Author, Book review, Elizabeth MacNeal, Fiction, historical fiction, London, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘The Doll Factory’ by Elizabeth MacNeal

Fiction – Kindle edition; Picador; 384 pages; 2019.

Art, freedom and obsession collide in Elizabeth MacNeal’s The Doll Factory. This debut novel marries historical fiction with elements of the psychological thriller to create a proper page-turner. I practically devoured this book on a seven-hour train journey (from Kalgoorlie to Perth) last weekend and have been thinking about it ever since.

It’s set in London during the Great Exhibition and the era of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB), a loose association of English painters who rebelled against the art standards of the day (read more about them here), and focuses on a young woman called Iris Whittle who is drawn into their circle, first as an artist’s model, but then as a burgeoning painter in her own right.

Along the way, she attracts the unwanted attention of a taxidermist, Silas Reed, who is constantly in pursuit of the weird and wonderful. Silas becomes obsessed with Iris and her deformity — a collarbone that is twisted out of shape so that she has a slight stoop to her left side — and makes plans to befriend her, whether she likes it or not.

What results is a fast-paced story in which Iris, oblivious to Silas’s increasingly dangerous obsession with her, falls prey to his dark, manipulative ways…

Painterly ambition

When we first meet independently minded Iris she is working (and living) in a doll factory (hence the book’s title) alongside her twin sister Rose, painting faces onto dozens of porcelain dolls every day.

The long 12-hour shifts are monotonous and dull. Iris dreams of doing something more interesting with her life. She has a talent for painting and longs to pursue this, but, of course, conventions of the day generally restrict women from leading lives that are anything other than domestic.

A chance encounter with a member of the PRB, attracted to her flame-red hair and quiet beauty, offers her a means of escape. In exchange for becoming an artist’s model, she will be given art lessons to explore her talent.

But what seems like a no-brainer is fraught with pitfalls, for to do so she will earn the wrath of society (to be an artist’s model at the time was akin to being a whore) and her family will disown her.

There are further complications because Iris has no idea that a man she accidentally bumped into at Hyde Park a few weeks earlier has developed a “thing” for her. Silas Reed’s quiet pursuit of her goes relatively unnoticed. She ignores his later invite to visit his shop (“Silas Reed’s Shop of Curiosities Antique and New”) and is unaware that the Great Exhibition ticket that arrives in the post is an anonymous gift from him.

Being oblivious to these “signs” only puts Iris in more danger for she is unable to take steps to protect herself — with far-reaching consequences.

Historical fiction

There are echoes of John Fowles’ The Collector here (a book I read so long ago that my memory of it is quite vague), but for all its creepiness and, at times, morbid atmosphere, this isn’t a psychological thriller as such.

The Doll Factory is primarily a well researched historical novel, incredibly evocative and rich in detail, which brings the sights and smells of 1850s London to life on the page.

It’s very much a novel about art and pursuing dreams and having the freedom to live life as you want to live it, something that wasn’t typically open to women in the 19th century. It also explores what it was like to be a woman at the time, to constantly be in the male gaze, to modify your behaviour to keep men happy, to do things that would not call your morality into question.

It’s one of those well-crafted, entertaining novels ideal for those times when you are simply looking for something quick and absorbing to read, but because it is also underpinned by important issues and rooted in historical fact, it’s got enough meat on the bones to make it chewy, too.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, England, Fiction, Hodder, London, Publisher, Sabine Durrant, Setting

‘Finders, Keepers’ by Sabine Durrant

Fiction – Kindle edition; Hodder & Stoughton; 320 pages; 2020.

Morally dubious characters are a mainstay of Sabine Durrant’s work, and Finders, Keepers, her latest novel, is no exception.

In this gripping story — which is right out of the Patricia Highsmith playbook — two women, poles apart in background and personality, develop a strange, obsessional relationship that culminates in a murder. As the pair dance around one another, their individual secrets are revealed one by one, in a carefully paced narrative filled with many a-ha! moments.

