected with the death of the maid and her baby. But who else might be involved? And if Abigail becomes too deeply involved herself, could she be putting her own life in danger?

I really enjoyed The Coroner’s Daughter. I think I preferred John Delahunt as the plot seemed more original and unusual, but this book is excellent too. I loved following Abigail around the Dublin of 1816 which, thanks to the gloomy and oppressive weather, is a very atmospheric setting. Our heroine’s investigations take her to a variety of locations from the Lying-In Hospital at the Rotunda to the smart terraced houses of Fitzwilliam Square and a clockmaker’s workshop on Abbey Street – and all of these are vividly described. Although it’s quite a dark story, it’s written with a lot of humour, which was obvious from the very first sentence: For my eighteenth birthday, Father promised me the hand of a handsome young man, which he duly delivered mounted in a glass bell-jar. First sentences can be so important and that one captured my attention immediately!

I found the scientific aspect of the novel particularly interesting. The story takes place at a time when the fanatical religious views of groups such as the Brethren are coming into conflict with the work of scientists such as the astronomer Professor Reeves, a friend of Abigail’s father. As a woman, Abigail faces additional obstacles, as is seen when she is forced to submit one of her reports to a scientific journal under her father’s name in order to get published, and again when she is the only female member of the audience at an astronomy lecture given by Professor Reeves. Mr Lawless does try to encourage his daughter to be more ‘feminine’ but at the same time, not having any sons, there’s the sense that he is only too pleased to have someone to share his knowledge and passion with!

Now I’m hoping Andrew Hughes will write more books about Abigail Lawless. She’s a great character and the way the novel ended makes me think that she could easily be brought back for a sequel. If not, I will look forward to reading whatever he writes next.

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

At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

It’s been some time since I last read a Tracy Chevalier novel, but having enjoyed some of her books in the past, I was pleased to have the opportunity to read her latest one, At the Edge of the Orchard.

The story begins in 1838 in the Black Swamp of Ohio, where James and Sadie Goodenough are attempting to make a living from the harsh, inhospitable earth on which they have settled. With the help of their five children, James is working hard to establish an orchard with enough apple trees to satisfy the requirements to legally claim their piece of land. Sadie, who does not share her husband’s ambition, longs to move on and start again somewhere else – somewhere more comfortable and welcoming. Finding solace in the strong cider and applejack produced from the fruits of the orchard, Sadie’s is a miserable existence from which there seems to be no escape.

Time passes and we jump forward to the 1850s where the youngest Goodenough son, Robert, has made his way alone to California. What happened to the rest of the family? Why does Robert never get a reply to the letters he sends home to his brothers and sisters? We’ll have to wait until later in the book for these questions to be answered, but in the meantime we read about Robert’s work with the plant collector William Lobb, gathering seeds and plants to sell to gardeners in England. Having grown up surrounded by trees, this is the sort of job that interests Robert – yet there is still something missing from his life, and when he is finally given a chance of happiness, he will have to decide whether to take it.

I enjoyed At the Edge of the Orchard and found it a surprisingly compelling read. I say ‘surprisingly’ because, despite the title and the picture on the cover, which should have been clues, I wasn’t fully prepared for so much information on trees: in the orchard sections, we learn about different types of apple tree – the qualities of ‘eaters’ versus ‘spitters’; the taste of James’ favourite Golden Pippins; and the methods used to graft one tree onto another – and in the California sections we are given a wealth of information on the giant sequoia trees of Calaveras Grove. I have to admit, although I do appreciate the beauty and importance of trees, I have very little interest in them. I’m impressed that Tracy Chevalier managed to hold my attention from the first page to the last; I was never bored and would never have expected a book about trees to be so engaging!

Of course, this is not just a book about trees – it’s also a book about human beings, following the stories of several very different characters. At first, the Goodenoughs don’t seem to be a very pleasant set of people. James is decent enough, but with a tendency to be violent when things annoy him and a frustrating single-mindedness when it comes to growing and nurturing his precious apple trees. His wife, Sadie, is a deeply unhappy woman but any sympathy I may have had for her was destroyed by her bitter, spiteful nature and needlessly cruel actions. It wasn’t until later in the novel that I found some characters I could like and care about. In fact, a series of letters written by two of these characters broke my heart…the sense of loneliness and desperation they each felt came across so strongly.

