Back from the Backlist · Reviews

BACK FROM THE BACKLIST!! The Corset by Laura Purcell

Image Description: The cover of The Corset is a dark blue with an embroidered peacock feather and a needle picked out in gold. In the centre of the peacock feather eye is the silhouette of a women in Victorian dress.

Is prisoner Ruth Butterham mad or a murderer? Victim or villain?

Dorothea and Ruth. Prison visitor and prisoner. Powerful and powerless. Dorothea Truelove is young, wealthy and beautiful. Ruth Butterham is young, poor and awaiting trial for murder.

When Dorothea’s charitable work leads her to Oakgate Prison, she is delighted with the chance to explore her fascination with phrenology and test her hypothesis that the shape of a person’s skull can cast a light on their darkest crimes. But when she meets teenage seamstress Ruth, she is faced with another theory: that it is possible to kill with a needle and thread. For Ruth attributes her crimes to a supernatural power inherent in her stitches.

The story Ruth has to tell of her deadly creations – of bitterness and betrayal, of death and dresses – will shake Dorothea’s belief in rationality and the power of redemption.

Can Ruth be trusted? Is she mad, or a murderer?

Having read, reviewed and enjoyed all three of Laura Purcell’s other novels (The Silent Companions, Bone China, and The Shape of Darkness) I can only assume that I’ve been holding off on The Corset for fear of having no more of her deliciously dark Gothic goodness to read!

The Corset, Purcell’s second novel, alternates between the narratives of Dorothea Truelove, a wealthy philanthropist with a fascination in phrenology; and Ruth Butterham, a teenage seamstress sentenced to death for the brutal and calculated murder of her employer. Fixated on testing her hypothesis that the shape of a person’s skull can cast a light on their darkest crimes, Dorothea at first is dismissive of Ruth’s own belief that her sewing needles hold a deadly power beyond her control. But as Ruth’s story unfolds – and it becomes apparent that this young woman may have more than one death on her hands – Dorothea begins to suspect that there may be more to Ruth’s plight than meets the eye.

Laura Purcell is so brilliant at capturing atmosphere in her work. From the refined confines of Dorothea’s family home to the sparsity of Ruth’s prison cell, the sense of both time and place drips from the page. Purcell’s writing is rich in description without ever becoming overblown, drawing the reader into the world of the characters.

And what a grim and dark world that is! Although Dorothea spends her days in a world of privilege and relative independence, her experience is sharply contrasted by that of Ruth. Coming from a background of genteel poverty, Ruth has known little but hardship in her short life. A natural seamstress, she is forced into labouring as an apprentice for the tyrannical dressmaker Mrs Metcalfe after a series of family tragedies. A seeming escape from penury, Ruth’s time at Mrs Metcalfe’s soon turns into a horrifying ordeal: one that may require use of her strange and disturbing powers to escape from.

To say any more about the plot of The Corset would be to spoil some of the shocking twists and thrilling turns of the narrative. Content warnings, however, for forced labour, forced confinement, imprisonment, child abuse, and murder.

I have to say that I was more drawn towards Ruth narrative – brutal though it is in places – and, at times, felt that some aspects of Dorothea’s story were a distraction rather than an addition to the central narrative thread. Dorothea’s interest in phrenology, for example, wasn’t explored as much as I had expected – although it did make a brilliant comeback towards the end! I also felt that the ending, although satisfyingly surprising, was a little rushed in terms of the way that it connected the two narratives together. In particular, Dorothea’s narrative strand took a sudden and somewhat unexpected turn that I felt could have been introduced and set up earlier on.

Ruth’s ‘power’ – an ability to transmit her feelings and intentions through her stitches – incorporates magical realist elements into the novel and I enjoyed the contrast between Ruth’s honest and fearful belief in this supernatural ability and Dorothea’s rational and scientific scepticism. I also found the supporting cast to be vividly drawn: Mrs Metcalf, in particular, is a a truly disturbing creation and it was easy to empathise with Ruth’s hatred of her. I also loved the way in which Laura Purcell uses narrative perspective to manipulate the reader into seeing characters through a particular lens, only for us to see them differently when viewed at a different angle. In a tale in which belief is central, it was interesting to have my beliefs and perceptions of several characters inverted at times!

