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Dark Asylum review and Q&A

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I am a devotee of novels set in the ancient world and much of my reading centres around that period, though over the past few years I have strayed more and more outside my comfort zone. I have found myself becoming increasingly fascinated with the darker side of the 18th and 19th centuries, and with that I’ve found a resurgence of my old love of mysteries and whodunnits. Action and adventure novels set in the Victorian era have to be truly exceptional to attract me, but I am becoming a sucker for a good 19th century mystery. D. E. Meredith, Essie Fox and Robin Blake are some recent highlights.

How nice to have discovered another author who knows how to weave an enthralling mystery in such a dark and fascinating world. Dark Asylum is actually Thomson’s second novel and, while I have not read the first, I will now have to remedy that. I’m sure I’m in for a treat.

Thomson conjures up a dark and chilling world full of vivid and memorable characters all bound up in a (in this case certainly) complex plot that kept me guessing right to the end. Actually, I thought I had it pinned down twice and was wrong both times, which is nice to experience. And despite the darkness of the setting and the subject matter, Thomson manages to interject just enough quirky humour to keep the book a hearty read that drew me back in every spare minute. In fact, while there are moments in the book that made me squirm a little, there were also moments that made me chuckle out loud and note down the page number to repeat a humorous passage to my wife.

Dark Asylum takes us on a voyage through the world of Victorian madness, its diagnosis and treatment, the institutions that dealt with it and the world from which it sprang. There are doctors here both likeable and dreadful, who are experimenting with phrenology, drugs, lobotomies, therapeutic treatments and so much more. It is a world of medical upheaval and change, and not all of that change is pleasant or tasteful. One thing worthy particularly of note is the characters. They are both vivid and interesting, and they are each memorable and individual, which is not always the case in such a genre.

It is not until about 1/4 of the way through the book that we begin the true mystery, though the lead up to this point, introducing the characters and their world, is made all the more relevant by a side-tale running throughout, telling the backstory of our villain. That information is slowly released throughout, and never too early. Best of all, the unveiling of the truth towards the end is another corkscrew of twists and surprises.

This is, quite simply, a cracking book and deserves to be read. Go get yourself a copy. And as an extra treat, I have been in contact with the publisher and E. S. Thomson agreed to answer a few questions for me, so if the review alone has not tempted you to delve into Jem Flockhart’s adventures, have a little peek into the mind behind them…

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Are the locations in Dark Asylum based on real buildings either extant or now-vanished? Do you visit buildings of the period to flesh out your vision in preparation for describing them?

In this case no, I didn’t. I made everything up or used books of the period that described places.  The apothecary, the asylum, the convict transport ship are all out of my own head but based on what I read. I have been in a Victorian asylum building – I used to work in one (Craighouse, in Edinburgh) – and very grand it was too.  But it was built in the 1870s, and Angel Meadow was an old asylum, from before the asylum building programmes of the 1870s and 1880s.  Most of these sorts of places – smaller asylums – no longer exist. 


Dark Asylum is set in a harsh and very dark world. The Victorian London of which you write is a Gothic masterpiece of gloom, misery and wickedness. Given both this and the grisly subject of which you were writing, how do you attempt (and clearly succeed) in lightening the tone with moments of humour? It must be something of a balancing act.

Actually, I find I do get tired of the gloom and darkness. And at those points, just when it seems too much, I put in some humour – mainly to give the reader a rest.  I think that people are often absurd, even when they try not to be.  Dr Mothersole and his curious ideas for treating the mad, or Mrs Roseplucker, the brothel-keeper who turned to writing Penny Dreadfuls, were very easy to do.  As you say, the difficult bit is knowing when do do it, for how long, and when to stop.  Did I succeed?  I’ll let others be the judge

I was interested to see how far you pushed the boundaries in this novel in places. Is there anything about the era or setting that you are tempted to write out, or are uneasy about describing?

