Queen’s Gambit: Elizabeth Fremantle

★★★★

I read Elizabeth Fremantle’s Girl in the Glass Tower two years ago and, ever since, I’ve meant to get round to her other Tudor novels. While Glass Tower focused on Arbella Stuart and Aemilia Lanyer, Queen’s Gambit is set considerably earlier, at the very end of Henry VIII’s reign. Obese, unpredictable and narcissistic, the king rules over a nervous court employed in the unpredictable task of catering to his favour. He has just executed his fifth wife, the giddy and silly Catherine Howard, and the great families of the realm are hopefully pressing their nubile daughters under his nose. But Henry has had enough of young women. His eyes have turned to maturity and good sense: the twice-widowed Katherine Lanyer, born Katherine Parr. Katherine is bright, gentle and wise: wise enough to want nothing less than to become queen. But, when the King calls, he must be answered; and soon Katherine finds herself at the heart of the Tudor web, ministering to a man whose precarious favour can disappear in a flash. Thoughtful and well-crafted, this novel brings the claustrophobia of the late Henrician court to life.

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Three-Martini Lunch: Suzanne Rindell

★★★★

It’s 1958 in New York and change is in the air. In the shabby streets of Greenwich Village, hipsters listen to jazz, argue about politics, experiment with performance art and dream of changing the world. Into this feverish place come three young people, seeking lives that’ll allow them to become their true inner selves. Privileged Cliff Nelson is running away from a life of upper-class bourgeoisie, confident of astonishing the world with the brilliant novels he’ll produce. Eden Katz comes east from Indiana, dreaming of being an editor in a publishing industry which has little place for women. And Miles Tillman tries to find a world that accepts all his facets, as a young black man from Harlem with a top-flight education and a passion for words. By the end of the story, these three young lives will have intertwined in a compelling story of love, ambition, tragedy and betrayal.

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A Change of Time: Ida Jessen

★★★★½

You must forgive the recent erratic posting. Life has been getting in the way, with lectures and work trips flying at me from all directions, plus some very pleasant socialising. Besides, WordPress have just introduced a new editor which isn’t quite as intuitive as I’d like. But never mind. I’m bumbling on as best I can, and have just finished reading a really gorgeous little book: A Change of Time by the Danish author Ida Jessen. Through her diary, a widowed school-teacher in early 20th-century Denmark remembers her late husband and uses her loneliness as a spur to revisit her life and, slowly, anxiously, recover her sense of self. For once, cover and book coexist beautifully: Jessen’s novel is like a Hammershøi in prose: a haunting, timeless, intimate exploration of loss, rendered by the translator Martin Aitken into elegantly spare English. Although the book won’t be published until March, I just had to write about it now, before the feeling of it fades; and it’s deeply suited to these long, dark winter evenings. A little jewel.

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Deposed: David Barbaree

★★★½

A remote prison in the scrubland outside Rome, 68 AD. The kind of place that you’re sent when the world wants to forget that you even exist. One afternoon, as young Marcus runs errands at the jail, he sees a new prisoner brought in. A man who has been blinded and brutalised, whom the guards treat with scorn as they leave, who has been brought here to be forgotten. A man named Nero. Eleven years later, Rome has settled into the rule of Vespasian, though the struggles of rival would-be emperors are fresh enough to make life difficult for his son Titus, who has taken charge of keeping the peace. Old factions die hard in Rome. And then, one day, news comes of a new arrival in the city. A senator from distant Spain, unknown to anyone. A blind man, with a young man named Marcus at his side, who has come with a great fortune to play his part in Rome’s future.

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False Lights: K.J. Whittaker

★★★★

I always love getting recommendations. Honestly, it brightens up my day every time. When RT enthused to me about this book, I realised it was already in my TBR pile and promptly moved it to the top of the list. And I’ve devoured it at high speed. It opens in 1817, two years since Napoleon scraped a narrow victory at Waterloo and placed his brother Jérôme on the English throne. Now English curfews are enforced by French troops and English patriots executed by French guillotines, and discontent is rising. We follow three characters into the heart of this powder-keg: Kitto Helford, an aristocratic fourteen-year-old with patriotic ambitions; his older brother Crow, the laconic Earl of Lamorna, whose withering arrogance hides a soul traumatised by war; and Hester Harewood, the resourceful daughter of a dashing (black) naval officer.

