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My April Reads

Two independently published novels and a substantial work of non-fiction. Here’s what I read last month…

The Empty Vessel by Vaughan Mason

What drew you to it? This book, written under a pseudonym, was a complete departure for crime writer JJ Marsh, whose Beatrice Stubbs series I have greatly enjoyed.

Genre/Themes: Post-war era, Capital punishment, a supposed crime of passion, miscarriage of justice, amnesia.  

Any coincidences with book I am writing? I was very aware as I read the book that the author and I had made use of the same source material. It is interesting to me (not to mention a great relief) that we ended up writing two very different books.

I particularly enjoyed: The character development. After Nancy Maidstone is discovered cradling the body of Gerald Murray, who has been brutally murdered, the police don’t waste time looking for another suspect. At first, Nancy appears to be the empty vessel of the book’s title, indifferent to her fate, but through glimpses into her past, we discover what has brought her to the predicament she now finds herself in – convicted of murder and waiting to be hanged. Readers of mine will know that I enjoy books with non-linear timelines. To me, they are the most effective way of showing cause and effect. I greatly enjoyed the fact that one of the characters lived in Raynes Park, the place I moved to when I first moved out of my family home. I also admired the way that the author ran with the theme of women being judged on their appearances.  

I didn’t get on with: I must admit that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the idea of Ruth Ellis being usurped as the last woman to be hanged in Great Britain. (Sorry!)

Facts: Vaughan Mason is one of the characters in JJ Marsh’s Snow Angel – and An Empty Vessel is the story that Vaughan wrote.  

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold

What drew you to it? 130 years after the mass murderer known as Jack the Ripper terrorised Whitechapel, 130 years after the press decided that it suited their narrative to claim that all of the Ripper’s victims were prostitutes, a study finally examines the lives of the five.

Genre/Themes: Writing for The Guardian, Frances Wilson called the book ‘an angry and important work of historical detection.’ I found it a heart-breaking portrayal of poverty and survival.

Any coincidences with book I am writing? In a strange way, yes. The stories of The Five are all stories in which women fall between the cracks of society, disappearing from the sight of family and friends.

I particularly enjoyed: I don’t know if ‘enjoyed’ is the right work, but the detail was fascinating. It is shaming that men and women working in important and skilled trades were unable to earn enough money to support a family. Readers cannot help but appreciate of this book as an endeavour: the piecing together of parish registers, court registers, records of births, marriages and deaths, rate books and archives from London workhouses in order to debunk “a body of edited, embellished, misheard and re-interpreted newspaper reports.” I also liked the fact that there were no descriptions of the killings or graphic descriptions of mutilations. Having given The Five back their dignity, Hallie Rubenhold does nothing to take it away from them. 

I didn’t get on with: Nothing. I was riveted from start to finish.

Facts: This is a work of non-fiction. You can watch Hallie Rubenhold introduce the book here.

The Swooping Magpie by Liza Perrat

What drew you to it? I have enjoyed the author’s Bone Angel’s trilogy. I also love the cover artwork.

Genre/Themes: single parenthood, teenage pregnancy, teacher/pupil relationship, coming-of-age, true-life scandal, social change, forced adoption.

Any coincidences with book I am writing? None whatsoever.

I particularly enjoyed: The story’s trajectory and confident use of the first-person narrative. Outwardly, Lindsay Townsend appears to be a confident sixteen-year-old, and very much in control as she pursues an attractive young sports teacher. The reader can see the risks she is taking and what the consequences will be before she can. When her parents discover that she is pregnant, their reaction to is ship her to a home for unmarried mothers. Even there, Lindsay knows that she is different from the other girls because her boyfriend loves her and she will be keeping her baby. The depiction of how this young girl is gradually worn down until she is coerced into signing adoption papers is well-told. But the discovery of how she was duped and by whom is truly shocking.

I didn’t get on with: Lindsay is not easy to like at the beginning of the book (privileged, selfish and predatory). It says a lot for the skill of the author that my sympathy was with her.

Facts: On 19 October 2010, speaking on behalf of the Parliament of Western Australia, Colin Barnett made the first apology for forced adoption policies of babies born to unwed mothers. “I now apologise to the mothers, their children and families who were adversely affected by these adoption practices,” he said. An inquiry into the practice of forced adoptions received hundreds of submissions, including many personal accounts of coercion, trauma and ongoing mental health problems.

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