Month: April 2016

The Big Reveal

REVIEW – The Sudden Departure of the Frasers, by Louise Candlish

One of the main queries (and concerns!) I have about writing mysteries is what to reveal and when. Too much, and you give the game away too early. Too little and the reader loses interest. I try and read mysteries with one eye on which clues are dropped and when, but it’s usually difficult not to get immersed. Personally, I find it easier when watching mysteries on TV. Constrained by time, clues are a lot more frequent, I think, and it’s difficult to miss all but the subtlest, so long as you’re not distracted by iMDb and where you’ve seen that actor before.

The Sudden Departure of the Frasers is a masterclass of the slow reveal. Told with two alternating view points – first from one of the key players, leading up to the big incident, then one from an outsider, looking in on the carnage after the fact, trying to decipher the clues – the reader is dropped straight into two mounting scenarios, both with the same reveal. What really happened on the 15th January?

I suspect this may be a lady mystery...

I suspect this may be a lady book…

The first narrator is Amber Fraser, darling of Lime Park Road, incandescent beauty and reformed bad-girl. She’s retired to the suburbs with her silver-fox husband and the intention of reincarnating herself as a loving wife and mother to her as yet un-conceived children. But old habits die hard, and pretty soon she falls back into her old habits.

“My name is Amber Fraser. I’ve just moved into number 40, Lime Park Road. You’ll come to think of me as a loving wife, a thoughtful neighbour and a trusted friend.

This is a lie.”

The second is the more relatable Christy Davenport, who can’t believe her luck when she and her husband manage to afford – at a steal – a newly renovated house on one of the most sought-after roads in London. Yet saddled with spiralling debt and much more free time than she’d like, Christy finds herself drawn into the mystery of why her predecessors left, and what precisely happened to make her bear-like neighbour deserving of the censure of the entire street.

What Candlish has done, which I admire hugely and hope I’ve learned from, is drip feed the reader with just enough information- so we think we know what’s going on, but never really do until the end. The pacing was such that I raced through this book, desperate to find out the big secret and to see if the vague ideas I had could possibly be true.

And having finished the book half an hour ago, I feel… deeply satisfied. Often with books which whip the reader up into a spiral of guessing and intrigue, the twist is disappointing and mediocre (or it’s magic, in a universe where magic was never even hinted at, and then the book gets thrown hard and far, and maligned to all who dare mention its name before me.) Yet this? It made perfect sense. And the manipulative twisting of other people’s lives was elegant, in so far as such a thing can be, and as I say, deeply, deeply satisfying.

The Sudden Departure of the Frasers is a sophisticated soap-opera – and I mean that in the best possible way. The high drama of the every day, which builds into a shocking, life-shattering conclusion. We care about these people – and I mean Christy, the fish out of water who has lost her whole identity of self, and tries to find it in that of her idealised predecessor – because we can relate. Less so the rich and beautiful Amber, who wants for nothing but still looks for more, and less so – for me at least – the well-to-do mummies of Lime Park Road. And I am a sucker for stories about manipulative and powerful women – and Amber baby is certainly one of those.

“Personally, I’d never doubted for a moment that women were the more dangerous sex; their interest in others was far sharper than men’s, which made their suspicions more intelligent.”

This was a recommendation from a colleague at the day job, and all through reading it I have been recommending it to all and sundry, with a vigour I usually reserve until after I’ve finished, just in case it’s one of those disappointments. But no – Louise Candlish is now going on my auto-buy list. Highly recommended!

Have you read this, or any other books with a masterful handling of “the reveal”? I’d love to hear what you think!

And if you haven’t read it, you can find The Sudden Departure of the Frasers here on amazon.co.uk.

Death at the Priory

Review: Death at the Priory – Love, Sex and Murder in Victorian England – by James Ruddick

A few weeks ago I was speaking to a friend, and she said an approximation of the following:

“We woman all say we want equality, but really we want to go back to being married off and put on a pedestal by our husbands.”

The romanticism of arranged marriages in history is what inspired me to write An Unnatural Daughter – one of my first forays into having my heroines murder people. Historically, marriage hasn’t been all that great for ladies. They gained protection, yes, but at what cost?

There were, however, things they could do to get by – things that they did to help themselves when the demands on their bodies became too great.

This is where Death at the Priory comes in – an investigation into one of  Victorian England’s most famous unsolved murders.

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I bought it for the juicy murder, but came away with a deeper understanding of how women of a certain class coped with difficult marriagesIt introduces us to Florence Bravo, a woman ahead of her time. Educated, wealthy, vivacious and beautiful, she had a loving and supportive family and everything going for her. But that support stopped when, having married a man who turned out to be a violent alcoholic, she asked her parents for help leaving him. I shan’t go into too much detail, but on the advent of her second marriage, Florence realized she’d made the same mistake again.