Told from the perspective of Verity, an eccentric woman in her 50s who makes her living working from home as a lexicographer for the English Oxford Dictionary, the story juxtaposes two narrative threads: a retrospective one that looks back on how Verity became friends with her neighbour Ailsa, and a current one that focuses on Ailsa’s new life awaiting trial for murder.

Murder by poisoning

When the book opens, Ailsa is staying with Verity after having spent several nights in a cell at the local police station. Someone has daubed “YOUR GUILTEY” in red paint on the front fence. We later learn that Ailsa’s husband has died, possibly from eating poisoned food, and that she has been charged with his murder. Her three children have been taken into care.

Verity, kind-hearted and eager to please, looks after her friend with unwavering devotion, the kind of devotion she had previously doled out to her aged mother, whom she cared for until her death five years earlier. Estranged from her only sister, Verity lives alone with only her dog Maudie for company.

Verity explains that when Ailsa moved in next door — after “13 months of drills and bulldozers, the clatter of scaffolding, the whining of saws, the bangs and shouts and music and oaths of the increasingly frantic builders” — it’s a relief that the renovations are over. She already knows that Ailsa, who works in HR, and her husband, Tom, who is a record company executive, have moved to London after a failed stint in Kent. She knows their taste in furniture and fittings (having seen it all delivered).

But their friendship gets off to a wonky start when Tom comes around to complain about the trees and ivy along the back fence (wanting her to cut everything back). Later, when she’s invited over for drinks (via a handwritten invitation on the back of a postcard), she drops by, unaware that it’s a thinly veiled attempt to convince her to clear up her garden.

This sets the tone for their friendship, though Verity seems genuinely unaware that she is being used or manipulated by both parties. Even when she begins (accidentally) tutoring their son, Max, who is struggling at school because of his dyslexia, Verity can never see it in herself to chase the promised payment.

Mutually dependent friendship

As the story unfolds and the two narratives, past and present, intertwine we begin to learn more and more about the ways in which these two women come to depend on one another, and we begin to see how Tom’s behaviour, bullying and rude, might have lead to his downfall.

Finders, Keepers is a clever, suspense-filled story, one that doesn’t follow all the conventional rules of the genre. It’s far from predictable and has the kind of satisfactory ending that makes you glad you took the time to read the book.

But it’s the characters that really make the story — the bitchy, manipulative Aisla, who is all sweetness and light whenever the spotlight is cast in her direction, is rather wonderful, yet it’s Verity, an oddball with her quirky interests, that gives the novel its real heart.

Author, Book review, Colette McBeth, crime/thriller, Fiction, Headline Review, London, Publisher, Setting

‘The Life I Left Behind’ by Colette McBeth


Fiction – Kindle edition; Headline; 352 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

After reading a succession of rather heavy literary novels (some of which are yet to be reviewed), I decided I needed to immerse myself in a psychological thriller — my palette cleanser of choice — which is how I came to read Colette McBeth’s The Life I Left Behind.

Trio of narrators

The story, which is set in West London (in locations I know very well), has three different narrators, who take it in turns to tell the story in alternate chapters.

The first is Melody Pieterson, a woman who survived an attempt on her life five years earlier and lived to tell the tale. But she’s now so psychologically scarred she can barely function and never leaves the house in the Surrey countryside that she shares with her fiancé, a doctor called Sam.

Then there is Eve Elliot, a freelance TV producer, who is found dead in the same heavily wooded location that Melody was discovered. She narrates her version of events from beyond the grave.

And finally there is Detective Inspector Victoria Rutter, who investigated Melody’s case, in which the attempted murderer was put behind bars. That man, David Alden, has recently been released from prison, so has he struck once again? DI Rutter isn’t quite so sure…

Twists and turns

The Life I Left Behind is full of lots of creepy twists, chilling turns and false leads. The main twist comes fairly early on when the identity of Melody’s attempted murderer is called into question. That’s because Eve had recently been researching the idea that David had been wrongly convicted — she had found new evidence which threw the guilty verdict into doubt — and had met with David on the night of her murder. What would he have to gain in killing the person who was championing his innocence?

There are lots of other minor twists as the story works towards its inevitable conclusion of revealing the identity of the real killer.

