Category: Reviews (Page 2 of 3)

Review Round-Up

It’s time for another Review Round Up!

I am always late to the party.

Not real parties with real people, because I don’t very often get invited to those, but cultural parties. Take Harry Potter – I only read the books (after giving up on them as a kiddywink because they were too scary) when the last film came out. Same with Hunger Games, and loads and loads of other books. As such, when I “discover” books for myself they tend to have been out for quite a long time. Hence, the Review Round Up. I shan’t wax lyrical about any of the following books for more than a few sentences, because chances are you’ve read them already! If you haven’t, perhaps this will inspire you to give something different a try; I missed some of these books first time round because back then, I was neck-deep in romance, and murder mysteries just weren’t my bag.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer – Patrick Suskind

review round up - perfume cover image

I only had a vague idea that this was about a guy who made perfume and killed people. While this is factually correct, what sets this book apart is the fragrant use of language. At times repugnant, scent and odour are conveyed through beautiful prose.

The Tea-Planter’s Wife – Dinah Jefferies

review round up the tea planters wife cover image

A young woman marries a man she barely knows and begins a new life in another country. A bit Rebecca, a bit Victoria Holt, and a little bit… “what!?”, but in a good way. If you know what I mean.

The Seed Collectors – Scarlett Thomas

review round up the seed collectors cover image

An old aunt dies and leaves various members of the younger generation possibly poisonous seeds. Trippy, gripping, and even though I finished it weeks ago, it’s been on my mind ever since.

House of Shadows – Nicola Cornick

review round up house of shadows cover image

I don’t usually like time travelly, magicky stuff, (I’m looking at you, Labyrinth) but I loved this. Three stories revealed consecutively, three pairs of lovers each two centuries apart, their fates entwined with a mirror and a pearl. Who will be brave enough to give themselves to love?

What books have you discovered after the initial buzz had died down?

The Butterfly Garden – Review

Review: The Butterfly Garden – Dot Hutchinson

Hey, look at me! I’m reviewing a book that isn’t even out yet! And it was freakin’ weird.

The Butterfly Garden Book Cover

Don’t be fooled – this book will rip your insides out and make you look at them.

Due to my complete lack of status and/or blog visitors, I don’t get sent ARCs for review, but happily Amazon has given me the opportunity (due to our paying them for Prime Membership) to purchase from a small selection of books ahead of their release.

This month, I chose The Butterfly Garden, because… it sounded both the most interesting and the most weird. And weird it certainly was. Have I mentioned that it was weird? Think Sucker Punch, and you’re in the right area. Less… pornographic, but kind of similar? Weird.

Maya lived in the garden with the other butterflies, under the care of The Gardener. Yet in spite of the wings etched into their backs, these are girls, all under 21 and all snatched from the real world and held captive in a beautiful but terrible harem. Now the garden is no more, and Maya is avoiding questions from the FBI. Why won’t she talk, and what is she hiding? Over the course of a long interview, Maya slowly reveals the terrible truths about what went on in the garden, and how the walls came tumbling down.

I read this in one sitting, both out of intention and need.

Each page revealed something more terrible, more enthralling, and I could not have put it down had I wanted to. Maya is tough to get to know, and her narration reveals her as guarded and tentative, hiding her heart and refusing to feel. Yet I could not help but warm to her, and admire her courage as her story comes to light.

There’s not much to say without giving away the story, and part of the horrific joy of this book is the slow reveal, discovering new layers of horror at the turn of each page.

The Butterfly Garden also raises the question of how complicit we are when we do nothing.

If we see a crime and ignore it, are we as guilty as those who  perpetrate that crime? In life this is generally not so bad as pretending your father doesn’t have an illegal harem, but hey, a lesson is a lesson.

I know this book will stay with me for a very long time, and Maya a strong female lead who I admired greatly. The Butterfly Garden was unlike any book I have ever read, and while it makes for an uncomfortable read, I highly recommend it.

The Butterfly Garden will be available on June 1st.

The Improbability of Love – For the Love of Art

Review: The Improbability of Love, by Hannah Rothschild

I like books with paintings in. Every book I’ve written to date features at least one artist. Some of my favourite books centre around either particular paintings or the art world. There’s Jilly Cooper’s Pandora, A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book and now, Hannah Rothschild’s The Improbability of Love.

This week has been very painting-y.

I left university (having studied Illustration) entirely disillusioned and determined never to pick up a pencil again. Honestly, I hated everything I had created, and had lost all sense of pride in my work. I want to say something extremely bitter here about the quality of teaching I received, but frankly, if you choose a university based only on how close it is to your home and nothing else, you’ve only got yourself to blame.

