The Sealwoman’s Gift: Sally Magnusson

★★★★

For those who judge books on their covers, this is a stunner. Just look at that beautiful design: the stylised waves and breakers; the woman’s face emerging eerily from curls of foam on the front; and the galleon surging towards a precipitous white city on the back. Based on historical fact and informed by an account written by one of its main characters, this remarkably assured debut novel tells the story of a group of Icelandic hostages kidnapped by Turkish corsairs in 1627. Carried off to exotic slavery in Ottoman Algiers, the captives must decide whether to cling to a dream of home, or adapt in order to prosper. How should one choose to live, when you’re never sure if you will ever see your family again? Which chances should be taken? How precious is faith? And what should one do when the charms of captivity threaten to eclipse the lure of home?

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Caligula: Douglas Jackson

★★½

As a counterbalance to philosophical tales of European angst, I turned to this historical novel set in ancient Rome, hoping for a diverting dose of swords and sandals. The cover is misleading: the main character is not a soldier but Rufus, a young animal trainer whose gift with exotic creatures brings him into the orbit of the emperor Gaius, usually known as Caligula. There are swords, certainly, thanks to the Praetorian Guard; sandals, presumably; and some sand, courtesy of the arena. There’s even an elephant. But what this story really lacks is soul. Relying on coincidences, handily-overheard monologues and a rather lacklustre romance, it never really takes flight.

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The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas: John Boyne

★★★★

Oh good heavens. As you know, I’ve wanted to read more John Boyne and, when looking for something short to read between longer books, I spotted this. ‘Yes,’ I said to myself, ‘I know what it’s about. It won’t be fun, I know that. But everyone says how important it is. And besides. It’s a children’s book. It can’t be that bad.’ A day later, I was staring in disbelief at the final page, wondering how on earth I could ever explain this book to my non-existent children and feeling as if I’d been punched in the solar plexus.

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Deathless: Catherynne M. Valente

★★★★

Impatiently waiting for the third novel in Katherine Arden’s Bear and the Nightingale series? This is just the thing to tide you over until it’s published, but Catherynne M. Valente’s novel is no mere stopgap. Indeed, it’s more of an experience than a book, bulging at the seams of its 350 pages. Valente reworks Russian folklore into a dark, dense and compelling narrative which skips in and out of tragic reality. Unlike Arden’s books, it’s also firmly adult, encompassing war, death and desire, while its folklore is the unbowdlerised kind, drenched in sex and blood. The curtain rises at the dawn of the 20th century, in St Petersburg, as the old order collapses, the boundaries between worlds grow thin, and a young girl receives an unexpected suitor.

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See What I Have Done: Sarah Schmidt

★★★

On 4 August 1892, a horrifying murder takes place in the little town of Fall River, Massachusetts. Andrew Borden and his second wife Abby are found hacked to death at home. Andrew’s eldest daughter Emma is away, staying with a friend; his younger daughter Lizzie, who finds his body, is unbalanced with shock. No one seems to have heard anything. As the blood seeps into the floors and fabrics of the Borden household, the questions begin; but there is more simmering beneath the surface of this strange family than anyone can hope to comprehend. In this unsettling, claustrophobic novel, Sarah Schmidt evokes the miasma of jealousy, resentment, loneliness and mental instability that result in the shocking events of that August afternoon.

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In the Shadow of the Ark: Anne Provoost

★★★

When I saw this novel tucked away in a local charity shop, I pounced immediately. How could I resist a story about the Ark so soon after ferreting deep into the history of its legend? Originally published in Dutch in 2001 (the author is Flemish), it has been translated into English by John Nieuwenhuizen and takes us into a strange and foreign world of fishermen and nomads, boat-builders and prophets. And, at the heart of the tale, is the rumour of a great boat being built in the middle of a desert by a crazy old man, and the young woman who travels with her family to answer the call for workers.

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The Black Lake: Hella Haasse

★★★½

Originally published in Haasse’s native Dutch as Oeroeg in 1948, this novel has classic status in the Netherlands but seems to be comparatively unknown among English-speaking readers. Without knowing any of that, I bought it three years ago in a translation by Ina Rilke and have only just got round to reading it, discovering a short but poignant novel that explores the consequences of Dutch colonialism in what is now Indonesia. Haasse herself was born in Batavia (now Jakarta) and so her tale has a ring of authenticity about it, as it follows the friendship of two boys: one the son of a wealthy Dutch plantation owner in Java; the other, the son of the estate’s Indonesian manager.

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The Unbinding of Mary Reade: Miriam McNamara

★★★

Well, hoist the mainsail, stock up on rum and run up the Jolly Roger: it’s time for a swashbuckling tale of piratical adventure! And, this time, the boys don’t have all the fun. Miriam McNamara introduces us to Mary Reade, who runs away to sea in 1717 disguised as a man, and who finds a new lease of life when the Dutch ship on which she serves is taken by pirates. Mary is impressed by the elegant pirate captain, ‘Calico’ Jack Rackham, but even more taken with the red-headed woman who fights in a red velvet gown at his side. This is Anne Bonny who, along with Mary, is one of the very few known female pirates. McNamara’s story plays a little fast and loose with the ‘facts’, though there are few enough of those, but she conjures up an engaging read with a very modern take on gender identity, which does justice to the spirit of Mary’s extraordinary story.

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Pistols for Two: Georgette Heyer

★★★

When I was sent a review copy of the newly-issued Snowdrift, a collection of Regency short stories by Georgette Heyer, I realised that this volume was a reissue of Pistols for Two, which I already owned (albeit with three newly-added stories). I’ve therefore decided to deal with Snowdrift in two parts: first, by discussing the main batch of stories under their original title Pistols for Two and then, in a separate post, discussing the three new stories included in Snowdrift. Hopefully that won’t be too confusing and it’s also given me a chance to retrieve this rather simpering 1976 edition from my bookshelf. Of course, you know what to expect from these stories: it’s Heyer at her cosiest, by turns predictable and implausible, but always full of wit and humour.

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The Voyage of the Short Serpent: Bernard du Boucheron

★★½

Literary prizes are strange things. This novel won the Grand Prix du roman de l’Académie française in 2004, which led me to expect something rather brilliant, but it fell gloomily short of expectations. Austere, cold and brutal, it tells the story of the medieval Catholic priest Insulomontanus, who is dispatched to New Thule (Greenland) to minister to the faithful. The New York Times regarded the book (translated by Hester Velmans) as a tour-de-force of black humour, but I found it an increasing slog of horrific cruelty and almost unbearable suffering. Framed as Insulomontanus’s grovelling report back to his master, it plays deftly with notions of the unreliable narrator – but that in itself isn’t enough to transform this monotonously miserable story into an engaging read.

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