Goddess (2014): Kelly Gardiner

★★★ ½

Occasionally history renders fiction almost unnecessary. This was especially true in the case of Julie d’Aubigny, who blazed her way through Parisian society in the final years of the 17th century. She was a striking, swashbuckling, cross-dressing contralto; a lover of handsome men and beautiful women; a formidable duellist; and the toast of the Paris Opéra, where she was better known under her husband’s surname as Mademoiselle de Maupin. That’s how I was first introduced to her, by Théophile Gautier, on a sunny afternoon several years ago during a university holiday. At the time I was just charmed by the way that Gautier had created a plot which so cleverly mimicked that of As You Like It (a performance of which is at the heart of the novel), but I had no idea that de Maupin had been a real person. Nor did I have any inkling of her fabulous, roistering life, until I read Gardiner’s engaging book. It’s been quite a revelation, and she has been immediately fast-tracked onto my list of favoured historical ‘uppity women’.

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The Girl Who Fought Napoleon (2016): Linda Lafferty

★★★½

A novel of the Russian Empire

This book is one for those who were taken by the BBC’s recent production of War and Peace. It sweeps from the glittering salons of the upper classes in St Petersburg, where French language and culture reign supreme, to the brutal bleakness of the battlefields on which Russian soldiers fight to hold back the steady creep of French imperial ambition. At the heart of this novel – based, I should emphasise, on a fascinating true story – are two characters whose experiences offer complementary perspectives on the situation.

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The Trouble with Women (2016): Jacky Fleming

★★★★

I suspect Jacky Fleming will hate being labelled with this word, but she’s a little bit of a genius. Her new, tongue-in-cheek book of cartoons takes on one of the big questions of modern society: why is it that there are so many more male geniuses than female? Carefully studying the evidence from the 19th century, and presenting us with the ‘facts’, Fleming embarks on a simple exposé of the downright absurd reasoning by which men have traditionally ‘proven’ that women are the weaker sex.

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She Rises (2013): Kate Worsley

★★★½

This was recommended to me on Goodreads or Amazon some time ago, and its elegant cover lodged itself in my mind. It has turned out to be an intriguing historical adventure through desire and identity, a clever interweaving of two tales of losing and finding oneself, all spiced with the salt of the sea air. It’s the author’s first novel, but is already deft and assured, and the narration has an authentic early 18th-century period rhythm.

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Shadowplay (2014): Laura Lam

★★★

Micah Grey: Book II

Some months after reading the captivating Pantomime, I discovered that the second volume in Lam’s Micah Grey trilogy was actually available for Kindle after all. Longing for something light and gripping, and unable to exercise restraint, I devoured the entire thing on Sunday in my haste to find out more about Micah, his history and his strange, beguiling world. Please bear in mind that of course this post will include spoilers for the first book in the series, so proceed with care if you haven’t read it.

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Farewell My Concubine (1993)

Concubine6

★★★★

I watched Farewell my Concubine on the same day that I finished reading The Chevalier and found it interesting to compare these two very different stories about the mimesis of femininity. Directed by Chen Kaige in 1993, the film resonates much more strongly, which is unsurprising considering its status as a modern classic. It takes a deep and moving look at the psychological toll of assuming another sex and, using one enduring friendship, tells the story of China’s tumultuous relationship with its own cultural history during the course of the 20th century. Moreover it was my introduction to traditional Chinese opera, which fascinated me of course, even though I feel that the singing is something of an acquired taste for Western ears.

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The Chevalier (2016): M.C. Hobbs

★★½

A recent visit to Netgalley revealed a host of interesting fiction titles, but the one which excited me most on first impressions was The Chevalier, based on the early life of the remarkable Chevalier d’Eon. My interest in the Chevalier was originally piqued when a fictionalised version of him appeared in the BBC’s Scarlet Pimpernel series, and it was revived when the National Portrait Gallery acquired his portrait in 2012. He is one of the most colourful and intriguing figures in 18th-century history and I’m extremely surprised that there aren’t more novels about him. I couldn’t wait to settle down with this. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to expectations.

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The Beacon at Alexandria (1986): Gillian Bradshaw

★★★★

In one sense, of course, the title refers to the Pharos: that great lighthouse in the harbour of Alexandria which became one of the Wonders of the World. But it has another meaning too. Alexandria is a place of possibility and hope: a vast melting pot in which different cultures and religions have coexisted for centuries. It’s a place of ideas. And Charis of Ephesus hopes it’ll be a place of freedom.

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The Heresy of Love (2012): Helen Edmundson

Edmundson: The Heresy of Love

★★★★

(Shakespeare’s Globe, 28 August 2015)

I saw Helen Edmundson’s play The Heresy of Love over a month ago and, since the run finished in early September, there may be little point posting on it now. However, in recent days I’ve been turning it over in my mind again, thanks to the novel I’m currently reading: Flow Down Like Silver, about Hypatia of Alexandria. The parallels between these two brilliant women are obvious and crushing. Both were rich in intelligence and wit; both were faced with a new and unforgiving religious regime, which couldn’t tolerate that which it couldn’t control; and both were punished because they strayed beyond the confines of what was considered acceptable for a woman to know. Both stories provoke me to anger. Both deserve to be better known.

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Pantomime (2013): Laura Lam

★★★ ½

Micah Grey: Book I

I can’t quite remember how this book ended up on my Kindle, but I suspect it was another Goodreads recommendation. I’ve always enjoyed novels about theatre and performance, and this one promised something along the lines of The Night Circus: blending the sleight-of-hand of the circus with a more mysterious, elemental kind of magic. I freely confess that the ‘young adult’ designation put me off reading it for some time: nothing but a silly prejudice of mine; and one that I regretted as I was drawn into the story.

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