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One stormy night Edinburgh-born, Walter Moody, fresh off the boat to make his fortune on the New Zealand goldfields, walks into the first hotel he stumbles across, deeply shaken by an uncanny incident during his voyage. He finds himself in a room of twelve men who have a joint secret involving an opium den, a drugged whore, a ghostly ship, a dead drunk, a missing fortune and a young man’s disappearance. The first part of this saga, almost 400 pages, beautifully and intricately relates the recollections of the twelve different men of a single day, the twenty seventh of January, the day on which the story begins, tracing the ‘disjunctive and chaotic’ events of which lead to their incongruous night-time meeting. The twelve men are the fixed stellar constellations of the tale (incredibly, each man's individual astrological chart directs the role he plays in the action that unfolds), interconnected in a ‘strange tangle of association’, around which orbit the planetary characters of the piece, three external pairs – ‘the widow and the trafficker; the politician and the gaoler; the prospector and the whore’ – and Moody, the ‘unraveller’, the detective. A voluminous Victorian mystery tale of adultery, theft, conspiracy, blackmail and murder set against the backdrop of the gold rush, ‘The Luminaries’ is a dazzling feat of storytelling.
The author of the stupendously successful memoir ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ returns to fiction with her first novel in thirteen years, but it reads like the culmination of a lifetime telling stories. Digressing into areas ranging from botany to spiritualism to illustration, she relates the rich, highly satisfying tale of scholar Alma Whittaker. Born in 1800 to Henry Whittaker, ‘the richest man in Philadelphia,’ who rose from his station as the son of a lowly gardener to an import tycoon, Alma has the benefit of wealth and books, spending hours learning Latin and Greek and studying the natural world. Her plain appearance and erudition seem to predict a lonely life, but Alma yearns for friendship and love as well as for knowledge. Gilbert renders her longing with exquisite precision, conveying both Alma's naivety and her frustration in an age when women were not permitted to admit to any kind of sexual need. At the same time, ‘The Signature of All Things’ brings to the fore all those forgotten women of science, whose trailblazing work was swallowed up by more famous men. With an astonishing eye for just the right amount of period or environmental detail, this beautifully written, engrossing book is epic in scope yet human in its resonance.
As befitting a novel inspired by ancient myth and philosophy, ‘The Orpheus Descent’ has grand themes and elaborate plotting which connect two stories thousands of years apart. In this time slip novel, Harper brings both modern day hero, musician Jonah Barnes and Plato vividly to life. Plato’s journeys and philosophical enquiries are paralleled with Jonah’s own quandary after his archaeologist wife, Lily, suddenly disappears without a trace. Lily had been excavating an archaeology site in Southern Italy, where she had found a golden tablet, ostensibly crafted by unknown hands and buried in ancient times. Such tablets provided the dead with a route to the afterlife. Twelve other such tablets sit in museums around the world. Jonah refuses to give up hope of finding Lily alive, but he discovers that not everyone who journeys to the place where Lily went can return. This evocative, well written novel provides real food for the mind, the senses, the heart and the spirit. A ‘must read’ literary tour de force.
A vicious robbery at a secluded Brighton mansion leaves its elderly female owner dying with millions of pounds worth of valuables stolen. Detective Superintendent, Roy Grace, is brought in to head the enquiry and soon establishes that there is one stolen item above all the others that has particular sentimental value to her powerful family. They are prepared at all costs to retrieve it including taking the law into their own hands. Within days, Grace is racing against the clock following a murderous trail that leads him from the shady antiques world of Brighton, across Europe and surprisingly to the New York waterfront gang struggles of 1922, chasing a killer driven by the force of one man’s fury and another man’s greed, confirming that some wait a lifetime to take their revenge. This exciting new bestseller from James has all the right ingredients with its tight and polished, steadily paced plot and its constant array of red herrings and false turns, guaranteed to unnerve any too comfortable reader!
