Fiction

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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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Of Mice and Men

A classic worth re-reading

I’d forgotten how good John Steinbeck’s classic Of Mice and Men really is. Just re-read it after many years and what a gem of a little story! In a mere 120 pages, Steinbeck dives deep into themes such as loneliness, dreams and loyalty while portraying the nomadic lives of ranch hands in America during the Great Depression. To top it off are the most exquisite descriptions of landscapes and farm life.

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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 Lives of Others

Sweeping Indian family epic - a perfect indulging summer read

Diving into a long family epic is one of my favourite literary luxuries. Days and days of reading until you feel you’ve almost become ‘part of’ the family. The Lives of Others is just this kind of book. What’s more, it sucks you in from the very first page in one of the most harrowing prologues I’ve come across. Intrigue, double lives, betrayals, gossip, shocking inequality, illicit love affairs, politics, Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others has it all.

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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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The Girl on the Train

Airport thriller will keep you gripped on the train

Touted as this year’s Gone Girl and While you were Sleeping, The Girl on the Train accosts you on her daily commute to and from London. A dubious narrator from the start, she hangs on to you, desperately, confidential, erratically. Interlaced time frames and equally questionable narrators, build the tension and, while it is hardly high-brow, I was gripped with anxiety. Suffice it to say, it might be imperfect and disposable, but it is also thrilling entertainment and perfect for that commute to work….

 

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Myself a Mandarin – Memoirs of a Special Magistrate

Highly amusing Hong Kong anecdotes of a local magistrate

Out of print and a cult book amongst long-term Hong Kong devotees, it will take more time to locate a copy than to read it. We follow the young Coates, a civil servant from London, who is posted to Hong Kong in 1949 and learns by trial and error how to fulfill his role as “Special Magistrate”. Recounted with great humour and humility, it is insightful, witty, and judicious. A must read for anyone with ties or interest in Hong Kong – and any modern day want-to-be Solomon. Good luck finding it though (although they seem to have a few copies on Amazon.co.uk).

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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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The Goldfinch

A success, and enjoyable in its own right, but a disappointing Pulitzer

There has been a lot of hype about this book and some very polarising reviews. Comparisons have been made to Dickens – which likely refer more to the rather convoluted and dramatic storyline (Oliver Twist’s endless “mishaps” for example), and improbable rescues, than the style or language of writing. Donna Tart’s strength in fact is (as she has shown us with The Secret History) her ability to inhabit a younger voice with credibility and she does not fail us here, wielding her secret weapon – great dialogue – with pace and reality. We like Theo for all his self-absorption and watch the oncoming twists and falls that meet him on the way with mixed dread and hope. It is not without its faults – unlikely plotline convergences (what a coincidence!) and the last pages would have benefited from some heavy editing as it descends into syrupy philosophy (“We can’t escape who we are”) but it is nevertheless a book worth reading. From the first calamitous event, we are pulled along the roller-coaster story: gripping, achingly sad, action-packed, fateful, and very unputdownable.