The novel is carefully structured, moving backwards and forwards in time to ensure that certain things are kept hidden until it becomes necessary for us to know them. A mixture of styles are used to tell the story too, from the letters I’ve mentioned above to conventional third party narration and several passages narrated by Sadie in a very distinctive voice of her own. Although the story of the Goodenoughs is fictional, we also meet several real historical figures: the legendary Johnny Appleseed is one you may have heard of, but the English tree collector William Lobb was also a real person. There are so many different elements to At the Edge of the Orchard and they all come together to form one fascinating, enjoyable and very moving novel.

I’ve now read four Tracy Chevalier novels and so far they have all been very different, covering such diverse subjects as the Dutch art world (Girl with a Pearl Earring), fossil collecting on the south coast of England (Remarkable Creatures), religious conflict in 16th century France (The Virgin Blue) and now the trees and orchards of 19th century America. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of her books now that I’ve been reminded of them!

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

The Good People by Hannah Kent

the-good-people The Good People is the second novel from Australian author Hannah Kent, following her 2013 debut Burial Rites. I liked Burial Rites – the story of a woman found guilty of murder in 19th century Iceland – but I didn’t love it the way so many other readers did and I was curious to see what I would think of this new one. Now that I’ve read it, I can say that this is definitely my favourite of the two.

The Good People is set in rural Ireland in the 1820s. Nóra Leahy is going through a difficult time, having lost both her daughter and her husband in the space of a year. She has been left to take care of her four-year-old grandson, Micheál, who should be a blessing to her – but to Nóra he is nothing but a worry. She remembers seeing him as a healthy, happy baby, yet the little boy her son-in-law has brought to live with her is entirely different: he is thin and sickly, has lost the use of his legs, can’t understand what is being said to him and communicates through uncontrollable screaming. Nóra knows something is badly wrong with him and, unable to cope on her own, she hires a girl, Mary Clifford, to help her look after him.

Mary is shocked by Micheál’s condition, but does her best for him with the limited knowledge she has, aware that Nóra is starting to view the child with fear and revulsion. In this isolated community, neither the village priest nor the doctor are able to offer any useful advice or explanations, so Nóra seeks the help of the healer and wise woman Nance Roche. Nance knows all about the world of the fairies, or the Good People, as she calls them, and tells Nóra that Micheál is not her grandson at all, but a changeling. Together, Nóra, Nance and Mary set about trying to drive the fairy out of the child’s body in the hope that the real Micheál will be restored.

As you can imagine, The Good People is not exactly the happiest or most uplifting of books – but then, not everything that happens in life is happy or uplifting either, and, like Burial Rites, this novel is based on a true event from history. Poor Micheál’s story is a tragic one, all the more so because of the treatment he receives from the very people he should be able to rely on for love and affection. The worst of it is, these people really seem to believe in fairies and convince themselves that Micheál really is a changeling, because then there is a chance that he can be cured. Through a mixture of ignorance and superstition, they think they are doing the right thing.

Hannah Kent writes beautifully and from the very first page the reader is pulled into a bygone world, a remote community in which the people, despite living in a Christian society, are still holding on to their ancient beliefs and traditions. This is not a fantasy novel or a fairy tale, yet the unseen fairies are a very strong presence throughout the story: we are told that the Good People live in their ringfort, Piper’s Grave, in a lonely part of the valley where lights dance around the ghostly whitethorn tree, and that their powers are strongest at the place where three rivers meet. Everyone seems to know of at least one person who has been ‘swept’ away by the fairies and they just accept these things as part of their everyday lives.

Because of the overwhelming sadness of the story and the suffering of little Micheál, I know this isn’t a book that will appeal to everyone, but I was very impressed by it. I loved it for the quality of the writing, the intensity of the atmosphere and the insights into life in a less enlightened time and place.

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

The Unseeing by Anna Mazzola

the-unseeingIt’s Christmas 1836 and Hannah Brown is looking forward to her wedding to James Greenacre. However, the marriage will never take place; instead, Hannah is brutally murdered and in the weeks that follow, the parts of her dismembered body are discovered in various locations around London. Her fiancé, Greenacre, is arrested and found guilty – but although he admits to disposing of the body, he claims that Hannah was already dead when he found her. This makes no difference to the judge and jury and Greenacre is sentenced to hang, along with his mistress, Sarah Gale, who is accused of concealing the murder.

