Saturday, 30 April 2016

Review: The Body on the Doorstep by A. J. MacKenzie

2016  272 pages  Zaffre

On the marshes of Kent in the late eighteenth century, Reverend Hardcastle discovers a dying man on his doorstep. Narrowly escaping a bullet himself, he is entrusted with the dying man’s last words which leave him questioning the mystery behind this anonymous man’s death. With smugglers rife along the Kent coast, it seems as though it was a simple falling out amongst thieves, but the Reverend believes the answer to this crime lies deeper. Assisted by the brilliant Mrs Chaytor they set off to solve the mystery – but with smugglers lurking all through the county and the French threatening to invade, there are unsuspecting dangers around every corner.

The Body on the Doorstep is the first novel by A. J. MacKenzie (the pseudonym of married writer couple Marilyn Livingstone and Morgen Witzel) and it’s a gripping, atmospheric page turner. From the opening pages you’re thrust in to the action and the mystery, and neither slow down throughout the course of the novel. Reverend Hardcastle’s discovery of the dying man sets off a continuous chain of events, leading to yet more murder and endless corruption in the small village of St Mary in the Marsh and it makes for a very enjoyable read.

As amateur sleuths, Reverend Hardcastle and Mrs Chaytor are an interesting choice of characters to take on the task of solving the murder of the man on the doorstep, and at first I was sceptical. Hardcastle is the village rector with a colourful past and a weakness for drink, while Mrs Chaytor is a young widow and newcomer to the village, but I was pleasantly surprised to find they make a likeable and strong detective team. Mrs Chaytor is incredibly witty and brave for a woman of her period and it’s always fun to have a strong and determined heroine in a historical novel. Every character in this book has a purpose and there is a reason for every one of them to be in the story, which I find is a rare thing to come across in most fiction but it only emphasises how well the story is planned out and executed.

The plot itself is extremely clever, with numerous twists and turns that kept me constantly guessing right up until the final few pages. Some crime stories can feel predictable and lazy, but The Body on the Doorstep is fresh and exciting in addition to being skilfully written. The story is complex but not overwhelming, and I never found myself struggling to keep up as the pieces of the mystery began to fit together. The historical detail is also wonderful – I loved the gritty and dangerous atmosphere which was present throughout, and I look forward to seeing what A. J. MacKenzie produces next.

Overall rating: 4.5 stars

My copy of The Body on the Doorstep was sent to me by The Bookbag and my review was originally published on their website.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Review: The Serpent and the Pearl by Kate Quinn

Berkley Books • 393 pages

Re-read April 2016. I first read The Serpent and the Pearl about a year and a half ago in the autumn of 2014, and I really enjoyed it. Ultimately I've rounded this up a star because any book that makes me want to re-read it is worthy of five stars in my opinion. And despite having first read The Serpent and the Pearl not too long ago I think I enjoyed it more second time round, which made it all the more worthwhile because I was in desperate need of a really good book.

Kate Quinn is probably most well known for her Rome series but her novels centred on the notorious Borgia family are just as good. Like her other books the story is told through multiple narratives: Guilia Farnese, mistress to Pope Alexander VI (Papa Borgia); Carmelina, Guilia’s feisty and secretive cook; and Leonello, Guilia’s razor sharp bodyguard. The story is dark and rich and you expect nothing less from a story inspired by those sexy, sexy Borgias.

Undeniably this woman is one of my favourite authors, and her writing style has developed beautifully over the course of her novels. Quinn writes history in such an effortless style, whilst simultaneously creating a world that feels vividly real. For me, it's all about the details - details that, had they not been woven in to the text, would make the characters appear a little two dimensional; unable to be moulded in to actual flesh and blood images within the imagination. Example:

"His arms in their rolled-up sleeves were singed smooth and hairless like mine, after so much reaching in and out of hot ovens. And his hands, like mine, were marked all over with knife nicks and burn scars that told the world I am a cook.”