As the years have gone by I’ve dabbled here and there, but I had forgotten how it used to be.

I had lost all the joy in creating.

Then, quite by chance, two events collided. I started to read The Improbability of Love, and I saw my old artwork for the first time in 10 years. I realised just how much I had lost. Looking through my portfolio from AS Level to the end of Uni, I saw how the pleasure had gone out of creating. I will say one thing for my art education – it’s taught me how to be extremely critical. Mainly of myself.

The Improbability of Love reminded me of a feeling I had completely forgotten. Of being entirely captivated by a painting. Having the process of creating something with your hands be the first and last thing in your mind. Of being all-consumed.

the improbability of love book cover

Why yes, I did get my copy from Waterstones, and yes, I did also get another book for half price. Why do you ask?

The story centres around one painting, The Improbability of Love, and chronicles the effect that art can have on the lives of those it touches. From the just-not-bothered to the obsessed, from those who want to bask in reflected glory to those who feel a deep attachment. Rothschild skilfully answers the question of what makes art, art, and what makes one picture more valuable than another.

Rothschild presents a broad cast of characters, from exiled Russian billionaires to struggling tour-guides, through the impoverished British aristocracy and dusty scholars. She opens up a world of sleaze, intrigue and high integrity. She contrasts the life of the artist, both idealised and not, and the gravitational pull that mysterious world has on those who surround themselves in it.

Art vs Artist

There is a great deal of difference between Damien Hirst (who incidentally dropped out of one of the Higher Education courses I completed) and Watteau, painter of the story’s central masterpiece. There is a greater distance still between the work of those who create and those who deal in high art, and Rothschild illustrates this perfectly.

For me the real beauty of The Improbability of Love is that it makes me want to go to museums and galleries. It makes my hands stretch out to paint. It reminds me of the way I used to look at things with the idea of getting them down on paper. Coupled with my recently awakened memories of just how long I used to spend painting and drawing, and what pleasure there was to be found in it, the aching chasm where art used to be feels like it’s been reopened. My skill is rusty, but it’s still there.

In the spirit of this I’ve decided to draw a picture a day for all of May. The one caveat is that it has to be created using something indelible. Nothing makes you ldraw so carefully as the knowledge that the line you are putting down is unalterable. If you’d like to check out my progress (and keep me accountable!) I’ve been posting the drawings here on Instagram.

Have you read The Improbability of Love? I’d love to hear what you thought!

How to Write a Victorian / How to Be a Victorian

Review – How to be a Victorian – Ruth Goodman

The point of all this – this blog, this reading, this marathon Poirot watching – is that I intend to write a new series of Victorian mysteries. At times, this goal seems a lot further away than I would like.

I don’t like it when I’m not writing. I’ve had the germ of this idea in my head since before I started writing The Review, the first book in The Liberty Troupe Trilogy, almost two years ago. Then I was writing almost constantly, working on each of the books in the trilogy in a sort of fervour. Before that, it had been over two years since I’d finished An Unnatural Daughter.

These were two years spent fluctuating in and out of depression, and I wanted to prove to myself that I was still capable of writing books.

Having finished The Advocate, and therefore the trilogy, late last year, I decided to approach this new series differently. I wanted to be efficient, and I wanted to know exactly what I was doing. I wanted it to be meticulous and filled with deep, historical detail. As all my other books were based in the Regency era, I wanted to learn more about the death-obsessed Victorians before I committed words to screen. I wanted to do justice to an idea I have been longing to work on for so long.

It’s now been about six months since I’ve written anything, and while I know a lot more about mourning and embalming and all sorts, I’ve still felt distant from my characters. I’d given myself the deadline of May for starting writing, and I feel nowhere near ready. There’s still so much to learn, but that’s always going to be the case, I suppose. I’ll never know enough, and once I start writing that will uncover even more that I need to learn.

How to Be A Victorian Cover Image

Cover reminiscent of a scrapbook page – also a topic covered in the book!

Then I found How to be a Victorian, and the biggest step so far has been taken.

How can you know a character when you don’t know what they ate for breakfast, how they brushed their teeth, what sort of rugs covered their floors, if any, and why? These little things we do or know as a matter of course compliment our daily lives. Missing or changing them in some way can alter how our day pans out. I get grumpy, for example, if I haven’t had hummus in a couple of days.

Just imagine how grumpy the Victorians must have been!

