The Anatomist’s Dream – Clio Grey

‘It’s a taupe,’ announced the doctor, poking at the lump with which a scratchy yellow finger, ‘a French tumour they call it, though couldn’t rightly tell you why. Most unusual – got a bit of hair growing on it too, see here?

Several strands grew, wet-wisped, from a lump the size and shape of a duck’s egg at the bottom of the baby’s head.

‘Might kill him,’ the doctor carried on with scientific stoicism. ‘But probably not, most likely grow a-pace with the rest of him. My goodness though, he does rather resemble the back end of a baboon, don’t you think?’

Philbert is born with a ‘monstrous head’. His mother, who had already named the daughter she thought she was pregnant with, rejects him, returning to work and leaving him with the woman next door. Eventually abandoned by his mother – who runs away with her French lover – and his heartbroken father, Philbert is brought up by Frau Kranz, the neighbour.

The much-anticipated arrival of a carnival in town coincides with Frau Kranz’s realisation that she is dying and that the rest of the town are sharpening their knives, their eyes on Philbert’s pet pig, Kroonk. She sends ‘her Little Maus’ to the fair, anticipating that their love of the unusual will guarantee Philbert a role.


Philbert travels with the fair, making friends with several of the characters, until the day Kwert arrives. Kwert is a ‘Tospirologist and Teller of Signs’. When he places his hands on Philbert’s taupe, Philbert sees scenes from his childhood that he can’t possibly remember.

‘I feel great things for you, Philbert,’ Kwert whispered […] ‘There are many things to come, my little Philbert. I see the shadows of yesterday and tomorrow rising up around you, and it will be hard for you to find your way. But if you’ll grant it, I’ll guide you through the start of your journey and your achievements will be of great wonder.’

What Kwert doesn’t tell Philbert is that before these ‘achievements […] of great wonder’, there will be a number of difficult and dangerous situations which will change Philbert forever.

The Anatomist’s Dream is a tale of how someone’s difference can cause remarkable situations for them and those who come into contact with them. It considers the political situation of the time, which Philbert inadvertently becomes involved in, and the consequences of challenging the status quo.

Philbert’s story is an interesting one – at times it reminded me of Frankenstein – but there were points, particularly in the second half of the book, where there was just too much going on. Events came thick and fast with a huge cast of characters whom I found difficult to distinguish from each other and the plot, which at its core involved a journey, felt as though it was going in a loop rather than forwards. Essentially the novel does loop round as Philbert finds his way back to the fair; it was these sections set in the carnival which I found the strongest. They helped form Philbert and then became indicative of how much he’d changed.

The Anatomist’s Dream touches on themes of belonging, politics and religion. It’s uneven in the telling but nevertheless an interesting concept with an unusual protagonist.


Thanks to Myrmidon for the review copy.

The Gracekeepers – Kirsty Logan

We’re sometime in the future where the world is split into landlockers and those who live on the sea.

In a world that is almost entirely sea, placing your feet on land was a privilege that must be earned.

We follow two young women – North, who lives with Circus Excalibur, travelling the sea but performing most nights on land, and Callanish, the gracekeeper, performing Restings for the dead. She lives on a tiny island by the graceyard.

‘That’s the choice…Here or there. Dampling or landlocker. Sea or land. Man or woman. But this is something different. Don’t you see? We made our homes on the sea and on the land. We can stay here in the graceyards and be nothing. I mean, be neither.’

This choice over land or sea becomes key for both women. Callanish has chosen the graceyard over land as penance for a mistake. North is tied to the sea and the circus but Red Gold, owner of the circus and father of North’s fiancé, Ainsel, wants to buy them a house on land and restore his family’s former glory as landlockers.

There are two problems with this from North’s point of view: neither North nor Ainsel actually want to marry each other and North hates being on land:

Red Gold carried on a steady stream of exclamations as the three of them followed the gangway up from the port, their leather shoes soft on the wooden slats. The tin-sided towers looked more ramshackle than ever, the waves slapping at their bases. North could not understand why anyone would choose to live there. The crew called the landlockers ‘clams’ for their brainless need to cling to the shore. Was the desire to be near land so overwhelming that people would accept these shoddy homes, hoping that over the years they could creep gradually closer to the centre of the island? Soil was dirty, and it smelled; North wanted nothing more than to be away from it.