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Silk and Song: Dana Stabenow

★★★★

There’s something about the Silk Road that sparks off a latent dream of adventure deep inside me. One day I’d love to travel through these souks and caravanserais and to visit Samarkand, but for now I have to restrict myself to my imagination. And this wonderful book gave me ample opportunity for that. It’s a sprawling adventure, epic in every way, that crosses the breadth of the known world in the 14th century. Our heroine is Wu Johanna, the remarkable (and fictional) granddaughter of Marco Polo. Like a fairytale heroine, the orphaned Joanna escapes her wicked stepmother – and her ardent suitor – to follow her heart and heritage as a merchant on the trade routes of Asia. Dreaming of finding her grandfather, she presses further and further west with her small but loyal band of friends and family – and one very splendid horse. This is a super book, full of scents and spices and adventure, set in a most unfamiliar period of history, and with a very determined heroine at its heart. It’s a winner on all counts.

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The Pumilio Child: Judy McInerney

★★

Over the past year, while working on Mantegna, I’ve often though it a shame that there aren’t more novels about him. He had the kind of life that cries out for fiction and so, when I stumbled across this novel on Netgalley, I couldn’t resist. But I didn’t get on with it terribly well. It isn’t just that I found it hard to engage with it as a piece of historical fiction – though I did – but I found myself growing increasingly frustrated by the numerous errors, which could have been avoided by a ten-second check on Wikipedia. Perhaps this warrants a discussion about the purpose of historical fiction. We can get into that later, because (you won’t be surprised to hear) I have strong opinions about it. Perhaps it also warrants a discussion about whether you should read novels set in your specialist historical period. But the most remarkable thing is that I’ve actually ended up feeling sorry for Mantegna who, while one of the most unpleasant, litigious and self-conscious artists in history, does not deserve this. I should warn you that this is a long one and there is much ranting. I’d suggest you make a cup of tea first.

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Delilah: Eleanor de Jong

★★

My quest to find decent novels about Ancient Mesopotamia continues, although I’m still not having much luck finding books about this period other than Biblical fiction. And so I came to Eleanor de Jong’s Delilah, the story of my favourite Biblical harlot-hairdresser. It turned out to be quite a contradiction: a Biblical tale that doesn’t particularly follow the Bible; an historical novel which shows little interest in history; and a story which should show women at their most wily and powerful, neutered into a love story. Come, join me, as we try to tease our way through an increasingly unfamiliar Biblical tale.

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The Bird King: G. Willow Wilson

★★★½

By 1492, the great empire of Al-Andalus has shrunk to a thin strip of land along the bottom of the Iberian peninsula, harried by the forces of the Christian kings Ferdinand and Isabella. Yet, within the harem of the palace in Granada, life keeps its languid pace. While siege closes in on the city outside, the women continue their petty rivalries, their music and their poetry, under the sharp eye of the Lady Aisha, the Sultan’s mother. The concubine Fatima – sharp, irreverent, and beautiful – diverts herself with secret visits to her childhood friend Hassan, the Sultan’s mapmaker, who is gifted with an extraordinary ability to invent doors where there were none before. As their world crumbles, these two dreamers realise that the only life they’ve known is on the verge of becoming a nightmare; and that sometimes safety lies beyond the reach of any map.

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The Sleeper in the Sands: Tom Holland

★★★½

Tom Holland is nowadays best known as a historian and translator of Herodotus, but he started his career, back in the 1990s, as a novelist, favouring eerie, rather supernatural historical themes. The Sleeper in the Sands ticks all those boxes with aplomb, as it tells the story of the ambitious archaeologist Howard Carter, who is on the brink of making the most fabulous discovery of his career. As he waits for the arrival of his patron Lord Carnarvon, Carter finds himself brooding on what he can expect to find behind the sealed doorway of this unprecedentedly undisturbed tomb. Great treasures, certainly, but also dark whispers of something else. For strange papers have come into Carter’s possession, warning him of a terrible curse and recording a story that has been lost to the sands for millennia: the tale of the heretic Pharaoh Akh-en-Aten…

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