Siracusa: Delia Ephron

★★★½

It was meant to be such a delightful break. Two American couples, tangentially connected, decide to holiday together in Italy: first in Rome and then in Syracuse in Sicily (‘Siracusa’, the characters call it, to distinguish it from Syracuse in New York). Vivacious Lizzie hopes to rekindle her relationship with her novelist husband Michael, who has withdrawn into his most recent book. Her old flame Finn, now married to uptight Taylor, looks forward to spending time with his irrepressible former girlfriend. And Taylor, prim and self-consciously cultured, looks forward to introducing her precious daughter Snow to the glories of the Old World. Yet our travellers find that Italy exacerbates, rather than heals, their divisions. And worse is to come, for Siracusa will prove the backdrop to a tragic and unforeseen crescendo.

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Red Birds: Mohammed Hanif

★★½

My brain feels a little scrambled right now. I thought I knew what I was getting with this book and, for the first two thirds, I did get that, more or less: an ironic satire on the modern cycle of war and international aid. We’re introduced to the bleak aftermath of war in a remote corner of an unnamed Middle Eastern country. Smart, ambitious teenager Momo has dreams of becoming a billionaire entrepreneur, fuelled by the stories he’s read in his dad’s magazine about the Fortune 500. But how’s a kid to get started in a place like this, where even the aid workers have given up and drifted away, and the local American air base has shut up shop? To make matters worse, Momo’s big brother has been missing for months, his dog Mutt has got himself electrocuted, and an American pilot has just wandered in from the desert. And what of those red birds? Well, that’s where it all gets more than a little weird.

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The Wife: Meg Wolitzer

★★★★

Everyone has been talking about this novel recently, as its film adaptation hits cinemas amid whispers of an Oscar nomination for its protagonist Glenn Close. I’m keen to see the film, which gave me the impetus to finally dig out the book from my TBR pile. That pile houses several other novels by Wolitzer, although this is the first I’ve read. If it’s anything to go by, I have plenty of other treats in store. Acerbic, ironic and wise by turn, this novel is a blistering criticism of male privilege, set in a very particular milieu – 1970s and 1980s American literary circles – which, like a stone dropped into a deep pool, sends out ripples which lick against our modern shores.

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Gentlemen & Players: Joanne Harris

★★★★

It’s funny really: I’ve spent most of my life with completely the wrong impression of Joanne Harris, writing her off as an author of cutesy French tales like Chocolat (which perhaps isn’t particularly cutesy itself; I must reread it). And yet she’s so much more than that. She’s written ironic mythical fantasy (The Gospel of Loki), nuanced historical fiction (Holy Fools) and now, I discover, gripping thrillers. I came to Gentlemen & Players because I have a soft spot for fiction set in schools (blame The History Boys, I suppose), and I was attracted by this book’s setting at St Oswald’s: a self-consciously old-fashioned private school for boys. But I stayed for the increasingly compelling tale of Machiavellian revenge, as the school unwittingly nurtures a viper in its bosom: someone with an old grudge against St Oswald’s, who has finally decided to take down the school bit by bit from within. And, when I finished the book, I was sorely tempted to go right back to the beginning and start again, because Harris pulls off a piece of narrative legerdemain that is so completely brilliant that I wanted to revisit everything with full understanding.

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Love Online: Lisa Tuttle

★★

This is the first Lisa Tuttle book that I’ve read, though I have several more already lined up on my Kindle, and it probably wasn’t the best one to choose. English girl Rose Durcan has come to stay with her grandmother at Wishbone Creek while her scientist parents head out for fieldwork in Africa. This means Rose must attend American high school, something which fills her with anxiety: she’d much rather be online, playing long-distance with her brother Simon (a student at Oxford) in one of their multiplayer adventures. But school has to be endured, and her first day isn’t that bad: she sees the delectable Orson Banks, on whom she immediately develops a crush. Unfortunately, Orson only has eyes for the aloof Olivia, who in turn has no interest in dating. But there is one way that Rose can get close to Orson: the online gaming world of Illyria, where Orson takes the role of Count Orsini and Rose, eager to spend even some virtual time in his company, adopts the persona of a helpful young musician, Roberto.