There’s also a third problem, Red Gold’s wife, Avalon. Avalon’s pregnant and desperate to bring her child up on land so she’s not exactly pleased when she discovers her husband’s decided to use the money she though he was saving to buy them a house on his elder son and fiancé. And it’s North who’s going to pay.

When people are cruel it’s often said that they have no heart, only a cold space or lump of ice in their chest. This was never true of Avalon. She had no heart, everyone knew, but there was nothing cold about her. In her chest burned an enormous coal, white-hot, brighter than the North Star. North knew the truth about Avalon: she was made of fire, and she would burn them all.

Unfortunately for North, she’s also somewhat of an easy target. This is largely due to her circus act which she performs with her bear. It’s this which makes her – and Circus Excalibur – special: there are many circuses on the sea but only one with a bear-girl. They kiss and dance while Red Gold plays up the bear’s ferociousness, but North sleeps in his arms in her coracle as it floats on the sea at night. North also has something in common with Avalon – she’s pregnant – but as the novel begins only she knows it and only she knows who the father is.

Callanish’s story is a little more straightforward. She lives at the graceyard, tending to the birds and performing Restings. She sometimes rows over to the next gracekeeper, Odell, but mostly her life is dictated by the sea and by death.

Callanish and North’s paths cross when one of the circus members dies and they need a Resting to be performed. Callanish is waiting for a delivery of graces following a lengthy storm, so the circus has to remain by the graceyard overnight. Both North and Callanish are unable to sleep and end up talking under the moonlight. Callanish reveals that she knows about North’s baby and North tells her how the pregnancy occurred, a confession that will bind the two women. But both of them have other things to deal with before they can meet again.

The Gracekeepers is a wonderful novel for several reasons: the world which Logan creates is fully realised. The suggestion that most of us will be living on the sea whilst only the rich can afford to stay on the land chimes with current developments in society. Callanish’s graceyard and the isolation of her job, her state of mind and of her location is convincing and weirdly appealing – is it just me who’d love to live in a cottage on a tiny isolated island? The job’s not so cheery but on balance… And the circus, oh the circus is just magical. (Those of you who read the blog regularly/follow me on Twitter know about my circus obsession so please excuse me while I gush over this one.)

The circus has acrobats – Sometimes they said they were siblings, sometimes a long-married couple. – a maypole – the pole, their hair, their bodies, all wrapped tight so the crowd couldn’t tell which were girls and which were boys, so they were all girlboygirls – a horse show, a fire-breather, glamours and clowns, and, of course, North and her bear.

Slowly, slowly, she used her hidden razor blade to slit the front of her dress…North stood, and she was not a she.

Her body fitted the silhouette of a boy’s. Her small breasts, her growing belly: all wrapped tight, all padded and bound in white. Her body gleamed like a marble statue. The styled tumble of her dark hair, now that the crowd looked more closely , seemed more like the mane of an unkempt boy. Blink and she’s a girl. Blink again and he’s a boy. Once more he turns to a she, right in front of your eyes.

Logan infuses it all with colour and the illusion of decadence. She also uses the circus and its place on the margins of society to explore ideas about gender and identity.

The circus, the exploration of gender and outward appearance and the touches of magic realism allow for easy comparisons with the work of Angela Carter. Ideas about climate change and the hint of dystopia lead to a mention of Margaret Atwood. But The Gracekeepers is more that the sum of those two writers; Kirsty Logan is a talent of her own, a very special writer indeed and I love spending time in the worlds she creates. I can’t wait to see where she’ll take me next.

(If you haven’t read Kirsty Logan’s short story collection The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales, you really should. Click on the title for my review.)


Thanks to Harvill Secker for the review copy.

