Vox: Christina Dalcher

★★★★

Jean McClellan’s life has become one of few words. It wasn’t always this way. She was once a brilliant neurolinguist, running a groundbreaking team of researchers. But now, every time she speaks, the metal counter on her wrist ticks down from the daily allowance of 100 to the grim nullity of 0. To speak after the counter reaches 0 is to risk a series of rapidly intensifying electric shocks. All women in the US have been issued with these counters, from infants to the elderly, round about the same time that they were removed wholesale from the workforce and sent back to their ‘proper’ place in the home. Now Jean lives in a daze of depression, watching her four children adjust to a world in which women are penalised, and longing for her lacklustre husband Patrick to make a stand against these wretched innovations. But, with the weak President following the lead of the charismatic, dangerous conservative Reverend Carl Corbin, and the unreformed masses baying for the blood of those who step out of line, what’s the chance of change? Sobering and scary, this is The Handmaid’s Tale for our time, which should be read both by women and men: an all-too-plausible next step to damnation.

Continue reading

The Grand Sophy: Georgette Heyer

★★★★½

I’m currently ploughing through Deadhouse Gates, which really puts the ‘grim’ into ‘grimdark’, and needed something light and fluffy on the side. Enter Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy, a gorgeously warm-hearted story, with one of the most appealing Heyer heroines I’ve met so far. Having lost her mother as an infant, Sophia Stanton-Lacy has been brought up by her erratic diplomat father, Sir Horace. While most girls would be planning coming-out balls, Sophy has been playing hostess to officers and noblemen in Spain, Brussels and Paris. Capable, shrewd, game and compassionate, she makes friends easily and delights in helping those she loves – though her plots are rarely suitable for the faint-hearted. When Sir Horace is posted to Brazil, Sophy comes to stay with her aunt Lady Ombersley’s family in London. Expecting a poor little orphan, they are little prepared for the storm of personality that sweeps in among them. And this is only the beginning, for Sophy rapidly sees that her family have got themselves into a terrible tangle, which only she can solve…

Continue reading

Gardens of the Moon: Steven Erikson

★★★★

The Malazan Book of the Fallen: Book 1 (Malazan Chronology 11)

I’ve spent far too long on aeroplanes over the last month, so was looking for something big and meaty to occupy me during eighteen-hour schleps back and forth from London to Macau. Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon promised to be just the ticket. His Malazan books are based on an intricate high-fantasy universe co-created with Ian C. Esslemont, who also writes a series set in the same world, and they’re notorious for being tricky to get into. Rumour has it that you either give up at a third of the way through Gardens of the Moon, or fall for it completely, so I suppose I belong to the second camp. The problem cited most often is that the book throws you in at the deep end with no back-story, little exposition and a dizzying cast of characters; but I’ve made it through the Lymond Chronicles, so such things hold no fear for me. I’m still not entirely sure that I understand what’s been going on, but I feel weirdly exhilarated, as if I’ve dipped a toe into a world and mythology that expands far beyond anything I can yet imagine.

Continue reading

The Left Hand of God: Paul Hoffman

★★★½

The Left Hand of God Trilogy: Book 1

Thomas Cale is sixteen years old and has spent virtually all his life as an acolyte of the Redeemers at the forbidding Sanctuary of Slotover. Brutalised, radicalised and raised to place the True Faith before everything else, Cale is just one of hundreds, thousands, of boys being trained as soldiers to fight the Antagonists on the Eastern Front. In the labyrinthine corridors of Slotover, it pays to blend in, to conform, never to do the unexpected – but Cale is an exception. Groomed by the Lord Militant Redeemer Bosco, Cale has been raised not only to be a fearsome killer but also an excellent strategist. Yet these strategies can be placed at his own service just as much as that of the True Faith and, when this protege mounts a daring escape from Slotover, Bosco is determined to get him back. Inadvertently, Cale is on the edge of plunging the world into war.

Continue reading

A Breath of French Air: H.E. Bates

★★★

The Larkin Family: Book 2

All might be radiant and perfick in the Kent countryside, but everyone needs a holiday now and again. With Mariette wilting under low spirits, and Ma growing weary of her newborn Oscar’s incessant demands for milk, Pa lets himself be convinced that they could really do with a trip to France. It does require persuasion, of course, because Pa finds it hard to believe that anywhere could be more lovely than home – but the one thing he loves more than home is his family, and he’s willing to do anything to make them happy. Encouraged by the enthusiastic Charley – who spent summers in Brittany as a child – Pa begins to pick up a few useful phrases of French, and the whole Larkin family piles into the Rolls and sets off for a spot of continental leisure.

