Macbeth: Jo Nesbo, translated by Don Bartlett

A town in Scotland where the sun never breaks through the clouds, pollution hangs heavy, unemployment is high and people are in thrall to a potent drug called the brew, manufactured and sold by the drug lord, Hecate.

This is the setting for Jo Nesbo’s grim, gritty reworking of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.[1]  He turns it into a police procedural, set around the 1980s (I think).[2] Macbeth is the head of the town’s SWAT team. A former drug addict, he is well-liked and respected by his colleagues. The new police commissioner, Duncan, wants to clean up the town by getting rid of Hecate. This isn’t going to be easy: Hecate’s tentacles spread deep into the town, and many in the local government and police are in his pocket.

As the book starts, Duff, a police inspector, has been tipped off about a large shipment of drugs arriving at the port. Thinking that he would get all the credit if he pulls it off by himself, he does not inform Duncan and turns down Macbeth’s offer of help. But things go wrong, and Macbeth—who is there with his team, including his trusted friend, Banquo—saves the day.

Walking back from the raid, Macbeth and Banquo are stopped by two women of indeterminate age with ravaged faces and “cold inscrutable [eyes] that don’t let you in, that only reflect their surroundings”. The women are joined by Strega, a man-woman in leopard-skin tight, who works for Hecate. The women predict that Macbeth will become head of the Organized Crime Unit and then Chief Commissioner. He dismisses them but then, as soon as he gets back to the police station, Duncan makes him head of Organized Crime. This is the beginning of the end for him: as Strega says to Hecate, “If people see the soothsayer’s first prophecy fulfilled, they’ll believe the next one blindly”.

Macbeth shares the day’s events with Lady, the beautiful owner of a posh casino, with whom he is in love. Lady, who is more ruthless and more ambitious than Macbeth, sees an opportunity to consolidate power and persuades Macbeth to murder Duncan. At first horrified by the idea, Macbeth eventually buys into Lady’s argument that together, the couple can do a lot of good for the town. (At least that’s what he tells himself.) He murders Duncan and takes over his job as Chief Commissioner, fulfilling the women’s prophecy. But the murder opens the door to his addiction. He takes a bit of the brew to get his courage up for the murder, and he is hooked. The drug fuels his paranoia, and the murders spiral out of control. Lady is made of sterner stuff but she has her demons too, and gradually, they both start to unravel.

Meanwhile Duff has realized what is going on, and is on the run from Macbeth. He joins up with other cops who take the fight to Macbeth. But will getting rid of one man really get rid of the endemic corruption?  

Nesbo sticks quite closely to the original. There are some nice touches: the brew is concocted by the two ravaged women from their secret recipe said to contain “toad’s glands, bumblebee wings, juice from rats’ tails”—like the witches’ brew. Naming their boss Hecate echoes the play too, where she is the goddess of witchcraft. Hecate in the book does not need witchcraft to cast his spell over the town: all he needs is the brew.

The betrayals in the novel feel more visceral than in the play. Macbeth is a character we are familiar with: the incorruptible cop who breaks the rules and gets results. So when Macbeth agrees to kill Duncan, he goes against the stereotype (I did think he agreed a little too easily, though).  Banquo is not a contemporary of Macbeth’s as he is in the play—he is the man who took Macbeth in as a child and gave him a home, which makes Banquo’s murder even more shocking. The bond between Macbeth and his nemesis, Duff (the Macduff character in the play) is also something Nesbo has added. The two men were at an orphanage together and know each other’s secrets. This creates an intimacy but also an uneasy relationship, which brings more depth to their conflict.

Nesbo underlines the filth in the town: the moral corruption is reflected in the weather and the pollution, unlike Fife a short distance away, which is bathed in sunlight. But the men living there choose to do so, as if too much light will expose them for what they are. The book opens with rain, following a single raindrop as it finds its way down to the main characters, a device Nesbo uses again at the end.

This is a book about power, which is the real drug here. Everyone is on the make and will stop at nothing to further their own ends. It fits right in with the world Nesbo has created in his other books. I found it compelling: the violence could be appalling but I couldn’t tear myself away from the story. I usually have trouble with books where none of the characters are sympathetic. Not here.


[1] Macbeth is part of a series commissioned by Hogarth Press, a contemporary reimagining of Shakespeare’s plays. Margaret Atwood’s reworking of The Tempest, Hag-Seed, has also been reviewed on this site.

[2] Before cell phones, at any rate.

