Categories
Book Reviews Historical Fiction

Book Review: Rebecca Stott’s ‘Ghostwalk’

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A creepy, lyrical slow-burner that blends several genres: historical fiction and supernatural thriller.

Ghostwalk: Amazon.co.uk: Stott, Rebecca: 9780753823576: Books

Synopsis

A woman, Elizabeth Vogelsang, is found dead by her son Cameron Brown. She’s floating face-down in the river next to her Cambridge home, The Studio, clutching a glass prism. It’s ruled an accident, but the truth is far more complicated than it first appears.

Lydia Brooke, an author, is Elizabeth’s friend and Cameron Brown’s ex-lover. Cameron hires her to finish Elizabeth’s manuscript on Newton’s alchemical research. Lydia moves into The Studio and things start to get decidedly creepy once she starts poking around in the history of Isaac Newton’s obsessions.

There’s also a parallel storyline. A radical animal rights organisation (NABED) is busy threatening both Cameron and Lydia by association. Cameron is a neuroscientist whose laboratory regularly test on animals. Lydia and Cameron have been involved in an on/off adulterous relationship for years. Dead animals start turning up, and workers at the laboratory are attacked.

Highlights

Stott’s writing is beautiful. This is a brilliantly researched book with more layers than a matriushka doll. The book contains several extracts from Elizabeth’s manuscript, and I certainly found the exploration of Isaac Newton’s true-to-life involvement with alchemy fascinating.

The supernatural side of the book was extremely well-written. I love horror, I love creepy, so books with supernatural elements really appeal to me. Lydia begins to feel uncomfortable living in Elizabeth’s home, and the light start to play tricks on her. Manuscript sections start to appear and disappear. A dead can turns up on the doorstep.

The thriller side of the book is compelling, until the last few chapters. This is not a new book, it was released in 2007, and you can definitely feel the influence of Dan Brown’s the Da Vinci code. It contains historical mysteries and secrets, with clever people investigating them. It contains shadowy organisations with ulterior motives. Some of the main characters turn out to be the exact opposite of what they seem. Some doors are slammed in their face, other doors open. Despite the controversy, I absolutely loved reading the Da Vinci code, so this connection really didn’t bother me.

Stott’s writing is also very cerebral and philosophical in places. She goes to great lengths to paint a picture with words, and draws on a huge variety of sources and influences. There are references to a vast array of historical figures and authors, and Brooke and Brown’s snappy conversations are extremely interesting if you’re a nerd like me.

Lowlights

The plot twist was very predictable and also a bit too much of a stretch for me. I won’t ruin it for you, but it did ruin the last few chapters or so. Once I knew the twist, I didn’t really want to read past it, because the book already felt finished.

Categories
Book Reviews Historical Fiction

Book Review: Rebecca Stott’s ‘The Coral Thief’

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Rebecca is my tutor for the historical fiction module, so I’m glad I can be largely positive about this.

The Coral Thief: Amazon.co.uk: Stott, Rebecca: 9780753827109: Books

I got this book months ago but I’ve finally just had the chance to read something purely for pleasure: that means in English, a novel, and nothing to do with my modules. Who knew that studying literature and translation would mean that I barely get the chance to read for myself? Oh yeah, I did know that.

Synopsis

Daniel Connor is an anatomy and medicine student at Edinburgh University. He is sent by his tutor to post-revolutionary France, where Napoleon has fallen and the King has been returned to the throne. He starts a job under Professor Cuvier at the world-famous Jardin des Plantes, categorising species.

Upon arriving on the mail coach, Daniel realises the beautiful woman he met the night before has stolen his corals, manuscript and bones which were the references and gifts needed to start his job at the Jardin. He drifts around Paris with his newfound Scottish friend and fellow student Fin, unable to start work, and a bit lost.

But the mysterious woman hasn’t disappeared completely. This becomes a thriller as well as a historical novel, with spies, jewel heists and rings of thieves in hiding.

Highlights

Time and place were beautifully executed. early 19th-century Paris felt alive in my mind. I really enjoyed the first part of the book – the month in which Daniel gets drunk and behaves like most other twenty-year-old students in Paris with nothing much to do. Absinthe, gambling, phantasmagoria. Stott did such a good job of setting it’s making me want to go back and edit my own fiction, which is how it should be.

It’s an incredibly interesting point in time to set a novel. Twenty years after the Revolution, just after Napoleon has been defeated after escaping from prison once more. Napoleon is on his way to the tiny rock which will be his ‘prison’ (a rather beautiful tropical island prison) for the rest of his life: Saint Helena. The ethos of the Revolution is crumbling all around them. No more liberté, egalité, fraternité, but no more Terror either. The lions are being pulled from the top of the Arc de Triomphe and given back to Rome. Everywhere, the European powers are descending on Paris and taking back what had been stolen from them: including the beautiful collection of fossils, corals and bones at the Jardin des Plantes.

Time was evoked beautifully, naturally and not too often. Paris- a seething metropolis where nobody is as they seems – seemed almost a third main character in the novel.

Lowlights

So why four starts instead of five? The plot felt a little weak at times. Case in point: the climax of the novel, a great jewel heist. The characters repeat time and time again how impossible it is to break into the Jardin’s Museum, how well-locked, how well-protected everything is. I was curious how they were going to figure out a way in. And in the end, I never found out. The other characters just kind of abseil from somewhere in the roof just like any first, tacky mental image you get when I say the words ‘Jewel Heist’. We also never really found out how Lucienne, the mysterious woman, manages to fake her own death to get away from Paris.

Jagot, the Parisian police-chief-cum-spymaster, really wants the diamond. This felt kind of cheap for a baddie, I thought there would be some deeper motivations at play than just wanting a diamond. Blackmail, extortion? Deep-seated lusts? No, dude wants to get rich. Also, he lets Daniel and Lucienne run around the city for months, although Lucienne is supposedly in hiding. Hmmm.

And now we come to character. Daniel doesn’t warrant being the ‘I’-narrator. He’s passive, dull, and I honestly couldn’t give you many adjectives to describe his character after a whole book. Which is a bit sad, because ‘I’-narrators give you the most insight into their personality. Naive? Biddable? Maybe these two. At times, he’s infuriatingly passive, and for someone who apparently adores botany and biology, he forgets about it all pretty quick. His mental monologues on corals, fossils and bones in the first half of the book don’t fit with his treatment of his job in the second half of the book- as just going through the motions until he can swan around Paris with his older girlfriend and drink absinthe after dark.

Whereas Daniel is flat and underdeveloped, Lucienne seems to have more character facets than seems plausible. She is a fallen aristocrat during the Revolution, whose life was saved in prison because another woman stepped up and was executed in her name (why? No idea). She dresses as a man half of the time, she is a thief, a coral enthusiast, a philosopher. Nobody seems to care that she is a woman alone, with no husband, no real home, no honest income. It felt too modern. Nobody struggles with that. She didn’t seem to have struggled being a fallen aristocratic female cross-dresser who began a sparkling career in thievery.