The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal

An intoxicating story of art, obsession and possession

Doll Factory

Picador|2 May 2019|336 pages|Review e-book copy|5*

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal is one of the best books I read so far this year. It captivated me with its tale of Iris, the young woman who worked painting dolls in Mrs Salter’s Dolls Emporium, but who dreamed of being an artist. It tells of her involvement with the Pre-Raphaelite artists – in particular with Louis Frost (a fictional character) who attracted by her beauty and her red hair wants her to model for him. She agrees, despite the disapproval of her parents and twin sister Rose, on the condition that he teaches her to paint. Meanwhile Silas Reed, a taxidermist and a collector of curiosities, worships her from afar and fantasises that she returns his love.  

But it’s much more than my brief outline conveys. This is historical fiction that transports me back in time and place to the 1850s when the Great Exhibition is being constructed and then opened to the public, a time when the young artists who had recently formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, first formed in the summer of 1848, are challenging the art world with their vivid paintings, at once both stylised and naturalistic. The descriptions take me straight into London of the early 1850s with all its sights and smells, its squalor and bustling crowds as people go about their daily lives.

There are some really memorable characters, such as ten year old Albie, who collects dead creatures for Silas. He lives with his sister, a prostitute, in a ramshackle house down a dead-end alley and with just one tooth he dreams of buying a set of false teeth. Rossetti, Millais and Holman Hunt also appear alongside the fictional characters and I loved all the details about their paintings, and their fascination with wombats. Rossetti owned two wombats – the inspiration for Louis’ wombat, Guinevere, who lives in his studio.

As I read on I began to feel a growing sense of menace and the tension between the characters rose almost to an unbearable peak as the book reached its conclusion. It’s full of atmosphere, dark and gothic towards the end as it reached its climax – and left me wanting more. It’s wonderful – historical fiction, art history, and a love story as well as a dark tale of obsession, pulsing with drama, intrigue and suspense.  I loved it!

About the Author

Elizabeth Macneal was born in Edinburgh and now lives in East London. She is a writer and potter and works from a small studio at the bottom of her garden. She read English Literature at Oxford University, before working in the City for several years. In 2017, she completed the Creative Writing MA at UEA in 2017 where she was awarded the Malcolm Bradbury scholarship.

The Doll Factory, Elizabeth’s debut novel, won the Caledonia Noel Award 2018. It will be published in twenty-eight languages and TV rights have sold to Buccaneer Media.

Many thanks to the publishers, Picador, for my review copy via NetGalley.

Codename Villanelle by Luke Jennings

Codename Villanelle

John Murray|6 September 2018|224 pages|Review e-book copy|3*

Originally published as ebook singles: Codename VillanelleHollowpointShanghai and Odessa.

Synopsis from the publishers:

She is the perfect assassin. A Russian orphan, saved from the death penalty for the brutal revenge she took on her gangster father’s killers. Ruthlessly trained. Given a new life. New names, new faces – whichever fits. Her paymasters call themselves The Twelve. But she knows nothing of them. Konstantin is the man who saved her and the one she answers to. She is Villanelle. Without conscience. Without guilt. Without weakness.

Eve Polastri is the woman who hunts her. MI5, until one error of judgment costs her everything. Then stopping a ruthless assassin becomes more than her job. It becomes personal.

I loved the brilliant TV series Killing Eve and when I saw that Codename Villanelle by Luke Jennings was the basis for the series I was really keen on reading it. However, this is one of those rare occasions when I preferred the adaptation to the book. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the book, because I did – just not as much as the TV version. Now, that may be because I watched the TV series first – but I don’t think so. They begin at different points in the story. Codename Villanelle begins by introducing Villanelle, giving her background, real name and the details of her training as an assassin with the codename Villanelle, and her paymasters, known as The Twelve. Thus the suspense in that is built up in the TV series by not knowing anything about her other than her codename, just isn’t there in the book.

Both are fast paced, although the action sequences come over much better on TV, as you would expect.  Both portray Villanelle as a young woman who is psychologically invulnerable – a ruthless and successful killer, experiencing neither pain nor horror and totally unaffected by the pain she inflicts on others or the murders she carries out. But the dynamic between Villanelle and Eve Polastri that plays a large role in the TV series is missing in the book and there are several other changes too.