Continue reading

Jolly Foul Play: Robin Stevens

★★★★

A Murder Most Unladylike Mystery: Book 4

Hazel Wong and Daisy Wells have returned from their eventful summer holiday on board the Orient Express and it’s time for another school year at Deepdean. However, if our doughty detectives were hoping for a bit of a break from intrigue, they’re to be disappointed. When the school’s widely-loathed Head Girl drops dead during a fireworks display, murder is swiftly diagnosed, via the discovery of a bloodied hockey stick. Plenty of people have a motive to murder Elizabeth Hurst, who has been making everyone’s lives miserable, but who could possibly have had the opportunity? And who could have made it past the Five, Elizabeth’s eternal companions? Unfortunately the school’s trials are only just beginning and, to make matters worse, there is unrest at the heart of the Detective Society itself, as Daisy and Hazel’s friendship faces its greatest test yet.

Continue reading

A Light of Her Own: Carrie Callaghan

★★½

In 1633, a young woman came before the Guild of St Luke in Haarlem, asking to be admitted as a master painter. She was Judith Leyster, a painter of domestic scenes and merry companies, and her acceptance into the Guild made her the first woman to be given such an honour. Carrie Callaghan uses the limited documentary evidence for Leyster’s life and career as the basis for this novel, which follows the ambitious young artist from her days as an apprentice in her master’s attic to her struggles to establish herself in an unwelcoming, male-dominated field. Joining other books set in the Dutch Golden Age, such as Girl with a Pearl EarringTulip FeverThe Miniaturist and Midnight Blue, it offers a glimpse of Dutch art in its most celebrated period – although I felt that this novel (unlike Leyster herself) didn’t live up to its own ambitions.

Continue reading

Interesting Times: Terry Pratchett

★★★

The Discworld Reread: Book 17

Back when I first read Interesting Times, in the spring of 1998 when I was thirteen, I remember deciding that its title was misleading: this was the least interesting of all the books I’d read so far! In retrospect that was a little harsh, but it’s true that Interesting Times feels like a retrograde step after the sheer glory of Soul Music. After many books’ absence, we re-encounter the hapless Rincewind (last seen in Eric), who is snatched away from a life of desert-island contentment when Unseen University is confronted by a crisis that only he can solve. (Well, that’s the official line. The reality, as Rincewind knows only too well, is that they don’t want to risk any proper wizards.) A request has come from the mighty and secretive Counterweight Continent for ‘the Great Wizzard’ and, before you can say ‘travel insurance’, Rincewind finds himself up to the ears in a great clash of noble houses, revolution, insurrection, and some alarmingly familiar faces…

Continue reading

Venus in Copper: Lindsey Davis

★★★½

Marcus Didius Falco: Book 3

Yes, all right, I’m reading out of order again. When I bought this book the other day, I knew that I had Book 2 lying around somewhere, but just couldn’t put my finger on it. Only now, as I write, have I noticed it staring at me accusingly from the bookshelf (if you’ve been to my flat, this state of mild book chaos will be understandable). I just couldn’t resist a touch of Roman comedy crime drama, so went ahead with Venus in Copper in the hope that I’d be able to catch up; and I have, though I’ve evidently missed a couple of crucial plot points for the wider series. In this instalment, our Roman gumshoe is hired for what seems to be an everyday kind of case: checking the credentials of a potential bride. But there are two catches. He’s been hired not by the groom, but by the groom’s sisters-in-law (the whole family being almost embarrassingly arriviste); and the problem is not the character of the bride so much as the fact that her last three husbands have died swiftly, in mysterious circumstances. What is Severina Zotica up to?

Continue reading

The Darling Buds of May: H.E. Bates

★★★★

The Larkin Family: Book 1

I have vague memories of watching the Darling Buds of May TV series in the early 1990s, although I was too young for much to register. The word ‘perfick’ made an impression, of course, and I remember that, every time Catherine Zeta-Jones came on screen as Mariette, my dad would shake his head and say, “I don’t know what they see in her”. I also grew to assume that my paternal grandmother, a farmer’s wife who died when I was small, must have been pretty much like Pam Ferris’s Ma Larkin. But plot? I honestly couldn’t remember much. As the first tenuous signs of spring try to force their way through the rain and sharp winds here in London, I decided I needed a bit of bucolic escapism and bought myself the book (and its sequels). And it was just the ticket. Warm, generous, sun-drenched: a world of strawberry-picking and white tablecloths in orchards on warm evenings; where all guests are welcome and, if you like it well enough, you don’t ever have to leave. Perfick indeed.

Continue reading