Fiction

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Alias Grace

A chilling true-life murder mystery

Hot on the heals of a successful TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale comes a Netfilx adaptation of Alias Grace, another of Atwood’s best-selling novels. I’d take any excuse to re-read this excellent book, which is still as good today as it was in 1996. It’s based on the true story of Canadian domestic servant Grace Marks who in 1843, at the age of 16, was convicted of murdering her employer Mr Kinnear and fellow housekeeper Nancy Montgomery. Atwood’s interest in the case go beyond the murder, of course, and into the dark depths of women’s, particularly poor women’s, standing in society; the prejudices held against them, the sexual abuse and innuendo, the back-street abortions and the assumption that they are all liars. An absolutely riveting read.

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The Lost Estate (Le Grand Meaulnes)

A poignant evocation of those feverish days of adolescence

Our narrator, François Seurel, is the bookish son of a schoolmaster, residing in a provincial French village in the 1890s. Passive and impressionable, he yearns for adventure, but will never be the architect of his own life. When the charismatic adventurer, Augustin Meaulnes, comes to board at his home, Seurel’s life is changed irrevocably. A French classic, often described as the greatest novel of adolescence in European literature, The Lost Estate deserves to be more widely read on this side of the Channel.

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Home Fire

When the personal becomes political

Two Muslim families collide in Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire; one from a wealthy, privileged, political family, the other from Wembley’s poor immigrant community. Eammon, son of British Pakistani Home Secretary, Karamat Lone and his glamorous American designer wife, Terry, falls head over heals in love with Aneeka, orphaned Pakistani girl with Jihadi father and brother. Interesting premise for a story and fertile ground for moral dilemmas and culture clashes. Shamsie keeps the suspense and gripping love story moving at an impressive pace. Shame, then, that the ending feels contrived. I blame it on Sophocles.

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Lincoln in the Bardo – Man Booker Prize Winner 2017

Party down at the cemetery

Well, here’s something utterly different. A book with a cacophony of 166 different voices portraying the Bardo (a temporary state in between death and re-birth in the Buddhist faith) of President Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son Willie. It’s an unusually structured and challenging book, and a moving portrayal of death and grief (and you’ll never walk through a cemetery at night in quite the same way).

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4321

The Great American Novel, but not as you know it

4321 is a novel about Archie Ferguson, American grandson of a Jewish immigrant. Born in 1958 to hard-working parents, he grows up, negotiates adolescence, plays baseball, gets to know his extended family, lives through the major events of the 20th century. So far, so predictable. But because this is Paul Auster, there is a twist: this is not one linear narrative; it is four stories, four lives in one. Same boy, four different childhoods, four different paths. Remarkably broad in scope yet fantastically rich and detailed, this is Paul Auster’s post-modern version of The Great American Novel.

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Autumn

The first post-Brexit novel

Scottish novelist Ali Smith published this Man Booker Prize short-listed novel set in the autumn of 2016, in the very same year and season that it explores. Its punch and originality comes not only from Smith’s playful, poetic and non-linear writing style but also from its contemporaneous nature. Autumn is a novel that examines the here and now as Smith tries to make some sense out of a badly fractured post-Brexit Britain.

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Cassandra at the Wedding

An intense psychological drama

Cassandra and Judith Edwards are identical twins. Both brilliant and beautiful; one happily engaged to be married, the other severely depressed. This 1960s psychological drama is an intense read that will bring you into the psyche of both protagonists and show the devastating effects of depression not only on the depressed, but also those around. Brace yourself for something much darker and a great deal more profound than the title suggests.

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Cannery Row

A little book to make you happy

I’ve just been through one of the longest good book ‘droughts’ in my reading career. In the end I decided to reach for a classic, sometimes the only way out, and grabbed hold of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. It’s a short book that is more like a portrait of a community than a linear narrative, but within it are sublime little stories, descriptions of people, places and atmosphere that only an old hand like Steinbeck can conjure up.

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The North Water

Behold this book!

Once in a while I come across a book that I simply cannot stop reading; that I walk around with while I cook or brush my teeth and keep reading late into the night. The North Water is such a book. An absolutely riveting read, an unputdownable book. The novel, set in 1859, tells the story of 27-year-old surgeon Patrick Sumner, who joins an ill-fated whaling expedition to the Artic. It’s an extraordinarily violent and brutal book, so if you mind graphic sex and violence, don’t even think about reading it. If you don’t, you’re in for a nail-biting thriller, which will keep you on your toes to the very last page.

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The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

Not a flawless comeback

Twenty years after winning the Booker Prize for her debut novel The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy is back with a new novel. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness weaves together many stories, but at its core is the story of Tilo and her three suitors: Musa, Naga and Biplab and the violent history of Kashmir and India. My feelings about this book oscillated between wild enthusiasm, slight confusion and occasional boredom. Roy’s undisputable skills as a writer kept me going, but I’m not sure I’d call it a flawless comeback.

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