Three Ways to Capsize a Boat: An Optimist Afloat—Chris Stewart

It all began when Chris Stewart, 29 and out of work, bumps into a friend. “My great-aunt Jane has been on at me for weeks to find her a skipper [for her yacht], and I thought of you straightaway.” Which was a little odd because Stewart had never been on a boat before, never mind knowing how to sail. But he needed the job so he decided to keep minor details like that to himself.

A book, Teach Yourself Sailing, teaches him the jargon and how to tell one boat from another. He hopes this would be enough to impress grand-aunt Jane at their first meeting. (It is.) He is to pick up the boat, a Cornish Crabber, from a marina near Athens where it was being fixed by a Captain Bob Weare. He is to sail it to the island of Spetses, where Jane and her husband Bob would spend the summer. A dream job—provided Stewart could actually sail a boat.

He enlists the help of Keith, a “rather malodorous person with a black beard [and] a chubby boyish face” who has a crush on Stewart’s girlfriend, Ana, and who owns a boat, a “twenty-one-foot craft banged together out of plywood and tin”. All does not go well. There is thick fog and the boat capsizes, pitching them into the freezing sea. Fortunately, Keith knows how to right the boat by standing on it, and they survive.

Classes with a professional sailor, Tom Cunliffe, give Stewart enough knowledge to go to Athens with some confidence. He finds the Crabber in a terrible state—mouldy and without an engine. Stewart rescues it from Captain Bob and hands it over to two Greeks, both called Nikos. When Stewart worries that the keys are still with Captain Bob, one of the Nikos points out: “Keys are for engine. You got no engine.” Problem solved. New engine, new keys.

By the time Stewart has finished his stint with Jane, he is hooked on sailing. When Cunliffe asks if he would join his crew to sail to Newfoundland, Stewart jumps at it. They set out from Brighton on a rainy day in April, via Norway and Greenland. It is the first time that Stewart was going to be on a boat for weeks on end. He describes living on a boat: sharing a small space with other people (including Cunliffe’s wife and four-year-old daughter) in a small space, keeping watches at night while trying not to fall asleep, the cold, and the comforting tones of the shipping forecast. (And a very funny bit about trying to pee from the side of the ship in the freezing cold.)

They stop in a little town called Norheimsund, in Norway. The already stunning landscape of the fjords is heightened with white apple blossoms “as if bright patches of snow had lingered in the warm green valleys”. Norway is expensive so they live on fish they catch. A group of Norwegian men who come over for a night of drinking are horrified by this, and bring them enough smoked leg of lamb to last for the rest of the journey (which Stewart suspects wasn’t obtained entirely legally).

I love Stewart’s writing: he’s funny and lyrical and his vivid descriptions makes you feel you are there. And you can tell why people do get hooked on sailing: “as the land drops away astern, all the woes and worries that afflicted you on dry land—all the things you ought to have done but have left undone, all the drab detritus and clutter of your daily existence—slough away like the old dry skin of a snake”.

Chris Stewart is best known for the books he has written about living in Alpujarras in Andalucia, Spain,[1] and for briefly being a drummer in Genesis. I am so glad they kicked him out—it would have been a real loss to the book world if he was still drumming!


[1] See my reviews of his books: A Parrot in the Pepper Tree on this blog and Driving Over Lemons for Women on the Road (scroll down to the bottom of the page: it was the first one I wrote for the website!).

Daemon Voices: Essays on Storytelling—Philip Pullman

“[T]he image of the reader is solitary. We are each alone when we enter the borderland and go on to explore what lies in it and beyond it, in the book we’re engaged with. True, we can come back and and talk about it, and if we talk well and truthfully and interestingly enough we might entice other readers into it, and they too will explore it—but they too will be alone there until they in turn come back and tell us what they found there.”

Daemon Voices is a collection of Philip Pullman’s essays, articles and talks, mostly on storytelling, reading and the craft of writing, but also on politics, art and religion.

Pullman is best known for his fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials. Ostensibly for young adults, these books—like all good writing—crosses age boundaries (and it is worth noting that Pullman didn’t intend the trilogy for a particular audience). I find this happening less now, but writing for children or young adults has often been scoffed at as not being as “serious” or “important” as writing for adults. Pullman dismisses this and is passionate about the importance of children’s literature. Good writing for children or young adults, as he points out, is every bit as important as that for adults. And as for adults reading children’s books, he quotes CS Lewis: “I now like hock, which I am sure I did not like as a child. But I still like lemon-squash. I call this growth or development because I have been enriched: where I formerly had one pleasure, I now have two.”

