Shades of Milk and Honey: Mary Robinette Kowal

★★★½

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young woman, of modest birth and even more modest fortune, must be in possession of numerous accomplishments if she hopes to find a husband. The two Ellsworth sisters of Long Parkmead have certainly done their best in this respect, having studied the gentle arts of music, painting and glamour. Their hopes rest on Melody, the younger, whose prettiness and vibrant spirits are expected to attract a fine match. Jane, the elder daughter, is plainer and quieter, but far more gifted than her little sister in the use of glamour. When their simple lives are disrupted by the arrival in the neighbourhood of a dashing captain and a brooding glamourist, the scene is set for a delicious comedy of manners – with just a little extra magic. This elegant Regency romp certainly wasn’t the kind of book I’d expected from Mary Robinette Kowal, since I’d only read her Lady Astronaut of Mars before this, but I was immediately charmed by a novel that embraces so much of Austen’s spirit with such success and affection. Imagine it as Georgette Heyer with a side of light sorcery.

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Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence: Michael Marshall Smith

★★★

Hannah Green is eleven years old and has recently learned the word ‘mundane’. She learns that it has two meanings: 1) of the earthly world; and 2) tedious, everyday, inconsequential. As the book opens, her life very definitely falls into the latter category. She is an only child whose life follows a comfortable set of patterns: trips with her parents downtown in Santa Cruz; visits to a favourite restaurant in Los Gatos; holidays to a lodge in Big Sur. These things have formed Hannah’s childhood with a reassuring sense of security. But then things start going wrong. Suddenly Hannah’s mum and dad don’t seem happy any more. Then her mum moves out to focus on a big work project in London. Then her dad announces that Hannah is going to stay for her granddad for a couple of weeks. And it’s at this point that things start to become very, very weird, and Hannah begins to realise that perhaps her new life is going to be best defined in the first sense of ‘mundane’. Because, quite frankly, when your granddad turns out to be working for the Devil, and you end up on a road trip with said prince of darkness, ‘tedious’ just doesn’t quite fit the bill.

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Two Sisters: Åsne Seierstad

★★★★

On 17 October 2013, Sadiq and Sara Juma experienced one of the worst things that can happen to a parent. Their two teenage daughters, 19-year-old Ayan and 16-year-old Leila, left the house as usual in the morning, but never came home. That evening, their frantic parents received an email from the girls, explaining: ‘we have decided to travel to Syria and help down there as best we can… Please do not be cross with us.’ In that one moment, the Juma family’s world shattered. In this impeccably balanced book, journalist Åsne Seierstad tells the story of what followed, as Sadiq desperately tries to get his daughters to come home. She also looks back, drawing on texts, emails and interviews to understand how two young Norwegian women could be so deeply radicalised without their parents even suspecting. It is a very difficult story to read, and it is harder still to emulate Sierstad’s admirable detachment, but I believe it’s an important book: a rare flash of compassion and humanity in a dialogue that seems to have increasingly broken down.

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The Sealed Letter: Emma Donoghue

★★★★

When Emily ‘Fido’ Faithfull bumps into her old friend Helen Codrington, quite by chance, it feels like destiny. The two women haven’t seen one another for years: their once-close friendship came to an awkward end seven years ago, just before Helen and her vice-admiral husband moved to a British naval base in Malta. Now it’s 1864 and sheer good fortune has brought them together on the streets of London. Of course they have changed. Fido has become a passionate reformer and supporter of social justice, earnestly devoted to her work at the Victoria Press. Helen is… well, Helen. Just seeing her again brings the light back into Fido’s life. She is light and cheerful and colourful and perhaps a tiny bit frivolous, but that’s how she’s always been. One thing does trouble Fido, though, and that’s the Scottish Colonel Anderson who seems in such close company with her married friend. When Helen begs Fido for help in dealing with the Colonel’s attentions, Fido leaps to the rescue: to feel needed again, by Helen, is a thrilling feeling. Soon, however, Fido begins to realise how shabbily she has been tricked, and her association with Helen may prove to be her undoing.

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Things in Jars: Jess Kidd

★★★★

A strange, sharp-toothed child, bleached of colour and trailing the scent of the sea. Sinister kidnappers. The ominous underbelly of London’s class of collectors, where even the most particular tastes can be indulged. A seven-foot-tall housemaid. And a dandyish pugilist ghost. In my first encounter with Jess Kidd’s writing, I was taken by the hand and led deep into a deliciously disturbing story, told in prose that sparkles with the cadences of an Irish brogue. At its heart there is Bridie Devine, a formidably down-to-earth woman who makes a speciality of taking on unusual mysteries – and who is about to encounter a case which will push her expertise to its limits, as well as forcing her to face up to a dark period of her own past. Blending Victorian Gothic with a roistering tale of London’s underworld, this is a deeply enjoyable adventure.

