Morality Play: Barry Unsworth

★★★★

Being footloose and fancy-free is a fine thing to imagine, but the reality is rather less splendid when it’s the mid 14th century and winter is coming. Errant cleric Nicholas Barber thinks Fortune might be looking kindly on him when he stumbles across a group of travelling players in the woods, who are burying one of their number. They need a sixth man in their company, and Nicholas can sing and read and write, as befits a clerk. Perhaps he can hold off starvation a while yet, and enjoy some adventure along the way. And yet, as the group moves northward, hoping to reach Durham by Christmas, Fortune has a few more tricks up her sleeve. When circumstances divert them to a country town, they find the community buzzing with news of a murder, and the forthcoming execution of the culprit. But is the supposed murderer really guilty? Nicholas and his colleagues are about to find that a very simple murder is anything but… and in trying to come to the truth of the matter, they might be courting grave danger.

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Will and Tom: Matthew Plampin

★★★★

Will Turner arrives at Harewood House in the summer of 1797 in a turbulent frame of mind. His invitation from ‘Beau’ Lascelles, the eldest son of Baron Harewood, could be the beginning of something big. Will’s talent has been noted by his contemporaries and by the press. Now he might be able to win the greatest prize of all: an understanding patron. On the other hand, in order to achieve said prize, Will is going to have to endure several days in the company of frivolous aristocrats without causing offence which, for an obstinate working-class Londoner with a chip on his shoulder, won’t be easy. And worse is to come. For Will isn’t the only painter who’s been invited to Harewood this summer. When his boyhood friend (and fellow – rival? – painter) Tom Girtin unexpectedly turns up, looking mightily comfortable in this aristocratic milieu, Will bristles, assuming they’ve been set up to compete for the nobles’ amusement. But the truth – if truth it is – turns out to be more peculiar than even he could have imagined.

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Murder at the British Museum: Jim Eldridge

★★

I’m intrigued by stories set in museums, mainly because I love seeing what authors think curators do with their time (hint: less of the jungles, secret societies and revivified mummies; more ferreting around in dusty boxes. Or maybe that’s just me). This particular book caught my eye because it’s set in my own stomping ground. How could I resist a murder mystery in the hallowed halls of the British Museum? In retrospect, I probably should have done: partly for the usual reason (indignation at a lack of familiarity with what the building actually looks like), and partly because I didn’t think it was particularly well-written. But there’s still a measure of interest to be found in this tale of dastardly doings in Bloomsbury, and in the enterprising duo who are called in to help solve the crime and – more importantly – salvage the Museum’s reputation.

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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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