Although not my favourite of her novels (I think The Silent Companions is still my number one), The Corset is another accomplished and page-turning gothic tale from Laura Purcell. Combining elegant and rich prose with a compelling narrative, it offers readers a creepily satisfying tale of murder, revenge, and the supernatural that enthrals right through to the very last page!

The Corset by Laura Purcell is published by Raven Books and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the publisher and to NetGalley UK for providing an e-copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! The Carnival of Ash by Tom Beckerlegge

Image Description: The cover of The Carnival of Ash features the spires and towers of a Renaissance city set against a night sky. Flecks of ash and flame are in the air and the city is surrounded by coloured banners on which the title is written.

Cadenza is the City of Words, a city run by poets, its skyline dominated by the steepled towers of its libraries, its heart beating to the stamp and thrum of the printing presses in the Printing Quarter.

Carlo Mazzoni, a young wordsmith arrives at the city gates intent on making his name as the bells ring out with the news of the death of the city’s poet-leader. Instead, he finds himself embroiled with the intrigues of a city in turmoil, the looming prospect of war with their rival Venice ever-present.

A war that threatens not only to destroy Cadenza but remove it from history altogether…

Cadenza is the City of Words. Its Renaissance splendour comes from the spiralling towers of its many libraries whilst its taverns and streets sing with the lyrical offering of poets and thrum to the beat of the Printing Quarter’s presses. Even its shadows are filled with the scandalous offerings of the Ink Maids. revered and reviled in equal measure. Picking up Tom Beckerlegge’s adult debut, The Carnival of Ash, is to be drawn into this enthralling world, although I have to admit that, what I found when I arrived there wasn’t quite what I expected going in!

From the blurb, I was expecting a historical fantasy novel that followed young wordsmith Carlo Mazzoni as he becomes embroiled in the intrigues of Cadenza. The Carnival of Ash is, however, a more layered affair than the blurb would suggest. Divided into twelve cantos, each of which is told from the perspective of a different character, the world of Cadenza is instead gradually unveiled to the reader and, in the second half of the novel, the stories and characters begin to weave together to reveal a wider portrait of a city which threatens to destroy itself from within.

To be honest, this style threw me when I first began reading. The first half of the novel does, at times, feel like reading connected short stories more than a single coherent narrative and I did spend some time wondering when the wider plot would begin to emerge. And whilst I really liked the way in which the novel developed as an alternative history, filled with political intrigue, social nuance, and some light fantastical elements, I think anyone going into this book and expecting a fantasy along the lines of Caraval will be disappointed. Instead, The Carnival of Ash is more akin to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell or The Night Circus, with its blend of history and magical realism, and its focus upon layered storytelling rather than pacy plot.

The Carnival of Ash is also a much darker book than I expected. The opening canto features a character who expresses suicide ideation at times whilst another early section contained some dubious sexual consent and emotional manipulation that left me feeling a little uncomfortable. Readers should also be aware that the book does feature some scenes of sexual and physical violence, references to torture, rape, blood, and murder, and some medical content. There are also several abusive families in the book and some of the characters express or demonstrate ableism, sexism, misogyny, and fatphobia. This really is a late medieval/Renaissance world portrayed in all its messy and problematic glory.

Personally, I didn’t mind the dark tone but I did have some issues with the way in which the female characters were described and treated at times. As a scholar of the Early Modern period, I am all too aware of the patriarchal structures of many Western medieval and Renaissance societies however, as an alternative history, it would have been nice to see revisions to this view. Whilst I loved the concept of the Ink Maids – literary courtesans who, for a fee, will write letters that fulfil a client’s wildest desires – I found the section told from the perspective of one of them, Hypatia, quite uncomfortable. Despite holding a position of prominence and power, Hypatia is portrayed as frail and delicate and she continues to be objectified by those around her. A woman being the target of both desire and violence is, unfortunately, far from unusual – and is a theme often explored in fiction – but I felt that the ‘short story’ aspect of the narrative worked against a full and nuanced exploration of these themes. As a reader, I didn’t get to stay with Hypatia long enough to feel that she became anything more than a symbolic object.