The book ends before the ending shown in the TV series and I’m assuming the next book Killing Eve: No Tomorrowwill continue the story, which I’m planning to read in the near future. There is a third book on the way too – Killing Eve: Endgame

About the Author

Luke Jennings is a London-based author and journalist who has written for The Observer, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and Time. He is the author of Blood Knots, short-listed for the Samuel Johnson and William Hill prizes, and the Booker Prize-nominated Atlantic.

My thanks to the publishers, John Murray, for my review copy via NetGalley.

The Butterfly Room by Lucinda Riley

The Butterfly Room

Macmillan|2 May 2019|624 pages|Review copy|4*

If you love family sagas spanning generations then you’ll love The Butterfly Room by Lucinda Riley. This is a standalone novel and the first book by Lucinda Riley that I have read, although I have some of her Seven Sisters series waiting to be read.

The story revolves around Posy Montague and her family home, Admiral House in the Suffolk countryside, a house that had been in her family for generations. The narrative alternates between the different periods of her life from her childhood in the 1940s to the present day in 2006 as she nears her seventieth birthday. It is not a fast paced book but moves in a leisurely fashion through the various decades building a complex picture of her life.

Her early childhood years were idyllic spent with her parents at Admiral House. It was then that her love of nature began as her beloved father encouraged her to draw plants and showed her how to catch butterflies. The Butterfly Room in the Folly in the grounds of Admiral House plays an important role in the book. As a child Posy thought it looked like a fairy-tale castle with its turret made of yellow sandy brick. It was there that her father spent a lot of time on his own and she imagined it as a place where fairies and their butterfly friends lived. However, as the story developed it was clear to me that the Folly was not the wonderful place she imagined – and there is a dark secret hidden behind its locked door.

After a period spent with her grandmother in Cornwall and her time at Cambridge University followed by a job at Kew Gardens, she married and returned to Admiral House where she brought up her two sons. Years later the house is in desperate need of restoration, which Posy can’t afford and she is faced with the prospect of selling it, despite all the memories it holds and the beautiful garden she had created in the grounds.

But life is never straightforward for Posy and her two sons both present her with almost insurmountable problems. Then Freddie arrives on the scene, a man who broke her heart fifty years earlier when he suddenly ended their engagement without any explanation. He is still reluctant to tell her why and much as she wants to trust him she hesitates.

There is so much more in the book than I’ve mentioned here, too much to reveal in this post without spoiling the story.  I used to read family sagas like this years ago, books I used to race through and read one after another. I don’t think they have quite the same appeal to me these days, but I did enjoy it, and even though I think it is too long, it kept my attention to the end. Maybe because I read a lot of crime fiction I could see what would happen to some of the characters, but as for the secret of the Butterfly Room, I guessed some of the truth, but not the whole secret! It reads well, is a page-turner, full of interesting situations and believable characters. A minor criticism, which is purely personal, is that I became so tired of Posy addressing her family and friends as darling/dear boy/girl so often.

Many thanks to the publishers, Macmillan for my review copy via NetGalley.

The Island by Ragnar Jónasson

Nordic Noir – dark, chilling and utterly gripping

The Island (Hidden Iceland #2)

Penguin UK Michael Joseph|4 April 2019|313 pages|Review copy|5*

I was delighted to receive a review copy of  The Island by Ragnar Jónasson from the publishers.  

This is my first book by Ragnar Jónasson. I discovered after I’d read it that it’s the second in his Hidden Iceland series – but I had no difficulty reading it as a standalone novel. It begins with a Prologue that indicates that the main story has elements of horror as well as mystery. It’s unsettling and sinister.

Four friends visit the isolated island of Elliðaey off the coast of Iceland, ten years after the murder of a fifth friend, Katla, but only three of them return. One of them, Klara, fell to her death from a cliff – but did she jump or was she pushed? Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdóttir is sent to investigate. She realises that there are similarities with the death of Katla. A suspect had been charged, but had committed suicide before the verdict was announced and the case had been closed. But are the two murders connected, even though they are ten years apart?

