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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Silk and Song: Dana Stabenow

★★★★

There’s something about the Silk Road that sparks off a latent dream of adventure deep inside me. One day I’d love to travel through these souks and caravanserais and to visit Samarkand, but for now I have to restrict myself to my imagination. And this wonderful book gave me ample opportunity for that. It’s a sprawling adventure, epic in every way, that crosses the breadth of the known world in the 14th century. Our heroine is Wu Johanna, the remarkable (and fictional) granddaughter of Marco Polo. Like a fairytale heroine, the orphaned Joanna escapes her wicked stepmother – and her ardent suitor – to follow her heart and heritage as a merchant on the trade routes of Asia. Dreaming of finding her grandfather, she presses further and further west with her small but loyal band of friends and family – and one very splendid horse. This is a super book, full of scents and spices and adventure, set in a most unfamiliar period of history, and with a very determined heroine at its heart. It’s a winner on all counts.

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The Pumilio Child: Judy McInerney

★★

Over the past year, while working on Mantegna, I’ve often though it a shame that there aren’t more novels about him. He had the kind of life that cries out for fiction and so, when I stumbled across this novel on Netgalley, I couldn’t resist. But I didn’t get on with it terribly well. It isn’t just that I found it hard to engage with it as a piece of historical fiction – though I did – but I found myself growing increasingly frustrated by the numerous errors, which could have been avoided by a ten-second check on Wikipedia. Perhaps this warrants a discussion about the purpose of historical fiction. We can get into that later, because (you won’t be surprised to hear) I have strong opinions about it. Perhaps it also warrants a discussion about whether you should read novels set in your specialist historical period. But the most remarkable thing is that I’ve actually ended up feeling sorry for Mantegna who, while one of the most unpleasant, litigious and self-conscious artists in history, does not deserve this. I should warn you that this is a long one and there is much ranting. I’d suggest you make a cup of tea first.

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Delilah: Eleanor de Jong

★★

My quest to find decent novels about Ancient Mesopotamia continues, although I’m still not having much luck finding books about this period other than Biblical fiction. And so I came to Eleanor de Jong’s Delilah, the story of my favourite Biblical harlot-hairdresser. It turned out to be quite a contradiction: a Biblical tale that doesn’t particularly follow the Bible; an historical novel which shows little interest in history; and a story which should show women at their most wily and powerful, neutered into a love story. Come, join me, as we try to tease our way through an increasingly unfamiliar Biblical tale.

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The Bird King: G. Willow Wilson

★★★½

By 1492, the great empire of Al-Andalus has shrunk to a thin strip of land along the bottom of the Iberian peninsula, harried by the forces of the Christian kings Ferdinand and Isabella. Yet, within the harem of the palace in Granada, life keeps its languid pace. While siege closes in on the city outside, the women continue their petty rivalries, their music and their poetry, under the sharp eye of the Lady Aisha, the Sultan’s mother. The concubine Fatima – sharp, irreverent, and beautiful – diverts herself with secret visits to her childhood friend Hassan, the Sultan’s mapmaker, who is gifted with an extraordinary ability to invent doors where there were none before. As their world crumbles, these two dreamers realise that the only life they’ve known is on the verge of becoming a nightmare; and that sometimes safety lies beyond the reach of any map.

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The Sleeper in the Sands: Tom Holland

★★★½

Tom Holland is nowadays best known as a historian and translator of Herodotus, but he started his career, back in the 1990s, as a novelist, favouring eerie, rather supernatural historical themes. The Sleeper in the Sands ticks all those boxes with aplomb, as it tells the story of the ambitious archaeologist Howard Carter, who is on the brink of making the most fabulous discovery of his career. As he waits for the arrival of his patron Lord Carnarvon, Carter finds himself brooding on what he can expect to find behind the sealed doorway of this unprecedentedly undisturbed tomb. Great treasures, certainly, but also dark whispers of something else. For strange papers have come into Carter’s possession, warning him of a terrible curse and recording a story that has been lost to the sands for millennia: the tale of the heretic Pharaoh Akh-en-Aten…

