Fiction

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Look Who’s Back

Repetitive Hitler satire disappoints

It’s 2011 and Hitler wakes up from a 66-year long coma in a park in Berlin. He befriends a newsagent who assumes he is a look-alike. Astounded by his resemblance and brilliant ‘acting’, the newsagent puts him in touch with the producer of a comedy talk show. Soon, Hitler is their most popular guest, generating an ever-increasing following. Look Who’s Back takes a stab at tackling one of Germany’s greatest taboos, but is also a satire on our obsession with the cult of celebrities.

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The Infatuations

Cerebral murder mystery from Spain's literary heavy weight

Javier Marías is one of Spain’s most prominent writers. Regularly tipped as a candidate for the Nobel Prize, he is also a respected translator of important English language literature, a journalist and a publisher. A literary heavy weight, in other words. His latest book, The Infatuations is the first philosophical murder mystery I’ve come across. There are no nail-biting chases through dark forests, no mutilated bodies floating in the sea, the action is almost exclusively cerebral. Or, as Boyd Tonkin of The Independent newspaper called it: ‘A thinking person’s murder mystery.’

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A Death in the Family

To Knausgaard or not to Knausgaard?

I have been holding off writing about the Norwegian publishing phenomenon Karl Ove Knausgaard until the other day, when I picked up the first volume in English translation and realised how well it travels. The press are awash with, mostly raving, reviews of his autobiographical novels and interviews with the author. Zadie Smith has said she needed them ‘like crack’.  Should you read them?

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Stoner

Magnificently written 'word-of-mouth' bestseller

Stoner has become somewhat of a publishing sensation over the past eighteen months, topping bestseller list in Holland, France, Italy, Spain, Israel and, more recently, in the UK. Written by American John Williams in 1965, Stoner barely made a mark at the time. A few favourable reviews and 2000 copies sold was all there was to it. Somehow, miraculously, nearly 50 years later, the novel has been given a second lease of life, and is now a shining example of a ‘word-of-mouth’ bestseller.

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The Woman Upstairs

Mesmerising about obsession, betrayal and fury

Wow, what a novel! Rarely have I read such an emotionally charged, foreboding book. A truly gripping tale, seething with rage. The Woman Upstairs is the story of single, 42 year-old Nora Eldridge, ‘the quiet woman at the end of the third-floor hallway’, a kind, dutiful primary school teacher who has put aside her artistic ambitions to care for her sick elderly parents. A woman who, in her own words, obediently eats all the greens while the ice cream for dessert slowly melts away. Enter the Lebanese-Italian Shahid family. The family of Nora’s dreams: Reza the beautiful, charming child, Skandar the handsome, intelligent husband and Sirena the glamorous, successful artist wife…

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The Circle

Very entertaining satire on our obsession with the internet.

In a not so distant future, Mae Holland secures the dream job with technology giant The Circle, a hybrid between Google, Apple and Facebook. The Circle has revolutionised the world and taken connectivity to a whole new absurd level with endless streams of emails, Facebook posts, like requests, invitations, surveys and tweets. Eggers’ highly readable and very amusing book The Circle paints an utterly nightmarish vision of the future, one that feels eerily near in time.

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The Shock of the Fall

Warm, humourous and convincing portrayal of mental illness

A well-deserved Costa Book of the Year winner! The Shock of the Fall is a heart-warming, funny, wise and convincing portrayal of a young boy’s descent into mental illness, from an author who’s seen it all in his job as a mental health nurse. ‘I should say that I am not a nice person. Sometimes I try to be, but often I’m not.’ The opening line of The Shock of the Fall, sets the stage for the sad tale of Matthew, a nineteen year-old, pot smoking school drop-out with severe psychological problems, looking back at his childhood. A sort of Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time for mental illness, with a slightly more adult tone.

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Crossing to Safety

Contemplative and exquisitely written

Another long forgotten but fabulous novel is Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner from 1987.  We meet two couples, Larry and Sally Morgan and Sid and Charity Lang, life-long loyal friends, soul mates, occasional competitors and mutual supporters. If you’re in the mood for a contemplative, tightly and exquisitely written novel, reach for Crossing to Safety.

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Mrs Bridge

Hilarious satire with a darker message

Over the past year or so I have stumbled upon two brilliant books, which, strangely enough, have a great deal in common. The first one, Mrs Bridge by Evan S. Connell, was featured on BBC Radio 4’s excellent programme Open Book. I read it in one gulp and it immediately joined my favourite-books list.

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The Life Before Us

Funny and moving best-selling French novel of the 20th century

The Life Before Us is a heart-breaking story narrated by Momo, a ten year-old Arab immigrant. Momo, who lives in an orphanage run by ex-prostitute Madame Rosa, has seen things no ten-year old should see and is far too advanced for his age. But despite his shrewdness, Momo is still a child. Darkly comical and wonderfully poignant, The Life Before Us, the best-selling French novel of the 20th century, deserves to join the ranks of rediscovered classics. Read full Review