Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls review – teenage kicks


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Bored 16-year-old Charlie becomes a reluctant Shakespearean actor in this funny, affectionate exploration of first love from the writer of One Day

When David Nicholls decided to call time on his acting career, theatre’s loss was popular fiction’s gain. By his own admission, Nicholls was never more than a bit-part player – he once stated that “in eight years of professional endeavour I only ever played two human beings with a name”. Yet a lingering sense of thwarted theatrical ambition is never far from the surface of his fiction.

It was most keenly felt in his second novel, The Understudy, which drew on personal experience of long evenings in attic dressing rooms hoping that the star might literally break a leg. Emma Morley, the female protagonist of Nicholls’s breakthrough romantic comedy One Day, had an excruciating dalliance with a radical theatre co-operative, traipsing around Midlands youth centres in ...

This Green and Pleasant Land by Ayisha Malik review – a modern comedy of manners


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What happens when a Muslim man is tasked with establishing a mosque in his sleepy English village?

Ayisha Malik’s hapless, hijab-wearing girl-about-town Sofia Khan was one of the most engaging, cliche-busting comic creations of recent years. As the protagonist of two books inspired by Malik’s adventures on the British Muslim singles scene, Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged and The Other Half of Happiness, Khan’s monologues combined Bridget Jones-ish expostulations – “Oh my actual God. There’s a man in my bed!” – with a dry turn of phrase that suggested covering one’s head can be a fashion as well as a religious statement. “Some people like shopping, some people like therapy, I happen to like praying.”

Malik’s first non-Sofia novel takes place in a fictional south coast village named Babbel’s End, where the Muslim population numbers precisely three: mild-mannered accountant Bilal Hasham, his local journalist wife, Mariam, and ...

Plume by Will Wiles review – where satire meets surrealism


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A mysterious column of smoke fills the London sky, in this stylish and funny tale about a journalist on the rocks

As Will Wiles demonstrated in his first novel, 2012’s Care of Wooden Floors, a stain is never just a stain. That novel was a Kafkaesque farce, set in an unnamed post-Soviet principality in which an accidental wine-spill provoked a full-blown existential crisis. The narrator of Wiles’s third novel appears no less neurotic and persecuted; though in this case it is a mysterious column of smoke that seems to be following him around.

Jack Bick, a feature writer for an east London-based lifestyle magazine, finds himself staring idly out of the window during an editorial meeting when he notices a mysterious new landmark has appeared: “A column of black smoke arose from the ill-defined, low-rise muddle of the horizon city. Further out than the skyscrapers on the Isle of ...

You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr review – a poignant debut novel


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Twin narratives of internment during the second Boer war and a 21st–century training camp, from the author of the memoir Maggie and Me

Damian Barr’s memoir of growing up as a gay teenager in the 1980s, Maggie and Me, featured the striking image of a place where the sun seemed to set twice. Raised near Motherwell in Scotland, in the shadow of the Ravenscraig steelworks, Barr recalled how the sluicing of the furnaces each evening would send a “bigger, brighter, cleaner light” through the “porridge-coloured curtains” of his council home.

For his debut novel, Barr has chosen a location where the sun barely sets at all. The first part takes the form of a diary written by Sarah van der Watt, the wife of a Boer farmer living in the Orange Free State at the turn of the 20th century. Though she has never left the veldt, Sarah’s head ...

In the Full Light of the Sun by Clare Clark review – art and scandal


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Masterpieces one moment, worthless the next – a hoard of ‘Van Goghs’ are at the centre of an irresistible story set in 1920s Berlin

Vincent van Gogh turned a revolver on himself on 27 July 1890, but apparently not even death could halt his output. As more and more works of doubtful authenticity began to infiltrate the market, the German satirist and critic Alfred Kerr wrote: “The dead Vincent keeps painting and painting.”

Kerr was responding to a scandal that shook the German art world in 1932 when a young art dealer named Otto Wacker was sentenced to 19 months in prison for selling faked Van Goghs. A leading authority declared 33 of the Wacker paintings to be forgeries; then brazenly changed his testimony on the witness stand, apparently under pressure from collectors and other interested parties. The most notorious of the Wacker hoard, a self-portrait purchased by ...

When All Is Said by Anne Griffin review – a confident, compassionate debut


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Five monologues from an elderly man at a bar looking back on his life are linked by the presence of a stolen coin

The Edward VIII gold sovereign has legendary status among coin enthusiasts for two reasons. Firstly, the infamously vain king broke with protocol by refusing to be depicted facing towards the right, believing his left to be his better side. Then due to his abdication, the coin never actually entered into circulation, becoming known as “the coinage that never was”. In 2014 an Edward VIII sovereign broke records for a British coin, selling at auction for £516,000.

It is not clear how many of these sovereigns were actually minted, though one of them – of rather shady provenance – turns up in Anne Griffin’s impressively confident debut novel, in the unlikely environs of a dairy farm in the Irish village of Rainsford, County Meath. Reputedly won in a ...

Varina by Charles Frazier review – clear-sighted view of a divided America


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The Cold Mountain author has returned to the civil war for this novel of flight and separation

In February 1911, at a whites-only ceremony in New Orleans, the Jefferson Davis monument was erected to mark 50 years since the inauguration of the first and only man to hold the office of president of the Confederate States. Schoolchildren dressed in red, white and blue sang “Dixie” and were choreographed into a living Confederate flag. On 11 May 2017, under cover of darkness, the statue was taken down.

If historical fiction seeks to to shed light on the present, now is the time for Charles Frazier to return to the civil war period that provided the background for his million-selling debut, Cold Mountain. As statues of Davis and other Confederate leaders come down across the south, Frazier has chosen to focus on the president’s second wife, Varina Howell: bluestocking, opium addict, friend ...

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


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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


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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


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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


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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


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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


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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’


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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


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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


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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


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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


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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


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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’


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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, ...