Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt

Historical Fiction
4*s

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.

On 4 August 1892 Andrew and Abby Borden were brutally murdered in their own home where they lived with Andrew’s daughters Lizzie and Emma and their housemaid Bridget. Lizzie was put on trial for their murder but was exonerated of the crime at her trial three months later.

Sarah Schmidt has recreated the scene on the morning of the murder, and in the months leading up to it using four different narrators: Lizzie, Bridget, Emma and the mystery character Benjamin. These four give us different views of a household which was undoubtedly full of tension with Lizzie and Emma only deigning to call Abby, Mrs Borden.
The thing that struck me most was how young Lizzie’s character seemed to be. The voice is actually a woman in her thirties, unmarried in an age where that was unusual, but she sounds far more like a petulant child. This just adds to the weird atmosphere recreated by Sarah Schmidt with many references to smells and tastes, particularly of the mutton stew which was endlessly reheated. Was this the cause of the sickness that all the members of the household, bar Lizzie were afflicted with? Or was the cause something more sinister? The stickiness of the day, the juiciness of the endless pears that were consumed from the arbour and the meticulous locking of the doors even during the daytime all add to the feeling of claustrophobia that set this household in Fall River, Massachusetts from the rest of the world.

All the best known details of the investigation into the brutal slaying of Mr and Mrs Borden are included, some in the present day narrative which runs throughout the book, some in the flashbacks that give the background to past conflicts that are still running, no doubt because the two daughters should have left long ago. We are given some insight as to why Emma stayed, which was due to the unnaturally symbiotic relationship with Lizzie, but no clue was offered as to why none of the local men had asked for Lizzie’s hand in marriage.

The style of writing took a little while to acclimatise to, but once I got into the stride of the book I was eager to see what theories as to what happened on that fateful day the author would propose and I’m glad to say that no single theory held sway over another, with Sarah Schmidt giving the reader the chance to come to their own conclusions based on the evidence produced.

I have to admit I only really sympathised with one of the characters who narrates this story and that was Bridget, the Irish housemaid who crossed the ocean for a better life and has been saving money to return home to her family but maybe that was because she had the most ‘normal’ of voices. Andrew is presented through the eyes of all of the characters as a harsh father and Abby as a spiteful and bitter step-mother. The undercurrents of distrust and outright hostility are then thrown into focus by the appearance of John Morse, the brother of the Sarah, Andrew Borden’s first wife and mother to Emma and Lizzie. In some ways by the time I completed the book, whoever the murderer was, the deaths seem almost inevitable.

In conclusion See What I Have Done is an unusual and fascinating read, but far from a comfortably one; the writing so vivid I feared sensory overload and as a result I foretell a pearless future for this reader!

First Published UK: 2 May 2017
Publisher: Tinder Press
No of Pages: 336
Genre: Historical Fiction– True Crime
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

The Unseeing – Anna Mazzola

Historical Crime Fiction 5*s
Historical Crime Fiction
5*s

Using the bare bones of a real historical crime, Anna Mazzola has filled in the gaps to present a gripping story, one that feels entirely authentic.

The year is 1837 and Queen Victoria is on the throne, London is a bustling array of work while a woman’s life is dependent on class and money and being married. Meet Sarah Gale who has been sentenced to hang for being an accomplice to the murder of Hannah Brown, a woman cut down on the eve of her wedding. Sarah sits in an impeccably described cell in Newgate awaiting her fate. With the public clamouring for her sentence to be reduced, a lawyer young Edmund Fleetwood is asked by the attorney general to review the evidence and produce a report for him. Edmund goes about his task diligently, but it’s not easy, Sarah has given no real defence and with her former lover about to be hung for murder Edmund has his work cut out for him.

Sarah was a seamstress in London at the time the murder took place with a young son in tow she was ripe for being taken advantage of so when her lover James Greenacre takes up with someone else, that someone being the future victim, Hannah Brown, Sarah shuffles off to a local boarding house wondering how she was going to keep herself and her son out of the ever looming fear of the workhouse.

Anna Mazzola really conjures up the time period for us in this pitch-perfect historical thriller with the details of the time period delicately placed so that never once did it feel like that her obviously meticulous research had been indiscriminately scattered across the pages. And then there is the plot, the most obvious and troubling question being why won’t Sarah defend herself? Edmund is fearful that if he can’t get her to talk she will hang for a crime she has not committed. But this talented debut author doesn’t just follow that question around bends, there are other side-plots to explore with a whole cast of characters that may be not all they first appear to be. Put simply, this is a book which has undertone of dark and disturbing matters, some of which have stayed hidden for quite some time. It is these undertones which add the real feeling of layering to the story this is far from a bit of imagination being added to the real story of The Edgeware Road Murders, with a complex tale that the author has spiced up with additional characters and these are delivered with a real emotional context given to their actions. With these multiple layers so pleasingly presented I was completely immersed in the tale as it unfolded; I could imagine Sarah sat in her small cell, the lawyer beside her coaxing a defence from her tight lips and despite her reluctance we learn a little bit more and this kept me turning those pages until the fitting finale.

If you haven’t already guessed, I loved this book, there was nothing that felt the tiniest bit out of place and the author subtlety manipulates the reader’s emotions by the drip-feed of bits of information. I also rarely mention titles in my reviews but this is a good one in part it relates to Hannah Brown who had an eye removed in the course of the murder but it also applies to other characters too which pleases my love of continuity between a title and a novel. This really is an exceptional debut, and I’m looking forward to finding out what else this talented author will produce for my enjoyment.

I was exceptionally grateful to be provided this book by the publisher Tinder Press and this honest review is my thanks to them.

First Published UK: 14 July 2016
Publisher: Tinder Press
No of Pages: 368
Genre: Historical Crime Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US