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The Wizard of the Kremlin by Giuliano da Empoli

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The Wizard of the Kremlin

Inside the mind of Vladimir Putin

Ever wondered what goes through Vladimir Putin’s mind? How he and his cronies see the world? We’ll never know for sure, of course, but in The Wizard of the Kremlin by Giuliano da Empoli we get a what appears to be a pretty good guess. Da Empoli worked as Italian ex-Prime Minister Renzi’s advisor and spent some time in Russia. This best-selling, Prix Goncourt nominated novel is his fictionalised account of Putin’s rise up the ranks. A must read for anyone interested in Russia and geo-politics.

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How to Love Your Daughter by Hila Blum

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How to Love Your Daughter

 Maternal mania

The first time Yoella lays eyes on her young granddaughters, it is through the window panes of their Groningen home. Having travelled thousands of miles to see them, she is hiding in the gathering dusk of their front garden, concealed and mesmerised. In the prize-winning How to Love Your Daughter by Hila Blum, Yoella retraces the painful path that has led to estrangement between herself and her only child, Leah. Setting the reader the compelling task of unpicking her account and assessing the silences, Yoella’s story is one of intense introspection and all-consuming love.

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Tokyo Express by Seichō Matsumoto

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Tokyo Express

A unique brain teaser

One chilly January morning in 1957, a man discovers two dead bodies on a Japanese beach. A young woman in an immaculate kimono and a gentleman with polished shoes. Curiously, both corpses are rosy cheeked, an anomaly explained away by the police doctor as a sign of cyanide poisoning. It’s almost certainly a classic love suicide pact, but in Tokyo Express by Seichō Matsumoto, we’re reminded to challenge even the most elementary assumptions, particularly when one of the deceased is a government official implicated in a bribery scandal. A meticulously (some might say obsessively) plotted 1958 Japanese crime classic, it’s a deliciously knotty read.

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My Men by Victoria Kielland

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My Men

Lyrical journey into a murderous mind

Brynhild is seventeen and in love. She’s been told many times that she needs to know her place, and she does. By day, her place is in the kitchen as a housemaid, but by night it’s in the feverish embrace of the master’s eldest son. Quiet and pious, she is awaiting God’s blessing of their love. God, of course, has other plans, and in My Men by Victoria Kielland, we watch as Brynhild morphs into Belle Gunness, the murderous owner of a dark ‘carnivorous heart’. Based on the true story of America’s first known female serial killer, it’s an intense and mesmerising affair.

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Owlish by Dorothy Tse

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Owlish

Surreal and subversive tale of repression and identity

Professor Q is a somewhat dull academic, apathetically teaching literature at a middling university and uninterested in his wife, Maria. She, in turn, is just grateful that Q appears to have lost any carnal urges. Supposing that the andropause has come for him, Maria is unaware that her hitherto predictable husband is in love with a mechanical music-box ballerina. Her name is Aliss and he is willing her to life. Both a political allegory and a deep dive into the recesses of the human psyche, Owlish by Dorothy Tse is a subversive and exhilarating affair.

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A Moth to a Flame by Stig Dagerman

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A Moth to a Flame

Classic Swedish novel of grief and disorientation

A gem from the excellent Penguin European Writers series, A Moth to a Flame by Stig Dagerman is a magnificently moody read. Set in 1940’s Stockholm, it tells the tale of Bengt, a young man broken by the premature death of his mother. Discovering that his father had a secret lover throughout, the devastated Bengt plots vengeance, and in Dagerman’s astute portrayal of Bengt’s slide into existential crisis, we watch as he becomes embroiled in a demented affair with that very same mistress. Laced with sly humour, this novel of grief, loss and love is a provocative treat.

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Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov

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Time Shelter

Winner of the 2023 International Booker Prize

A distinctly European novel, the award-winning Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov combines philosophy and satire with a fascinating premise. Enigmatic therapist, Gaustine, opens a pioneering dementia clinic in Zurich, wherein each floor recreates a different decade, allowing patients to find peace and comfort in their own temporal sanctuary. As the business gains in reputation, even healthy clients begin flocking to this clinic of the past, desirous of escaping their dysfunctional present. In Gospodinov’s emblematic take on 20th century Europe, Gaustine’s experiment morphs into something dangerous as he notes ‘…when you have no future, you vote for the past.’

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Silence by Shusaku Endo

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Silence

Stunning Japanese classic

Reading Silence by Shusaku Endo is one of those magical experiences in which you find yourself transported to a completely different time and place. In this case, to a 17th century Japan in the midst of its battle to eradicate Christianity. We follow two young, committed Jesuit priests on their clandestine journey from Portugal to an island off the coast of Japan. Their mission: to keep the Catholic faith alive and to find out what happened to a predecessor who is rumoured to have apostatised. Justly considered a Japanese classic, Silence raises questions around religious colonialism, clash of cultures, freedom of religion and the very core of faith itself while being an absolutely gripping read.

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Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez

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Things We Lost in the Fire

Stories to make your skin crawl

Short stories and I don’t always get along but Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez turned out to be an exception. All set in Enriquez’s native Argentina, the stories usually start out in pretty innocuous domestic settings only to veer into something far darker and more troubling. Often set in impoverished slums we encounter corrupt police officers, mysterious disappearances, human bones emerging from the ground, brutal murders, self-harm and apparitions of people long gone. There are some pretty gruesome details in these stories but thanks to Enriquez’s skills as a writer it doesn’t feel like gratuitous violence, but rather a portrait of a people and a country still living in the shadows of its bleak past.

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Diary of a Void by Emi Yagi

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Diary of a Void

Cleverly surreal Japanese tale of motherhood and deception

Shibata is 34-years-old and works in the paper core manufacturing industry (that’s cardboard tubes to you and me). As the only woman in her office, Shibata is eternally put-upon by her chauvinistic colleagues, who expect her to be the coffee maker and general dogsbody. One day, in a fit of pique, she falsely announces that she’s pregnant and therefore too nauseous to deal with dirty coffee cups. In Diary of a Void by Emi Yagi, we’re in for the full nine months, as Shibata learns to love sitting with her feet up, and the lies spiral out of control.

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