Hulda is an interesting character, with a back story that is only partly revealed in this book. Her name means ‘hidden woman‘. The first book in the series dealt with her later life, with this second book going back in time to her earlier life. In The Island she lives alone, her mother having recently died and there is a mystery about her father. She only knows that he was an American soldier and part of the novel records her search for him. It’s a police procedural, so Hulda’s somewhat fractious relationships with her colleagues also form part of the story.

The narrative also switches between the deaths of the two young women ten years apart, told from the various characters’ perspectives. They present an intricate mystery that Hulda gradually unravels, sifting through the lies that the suspects tell her. It’s not a fast-paced novel, but it is full of suspense and foreboding, set against the beautiful and dramatic Icelandic landscape. One by one I suspected each character, unsure who to believe. I loved it!

My thanks to the publishers, Penguin UK Michael Joseph for my review copy via NetGalley.

A Snapshot of Murder by Frances Brody

A Snapshot of Murder (Kate Shackleton #10)

 

Crooked Lane Books |19 April 2019|Print length 339 pages|e-book review copy|3*

Blurb (Amazon):

Yorkshire, 1928. Indomitable sleuth Kate Shackleton is taking a well-deserved break from her detective work and indulging in her other passion: photography. When her local Photographic Society proposes an outing, Kate jumps at the chance to visit Haworth and Stanbury, in the heart of Brontë country, the setting for Wuthering Heights.

But when an obnoxious member of their party is murdered, the group is thrown into disarray. Is the murderer amongst them, or did the loud-mouthed Tobias have more enemies than they might have imagined?

Armed with her wit and wiles, and of course her trusty camera, it’s up to Kate to crack the case, and get that perfect shot too . . .

A Snapshot of Murder by  Francis Brody is the 10th in her Kate Shackleton series. I’ve read three of her earlier books and I have to say that I didn’t enjoy this one as much. I think, though, that the setting is excellent, particularly in Haworth when the Bronte Parsonage Museum was opened in 1928. But I was disappointed to find that the murder could have taken place anywhere – it no connection to the Brontes, or to the opening of the Museum, apart from the fact that the murderer took advantage of being in a crowd of people and managed to slip away unnoticed. 

I like Kate Shackleton – she’s a competent private investigator, but the murder mystery was too easy to solve. It began well but it was obvious who was going to end up dead and although there are several suspects, it soon became obvious who the culprit was and my interest waned. And any sympathy I had for the murderer had just disappeared by the end of the book.

My thanks to the publishers, Crooked Lane Books for my review copy via NetGalley.

Fallen Angel by Chris Brookmyre: Blog Tour Review

A standalone psychological thriller full of twists, lies and betrayal

Fallen Angel

Little, Brown Book Group|25 April 2019 |Print length 384 pages|my copy an e-book/Review copy via NetGalley|4*

Blurb:

To new nanny Amanda, the Temple family seem to have it all: the former actress; the famous professor; their three successful grown-up children. But like any family, beneath the smiles and hugs there lurks far darker emotions.

Sixteen years earlier, little Niamh Temple died while they were on holiday in Portugal. Now, as Amanda joins the family for a reunion at their seaside villa, she begins to suspect one of them might be hiding something terrible…

And suspicion is a dangerous thing.

My thoughts:

I was delighted when Caollin Douglas at Little, Brown Publishing asked me if I wanted to take part in the blog tour for Chris Brookmyre’s book, Fallen Angel. I’ve enjoyed reading some of his earlier books, Quite Ugly One Morning and Not the End of the World as well as his last book, The Way of All Flesh a novel about medicine in the nineteenth century, which he co-wrote with consultant anaesthetist Dr Marisa Haetzman (his wife) under the pen name of Ambrose Parry. 

Fallen Angel is a psychological thriller that keeps you guessing about everything right from the first page – someone was murdered, but who was it and why, and just who was the killer? It was a quiet killing and it looked as though the victim had died of a heart attack. It is only at the end of the book that victim and the murderer are revealed.

In 2018 the Temple family are spending the summer at their seaside villa in Portugal for a reunion after the death of the head of the family, Max Temple, who was a psychologist, specialising in debunking conspiracy theories. The last time they were all there together was in 2002 when one of the children had disappeared from the villa, and was presumed drowned. It was ironic considering Max’s speciality, that there was a lot of speculation on the internet about how she actually died, with suggestions that the drowning story had been fabricated to conceal abuse or neglect.

