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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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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Just One Damned Thing After Another: Jodi Taylor

★★★★

The Chronicles of St Mary’s: Book I

Madeleine Maxwell – short, opinionated redhead – is a maverick. She’s also an historian, which amounts to much the same thing. At school, Max is saved by her teacher Mrs De Winter, who channels her disruptive tendencies into a deep passion for history. Many years later, having gained her PhD from the University of Thirsk, Max has a second reason to thank Mrs De Winter, who puts her up for a job at the St Mary’s Institute of Historical Research. The historians of St Mary’s have a public reputation as eccentric, shabby and lovable: a band of chaotic academics who pursue the bits of history that others don’t reach. How do you drive a quadriga? How far could Icarus have flown? What are the constituents of Greek fire? But the initiated soon learn a different story. Once Max has passed her interview, she enters a thrilling world where ‘practical history’ takes on a whole new meaning. For St Mary’s have discovered the secrets of time-travel, and there are no limits to their research. A roistering tale of historical skulduggery, physics, and plenty of tea, this is a glorious, geeky gem of a book: historian’s catnip.

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Chariot of the Soul: Linda Proud

★★★★½

The end of September was an exciting but rather fraught period for me at work, so I didn’t get round to reading or writing anywhere near as much as I hoped. With the dawn of October, I could breathe a sigh of relief and lose myself in books once again, and the first one I turned to was a novel I’d been saving for a time when I could really appreciate it. Some of you will remember how much I enjoyed Linda Proud’s Botticelli Trilogy and her prequel A Gift for the Magus. I’ve been intrigued ever since I heard that her new book would take her into unfamiliar territory, in the mysterious and dark days of early Roman Britain. Now at last I’ve had the chance to curl up with Chariot of the Soul, and it was everything I’d hoped it would be: a sensitive, thoughtful book that looks at our small island and touches on very timely themes about identity, assimilation, compromise and confrontation with a great pan-European power.

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Mythago Wood: Robert Holdstock

★★★★★

Mythago Wood: Book I

Mythago Wood was first recommended to me five years ago, but it was only last weekend that I saw a copy in my local library and pounced. I hadn’t been at all sure whether I would like it – indeed, I hadn’t been at all sure what it was about – but reading it has been a truly remarkable experience. I suppose the book does fall under the fantasy banner, but it’s actually about myths and legends, the collective unconscious, and what Peter Ackroyd calls in his book Albion ‘the English imagination’. And it’s about woods: those deep, old English woodlands which can give you a thrill of unease when walking through them simply due to their antiquity. What might be hiding in the depths of such primeval forests? Playing with notions of relativity, time and space, Holdstock creates a world of such fascinating allure that I was captivated from the very first page. I may have taken half a decade to get round to this recommendation, but by heaven it was worth the wait.

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