The Iron Hand of Mars (1992): Lindsey Davis

★★★½

Falco is in trouble. His girlfriend Helena has gone off in a strop because he’s forgotten her birthday, and Vespasian’s son Titus Caesar has stepped up his pursuit of said senatorial lady. Now Falco can’t find Helena to apologise, and Vespasian has given him another of those special god-awful tasks that seem to be kept on one side especially to make Falco’s life more difficult. To make matters worse, this particular task isn’t in Rome, or even in Italy. No: Falco is to be sent north, into the dark forests of Germany, on the very edges of the civilised world, to nose into the disappearance of a legionary commander, with no one at his side except the overly perfumed imperial barber Xanthus, who has chosen an unfortunate time to play tourist. Falco’s journey will take him to the extremities of the Pax Romana, in a world still reeling from the slaughter of Varus’s legions in the Teutoberg Forest sixty years before, and from the Batavian uprising two years earlier.

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Lady’s Maid (1990): Margaret Forster

★★★★

Two days ago, I found mild fault with No Bed for Bacon for skating on the surface of things, without ever giving them substance. The same criticism cannot be levied at Margaret Forster’s brilliant novel Lady’s Maid, which introduces us to a young woman in service in mid-19th-century London. Yet Elizabeth Wilson is no ordinary maid. She is lady’s maid to Miss Elizabeth Barrett, the invalid daughter of a wealthy London gentleman, who has made a name for herself as a poetess. When Wilson enters Miss Elizabeth’s service in 1844, her mistress is withdrawn and easily tired, plagued by mysterious physical weakness and given to depression. As time passes, the patient Northern maid and her mercurial employer find a sympathy, deepened by Wilson’s reverence for books and by her compassion for the unworldly Miss Elizabeth. Gradually, Wilson convinces Miss Elizabeth to take turns in the park, coaxing colour into her face and strength into her limbs. Yet Wilson’s ministrations are nothing beside the impact that a new correspondent has on her mistress. Letters from the poet Mr Browning are soon the highlight of Miss Elizabeth’s day and Wilson finds herself drawn into a daring plan that will take her further from home than she ever dreamed possible. Amazingly rich, thoughtful and evocative, Forster’s novel introduced me to the full picture of the great Browning romance – seen through Wilson’s loyal but unsentimental eyes.

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No Bed for Bacon (1941): Caryl Brahms & S.J. Simon

★★★

The epigraph page of No Bed for Bacon bears a Warning to Scholars: ‘This book is fundamentally unsound’. It may be so, but it’s both fun and, surely, hugely influential. Written in the course of several frenzied months in 1940, this historical farce imagines the London of Queen Elizabeth I at just the time that so many parts of the city were being destroyed in the Blitz. The two authors, both of whom were serving as air raid wardens, often had only an hour or so together each day to exchange ideas, and were reduced to leaving cryptic notes for one another in their wardens’ log-book. Though they squabbled passionately, and at one point considered taking out a legal injunction to prevent them ever having to work together again, they managed to produce a work of high British silliness. At its heart is Francis Bacon, an ambitious courtier who wants nothing more than to be awarded one of Gloriana’s beds from her progresses, so that he can pass it down to his heirs as an investment. Across town, the rival impresarios Philip Henslowe and Richard Burbage strive for theatrical domination, while the author Will Shakespeare is struggling to find a suitable opening for his new play Love’s Labours Won. A young aristocrat, Viola Compton, dreams of becoming an actor. And, at court, Sir Walter Raleigh plans for the greatest day of his life: the ceremonial tasting of the first potato from the New World. If only he can find a new cloak elegant enough to wear…

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The Twelfth Transforming (1984): Pauline Gedge

