All That Remains: Sue Black

★★★★

A Life in Death

Death. It isn’t something that any of us like to think about, is it? However, the one certainty of being alive is that, one day, we won’t be. The funny thing is that nowadays, with all the medical and clinical advances of the modern world, we’re more divorced from death than we have ever been; and we fear it more than ever before. I’m in my early thirties and the only dead bodies I’ve ever seen are in museums. I have never been with one of my relatives when they’ve died, nor visited them in a chapel of rest (the result of living a long way away from the rest of my family). And I feel that something is missing, somehow. Not that I want to be ghoulish, but I do want to understand what and how things change at that final threshold. Hence the attraction of this book, written by Sue Black, an anatomist and forensic anthropologist at Dundee University. Black combines dazzling distinctions (she’s a Professor and a Dame) with refreshing down-to-earth Scots candour, and her remarkable book is part memoir, part treatise on death.

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Queen’s Gambit: Elizabeth Fremantle

★★★★

I read Elizabeth Fremantle’s Girl in the Glass Tower two years ago and, ever since, I’ve meant to get round to her other Tudor novels. While Glass Tower focused on Arbella Stuart and Aemilia Lanyer, Queen’s Gambit is set considerably earlier, at the very end of Henry VIII’s reign. Obese, unpredictable and narcissistic, the king rules over a nervous court employed in the unpredictable task of catering to his favour. He has just executed his fifth wife, the giddy and silly Catherine Howard, and the great families of the realm are hopefully pressing their nubile daughters under his nose. But Henry has had enough of young women. His eyes have turned to maturity and good sense: the twice-widowed Katherine Lanyer, born Katherine Parr. Katherine is bright, gentle and wise: wise enough to want nothing less than to become queen. But, when the King calls, he must be answered; and soon Katherine finds herself at the heart of the Tudor web, ministering to a man whose precarious favour can disappear in a flash. Thoughtful and well-crafted, this novel brings the claustrophobia of the late Henrician court to life.

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A Good School: Richard Yates

★★★½

This is the first novel I’ve read by Richard Yates, although Revolutionary Road has been on my TBR list ever since the film (which I haven’t actually seen) came out. I wasn’t sure what to expect beyond a vague sense of classic American sensibilities being placed under the microscope. In a sense, this semi-autobiographical novel was an easy way in, playing to my interest in school stories, as it follows the young William Grove through two years at the isolated Dorset Academy in Connecticut. Around Grove’s story swirls those of the other boys and the masters at this odd, struggling school; while Pearl Harbour looms on the horizon, and war threatens to change the Dorset boys forever.

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Wrong About Japan: Peter Carey

★★½

This book caught my eye a while ago, not long after my return from Japan, because I hoped it would tell me a bit more about the country’s lively manga and anime culture. Only now have I got round to reading it (as lighter fare alongside the first five books of Livy’s History of Rome) and I’ve been left feeling rather perplexed. What is it actually meant to be? Part memoir, part travelogue, part pop-culture history, part social analysis, it skips between different guises without ever really settling on one, or fulfilling any. Strangely unsatisfying, it’s perhaps best described as a father-son road movie, in which Carey and his manga-obsessed twelve-year-old son Charley fly to Japan in search of the truth behind this international art phenomenon.

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Nefertiti: Joyce Tyldesley

★★★★

Unlocking the Mystery surrounding Egypt’s Most Famous and Beautiful Queen

Writing about icons is a difficult business. Even biographers of modern stars like Marilyn Monroe or Elvis Presley must wade through a morass of secrets, theories and fantasies. How much more difficult to choose a subject who lived 3,500 years ago, who emerged from nowhere, disappeared back into obscurity, and whose brief, glittering existence has been the subject of fierce iconoclasm! Thanks to the glorious portrait bust in Berlin (see below), Nefertiti is one of the most recognisable figures from Ancient Egypt, but the facts of her life remain tantalisingly elusive. As Joyce Tyldesley teases out the meaning of symbols, inscriptions and sculpted reliefs, Nefertiti’s lost world blossoms into life, in an archaeological story that reads like a detective novel. This is a tale of religious revolution, intrigue, iconoclasm, romance, and mysterious, powerful women. What’s not to like?