I jest, of course, but the admirable Ruth Goodman has lived as a Victorian did. In this inestimably useful volume she provides a trove of information regarding the minutiae of everyday life, from deodorant to sports and everything in between. She tells you how it felt to do these things the average Victorian did, but which we nowadays know nothing about.

“I have handled many pieces of Victorian clothing for men. They don’t feel at all like the clothes or fabric we are all so used to wearing now. When we look at images of people in Victorian dress, what we tend to notice mostly is the changes that have occurred in fashion. The fabrics the garments are made of go largely unnoticed.”

I’m not usually much of a non-fiction reader, but this research has been changing my mind. As a result of reading this book, I now know what sort of underwear my characters wore. I know how they styled their hair and how they cleaned their clothes. I know the staples of their diets and I know what time they went to bed and why. And I am so, so much further along than I was only a week before I picked this book up.

A must read for anyone with an interest in social history. A book which has not only made me feel closer to my characters, but closer to my ancestors, too.

You can find out more here on amazon.co.uk.

The Big Reveal – The Sudden Departure of the Frasers

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?

The Sudden Departure of the Frasers book cover

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.

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. 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

I’ve been reading and promising a review of Death at the Priory for a couple of weeks. Let’s see if it was worth the wait!

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. It’s 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.

death at the priory book cover

I bought it for the juicy murder, but came away with a deeper understanding of how women of a certain class coped with difficult marriages. It 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 realised 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.

So, what did happen?

Ruddick’s investigations and conclusions occasionally take great leaps of faith. 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, though 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. 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.

Moody Review Round-Up

A roundup of some of my favourite recent reads, including True Things About Me, The Pleasures Of Men, The Observations, and The Drowning People

In the strictest sense of the word, I don’t really do reviews. I don’t like to. I feel drastically under-qualified, and as an author myself, massively hypocritical when judging other people. This is why, as you might have noticed, I only ever publish good reviews on here. If I don’t like something, then I won’t write about it.

Perhaps that’s wrong – there’s certainly value to be found in critical evaluation. But in a blog full of death it’s nice to have some positivity, and to bastardise Lesley Gore, it’s my murder blog, I’ll be nice if I want to.

With this in mind, I thought I’d do a brief recommendations round-up of books I have read and loved, long before this blog was a dark shadow on the very edge of your peripheral vision.

A lot of these are books which have been out a good long time, and pulled me deeper into the abyss of murder mysteries and sharpened my interest in psychology. When I’ve not read a book for a long time what I tend to remember about it is mood, and these books are dark, psychological, and moving. Oddly enough, three of these books live together on the same shelf on my bookcase.

The Pleasures of Men – Kate Williams

The Pleasures Of Men

A young woman who feels a connection to the victims of a serial killer searches for the key to uncovering his identity.

I started reading this in bed, late at night and quickly had to stop. I saved it instead for periods of bright sunlight because I am a giant wuss, and this is absolutely chilling. Like reading someone’s nightmare.

The Drowning People – Richard Mason

The Drowning People

Proof (if proof were needed) that these are my badly cropped scans. £2.00! Bargain!

Reflections in the aftermath of a murder.

Discovered in a charity shop and couldn’t live without. Beautiful, bewitching and painful in equal measure. Foolish young things in love refusing to think of the consequences of their actions. One of those books which has stuck with me, and that regularly comes to mind.

True Things About Me – Deborah Kaye Davies

True Things About Me

True Things About Me is one of my top 5 reads – ever. A woman drawn into a destructive and addictive relationship struggles to find a way out.

I  kept it on my shelves for a while, then when I was feeling at my lowest ebb I ran a bath, poured myself some vodka, and read it in one sitting. When I was done I cried into the cold water, and the next day I began to sort myself out. There are books which change your life, and this irrevocably altered mine. Find it here.

The Observations – Jane Harris

The Observations

A maid with a past she’d rather keep hidden is asked to carry out increasingly odd tasks by her new mistress, and encouraged to keep a diary of her most intimate thoughts.

My first foray into claustrophobic historical mysteries, and the first time I read “fuck” in a book, if I remember rightly. Unusual as well in that it’s a first person account told by a highly literate maid. Amusing and frightening by turns.

 

There are many more, of course, and I’ll likely do a couple more round-ups over the next few months. Have you read any of these? What did you think? What would you add to the list?

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Beyond The Dark Veil – Captured Shadows

REVIEW – Beyond the Dark Veil : Post Mortem and Mourning Photography from the Thanatos Archive – Jacqueline Ann Bunge Barger

Grief is an odd and difficult thing. Until recently I was lucky enough not to have lost anybody close to me. When I did, the raw rip of grief was something I struggled to understand even as it devastated me. It isolates you in your pain, and yet it unites you with every human in history.

