The Twelfth Transforming (1984): Pauline Gedge

★★★★

What distinguishes a visionary from a madman? That question lies at the heart of this sumptuous novel by Pauline Gedge, which takes us to the Egyptian court of the late 18th dynasty, in the mid-14th century BC. The Empress Tiye is the primary wife of Pharaoh Amunhotep III, whose failing health and debaucheries distract him from the everyday business of ruling. Tiye has commanded the reins of power for years, using her acute political sensibilities to keep Egypt prosperous and to maintain its military supremacy. Unusually, she is not of full royal blood herself, and her rise has also boosted members of her family, especially her brother Ay, a leading courtier. Now, in the twilight of her husband’s reign, Tiye is preoccupied with the issue of the succession. Her eldest son, also called Amunhotep, has spent his life imprisoned within the harem, hated and suspected by his father, but he is the only plausible successor if Tiye wishes to continue her control of Egyptian politics. She sets out to secure the throne for her son, planning to marry him off to her niece (Ay’s daughter) Nefertiti, thereby cementing her family’s influence. It is a fine plan. But Tiye hasn’t accounted for one crucial detail: the personality of the prince into whose hands she has consigned the future of her country. For Amunhotep IV – or Akhenaten, as he renames himself – has a vision of his own for Egypt, which will strike to the very heart of the country’s civilisation. Epic in every sense, this account of the Amarna period is richly intricate: a gripping story of Egypt’s most extraordinary, fascinating and enigmatic personalities.

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The Second Sleep (2019): Robert Harris

★★★½

Robert Harris’s new novel opens on a bleak evening in 1468, as a young priest makes his way wearily towards the village of Addicott St George. The parish parson, Father Thomas Lacy, has recently died and Christopher Fairfax has been sent by the Bishop of Exeter to oversee the burial. It’s supposed to be a quick job but, when Fairfax arrives, he begins to hear rumours of murder that he feels bound to investigate. Even worse, he makes shocking discoveries in Father Lacy’s study: the former priest was dabbling in dangerous heresies, which seem to have had some bearing on his mysterious death. And that, my friends, is all I feel able to say before the cut. I will add that I found this an engaging, amusing and unexpectedly engrossing novel, and that if you’ve enjoyed Harris’s earlier works you would do well to give this a go. But The Second Sleep is a novel best approached in complete innocence. If you haven’t yet read it, but think you might like to, I urge you to stop right here. Don’t read past the cut, where there will be spoilers. Come back when you’re done and, while you’re reading, pay attention. Those with sharp eyes will realise pretty swiftly that all is not quite as it seems.

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Skin (2019): Liam Brown

★★

For weeks, it was all anybody spoke about. The virus had spread from the Philippines to Indonesia. Then from Malaysia to Thailand. Then to China. India. Russia. New cases were appearing by the day, with no sign of stopping. The death toll doubling by the hour. Then the minute. Pretty soon we lost count. It was simply millions.‘ Liam Brown’s 2019 novel Skin presents us with a world that must have seemed unlikely at the time of writing, but which now has striking similarities with everyday experience. In a dystopian near-future, a virus has decimated the world population. People are confined within their homes to protect them from the disease, connected to the outside world only by video calls and the internet, sinking into the mental blur of long-term isolation. Yet this isn’t the worst thing, for Brown’s virus takes a particularly cruel form. Spread by human contact, through breath or microscopic flakes of skin, it requires the members of a household to quarantine themselves separately. All human contact is out. Food is delivered by the government. Life has become a solo experience. This is the ‘new normal’. But, five years into lockdown, an English woman called Angela makes a shocking discovery which leads (or should have lead) her to question everything she has been told.

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Cold Comfort Farm (1932): Stella Gibbons

★★★½

OK, here’s the thing. I didn’t love Cold Comfort Farm as much as I expected to. I’ve a feeling it might be one of those books that I’ve read ‘too late’: that I’d have gelled with it much more readily if I’d read it as a teenager or young adult. Or maybe I was just in the wrong mood. As it is, I enjoyed it but found it a little too self-indulgent and showily clever. Our heroine is Flora Poste, who has been expensively educated to ‘possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living‘. When her parents die, leaving her with a hundred pounds a year, she decides to impose herself on relatives rather than finding a job in London. From the shortlist, she selects the Starkadder family, descendants of her mother’s sister Ada, who live on a remote farm in Sussex. Flora is prepared for rustic simplicity. But even she is startled by the raw and elemental roughness she finds among her relatives at Cold Comfort Farm. With her neat and organised mind, Flora sees very clearly that the Starkadders must be taken in hand and improved, for their own contentment and her own comfort. A challenge lies ahead, to be sure, but nothing can stand up to Flora Poste once she’s set her mind to something.

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The World According to Mara Altman

Mara Altman (4)

I bought these books by Mara Altman when I was going through a Kindle Singles phase last year. A New York Jewish journalist in her thirties, she isn’t a writer I was familiar with, but her essays about life as a millennial woman in the early 21st century made me smile (though not to the snort-inducing iconoclastic extent of Caitlin Moran). Altman looks at the tyranny of expectations surrounding engagement rings, body hair, having children, and all the things that we like to pretend are no longer issues, what with being a modern and progressive society. Many of her stories elicit flashes of recognition; others induce winces of sympathy; and these short pieces work well for entertainment on a commute or journey. Not all of the pieces hit the mark, but in general they make for amusing flashes of insight into the modern-day feminine condition.