I suppose it depends where you think those boundaries are. I’m  uneasy about describing child prostitution – which is probably why I had the child who was pimped by her mother leap out of the bed and beat her would-be rapist to death with a poker before he had chance to do anything to her.

You have some truly colourful characters in Dark Asylum, a number of which I loved. Do you find it difficult to create characters who stand out so when the setting of your books is an era of conformity and often drab uniformity?

No I don’t find it difficult. I think there were more eccentric people in this period than people realise.  What is difficult is finding roles for women that are not boring or completely anachronistic.  I got round this by having a cross-dressing main character.  But if you want feisty women in your novel (and I do), this is not as straightforward as it is when writing a novel set in the present.

Jem is an interesting character and I found myself often wondering how she gets by without accidentally revealing her true gender. Clearly there are moments in the book where people have an inkling, but presumably you are limited in the situations you can describe (for instance having to share a room/bathroom with someone?)

Jem is based on James Barry, who spent her life dressed as a man, and practiced medicine as such in the British Army for her whole working life.  Barry graduated in medicine from Edinburgh university some 40 or so years before women were permitted to study medicine. Clearly, if she could live her life disguised as a man in such a male environment then I can manage it for Jem in a novel.  She doesn’t share a room, so that’s never a problem.  Some people seem to guess than Jem is disguised – but no one ever comes out with it and says “you are a woman!” – so you never really know whether they have worked it out or not.

Your first Jem Flockfart novel was set in the same locale as this, and I note from the back matter of the book that your next is also set in London. Are you not tempted to set a novel somewhere more familiar to you (Lancashire or Lothian for example?) Edinburgh clearly has rich pickings in the Victorian era

I left Lancashire 30 years ago, so it is not familiar to me at all anymore.  As for Edinburgh, in fact, almost all of the medical history details in the books are Scottish – mainly because I know about it thanks to my PhD, and also because Scottish medicine and medical education were surprisingly dominant in this period. Scotland punches well above its weight in the history of medicine.  So in fact i am using a lot of Scottish detail.  However,  I set the books in London because I wanted a large anonymous city, much of which has been rebuilt since the 1850s, rather than the smaller more intimate locations of Edinburgh, where everyone knows everyone else’s business.  I based the location of the first Jem story on St Thomas’s hospital in London, which was indeed knocked down to make way for a railway in the late 1840s.  Yes, I know Edinburgh intimately – I’ve been here for 30 years, but I didn’t want so distinctive a place to have a central part in the novel.  London in this period was massive, stinking, sprawling – and undergoing great change.  I wanted all this in my novel. Besides, Edinburgh is currently very well represented by historical novelists.  As a result, I don’t think the pickings are as rich as you might think.

A frivolous one to finish: what do you like to read for leisure.

Crime fiction mostly – Sherlock Holmes is an old favouite.  At the moment I’m reading Chris Brookmyre.

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Thank you, Elaine, for your time. There you go, folks. Buy Dark Asylum and immerse yourself in a great read.

Written by SJAT

March 13, 2017 at 1:18 pm

Semper Fidelis

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Book 5 in my tour of the life of Ruso and Tilla. It’s a rollercoaster ride, for sure. I’ve followed Ruso and his slave/housekeeper/girlfriend/wife from Chester to Northumberland, to the south of France, then London, and now to York. It’s like a pit-stop tour of some of my favourite places guided by two of my favourite characters and penned by one of my favourite writers.

If you don’t know how much I love Ruth’s books by now then you’re clearly new to the blog. The Ruso mysteries are at the very top level of their genre – atmospheric, elegantly-plotted, immersively historical and delivered with rich prose. And yet also truly human tales, shot through with a sense of humour that never fails to make me smile and occasionally with deeper pathos. Ruso is not so much hapless as unlucky. He is skilled and clever and full of innovation, and yet regularly makes rather critical mistakes and finds himself in a mess. Tilla is practical and sensible and yet prone to headstrong decisions that show little forethought. Together they should be able to tackle any problem and yet more often than not they cause each other problems and worsen the situation exponentially. It makes for really engaging reading.

