The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night: Jen Campbell

★★★½

Some of you might already be familiar with Jen Campbell, the compiler of Weird Things Customers Say In Bookshops. Although I haven’t yet read these compendiums of the odd, I’ve seen snippets here and there and they’ve made me laugh out loud. So I was curious to see how Campbell’s talents would translate to the short story medium. The answer is: extremely well; although these unsettling stories aren’t at all what one would expect from this tongue-in-cheek observer of human nature. Or… on the other hand… perhaps they are, for they reach deep inside us to the darker corners of the psyche, and their unifying feature is that these miniature worlds seem so straightforward, so simple, until you look between the lines and realise that something, subtly, is out of kilter.

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Sparks: David Quantick

★★★

Paul Sparks, commonly known even to his nearest and dearest as Sparks, is a waster. An overgrown man-child, he’s a lazy aficionado of videos, junk food and the pub closest to his ‘office’, where his job involves (infrequently) replicating 1970s t-shirts. It’s a sorry state of affairs, but it has always suited Sparks and it’s only when his girlfriend Alison dumps him in exasperation that Sparks realises he could have handled things a bit better. When he stumbles across a very esoteric website, which suggests the possibility of alternate universes, Sparks comes to a decision. He might have lost Alison in this world, but if there really are parallel worlds out there, he’s determined to search through them until he’s found the one, perfect world, in which he can win her back forever.

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Beware of Pity: Stefan Zweig

★★★★

When I was packing for my Vienna trip last week, one very important question was on my mind. What should I take to read? I always enjoy reading appropriate fiction on my travels, but it turned out that my collection of Austrian stories was rather limited. By stretching the rules, I ended up choosing this: the only full-length novel by Stefan Zweig, the wonderful essayist, biographer and short-story writer who was born in Vienna. Beware of Pity was first published in 1939 and looks back to the eve of another war, in 1914 on the borders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It’s a simple story, about an act of kindness that goes horribly wrong – and Zweig’s percipient understanding of human nature means that it resonates strongly even today.

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An Accomplished Woman: Jude Morgan

★★★★

While at home over Christmas, I spotted this novel on one of my mother’s bookshelves and promptly snaffled it without her knowledge (hi Mum!). Jude Morgan has drifted in and out of my awareness these last few years, but it wasn’t until I settled down with An Accomplished Woman that I realised he’s rather brilliant at Regency comedies of manners in a Georgette Heyer style. Indeed, I decided I was going to thoroughly enjoy it based on the final lines of the very first chapter. The rest of the book channels Heyer with aplomb, boasting a plot that has certain echoes of her novels, but Morgan infuses it all with a modern consciousness that gives it a warmly witty spark, and stuffs it so full of bon mots that I was kept busy scribbling them all down.

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The Thief: Megan Whalen Turner

★★★

The Queen’s Thief: Book I

By popular demand (usually from Melita), I’ve finally got round to Megan Whalen Turner! I understand from Kerstin that the Queen’s Thief books are loved by Dunnetteers, among many other readers, for their twisting plots and intrigue, and so I’d really been looking forward to them. At the end of this first novel, however, I can’t help wondering when that promised court intrigue is going to get underway. The Thief is an enjoyable young-adult quest novel, throwing together the traditional bunch of ill-assorted companions in search of an ancient relic, but I don’t feel it’s hugely out of the ordinary. I’m not about to give up, though, and am sure things will warm up later in the series.

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The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz: Russell Hoban

★★★

I can’t remember exactly why I bought this book. Surely it wasn’t just because there was a lion on the cover? I’d never heard of Russell Hoban, and knew nothing about the story; and yet here it is, on my shelf. It has turned out to be a thought-provoking, if somewhat mystifying read: the first half full of poignant comments on belonging, self-direction and the relationship between fathers and sons; the second half verging on hallucinogenic self-indulgence. Realising that it was first published in 1973, I wondered if parts might have made more sense if I’d been smoking something not entirely legal. And yet there’s one irresistible aspect: it’s inspired by the magnificent Lion Hunt reliefs at the British Museum.

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Dystopian Short Stories from Tor.com

Tor.com

Here is the next batch of short stories from Tor.com. I’ve collected together five stories which deal with near futures in which the world has changed: often clearly for the worse, but sometimes for the better with a poignant kick. Here we find people relieving others of pain or emotion; a virus that traps you in a fatal dream of happiness; and the cruelty of the fashion industry taken to extremes. And a reminder, should you need it, that dystopias don’t always need to be outside our own heads…

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Blonde: Joyce Carol Oates

★★★★★

You may think I’m getting soft, seeing the second five-star rating in four days, but trust me on this. I’ve been reading this book since November and, at almost a thousand pages, it is a dazzling modern classic: a sprawling, daring, combative act of imagination. First published in 2000, it gains an even more fervent urgency when read in the light of last year’s snowballing Hollywood scandals. Hovering between fiction and non-fiction, it tells the story of the most iconic woman of the 20th century – so recognisable that you only need a wisp of platinum-blonde hair and the feathered end of a dark eyebrow to put a name to the face on the cover. Yet this is not a biography but a creative reconstruction of the life and times of the girl who started life as Norma Jeane Baker and ended up crushed beneath the glittering celebrity of her alter ego, Marilyn Monroe.

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Gentlemen of the Road: Michael Chabon

★★★★★

First of all, a very Happy New Year! I hope you had a wonderful holiday and that the new year brings you all sorts of splendid things. For my own part, 2018 has arrived hand-in-hand with well-meaning resolutions, such as easing off on book-buying. I have such a treasure-trove of things to read that I could quite happily spend the entire year reading books I already own, and that’s doubly true because I received some fabulous things for Christmas. The best presents, as always, are those you don’t expect and this lovely little book, a gift from J, displayed a startling understanding of my psyche: here is adventure, derring-do, disguise, intrigue, sardonic wit and rich, luscious prose, all bundled together in 200 pages of 10th-century adventure on the shores of the Caspian Sea.

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The Temptation to be Happy: Lorenzo Marone

★★★

I was tempted by this book because I thought it was going to be another heartwarming tale along the lines of The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen or My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises, but in fact it was a little harder and more cynical than I was expecting. It’s the tale of Cesare Annunziata, a grumpy old man in Naples, who has lost his wife, alienated his children and failed to make the most of his life. When a young couple move into the flat next door, Cesare plans to remain just as detached and crabby as ever. But fate has other plans, and this miserable old sod finds that, quite against his will, he’s beginning to feel an emotional investment in his new neighbour Emma.

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