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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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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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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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Out

Women take over in this gruesome Tokyo thriller

Intensely gory and plot driven, this is nevertheless a psychological thriller. Despite knowing “who dunnit” within the first 5 chapters, the anxiety the author winds about the reader is suffocating and convincing. Kirino delves into the psyche of the lead characters, four factory women struggling with personal hardships, and uncovers a simmering power behind the drab mundanity of their lives. Their situation subsequently intertwines with the seedier and rougher side of Tokyo life, and they soon find themselves in a, very tight, proverbial corner. Thriller extraordinaire.

 

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Nagasaki

Observations on a side-life

This rather triste novella based on true events, is a poignant story of isolation in a modern world.  Through a mild sense of dread, Faye manages to simultaneously capture the flavour(less) world of the monotony and prescribed particularities of a Japanese ‘salaryman’ and the subsequent disruption based on the simple observation he makes one morning that someone seems to have drunk his juice. A uniquely gentle tale that takes on a thought-provoking exploration of the thin fabric separating the accepted world with the unacknowledged people on the fridges of society. Highly recommended.

 

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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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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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Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ

Fascinating insight, farts and all

I’ve been driving my family mad with trivia from this adorable best-selling book on the unglamorous subject of the digestive system. Did you know, for instance, that you have up to two kilos worth of micro-organisms living in your gut? Or that saliva is filtered blood? Or that plants make their seeds slightly poisonous in the hope that we won’t eat them. Nerdy stuff, I know, but quite fun nevertheless!

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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 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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