What Hell is Not: Alessandro d’Avenia

★★★★

Don Pino Puglisi is a ray of light in the bleak Palermitan suburb of Brancaccio. More than fifty years ago, he was brought up in this claustrophobic neighbourhood and now, as a priest, he has returned to minister to his flock. And to the children most of all. For Brancaccio is a hell on earth. Dominated by the Mafia, it is a place without hope, without prospects, overlooked by the government ministers who are too frightened, or too corrupt, to intervene. There is no middle school; there are no parks; no space for children to grow. And so Don Pino comes home to fight for Brancaccio’s visibility: to campaign for a better world. Love, hope, compassion: these are things which challenge the Mafia’s stronghold and which try to make hell a better place. But of course the Mafia don’t take kindly to meddling priests. Gritty and heartbreaking, this is a story of one man’s struggle to change the world. It will appeal to those who’ve read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, but there’s a twist in the tale; for this is a true story.

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Adèle: Leïla Slimani

★★★

Having read Leïla Slimani’s Lullaby last year, I was keen to try her new novel, Adèle. Like Lullaby, this takes us beyond the polished facade of a comfortable, upper-middle-class Parisian family and shows us the hypocrisy and unhappiness within. This time our protagonists are Adèle, a journalist, and her husband Richard, a successful surgeon. They have a son, Lucien, and spend Christmas holidays with Richard’s wealthy family in the country. It’s a superficially perfect existence; but there are cracks beneath the surface. Adèle, the beautiful, serene, accomplished wife, hides a dark secret: ever since she was a child, she has been a sex addict, compulsively seeking out sensual experiences with as many people as she can, using these moments to anchor herself against the great, vast meaninglessness of the world. Yet Adèle’s time is running out and, when she makes a pass at a colleague of Richard’s, her whole carefully-constructed world is about to collapse.

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The Devil in the Marshalsea: Antonia Hodgson

★★★★

Thomas Hawkins: Book I

It’s 1727 and Thomas Hawkins is in trouble. Admittedly, this is pretty much the status quo for this roguish disowned son of a clergyman; but this time things are worse than usual. Having spent his meagre income on wine, women and gambling, Tom is in dire financial straits, but a chance win at the tables has brightened his mood. Now he can pay his rent, get his landlord off his back and carry on having a good time. But the world has other plans. Mugged and robbed in the stews of St Giles, Tom is left – once again – penniless, and his landlord is in no mood to be generous. Our bewildered young hero is dragged off to the infamous Marshalsea, the debtors’ prison in Southwark. Like hell, it’s easy to enter but hard to leave. And, like hell, there are demons loose within. As rumours of murder and ghosts spread around the prison, Tom is made an offer: find the murderer and he will be set free. But what if the murderer finds him first?

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A Notable Woman: Jean Lucey Pratt

★★★★

The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt

I have decided to write a journal. I mean to go on writing this for years and years, and it’ll be awfully amusing to read over later.’ It was Saturday 18 April 1925 and fifteen-year-old Jean Lucey Pratt was making a start on her first diary. Unlike most teenage girls, she actually kept it up: sixty years later, she’d produced over a million words, encompassing national, local and family politics, her ambitions, the frustrations of being a clever woman in a man’s world, her friendships and, most movingly, her constant desire for love. Simon Garfield, the editor of her journals, came across her work as a participant in the Mass Observation project, which gathered the experiences of ordinary people across the country during and after the Second World War. But Jean’s personal diaries go beyond the social history contained in her consciously ‘public’ journals. Here is an intelligent, smart, hopeful woman, longing to live to her full potential – but also a fallible, flawed human being who makes poor decisions, lacks courage, and manages to have whole love affairs in her imagination with someone she’s never actually spoken to. She is inspiring, exasperating and pitiful by turn: a fully-realised, articulate and hauntingly familiar personality.  There is, I think, a little bit of Jean Lucey Pratt in all of us.

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The Swish of the Curtain: Pamela Brown

★★★★

The Blue Door: Book I

Pamela Brown was fourteen when she wrote this, her first novel, although it wasn’t published until 1941, when she was a venerable sixteen. It was the first of a series and became a beloved children’s classic, cited as a favourite by Maggie Smith and Eileen Atkins among others. And it’s no accident that it appeals particularly to actors, because the Blue Door series follows the fortunes of a very special theatre company, set up by a particularly ambitious and determined group of children. It all begins when a new family moves into the Corner House in Fenchester. Across the road, two sets of siblings keep a watchful eye out: Sandra Fayne and her little sister Maddy from one side of the fence; Lyn Darwin and her brother Jeremy from the other. Soon it transpires that there are no fewer than three new children at the Corner House. The stage is set – literally – for a wonderful summer adventure that promises to become something much, much bigger.

