Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak review – Death steals the show again

Five boys alone in a house seek redemption through construction in the long-awaited follow-up to The Book Thief

It takes courage, not to mention a macabre twist of the imagination, to conceive a novel for young adults narrated by Death. Markus Zusak’s 2005 The Book Thief, the story of a young German girl whose family give shelter to a Jewish refugee during the second world war, became an international bestseller. Yet the most arresting aspect of the novel was the first-person perspective of the Grim Reaper, who turned out not to be particularly grim at all, but rather sardonic, personable and remarkably funny.

Death was always going to be a difficult act to follow; and Zusak has laboured for more than a decade on his subsequent work. At almost 600 pages it shares The Book Thief’s epic weight, but is the first of his novels to be promoted ...

Take Nothing With You by Patrick Gale review – a young musician’s coming of age

An evocative exploration of the joy and pain playing an instrument can bring that echoes the author’s musical youth

Eustace, a London property developer in his early 50s, has been locked in a lead-lined room. In order to combat thyroid cancer, he must ingest a radioactive iodine tablet and spend 24 hours in isolation sweating out the effects. He has been instructed to take nothing into the radiation suite that cannot be left behind. To stave off boredom he has brought with him a cheap, disposable MP3 player loaded with cello music.

Patrick Gale’s novel is as elegiac and contemplative as one might expect, given a central character who has nothing to do except sit and listen to cello sonatas. Had he not become a writer, Gale might have been a musician. As a promising youngster he was selected to attend courses at the International Cello Centre, a residential school in the ...

Hold by Michael Donkor review – a debut with quiet dignity

Shuttling between Ghana and south London, this is a tenderly observed study of friendship, family and coming of age

One of the most poignant depictions of the grieving process is to be found in a fragment composed by the American poet Jack Gilbert in 1994. The 13-line prose-poem, “Michiko Dead”, describes the stoic juggling act of a man who “manages like somebody carrying a box that is too heavy”. First he clutches the load until his arms go numb, before transferring the weight to one shoulder and finally shifting back to the original position “so that he can go on without ever putting the box down”.

You may wonder what the elliptical lament of an obscure American beat writer has to do with a novel that shuttles between the southern Ghanaian city of Kumasi and the west African communities of Brixton, south London, in 2002. But Michael Donkor’s ...

The Paper Lovers by Gerard Woodward review – lust and sacred love in suburbia

A poet academic finds religion after embarking on an adulterous affair in this closely observed fable of obsession and redemption

Gerard Woodward’s two most recent novels, Nourishment and Vanishing, were both exuberant, loose‑limbed second world war narratives involving lugubrious characters and outrageous turns of events. Nothing, it seemed, could be too outre; be it cannibalism, self-immolation or a hapless scheme to steal a parcel of turf from Buckingham Palace’s lawn.

The Paper Lovers returns to the present day and imposes an entirely new form of restraint, being set in an unnamed southern English city that seems “ordinary in every way except for the fact that it happened to have one of the world’s finest gothic cathedrals in the middle of it”. That might equally serve as a description of the book itself, which goes out of its way to appear almost unremarkably suburban and domestic, yet has a huge ...

Let Go My Hand by Edward Docx review – on the bumpy road to Dignitas

The sense of an ending hangs over this humorous, compassionate novel about a fractious family taking a last road trip together It takes chutzpah to argue with Tolstoy but, four novels into his career, Edward Docx has mustered sufficient confidence to take issue with the master. “I’m not sure Tolstoy had it right. All families, happy or sad, conceal a great deal of dark matter. Something greater than the known physics or chemistry, something that must create the dark energy that holds them together or pushes them apart.” Docx has earned the right to his opinion: his 2007 Man Booker long-listed novel Self Help was a dark-hearted family drama partly set in St Petersburg that deliberately courted comparison with 19th-century Russian epics. In that book, a pair of half-Russian twins were summoned home to deal with the unexpected death of their mother. Let Go My Hand features a part-Russian ...

The Explosion Chronicles by Yan Lianke review – boomtime in rural China

With keen irony and references to real-life events, Yan’s mock-dynastic history documents the extraordinary development of a village in Henan provinceIn February 2013, hundreds of dead pigs were found floating down China’s Huangpu River. The scandal of Shanghai’s contaminated water supplies made international headlines, though the absurdist nature of the incident seemed so impossibly bizarre it left writers of fiction struggling to keep up. As Yan Lianke observes in the afterword to his novel: “Contemporary China is currently hurtling past a series of economic and developmental milestones that took Europe over two centuries to achieve ... Incidents that appear at first glance utterly illogical and unreal have become increasingly common.” The river of pigs is referred to in the epic sweep of this mock-dynastic history, which documents the extraordinary development of the town of Explosion from an insignificant village in Henan province to a populous, economic powerhouse in under 50 years. ...