When successful young lawyer, Brek Cuttler, finds herself covered in blood and standing on a deserted railway station platform, she has no memory of how she arrived there. Then she realises that she is dead but has no idea of how she was killed. Brek is not allowed to grieve for her lost life, her widowed husband or her motherless baby daughter because she is newly employed with an important job to do. She has been chosen to join a group of elite lawyers who have to prosecute and defend souls at the Final Judgement. By some strange co-incidence, Brek’s first client provides a link to the chain of events that had led to her death. Brek discovers that the chain stretches far back into the past to reveal some shocking, secret crimes. Brek realises that if she is to break the sequence, she must face the truth about how, and why, she died. This chilling, well written fantasy makes for compelling reading!
At age thirteen, Theo Decker, son of a devoted mother and reckless, mostly absent father miraculously survives an accident which kills his much loved, beautiful mother. Alone and heartbroken in New York, Theo is taken in by a wealthy friend’s family but finds no solace in his new school friends who do not know how to communicate with him in his loneliness and grief. As he grows up Theo clings to the one thing that reminds him most of his mother, a small painting. As his talisman, the painting ultimately draws him into the criminal underworld that places him at the centre of a narrowing even more dangerous circle. ‘The Goldfinch’ is a haunted odyssey through present day America, looking for its maternal roots. Tartt’s beautiful and lyrical prose unforgettably combines vivid characters with a thrilling suspense which is addictive in itself! As a novel about irreplaceable loss, survival and self-invention, it explores the deeper recesses and mysteries behind love, identity and fate. A captivating read!
Berlin 1933. Hitler has just come to power as young English actress Clara Vine intends to pursue a film career at the city’s legendary Ufa studios. When she arrives there, she soon finds herself confronted with the ‘real’ Berlin, a hotbed of tension and unrest. Through a chance meeting she is reluctantly drawn into the glamorous inner-circle of Nazi wives, among them Magda Goebbels. Soon she finds herself being paid to model clothes that Hitler has selected as suitable for German women. It is in this environment that she meets Leo Quinn, a British Intelligence Officer, who sees Clara as the perfect recruit to spy on the elite crowd she now socializes with, using her acting skills to win their confidence. But when Magda Goebbels reveals to Clara a dramatic secret and entrusts her with an extraordinary mission, Clara feels threatened and compromised, desperately caught between her loyalty towards and growing affection for Leo, and the impossibly dangerous task Magda has forced upon her. ‘Black Roses’ is the perfect fusion of thriller, history and love story, a terrifying but fascinating recreation of 1930’s Nazi-Germany and its bizarre attitude to women.
For as long as people have been migrating to London, they have brought their music with them. Music is an essential link to their homeland and has the power to shape communities. Black music has thrived in London since the First World War, when jazz was introduced by the Southern Syncopated Orchestra. After the wave of Commonwealth immigration, its sounds and styles took up residence to become the foundation of the city’s youth culture. In ‘Sounds Like London,’Lloyd Bradley tells the story of this music and the memorable musicians who created it, taking us on a musical journey through London from Soho jazz clubs to Brixton blues parties, to King’s Cross warehouse raves, to the streets of Notting Hill and finally to sound systems all over the world. This book is also about the shaping of a city and in turn, a whole nation, through music. This fascinating, polyrhythmic history of jazz and its importance in London life is a perfect read for musicians and music lovers alike.
This astonishingly, emotional and brave portrayal of the essence of a dictatorship when power and sexual gratification is unchecked shows how its abuse reverberates on the most intensely personal level. Saroya was a schoolgirl from a coastal town of Sirte when she was chosen to present Colonel Gaddafi with a bouquet of flowers. Soon afterwards she was summoned to Bab al-Azziz, Gaddafi’s palatial compound near Tripoli, where she was systematically abused, raped and degraded by Gaddafi. Hundreds of other young women suffered the same fate. Annick Cojean not only gives Soroya, and other women like her, a voice but supplements her investigation with those involved in his regime, for example, the driver who ferried women to his compound and Gaddafi’s former chief of security. This study into sexuality and its abuse of Libyan women under Gaddafi’s dictatorship should be of great significance to the new Libya if the position of women is to be improved. A real eye-opener.
