American Midnight (2019): Laird Hunt

★★★★

Sunny afternoons in May might not be the most obvious time to read ghost stories, but Pushkin Press’s new collection of eerie American tales are enough to send a chill up the spine no matter what the time of year. Selected and edited by Laird Hunt, these classic stories span the 19th and 20th centuries, and their settings include barricaded castles; modest lodging houses; wooded roads; aesthetic Parisian apartments; forest glades; and supposedly comfortable country houses. The general trend is to unsettle rather than terrify, for which I was grateful, because my overactive imagination really doesn’t need any encouragement in the dark reaches of the night. Including works by Edgar Alan Poe, Edith Wharton, Mark Twain, Shirley Jackson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, this is likely to include a couple of tales you’re already familiar with, but will introduce you to at least a few new friends, ready to raise the goosebumps on your arms…

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The Mystery of Henri Pick (2016): David Foenkinos

★★★★

Imagine a library of rejected manuscripts, where failed books find a new home. Actually, it doesn’t take too much imagination, because such a place really does exist: the Brautigan Library in Vancouver, Washington, named after the author Richard Brautigan, who invented such a library in his novel The Abortion. In The Mystery of Henri Pick, the librarian Jean-Pierre Gourvec forms a similar collection in his small Breton town of Crozon. For decades, shelves of rejected stories slumber in the back of the town library until, some years after Gourvec’s death, something remarkable happens. Up-and-coming young editor Delphine Despero, at home on a visit to her parents, visits the library of rejected manuscripts with her author boyfriend. They discover a remarkable text – a masterpiece, signed by one Henri Pick. Snapped up by the publishing world, this book becomes a sensation, less for its content than for the romantic story of its creation. But how did the late Pick, a humble pizza chef with no discernable literary leanings, come to create such a beautiful novel? As Crozon adjusts to its new literary fame, the novel begins to affect the lives of those connected with it. And then a maverick journalist raises a controversial prospect. What if the novel isn’t really by Pick at all?

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The Inugami Curse (1951): Seishi Yokomizo

★★★½

Kosuke Kindaichi: Book 2

I really enjoyed my introduction to Kosuke Kindaichi in The Honjin Murders, and was keen to read more of his adventures. Enter The Inugami Curse, the second novel in the series to be translated by Pushkin Vertigo, which like the earlier book blends a highly readable mystery with insights into traditional Japanese culture. As the novel opens, Kindaichi arrives in the lakeside town of Nasu, north of Tokyo, after receiving a worrying letter from the lawyer Wakabayashi. The powerful businessman Sahei Inugami has recently died, sending shockwaves through the local community, for whom he was a figurehead. Everyone is breathlessly waiting for his will to be read, to reveal how his fortune will be divided. Each of Sahei’s three daughters waits, hawk-like, with their husbands and children in tow. But Wakabayashi has seen the will and knows it will have the power to rip the family apart in blood and fury. Kindaichi initially believes Wakabayashi’s predictions to be overblown, but when the lawyer is poisoned moments before their meeting, he realises someone in the Inugami clan will stop at nothing to secure Sahei’s fortune. And this, alas, is only the first of the murders…

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The Goldsmith and the Master Thief (1961): Tonke Dragt

★★★

You know when you buy a book and mean to read it, and keep meaning to read it, but never quite get round to it, and then it’s adapted for TV and you realise that you’ve missed the moment, and that now whenever you read it people will assume you’ve only read it because you’d seen it on Netflix? Yep. That’s happened to me with Tonke Dragt’s story The Letter for the King, so I was keen to get ahead with her novel The Goldsmith and the Master Thief. I should emphasise that this is a children’s story and it’s written as such: there are no winks or extra layers of meaning aimed at adults, just a good old-fashioned fable which follows the adventures of two very different (and yet very similar) brothers. Cynics need not apply: in this world, duplicity is always punished, the misguided mend their ways, and the pure of heart are always rewarded. Reading it feels like a deliciously self-indulgent step back in time, to the days when life was simpler.

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The Honjin Murders (1948): Seishi Yokomizo

★★★½

Kosuke Kindaichi: Book 1

Strange times. I can only hope that none of you or your loved ones have been directly affected by coronavirus, and I send virtual hugs out across the ether to all of you. I don’t intend to dwell on the present madness, though: I’m here, writing this, because I’d rather forget about it for a few minutes, and I hope you’re here for the same reason. Let’s go somewhere else together instead. Somewhere like provincial Japan in the late 1930s: a world still struggling to free itself from the legacies of feudal hierarchies, in which a shocking crime offers a brilliant young detective the chance to make his literary debut. I didn’t recognise Kosuke Kindaichi’s name, but he has a devoted following in Japan and appeared in a whole series of Yokomizo’s novels after this, his first appearance, in 1946. Unfortunately, The Honjin Murders (deftly translated by Louise Heal Kawai) is at present one of only two Kindaichi novels available in English; the other, The Inugami Curse, is also available from Pushkin Vertigo. Let’s hope that these two books are successful and encourage Pushkin to get the rest translated, because on the basis of The Honjin Murders they’re going to be mind-scrambling, very entertaining classic crime stories.

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Affections (2015): Rodrigo Hasbún

★★★

Desire to read more widely in 2020 brought me to this novel by the young Bolivian author Rodrigo Hasbún, published in a translation by Sophie Hughes by Pushkin Press. Family saga meets political history in this turbulent story of three German-Bolivian sisters, their complex relationship with their father, and their growth to maturity in the violent years of the 1960s and 1970s. My knowledge of South American history at this period is embarrassingly patchy, despite an early teenage flirtation with Che Guevara, and so I learned a great deal from Hasbún’s book in that respect (more, as it turned out, than I realised!). As a novel, however, it feels strangely restrained – told through vignettes, there is much left unsaid and it feels more like flicking through a family photo album than a real chance to get to know these three very different women.

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Maddy Alone (1945): Pamela Brown

★★★½

The Blue Door: Book II

In the wake of Mishima, I needed something totally different: something charming, cuddly and heartwarming. With relief, I turned to the second book in Pamela Brown’s Blue Door series (the first was The Swish of the Curtainwhich I reviewed some time ago), telling the story of a band of ambitious children who set up a theatre company in their small town of Fenchester. In this sequel, the older children have achieved their dreams and are now studying at stage school in London, but poor Maddy, the youngest, is only twelve years old and has been told she needs to stick with ordinary school for the time being. Pushed to her limits by the thought of all the fun the others are having, Maddy begins acting up; but soon she discovers a marvellous opportunity right on her doorstep, which will change her life once and for all.

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The Swish of the Curtain (1941): 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 (2010): 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 (2015): 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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