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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The Unbinding of Mary Reade: Miriam McNamara

★★★

Well, hoist the mainsail, stock up on rum and run up the Jolly Roger: it’s time for a swashbuckling tale of piratical adventure! And, this time, the boys don’t have all the fun. Miriam McNamara introduces us to Mary Reade, who runs away to sea in 1717 disguised as a man, and who finds a new lease of life when the Dutch ship on which she serves is taken by pirates. Mary is impressed by the elegant pirate captain, ‘Calico’ Jack Rackham, but even more taken with the red-headed woman who fights in a red velvet gown at his side. This is Anne Bonny who, along with Mary, is one of the very few known female pirates. McNamara’s story plays a little fast and loose with the ‘facts’, though there are few enough of those, but she conjures up an engaging read with a very modern take on gender identity, which does justice to the spirit of Mary’s extraordinary story.

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How Not To Be A Boy: Robert Webb

★★★½

I thought I knew what I was getting with this. The title and cover design channel Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman, which left me squirming in scandalised delight several years ago. And, to some extent, I was right; but Webb’s book takes the celebrity-does-gender-studies memoir to new and much darker regions. Written with fearsome honesty, it’s a ruthless exposé of what British society does to its young men, but also a tale of what it’s like to grow up in a world where you simply don’t fit in. It’s a humorous, frank and thought-provoking counterpart to Moran’s book, a welcome view from the other side of the gender barricade, and yet at the same time a completely different beast. Reading this, I feel (to some degree) as my male friends may have felt on reading Moran. Ahead lies terra incognita. And there may be dragons.

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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 male 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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