The Children’s Book: A.S. Byatt

★★★★★

In the immortal words of Granny Weatherwax, ‘I aten’t dead’. On the contrary, I’m clawing my way out of a period dominated by the noble (but absolutely demented) effort of writing an exhibition catalogue, from scratch, including research, in three months. (A word of advice: don’t ever do this.) There’s been lots of other stuff going on, some delightful, some rather gloomy, but holidays are now less than a month away and I’m starting to get a grip. I have been reading and seeing operas and concerts and plays, and I fully intend to write about as much as I can remember through the fog. First up is an easy one: I’ve just finished A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, which I first read ten years ago and which enchanted me just as much second time around. Byatt is a rare writer: erudite, intellectual, compelling and technically brilliant, with a profound but unsentimental sense of compassion. I’ve read several of her novels, but The Children’s Book is my favourite for the way it vividly evokes bohemian life at the turn of the 20th century in England. It captures the magic of childhood before going on, ruthlessly, to show how adults create children, only to destroy them.

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The Rapture: Claire McGlasson

★★★★

It’s healthy to be reminded, ever so often, that history can be stranger than any fiction. Claire McGlasson’s debut novel, which will be published on 6 June, brings to life an odd slice of British history from 1926, when the Panacea Society flourished in Bedford. Largely made up of women who had lost husbands, brothers or sons in the Great War, the Society is centred on the figure of Octavia, a prophetess and self-proclaimed Daughter of God, who claims to have been sent to pave the way for the return of Jesus. While Octavia’s convictions inspire many of her followers, the Society’s youngest member Dilys finds the cult atmosphere increasingly stifling. Dilys has never experienced any of the visions or visitations described by her fellow members and has concluded that God has no plan for her. But, when she introduces a new member to the community, Dilys dares to hope that maybe life will start to have a purpose after all.

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The Follies of the King: Jean Plaidy

★★

The Plantagenet Saga: Book 8

Last summer I had a bit of a run on Jean Plaidy in second-hand bookshops. She seemed to be the great historical novelist whom I hadn’t yet read (with the exception of Madonna of the Seven Hillswhich I read in November 2017). Having furnished myself with the vast majority of her works, I settled down a couple of days ago with The Follies of the King, the lamentable tale of Edward II. It’s the eighth book in her Plantagenet Saga but each seems to be pretty much self-contained and this just happened to be the first my hand landed on. Now I’m worried that maybe I’ve made a mistake; or perhaps this and Madonna of the Seven Hills were just duff choices. Published in 1980, this feels as if it dates from the 1950s instead, full of stilted melodrama, needless repetition and one-dimensional characters. While it jogged memories from my history degree, I can’t say that I really enjoyed it, but I fought the good fight and struggled through to the end.

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The English Monster: Lloyd Shepherd

★★★½

In December 1811, two horrific murders shocked London’s East End district of Wapping. The cloth merchant Thomas Marr and his family are found mutilated in their home: father, mother, shop-boy and baby. Mere days later, the Williamsons, proprietors of the King’s Head pub, suffer the same fate. Known as the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, these events really happened, as did the clumsy investigation by the Shadwell magistrates that followed. Lloyd Shepherd makes this the basis of his eerily compelling novel: an early police procedural mixed with an ominous ancient evil. As the people of Wapping clamour for justice, Constable Charles Horton of the River Thames Police Office – under the aegis of his ex-navy boss, John Harriott – embarks on an investigation that, before it ends, will have ushered him into the very darkest places of the human soul.

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A Place Called Winter: Patrick Gale

★★★½

When Harry Cane wakes up in a fresh bed in a quiet room, he doesn’t understand where he is. Where’s the noise of the institution where he’s been incarcerated for the past weeks or months? Where are the restraints and attendants? Why does he seem, confusingly, to be free? Gradually, Harry comes to understand that he is now at Bethel, a therapeutic community where the progressive doctor Gideon Ornshaw hopes to treat non-conformist patients with gentler means. Surrounded by the beautiful, wild Canadian countryside, Harry allows Gideon to coax him back into his memories of the time before he came here. Times of brute hardship, fighting to tame the untouched Canadian earth; times of hope and love; times of leisured ease in a privileged English life that never touched his heart; times of fear. Times of murder and disgrace. Harry Cane has lost all he’s ever had. But is it too late to find himself?

