First Class Murder: Robin Stevens

★★★★

A Murder Most Unladylike Mystery: Book III

When I spotted this in a second-hand bookshop the other day, it felt like Destiny. It was high time for another tale of jolly japes, cream buns and shocking murders. But this time, Daisy and Hazel aren’t looking for trouble at all. Quite the contrary. As Daisy’s family gather in London for the trial that follows the terrible events at Fallingford, Daisy herself sets off with Hazel and Hazel’s father on a magical holiday on the Orient Express. They have been warned to behave themselves and to stop ‘playing’ at being detectives. But that is easier said than done in a sleeper coach where there are so many fascinating people – especially when the girls learn that one of their fellow travellers is a spy going to pass secrets to the Germans, and another – as becomes clear – must be a murderer. Without a doubt, the Detective Society can’t let this lie! And so Daisy and Hazel become involved in their most thrilling and dangerous case yet.

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Rome: The Art of War: M.C. Scott

★★★½

The Rome Novels: Book IV

You certainly can’t accuse Manda Scott of doing the same thing over and over again. The first two novels of this series were written in the third-person; the third was in the first person; and this book is knitted together from an interweaving series of first-person testimonies from a dizzying number of characters. Nor do we remain in Judea, where I was just getting settled in. Instead, we’re whisked back to Rome for the final showdown in the Year of the Four Emperors, as the anxious Vitellius clings to power on the Palatine, and Pantera attempts to smooth the ground for his chosen candidate Vespasian to take the throne. But forces are at work against Pantera, led by an enemy as cunning and ruthless as himself. More to the point, someone in his inner circle is betraying him…

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Rome: The Eagle of the Twelfth: M.C. Scott

★★★★

The Rome Novels: Book III

War! Blood and dust! I hurried straight on to the next book in Manda Scott’s Rome series which, again, took me to a place I wasn’t expecting. Disconcertingly, after two novels focused on Pantera, we step away from him completely for much of this volume and instead follow Demalion of Macedon, a young horse-trader turned legionary in the XIIth Legion. If the first book centred on Rome and the second on Judea, this volume takes us to even more exotic regions: to Armenia and Hyrcania under the rule of the Parthian King of Kings. Knowing that I was in good hands, I pushed impatience about Pantera to the back of my mind, and let Scott unfold her story in her own compelling time.

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Rome: The Coming of the King: M.C. Scott

★★★★

The Rome Novels: Book II

When I saw the second book in Manda Scott’s Rome series in the library, I pounced on it. It picks up the story in 66 AD, a couple of years after The Emperor’s Spy concluded. Nero is emperor; Seneca is dead; the Empress Poppaea is dying in childbed; and our subtle protagonist Pantera is heading south to Judea on the heels of the man who started the Great Fire of Rome. Pantera has wise and loyal allies, but he is the only one with the skills to track down the zealot Saulos. For Saulos, too, was trained as a spy by Seneca and Pantera knows that he is stepping into a cat-and-mouse game with a man as dangerous as himself, made even more lethal by the fiery convictions of faith. As tensions simmer below the surface in Caesarea and Jerusalem, it requires only one spark for the whole of Judea to flare into bitter internecine war. And Saulos, as we’ve seen, loves a good fire…

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Vixen: Rosie Garland

★★★

This was on my library wishlist even before I read Rosie Garland’s Night Brother, and without knowing a thing about it. I was just intrigued by the title and tantalised by the cover: I thought it might be a bit like Emma Geen’s Many Selves of Katherine North, but of course I was thinking too literally. Set in the Devon village of Braunton in the plague year of 1349, it in fact tells the story of Thomas, the village priest; Anne, his housekeeper and would-be wife; and the strange, mute girl who is discovered half-drowned in a bog after a terrible storm. As Death draws its wings close around Braunton, these three find themselves at the heart of a struggle between small-mindedness and broad vision, played out in microcosm in the kitchen and barn of Thomas’s meagre home.

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La Clemenza di Tito: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1791)

La Clemenza di Tito

★★★★ ½

(Glyndebourne, 31 July 2017)

As the overture plays, we watch two boys running through a wheat-field on grainy old film: the older one dark and responsible; the younger, blond and cherubic. The older boy teaches his friend how to use a catapult fashioned from a v-shaped stick, aiming at an old bottle, but the little one isn’t content until he spots a magpie perched in a tree. His aim is too true: the magpie falls. The spot of blood on its breast is the only hint of colour as the music comes to an end and gathers itself ready for Act I. This strangely haunting little film was our introduction to Glyndebourne’s Clemenza di Tito: a fantastic production which places renewed emphasis on the troubled relationship between the emperor Titus and his boyhood friend.

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Saints for All Occasions: J. Courtney Sullivan

★★★★

When sisters Nora and Theresa Flynn make the journey to America in 1957, they are agog for a new world of opportunity. Nora, plain and sensible at twenty-one, dreams of finding something to excite her: an alternative to the planned marriage to the unexciting cousin who awaits her in Boston. For Theresa, in her late teens, life is full of sparkle and fun, crammed with new friends and boyfriends and a liberty she could never have known in their native Ireland. Fifty years later, in 2009, a family tragedy threatens to unearth a secret that has estranged the two sisters, and moulded both their lives into shapes they could never have imagined when arriving on the ship half a century before.

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Now I Rise: Kiersten White

★★★ ½

The Conqueror’s Trilogy: Book II

When looking for a book to read on Halloween, I chanced upon And I Darken, the first novel in this alternative-history trilogy. It was a fitting choice, as the series follows the fortunes of the fierce Lada Draculesti. In our own universe, her male alter ego would go on to make an indelible impact on history and Gothic legend; and Lada looks set to make similar waves in her own world. I discovered the second novel in the series at London Film and Comic Con and devoured it during the course of a quiet afternoon. Now the youthful high spirits of the first book have faded into a stronger sense of purpose. Lada rides north to claim the throne of Wallachia for her own, while her gentle brother Radu stays behind at the Ottoman court. He’s destined to be sucked into the most significant siege of the 15th century, for it is 1453 and the young sultan Mehmed has turned his eyes south, to the walls of Constantinople. Two empires are at stake. Only one can survive.

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The Girl with All the Gifts: M.R. Carey

★★★★

Melanie can’t remember a time before she came to the school, but she doesn’t mind. She’s safe here, locked behind a thick metal door at the bottom of a flight of steps, with her few classmates and their teachers. They’re protected from the world outside, where humanity has withdrawn into the survivors’ outpost of Beacon on the south coast, and the countryside has been taken over by gangs of ‘hungries’ infected by the plague that spread during the Breakdown. There’s comfort in the children’s routine: the people who strap them into their chairs each day before taking them to class; the Saturdays locked in their cells; the Sundays with the foul chemical showers. This is all that Melanie has known. But things are about to change, and Melanie will find herself forced to revisit all her certainties as she – and a small group of adults – find themselves alone outside.

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Cleopatra: A Life: Stacy Schiff

★★★★★

What do you think of when you think of Cleopatra? The asp? The siren lure of Egypt? Danielle de Niese, dripping with jewels? Elizabeth Taylor? Whatever we think of, it’s almost certainly incorrect. In this beautifully-written biography, Stacy Schiff tries to peel away the centuries of accretions in the form of purple prose, propaganda and the overheated male gaze, to reveal the ruler beneath. Don’t judge this book by its cover. The publisher has done the author no service in that respect. It’s packaged like a lightweight historical novel, with the traditional faceless woman in historical costume and lashings of pink and gold. It deserves better. Intelligent, gripping and extremely readable, this is the best biography I’ve read in some time.

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