This book is set in the fictional prison–says the author’s note–of Wentworth in England, a cross between Pentonville and Wandsworth. It’s an unfortunaThis book is set in the fictional prison–says the author’s note–of Wentworth in England, a cross between Pentonville and Wandsworth. It’s an unfortunate name as I immediately thought of Wentworth prison from “Prisoner Cell Block H” the Australian show about women prisoners!
However, as long as you aren’t as stupid as me, this won’t even occur to you. It’s clear the author has done their research, as the descriptions of the prison and the yard are pin sharp and detailed. I wouldn’t be surprised if they have a floor by floor plan pinned up somewhere.
The unfortunate first impression that this book gave me was that it hinged on one of the biggest tropes and personal squicks of mine, that of prison rape, and of Rape Turns to Love. I can work around it and suspend my disbelief usually, but the main trouble with this is that at 102 pages, there’s not enough space to have the characters turn around in their feelings. Yes, they do, but it’s too quick and in the case of Joey (the victim) rather unbelievable in light of what he’d been thinking up to that point. One minute it’s all “I’ll never forgive him, I’d rather die” and then the next minute he’s sucking dick like he was born to it. In Gabriel’s case it’s hinted as to why he pulled back from raping Joey every night, but again, this simply isn’t explored in enough depth to help the reader get over the fact that it’s an unpleasant trope. The fact that both men were aggresively heterosexual before entering prison adds weight to their love affair being far too quick.
HOWEVER, that being said, and once we get past this point the book is well-written and absorbing. I was drawn into the prison life, the claustrophobic feeling of never, ever being unobserved, even when you paid people to turn a blind eye. The petty injustices of the screws, the way that even with Gabriel protecting Joey he’s only as safe as the next five minutes (although this sense of peril did descrease as time went on) and the sadness of thinking of men incarcerated for decades, knowing no other home, growing old, remembering a world that no longer existed and dying there because there’s no way they’d be able to be released into 1936 when they’d been sentenced in 1888.
I have to say that I really warmed to their relationship, but I simply could not see any light at the end of their tunnels. Gabriel was sentenced to life, and Joey for 18 years. Even if they had stayed together for 18 years there could be no HEA for them. So be warned, there is no HEA, this is a love story, but absolutely not a romance.
Due to the almost entirely internal aspect of the prison life, there’s very little historical context other than the outbreak of WW2 (the book starts in 1936) so Reid doesn’t have to worry too much about historical detail, but what there is seems pretty good. The only thing that did amuse me was the campaign to ban “slopping out” (the routine of having a bucket in the cells, rather than a flushing toilet, and having to dispose of that bucket in the morning.) The reason I found it amusing is that even today, some prisons in Britain still do this despite the process having allegedly “been abolished” as late as 2004.
I know I say this often about novellas, but I think I’m justified with this, this book really really needed the extra space to develop. Not only would the coming together of Joey and Gabriel have been improved, but there’s so much else that had a lot of potential but didn’t get the space to fly. There are myriad other prisoners, as would be expected, and I would have loved to have seen more of the daily politics with–particularly as this isn’t a genre romance–little subplots to enjoy.
But this is–as far as I know–S.A. Reid’s first published gay historical, so I can live with it. The writing is impressive, the voices strong and the plot, while not given enough space to grow, is good enough. I think Reid has a real future in the genre and I look forward to their next book....more
This is the follow up to "Willing Flesh" which we reviewed on Speak Its Name a while back. It's taken me a disgustingly long time to get around to rea This is the follow up to "Willing Flesh" which we reviewed on Speak Its Name a while back. It's taken me a disgustingly long time to get around to reading and reviewing the sequel and for that I apologise.
What I like about these two books (and I hope that there will be many more of them) is that they started out as rewrites of her two Inspector Devlin novels but instead of being faithful copies, they have been re-written to make them only vaguely reminiscent of their ancestry. If you've read book two of Devlin I think I can safely say that you will be happy about the denouement of Rag and Bone...
What I admire about J.S. Cook's work is the sense of the grotesque--in a very good way. She takes a blending of Dickens, a touch of King, a taste of Peake and blends it all in in her own inimitable style. I absolutely adore her character description. It's not overdone in a Noir style, but she manages to give us an absolute certain description with a few deft sentences.
Raft was sitting is Sir Newton Babcock's office, gazing at the floor and constructing patterns out of the carpet's tortuous motif while the police commissioner wallowed up and down, looking very like a rhinoceros forcing its way through thick river mud.
What stops the book getting a five star from me is that fact that I wish JS Cook would trust her own talent and would create truly original characters as I know she is capable of doing. There's too much Renfield in Rennie the lunatic, too much Holmes and Hare in Hoare, too much Dracula in "The Master" and so on and so on. Raft--who I believe JSC was modelling on David Tennant--develops a 3rd heartbeat and while I know all of these details could simply be labelled as an admiring nod to characters that JSC admires, for me it was irritating and kept dragging it back towards fanfic, and the book deserves much better than that. Perhaps thought it's just I have too much inside knowledge and other readers wouldn't even notice.
The editing leaves something to be desired, too - misused homonyms were picked up here and there manner born/manor born, reign/rein and the like and it needed a harsh eye looking over the plot, as things happened which hadn't had any set-up, and some elements seemed rush, pasted on and in the end weren't really explained to my satisfaction. However it's hoped there will be more of the series, so explanations may come later.
However, some authors with less talent would have a whole point taken off for these problems, J.S. Cook only loses half a point because of her consummate skill in her writing as a whole.
What shows clearly is Cook's research. I know that she does much of her forensic research at home, making fake skulls, filling them with fake blood and then shattering them to study blood spatter--and other such home pursuits! I've said it before and I'll say it again, it's almost impossible to imagine that she's not only not as English as Miss Marple, but lives in a remote location on another continent. The way she covers police procedure and the forensic knowledge of the time rings very true. If I had one quibble it's about her dialogue for some of the characters. At the beginning of the book two children are talking, children from the Whitechapel area, completely poor and uneducated. Their speech patterns are off, sadly--one of the children actually says "There aren't any more" rather than "There ain't none." The dialogue of the children is very wobbly, careering from east end dialect and back again. A good English beta-ing would have been sensible, but then perhaps only English people would spot it.
The ending is not your typical romance ending, but then these books aren't romances - they are crime drama, and while the horror that happens in the earlier incarnation of this book doesn't happen, JS Cook doesn't let her protagonists off lightly and the ending left me heartbroken in a good way and on tenterhooks for book three of the series.
You can read this as a stand-alone, despite it being part of a series, it works fine as it is, but I urge you to try out Willing Flesh first--if you are a fan of Victorian crime drama you can't help but be impressed by Rag and Bone....more