Reviews

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Exit West

A refugee story that veers off course

Unless I’ve completely missed it (?), it’s taken a while for the refugee crisis to trickle through in fiction. Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (to be published in the UK on 2nd March) will finally change that with the love story of Nadia and Saeed fleeing an unnamed war torn country (with an uncanny resemblance to Syria or Iraq). As much as I wanted to like this book – I’m a fan of Hamid (The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How to Get Filthy Rich in Raising Asia)  and think this human catastrophe deserved literary attention – it left me with mixed feelings.

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The Wonder

Religious fervour in potato famine era Ireland

Lib Wright, a nurse trained by ‘Miss Nightingale’ is hired for a two-week position in the ‘dead centre’ of Ireland. A young girl has not eaten for 4 months, yet appears to be well. Her fanatically religious parents have proclaimed her to be a miracle, and pilgrims make their way to the cottage to worship the little saint-in-making. If you enjoyed Room, Emma Donoghue’s first book, then you might be put off by the very different subject matter she has chosen here. Don’t be. It is moving, lyrical, intense and surprising.

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The Pledge: Requiem for the Detective Novel

An eerie crime novel with a twist

I have to confess to not being a big consumer (or fan) of crime fiction (perhaps I just haven’t read enough good ones), but this intense and eerie little book got the better of me. Written in the 1950s by Swiss dramatist and novelist Friedrich Dürrenmatt, The Pledge is a crime novel with a twist designed to challenge the formulaic (according to Dürrenmatt) nature of the genre.

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Hot Milk

The perfect antidote to grey winter days…escape into a richly mythic, colour-saturated tale of a mother and daughter

Rose and her daughter Sofia arrive in a small Spanish fishing village – a strange, dreamlike place caught between the searing heat of the desert and the mesmerising pull of the sea. They are desperately seeking medical help and salvation. Rose suffers from a mysterious, inexplicable illness, which presents in spontaneous, spasmodic paralysis of her legs and has left her wheelchair bound. Her daughter, Sofia, has spent her life trying to understand her mother’s illness, trapped in an unhealthy co-dependent relationship and forced to act as her bemused carer. The mystery of this undiagnosed illness forms the background of the entire novel. Sofia explains, “I have been sleuthing my mother’s symptoms for as long as I can remember. If I see myself as an unwilling detective with a desire for justice, is her illness an unresolved crime? If so, who is the villain and who is the victim?”

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The Sellout

Promising Booker Prize winner stalls

Yes, the Booker Prize winning The Sellout is a funny book, a book that makes you laugh (sometimes guiltily), a stinging satire devoid of political correctness that goes to the heart of America’s race relation problems. Sadly, it’s also a novel that somehow lacks direction; that appears to go nowhere, in which the author occasionally seems to revel in his own jokes. It’s packed with cultural references that I struggled to understand and I suspect I’m not the only one. For the last reason alone, it’s a puzzling choice as the first American winner of the British based Booker Prize since their rules were changed to include American books a few years ago.

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The Leopard

Sensual, sensuous and melancholic Italian classic

Ready to escape the grey, cold winter for a few hours? Try this sensual and sensuous Italian classic set in the 1860s amongst the arid hills, frescoed palazzos and turquoise seas of Sicily. It’s the story of the aristocratic Salina family’s decline, of ageing and mortality, of politics and passionate love all mixed up into a fabulous Italian literary feast.

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The Descent of Man

Essential reading for fathers/sons/husbands/boyfriends/mothers of boys/fathers of boys

As bigoted, chauvinistic, bare-chested horseback riding men seem to be taking over the world, it’s a relief to read Grayson Perry’s call for a gentler masculine ideal in The Descent of Man. Perry, a transvestite British artist who (apart from his much-hailed art) is known for dressing up in pink baby dolls, might not be the obvious person to go to for advice on masculinity, but in his book he gives us just that, and with wisdom, honesty and humour.

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The Cazalet Chronicles: a five book series

Jane Austen meets Downton Abbey

I was inspired to pick up this set of books after hearing snatches of the Radio 4 adaptation this year, and reading reviews of Artemis Cooper’s new biography of the author, Elizabeth Jane Howard – about whom I knew little apart from the fact that she was unlucky enough to have been married to the old devil himself, Kingsley Amis. How glad I am that I did, particularly in the dying days of this particularly dismal year. The experience of reading the Cazalet series (The Light Years, Marking Time, Confusion, Casting Off and All Change) is like stepping into a warm bath. Comforting, life-affirming, immersive – and you absolutely don’t want to pull the plug.

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The Gustav Sonata – Short-listed for the Costa Book Awards 2016

Lacking in depth

In post World War II Switzerland, a lonely boy and his bitter, distant mother live in a tiny flat in a nondescript town. Events in the past throw dark shadows over their lives, but what exactly has happened is a mystery to 10-year-old Gustav. The novel, divided into three parts or ‘sonatas’, takes us back to happier times before the war, to a devastating event that breaks the spell, and to Gustav’s life as an adult.

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The Essex Serpent – Short-listed for the Costa Book Awards 2016

Love and a battle of beliefs in Victorian England

There’s something alluring about Victorian England as a setting for novels, a society full of contrasts and contradictions: extreme poverty and unfathomable wealth, a prim public life and a seedy underworld, modern factories and rural communities. Sarah Perry’s sensual love story with an intellectual twist, delivered in a style that transports you back to the time, sits perfectly within this world.

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