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The Lady in the Van

‘Pied-à-terre’ in the back garden

It’s no secret that we are great fans of Alan Bennett’s work – from The History Boys and The Madness of King George to Smut and The Uncommon Reader. His absolute precision, his careful thought and trademark subversive humour make him irresistible irrespective of the format he chooses to write in.

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Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way

A magnificent backlash against all things fast

Who’d have thought that this book would show up in British bookshops?! I’d heard of it’s huge success in my native Norway and Sweden (200,000+ copies sold), but thought for sure that’s where it would remain. Norwegian Wood is a non-fiction book about chopping firewood. Stacking firewood. Drying firewood. But more importantly, it’s about nature, patience, persistence and appreciating the small things in life. Norwegian Wood is a cross between the Cohen brothers’ film Fargo and the cult book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and predicted by my bookseller to become this year’s surprise Christmas bestseller.

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Purity

Uneven Franzen

It’s here! Genius declared ‘Great American Novelist’ Jonathan Franzen’s much anticipated new book Purity. In terms of compulsively readable, contemporary fiction with depth and humour, his last book Freedom was up there amongst the very best for me. Perhaps my expectations were too high, perhaps Purity is not as good as his two previous best-sellers The Corrections and Freedom, or perhaps you will disagree with me, but despite moments of brilliance, I found Purity to be an uneven book, oscillating between Franzen-esque genius and rushed, flat, even – dare I say it – boring writing.

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Butterflies in November

Circinate adventure in Iceland

Perhaps Icelandic women are more forward thinking than the rest of us… or maybe they just aren’t?! Droll re-evaluations of what it means to be a woman, and an independent woman at that, in this quirky narrative of a road trip ‘into the wilderness’ after being simultaneously dumped by both lover and husband. Local insight: the irony being that there is only one road in Iceland, and it loops back on itself. Brilliant circular little adventure, full of the unnamed heroine’s sardonic wit and incongruous, but very human, weaknesses. The lack of moralising makes it a refreshing, light, read.

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The Days of Abandonment

A 'sudden absence of sense'

How would you react if your partner one day walked out on you? In Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment Olga’s husband Mario announces, out of the blue, while clearing the table that he wants to leave her. Overwhelmed by grief, confusion and anger, Olga descends into madness in this raw, brutally honest story. The Days of Abandonment is explosive stuff – as we have come to expect from Ferrante – and all the better for it.

(This book is not part of the excellent, bestselling Neapolitan Novels series, two of which I have reviewed already (My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name) but it’s just as good.

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The Wallcreeper

Zink's novel fails to float

Always on the lookout for something truly original, I was tempted by Nell Zink’s (just the name!) eccentric sounding book The Wallcreeper.

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Blood River – A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart

Gripping tale about a journalist's trip down the Congo river

Blood River is the extraordinary story of journalist Tim Butcher’s brave journey down the Congo River in the footsteps of legendary H.M. Stanley. It’s the tale of  a country which has regressed, where traces of a civilisation (one built during the brutal Belgian King Leopold’s ‘reign’ of the country): train tracks, decrepit abandoned cities can be found if you scrape the earth. Fear lingers everywhere, to the extent that Congo’s inhabitants rely on the fast growing vegetable cassava as their main food, simply because they might be chased away from their homes any time.  Butcher’s passion for Congo and compassion for the Congolese shines through in his great writing. I read this book many years ago and it has stayed with me ever since and, I fear, is still as relevant today as it was in 2007. Gripping reading!

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The Truth

Palin’s eco thriller examines the Meaning of Truth

The book’s epigraph is “Truth is a very complex thing.” Indeed it is and Michael Palin’s second novel tackles that question within the world of publishing and environmental causes. Given the title of the book (and the hint in the epigraph) it is hardly a spoiler to suggest that nothing is quite what it seems. Thus the stage is set for Michael Palin’s eco-thriller, which raises some relevant questions about the definition of truth, the price of truth, and the meaning of being “true to oneself”.

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The Discreet Hero

Funny and sensual from Nobel Prize winner Vargas Llosa

Peruvian Nobel Prize Winner Mario Vargas Llosa is a rarity amongst Nobel Prize winners: a funny, accessible writer. I really enjoyed his erotic novel In Praise of the Stepmother, a tale of sexual morality and loss of innocence. His latest book The Discreet Hero is a page-turning mystery story written with humour and sensuality. It probably won’t be considered Vargas Llosa’s most important book, but it’s definitively worth the read.

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Gorsky

The seductive sounds and smells of Russian billions, Great Gatsby style

I couldn’t resist the gorgeous cover of Vesna Goldsworthy’s Gorsky and the promise of a contemporary Great Gatsby-esque story, featuring Russian billionaires in London. Goldsworthy unashamedly follows the storyline of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great classic (one of my absolute favourites so I was a bit wary…), but it works! It works because of Goldsworthy’s beautiful writing, her succinct take on extreme wealth and our fascination with Russian oligarchs. If this book doesn’t turn into one of this summer’s big beach reads I’ll eat my hat…

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