Winter by Christopher Nicholson (Fourth Estate £14.99, ebook £6.02) ****

AS an old man, Thomas Hardy sits in his study and dreams of youth and beauty. From the acclaimed author of The Elephant Keeper comes this portrait of a great writer in his twilight years, just as a production of Tess is to be staged. The raven-haired local woman Hardy picks for Tess brims with life and sweetness and stirs a yearning admiration in the old writer. But as Gertrude Bugler (also known as Gertie) captures Thomas’s imagination and becomes a more permanent figure in the Hardy world, his wife, Florence, spirals from her characteristic melancholy into a fevered distrust of the young woman.

Nicholson’s emotional acuity captures the reader’s heart fast, and his delicate prose is Hardy-esque in pace, evocation, and quality. We feel for the elderly man whose creativity is sparked by a new and quiet passion. The anxious Florence suffers from having so voluntarily played the part of the Great Writer’s Wife; answering his letters and tending his house, her sorrow is a eulogy for unfulfilled women of the period. The lovely Gertie lifts the book’s wintery tone, and we half-wonder whether, after all, Thomas Hardy might end his days in love. A novel for literary lovers.

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Kitty Wheater

Cavendon Hall by Barbara Taylor Bradford (HarperFiction £16.99, ebook £10.99) ***

THE Yorkshire-born author’s latest novel mimics the winning formula of Downton Abbey, following the aristocratic Ingham family of Cavendon Hall and their staff, in particular the Swann family, who have served the Inghams for generations. As the story unfolds it becomes apparent that an intricate web of affairs, secrets and scandal links the two families.

At first the story focuses on rather mundane problems such as a ruined ball dress, however when one of the Ingham daughters is brutally raped it suddenly becomes far more gripping and tense. The growing threat of the Second World War adds to the tension, and soon the perfect world of Cavendon Hall is ripped apart.

For anyone who shamelessly enjoys a period drama full of fancy frocks and repressed desires, this is a wonderful world to escape to.

Harriet Shephard

Andrew’s Brain by EL Doctorow (Little Brown £12.99, ebook £4.35) ***

THIS is a slim oddity – an entertaining and instructive blend of thought experiment, therapy session, 9/11 thriller, and political farce.

Andrew is a cognitive scientist, a brain expert who believes he has no heart and that none of us has a soul. The entire novel takes the form of a dialogue between Andrew and Doc, an unnamed shrink who seeks to defend the notion of an improvable human nature against the pitiless scientist who believes our behaviour is entirely determined by biochemistry.

In the exchange – part playful, part combative – between the two, we see the key events of Andrew’s life unfold. It’s a series of tragic accidents and hapless misadventures.

But the gloom is constantly undercut by Andrew’s whimsical ruminations.

And then things change quite radically.

The chapters get shorter and shorter, and the meditations increasingly give way to the twists and turn of a thriller plot. It turns out that Andrew was a college roommate of the US President (no name is given, but George W is clearly meant). He knows things that the president would rather forget, and tragedy turns to farce as we start to guess where Andrew might be speaking from, and why.

Dan Brotzel

Touching Distance by Graham Hurley (Orion 16.99) ****

DETECTIVE Sgt Jimmy Suttle is just settling in with the Major Crime Unit, in Devon and Cornwall, when the force is hit by a seemingly unrelated spate of killings. But the evidence points to a serial killer at work and Suttle is tasked with tracking down the murderer before more innocent lives are lost. This is a sirenssounding, lights flashing crime thriller that never runs out of steam.

A Cat, A Hat and a Piece of String by Joanne Harris (Black Swan 7.99) ****

A COLLECTION of short stories ranging from the heart-warming, to the whimsical, to the fantastic, but all having that alluring Joanne Harris charm. Who else could make you read along to the likes of a baby created with sugar and spice in Cookie or battling Norse Gods in Wildfire in Manhattan. Magical moments everyone.

Steve Craggs