Twelve: Jasper Kent

★★★½

The Danilov Quintet: Book I

It’s 1812 and Russia faces dark days, as Napoleon’s great army sweeps eastward, pushing all before it. Some are even beginning to wonder whether they might see the ultimate sacrilege: a French invasion of Moscow. For four daring young soldiers, resistance is the only answer. Plucked from their regiments, Vadim Fyodorovich,  Maksim Sergeivich, Dmitry Fetyukovich and our narrator Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov form a special ops unit – and are waiting for some reinforcements to join them very shortly. Dmitry has enlisted the help of a band of men with whom he fought against the Turks some years earlier, whom he nicknames the ‘Oprichniki’ after the bloodthirsty bodyguards of Ivan the Terrible. The Oprichniki certainly prove their worth, striking by night and leaving the French forces depleted and terrified – but Aleksei begins to feel that something isn’t quite right. Who are these mysterious warriors from the dark fringes of Europe? And just what kind of bargain has Dmitry Fetykovich made with them on Russia’s behalf?

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How To Stop Time: Matt Haig

★★

So that’s the end of the Summer Without Men 2018. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed myself: I’ve read 27 books over the two months of the challenge, which is pretty respectable; even if I didn’t quite manage to embrace the broad spectrum of subjects that I’d hoped. But those other books are still there, waiting, and will be read in due course. Having a reason to focus on the female authors in my library made me appreciate their scope and range and wit so much more, and I think I might make this an annual thing. There’s no danger of running out of books: at my present count, I have 755 books by women on my to-read list (across all genres, both digital and hard-copy – yes, that figure rather scared me as well), so I could actually do Three Years Without Men and still have books to spare. But I can’t deny I’m looking forward to letting the men in again – as long as they behave themselves. I’ve had books by Ben Kane and Peter Ackroyd and Robert Harris and all sorts of people just sitting there, tempting me for the last two months, so we might have a bit of a rush on Romans and Vikings and general muscly-warlike-stuff until the novelty wears off again. But we’re easing ourselves in gently for the first book, with a typically sentimental, introspective novel by Matt Haig.

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The Western Wind: Samantha Harvey

★★★

It’s the beginning of Lent in the isolated Somerset village of Oakham, some time in the late fifteenth century. As the villagers prepare for their forty days of penance, a dead man is seen in the river. By the time rescuers come to help, the body has been swept away, but a fragment of clothing confirms its identity: Tom Newman, a prosperous, curious dreamer, and one of the few villagers to have ventured beyond the parish boundaries. The rains have been falling heavily and the riverbanks are thick with mud. He could have slipped in. But the question remains: was it misadventure or murder? As the small community huddles under bleak skies and heavy rains, the priest John Reve struggles to comprehend the mystery, dogged by the interference of the visiting dean, weighed down by the confessions of his parishioners, and troubled by the way that Newman’s death threatens to pull apart a whole network of secrets, doubts and obligations that bolster Oakham against the outside world.

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An Almond for a Parrot: Wray Delaney

★★★

Some weeks ago, I wrote that I was weary of Victorian jail-fiction, so you may think it strange that here I am, posting on another novel about a woman in prison. But this is different to the likes of The Corset: there are no naive lady visitors, no stern matrons, nor are we in the prim 19th century. No: it’s 1756, in the very bosom of the Georgian age, and this is a racy fable full of rogues and ladies of the night, and touched with odd, piquant flashes of magic. Tully Truegood is in Newgate, awaiting trial for murder, her life briefly secured by the child growing under her heart. She has been many things – a daughter, a whore, a sprite, and a magician – and, as she waits, she feels a compulsion rising in her to tell her story to the one man, now long absent, that she’s ever loved.

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The Thirteenth Tale: Diane Setterfield

★★★★

When I reviewed Bellman & Black, some years ago, several of you urged me to go back and read Diane Setterfield’s earlier novel The Thirteenth Tale. And so I have! You see, I do listen. It just takes me five years… And it was worth the wait, for I thoroughly enjoyed it. Setterfield weaves a modern Gothic tale full of mystery and tragedy, spiced with congenital madness, the crumbling rooms of a remote old house, and twins. Better still, it has a genuine bibliophile as the heroine and a reclusive writer as its enigmatic object. In fact, the whole story is a love letter to the power of fiction, which can sweep us away from the world around us, provide a retreat in hard times, and even transform our own pasts.

