Social Creature: Tara Isabella Burton

★★★½

What lengths would you go to for the perfect lifestyle? For Louise Wilson, even a mediocre life would be an improvement. At the age of twenty-nine, she’s lost faith in her New York dreams: her goal of becoming a great writer has lost its lustre, crowded out by the humiliating necessity of three minimum-wage jobs; a grotty apartment in a far-flung, seedy part of the city; and the patronising solicitude of her parents, back in New Hampshire, who hope she’ll return and marry her belittling childhood sweetheart. And then she meets Lavinia. Sparkling, daring, hedonistic Lavinia, who goes to all the good parties and knows everyone; who catalogues her life in breathless detail on the internet and who gives Louise a glimpse of a world she never dreamed of entering. And, once in it, Louise realises that she’ll do pretty much anything to avoid having to leave.

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The Copper Promise: Jen Williams

★★★½

The Copper Cat: Book I

My to-read pile for the Summer Without Men project includes rather a lot of sober books examining the human condition. It was refreshing to offset those with Jen Williams’s novel, which swaggered its way to the top of the list with the ease of a roistering sell-sword in a shabby tavern. I’ve meant to read The Copper Cat for some time and I decided this was the perfect moment, as I inch closer to my holidays. A loving tribute to the golden age of sword-and-sorcery, The Copper Promise is a gleeful romp complete with an odd couple of mercenaries, a fledgling mage, haunted ancient ruins, magical artefacts, murderous gods, and even a dragon. Yet it’s written with a lighthearted modern touch and our ‘heroes’ are a well-drawn and diverse bunch. It’s a jolly good fantasy adventure, fresh and fun while affectionately respecting the genre’s conventions.

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My Lady of Cleves: Margaret Campbell Barnes

★★★★

Margaret Campbell Barnes’s works have often cropped up in historical fiction lists, but this is the first book of hers that I’ve read and I’ve been very pleasantly surprised. Although My Lady of Cleves was first published in 1946, it doesn’t feel remotely prim or dated: only a certain elegant restraint hints at its age. It feels very much like a Norah Lofts story in that sense. Yes, it’s yet another Tudor historical novel, but Barnes rings the changes by focusing in on the least familiar and most appealing of Henry VIII’s many mistreated wives: Anne of Cleves. With grace, generosity and gentle humour, she gives this much-maligned woman her moment in the spotlight and pays tribute to the quiet pragmatism that allowed Anne to do what none of her five sister-queens managed: to keep both Henry’s affection and, more crucially, her head.

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The Driveway Has Two Sides: Sara Marchant

★★★

Time for another Fairlight Modern novella! This time we’re off to a remote island on the east coast of America, to a world of crisp winter winds and pines, and sudden summer influxes of tourists; a world where the year-round residents all know everyone else’s secrets and newcomers are watched with suspicion. And the gossiping islanders have plenty to occupy them now, because an old rental cottage has just been sold to the young and beautiful Delilah. The neighbours wonder about her story (and her morals), gleefully scandalised while Delilah rolls up her sleeves and gets on with the business of transforming her little cottage into a home. But she swiftly realises that she isn’t the only mystery on the island. What about the man who lives in the yellow house next door, with whom she shares a driveway, but who hardly ever comes out into the world?

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Witchmark: C.L. Polk

★★★½

The Kingston Cycle: Book I

Miles Singer is a psychiatrist at Beauregard Veterans’ Hospital, treating men who’ve come back from the front line shattered by their experiences in war. A former soldier himself, Miles knows only too well what they’re going through and he does all he can to help them; but he must be careful not to be too clever with his healing. For Miles is in hiding: a magically-gifted member of one of Aeland’s greatest families, who has escaped his family and his destiny to find his vocation elsewhere. Better that he should help these men, than spend his life as a moderately-talented Secondary, bound as a source to his more talented Storm-Singer sister Grace. Unfortunately, his family don’t agree. And, when a dying man turns up at his hospital one day, with Miles’s real name on his lips, claiming to have been poisoned, Miles will find that he can no longer keep at a distance from his powerful clan. But at what cost? For he isn’t the only one with secrets.