In Semper Fidelis (‘Always Faithful’, the motto of the US Marine Corps) we are brought to York as Ruso joins a small unit of the 20th legion who are there training recruits as they await the arrival of the 6th legion, who will be based there shortly. Ruso is back with the army now after his brief foray into the world of fiscal investigation, and the army is the focus of this book. For in York (Eboracum), the largely empty fortress has played host to native British legionary trainees, martinet centurions, beleaguered medics and desperate camp-followers. And a series of accidents and incidents that are believed to be a result of the curse on the unit point- to a clever investigator, anyway – to brutal and unacceptable behaviour on the part of the training officers.

Ruso and Tilla finds their selves delving into the incidents that have taken place and uncovering unpleasant truths within the army and landing their selves in deep trouble, which is only compounded all the more when the emperor Hadrian, his wife Sabina, and a unit of Praetorians arrive rather unexpectedly. Ruso knows Hadrian of old, since long before he came to power. You might think he could count on an old comrade to look after him. You might think that….

Semper Fidelis is yet again a beautiful offering from the pen of Ruth Downie and deserves to be read and enjoyed by all.

Oh, and the dog bite… Heh heh heh.

Go read it folks. It’s a treat.

Written by SJAT

October 6, 2016 at 8:51 am

Persona Non Grata

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(Also released as Ruso and the Root of all Evils)

I have a growing fondness for historical mysteries rather than the straightforward military novels or sagas or character biographies. Over the past year or two I have discovered Robin Blake, William Ryan, Luke McCallin, D.E. Meredith and others. But my favourite series is still Ruth Downie’s Ruso books. I read the first two a while back, but have simply not found the time to catch up with the series. Well last week I decided to change that since for once I did not have anything to read to a deadline.

The first of Ruth’s books (Medicus AKA Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls) introduced us to the Roman doctor Gaius Petreius Ruso, as well as to his friend Valens and the headstrong native British woman Tilla. It was set in Chester (Deva) in the reign of Hadrian and immediately hooked me with its clever mix of intricate plot, believable characters, well-dressed setting and gentle humour. The second novel (Terra Incognita/Ruso and the Demented Doctor) was somewhat darker to my mind, following the escapades of our favourite pair in the north, among the forts on the Stanegate where the emperor’s wall will soon take shape. Involved with a native uprising and brutal murders, there was much development in particular of Tilla’s character.

This third installment is so far very much my favourite. Why? Because it has everything that swept me away in the first book, and so much more. Summoned back to his family’s farm in southern Gaul by a mysterious note and with a medical furlough from the army with a wounded foot, Ruso and Tilla hurry back to their lands near Nemausus to find out what has happened.

Cue a beautifully involved plot involving a poisoning, a ship lost at sea, bankrupcy, double-dealing, misdirection and business deals gone horribly wrong. I won’t spoil the plot, but my minor spoiler would be that when the man visits Ruso to discuss his debts and then drops dead in front of him, I almost laughed aloud, realising what this would mean with regards to the suspicions of murder.

It is simply beautifully executed, but with a new added facet: Ruso’s family. An overbearing stepmother, a brother with his head in the sand, an enthusiastic sister-in-law, demanding and disobedient sisters, a worrying ex-wife, a disapproving ex father-in-law and a pack of small children. And more… the cast goes on, and yet each is lovingly treated. The interactions between the characters are what truly make these novels for me.

Yes the plot is excellent, this history faultless, the prose graceful and the atmosphere absorbing, but the icing on the cake is the dialogue. Ruth is plainly the mistress of dialogue.I annoyed my wife yesterday by chortling reapeatedly and interrupting her to read her the choicest snippets. Because Ruth’s dialogue never fails to raise a smile from me. It is often wonderfully light-hearted and engaging, and yet at no point is it in any way unrealistic.