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Johnny and the Dead (1993): Terry Pratchett

★★★

Johnny Maxwell: Book 2

It was just a matter of time. I wrote a few days ago that we’ve been exploring some of our local cemeteries during the lockdown, piecing together the stories of the families buried there, and judging people on the quality of their gravestone poetry. Inevitably, this reminded me of one of my few childhood books that I brought with me to London: Terry Pratchett’s Johnny and the Dead, which I promptly unearthed (‘exhumed’?) from my bookshelves. I don’t remember the circumstances of this purchase – I never read the other Johnny Maxwell books and this was long before I started reading Discworld – but my parents got it right. There’s something ineffably British about Pratchett’s story of a young lad who realises to his alarm that he can see dead people in the local Victorian cemetery. And, as he’s apparently the only one who can talk to them, he feels that he’s the one who has to break the news. Because the town council has decided that the cemetery is no longer relevant, and has decided to sell it off to a glossy modern company for a glossy progressive modern office block. Needless to say, the dead are not happy…

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American Midnight (2019): Laird Hunt

★★★★

Sunny afternoons in May might not be the most obvious time to read ghost stories, but Pushkin Press’s new collection of eerie American tales are enough to send a chill up the spine no matter what the time of year. Selected and edited by Laird Hunt, these classic stories span the 19th and 20th centuries, and their settings include barricaded castles; modest lodging houses; wooded roads; aesthetic Parisian apartments; forest glades; and supposedly comfortable country houses. The general trend is to unsettle rather than terrify, for which I was grateful, because my overactive imagination really doesn’t need any encouragement in the dark reaches of the night. Including works by Edgar Alan Poe, Edith Wharton, Mark Twain, Shirley Jackson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, this is likely to include a couple of tales you’re already familiar with, but will introduce you to at least a few new friends, ready to raise the goosebumps on your arms…

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The Mystery of Henri Pick (2016): David Foenkinos

★★★★

Imagine a library of rejected manuscripts, where failed books find a new home. Actually, it doesn’t take too much imagination, because such a place really does exist: the Brautigan Library in Vancouver, Washington, named after the author Richard Brautigan, who invented such a library in his novel The Abortion. In The Mystery of Henri Pick, the librarian Jean-Pierre Gourvec forms a similar collection in his small Breton town of Crozon. For decades, shelves of rejected stories slumber in the back of the town library until, some years after Gourvec’s death, something remarkable happens. Up-and-coming young editor Delphine Despero, at home on a visit to her parents, visits the library of rejected manuscripts with her author boyfriend. They discover a remarkable text – a masterpiece, signed by one Henri Pick. Snapped up by the publishing world, this book becomes a sensation, less for its content than for the romantic story of its creation. But how did the late Pick, a humble pizza chef with no discernable literary leanings, come to create such a beautiful novel? As Crozon adjusts to its new literary fame, the novel begins to affect the lives of those connected with it. And then a maverick journalist raises a controversial prospect. What if the novel isn’t really by Pick at all?

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A Different Drummer (1962): William Melvin Kelley

★★★★

Hailed as a rediscovered classic, this 1962 debut novel examines the complexities of race relations in the American South, through the story of one extraordinary day. It’s a Thursday when the men who congregate on Mister Thomason’s shop porch see the salt wagon going by, up to Tucker Caliban’s farm. When they follow, they witness an unbelievable sight. Tucker, an African-American man who has only recently purchased his own land and built a house, methodically sows his entire acreage with salt, before destroying his livestock and setting the house on fire. He and his heavily pregnant wife leave without a word. In the days that follow, word spreads to the other African-American residents of the state and, one by one, they too pack up and leave. Kelley’s novel traces the roots of this event back through the history of the Caliban family and that of their employers and former owners, the Willsons. A blistering picture of a still-segregated South, it’s a sobering book – but one which proudly looks ahead to change.

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The Wisdom of Sally Red Shoes (2018): Ruth Hogan

★★★

Masha has been trapped in the past for twelve years, ever since her young son toddled away from her and drowned in a tragic accident. When she goes to the lido every morning, it isn’t to swim, to make her body strong, but to force herself underwater and to stay to the very point of drowning, so that she can understand what he would have felt. When she visits her loyal, supportive friends – playing the part of a functioning grown-up – everyone knows that there are some subjects which must be avoided. One of the few ways that Masha finds peace is in her daily walk through the rambling local cemetery, with her lolloping dog Haizum, where she conjures up fanciful histories for the people whose graves she passes. And it’s here, in the cemetery, that she encounters an eccentric old woman who, quite unexpectedly, opens Masha’s eyes to the possibility of joy. This is a heartwarming tale of old friends, new friends and new starts, which sometimes strays dangerously close to being mawkish, but might well leave a tear in your eye.

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