The Bear and the Nightingale: Katherine Arden

★★★★½

Winternight: Book I

This book is made to be read in the long winter nights as the year creeps towards its end. Set in the snowbound forests of northern Russia in the 14th century, it’s a fairy tale for those who haven’t lost their sense of wonder: a brooding story of frost and darkness, of endless black forests and the powers that lie within. And it’s a tale of conflict, between the old, primeval world of nature’s power in the here and now, and the new world of Christianity with its gold, glamour and focus on the life hereafter. Into this uneasy world comes Vasilisa Petrovna, half-wild, passionate and blessed with a growing power of her own. Magical and enchanting, this is one book I found extremely hard to put down.

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The Last Hours: Minette Walters

★★★

Minette Walters is best known as the author of crime novels, but her new book strikes out into fresh territory: historical fiction. She introduces us to the 14th-century village of Develish in Dorset: a prosperous, contented place despite the depredations of its arrogant lord, Sir Richard. His more thoughtful wife Lady Anne has quietly worked behind the scenes to improve the quality of life for their serfs, and received their love and loyalty in return. As Sir Richard rides out to deliver their daughter Eleanor’s dowry to her intended husband, Lady Anne’s abilities are about to be tested to the full. For it is 1348 and the countryside is troubled by rumours of a great pestilence, which kills with no respect for rank, age or piety. As Lady Anne and her serfs gather behind the manor’s defensive moat, the certainties of an entire age are about to be turned upside down.

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Tench: Inge Schilperoord

★★★★

How do you become the person you want to be? This is the challenge that faces thirty-year-old Jonathan when he is released from prison, acquitted on the basis of insufficient evidence. He returns to his elderly mother and their isolated house on the edge of the dunes, one of only two houses left standing in the midst of demolition. Soon the council will rehouse them on a new estate, but Jonathan isn’t looking forward to it. Change upsets him. And so he tries to settle back into his old life: long walks on the dunes with the dog; watching TV with his mother; fishing in the ponds. He wants to be good. But, as summer thickens over their dead-end town and the mercury rises, Jonathan finds his calm unsettled by the bright, creative, clever little girl next door. Sometimes instinct can undermine even the best laid plans.

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Call Me By Your Name: André Aciman

★★★★½

First loves are powerful things. They haunt us for years and we can never quite shake off the memory of them, nor the deep ache they seem to cause. The film adaptation of this novel will be released tomorrow and is already causing critical waves, but I’m so glad I came to the book first. It is a poignant, intimate, irresistible story of a love affair which develops during an idyllic Italian summer between the precocious son of a college professor and his father’s visiting student. In one sense, it is a comfortable tale of beautiful, privileged people falling beautifully in love in beautiful surroundings; but in Aciman’s hands it becomes much more than that. Told in seventeen-year-old Elio’s pitch-perfect narrative voice, it’s a catalogue of human desires, flaws, hopes and lost dreams, so sumptuous that it leaves you aching with nostalgia and feeling drunk on beauty.

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Sylvester: Georgette Heyer

★★★★½

Or, The Wicked Uncle

Things are busy at the moment and I don’t have much brain space to spare, so I turned gratefully to the next novel on my Georgette Heyer pile. This was Sylvester, which several people have picked out as one of their favourites. And it’s no wonder: it’s vintage Heyer, the literary equivalent of crumpets by a roaring fire on a winter’s night. From the moment our arrogant but misunderstood hero meets our stubborn, bookish heroine, there’s no doubt what’s going to happen, but that’s not the point. As they lock horns over the course of a book stuffed with warmth, wit and adventure, the question isn’t ‘what?’ but ‘how on earth?’. In my current state, it was exactly what I needed and I might even go so far as to name this my favourite Heyer after the nonpareil These Old Shades.

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The Humans: Matt Haig

★★★★

Professor Andrew Martin is, for one dazzlingly brief moment, the most brilliant man on the planet. The next, he has vanished off the face of the earth. Unfortunately for Andrew Martin, we’re not alone. You see, all those people who wondered if there was intelligent life elsewhere in the universe were absolutely right. They were just wrong when they assumed it’d want to get in touch with us. Or, more specifically, that said intelligent life would want us to get in touch with it. And so, when Andrew Martin solves the Riemann hypothesis and holds the secret of exponential human advancement in the palm of his hand, the watching extraterrestrial lifeforms decide that he must be stopped. To stop one man is easy enough: an abduction; an empty chair; an unexplained disappearance. But to stop an idea? That’s more challenging. And so our unnamed alien narrator grudgingly agrees to assume the appearance of Andrew Martin, in order to make sure that all traces of his remarkable discovery are destroyed. But to do that, he needs to understand humans. And that’s where the real fun is going to start.

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Lavinia: Ursula Le Guin

★★★½

As a child, I read Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet, which I loved for its wizards and fantasy (I hope to reread it soon). In my early twenties, I read her Left Hand of Darkness, which was one of the first books that made me think seriously about gender. And now I’ve turned to what I thought would be a comparatively straightforward historical novel: her book about Lavinia, princess of Latium, who becomes the wife of Aeneas. But Le Guin is never simple. Her Lavinia is a bright, demanding person: full of questions. She probes at the limitations of the way she has been preserved for posterity, rebelling against the strictures of a poem in which she doesn’t even get to speak. Playful, intelligent and just a little bit angry, this novel reimagines one of the great epics of the Western tradition. Le Guin, and Lavinia, take Virgil to task for his omissions but this isn’t just a scolding. It’s also a great love letter from one author to another: a tribute to the power of story-telling, which can give the figures of the past a voice.

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Prince of Thorns: Mark Lawrence

★★★★

The Broken Empire: Book I

Apologies for the unintentional hiatus on the blog (The Silent Companions was a scheduled post and rather took me by surprise). I’m in the middle of a frantic time at work and so I’ve neither been reading nor writing as much as I would like. However, I have managed to work my way through a few non-art-related books recently and wanted to share them, because they’re rather good. I’m starting off with my first encounter with Mark Lawrence, the godfather of grimdark, whose name has come up repeatedly since I started reading Joe Abercrombie and Anna Smith Spark. And the recommendations have been absolutely spot-on. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Gripping, bleak and brimming with black humour, it’s a classic revenge story and features a teenage antihero so twisted he’d send Joffrey Baratheon running for the hills.

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Deerskin: Robin McKinley

★★★½

Fairy tales were originally born as dark things, a world away from the pastel-coloured sugar of Disney’s princesses, and they weren’t always meant for children. They were ways of rationalising the brutalities of life, of creating a happy ending beyond the horrific events that might be suffered. Fairy tales deal with infanticide, child mortality, forced marriages, murder and child abuse and yet Robin McKinley’s Deerskin is based on a tale (Donkeyskin) deemed so particularly unpalatable that it’s rarely published, even though it was originally written by Charles Perrault. With grace, sensitivity and compassion, McKinley turns this little-known story into a powerful tale of self-healing.

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Half a War: Joe Abercrombie

★★★½

The Shattered Sea: Book III

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Joe Abercrombie’s young-adult trilogy, which I’ve used as a way to ease myself into the considerably grimmer and darker world of his adult novels. This concluding instalment of the Shattered Sea trilogy already breaches some more troubling themes than its predecessors. This is a tale of blood and senseless slaughter; of moral decisions taken by the immoral. It’s a story which represents the truly brutalising force of war: not that men and women lose their lives, but that they lose their honour and their humanity in thrall to weapons more powerful than themselves. Inventive to the last, Abercrombie’s world turns established fantasy on its head and left me grinning at its impudent audacity.

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