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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Adèle: Leïla Slimani

★★★

Having read Leïla Slimani’s Lullaby last year, I was keen to try her new novel, Adèle. Like Lullaby, this takes us beyond the polished facade of a comfortable, upper-middle-class Parisian family and shows us the hypocrisy and unhappiness within. This time our protagonists are Adèle, a journalist, and her husband Richard, a successful surgeon. They have a son, Lucien, and spend Christmas holidays with Richard’s wealthy family in the country. It’s a superficially perfect existence; but there are cracks beneath the surface. Adèle, the beautiful, serene, accomplished wife, hides a dark secret: ever since she was a child, she has been a sex addict, compulsively seeking out sensual experiences with as many people as she can, using these moments to anchor herself against the great, vast meaninglessness of the world. Yet Adèle’s time is running out and, when she makes a pass at a colleague of Richard’s, her whole carefully-constructed world is about to collapse.

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The Swish of the Curtain: Pamela Brown

★★★★

The Blue Door: Book I

Pamela Brown was fourteen when she wrote this, her first novel, although it wasn’t published until 1941, when she was a venerable sixteen. It was the first of a series and became a beloved children’s classic, cited as a favourite by Maggie Smith and Eileen Atkins among others. And it’s no accident that it appeals particularly to actors, because the Blue Door series follows the fortunes of a very special theatre company, set up by a particularly ambitious and determined group of children. It all begins when a new family moves into the Corner House in Fenchester. Across the road, two sets of siblings keep a watchful eye out: Sandra Fayne and her little sister Maddy from one side of the fence; Lyn Darwin and her brother Jeremy from the other. Soon it transpires that there are no fewer than three new children at the Corner House. The stage is set – literally – for a wonderful summer adventure that promises to become something much, much bigger.

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Our Life in the Forest: Marie Darrieussecq

★★½

The future. Near? Distant? It’s hard to say. A woman writes in an old notebook in a forest, hurrying to get everything down. She’s cold, tired, falling to pieces. She and her companions are fugitives from the status quo and the government will find them, soon. They’ve done their best, but is that enough? What does it achieve? There isn’t much time but someone has to record the truth. And so this woman, formerly a psychologist, turns her gaze upon herself: her privileged position as one of the social elite, measured not by wealth or status but by the fact that she has a ‘half’, a clone, identical in all ways to herself, a second body kept in permanent sleep, yet always ready to replace any of her organs or body parts that malfunction. Hers is a story of gradual ethical awakening, of questioning, prompted by the arrival in her office one day of an unusual patient: the ‘clicker’. Darrieussecq’s novel is a curious beast: somewhat half-baked, somewhere along the line between sci-fi novel and ethical fable. It will inevitably be compared to Kashuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, but differs in one crucial aspect: a lack of heart.

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A Change of Time: Ida Jessen

★★★★½

You must forgive the recent erratic posting. Life has been getting in the way, with lectures and work trips flying at me from all directions, plus some very pleasant socialising. Besides, WordPress have just introduced a new editor which isn’t quite as intuitive as I’d like. But never mind. I’m bumbling on as best I can, and have just finished reading a really gorgeous little book: A Change of Time by the Danish author Ida Jessen. Through her diary, a widowed school-teacher in early 20th-century Denmark remembers her late husband and uses her loneliness as a spur to revisit her life and, slowly, anxiously, recover her sense of self. For once, cover and book coexist beautifully: Jessen’s novel is like a Hammershøi in prose: a haunting, timeless, intimate exploration of loss, rendered by the translator Martin Aitken into elegantly spare English. Although the book won’t be published until March, I just had to write about it now, before the feeling of it fades; and it’s deeply suited to these long, dark winter evenings. A little jewel.

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The Pumilio Child: Judy McInerney

★★

Over the past year, while working on Mantegna, I’ve often though it a shame that there aren’t more novels about him. He had the kind of life that cries out for fiction and so, when I stumbled across this novel on Netgalley, I couldn’t resist. But I didn’t get on with it terribly well. It isn’t just that I found it hard to engage with it as a piece of historical fiction – though I did – but I found myself growing increasingly frustrated by the numerous errors, which could have been avoided by a ten-second check on Wikipedia. Perhaps this warrants a discussion about the purpose of historical fiction. We can get into that later, because (you won’t be surprised to hear) I have strong opinions about it. Perhaps it also warrants a discussion about whether you should read novels set in your specialist historical period. But the most remarkable thing is that I’ve actually ended up feeling sorry for Mantegna who, while one of the most unpleasant, litigious and self-conscious artists in history, does not deserve this. I should warn you that this is a long one and there is much ranting. I’d suggest you make a cup of tea first.

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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 Bird King: G. Willow Wilson

★★★½

By 1492, the great empire of Al-Andalus has shrunk to a thin strip of land along the bottom of the Iberian peninsula, harried by the forces of the Christian kings Ferdinand and Isabella. Yet, within the harem of the palace in Granada, life keeps its languid pace. While siege closes in on the city outside, the women continue their petty rivalries, their music and their poetry, under the sharp eye of the Lady Aisha, the Sultan’s mother. The concubine Fatima – sharp, irreverent, and beautiful – diverts herself with secret visits to her childhood friend Hassan, the Sultan’s mapmaker, who is gifted with an extraordinary ability to invent doors where there were none before. As their world crumbles, these two dreamers realise that the only life they’ve known is on the verge of becoming a nightmare; and that sometimes safety lies beyond the reach of any map.

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Through Darkest Europe: Harry Turtledove

★★★

The civilised world has been rocked by a sudden surge of terrorism. Extremism has proliferated even in the countries in the shores of the Mediterranean, which are meant to be that bit more sophisticated than their hinterlands. Suicide bombers spread terror in the streets of previously buzzing cities. Ashen-faced religious leaders condemn horrific acts committed in the name of their faith. Sound familiar? But this isn’t the world as we know it. Harry Turtledove takes us into an alternate reality in which Islam, not Christianity, became the dominant religion of the world in the medieval period. Now, progressive, modern and comfortable Muslim nations look warily at their Christian neighbours, and two brilliant investigators are dispatched to the dangerous streets of Italy in an effort to nip the terrorist threat of the Aquinists in the bud.

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The Western Wind: Samantha Harvey

★★★

It’s the beginning of Lent in the isolated Somerset village of Oakham, some time in the late fifteenth century. As the villagers prepare for their forty days of penance, a dead man is seen in the river. By the time rescuers come to help, the body has been swept away, but a fragment of clothing confirms its identity: Tom Newman, a prosperous, curious dreamer, and one of the few villagers to have ventured beyond the parish boundaries. The rains have been falling heavily and the riverbanks are thick with mud. He could have slipped in. But the question remains: was it misadventure or murder? As the small community huddles under bleak skies and heavy rains, the priest John Reve struggles to comprehend the mystery, dogged by the interference of the visiting dean, weighed down by the confessions of his parishioners, and troubled by the way that Newman’s death threatens to pull apart a whole network of secrets, doubts and obligations that bolster Oakham against the outside world.

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