The Cardinal’s Man: M.G. Sinclair

★★½

This, like Girl with a Pearl Earring, is a novel born from a painting, from a striking face that seems to look out at us across centuries and to spark a shock of fellow-feeling. While Tracey Chevalier’s famous book took its inspiration from the coy glance of a Dutch teenager, Sinclair’s story is inspired by a much more direct confrontation: Diego Velazquez’s Portrait of Don Sebastián Morra, in the Prado, dating from 1645. Using this powerful image as a starting point, Sinclair reimagines Morra’s life in a fictional biography that carries us from the bleak shores of Normandy to the glitter of Paris in the time of Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu. Spain, oddly enough, features less than you might expect. It is an ambitious book, and its championship of this fascinating but obscure figure is to be celebrated; but ultimately the novel is a fantasy, which makes no reference to the few known facts of Morra’s life. Moreover, it never quite manages to overcome some stylistic and compositional shortcomings.

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The Aviary Gate: Katie Hickman

★★★

The Pindar Trilogy: Book I

This appealed for two reasons. You may remember that some months ago I read the third book in this trilogy, The House at Bishopsgate (not realising at the time that it was a third book). Impressed by its quality, I was keen to read the earlier novels. Secondly, Hickman’s insight into the world of 16th-century Constantinople promised to reveal the answer to a question that intrigues me. What exactly happens in a harem? Yes, that, obviously, but what about the rest of the time? Surely it can’t be all about lying on a chaise longue while eunuchs fan you and feed you grapes? Well, according to this book, it’s also about poison, vaunting ambition, intrigue and the gradual erosion of everything you know beyond the walls of the ironically-named House of Felicity.

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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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The Lie: Helen Dunmore

★★★★

I haven’t read any books by Helen Dunmore before because, somehow, I’d got it into my head that she only wrote time-slip romantic fiction. Goodness knows why I thought that, but I suppose I’d heard vaguely about The Greatcoat and extrapolated widely to come up with a completely mistaken idea. The Lie has put me right. A poignant, gut-wrenching tale of love, loss, and survivor’s guilt, it tells the story of the young Cornishman Daniel Branwell as he returns home after the horrors of the First World War.

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First Class Murder: Robin Stevens

★★★★

A Murder Most Unladylike Mystery: Book III

When I spotted this in a second-hand bookshop the other day, it felt like Destiny. It was high time for another tale of jolly japes, cream buns and shocking murders. But this time, Daisy and Hazel aren’t looking for trouble at all. Quite the contrary. As Daisy’s family gather in London for the trial that follows the terrible events at Fallingford, Daisy herself sets off with Hazel and Hazel’s father on a magical holiday on the Orient Express. They have been warned to behave themselves and to stop ‘playing’ at being detectives. But that is easier said than done in a sleeper coach where there are so many fascinating people – especially when the girls learn that one of their fellow travellers is a spy going to pass secrets to the Germans, and another – as becomes clear – must be a murderer. Without a doubt, the Detective Society can’t let this lie! And so Daisy and Hazel become involved in their most thrilling and dangerous case yet.

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Rome: The Art of War: M.C. Scott

★★★½

The Rome Novels: Book IV

You certainly can’t accuse Manda Scott of doing the same thing over and over again. The first two novels of this series were written in the third-person; the third was in the first person; and this book is knitted together from an interweaving series of first-person testimonies from a dizzying number of characters. Nor do we remain in Judea, where I was just getting settled in. Instead, we’re whisked back to Rome for the final showdown in the Year of the Four Emperors, as the anxious Vitellius clings to power on the Palatine, and Pantera attempts to smooth the ground for his chosen candidate Vespasian to take the throne. But forces are at work against Pantera, led by an enemy as cunning and ruthless as himself. More to the point, someone in his inner circle is betraying him…

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Rome: The Eagle of the Twelfth: M.C. Scott

★★★★

The Rome Novels: Book III

War! Blood and dust! I hurried straight on to the next book in Manda Scott’s Rome series which, again, took me to a place I wasn’t expecting. Disconcertingly, after two novels focused on Pantera, we step away from him completely for much of this volume and instead follow Demalion of Macedon, a young horse-trader turned legionary in the XIIth Legion. If the first book centred on Rome and the second on Judea, this volume takes us to even more exotic regions: to Armenia and Hyrcania under the rule of the Parthian King of Kings. Knowing that I was in good hands, I pushed impatience about Pantera to the back of my mind, and let Scott unfold her story in her own compelling time.

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Rome: The Coming of the King: M.C. Scott

★★★★

The Rome Novels: Book II

When I saw the second book in Manda Scott’s Rome series in the library, I pounced on it. It picks up the story in 66 AD, a couple of years after The Emperor’s Spy concluded. Nero is emperor; Seneca is dead; the Empress Poppaea is dying in childbed; and our subtle protagonist Pantera is heading south to Judea on the heels of the man who started the Great Fire of Rome. Pantera has wise and loyal allies, but he is the only one with the skills to track down the zealot Saulos. For Saulos, too, was trained as a spy by Seneca and Pantera knows that he is stepping into a cat-and-mouse game with a man as dangerous as himself, made even more lethal by the fiery convictions of faith. As tensions simmer below the surface in Caesarea and Jerusalem, it requires only one spark for the whole of Judea to flare into bitter internecine war. And Saulos, as we’ve seen, loves a good fire…

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Vixen: Rosie Garland

★★★

This was on my library wishlist even before I read Rosie Garland’s Night Brother, and without knowing a thing about it. I was just intrigued by the title and tantalised by the cover: I thought it might be a bit like Emma Geen’s Many Selves of Katherine North, but of course I was thinking too literally. Set in the Devon village of Braunton in the plague year of 1349, it in fact tells the story of Thomas, the village priest; Anne, his housekeeper and would-be wife; and the strange, mute girl who is discovered half-drowned in a bog after a terrible storm. As Death draws its wings close around Braunton, these three find themselves at the heart of a struggle between small-mindedness and broad vision, played out in microcosm in the kitchen and barn of Thomas’s meagre home.

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Now I Rise: Kiersten White

★★★ ½

The Conqueror’s Trilogy: Book II

When looking for a book to read on Halloween, I chanced upon And I Darken, the first novel in this alternative-history trilogy. It was a fitting choice, as the series follows the fortunes of the fierce Lada Draculesti. In our own universe, her male alter ego would go on to make an indelible impact on history and Gothic legend; and Lada looks set to make similar waves in her own world. I discovered the second novel in the series at London Film and Comic Con and devoured it during the course of a quiet afternoon. Now the youthful high spirits of the first book have faded into a stronger sense of purpose. Lada rides north to claim the throne of Wallachia for her own, while her gentle brother Radu stays behind at the Ottoman court. He’s destined to be sucked into the most significant siege of the 15th century, for it is 1453 and the young sultan Mehmed has turned his eyes south, to the walls of Constantinople. Two empires are at stake. Only one can survive.

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