★★★★

What distinguishes a visionary from a madman? That question lies at the heart of this sumptuous novel by Pauline Gedge, which takes us to the Egyptian court of the late 18th dynasty, in the mid-14th century BC. The Empress Tiye is the primary wife of Pharaoh Amunhotep III, whose failing health and debaucheries distract him from the everyday business of ruling. Tiye has commanded the reins of power for years, using her acute political sensibilities to keep Egypt prosperous and to maintain its military supremacy. Unusually, she is not of full royal blood herself, and her rise has also boosted members of her family, especially her brother Ay, a leading courtier. Now, in the twilight of her husband’s reign, Tiye is preoccupied with the issue of the succession. Her eldest son, also called Amunhotep, has spent his life imprisoned within the harem, hated and suspected by his father, but he is the only plausible successor if Tiye wishes to continue her control of Egyptian politics. She sets out to secure the throne for her son, planning to marry him off to her niece (Ay’s daughter) Nefertiti, thereby cementing her family’s influence. It is a fine plan. But Tiye hasn’t accounted for one crucial detail: the personality of the prince into whose hands she has consigned the future of her country. For Amunhotep IV – or Akhenaten, as he renames himself – has a vision of his own for Egypt, which will strike to the very heart of the country’s civilisation. Epic in every sense, this account of the Amarna period is richly intricate: a gripping story of Egypt’s most extraordinary, fascinating and enigmatic personalities.

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The Second Sleep (2019): Robert Harris

★★★½

Robert Harris’s new novel opens on a bleak evening in 1468, as a young priest makes his way wearily towards the village of Addicott St George. The parish parson, Father Thomas Lacy, has recently died and Christopher Fairfax has been sent by the Bishop of Exeter to oversee the burial. It’s supposed to be a quick job but, when Fairfax arrives, he begins to hear rumours of murder that he feels bound to investigate. Even worse, he makes shocking discoveries in Father Lacy’s study: the former priest was dabbling in dangerous heresies, which seem to have had some bearing on his mysterious death. And that, my friends, is all I feel able to say before the cut. I will add that I found this an engaging, amusing and unexpectedly engrossing novel, and that if you’ve enjoyed Harris’s earlier works you would do well to give this a go. But The Second Sleep is a novel best approached in complete innocence. If you haven’t yet read it, but think you might like to, I urge you to stop right here. Don’t read past the cut, where there will be spoilers. Come back when you’re done and, while you’re reading, pay attention. Those with sharp eyes will realise pretty swiftly that all is not quite as it seems.

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Stanley and Elsie (2019): Nicola Upson

★★★★

Two years ago, on a hot summer’s day, I went to Cookham in search of Stanley Spencer. Nestled around a high street, the village is small and probably rather peaceful under normal circumstances, but I’d managed to turn up on the weekend of Rock the Moor, a festival which had taken over the meadows down by the river. As I studied the pictures in the Stanley Spencer Gallery, a converted chapel at the far end of the village, my contemplation was underlaid by the distant, persistent throb of drums. It was all rather wonderful, in its own bizarre way. Stanley Spencer is an artist I don’t know well, but I like what I’ve seen of his work. It has the kind of robustness, the rounded simplicity and simplified geometric flair, that I find in the works of other British artists of the 1920s, 30s and 40s, and which always appeals to me (think Laura Knight; Augustus John; or, in a slightly later period, the young Lucian Freud). It was inevitable that this novel would capture my attention, but I came to it with caution: all too often, art-historical novels disappoint. But not this one. In simple but evocative prose, Upson unfolds the story of the Spencer family and their maid Elsie Munday, in a story that spans thirty years and offers an absorbing insight into one of the most tumultuous and bizarre artistic marriages of the 20th century. Fascinating and beautifully researched.

