Old Baggage: Lissa Evans

★★★★

It’s 1928 and the fight for women’s suffrage has faded from its revolutionary ardour in the 1900s into a muted movement, its core of fierce women gradually dropping off. All that remains are nostalgic talks and lectures which, all too often, preach to the converted or to those who’ve come for shocking tales of riots and hunger strikes. The world has moved on. A whole generation of young men has been wiped out in the War. There are other things to worry about than the political ambitions of a group of uppity women. Former suffragettes have married and had children, emigrated, or surrendered to personal demons. But, for Mattie Simpkin, the struggle never ended. This robust, good-hearted, forceful woman lives in a cottage (‘the Mousehole’) just off Hampstead Heath with her companion, meek Florrie Lee (who is, inevitably, nicknamed ‘the Flea’). Mattie is almost sixty, but is determined not to settle down and give up the good fight. Instead, galvanised by the discovery that young women no longer seem to have any kind of gumption or political engagement, she comes up with a plan to correct this – a plan which works wonderfully, except for one tiny, unforeseeable detail.

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Soul Music: Terry Pratchett

★★★★½

The Discworld Reread: Book 16

This has always been one of my favourite Discworld books and, at this point in the reread, I think it’s categorically the favourite. Pratchett uses other books to riff on the arts – filmmaking (Moving Pictures) and opera (Maskerade), for example – but this homage to rock music affectionately skewers its pretensions, while maintaining a sense of the deep, raw, primal magic beneath it. Our hero is Imp y Celyn, a young bard from the rainy kingdom of Llamedos who dedicates his life to music in the midst of an argument with his intransigent father. Making vows like this is dangerous on the Discworld, because there’s always the danger something is watching and waiting for just such an opportunity to arise. And, when Imp (whose name roughly translates as ‘Small Bud of the Holly’) arrives in Ankh-Morpork, he finds himself fetching up in a strange old music shop, where he meets his destiny in the form of a very special guitar.

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Lords and Ladies: Terry Pratchett

★★★★

The Discworld Reread: Book 14

It’s Midsummer Night and, in the mountainous kingdom of Lancre, the new king and queen are about to be married. The great and the good have been invited; a gang of rustic mechanicals (or mechanical rustics?) are putting on a humorous play… and the boundaries between this world and that of the elves are drawing thin. Girls who should have known better have been dancing around up at the standing stones, and attracting the attention of powers-who-shouldn’t-be-attracted. Everyone says elves are lovely and merry and beautiful, which is exactly what the buggers want you to think. And Granny Weatherwax is absolutely bloody furious about it. She’s spent her whole life holding the barrier, and now it threatens to fall. To make matters worse, the betrothed king and queen are Verence and Magrat, who don’t have a single clue between them; Granny’s past is about to revisit her in a surprising way; and Nanny Ogg… well, is trying to help. It’s too much to hope for a Dream, but all Granny has to do is avert a Nightmare…

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Small Gods: Terry Pratchett

★★★

The Discworld Reread: Book 13

Having skipped temporarily out of order with Men at Arms and Going Postal, I decided to get the Discworld Reread back on track. Small Gods is one of the books I remember least from the first time around. I think at the time – and it holds true now too – it felt odd to be taken away from the characters who were increasingly becoming Pratchett’s ‘regulars’ into a completely new setting, with no familiar faces. Here we find ourselves in the Omnian Empire, a theocracy devoted to the Great God Om and ruled by its ferocious Exquisitor, the hawk-nosed Deacon Vorbis. Clumsy Brutha the novice is at the bottom of the heap, well-meaning, blissfully naive and – crucially – pure of heart. So when, one day, he hears the voice of Om speaking to him in a garden, he doesn’t know quite what to think. Especially because the Great God appears to have manifested in the form of a small, irascible and very disgruntled tortoise…

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The Soul Thief: Cecelia Holland

★★½

The Life and Times of Corban Loosestrife: Book 1

Cecelia Holland’s series of Viking-era adventure novels have just been reissued in Kindle format and this proved a good excuse to make a start on them. As some of you will remember, I’ve had a mixed reaction to Holland in the past – enjoying her Byzantine Belt of Gold, but remaining unmoved by her Borgia-centred City of God. However, as many people have praised her to me, I’m determined to keep giving her new chances, especially as she writes about a fascinating variety of historical periods. This is one of the more familiar settings, of course, and I plunged with interest into Holland’s story of Corban Loosestrife – outcast, stranger, unwitting catalyst – on his quest to recover his kidnapped sister Mav. In doing so, he is drawn into the politics of Viking Jorvik and Norway; and, more worryingly, into the clutches of the enigmatic Lady of Hedeby, who has saved Mav from one kind of slavery, only to draw her into another.

