Call Me By Your Name: André Aciman

★★★★½

First loves are powerful things. They haunt us for years and we can never quite shake off the memory of them, nor the deep ache they seem to cause. The film adaptation of this novel will be released tomorrow and is already causing critical waves, but I’m so glad I came to the book first. It is a poignant, intimate, irresistible story of a love affair which develops during an idyllic Italian summer between the precocious son of a college professor and his father’s visiting student. In one sense, it is a comfortable tale of beautiful, privileged people falling beautifully in love in beautiful surroundings; but in Aciman’s hands it becomes much more than that. Told in seventeen-year-old Elio’s pitch-perfect narrative voice, it’s a catalogue of human desires, flaws, hopes and lost dreams, so sumptuous that it leaves you aching with nostalgia and feeling drunk on beauty.

Continue reading

The Humans: Matt Haig

★★★★

Professor Andrew Martin is, for one dazzlingly brief moment, the most brilliant man on the planet. The next, he has vanished off the face of the earth. Unfortunately for Andrew Martin, we’re not alone. You see, all those people who wondered if there was intelligent life elsewhere in the universe were absolutely right. They were just wrong when they assumed it’d want to get in touch with us. Or, more specifically, that said intelligent life would want us to get in touch with it. And so, when Andrew Martin solves the Riemann hypothesis and holds the secret of exponential human advancement in the palm of his hand, the watching extraterrestrial lifeforms decide that he must be stopped. To stop one man is easy enough: an abduction; an empty chair; an unexplained disappearance. But to stop an idea? That’s more challenging. And so our unnamed alien narrator grudgingly agrees to assume the appearance of Andrew Martin, in order to make sure that all traces of his remarkable discovery are destroyed. But to do that, he needs to understand humans. And that’s where the real fun is going to start.

Continue reading

The Roanoke Girls: Amy Engel

★★★★

It’s every girl’s dream. When Lane’s reclusive mother dies, she assumes she’ll be alone in the world, but to her astonishment her mother’s estranged parents seek her out. Moving back to her mother’s childhood home, Roanoke in Kansas, fifteen-year-old Lane is suddenly no longer an orphan but part of a wealthy, loving family presided over by her charismatic grandfather. She even has a new best friend in the form of her lively cousin Allegra. And so, as Lane adjusts to the life of a Roanoke girl – one of the golden few, the object of fascination, desire and envy for the rest of the folk in town – she begins to wonder what on earth drove her mother away. There’s just one strange coincidence that troubles her. As Allegra puts it herself, ‘Roanoke girls never last long around here. We either run or we die.’

Continue reading

Friendly Fire: Patrick Gale

★★★★

After reading Facing the Tank, I was keen to try some of Patrick Gale’s other novels. By chance, I stumbled across Friendly Fire, which is set in the same town and focuses on the grand old boarding school, Tatham’s, at its heart. Gale admits in his author’s note that the school is a thinly-disguised version of his own alma mater at Winchester, and perhaps that’s why the story shimmers with a kind of nostalgia. Like an adolescent version of The Lessons crossed with The Secret History, it follows the formidably bright Sophie and her friendship with the fascinating, flamboyant Lucas across the course of three tempestuous years. It’s a tribute to intense adolescent friendship, a tale of trying to find one’s place in a confusing world, and – perhaps above all – a love-letter to what happens when a thirsty mind meets a classical education.

Continue reading

Saints for All Occasions: J. Courtney Sullivan

★★★★

When sisters Nora and Theresa Flynn make the journey to America in 1957, they are agog for a new world of opportunity. Nora, plain and sensible at twenty-one, dreams of finding something to excite her: an alternative to the planned marriage to the unexciting cousin who awaits her in Boston. For Theresa, in her late teens, life is full of sparkle and fun, crammed with new friends and boyfriends and a liberty she could never have known in their native Ireland. Fifty years later, in 2009, a family tragedy threatens to unearth a secret that has estranged the two sisters, and moulded both their lives into shapes they could never have imagined when arriving on the ship half a century before.

Continue reading

Anna: Niccolò Ammaniti

★★★½

One thing’s for sure: Niccolò Ammaniti really doesn’t do upbeat. I remember seeing the film Non ho paura, based on his novel, when I was in Sixth Form and I found it unsettling, powerful and profoundly bleak. The same could be said of this atmospheric novel, set in 2020, which explores a world in which adults have been eradicated by a virus and children are left to fend for themselves. There is more than a hint of Lord of the Flies here, but Ammaniti is interested not so much in the innate savagery of children, as in the power of hope to push us onward, through unimaginable horrors.

Continue reading

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen: Hendrik Groen

★★★★

Hendrik Groen is 83¼ and lives in a care home in North Amsterdam, but he’s determined not to go gently into that good night. In January 2013 he decides to keep a diary as a way to fight back against the stultifying existence imposed upon him by the director and staff of the home. He firmly believes there’s more to life than having one’s ‘own’ chair in the communal living room; that conversation should be about more than aches and pains; and that the older generation deserves to be given its moment in the limelight. With wit, warmth and poignancy, Groen charts a remarkable year in which he makes new friends, embarks on political intrigue, begins ripping up the road in his new mobility scooter, develops a tendresse for an elegant new arrival and, most importantly, founds the revolutionary Old But Not Dead Club.

Continue reading

Gather the Daughters: Jennie Melamed

★★★½

A rustic community on an isolated island: a simple society of farmers, wood-carvers and roofers. The men labour in the fields while the women bring forth children and keep the home; as a woman, one submits first to one’s father and then one’s husband; and, when one’s children have had children and one’s usefulness is outlived, one takes the fatal draught. Nobody questions the laws of the ancestors. It was doubt and sin, after all, which led to the great fire which has ravaged the old world, which is now nothing but a parched wasteland where none but the wanderers may go. Things are as they have always been – as they should be. But, for a group of girls teetering on the brink of womanhood, a dangerous question hovers in the air. Who makes the laws? And what truly lies beyond the island?

Continue reading

Six Four: Hideo Yokoyama

★★★

There’s definitely something very distinctive about Japanese fiction. It lavishes attention on the apparently inconsequential, the trivial, the minutiae of life, in a way that creates a strangely detached picture of life. I’m pleased to report that I found Six Four more engaging than other Japanese novels I’ve read recently – Parade or Slow Boat – but it’s still very definitely not a Western novel. Focusing on a cold-case kidnapping from fourteen years ago, it follows the staff of a provincial police station as their investigations become caught up in internal power struggles, distrust and mutiny.

Continue reading

Parade: Shuichi Yoshida

★★★

My journey through faintly baffling Japanese fiction continues. I stumbled across this novel in the library, having decided to explore backwards from Z for once, and it caught my eye with its promise of an insight into the dislocation and atomisation of modern Japanese society. And yet, once again, it has turned out to be one of those books that I suspect Heloise has the patience for much more than me: a study of the pointlessness of contemporary life, and the strange dynamics of communal living.

Continue reading