All of that said, I am glad I stuck with The Carnival of Ash. The writing, although dense, is undoubtedly beautiful and the way in which the city is portrayed really is enthralling. Tom Beckerlegge has created a marvellous alterative world and has peopled it with interesting characters who, as the book goes on, are revealed to have complex motivations and emotions. It also has some whip-smart dialogue and a fine line in gallows humour, especially from the character of the gravedigger, Ercole. Many of the uncomfortable elements are also revealed to be part of wider corruption within the city, and I do feel the author is deliberately exploring themes of power and depravity by highlighting these.

Ultimately, The Carnival of Ash was a bit of a marmite book for me. The premise, world-building, and writing is fantastic but the narrative structure of the ‘cantos’ made the first half of the novel feel disjointed and it did take some perseverance to make it through to the second half which, for me, was when the story really began to take flight. Whilst characters do gain dimensions as the book progresses, I also felt that in the early cantos some characters featured more as cyphers than as rounded and relatable people.

Readers who head into this book expecting a traditional SFF are likely to be disappointed as that isn’t what The Carnival of Ash offers. Fans of alternative historical fiction and literary magical realism, however, will find much to enjoy in this lush literary tale about a city of poets that never was.

The Carnival of Ash by Tom Beckerlegge is published by Solaris/Rebellion Publishing and is available now from all good bookseller and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review and to The Write Reads for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour! There are lots of other reviews and spotlights on the tour so follow the hashtags #TheCarnivalOfAsh #TheWriteReads and #BlogTour.

Reviews and features on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Blog Tours · Giveaway · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW & GIVEAWAY!!! The Embroidered Book by Kate Heartfield

Image Description: The cover of The Embroidered Book by Kate Heartfield is a dark blue with a stylised floral pattern picked out in gold, blues, and pearl effects. The gold silhouettes of two female profiles look at each other across the cover.

1768. Charlotte arrives in Naples to marry a man she has never met. Two years later, her sister Antoine is sent to France to marry another stranger. In the mirrored corridors of Versailles, they rename her Marie Antoinette.

But the sisters are not powerless. When they were only children, Charlotte and Antoine discovered a book of spells – spells that seem to work, with dark and unpredictable consequences.

In a world of vicious court politics, of discovery and dizzying change, Charlotte and Antoine use their secret skills to redefine their lives, becoming the most influential women of the age.

But every spell requires a sacrifice. As love between the sisters turns to rivalry, they will send Europe spiralling into revolution.

When The Embroidered Book landed on my doormat, the thump was so big I heard it from my office upstairs! At 658 pages, the hardback of Kate Heartfield’s latest novel is a slightly intimidating, albeit beautifully presented read (seriously, just LOOK at that cover!).

This initial impression was not erased by the four pages of ‘dramatis personae’ which opens the book and, sure enough, the sheer amount of characters was initially a little overwhelming. Within a few chapters, however, I was so caught up in the richly textured world of the House of Hapsburg-Lorraine – and in the stories of sisters Charlotte and Antoine – that such concerns faded into the background. Despite the story rapidly spiralling out across three countries and several dynasties, characters soon distinguished themselves and, with the central focus remaining on Charlotte and Antoine, it became surprisingly easy to follow the tangled web of court connections despite the massive scope of the novel.

Alternating between the perspectives of Charlotte, married off to the indolent King Ferdinand of Naples, and Antoine, married to the Dauphin of France and later known as Marie Antoinette, The Embroidered Book presents readers with an alternative history of the power struggles, conflicts, and revolutions that took place across eighteenth-century Europe. For Charlotte and Antoine, in addition to being daughters of the formidable Hapsburg empress Marie Theresa and Queens in their own right, are also magisters: keepers and users of secret – and dangerous – magical knowledge.

I have to admit that, whilst I found the magic in The Embroidered Book to be very well woven into the history, it was, for me, the least interesting part of the novel. To be fair, I’m not a huge reader of fantasy because, for me, real lives and histories are interesting enough on their own. So whilst Charlotte and Antoine’s use of magic – and the lengths they have to go to in order to conceal their use of it – is a unique premise, I have to admit I was more interested in the political intrigues and court politics than the spellcasting. The idea of these women having a secret power that allowed them to control empires was interesting but, I have to admit, I would probably have been more engaged if, as in the real history, it was their sheer force of will and determination – rather than their magical gifts – that enabled them to do this.

