An amusing journey into the world of Greek gods and semi-gods has been the highlight of my holiday reading this Christmas. Stone Blind by Natalie Hayes is frivolous fun and a welcome distraction from family gatherings and dishwasher emptying. Hayes, a respected classicist whose mission it is to make Greek myths accessible and entertaining, takes a closer look at the infamous snake-headed Medusa and her lethal stare. Was she really as bad as her reputation? Why did her stare turn people into stone? And how did she end up with snakes as hair anyway?
It’s 1922. We are in Moscow’s most distinguished hotel and one of its permanent guests, the unrepentant aristocrat Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, has just been sentenced to a life in exile inside the hotel ‘never to set foot outside of The Metropol again.’ So starts A Gentleman in Moscow, a novel that it’s nearly impossible not to fall in love with, a true, yes I will say it, feel good story. It’s not going to change your life, but Amor Towels’ book (also author of Rules of Civility) will entertain and delight with wonderfully crafted characters and enviably elegant writing.
I’ve been craving a juicy historical drama and along comes The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell. Set in Renaissance Italy, the novel is loosely based on Lucrezia di Cosimo de’Medici’s disastrous marriage to Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara. As many aristocratic girls of her time, poor 13 year-old Lucrezia becomes a chess piece in the political game of strategic unions. Farrell gets under the skin of our bewildered heroine as we follow her from one golden cage to the next. Her writing transports us to a different time with evocative descriptions of landscapes, interiors, clothing, smells and sounds. Is it as good as the fabulous Hamnet? Not quite, but it’s nevertheless a delightful, fairytale-esque, page-turner.
Briefly A Delicious Life by Nell Stevens is an intoxicating debut novel, blessed with a brilliantly inspired storyline. Set in a Mallorcan former monastery in 1838, it tells the story of Blanca, the ghost of a teenage girl. Habit has kept her haunting its environs for centuries, measuring her days in the tiniest increments, ‘A pomegranate seed, nudged in the path of a sparrow. A spider scaling a pane of glass.’ This three-hundred plus years interlude is interrupted the day George Sand and Frédéric Chopin come to stay. Smitten by their creative, free-thinking ways, Blanca finds herself falling in love. Read full Review
Michael Cash believes that coal mining has stolen his boyhood, blighted his adulthood and may well send him to an early grave. In the brooding Mercia’s Take by Daniel Wiles, we join him in the dark heart of the English industrial revolution as he battles to save his young son from the same fate. Desperation, vengeance, and the unholy lure of gold, drives a tale where the blackness seeping into Michael’s lungs threatens to invade his very soul.
Like many others, I absolutely the bestselling All The Light We Cannot See, so I was excited to read a new novel by the same author was out. Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr, is a complex and ambitious novel of epic proportions. It contains multiple storylines and timelines that span many centuries. At first, I found this constant jumping between stories and worlds distracted me from the beauty of Doerr’s prose. I found myself preferring one storyline to another and felt irritated when I was forced out of one world and into another. I started racing through the sections I didn’t like so much in order to join my favourites again.
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.