Rules of Civility: Amor Towles

★★★★½

I’ve just returned from a business trip to New York, during which I had the perfect reading material: Amor Towles’s chic but shrewd Rules of Civility. While it shares the ineffable style of Gentleman in Moscow, it has a different spirit: harder, wiser and more cynical. It conjures up Manhattan in the late 1930s: a city of walk-ups and steel fire-escapes; jazz quartets in smoky underground bars; and glittering parties in riverside mansions. And, at the book’s heart, are two young, scrappy and hungry heroines: Katey Kontent and Eve Ross. Both, in their own way, are self-fashioned and, as they wait on the brink of 1938, they can almost taste the potential in the air. Right now they might be eking out their last dollars in a downtown bar but, one day, New York is going to spill its gorgeous bounty right into their silken laps. It’s just a matter of finding the lever to get things moving. And, by happy chance, the catalyst is about to walk into both their lives…

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The Crow Garden: Alison Littlewood

★★★

In 1856, the young doctor Nathaniel Kerner makes his way north to Crakethorne Manor in Yorkshire: his first placement as an alienist or mad-doctor. He hopes to find an asylum full of progressive ideas and enlightened leadership, but it soon transpires that the enlightened spa treatments and extensive gardens described in the brochures are fictions. Instead Crakethorne is governed by the unstable Dr Chettle, who eschews modern notions of treatment in favour of the questionable science of phrenology. His new home isn’t all that Nathaniel would have wished. And yet there is one aspect which captures his imagination: Victoria Adelina Harleston, his beguiling patient.

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The Alchemist of Souls: Anne Lyle

★★★½

Night’s Masque: Book I

Larry Rostant’s Renaissance cover art has once again persuaded me to take a punt on a novel: a compelling blend of fantasy and gritty historical fiction, populated by players, spies, noblemen, and swordsmen who are down on their luck. This is London, in the fading days of Elizabeth I’s reign, but not as you know it. The queen tarries at Nonsuch, mourning her late husband Robert Dudley, while the reins of power are in the hands of her elder son Prince Robert. The capital seethes not only with religious strife, but also racial tension, for the discovery of the New World has brought Europe into contact with the skraylings: human-like and yet not human; great craftsmen, traders and warriors. And the imminent arrival of the first skrayling ambassador to the Court of St James may well be the spark that ignites the blaze. Imagine Shakespeare in Love seasoned with grit, intrigue and more than a hint of otherworldly magic.

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The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle: Stuart Turton

★★★★

A man wakes up in the middle of a wood, with a single name on his lips: “Anna”. That’s all he has. His mind and memories are blank. Who is Anna? What is she to him? Who is he? He has no idea. When he sees a screaming woman running through the wood, followed by a man in a dark coat, and hears a shot shortly afterwards, he knows he has just witnessed a murder. But when, terrified, he stumbles out of the woods and into the grounds of a crumbling country house, he discovers that nothing is quite as it seems. For this novel is in a genre all of its own: a ferociously creative, time-travelling, body-hopping murder mystery, which reads like a cross between Memento, Inception and Groundhog Day, written by Agatha Christie.

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The Sky Over Lima: Juan Gómez Bárcena

★★★★

It’s 1904 and José and Carlos, two wealthy young men, are playing at being poets. They loiter in a tumbledown garret, savouring the romance of pretended poverty, and share their love for their favourite writer: the visionary Spanish wordsmith Juan Ramón Jiménez. His newest book hasn’t yet made its way across the seas to Peru, but the boys are desperate to read it. Maybe they could write to him and ask for a copy? And yet… and yet… They know that the great man won’t be moved by the plight of two impressionable students, so they formulate a cunning plan. Might he feel obliged to answer if they adopt another persona – if, for example, they pretend to be a beautiful young woman?

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Caligula: Simon Turney

★★★

The Damned Emperors: Book I

Simon Turney (usually billed as S.J.A. Turney) has built up quite a following with his e-books set in the Roman army, especially the Marius’ Mules series. They’ve been at the edge of my consciousness for a while, so I welcomed the chance to have a taster of Turney’s writing via this new novel. It’s the first in a series which will focus on the deliciously colourful emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. In tackling Caligula, however, Turney takes the same approach that Margaret George did with Nero, attempting to cut through the accretions of centuries of propaganda and legend, to reveal the man beneath. It’s a noble attempt, but not without its problems, as the Julio-Claudians are always at their most interesting when they’re barking mad.

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The Wicked Cometh: Laura Carlin

★★★

In the dark streets of early 19th-century Holborn, people are disappearing. Men, women and children vanish on their way home from work or after a pint in the pub. As the smogs thicken in the narrow streets, orphaned Hester White studies the handbills pasted up on the dank walls, begging for news of lost loved ones. It’s a bleak time to be poor in London and, when Hester suffers an accident near Smithfield Market, and is swept off for recuperation in the house of a wealthy surgeon, she thinks that she has escaped the dark belly of the underworld once and for all. Little does she know that she is only being drawn deeper into danger. A tale of Gothic threat and forbidden love, this novel reads like a cross between Sarah Waters and Grand Guignol.

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An Accomplished Woman: Jude Morgan

★★★★

While at home over Christmas, I spotted this novel on one of my mother’s bookshelves and promptly snaffled it without her knowledge (hi Mum!). Jude Morgan has drifted in and out of my awareness these last few years, but it wasn’t until I settled down with An Accomplished Woman that I realised he’s rather brilliant at Regency comedies of manners in a Georgette Heyer style. Indeed, I decided I was going to thoroughly enjoy it based on the final lines of the very first chapter. The rest of the book channels Heyer with aplomb, boasting a plot that has certain echoes of her novels, but Morgan infuses it all with a modern consciousness that gives it a warmly witty spark, and stuffs it so full of bon mots that I was kept busy scribbling them all down.

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Blonde: Joyce Carol Oates

★★★★★

You may think I’m getting soft, seeing the second five-star rating in four days, but trust me on this. I’ve been reading this book since November and, at almost a thousand pages, it is a dazzling modern classic: a sprawling, daring, combative act of imagination. First published in 2000, it gains an even more fervent urgency when read in the light of last year’s snowballing Hollywood scandals. Hovering between fiction and non-fiction, it tells the story of the most iconic woman of the 20th century – so recognisable that you only need a wisp of platinum-blonde hair and the feathered end of a dark eyebrow to put a name to the face on the cover. Yet this is not a biography but a creative reconstruction of the life and times of the girl who started life as Norma Jeane Baker and ended up crushed beneath the glittering celebrity of her alter ego, Marilyn Monroe.

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Gentlemen of the Road: Michael Chabon

★★★★★

First of all, a very Happy New Year! I hope you had a wonderful holiday and that the new year brings you all sorts of splendid things. For my own part, 2018 has arrived hand-in-hand with well-meaning resolutions, such as easing off on book-buying. I have such a treasure-trove of things to read that I could quite happily spend the entire year reading books I already own, and that’s doubly true because I received some fabulous things for Christmas. The best presents, as always, are those you don’t expect and this lovely little book, a gift from J, displayed a startling understanding of my psyche: here is adventure, derring-do, disguise, intrigue, sardonic wit and rich, luscious prose, all bundled together in 200 pages of 10th-century adventure on the shores of the Caspian Sea.

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