Newest Literary Fiction Reviews

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Make Something Up by Chuck Palahniuk

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What are we to make of that subtitle-seeming writing on the front cover – stories you can't unread? Does that not apply to all good fiction? Clearly it is here due to the reputation of the author, and the baggage his name brings to the page. We'd expect a dramatic approach from anything Palahniuk writes, and an added frisson, an extra layer, from which we might be forced to shrink back. But a lot of the contents don't quite go that far. Yes, things are dramatic, when society starts attaching defibrillators to itself, to create the perfect, simple, care- (The Price is Right-, and Kardashian-) free happiness. A man buys a horse for his daughter – but boy is it the wrong horse to buy. A man falls in love – yes, sometimes the plot summaries of these stories really are better off for being short (speaking of which, don't turn to the three-page entrant here as a taster, it'll put you off by dint of being, almost uniquely here, a nothing story). A call centre worker can't convince people he's on the level and even in their country – until someone starts riffing back to him. A housing estate report conveys bad regulation violations, but not as bad as the happenings at a 'Burning Man'-styled festival, in a very clever couple of tales. But many too are the instances where that extra step has been taken. Full review...

The Arrival of Missives by Aliya Whiteley

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In the aftermath of the Great War, Shirley Fearn dreams of challenging the conventions of rural England, where life is as unchanging as the seasons. The scarred veteran Mr Tiller, left disfigured by an impossible accident on the battlefields of France, brings with him a message: part prophecy, part warning. As Shirley's village prepares for the annual May Day celebrations, where a new queen will be crowned and the future reborn, she must choose between change and renewal – will the missives Mr Tiller brings prevent her mastering her identity? Full review...

Armadillos by P K Lynch

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Aggie is one of Texas' downtrodden. Dirt poor and abused. a 'sub' from a 'sub' familyHer father and brother enact that 'sub'-ness on her, week in, week out. She has only the vaguest notion that there is something wrong with the abuse she endures.. Full review...

The Birds by Tarjei Vesaas, Torbjorn Stoverud and Michael Barnes (translators)

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We're somewhere in rural Scandinavia, on the shores of a large lake, but in a community relying on the farmland that is scattered in amongst the woods. Our chief concerns are brother and sister – Mattis and Hege. He, Mattis, is what the other villagers call 'simple' – sure, he knows a few things about life, and what makes a clever person and what makes a well-turned phrase, and how to talk to girls and when to not stare at them, but he is definitely not quite as the others would wish. Those others include his sister, who is seeing her life waste away in listening to his chatter, knitting jumpers to make ends meet, and regretting in her own small way what has got her to middle-age in this situation. But from this galling introduction, you should take away the bigger picture – even if there is no way out, the life in this countryside is brilliantly conveyed, full of sun as well as shade, of labour and of idleness, and wit and charm as much as hardship. I defy you to read this and think this corner of Scandinavia bleak. Full review...

The Cauliflower® by Nicola Barker

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Nicola Barker teasingly refers to herself as this book's 'collagist', piecing together diverse documents to create a picture of Sri Ramakrishna (1836–1886), a largely illiterate guru who attracted followers to his intense worship of the goddess Kali. His life story is a sticky mass of contradictions: Full review...

God Help the Child by Toni Morrison

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A truly complex and emotionally raw portrayal, that seeks to cover issues of race, gender, and paedophilia. A slim volume, yes, but one that is powerful in its punch. Full review...

Out in the Open by Jesus Carrasco and Margaret Jull Costa (translator)

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Meet the boy. We never learn his name – in fact we learn very little in this book, such as where or when we are, and why. What we do know is that he has left home. We get the feeling his father is too handy with punishment, but that can't be the only reason for him first hiding out in an olive grove overnight, then fleeing across the plains surrounding his family's village. Especially as he's chosen one of the most awkward, attritional times to cross said plains – the land is in the middle of a horrendous drought. When he tries to steal his first provisions from an aged goatherd, however, he finds some light and liquid, but is this substitute father figure ever going to be enough to help the boy flee what he needs to? Full review...

Mutable Passions: Charlotte Bronte: A Disquieting Affair by Philip Dent

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As the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Brontë's birth approaches, it is a perfect time for reading about her. Philip Dent's second novel chooses a lesser known period of her life to dramatize. All her siblings are now dead; during a hard winter when she is unable to visit her best friend, Ellen Nussey, Charlotte spends her time finishing Villette, her final novel. The family servant, Tabby, ribs Charlotte about her romantic prospects – including Patrick Brontë's curate, Arthur Bell Nicholls. Charlotte responds with indignation: 'I could no more kiss the lips of a man with a beard as big as rooks' nests than I could yours, Tabby.' Full review...

Stork Mountain by Miroslav Penkov

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A young man, his grandfather and a stork with a broken wing are the company of rebels at the heart of this lively tale set in Bulgaria's Strandja Mountains. The storks that return to the mountains each spring are migrants, like so many of the people that have passed through the region over the centuries. The young narrator is also in transit, born in Bulgaria, but raised and educated in America. The story opens with his return to Bulgaria in search of his grandfather who has broken off contact with his family in America. But the young man's motives are not as clear cut as first appears. Full review...