Writers have responsibilities, says Pullman. They have a duty to their readers to use language well (something that as an editor, I can’t agree with more): be clear and aware of what you are saying. But there is also their responsibility to their families: after all, to be a writer is a job, and they have to make sure they earn enough to provide for their loved ones. I have read a lot on writing and writers but very few say anything about the money-making side of it.  

There is so much here that I am only going to pick out a few things. We get a lot of insight on how Pullman wrote his books, especially His Dark Materials. It takes a single element to give an idea that spark that brings it to life. The first book fell into place when he came up with the idea (or the idea came to him, as he puts it) of daemons. A daemon is an animal version of a person that is constantly with them—the soul, in a way, that is external but part of them. It changes shapes in children and settles into a particular animal when they reach puberty. So when Lyra, the heroine of the trilogy, hears of children who daemons are being cut away from them, it is shocking not just to her but to the reader, and sets the trilogy in motion.

In His Dark Materials, the forces of good fight the Church to stop it taking control of Dust, the essence of consciousness. This reflects Pullman’s view of organized religion. He is not an atheist, because he finds that atheism can be equally totalitarian (something I had noticed too and was glad to find someone else agreeing with me).  

I loved Pullman’s perspective on the story of Adam and Eve, which makes sense. He sees the apple as the fruit of knowledge, which humans had to eat so they could be aware of the world around them. Hence the self-awareness that results when Adam and Eve bite into it, much as we become aware of ourselves when we cross the threshold into adulthood. Once you reach that threshold, there is no way back to innocence. But that does not mean that the Garden of Eden is closed to us forever—the way back is through what Pullman calls “the back door”, through wisdom and understanding.

The reader as explorer: The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich

There are also essays on narratives in art, where he examines well-known paintings (there are illustrations, both in colour and black and white). His dissection of Edouard Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère”, which I’ve known for a long time (my interest in art was sparked by the Impressionists), made me see it in a completely different light. And the quote that I begin this review with is illustrated with “The Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” by Caspar David Friederich: again, a different take on a familiar painting, where the explorer is the reader.

There is some repetition, but that’s hard to avoid in a collection like this. There are things that I disagree with (his dislike of fantasy fiction like Lord of the Rings, for one), but this book wouldn’t be worth its salt if I agreed with everything. If you are a budding (or already established) writer, if you’re passionate about words and stories, then get this book. You don’t need to read it cover to cover—as I did—but can dip into it. There are essays here that I know I will be going back to. His writing makes me want to sit down with him over a meal and have a long discussion about books, writing and everything else.

Written in Black: K.H. Lim

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Jonathan is a 10-year-old boy in Brunei. He lives with his father and brother Aaron and sister Jen. His mother has gone away, ostensibly for health reasons, and his older brother Michael left to join a rock band. When the book starts, Jonathan’s uncle, Ah Peh, calls to tell him his grandfather’s death.

The family leave for Ah Peh’s house where the funeral is going to take place. Jonathan is desperate to speak to his mother, to find out when—or if—she is coming back. He doesn’t believe she is sick but knows that she was deeply unhappy. He keeps missing her calls, and his father won’t tell him anything. Just before they leave for the funeral, he finds out that she will be going to Dubai the next day and will not be able to call from there.

In Ah Peh’s house, his cousin Kevin—a spoiled, overfed child his age—tells him that he is in touch with Michael, who speaks regularly to his mother. Jonathan tries to get Kevin to call Michael but the number has changed. Looking through Michael’s Facebook account, the boys figure out that he will be at the Friendly Garden Pool Centre in Badir, a nearby town, at 1:30 pm the next day.

The day of the funeral, a truck arrives to deliver the coffin. The address on the side of the truck is a place in Badir. Fed up at being shut out by his father and blamed for everything and determined to speak to his mother, Jonathan stows away in the truck, hoping to meet his brother. But it’s not that simple: there are two more coffins to deliver.

That’s how his journey begins. Jonathan leaves the truck at an unknown place and wanders into a derelict house filled with what seem to be voodoo dolls. He is rescued from feral dogs by a gang of poklans (Brunei punks) who make him buy glue for them to sniff, and is helped by Mohidin, a rather weird shopkeeper.

Lim uses Jonathan’s journey to give the reader a glimpse into the real Brunei, which I found fascinating. All I knew about the country was the wealth, both of its ruler, the Sultan, and the kingdom itself.

