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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The Corset: Laura Purcell

★★★

Having enjoyed Laura Purcell’s novel The Silent Companions – a creepily Gothic tale of ghostly presences and paranoia in a remote country house – I was attracted to her follow-up. Once again set in the Victorian period, this has a similar atmosphere to her debut: again Purcell teases us with possible supernatural events, but I felt The Corset didn’t have quite the same eerie originality as The Silent Companions. It focuses on the relationship between two young women: Dorothea Truelove, a wealthy heiress of twenty-five who spends her time doing good works rather than snaring a husband; and Ruth Butterham, a teenage murderess awaiting trial in the prison which is one of Dorothea’s pet projects. Two very different worlds collide as Ruth confesses her history to Dorothea: not just the women’s drastically different upbringings, but also the worlds of science and superstition, logic and fantasy, reason and the unexplained.

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There Are Things I Know: Karen B. Golightly

★★★½

Time for another novella from the Fairlight Moderns series, this time the tale of a little boy named Pepper. He’s eight years old, used to live with his mother in Memphis, Tennessee, and knows that he doesn’t see the world in quite the same way as other people. He dislikes loud noises, finds it difficult to read people’s emotions but finds numbers very easy to tackle: indeed, counting often keeps him calm when the chaos of the world threatens to overwhelm him. Now Pepper lives with Uncle Dan in Arkansas, but he’s having trouble adapting. In fact, he’s beginning to suspect that Uncle Dan isn’t really his uncle at all. But how can one lost little boy get hold of his mother when the only phone number he knows is missing its crucial three-digit area code?

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Secret Passages in a Hillside Town: Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

★★★

Olli Suominen, an absent-minded publisher, lives in Jyväskylä in Central Finland, where he spends his days trying to find new authors for his firm, serving on the parish council, and losing umbrellas. His marriage is losing its sparkle and, when an old flame erupts onto the Finnish literary scene with a compelling new self-help guide, Olli finds himself being dragged back into memories of childhood summers, when he was a member of a band of children based on Enid Blyton’s Famous Five. But the blissful adventure of those summers hides darker memories of torment, transformation and loss, all mixed up with the secret passages that run below this unassuming hill town. I sometimes got the feeling that Jääskeläinen was trying to do too much at once, but it’s certainly a unique novel with its own peculiar flavour.

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Inside the Bone Box: Anthony Ferner

★★★★

In this day and age, with independent bookshops and small publishers closing in swathes, it’s a joy to hear of a newly-founded enterprise: Fairlight Books in Oxford. At one year old, they’re just about to release a series of five novellas in their Fairlight Moderns series and I was delighted to have a sneak peek. I decided to start with Inside the Bone Box, because it focused on a doctor and that appealed in the wake of Adam Kay’s diaries. It’s the story of consultant neurosurgeon Nicholas Anderton, whose burgeoning obesity has already threatened his marriage and now raises very serious questions about his professional capabilities. Meanwhile his wife, Alyson, has her own demons to fight. It soon becomes clear that the ‘bone box’ of the title isn’t just the skull, within which the brain-self resides, but also the prisons we build for ourselves, trapping ourselves within excess flesh or addictions.

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The Madness of Moscow: Cary Johnston

★★

One Man’s Journey of Life and Love in Russia

I was attracted to this book by its promise of revelation. Even in the modern age, Russia is still ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’, and its role on the international stage is becoming ever more complex, fascinating and not a little worrying. Recent news has cast it as a country of hackers, oligarchs, corruption and assassins; but how true is all of this? What’s it actually like to be in Russia right now, as a Westerner? What makes the Russians tick? How open is modern Russia to the West and what it stands for? I hoped to find the answers to some of these questions, and hopefully many others, in this book. Unfortunately, though, I was disappointed. Johnston’s account offers little beyond a memoir of partying, vodka-drinking and his eternal and somewhat wearying quest to find his ideal ‘Russian Bride’. For a reporter, it shows a profound lack of curiosity.

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Weekend at Thrackley: Alan Melville

★★★½

This jolly novel is part of the British Library’s Crime Classics series, devoted to resurrecting overlooked treasures from the golden age of British mystery writing. While not an avid fan of crime novels, I have read one book from the series before – Death on the Cherwell – so it’s really the subject that appeals rather than the genre. In Weekend at Thrackley, first published in 1934, a rather feckless young man is surprised by an invitation to a country house weekend in Surrey. But further surprises are to come. Stuffed with dastardly villains, jewel thieves, mysterious pasts and a good dose of pluck, not to mention lashings of humour, this is just the ticket for cosy escapism.

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Circe: Madeline Miller

★★★

For her second novel, Madeline Miller returns to the fertile world of Greek mythology, and to another figure often overshadowed by a swaggering hero. This time her protagonist is Circe, sorceress and nymph, ruler of one of the many islands where Odysseus manages to get lost en route from Troy to Ithaca. Artists have always loved Circe: John William Waterhouse, in particular, seems to have been obsessed with this exotic enchantress. And yet Miller invites us to look beyond the magic, the sensuality and the unfortunate habit of turning people into pigs. As she did in The Song of Achilles, she gathers strands of myth from various sources and reveals little-known aspects to a familiar figure. Like Penelope, Miller is a master weaver; and yet there’s something at the heart of the book that doesn’t quite work.

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Dancing Bears: Witold Szabłowski

★★★

True stories About Longing for the Old Days

There’s a fascinating premise behind this book by the Polish journalist Witold Szabłowski. Its first half is devoted to the tale of how Bulgaria’s entry into the EU obliged it to forbid the keeping of dancing bears, thereby destroying one of its cherished traditions. Following the ‘rescued’ bears in their new home, Szabłowski looks at how the animals are coping with their new ‘freedom’ and also follows the fate of their former keepers. In the second half of the book, the bears’ clumsy encounter with their new freedom forms the framework for a series of vignettes assembled in various Eastern and Central European countries, whose peoples are still struggling to define their identities and purpose in the aftermath of Communism. Unfortunately the second half doesn’t live up to the promise of the first part, but the book as a whole offers a glimpse of an unfamiliar world struggling in that gap between death-throes and birth-throes.

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Waiting for the Last Bus: Richard Holloway

★★★★

Reflections on Life and Death

Until two years ago, no one close to me had died; not since I’d been old enough to understand it. But 2016 came with chill winds and ruthlessness, and the last two years have seen the loss of five close family members. It hasn’t been easy. But it has had one useful outcome. I used to be afraid of death. It was a terrifying transmutation that I didn’t understand and didn’t want to acknowledge. But necessity has changed that and now, in the light of my family’s losses, I’ve had to accept it as an unavoidable part of human life. This all explains why I was drawn to this book, in which Richard Holloway – former Bishop of Edinburgh; thinker; compassionate critic; agnostic – uses his own old age as a spur to think about how we can live well and, when it comes to it, die well. Open-hearted and generous, studded with poetry and his memories of friends, it’s rather beautiful: inspiring and, oddly enough, rather upbeat.

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