Geek Love – Katherine Dunn

‘And do you know what the monsters and demons and rancid spirits are? Us, that’s what. You and me. We are the things that come to the norms in nightmares. The thing that lurks in the bell tower and bites the throats of the choirboys – that’s you, Oly. And the thing in the closet that makes the babies scream in the dark before it sucks their last breath – that’s me. And the rustling in the brush and the strange piping cries that chill the spine on a deserted road at twilight – that’s the twins singing practice scales while they look for berries.’

Geek Love is the story of the Binewski family. Crystal Lil, the mother, used to be a geek, biting the heads from chickens. After a stint training on the trapeze (cut short following a fall that broke her nose and collarbones), Lil married Aloysius Binewski, owner of the carnival.

When Al inherited the carnival, aged twenty-four, the business was in decline. Determined not to allow it to fold, he came upon a brilliant idea: to breed his own freak show. Lil was happy to be part of the scheme.

As she often said, ‘What greater gift could you offer your children than an inherent ability to earn a living just by being themselves?’

They experimented with ‘illicit and prescription drugs, insecticides, and eventually radioisotopes’.

Five children survived: Arturo, known as Aqua Boy; Electra and Iphigenia, conjoined twins; Olympia, a hunchback, albino dwarf, and Fortunato, known as Chick, who appears to be ‘normal’ but is revealed to have telekinetic powers.

Arturo, the eldest, has flippers that protrude straight from his torso in place of hands and feet. He’s displayed naked in an aquarium.

His favorite trick at the ages of three and four was to put his face close to the glass, bulging his eyes out at the audience, opening and closing his mouth like a river bass, and then to turn his back and paddle off, revealing the turd trailing from his muscular little buttocks.

Arturo rules the roost. He checks the books; is obsessed with making more money than the twins, and eventually begins his own cult. He is cruel and controlling. But his sister Olympia, our narrator, dotes on him, often aiding his schemes out of her desire to be useful to him regardless of any moral or ethical standpoint.

The majority of the novel is set during the height of the freakshow and follows the family as Al and Lil’s power declines and Arturo’s increases. It shows family dynamics and how familial love is strong enough to inspire both incredible loyalty and utter hatred. For Oly and Elly and Iphy, it is also a coming-of-age story.

There’s also an important sub-plot set, so it seems, in the present day of the book. (It was originally published in 1989/90 (USA/UK).) Olympia also narrates these sections but now as an adult with a college-age daughter of her own.

Olympia – now going by the name Hopalong McGurk – owns a run-down boarding house in Portland, which she, her daughter Miranda, and Crystal Lil all live in. Crystal Lil, mostly deaf and completely blind, manages the place; she has no idea that her daughter and granddaughter live in the same building. Miranda is a student at the Art Institute who’s won prizes for her drawings. Having been raised by nuns, Miranda has no idea who Crystal Lil and Olympia really are, she’s just landed a rent-free room which she doesn’t question.

Olympia follows them both, which is how we learn that Miranda works at the Glass House Club, a strip club with a twist:

She was down to her G-String with the fluffy lace plume on her rump, she had her thumbs hooked in it, looking over her shoulder at the crowd, she was waving her ass in a slow semaphore of invitation. The frowning blonde at the table had her chin in her hand. The men were hooting and grunting and watching with smiles. I held my breath, blinked, and she pulled the plume down, unsnapped the G-string and whipped it off with a flourish, waving her ass still, her head tipped up and an unmistakable giggle bubbling out of her as she revealed the thin, curling tail that jutted out from the end of her spine and bounced just above her round buttocks.

This is how Miranda meets Mary Lick, heiress to Lickety Split Food. She offers to pay for an operation to have Miranda’s tail removed and pay her ten thousand dollars for going through the procedure. Miranda is not Mary Lick’s first client:

Miss Lick’s purpose is to liberate women who are liable to be exploited by male hungers. These exploitable women are, in Miss Lick’s view, the pretty ones. She feels great pity for them…If all these pretty women could shed the traits that made men want them (their prettiness) then they would no longer depend on their own exploitability but would use their talents and intelligence to become powerful.

