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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Saints for All Occasions: J. Courtney Sullivan

★★★★

When sisters Nora and Theresa Flynn make the journey to America in 1957, they are agog for a new world of opportunity. Nora, plain and sensible at twenty-one, dreams of finding something to excite her: an alternative to the planned marriage to the unexciting cousin who awaits her in Boston. For Theresa, in her late teens, life is full of sparkle and fun, crammed with new friends and boyfriends and a liberty she could never have known in their native Ireland. Fifty years later, in 2009, a family tragedy threatens to unearth a secret that has estranged the two sisters, and moulded both their lives into shapes they could never have imagined when arriving on the ship half a century before.

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Anna: Niccolò Ammaniti

★★★½

One thing’s for sure: Niccolò Ammaniti really doesn’t do upbeat. I remember seeing the film Non ho paura, based on his novel, when I was in Sixth Form and I found it unsettling, powerful and profoundly bleak. The same could be said of this atmospheric novel, set in 2020, which explores a world in which adults have been eradicated by a virus and children are left to fend for themselves. There is more than a hint of Lord of the Flies here, but Ammaniti is interested not so much in the innate savagery of children, as in the power of hope to push us onward, through unimaginable horrors.

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The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen: Hendrik Groen

★★★★

Hendrik Groen is 83¼ and lives in a care home in North Amsterdam, but he’s determined not to go gently into that good night. In January 2013 he decides to keep a diary as a way to fight back against the stultifying existence imposed upon him by the director and staff of the home. He firmly believes there’s more to life than having one’s ‘own’ chair in the communal living room; that conversation should be about more than aches and pains; and that the older generation deserves to be given its moment in the limelight. With wit, warmth and poignancy, Groen charts a remarkable year in which he makes new friends, embarks on political intrigue, begins ripping up the road in his new mobility scooter, develops a tendresse for an elegant new arrival and, most importantly, founds the revolutionary Old But Not Dead Club.

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Gather the Daughters: Jennie Melamed

★★★½

A rustic community on an isolated island: a simple society of farmers, wood-carvers and roofers. The men labour in the fields while the women bring forth children and keep the home; as a woman, one submits first to one’s father and then one’s husband; and, when one’s children have had children and one’s usefulness is outlived, one takes the fatal draught. Nobody questions the laws of the ancestors. It was doubt and sin, after all, which led to the great fire which has ravaged the old world, which is now nothing but a parched wasteland where none but the wanderers may go. Things are as they have always been – as they should be. But, for a group of girls teetering on the brink of womanhood, a dangerous question hovers in the air. Who makes the laws? And what truly lies beyond the island?

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The Court of Broken Knives: Anna Smith Spark

★★★★

Empires of Dust: Book I

Well, by Jove, I wanted to find out what grimdark was and I think The Court of Broken Knives is more or less a one-novel definition of the term. Searingly brutal, full of political intrigue, without a single purely good character, but plenty of fascinating ones, this debut fantasy gripped me with the tenacity of a cutthroat in a dark alley. It isn’t without its issues, as you’d expect in a first novel, but it has a fearless, blood-drenched flair.

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By Blood Divided: James Heneage

★★★

The Mistra Chronicles (Rise of Empires): Book IV

A word of warning before I get into my flow: this is marketed as a potential stand-alone, but will make much more sense if you’ve read the previous three books in the Mistra Chronicles (Rise of Empires) series. I have not read these and consequently found myself floundering at first. Once I found my feet, however, I thought there was much to enjoy in this novel which takes us into rarely-mined historical fiction territory. Books set in the 15th century rarely make it further east than Venice and, indeed, we do spend some time in Venice here. But much of the story unfolds at Monemvasia and Mistra in the Peloponnese: two tiny outposts of the fading Byzantine Empire, standing proud against the looming armies of the Ottoman Turks. The true decline and fall of the Roman Empire is at hand, and it will be bound up with the story of two courageous men and the woman who is loved by both of them.

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The Night Brother: Rosie Garland

★★★½

Edie and her brother Herbert, nicknamed Gnome, do everything together. As children, growing up above their mother’s pub in late 19th-century Manchester, they roam the streets by night, sneaking into firework shows and exploring their town. But, as the years go on, Edie begins to resent Gnome. Every night he drags her out, forcing her to be more daring and naughtier than she wants to be. By day she’s left empty and ragged. And the worst thing is that Ma and Nan tell her Gnome doesn’t even exist. But he does. He comes every night, regular as clockwork, and Edie begins to dream of ways to control him…

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The President’s Gardens: Muhsin Al-Ramli

★★★★

For many of us, Iraq as an entity is summed up by the images of air strikes on the news and by the rhetoric of politicians and military leaders. It is a place that for all my life has seemed profoundly ‘other’: my earliest memories of seeing war on television are of the Gulf War, when I was five years old. So I came to this book with curiosity, hoping to learn more about the people who have suffered such an existence. Written by the expatriate Iraqi author Muhsin Al-Ramli, it’s a haunting, often horrific tale of three close friends in a rural community, whose lives intersect with the tragedy and chaos of their country.

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The Willow King: Meelis Friedenthal

★★★½

The Birds of the Muses

Originally published in Estonian as Mesilased (The Bees), this novel was awarded the 2013 European Union Prize for Literature and is now presented in an English translation by Matthew Hyde. Dense and allusive, it evokes the philosophical world of the late 17th century through the story of Laurentius Hylas, a young student who comes to study at the university of Dorpat (modern Tartu). I can’t say that I enjoyed the book, which is intellectually rigorous and unrelentingly bleak – but I did appreciate Friedenthal’s ability to capture the contradictions of the early modern mind.

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