Never has every human in history felt closer than when reading Beyond The Dark Veil, a collection of Victorian Post-Mortem and Mourning Photography, from the Thanos Archive.

Image of the book, Beyond the dark veil

It’s impossible to do justice to this glossy, golden, embossed beauty of a book in a photograph

This is a beautiful volume, the kind that is a pleasure to hold in your hands as you run gentle fingertips over the shallow embossing on the cover. I really felt it was a thing of great importance before I even opened it. That feeling grew as I read, going through all 200 thick pages in one sitting and almost breaking my own heart.

Beyond The Dark Veil…

There’s a theory I’ve always liked, that when you die, you live on for as long as there is somebody to remember you. You survive in memory, if not in spirit, which is one thing which makes this collection of Victorian mourning photography so hauntingly beautiful. By locking eyes with the long past dead or nearly dead, do we resurrect their souls, allowing them to live on for as long as we remember them?

Probably not. But the theatre of Victorian mourning is something beautiful, and the culmination of habits humanity has refined over millennia. These traditions, as explained in this hefty tome, fell out of favour during the first and second World Wars, when so many died it would have been too much mourning for society to take, and the fear was it would break the nation’s spirit.

For a book mainly comprised of high quality prints, it’s an absolute trove of information, and I gleaned four pages of notes from my read-through. I always think it’s easier to learn fact by reading fiction or watching a documentary – something immersive rather than dry – and this largely picture-based book had the same sort of effect. It’s learning by osmosis rather than forcing facts into your brain and hoping they stay there.

This post has been a real struggle to write.

Nothing has flowed as it should, and I know I haven’t done this book justice. It was the most powerful and moving thing I have ever read. Several times during my read-through I wondered why I was putting myself through it. It isn’t necessary to immerse myself in so much death. Perhaps it isn’t wise, either. But the more I learn, the more fascinated I am by the culture which surrounds it, and the history of people’s association with death. It fascinates us all, it is the great unknown. The tradition with which we surround death is the culmination of millennia of trying to understand what we can never hope to.

I recommend this book whole-heartedly. It isn’t an easy read, but there is something to be said about confronting your own mortality in so forthright a manner. Similarly, there is something oddly comforting about seeing the preserved memories of those who had been so loved, still showing that love after over a century later. Like these 200+ people, perhaps we will not be forgotten, even when those who knew and loved us have long since passed.

Find Beyond the Dark Veil on amazon.co.uk

Death On A Branch Line – Little Belgians and Moustachioed Victorians

REVIEW: Death on a Branch Line – Andrew Martin

Before we get onto the important business of reviewing Death on a Branch Line, some personal news. Last month I bought myself the complete box set of Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Not only had nobody thought to buy me them previously (!) but this formed a very important part of my *research*.

The research period of any novel or series is an odd one. It’s extremely flexible in terms of what you (I) can justify as research. For instance, I am going to write mysteries set in Victorian Leeds, so I am researching plot structure, and the time period. So I can binge watch 6 episodes of Poirot and justify it as working, even if I’ve made my way through the best part of a bottle of wine while I was at it. I’m looking at the structure, darling.

OK, I admit this is stretching it, but my goodness, Poirot is cracking good fun. David Suchet is tremendous as the little Belgian, and I’ve reignited my childhood crush on Captain Hastings (he’s just so nice, why don’t the ladies like him!?). Not to mention the tour de force that is Miss Lemon, my secretarial idol.

And this happened, taking one of the top spots of "Best things that have ever happened in my life, ever ever".

And this happened, taking one of the top spots of “Best things that have ever happened in my life, ever ever”.

In fairness to myself, I have learned a lot about character development from these binges, come to a few realisations on plotting and structure, and on what works for me and doesn’t. Which is great – just think how much I’ll learn watching the remaining 40+ episodes!

Oh yes, Poirot is exercising my little grey cells.

Also discovered through the wonderful medium that is Twitter that Hugh Fraser (Captain Hastings) has a thriller coming out soon.

But my research hasn’t solely comprised of Poirot. Even I can’t justify that. It’s also extended to a Victorian mystery, Death on a Branch Line.

One scorching day in York Train Station, Jim Stringer, railway detective, finds himself in conversation with a condemned man. Not convinced of the man’s guilt, Jim believes him when he warns of another death in the offing at his home, in the isolated village of Adenwold. In the company of his wife, Lydia, and in the middle of a scorching heatwave, Jim takes to the rails to investigate.

