In the Vanishers’ Palace: Aliette de Bodard

★★★½

Aliette de Bodard frequently appears on lists of the most exciting authors currently working in the fantasy field, but I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t read anything by her until now (despite owning several of her works). As a writer of French-Vietnamese descent, she’s interested in exploring fantasy traditions beyond the white, European, medieval worlds that dominate the genre. In this novella, for example, she takes us to a post-apocalyptic Vietnam, in which a young woman is given up by the elders of her village to placate a dragon. In its simplest form, it’s much the same story as Uprooted, but de Bodard challenges our expectations just as Novik did – though in a less familiar idiom.

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The Water Cure: Sophie Mackintosh

★★

This seems to be a ‘love it or hate it’ kind of book: literary Marmite. The omens were good. The publishers managed to get a cover blurb from Margaret Atwood, and implied that this was a new feminist classic: the Handmaid’s Tale for the next generation. It was longlisted for the 2018 Booker Prize and, to give credit where it’s due, the writing is beautiful – but in the way that an art-house film is beautiful: stylised and a little self-indulgent. Hyped as a fable for the #MeToo era, this unsettling story centres on three sisters living on a remote island: Grace, Lia and Sky. They have been raised in isolation from infancy, protected from the poisonous toxins of the mainland, and treated with therapies to contain their burgeoning emotions. Complicated rituals devised by their New Age parents protect them further. But what are they being protected from? No one will explain. One day, shortly after their father disappears, they face an unprecedented threat. Two men and a boy wash up on their beach, disrupting the balance. The island’s prophylactic seclusion will never be the same again.

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Lights All Night Long: Lydia Fitzpatrick

★★★★

Passing through Arrivals at Baton Rouge airport, Louisiana, is the most significant moment in Ilya Alexandrovich’s young life. On one side of the door he can pretend that this is all still a dream: that he’s still just the bookish student in his remote Russian hometown, cherished by his teacher, mocked affectionately by his peers, with a vague prospect of getting to America one day. But, on the far side of the door, his reality must be faced: his host family, the Masons, who have agreed to let Ilya live with them for a year while he attends school, improves his English and assimilates to a Western view of life. Ilya is profoundly aware of his good fortune in coming here, in escaping the dead-end lifestyle that faces so many of his friends; but that isn’t only reason he feels unhappy. His guilt is sharper, more focused, for in coming to America Ilya has been forced to leave behind the person he loves more fiercely than any other: his troubled brother Vladimir, who has recently been sent to prison for murder – a crime that Ilya passionately believes he didn’t commit. This evocative, moving story asks us what it means to belong – what we do when we don’t fit in – and how we can redeem ourselves when all hope seems lost.

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Murder at the British Museum: Jim Eldridge

★★

I’m intrigued by stories set in museums, mainly because I love seeing what authors think curators do with their time (hint: less of the jungles, secret societies and revivified mummies; more ferreting around in dusty boxes. Or maybe that’s just me). This particular book caught my eye because it’s set in my own stomping ground. How could I resist a murder mystery in the hallowed halls of the British Museum? In retrospect, I probably should have done: partly for the usual reason (indignation at a lack of familiarity with what the building actually looks like), and partly because I didn’t think it was particularly well-written. But there’s still a measure of interest to be found in this tale of dastardly doings in Bloomsbury, and in the enterprising duo who are called in to help solve the crime and – more importantly – salvage the Museum’s reputation.

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Walking to Aldebaran: Adrian Tchaikovsky

★★★★

Gary Rendell is living the dream. One of a handpicked international team of astronauts on board the Quixote, he’s been sent out to the very edge of the solar system to investigate a strange, gravity-defying structure known variously as the Artefact or the Frog God, due to the gaping holes in its surface that suggest eyes and a mouth. There’s no doubt that this object has been constructed by intelligent beings, but what is it? Gary and his team are there to find out. But when we meet Gary, some time after their expedition sets out into the Artefact, dream has become nightmare. He’s alone, desperate, driven half-mad by the psychological tricks of this alien labyrinth. As he fumbles his way through the darkness, he becomes aware of something scratching at the edge of his mind; something calling him; luring him. But Gary Rendell is in no mood to be lured. He’s been through hell and back; these endless corridors have changed him, and all he wants is to get home. But, when we’ve experienced so much, is it ever possible to go home? There’s certainly a monster in this dark esoteric maze; but is Gary its victim?