For a writer to tell their readers that a character is a cook is one thing, yet Quinn's writing style goes beyond labelling characters with bottomless nouns and instead gives us descriptions that perfectly provide us with an image of a person. A person who, in the context of the story, has lived, breathed, bled, felt pain, and heat, and fear. The small details make the story and you can tell she has put thought in to her writing, actually gone out there and done her homework in order to give the story that realistic edge.

The Serpent and the Pearl is a slower paced story compared to Quinn's earlier novels, but those Borgias were certainly no less interesting. There’s a build-up of tension throughout and the story is loaded with secrets and mystery. The plot flowed well and whilst there aren’t great mounds of action, the pace was kept sizzling by the atmosphere and the intrigue of the characters.

I suppose another of the reasons I loved this book so much is that I was surprised by it. Guilia, for example, I liked more than I thought I would. With the situation she gets thrown in to I felt empathy for her on the outset, but after the initial bombshell I thought my affection for her would wilt since I assumed she would do nothing but bitch and moan about it for the next 300 pages. Instead, she turns out to be this super boss, feisty, yet amiable wonder-woman who can go from demure beauty to queen-fucking-bee in a second. She's kick-ass, and would for sure be giving Kim Kardashian a run for her money if "Woman of the year" was a thing back in Renaissance Italy.

This book is brilliant and I highly recommend to anyone looking for some gritty and exciting historical fiction. 

Overall rating: 5 stars

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Review: The Sun King Conspiracy by Yves Jégo and Denis Lépée and Sue Dyson (translator)

2016 • 448 pages • Gallic Books

Who can I trust in this nest of vipers?

The year is 1661 and Cardinal Mazarin, the Chief Minister to King Louis XIV of France, lies dying. As the health of the man who once governed France deteriorates, the ambitions of those beneath him strive for power in order to succeed him. Secret papers have been stolen from the Cardinal, papers that could change the course of France forever, and have fallen in to the hands of Gabriel de Pontibrand, a young actor who has become unwillingly involved in this strange conspiracy. Surrounded by scheming politicians and a secret brotherhood, the contents of these coded papers will change Gabriel’s life and have the power to change the future of France.

The premise of The Sun King Conspiracy sounds incredibly exciting; full of mystery and intrigue and all set during a politically important period which led to Louis XIV’s ultimate rise to power. The story itself began well and at first I enjoyed it, but instead of being on the edge of my seat thirsting for more, it left me feeling confused and a bit disappointed.

As I said, the set-up sounded amazing and I have no doubt that both Yves Jégo and Denis Lépée did an impeccable job with their research – the decadence of the French court and descriptions of seventeenth century Paris are wonderful.  In terms of plot however, it just felt like too much was going on which left me feeling bewildered and unable to completely immerse myself in the story. Gabriel is at the centre of the novel and you follow him as his accidental possession of these mysterious papers set him on a dangerous path, but the narrative deals with the involvement of so many other characters and their ambitions and it just made the story feel complicated. It’s got plenty of action but this is a novel where you have to concentrate to know what’s happening, so don’t anticipate an easy read because I found it quick to get muddled if I lost focus.  

I’m a lover of seventeenth century history, and particularly love to read novels concerning the reign of The Sun King himself. Pretty much any book I find that’s written during this period I will add it to my To-Read list. In that respect, the book was interesting to read in order to see the authors’ fictional take on such historical figures as Louise de la Vallière and Nicolas Fouquet. Sadly, it all felt very flat and it was so frustrating because it began so well. I had such hopes that this would knock my socks off but it didn’t. Also the chapters are incredibly short, and that was reassuring at times but it meant that as one part of the story was taking off, it would come to an abrupt pause and then immediately plunge in to a different section of the plot! It’s fast moving, but also quite rushed.

If you enjoy historical fiction mixed with elements of mystery then you may enjoy this, and despite my issues with the book I would say to any readers interested in historical fiction set during the reign of Louis XIV to give this a go because while I didn’t love it, I’m glad I read it. But again, this is a mild recommendation to a limited audience – I’ll read anything set in this period to see how different authors handle the historical details, and if you’re like me then by all means see what you think. It might surprise you.  

Overall rating: 2 stars

My proof copy of The Sun King Conspiracy was sent to me by The Bookbag and my review was originally published on their website.

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