This week, I’m reading two clever crime novels set in England. One, published this month, is set in London and runs on two timelines, 1791 and the present day. The other is a sequel to one of my favourite Young Adult books of 2019.
I’m hoping for a relaxing week filled with clever ideas and strong female characters.
‘The Lost Apothecary’ by Sarah Penner (2021)
Sarah Penner must have great marketing skills. ‘The Lost Apothecary’ has been heavily hyped everywhere as a ‘must read’ book, which would normally make me stand back and wait for the dust to settle, especially when it’s a debut novel that’s being promoted. It can feel like the publisher is pushing to get as many sales as possible before word-of-mouth kills the book.
I’m making an exception for ‘The Lost Apothecary’ because I find the premise so intriguing. I want to know why the apothecary is helping other women to murder men and why she insists on keeping a record of it and what goes wrong with her system.
If the activities of the eighteenth-century apothecary had been the only storyline, I’d probably still have bought the book but, as seems to be the current fashion, there is a second storyline, connecting our eighteenth-century apothecary to a modern woman who, after ten years of marriage, is dissatisfied with her life and unhappy with her unfaithful husband. This is a risky strategy but one that could greatly increase my engagement with the story, expand its relevance and heighten its symbolism. In ‘The Weight Of Ink’, I thought this worked well. In ‘The Sun Down Motel’, the modern storyline was significantly weaker than the historical one. I’m curious to see what balance Sarah Penner strikes.
Each storyline is written in the first-person from the point of view of the main character. This gives two challenges, sustaining the first-person perspective for two stories of about 150 pages each while keeping the story lively and providing each storyline with a distinctive voice.
I’m hoping the book lives up to the hype and that I get an exciting story that also explores some challenging ideas.
‘Good Girl, Bad Blood’ by Holly Jackson (2020)
I really enjoyed Holly Jackson’s debut novel, ‘A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder’ when I read it in 2019. It was a book that I looked forward to getting back to whenever I had to set it aside for a while. It did contemporary England well and the main character, Pippa, was easy to believe in. The mystery kept me guessing right up to the end and Holly Jackson also managed to some interesting, non-pretentious things with form.
‘Good Girl, Bad Blood’, a sequel that was published in 2020, promises to be just as good. The story continues straight on from the previous book and has Pip trying to get the real story (apart from the bits she lied about) out to the world by making a series of podcasts. Holly Jackson continues to play with form by having some chapters in a podcast format.
I’m hoping for a book where Pip grows up a bit but doesn’t change too much, where the mystery is as complex and compelling as in the first book and where all I have to do is to settle in for an entertaining read.
3 thoughts on “#FridayReads 2021-03-26 ‘The Lost Apothecary’ and ‘Good Girl, Bad Blood’”
Interesting … my gut response to dual timeline stories is exactly the opposite. Give me a well-conceived historical novel that knows what it‘s aiming to achieve in its own right (with or without contemporary relevance as shown by historical events) any day of the week. Add a forced sense of contemporary relevance by adding a parallel, contemporary timeline and I‘ll run away screaming … because in those novels, both the added timeline as such and its contemporary setting always does feel forced to me. It‘s „too many notes“ (in the sense of the Austrian Emperor‘s comments on one of Mozart‘s works in „Amadeus“) — and it always feels like the author is saying, „… and since I don‘t actually trust you, reader, to understand what I‘m telling you just on the basis of the historical events, let me spell it out all over again in capital letters and words of one syllable.“ (Also, the contemporary timelines hardly ever do anything for me in their own right — they just make me wish instead of wasting space on them the author had used those pages to invest in the historical aspects … or just leave them out entirely.) Tastes differ! 😀
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I know what you mean and I hope it doesn’t happen here.
Sarah Penner has been bold: first-person POV, two timelines AND writing about women from a foreign culture.
I think the last is likely to be the hardest. She has more freedom writing about 18th Century women because very few of their writings, even journals, are widely read but an American woman writing about an English contemporary is going to be much more difficult. There are very few cultural overlaps. Having returned to England after a long time away, I found myself scrambling to understand programs like ‘Fleabag’ which seem to resonate with English women in their twenties and thirties. Imagine trying to capture the psych of an English woman when you went to university in Kentucky and chose to settle in Florida. Visiting London, even falling in love with London, isn’t enough to give that insight. I fell in love with Lac Léman but I’d struggle to get inside the mind of a contemporary who grew up there.
Penner says she started writing in 2015 after attending the Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Big Magic -creativity beyond fear’ book tour. Gilbert is big on being bold and true to your own ‘fascinations, obsessions and compulsions’. It looks like Penner listened to her.
Gilbert also said:
But to yell at your creativity, saying, “You must earn money for me!” is sort of like yelling at a cat; it has no idea what you’re talking about, and all you’re doing is scaring it away, because you’re making really loud noises and your face looks weird when you do that.”
I suspect Penner figured that if cats can be trained to use the litterbox, then creativity can be made to make money – just not by shouting at it. I have the impression, on no data other than her marketing success, that Penner wrote her business plan at the same time that she wrote the outline for her novel.
So now I’m curious to see what she produced.
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Well, I hope it works out. 🙂 It sure sounds like the marketing was successful … even with at least a segment of the British / English audience!