Once Upon a River: Diane Setterfield

★★★★½

Stories are like rivers. They have sources and meanders, tributaries and backwaters, and often they change along their length, swelling from modest little stream to raging torrent. The regulars of The Swan inn at Radcot, on the banks of the Thames, are famous for the stories they weave as the great river flows past their door, but none of them has yet come up with a tale as strange as the one that unfolds in their very own inn on one dark night. It’s solstice night in the depths of winter, and a half-drowned, bleeding man staggers through the inn’s door carrying a drowned child in his arms. The man needs care; the child, all assume, is dead. But when the local healer Rita goes to prepare the child’s corpse in the outhouse, she discovers to her shock that the little girl is alive. Silent; enigmatic; self-contained. But breathing. The resurrection of this strange child immediately makes The Swan famous – such stories there are to tell, now! – but it also stirs up old griefs, losses and desires. Who is the child? And who will claim her? This is my favourite of Setterfield’s books so far: a deliciously eerie fable which blurs the line between reality and myth, and suggests that stories might – just might – come true.

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Blackwing: Ed McDonald

★★★½

The Raven’s Mark: Book 1

You want grimdark? You got it! In this debut novel, the first part of a trilogy (all of which has now been published), McDonald throws us deep into a frontier steampunk world struggling to defend itself against the forces of darkness. Our protagonist is Ryhalt Galharrow who, as far as most people know, makes his living seeking out those fugitives and thieves desperate enough to flee into the Misery – a blighted wasteland surrounding the city of Valengrad. But Ryhalt has another set of obligations. He bears a tattoo of a black bird, marking him out as Blackwing: sworn to the service of Crowfoot, one of the Nameless (ancient sorcerers whose great power was once all that stood between the Republic and the Deep Kings). But the Nameless’s power is fading and the drudge, the Deep Kings’ undead armies, are growing stronger. All is not well: Ryhalt doesn’t need a tattoo to tell him that. But it isn’t until his past returns to haunt him, in the person of the irritating scholar Ezabeth Tanza, that Ryhalt realises exactly how wrong things are.

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Affections: Rodrigo Hasbún

★★★

Desire to read more widely in 2020 brought me to this novel by the young Bolivian author Rodrigo Hasbún, published in a translation by Sophie Hughes by Pushkin Press. Family saga meets political history in this turbulent story of three German-Bolivian sisters, their complex relationship with their father, and their growth to maturity in the violent years of the 1960s and 1970s. My knowledge of South American history at this period is embarrassingly patchy, despite an early teenage flirtation with Che Guevara, and so I learned a great deal from Hasbún’s book in that respect (more, as it turned out, than I realised!). As a novel, however, it feels strangely restrained – told through vignettes, there is much left unsaid and it feels more like flicking through a family photo album than a real chance to get to know these three very different women.

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The Last Wish: Andrzej Sapkowski

★★★½

The Witcher: Book 1

Everything has suddenly become much clearer. Boys and girls, don’t follow my example and start with the earliest date of publication in the Witcher series. The Last Wish is definitely the place to start and I now have answers to several of the questions that were troubling me at the end of Sword of Destiny. That’s not to say that everything will be laid out nice and neatly: The Last Wish, like Sword of Destiny, is a collection of six short stories and these dart around chronologically within the story of our hero Geralt. They are all bound together, however, by parts of a seventh story, taking place in the ‘present day’ – although the ‘present day’ sits somewhere between the timelines of the stories ‘Sword of Destiny’ and ‘Something More’ from the collection Sword of Destiny. It’s all a little bit confusing, but worth the effort: to my relief, one of the stories in The Last Wish even links in with the first episode of the Netflix TV series. And, while these stories aren’t as light-hearted as those in Sword of Destiny, Sapkowski still has a lot of irreverent fun undermining some of the most cherished fairy tales in the European canon.

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Sword of Destiny: Andrzej Sapkowski

★★★★

The Witcher: Book 3*

We’d finished Game of Thrones and Stranger Things and needed a new series to get our teeth into, so I suggested The Witcher on Netflix. I’d bought the Witcher books by Andrzej Sapkowski back in the autumn, when the Kindle versions were on sale and, though I hadn’t yet read any of them, I was intrigued to see what the series was like. The result was an hour of complete bafflement, with both of us trying to get a handle on this new world while also remembering the names of a dizzying number of characters. We haven’t yet moved on to the next episode, but I decided that I needed to do some preparation first. Although Sword of Destiny isn’t the first book in terms of the series’s inner chronology, it was the first to be published, and I hoped this collection of six short stories would give me a better understanding of the context. As it happens, there’s only the very slightest crossover, but the stories turned out to be an unexpected joy. Far funnier than the TV show, they were the perfect way to whet my appetite before plunging deeper into this engaging world of old-school sword-and-sorcery.

*Opinion seems to differ on the reading order, but this seems the most common.

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The Man on the Middle Floor: Elizabeth S. Moore

★★★½

If Standard Deviation showed us a picture of a modern family dealing with autism in a compassionate, caring and progressive way, The Man on the Middle Floor offers a picture of what can happen when people don’t get the support they need. We zoom in on Kilburn, North London, where three people share a converted Victorian house. They live the typical atomised lives of Londoners, who are often strangers even to their neighbours. On the ground floor there’s Tam, invalided out of his beloved police force by a bullet to the leg and taking (far too much) solace from his local pub. Upstairs there’s Nick, determined to succeed at the challenge of living alone despite his Asperger’s. Finally, on the top floor, there’s Karen: specialist in autism, devoted to her work at the expense of her family, certain that her next article will finally bring her the recognition she deserves. Three lives, about to be linked in the most unexpected way.

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Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Delight): Émile Zola

★★★★

Les Rougon-Macquart: Book 11

My first book of 2020 was Au Bonheur des Dames or The Ladies’ Delight, part of Zola’s sweeping Rougon-Macquart cycle, which explores various facets of 19th-century French life. This is the first time I’ve read Zola and I wondered whether it would matter that I was leaping right in at Book 11 of the series, but in fact Au Bonheur des Dames works perfectly as a standalone novel. No doubt I would have recognised certain characters if I’d read the other books, and I may have known a little more background about Octave Mouret, but I didn’t feel that I was missing out. I chose to start here because it’s supposed to be one of Zola’s more upbeat and cheerful novels – perfect for the start of a new year – and it was rather fitting for January, in that it focuses on the rise and development of a great department store. Zola writes of ‘the continuous purring of a machine at work, the customers shovelled in, heaped in front of the displays and dazzled by the goods, before being hurled against the cash desks‘. Well, in last week’s sales I was one of those being hurled, and so it added an extra level of interest and amusement to hear about how such great shops came into being. A fascinating story of a time of frenzied change.

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Love Without End: Melvyn Bragg

★★½

A few days ago, Helen reviewed Love Without End, which reminded me that I’d read a galley of this novel back in August and had, embarrassingly, failed to do anything about it. I’d been attracted to the book by its story of Abelard and Heloise, the brilliant medieval scholars whose love story captivated me at university and who have never quite released their hold on me. Bragg’s novel, however, is not straightforward historical fiction, as it weaves another story in and out of the past, entwining Abelard and Heloise’s story with that of the modern writer Arthur. He (we’re told) is the author of the historical chapters that we read and, in the modern chapters, we’re invited to follow his progress as he wanders through Paris, having long lunches and intellectual conversations with his daughter Julia. The major difficulty that Bragg faces with the book is that intellect is prized over humanity, which may mean that we get closer to what Abelard and Heloise actually believed, but robs the reader of any chance of truly engaging with them.

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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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