The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal

Employed at a doll factory, Iris spends her days yearning for a better life. While her twin sister Rose appears satisfied with the drudgery that marks their days, Iris secretly harbours a desire to become a painter.

One day, she gets invited to model for an artist of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a society of unconventional painters. Given the chance to increase her earning potential and hone her talents, Iris sets forth on a path that is unfamiliar and possibly dangerous.

Read if you like: historical fiction, books set in Victorian London, a vivid writing style, gothic novels, dark & unsettling themes

I cannot believe how long I’ve had my eye on The Doll Factory before I finally picked it up. It was everything and more than what I’d hoped for.

Elizabeth Macneal’s writing is descriptive to the point of being irresistibly vivid. That’s not to say you’ll find just pages full of descriptions. But the words she uses and the way she moulds the language to her vision are nothing short of spellbinding.

I love that the novel is set in 1850s London. From the architecture to the economic landscape of the city, the author imbues the essence of that time period into her story.

Iris’ characterisation is easily one of the highlights of the novel. She symbolises the passion many of us carry, the constant awareness that we are meant for something bigger.

Copyright © 2023 Meera Nair

Her character development isn’t a drastic one because she has been a go-getter from the beginning. So you will not see a drastic personality or mindset change. But it is the circumstances that she is put through and her reactions that form a more conclusive picture of who Iris is.

I would not recommend this book if you are easily upset by difficult topics. There is gore, death, sexual assault, animal cruelty, stalking, and kidnapping that is mentioned in varying degrees of detail.

I was disturbed a couple of times by the way these themes are depicted. But not to the extent that I’d need a moment before I could continue reading.

The Doll Factory has a slow-medium pace with chapters alternating between the perspectives of Iris, Louis (the PRB artist), and Silas (a taxidermist who is obsessed with Iris).

The way the author portrays Silas and the gradual unravelling of his mental stability is at once chilling and fascinating.

With antagonistic characters, it is important to understand their backstory for them to have a substantial role in the book. And I’m glad that the author does go into Silas’ past to talk about instances that have affected him.

Although I would’ve preferred for Iris and Louis’ friendship to have remained so, I can see why she gets smitten with him.

He comes from a different world than her and has been the only one who has actively supported her. All of that can make for a convincing argument, but based on their conversations, I’m not sure how they would fare in a committed romantic relationship.

Throughout the book, one of the themes that is intricately woven into the writing is the wealth disparity in society. I would even say that this is a hard-hitting novel because Macneal doesn’t shy away from displaying the harsh truths that her characters confront daily.

With Silas’ taxidermy and the presence of the doll factory, these imageries go on to add to the vibe of the novel.

I am extremely impressed by The Doll Factory. After finishing the book, I immediately looked up the author’s other works. If you like what you’ve read so far about the novel, I’d highly recommend it! This book deserves a screen adaptation.

Would this be one of my top 10 reads of 2023? Maybe. Let’s see what the rest of my reading year looks like.

But one thing is for sure I will read anything Elizabeth Macneal writes.

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

When the Orient Express is stranded due to a snowdrift and a passenger is found murdered in one of the cabins, the Director of the company tasks Hercule Poirot with solving the mystery before they arrive at their destination.

Read if you like: mystery novels, stories set on train, large cast of characters, isolation trope

I’ve read a few Agatha Christie books so far, and this has to be my second favourite of them all (with And Then There Were None being the best!).

What I liked the most about Murder on the Orient Express is the way the story is structured. It’s almost like the author is inviting the reader to piece the clues together and figure out who the culprit is.

Copyright © 2023 Meera Nair

Each chapter finds Poirot interrogating different passengers in a systematic manner.

Most of the novel is set on the train. I would’ve liked for the snowdrift to have had a bigger impact on the atmosphere in the book. The sense of all of the passengers being stuck in one place isn’t a tangible feeling throughout the story.

Something that you may find different about the plot development in Murder on the Orient Express is that it is unlike typical mystery novels.

Usually, each plot development adds to a specific theory, building on it and enhancing the pace of the storytelling. But here, up until the end, because each interview reveals facts that almost lie side by side, there isn’t much in the way of Poirot pointing out his suspicions.

This is a medium-paced novel. I was engrossed throughout and read most of it in one sitting.

The ending is surprisingly good! It was unpredictable to me and made the novel one of the more memorable Agatha Christie reads.

I’m glad that Murder on the Orient Express is my first read of 2023. Looking forward to watching the film adaptation of the book soon.

The Tiger Throne by Preetha Rajah Kannan

The Chola dynasty is said to be one of the longest dynasties in the world. This Tamilian empire saw a great many victories under the reign of several kings. To retell the story of one such warrior is a feat like no other.

Preetha Rajah Kannan achieves this with the utmost dedication to narrating the legacy of Arulmozhi Varman. The Tiger Throne is a historical fiction that will hold you in its sway from start to finish.

I absolutely love reading Indian historical books. Something about getting to see how the monarchs of the land once lived, the challenges they faced, and the environment in which they were raised – all of it is so intriguing to me.

The Tiger Monarch is a retelling of Shri Kalki Krishnamurthy’s Ponniyin Selvan. If the original text is narrated anything like this tome, I can see why it holds its own in the history of Tamil literature.

Copyright © 2022 Meera Nair

To be frank, Preetha Kannan’s book intimidated me a lot in the beginning. At 650+ pages long, it is quite a time investment.

Moreover, there are a lot of names and details to remember from the beginning. But trust me, with a little patience, the whole reading experience becomes worth it! I gradually found myself flipping past each page with the wide-eyed wonder of a child.

The author’s writing style is dramatic and vibrant, paying just as much attention to the grandiose attires of the palace folk as to the intricacy of their thoughts.