The first half of the book introduces us to the victim and suspects, and paints an intriguing picture of the lead up to the long and agonising death of Florence’s second husband, Charles Bravo, who was poisoned by an unknown hand. The second half follows Ruddick as he sifts through the available evidence before reaching his verdict on what really happened.

Ruddick’s investigations and conclusions occasionally take great leaps of faith, but nonetheless I raced through the book, eager to find out whodunnit according to his theories.

What really got me though, was the revelation that women of the higher classes were known to drug their husbands’ alcohol, when said husband habitually drank too much and became violent with it. The drug, antimony, was highly poisonous, but when used very sparingly it induced sickness or a deep sleep. This wasn’t something I had ever considered before, but as I read it I found myself thinking, but of course they did.

Ruddick also posited and then dismissed the idea that women did the same to control how often their husbands were able to share their beds. I wasn’t able to dismiss the idea so quickly as he did – to me it seems perfectly logical that in an age where death in childbirth was common and the miscarriage rate was high, women in such marriages would use any means at their disposal to save their health. Why would you drug your husband to stop him beating you, but still allow him open access to intimacy when another pregnancy might kill you?

From then on I found myself questioning all of his conclusions. Perhaps I’m blinded by my own agenda, much as I feel Ruddick was blinded by his. Nonetheless, though, an interesting read, and a fascinating window into the life of a very unhappy woman, and a timely reminder of the position of women in Victorian society.

Come to your own conclusions and try the book here.

Not For the Faint Hearted

Sometimes, I really resent being squeamish. As an adult, without having to worry about weekly biology class and the embarrassment of having to be excused or risk fainting, I sometimes forget how squeamish I still am. After all, I’m one of those hard people who can watch Bones (although not necessarily while eating). I can do anything.

Except… I can’t. I didn’t take History or English Lit at A Level because I knew the syllabus and I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it through without chucking up. Being squeamish means that I can’t take a first aid course at work, and that I almost passed out in a manual handling training course. I hate it. It’s embarrassing, at least partly psychosomatic and, when I’m feeling particularly bitter, directly responsible for any problem I’ve ever had, ever.

But let us not dwell! Let us instead consider my current quandary. Do I buy these disgusting but beautiful books?

Click through to look inside!

One thing that I am a lot better at now than when I was younger, is my ability to approach gore and general innards on my own terms. Some pictures of carpal tunnel surgery came up on my Pinterest feed the other day (Why though, Pinterest!?), and I was fascinated! But put me in a room with other people and no escape route and I’ll crawl under the desk in a cold sweat.

As I’m writing this, it seems like a childhood trauma I’m not over, and that just I need a good bit of therapy. Well, sure, that’s probably correct. I should get that sorted. Or, I could buy these beautiful gross pieces of art and avoid parts of my own house if they get too much.

I’m not just wondering whether or not to risk making myself sick on a whim. I will probably need these for my research, and look at them. They are a chronicle of some of the most important drawings in history. They are part of the journey we have taken to get to where we are today.

So I probably will buy them.

Just not yet.

What about you? Are you fascinated by your fears? How far do you push yourself to conquer them?

In other news, I still haven’t finished the book I was going to review. But! I started another one! Reviews back up next week… I’m going to be talking about Death at the Priory, Sex and Murder in Victorian Englandby James Ruddick. If you’ve read it, I’d love to hear what you think!

The End is Nigh

Life never seems to go to plan.

Every new book I start, I intend to go through my research with a robot-like efficiency, then construct an infallible and beautiful structure to follow, from which I can write X-thousand words a day and finish my first draft in a matter of weeks.

Then I’ll be poorly, I’ll have to go visit people for the weekend, talk to people, do extra-curricular work activities, sleep… and the whole thing will go to pot. I don’t know why I don’t expect it any more, or why I don’t factor it in. Then I’ll feel guilty about missing targets, and everything will take even longer.

Many moons ago, back when I was young, fresh-faced and full of hope and bright ideas, I decided to start a podcast.

It has been fraught with error and dogged by misfortune.

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Not that sort of dog, sadly.

From microphone issues to losing my voice, what I intended to take a month or two has stretched to almost a year!

You may think this is a filler blog, and in a way you’d be correct. I have been reading a very long and very good book for about three weeks now, in half hour snatches. I intended to have it as this week’s recommendation but alas, twas not to be. Similarly, I intended to have this post up on time, then…. got food poisoning? And was sick for a day and a half, hence…

Anyhoo, guess what! The podcast is finished, uploaded, and all available on this new podcast tab!

Hurrah! And now I’m going to eat some dry toast and feel sorry for myself.

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