Tag Archives: John Harwood

What Makes A Modern Sensation?

When I first set out to originally have a ‘Sensation September’ one of the reasons it swiftly became a ‘Sensation Season’ instead was that there were not only too many sensation novels from the original era that I wanted to read, but also too many what I would deem ‘modern sensation’ novels too. But what on earth makes a modern sensation novel, I hear you cry. 

Well as I am not Wikipedia I can’t give you the official definition of a modern sensation novel because there isn’t one… as yet! However I can happily make one up instead, maybe the Savidge Reads guide for modern sensation fiction could catch on? So here are what I deem the rules for modern sensation fiction… 

  • It must be set in the Victorian era or if modern be set in a spooky old house (preferable a manor or bigger and also maybe with a spooky old wood near by).
  • There must be much secrets and intrigue.
  • There must be plenty of plot twists and quite a few red herrings.
  • There need to be a lot of coincidences.
  • It needs to contain adultery, theft, bigamy, kidnapping, insanity, forgery, abduction or murder. Or even better all of these ingredients.
  • It can have a ghost or two in it… at a push!

Now taking all this into account I think that you could actually have quite a lot of ‘modern sensation’ novels. Half of the current (and past classics, such as Agatha Christie) crime fiction could be linked back to sensation fiction with just the murder part! I think the modern sensations need to have all of the above and a little ‘sensation magic’ which isn’t easy to describe, so instead here are the first five books I could think of that have all of these elements but were written recently. I have read one, am going to re-read another and read the other three for the first time over the next few weeks…

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters – ‘We were all more or less thieves at Lant Street. But we were that kind of thief that rather eased the dodgy deed along, than did it. We could pass anything, anything at all, at speeds which would astonish you. There was only one thing, in fact, that had come and got stuck – one thing that had somehow withstood the tremendous pull of that passage – one thing that never had a price put to it. I mean of course, Me.’ Sue Trinder, orphaned at birth, is born among petty thieves – fingersmiths – in London’s Borough. From the moment she draws breath, her fate is linked to another orphan, growing up in a gloomy mansion not too many miles away.

The Observations by Jane Harris – So there I was with two pens, my two titties, Charles Dickens, two slice of bread and a blank book at the end of my first day in the middle of nowhere. Except as it turned out it wasn’t quite the end …Scotland, 1863. In an attempt to escape her not-so-innocent past in Glasgow, Bessy Buckley – the wide-eyed Irish heroine of “The Observations” – takes a job as a maid in a big house outside Edinburgh working for the beautiful Arabella. Bessy is intrigued by her new employer, but puzzled by her increasingly strange requests and her insistence that Bessy keep a journal of her most intimate thoughts. And it seems that Arabella has a few secrets of her own – including her near-obsessive affection for Nora, a former maid who died in mysterious circumstances. Then, a childish prank has drastic consequences, which throw into jeopardy all that Bessy has come to hold dear. Caught up in a tangle of madness, ghosts, sex and lies, she remains devoted to Arabella. But who is really responsible for what happened to her predecessor Nora? As her past threatens to catch up with her and complicate matters even further, Bessy begins to realise that she has not quite landed on her feet.

The Séance by John Harwood – ‘Sell the Hall unseen; burn it to the ground and plough the earth with salt, if you will; but never live there…’ London, the 1880s. A young girl grows up in a household marked by death, her father distant, her mother in perpetual mourning for the child she lost. Desperate to coax her mother back to health, Constance Langton takes her to a seance. Perhaps they will find comfort from beyond the grave. But that seance has tragic consequences.Constance is left alone, her only legacy a mysterious bequest will blight her life. So begins “The Seance”, John Harwood’s brilliant second novel, a gripping, dark mystery set in late Victorian England. It is a world of apparitions, of disappearances and unnatural phenomena, of betrayal and blackmail and black-hearted villains – and murder. For Constance’s bequest comes in two parts: a house, and a mystery. Years before a family disappeared at Wraxford Hall, a terrifying stately home near the Suffolk coast. Now Constance must find the truth behind the mystery, even at the cost of her life. Because without the truth, she is lost.

The Behaviour of Moths by Poppy Adams – From her lookout on the first floor, Ginny watches and waits for her adored younger sister to return to the crumbling mansion that was once their idyllic childhood home. Vivien has not stepped foot in the house since she left, forty seven years ago; Ginny, the reclusive lepidopterist, has rarely ventured outside it. The remembrance of their youth, of loss, and of old rivalries plays across Ginny’s mind. Why is Vivi coming home? Ginny has been selling off the family furniture over the years, gradually shutting off each wing of the house and retreating into the precise routines and isolation that define her days. Only the attic remains untouched. There, collected over several generations, are walls lined with pinned and preserved Bordered Beauties and Rusty Waves, Feathered Footmen and Great Brocades, Purple Cloud, Angle Shades, the Gothic and the Stranger …