Sarah had been living with Greenacre as his housekeeper before being asked to leave so he could marry Hannah. She insists that she knew nothing about the murder and Greenacre also denies that she had any involvement, but this is not enough to save her. As she sits in a cell in Newgate Prison, Sarah’s only hope is the petition she has submitted asking for clemency. The lawyer appointed by the Home Secretary to look again at Sarah’s case is Edmund Fleetwood, young, idealistic and principled. After speaking to Sarah and hearing her talk about her life, Edmund is convinced that she should be freed, but how can he prove it? And is it possible that he is becoming too emotionally involved in the case to be able to see the facts clearly?

Anna Mazzola’s debut novel, The Unseeing, is based on a true crime; the Edgware Road Murder, as it became known, really did take place and James Greenacre really was found guilty and was sentenced to death. Sarah Gale was also arrested, but I won’t tell you what her eventual fate would be. I didn’t know and that meant I was kept in suspense wondering what would happen to her. It’s important to remember, though, that this is fiction and not everything in the book is taken from historical fact – which could explain why some of the developments towards the end of the novel didn’t completely convince me.

Edmund Fleetwood, who plays such a major role in the novel, is a fictional character and the author has created a fictional story for him running alongside Sarah’s. I thought the two stories worked well together – I did like Edmund and I shared his frustration as Sarah repeatedly refused to provide any information which could have helped her defence – but there were times when I felt I was being distracted from the central plot and I just wanted to get back to Sarah in the Newgate. The portrayal of prison life is one of the novel’s strong points and reminded me of other prison-based historical novels such as Antonia Hodgson’s The Devil in the Marshalsea and Sarah Waters’ Affinity.

The most interesting aspect of the book, though, is the exploration of what it meant to be a woman accused of a crime in the 19th century: the unfairness of the law, the way in which evidence against a woman was considered, the possible bias that could arise from a verdict being reached by an all-male jury, and whether the punishments handed out were in proportion to the crime. The fact that many of these women had children – like Sarah’s little boy, George – added another complication. Sarah is lucky enough to have a sister, Rosina, who takes care of George while she is in prison, but what will happen to him if the worst happens and she can never come home?

The Unseeing is an interesting blend of fact and fiction; I did enjoy it, but I felt that there wasn’t enough to make this book stand out from others of its type. I couldn’t quite love it, but I liked it and will be looking out for more from Anna Mazzola.

Thanks to Sourcebooks Landmark for providing a review copy via NetGalley.

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

his-bloody-project This novel by Scottish author Graeme Macrae Burnet attracted a lot of attention after being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year.  Of all the books on the list, I remember thinking that this sounded like the one I would be most likely to enjoy, so I had a lovely surprise when I received a nice hardback copy from my sister for Christmas.

His Bloody Project is fiction but presented so convincingly as non-fiction that there were times when I wondered if I’d misunderstood and I was actually reading a true story after all!  Subtitled Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae, the case in question is that of a triple murder committed in August 1869 in Culduie, a remote village in the Scottish Highlands.  In his preface, the author explains that he came across the documents contained in this book while researching his own family history at the Highland Archive Centre in Inverness. 

Following a collection of statements given by the residents of Culduie, we proceed to the longest section of the book: Roderick Macrae’s memoir which he was instructed to write by his advocate, Andrew Sinclair, during his imprisonment at Inverness Castle awaiting his trial.  Roderick, only seventeen at the time of his arrest, never tries to deny that he killed his neighbour, Lachlan Mackenzie, and two other members of the Mackenzie family – we know this right from the beginning of the book – but what we don’t know is what caused him to do such a thing.  Roderick’s memoir provides some insights, giving some background information on what life was like in Culduie and describing the events leading up to the murders.

Next, we have the opportunity to read the medical reports on each of the three murder victims – and this is the first real indication we get that maybe Roderick has not been entirely honest with us.  A study by a doctor who visited Roderick in prison follows, raising and answering questions about the prisoner’s state of mind, and finally we arrive at the trial itself.  As judge, jury and spectators try to understand the motive behind the crime, witnesses are called who give statements both to confirm Roderick’s own account and to contradict it.  A verdict is finally reached, but whether it is the right one or not is up to each individual reader to decide. 

While I was reading Roderick’s own story, I had a lot of sympathy for him and I was so angry with Lachlan Mackenzie (or Lachlan Broad, as he is usually known) that I could understand why Roderick felt driven to take revenge.  However, when I read the rest of the documents, particularly the report of the court proceedings, I began to wonder how much Roderick had omitted from his memoir and whether Lachlan Broad’s actions were really as provocative as they had at first seemed.

