At seventeen, Marie is kicked out of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine’s court in France and exiled to a godforsaken abbey in the English countryside. Deemed too ugly to marry, Marie, an orphaned ‘bastard’ with royal blood, is stowed away for life. There’s far more to Marie than meets the eye, however, and soon enough, she has turned the poverty-stricken abbey into a powerhouse. The question is: how does Eleanor feel about that? And, anyway, are women really meant to achieve this much? If a story about nuns in a 12th century abbey sounds dull to you, think again; Matrix by Lauren Groff is an absolutely riveting read.
It is 1666 and the plague reaches a remote Derbyshire village of some 360 souls. They decide to cut themselves off from the outside world in order to protect the surrounding villages. Based on a true story, Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks is a haunting and poignant novel told through the voice of an 18-year-old village girl. Although published twenty years ago it has, of course, extra resonance for our times.
Having just finished Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead, there’s no doubt in my mind that she’s a talented writer. Her metaphors are spot on, her ambitions high and she’s an accomplished storyteller – at times. This Booker Prize long-listed novel about Marian Graves, a female pilot in the early 20th century, takes off with a roar, but seems to stall before it picks up again at the very end. Whether or not you’re willing to go on that 600 page journey I’ll leave up to you. I certainly haven’t given up on Shipstead as an author although this book was a bit of a schlep.
In the late 1800s – a time of exploration and colonisation – a family of settlers departs from New Zealand for a remote volcanic island they have been told is uninhabited but fertile. Mr and Mrs Peacock and their six children hope to build a new home, grow crops, tend animals, and tame the wild place known as ‘Blackbird Island’. Their idyllic little corner of Eden turns out to be anything but, and when one of the children goes missing dark secrets from the past emerge and threaten to destroy them all. Mr Peacock’s Possessions by Lydia Syson is a wonderfully compelling book. Highly recommended.
At the beginning, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead feels like a typical American slave novel (think Beloved, The Polished Hoe, 12 Years a Slave and Roots) with horrifying details of physical and sexual abuse and a particularly evil plantation owner. Whitehead has a surprise in store for us, though, and that’s what makes this novel so original and intriguing.
Readers of this blog might have noticed that I have a soft spot for novels set on sailing ships. The wilder the storms and the longer the journeys, the better, so when I came across the recently published The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton, I wasn’t hard to convince. Set in the 17th century on a ship crossing from Batavia (Jakarta) to Holland, Turton’s book is packed with wild storms, betrayals, demons, murders and a plot to make your head spin. If you enjoyed Ian McGuire’s The North Water or indeed Turton’s last book The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, this book will be for you.
There’s something special about novels based on real events, particularly when the story is crazy as that of the The Visit of the Royal Physician by Per Olov Enquist. It’s the late 1700s and the time of absolute rulers. In Denmark, a German doctor is hired to take care of the 16-year-old mentally disturbed King Christian VII. Within months, Struensee becomes the Queen’s lover and de-facto sovereign while living alongside King Christian. How was this possible? And was this Struensee’s intention all along? A wild journey into the madness of 18th century court life, revolutionary ideas and an absolute treat of a novel. Read full Review
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is O’Farrell’s take on ‘what might have happened’ around the death of Shakespeare’s only son Hamnet. It’s her first foray into historical fiction and an ambitious choice of subject matter, but she pulls it off triumphantly with this poignant tale of grief, love and motherhood.
Madeleine Miller is the much-praised author of the recently published and hugely successful Circe, which we at Bookstoker loved. In my view, Miller’s debut novel, The Song of Achilles, first published in 2012 and the winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction that year, is even better. This spellbinding novel is a must-read for anyone who loved Circe, The Silence of the Girls , has an interest in the Greek myths or is simply looking for an addictively good read.
I have a soft spot for anything Wild West (yes, I did watch a fair bit of The Little House on the Prairie as a kid), so when West by Carys Davies came along I wasn’t hard to convince. It’s the short story of widower Cy Bellman who sets out from Pennsylvania in 1815 to find rumoured gigantic beasts after reading about the discovery of ancient bones in a newspaper. Left behind, in the care of strict Aunt Julia, is his 10-year-old daughter Bess. Like many a mid-life crisis, this one doesn’t end well.