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What Hell is Not: Alessandro d’Avenia

★★★★

Don Pino Puglisi is a ray of light in the bleak Palermitan suburb of Brancaccio. More than fifty years ago, he was brought up in this claustrophobic neighbourhood and now, as a priest, he has returned to minister to his flock. And to the children most of all. For Brancaccio is a hell on earth. Dominated by the Mafia, it is a place without hope, without prospects, overlooked by the government ministers who are too frightened, or too corrupt, to intervene. There is no middle school; there are no parks; no space for children to grow. And so Don Pino comes home to fight for Brancaccio’s visibility: to campaign for a better world. Love, hope, compassion: these are things which challenge the Mafia’s stronghold and which try to make hell a better place. But of course the Mafia don’t take kindly to meddling priests. Gritty and heartbreaking, this is a story of one man’s struggle to change the world. It will appeal to those who’ve read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, but there’s a twist in the tale; for this is a true story.

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Adèle: Leïla Slimani

★★★

Having read Leïla Slimani’s Lullaby last year, I was keen to try her new novel, Adèle. Like Lullaby, this takes us beyond the polished facade of a comfortable, upper-middle-class Parisian family and shows us the hypocrisy and unhappiness within. This time our protagonists are Adèle, a journalist, and her husband Richard, a successful surgeon. They have a son, Lucien, and spend Christmas holidays with Richard’s wealthy family in the country. It’s a superficially perfect existence; but there are cracks beneath the surface. Adèle, the beautiful, serene, accomplished wife, hides a dark secret: ever since she was a child, she has been a sex addict, compulsively seeking out sensual experiences with as many people as she can, using these moments to anchor herself against the great, vast meaninglessness of the world. Yet Adèle’s time is running out and, when she makes a pass at a colleague of Richard’s, her whole carefully-constructed world is about to collapse.

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The Devil in the Marshalsea: Antonia Hodgson

★★★★

Thomas Hawkins: Book I

It’s 1727 and Thomas Hawkins is in trouble. Admittedly, this is pretty much the status quo for this roguish disowned son of a clergyman; but this time things are worse than usual. Having spent his meagre income on wine, women and gambling, Tom is in dire financial straits, but a chance win at the tables has brightened his mood. Now he can pay his rent, get his landlord off his back and carry on having a good time. But the world has other plans. Mugged and robbed in the stews of St Giles, Tom is left – once again – penniless, and his landlord is in no mood to be generous. Our bewildered young hero is dragged off to the infamous Marshalsea, the debtors’ prison in Southwark. Like hell, it’s easy to enter but hard to leave. And, like hell, there are demons loose within. As rumours of murder and ghosts spread around the prison, Tom is made an offer: find the murderer and he will be set free. But what if the murderer finds him first?

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A Notable Woman: Jean Lucey Pratt

★★★★

The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt

I have decided to write a journal. I mean to go on writing this for years and years, and it’ll be awfully amusing to read over later.’ It was Saturday 18 April 1925 and fifteen-year-old Jean Lucey Pratt was making a start on her first diary. Unlike most teenage girls, she actually kept it up: sixty years later, she’d produced over a million words, encompassing national, local and family politics, her ambitions, the frustrations of being a clever woman in a man’s world, her friendships and, most movingly, her constant desire for love. Simon Garfield, the editor of her journals, came across her work as a participant in the Mass Observation project, which gathered the experiences of ordinary people across the country during and after the Second World War. But Jean’s personal diaries go beyond the social history contained in her consciously ‘public’ journals. Here is an intelligent, smart, hopeful woman, longing to live to her full potential – but also a fallible, flawed human being who makes poor decisions, lacks courage, and manages to have whole love affairs in her imagination with someone she’s never actually spoken to. She is inspiring, exasperating and pitiful by turn: a fully-realised, articulate and hauntingly familiar personality.  There is, I think, a little bit of Jean Lucey Pratt in all of us.

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The Swish of the Curtain: Pamela Brown

★★★★

The Blue Door: Book I

Pamela Brown was fourteen when she wrote this, her first novel, although it wasn’t published until 1941, when she was a venerable sixteen. It was the first of a series and became a beloved children’s classic, cited as a favourite by Maggie Smith and Eileen Atkins among others. And it’s no accident that it appeals particularly to actors, because the Blue Door series follows the fortunes of a very special theatre company, set up by a particularly ambitious and determined group of children. It all begins when a new family moves into the Corner House in Fenchester. Across the road, two sets of siblings keep a watchful eye out: Sandra Fayne and her little sister Maddy from one side of the fence; Lyn Darwin and her brother Jeremy from the other. Soon it transpires that there are no fewer than three new children at the Corner House. The stage is set – literally – for a wonderful summer adventure that promises to become something much, much bigger.

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