I found the opening chapters a little confusing as the members of the family are introduced and their relationships are established. There are a lot of them, none of them are very likeable and there’s plenty of tension as they don’t get on well with each other! It is not made clear for a while who the parents of the baby were. What is clear is that this is a dysfunctional family with a multitude of problems!

Joining them are the family at the next door villa, lawyer Vince, his second wife, Kirsten, and baby Arron, with their nanny, Amanda. A Canadian student and aspiring journalist, she is a fan of Max and is thrilled to discover that she is staying next door to the Temple family. She had read the reports in the press and on the internet about the tragedy of their missing child. But although her attempts to find out more are not welcomed, she gradually she uncovers layers upon layers of secrets and lies.  

The narrative moves between events in 2002 and 2018, seen through the various characters’ perspectives. After a slow start, the pace increases, the tension rises and I became totally gripped by the mystery. I really didn’t want to stop reading. I liked the setting at a beautiful resort in the Algarve, providing an idyllic backdrop to the story of this truly dreadful family. It’s a novel about a family in crisis, about toxic relationships and about the psychology of conspiracy theories. 

My thanks to the publishers,  Little, Brown Book Group for my review copy via NetGalley.

Follow the tour today:

Fallen Angel Blog tour

About the Author (from his website)

Chris Brookmyre

Chris Brookmyre was a journalist before becoming a full-time novelist with the publication of his award-winning debut Quite Ugly One Morning, which established him as one of Britain’s leading crime authors. His Jack Parlabane novels have sold more than one million copies in the UK alone, and Black Widow won both the McIlvanney Prize and the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year award.

The Evidence Against You by Gillian McAllister

A brilliant psychological thriller

The Evidence Against You

Penguin Michael Joseph|18 April 2019|432 pages|Review copy|5*

I was delighted to receive a review copy of  The Evidence Against You by Gillian McAllister from the publishers.  And as soon as I began reading it I knew I was going to love it and I just didn’t want to stop reading until I’d finished it. It’s the third book I’ve read by her (her earlier books I’ve read are Everything But the Truth and No Further Questions). 

Gabe (Gabriel) English has been released from prison on parole, having served seventeen years for the murder of his wife, Alexandra. Izzy, his daughter, now 36, is dreading his release. Following the death of her mother she had lived with her maternal grandparents until she married Nick, a police analyst and had carried on running her mother’s restaurant on the Isle of Wight.

Her childhood had been a happy one until the murder. The judge said it was an open and shut case and he had sentenced Gabe to life imprisonment. But nobody really knew exactly what had happened the night Alexandra was killed – she simply went missing and then her body was found – she’d been strangled. Izzy had thought that her father could never have harmed anybody, let alone her mother. Now, he swears that he is innocent and wants to tell his side of it. He asks her to consider the evidence for herself. But is he really guilty – can she trust her father?

This is a brilliant book that had me guessing all the way through. I was hoping for Izzy’s sake that Gabe was telling the truth even though the facts didn’t seem to back him up. Prison had changed him – he is angry, bitter and resentful – and Izzy is full of doubts about him and about her parents’ relationship. She questions her memories – what had seemed straight forward and certain to her before, now appears in a different light. But Paul, her father’s friend believes him, telling Izzy that some of the evidence was circumstantial, so she gives him the chance to explain, especially when Paul tells her that there was a witness who could have given Gabe an alibi if the police had found him.

It’s a character-driven story of conflict, of broken lives, of the destruction of families, and of devastating trauma as secrets from the past come to the surface; a story full of twists and turns that left me hoping so much that Gabe was innocent and wondering if he hadn’t killed Alexandra who had and why.

As well as the mystery it’s also about the catastrophic effects of being accused of a crime and being imprisoned long enough to become institutionalised, particularly on release from prison. Gabe finds simple things like shopping difficult and as well as being angry and bitter he is anxious and fearful, struggling with making decisions without the rules and discipline of being in prison.

It’s a tense, tightly plotted book and completely compelling reading.  The ending did take me by surprise, although looking back I can see that it was lightly foreshadowed and I just hadn’t noticed. It is without doubt one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. 

My thanks to the publishers, Penguin UK Michael Joseph for my review copy via NetGalley.