The Journal of Dora Damage by Belinda Starling – This work is set in Lambeth, London, in the year 1859. By the time Dora Damage discovers that there is something wrong with her husband, Peter, it is too late. His arthritic hands are crippled, putting his book-binding business into huge debt and his family in danger of entering the poorhouse. Summoning her courage, Dora proves that she is more than just a housewife and mother. Taking to the streets, she resolves to rescue her family at any price – and finds herself illegally binding expensive volumes of pornography commissioned by aristocrats. Then, when a mysterious fugitive slave arrives at her door, Dora realizes she’s entangled in a web of sex, money, deceit and the law. Now the very family she fought so hard for is under threat from a host of new, more dangerous foes. Belinda Starling’s debut novel is a startling vision of Victorian London, juxtaposing its filth and poverty with its affluence. In “Dora Damage” we meet a daring young heroine, struggling in a very modern way against the constraints of the day, and whose resourcefulness and bravery have us rooting for her all the way.

What do you think… about all of it?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Sensation Novels

The Seance – John Harwood

You may remember a few weeks ago that I asked for your thoughts on great books based in big creepy houses. This was partly inspired by being a tiny bit disappointed by Sarah Water’s ‘The Little Stranger’ initially and also because I was off to stay in a big stately home. Just a quick additional note though; the more time I have had away from ‘The Little Stranger’ the cleverer and better I think it is and I thought it was good to begin with, I just wanted to update you all one that. I then read ‘The House At Midnight’ which had the stately home and was a good book again but wasn’t creepy. Would ‘The Séance’ by John Harwood succeed with my mission… with a title like that and not one but two big spooky stately homes it did exactly what I wanted it to. 

‘The Séance’ already had me from the fabulous cover, which I know you shouldn’t judge a book on but sometimes how can you not, and also from its subtitle ‘A Victorian Mystery’ which instantly in my mind makes me think of the ‘sensationalist’ books from those times which prove to be some of my favourite fiction books ever. Now though I wouldn’t say that this book could be compared to such iconic books as ‘The Woman In White’ it has a damn good stab at it and on many levels succeeds in fitting into that genre only written a hundred years late.

The book is told through three narrators, the opening and closing voice of the novel is Constance Langton opens the book for us as she tells of growing up in a manor, her father often away and so is left with a mother who is in constant mourning for the loss of her other daughter Alma. Constance tries to lift her mothers ‘spirits’ she pretends to evoke the spirit of her sister taking her on a very dark journey that changes her life and circumstances forever. Yet this isn’t actually the main story, it’s the events that inspire afterwards that make the rest of the tale – though this early opening storyline does lay some clues and some big red herrings for what’s to come as Constance finds she is the inheritor or Wraxford Hall which holds dark secrets itself and the mystery of the vanishing of many of its family and the darkest deceptions. Chills hit you when Constance is told ‘sell the Hall unseen; burn it to the ground and plough the earth with salt, if you will; but never live there…’

I won’t say anymore than that in case I accidentally give anything away. I will say that I thought that writing the book through these differing accounts was a brilliant idea of Harwood’s and really worked into adding even more twists and various dead ends to the plot. You also, until the end of course, never quite knew which narrator you could trust and that added to the suspense and mystery. The fact that there was a slightly supernatural element added even more to the book and in two parts I actually jumped and had the chills several times. What more can you ask from a dark tale of a spooky old house than that?

Harwood’s other strength is plotting which reminded me very much of the sensationalist novels, which I love, without actually ripping any of them off. How he managed to come up with all the twists and turns at the end is beyond me. The fact that he manages to incorporate them all and still makes it all clear and unconfused to the reader is remarkable. I lost count of all the twists in the end. This is genuinely is a superb book, whether you love a good creepy Victorian tale or not this is great fiction writing.

If I had one small gripe it would be at myself for the timing of reading it. This isn’t really a book to read when you have lots on, like moving house for instance. We have had just the right weather for this book in London though in the last week with some cracking storms which is the ideal setting to curl up and read this in one sitting. Maybe next time as I am sure I will be reading this again and will also be tracking down John Harwood’s debut ‘The Ghost Writer’ very soon.

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Filed under Books of 2009, John Harwood, Review, Vintage Books

Thankyou & Goodnight

Ok, so I am not actually leaving or anything but I thought that this would be a good title for a blog for the subject matter. I haven’t blogged since Friday as I briefly mentioned on Thursday that I would be spending the weekend in the West Sussex, Petworth to be precise. In the grounds of this wonderful National Trust property I was one of the volunteers for the Ribbon Walk which Breast Cancer Care have organised since 2005 adding new walks, I think this was Petworth’s second, and I was there to do various volunteer duties.

I had asked that whilst I was staying in such grand, yet slightly spooky, surroundings to help me choose between the books I should read next whilst away and I took with me, on so many peoples say so both ‘The Seance’ by John Harwood and ‘The House At Midnight’ by Lucie Whitehouse starting with the latter. I cannot thank you all enough for adding your thoughts. I am wondering if it might be something I should do more regularily if I get stuck with reads and inspiration?