After Birth by Elisa Albert

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This book is definitely not for anyone who has a rosy picture of new motherhood. In fact, I would probably avoid it if you are contemplating giving birth in the near future. For any woman who has ever struggled through the first few months of motherhood, however, or a partner of somebody who is going through it, it is an astounding and revelatory read. Never before have I read a more searing, honest and open discussion of the emotional upheaval a woman often goes through after giving birth. Full review...

Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

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If the point of literature - as opposed to the less exalted though just-as-worthwhile forms of writing - is to force you to think about the real world, the political world, the painful life-as-we-know-it world, whilst catching you up in a story about something that never really happened, but, you know, might well have done so…and if you think that matters, then you must read this book. Full review...

The Four Books by Yan Lianke

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The Four Books is a difficult, challenging novel and not for the feint hearted, or for someone looking for a page-turner. It really challenges the reader's perceptions and opens up a gateway to an era that is difficult to imagine for anyone brought up in a western culture. Set in Maoist China it tells the story of four protagonists and a memorable antagonist. The four, found guilty of anti-revolutionary crimes are undergoing re-education in a work camp governed by the child. With an Orwellian feel, The Four Books will come to be regarded as an undoubted masterpiece. Full review...

The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

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Tomas is being thrust into the twentieth Century, and he doesn't like it. He has given himself the job of seeking something out in the High Mountains of Portugal, based on an ancient religious diary he found working in an archive, and to do so he needs the use of his uncle's brand new car to get him there and back in time. His jaw drops when he learns he will have to do the driving himself, for he cannot make head nor tail of what anything on the infernal machine does and why. It is of course a certain kind of progress, a looking forward, which has become quite anathema to him – for ever since he lost his beloved wife, beloved child and father, all in the space of a week, he has walked everywhere backwards – shielding himself from what really is ahead with a padded behind, and never letting sight of what he has lost. Full review...

Distant Light by Antonio Moresco and Richard Dixon (translator)

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Our unnamed narrator might as well be the only person alive. He knows he's not – he still goes down to the nearest inhabited village to buy things to eat and other necessities, and he sees planes spreading their contrails over the remote area he lives in – but he might as well be. A lot of his thoughts are about life, however, for he has little to do except notice the nature around him, from the smell of lilies burgeoning with nobody else to see them in this deserted village, to the swallows darting across the ravines of the countryside. Life – and the nature of a light that he sees spring into activity every night at what he thought was a totally lifeless, empty forest area on land separated from his lookout post in his back garden by a deep, wooded gorge… Full review...

The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James

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Tania James was a Fulbright Fellow in New Delhi in 2011–12. For this, her second novel after Atlas of Unknowns (shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian literature) and the story collection Aerogrammes, she clearly draws on her personal knowledge of India in all its contradictions, especially when it comes to environmental policy. The novel alternates between three perspectives: a third-person account of an elephant named the Gravedigger and first-person narratives from a poacher and a documentary filmmaker. Full review...

Martin John by Anakana Schofield

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I had heard much about this novel before I read it for review, by which I mean I had heard it was profane, strange and had a daring subject matter accompanied by elements of humour. I have to say that whilst I agree it is certainly profane and strange and incredibly innovative, I didn't find much humour in it at all. Full review...

The Heart of Man by Jon Kalman Stefansson and Philip Roughton (translator)

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What could be better than an existentialist book from rural Iceland, full of gnomic comments about how close life and death are, that has as its core a journey taken by, amongst others, a naïve and hormonal teenaged lad and a full coffin? Why, I hear you cry, a trilogy concerning the same. Yes, it's the obvious answer, really – why else would we come to this third part, where the survivors of the expedition rest up, note the women giving them help, and see how eminently close the circle of life is to the figure of a snake swallowing its tail through, among other things, dogs rutting in a church below the coffin's bier? Full review...

Vertigo by Joanna Walsh

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The short stories in Joanna Walsh's collection have the overall effect of disparate streams of consciousness of a woman laying bear her very soul, whilst often going about seemingly mundane activities of the ordinary and every day. The narrative voice appeared to me to be the same woman speaking throughout, playing different roles, though I'm not sure this was meant to be the case. The style of the stories is that of short vignettes, mostly written in a modernist, stream of consciousness style. Sometimes, the prose appears almost poetic. Full review...

Why We Came to the City by Kristopher Jansma

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'We came to the city because we wished to live haphazardly, to reach for only the least realistic of our desires, and to see if we could not learn what our failures had to teach, and not, when we came to live, discover that we had never died. We wanted to dig deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to be overworked and reduced to our last wit.' Full review...