That said, the magical elements of the novel do allow Kate Heartfield to explore the prejudices against female power in this period in an accessible and engaging way. Even with their spells, Charlotte and Antoine are shown as often having to act through the men around them – by using charm, manipulation, threats, bribery, and coercion – to achieve their aims. It also provided a unique way of exploring the bond between two sisters and the way in which this strains and stretches as each pursues their goals within their respective nations.

As for this history, it’s clear that Kate Heartfield has done her research and The Embroidered Book provides an evocative glimpse into the heart of eighteenth-century Europe and the powerful factions that vied for control of it. Everything from political manoeuvring to the court fashion is richly depicted on the page, making for an engrossing and unflinching read. Despite it’s length, there’s absolutely no ‘filler’ in this novel and, although each page is replete with texture and detail, the story moves along and the characters develop and evolve at every stage.

As mentioned above, I’m probably not the ideal reader for The Embroidered Book however, even with some reservations about the magical elements, I ended up becoming engrossed in this richly textured and evocative read. Fans of historical fantasy are sure to adore this novel but I’d encourage even fantasy sceptics like myself to give it a go. If you’re interested in a richly imagined historical novel and prepared to try something a little bit different, The Embroidered Book may offer just what you’re looking for.

GIVEAWAY!!!

Thanks to Kate Heartfield, publisher Harper Voyager, and Anne at Random Things Tours I have ONE PRINT COPY of The Embroidered Book to giveaway to a lucky UK reader!

All you need to do to win is to follow me (@shelfofunread) on Twitter and retweet the pinned tweet that links to this post! The giveaway is open from 9.00am on 28 February 2022 and closes at midnight on 06 March 2022. There is one winner. Terms & conditions apply (see below).

TERMS & CONDITIONS: UK only. The winner will be selected at random via Tweetdraw from all valid entries and will be notified by Twitter and/or email. If no response is received within 7 days then I reserve the right to select an alternative winner. Open to all entrants aged 18 or over.  Any personal data given as part of the competition entry is used for this purpose only and will not be shared with third parties, with the exception of the winners’ information. This will be used only for fulfilment of the prize. The prize will be despatched by second class recorded delivery with Royal Mail. I am not responsible for delivery of the prize.

The Embroidered Book by Kate Heartfield is published by Harper Voyager and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for inviting me onto this blog tour and providing the opportunity to run a giveaway for the book.

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Reviews

FAVOURITE FICTION BOOK REVIEWS!! Piranesi by Susanna Clarke & Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

Has everyone made their way out of the fog of cheese and turkey sandwiches yet? Yes, Christmas Day is over for another year and, as we haul our slightly rounder selves towards the light of the New Year, I wanted to share two more of my favourite books from 2021 that, for some reason, I’ve just not yet got around to reviewing. This time I have two fabulous fiction books to share with you, starting with…

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi’s house is no ordinary building: its rooms are infinite, its corridors endless, its walls are lined with thousands upon thousands of statues, each one different from all the others. Within the labyrinth of halls an ocean is imprisoned; waves thunder up staircases, rooms are flooded in an instant. But Piranesi is not afraid; he understands the tides as he understands the pattern of the labyrinth itself. He lives to explore the house.

There is one other person in the house—a man called The Other, who visits Piranesi twice a week and asks for help with research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. But as Piranesi explores, evidence emerges of another person, and a terrible truth begins to unravel, revealing a world beyond the one Piranesi has always known.

“The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite”. Thus are we drawn into the world of Piranesi and of the House, a colossal structure of seemingly infinite halls ruled by the changeable tides. Piranesi has always lived in the house – or has he? When his sole visitor, a man called The Other, accidentally indicates that there may be a third person with access to the House, the carefully bordered world that Piranesi has always known begins to fracture at the seams.

To say any more about Susanna Clarke’s masterful novel would be to spoil the magic. Because this novel really is magic. There’s something spellbinding about the intricate simplicity of the story and the gentleness of Piranesi himself that absolutely transported me.

I’ve written before about having magical realism and fantasy being genres that either really work for me or just fall completely flat so, I’ll be honest, I probably wouldn’t have picked this one up had it not won the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021. Reading Piranesi has, however, opened my eyes to the variety available within these genres and the transportative possibilities of fantastical fiction. I’ll definitely be giving Susanna’s first novel, Jonathon Strange & Mr Norrell another go, and have started taking in the sci-fi and fantasy shelves with fresh eyes when making my visits to the bookshop and the library.