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Heresy: S.J. Parris

★★★

Giordano Bruno: Book I

In my first version of this post I made a bit of an idiot of myself by getting S.J. Parris confused with C.J. Sansom and reminiscing happily about her Shardlake books. No doubt many of you wondered what I was on about, but Betty was the one who had the kindness to point out my error to me. Betty, thank you. There will be blessings stored up for you in heaven. My only excuse is that I read the Shardlake books fifteen years ago and obviously get easily confused about authors using their initials. For the record, Parris did not write the Shardlake books, but she certainly has written this series about the Italian scholar and philosopher Giordano Bruno. One of my most powerful memories from my first trip to Rome is of lunch eaten in the Campo dei Fiori, in the shadow of the great brooding statue of Bruno, and I’ve long been keen to learn more about him. Historical fiction was an appealing place to start. Parris’s first novel introduces us to Bruno in his mid-thirties, already hounded across Europe by the Inquisition for his heterodox beliefs. Finding refuge in England in 1583, he accompanies his friend Sir Philip Sidney to Oxford, where he swiftly finds himself caught up in a web of murder, danger and espionage.

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A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian: Marina Lewycka

★★★

Thirteen years after it exploded into the bestseller charts, I’ve got around to reading this quirky tale of feuding sisters, immigration appeals and late-life love. Nadia and her older sister Vera are of Ukrainian heritage: their parents moved to Britain after the Second World War, fleeing the brutality of Stalin’s agricultural reforms. They’ve never been close: in fact, they’ve been engaged in a feud for the last two years over the division of their late mother’s assets. But things change abruptly when they hear troubling news. Their eighty-four-year-old father has fallen in love. He’s going to get married again, to Valentina, a pneumatic, blonde, thirty-six-year-old Ukrainian divorcee. Alarm bells start ringing, and Nadia and Vera find themselves forced into a stiff entente as they embark on a mission to protect their vulnerable Pappa – a quest which might just end up in them learning more about themselves along the way.

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The Immortalists: Chloe Benjamin

★★★

In the midst of a boring New York summer in 1969, the four Gold children sneak out of their apartment and head off in search of a clairvoyant who’s set up shop in their neighbourhood. They’ve heard that she can tell you the day on which you’re going to die. Egging each other on, they go one by one into the woman’s shabby rented apartment where, one by one, they’re each given a date. Out on the sidewalk once again, it no longer seems like such a laugh. The four children – pragmatic Varya; curious Daniel; fragile Klara; and little Simon – return home, each of them overshadowed by the length or brevity of their allotted futures. Surely, they tell themselves, it’s all a load of rubbish? But, as the years unfold, each of the Gold siblings will find themselves following a different path, more or less clearly determined by the clairvoyant’s eerie predictions.

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Karen Memory: Elizabeth Bear

★★★★

Elizabeth Bear has been on my radar since Heloise introduced me to the startling Iskryne books that she co-authored with Sarah Monette, although her solo work has (so far) been of a less blush-inducing stamp. I have all three of her Eternal Sky books, which I’m hoarding for a moment when I fancy a good solid dose of Genghis-Khan-inspired fantasy (which, to be fair, is always). However, I’ve kicked things off with this standalone novel, best described as Western steampunk noir. This delicious adventure takes all the elements of a good cowboy yarn – the tall, dark stranger from out of town; the slimy businessman who fancies himself as mayor; the plucky girls from the local brothel; and reimagines them in a feisty, female-driven romp with a brilliantly diverse cast.

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The Summer Without Men: Siri Hustvedt

★★★½

And news of a summer reading project!

With a certain sense of irony, I alighted on Siri Hustvedt’s novel. Acerbic, witty and intellectual, it tells the story of an emotionally tumultuous summer in the life of the poet Mia Fredricksen. Married for thirty years, she is blindsided when her husband Boris announces that he wants a ‘pause’, a euphemism that Mia can decipher only too well: ‘The Pause was French … She had significant breasts that were real, not manufactured, narrow rectangular glasses and an excellent mind.‘ Distraught and incandescent, Mia heads back to her childhood home – the town of Bonden in Minnesota – where she grieves, regroups and contemplates that eternally mysterious disconnect between the sexes. But, while her rift with Boris frames the novel, Mia’s time in Bonden gives her a fresh perspective on life, focused on the multifarious nature of female friendship.

P.S. Looking for more about that reading project? Scroll down to the end…

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