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Contemporary Gothic: The Engagement

The EngagementThe Engagement by Chloe Hooper

Liese has been working at her uncle’s estate agency in Melbourne. The luxury apartments Liese shows handsome farmer Alexander Colquhoun become sets for a relationship that satisfies their fantasies – and helps pay her debts. It’s a game. Both players understand the rules. Or so she thinks.
When Alexander pays Liese to spend a weekend with him on his remote property, she senses a change in him. A new game has begun in this psychological thriller for the modern age.

First Impressions: From the first few pages I could tell I would really enjoy this novel. I also felt some relief as when The Engagement was published I (unfortunately) read many middling reviews which didn’t inspire me to read it at the time.

Highlights: I loved Hooper’s contemporary Australian twists on both gothic writing and Dutch still life paintings. It was all subtle rather than overdone and highly entertaining. Liese is an unreliable yet reliable narrator and for some reason I enjoyed her background life in architecture. I enjoyed and appreciated Hooper’s description of the nondescript Norwich suburbs; it felt accurate and could be AnyUnremarkableTown, UK. In a nutshell, Hooper’s writing style and plot had me hooked. I read it in one day which is rare for me at the moment. I also love this cover.

If I was an editor: I would be aghast at the middling reviews I mentioned earlier. Sure, it is more literary than a lot of thrillers so perhaps the reviewers missed the point.

Overall: A few days on and I wonder if it is all just meant to be hilarious rather than alarming!

The Engagement: 5 Stars

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Victorian Sensation: The Quick

Product DetailsThe Quick by Lauren Owen

I wish I had read this novel closer to the release date as while most reviews kept the mystery of the Aegolius Club a secret, one review I opened gave it away in the first sentence. I would have liked to discover this for myself. [sigh]. On the other hand, the mixed reviews for this novel are probably due to the fact the publishers were cryptic with what was to unfold, no doubt annoying some readers who were after a hearty and traditional Victorian romp.

Victorian England: James and Charlotte are siblings living on a rambling Yorkshire estate. James travels to London to try his hand at being a writer and one night he is drawn into the Aegolious club, a club for the wealthiest and most influential men in London. When the club’s membership rules change, tensions with a faction in the East End exacerbate.

First Impressions: This novel certainly has a Victorian Gothic tone – elaborate dusty libraries, remote estates with peculiar staff… I really enjoyed reading about Charlotte and James’ childhood. It reminded me a little of The Thirteenth Tale.

Highlights: The Gothic tone was kept throughout and for the most part it had all the features of a great Victorian novel, perhaps in the vein of Wilkie Collins and the sensation novel. There probably wasn’t one particular section of the novel that stood out for me but I did rather enjoy the early parts that set the scene.

If I was an editor: I would wonder if the ending was as taut as it could have been. It fits the style of the Victorian novel with loose ends being wrapped up but I probably would have preferred a sharper ending. As I expected, one loose end is not wrapped up but this could have been got to quicker. Too much time passed in too short a number of pages which meant the intrigue was lacking.

Overall: A good story. This is the first 0.5 review I have given as I really can’t decide! Not for everyone but I enjoyed it.

The Quick: 3.5 stars

Thank you to Random House (Vintage) for a copy of the ARC to review.

 

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Victorian Damsels

The Painted BridgeThe Painted Bridge by Wendy Wallace

Product DetailsIsabels’ Skin by Peter Benson.

Recently I have read two very different Victorian novels. Both centre around women finding their way in Victorian times.

The Painted Bridge has so many fantastic reviews and I was excited to read it. I love a good Victorian novel set in a ‘private asylum for women of a delicate nature’. Anna Palmer is tricked by her husband into entering an asylum after he is embarrassed by her efforts to save people damaged by a shipwreck. A regular visitor to the asylum is Lucas St Clair, a physician using experimental photography to see if he can identify what classifies people as insane rather than sane. The family who own the asylum also feature and you get their stories too. Can Anna overcome her treatments and take control of her destiny?

I enjoyed this novel. I liked all the characters and I was intrigued by the photographic therapy. I could feel the hopelessness of Anna’s situation and enjoyed the tiny moments of doubt that questioned the actual existence of the shipwreck victims. Other characters affected me too. The story of the inmate placed in the asylum by her family after a life in India and marriage to a local saddened me. I have read a number of novels set in Victorian times and this is one of the better ones. The treatments Anna undergoes at the asylum are vividly described without it becoming excessive. Some will make you uncomfortable and glad not to be a Victorian woman. It’s not quite Fingersmith but I recommend it as it is well crafted and tells a fine tale. Although there wasn’t anything sensational enough to startle me and force  the story to linger on my mind, it was thought provoking and authentic in Victorian tone.

Isabel’s skin is a rather unique and creepy story. David Morris is a London book valuer called out to catalogue a collection in rural Somerset. Cue a long journey and lots of colourful locals. Out walking in the countryside he hears some screams and stumbles across a house. The house belongs to Professor Richard Hunt and his live-in experiment: a young woman called Isabel whose skin has an alarming quality.

This book is delightfully full of gothic horror and also has an authentic Victorian tone. Such a preposterous skin condition reminds me a little of the man with the blue hue in Wilkie Collins’s Poor Miss Finch, although that was from a standard medical treatment of the day. It is shorter than The Painted Bridge so I feel I can’t say too much without giving lots of the plot away but you are correct in guessing David Morris can’t resist becoming involved with Isabel. Despite its brevity, I did feel the first and last chapters where rather longwinded ramblings from David Morris. It is good to know his reflections on the events but these chapters detract from the creepy story a bit. Overall it was incredibly imaginative yet believable at the same time. A relatively taut read for fans of the sensationalists.

The Painted Bridge and Isabel’s Skin: Both 4 stars with The Painted Bridge just nudging ahead for reader satisfaction.

Two more Victorian novels I would like to read:

The Skull and the Nightingale by Michael Irwin. Published this summer.

Derby Day: A Victorian MysteryDerby Day by D J Taylor.