It is to the author’s credit that I failed to guess the ending. Indeed, the denouement is nicely done; it’s restrained yet satisfying, which can be quite a feat to pull off in this genre which so often resorts to over-the-top drama or ties up everything in too neat a package.

Compelling but flawed

But while the plot is compelling and original, the book does have a few flaws, not the least of which is David’s wrongful conviction, which seems slightly preposterous and not truly rooted in reality. The only way I could enjoy this story was to suspend belief and try not to worry about the fact that the police and David’s own defence counsel hadn’t done their jobs properly.

And the characters — including the trio of subsidiary male ones — while all well-drawn, are weak, shallow and manipulative. I know you don’t need to like characters to like a book, but in a psychological thriller it helps to at least empathise with the victim so you can will them to escape from the danger that threatens them. In this case, I couldn’t care less about Melody — and Eve, well, she was already dead, so what was the point?

All in all, The Life I Left Behind is a fairly average psychological thriller — although all the four- and five-star reviews on Amazon might suggest otherwise.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, Zadie Smith

‘NW’ by Zadie Smith


Fiction – hardcover; Penguin; 295 pages; 2012.

Sometimes when I’ve finished reading a book and I express an opinion about it, I find myself completely at odds with everyone else. Zadie Smith’s NW is a case in point.

This book — Smith’s fourth novel — is widely lauded and regarded as her finest work. Everyone I follow on Twitter seems to love it. But I struggled with it and found it a chore to read — in fact, I only forced myself to finish it because it had been chosen for my book group and I wanted to be able to take part in the discussion. If I had chosen the novel of my own accord I doubt I would have continued beyond the first chapter.

Fortunately, it’s the kind of novel that actually benefits from discussion, because after my book group meeting I found myself warming to it a bit more than I had first thought, but that doesn’t mean to say I liked NW; I didn’t.

North-west London setting

The story is set in the London postcode of NW, an impoverished part north of the river, and focuses on four characters — Leah, Natalie, Felix and Nathan — who grew up on the same council estate and are now trying to make their way as 30-something adults.

It mainly revolves around Leah and Keisha, who were once best friends but now live lives that couldn’t be more different. Leah, a white Irish girl, has married an exotic-looking black French/Algerian — the kind of man all her black colleagues lust after — and is feeling the pressure of beginning a family she doesn’t yet want, probably because she  rails against the idea of bringing up a child in the same circumstances in which she was raised; while Keisha, who has reinvented herself as Natalie, is a successful black barrister with two children but finds married life so dull she has kinky sex with other couples she tracks down on the internet.

Meanwhile, Nathan, the good-looking boy Leah had a crush on at school, is living on the streets and illegally reselling tube tickets to scrape together a bit of money to feed his crack habit. Felix, the fourth character, is a bit of a red herring — he’s not known to Leah or Keisha — but his world closely orbits their’s and, eventually, collides with Nathan’s.

An experimental novel

In most of the reviews I’ve looked at online, NW has been billed as “experimental”. I guess that’s a fair way of describing the structure, which is divided into four parts. The prose style is stylistically different in each of those four parts. I found the first section “Visitation”, which is Leah’s story, so choppy and disjointed — deliberately mirroring the character’s own thought patterns — that it felt impossible to get a handle on.

Felix’s story, told in the second part, “guest”, was much easier to read, but I wasn’t sure how it was linked to the rest of the narrative, because it’s mainly set in W1. (Though Smith does tie it back right at the end, by which time it’s easy to have forgotten who Felix was.)

The most successful part, entitled “Host”, tells Keisha’s story and her changing friendship with Leah: it was easy-to-read, engaging, witty in places, sad in others, but filled with an energy and restlessness that seemed to match the personality of the character, keen to escape her black Pentecostal roots and climb the social and career ladder.

Disjointed and meandering

So why didn’t I like this book? It’s hard to pinpoint. It has some obvious strengths: the characterisation is superb and Smith expertly captures the sounds and smells and sights of this part of London (although there’s a tendency to overdo it in places). But I thought the narrative was disjointed and meandering, and each new section felt like it had been written as part of a creative writing exercise. It doesn’t seem to gel together as one cohesive whole — though perhaps that’s the point? — and it often got too bogged down in unnecessary detail.