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Chariot of the Soul: Linda Proud

★★★★½

The end of September was an exciting but rather fraught period for me at work, so I didn’t get round to reading or writing anywhere near as much as I hoped. With the dawn of October, I could breathe a sigh of relief and lose myself in books once again, and the first one I turned to was a novel I’d been saving for a time when I could really appreciate it. Some of you will remember how much I enjoyed Linda Proud’s Botticelli Trilogy and her prequel A Gift for the Magus. I’ve been intrigued ever since I heard that her new book would take her into unfamiliar territory, in the mysterious and dark days of early Roman Britain. Now at last I’ve had the chance to curl up with Chariot of the Soul, and it was everything I’d hoped it would be: a sensitive, thoughtful book that looks at our small island and touches on very timely themes about identity, assimilation, compromise and confrontation with a great pan-European power.

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Twelve: Jasper Kent

★★★½

The Danilov Quintet: Book I

It’s 1812 and Russia faces dark days, as Napoleon’s great army sweeps eastward, pushing all before it. Some are even beginning to wonder whether they might see the ultimate sacrilege: a French invasion of Moscow. For four daring young soldiers, resistance is the only answer. Plucked from their regiments, Vadim Fyodorovich,  Maksim Sergeivich, Dmitry Fetyukovich and our narrator Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov form a special ops unit – and are waiting for some reinforcements to join them very shortly. Dmitry has enlisted the help of a band of men with whom he fought against the Turks some years earlier, whom he nicknames the ‘Oprichniki’ after the bloodthirsty bodyguards of Ivan the Terrible. The Oprichniki certainly prove their worth, striking by night and leaving the French forces depleted and terrified – but Aleksei begins to feel that something isn’t quite right. Who are these mysterious warriors from the dark fringes of Europe? And just what kind of bargain has Dmitry Fetykovich made with them on Russia’s behalf?

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How To Stop Time: Matt Haig

★★

So that’s the end of the Summer Without Men 2018. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed myself: I’ve read 27 books over the two months of the challenge, which is pretty respectable; even if I didn’t quite manage to embrace the broad spectrum of subjects that I’d hoped. But those other books are still there, waiting, and will be read in due course. Having a reason to focus on the female authors in my library made me appreciate their scope and range and wit so much more, and I think I might make this an annual thing. There’s no danger of running out of books: at my present count, I have 755 books by women on my to-read list (across all genres, both digital and hard-copy – yes, that figure rather scared me as well), so I could actually do Three Years Without Men and still have books to spare. But I can’t deny I’m looking forward to letting the men in again – as long as they behave themselves. I’ve had books by Ben Kane and Peter Ackroyd and Robert Harris and all sorts of people just sitting there, tempting me for the last two months, so we might have a bit of a rush on Romans and Vikings and general muscly-warlike-stuff until the novelty wears off again. But we’re easing ourselves in gently for the first book, with a typically sentimental, introspective novel by Matt Haig.

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The Western Wind: Samantha Harvey

★★★

It’s the beginning of Lent in the isolated Somerset village of Oakham, some time in the late fifteenth century. As the villagers prepare for their forty days of penance, a dead man is seen in the river. By the time rescuers come to help, the body has been swept away, but a fragment of clothing confirms its identity: Tom Newman, a prosperous, curious dreamer, and one of the few villagers to have ventured beyond the parish boundaries. The rains have been falling heavily and the riverbanks are thick with mud. He could have slipped in. But the question remains: was it misadventure or murder? As the small community huddles under bleak skies and heavy rains, the priest John Reve struggles to comprehend the mystery, dogged by the interference of the visiting dean, weighed down by the confessions of his parishioners, and troubled by the way that Newman’s death threatens to pull apart a whole network of secrets, doubts and obligations that bolster Oakham against the outside world.

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