Darke by Rick Gekoski review – ‘passing the dying days’

This late-life debut charts the passions of a curmudgeonly bibliophile as he reconnects with his football fan grandsonA couple of years ago the broadcaster, rare book dealer and sometime Guardian blogger Rick Gekoski announced in these pages that he was giving up on a magnum opus about the history of the book and, at the age of 70, was “surprised to find himself writing a novel”. What is maybe less surprising is that the result should be the sum total of a lifetime spent rooting though library stacks and whiling away the time between lots in Sotheby’s cafe (avoid the lobster salad seems to be the message). Neither is it entirely unexpected to discover that Gekoski’s first-person mouthpiece, James Darke, should turn out to be a reclusive bibliophile who has difficulty pushing things to a conclusion. Barricaded in his study among his beloved first editions, he refuses to go out or correspond with anybody, including his daughter, ...

Christmas Days by Jeanette Winterson review – cruelty, comfort and joy

Difficult childhood memories transmute into forgiveness in a mix of seasonal stories, recipes, animal fables and fairytalesIn her 2011 memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, Jeanette Winterson recalled: “Most kids grow up leaving something out for Santa Claus at Christmas time … I used to make presents for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” That memoir was the hilarious, if harrowing, account of Winterson’s attempt to escape the tyranny of her adoptive mother, a manic depressive who kept a revolver in her duster drawer, believed the activity of mice to be evidence of ectoplasm and built a short-wave radio to beam Pentecostal messages to the unconverted. She seemingly thought nothing of shutting her daughter in the coalhole overnight. Yet despite her dour outlook, Mrs Winterson loved Christmas. “It was the one time of the year she went out into the world looking as if the world was ...

This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell review – an audacious account of marital breakdown

A former film star withdraws from the world in this latest novel from a compelling chronicler of relationshipsMaggie O’Farrell manoeuvres her characters with a conjuror’s sleight of hand: now you see them, now you don’t. It’s a feat that first became apparent in The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, in which a woman assumed responsibility for an unheard-of aunt who had spent 60 years in a psychiatric hospital. Her most recent novel, Instructions for a Heatwave, followed a similar pattern: a retired man nips out for a newspaper and never comes back, until his family finally trace him to a convent in rural Ireland. This Must Be The Place pulls off the biggest disappearing act of all, as the woman who vanishes is supposed to be internationally famous. Claudette Wells is, or was, the wife and muse of a temperamental Swedish film-maker. She is famed for her protean screen quality and sharp intelligence, though ...

Freya by Anthony Quinn review – swimming against the tide in Fleet Street

The fortunes and friendship of two aspiring female writers who meet in 1945, in an unexpected sequel to Curtain Call Freya Wyley first appears not in this eponymous novel, but a third of the way through the one that preceded it. Anthony Quinn’s Curtain Call, a literary and theatrical whodunnit set in London between the wars, featured a jaded society portrait painter named Stephen Wyley whose “terrifyingly serious and self-contained daughter”, Freya, was already by the age of 12 a force to be reckoned with: “Stephen watched his daughter and felt a desperate squeeze on his heart. She was somewhat mysterious to him … Who was this dark-eyed sprite he had created?” The answer is to be found in the present novel – though, oddly, given that several significant characters from Curtain Call recur, the associated blurb makes no mention of a sequel. To give a quick resume, it is ...

Jonathan Unleashed by Meg Rosoff review – an exuberant adult fiction debut

In the first book for grownups from the author of How I Live Now, an unhappy adman needs life advice from his canine companionsMeg Rosoff writes peerlessly well for teenagers and young adults. She also writes brilliantly about dogs. Her debut, How I Live Now, showed the desirability of a capable border collie in the event of a dystopian breakdown of society. Mila, the 12-year-old at the heart of Rosoff’s most recent novel, Picture Me Gone, reckons she may have inherited the soul of a terrier. She is also deeply attached to a golden labrador that she describes as “a watcher, like me. Her eyes have a sadness that is almost human.” (And though the theological satire There Is No Dog was true to its word, the adolescent boy revealed as being responsible for creating the universe did have a loyal lemur-like thing called Eck.) Continue reading...









