It has been a long while since I've done a reading round-up but here are a few of my recent favourites:
First up is Longbourn by Jo Baker. Longbourn is the story of Sarah, an orphan and young servant, who falls in love with a man with a mysterious past, a past much more violent and tragic than she can imagine. The narrative drive of the story largely comes from Sarah's inner life: her growing self-awareness and her emotions maturing into an intense love affair, and from the increasing hints about James' past which eventually become a full blown flashback.
Longbourn is both an engaging love story and a fluid easy-going piece of historical fiction that shows the past because it's there, rather than flaunting the writer's historical scholarship. Worn very lightly throughout both aspects is the fact that these servants, Sarah and those with whom she lives, are those of Jane Austen's Bennett family. This lightness belies the tight timescales that run in the background. When Elizabeth goes to visit Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice, then Elizabeth takes Sarah there in Longbourn, and so on. If you've never read Pride and Prujudice you can still enjoy this book so gently is the relationship worn, but you will miss what is going on underneath.
For those that like to tinker about under the engines of fiction Longbourn is a particular treat. It doesn't take long ferreting about under the bonnet for you to realise what a brilliant development of the character of Mr Bennett in particular Baker has pulled off. Baker rather does Mrs Bennett's character a kindness at the end too. A thoroughly enjoyable, intelligent novel that I borrowed and now must buy my own copy. It is definitely one for several re-reads.
My other recent pleasure has been the discover of the Fiona Griffiths novels of Harry Bingham. Fiona is one of the most remarkable characters in crime fiction, up there with Lisbeth Salander and Flavia de Luce. A tiny, young, Cambridge philosophy graduate with a penchant for smoking dope, a crime boss father, a happy family life, but a deeply troubled few years in her past is not the usual pattern for the crime fiction detective. Fiona tries to balance her odd world perspective with those of her colleagues on 'planet normal'. The whole makes for three (so far) very moving, character driven works of fiction that happen to be crime novels. Bingham's creation of Fiona is incredibly real and nuanced and his achievement is breath-taking when, in the last novel, she spends a long time under-cover and her personality starts to melt into her role and vice versa. To create such a real character who is unstable, whose personality slips and slides, and yet feels like it belongs to a coherent whole is a remarkable achievement and I can't recommend this series enough.
I am missing Fiona greatly since I finished the last volume. All recommendations of character driven crime fiction gratefully recieved!