I also loved KH Lim’s ability to capture the details of a scene. Jonathan knows his grandfather’s shoes are Italian because the soles were emblazoned with “Armany” and “Definitely Made in Italy”. Lim describes an old guard on a plastic chair, snoozing in front of a shop next to an ice-cream machine, which “sat next to him like a mechanical grandchild desperate for attention, its orange, green and pink buttons so bright with deluded optimism and so close to being able to distract one away from the rust marks and cobwebs that had gathered around the rest of its neglected body.”

This book is heart-breaking and funny, and you root for Jonathan as you watch him mature and become more assertive about what he wants, earning a grudging respect from those around him.

Warlight: Michael Ondaatje

Review by Usha Raman

“The lost sequence in a life, they say, is the thing we always search out.”

“We order our lives with barely held stories”

Memory is a strange thing; it reveals the ephemeral nature of experience and the power of its reconstruction. It builds stories where none existed. And it imbues monochromatic lives with colours drawn more from imagination than life. But we need memory in order to make meaning of life, and in Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight, Nathaniel’s search for the lost sequence of his mother’s life is in many ways the search for the meaning of his own. The novel is set in the confusing time after the second world war, when London is still limping back to a normalcy that will forever remain elusive, and nothing is what it seems—and neither, as Nathaniel discovers, are people.

Abandoned by their parents to the guardianship of a mysterious and unknowable man they fondly dub The Moth, Nathaniel and his sister Rachel spend their teenage years in an adventurous fog, encountering a series of not-quite-mainstream adults, none of whom seem to be engaged in easily explainable occupations. There is the Darter, a one-time boxer and greyhound-smuggling, gun-running womanizer who, unmindful of propriety or danger, takes the young Nathaniel on his nighttime river runs and introduces him to the women in his life. Among these is Olive Lawrence, a cloud-reading ethnographer who has a surprising connection with the intelligence services.

The children’s discovery of duplicity—or intrigue—begins when they find their mother’s packed trunk left behind in the basement, revealing her departure, ostensibly to join their father in his posting to Singapore, to be a charade. While Rachel takes this to be a betrayal that never be forgiven, even when her mother returns to reclaim her life with them, Nathaniel seeks to fill out the years of her absence, to fill in the shadowy outlines of a past that could, possibly, give him a sense of the person she was. And in that process, find that his own memories are fickle things, meaning one thing at one moment, rendered false the next.

It’s no coincidence that as an adult Nathaniel finds himself recruited to work in the archives of war intelligence, a fitting place in which to recover the memory of his mother, a key figure in wartime espionage, and her association with the oddly named Marsh Felon, the man who drew her into the ring of spies and away from her life in domesticity. The fragments of their story unfold in the dim light left behind by war records, buried deep in the filing cabinets of the British secret service. And in the pursuit of his mother’s life, he is forced to rearrange the meanings of his own memories—sometimes with devastating results.

Warlight has been my introduction to Ondaatje, a writer whom I have been meaning to read for years. It has left me thirsting for more of the textured prose, the spare yet powerful characterization, and the suggestive outline of plot that seem to be his forte. You want to pause and drink in the meanings that seem to speak not just to and from the characters in the book, but to your life as well. This is his eighth novel, one that The Guardian hails as another instance of “magic from a past master”. Clearly, I have a lot of magic to catch up on.

Kafka on the Shore: Haruki Murakami (translated by Philip Gabriel)

A man talks to cats, fish and leeches rain down from the sky, a man dressed like Johnny Walker (of whisky fame) is making a flute from cats’ souls, and a stone opens the door to another world. Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of Haruki Murakami.

The book begins with an account of a strange incident just after the Second World War. A teacher and a group of children go foraging for mushrooms in a forest. Suddenly all the children pass out on the forest floor. When they come to, they have no memory of the incident except for one, who never really comes back whole. The children are examined but the doctors find nothing strange or unusual.

The book follows two characters: Kafka Tamura, a 15-year-old who runs away from home to escape his father’s prophecy, an Oedipal curse, and to find his mother; and Nakata, a middle-aged man (“not very bright”, in his words) who can talk to cats. Kafka’s mother left when he was very young, taking his sister with her, leaving the father to bring him up. Nakata is the boy who almost did not survive the incident on the hill—one of the brightest students, he emerged from his coma unable to read but able to talk to cats. As an adult, using this unique gift, he helps people find their missing cats.

Kafka ends up in a library in Takamatsu—the last place he thinks his father will look for him—where he is befriended by Oshima and the person who runs the library, Miss Saeki. In the meantime, Nakata has been involved in a murder and is on the run, but also on a quest to find a stone that can open the door into another world. He is helped by Hoshino, a truck driver who gives him a lift.

