The Last Hours: Minette Walters

★★★

Minette Walters is best known as the author of crime novels, but her new book strikes out into fresh territory: historical fiction. She introduces us to the 14th-century village of Develish in Dorset: a prosperous, contented place despite the depredations of its arrogant lord, Sir Richard. His more thoughtful wife Lady Anne has quietly worked behind the scenes to improve the quality of life for their serfs, and received their love and loyalty in return. As Sir Richard rides out to deliver their daughter Eleanor’s dowry to her intended husband, Lady Anne’s abilities are about to be tested to the full. For it is 1348 and the countryside is troubled by rumours of a great pestilence, which kills with no respect for rank, age or piety. As Lady Anne and her serfs gather behind the manor’s defensive moat, the certainties of an entire age are about to be turned upside down.

Continue reading

Tench: Inge Schilperoord

★★★★

How do you become the person you want to be? This is the challenge that faces thirty-year-old Jonathan when he is released from prison, acquitted on the basis of insufficient evidence. He returns to his elderly mother and their isolated house on the edge of the dunes, one of only two houses left standing in the midst of demolition. Soon the council will rehouse them on a new estate, but Jonathan isn’t looking forward to it. Change upsets him. And so he tries to settle back into his old life: long walks on the dunes with the dog; watching TV with his mother; fishing in the ponds. He wants to be good. But, as summer thickens over their dead-end town and the mercury rises, Jonathan finds his calm unsettled by the bright, creative, clever little girl next door. Sometimes instinct can undermine even the best laid plans.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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?

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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…

Continue reading