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The Book of Fires: A Novel Hardcover – January 21, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Borodale's enjoyable debut is the story of Agnes Trussel, who, in 1752, leaves the poverty-stricken countryside for London, intent on hiding her unwanted pregnancy and making a better life. On her journey, she meets Lettice Talbot, a beautiful young woman who promises to help her, but when Agnes loses track of her benefactress, she ends up as the apprentice to Mr. Blacklock, a moody pyrotechnist who is mourning his dead wife as he attempts to bring color to fireworks. Despite her difficulties with Blacklock's other domestic staff, Agnes grows to feel at home in London and enjoys her work, but she is constantly threatened by the imminent exposure of her pregnancy and haunted by the guilt of her theft of the stash of coins that funded her trip. This menacing mood is Borodale's greatest achievement: from the omnipresent hangings to the economic knife-edge upon which the working class lives, she builds a dark but human world that makes Agnes's plight deeply sympathetic. When the story is neatly tied up with an unexpected resolution to Agnes's problems, it's surprising but not unbelievable, capping off a delightfully diverting book. (Jan.)
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From Booklist

Borodale deftly conjures up mid-eighteenth-century London in her spectacular debut. The premise is a familiar one—pregnant and unwed, an impoverished young county girl sets out for the big city desperately seeking to hide her disgrace—but the story that unfolds is also a fresh and fascinating investigation into the art and the science of pyrotechnics. When fortune lands desperate Agnes Trussel on the doorstep of an embittered fireworks maker, she becomes Mr. J. Blacklock’s apprentice. Teaching her the tricks of his trade, he also works feverishly on an innovative formula to infuse color into fireworks. As her condition becomes increasingly difficult to hide, a world rife with new possibilities seems to dangle just beyond her reach. In addition to her pregnancy, Agnes also harbors another shameful secret that threatens her precarious security and gnaws away at her soul. Readers who loved Jane Eyre will appreciate the atmosphere of tension and foreboding that permeates the narrative. --Margaret Flanagan

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 360 pages
  • Publisher: Viking; 1 edition (January 21, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670021067
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670021062
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.3 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (46 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,610,282 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Ferdy VINE VOICE on December 8, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I was a big fan of "The Year of Wonders" which this book is being compared to. And, I must admit, it is reminiscent of that novel. A young girl finds herself pregnant and alone. Rather than face the shame and end up being forced to marry the lout who raped her, she flees to London with a handful of gold coins stolen from a dead woman. Now that is the way to start a novel.
The narrative is so descriptive that you feel immersed in the scenery of the time and place just as the narrator is.
Once in London, she escapes being a prostitute when she finds a job working with a fireworks maker. She continues to try and keep her secret but, in working together, she begins to trust. In the end, not only her secret is revealed.
If you are a fan of historical fiction, this is a wonderful novel. I think this story is much more optimistic than the reality of this era actually was for women. A naive country girl moving to London alone would most likely have ended up on the streets as a prostitute in order to survive or being kept in a workhouse. It would have been very unusual for a young woman to be hired as an apprentice to work with explosives. But this is a novel and the story line works in this context.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By NyiNya TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on January 21, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Agnes Trussel doesn't have much to look forward to. The She's been raped by a neighborhood thug and worse, she's pregnant as a result. Since the year is 1753,Agnes knows that she'll be beaten by her drunkard father and damned as a whore by the townspeople if word gets out. Her mother can't help, the poor woman is completely wasted by years of churning out one baby after another. When an aged neighbor dies and Agnes stumbles upon her small cache of gold coins, she finds the means to escape and runs off to London. I love books that bring us right into other peoples houses, show us what kind of furnishings they had, tell us about their dress and their food and their habits. The Book of Fires does this and thensome. It's a fascinating window into life in the mid-eighteenth century, from the villages around London to the city itself. London doesn't go easy on naive Agnes, who is nearly forced into prostitution and barely keeps herself out of the poorhouse before finding a trustworthy Londoner who gives her a job in his fireworks factory. London shares the spotlight with Agnes as the book's leading character. We get another amazingly detailed look at the hurly burly, the grit and the grime of the hub of the Empire. As Agnes begins her explosive apprenticeship, she becomes more and more interested in her employer, the enigmatic John Blacklock. Will Agnes' pregnancy be revealed? Will John turn her out into the streets? Can a woman succeed in the fireworks business? And what exactly is John hiding???? Saying more would spoil what turned out to be a good story on several levels. Read it for the glimpse into life in the Surrey countryside and on the teeming streets of London, read it to learn what life was like for women of the period, read it for the adventure and the romance. But do read it. It's a great book that practically begs for a comfortable chair, cup of tea, and warm blankey!
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By "switterbug" Betsey Van Horn TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on December 10, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I am thrifty with my absolutes. However, I must make an exception and celebrate this debut novel by proclaiming this as the most visually stunning, sublime prose I have encountered in any book this year. Every sentence is an ineffable bliss to read. I urge you to experience it the way I did, without too much information beforehand. Be dazzled and bedazzled by this symphony of the senses; the words transcend the story. Rockets will fire from all your synapses. Dinner may burn.

The story's premise, which takes place in 1751, is solid but does not break new ground in literature, although the element of fireworks and their meticulous craft adds a fresh and novel spark. Agnes Trussel, 17, and in dire straits for a woman of her time, runs off from her rural Sussex countryside and farmer family to escape to London. There she is employed by the brooding, enigmatic pyrotechnist, J. Blacklock, and becomes his apprentice. She is a quick study of powders, pigments, and combustibles; she learns to load pastilles, gerbes, Bengal lights, and numerous other explosive projectiles. Agnes is an anachronism, which fuels the narrative and makes her a potent protagonist. The story sizzles and bursts with a seamy cast of characters--dandies; scullery maids; creepy men with rotten teeth; prostitutes; merchants of every class; a mute; and other baroque personalities. And although the author illuminates this era vividly, it isn't satire or burlesque. It isn't a bodice-ripper. And there is not a lot of irony, either. Yet it is not melodrama, or bawdily theatrical. It is a well-plotted arc that builds to its conclusion without a lot of fireworks--just the genuine kind.

What elevated me while keeping me rooted to the pages were the flawless, contoured passages.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Tracy Rowan TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on December 15, 2009
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Agnes Trussel is a surprisingly innocent young woman for having grown up in the country with parents who produce new offspring nearly every year. She is half seduced, half raped by the village bully, and when she discovers that he has made her pregnant she considers her options and, given heart by an unexpected windfall, chooses to leave home and travel to London rather than be forced into marrying her child's father. She finds herself at the door of a maker of fireworks, begging for the job of housekeeper, but hired on as his assistant instead. And from that moment, a world of new ideas is opened to her.

If I have one quibble with the book it's that Agnes is a bit too wonderful -- she exists on the thin, sharp edge of being a Mary Sue -- a beautiful young woman who doesn't realize she's beautiful, who is smart and resourceful, and who has a mot juste for every occasion. Borodale does manage to balance these qualities with some interesting flaws, including a stunning emotional obtuseness. And yet in spite of both her flaws and her good qualities, Agnes is interesting enough as a character to carry the story. However, for me, the most interesting character of the lot is John Blacklock, who in many ways remains a mystery, even to Agnes. His emotional life becomes clearer and deeper as the story progresses, and yet we can never quite come to know him. He is, like his fireworks, a flame that burns brilliantly but all-too-quickly. And as he says of the pyrotechnics themselves, the silence they carry within them is their true beauty.

Both Agnes and John are working to bring something new into the world. This is the story of how they each go about their work, together and yet always in the end, isolated from the rest of the world and even from each other.
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