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A Scandalous Life

You couldn't have made it up

This incredible story of aristocratic beauty Lady Jane Digby and her escapades through the higher echelons of British, French, Austrian, German and Greek societies in the 1800s, is one of the more extraordinary biographies I’ve read. Born into wealth and privilege, the charismatic Jane Digby basically slept her way through Europe, starting with an English politician moving on to a German baron, an Austrian Prince, a Greek King and an Albainan General and many more, leaving behind her a trail of ex-husbands and children. Digby ends up in Syria as the wife of a bedouin sheik twenty years her junior. It’s an astounding story which would make a perfect film!

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A Whole Life

A gentle lesson in living

An absolutely perfect little story about Austrian ‘mountain goat’ Andreas Egger, a salt-of-the-earth type of character whose quiet, lonely alpine village life turns out surprisingly satisfactory. His contentedness is of the old-fashioned kind, derived from a closeness to nature, work and acceptance of one’s destiny. A lesson in living and a heart-warming (but far from syrupy!) read which fans of John Williams’ Stoner will love.

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Fingersmith

Brilliantly unpredictable Victorian thriller

I’ve been wanting to read this book for a long time, widely considered to be Waters’ best, and recommended to me by tons of people. In true Sarah Waters’ fashion, Fingersmith twists and turns in completely unpredictable ways, it’s creepy, it’s seedy, it’s spooky and it’s the best thriller I’ve read in a long time.

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The Living and the Dead in Winsford

Thriller of the month

It is appropriate that, of any and all awards, The Living and the Dead in Winsford has won the Rosenkrantz award for best thriller of the year (2014). While this award might actually be in the name of Danish crime writer Palle Rosenkrantz, it is in fact reminiscent of that other Rosenkrantz: the compere of Guildenstern. The mystery, the crime and the repercussions are in tone more in keeping with the ambiguity of those other Danes, Hamlet’s betrayers.

We begin with a lone Swedish woman, and her dog, in England and isolated from everyone who knows her. What is she doing? What is she running from? Who is she? To say more would ruin the story and the gossamer threads that make up the web of her history. It requires your full participation and creativity as Nesser’s slow and anxious descriptions of her days on the moor make it the unique psychological thriller that it is. There are plenty of questions here and, despite the clear physical resolution, more questions linger after you have put the book back on its shelf. Nesser’s skill in delving into the psyche of our female narrator and his insidious suggestions of betrayal and disloyalty make it a worthy award winner, even if it were to be doubly awarded in another Rosenkrantz’ name.

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The End of Days

Too sad for words

This beautifully written, prize-winning novel should come with a warning: NOT SUITABLE IF FEELING LOW

It’s the story of a girl born in Austria-Hungary at the start of the 20th century and her five possible alternative lives. It’s structure is reminiscent of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, but, I think, more elegantly executed. The wars, famines and conflicts that dominated Central European history in the early part of the last century shape her different destinies and, as you’ve probably guessed, they are rarely happy ones. Suicides, famine, war – you name it. It’s a seriously depressing book that I found hard to enjoy (I can usually stomach sad books). That doesn’t mean it’s bad, it’s exquisitely written with an interesting premise – how coincidences shape our lives. It won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize earlier this year, a prize I rate highly. Still tempted… just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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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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Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood

Graphic novels - do they work?

I’ve long been intrigued by graphic novels (basically novels told in a comic strip format – although not necessarily funny…). Do they work or are they just for lazy readers? Persepolis is the autobiographical story of Marjane Satrapi growing up in Iran during the revolution. There’s definitely nothing funny about Satrapi’s claustrophobic, repressed and violent childhood – neighbours telling on each other, the secret police monitoring every move and Iraqi bombs dropping over Teheran.

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The Blue Flower

Historical fiction at it's best. A modern classic.

The Blue Flower is based on the true-life love story between the 18th century German philosopher and poet Georg Philipp Friedrich (Fritz) Freiherr von Hardenberg and a young girl, Sophie von Kühn. Sounds dreary? No, it’s not, actually! It’s a great book, thanks to Penelope Fitzgerald’s light, funny and authentic writing. No wonder her horde of fans include Jonathan Franzen, Allan Hollinghurst, Julian Barnes, James Wood…I could go on and on…who all hail this as a modern classic.

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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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