New Read: The Secret Poisoner

The Secret Poisoner

After loving the non-fiction A Very British Murder by Lucy Worsley, which looked into the British obsession with murder mysteries, I was interested to read more from this area. So when I spotted non-fiction The Secret Poisoner: A Century of Murder by Linda Stratmann I thought it could be what I was looking for.

I found The Secret Poisoner a great read to lead on from A Very British Murder , as Linda Stratmann went deeper into the Victorians’ fascination with gruesome murders and the subsequent trials and executions. Highlighting in particular the enthralling fear the public had about murder by poison; which was viewed as a secretive, cold and calculating way to kill. I was really impressed with the wide range of poisoning cases Stratmann evidenced from England, Scotland, across Europe and the USA. As well as looking at the victims and suspected poisoners, Stratmann also discusses in-depth the investigations, evidence, poisons, the scientific developments in detecting poisons and the legislation changes that they affected.

I was particularly interested in the reasons for the poisonings. There certainly were many poisoners who used it in a cold and calculating way to remove unwanted spouses, lovers, children or siblings; or to claim life insurance or inheritance, but it wasn’t always that clear cut. Stratmann also discussed the situations of abuse and poverty that could also lead to desperate acts. Such as the removal of the rights of unmarried mothers to claim maintenance from the absent fathers, which sadly led to an increase in laudanum poisonings of babies. On the other hand the most chilling cases were when it was the person the victim looked to care for them that was actually poisoning them; as in the case of the infamous Dr Palmer.

I took my time over reading The Secret Poisoner, dipping in and out over several months – I even put it down for another book at one point but then I was in just the right mood and just flew through the second half of the book! Overall, Stratmann has delivered a comprehensive, in-depth and detailed history of the famous poison cases and the repercussions of them during the Victorian period. While sometimes the detail of the scientific investigations and the intricacies of the law system went over my head somewhat – I thought Stratmann managed to keep what could have been a dry topic interesting and balanced out the academic detail with the human story of the cases.

I found The Secret Poisoner to be an interesting and comprehensive study of the murders, poisons and poisoners that shook the Victorian world. I would definitely be interested in reading more by Linda Stratmann. Good read.

Thank you to the publishers for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.

Have you read this? Any recommendations on what I should read next?

The Classics Club: Mr Harrison’s Confessions

Mr Harrisons Confession

Having long wanted to read something by Elizabeth Gaskell, I finally got the push I needed when I picked up The Cranford Chronicles. After loving the eponymous Cranford I decided to continue the chronicles with Mr Harrison’s Confessions.

We join Mr Harrison by the fireside in his comfortable, well-kept home as his bachelor friend, Charles, presses him to tell how he wooed such a fine wife. And so Mr Harrison takes us back to when he first came to the small, rural town of Duncombe as a young, worldly but naïve man. Newly qualified as a doctor, Harrison has been promised a partnership in an easy, country practice by a family friend. It is to be anything but easy in this insular, provincial town, where everybody knows everybody’s business and which is ruled over by gossiping middle-aged women. Before long, the poor, young doctor after several misunderstandings and misplaced comments finds himself accused of being engaged to three women! None of which are the Vicar’s angelic daughter, Sophy, whom he really loves.

I must admit to be rather disappointed this wasn’t set in Cranford! (Especially as the BBC’s 2007 TV adaptation merged the novellas into the one setting) However I can see how this story has been placed in this chronicles because of the small town setting and the predominantly female residents. Here, unlike Cranford though, men are not feared or believed to be nuisances but instead quite the opposite. Poor, young doctor Harrison is coveted, pulled from pillar to post and practically fought over! Mothers try to set him with their daughters and every spinster seems to have their eye on him; all stirred up by the town gossips! So while I didn’t always ‘like’ the characters they were very amusing to read about.

While Cranford was a steady, touching and meticulous tale of women’s’ lives in genteel poverty, this is much more a chaotic and farcical tale of a young man not at all prepared for the furore his presence will cause in a small community of women. There was still Gaskell’s detailed and personable style which made me feel I was really there by the fire hearing the older and (hopefully) wiser Harrison’s confessions of his youthful blunders. I was slightly less endeared with the characters in this novella however it was comforting to travel back in time with Gaskell again and there were still some very poignant moments, in relation to Harrison’s treatment of genuine patients.