In this new biography of Michelangelo, Martin Gayford captures the epic sweep of his life. Already at thirty one, he was considered the finest artist in Italy, perhaps even the world. For decades he worked within the vortex at which European history was evolving, from Renaissance to Counter Reformation. Martin Gayford brilliantly describes what it must have felt like to be Michelangelo Buonarroti and how he transformed our notion of what an artist could be. How did the son of a man who ‘did nothing’ and wanted his son to become a lawyer turn into one of the most revered artists in history? Gayford chronicles the minutiae of Michelangelo’s life and time in history as well displaying a deep understanding of his artistic motivation in this fascinating read, analyzing the brilliance of his creations with skill and sympathy.
Simon Heffer’s new book forms an ambitious exploration of the making of the Victorian age and the Victorian mind. Between 1840 and 1880, British life and society underwent a gradual but major change. Young adults in the latter year would have seen a very different country from that in which an earlier generation came to maturity. The land in which poverty, disease, squalor and injustice were endemic, and in which the Chartists had agitated for fairer rights for all had been largely transformed by the modernizing factors of social upheaval and industrial change. ‘High Minds’ is part social, part intellectual and part political history of this transition period. Rather than presenting a chronological account, Heffer looks at specific themes in detail and tells the story through particular individuals such as politicians and philanthropists, writers and thinkers who left their mark on public life and consciousness in helping to develop the ‘New Britain’. It is these personalities involved that contribute such liveliness to this assured and magisterial narrative. Heffer has not attempted to portray Victorianism in all its facets, instead he captures its idiosyncratic pursuit of perfection with assurance, gravitas and flashes of humour.
The pursuit of love, sex and fame - this theme runs through historian Andrew McConnell Stott’s ‘The Vampyre Family: Passion, Envy and the Curse of Byron’. In this intriguing profile, the author looks at the legends of the Romantic literary period: Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley and John Polidori, and Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont, when they gathered for three months in 1816 on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. The sojourn proved to be a period of great creativity during which the masterpieces of Byron's ‘Childe Harold’, Shelley's ‘Mont Blanc’, Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ and John Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’, the first great vampire novel, were conceived. But it was also an experience that was emotionally disturbing, one which would continue to haunt Clairmont and Polidori. In his exuberant and exceptionally well told book, Stott gives a vivid and fascinating account of these literary heroes at one of their most creative high points.
In 1952, Philomena Lee, a young unmarried Irish Catholic woman, was sent away to an abbey in County Tipperary to await the birth of her illegitimate child. BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith chillingly recounts the subsequent events, which are partly fiction – reconstructing scenes and conversations – and partly fact. After surviving a gruesome birth, Philomena had to work hard in the abbey for three years to pay off the cost of her care. But the worst was yet to come. At the end of her service, her son, Anthony, was taken from her to be placed with ‘any person’ the Abbey’s Superioress deemed ‘fit and proper,’ a practice condoned by the Catholic Church and facilitated by the Irish government. An American couple adopted Anthony, renamed him Michael and took him to the States. Philomena would spend the next fifty years searching for her son, unaware that he spent his life searching for her. He grew up to become a top lawyer and politician but had to hide his homosexuality and the fact that he had caught HIV. With little time left, he returned to the Irish convent in which he was born to plea with the nuns to tell him who his mother was, but they refused. This tragic and heart-breaking, yet ultimately gripping account was no single event in a dark chapter of Irish Catholic Church’s history and is absolutely worth reading!