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Shadows in Bronze (1990): Lindsey Davis

★★★½

Marcus Didius Falco: Book 2

Time to head back to Ancient Rome, for some political skulduggery in the company of our overworked and underpaid Roman sleuth, Falco. This book slots in between The Silver Pigs and Venus in Copper, and follows Falco as he embarks on yet another over-complicated mission for his patron Vespasian. Falco is always great fun to read about: like Cadfael, he’s a vivid and lively character, whose world is meticulously historically accurate, but evoked with a light touch. Unlike Cadfael, he’s prickly, full of himself, and still young enough to be trying to find his feet in the world. In Shadows in Bronze, Vespasian orders him to mop up the loose ends left by the aristocratic conspiracy we saw in The Silver Pigs but, as Falco heads down to the opulent Bay of Naples to round up a couple of recalcitrant senators, he starts to get the uneasy feeling that he hasn’t seen the last of the plotters. Although his trip to Naples is dressed up to look like a family holiday, he swiftly realises that danger is never far away. To make matters worse, his cut-above-the-rest love interest, Helena Justina, is also enjoying a break on the Bay of Naples, and Falco’s personal and professional lives look set to collide once again.

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In the Name of the King (2011): A.L. Berridge

★★★★½

Chevalier: Book 2

As the world grows stranger, I’ve taken comfort in something so satisfying, so delightful and escapist, that it should almost be prescribed on the NHS. It’s been over two years since I read Honour and the Sword, the first of A.L. Berridge’s novels about the Chevalier de Roland, but I don’t want you to think that betokens a lack of enthusiasm. On the contrary! This is a sequel but also – apparently – the last book in the series, because it was published in 2011 and Berridge has gone alarmingly quiet in recent years. I didn’t want to get to the end too quickly, so I’ve been saving it for a moment when I really need it. And now, with new rules bidding us stay at home, my annual trip to Paris cancelled, and no knowledge of when it will end, I needed it. So I escaped to France in 1640, to a world of duels, honour and skirmishes; of fetes in the Luxembourg Gardens and gritty subterfuge in the forests; of intrigues and plots, romance, war, and Cardinal Richelieu bestriding the world like a (fading) colossus.

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The Last Tsar’s Dragons (2019): Jane Yolen & Adam Stemple

★★

Russia, 1917, under the autocratic rule of Tsar Nicholas II. The imperial will is enforced by the airborne terror of the Tsar’s dragons: great black beasts reared in the palace stables and then sent out across the country to ravage the lands of those the Tsar deems offensive – the Jews chief among them. But times are changing. In a quiet Jewish village, a group of ambitious men have long dreamed of bringing that change to Russia. Now they have the means. As their leader Lenin drums up support beyond the Russian borders, Bronstein and Borustch carefully work on a secret weapon that will bring down the forces of tyranny once and for all. Meanwhile, mutiny also simmers within the palace walls as a cabal of courtiers plot to rid themselves of the charismatic monk Rasputin. Set in the final days of the Romanov dynasty, this is a strange little novella: historical fiction skewed by the addition of dragons, which somehow never quite takes flight.

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Pan’s Labyrinth (2019): Guillermo del Toro & Cornelia Funke

★★★★

Once upon a time, a little girl called Ofelia was born to a beautiful mother and a caring father, who were very much in love. Unfortunately, by the time this story starts, that happy time is long gone. Now Ofelia’s father is dead and, in the volatile Spain of 1944, a young widow and a little girl need protection. Ofelia’s mother has made a dangerous gamble and chosen to marry again, to the brutal Capitán Vidal. She is already heavy with his child and now, like a monster in a fable, he’s waiting for them in the old house he uses as his base, deep in the middle of a forest. Ofelia can’t resist drawing comparisons with fairy tales. She loves them. They help her make sense of the world around her, and now, as Spanish men kill other Spanish men, and evil digs its tendrils into her life, Ofelia will need her imagination more than ever. Darkness awaits her at Capitán Vidal’s farmhouse, but something else awaits her too. An extraordinary discovery: a labyrinth, a faun, and a promise – and a quest, which Ofelia must undertake to prove her worth. Based on the 2006 film, this is a deliciously dark homage to the magic of books and fairy tales, emphatically not for children (except grown-up ones). 

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