“The Ashes of London” by Andrew Taylor – review

September 1666.  In the unnatural darkness and oppressive heat of a London ablaze, a young man watches awestruck as St. Paul’s Cathedral, icon of the city and hitherto believed to be protected by divine influence, succumbs to the flames.  All of a sudden, a boy breaks away from the crowd and runs frantically towards the burning edifice.  Yet even the rats have deserted it, so who, or what, is he so desperate to reach inside that he’ll risk almost certain death?  So begins a marvellous mystery that grows and grows in complexity even as the flames are dying.

Before long a body is discovered – and it won’t be the last.  The murder has been carried out in a very precise way, and in an enigmatic twist the thumbs have been tied together behind the victim’s back.  Clearly the killer intends to send a message to whoever finds the body; unfortunately, no-one has any idea what he or she is trying to convey.  This being the seventeenth century almost everyone is driven by religious or political passions, some of which are more dangerous to wear on your sleeve than others.  The restoration of the monarchy may have returned the nation to something resembling normality after Cromwell’s rule, but subversive religious ideologies and treasonous political movements have simply disappeared underground, and it soon becomes clear there’s much more at stake than just bringing a murderer to justice.

The man charged with unravelling the mystery is the young gentleman we met right at the start as he witnessed St. Paul’s last moments.  His name is James Marwood, an unassuming man with a very junior administrative job at Whitehall, and it’s with some reluctance that he’s drawn into his employers’ investigations.  James’ nervousness is compounded by the fact that his father – still alive but elderly and in a fragile state both physically and mentally – was an ardent supporter of the movement that culminated in the execution of Charles I; although many Parliamentarian sympathisers have been shown a degree of clemency by the new King, those most closely involved with the regicide are still being hunted down.  As a result, Marwood is constantly walking a precarious path: to hide information from his Whitehall masters would call his own loyalty into question, but to uncover too much could place his father and his former friends in jeopardy.

While James struggles with the task at hand, we meet another character who it turns out is on a mission of her own.  Cat’s father, like Marwood’s, also has a dark political past, but he’s long since vanished and his daughter is desperate to find him.  She’s also in a sticky situation herself, being under the guardianship of a callous uncle who’s determined to marry her off to an effeminate weasel of a man whom she finds utterly repellent.  Forced into an impossible situation by her ghastly relations Cat becomes a fugitive just as her father did – and who is hired to track her down but James Marwood himself.

I had a hunch I was going to love this book and I wasn’t disappointed.  It’s a period of history that I find fascinating anyway, but this novel made me want to go and find out more about the religious complexities of this post-Civil War era.  A setting such as this, when people were living in hiding or under assumed names in order to disguise their political sensibilities, is the perfect backdrop for a crime story – the fun isn’t just about unmasking a murderer, it’s about who is going to turn out to be on whose side.  When it comes to creating heroes and villains, the author is incredibly skilful.  There are a few heart-in-mouth moments when the particularly vile characters seem to be gaining the upper hand, and you’ll be rooting for some of the other characters with equal fervour.  Yet it never becomes a pantomime: the nuanced characterisation is far too clever for that.  In many respects this reminded me of C J Sansom’s Shardlake series, which is a huge compliment as I absolutely love those books.  The quality of the writing, the pitch-perfect balance between history and mystery and above all the well-rounded characters put “The Ashes of London” right up there with the best historical fiction.  There is a tiny hint at the end of the novel (I think, although it could be wishful thinking!) that James Marwood may well be called upon to solve more crimes in the future.  I’m hoping that this is Andrew Taylor’s promise of further books in the series; I can certainly see myself devouring more quite happily.  It’s a massive thumbs up from me for this one!

ashes of london

My Top 5 books to make you laugh…

I’ve been getting bogged down in some truly depressing novels of late.  It seems that in everything I’m picking up there are either far too many unpleasant characters, or the likeable characters are undergoing such hideous suffering that I can’t bear to read on.  My desperate desire for something cheerful led me to write today’s top 5: quite simply, it’s my pick of the books that never fail to make me laugh.  If like me you’re stuck in a rut of literary misery then maybe one of these is the way forward!

