The Doll Factory

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth MacNeal

In this novel, a pair of twin unhappily work in a doll shop and  a collector of rare specimens, Silas, takes interest in one of them. Iris also fall under the gaze of a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of painters hoping to take Victorian London by storm.

The drudgery of Iris’ work is palpable. What she wants more than anything is to become an artist. Louis, a member of the Brotherhood, offers her a chance of a lifetime. He tells Iris,

“I can teach you how to use oils, and perhaps next year you can enter a canvas into the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.”

The offer, however, is contingent upon her becoming a model for him. He promises to also teach her to paint–something that Iris has longed for all her life. 

Her family disowns her after she becomes Louis’ model. They feel its unbecoming of a woman to live alone and work as an artists model. This leaves her more vulnerable to the local psychopath, Silas. 

MacNeal skillfully creates this character by first hiding his flaws. Silas originally appears as just another impassioned artist, except in his case he is interested in curiosities. He preserves dead animals and skeletons, butterflies, and other odd assortments.

Oddly enough, several women associated with Silas go missing–Flick, Bluebell, and now Iris. 

The novel skillfully draws readers into the Victorian world. Readers care about the plight of the protagonists–Louis who has gotten himself in a quandary–and Iris who desperately wants to be free to paint. Like the queen in Louis’ painting, Iris finds herself figuratively and literally imprisoned. 

In writing that rivals the best suspense novel, MacNeal takes readers into the mind of a serial killer and a desperate woman’s fight for freedom. 

The Black-Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin

Years after a horrific crime, Tessie, the only survivor in the “Black-eyed Susan” murders steps forward. She is beginning to doubt that the right person has been convicted for the heinous crime.

Tessie was nearly killed and blinded by a “monster.” After the  horrific attack, Tessie suffers memory loss and psychological blindess–a conversion disorder.

Heaberlin unveils the chilling story in back and forth chapters that contrasts events near the time of the crime with its aftershock seventeen years later.

If Tessie does not change her testimony, an innocent man could face the death penalty. Tessie, however, is reluctant to delve into her past. After all, she has her own daughter to protect from the media’s harsh glare.

Adding to the tension is the fact that Tessie thinks she is going insane.

Immediately after the crime she begins to hear the voices of the other Susans in her head. The grown-up Tessie thinks her monster has been planting batches of blacked-eyed susans to traumatize her.

The twist at the end packs a wallop. Heaberlin’s latest is for fans of Gillian Flynn, Paula Hawkins and Brunonia Barry.