The Foundling (2020): Stacey Halls

★★★

When Bess Bright falls pregnant in 1747, she knows there’s no chance of keeping her baby. As an unmarried mother, how could she afford to feed and clothe a child in the cramped apartment she shares with her father and her feckless brother? Bess knows that her daughter’s best chance lies with the Foundling Hospital, where children are well-fed, clothed, and trained for respectable careers in service. Heartbroken at the choice she has to make, she leaves the newborn Clara in the hands of the Hospital officials, along with a token that Bess can later use to prove her identity – for she’s determined to claim Clara as soon as she can afford to keep her. After six long years, she finally returns to the Hospital, life-savings in hand, to collect her little girl. But she’s greeted by shocking news. Clara is no longer there. Six years ago, on the day after Bess dropped her off, she was collected by a woman – a woman who, according to the ledger, gave Bess’s own name and address. What can have happened? Who would have impersonated Bess to steal her daughter? And can she still manage to find Clara, after all these years?

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The 19th Wife (2008): David Ebershoff

★★★★

I first read this book several years ago, before I started this blog, and although I remember enjoying it immensely, I couldn’t remember the details. It’s Ebershoff’s third novel and focuses on the practice of polygamy in the Mormon church by interweaving the stories of two women, separated by more than a century. One is Ann Eliza Young, the apostate former (nineteenth) wife of the early Mormon leader Brigham Young. Her lectures and writings, represented here by a fictional autobiography, helped to expose the reality of plural marriage and, ultimately, to abolish it in mainstream Mormon faith. In the present day, we meet BeckyLyn Scott, a member of a breakaway fundamentalist sect which preserves the practice of polygamy. BeckyLyn’s husband has been shot dead in his basement den and she, his nineteenth wife, has been arrested for murder. Her son Jordan, expelled from the community as a teenager, comes to believe that BeckyLyn is innocent; but how can he prove it? The stories of these two women intertwine in an absorbing tale of plural marriage, faith and family. To make matters even more interesting, events since the book’s publication have focused international attention on the community that must surely have inspired Ebershoff’s fictional Mesadale.

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The Thief of Time (2000): John Boyne

★★★

I’m really not doing very well on the blog-writing front at the moment. In my defence, it has been a dramatic year so far. We nearly sold our flat, nearly bought a house, and then had it all fall through at the last minute. For over a month, I was so busy with estate agents, conveyancers and the Rightmove website that I barely picked up a book, but fortunately all that is on hold for a while. There is some very happy news too: we recently got engaged, and so there’s wedding planning to be done. While trying to form opinions on stationery and flowers, I’m also trying not to lose myself in a pink-saturated Pinterest feed, never to be seen again. As you can imagine, this emotional roller-coaster has disrupted my reading plans. That ambition I had, at the start of lockdown, to finally get beyond the second volume of Proust? Hasn’t happened. However, I have read a variety of entertaining books in recent weeks, ranging from the fabulous sci-fi-necromantic romp that is Gideon the Ninth, to Dolly Alderton’s surprisingly moving and relatable Everything I Know About Love. For the last couple of days – I’m rather ashamed to admit it – I’ve been absorbed in Lady Colin Campbell’s phenomenally gossipy Meghan and Harry: The Real Story, which has provoked numerous exclamations of, “She didn’t!” Please don’t judge me. But I want to start on slightly more conventional ground, with John Boyne’s The Thief of Time – a book which gave me a certain sense of déjà vu.

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One Corpse Too Many (1979): Ellis Peters

★★★★

The Brother Cadfael Chronicles: Book 2

In times like these, it’s comforting to read a book where the author is entirely in control: where everything gels beautifully, and you don’t have to do anything but be carried along on the story. Few books convey this ‘sinking into a warm bath’ feeling better than Ellis Peter’s Cadfael series. I read the first book some time ago now, and actually read this second instalment immediately afterwards, but didn’t write about it at the time. It’s been long enough that I’d completely forgotten what happened, and had the pleasure of reading it all over again: disguise, distrust, nefarious deeds and all! It’s 1138 in Shrewsbury and King Stephen and his army are camped outside the town walls, while the last of the Empress Maud’s loyalists wait defiantly within the castle. When the castle finally falls, as all know it must, the garrison are executed. The monks of Shrewsbury Abbey volunteer to undertake the pious work of burying the 94 dead men, but when Cadfael takes charge of the task, he makes a troubling discovery. There are not 94 corpses but 95, and the extra man has not been hanged along with the rest of the garrison, but garrotted. How has a murder victim come to be concealed among the bodies of these men, and who was he? Cadfael and his new assistant Godric resolve to find out.

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The Iron Hand of Mars (1992): Lindsey Davis

★★★½

Marcus Didius Falco: Book 4

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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