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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Secret Passages in a Hillside Town: Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

★★★

Olli Suominen, an absent-minded publisher, lives in Jyväskylä in Central Finland, where he spends his days trying to find new authors for his firm, serving on the parish council, and losing umbrellas. His marriage is losing its sparkle and, when an old flame erupts onto the Finnish literary scene with a compelling new self-help guide, Olli finds himself being dragged back into memories of childhood summers, when he was a member of a band of children based on Enid Blyton’s Famous Five. But the blissful adventure of those summers hides darker memories of torment, transformation and loss, all mixed up with the secret passages that run below this unassuming hill town. I sometimes got the feeling that Jääskeläinen was trying to do too much at once, but it’s certainly a unique novel with its own peculiar flavour.

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The Beautiful Bureaucrat: Helen Phillips

★★★

Helen Phillips’s novel is a curious blend of existentialist thriller, dystopian sci-fi and morality fable, which nevertheless has its roots firmly in the present. Our protagonists, Josephine and Joseph, are a newly-married couple suffering all the problems of modern youth: a sluggish job market; debts; a lack of self-confidence; and a life that seems to be on hold. Desperate to take charge of things, they move into a series of squalid sublets while they hunt for work. And yet, when they do both find jobs, something begins to prey on Josephine’s mind. Something, in this long, hot summer, just isn’t quite right.

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The Willow King: Meelis Friedenthal

★★★½

The Birds of the Muses

Originally published in Estonian as Mesilased (The Bees), this novel was awarded the 2013 European Union Prize for Literature and is now presented in an English translation by Matthew Hyde. Dense and allusive, it evokes the philosophical world of the late 17th century through the story of Laurentius Hylas, a young student who comes to study at the university of Dorpat (modern Tartu). I can’t say that I enjoyed the book, which is intellectually rigorous and unrelentingly bleak – but I did appreciate Friedenthal’s ability to capture the contradictions of the early modern mind.

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The Hideout: Egon Hostovský

★★★½

A man writes a long overdue letter to his distant wife, from the cellar where he has been hiding in Normandy since the invasion of France by the Nazis. It is a confession, an affirmation and a form of self-analysis. The narrator is by turns ridiculous and profound, confined in his hiding place while war rages above: forced, while great events unfold unseen outside, to retread the well-worn paths of his own memories. Yet, in coming to understand his past, he has more sense of purpose in the present and, finally, begins to see the shape that his own future must take.

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Slow Boat: Hideo Furukawa

★★★

A Slow Boat to China Rmx

This new Japanese novella, published by Pushkin Press in a translation by David Boyd, is an odd beast. I asked to review it as part of my mission to read more from other cultures and because I’ve been generally impressed with the Japanese fiction I have read. The tale of a man wandering in Tokyo on Christmas Eve 2002, pondering the boundaries of the city, the body and the self, it’s a curiously hallucinogenic mix.

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The Last Bell: Johannes Urzidil

★★★★

Johannes Urzidil was one of the most celebrated Czech writers of the 20th century. Although he spent his last twenty years as an emigre in the United States, he never made the switch to writing in English. His works continued to be published in Europe in German (one of his two mother tongues) and his works were infused with the sensibility of his homeland. Despite his importance in European literature, his works have only rarely been translated into English. Pushkin Press have rectified this omission with a collection of Urzidil’s short stories, none of which have formerly been published in English, and translated now by David Burnett. Lively, moving and gently absurd, these stories focus on outsiders, people whose encounters with ordinary life and emotions leave them thwarted and unmasked as precisely the strange creatures that they are.

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Messages from a Lost World: Stefan Zweig

★★★★ ½

Europe on the Brink

Everyone has been talking about echo chambers recently. Those of us cosily insulated in our liberal-metropolitan-elite ivory towers, with our European friends and our Guardian diet, have had quite a wake-up call this year. We were lulled by our Facebook and Twitter feeds, which reflected back our own views ad infinitum, until it seemed inconceivable that anyone else could think differently. Now we find ourselves in a situation where we have to justify or, worse, defend our longing for a community greater than ourselves. In light of all this, Pushkin Press’s publication of Stefan Zweig’s essays is nothing short of inspired. Written a hundred years ago, these short pieces are charged with the despair of a generation which weathered two cataclysmic wars. They are terrifyingly relevant today. Simple, powerful and unapologetically intelligent, they’re absolutely vital reading as we wait in the shadow of Brexit. Unfortunately those who most need to read them are precisely those who won’t.

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The Evenings: Gerard Reve

★★

The Evenings caught my eye because it was described as the great postwar Dutch classic, following a young man on his meanderings through the night-time streets of Amsterdam. As some of you may remember, I spent some time working out of Amsterdam a couple of years ago, and grew rather fond of the city’s laid-back spirit, so I thought I’d give the book a go. The result – and I beg my Dutch friends to forgive me – is bemusement. It turns out that one man’s classic is another man’s bafflement, and perhaps the translation is to blame, for I found little to enjoy in this unremittingly bleak tale of youthful stagnation.

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The Brethren: Robert Merle

Fortunes of France: Book I

First published in 1977, The Brethren was followed by a whole series of novels which trace the fortunes of the de Siorac family in late 16th-century France. The French editions have been tremendously successful and Pushkin published this English translation of the first volume earlier this summer. I was delighted to be invited to review it, partly because it was compared to Dumas and Dunnett, but primarily because the blurb included the word ‘swashbuckling’ and that was too much to resist. There hasn’t been enough swashbuckling around here recently. This must be rectified.

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