Quite literally, actually. Deborah Harkness’ bestselling All Souls Trilogy started with A Discovery of Witches in 2011, before moving onto Shadow of Night the year after and finally coming to a satisfying conclusion with The Book of Life, finally released this month to an impatient readership. I was fortunate enough to be part of the London pre-launch event for the book, which served as a very timely reminder as to why I had enjoyed the first two books in this series so much and why I was so lucky to get an advance review copy (signed by Deborah to boot). For those of you new to this superior supernatural fantasy, let me bring you up to speed.
The Extraordinary Journey of The Fakir who got Trapped in an IKEA Wardrobe by Romain Puertolas is one of those books whose title makes it a little hard to ignore. It’s an interesting technique to intrigue the potential reader with a title that seems to almost tell the story itself and I’m reminded by such classics as Salmon Fishing in the Yemen or ‘A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian’.
Romain Puertolas is a French writer and this book has already been a hit in his home country. His translator – Sam Taylor – has done an amazing job to take such a bizarre book with its many complex puns and jokes, and translate it into something digestible by an English speaking readership. Knowing a little about the reliance of French humourists on bad puns and word play, I’m impressed that Taylor has captured the spirit of that humour without forcing it on us too much.
Set in a once prosperous city now in decline, with work becoming scarce and taxes rising to fund wars abroad, Karen Maitland’s novel The Vanishing Witch could be seen as something of a metaphor for our own times. Lincoln was once a mighty centre for the mightier English wool trade, but with the industry moving elsewhere, only a few merchants remain and numerous rivermen try to eke out a living transporting what shipments remain around the local waterways. England is in turmoil from the King’s ceaseless wars in France and Scotland, and he wants ever more from his subjects to pay for his armies and campaigns. As 1380 moves into 1381, tensions increase, tempers fray and the prospect of a long, hot summer brings about turmoil and the breakdown of social order.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: LIfe, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum by American writer Katherine Boo is a remarkable book that reads like the best of fiction despite being founded in fact. I read it the whole way through without realising that it wasn’t fiction which is probably testimony to the page-turning quality of her writing. I’ve not seen a non-fiction book about India quite so astonishing, amazing and insightful since Dominique Lapierre and Javier Moro’s ‘Five Past Midnight in Bhopal’. Bearing in mind that the latter is one of the best books I’ve ever read, then you can take it that I’m seriously impressed by Behind the Beautiful Forevers.
We start with a death. It’s July 17th, 2008, and in a small hut in Annawadi slum on the periphery of Mumbai’s International Airport, a spiteful woman’s plan to upset her neighbours goes badly wrong.
This book by the Austrian born British author was published in 2001 and was since reissued with a foreword by Michael Mopurgo. ‘River Sea’ is the name the Indians who live in Brazil give to the broad Amazon and the book tells the story of the orphan Maia who sets out with her governess to find shelter with relatives who live in Brazil. Maia is very hopeful that they will be nice but, like many of Ibbotson’s adopted families, they turn out to be sadistic and in it only for the money. They also hate the rain forest and stay indoors with a tin of Flit, swatting any kind of insect life that comes their way.
Working on the website for the small publishing house Bell Books is hardly an exciting life. Even so, since it is Cate’s first job after graduating Dublin’s Trinity College, there is no reason for her to balk about it. She has her college friends and her choir – Carmina Urbana – to keep her busy and entertained after a boring day at work. Then Eddie MacDevitt’s memoire manuscript comes in, and strange things begin to happen. Her boss is hiding the book from everyone, there’s that dark car Cate keeps seeing, that new British tenor in the choir who is so secretive, and even her family are being unusually guarded. Surely, the meanderings of some ex-activist (who knew her uncle, and her boss, back in the day) can’t be all that hush-hush, even if there are still people who want him dead. This is The Living by Léan Cullinan.
Living With It is a fabulous new novel from Lizzie Enfield. It is an immensely readable book that will involve the reader from the very first page. Alternating between two narrators, Isobel and Ben, it tells the story of the consequence of a decision made long ago and the devastating effect it has on all the characters in this wonderful story.
When 15 year old Gabriella was a baby, her mother, Isobel, made the decision not to give her the MMR vaccination. There had been a great deal of adverse publicity about the vaccination and Isobel had decided it was not worth the risk to her daughter and later on for her two sons that followed. It was something that she did not give much thought to in the subsequent years.
“I should start at the beginning.”
“You should start with the basics.” The clerk settles back on his stool, crosses his arms. “What’s your name, friend?”
“Oh. Yes, of course. My name is Ajax Penumbra.”
For those of you who read Robin Sloan’s endearing debut novel Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore, you will have read a wonderful story but also a story that left you with several burning questions. How did a narrow bookstore with such impossibly high shelves come about? How did Mr Penumbra come to run such an establishment? And indeed, how do you get a name like Ajax Penumbra? These questions must have been put to Sloan on a great many occasions, because now he has seen fit to release a short prequel: Ajax Penumbra 1969.
San Francisco at the height of a heat wave with small pox raging. In the middle of that two women caught in a crossfire that leads to murder, Blanche and Jenny. Both are French, though Blanche doesn’t know it and Jenny is a transgendered kind of figure on a bicycle encountered in a crash. Blanche earns her living from dancing in a musical hall cum brothel and her fancy man Arthur and his friend Earnest earn their livings off her. Blanche also has a baby that she rescues from a Dickensian London circumstances in a storm of indignation.
The book actually begins with violent death the way most murder mysteries do. Jenny is shot full of buckshot through a window at night and the pellets skim Blanche’s cheek because she happens to bend over.
Tamar Cohen’s latest book, The Broken, is brilliant. It is the sort of compelling reading that is so difficult to put down and I guarantee it will have you on the edge of your seat as you are reading it. It is a book that you are unlikely to forget in a hurry! So what is it all about?
Josh and Hannah have been best friends with Dan and Sasha ever since their daughters, Lily and September were born four years before. The couples were pretty much inseparable, always round at each other’s houses, taking the girls out or sharing a pint together. Josh and Hannah would never have guessed that there was anything wrong in their friends’ perfect world which is why when, completely out of the blue, Dan announces he is leaving Sasha, they don’t know how to react.
When Lottie Pye died at the age of 108 she left her whole collection of thousands of photographs to her son James, who she hadn’t seen in almost 80 years. When James happens upon Jenny Jones, a University student studying photography, he decides to let her go through them and catalog them, never realizing that this could finally be a way to get to know both his mother, and himself. This is Jane Davis’ novel I Stopped Time.
I just adore strong female characters, especially those who find their own paths, even if that causes them problems. Lottie Pye is just that type of character – a woman ahead of her time, unwilling to be confined by the dictates of society, even if that causes problems for her or others.
The opening chapter of Katherine Clements’ debut novel, The Crimson Ribbon, packs a powerful punch. Opening in the Fenland town of Ely on May Day 1646, we meet two women desperately battling to help a third in childbirth. The child is born severely malformed, and the mother’s instinctive reaction is to accuse the two midwives – Annie Flowers and her teenage daughter Ruth – of witchcraft and devilry. She runs to get her husband from the inn; Annie and Ruth follow to try and stem the accusations. Another woman overhears what has happened and takes her opportunity to support the claim of witchcraft against Annie, as Annie’s remedies and charms failed to revive her seriously ill husband the year before. An angry mob is soon formed, fuelled by the drinking the holiday has encouraged.