The Automobile Club of Egypt by Alaa al-Aswany review – a country on the brink of violent change

The Arab world’s bestselling author is currently being silenced by his country’s authorities, so this translation could hardly be more urgent In the days before Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February 2011, Alaa al-Aswany, dentist, novelist and founder member of the democratic movement Kefaya (“Enough”), was one of the most influential voices of the leaderless revolution. His 2002 debut novel, The Yacoubian Building, sold more than a million copies, laying bare the political corruption, degrading poverty and rising religious fervour that drove thousands to occupy Tahrir Square. Since then, Egypt has experienced the military overthrow of its first democratically elected leader; the massacre of the deposed president’s Muslim supporters; and the rise of a new regime under Abdel Fatah al‑Sisi, which Aswany claims to have brought “freedom of expression to its lowest point, worse than the days of Mubarak”. Now Aswany’s criticism of the government has become ...

The Clasp by Sloane Crosley review – an entertaining homage to Maupassant’

This shaggy dog story from the American essayist glitters with wit and wisdom, but ultimately relies on its inspiration, ‘The Necklace’, to provide insight

Guy de Maupassant’s short story “The Necklace” features one of his most eloquent twists. An aspiring socialite borrows but mislays a precious diamond necklace and is reduced to penury by attempting to replace it. Only when she makes full restitution does she discover that the piece was a fake. The story has attracted plenty of admirers: Henry James reversed the premise for a tribute entitled “Paste”, in which presumed counterfeit gems are revealed to be genuine. Somerset Maugham based at least two stories, “Mr Know-All” and “A String of Beads”, on Maupassant’s model. Now, New York writer Sloane Crosley has created an exuberant homage of her own.

Crosley’s reputation rests on two collections of essays, How Did You Get This Number and I Was Told There’d Be Cake, ...

Bream Gives Me Hiccups & Other Stories by Jesse Eisenberg review –

The Hollywood star’s debut collection is satirical, compassionate – and full of shrinks

Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network transformed him from an interesting, oddball indie actor into the world’s most eligible geek. He is now set to play Lex Luthor in the forthcoming blockbuster Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. But his first collection of short fiction suggests that, when not being cast as ruthless megalomaniacs, he is an acutely anxious, deeply insecure New York homebody and a potential successor to Woody Allen’s troubled crown.

As a reluctant celebrity who admits to visiting two therapists every week, Eisenberg is clearly discerning about his neuroses. The book is full of shrinks and analysts, including a marriage-guidance counsellor’s contribution to a basketball game: “Let’s go Knicks!!! But let’s also recognise the positive attributes of the opposing team!!!” It is a theme further pursued in a piece first published in ...

My Sunshine Away review by MO Walsh – an intense and unsettling debut

A dark story of teenage obsession, guilt and lost innocence in sleepy Louisiana

Walsh’s debut, written from the perspective of a narrator in his 30s remembering his suburban upbringing, reads at once like a homage to and an apology for the mediocrity of his hometown: “When compared to the national averages, Baton Rouge normally ranks around 37th in the top 100 metropolitan areas of America, no matter what you’re measuring. However, we always score well in odd polls. We’re off the chart in mysterious categories like ‘enjoys their neighbours’, ‘had a good weekend’ and ‘hopes their children will stay close’.”

The event that destroys this sleepy idyll occurs on a sweltering summer evening in 1989 when a popular 14-year-old named Lindy Simpson is thrown from her bicycle and raped only yards from her home. No one witnesses the attack and the perpetrator is never brought to justice. But suspicion ...

The House of Hidden Mothers by Meera Syal review – life, laughter and heartbreak

The dehumanising aspects of India’s tiger economy come to the fore in this tragicomic story of surrogate motherhood

Meera Syal may be one of the country’s most popular actors, screenwriters and comedians, but when it comes to fiction, she claims to have “one good idea every 10 years”. In fact, 16 have elapsed since her last novel, Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee, which followed on from her 1996 debut, Anita and Me.

That wonderfully candid coming-of‑age tale, inspired by Syal’s experience growing up as part of the only non-white family in a mining community near Wolverhampton, has since found its way on to school and university syllabuses, though she dismissed it at the time as “the embarrassing teenage novel that was always lurking in my knickers drawer”. Initial signs are that the new book may turn out to be the embarrassing menopausal novel lurking in her ...