Standard Deviation: Katherine Heiny

★★★★

In the fictional world, there’s a certain milieu in New York society where clever (and slightly bored) people in immaculate apartments spend their time having casual affairs and profound conversations at dinner parties. While Katherine Heiny’s Standard Deviation is related to this kind of literary life, its characters have considerably more heart. Its lynchpin is Graham Cavanaugh, a man on his second marriage who finds himself weighing up his two former wives. To some extent the women are types: the ex is a cool, self-contained, refined lawyer; the present wife a kooky, exuberant socialiser. How on earth, thinks Graham, did he become attracted to these two women, who are so drastically different? How can they both attract and repel different parts of himself? And how can he balance his relationship with both of them, in order to bring a kind of sense to his life? A funny, warm exploration of a mid-life crisis, Heiny’s novel considers what it means to be human through the prism of one family’s experiences.

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The Testaments: Margaret Atwood

★★★★

This was waiting under the tree at Christmas and, needless to say, I wolfed it down. In case you’ve missed the frenzy, this 2019 Booker Prize winning novel is the long-awaited sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood’s 1985 modern classic was set in the dystopian near-future of Gilead (formerly the United States), where a crushing patriarchal structure, clothed in the guise of religious fanaticism, restricts women to a handful of social roles based on their age and rank. That first novel focuses on the Handmaids, fertile but ‘fallen’ women in an age where infertility is widespread, who are passed around elite ‘Commanders’ as broodmares to supply the ruling classes with children. The Handmaid’s Tale is as old as I am, but has recently been given new life by its adaptation into a TV series. Although I’ve only seen the first season so far, I should get myself up to date: Atwood is a consulting producer on the show and not only has she helped to create a richer, more complex world on screen, but she has drawn on aspects of the TV series for the new book. Delving deeper into Atwood’s world, this novel introduces us to three very different women, whose intertwined fates offer a glimmer of hope for Gilead’s future.

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A New Year: A New Decade

Corcos: Dreams

In lieu of the traditional Christmas message, here’s a New Year’s post instead. We’re standing on the brink of a new decade, heaven help us, and though it’s tempting to look at the world around us and despair, I’ve decided one has to be optimistic. I’ve made the usual New Year’s resolutions, which naively assume that I will have woken up this morning as a more motivated, more dynamic and less susceptible version of myself (we’ll see!). But the unusual thing this year is that there’s real change in the air: I’ve lived alone for eleven years, but my other half is about to move in with me. I’m excited but also very nervous. For example, how many books is it acceptable to have piled on the floor at any given time?! Of course I’ll keep reading and writing, but there will be a period of adjustment as I figure out how to adapt my bachelor-girl lifestyle.

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The Seven Daughters of Eve: Brian Sykes

★★★★

I don’t often read about science, but the field of human evolution fascinates me. I find it almost impossible to imagine the sheer expanse of time that has passed between the development of the first modern humans and the present day. It makes my head hurt. Things that seem so important in everyday life suddenly dwindle into nothingness when confronted with the epic story of humanity. But, if you turn the question on its head, you realise that humans really haven’t been around that long at all compared to other species with much longer innings – the dinosaurs, obviously, but even our extinct cousins the Neanderthals. Keep thinking, though, because the really staggering thought is actually the most obvious. Every single one of us alive today has direct ancestors who learned to make fire, who hunted mammoths, who made flint knives. It wasn’t just our general species that descended from these people. You did. I did. If there was a way to trace your family tree back far enough, through the Ice Age and beyond, into a world that looked completely different to the one we know today – if that was possible, you could find out who your ancestors were. Well, it is possible. Bryan Sykes and his fellow geneticists have done it. And this is the story of their work.

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Different Class: Joanne Harris

★★★½

The Malbry Novels: Book 3

At one point in this novel, a character comments that nothing ever happens in Malbry. I can only assume they were being ironic, or haven’t been paying attention, because this Yorkshire village has recently played host to intrigue, murders, scams and full-on psychopathy. We return to the world of Gentlemen & Players and blueeyedboy for a third time, slipping back within the walls of St Oswald’s School and back into the company of the tweedy Latin master Roy Straitley. It’s the year after the events in Gentlemen & Players and the school is still struggling to recover, with a new Head taking over the reins in an attempt to bring the school into the modern era and to brush off unpleasant associations. Many of the new initiatives are anathema to Straitley, but it isn’t just the corporate-speak of the modern education system that makes him feel threatened. For Straitley recognises the new Head – a man who was a boy at St Oswald’s thirty years ago, at another time of scandal and misfortune – and senses that all is not well. It clearly isn’t accidental that Johnny Harrington is back; but what’s his plan?

