Two book reviews- both set in the Victorian era – from net galley…

4/5 stars

A big thank you to Netgalley and Severn House Publishers for this ARC of ‘The Woman who Spoke to Spirits,’ by Alys Clare which is the first in her new series of Victorian detective novels starring,drum roll, Lily Raynor (ex nurse with a dark secret yet to be revealed) and her new likeable assistant Felix Wilbraham. Alys Clare is a new author to me, and so I came to her historical novel with no preconceptions drawn from many other such novels. I enjoyed the details of the Victorian period, the social mores, the theatre life, (one of the leading characters is an actress), the streets of London, the work of the prostitutes and the poverty. It was evocative and sensual as though you were walking amongst the characters. The pairing of a female boss, (Lily) who is not your typical Victorian woman with a younger male employee (Felix) is interesting and creates some conflict. The novel has two plots running concurrently with Lily taking the lead in the Ernest Stibbins’ case (whose wife is the woman of the title) and Felix doing most of the work on the actress’s Violetta da Ros – case which is a socially unsuitable romance with a younger suitor – which take Felix to Victorian Tunbridge Wells. I also enjoyed the conceit of the address of their P.I. bureau -No. 3 Hob’s Court, London, and the name of it – World’s End Bureau. There is much here to enjoy. The beginning was a little slow to get going and ironically I found the ending somewhat rushed in its revelations (which I had guessed) -so this isn’t the trickiest crime thriller to solve but more a pleasurable journey into Lily’s world as a working educated spirited woman who encounters danger, death, spiritualism, social prejudice and sheer horror in the basement. Would recommend.

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Out on 2 May, 3/5 stars-

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher Picador, for the ARC in exchange for this honest review. I was excited to read The Doll Factory, Elizabeth Macneal’s debut novel. First off the cover lured me in- it is gorgeous and the blurb and the Victorian setting and the Gothic overtones. Just up my creepy gothicky street I thought. Hurray. It began well enough, with the introduction of the lead Iris, working her fingers literally to shreds in the titular Doll Factory (an upmarket emporium which sells porcelain dolls with hand painted faces and hand stitched clothes), alongside her twin sister Rose. But Iris has a powerful dream and a unique talent. She longs to be an artist and escape her daily drudgery. It is 1851 the year of the Great Exhibition. The Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood are growing in numbers and one of them Louis Frost employs Iris to be his model – giving her the opening to leave behind her old life. So far so good I thought. Though I was having reservations about the detailed almost clinical descriptions of Silas’ taxidermy work which was making my supper churn in my gut. Yes they are that bad. Silas obviously has a lot of mental health issues as we’d say in 2019 – and he relishes his work rather too much and obsesses about Lily. I started to get a bit tired of the constant references to the Pre Rap artists, who pretty soon Iris is having tea with. Millais said this, and Lizzie Siddal said that. It just didn’t work for me. Macneal has a brilliant talent with her writing immersing you in the poverty, madness, degradation and squalor of Victorian London and of Silas’ world, but for me it all became a bit too much. It is not a pleasant, easy read but there is much here to admire. It just wasn’t for me.

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