The Skystone: Jack Whyte

★★★★

A Dream of Eagles / The Camulod Chronicles: Book I

Two men meet in the African desert. One is Caius Britannicus, a brilliant Roman general who has been taken captive by one of the desert tribes. The other, his rescuer, is Publius Varrus, a centurion finally heading home to a new posting in his native country. Both men are Britons; both, by a quirk of Fate, are destined to head over the seas together to take up new positions in the same legion. And that same Fate has greater things in store, because Jack Whyte’s gripping historical novel isn’t just a story of Roman Britain, giving us a rare fictional glimpse of that cataclysmic moment in the late 4th century when the legions deserted the islands for good. It’s also the first in an epic series of novels that (I presume) will follow the families of Caius Britannicus and Publius Varrus down the ages, at least as far as their mutual great-grandson, who will become the King Arthur of legend. So far, the tale has been utterly absorbing, rationalising the legends into a completely plausible tale of honour, nobility and brotherhood in the dying days of the Roman Empire, when one man’s dream becomes the foundation of a new age.

Continue reading

The Water Cure: Sophie Mackintosh

★★

This seems to be a ‘love it or hate it’ kind of book: literary Marmite. The omens were good. The publishers managed to get a cover blurb from Margaret Atwood, and implied that this was a new feminist classic: the Handmaid’s Tale for the next generation. It was longlisted for the 2018 Booker Prize and, to give credit where it’s due, the writing is beautiful – but in the way that an art-house film is beautiful: stylised and a little self-indulgent. Hyped as a fable for the #MeToo era, this unsettling story centres on three sisters living on a remote island: Grace, Lia and Sky. They have been raised in isolation from infancy, protected from the poisonous toxins of the mainland, and treated with therapies to contain their burgeoning emotions. Complicated rituals devised by their New Age parents protect them further. But what are they being protected from? No one will explain. One day, shortly after their father disappears, they face an unprecedented threat. Two men and a boy wash up on their beach, disrupting the balance. The island’s prophylactic seclusion will never be the same again.

Continue reading

Blueeyedboy: Joanne Harris

★★★

On a web-journal mailing list, blueeyedboy holds court. He is the ringmaster of his own little circus, the svengali to his audience of adoring readers, the puppetmaster of their fantasies. World-weary and nihilistic, he begins to tell the fable-like story of three brothers, brought up by their widowed mother and each, for ease, given their own signature colour: Black; Brown; and Blue. Struggling against each other, and against the mercurial furies of their dangerous, unpredictable mother, the boys try to carve out their own identities in their bleak little town. But this isn’t just a story of three boys coming of age. It’s a tale of ambition, obsession and, most fascinating of all, murder. Don’t get over-excited, though, blueeyedboy coyly reassures his readers: it’s only a story. The problem is that not everyone seems to believe him. Setting her story in the same town as her St Oswald’s novels, though in a far less privileged neighbourhood, Joanne Harris invites us to come down the rabbithole of internet anonymity, where everyone wears avatars and usernames, and no one is quite what they seem.

Continue reading

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter: Theodora Goss

★★★★

The Athena Club: Book I

This is the first full-length novel I’ve read by Theodora Goss, though I’ve previously enjoyed her short stories Come See The Living Dryad and Red as Blood and White as Bone. She has a wonderful way of rethinking myths and fairy tales, and she brings the same creative spark to this delicious Gothic mashup, which reminded me very strongly of the Penny Dreadful TV series. It all begins when Mary Jekyll’s mother dies, leaving her orphaned and struggling to keep up the grand family house near Regent’s Park. Mary is mystified by the discovery of strange payments made from her mother’s account, which suggest that her dead father’s unsettling collaborator, Edward Hyde, might still be alive. Even worse, hidden letters suggest that Dr Jekyll used to be part of the Alchemists’ Society, a sinister secret network of scientists who have been using their daughters as subjects for their unethical experiments. Mary sets out to find some of these other gifted women, hoping they can shed light on her father’s work, but time is of the essence. Young women are being brutally murdered in the East End, and it swiftly becomes clear that there are links to the Society; but how can the killer be stopped? Full of adventure, derring-do and strong female characters, this is a glorious and loving romp through a whole subgenre of 19th-century English literature – and a darn good story to boot.

Continue reading

Lights All Night Long: Lydia Fitzpatrick

★★★★

Passing through Arrivals at Baton Rouge airport, Louisiana, is the most significant moment in Ilya Alexandrovich’s young life. On one side of the door he can pretend that this is all still a dream: that he’s still just the bookish student in his remote Russian hometown, cherished by his teacher, mocked affectionately by his peers, with a vague prospect of getting to America one day. But, on the far side of the door, his reality must be faced: his host family, the Masons, who have agreed to let Ilya live with them for a year while he attends school, improves his English and assimilates to a Western view of life. Ilya is profoundly aware of his good fortune in coming here, in escaping the dead-end lifestyle that faces so many of his friends; but that isn’t only reason he feels unhappy. His guilt is sharper, more focused, for in coming to America Ilya has been forced to leave behind the person he loves more fiercely than any other: his troubled brother Vladimir, who has recently been sent to prison for murder – a crime that Ilya passionately believes he didn’t commit. This evocative, moving story asks us what it means to belong – what we do when we don’t fit in – and how we can redeem ourselves when all hope seems lost.

