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Trades of the Flesh by Faye L Booth

I read Trades of the Flesh in about two hours, speeding through it, and I think I've spent about double that time figuring out how to review it! Apart from anything else, it's taken me well over an hour to settle on a genre (and I reserve the right to change that by the end of the review, although if I do I guess I could just delete this part…)

Trades of the Flesh by Faye L Booth

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Robert James
Reviewed by Robert James
Summary: A surgeon and a prostitute in Victorian times meet, make pornography, and steal a corpse together. They're both far more appealing characters than they have any right to be, and I think you'll enjoy reading about them.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: September 2009
Publisher: Macmillan New Writing
ISBN: 978-0230743410

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The front cover; a view of the back of a model dressed in a corset, suggests erotica. The blurb on the back talks about the perils of the lead character's job as a prostitute becoming clearer by the day, which made me think it was going to be crime fiction. And it's set in 1888, so you could presumably class it as historical fiction. But while there's sex and crime involved, and it's against a Victorian setting, it's the romance that ends up shining through – although this certainly isn't standard 'boy meets girl, they fall in love' romance.

Rather, it's 'boy meets girl, pays to take naked photographs of her, persuades her to help him with some body snatching, and the relationship gets more complicated than that' romance.

Yes, that's right. The romantic hero is a surgeon. His other activities of pornography and corpse stealing are presumably less frequently found in male protagonists, but he's a thoroughly likeable chap despite this behaviour. It's the immensely engaging nature of both hero Henry Shadwell and heroine Lydia Ketch that make the book work so well. The start of the book sees Lydia's dying mother practically order her to go onto the streets to support her younger sister, and we then jump forward about a year, with Lydia established in an 'introduction house' and her sister, having worked there as a maid, getting the chance to become a governess to a quality family.

At about the same time, Lydia meets the idealistic surgeon Henry, who is giving a free education to barbers and apothecaries, and they begin to spend time together, as he recruits her to pose for pornographic pictures, originally to the delight of brothel keeper Kathleen Tanner, who grows less pleased with the idea.

The plot isn't brilliant, if I'm honest. There are several events which seem to be crying out to be developed more. The writing is adequate, but nothing exceptional. However, the one thing that stands out for me when looking back on the book is that I devoured it extremely quickly, and it held my interest completely from start to finish. Booth's characters are really well-rounded and I'm already looking for her first book, Cover The Mirrors, and will keep an eye out for anything she releases in the future.

A word about the sex, by the way - while the scenes aren't particularly explicit, there are several instances of extremely vulgar terms for parts of the female body being used. I'd imagine they're not likely to shock anyone who reads a book with this premise, but I thought I'd mention it just in case.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

For slightly more explicit sexy stuff, but in the twenty-first century, I'd go for The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl by Belle de Jour. Set in a slightly earlier period than Trades of the Flesh I can also recommend Kill-Grief by Caroline Rance or The Journal of Dora Damage by Belinda Starling, but these don't have the same erotic overtones.

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