2015 Chunkster

Death and Mr Pickwick by Stephen Jarvis

Death and Mr Pickwick Source: Library

Five words from the blurb: London, homage, Dickensian, history, ideas

Death and Mr Pickwick was the most atmospheric book I read last year. It was an immersive read, capturing life exactly as it was during Dickensian times. It purports to tell the story of the real Mr Pickwick, showing how Dickens changed the truth when writing his famous novel. I haven’t read The Pickwick Papers, and have no idea whether Stephen Jarvis has discovered the real story, but I don’t think this matters. It was a fascinating book that entertained me for many hours.

Death and Mr Pickwick was incredibly well researched. The wealth of information present in this book was outstanding and I discovered many new things about this period of time. The descriptions were vivid throughout and I loved the way that everything was described in detail – enabling the reader to form a complete picture of the surroundings:

Whole sides of pig hung from the hooks on the long sheds, and there was the smell of boiling meat. Stray dogs, driven wild with temptation, befriended the market workers, sniffing their aprons which were soiled green-brown with hay and grass, an animal’s last meal before slaughter. There was the sound of sawing and steel being sharpened. On the tripe stalls, black beetles fought for territory with the flies. At the rear of a shed, a ragged collection of men and women queued to collect a pint of tripe broth, theirs for the flourish of a jug.

It’s realism occasionally became frustrating, as there were meandering diversions to the central story-line. Some were as engaging as the central plot, but a few fell flat and seemed unnecessary. The style isn’t for everyone and those looking for a plot driven novel should stay away. But, if you like a truly immersive novel, one that takes you down numerous side alleys without caring whether or not the loose ends are tied up, then this is for you. 

This book wasn’t a quick read. The period detail and the numerous diversions from the central plot made it feel much longer than the 800 page brick it already was.  It was so rich in detail that I couldn’t read much at once. This meant it took me several months to complete, and I felt a real sense of achievement when I actually did. 

I loved the originality of the premise and the way it seemed to defy all common conventions on novel writing. It felt different from anything else I’ve read recently and so I recommend it to anyone (with patience) who is interested in Victorian England.


1990s Fantasy

The Prestige – Christopher Priest

I am really pleased that I asked for literary science fiction recommendations as I don’t think I’d ever have found this book otherwise. I’m not convinced that The Prestige is literary or science fiction, but it is a fantastic read!

The Prestige follows two Victorian magicians who are battling to out-perform each other. The pair get locked in an increasingly bitter rivalry that leads them to commit acts so dark and secretive that their actions go on to affect several generations of their families.

Audiences know well that a magician will practice his illusions for years, and will rehearse each performance carefully, but few realise the extent of the prestigitator’s wish to deceive, the way in which the apparent defiance of normal laws becomes an obsession which governs every moment of his life.

I loved learning about the world of a stage magician – everything from how the magic tricks worked to their back stage life fascinated me.

It has been a long time since I last read a book so gripping that I walked around the house reading it; taking it to the kitchen as I couldn’t even bear to part with the story for the few minutes it takes to make a cup of coffee. Many of you will groan if I say this book reminded me of the Fingersmith, but I’m afraid it is the only book that I can compare it to. The Prestige is packed with Victorian atmosphere and has twists and turns equal to those in the masterpiece that is the Fingersmith.

The Prestige is written from the perspective of the two magicians and their grandchildren. It flips backwards and forwards in time, slowly revealing the truth about what went on. I loved the way all the characters drew slightly different conclusions from the same situation. Their subsequent thoughts and actions made so much sense once you’d seen things from their perspective. It was all just so cleverly done that I am still in awe of it.

The Prestige could fit into the science fiction/fantasy genre, but please don’t be put off by this. It would spoil the book if I let you know what happened, but the plot is written so convincingly that you feel as though it could have occurred. It isn’t much stranger than Gothic tales like The Seance or Her Fearful Symmetry.

I’m giving this book 5 stars, not because it is the best written book in the world (it isn’t), but because it is one of the most entertaining. The Prestige has become one of my top 20 books of all time. I’m sure you’ll soon be bored of me recommending it at every opportunity, so you might as well give in and get a copy now. 😆  

I am really excited to learn that Christopher Priest has written a lot of books and a few of them look as though they could be just as good.

This interview with Christopher Priest has made them sound even more appealing!

Have you read anything written by Christopher Priest?


I also watched the DVD as part of C.B. James’ Read The Book, See the Movie Challenge

Prestige DVD

The Prestige DVD is also very good, but the story is much simpler. Many of the twists and turns had been edited out, meaning that the book was far better than the film.

I admit that the film confused me a lot at first, although this was probably because the actors looked nothing like the images of the characters I’d built up in my head (and I am notoriously bad at recognising faces!).

The plot was also a bit different, so it was satisfying to watch straight after reading the book. I was never quite sure which bits would stay true to the book and which would take a whole new direction.

It was interesting to see the magic tricks performed on stage, but I have to admit that they were a bit disappointing. The book had conjured up fantastic images of amazing tricks, but the footage revealed the cheesy old magic that I’ve seen many times before.

