Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Butcher of Smithfield by Susanna Gregory

Chaloner has finally returned to London after a dangerous mission in Spain and Portugal. Yet in only a few months there have been many changes. In particular the editor of the official printed newsletter has been replaced and a tax has been placed on all printed material. The ousted editor has set up a rival in the form of handwritten newsletters, which are exempt from this new tax. The coffee houses are buzzing with the feud and accusations of espionage and theft abound. If that wasn't enough his dear friend Maylord has died of eating green cucumbers.
Yet Chaloner has no time to grieve as the Lord Chancellor is keen for him to uncover the truth behind the death of a solicitor named Newburne. With ties to the crime lord of Smithfield, known as the Butcher, and a man who made no friends in any quarter Chaloner has more suspects than clues. What's more, Newburne also seems to have conveniently died of eating green cucumbers....
With at least two suspicious deaths, apparently unlinked, a wardrobe full of moths, no pay and a lucky hat, Chaloner sets off to solve his friend's death, the death of Newburne and hopefully get paid.

This is the third book of the Chaloner series set in Restoration London following the fortunes of an ex-Cromwellian spy under the new Royalist regime. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and really felt as if I was wandering the late 17th century streets of London. As always Gregory has done her research, the plot involving the cucumbers was particularly clever. At the time green fruit and vegetables were treated with such mistrust that for someone to die having eaten green cucumbers would seem perfectly possible. Other good historically accurate touches include the fear of Catholics and those that supported the old Cromwellian government. People like this were felt to undermine the Church and King and the very fabric of daily life. On top of this the popularity of the coffee houses and censorship of the press are also extremely accurate.

The plot has plenty of twists and turns to keep you guessing how the whole picture fits together right till the end. Just when you think you know what's happening a new thread will interrupt and throw off your conclusions. I for one did not see the ending coming!

The problem that Gregory faces is that when we think of spies, we think of James Bond and all the gadgets he uses. Chaloner has no access to special equipment and apart from one special item he owns, he has to make to with whatever he has to hand and his wits. It means that so much more thought has to be put into the plot so that it can be exhilarating, fast-paced and sufficiently clever to give the reader a thrill when reading it. I for one feel that Gregory achieves this. Added to that her characters are not flat, two-dimensional creatures, but well rounded, flawed, normal human beings.

I would definitely recommend this book, and indeed the whole series thus far, to anyone who wants to try and spy story without flashy gadgets and incredible amounts of good fortune for the lead character. It is also highly recommended for anyone with a passion 17th century. If you like intrigue, politics and action, this book has it all.

*4 stars*

Other books by Susanna Gregory include:
*A Conspiracy of Violence: First book in the Thomas Chaloner series
*Blood on the Strand: Second book in the Thomas Chaloner series
*The Westminster Poisoner: Fourth book in the Thomas Chaloner series

The Behaviour of Moths by Poppy Adams

Ginny is upstairs, watching out the window for the return of her sister Vivi. It has been years since Vivi has come home, and now that their parents are dead and they are both in the autumns of their lives Vivi has decided to come home. As Ginny waits she remembers their childhood, the highs, the lows and the moths. Ginny like so many of her forefathers is a lepidopterist, whilst Vivi has never been interested. Once Vivi arrives, Ginny finds her whole world turned upside down and in the space of one weekend a myraid of dark family secrets unravels into a dramatic climax.

For anyone who has read the The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox I thoroughly recommend that you read this. Although in some ways a similar theme, this is far more accessible yet with more twists and turns. It is beautifully written and Poppy Adams has a superb knack of lulling you into a false sense of security and leading you up the garden path before finally revealing all. I am surprised this is her first book but I will definitely be looking out for her next one.

This is definitely a meaty book exploring the relationships of parent and child and siblings in an era when you didn't talk about private things. This creates many secrets and lies and you're never sure who knows what because no one is really talking to each other. As the book unfolds you begin to realise that things that you assume only one or two people knew, in fact was a secret shared by many. It also illustrates how secrets and lies will all unravel and that the consequences are not always anticipated.

I really don't want to spoil this book for potential readers so I won't go into the themes the book covers in more detail than this. Suffice to say, I wouldn't call it a light hearted read but at the same time it didn't feel constantly bleak (like Eastenders makes you feel if you watch a few episodes and realise that in fact most of the families are there to suffer because nothing goes right in the end for anyone). I found that how I imagined the family and how it worked constantly changed as more and more flashbacks occurred and as Ginny and Vivi interacted. The good news is the bits about the moths are not offputting for those of us with no interest in the subject. It adds another beautiful layer to this book that adds to the storyline rather than existing as a separate theme.

I would definitely recommend this book to others and especially to book groups as there are plenty of topics for discussion.

*5 stars*

If you enjoyed this why not try 'The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox' by Maggie O'Farrell?

Friday, May 09, 2008

What to read next

Hi everyone who reads this blog :)
I'm sending out a plea for help finding new books to read. I really really need new suggestions. So please, don't be shy and either add your suggestions to the bottom of this post (you don't have to be a member to post remember) or e-mail me at .
I'm finally going through a reading phase after finding it difficult to pick up a book for the last few months. Please help! What have you enjoyed reading lately and why???