Review: The Ashes of London, Andrew Taylor

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✮✮✮☆☆

 

London, September 1666. The Great Fire rages through the city, consuming everything in its path. Even the impregnable cathedral of St. Paul’s is engulfed in flames and reduced to ruins. Among the crowds watching its destruction is James Marwood, son of a disgraced printer, and reluctant government informer.

In the aftermath of the fire, a semi-mummified body is discovered in the ashes of St. Paul’s, in a tomb that should have been empty. The man’s body has been mutilated and his thumbs have been tied behind his back.

Under orders from the government, Marwood is tasked with hunting down the killer across the devastated city. But at a time of dangerous internal dissent and the threat of foreign invasion, Marwood finds his investigation leads him into treacherous waters – and across the path of a determined, beautiful and vengeful young woman.

CONTENT WARNING: Rape and sexual assault.

 

Why I picked this book up:

I was in the midst of a reading slump when I decided to pick up this book on a whim in Waterstones last week. I tend to find that murder mysteries are great easy reads that I fly through, so I thought this book would be perfect to get myself excited about reading again. This period of British history is also something that I’ve read about and hugely enjoyed before, so I thought that the context I already had for the 17th century would help in getting myself through this a little quicker.

 

The bad: 

First and foremost, I really felt as though this book could have been severely trimmed down, by at least 50 pages. Some scenes gave a huge amount of unnecessary observations on behalf of the characters, and considering one of the two protagonists (James Marwood, possibly the wettest lettuce alive) didn’t ever seem to have anything interesting to say, it really dragged in places for me. I was also expecting something much more fast paced, whereas The Ashes of London ended up relying more on the historical fiction side of things than the murder mystery, which is the part I was most looking forward to. For the majority of the book, there was hardly any mystery at all, and only a small twist at the end seemed to give any excitement. I did enjoy the main female protagonist, Cat, who seemed to have much more personality than her male counterpart, but she still felt a little stilted. Her slightly feminist leanings and opinions seemed a little forced in, and the phrasing of them slightly too modern to be believable, but admittedly it did give her much more depth and motivation.

 

The good:

I think the aspect of the narrative that Taylor handled the best was his depiction of the aftermath of rape. The scene itself was not shown, but the raw emotion and gut reactions to the male touch afterwards were extremely heartfelt. Unlike other historical fiction and even fantasy I’ve read previously, this plot point did not seem throw-away in order to give some ‘edge’. Instead the act was pivotal to the main plot, and was handled delicately enough to be realistic and sympathetic without being too graphic or character defining for the victim. I also enjoyed the obviously excellently well-researched religious exploration that occurred throughout, and Taylor dealt with some complex issues surrounding how the beliefs and actions of parents can affect their children and legacy.

 

Overall rating: 3/5

 

London Bookshop Haul

 

I had the amazing opportunity to travel down to London for five days this month, and spent the majority of it haunting some highly recommended indie bookshops. After spending a genuinely ridiculous amount of money on books (although not as much as it could have been – student discount and second hand shops go a long way for saving the wallet) I ended up bringing home 9 books squashed between my Converse in my suitcase.

Note: these are not all of the bookshops I visited during my trip, just the ones where I purchased something. If anyone is interested in hearing about the other places I visited in London, let me know!

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Foyles, ft. an inexplicable Red Bandit. 

Foyles

On my first day travelling into London, I knew Foyles was the first place I wanted to hit; I’ve been every time I’ve visited the city, and love getting lost in the four floors of books and stationary. The YA section is particularly vast – I’ve honestly never seen so much space dedicated to children’s and teenage literature. After viewing several of their recommended books, however, I did ultimately decide on a new release I’ve been desperate to read for months: Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler, a modern retelling of The Taming of the Shrew, part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series. The cover is completely stunning, and I’m so excited to eventually pick up the other novels in this series, too.

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Any Amount of Books

This was the second bookshop I browsed, only about a minutes walk from Foyles. Specialising in rare and first edition books, this incredible used bookshop had a literal bargain basement. Although even the rare volumes they stock are competitively priced, the basement had books at scandalously low prices. Here, I found Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence, deciding to buy it after accidentally opening it on a passage about the value of an education in art. I also picked up a non-fiction book, The Fall of the Roman Empire by Michael Grant. These books were only £3 each, which made me feel a lot less guilty about buying two books in one place.

Just as I was about to pay, I saw the corner of a book sticking out of a huge stack by the staircase, getting ready to be moved downstairs. After (very carefully) extracting it from the pile, I realised it was the same book I’d coveted at the V&A book sale years before – only this time, it was also £3. Not only did I manage to grab a complete steal of a deal, but this book covers most of the history that is essential to my undergrad dissertation research! So, with an extremely heavy bag and aching shoulder, I ended up leaving with three books.

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Persephone Books

This was a bookshop I’d intended to visit many times, but had never quite managed to make it out towards Bloomsbury: a bookshop that publishes their own books, the titles all from out of print or underappreciated female authors. All of their main titles all have the same beautiful grey covers, with the end papers chosen from patterns (from knitting, to fabric, to wallpaper) from a time period relevant to the novel itself. What’s more is each title also comes with a free matching bookmark, making this a haven for obsessive book collectors like myself who are determined for everything to match.

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Due to the nature of the shop it meant that I found so many titles that sounded incredible that I otherwise would never have heard of, and managed to pick up a catalogue and order form so that I could buy more at a later date without ever leaving the North East. Persephone was by far my favourite shop that I visited during this trip, and it was made all the more special by the lovely conversation about female authors I had with the girl who worked there. I ended up weakening and purchasing two books; one I found myself, The Far Cry by Emma Smith, and one under the strong recommendation of the two women from behind their desks as I browsed, Mariana by Monica Dickens.

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Gay’s the Word

About a ten minute walk (if you don’t get lost, like I did) away from Persephone Books is the LGBT bookshop Gay’s the Word. Although small in size this bookshop packs in a huge number of books, organised by age range, and then by the sexuality it follows the most closely. I especially loved the children’s and YA sections near the front of the store, as it was so lovely to see the number of novels aimed at young people that demonstrated support and acceptance. They even have a small secondhand section, meaning that there’s something for all ages and budgets within the store. I ended up buying The Baby by Lisa Drakeford, which I then proceeded to read in one sitting in the nearby Brunswick Square Gardens. I also bought a postcard with the store’s logo on, which I’m planning to save in some scrapbook pages dedicated to this trip.

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Daunt Books

After reading about this bookshop in Jen Campbell’s The Bookshop Book, I ended up dragging a friend of mine through the pouring rain and a half mile walk to find it. Daunt has three branches across London – I visited the one near Notting Hill Gate – and although stocks a huge range of books, it specialises mainly in travel writing. What I really loved was that the travel writing was organised by country rather than writer, meaning I could really take the time to not only choose which countries I wanted to read about, but the specific angle or time period too. Picked from the India and Japan sections respectively, I bought Slowly Down the Ganges by Eric Newby, and The Japanese Chronicles by Nicolas Bouvier. I also decided to splurge and buy one of their iconic green canvas bags, which I cannot wait to start using when I go back to university this autumn – most probably for transporting library books.

 

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What are some of your favourite independent bookshops? Let me know down in the comments!