Another interesting aspect of the novel is the portrayal of life in a tiny Scottish community in the middle of the 19th century.  Roderick Macrae’s mother dies in childbirth just before the events described in the novel, leaving Roderick and his siblings alone with their father, a crofter trying to earn his living from the land.  Culduie (a settlement of only nine houses) and the surrounding villages are the property of the Laird, who rules through his factor and a network of local constables.  Lachlan Broad is elected the constable for Culduie and this is what brings him into conflict with the Macraes.

The writing style and the language used throughout the novel feels appropriate for the time period and increases the sense of authenticity; as I’ve said, at times I could almost have believed I was reading genuine historical documents.  Dialect is used sparingly and a glossary is provided if you need to look up any unfamiliar Scots words (there were a few that were new to me, but these were mainly the names of farming implements such as croman and cas chrom).  Maybe Roderick’s narrative voice isn’t entirely convincing given his age, but we are told that he is an exceptionally bright, intelligent boy – and the author does address this issue in the preface too.

I loved His Bloody Project; although it’s not a traditional crime novel and there’s never any mystery surrounding the identity of the murderer, it’s the sort of book that leaves you with more questions at the end than you had at the beginning.  I think a re-read might be necessary at some point!    

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

days-without-end Sebastian Barry is one of my favourite Irish authors; having enjoyed his last three novels, The Temporary Gentleman, On Canaan’s Side and The Secret Scripture, I began to read his latest one, Days Without End, not really knowing or caring what it was about. I knew I could count on Barry to have produced another beautifully written novel and I was sure that would be enough. Unfortunately, it wasn’t – I still found things to like and to admire, but this just wasn’t my sort of book.

Thomas McNulty and John Cole are “two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world” who meet in Missouri as teenagers while sheltering from the rain together under a hedge. It’s the 1850s and Thomas, having lost his family to the famine in Ireland, has fled to America in search of a better life. John, who was born in New England, is the first friend Thomas has made in his new country and the two quickly become inseparable. The first thing they need to do is find employment and here their youthful good looks prove useful when a saloon owner offers them a job as dancers, on the condition that they dress up in women’s clothes to entertain the local miners.

At seventeen, considering themselves too old to continue their dancing act, Thomas and John leave the saloon and join the US Army. Fighting first in the Indian Wars and later in the Civil War (on the Union side), it’s a difficult life and the two young soldiers face dangers and obstacles ranging from hunger and illness to extreme weather and encounters with Native Americans. Throughout all of this there are two things that sustain them: their love for each other and their relationship with Winona, a young Sioux girl separated from her family during a raid.

Days Without End is narrated by Thomas McNulty and this provides a link with several of Barry’s previous novels which tell the stories of other members of the McNulty family (he has also written several which focus on another Irish family, the Dunnes). Thomas, though, is obviously from an earlier generation of McNultys; the other novels are set in the 20th century, which makes this one feel a bit different. Another difference is that this book is set in the American West rather than Ireland – and I think this is probably why I had a problem. Westerns are not a genre I would usually choose to read (although I did love Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers) and too much of this novel just didn’t interest me at all.

If the setting does sound of interest to you, then I would have no hesitation in recommending this book even though I didn’t particularly enjoy it myself. Sebastian Barry is a very talented writer and there are some beautiful passages in this novel; the poetic narrative voice didn’t always sound very convincing coming from the down-to-earth soldier, Thomas McNulty, but that didn’t really matter – the beautiful, poetic writing was the reason I chose to read this book, after all.

What I did struggle with was reading page after page of descriptions of army life, buffalo shooting expeditions and battles against the Sioux. I don’t think the balance between these aspects of the story and the more personal aspects was quite right and I very nearly gave up on the book halfway through. I kept reading mainly because I wanted to know what would happen to Winona – and I was rewarded with an interesting and dramatic ending to her storyline.

Days Without End has its good points and its bad points, then, and I think my disappointment with it is entirely due to my personal reading tastes. I shouldn’t have assumed that just because I’ve loved everything else I’ve read by Sebastian Barry I would love this one too, despite a setting and subject which didn’t appeal to me. I’m still looking forward to going back and exploring his earlier novels; I have a copy of Annie Dunne, which sounds much more like the kind of book I would enjoy, so that’s probably the one I’ll be reading next.

Thanks to Faber & Faber for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.