The Left Hand of God: Paul Hoffman

★★★½

The Left Hand of God Trilogy: Book 1

Thomas Cale is sixteen years old and has spent virtually all his life as an acolyte of the Redeemers at the forbidding Sanctuary of Slotover. Brutalised, radicalised and raised to place the True Faith before everything else, Cale is just one of hundreds, thousands, of boys being trained as soldiers to fight the Antagonists on the Eastern Front. In the labyrinthine corridors of Slotover, it pays to blend in, to conform, never to do the unexpected – but Cale is an exception. Groomed by the Lord Militant Redeemer Bosco, Cale has been raised not only to be a fearsome killer but also an excellent strategist. Yet these strategies can be placed at his own service just as much as that of the True Faith and, when this protege mounts a daring escape from Slotover, Bosco is determined to get him back. Inadvertently, Cale is on the edge of plunging the world into war.

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A Breath of French Air: H.E. Bates

★★★

The Larkin Family: Book 2

All might be radiant and perfick in the Kent countryside, but everyone needs a holiday now and again. With Mariette wilting under low spirits, and Ma growing weary of her newborn Oscar’s incessant demands for milk, Pa lets himself be convinced that they could really do with a trip to France. It does require persuasion, of course, because Pa finds it hard to believe that anywhere could be more lovely than home – but the one thing he loves more than home is his family, and he’s willing to do anything to make them happy. Encouraged by the enthusiastic Charley – who spent summers in Brittany as a child – Pa begins to pick up a few useful phrases of French, and the whole Larkin family piles into the Rolls and sets off for a spot of continental leisure.

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Jolly Foul Play: Robin Stevens

★★★★

A Murder Most Unladylike Mystery: Book 4

Hazel Wong and Daisy Wells have returned from their eventful summer holiday on board the Orient Express and it’s time for another school year at Deepdean. However, if our doughty detectives were hoping for a bit of a break from intrigue, they’re to be disappointed. When the school’s widely-loathed Head Girl drops dead during a fireworks display, murder is swiftly diagnosed, via the discovery of a bloodied hockey stick. Plenty of people have a motive to murder Elizabeth Hurst, who has been making everyone’s lives miserable, but who could possibly have had the opportunity? And who could have made it past the Five, Elizabeth’s eternal companions? Unfortunately the school’s trials are only just beginning and, to make matters worse, there is unrest at the heart of the Detective Society itself, as Daisy and Hazel’s friendship faces its greatest test yet.

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A Light of Her Own: Carrie Callaghan

★★½

In 1633, a young woman came before the Guild of St Luke in Haarlem, asking to be admitted as a master painter. She was Judith Leyster, a painter of domestic scenes and merry companies, and her acceptance into the Guild made her the first woman to be given such an honour. Carrie Callaghan uses the limited documentary evidence for Leyster’s life and career as the basis for this novel, which follows the ambitious young artist from her days as an apprentice in her master’s attic to her struggles to establish herself in an unwelcoming, male-dominated field. Joining other books set in the Dutch Golden Age, such as Girl with a Pearl EarringTulip FeverThe Miniaturist and Midnight Blue, it offers a glimpse of Dutch art in its most celebrated period – although I felt that this novel (unlike Leyster herself) didn’t live up to its own ambitions.

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Interesting Times: Terry Pratchett

★★★

The Discworld Reread: Book 17

Back when I first read Interesting Times, in the spring of 1998 when I was thirteen, I remember deciding that its title was misleading: this was the least interesting of all the books I’d read so far! In retrospect that was a little harsh, but it’s true that Interesting Times feels like a retrograde step after the sheer glory of Soul Music. After many books’ absence, we re-encounter the hapless Rincewind (last seen in Eric), who is snatched away from a life of desert-island contentment when Unseen University is confronted by a crisis that only he can solve. (Well, that’s the official line. The reality, as Rincewind knows only too well, is that they don’t want to risk any proper wizards.) A request has come from the mighty and secretive Counterweight Continent for ‘the Great Wizzard’ and, before you can say ‘travel insurance’, Rincewind finds himself up to the ears in a great clash of noble houses, revolution, insurrection, and some alarmingly familiar faces…

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Venus in Copper: Lindsey Davis

★★★½

Marcus Didius Falco: Book 3

Yes, all right, I’m reading out of order again. When I bought this book the other day, I knew that I had Book 2 lying around somewhere, but just couldn’t put my finger on it. Only now, as I write, have I noticed it staring at me accusingly from the bookshelf (if you’ve been to my flat, this state of mild book chaos will be understandable). I just couldn’t resist a touch of Roman comedy crime drama, so went ahead with Venus in Copper in the hope that I’d be able to catch up; and I have, though I’ve evidently missed a couple of crucial plot points for the wider series. In this instalment, our Roman gumshoe is hired for what seems to be an everyday kind of case: checking the credentials of a potential bride. But there are two catches. He’s been hired not by the groom, but by the groom’s sisters-in-law (the whole family being almost embarrassingly arriviste); and the problem is not the character of the bride so much as the fact that her last three husbands have died swiftly, in mysterious circumstances. What is Severina Zotica up to?