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Day of the Minotaur: Thomas Burnett Swann

★★

I vaguely remember reading this book when I was young. It had infiltrated my dad’s stash of 1970s sci-fi in the attic, sitting ill-at-ease beside Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Frank Herbert and Robert Silverberg. When I stumbled over a copy some twenty years later in Hay-on-Wye, I decided to read it again. And was it worth it? Hmm. It was written in 1966 and hasn’t dated well, in ways that would have gone over my head as a young teen. More on that in a moment. The story itself means well, though. Stuffed full of Greek mythology, it seems to have been written under the influence of Mary Renault. It’s the tale of Thea and Icarus, two half-Cretan children who escape the destruction of the city of Knossos – in a glider, naturally. They hope to reach the Country of the Beasts, the region into which Greece’s mythological creatures have withdrawn to escape the advance of men. But their headlong flight leads instead to further danger, leaving them stranded in the cave of the Minotaur himself.

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Family Album: Penelope Lively

★★★½

Allersmead. It’s a grand name for a house, but this suburban pile is the kind of house that deserves a name. Comfortable and sprawling, it has watched over the growing pains and squabbles of the family: six children; their mismatched parents; and Ingrid, the capable au pair who has never left and has been absorbed into the tribe. Redolent with cooking or baking, the house rambles around its kitchen, the heart of so many memories. But time passes. Children grow and move away. When one of them, Gina, brings her boyfriend Philip back to meet her parents, he begins to ask questions about her past. An only child, he’s fascinated by the dynamics between six siblings and curious about Gina’s parents. As Gina begins to tell her tale, dipping in and out of her family’s past, Lively reveals the tangled tale of a household built around secrets and lies, in which things are half-known but never admitted, for fear of spoiling the image of contentment.

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The Girls: Lori Lansens

★★★★

Rose and Ruby Darlen have grown up in the small town of Leaford in Baldoon County, Ontario. Despite being twins, they’ve always striven to be different, refusing to wear the same clothes and cultivating different hobbies. Rose loves books, writing, and watching sports. Ruby is the pretty one, interested in magazines and TV, but also obsessed with the history and artefacts of the Neutral Nation peoples who once lived in their area. The girls’ lives have been simple: they grew up with their Aunt Lovey and Uncle Stash in a big old farmhouse on the outskirts of town and now share a bungalow in Leaford itself. In many ways they are perfectly ordinary. And yet, in one of the most significant ways, they are utterly extraordinary. For Rose and Ruby are craniopagus conjoined twins, joined at the skull. And as the book begins, they are twenty-nine: if they can only reach thirty, they will be the oldest living pair of craniopagus twins (not actually true: see penultimate paragraph). Taking it in turns, they embark on a joint memoir (Ruby being somewhat coerced into it) and Lansens’s absorbing, beautifully-crafted novel draws us into their remarkable lives.

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The Perfect Assassin: K.A. Doore

★★★

The Chronicles of Ghadid: Book I

There’s been a lot of talk about The Perfect Assassin, the first book in K.A. Doore’s new Middle Eastern flavoured fantasy series. It has won well-deserved praise for its setting, which takes readers beyond the standard white European semi-medieval tropes of fantasy fiction, and also for its diversity in including characters with a wide range of sexualities, including an asexual hero. The world-building is tantalising, both in terms of the physical space of the city of Ghadid, and in the metaphysical workings of the story. Now, anyone who remembers my posts on Robin Hobb will know that I have a soft spot for stories about assassins, so I should have loved this book, as so many other readers have. Unfortunately, though, I was never quite able to lose myself in the story. Ironically, for a tale about assassins and murder, I found it a little bloodless.

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The Living Infinite: Chantel Acevedo

★★★½

The Infanta Eulalia of Spain is a disappointment: another girl to add to the royal nursery, rather than the longed-for second son to secure the family line. But she is, nevertheless, a princess and such a child must be raised in state. Officials searching for a wet nurse find and hire Amalia, a woman from Burgos with a bouncing, healthy baby boy of her own, christened Tomás. Amalia is offered a small fortune to come to Madrid to serve at the palace, with one free day each month to meet her husband. Her decision to accept is the point from which several different stories spiral outward, affecting the lives of those involved far into the future. Chantel Acevedo’s novel resurrects, on captivating form, a very real Spanish princess (1864-1958) who questioned convention, who loved and lost and travelled, who wrote with a fierceness and freedom that none of her predecessors had dared, and who sought to broaden the boundaries of her own stifling world.

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