Book cover: The Signature of All ThingsHenry Whittaker is a ‘useful little fingerstink’. Born to a gifted Kew gardener in the reign of George III, his ambition and determination drive him across the world and to the heady heights of Philadelphia society, reinventing himself as one of America’s richest men. His daughter Alma is a marvel: intellectually gifted and impeccably educated, if socially awkward. The novel is a majestic epic weaving historical facts into a fictional tapestry as she struggles to understand the mechanisms of creation and alteration in the age of Darwin.

When my 's grandmother downsized, I was invited to rescue any books she was shedding from her sizeable collection. This led to a random assortment of older volumes leaping onto my shelves that I would never otherwise have heard of (or acquired) – this is one; others include various early Penguin non-fiction titles of the colonially-incorrect variety, some fringe erotica (cool grandma!) and a much-thumbed copy of Usage and Abusage, which the family couldn't believe I didn't already own. I picked up Liza of Lambeth because I vaguely thought I ought to have read some Maugham and because I used to live in Lambeth.

Liza is a gay young lady of the working class, who lives on Vere Street with her self-absorbed drunk mother, an assortment of cheerful children, and various hard-drinking men and endlessly-pregnant or bruised wives who claim their husbands are gentle when they haven't been drinking. The novel charts Liza's downfall from the well-loved young woman out-dancing the street in her new purple dress to the social outcast pushed into a public fistfight with her rival for the amusement of her neighbours.

Having learnt that it draws heavily on his experiences as a doctor in Lambeth, I take it that Maugham was aiming for a truthful representation of his experiences of the London working class. The picnic sequence lived up to this – I rather enjoyed this glimpse of a day off in the country – but elements such as the dancing in the street to the Italian organ grinder and much of the faux-Cockney language felt like cliches. Perhaps I'm being too harsh (were these tropes already well-trodden by 1897?), but I can't blame anyone but Maugham for the strong whiff of moral and social superiority that accompany them.

Liza is a difficult heroine to root for, being self-absorbed and hard-hearted (perhaps unsurprising, considering her mother); the only likeable character, Tom, is perceived as weak or wet and is rejected repeatedly. Although the narrator never overtly comments on Liza's choices, it's difficult not to read the novel as a cautionary tale. That said, it's even-handed in its disdain for slum life as the men – Tom excepted – are all drunks, braggarts and wife beaters.

However, I found myself most troubled by the start of Liza's affair, largely because

Book cover: John Saturnall's FeastJohn Sandall the blackamoor’s son is born in 17th century Somerset, with a gift for recognising all the ingredients in a dish by taste or scent. As the country is gripped by religious fervour, he and his mother are driven out as witches. But John’s demon tastebuds make him the perfect cook. Taken in at the local Manor and trained in their kitchens, he must face down old enemies and new challenges as the country slides into Civil War.

Book cover: Bodies of LightAlly is mad, or so her mother assures her. Mad, weak and sinful. Only physical penance and dedication to a good cause can save her.

Religion, art, psychology, women’s suffrage and Victorian medicine all come under the scope in this excellent historical novel about one girl’s journey to define herself and claim her future.

Book cover: Sedition by Katharine GrantBilled as ‘the bastard child of Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Sarah Waters‘, this more or less lives up to that promise in terms of plot: some City businessmen wish to purchase titled husbands for their daughters, and come up with a hare-brained scheme involving piano lessons to show off the girls’ wealth and accomplishments. Unfortunately, their French music master has been incentivised to seduce each girl before they master Herr Bach.

Yes, I’m procrastinating. Two posts in one day? What else could possibly be going on? I’ve got a document to draft by Tuesday, and I meant to have it finished by Thursday evening. It’s far from done, so I’m crossing off other bits of mental laundry so that tomorrow can be as productive as physically/mentally possible. Terrifyingly, it’s nearly 6 months since I last jotted notes here on my recent reading. In the meantime, I’ve finished 32 books (what can I say, the longer commute and the part-time work suit me down to the ground). As last time, links go to my commentary elsewhere online.

As some of you are aware, I’ve been lucky enough to have some extended time off this year, which inevitably means that I’ve been reading like the dedicated bookworm that I am. I’m likely to read as many books by the end of June as I’ve read in an entire year (during a lean year, anyway), and I’ve loved every minute. It’s been a couple of months since I last captured what I’ve thought of this mountain of material, so I wanted to do another recap – although I have had the time to be much, much better about logging reviews and ratings on my LibraryThing, which is increasingly becoming my main platform for all book-related activity.

A quick flit through my first quarter of reading, before I forget the details. It’s been a book-heavy year, with lots of opportunities to get some quality reading time in during the Christmas break in Australia and my boy’s month-long absence in India (not to mention my time off in March). I’ve put this to good use and read like the bookworm I am, devouring 20 books to date – most of them fresh reads rather than old favourites.