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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1610: A Sundial in a Grave: Mary Gentle

★★★½

I have a mixed relationship with the author Mary Gentle, having now read two of her books: Ilario, long before I started this blog, and Black Opera some years ago. 1610 has been sitting on my shelf for over a year and, in the course of a warm, sunny weekend, I decided to give it a go. A sexual assault in the first few chapters gave me pause, but I pressed on regardless and soon found myself in the midst of a very enjoyable swashbuckler, populated with spies, rogues, kings, mathematicians and cross-dressing swordsmen – and taking in the France of Marie de’ Medici, the England of James I and, unexpectedly, Japan in the years before the Sukoku Edict closed its borders. I should stress that this isn’t a fantasy, but a rollicking historical adventure with a few hints of the mystical: best described, perhaps, as The Three Musketeers with added esoterica.

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The Two Houses: Fran Cooper

★★★★

When I discovered a copy of Fran Cooper’s new novel the other week, I couldn’t believe my luck. You might remember that I thoroughly enjoyed her debut, These Dividing Walls, a compassionate story of tensions within the walls of a Parisian apartment block. Her new novel is of a different stripe: a tale of Londoners Jay and Simon, whose dream holiday home in Yorkshire turns out to have unexpected baggage. The aptly-named Two Houses used to be one building, but its central rooms were cut out, levelled to the ground after the tragic death of its former owner’s wife, and rumoured to have housed a ghostly presence. From the moment she arrives, Jay feels a strange rapport with the unloved building, but she and Simon will discover that the villagers take a grim view of the new arrivals, and that Two Houses has yet to give up all its dark secrets…

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Weekend at Thrackley: Alan Melville

★★★½

This jolly novel is part of the British Library’s Crime Classics series, devoted to resurrecting overlooked treasures from the golden age of British mystery writing. While not an avid fan of crime novels, I have read one book from the series before – Death on the Cherwell – so it’s really the subject that appeals rather than the genre. In Weekend at Thrackley, first published in 1934, a rather feckless young man is surprised by an invitation to a country house weekend in Surrey. But further surprises are to come. Stuffed with dastardly villains, jewel thieves, mysterious pasts and a good dose of pluck, not to mention lashings of humour, this is just the ticket for cosy escapism.

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La Belle Sauvage: Philip Pullman

★★★★

The Book of Dust: Book I

This review is overdue because I read this book back in January, but the delay doesn’t point to anything rather than my own inefficiency. I’d asked for it for Christmas, eager to return to the otherworldly Oxford that I knew so well from His Dark Materials. After so many years, I did wonder whether Pullman would be able to carry off the same magical mixture that he achieved in the original: part children’s story, part moral fable, part religious allegory, which by the end had a truly epic sweep. I hoped I wouldn’t be disappointed. And I wasn’t. For me, La Belle Sauvage didn’t quite have the same wild, transporting alchemy as Northern Lights, but Pullman’s writing remains entirely reliable. To read it is to give yourself up into the hands of a master storyteller.

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Hereward: James Wilde

★★★

Hereward: Book I

It’s been a while since I spent some quality time with a murderous early medieval Englishman. Unfortunately I don’t have any more Uhtred books lying around just at the moment, so I’ve had to transfer my allegiance to an equally bloodthirsty kinsman of his: Hereward. In this first volume of a series, James Wilde tells the story of the legendary Saxon warrior who became the figurehead of rebellions against the Normans after the Battle of Hastings in 1066. It’s pretty sound sword-and-shield stuff, with bloody battles, an odd-couple pairing at its heart and a maverick hero. It doesn’t ever transcend that, but it’s an engaging way to encounter this rather dark period of English history.

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The Final Solution: Michael Chabon

★★★½

Close on the heels of Gentleman of the Road, J has supplied me with another of Michael Chabon’s books, in a not-so-discreet but much appreciated effort to nudge me through the rest of his oeuvre. At little more than 120 pages, this is more novella than full-length and, despite a haunting underlying subject, it has the feel of an amuse-bouche: a casual skirmish with one of the great characters of English literature. It’s the tale of an elderly man who was once famous for his extraordinary deductive powers across the length and breadth of the British Empire. But times have changed: the pea-soupers of London have given way to a peaceful retirement in the Sussex countryside, and the chaos of the human city to the quietly organised hives of honeybees. Little can tempt the old man from his self-imposed isolation; until, in the summer of 1944, he encounters a curious duo: a young boy with a splendid African grey parrot on his shoulder.

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The Absolutist: John Boyne

★★★★

It is 1919 and Tristan Sadler arrives in Norwich to meet Marian Bancroft, the sister of his friend and comrade Will Bancroft. Tristan has come to return the letters Marian wrote to her brother, which he has kept ever since Will’s death. And yet he hasn’t made this journey solely for the sake of restoring a piece of her family history. There are things Tristan needs to say; amends he needs to make. Will Bancroft didn’t die in action, but was shot by a firing squad of his own peers, hauled up on charges of cowardice after proclaiming himself an ‘absolutist’ – the firmest kind of conscientious objector. Tristan needs to tell Marian that her brother wasn’t a coward; but he also hopes, in meeting her, to find some closure for his own traumatic experiences on the Western Front.

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A Morbid Taste for Bones: Ellis Peters

★★★★

The Brother Cadfael Chronicles: Book I

In 1977, forty years ago, Edith Pargeter published the first book in her Cadfael series, which combined her talents as historical novelist (under her real name) and mystery writer (under the nom de plume Ellis Peters). Set in her native Shropshire, the story features the eponymous worldly-wise monk, whose adventurous youth has given way to a comfortable middle age at Shrewsbury Abbey. Here he finds himself solving a series of crimes in and around his foundation. Those who grew up in the 1990s, like me, will remember the cuddly Sunday-night ITV adaptation with Derek Jacobi as the sleuthing monk. Cadfael was almost certainly my introduction to murder mysteries and I know that I read some of the books as a teenager, though I don’t remember them now. I was delighted to find the first seven novels in the series during a recent tip to the Book Barn, and decided it was time to refamiliarise myself with them.

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Friendly Fire: Patrick Gale

★★★★

After reading Facing the Tank, I was keen to try some of Patrick Gale’s other novels. By chance, I stumbled across Friendly Fire, which is set in the same town and focuses on the grand old boarding school, Tatham’s, at its heart. Gale admits in his author’s note that the school is a thinly-disguised version of his own alma mater at Winchester, and perhaps that’s why the story shimmers with a kind of nostalgia. Like an adolescent version of The Lessons crossed with The Secret History, it follows the formidably bright Sophie and her friendship with the fascinating, flamboyant Lucas across the course of three tempestuous years. It’s a tribute to intense adolescent friendship, a tale of trying to find one’s place in a confusing world, and – perhaps above all – a love-letter to what happens when a thirsty mind meets a classical education.

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