The view of the world — or, at least, of Willesden — it presents is also unrelentingly bleak. This is a London filled with people who are cruel, mean-spirited, manipulative, violent, suspicious and unkind, where your birthplace dictates the life you must lead, with little chance to better yourself or your circumstances. As Philip Hensher points out in this review in The Telegraph, “it is angry about injustice, and overwhelmingly interested in the lost talent, the resources lost in an abandoned generation”. This adds up to a pretty damning portrait of London (and British) life, but if that was Smith’s message, then she’s undoubtedly succeeded…

So while there’s a lot to unpick in this novel — politically, socially, morally and “novelistically” —  it wasn’t really for me. You may beg to differ.

To see what other bloggers thought of it, please see the (mixed) reviews at ANZLitLovers, KevinfromCanada,  Asylum and Annabel’s House of Books.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ian McEwan, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting, Vintage

‘Amsterdam’ by Ian McEwan


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 198 pages; 1998.

Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam could easily have been included in my recent 10 books about journalists post. That’s because the lead character is a newspaper editor, who tries to revive a flagging career and a dive in circulation figures by publishing a series of photographs that could bring down a politician.

The novel, which won the Booker Prize in 1998, is a searing tongue-in-cheek account of journalistic ethics before the internet took over. But it’s also a terrific comedy about middle-aged men who will do almost anything to kick-start, or cling onto, stalled careers.

Though the humour is subtle, I tittered my way through it. Occasionally it’s what the characters say that elicits a chuckle, but mostly it’s the clever connections and set-ups that McEwan puts into play that deliver the laughs. It’s like a game of chess — nothing is immediately obvious, but then a character makes a move and you see what he’s up to or how it might play out before it actually does, which makes it such a fun read.

A trio of men

The story revolves around three men — the aforementioned newspaper editor, a composer and an MP — who are linked by one thing: they are ex-lovers of Molly, a photographer dead at the age of 46 from an unspecified illness. The trio are friends or enemies, depending on which way the wind is blowing.

It’s a rather complicated plot, but I’ll try to summarise it as best I can without giving anything away. Essentially, it goes something like this: Vernon Halliday, editor of The Judge, an upmarket newspaper, is handed a story that could rescue the paper’s dying circulation figures. Molly apparently took a series of photographs of a leading politician, the foreign secretary Julian Garmony, striking poses as a cross-dresser. The photos were found by composer Clive Linley.

Vernon wants to publish them, not only to boost the paper’s circulation but also to scupper Garmony’s chances of ever being elected as prime minister. Clive doesn’t approve: he thinks publishing them would betray Molly. Yet when Vernon ignores the composer’s concerns, he finds the outcome isn’t quite what he expected…

Dual storyline

There’s a second story line involving Clive, who is also struggling with his career. He’s having a hard time composing a new symphony for the new millennium — he’s missed two deadlines already — so he takes himself on a week’s holiday to the Lake District hoping to blow off the cobwebs, so to speak. While out walking he witnesses an argument between a man and a woman but at the very moment he should have interjected, he can hear a melody in his head that he doesn’t want to lose. He scuttles away to write it down before he forgets it, only to find out much later, upon his return to London, that the argument he witnessed was just the beginning of what turned out to be a rather brutal rape.

Vernon believes Clive has a moral obligation to tell the police what he saw. He refuses — again with unforeseen results.

I can’t say anything about the ending, which concludes in Amsterdam (hence the title) and brings both storylines together in a rather satisfying if completely bonkers and certainly not realistic way. I often find that with McEwan’s novels, though — his endings are strange and occasionally rushed, but I’m not sure whether this is typical of his style or just the handful of books I’ve read.

All up, Amsterdam is quite a fun read about a trio of pompous men in high-flying careers acting like they’re juveniles. It’s ingeniously plotted story with a suitably over-the-top ending that’s completely preposterous but which is not entirely out of keeping with the rest of the book. It’s a novel about journalism, politics and music, but it also explores betrayal, loyalty, ambition — and death.