Blood Brothers by Ernst Haffner and Michael Hofmann (translator)

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It's Berlin, and the Nazis are on their way to power, even if they will never cross these pages themselves. The city – huge, glamorous, bustling, vicious in the way it can swallow people – is home to a countless hoard of teenagers, but we focus on just a few, most of whom have been in some corrective institution or other before now. They call themselves the Blood Brothers, even if all they share is the most unglamorous drudgery of going from one doss-house to another, balancing the cost of a few cigarettes with that of a warm room for a few hours or some stale rolls to eat. But en route to them is another 'Borstal' escapee, Willi. Surely his fate is going to be nothing if not more of the same? Full review...

The Shore by Sara Taylor

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The first story we hear from the Shore, a group of isolated islands off the coast of Virginia, is from Chloe, who's telling her sister about what she overheard in the store. She'd been there buying chicken necks so that they could go crabbing. Normally they used bacon rinds, but they'd already eaten those. Cabel Bloxom had been murdered and they done cut his thang clean off. The girls are motherless and Chloe is fiercely protective of her little sister Renee. She's the first of the strong women we'll encounter in these stories, which interlink to give a greater picture. Full review...

Blackheath by Adam Baron

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Househusband James is happy in Blackheath. He's started doing stand-up again so that he too has an achievement in his life to balance wife Alice's award winning poetry. Children Ida and Dominic are doing well so all is great. Elsewhere in the area Amelia is equally happy with her actor husband Richard, her own career and children Niamh and teenage Michael. Sometimes happiness isn't enough though and, as the worlds of the two families start to mingle, things start changing for each of them. Full review...

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

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Julian Barnes's first novel since he won the Booker Prize for The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes is a fictionalised biography of Russian composer Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich (1906–75). Knowing Barnes's penchant for stylistic experimentation, though, this was never going to be a straightforward, chronological life story. Instead, as Barnes so often does, he sets up a tripartite structure, focussing on three moments in Shostakovich's life when he has a reckoning with Power (always capitalised here). The title phrase helpfully spells out what the book is all about: 'Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.' Full review...

Dinosaurs on Other Planets by Danielle McLaughlin

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Seeing as this book is clearly a talented author hitting the ground running, I will dispense with any major preamble. We start with a tale of a daughter affected by the emotions of her parents as they separate – and the influence of a certain school-teacher – from the mother's point of view. An ancient input shows how alien, and the modern day domesticity how regular, the isolation of a woman can feel, as events are peppered by minor acts of destruction. But men can be alienated too – especially one, a reluctant guest at a party for children hosted by someone he once had an affair with – he feels the new form of this influence in the light of another one he has had to try and abandon. 'All About Alice' – that's what the title character wants to say but has nobody to speak it to, but is it her – mid-40s and single, living with her father – that is most removed from her dreams or her old friend and now child factory, Marian? And we complete a lap of the calendar with the wintry tale of a man unable to tell his work superiors of the problems he faces at home – a new home, recently built like so many one sees while driving round Ireland. Full review...

The Green Road by Anne Enright

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The Green Road is the story of a family. If the author was anyone other than Anne Enright it would be stereotypically Irish, with all the appropriate characters in place: the boy who goes off to be a priest, the daughter who likes the bottle far too much, the son who does good works and the woman who stays back where she was born and marries a local man, the dead husband who was perhaps just a little bit beneath the wife who plays the grande dame and is perfect at being needy, whilst all the while maintaining that she needs nothing. But, of course, it is Anne Enright. Full review...

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

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Teddy Todd never really expected to survive the war. As a bomber pilot it wasn't something which you could rely on and he certainly knew the statistics. But - against all the odds, he came through it, albeit with some time spent as a prisoner of war. On balance he had a good war, but time will see him married to Nancy, father to Viola and grandfather to Sunny and Bertie - and left with the feeling that it's more difficult to have a good peace than a good war. Full review...

Beautiful You by Chuck Palahniuk

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Meet Penny Harrigan. And let's hope your introduction to her is more gentle than that we have on the first page of this book, where she is being raped in front of a full court house, who – male to the bone – sit back and say nothing, if not whip out their camera phone. Once people take her out on a gurney and recognise her, we can start from the beginning, where she is a lowly underling at a law firm, having failed too many exams to progress satisfactorily. The company is where the world's richest man is in legal negotiations having left the world's best and most beautiful actress, and lo and behold he just happens to pick Penny to replace her with, even if she doesn't think of herself as the most beautiful girl around. But what exactly is it she is wanted for, and can her apolitical style of feminism and aspirations be met? Full review...

This Should be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle and Martin Aitken (translator)

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This is the first novel of Helle Helle's, an award winning Danish author, to be translated into English. It is easy to see from this novel why she is gaining accolades in her Danish homeland. The rhythmic, natural flow of the narrative is mesmerising and appears to lull you through the book. It has some lovely, spare sentences of description: There were run-down cottages with open doors and news on the radio. Gulls flocked around an early harvester in the late sun. But mostly, it is written in a modernist, almost stream of consciousness style, which I found refreshing. Full review...