The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas: John Boyne

★★★★

Oh good heavens. As you know, I’ve wanted to read more John Boyne and, when looking for something short to read between longer books, I spotted this. ‘Yes,’ I said to myself, ‘I know what it’s about. It won’t be fun, I know that. But everyone says how important it is. And besides. It’s a children’s book. It can’t be that bad.’ A day later, I was staring in disbelief at the final page, wondering how on earth I could ever explain this book to my non-existent children and feeling as if I’d been punched in the solar plexus.

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The Girls: Emma Cline

★★★★

Following Gone Girl, I switched my attention to Emma Cline’s sun-drenched, twisted slice of 1960s Californian life, which is inspired by the case of the Manson Family (a story, I should stress, that I knew nothing about beforehand). Unfolding at the dreamy pace of a marijuana trip, it doesn’t match Gone Girl’s urgency, but it offers more relatability, in its tale of a fourteen-year-old girl who just doesn’t fit in, and the seductive gang of dreamers who capture her imagination. Few of us, thank God, will have gone as far as our protagonist Evie Boyd, but I suspect that many of us can remember the pain of teetering on that brink between childhood and adulthood, feeling eternally divorced from either place and, somehow, feeling so much older than all the adults around us. Cline manages to produce a book that’s compelling, compassionate and wise, as well as plumbing some of the darker places in the human soul.

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Gone Girl: Gillian Flynn

★★★★

Better late than never, hmm? As an intense period at work came to a close, I decided it was time to welcome the advent of summer with a couple of good, old-fashioned, white-knuckle thrillers. The first of those was a book I’ve managed to avoid having spoiled for me: quite an achievement, considering that it’s a publishing phenomenon, a film, and has been read by everyone else on the planet except my neighbour’s cat. Finally, it was my turn to meet Nick and Amy Dunne, the picture-perfect couple whose marriage begins to go sour when they lose their jobs in the recession, and move from Amy’s native New York to Nick’s native Missouri. When Amy disappears on their fifth wedding anniversary, leaving signs of a struggle and traces of blood on the kitchen floor, everyone thinks they know how this story ends. Only they don’t. Only one person has even an inkling of what’s about to happen… and Nick Dunne is in no position to protect himself.

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Bite-Sized Books

Bite-Sized Books

I’ve recently begun exploring the shorter books available for Kindle, some of which are free with a Prime subscription. There are Penguin Specials and Kindle Singles, along with the odd short story which doesn’t fit into my regular Tor.com series. As these books are often so short, averaging around fifty pages, I can easily read them on my commute and they’ve encouraged me to take a punt on unfamiliar authors or subjects. And the results are mixed. Some of these works give a brief, striking perspective on a problem or a theme; others, as with all books, promise much but don’t quite fulfill. Here is the first of what will probably become another series, documenting my travels through the world of these shorter, bite-sized pieces of literature, history and journalism.

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Fanny and Stella: Neil McKenna

★★★

The Young Men who Shocked Victorian England

London theatres were notorious for their seedy reputations, but the events of 28 April 1870 were shocking even by the standards of the West End. As the audience filed out of the Strand Theatre, two garishly-dressed ‘ladies’ were arrested by police officers, who accused them of being men in drag. Carried off to Bow Street police station, the women were revealed in due course to be Ernest Boulton (known as Stella) and Frederick William Park (known as Fanny). McKenna’s book unfolds the story of their extraordinary trial for indecency and delves into the secret gay underworld of 19th-century London. It’s a fine story, but its historical credentials are undermined by a relentlessly salacious tone and by McKenna’s fondness for floridly narrative, unsubstantiated assertions.

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The Two of Swords: K.J. Parker

★★★★½

The Two of Swords: Volume I

My next step with K.J. Parker should have been to continue the Engineer Trilogy, but it just so happened that I had time to kill on the evening I bought this book, and couldn’t resist starting it. In fact, Parker’s novels all seem to take place in the same world, so it didn’t even feel like straying. The Two of Swords has only confirmed my admiration for him as a writer. I’d go so far as to say I love his books. They’re knotty, cynical, pragmatic fantasy without a hint of magic, and the general flavour is what you might get if Machiavelli settled down to write an alternate-universe version of the Byzantine Empire. Stuffed full of double-bluffs and double-agents, this series takes us into the heart of a long-lasting war, spurred on by the personal enmity between the opposing generals – who also happen to be brothers. Two brothers; two armies; two empires; and one secret international fraternity, who may not be as neutral as they’ve always claimed to be…

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Undying: A Love Story: Michel Faber

★★★★★

In late ’88, not knowing how lucky I was, / I met a woman who would die of cancer.’ So begins Michel Faber’s Lucky, one of the first poems in this collection written during and after the death of his beloved wife Eva from cancer in June 2014. It’s hard to know what to say: to even read these poems feels like intruding on a raw, agonising grief. To try to review them feels like an insult. How can you review expressions of grief and loss? How can I possibly give fewer than five stars, as if suggesting that Faber’s agony somehow wasn’t quite enough? And yet I did want to write about Undying because, as a collection, this is a very necessary book. Taken together, the poems explore every heartbreaking angle of bereavement in a simple narrative that progresses from diagnosis through treatment and remission, to death and then the dreadful aftermath: the terrifying challenge of trying to rebuild a life without the one you most love by your side.

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Thalia: Frances Faviell

★★★

Eighteen-year-old Rachel is a dreamy, idealistic student at the Slade and wants nothing more than to become a painter. When she paints an unflattering portrait of the local vicar, her aunt decides that this ungrateful girl doesn’t deserve to come on her planned trip to Egypt (despite Rachel’s obsession with Akhenaten and Nefertiti). Instead, Rachel is packed off for a year-long placement with an English family living in Brittany, to act as companion to their teenage daughter Thalia. Rachel’s first impression is that the Pembertons are much the same as any other military family wintering in a cheap, congenial climate. But, when Colonel Tom Pemberton returns to his regiment in India, she begins to notice deeper currents swirling through his household and, in particular, running in the veins of unloved, overlooked, lonely Thalia.

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Space Opera: Catherynne M. Valente

★★★

‘In space, everyone can hear you sing’. That tagline more or less sums up the spirit of this novel. When I said that I was looking forward to reading more of Catherynne M. Valente’s work, I wasn’t expecting anything quite like this. I don’t even know if I can conjure up its atmosphere for you. Imagine if Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams got together, drank a bottle of gin, smoked something illegal, watched Velvet Goldmine, and then decided to write an intergalactic, sequin-drenched skit on the Eurovision Song Contest. And turned it up to eleven. It’s mad. No, it’s more than that: it’s exuberantly, gleefully insane. Its labyrinthine sentences spill over the pages like a Victorian lady bursting from a corset several sizes too small. But perhaps the biggest surprise is its humour: an anarchist, deliberately absurdist brand which feels very, very British.

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The Serpentine Cave: Jill Paton Walsh

★★★½

There’s always a frisson of excitement when you come across a ‘new’ book by an author you like. Jill Paton Walsh’s Knowledge of Angels is one of my all-time favourite novels, as many of you will probably know, and so I was excited when J gave me The Serpentine Cave, which he’d unearthed in a second-hand bookshop and which I’d never heard of before. It’s very different in spirit – a tale of quiet, private truths rather than the epic resonances of Knowledge of Angels – but it’s nevertheless a moving tale of a woman trying to piece together her identity from the fragments left behind on her mother’s death.

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