JANE AUSTEN AND SHELLEY IN THE GARDEN

Janet Todd

Fentum Press, £9.99

In a cottage in the Norfolk countryside lives retired academic Fran, accompanied by her imaginary companion Jane Austen, who keeps up a pithy commentary on what’s going on around her. Fran’s closest friend is Annie, another former academic, who is aware of Austen’s ghostly presence. The two older ladies team up with middle-aged American author Rachel, Annie’s ex-student Thomas and graduate student Tamsin to retrace the steps of Percy Shelley from Wales to Venice. The experience binds them tightly, and Fran, Annie and Rachel set up home and spend lockdown together, inspired by Shelley’s ideas of a utopian community. Beneath the literary and historical concerns of their conversations emerge themes of friendship, feminism and finding one’s way through life, until a tragedy tugs at their awareness of their mortality. It’s an uneventful, unsensational novel which cultivates a gentle, autumnal mood and takes time to explore its themes.

HeraldScotland:

THE HONEY AND THE STING

EC Fremantle

Penguin, £8.99

It’s 1628 in Oxfordshire. Hester, who was raped and left pregnant by George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, is raising her son with her younger sisters, Melis and Hope. But Villiers has decided to reclaim the boy, and the sisters take flight, hiding out in Shropshire. Three women living with a child in those days can’t help but draw attention to themselves, so when Villiers sends a certain Lieutenant Felton to kill them and bring back the boy, their days are surely numbered. As Fremantle has woven real people into her fiction, history buffs will be able to deduce where the story is going, but otherwise it’s a tense, pacey cat-and-mouse game with the constant threat of discovery set against a rich historical background. Points can be deducted for the sisters’ terrible decision-making, but added back on for the way Melis’s premonitions add a supernatural tinge to an already darkly gothic atmosphere.

HeraldScotland:

KEEPING THE HOUSE

Tice Cin

And Other Stories, £11.99

An exciting new talent debuts with Keeping the House, set among north London’s close-knit but sprawling Turkish Cypriot community in the first decade of this century. It features a large, diverse list of characters, some making only fleeting appearances, but the focus is on single mother Ayla, her mother Makbule and her teenage daughter Damla in Tottenham. Damla’s father is imprisoned, leaving Ayla with a batch of heroin to shift, which she does, before coming up with an inventive way of importing heroin from Turkey in shipments of cabbages. Damla, meanwhile, forges a friendship with the more sexually precocious Cemile, a relationship which will be central to her journey through her teenage years. There are other strands too in this mercurial novel, which has a raw energy and inconsistency that can seem careless and undisciplined, but Cin makes a virtue of its unevenness, reflecting the patchwork, organic nature of a dynamic community.