The Crow Garden: Alison Littlewood

★★★

In 1856, the young doctor Nathaniel Kerner makes his way north to Crakethorne Manor in Yorkshire: his first placement as an alienist or mad-doctor. He hopes to find an asylum full of progressive ideas and enlightened leadership, but it soon transpires that the enlightened spa treatments and extensive gardens described in the brochures are fictions. Instead Crakethorne is governed by the unstable Dr Chettle, who eschews modern notions of treatment in favour of the questionable science of phrenology. His new home isn’t all that Nathaniel would have wished. And yet there is one aspect which captures his imagination: Victoria Adelina Harleston, his beguiling patient.

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Hotel Silence: Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

★★★½

Jónas has decided to kill himself. He’s divorced, his ex-wife has revealed that his beloved daughter is actually the child of another man, and his mother is swiftly sinking into senility. Nothing in his life has meaning any more. Even his chats with his neighbour Svanur only confirm his sense of middle-aged man superfluity. And so he decides it’s time to put an end to it all. How and when, of course, are another question. Jónas decides that, to avoid his daughter finding his body, he will have to kill himself abroad and so he decides to seek out the most dangerous place in the world. And so he arrives at the Hotel Silence, in a grim postwar town, where he will discover – much to his surprise – that, with a little effort, many things that are broken can in fact be mended.

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Caligula: Simon Turney

★★★

The Damned Emperors: Book I

Simon Turney (usually billed as S.J.A. Turney) has built up quite a following with his e-books set in the Roman army, especially the Marius’ Mules series. They’ve been at the edge of my consciousness for a while, so I welcomed the chance to have a taster of Turney’s writing via this new novel. It’s the first in a series which will focus on the deliciously colourful emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. In tackling Caligula, however, Turney takes the same approach that Margaret George did with Nero, attempting to cut through the accretions of centuries of propaganda and legend, to reveal the man beneath. It’s a noble attempt, but not without its problems, as the Julio-Claudians are always at their most interesting when they’re barking mad.

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Koh-i-Noor: William Dalrymple and Anita Anand

★★★½

Back at the beginning of August, I used my summer holidays to play ‘tourist’ in London. My first stop was the Tower of London and, among the ravens, armour and tales of bloody executions, I popped in to see the Crown Jewels. At that point I was already aware of this new history of the famous Koh-i-Noor diamond and wanted to see it for myself. I discovered, as many have before me, that its legend casts a far larger shadow than its reality. Indeed, it looks almost modest alongside the Cullinan I Diamond that sits atop the monarch’s sceptre, or the Cullinan II in the Imperial State Crown. So what was it about this rather unassuming diamond that captured the imagination of generations? With Dalrymple and Anand as my guides, I embarked on an engaging tale of blood, war, ambition, extravagance and conquest.

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The Wicked Cometh: Laura Carlin

★★★

In the dark streets of early 19th-century Holborn, people are disappearing. Men, women and children vanish on their way home from work or after a pint in the pub. As the smogs thicken in the narrow streets, orphaned Hester White studies the handbills pasted up on the dank walls, begging for news of lost loved ones. It’s a bleak time to be poor in London and, when Hester suffers an accident near Smithfield Market, and is swept off for recuperation in the house of a wealthy surgeon, she thinks that she has escaped the dark belly of the underworld once and for all. Little does she know that she is only being drawn deeper into danger. A tale of Gothic threat and forbidden love, this novel reads like a cross between Sarah Waters and Grand Guignol.

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An Odyssey: Daniel Mendelsohn

★★★★★

A Father, a Son and an Epic

In January 2011, Classics professor Daniel Mendelsohn began to teach an undergraduate seminar on the Odyssey at Bard College in New York. It would be one of the most unusual experiences of his career, for one of his students was his 81-year-old father, Jay Mendelsohn. The tale of the term that followed is distilled into this extraordinary book, part memoir and part literary criticism. An insightful and passionate teacher, Mendelsohn conveys his enthusiasm for Homer’s epic; but he is also a sensitive chronicler of the human soul, and his story spirals out from the seminar to encompass the history of his complex relationship with his prickly, combative father. Written with compassion, it is both intellectually and emotionally brilliant – not to mention hugely moving.

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The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night: Jen Campbell

★★★½

Some of you might already be familiar with Jen Campbell, the compiler of Weird Things Customers Say In Bookshops. Although I haven’t yet read these compendiums of the odd, I’ve seen snippets here and there and they’ve made me laugh out loud. So I was curious to see how Campbell’s talents would translate to the short story medium. The answer is: extremely well; although these unsettling stories aren’t at all what one would expect from this tongue-in-cheek observer of human nature. Or… on the other hand… perhaps they are, for they reach deep inside us to the darker corners of the psyche, and their unifying feature is that these miniature worlds seem so straightforward, so simple, until you look between the lines and realise that something, subtly, is out of kilter.

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The Eight Mountains: Paolo Cognetti

★★★½

Mountains exert a powerful fascination on the modern mind. They offer freedom, escape, wilderness, the shrugging-off of civilisation. They promise an elemental battle between humanity and nature. And they hold out the prospect of possession: peaks to be claimed and conquered. In this restrained and elegant novel, Paolo Cognetti tells the story of Pietro, a young boy from Milan whose life will be shaped by a childhood friendship formed in the high valleys of the Italian Alps. A tale of obsession, of fathers and sons, of friendship and of belonging, this is a poignant glimpse of a fading world.

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The Girl in the Tower: Katherine Arden

★★★★

Winternight: Book II

Hot on the heels of The Bear and the Nightingale comes its sequel: another compelling slice of Russian-flavoured fantasy, prickling with ice and magic. Our heroine Vasya has saved the villagers of Lesnaya Zemlya from an evil far greater than that of the Devil the priests have taught them to fear, and far older than the icons and crosses of their churches. Yet her reward is scorn, distrust and hostility: a reputation as a witch. And so her eyes turn to the horizon, to the wider world she has craved for so long. With her incomparable horse Solovey, she sets out – but not before her path leads her back to a little house in a fir-grove in the forest, where the frost-demon Morozko waits for her.

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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.

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