Hotel Silence: Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

★★★½

Jónas has decided to kill himself. He’s divorced, his ex-wife has revealed that his beloved daughter is actually the child of another man, and his mother is swiftly sinking into senility. Nothing in his life has meaning any more. Even his chats with his neighbour Svanur only confirm his sense of middle-aged man superfluity. And so he decides it’s time to put an end to it all. How and when, of course, are another question. Jónas decides that, to avoid his daughter finding his body, he will have to kill himself abroad and so he decides to seek out the most dangerous place in the world. And so he arrives at the Hotel Silence, in a grim postwar town, where he will discover – much to his surprise – that, with a little effort, many things that are broken can in fact be mended.

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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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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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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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The Eight Mountains: Paolo Cognetti

★★★½

Mountains exert a powerful fascination on the modern mind. They offer freedom, escape, wilderness, the shrugging-off of civilisation. They promise an elemental battle between humanity and nature. And they hold out the prospect of possession: peaks to be claimed and conquered. In this restrained and elegant novel, Paolo Cognetti tells the story of Pietro, a young boy from Milan whose life will be shaped by a childhood friendship formed in the high valleys of the Italian Alps. A tale of obsession, of fathers and sons, of friendship and of belonging, this is a poignant glimpse of a fading world.

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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.

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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.

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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.’

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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.

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