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Three-Martini Lunch: Suzanne Rindell

★★★★

It’s 1958 in New York and change is in the air. In the shabby streets of Greenwich Village, hipsters listen to jazz, argue about politics, experiment with performance art and dream of changing the world. Into this feverish place come three young people, seeking lives that’ll allow them to become their true inner selves. Privileged Cliff Nelson is running away from a life of upper-class bourgeoisie, confident of astonishing the world with the brilliant novels he’ll produce. Eden Katz comes east from Indiana, dreaming of being an editor in a publishing industry which has little place for women. And Miles Tillman tries to find a world that accepts all his facets, as a young black man from Harlem with a top-flight education and a passion for words. By the end of the story, these three young lives will have intertwined in a compelling story of love, ambition, tragedy and betrayal.

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Merry Christmas!

Palma: Madonna and Child

Christmas has crept up on me this year. As you’ll be able to tell from my recent silence, I’ve been very busy for the last few months and haven’t even been able to read that many books. My adventurous year finished in grand style with a trip to glorious (and very cold!) St Petersburg last week, during which I spent most of my time either exploring the Hermitage in starry-eyed fashion, scurrying around in -10°C temperatures, or tucking into really excellent Georgian food. Now I’m back in the country with my parents, gearing up for a nice quiet Christmas full of good food, games and festive TV. This is my chance, as usual, to thank you all for continuing to read the blog and a big Christmassy hug for those of you who comment, engage and recommend new things. So I wish you all a very happy holiday, however you choose to spend it, full of fun and relaxation, and a New Year full of health, happiness and success.

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Lock In: John Scalzi

★★★★

Yesterday was my last free day before the New Year, so I indulged myself with a book binge, having been to the library on Saturday. John Scalzi’s novel is already tipped as being a modern sci-fi classic, its central concept all too plausible for an alarmingly near future. Set in a world some fifteen years in the future, it shows us the aftermath of Haden’s Syndrome, a global flu-like epidemic, which leaves many of its sufferers ‘locked in’ to their bodies. Thanks to a rapid advance in science, these ‘Hadens’ are able to access and interact with the world through specially-implanted neural pathways which allow them to control mechanised bodies, or ‘threeps’ (named for C-3PO). One such Haden is Chris Shane, the only child of a wealthy would-be senator, who contracted the disease as an infant and has spent his life as the poster-boy for an increasingly powerful lobby group. But now he wants to escape his privilege and give something back, working as an FBI agent. It’s just sod’s law that his first day on the job coincides with a murder case that looks set to upend everything he knows. Part sci-fi, part FBI gumshoe procedural, this is a ridiculously gripping book stuffed with incredible ideas.

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A Change of Time: Ida Jessen

★★★★½

You must forgive the recent erratic posting. Life has been getting in the way, with lectures and work trips flying at me from all directions, plus some very pleasant socialising. Besides, WordPress have just introduced a new editor which isn’t quite as intuitive as I’d like. But never mind. I’m bumbling on as best I can, and have just finished reading a really gorgeous little book: A Change of Time by the Danish author Ida Jessen. Through her diary, a widowed school-teacher in early 20th-century Denmark remembers her late husband and uses her loneliness as a spur to revisit her life and, slowly, anxiously, recover her sense of self. For once, cover and book coexist beautifully: Jessen’s novel is like a Hammershøi in prose: a haunting, timeless, intimate exploration of loss, rendered by the translator Martin Aitken into elegantly spare English. Although the book won’t be published until March, I just had to write about it now, before the feeling of it fades; and it’s deeply suited to these long, dark winter evenings. A little jewel.

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Deposed: David Barbaree

★★★½

A remote prison in the scrubland outside Rome, 68 AD. The kind of place that you’re sent when the world wants to forget that you even exist. One afternoon, as young Marcus runs errands at the jail, he sees a new prisoner brought in. A man who has been blinded and brutalised, whom the guards treat with scorn as they leave, who has been brought here to be forgotten. A man named Nero. Eleven years later, Rome has settled into the rule of Vespasian, though the struggles of rival would-be emperors are fresh enough to make life difficult for his son Titus, who has taken charge of keeping the peace. Old factions die hard in Rome. And then, one day, news comes of a new arrival in the city. A senator from distant Spain, unknown to anyone. A blind man, with a young man named Marcus at his side, who has come with a great fortune to play his part in Rome’s future.

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