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In/Half: Jasmin B. Frelih

It takes a lot for me not to finish a book. In the past, I’ve forced myself through novels in the hope they’ll suddenly improve, because I hate leaving things incomplete. But now, dear reader, I have been defeated. Perhaps it’s my time of life. Being in your mid-thirties brings a deeper awareness of mortality, and the fact that time is finite. Perhaps I have less free time than I used to have, and am disinclined to spend that time on things that don’t actually bring me pleasure. Or perhaps it really is the case that this book, like an obnoxious person at a party, just wants to show off that it’s far cleverer than anyone else in the room. That’s how it felt to me, much of the time. And so, in the interests of a full disclaimer, this is not technically a book review because I’ve stalled at 30%.

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European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman: Theodora Goss

★★★★

The Athena Club: Book 2

Buckle up and tally ho! Squeeze into your walking suit, grab your umbrella and put on a stout pair of shoes, because the ladies of the Athena Club are on another mission! In fact, a couple of tickets for the Orient Express wouldn’t go amiss this time either, because we are bound for mysterious and distant climes: eastern Europe, to be exact. Our band of remarkable young women – introduced in The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter – found one another when they realised that all their fathers were involved in the sinister Société des Alchemistes. Worse still, all their fathers were unethical scientists, interested in transmutation and modifying the human form, and many of our heroines are products of those experiments. Now it’s time for Mary Jekyll, Diana Hyde, Catherine Moreau, Justine Frankenstein and Beatrice Rappaccini to help another of their kind – for an urgent letter has come, requesting help, from a certain Lucinda Van Helsing…

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The Singing Sword: Jack Whyte

★★★

A Dream of Eagles / The Camulod Chronicles: Book 2

When we last encountered Publius Varrus and his friend Caius Britannicus, the two men had founded a colony in south-west Britain, hoping to preserve Roman values and public order even after the Empire inevitably withdraws from the island. This second book in the series shows us the teething struggles of the infant colony, as Saxon raids multiply along the coast and, far across the sea, the Roman empire begins to tear itself apart. While I was glad to be reunited with our two doughty protagonists, of whom I grew rather fond in the first book, I felt that this sequel failed to live up to its eventful predecessor. Pacing becomes a serious issue here, and some factors which only niggled faintly in the first volume became problematic in The Singing Sword. And yet there’s still the pleasure of watching various Arthurian motifs (or characters) coming into being. In short, a curate’s egg – and hopefully only a temporary misstep.

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The King’s Assassin: Benjamin Woolley

★★★½

The Fatal Affair of George Villiers and James I

History is littered with stories of royal favourites who’ve clawed their way up from modest roots to dazzling heights of influence – but few did so quite as spectacularly as George Villiers. At the age of twenty, the future Duke of Buckingham had precious little going for him. He was a penniless gentleman, the second son of a second marriage, whose dead father had left everything to the children of his first marriage. In most cases this would have been a one-way ticket to obscure poverty, but George had several key advantages. He had a remarkably tenacious and ruthless mother, Mary Villiers, who recognised potential when she saw it. He had extraordinary good looks, remarkable charisma and intelligence. He (Mary decided) would be the catalyst by which his family dragged themselves to wealth and power – and there was one very obvious way to do that: to catch the king’s eye. This is one of British history’s great stories of social climbing, and Woolley delves into the detail with relish – even if I felt the book lacked the vivacity and panache that its captivating subject wielded with such ease.

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The Glass Woman: Caroline Lea

★★★½

As we head deeper into the season of long nights and crisp mornings, this tale of anxiety, fear and distrust in an Icelandic winter feels very appropriate. It opens with a wedding: Rósa, the daughter of the late Bishop of Skálholt, is wooed and won by the wealthy farmer Jón Eiríksson. But this tale of a new marriage is far from being a cosy feel-good romance: no one is foolish enough to believe that love has anything to do with it. With luck, it’ll come later. Jón is a recent widower who needs a wife to help him on the farm and give him children. Rósa faces suspicion in her own community because she reads, writes and is fond of ancient runes and sagas – things that the church forbids. In theory, their union should help both of them. But Rósa has barely settled in before alarming questions begin to unsettle her. Why won’t Jón let her socialise with the local women? What’s the story behind his near-demonic servant Pétur? And what actually happened to Jon’s first wife?

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