  1. “Three Men in a Boat” by Jerome K Jerome – An oldie but a goodie, this nineteenth century classic proves that disastrous holidays have been a feature of life since time immemorial. Three men (and their dog) decide to take a break from the tedium of everyday living with a relaxing boating holiday.  Unfortunately their ineptitude combined with a series of unforeseen disasters result in a trip which is a very long way from the one they had in mind.  A hymn to the British determination to persevere with a plan no matter what, it’s a very funny read.
  2. “Stark” by Ben Elton – This early Ben Elton novel does what many of his books do: it makes a serious comment on an aspect of modern society in a side-splitting and riotous way. I’ve loved everything I’ve ever read by him, but this one has a special place in my heart as it’s the first one I tried.  Its theme is the environment, and it’s at once ridiculous, extreme, farcical – a scarily, a little bit believable.
  3. “The Diary of a Provincial Lady” by E.M. Delafield – If you’re a regular visitor to my blog you’ll know that I wrote a review of this a few days ago. She may be a creation of the 1930s but the Provincial Lady is just like any one of us (I particularly appreciate the way in which she fends off the melancholy of her financial woes by going shopping!)  Her neighbours are as hilarious as they are hideous, and it is with great wit that the heroine endeavours to maintain her integrity in a stratum of society where keeping up appearances is the name of the game.
  4. “Does my bum look big in this?” by Arabella Weir – I never took to Bridget Jones as a character, and in fact would go so far as to say I found her incredibly unlikeable at times. This, however, is what “Bridget Jones’ Diary” would have been like if it had a more naïve and endearing heroine.  The subtitle is “The diary of an insecure woman”, which tells you exactly what you’re going to get: jokes about cellulite, sex and dress sizes abound, and pretty good jokes they are too.  It might all sound a bit hackneyed, but for a bit of girly silliness you can’t do much better.
  5. “Down Under” by Bill Bryson – I knew I had to get a Bill Bryson book in here, as no author has ever made me laugh quite as uncontrollably. The question was which one to choose; in the end I went for this one purely because there’s a scene involving a visit to a small, provincial museum that is as close to comedy perfection as you’ll ever get.  Bryson can come across as somewhat curmudgeonly on occasion, but there’s no doubting his comic gift.

Well, that’s brightened my evening no end!  As always I’d love to hear your thoughts – which books make you laugh out loud?

“The Haunted Hotel” by Wilkie Collins – review

I was so excited when I came across this book; “The Woman in White” and “The Moonstone” are two of my favourite novels and it seemed like the perfect read for a gloomy winter afternoon.  I am definitely not a fan of horror novels or supernatural stories and I’m quite happy to admit that I scare very easily, but this being the well-loved Wilkie Collins I was reassured there’d be nothing here I couldn’t handle.

I was right about that.  If you’re after a terrifying ghost story that will keep you awake at night then this isn’t it.  It’s really more of a mystery whose supernatural overtones don’t feature until quite late on.  We are, however, treated to a pretty sinister lead character: the enigmatic and occasionally vicious Countess Narona.  With her black eyes and “corpse-like pallor” this repulsive yet magnetic woman has caused a stir across Victorian society by her association with undesirable individuals and most recently her seduction of the aristocrat Lord Montbarry.  In spite of her widespread notoriety, when we first meet her it is in the humble surroundings of a doctor’s surgery, where she arrives in a curious state of desperation mixed with defiance, demanding to know whether the doctor would diagnose her as being purely evil, or insane.  He doesn’t give her a satisfactory answer – and so the mystery begins.  What exactly has happened to drive the Countess to this neurotic state?

The tale that unfolds is one of unexplained disappearances, mysterious letters and untimely deaths, all centred on a Venetian palace that later becomes the hotel of the title.  There’s even an obsessive scientist conducting experiments deep in the palace vaults: how much more of the Gothic could you want?  And through it all, the Countess constantly disappears then reappears, slipping in and out of the action but always with the suggestion of impending horror whenever she shows herself.  Even when the spooky goings on really get underway, I still found Countess Narona to be the novel’s most frightening creation.  What makes her so unnerving is her ability to bend others to her will, even when they realise it goes against their better judgement.  As a reader you’re inwardly screaming for everyone to get out of her path as quickly as possible, and yet all who meet her are drawn in like moths to a flame.  Is this woman evil, or is she simply deranged?  The author never tells us for sure.  By the end of the book, various different characters have arrived at their own interpretations of the unpleasant events that have taken place and we too get to decide on which side of the fence we sit.

I very much enjoyed this book; it’s an undemanding piece of Gothic fun with a dark enough edge to keep it just the right side of melodramatic.  Some of the plotting is a bit contrived, but that’s all in the name of getting everyone in the right place for the denouement.  Creepy but by no means terrifying, this is my ideal level of horror!

Monday night greetings

I anticipate tomorrow being wonderful for three reasons:

  1. I have a day off work
  2. My car needs to go into the garage
  3. According to all the weather forecasts it’s going to be sodden and blowing a gale all day

All of which add up to my having no choice but to have a stay-at-home reading day.

There’s a slight twinge of guilt that I won’t be cracking on with my Christmas shopping, which has, after an initial frenzied burst of enthusiasm, slowed to a near standstill – but when the stars align to produce the perfect conditions for a day of literary indulgence, who am I to resist?

I’ve ever so nearly finished “The Haunted Hotel” and am in the home straight with “Katherine”, so with any luck there will be a couple of reviews up on the blog very soon.  And although I promised myself I’d hold off anything festive until December I might just have to give in and treat myself to a snowy, sparkly read.  The Christmas fiction section of my bookshelves (yes, I’m afraid I have a designated Christmas fiction section) is ever more alluring as the nights draw in and the slipper-boots come out.

I’m about to ease myself into my Tuesday of reading with a chilled glass of white and a good book (of course) – see you back on the blog very soon!