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on 6 August 2012
I can't fault Lynn Shepherd's elegant literary style, or the consummate research that has gone into this book; her passion for Dickens, Wilkie Collins, mid-Victorian London, the Sir John Soane house etc. shines through every page. And yet by the end of the book, I felt really rather irritated by all the pastiche and the deliberate use of characters, created by Dickens in 'Bleak House' (Mr Tulkinghorn, Inspector Bucket etc.), and Wilkie Collins in 'The Woman in White' and above all, I felt dubious about the way so many incidents and motifs have been borrowed from elsewhere. Of course, this is Lynn Shepherd's method and some readers will love the clever twists on the familiar (Jack the Ripper, for example) and will enjoy spotting the references but by the end, I'd had more than enough. In fact, the last page of the book left me feeling deeply annoyed! Just when you thinks it's all over, a real life person is lobbed in! I suppose this genre, seen by some as homage and as parasitism by others, doesn't appeal to me, or at any rate, it didn't work for me here. I do love 20th/21st century 'Vic. Lit.', but I prefer books where the author has created his/her own characters -for example, Sarah Waters in 'Fingersmith' or Michel Faber in 'The Crimson Petal and the White'.

Such a pity---Charles Maddox was an engaging character and I'd have liked to have known more about Molly. I'd have much preferred it if these characters had been allowed to live and breathe outside of the Dickensian framework.
A good book, but ultimately, the use Lynn Shepherd made of the characters Dickens created wasn't to my taste and I have considerable doubt as to whether books of this kind are a legitimate form of homage. I suspect someone who hasn't read 'Bleak House' will enjoy it more than someone who has!
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on 13 March 2012
I'm going to start by saying I haven't read Dickens' Bleak House (although for those of you interested, it does have it's own Wikipedia page where the synopsis, plot and characters can be found). For me, Tom-All-Alone's is a stand-alone read with no comparisons.

The story opens on a graveyard where our detective, Charles Maddox, has been called by the police force in case the recently buried body may help him towards solving his one unsolvable case. The description of Charles meeting them at the unofficial burial site leaves you in no doubt that this is not going to be a light and fluffy read!

We follow Charles on his investigations, through Victorian London, with a third person narrative. The writing style is fitting for the time it is set although there are allusions to modern-day conveniences (ie; a comparison to a light being switched on with references that this is in the future) so we infer that it is a modern day narrator. As the story progresses we find out that Charles has his own personal reasons for taking on his first case.

Charles is laid back and he has no arrogance with the skills that seem to come naturally to him. At times appearing self-assured and obstinate, it was good to also see him floundering out of his depth (the first time that comes to mind is in the Tanneries in Bermondsey).

Holding his great uncle in such deep respect, it was heartbreaking to watch dementia taking over his life and Charles' response. My favourite scene is with the two of them discussing the handwritten scraps of paper. This is very cleverly written and for me highlighted the fact that the author has either researched very well or has some experience of dementia.

Running concurrently with this is Hester who has been orphaned and through a guardian, is a resident at Bleak House. This is written in the first person and weaves through the majority of the story in chapters of its own. Hester's experiences at Bleak House seem to hold nothing in common with Charles' investigations, which only led to me wanting to turn those pages to found out where she fitted in.

For me, there was also a personal level of interest invested in reading Tom-All-Alone's. My paternal ancestors had migrated to London 18 years before 1850. I've read through some of Charles Booth's survey into life and labour in London (1886-1903) but this took me back even further and allowed me to briefly step into what life was like. Lynn Shepherd's descriptions show how thoroughly she has researched.

A dark and atmospheric read, with characters that are three-dimensional and a strong main plot with sub-plots, Tom-All-Alone's will hold your attention, submerse you in 1850 London and allow you to make comparisons on how life is today compared to the darkness of this time period.

Thank you to the author for a review copy in exchange for an honest review.
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on 26 January 2013
TOM ALL ALONE'S by Lynn Shepherd conjures up so many vivid images that it is like taking trip back in time to Victorian England ala H.G. Wells time machine. The writing is so descriptive you can almost smell the aromas pouring from the sewage laden streets which are inhabited by their equally filthy residents. Add to this scenario a former policeman turned private detective (Charles Maddox), a less than ethical lawyer named Tulkinghorn, some perverted and unscrupulous "fine gentlemen" who will go to any lengths to conceal their secrets, and a couple of mysteries waiting to be solved and you have the makings of a great read.

While pursuing the case of a missing woman for his one and only client, Charles is hired by lawyer Tulkinghorn to discover the identity of the culprit sending threatening letters to one of his rich patrons. We accompany Charles in his journey down the gas lit streets of London as his investigation turns up more information than he had anticipated and he uncovers a plethora of foul deeds perpetrated on the innocent and unaware. Like a bloodhound on the scent Charles pursues these leads, and death, brutality and bodily harm result.