There are instances where you’ll notice that the telling overpowers the showing. I don’t mind it, but with such a large cast of characters and a complex premise, it would’ve been nice for the writing to have been symbolic in a sense at times. That would’ve perhaps helped me connect with a couple of characters.

One of the questions that most readers who hear about this book have is whether it is entirely based on facts.

Considering that it is a historical fiction and not a nonfiction book, one can assume that Kannan has channelled her own creative liberties to narrate events in the way she deemed best.

That shouldn’t take away from your enjoyment of the read. If you like books that are rich in political intrigue, conspiracy, rivalry, and heroism, don’t hesitate to pick up The Tiger Throne.

At any point, there is a lot going on in the novel. So you will definitely not feel bored.

With a story as charged as this, it is almost impossible to focus on only one character throughout. I love that there are many characters who are pivotal to the story arc. And you get to know so much about them merely through the dialogues they are engaged in.

One suggestion I have for you is to savour the story and read it at a moderate pace. That would help you retain more of the plot points. I read it way too fast and wish I hadn’t done so.

On the whole, I enjoyed reading The Tiger Throne and commend the author for the endeavour of retelling a classic Indian literary piece.

What Moves The Dead by T. Kingfisher

Retired soldier, Alex Easton is horrified to find their friends Roderick and Madeline Usher in a state of grave ill health.

The Usher house is surrounded by even stranger sights – spooked-looking hares, glowing substances in the lake, and toxic mushrooms. Determined to save their friends, Alex dives headfirst into the danger that lurks nearby.

Image Courtesy – Goodreads

What Moves The Dead is a gothic retelling of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. I don’t know how it compares to the original text, but the Usher house sets the tone in this novella.

Its monstrous appearance, twisting corridors, creaking floorboards, and spooky crypt are all described vividly. So much so that I can still envision the setting.

I like that the story opens in medias res, introducing us to Alex and jumping right into the plot without any delay. This makes it so much easier for you to get invested in the story, and you know that T. Kingfisher is getting to the heart of the matter directly.

The writing includes some very grotesque imagery. If you’re easily spooked, I would not recommend this book to you.

Alex’s character is opinionated and loyal. Although we don’t get much backstory in terms of their bond with Roderick and Madeline, their actions and thoughts clearly depict how much they mean to them.

There are moments when Alex would make snide remarks about Americans. I wasn’t a fan of that.

I’ve realised that it must be T. Kingfisher’s signature style to have a protagonist who shares a close bond with an animal.

In The Twisted Ones, it was Mouse and her dog, Bongo. Here, it is Alex and his horse, Hob. I don’t think it’s far-fetched to say that Hob does have somewhat of a consistent presence in the novella.

There are a couple of scenes towards the end where Alex and Denton are trying to save someone – those were perfect! If the entirety of the book felt as seamlessly written, I would’ve LOVED this one.

It’s great that the author introduces a different set of pronouns. This adds to the conversation about gender identities, which is always important to foster a sense of inclusivity.

All in all, it was a decent read. I’m mulling over whether T. Kingfisher’s books are for me. Something just seems missing, preventing me from fully enjoying it and giving it that 5/5 rating.

The Villa by Rachel Hawkins

A broken marriage, recovering health, and writer’s block. Emily has known better days. When her best friend of decades, Chess, coaxes her to take a vacation to Italy with her, Emily gives in.

Image Courtesy – Goodreads

Villa Aestas has a dark history and is also the inspiration for one of the best horror novels written. As Emily’s interest grows in the incidents of the past, she discovers just why Chess seems to be hiding something from her.

The Villa is hands down the best book I’ve read by Rachel Hawkins. It is significantly better than Reckless Girls and even packs much more intrigue than The Wife Upstairs.

It has a multi-layered plot that is propelled by Emily’s desire to delve into the mystery of the villa and write a great true-crime novel. I also think she was motivated by Chess’ success, which is depicted in contrast to Emily’s own not-as-glamourous writing career.

So the chapters alternate between:

  • Emily and Chess in Italy
  • Mari, her stepsister Lara and three others staying at the villa in 1974, and a murder takes place
  • Scenes from the horror novel that Mari writes.

As you can see, The Villa is a book full of writers who are writing books. I love that!

Out of the 3-ish storylines woven together, I liked reading the one set in 1974 with the group of friends the most. The dynamics between Mari, Lara, Pierce, Noel, and Johnnie are fraught with tension.

Actually, most of the friendships in this book are burdened by secrets, jealousy, and power struggles. It’s something I’ve noticed before… many of Rachel Hawkins’ works feature toxic relationships.

So, don’t expect to find characters who are entirely likeable. I, for one, could not understand why Emily and Chess considered each other best friends.

I was thoroughly engrossed in this mystery novel because of how the author lays bare their vices and brings out the worst in them to fuel this nefarious story. Plus, the narrative structure is great!

There are many parallels you can draw in the novel. Emily and Mari both seemed to have borne the brunt of not being good judges of character. They’re writers looking for inspiration and find it in external sources. They have been manipulated by people they trusted.

I had a theory about why Emily was unwell, but that didn’t seem to be the case. The explanation we are given wasn’t convincing at all.

I like that Rachel Hawkins uses descriptive writing to paint a picture of Villa Aestas. While the location does add to the ambience of the story, it is the plot that takes the lead.

The ending was unexpected. I have mixed feelings about the way one of the storylines is concluded.

On the whole, The Villa surpassed my expectations. It is absolutely worth the read if you’re looking for a mystery novel set in a foreign country with a cast full of morally grey characters.

Note – I received an ALC of this book from Libro.fm in exchange for an honest review.