How much reading did I actually do… well… would you be angry if I said I have read about ten pages this weekend? If I explain that from about 2pm friday I was helping put up tents, marquees and fences. Helping decorate and fill said tents and marquee’s to make them look delightful. Lugging crates of water, bananas and Haribo (the latter very dangerous as the temptation was too much for many of us. Making goody bags and unwrapping medals for participants. This went on until quite late when we popped for a pint had a good natter and were all in bed very early from exhaustion, so no reading. Then Saturday was a 5am start with more of the same. Then welcoming all the participants and then supporting them on their 20 or 10 mile walk, cheering them on getting them water and treats. Then Sunday was undoing everything that had been decorated and put up in the previous days all this in the heat too. It was all hardwork but 100% worth it.

Now I am back and am planning on having quite a relaxed and early night. Do I want to read? I have to say that though I would love to curl up some more with ‘The House at Midnight’ but I think all the heat and genaral madness and ‘getting involved in everything’ of the weekend has left me too exhausted to read. Does anyone else ever get that? You are so tired that even though the idea of a book is heaven, the reality is that your so tired you can’t concentrate on what you are reading or what you are taking in, thats the state that I ma in this evening. So instead its pizza, the sofa and a copy of ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ on DVD. I havent read the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald but I would like to. For once oddly I am not bothered that I haven’t read the book first, I just want to get lost in some far fetched wonderful tale of escapism and this looks like it should do the trick. Back to normal business tomorrow I promise., hope you have all had lovely weekends?

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What To Read Next… You Decide

I mentioned yesterday that I really wanted to read something set in a big house, probably something that had a spooky side to it. The reason is that I will be staying at a stately home this weekend and so I thought as I am nearing the end of the brilliant ‘Daphne’ by Justine Picardie – which is oddly also set partly in Daphne’s stately home, and also need a Bronte break before I start ‘The Taste of Sorrow’, that I would read something in a stately setting next. 

So I asked for your thoughts and then also had a look through my never ending TBR and found three books that fit the brief.  Now, as I really like having interaction with you on the blog, I thought I would give you the option of choosing what I read next out of the three which are…

The House at Midnight – Lucie Whitehouse

When Lucas inherits Stoneborough Manor after his uncle’s unexpected death, he imagines it as a place where he and his close circle of friends can spend time away from London. But from the beginning, the house changes everything. Lucas becomes haunted by the death of his uncle and obsessed by cine films of him and his friends at Stoneborough thirty years earlier. The group is disturbingly similar to their own, and within the claustrophobic confines of the house over a hot, decadent summer, secrets escape from the past and sexual tensions escalate, shattering friendships and changing lives irrevocably.

Madresfield – Jane Mulvagh

Madresfield Court is an arrestingly romantic stately home surrounded by a perfect medieval moat, in the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire. It has been continuously owned and lived in by the same family, the Lygons, back to the time of the Domesday Book, and, unusually, remains in the family’s hands to this day. Inside, it is a very private, unmistakably English, manor house; a lived-in family home where the bejewelled sits next to the threadbare, the heraldic and feudal rest easily next to the prosaically domestic. The house and the family were the real inspiration for Brideshead Revisited: Evelyn Waugh was a regular visitor, and based his story of the doomed Marchmain family on the Lygons.Never before open to the public, the doors of “Madresfield” have now swung open to allow Jane Mulvagh to explore its treasures and secrets. And so the rich, dramatic history of one landed family unfolds in parallel with the history of England itself over a millennium, from the Lygon who conspired to overthrow Queen Mary in the Dudley plot; through the tale of the disputed legacy that inspired Dickens’ Bleak House; to the secret love behind Elgar’s Enigma Variations; and the story of the scandal of Lord Beauchamp, the disgraced 7th Earl.

The Seance – John Harwood

‘Sell the Hall unseen; burn it to the ground and plough the earth with salt, if you will; but never live there…’. London, the 1880s. A young girl grows up in a household marked by death, her father distant, her mother in perpetual mourning for the child she lost. Desperate to coax her mother back to health, Constance Langton takes her to a seance. Perhaps they will find comfort from beyond the grave. But that seance has tragic consequences.Constance is left alone, her only legacy a mysterious bequest will blight her life. So begins “The Seance”, John Harwood’s brilliant second novel, a gripping, dark mystery set in late Victorian England. It is a world of apparitions, of disappearances and unnatural phenomena, of betrayal and blackmail and black-hearted villains – and murder. For Constance’s bequest comes in two parts: a house, and a mystery. Years before a family disappeared at Wraxford Hall, a terrifying stately home near the Suffolk coast. Now Constance must find the truth behind the mystery, even at the cost of her life. Because without the truth, she is lost.

So now all that is left for you to all tell me which one I should read and then I will pop it into my packing before I leave late tonight. I look forward to counting the votes.

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