Mr Harrison’s Confessions is a charming, comedy of errors set in a small, provincial town. I look forward to completing The Cranford Chronicles with the final tale of My Lady Ludlow. Good read.

Have you read this? Or anything else by Elizabeth Gaskell?

The Classics Club – 46/50
The Women’s Classic Literature Event – #7

New Read: The School Inspector Calls!

The School Inspector Calls!

Last month, I enjoyed reading, the second book in Barton-in-the-Dale series, Trouble at the Little Village by Gervase Phinn. So much so I didn’t wait too long to continue reading this delightful series with the third book, The School Inspector Calls!

Barton-in-the-Dale’s small village school was in trouble, big trouble. In stepped a new head teacher, Mrs Devine, in her red high heel shoes. Who with her hard work and a fresh approach has not only saved the little school from closure but has now been appointed as the new head teacher for the new integrated school; of Barton and the neighbouring Urebank school. Now, in book 3, we get see the hard realities that face Mrs Devine as she tries to amalgamate the two schools and staff. With absolutely no help from her new deputy head Mr Richardson, a self-important and condescending man, who is smarting from not being appointed as head teacher himself.

Mrs Devine, or Elizabeth as we get to know her outside of school, is a well dressed, smart, practical and kind woman; in stark contrast to her rival Mr Richardson. Her presence has not only brought about positive changes in the school but also in the lives of many of the villagers too. For me she was the obvious choice for the job but the demands of her new role do take a toll and really shake her confidence. I was rooting for her all the way through! Again though we are not secluded to just the changes at school – it was lovely to find out about the changes in the lives of some of the villagers, as I think the author has come up with a lovely, colourful collection of characters.

I found this another comforting read with it’s small school and village setting, some touching insights into the lives of the villagers, and some lovely touches of humour. The humour, for me, came mostly from the children – working in a school myself I have heard many of the honest, touching and often hilarious things children can come out with! In this book we have the children’s funny comments to the school inspector and the rehearsals for the school’s performance of The Wizard of Oz. There are also some very touching and sad elements: with the troubled new pupil Robbie but also love is blossoming and wedding bells are ringing for more than one pair!

The School Inspector Calls! is a touching and humorous tale of a small school and village, and a very comforting read. I have heard that there is a fourth book which I will need to keep my eyes peeled for. Good read.

Have you read this? Or any of Gervase Phinn’s other novels?

10 Books of Summer – 6/10

New Read: Wendy Darling, Volume I

Wendy Darling

After loving her previous novels, I immediately snapped up a copy of Wendy Darling, Volume I: Stars by Colleen Oakes, the start of her new, young adult series inspired by J M Barrie’s Neverland. Sadly however this book languished for too long on my Kindle until the 10 Books of Summer challenge finally gave me that push I needed to pick it up.

Wendy Darling and her brothers are part of a wealthy family who live a comfortable and conventional life in a town house in London. One clear, starry night their world is to be turned upside down when they are visited by a wild, magical boy, Peter Pan. Who, with the promise of adventures, lures them out of the nursery window and up, up away into the stars and on to Neverland! A magical land of turquoise seas, beautiful beaches, mermaids, pirates and the freedom of life as a Lost Boy. Wendy finds herself intoxicated by the place and Peter, and yet she is plagued with misty memories of home and an annoying sense that all is not as it appears.

I liked how Colleen Oakes, the author, has chosen to tell her re-imagining of Neverland from the point-of-view of Wendy. A young lady, who at the start of the story, is sad about growing up but is also excited by the prospect of love and womanhood. At this hormonal time Wendy easily falls for this beautiful, wild boy who flies through her window without much thought for consequences. I often wanted to give her a jolly good shake for her naivety and emotional weakness however she is a kind character with potential; I hope to see her develop further. Wendy is joined by her brothers: the adorable Michael and the thoroughly dislikeable John, both are completely  immersed in life on Pan Island and do not share any of Wendy’s misgivings.