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The Baghdad Clock: Shahad Al Rawi

★★½

I’ve been struggling with this book on and off for about a year, which is odd, because many people have written enthusiastic reviews of it. It’s the kind of book that, to be slightly cynical, one feels that one should admire. Essentially autobiographical, it tells the tale of a young girl, her friends and her neighbourhood in Baghdad, beginning in 1991 and finishing in 2003. It invites us to imagine growing up under the cloud of two wars and crippling sanctions. It shows us a picture of a community which remains resilient in the face of hardship for as long as it can, and it traces the things which remain important even when your country is falling apart: love, hope, the dreams of the future. And I do admire the spirit and the courage of the neighbourhood memorialised in the novel. What jarred with me, however, is the way the story is told: detached and dreamlike, it wanders in and out of magical realism without any sense of narrative discipline. Some readers have found that charming; for me, alas, it felt only messy.

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Austentatious: Holly Luetkenhaus and Zoe Weinstein

★★★

The Evolving World of Jane Austen Fans

Some of you may remember that I reviewed a book on Sherlock fandom a while ago, which was published by the University of Iowa Press in their Fandom and Culture series. I’ve now been lucky enough to get another review copy from the same series, looking at the face of modern Jane Austen fandom. How has this very limited selection of original material been reworked, adapted and interrogated in the modern world? How can fans possibly find new things to say about novels that are 200 years old? You’d be amazed. This entertaining romp through ‘Janeite’ fan culture takes us from Colin Firth’s wet shirt to Clueless and The Lizzie Bennet Diaries; from BBC adaptations to erotic fanfiction. Like Sherlock’s World, Austentatious is occasionally repetitive and could have done with a fiercer editor, but it’s nevertheless a fascinating celebration of the passion with which Austen’s works continue to be read, loved and reinterpreted.

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The Rapture: Claire McGlasson

★★★★

It’s healthy to be reminded, ever so often, that history can be stranger than any fiction. Claire McGlasson’s debut novel, which will be published on 6 June, brings to life an odd slice of British history from 1926, when the Panacea Society flourished in Bedford. Largely made up of women who had lost husbands, brothers or sons in the Great War, the Society is centred on the figure of Octavia, a prophetess and self-proclaimed Daughter of God, who claims to have been sent to pave the way for the return of Jesus. While Octavia’s convictions inspire many of her followers, the Society’s youngest member Dilys finds the cult atmosphere increasingly stifling. Dilys has never experienced any of the visions or visitations described by her fellow members and has concluded that God has no plan for her. But, when she introduces a new member to the community, Dilys dares to hope that maybe life will start to have a purpose after all.

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A Light of Her Own: Carrie Callaghan

★★½

In 1633, a young woman came before the Guild of St Luke in Haarlem, asking to be admitted as a master painter. She was Judith Leyster, a painter of domestic scenes and merry companies, and her acceptance into the Guild made her the first woman to be given such an honour. Carrie Callaghan uses the limited documentary evidence for Leyster’s life and career as the basis for this novel, which follows the ambitious young artist from her days as an apprentice in her master’s attic to her struggles to establish herself in an unwelcoming, male-dominated field. Joining other books set in the Dutch Golden Age, such as Girl with a Pearl EarringTulip FeverThe Miniaturist and Midnight Blue, it offers a glimpse of Dutch art in its most celebrated period – although I felt that this novel (unlike Leyster herself) didn’t live up to its own ambitions.

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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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