The Binding: Bridget Collins

★★★★

Colleagues at work have just set up a book club, which is an exciting development, especially because they’ve picked out some really interesting titles. The first meeting I’m able to make is devoted to The Binding, which I devoured yesterday during a long flight and which turned out to have a delicious mixture of flavours: historical fiction, fantasy, mystery and romance, all wrapped up in evocative prose. We follow Emmett Farmer, a young man who is recovering from a serious illness that has wiped out most of his summer. He’s just beginning to regain his strength when a troubling letter arrives for his parents. The binder has asked for him to be her apprentice. Emmett doesn’t understand why an old woman, shunned for her unspeakable craft and regarded with fear, could possibly want his help; but nor does he understand the new undertones of suspicion with which his family regard him. What happened during his illness? And why, when he reaches the binder’s lonely home, in the middle of the marshes, does he feel so sickened by certain rooms? Can Seredith, the binder, his new teacher, harness what she believes to be his deep natural talent? And what exactly does a binder do, anyway?

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Once Upon a River: Diane Setterfield

★★★★½

Stories are like rivers. They have sources and meanders, tributaries and backwaters, and often they change along their length, swelling from modest little stream to raging torrent. The regulars of The Swan inn at Radcot, on the banks of the Thames, are famous for the stories they weave as the great river flows past their door, but none of them has yet come up with a tale as strange as the one that unfolds in their very own inn on one dark night. It’s solstice night in the depths of winter, and a half-drowned, bleeding man staggers through the inn’s door carrying a drowned child in his arms. The man needs care; the child, all assume, is dead. But when the local healer Rita goes to prepare the child’s corpse in the outhouse, she discovers to her shock that the little girl is alive. Silent; enigmatic; self-contained. But breathing. The resurrection of this strange child immediately makes The Swan famous – such stories there are to tell, now! – but it also stirs up old griefs, losses and desires. Who is the child? And who will claim her? This is my favourite of Setterfield’s books so far: a deliciously eerie fable which blurs the line between reality and myth, and suggests that stories might – just might – come true.

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Affections: Rodrigo Hasbún

★★★

Desire to read more widely in 2020 brought me to this novel by the young Bolivian author Rodrigo Hasbún, published in a translation by Sophie Hughes by Pushkin Press. Family saga meets political history in this turbulent story of three German-Bolivian sisters, their complex relationship with their father, and their growth to maturity in the violent years of the 1960s and 1970s. My knowledge of South American history at this period is embarrassingly patchy, despite an early teenage flirtation with Che Guevara, and so I learned a great deal from Hasbún’s book in that respect (more, as it turned out, than I realised!). As a novel, however, it feels strangely restrained – told through vignettes, there is much left unsaid and it feels more like flicking through a family photo album than a real chance to get to know these three very different women.

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Love Without End: Melvyn Bragg

★★½

A few days ago, Helen reviewed Love Without End, which reminded me that I’d read a galley of this novel back in August and had, embarrassingly, failed to do anything about it. I’d been attracted to the book by its story of Abelard and Heloise, the brilliant medieval scholars whose love story captivated me at university and who have never quite released their hold on me. Bragg’s novel, however, is not straightforward historical fiction, as it weaves another story in and out of the past, entwining Abelard and Heloise’s story with that of the modern writer Arthur. He (we’re told) is the author of the historical chapters that we read and, in the modern chapters, we’re invited to follow his progress as he wanders through Paris, having long lunches and intellectual conversations with his daughter Julia. The major difficulty that Bragg faces with the book is that intellect is prized over humanity, which may mean that we get closer to what Abelard and Heloise actually believed, but robs the reader of any chance of truly engaging with them.

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European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman: Theodora Goss

★★★★

The Athena Club: Book 2

Buckle up and tally ho! Squeeze into your walking suit, grab your umbrella and put on a stout pair of shoes, because the ladies of the Athena Club are on another mission! In fact, a couple of tickets for the Orient Express wouldn’t go amiss this time either, because we are bound for mysterious and distant climes: eastern Europe, to be exact. Our band of remarkable young women – introduced in The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter – found one another when they realised that all their fathers were involved in the sinister Société des Alchemistes. Worse still, all their fathers were unethical scientists, interested in transmutation and modifying the human form, and many of our heroines are products of those experiments. Now it’s time for Mary Jekyll, Diana Hyde, Catherine Moreau, Justine Frankenstein and Beatrice Rappaccini to help another of their kind – for an urgent letter has come, requesting help, from a certain Lucinda Van Helsing…

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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 Glass Woman: Caroline Lea

★★★½

As we head deeper into the season of long nights and crisp mornings, this tale of anxiety, fear and distrust in an Icelandic winter feels very appropriate. It opens with a wedding: Rósa, the daughter of the late Bishop of Skálholt, is wooed and won by the wealthy farmer Jón Eiríksson. But this tale of a new marriage is far from being a cosy feel-good romance: no one is foolish enough to believe that love has anything to do with it. With luck, it’ll come later. Jón is a recent widower who needs a wife to help him on the farm and give him children. Rósa faces suspicion in her own community because she reads, writes and is fond of ancient runes and sagas – things that the church forbids. In theory, their union should help both of them. But Rósa has barely settled in before alarming questions begin to unsettle her. Why won’t Jón let her socialise with the local women? What’s the story behind his near-demonic servant Pétur? And what actually happened to Jon’s first wife?

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House of Dreams: Pauline Gedge

★★★★

The Story of Thu: Book 1

Sharp, shrewd and ambitious, Thu chafes at the limits of life in her small village, Aswat, on the banks of the Nile. She resents the fact that her beloved brother Pa-ari is allowed to go to school at the Temple of Wepwawet, where he is learning to become a scribe, while Thu has to content herself with learning to follow her mother’s trade as a herbalist and midwife. What alternative does she have? This is the 12th century BC, in the reign of Pharaoh Ramses III, and young women have limited say in their own destiny; but her family haven’t reckoned with Thu’s steely determination. This engaging novel, the first of a two-part series, draws us into the inexorable rise of a protagonist who is by turns strikingly naive and astonishingly manipulative, occasionally irritating, but always intriguing. Inspired by the Harem Conspiracy of 1155 BC, it’s the first of Pauline Gedge’s books that I’ve read and offers an enjoyable glimpse of Ancient Egypt seen through the eyes of a novelist who has made the period her speciality.

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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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The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter: Theodora Goss

★★★★

The Athena Club: Book I

This is the first full-length novel I’ve read by Theodora Goss, though I’ve previously enjoyed her short stories Come See The Living Dryad and Red as Blood and White as Bone. She has a wonderful way of rethinking myths and fairy tales, and she brings the same creative spark to this delicious Gothic mashup, which reminded me very strongly of the Penny Dreadful TV series. It all begins when Mary Jekyll’s mother dies, leaving her orphaned and struggling to keep up the grand family house near Regent’s Park. Mary is mystified by the discovery of strange payments made from her mother’s account, which suggest that her dead father’s unsettling collaborator, Edward Hyde, might still be alive. Even worse, hidden letters suggest that Dr Jekyll used to be part of the Alchemists’ Society, a sinister secret network of scientists who have been using their daughters as subjects for their unethical experiments. Mary sets out to find some of these other gifted women, hoping they can shed light on her father’s work, but time is of the essence. Young women are being brutally murdered in the East End, and it swiftly becomes clear that there are links to the Society; but how can the killer be stopped? Full of adventure, derring-do and strong female characters, this is a glorious and loving romp through a whole subgenre of 19th-century English literature – and a darn good story to boot.

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