Cover Image of Death On A Branch Line

Come to think of it, I can’t recall if he’s described as moustachioed in the text. But who doesn’t like a blushing Victorian?

Now then. This was really, really good. A character-driven mystery which was genuinely perplexing and chocka with historical detail. There’s a quote on the back that aligned it with a BBC serial, and that is exactly how it was. A three parter around Christmas, perhaps? Come on, BBC! Get to it!

Perhaps the reason this hasn’t happened yet is one of the main reasons I liked it.

Liberal amounts of swearing. 

And it works. This is written first person, from Jim’s PoV, and all that swearing sounds completely natural. A railway detective working on a difficult case in a heatwave would be dropping F-bombs all over the place.

Even better than the liberal amounts of swearing (and I never thought I would write those words) was the wonderful and three-dimensional portrayal of Lydia, Jim’s wife. This is particularly notable given that she is referred to as Lydia about three times, and all the rest as “the wife”.

She’s a suffragette, which Jim is tolerant of, but doesn’t understand, and absolutely pivotal in the solving of the case. And here’s the thing, Jim treats her as you’d fully expect a railway detective to treat his wife. He assumes she’s wrong about things and is speaking out of turn, while at the same time being very proud of her, very much in love with her, and not a little bit in awe.

What I was left with was the impression of a woman who I admired, and wanted to know more about. This is book five in the Jim Stringer series. I may read more because I want to know more about Lydia.

I’m not sure what made me pick this up in the first place, because I have a “railways are boring” mentality, but this book actually made railways interesting to me. Perhaps I don’t just like lady books after all…!

Find on Amazon.co.uk here…

Premature Burial – 200 Litres Of Atmospheric Air

REVIEW: Premature Burial: How It May Be Prevented – Walter Hayden, William Tebb & Edward Perry Vollum

I always have a hard time visualising units. Take 200 litres of air. That’s, what – 100 two litre bottles of Vimto? How much does that look like? It seems like a lot (particularly of Vimto), but let me tell you this, when it comes to atmospheric air, it is not enough.

I have this thing about running out of air. I hate video game levels where they’re underwater and you have to swim through an air bubble before Sonic dies. Not that I mind so much when Sonic dies, because he’s extremely annoying. Still, though. Every time the clock starts to tick down I feel claustrophobic. My chest gets tight and I start to hold my breath without realising. I even do it in that bit in Finding Nemo when they’re above water. What the hell, Katherine!?

In spite of all this, Premature Burial: How It May Be Prevented seemed to me like a good read – my idea of a fun time. And don’t get me wrong, it was. It’s a contemporary Victorian report with a rash of examples of people being mistaken for dead and buried alive.

And it is so very chilling.

Image of the cover of Premature Burial: How it may be prevented

Warning to bat fans – image not indicative of content. Sad lack of bats in the text.

This book is a collection of anecdotes and newspaper clippings from throughout the nineteenth century, about people who gave every appearance of being dead but, in fact, were still alive. There are some incredible descriptions of people saved from an early grave just in the nick of time, and an equal or greater number of discoveries that happened just too late. And that’s only the ones who were discovered. Here’s the thing – you are highly diverted until you remember, these are (purportedly) true accounts. Then the air seems a little thin.

So I’m now actively concerned about being buried alive.

A very real risk when you appear to be dead but are in fact not, which clearly happens all the time.

I’m kind of surprised it hasn’t been used more in fiction – and it hasn’t in any of the Gothic mysteries I’ve come across – but I can’t help but think that if it had, I wouldn’t have believed it. I’d have tossed the book aside with a snort of derision and been a little bit cross about it for a couple of days.They expected me to believe that, I’d have scorned, and I would have been wrong to do so. It’s one of those instances where truth is stranger than fiction, which is a shame because I’d quite like to use it in a book. Perhaps in passing, rather than as a major plot point? What do you think, would you believe it?

The 200 litres mentioned in the intro was relevant. It’s the average amount of air you have when you’ve been sealed in a coffin, and it will last you 20-40 minutes. Which is more than I’d expect, but nowhere near enough.

I’m immersing myself in this death stuff, not just for morbid kicks but because I’m researching Victorian mortuaries and funeral practices for t’next book series. I’m finding it difficult to get information on some of the more nitty-gritty aspects, like body preservation. I know all about jet beads and crape, but I’m struggling finding out the more medical aspects. Any sources you’ve come across, I’d love to hear about! I think a trip to Thackray Medical Museum is in the offing…

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