There is so much to explore/discuss/challenge in Mary Lick’s view on gender, power and sexuality. Olympia, however, sets out to deal with her – and protect Miranda – in a more physical way.

Geek Love is a complex, but very readable, portrait of familial love. Dunn’s overarching themes are big ones – sibling relationships; mothers and daughters; capitalism; the patriarchy; money and power – but she explores them through a dynamic that many readers will recognise. Indeed, it was very tempting to begin the review with the opening of Philip Larkin’s ‘This Be the Verse’.

Olympia narrates from a position of love but, despite her adoration of Arturo, she’s also able to articulate his faults clearly – often she’s on the receiving end of his sharp tongue. Dunn also uses her to show how the balance of power can change, evidenced in the present day sections and the way Olympia’s reinvented herself and has, in an unusual way, become the family matriarch.

The novel’s driven by the reader’s desire to know what Arturo will do next – and how his trajectory will end – but also by the present day story, which is positioned between lengthy stints in the sideshow.

Geek Love is a cult classic. The reissue, published to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the novel’s original publication, comes adorned with a list of celebrities who ‘loved’ the book. They include Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love and Jeff Buckley. Given that they’re some of my favourite musicians, it’s no surprise that I read and loved this book some years ago. However, now I’m dissecting it as part of my PhD research, the depth of ideas contained in it are clear and it’s no surprise that the novel has endured.

Geek Love is a brilliant book, everyone should read it.

(If that isn’t enough to convince you, I’ll be publishing an essay next week on my PhD blog, looking at the representation of women in the novel.)


Thanks to Abacus for the review copy.

The Hourglass Factory – Lucy Ribchester + Q&A + giveaway

Giveway now closed.

Ebony checked the binding on her legs, squeezed a handful of flesh into a more comfortable position, ran a thumb over the sailor’s knots she had tied, and wedged the wooden bar of the trapeze between the hollows of her feet. Annie passed her the banner and she bit its silk, and grimaced as its slippery perfume coated her teeth. She had done higher leaps than this and had felt sick before each of them too. But this time they both had Holloway to look forward to.

Ebony Diamond, trapeze artist, and Annie Evans, seamstress, are set to make the front pages of the newspapers for their stunt in front of H.H. Asquith, Prime Minister. But it is April 14th 1912 and the Titanic is about to sink.

Six months later, we meet Frankie George, trouser suit wearing reporter for the London Evening Gazette. Sick of her only journalistic action being the column, ‘Conversations from the Boudoir’, she writes for the Ladies’ Page with rumoured former courtesan, Twinkle, she repeatedly asks her boss to give her juicier assignments. He tells her he wants her to do a profile of Ebony Diamond. Teddy Hawkins, a reporter who frequently gets the front page tells her:

‘There’s a suffragette performing at the Coliseum tomorrow night, an acrobat. Ebony Diamond. Know her?…None of us have a damned clue who she is. That’s why he wanted you in.’ He skimmed a glance down her trouser suit. ‘You’ll know a thing or two about suffragettes, won’t you?’

Unfortunately for Frankie, the only connection she has to the suffragettes is the Punch style cartoon she drew, published in the London Evening Gazette satirising force-feeding and the social class of the women in the movement. When she finds Ebony at the corset makers who provide her costumes, Frankie’s name is recognised, associated with the cartoon and she is given short shrift. Although not before Frankie has witnessed Ebony argue with Olivier Smythe, the shop’s owner, about a woman – ‘She’s up there, isn’t she?’ – and throw a large silver brooch with a gold pattern carved on it at him.

That evening, Oliver Smythe and a woman mistakenly identified as Ebony Diamond – she’s wearing one of Ebony’s corsets – are murdered. The following evening, Ebony disappears in the middle of her act at the Coliseum while Frankie watches. Ignoring her boss, Frankie sets out to investigate.