Quite simply, along with one or two other authors (G.G. Kay and Prue Batten leap to mind) Ruth Downie’s writing makes me feel like a talentless hack when I go back over my own.#

I shall not leave it so long this time before I move on to book 4. If you’ve not ready Ruth’s books, do yourself a favour and start…

Written by SJAT

September 15, 2016 at 4:18 pm

Ruso – Books 1 & 2

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I read the first two of Ruth Downie’s excellent Ruso books some time ago, and reviewed the first on Amazon in the days before this blog was largely dedicated to books. I’ve been, this week, reading other books that I’ll be releasing the reviews of shortly, but for my usual Thursday post, I thought it was time to up the reviews of these two from mere ‘I bought this product’ reviews to proper examinations.

Off we go then. Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls (‘Medicus’ in the US) was, at the time, far from my common fare. I’m not a general consumer of whodunnits and police/medical procedurals, though I’ve read most of the Agatha Christies in my time. I came to read Ruso not through its whoddunit aspect, but through its connection to the Roman legions.

What I discovered was that the first Ruso novel is far from a tense, dry, fuddling story. It is more the story of the medicus, Ruso, the events that surround him, and the array of interesting and bizarre folk that serve alongside. The plot at times seemed almost incidental to the general interaction of character and the colour of the ancient Britain Ruth takes us through, though that detracted nothing from the book I must say. In fact, I found it enchanting. That the sheer vivacious colour of the book was so enthralling that the plot for me took second place is utterly impressive for a writer, especially on a debut. From the very beginning I was absorbed.

The whole tale is told with a constant, quirky humour that serves to make the whole situation and background more human. Indeed, it is the very humour that defines much of the protagonist’s character. I have, since I read this book, talked to many people who bemoan the overwhelming seriousness of historical fiction and it is surprising how often Ruso is cited as a shining gem of light heartedness in the genre.

And yet, despite the fact that I have, here concentrated on the subtle, clever humour throughout and the colour and depth of feeling of the novel, there is a solid plot here and, moreover, a huge wealth of knowledge. Ruth, I know, is an archaeologist and, having had the opportunity to speak to her a number of times, I am well aware of the impressive level of knowledge that has gone into this book.

Buy Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls/Medicus and read it. You will not regret it. It is a wonderful book. And so on to book 2…

RUSO AND THE DEMENTED DOCTOR/TERRA INCOGNITA

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Ruso book 2 moves us on in the story nicely. Now that we have been introduced to the characters of Ruso and Tilla (his former slave-cum-housekeeper), as well as a fascinating supporting cast, we are to be introduced more to the world of Roman Britain. For in book two we leave the comfortable familiarity of the Deva fortress and march north to the edge of the Roman world, to Coria (modern Corbridge near Hadrian’s Wall).

The change gives us not only the chance to explore more of Ruso’s Britannia, but also to explore more of Tilla’s history. For in the wild north, on the periphery of Roman control, live Tilla’s tribe. And as the intrepid medicus heads towards his destination, the tribes are stirring and an embodiment of their gods – a warrior with antlers who seems ethereal and unreal – so Tilla is about to find her loyalties tested, between her connection to her Roman employer and her estranged family.

And in Coria, awaiting Ruso is news of a murder victim, several obstructive officers, a barking mad unit doctor, rebels, liars, wastrels and so much more. This is more than just a trip to the north.

The feel of this story for me was quite different from the first. The same quirky humour was still there, but now that and the character colour had begun to take second place to the plot. The general feel was also darker and creepier, while maintaining the pace and intrigue. Certainly the book was a worthy successor and deserves praise of the highest order. Again, a masterwork of investigative thriller against a background of lighthearted yet realistic history.

Ruth Downie continues to impress. A review of book 3 will follow soon.

Written by SJAT

July 23, 2015 at 8:00 am