The Singing Sword: Jack Whyte

★★★

A Dream of Eagles / The Camulod Chronicles: Book 2

When we last encountered Publius Varrus and his friend Caius Britannicus, the two men had founded a colony in south-west Britain, hoping to preserve Roman values and public order even after the Empire inevitably withdraws from the island. This second book in the series shows us the teething struggles of the infant colony, as Saxon raids multiply along the coast and, far across the sea, the Roman empire begins to tear itself apart. While I was glad to be reunited with our two doughty protagonists, of whom I grew rather fond in the first book, I felt that this sequel failed to live up to its eventful predecessor. Pacing becomes a serious issue here, and some factors which only niggled faintly in the first volume became problematic in The Singing Sword. And yet there’s still the pleasure of watching various Arthurian motifs (or characters) coming into being. In short, a curate’s egg – and hopefully only a temporary misstep.

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The King’s Assassin: Benjamin Woolley

★★★½

The Fatal Affair of George Villiers and James I

History is littered with stories of royal favourites who’ve clawed their way up from modest roots to dazzling heights of influence – but few did so quite as spectacularly as George Villiers. At the age of twenty, the future Duke of Buckingham had precious little going for him. He was a penniless gentleman, the second son of a second marriage, whose dead father had left everything to the children of his first marriage. In most cases this would have been a one-way ticket to obscure poverty, but George had several key advantages. He had a remarkably tenacious and ruthless mother, Mary Villiers, who recognised potential when she saw it. He had extraordinary good looks, remarkable charisma and intelligence. He (Mary decided) would be the catalyst by which his family dragged themselves to wealth and power – and there was one very obvious way to do that: to catch the king’s eye. This is one of British history’s great stories of social climbing, and Woolley delves into the detail with relish – even if I felt the book lacked the vivacity and panache that its captivating subject wielded with such ease.

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The Thing About Clare: Imogen Clark

★★★

The sprawling Bliss family revels in the kind of chaos you’d expect when you have four characterful siblings, a wordy, slightly feckless father and a doughty Irish mother. The children have, with varying amounts of grace, embraced the roles thrust on them by their order of birth: Miriam, the eldest, the organiser; Sebastian, the unexpected baby, coddled and charming; Anna, the cherished, spoiled favourite, who has been supported no matter what she does. And then Clare, the second child: troubled, troublesome and fractious. As we follow the Bliss siblings through their lives, we gradually come to understand them better and to grasp the complicated network of allegiances and obligations that binds them together when we first meet them, as adults, standing around the grave of their mother. But Dorothy Bliss, deceased, has one final surprise to levy upon her children.

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The Skystone: Jack Whyte

★★★★

A Dream of Eagles / The Camulod Chronicles: Book I

Two men meet in the African desert. One is Caius Britannicus, a brilliant Roman general who has been taken captive by one of the desert tribes. The other, his rescuer, is Publius Varrus, a centurion finally heading home to a new posting in his native country. Both men are Britons; both, by a quirk of Fate, are destined to head over the seas together to take up new positions in the same legion. And that same Fate has greater things in store, because Jack Whyte’s gripping historical novel isn’t just a story of Roman Britain, giving us a rare fictional glimpse of that cataclysmic moment in the late 4th century when the legions deserted the islands for good. It’s also the first in an epic series of novels that (I presume) will follow the families of Caius Britannicus and Publius Varrus down the ages, at least as far as their mutual great-grandson, who will become the King Arthur of legend. So far, the tale has been utterly absorbing, rationalising the legends into a completely plausible tale of honour, nobility and brotherhood in the dying days of the Roman Empire, when one man’s dream becomes the foundation of a new age.

