Madonna of the Seven Hills: Jean Plaidy

★★

Lucrezia Borgia: Book I

I’ve always felt I should read Jean Plaidy’s books. She’s ubiquitous in the historical fiction sections of bookshops and libraries, and she writes about periods that I find interesting. It was only a matter of time. Last winter, I went slightly wild at the Book Barn and came away with a pile of her novels, which I’m only now starting to tackle. I chose to begin with the first of her two novels about Lucrezia Borgia, which may have been a mistake, as it hasn’t done much to win me over. Over-seasoned, two-dimensional and extremely dated, it feels like stepping back in time for all the wrong reasons.

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The Bear and the Nightingale: Katherine Arden

★★★★½

Winternight: Book I

This book is made to be read in the long winter nights as the year creeps towards its end. Set in the snowbound forests of northern Russia in the 14th century, it’s a fairy tale for those who haven’t lost their sense of wonder: a brooding story of frost and darkness, of endless black forests and the powers that lie within. And it’s a tale of conflict, between the old, primeval world of nature’s power in the here and now, and the new world of Christianity with its gold, glamour and focus on the life hereafter. Into this uneasy world comes Vasilisa Petrovna, half-wild, passionate and blessed with a growing power of her own. Magical and enchanting, this is one book I found extremely hard to put down.

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The Last Hours: Minette Walters

★★★

Minette Walters is best known as the author of crime novels, but her new book strikes out into fresh territory: historical fiction. She introduces us to the 14th-century village of Develish in Dorset: a prosperous, contented place despite the depredations of its arrogant lord, Sir Richard. His more thoughtful wife Lady Anne has quietly worked behind the scenes to improve the quality of life for their serfs, and received their love and loyalty in return. As Sir Richard rides out to deliver their daughter Eleanor’s dowry to her intended husband, Lady Anne’s abilities are about to be tested to the full. For it is 1348 and the countryside is troubled by rumours of a great pestilence, which kills with no respect for rank, age or piety. As Lady Anne and her serfs gather behind the manor’s defensive moat, the certainties of an entire age are about to be turned upside down.

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Sylvester: Georgette Heyer

★★★★½

Or, The Wicked Uncle

Things are busy at the moment and I don’t have much brain space to spare, so I turned gratefully to the next novel on my Georgette Heyer pile. This was Sylvester, which several people have picked out as one of their favourites. And it’s no wonder: it’s vintage Heyer, the literary equivalent of crumpets by a roaring fire on a winter’s night. From the moment our arrogant but misunderstood hero meets our stubborn, bookish heroine, there’s no doubt what’s going to happen, but that’s not the point. As they lock horns over the course of a book stuffed with warmth, wit and adventure, the question isn’t ‘what?’ but ‘how on earth?’. In my current state, it was exactly what I needed and I might even go so far as to name this my favourite Heyer after the nonpareil These Old Shades.

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Lavinia: Ursula Le Guin

★★★½

As a child, I read Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet, which I loved for its wizards and fantasy (I hope to reread it soon). In my early twenties, I read her Left Hand of Darkness, which was one of the first books that made me think seriously about gender. And now I’ve turned to what I thought would be a comparatively straightforward historical novel: her book about Lavinia, princess of Latium, who becomes the wife of Aeneas. But Le Guin is never simple. Her Lavinia is a bright, demanding person: full of questions. She probes at the limitations of the way she has been preserved for posterity, rebelling against the strictures of a poem in which she doesn’t even get to speak. Playful, intelligent and just a little bit angry, this novel reimagines one of the great epics of the Western tradition. Le Guin, and Lavinia, take Virgil to task for his omissions but this isn’t just a scolding. It’s also a great love letter from one author to another: a tribute to the power of story-telling, which can give the figures of the past a voice.

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The Cardinal’s Man: M.G. Sinclair

★★½

This, like Girl with a Pearl Earring, is a novel born from a painting, from a striking face that seems to look out at us across centuries and to spark a shock of fellow-feeling. While Tracey Chevalier’s famous book took its inspiration from the coy glance of a Dutch teenager, Sinclair’s story is inspired by a much more direct confrontation: Diego Velazquez’s Portrait of Don Sebastián Morra, in the Prado, dating from 1645. Using this powerful image as a starting point, Sinclair reimagines Morra’s life in a fictional biography that carries us from the bleak shores of Normandy to the glitter of Paris in the time of Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu. Spain, oddly enough, features less than you might expect. It is an ambitious book, and its championship of this fascinating but obscure figure is to be celebrated; but ultimately the novel is a fantasy, which makes no reference to the few known facts of Morra’s life. Moreover, it never quite manages to overcome some stylistic and compositional shortcomings.

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The Aviary Gate: Katie Hickman

★★★

The Pindar Trilogy: Book I

This appealed for two reasons. You may remember that some months ago I read the third book in this trilogy, The House at Bishopsgate (not realising at the time that it was a third book). Impressed by its quality, I was keen to read the earlier novels. Secondly, Hickman’s insight into the world of 16th-century Constantinople promised to reveal the answer to a question that intrigues me. What exactly happens in a harem? Yes, that, obviously, but what about the rest of the time? Surely it can’t be all about lying on a chaise longue while eunuchs fan you and feed you grapes? Well, according to this book, it’s also about poison, vaunting ambition, intrigue and the gradual erosion of everything you know beyond the walls of the ironically-named House of Felicity.

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A Morbid Taste for Bones: Ellis Peters

★★★★

The Brother Cadfael Chronicles: Book I

In 1977, forty years ago, Edith Pargeter published the first book in her Cadfael series, which combined her talents as historical novelist (under her real name) and mystery writer (under the nom de plume Ellis Peters). Set in her native Shropshire, the story features the eponymous worldly-wise monk, whose adventurous youth has given way to a comfortable middle age at Shrewsbury Abbey. Here he finds himself solving a series of crimes in and around his foundation. Those who grew up in the 1990s, like me, will remember the cuddly Sunday-night ITV adaptation with Derek Jacobi as the sleuthing monk. Cadfael was almost certainly my introduction to murder mysteries and I know that I read some of the books as a teenager, though I don’t remember them now. I was delighted to find the first seven novels in the series during a recent tip to the Book Barn, and decided it was time to refamiliarise myself with them.

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The Lie: Helen Dunmore

★★★★

I haven’t read any books by Helen Dunmore before because, somehow, I’d got it into my head that she only wrote time-slip romantic fiction. Goodness knows why I thought that, but I suppose I’d heard vaguely about The Greatcoat and extrapolated widely to come up with a completely mistaken idea. The Lie has put me right. A poignant, gut-wrenching tale of love, loss, and survivor’s guilt, it tells the story of the young Cornishman Daniel Branwell as he returns home after the horrors of the First World War.

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First Class Murder: Robin Stevens

★★★★

A Murder Most Unladylike Mystery: Book III

When I spotted this in a second-hand bookshop the other day, it felt like Destiny. It was high time for another tale of jolly japes, cream buns and shocking murders. But this time, Daisy and Hazel aren’t looking for trouble at all. Quite the contrary. As Daisy’s family gather in London for the trial that follows the terrible events at Fallingford, Daisy herself sets off with Hazel and Hazel’s father on a magical holiday on the Orient Express. They have been warned to behave themselves and to stop ‘playing’ at being detectives. But that is easier said than done in a sleeper coach where there are so many fascinating people – especially when the girls learn that one of their fellow travellers is a spy going to pass secrets to the Germans, and another – as becomes clear – must be a murderer. Without a doubt, the Detective Society can’t let this lie! And so Daisy and Hazel become involved in their most thrilling and dangerous case yet.

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