A meticulously researched and highly readable biography, ‘The Poets‘ Daughters’ by Katie Waldegrave examines the lives of Dora Wordsworth, the daughter of poet William Wordsworth, and Sara Coleridge, daughter of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The two women, life-long friends after having spent their childhood together in the Lake District, both lived in the aura of their fathers’ fame as geniuses of the Romantic period, and both women committed themselves to supporting their fathers’ literary talents. At the same time, they struggled to create lives of their own in a time when the social mores and conventions of nineteenth century England did not encourage feminine ambitions, leading to their experiences with anorexia, depression and drug addiction. Waldegrave’s narrative skills create an engaging and perceptive story of these friends whose intelligence and critical judgment not only shaped their fathers’ legacies but also managed to realize some recognition for their own literary talents.
When the Taliban took control of the Swat Valley in Northern Pakistan, Malala refused to be silenced and fought for her right to an education. On Tuesday, ninth October 2012, Malala was shot in the head at close range when riding the bus home from school. She was not expected to survive. Instead, Malala’s miraculous recovery has taken her on a long journey to become at sixteen a global symbol of peaceful protest and the youngest ever nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize 2013. ‘I am Malala’ is the remarkable tale of a family uprooted by global terrorism, of the fight for girls’ education under the Taliban in a society that prizes sons. This inspiring read puts the faith of a better future for Muslim women in the hands of one courageous and intelligent young woman who continues to fight for universal access to education.
Stanley Potts is an orphan living with his Aunt Annie and Uncle Eddie. After he loses his job, Stan’s Uncle Ernie turns their house into a fish-canning factory and Stan becomes his drudge. When his uncle upsets him Stan runs off with a circus where he begins a promising career on the Hook-A-Duck stall. What he doesn't anticipate is something altogether grander and madder - apprenticeship to the celebrated Pancho Pirelli, the man who swims with piranhas. Almond has produced a rollercoaster of a story, with thrills and spills and all the fun of the fair. There are glittering prizes to be won, and morals to be learnt (‘the little troubled runts are often the ones that turn out to be best of all’), as well as quiet moments in the silvery moonlight. This is a quirky, wonderful book about a boy in search of something who finds so much more.
When their golden ring is stolen, the Owl and the Pussy-cat must travel far from the safety of the Bong-tree glade as their search for the thief leads them across the sea. The author of ‘The Gruffalo’ revisits one of Edward Lear’s most popular rhymes in this fabulous new story set in a nonsensical land steeped in enchanting lyricism.
Yassen Gregorovich is an international contract killer who is given a new assignment: kill Alex Rider. Alex is a fourteen-year-old spy whose father John Rider (code name ‘Hunter’) was killed in an unexplained accident. Years before he had trained Yassen to become a killer. However this story doesn’t focus on Alex; it’s about Yassen. It tells how an ordinary schoolboy turned into a hired assassin, how his childhood was ripped away from him, forcing him to become a cold-blooded killer. This book helps readers understand why damaged people choose evil. Horowitz writes with real empathy, exploring what events in their lives led them to make their choices. Even if readers have not read the whole series, they can enjoy ‘Russian Roulette’ as it is not about Alex, the main protagonist; instead it is about Yassen and his own untold story.
Twelve year old Mila and her father Gil are about to visit Gil's old friend Matthew in New York when they hear that he has disappeared, leaving his wife and child (and dog) behind. Matthew's wife asks them to come anyway, and help her find him. Mila believes that she has a kind of second sight that allows her to read emotions. She collects information about Matthew from his belongings, from his family and from the ghosts of his past, slowly piecing together the story everyone else has missed. Just when she is closest to solving the mystery, a shocking betrayal calls into question her trust in the one person she thought she could read best. ‘Picture Me Gone’ charts the tiny shifts in allegiance and unexpected situations through which Mila discovers that the stories she lives by will not be enough for the emotionally tricky, adult world.
Reviews by Evelyn, Jayne, Kavin, Liz, Michaela and Ruth