Fiction

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To Kill a Mockingbird

Still good after all these years

There’s something wonderfully innocent and warm about this 1950s classic, despite its dead serious subject matter of racism. Life is simple; the goodies are good, the baddies are bad. Fundamentally, the book is about tolerance, for the lonely, weirdo neighbour, for the sick, angry, old lady down the road and, of course, for blacks, otherwise ostracised by 1930s Alabamian white society. I read this book 20 years ago and found it a joy to re-read, although my older more cynical self did think it a bit sentimental at times.

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Dept. of Speculation

Snapshots of a marriage

Jenny Offill’s little gem of a book Dept. of Speculation was on The New York Times’ list of 10 best books of 2014, and with good reason. It’s an unusual novel, written in snapshots, in much the same fragmented way our memory works. It’s the sum of those memories that create the narrative of our past or, in this case, the story of a relationship. In Dept. of Speculation, Offill tells an age-old tale in a refreshingly new way and creates something truly different.

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The Buried Giant

An ogre too far?

It’s been a decade since Kazuo Ishiguro’s sinister, sci-fi-esque Never Let Me Go, a novel I really liked. In The Buried Giant Ishiguro yet again embarks on a genre bending project. This time it’s fantasy. We’re in 6th century post-Roman Britain and a mist has descended on the landscape and peoples’ minds, obscuring memories of recent wars. Axl and Beatrice, an elderly couple go on a journey to find their son and stumbles over dragons, ogres, knights and monks as well as recollections of a violent past. Despite the beautiful, atmospheric writing and profound message, I found The Buried Giant hard work. Will this only be the case for fantasy-sceptics like me?

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Neverhome

An explosion of a novel

In Laird Hunt’s gripping novel Neverhome we meet Constance, aka Ash Thompson, who joins the American civil war disguised as a man. ‘I was strong and he was not, so it was me went to war to defend the Republic’, Ash says matter-of-factly referring to her mild mannered husband Bartholomew. And no, it’s not my spelling mistake in this opening sentence, it’s Ash’s. Ash is a simple farmwoman who dreams of finding the first lilac in spring. She’s also happens to be a take-no-prisoners sharp shooter. Ash joins the war out of a sense of duty, at least that’s what she tells us. Soon we see the contours of a troubled past in this very human portrayal of a tormented woman in a man’s world.

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The Story of a New Name

Lenu and Lila grow up - the addiction continues...

The second of Ferrante’s four addictive books about close friends Lenu and Lila in 1950s Naples continues where she left off in My Brilliant Friend, with Lila’s disastrous marriage to Stefano Carracci at the tender age of sixteen.

 

 

SPOILER ALERT – if you think you might like to read these books, make sure you start with the review of the first, My Brilliant Friend, elsewhere on this blog.

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The House of Ulloa

Unmissable Spanish classic

I cannot recommend this Spanish classic highly enough. The House of Ulloa is funny, clever, progressive and colourful, written by the feisty and daring Emilia Prado Bazán in 1886 and, luckily, reissued in English recently. We meet the gentle, devout chaplain Julián who’s been asked by Don Manuel, a prominent noble, to clean up the sinful House of Ulloa, the country estate of his unruly nephew, Don Pedro. This hilarious meeting of polar opposites takes place amidst magnificently described Galician landscapes and decrepit aristocratic homes.

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My Brilliant Friend

A vibrant and violent coming-of-age story from a mysterious author

What better way to kick off 2015 than with an excellent book by a mysterious writer? Italian author Elena Ferrante, whose real identity nobody knows, creates a perfect microcosm of childhood and adolescence in her book My Brilliant Friend, the first in a quartet. It’s a vibrant and violent coming-of-age story and a portrait of an intense friendship between two girls.

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The Bone Clocks

Fast-paced, inventive Mitchell spins out of this world

As you’re aware, I’m a big David Mitchell fan and I know many of you out there like him too. I’ve just finished his latest book, The Bone Clocks, and I’m left with mixed feelings. The book has moments of pure Mitchellesque brilliance: fast-paced dialogue, inventive characters and addictive plots. The first four parts (there are six) were compulsive reading; the last two might delight sci-fi lovers, but sadly didn’t quite work for me.

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All Our Names

Idi Amin's Uganda and race relations in America, beautifully interweaved

All Our Names is the story of Isaac, a young African on the run from the political chaos of Idi Amin’s Uganda, and Helen, the social worker assigned to look after him when he arrives in America. Laden with emotional baggage, they embark on a controversial love affair. All Our Names is a quietly contemplative and beautifully constructed story with a window into the brutal world of African politics and race relations in America in the 1970s.

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The Signature of All Things

Great storytelling with humour and ambition

I never thought I’d get excited by a novel about botany, but The Signature of All Things proved me wrong. Firstly, Elizabeth Gilbert is an outstanding storyteller: funny, insightful and ambitious. Equally compelling is the novel’s unlikely heroine, Alma Whittaker, a multi-layered and unusual character and a woman with a brilliant scientific brain born in the wrong century.

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