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Will and Tom: Matthew Plampin

★★★★

Will Turner arrives at Harewood House in the summer of 1797 in a turbulent frame of mind. His invitation from ‘Beau’ Lascelles, the eldest son of Baron Harewood, could be the beginning of something big. Will’s talent has been noted by his contemporaries and by the press. Now he might be able to win the greatest prize of all: an understanding patron. On the other hand, in order to achieve said prize, Will is going to have to endure several days in the company of frivolous aristocrats without causing offence which, for an obstinate working-class Londoner with a chip on his shoulder, won’t be easy. And worse is to come. For Will isn’t the only painter who’s been invited to Harewood this summer. When his boyhood friend (and fellow – rival? – painter) Tom Girtin unexpectedly turns up, looking mightily comfortable in this aristocratic milieu, Will bristles, assuming they’ve been set up to compete for the nobles’ amusement. But the truth – if truth it is – turns out to be more peculiar than even he could have imagined.

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The Children’s Book: A.S. Byatt

★★★★★

In the immortal words of Granny Weatherwax, ‘I aten’t dead’. On the contrary, I’m clawing my way out of a period dominated by the noble (but absolutely demented) effort of writing an exhibition catalogue, from scratch, including research, in three months. (A word of advice: don’t ever do this.) There’s been lots of other stuff going on, some delightful, some rather gloomy, but holidays are now less than a month away and I’m starting to get a grip. I have been reading and seeing operas and concerts and plays, and I fully intend to write about as much as I can remember through the fog. First up is an easy one: I’ve just finished A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, which I first read ten years ago and which enchanted me just as much second time around. Byatt is a rare writer: erudite, intellectual, compelling and technically brilliant, with a profound but unsentimental sense of compassion. I’ve read several of her novels, but The Children’s Book is my favourite for the way it vividly evokes bohemian life at the turn of the 20th century in England. It captures the magic of childhood before going on, ruthlessly, to show how adults create children, only to destroy them.

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The Rapture: Claire McGlasson

★★★★

It’s healthy to be reminded, ever so often, that history can be stranger than any fiction. Claire McGlasson’s debut novel, which will be published on 6 June, brings to life an odd slice of British history from 1926, when the Panacea Society flourished in Bedford. Largely made up of women who had lost husbands, brothers or sons in the Great War, the Society is centred on the figure of Octavia, a prophetess and self-proclaimed Daughter of God, who claims to have been sent to pave the way for the return of Jesus. While Octavia’s convictions inspire many of her followers, the Society’s youngest member Dilys finds the cult atmosphere increasingly stifling. Dilys has never experienced any of the visions or visitations described by her fellow members and has concluded that God has no plan for her. But, when she introduces a new member to the community, Dilys dares to hope that maybe life will start to have a purpose after all.

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The Follies of the King: Jean Plaidy

★★

The Plantagenet Saga: Book 8

Last summer I had a bit of a run on Jean Plaidy in second-hand bookshops. She seemed to be the great historical novelist whom I hadn’t yet read (with the exception of Madonna of the Seven Hillswhich I read in November 2017). Having furnished myself with the vast majority of her works, I settled down a couple of days ago with The Follies of the King, the lamentable tale of Edward II. It’s the eighth book in her Plantagenet Saga but each seems to be pretty much self-contained and this just happened to be the first my hand landed on. Now I’m worried that maybe I’ve made a mistake; or perhaps this and Madonna of the Seven Hills were just duff choices. Published in 1980, this feels as if it dates from the 1950s instead, full of stilted melodrama, needless repetition and one-dimensional characters. While it jogged memories from my history degree, I can’t say that I really enjoyed it, but I fought the good fight and struggled through to the end.

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A Place Called Winter: Patrick Gale

★★★½

When Harry Cane wakes up in a fresh bed in a quiet room, he doesn’t understand where he is. Where’s the noise of the institution where he’s been incarcerated for the past weeks or months? Where are the restraints and attendants? Why does he seem, confusingly, to be free? Gradually, Harry comes to understand that he is now at Bethel, a therapeutic community where the progressive doctor Gideon Ornshaw hopes to treat non-conformist patients with gentler means. Surrounded by the beautiful, wild Canadian countryside, Harry allows Gideon to coax him back into his memories of the time before he came here. Times of brute hardship, fighting to tame the untouched Canadian earth; times of hope and love; times of leisured ease in a privileged English life that never touched his heart; times of fear. Times of murder and disgrace. Harry Cane has lost all he’s ever had. But is it too late to find himself?

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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.

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