European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman: Theodora Goss

★★★★

The Athena Club: Book 2

Buckle up and tally ho! Squeeze into your walking suit, grab your umbrella and put on a stout pair of shoes, because the ladies of the Athena Club are on another mission! In fact, a couple of tickets for the Orient Express wouldn’t go amiss this time either, because we are bound for mysterious and distant climes: eastern Europe, to be exact. Our band of remarkable young women – introduced in The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter – found one another when they realised that all their fathers were involved in the sinister Société des Alchemistes. Worse still, all their fathers were unethical scientists, interested in transmutation and modifying the human form, and many of our heroines are products of those experiments. Now it’s time for Mary Jekyll, Diana Hyde, Catherine Moreau, Justine Frankenstein and Beatrice Rappaccini to help another of their kind – for an urgent letter has come, requesting help, from a certain Lucinda Van Helsing…

Continue reading

The Singing Sword: Jack Whyte

★★★

A Dream of Eagles / The Camulod Chronicles: Book 2

When we last encountered Publius Varrus and his friend Caius Britannicus, the two men had founded a colony in south-west Britain, hoping to preserve Roman values and public order even after the Empire inevitably withdraws from the island. This second book in the series shows us the teething struggles of the infant colony, as Saxon raids multiply along the coast and, far across the sea, the Roman empire begins to tear itself apart. While I was glad to be reunited with our two doughty protagonists, of whom I grew rather fond in the first book, I felt that this sequel failed to live up to its eventful predecessor. Pacing becomes a serious issue here, and some factors which only niggled faintly in the first volume became problematic in The Singing Sword. And yet there’s still the pleasure of watching various Arthurian motifs (or characters) coming into being. In short, a curate’s egg – and hopefully only a temporary misstep.

Continue reading

The Glass Woman: Caroline Lea

★★★½

As we head deeper into the season of long nights and crisp mornings, this tale of anxiety, fear and distrust in an Icelandic winter feels very appropriate. It opens with a wedding: Rósa, the daughter of the late Bishop of Skálholt, is wooed and won by the wealthy farmer Jón Eiríksson. But this tale of a new marriage is far from being a cosy feel-good romance: no one is foolish enough to believe that love has anything to do with it. With luck, it’ll come later. Jón is a recent widower who needs a wife to help him on the farm and give him children. Rósa faces suspicion in her own community because she reads, writes and is fond of ancient runes and sagas – things that the church forbids. In theory, their union should help both of them. But Rósa has barely settled in before alarming questions begin to unsettle her. Why won’t Jón let her socialise with the local women? What’s the story behind his near-demonic servant Pétur? And what actually happened to Jon’s first wife?

Continue reading

House of Dreams: Pauline Gedge

★★★★

The Story of Thu: Book 1

Sharp, shrewd and ambitious, Thu chafes at the limits of life in her small village, Aswat, on the banks of the Nile. She resents the fact that her beloved brother Pa-ari is allowed to go to school at the Temple of Wepwawet, where he is learning to become a scribe, while Thu has to content herself with learning to follow her mother’s trade as a herbalist and midwife. What alternative does she have? This is the 12th century BC, in the reign of Pharaoh Ramses III, and young women have limited say in their own destiny; but her family haven’t reckoned with Thu’s steely determination. This engaging novel, the first of a two-part series, draws us into the inexorable rise of a protagonist who is by turns strikingly naive and astonishingly manipulative, occasionally irritating, but always intriguing. Inspired by the Harem Conspiracy of 1155 BC, it’s the first of Pauline Gedge’s books that I’ve read and offers an enjoyable glimpse of Ancient Egypt seen through the eyes of a novelist who has made the period her speciality.

Continue reading

The Skystone: Jack Whyte

★★★★

A Dream of Eagles / The Camulod Chronicles: Book I

Two men meet in the African desert. One is Caius Britannicus, a brilliant Roman general who has been taken captive by one of the desert tribes. The other, his rescuer, is Publius Varrus, a centurion finally heading home to a new posting in his native country. Both men are Britons; both, by a quirk of Fate, are destined to head over the seas together to take up new positions in the same legion. And that same Fate has greater things in store, because Jack Whyte’s gripping historical novel isn’t just a story of Roman Britain, giving us a rare fictional glimpse of that cataclysmic moment in the late 4th century when the legions deserted the islands for good. It’s also the first in an epic series of novels that (I presume) will follow the families of Caius Britannicus and Publius Varrus down the ages, at least as far as their mutual great-grandson, who will become the King Arthur of legend. So far, the tale has been utterly absorbing, rationalising the legends into a completely plausible tale of honour, nobility and brotherhood in the dying days of the Roman Empire, when one man’s dream becomes the foundation of a new age.

