Old Baggage: Lissa Evans

★★★★

It’s 1928 and the fight for women’s suffrage has faded from its revolutionary ardour in the 1900s into a muted movement, its core of fierce women gradually dropping off. All that remains are nostalgic talks and lectures which, all too often, preach to the converted or to those who’ve come for shocking tales of riots and hunger strikes. The world has moved on. A whole generation of young men has been wiped out in the War. There are other things to worry about than the political ambitions of a group of uppity women. Former suffragettes have married and had children, emigrated, or surrendered to personal demons. But, for Mattie Simpkin, the struggle never ended. This robust, good-hearted, forceful woman lives in a cottage (‘the Mousehole’) just off Hampstead Heath with her companion, meek Florrie Lee (who is, inevitably, nicknamed ‘the Flea’). Mattie is almost sixty, but is determined not to settle down and give up the good fight. Instead, galvanised by the discovery that young women no longer seem to have any kind of gumption or political engagement, she comes up with a plan to correct this – a plan which works wonderfully, except for one tiny, unforeseeable detail.

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The Soul Thief: Cecelia Holland

★★½

The Life and Times of Corban Loosestrife: Book 1

Cecelia Holland’s series of Viking-era adventure novels have just been reissued in Kindle format and this proved a good excuse to make a start on them. As some of you will remember, I’ve had a mixed reaction to Holland in the past – enjoying her Byzantine Belt of Gold, but remaining unmoved by her Borgia-centred City of God. However, as many people have praised her to me, I’m determined to keep giving her new chances, especially as she writes about a fascinating variety of historical periods. This is one of the more familiar settings, of course, and I plunged with interest into Holland’s story of Corban Loosestrife – outcast, stranger, unwitting catalyst – on his quest to recover his kidnapped sister Mav. In doing so, he is drawn into the politics of Viking Jorvik and Norway; and, more worryingly, into the clutches of the enigmatic Lady of Hedeby, who has saved Mav from one kind of slavery, only to draw her into another.

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The Devil in the Marshalsea: Antonia Hodgson

★★★★

Thomas Hawkins: Book I

It’s 1727 and Thomas Hawkins is in trouble. Admittedly, this is pretty much the status quo for this roguish disowned son of a clergyman; but this time things are worse than usual. Having spent his meagre income on wine, women and gambling, Tom is in dire financial straits, but a chance win at the tables has brightened his mood. Now he can pay his rent, get his landlord off his back and carry on having a good time. But the world has other plans. Mugged and robbed in the stews of St Giles, Tom is left – once again – penniless, and his landlord is in no mood to be generous. Our bewildered young hero is dragged off to the infamous Marshalsea, the debtors’ prison in Southwark. Like hell, it’s easy to enter but hard to leave. And, like hell, there are demons loose within. As rumours of murder and ghosts spread around the prison, Tom is made an offer: find the murderer and he will be set free. But what if the murderer finds him first?

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Rustication: Charles Palliser

★★★½

Charles Palliser has been on my radar for a long time, although this is the first of his novels that I’ve read. He is famous for his gothic Victorian-style historical fiction and I’ve been keeping an eye out for his magnum opus, The Quincunx, but it just so happens that Rustication cropped up in my local second-hand bookshop the other day. Couched in true Victorian fashion as a rediscovered manuscript, it’s told in diary format, unveiling the story of Richard Shenstone. In winter 1863 Richard returns home from Cambridge, whence he has been ignominiously expelled (a fact he chooses to keep quiet for now), hoping for an indulgent welcome from his sister and recently widowed mother. Their newly straitened circumstances have brought his mother to a bleak, windswept, isolated house on the edge of a salt-marsh. As if the location wasn’t grim enough, Richard swiftly realises that he isn’t quite as welcome as he thought he’d be. Worse still, he isn’t the only one who’s hiding something, and he’s about to find that no one can be trusted.

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Gloriana: Michael Moorcock

★★★★

Or, the Unfulfill’d Queen

I genuinely didn’t think I was going to like this. I’ve only had one encounter with Michael Moorcock before and that was in my early teens, when I found a copy of Behold the Man among my dad’s 1970s sci-fi books in the attic, and was promptly traumatised. Not that I was religious or anything like that. I was just shocked to see Jesus and the Virgin Mary depicted in such a way. What an innocent I was. Youthful shocks have an impact, though, and I’ve steered away from Moorcock ever since, thinking him far too weird for me (I have the same feeling about Alasdair Gray). But times change. I recently found myself looking at Gloriana in the library. It was an allegory, a fable, a Tudor history set in an alternate universe, an Elizabethan extravaganza. Why not give it a shot? So I did. And, Reader, I liked it. There was one scene I didn’t like, true, but for the most part I was utterly absorbed by this sprawling, dense jungle of a book, which wears its affection for Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast very clearly on its sleeve. A seething stew of sex and sycophancy, full of tunnels and intrigue and secrets and bravos and debauchery and honour and twisted goodness and dreams and hope and horror… it defies description.

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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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