While I didn’t particularly always ‘like’ the characters I did find that Colleen Oakes re-imagined classic and new characters are realistic and much better fleshed out than in the J M Barrie’s original tale. I also loved being able to delve deeper into the settings too. While I’m not sure I totally bought Oakes’ Edwardian London – I was completely blown away by her description of Neverland. I really could imagine the turquoise seas, sandy beaches, towering peaks, humid jungle, sinister Skull Rock, and the giant, sprawling tree that constitutes Pan Island.

Previously I have read and loved two of Oakes’ previous novels: Volume 1 and Volume 2 of her young adult series Queen of Hearts which is a re-imagining of Lewis Carol’s Wonderland. I enjoyed them so much that they both made it on to my Top 10 Books of 2014. So my expectations were perhaps too high for this new series, Wendy Darling. This first book in the series was again well written, detailed and imaginative however I didn’t enjoy it as much as the previous books/series. I think that was simply down to the characters though – which is just my personal taste and not any reflection on the quality of writing or story.

Wendy Darling, Volume I: Stars is an enjoyable fantasy adventure in an expanded, detailed and magical re-imagining of Neverland. I am looking forward to reading Volume 2: Seas to see how the characters develop. Good read.

Thank you to the publishers for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.

Have you read this? Or any other books inspired by Peter Pan and Neverland?

10 Books of Summer – 5/10

The Classics Club: Journey to the Centre of the Earth

Journey to the Centre of the Earth

My result for The Classics Club’s 13th Spin feature was Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne. I was pleased with this result as I have previously really enjoyed Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth follows the intrepid Professor Liedenbrock on his extraordinary expedition down the extinct volcano Snæfellsjökull in Iceland in search of the very core of the world. The professor is joined on this arduous journey by his long-suffering nephew Axel and their devoted guide Hans – all three are to be pushed to their very limits physically and mentally, and their relationships will be tested to the max as they push further down into the earth through twisting, pitch black tunnels towards an astonishing discovery.

All of this is narrated by Axel who back home in Germany has long-suffered his uncle’s  bad temper and demanding nature. Even he can’t believe it though when a mysterious message in a runic manuscript has his uncle packing immediately and dragging him along on this insane mission. Axel is more even tempered than his uncle but he is also rather gutless – fearing that this expedition at best will come to excruciating, professional embarrassment or at worst that they will never be seen again; either becoming lost or boiled alive by the Earth’s magna core. So not the most likeable protagonists which leaves me admiring Hans, their guide, who suffers it all without complaint!

This is the second novel I have read by Jules Verne. I thought it was another well written and described book with some good drama and again it had Verne’s down-to-earth style – unlike many of contemporary’s more formal style – which I enjoyed so much from my previous read. The story is narrated to us by Axel in a diary like style that helped me to get to know him and feel close to the action, but I also found that it took some of the tension out of the tale; as I knew for Axel to continue the story he had to survive! So overall I didn’t quite enjoy it as much as Around the World in Eighty Days but it was still a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth is a classic, science-fiction adventure which I whipped through. I still have Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea on my Classics Club list which I am looking forward to reading. Good read.

Have you read this? Have you read any of Verne’s other adventures?

The Classics Club – 45/50

New Read: Trouble at the Little Village School

Trouble at the Little Village School

Last year, I read the first Barton-in-the-Dale novel, The Little Village School, by Gervase Phinn as part of the 10 Books of Summer challenge. So this year, it seemed very appropriate to continue the series with Trouble at the Little Village as part of the same challenge.

In the first book, Barton-in-the-Dale’s small village school was in trouble, big trouble. In stepped a new head teacher, Mrs Devine, in her red high heel shoes and with her new ideas, hard work and a fresh approach she saved the little school from closure. However education cuts in the county still need to be made so, in the second book, it is proposed that Barton should amalgamate with its neighbouring school at Urebank. Which means that Mrs Devine is now in direct competition with her rival Mr Richardson, a self-important and condescending man, for who will become the newly appointed head teacher of the integrated schools.