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Afternoon of a Good Woman: Nina Bawden

★★★½

When I was in primary school, we had a visit from Nina Bawden: I’ve no idea why she should have come to a modest school in a distinctly undistinguished small town, but it clearly made a deep impression on me. I bought Carrie’s War, got it signed and, since then, I’ve always associated Bawden with children’s books. So it’s been a surprise to find out that actually she wrote numerous books for adults, and this happens to be the first one I found. It unfolds during the course of one day, as middle-aged Penelope – a magistrate, wife and mother – sits in judgement at the Crown Court with her colleagues. But this is no ordinary day, for Penelope has decided to leave her husband. And so, as she finds herself up against the letter of British justice, she finds herself revisiting her own past and wondering, if her own life was laid out for public scrutiny, how she would fare…

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Social Creature: Tara Isabella Burton

★★★½

What lengths would you go to for the perfect lifestyle? For Louise Wilson, even a mediocre life would be an improvement. At the age of twenty-nine, she’s lost faith in her New York dreams: her goal of becoming a great writer has lost its lustre, crowded out by the humiliating necessity of three minimum-wage jobs; a grotty apartment in a far-flung, seedy part of the city; and the patronising solicitude of her parents, back in New Hampshire, who hope she’ll return and marry her belittling childhood sweetheart. And then she meets Lavinia. Sparkling, daring, hedonistic Lavinia, who goes to all the good parties and knows everyone; who catalogues her life in breathless detail on the internet and who gives Louise a glimpse of a world she never dreamed of entering. And, once in it, Louise realises that she’ll do pretty much anything to avoid having to leave.

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The Driveway Has Two Sides: Sara Marchant

★★★

Time for another Fairlight Modern novella! This time we’re off to a remote island on the east coast of America, to a world of crisp winter winds and pines, and sudden summer influxes of tourists; a world where the year-round residents all know everyone else’s secrets and newcomers are watched with suspicion. And the gossiping islanders have plenty to occupy them now, because an old rental cottage has just been sold to the young and beautiful Delilah. The neighbours wonder about her story (and her morals), gleefully scandalised while Delilah rolls up her sleeves and gets on with the business of transforming her little cottage into a home. But she swiftly realises that she isn’t the only mystery on the island. What about the man who lives in the yellow house next door, with whom she shares a driveway, but who hardly ever comes out into the world?

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A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian: Marina Lewycka

★★★

Thirteen years after it exploded into the bestseller charts, I’ve got around to reading this quirky tale of feuding sisters, immigration appeals and late-life love. Nadia and her older sister Vera are of Ukrainian heritage: their parents moved to Britain after the Second World War, fleeing the brutality of Stalin’s agricultural reforms. They’ve never been close: in fact, they’ve been engaged in a feud for the last two years over the division of their late mother’s assets. But things change abruptly when they hear troubling news. Their eighty-four-year-old father has fallen in love. He’s going to get married again, to Valentina, a pneumatic, blonde, thirty-six-year-old Ukrainian divorcee. Alarm bells start ringing, and Nadia and Vera find themselves forced into a stiff entente as they embark on a mission to protect their vulnerable Pappa – a quest which might just end up in them learning more about themselves along the way.

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The Immortalists: Chloe Benjamin

★★★

In the midst of a boring New York summer in 1969, the four Gold children sneak out of their apartment and head off in search of a clairvoyant who’s set up shop in their neighbourhood. They’ve heard that she can tell you the day on which you’re going to die. Egging each other on, they go one by one into the woman’s shabby rented apartment where, one by one, they’re each given a date. Out on the sidewalk once again, it no longer seems like such a laugh. The four children – pragmatic Varya; curious Daniel; fragile Klara; and little Simon – return home, each of them overshadowed by the length or brevity of their allotted futures. Surely, they tell themselves, it’s all a load of rubbish? But, as the years unfold, each of the Gold siblings will find themselves following a different path, more or less clearly determined by the clairvoyant’s eerie predictions.

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