She’s not the only one doing so though. This is a murder investigation and the police are involved. They’re also not very big fans of the suffragettes, a movement of which Ebony and Annie were members.

Detective Inspector Frederick Primrose leads the investigation. He’s been placed in charge of the branch allocated to deal with suffragettes after an incident during the Black Friday demonstrations, November 1910.

Primrose, one of the hundreds of uniformed sergeants drafted in that cold afternoon, had found [May Billinghurst] abandoned in an alleyway with the wheels ripped off her wicker bath chair, and kindly escorted her home in a police car. Only afterwards his Super had told him she had been ramming the lines of police horses with her chair, making them rear. ‘A vicious piece of dynamite,’ the Super had said, ‘who would endanger lives as readily as she would butter toast.’ The wheels had been removed by another officer.

There’s plenty of conflict between Primrose and the other officers – superior or not – and it’s not going to make the investigation easy for him.

The Hourglass Factory is a tale of murder, subversion, class and the fight for equality. Set against a backdrop of the suffragette movement and a significant period of change, the novel covers a number of ideas and themes without ever relinquishing the plot. There are a number of threads to the story and there was a point when I wondered whether Ribchester could bring them all to a conclusion, but she does, skilfully so, making the book a satisfying page-turner with some serious points to make. A most enjoyable read.

I’m absolutely delighted to welcome Lucy Ribchester to the blog to talk about The Hourglass Factory.

Where did the idea for The Hourglass Factory come from?

It started out life as a very garbled post-modernist play, because that was the way I was intending to roll in my mid-twenties. I knew I wanted to write something about suffragettes and corsets after making the connection that music hall’s heyday was round about the same time the women’s movement gathered momentum. The two ideas of feminine boldness, the savvy showgirl and the militant suffragette, were very intriguing to me. I was still trying to grapple with how a woman can be both feminine and feminist – thus the corset interest – and alongside that the conflicts of women adopting more masculine clothing and mannerisms versus celebrating the ideal of ‘womanliness’.

This is all making it sound a lot cleverer than it is…All the ideas for storyline threads came together in a little melting pot, the play didn’t work out, and I remembered a very important fact, which is that I love reading murder mysteries and thrillers. I also wanted to create something that was fun to read and would give me the ability to share some of the suffragette stories I had come across, and hopefully pique an interest in readers to find out more about the women’s movement. So I set out to write the book that I wanted to read and anything that interested me popped up in it.

Some of the ideas in the book – feminism, class, the role of the media, issues surrounding gender identity – are current hot topics; was it your intention to write a historical novel that linked with the time we’re living in?

Not at all, not consciously anyway. It’s very interesting to see that those are the hot topics that have flared up recently. I guess they must have been flying round the minds of my generation – many of whom are now writing the news – five years ago when I wrote the first draft. I think I always set out to try and explore ways of emancipation and finding freedom; different ways of being ‘a woman’, and on the flip side of that different ways of performing the role of ‘man’, which in a way haven’t really changed much over the past 100 years. We still have very clear delineations and expectations for each gender, which part of me thinks is absolutely wrong, but another part thinks is a beautiful thing, so long as those different roles are kept as equals and there is ample room for crossover.

As for class, I’m not sure. I come from a very long and distinguished line of domestic servants, who, in the Edwardian era, wouldn’t have had the time or wherewithal to write, so maybe that has something to do with it. The other strands just came from bits of historical research that sparked my imagination. I do have a soft spot for (and a horror of) the seedy romance of the tabloid newspaper, so that was always going to end up in the book. Also female misogyny in the media is as fascinating as it is repugnant and that’s definitely something that’s still around today, and that I wanted to play around with parallels for.

Edwardian London feels very real in the novel – its sights, its sounds, its smells – how did you make bring it to life?

Thank you! Plain old common theft. I rifled through books written during the period – The Man Who Was Thursday, The Four Just Men, The Secret Agent, Vita Sackville West’s amazing The Edwardians (written later but based on her experiences), guides to newspaper making, a brilliant 1902 autobiog of a female journalist named Elizabeth Banks, newspaper articles in the Colindale archives, and history books – all the while sneaking little details off their pages to save for later. Sometimes I was very brazen and stole a whole real-life incident – as is the case with the suffragette courtroom riot, nicked from (but credited to at the back) a police memoir by William Thomas Ewens.

