meera syal:the house of hidden mothers


Shyama is a successful businesswoman, owner of a popular beauty salon and a divorced mother of a student daughter. However Shyama wants another child with her partner Toby, a younger man, and she is told that she will not be able to have one naturally. Mala is an intelligent but impoverished Indian woman, her family died leaving little dowry and Mala’s husband thinks that getting Mala to act as a surrogate for a wealthy couple will allow them live a little more comfortably. Inevitably the lives of Shyama and Mala meet as Mala becomes the surrogate for Shyama and Toby’s child but as Shyama’s aged parents fight to regain their investments in India and Tara, her daughter, suffers in London, Shyama is torn between her family, her culture and her ambition.

Syal is a well-known actress and her previous novels have veered towards the comedic element, this one is different. On the surface this is a story about two women, one with money and one without, but the subplots explore so much more. Tara suffers an assault in the the UK and then travels to India to support women’s rights, so changing. Mala travels to the UK and flourishes, Syama’s parents have to take legal action against their own family to possess what is theirs by right. The constant theme is one which compares the life and freedoms of women in the UK with those of women in India, either through caste, fertility or sexual rights, and this makes the book far more thoughtful that it initially seems.

ken follett: edge of eternity


1961 and the Berlin Wall appears overnight, 1989 and the Berlin Wall falls. Between these two events families across the globe go about their everyday lives, lives that revolve around politics. Encompassing the fight for civil rights in America and the struggle for a less hardline on communism in the East, the stories are both personal and also illustrate huge world events, putting them into perspective.

This is the third instalment of the century trilogy and covers the longest span of years. The original five families are intermarried and some characters play a bigger part than others in the story. What makes this book so good however is the clever way in which Follett educates about world politics – the Cuban missile crisis, US politics, life in the Eastern bloc – but at its heart this is a book about people. The book is huge, but it needs to be to do justice to its material. The conclusion of the century trilogy is a sad event.

essie fox: the somnambulist


Phoebe is 17 and has lived a fairly sheltered life in the Victorian East End. Her father is dead and her mother, an avowed member of a religious group, shares her house with her sister Cissy, a former singer. Phoebe is close to Cissy and accompanies her to Wilton’s Music Hall where Cissy comes out of retirement to perform once more and Phoebe is ropes in to help out. After this Cissy dies and Phoebe is forced to become a ‘companion’ to Mrs Samuels, a rich but sickly woman. Life for Phoebe is never the same again.

Without giving away too much of the plot, this is a pastiche of a high-Victorian gothic novel which links madness, death and the supernatural very well. The only discordant note for me was the continued emphasis on sex, and the consequences. Others have claimed the book as dull, I enjoyed the creation of a strong sense of atmosphere. Whilst the plot seems obvious and a little overwrought, it mirrors the convoluted plots and motifs of the genre it is trying to emulate. Essie Fox is obviously a devotee of the Victorian and that makes this book both a true homage and also a great read on its own.

toby clements: kingmaker – broken faith


In the aftermath of the battle of Towton, life in 15th century England has changed. King Henry is a fugitive and King Edward is on the throne. Various nobles have changed sides, pledging their loyalty to the ascending forces in the hope of retaining their lands and benefits. Kathryn is at Cornford Castle, impersonating Margaret Cornford and married to a blind husband. Thomas Everingham has lost his memory after the battle and is living on his brother’s farm. Fate, however, has other plans and, as Thomas regains his strength and memory, Kathryn is forced to become a fugitive again as her skills as a surgeon lead to the death of a woman. Brought together they seek revenge on the Rivens and to plot a pathway through a landscape torn by feuding, war and betrayal.

I haven’t read the first in the series and it took me a while to get into this book. This was mainly due to the fact that the story is not about the famous historical characters but focuses on ‘ordinary’ people, therefore the backstories were not familiar, even if the places and events were. After getting into the story I was completely engrossed. The years between Towton and Edgecote Moor are relatively quiet historically and this book incorporates the battles of Hexham and Hedgeley Moor which were little more than skirmishes but which encompass the game of ‘cat and mouse’ between Lancaster and York which took place over the North between 1460 and 1464. However the complexities of the revolt in the north and the fluidity of loyalties are clearly shown via their impact on the ordinary people and the fighting men. For this alone Clements’ book is worthy but the quality of the writing and the thrill of the plot make it outstanding

james heneage: the lion of mistra


Mistra is part of the empire of Byzantium but is a state in the Pelepponese. This makes it a prize coveted by the Ottomans and the Venetian empire. At the turn of the fifteenth century the eastern mediterranean is in turmoil and the state of Mistra is prospering under the management of Luke Magoris and the Varangians. As Magoris tries to manipulate the Papacy he makes enemies in Italy which lead to the loss of money from Mistra and Venice seizes its chance. Majoris tries to rectify the situation both through trade with China and also through the gold trade in Africa.

I haven’t read the first two parts of this story and I found it really difficult to pick up the different strands at the start. However by halfway through I was completely engrossed in a tale which encompassed lots of areas of history I didn’t know about and had a very engaging plot. I am tempted to get hold of the two other books now.

owen sheers: i saw a man


Michael has moved to Hampstead in London following the death of his wife Caroline. Caroline, a reporter, was killed by a US drone strike in Pakistan and Michael has found it difficult to move on in his life. He makes friends with Josh and Samantha, the couple who live next door to him with their two daughters. After a tragic accident no-one’s life is the same.

I don’t really want to spoil the plot of this book because it pivots on a single incident and the effects of that as they spread around the characters. All I can say is that as a novel about loss and suffering, about guilt and secrets and the difficulty of redemption, this is a masterful book. It’s not a particularly long book nor is the prose complex but it is clear that Sheers’ ability to write poetry is an asset in writing this type of prose. It’s probably one of the best books I have read this year.

conn iggulden: bloodline


The aftermath of the battle at Sandal is the starting point of the escalation of war between the houses of Lancaster and York. Queen Margaret has overseen the slaughter of the Duke of York and his son plus the Earl of Salisbury and his son. This has made the remaining members of the York and Neville dynasties implacable enemies. Meeting in a climactic battle at Towton the Yorkist forces are victorious and this places King Edward on the throne. England now has two kings, Henry VI still lives in imprisonment and the Lancastrian dynasty is still alive. As Edward’s favour shifts from the Neville family to the family of his wife, so he alienates Warwick, is closest friend and advisor.

This is the third book in Iggulden’s series about the Wars of the Roses and again it is a triumph. Iggulden is strongest when writing about battle and his description of the battle of Towton is brilliant. Whilst there is a great deal of fictional licence in terms of his development of characters, his focus in this book tends to lie with Richard Neville (Warwick) and there is a clear understanding of Warwick’s frustration and motivation as he contemplates changing sides. As an opposite to the more romanticised writing of Phillipa Gregory, but still displaying that level of research, this is a terrific read.