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Famous Trials: Alex McBride

★★★½

In this set of three bite-sized books, barrister and author Alex McBride presents six cases adapted from Penguin’s Famous Trials. This classic series gave readers the chance to read the transcripts of court cases, to study the evidence and to judge for themselves whether the final verdict was correct. In their newly edited form, these cases are short enough to read on a commute, each offering a glimpse of a notorious murder trial. Penguin and McBride have grouped them thematically. In Unwanted Spouses we explore two crimes motivated by marital strife; Thrill-Killers introduces us to two criminals who developed too much of a taste for blood; and Lucky Escapes shows us two people who were acquitted and walked free. But did they deserve it? While I’m not a fan of modern true crime, these cases are old enough to cast light on a different age – while reminding us that human nature, worryingly, might not have changed all that much…

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Rustication: Charles Palliser

★★★½

Charles Palliser has been on my radar for a long time, although this is the first of his novels that I’ve read. He is famous for his gothic Victorian-style historical fiction and I’ve been keeping an eye out for his magnum opus, The Quincunx, but it just so happens that Rustication cropped up in my local second-hand bookshop the other day. Couched in true Victorian fashion as a rediscovered manuscript, it’s told in diary format, unveiling the story of Richard Shenstone. In winter 1863 Richard returns home from Cambridge, whence he has been ignominiously expelled (a fact he chooses to keep quiet for now), hoping for an indulgent welcome from his sister and recently widowed mother. Their newly straitened circumstances have brought his mother to a bleak, windswept, isolated house on the edge of a salt-marsh. As if the location wasn’t grim enough, Richard swiftly realises that he isn’t quite as welcome as he thought he’d be. Worse still, he isn’t the only one who’s hiding something, and he’s about to find that no one can be trusted.

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Going Postal: Terry Pratchett

★★★½

A Discworld Novel: Book 33

You may have noticed that the Discworld Reread has stalled temporarily, so I’ve decided to cheekily skip ahead to the 33rd novel out of sequence. Going Postal takes us deep into the vibrantly fetid streets of Ankh-Morpork for a tale of skulduggery, ambition, fiscal irresponsibility and the Royal Mail. Our hero, Moist von Lipwig, is a leading conman who has been just a little too successful. Unfortunately, this means that he’s come to the attention of Lord Vetinari, the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, who makes Moist an offer he can’t refuse. (Well, he could, because the Patrician believes in freedom of choice, but it would be unwise.) Before he quite understands what’s happened, Moist finds himself invested as Ankh-Morpork’s new Postmaster, charged with revitalising a faded part of the city’s history. This is a tale of nostalgia, of dreams and of the importance of writing. Stories, as ever, are at the heart of Pratchett’s fiction, just waiting to be unleashed…

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Our Life in the Forest: Marie Darrieussecq

★★½

The future. Near? Distant? It’s hard to say. A woman writes in an old notebook in a forest, hurrying to get everything down. She’s cold, tired, falling to pieces. She and her companions are fugitives from the status quo and the government will find them, soon. They’ve done their best, but is that enough? What does it achieve? There isn’t much time but someone has to record the truth. And so this woman, formerly a psychologist, turns her gaze upon herself: her privileged position as one of the social elite, measured not by wealth or status but by the fact that she has a ‘half’, a clone, identical in all ways to herself, a second body kept in permanent sleep, yet always ready to replace any of her organs or body parts that malfunction. Hers is a story of gradual ethical awakening, of questioning, prompted by the arrival in her office one day of an unusual patient: the ‘clicker’. Darrieussecq’s novel is a curious beast: somewhat half-baked, somewhere along the line between sci-fi novel and ethical fable. It will inevitably be compared to Kashuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, but differs in one crucial aspect: a lack of heart.

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The Crown’s Game: Evelyn Skye

★★★

Russia. 1825. In the peaceful woods of Ovchinin Island, flame-haired Vika lives a quiet life with her father Sergei. Since childhood, he has encouraged her to develop her talent for magic, promising that when she’s grown-up he will take her to St Petersburg to become the Imperial Enchanter. Inborn magic is a rare thing, after all: when the incumbent Enchanter dies, it passes into a new vessel (rather like the Dalai Lama, I suppose) and it is the new Enchanter’s responsibility to put her powers at the service of the Tsar. Little do Sergei and Vika realise that, in the heart of St Petersburg itself, a young man is being groomed for precisely the same purpose. There should be only one Enchanter born in each generation, but something has gone wrong. There are two potential Enchanters in Vika’s generation and that cannot be allowed. The weakest must be eliminated… through the ancient Crown’s Game.

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