I also tried to pay attention to the techniques other historical writers use. Sarah Waters uses food so brilliantly in Fingersmith – the brandy flip! The pig’s head! Mrs Sucksby’s little rattling gin spoon – so through a combination of theft of artefacts and attempts to mimic other writers’ techniques you try to collage together a picture.

The book has a number of plot strands that you weave together to bring the whole thing to a satisfying conclusion; how did you go about writing something so intricate and ensuring it would be successful for the reader?

I’m so chuffed to bits that you think so. What a lovely comment. I can’t however take full credit for that. The book went through several rounds of edits before it even went on submission. One of the pieces of feedback I’d had from a couple of agents was that there were simply too many threads being told from too many characters’ points of view. There were prison wardresses, suffragettes, matrons all having part of the tale told through their eyes. One of the agents who represents me at L&R, Daisy Parente, had a brilliant idea for addressing this: cut the points of view down to two and develop Primrose as a secondary storyteller, giving all the extra scenes to him.

It was a ton of work but I loved the idea so was really happy to go for it. Then Clare Hey at Simon & Schuster was brilliant at making me see where the narrative needed to be streamlined down and where things needed better explanation. So it really is a complete team effort creating a book.

My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?

Ah-ha! A fabulous question. Most of my favourite writers are women, so I was actually a bit surprised when the ReadWomen2014 hashtag came about. But then this year I’ve paid more attention to things like award shortlists and it does seem like there is still disparity that needs to be addressed…

But here we go, top 5: Anaïs Nin, Angela Carter, Agatha Christie, Sarah Waters, and this year I discovered Caroline Kepnes. She’s only written one book so far, called YOU, but when her next one comes out I’m going to be like a greyhound out the traps to get hold of it. I also have a very soft spot for Lynda La Plante because DCI Jane Tennison is one of the most heroic women in fiction. I love my mentor Linda Cracknell’s writing and Beatrice Colin’s conjuring of place and time, and Sarah Hall’s short stories are just astonishing. Sorry that’s 9. Maths not my strong point.

Thanks to Lucy for such fantastic responses.

If that’s whetted your appetite for this fantastic book, Simon & Schuster have kindly provided five copies of The Hourglass Factory for you lovely lot to win. I’m afraid the giveaway’s UK only. All you need to do to enter is leave a comment below. Competition closes at 5pm UK time, Sunday 18th January. The winner will be chosen at random and notified soon after the closing time.

I’ve allocated everyone who entered a number in order of entry:

1 – Cath Martin
2 – ellieaiyana
3 – Lyndsey Jenkins
4 – Helen Stanton
5 – tizzief
6 – lachouett
7 – Jess Gofton
8 – Fran Roberts
9 – Helen
10 – Wendy S
11 – Kate Terence
12 – Val Frenett
13 – meganlilli
14 – Rebecca Foster
15 – carmenhaselup
16 – Jacqueline Bunn
17 – readingwithtea
18 – sarahcretch
19 – Elle
20 – Tara
21 – Cathy746Books
22 – Kate
23 – thefemalescriblerian
24 – CPhilippou123
25 – heavenali
26 – Amy Pirt
27 – Ann Bradley
28 – Markie
29 – Katie Skeoch
30 – Debra Brown/
31 – Poppypeacockpens
32 – Maria P
33 – Cleopatralovesbooks
34 – Jennifer Laird
35 – Helen MacKinven
36 – jayandrew25
37 – Ashley Sheets
38 – Tracey S. Rosenberg

And the random number generator says:

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Congratulations poppypeacockpens, Markie, Rebecca Foster, Cath Martin and carmenhaselup. Check your emails. Thanks to everyone else for entering.

Thanks to Simon & Schuster for the review copy and the giveaway.