Continue reading

The Lost Art of Letter Writing: Menna van Praag

★★★

Recent travelling has got in the way of blogging again. I’m not complaining, mind you: this trip involved Rome, Naples and a mind-boggling amount of fabulous art. Perhaps I’ll post about it when my brain has calmed down slightly. Otherwise, life has been extremely busy (in a good way), and so tonight I picked up a novel for the first time in a month – shame on me! I was looking for something undemanding and The Lost Art of Letter Writing seemed a perfect choice for an autumn evening with the nights drawing in. It turned out to be a bit too self-consciously quaint for my taste, but it’s as cosy and feel-good as a page of motivational quotes. It centres on our heroine, Clara, who runs a very special stationer’s shop in Cambridge. Here, customers are invited to write the one heartfelt letter they’ve always meant to send, and Clara gets satisfaction from helping them tie up their loose ends. When she discovers some of her own, in the form of a bundle of old family papers, her curiosity propels her into a serendipitous adventure.

Continue reading

Dark Eden: Chris Beckett

★★★★

Dark Eden: Book I

One good thing about travelling for work (as I have been for the past week) is that it gives me lots of time to read. I’ve recently found it hard to ‘click’ with books, but was thrilled to become deeply, voraciously engaged with Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden trilogy: a series which asks us to think about what it means to be human, about the stories that we tell one another, and about the way that civilisations develop. It wasn’t love at first sight: I was initially put off by the mannered language, but its rhythms soon wormed their way into my mind and even into my dreams. Beckett’s story takes place on Eden, a strange and exotic world where a small cluster of some five hundred people struggle to survive in the heart of an alien forest. They are all descendants of two people, Angela Young and Tommy Schneider, survivors of a space mission almost two hundred years before. They do their best to keep the stories of their ancestors alive, and to remember how they came to be in this inhospitable place, believing that one day help will come from Earth to rescue them. But not everyone is content to simply sit and wait and trust. John Redlantern is one of these, and his questioning and challenging will push the entire history of Eden in a new direction, changing the world forever.

Continue reading

Future Home of the Living God: Louise Erdrich

★★★

A dystopian future; a world in flux, where fertility has rapidly declined and pregnant women are hunted down by the State: Louise Erdrich’s novel certainly has a fair bit in common with The Handmaid’s Tale. And yet it is distinguished by a fascinating concept (which unfortunately isn’t explored in anywhere near enough detail): evolution has, quite suddenly, just stopped and quietly gone into reverse. As the flora and fauna of North America begin to regress to prehistoric forms, the State grows increasingly anxious about the nature of the babies being born. Pregnant women are gathered together, so that their children can be monitored, but as birth becomes more difficult, fewer and fewer women survive these State interventions. And yet the State keeps searching. And, for Cedar Hawk Songmaker, it’s about to get very personal.

Continue reading

Morality Play: Barry Unsworth

★★★★

Being footloose and fancy-free is a fine thing to imagine, but the reality is rather less splendid when it’s the mid 14th century and winter is coming. Errant cleric Nicholas Barber thinks Fortune might be looking kindly on him when he stumbles across a group of travelling players in the woods, who are burying one of their number. They need a sixth man in their company, and Nicholas can sing and read and write, as befits a clerk. Perhaps he can hold off starvation a while yet, and enjoy some adventure along the way. And yet, as the group moves northward, hoping to reach Durham by Christmas, Fortune has a few more tricks up her sleeve. When circumstances divert them to a country town, they find the community buzzing with news of a murder, and the forthcoming execution of the culprit. But is the supposed murderer really guilty? Nicholas and his colleagues are about to find that a very simple murder is anything but… and in trying to come to the truth of the matter, they might be courting grave danger.

Continue reading

Maddy Alone: Pamela Brown

★★★½

The Blue Door: Book II

In the wake of Mishima, I needed something totally different: something charming, cuddly and heartwarming. With relief, I turned to the second book in Pamela Brown’s Blue Door series (the first was The Swish of the Curtainwhich I reviewed some time ago), telling the story of a band of ambitious children who set up a theatre company in their small town of Fenchester. In this sequel, the older children have achieved their dreams and are now studying at stage school in London, but poor Maddy, the youngest, is only twelve years old and has been told she needs to stick with ordinary school for the time being. Pushed to her limits by the thought of all the fun the others are having, Maddy begins acting up; but soon she discovers a marvellous opportunity right on her doorstep, which will change her life once and for all.

Continue reading