In an attempt to clear the books to review decks before my Review of the Year posts next week, here are some shorter reviews, with more to follow.
The Square of Sevens by Laura Shepherd-Robinson
I was very lucky to win a signed copy of this from Laura in a giveaway. It is a totally devourable Georgian adventure, travelling eastwards from its Cornwall beginning to London, via a stop in Bath. A young girl known as Red travels the inns and byways of Cornwall with her father, a fortune teller, who uses a divination method known as ‘The Square of Sevens’ described on an ancient document he carries safely with him. He lives in fear though, there are those who wish him dead, and he and Red have to be careful. However, one day he meets a gentleman scholar called Mr Antrobus who is interested in his methods, and he gives him the document for promising to take Red into his care. Time and his enemies catch up with Red’s father, but in Mr Antrobus, Red has struck really lucky. As Rachel, she is brought up as a lady in his household and looked after by the friendly housekeeper Mrs Freemantle, who helps her make her way in Bath’s society. Her fortune-telling skills prove alluring, and she attracts the attention of a wealthy London family, the De Lacys who are summering nearby. But it is when Antrobus’s cousin Henry takes an interest in her, her potential fortune when her guardian dies, (and that document) that things begin to get awkward. Red escapes to London, but she’s full of questions about her dead father and who was after him, and she never knew her mother, but is sure that the De Lacys have the answers. Georgian London comes to life, with all the thrills of Bartholemew Fair at Smithfield where Red will hide in plain sight telling fortunes, before being picked up by the De Lacys again as she discovers more clues to her own heritage.
This is one of those page-turning historical adventures to devour; from the Cornish beginnings which echo Du Maurier’s period novels, to a Bath that doesn’t feel so Austenish, and a London that obviously owes a debt to Dickens, but moved back in time of course. Red is a super heroine, a feisty underdog in society, but mistress of fortunes, the latter a skill that puts her in danger. I must admit, this is the kind of historical fiction that I particularly enjoy, having a central mystery to it to drive the pacy plot. It is clear that Shepherd-Robinson has done the research for the narrative is rich in period detail which adds greatly to the fun, for fun this book is.
Source: Author giveaway – THANK YOU! Mantle hardback, June 23, 547 pages.
Dry Cleaning by Trevor Mark Thomas
Thomas’s debut novel, The Bothy, made my 2019 Best of list: an almost old-fashioned modern gangster thriller in that there was nothing high-tech about it, just a man hiding out, then realising he’s indirectly involved himself in a gang war which ends in a shoot-out at a seedy pub on the Yorks/Lancs border. It was gritty, northern, bleak, and very funny in that Tarantino meets Guy Ritchie kind of way. Well, I’m pleased to say that Thomas’s follow up has all of that too. It starts like this:
Ethan Mallam wound down his car windows. Along with the smell of manure and flowers, there was a whiff of decay. The land was parched. The streams, the rivers, had dried up. He was already sweating in his wool suit. It was a black number. Trousers and a jacket. White shirt, blue tie. Something he’d first worn for his mother’s funeral years back. It still fit, more or less.
The last time he’d worn the suit was five years ago when he was sent down for assault. He hadn’t committed the crime – that’d been his boss’s adult soon, Tony. In return for saving Tony the indignities of prison Ethan was to be paid half a million quid. He’d done the difficult part. Now it was time to collect the first instalment of his payment.
You can see where we’re going right from the start, can’t you? His old boss, Les, holed up in his country mansion, hasn’t got the money. Tony has, and Tony is now effectively running a separate show, making him and his dad rivals. It turns out that his former ‘colleagues’ in the Spence gang are watching him to see what he’ll do. Ethan wants to lie low and wait for Les to liquidate some assets to get him his money. Tony, now in charge of Marwood and the rest of the guys aren’t going to let him. Ethan is strong-armed into doing a collection job from a car dealership for Tony, straight-forward, except they also force him to take young Leo with them and Leo is a hot-head with a gun, unused to the art of persuasion. It can only go wrong, and after that, things can only go even more wrong…
If you can’t read the violence, this, like The Bothy, won’t be a book for you. If you can cope, Thomas has come up with another powerful gangster thriller that’ll have you cheering on Ethan (though he’s no angel) and Daria, the secretary of the car dealer who Ethan gets out of the office before their business begins, all the way. It’s taut and pacy, it’s full of parched air as the countryside around Manchester succumbs to bush fires, and it’s a real page-turner, Thomas turning up the temperature dial yet further as we reach the climax. Loved it!
Source: Own copy. Salt paperback original, Sept 23, 256 pages.