Relationships are the order of the day in this novel and two play pivotal roles in this story. Charles relationship with his uncle whose appears to be suffering from Alzheimer's, and the bonds described in a separate narrative supplied by a young woman named Hester. The reader knows that all of these items somehow tie the mysterious storylines together but is not exactly sure of the "how, who and why".

While this novel may not appeal to every reader and some of the pronunciation of words employed by the less educated individuals who appear here and there in the story may be difficult to discern, overall this book is a real treat. If you are a lover of the works of Charles Dickens, this book delivers an atmospheric adventure that will be right up your alley.

PLEASE NOTE: This book is also published under the title The Solitary House
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I'm one of the minority of readers who didn't like Shepherd's Murder at Mansfield Park so was reluctant to read this when it came up in our book group: in some ways it's better than the first book (not quite so silly), but still, ultimately, a rather pointless literary exercise.

Taking Bleak House(probably my favourite Dickens novel) and The Woman in White, this melds narratives, plot-points and characters to create a different story, but one which has become all too familiar in modern Victoriana revolving around sex, madness, repression, perversity, power, and the ubiquitous asylums and brothels. For good measure, Shepherd then adds in Jack the Ripper to really up the potboiler stakes.

Shepherd's skills lie in catching the tone and register of her source authors: here she negotiates between Dickens' omniscient narrator and Hester's narrative - but while she captures the voices, her own book frequently wanders along aimlessly with a loose and baggy plot insecurely hitched to Dickens and Collins. There is much scene-setting and Victorian vignettes but I was never truly gripped by this book.

I really like the idea of what Shepherd is doing, but neither of her books has worked for me - I wish I'd spent the time re-reading the superlative Bleak House instead.
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on 19 March 2012
This is a good idea that doesn't quite come off. Using characters from both "Bleak House" and "The Woman in White", the author attempts to fashion a detective story that runs alongside the two classic novels - that is, she is not writing a sequel or a "prequel" but inserting her novel into the same time frame as the two novels she is attempting to emulate.Like the new Sherlock Holmes novel "The House of Silk", she deliberately uses themes that would never have been considered in Victorian times - this is fine but the overall impression is of a muddle. Maybe she is attempting to put too much in- such as the Jack the Ripper suggestion - certainly her display of her own knowledge is not always welcome and the contemporary asides are just an intrusion. Considering that Charles Maddox is supposed to be a great detective there is an awful lot that he misses or only latches on to when it is too late!
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TOP 50 REVIEWERon 28 March 2012
Being familiar with Bleak House, I approached the book with some trepidation (would it be disappointing precisely because of its links with Bleak House) and with some anticipation (would the wonderful Bleak House story be reflected in some measure in this story).

I am left with two quite strong opinions about this book. One, is that it is a shame that it is so inextricably linked with Charles Dickens' Bleak House, as anyone who is not familiar with that book will have difficulty picking up some of the nuances in the story here presented - some of the characters that are seen in passing, some of the literary devices used by the storytellers.

Two, is that it would have stood well as a Victorian murder mystery on its own, without having been so linked with Bleak House. Change some of the character's names, remove some of the literary tricks used by the author in tying it to Bleak House, and it would have been a good standalone Victorian myster that would have been more accessible to more readers.

I found the author's use of trying to draw the reader into a rather voyeuristic viewpoint of the action e.g. "We are beginning to form a picture of this young man, but before you smile indulgently at the hopeless clutter, and dismiss him as a mere dilettante, remember that this is the age of the gifted amateur. Remember too, that in 1850 it is still possible - just - for an intelligent man to span the sciences ...". This both detracted from the flow of the story (which is after all set in Victorian England, not now), and distracted the reader, I found.

All that aside, the writing is well paced, the characters are three-dimensional, and it's just unfortunate overall that much of their characterisations of the Bleak House characters are drawn from another author's writing.

I keep going back and forth on a final opinion of this book - I think it was good, not great; and I'd probably be more inclined to re-read Bleak House than this story. Having said that, I'd happily read more of this author's works, as they are well written (apart from my misgivings above) and engaging.
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on 11 November 2014
Tom-All-Alone's can be read without ever having familiarised yourself with Bleak House. However if you have read it, I would suggest that you sit back and enjoy reading a story by an author who is clearly inspired and motivated by Dickens, passionate about the general subject matter and - most importantly - is able to write in a way that both entertains and informs. Some reviewers have commented to the effect that Shepherd has done an injustice to Dickens and Bleak House, but I don't feel this is the case or her intention.

I concur with reviews that found the character of Charles Maddox a bit shambling at times, or a bit clueless for a detective, but actually that's what I like about him. There's certain realism there; I can picture him completely through Shepherds endearing portrayal, and what sets him apart is his dogged determination, the poignancy of his own back story and his affable, twinkly disposition. He's an agreeable sort of character and I'm not surprised that other readers have commented that they would read further Charles Maddox novels.