Continue reading

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter: Theodora Goss

★★★★

The Athena Club: Book I

This is the first full-length novel I’ve read by Theodora Goss, though I’ve previously enjoyed her short stories Come See The Living Dryad and Red as Blood and White as Bone. She has a wonderful way of rethinking myths and fairy tales, and she brings the same creative spark to this delicious Gothic mashup, which reminded me very strongly of the Penny Dreadful TV series. It all begins when Mary Jekyll’s mother dies, leaving her orphaned and struggling to keep up the grand family house near Regent’s Park. Mary is mystified by the discovery of strange payments made from her mother’s account, which suggest that her dead father’s unsettling collaborator, Edward Hyde, might still be alive. Even worse, hidden letters suggest that Dr Jekyll used to be part of the Alchemists’ Society, a sinister secret network of scientists who have been using their daughters as subjects for their unethical experiments. Mary sets out to find some of these other gifted women, hoping they can shed light on her father’s work, but time is of the essence. Young women are being brutally murdered in the East End, and it swiftly becomes clear that there are links to the Society; but how can the killer be stopped? Full of adventure, derring-do and strong female characters, this is a glorious and loving romp through a whole subgenre of 19th-century English literature – and a darn good story to boot.

Continue reading

Morality Play: Barry Unsworth

★★★★

Being footloose and fancy-free is a fine thing to imagine, but the reality is rather less splendid when it’s the mid 14th century and winter is coming. Errant cleric Nicholas Barber thinks Fortune might be looking kindly on him when he stumbles across a group of travelling players in the woods, who are burying one of their number. They need a sixth man in their company, and Nicholas can sing and read and write, as befits a clerk. Perhaps he can hold off starvation a while yet, and enjoy some adventure along the way. And yet, as the group moves northward, hoping to reach Durham by Christmas, Fortune has a few more tricks up her sleeve. When circumstances divert them to a country town, they find the community buzzing with news of a murder, and the forthcoming execution of the culprit. But is the supposed murderer really guilty? Nicholas and his colleagues are about to find that a very simple murder is anything but… and in trying to come to the truth of the matter, they might be courting grave danger.

Continue reading

Will and Tom: Matthew Plampin

★★★★

Will Turner arrives at Harewood House in the summer of 1797 in a turbulent frame of mind. His invitation from ‘Beau’ Lascelles, the eldest son of Baron Harewood, could be the beginning of something big. Will’s talent has been noted by his contemporaries and by the press. Now he might be able to win the greatest prize of all: an understanding patron. On the other hand, in order to achieve said prize, Will is going to have to endure several days in the company of frivolous aristocrats without causing offence which, for an obstinate working-class Londoner with a chip on his shoulder, won’t be easy. And worse is to come. For Will isn’t the only painter who’s been invited to Harewood this summer. When his boyhood friend (and fellow – rival? – painter) Tom Girtin unexpectedly turns up, looking mightily comfortable in this aristocratic milieu, Will bristles, assuming they’ve been set up to compete for the nobles’ amusement. But the truth – if truth it is – turns out to be more peculiar than even he could have imagined.

Continue reading

Murder at the British Museum: Jim Eldridge

★★

I’m intrigued by stories set in museums, mainly because I love seeing what authors think curators do with their time (hint: less of the jungles, secret societies and revivified mummies; more ferreting around in dusty boxes. Or maybe that’s just me). This particular book caught my eye because it’s set in my own stomping ground. How could I resist a murder mystery in the hallowed halls of the British Museum? In retrospect, I probably should have done: partly for the usual reason (indignation at a lack of familiarity with what the building actually looks like), and partly because I didn’t think it was particularly well-written. But there’s still a measure of interest to be found in this tale of dastardly doings in Bloomsbury, and in the enterprising duo who are called in to help solve the crime and – more importantly – salvage the Museum’s reputation.

Continue reading

The Children’s Book: A.S. Byatt

★★★★★

In the immortal words of Granny Weatherwax, ‘I aten’t dead’. On the contrary, I’m clawing my way out of a period dominated by the noble (but absolutely demented) effort of writing an exhibition catalogue, from scratch, including research, in three months. (A word of advice: don’t ever do this.) There’s been lots of other stuff going on, some delightful, some rather gloomy, but holidays are now less than a month away and I’m starting to get a grip. I have been reading and seeing operas and concerts and plays, and I fully intend to write about as much as I can remember through the fog. First up is an easy one: I’ve just finished A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, which I first read ten years ago and which enchanted me just as much second time around. Byatt is a rare writer: erudite, intellectual, compelling and technically brilliant, with a profound but unsentimental sense of compassion. I’ve read several of her novels, but The Children’s Book is my favourite for the way it vividly evokes bohemian life at the turn of the 20th century in England. It captures the magic of childhood before going on, ruthlessly, to show how adults create children, only to destroy them.

Continue reading