I’d also warn all bird lovers to take care when watching this film – I was a bit distressed to learn the truth behind some of the bird tricks.

I’d recommend the film, but the book is far better, so I encourage you to read that first.

Have you watched The Prestige?


Victorian Challenge Complete!

The Victorian Challenge is being hosted by Alex, and it’s aim is to encourage people to read more books written during, or based in the Victorian Era.

I signed up to the Walk in Hyde Park level – 4 books, although I actually managed to read five books:  

1. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte

Irritating characters, and a miserable plot – I don’t think I have ever read a book where there isn’t at least one tiny ray of light somewhere! It’s a classic though, so I’m glad I read it.

2. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher – Kate Summerscale

The true story of the crime which inspired the first detective novel (The Moonstone– see below). Meticulously researched, and packed with interesting facts and observations about Victorian life. Highly recommended.

3. The Moonstone– Wilkie Collins

2003 Paperback

The first ever detective novel. Slow in places, but tightly plotted. Recommended.

4. Three Men in a Boat – Jerome K. Jerome

Slightly silly story about a journey up the  River Thames. Recommended to anyone who has a knowledge of the river.

5. The Seance– John Harwood

Mysterious Gothic Tale, packed with twists and turns. Recommended.



I have really enjoyed taking part in this challenge. All the books were worth reading, although I particularly recommend The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher.
This is the first challenge I have ever completed, so I’m pleased I enjoyed it so much. I look forward to taking part in it again next year.


The Seance – John Harwood

The Seance is a dark, Gothic tale, set in Victorian England.  The central character is Constance, who on becoming an orphan, begins to suspect that her family history is not as simple as she was led to believe. She inherits a crumbling,  country house called Wraxford Hall, which is central to the book’s plot; it’s eerie, dilapidated state adds to the mysterious atmosphere. Constance vows to discover the truth behind her ancestry, and unravel the mysterious events which have taken place in the house.

The book is full of things which cannot be explained. Why does anyone who see the ghost of a monk in the grounds of the house die within a month? Why have previous owners of the mansion disappeared in thunderstorms? and what role does the suit of armor play in it all?

I loved the historical detail in the book. The Victorians’ understanding of the spirit world was fascinating, and very well researched. I felt totally immersed in the world of clairvoyants and mysticism. Constance’s character behaved realistically, and I quickly grew to love her. 

I didn’t find it very scary, (perhaps that’s because I read Blindness recently!) but it was definitely a bit creepy. It was a real page turner, and there were times when I had to stop myself from racing ahead to find out what happens. There was the odd occasion when I lost myself a little bit by doing this, and had to re-read sections to understand exactly what was going on. This was only a minor flaw, and probably due to the fact that it is so tightly plotted. I didn’t spot many of the clever twists, although there were a few that I saw a mile away!

This is a well constructed, Gothic mystery which I recommend to anyone who likes reading about Victorian life, or who is just after a well written story, packed with secrets.


I haven’t read John Harwood’s first novel, The Ghost Writer, but I’ve added it to my wish list already.


The Victorian Challenge


The Victorian Challenge is being hosted by Alex, and it’s aim is to encourage people to read more books written during, or based in the Victorian Era.

I love all things Victorian, so although I’m almost a month late – I’ll sign up!

I’m going to take the Walk in Hyde Park level – 4 books (although I may read one or two more I don’t want to over commit myself!)

I finished reading Wuthering Heights last week, so if it’s OK with everyone I’m going to include this as the first of my books.

My other books are probably going to be:

1. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte completed 26th Jan. 2009

2. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher – Kate Summerscale completed 1st February 2009

3. The Moonstone – Wilkie Collins completed 21st February 2009

4. Three Men in a Boat – Jerome K. Jerome completed 1st March 2009

5. The Seance– John Harwood completed 18th March 2009

For the challenge wrap-up see here.

2000 - 2007 Booker Prize Orange Prize Recommended books

Fingersmith – Sarah Waters

This book was one of the oldest, unread residents of my book shelves. Although I wanted to read it, I kept putting it off as I had already seen the excellent BBC adaptation of it, and I don’t normally like reading books when I know the plot. So when the Orange Prize readers Yahoo group announced it was Sarah Waters month , I decided that this was the incentive I needed to finally take it off the shelf.

I’m really glad I did, as it is one of the best books I have ever read. It didn’t matter that I knew what was going to happen, as the writing was so vivid, that it took the story to a whole new level.

The pace was perfect, despite being 550 pages long, my interest was held throughout. I enjoyed reading this book so much that I was torn between the desire to read it, and not wanting it to come to an end.

It completely immerses you in Victorian England. I loved the way the story was told by the two orphan girls. Seeing everything from two different  perspectives was very clever, and added to the suspense.  The intricate details of the plot, and  all the twists and turns make this a very well constructed novel. It’s hard to describe the plot without giving some of it away, so I won’t try to. I just urge you to read it.

Highly recommended.

Winner of the CWA Ellis Peters Dagger for Historical Crime Fiction. Short listed for both the Orange and the Booker Prize.