I felt completely immersed in the setting (my stomach went over at some of Shepherd's vivid and detailed description) and I was able to easily visualise various characters and their interaction with one another. No matter what the original inspiration, the characterisation has all the right ingredients for the period and genre and dialects are written competently. In terms of the narrator's voice, I enjoyed this refreshing, all-seeing view that looks back in time from another place. I can understand some readers found this device tricky to settle with, but for me it really made a change from the same old stance. Plot-wise there are a couple of possible discrepancies, but that could just be me missing something. I also agree with comments that there are perhaps more in the way of lucky breaks and co-incidences than are credible, but the general intrigue makes up for this.

Over all, Tom-All-Alone's stands up as an engaging piece of writing which in addition draws attention to current issues that still aren't as far away from the Dickensian world as they should be. (As I finished the book, so I switched on the radio only to hear about the latest child-abuse inquiries. Sadly, it seems nothing really changes.)
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on 6 September 2015
Tom-All-Alone's has an interesting premise, being a Victorian murder mystery that interweaves its tale and its characters with those of Dicken's Bleak House and Wilkie Collin's The Woman in White. It's told with Dickensian detail and sensibilities, but with a modern eye to ethics and a modern ability to refer to gritty detail that could not be spelt out in Victorian times. It's central hero is private detective Charles Maddox and it follows his investigation into the sinister lawyer Tulkinghorn and a sordid collection of depraved aristocrats. Sadly Maddox is not particularly wise or skilful, rushing hysterically from one crisis to another- we must await the intervention of a wise Great Uncle or avuncular police inspector to place things in order for us and for Charles.

This is a rather rich soup of some fine Victorian ingredients - Lynn Shepherd obviously loves the period and has done considerable research. But inevitably unless you are similarly enthusiastic you'll miss the great majority of references. For myself, with no knowledge of Bleak House, The Woman in White or either of their authors, it was an unpleasant experience. A bit like being at a party where everyone knows everyone else, and refers with knowing winks to past events, and doesn't bother to fill you in.

So all in all, very well written, with considerable skill, but deeply flawed and left me, well, feeling a little stupid.
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I realise I'm out of step with most other reviewers, but I found this book a major disappointment after the wonderful Murder at Mansfield Park. There is no doubt that Lynn Shepherd writes well and has the ability to conjure up the atmosphere of Victorian London. However I felt that in this book she tried too hard to pack in references to some of the greatest novels of that age and in so doing disrupted the flow of her own plot.

The main reference is of course to Bleak House, but to set oneself up for a comparison to Dickens and then not to include any of the fun and joyousness that lightens the tone of even Dickens' darkest novels seems a strange decision and one that didn't work for me. Again, as she did in Murder at Mansfield Park, Shepherd twists the characters and plot of Bleak House but this time in a way that really grated. In MAMP, she gave us the enjoyable character of Mary to replace those characters she had made unlikeable - in this novel, I found all the characters unlikeable. And the irritating omniscient narrator device, constantly dragging us forward to the present day to look back on Victorian London with an air of smug superiority, became a really annoying distraction as the book wore on.

The first half of the book meandered along without giving us a real idea of what the detective Charles Maddox was trying to investigate - was it the disappearance of his sister, the deaths of the babies in the churchyard, the Tulkinghorn connection? The second half was more focused and she did manage to pull some of the threads together at the end, but still left too much unresolved, presumably as a hook for a follow-up - a follow-up that I'm afraid I will not be avidly awaiting.

I hope that Ms Shepherd will soon allow her own voice to develop and stop relying on attracting the fans of the great fiction of the past. The quality of her writing and plotting (in MAMP at least) shows she has the talent and if she were to create her own world, I suspect it would be a good deal more satisfying than these skewed versions of our much-loved fictional worlds.
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on 20 September 2012
I love the idea of Lynn Shepherd's Tom-All-Alone's which is based on Charles Dickens' Bleak House. It does help to know the Dickens original and that adds extra nuances to the book - including understanding who the murderer is - but the new characters are very strong and their stories add much to the book. It's also interesting seeing Dickens' Inspector Bucket from a different angle. I thought Shepherd's Charles Maddox, a former police officer, now private detective, was a great character and it will be interesting to see him in future books.

There is much to recommend this book and I just wish the frequent comparisons to the more modern world, including the First World War in the 1850s-set book's first paragraph, had been omitted as they undermine the book, forcing the reader out of Victorian London and into more modern times or even the present world which makes for uncomfortable reading - and is the reason this, for me, is a 3* book.

But the writing and plotting is excellent. I recommend reading it - then reading Dickens' Bleak House.
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