Beautifully and lyrically written, Piranesi is storytelling at its very best. Like the mysterious House itself, the novel twists and turns, opening into labyrinthine halls and revealing more of its wonders with every turn of the page. There’s also, at its heart, a very human story of envy, greed, ambition, kindness, loss, and connectivity. Long after I turned the final page, I’ve found myself revisiting Piranesi, his House, its immeasurable Beauty and its infinite Kindness.

Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

1957, south-east suburbs of London. Jean Swinney is a feature writer on a local paper, disappointed in love and – on the brink of forty – living a limited existence with her truculent mother.

When a young Swiss woman, Gretchen Tilbury, contacts the paper to claim that her daughter is the result of a virgin birth, it is down to Jean to discover whether she is a miracle or a fraud.

But the more she investigates, the more her life becomes strangely (and not unpleasantly) intertwined with that of the Tilburys: Gretchen herself, her husband Howard – with his dry wit and gentle disposition – and her charming daughter Margaret.

But they are the subject of the story Jean is researching for the newspaper, a story that increasingly seems to be causing dark ripples across all their lives. And yet Jean cannot bring herself to discard the chance of finally having a taste of happiness.

But there will be a price to pay – and it will be unbearable.

Unlike Piranesi, which is a seemingly simple tale that becomes increasingly fantastical, Small Pleasures begins with a fantastical tale that, once you dig beneath the surface, is a relatively simple story of love, longing, and – yes – the titular small pleasures.

The novel opens with feature writer Jean volunteering to speak with Gretchen, a young housewife who is convinced that her daughter Margaret is a virgin birth. Ten-year-old Margaret, Gretchen claims, was conceived whilst she was hospitalised in a a convalescence home run by nuns, in a ward surrounded by and overseen only by women.

As excited academics run their tests on Gretchen and Margaret, Jean is gradually drawn into the life of the Tilbury family – and towards Gretchen’s quiet and unassuming husband, Howard. Because underneath the gleaming surface of this happy family home lie many secrets that Jean will, for better or worse, be the catalyst for uncovering.

Saying any more about the novel would be to spoil the plot and deny any future readers the joy of reading this wryly observed and brilliantly written novel. The prose is sublime and the characters vividly and realistically drawn – this is not a novel of good guys and bad guys but of real and fallible people in all their messy glory. As the title suggests, its also a story of the small pleasures that life brings, and of the trials and tribulations of the everyday. Although set in the late 1950s, many of Jean’s experiences will resonate today – from her struggle to make herself heard in her workplace, to the stresses of being the sole carer for an elderly relative, and the difficulty of choosing between your own happiness and the happiness of others.

If you look at reviews of this novel (and I’d advise you don’t – this is definitely a novel better experienced without prior expectation), you’ll see some reviewers have a real issue with the ending. It’s certainly a wallop at the end of an otherwise relatively sedate novel but, for me, it underscored the novel’s central premise and brought together so many of the threads that Clare Chambers had woven throughout. I can see how it gave some readers the rage but don’t let it put you off – in fact, I’d urge you to read the novel and decide for yourself!!

So, those are two fabulous fiction recommendations! Do let me know whether you decide to pick either of them up or, if you’ve read them yourself, what you thought of them! I’ll be back soon with my Best Books of the Year list but, in the meantime, enjoy the remainder of the festive season!

If you do decide to pick up any of today’s titles, please consider supporting a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books.

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Reviews

REVIEW!! Things in Jars by Jess Kidd

Things in Jars CoverLondon, 1863. Bridie Devine, the finest female detective of her age, is taking on her toughest case yet.

Reeling from her last job and with her reputation in tatters, a remarkable puzzle has come her way. Christabel Berwick has been kidnapped. But Christabel is no ordinary child. She is not supposed to exist.

As Bridie fights to recover the stolen child she enters a world of fantastical anatomists, crooked surgeons and mercenary showman. Anomalies are in fashion, curiosities are the thing, and fortunes are won and lost in the name of entertainment.

The public love a spectacle and Christabel may well prove the most remarkable spectacle London has ever seen.

