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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

If you read one book this year, let this be it

British author David Mitchell is one of my absolute favourite contemporary writers and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a superb novel. The writing is exquisite, the setting and historical background fascinating and the story riveting.  A must read. The story is set at the end of the 18th century on Dejima, a sandbank in the bay of Nagasaki, Japan. A Dutch trading post and for two hundred years Japan’s only point of contact with the outside world. Clerk Jacob de Zoet is sent to Dejima by the Dutch East Indies Company to address a serious case of corruption.

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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 almost nearly perfect people: The truth about the nordic miracle

Well-researched, elegantly written and, at times, side-splittingly funny.

With the risk of insulting my Nordic compatriots or appearing defensive to everyone else, I have reviewed Michael Booth’s The Almost Nearly Perfect People: the Truth About the Nordic Miracle. Like Booth, I have been pleasantly surprised by all the recent media attention on the Nordic region, but I too have sometimes wondered about its universal praise. As we all know, nowhere or no one is perfect, and that, sadly, goes for the Nordic countries and their populations too. Michael Booth, a Copenhagen based Brit married to a Dane, had enough of the one-sided coverage and set out to discover the whole truth. With British humour at its best, Booth dissects the ‘Nordic Miracle’ and discovers that all’s not well. The Almost Nearly Perfect People is a well-researched book, enviably elegantly written, at times deadly serious, at others side-splittingly funny.

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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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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