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The Grand Sophy: Georgette Heyer

★★★★½

I’m currently ploughing through Deadhouse Gates, which really puts the ‘grim’ into ‘grimdark’, and needed something light and fluffy on the side. Enter Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy, a gorgeously warm-hearted story, with one of the most appealing Heyer heroines I’ve met so far. Having lost her mother as an infant, Sophia Stanton-Lacy has been brought up by her erratic diplomat father, Sir Horace. While most girls would be planning coming-out balls, Sophy has been playing hostess to officers and noblemen in Spain, Brussels and Paris. Capable, shrewd, game and compassionate, she makes friends easily and delights in helping those she loves – though her plots are rarely suitable for the faint-hearted. When Sir Horace is posted to Brazil, Sophy comes to stay with her aunt Lady Ombersley’s family in London. Expecting a poor little orphan, they are little prepared for the storm of personality that sweeps in among them. And this is only the beginning, for Sophy rapidly sees that her family have got themselves into a terrible tangle, which only she can solve…

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Jolly Foul Play: Robin Stevens

★★★★

A Murder Most Unladylike Mystery: Book 4

Hazel Wong and Daisy Wells have returned from their eventful summer holiday on board the Orient Express and it’s time for another school year at Deepdean. However, if our doughty detectives were hoping for a bit of a break from intrigue, they’re to be disappointed. When the school’s widely-loathed Head Girl drops dead during a fireworks display, murder is swiftly diagnosed, via the discovery of a bloodied hockey stick. Plenty of people have a motive to murder Elizabeth Hurst, who has been making everyone’s lives miserable, but who could possibly have had the opportunity? And who could have made it past the Five, Elizabeth’s eternal companions? Unfortunately the school’s trials are only just beginning and, to make matters worse, there is unrest at the heart of the Detective Society itself, as Daisy and Hazel’s friendship faces its greatest test yet.

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A Light of Her Own: Carrie Callaghan

★★½

In 1633, a young woman came before the Guild of St Luke in Haarlem, asking to be admitted as a master painter. She was Judith Leyster, a painter of domestic scenes and merry companies, and her acceptance into the Guild made her the first woman to be given such an honour. Carrie Callaghan uses the limited documentary evidence for Leyster’s life and career as the basis for this novel, which follows the ambitious young artist from her days as an apprentice in her master’s attic to her struggles to establish herself in an unwelcoming, male-dominated field. Joining other books set in the Dutch Golden Age, such as Girl with a Pearl EarringTulip FeverThe Miniaturist and Midnight Blue, it offers a glimpse of Dutch art in its most celebrated period – although I felt that this novel (unlike Leyster herself) didn’t live up to its own ambitions.

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Venus in Copper: Lindsey Davis

★★★½

Marcus Didius Falco: Book 3

Yes, all right, I’m reading out of order again. When I bought this book the other day, I knew that I had Book 2 lying around somewhere, but just couldn’t put my finger on it. Only now, as I write, have I noticed it staring at me accusingly from the bookshelf (if you’ve been to my flat, this state of mild book chaos will be understandable). I just couldn’t resist a touch of Roman comedy crime drama, so went ahead with Venus in Copper in the hope that I’d be able to catch up; and I have, though I’ve evidently missed a couple of crucial plot points for the wider series. In this instalment, our Roman gumshoe is hired for what seems to be an everyday kind of case: checking the credentials of a potential bride. But there are two catches. He’s been hired not by the groom, but by the groom’s sisters-in-law (the whole family being almost embarrassingly arriviste); and the problem is not the character of the bride so much as the fact that her last three husbands have died swiftly, in mysterious circumstances. What is Severina Zotica up to?

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Old Baggage: Lissa Evans

★★★★

It’s 1928 and the fight for women’s suffrage has faded from its revolutionary ardour in the 1900s into a muted movement, its core of fierce women gradually dropping off. All that remains are nostalgic talks and lectures which, all too often, preach to the converted or to those who’ve come for shocking tales of riots and hunger strikes. The world has moved on. A whole generation of young men has been wiped out in the War. There are other things to worry about than the political ambitions of a group of uppity women. Former suffragettes have married and had children, emigrated, or surrendered to personal demons. But, for Mattie Simpkin, the struggle never ended. This robust, good-hearted, forceful woman lives in a cottage (‘the Mousehole’) just off Hampstead Heath with her companion, meek Florrie Lee (who is, inevitably, nicknamed ‘the Flea’). Mattie is almost sixty, but is determined not to settle down and give up the good fight. Instead, galvanised by the discovery that young women no longer seem to have any kind of gumption or political engagement, she comes up with a plan to correct this – a plan which works wonderfully, except for one tiny, unforeseeable detail.

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