You know those books that you love so much that you just can’t find the right words to tell anyone about them? The books that you just want to go and press into the hands of friends, family – strangers even – and say “read it, just read it”. Yeah, Things in Jars is one of those books.

But, hey, I’m a book blogger and finding words to talk about books is one of the things I’m supposed to do apparently. So I shall do my level best to tell you why I loved Things in Jars and why I think you should go and read it too!

At its heart, Things in Jars is a novel about Bridie Divine. Female detective, surgeon’s apprentice, and resurrectionist’s ward, Bridie is a fascinatingly complex character who moves between the respectable country houses of London’s elite and the sinister underbelly of the city with apparent ease. Quick-witted and determined, Bridie has made it her mission to protect the city from the anatomists, surgeons and showman who seek to make spectacles out of the unusual – or simply to prey upon the poor and innocent.

Assisting her in this task are Cora Butter, her seven-foot-tall housemaid whose first instinct is to give guests – troublesome or otherwise – a ‘good clattering’, and Ruby Doyle, a tattooed prizefighter with handsome brown eyes and a debonair disposition who just so happens to be recently deceased. Her mysterious undead partner is, however, the least of Bridie’s worries when she is summoned to investigate the apparent kidnapping of Christabel Berwick. For at Maris House, she finds a room dripping in water. Servants whisper of a girl with the teeth of a pike, who can delve into the minds of men and kill with a single bite. There are stories of a woman who drowned on dry land and an apparition that haunts the gardens at night.

Thus begins one of the strangest but most compelling novels that I have read. Jess Kidd moves seamlessly between the real, the unreal and the surreal in Things in Jars, weaving apparently magical and mystical elements into her otherwise straightforward detective tale. The novel defies genre and resists easy categorization as either ‘historical fiction’, ‘detective story’ or ‘magical realism’. Instead, it manages to be all of these things and, in some ways, none of them. The result should be a hot mess but is, in Kidd’s hands, a thrilling and mysterious story that was by turns hilarious and heart-breaking and was, at all times, compulsively readable.

Bridie Devine is an absolute treat of a protagonist. Fiercely intelligent, she is full of spark whilst also having a softer side that leaves her, on occasion, heartbreakingly vulnerable. Kidd’s other characters are similarly layered. Beneath a charismatic swagger, there is melancholy, whilst a tough exterior can hide a heart of gold. Respectable appearances can be deceptive, and even the canniest of operators might fall foul of some of the slipperier characters in this novel!

By the end of the book, all of the characters felt familiar but my personal favourite was Bridies mentor, Prudhoe – a genius eccentric who lives in a windmill, analyses stomach contents for a living, invents new forms of narcotic,  and dotes on his collection of pet ravens. Kidd’s description of Prudhoe had me laughing out loud and I could immediately picture him – wiry frame flitting around the inside of his windmill and talking to his corvids amidst a haze of smoke.

The world Kidd has created – and the characters she places within it – are exceptionally vivid. I could envisage each chapter as if the scene were playing out in front of me – the novel would make for a fantastic drama series – and really felt as if I lived the novel alongside the characters. Her characters speak with ‘real’ voices without ever resorting to stereotype, whether these are the voices of the streets or the polished tones of an expensive education. And whilst the story is often dark, there’s humour shot all the way through – whether in a witty turn of phrase, a moment of banter, or a description of a place or person.

As you can probably tell, I adored this book. It has so many of the elements that I look for in a book – a strong and compelling narrative, a vivid recreation of a historical moment, complex characters with rich histories, and a central mystery with some supernatural elements.

It’s hard to find anything to compare it to – the closest I can think of is Imogen Hermes Gower’s wonderful The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock which offers a similarly madcap blend of the historical and the fantastical alongside a vivid recreation of a moment in time – and Things in Jars is so wonderfully unique that it defies easy categorisation. What I would say is that if you love compelling stories with vivid characters – and you don’t mind an element of the fantastical – then you need to pick Things in Jars up!

Things in Jars by Jess Kidd is published by Canongate and is available now in ebook and paperback from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository, and Amazon

Don’t forget that although your local bookshop might be closed at the moment, you can also support your local indie bookshops by ordering from them online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read Booksellers, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the publisher and Netgalley UK for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.