Fiction

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Darke

Tragedy as comedy

Meet English teacher James Darke, a 60-year old grumpy, selfish, snob, as cynical, judgemental and politically incorrect as they come. Darke has decided to close the world out – literally – starting by drawing the curtains in his house, filling in the mail slot in his door and cancelling his email account. There are no limits to what Darke will do in his quest to be left alone, and that includes pretending to be deaf so he won’t need to talk to people. There is, of course, a reason for Darke’s dark behaviour, which, as it’s slowly revealed, turns out to be far from funny. If you, like me, enjoy dark humour, the occasional unpleasant character and many-layered stories, this book is for you.

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I’d Die for You and Other Lost Stories

‘A basket of many coloured skies’

This is a beautifully produced scholarly edition of 18 of Fitzgerald’s short stories, none published in his lifetime. Varying in length from three pages to thirty, these stories are peopled not so much with the glamorous but damaged Jazz Age characters familiar to us from his novels but with a poorer, sadder, post-Depression cast including drunks, travelling salespeople, hypochondriacs, divorcing couples, movie producers, starlets, has-beens, and – overwhelmingly – the unwell. The best of these stories glitter with the author’s wit and familiar ability to demolish a character’s pretentions in a sentence. The others, more plodding, will appeal nevertheless to Fitzgerald fans for the light they shine on his preoccupations and problems, and for the glimpse they afford into the seedier side of 1930s small-town American life.

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A Gentleman in Moscow

A Tsarist Count surviving in revolutionary Russia

It’s 1922. We are in Moscow’s most distinguished hotel and one of its permanent guests, the unrepentant aristocrat Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, has just been sentenced to a life in exile inside the hotel ‘never to set foot outside of The Metropol again.’ So starts A Gentleman in Moscow, a novel that it’s nearly impossible not to fall in love with, a true, yes I will say it, feel good story. It’s not going to change your life, but Amor Towels’ book (also author of Rules of Civility) will entertain and delight with wonderfully crafted characters and enviably elegant writing.

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Golden Hill

A brilliant debut novel about New York in its infancy

New York, a small frontier town on the tip of Manhattan Island, 1746. One rainy autumn night, a mysterious, handsome stranger, fresh off the long Atlantic crossing from England, turns up at a counting house on Golden Hill Street in Manhattan. The enigmatic young man has a suspicious yet compelling proposition. From his pocket, he produces what seems to be a promissory note for a thousand pounds that he wishes to cash. An enormous sum of money in 1746, this bill has the power to shake the whole local economy as well as the political establishment. And, amiable and charming though Smith is, he won’t explain who he is or where he comes from, let alone what he is planning to do in the colonies that requires so much money.

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The Handmaid’s Tale

Back to the future in this creepy, dystopian tale

I devoured Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin and Alias Grace when they came out quite a few years ago, but somehow missed The Handmaid’s Tale. That was a mistake. Atwood’s dystopian, futuristic story about a totalitarian regime where women’s bodies are political currency has become a modern classic since it was published in 1985. Even more relevant now with religious and political extremism on the rise, The Handmaid’s Tale is about to come out as a TV-series. I suggest reading it first. It’s creepy, it’s dark and it’s a page-turner that will keep you reading long into the night.

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The Sense of an Ending

Finely chiseled masterpiece

As I’ve just discovered, it’s never too late to read this brilliant Booker Prize Winner from 2011. Before you see the film, just out in the cinema in the UK, read this marvel of a book about interpreting the past, suppressing memories and coming of age. It’s a book that will make you question your own past and wonder how differently others might perceive it.

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The Power

F**k the Patriarchy

A clever imagining of a world in which women (literally) have the power, this Baileys-shortlisted novel blends science fiction with dystopian global politics. Think The Hunger Games meets late Jeanette Winterson with a dash of Malory Blackman, this is a book your teenage daughter will love.

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Stay With Me

Not flawless but pretty impressive nonetheless

Yejide and Akin fall head over heals in love when they meet at university in Ife, Nigeria in the 1980s. Marriage follows soon thereafter as should babies, but none arrive. The humiliation of childlessness (particularly strong in Nigeria) propels Yejide, Akin and the tenacious mother-in-law to go to extreme lengths to fix it, jeopardising their mental health and relationship on the way. I was gripped by 26-year-old Adébáyò’s storytelling, despite her sometimes uneven writing. An easy, accessible novel that should garner many fans.

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Lincoln in the Bardo

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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One Night in Winter

If your children were forced to testify against you, what terrible secrets would they reveal?

The historian Simon Sebag Montefiore is well known and highly respected for his award-winning non-fiction bestsellers such as Jerusalem, The Romanovs and Stalin. However, this gripping historical novel also proves his expertise as a writer of fiction. A quicker, slimmer read than many of his other works, it is just as involving and darkly exciting.

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