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The Darling Buds of May: H.E. Bates

★★★★

The Larkin Family: Book 1

I have vague memories of watching the Darling Buds of May TV series in the early 1990s, although I was too young for much to register. The word ‘perfick’ made an impression, of course, and I remember that, every time Catherine Zeta-Jones came on screen as Mariette, my dad would shake his head and say, “I don’t know what they see in her”. I also grew to assume that my paternal grandmother, a farmer’s wife who died when I was small, must have been pretty much like Pam Ferris’s Ma Larkin. But plot? I honestly couldn’t remember much. As the first tenuous signs of spring try to force their way through the rain and sharp winds here in London, I decided I needed a bit of bucolic escapism and bought myself the book (and its sequels). And it was just the ticket. Warm, generous, sun-drenched: a world of strawberry-picking and white tablecloths in orchards on warm evenings; where all guests are welcome and, if you like it well enough, you don’t ever have to leave. Perfick indeed.

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Old Baggage: Lissa Evans

★★★★

It’s 1928 and the fight for women’s suffrage has faded from its revolutionary ardour in the 1900s into a muted movement, its core of fierce women gradually dropping off. All that remains are nostalgic talks and lectures which, all too often, preach to the converted or to those who’ve come for shocking tales of riots and hunger strikes. The world has moved on. A whole generation of young men has been wiped out in the War. There are other things to worry about than the political ambitions of a group of uppity women. Former suffragettes have married and had children, emigrated, or surrendered to personal demons. But, for Mattie Simpkin, the struggle never ended. This robust, good-hearted, forceful woman lives in a cottage (‘the Mousehole’) just off Hampstead Heath with her companion, meek Florrie Lee (who is, inevitably, nicknamed ‘the Flea’). Mattie is almost sixty, but is determined not to settle down and give up the good fight. Instead, galvanised by the discovery that young women no longer seem to have any kind of gumption or political engagement, she comes up with a plan to correct this – a plan which works wonderfully, except for one tiny, unforeseeable detail.

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Soul Music: Terry Pratchett

★★★★½

The Discworld Reread: Book 16

This has always been one of my favourite Discworld books and, at this point in the reread, I think it’s categorically the favourite. Pratchett uses other books to riff on the arts – filmmaking (Moving Pictures) and opera (Maskerade), for example – but this homage to rock music affectionately skewers its pretensions, while maintaining a sense of the deep, raw, primal magic beneath it. Our hero is Imp y Celyn, a young bard from the rainy kingdom of Llamedos who dedicates his life to music in the midst of an argument with his intransigent father. Making vows like this is dangerous on the Discworld, because there’s always the danger something is watching and waiting for just such an opportunity to arise. And, when Imp (whose name roughly translates as ‘Small Bud of the Holly’) arrives in Ankh-Morpork, he finds himself fetching up in a strange old music shop, where he meets his destiny in the form of a very special guitar.

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Lords and Ladies: Terry Pratchett

★★★★

The Discworld Reread: Book 14

It’s Midsummer Night and, in the mountainous kingdom of Lancre, the new king and queen are about to be married. The great and the good have been invited; a gang of rustic mechanicals (or mechanical rustics?) are putting on a humorous play… and the boundaries between this world and that of the elves are drawing thin. Girls who should have known better have been dancing around up at the standing stones, and attracting the attention of powers-who-shouldn’t-be-attracted. Everyone says elves are lovely and merry and beautiful, which is exactly what the buggers want you to think. And Granny Weatherwax is absolutely bloody furious about it. She’s spent her whole life holding the barrier, and now it threatens to fall. To make matters worse, the betrothed king and queen are Verence and Magrat, who don’t have a single clue between them; Granny’s past is about to revisit her in a surprising way; and Nanny Ogg… well, is trying to help. It’s too much to hope for a Dream, but all Granny has to do is avert a Nightmare…

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