Mrs Devine, or Elizabeth as we get to know her outside of school, is a well dressed, smart, practical and kind woman; in stark contrast to her predecessor Miss Sowerbutts and her rival Mr Richardson. Her presence has not only brought about positive changes in the school but also in the lives of many of the villagers too. So to me, it felt like she was the obvious choice for the job but she does have a new dour Minister of Education and an extremely biased councillor to deal with. Again though we are not secluded to just the changes at school – it was lovely to find out about the changes in the lives of some of the villagers, as I think the author has come up with a lovely, colourful collection of characters.

I found this another comforting read with it’s small school and village setting, some touching insights into the lives of the villagers, and some lovely touches of humour. The humour, for me, came mostly from the children. Working in a school myself I have heard many of the honest, touching and often hilarious things children can come out with! In this book we have Bianca’s hilarious recollection of her sister giving birth on Christmas day and Oscar’s suggestion for the boys toilets; to name a few. There wasn’t only humour though there are also some very touching and sad elements to the story. With the blossoming romance between Elizabeth and Dr Stirling and more trouble comes the way of poor, young Danny Stainthorpe.

Trouble at the Little Village is a touching and humorous tale of a small school and village, and a very comforting read. So much so I am already reading the third in the series, The School Inspector Calls! Good read.

Have you read this? Or any of Gervase Phinn’s other novels?

10 Books of Summer – 4/10

New Read: Master of Shadows

Master of Shadows

Earlier this month, I finished my third book towards the 10 Books of Summer challenge: Master of Shadows by Neil Oliver. I have enjoyed many documentaries presented by historian Neil Oliver, and so I was very interested to read his first foray into historical fiction.

Master of Shadows sweeps us back to Constantinople, the jewel of the Byzantine Empire, in the 15th century. However now the city is a shadow of its former glory and sits on the very edge of the Christian world – where cut off from the Roman Catholic church it faces the might of the newer, more powerful Ottoman Empire alone. Within the walls we meet Prince Constantine, the crippled heir to the throne, and Yaminah, a young woman who Constantine saved as a child, but their future is in grave doubt. As the ambitious and ruthless Sultan Mehmed II assembles the largest Ottoman army ever amassed outside the crumbling walls of their city.

Sadly from history we know all does not go well for Constantinople and it finally falls to the Turks in 1453; who rename the city, Istanbul. During this turbulent time in history the city of Constantinople acts like a magnet –  in this story we meet two characters who find themselves inexplicably pulled towards the city to help in it’s final, dark days. First, we have John Grant a young man with a sixth sense forced to flee his homeland of Scotland. Secondly, we have Lena a very mysterious, middle-aged woman with fighting skills equal to, if not better than, most men. These two characters will also discover they have a connection to each other and to Constantine and Yaminah.

The narration of this story flips between John, Constantine, Yaminah, Lena and John’s surrogate father Badr, plus there is some narration in the past from John’s mother and father and Yaminah’s mother. That is a lot of threads to follow, so you need your thinking cap on. All threads were interesting however this story really gripped me once the characters and their threads came together in the doomed city; then I could hardly put the book down. The initial appeal of this book for me was the setting of Constantinople – I think Oliver brought the once mighty city to life beautifully and I could feel the palpable fear rising from its inhabitants.

I think this is a super impressive debut novel from Neil Oliver and you can tell that his background as a historian has really helped him. This book is detailed and very realistic – in particular, I think he blended real historical events and characters perfectly with the fictional. There was the historical characters of Constantine, Mehmed, another who I can’t name because it would be a major spoiler and even John Grant is based on the historical rumour that a Scotsman was among the city’s defenders. However along with that realism comes some graphic sexual and violent detail which made this a very good but not a great read for me – this is just my personal taste though and is no reflection on the quality of writing or story.

Master of Shadows is a realistic historical adventure that swept me back to the bloody downfall of Constantinople. I would definitely be interested in reading more by Neil Oliver. Good read.

Thank you to the publishers for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.

Have you read this? Or any of Neil Oliver’s non-fiction books?

10 Books of Summer – 3/10