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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Anna: Niccolò Ammaniti

★★★½

One thing’s for sure: Niccolò Ammaniti really doesn’t do upbeat. I remember seeing the film Non ho paura, based on his novel, when I was in Sixth Form and I found it unsettling, powerful and profoundly bleak. The same could be said of this atmospheric novel, set in 2020, which explores a world in which adults have been eradicated by a virus and children are left to fend for themselves. There is more than a hint of Lord of the Flies here, but Ammaniti is interested not so much in the innate savagery of children, as in the power of hope to push us onward, through unimaginable horrors.

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The Etruscan: Mika Waltari

★★

Mika Waltari was recommended to me some months ago, particularly for his novel The Egyptian. As he is both out of print and formidably hard to track down second-hand, I had to let Fate lead my steps instead. Last week I found another of Waltari’s novels, The Etruscan, in a first edition paperback from 1959 at the South Bank book market. I just couldn’t resist the cover and so decided that it was time to give him a go.

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Homer’s Daughter: Robert Graves

★★½

I discovered this on my last trip to the library and, in the thrill of finding a novel by Graves that I’d never even heard of, remembered a poem by Jo Walton which I’d read some months ago. There are few sensations to compare with suddenly finding a previously unknown book by an author you’re fond of. Like many people, I’ve read I, Claudius and Claudius the God, but I hadn’t realised that Graves had written any other fiction about the classical period.

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Tyrant: Valerio Massimo Manfredi

★★

Enthusiastically recommended by our guide on holiday, this is one of only a handful of historical novels set in Sicily. I eagerly sought it out on my return, hoping to fill the gaps in my knowledge. Before our trip I’d scarcely heard of Dionysius the Elder or of Syracuse’s dominance of the Greek cities in Sicily, which proves that I need to reread Tom Holt’s Walled Orchard and Mary Renault’s Mask of Apollo, both of which touched on this period.

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The Land of the Leopard (Sicily)

 Trinacria, Sicily

This is going to be a long one, because I’m bubbling over with enthusiasm. I’ve just returned from a marvellous week in Sicily with my parents, who had very kindly taken pity on me and invited me to join them on Voyages Jules Verne’s ‘Treasures of Sicily’ tour. This post therefore has two parts: the first focuses on Sicily itself and the places we visited, while the second part focuses on my experience of travelling with an organised group.

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