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Tongues of Serpents: Naomi Novik

★★★½

Temeraire: Book VI

Speaking of dragons, it’s been ages since I caught up with Temeraire and his captain Laurence in Naomi Novik’s lovingly-created alternate Napoleonic history. Luckily the library had just the right book at the right time and so I plunged in with gusto. Novik’s novels choose a different part of the world each time, to add variety both to the adventures and to the kinds of creatures we encounter: for this is a world full of dragons, serpents and other strange creatures. And our heroes’ current location is home to some of the strangest creatures even without the blessing of fantasy: as the curtain rises, we find gentleman and dragon newly arrived in Australia, exiled as punishment for their supposed treason. But it’s a sensitive time in the colony and the sudden arrival of two dragons (not to mention three soon-to-hatch eggs) adds a new frisson to the prickly aftermath of the Rum Rebellion.

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The Corset: Laura Purcell

★★★

Having enjoyed Laura Purcell’s novel The Silent Companions – a creepily Gothic tale of ghostly presences and paranoia in a remote country house – I was attracted to her follow-up. Once again set in the Victorian period, this has a similar atmosphere to her debut: again Purcell teases us with possible supernatural events, but I felt The Corset didn’t have quite the same eerie originality as The Silent Companions. It focuses on the relationship between two young women: Dorothea Truelove, a wealthy heiress of twenty-five who spends her time doing good works rather than snaring a husband; and Ruth Butterham, a teenage murderess awaiting trial in the prison which is one of Dorothea’s pet projects. Two very different worlds collide as Ruth confesses her history to Dorothea: not just the women’s drastically different upbringings, but also the worlds of science and superstition, logic and fantasy, reason and the unexplained.

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The Light Beyond the Forest: Rosemary Sutcliff

★★★½

The King Arthur Trilogy: Book II

I haven’t yet read The Sword and the Circle, the first part of Rosemary Sutcliff’s retelling of the legends of King Arthur, but the trilogy really doesn’t need to be read in sequence. The Light Beyond the Forest is a children’s novel, yet it’s one written with grace and poetic sensitivity (as is everything by Sutcliff), telling the story of the Grail Quest. Thereby it tackles some fairly weighty issues: trust, honour, truth, loyalty, temptation, sacrifice and evil. If I’d read it as a child, I think I’d have been deeply impressed by its grandeur; reading it now, I’m struck by its lyrical simplicity and by the way it boils down a complex mix of Christian and pagan legends into a highly readable story.

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The Cleft: Doris Lessing

★★★

Doris Lessing is an author who’s always intimidated me, simply by virtue of having won the Nobel Prize and thereby, obviously, being a Great Name. I’ve been shilly-shallying over The Golden Notebook for the past few years, so when I stumbled across this curious book in a charity shop, I thought it could be an interesting way in. And, oh, it’s a very odd thing: part fantasy, part fable, part allegory. It focuses on the Clefts: a primitive society of parthenogenic women who only ever give birth to female children. And then, one day, a monstrous creature is born with horribly deformed genitals. The Clefts expose it, as they do all damaged infants, but then more of these Monsters are born and, before long, the Clefts find themselves struggling against the rise of a new population, who are so similar to them and yet so horrifyingly, incomprehensibly different: men.

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The Fortune Hunter: Daisy Goodwin

★★★

Every time I go to Austria, I’m overwhelmed by the amount of Sisi memorabilia that’s on sale. The Empress Elizabeth isn’t as iconic a figure here in England and I really know very little about her, except that her life wasn’t a very happy one, so I hoped that this novel might give me a bit more insight into a compelling historical figure. Set in 1875, it focuses on the avid horsewoman’s visit to England for the hunting season, and her alleged romantic liaison with the dashing cavalry officer ‘Bay’ Middleton. Honestly, I can’t say I know massively more now than I did before, as this turned out to be a romantic novel with its credentials worn proudly on its sleeve – mainly interested in burning glances across ballrooms – but it made for a pleasant enough distraction.

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