As the story develops, Kafka and Nakata’s paths start to converge. Kafka reads in the paper that his father has been brutally murdered and the police are looking for him to find out what he knows. But who killed the father? Was he the Johnny Walker character whom Nakata stabbed?

Despite the murder, this is not a whodunit. It is about people trying to make sense of their pasts and their identities. And sometimes that requires walking into an alternative universe that is buried deep in the forest near Oshima’s cabin and guarded by two soldiers left behind from the Second World War.

Kafka on the Shore is a fascinating book that does not answer all the questions it raises. Murakami builds his story through interconnected layers where repercussions from events ripple out beyond their immediate surroundings. This book is never predictable—you never know how it is going to unfold.

My only gripe is that the translation uses Americanisms which seem a bit strange coming from Japanese characters (like “Jeez Louise”). But that’s a small complaint. Read this book—it is utterly strange and compelling.

Frida Folk: Gaby Franger (translated by Gita Wolf)

Review by Sadhana Ramchander

Frida Folk celebrates, in an unusual manner, the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, and her many ‘avatars’.

This is indeed a fascinating book! It documents an unbelievable variety of interpretations of Frida­—the woman and the artist—by crafts-people and artists from all over the world. From murals to traditional tin shrines to hand bags and cushion covers to T-shirts and clay figurines, this book features them all. In the process, it entices you to read more about Frida, and also to see and understand her own paintings, which by the way, are NOT featured in this book.

I found the chapter on the art of the Aguilar Sisters very interesting. Their folk figures are original and unique. One of the sisters makes a Frida figurine with a child, even though Frida never had a child. This artist says, “maybe she didn’t have one when she was alive, but now that she’s dead, she gets one in my work.” It takes courage to say this, and only another artist can muster this courage!

The chapters are short, the writing lucid, and the book well laid out, bright and cheerful. The last part of the book titled, “Frida waits at every corner” is a collection of Fridamania photographs by Rafael Doniz.

Frida Folk is not a book you read and put away. It is a book you want to keep re-reading and looking at. And at the end of it, it makes you want to start your own collection of Frida memorabilia. The book reiterates Frida’s cult status and the fact that it is indeed very rare for an artist to be as popular as her, anywhere in the world.

Frida’s sister, Christina Kahlo, is a guest author. The chief photographer is Rafael Doniz. Published by Tara Books, Chennai, India, the book has been designed by Ragini Siruguri and production supervised by C. Arumugam. The German version is titled Frida Pop.

Exit West: Mohsin Hamid

A man and a woman meet in a city in what is probably Syria and fall in love. Civil war is initially just a distant presence in their lives. But then it all starts to fall apart, and strange doors start opening up, leading out of the country.

Nadia and Saeed meet at a class. He is a little intimidated by her wearing a full black robe—which she uses to keep men at bay—but asks her out to coffee. They start to see each other, meeting at Nadia’s apartment, sometimes smoking a joint on her balcony.

The differences between them are clear from the start. Nadia is fiercely independent and lives in her own apartment, having fought with her family who did not approve and wanted her to get married. Saeed lives with his parents, both academics, and is very close to them both.

But the unrest in the city, which is getting closer to the couple every day, affects their lives. People talk in hushed tones about doors opening up in the city that lead to other countries, doors that are carefully guarded by the militia. These are like wormholes in time and space, and are completely unpredictable: any door “could become a special door, and it could happen without warning, to any door at all”.

Things become unbearable, and it is important that the couple leave while they still can. They pay a man to guide them to a door and walk out into Greece and then to London. But uprooted from their city and living in another where they are not accepted strains their relationship. They draw apart: Nadia integrating with the fellow refugees who are from other parts of the world, and Saeed looking to those from his own country.

Mohsin Hamid is good at describing the slow creep of civil unrest and war. At first, it’s just the small things that happen in other parts of the city, then there is curfew, and the banality of living in conflict: the bombed-out tank that becomes part of the landscape and the way people adapt to living in an impossible situation.

This is a timely book about what makes people leave and what it means to be a refugee—not just the physical hardships and compromises they make but also what it does to relationships. Using the doors is clever—it avoids recounting the journey so that Hamid can focus on the conflict and the displacement: the guilt at leaving loved ones behind and trying to make sense of, and fit into, a new culture.

At this time of hostility towards the other, of fortresses and walls, and of opposition in many countries to the UN Global Compact on Migration, this book goes a long way in humanizing refugees—essentially, people like us caught up in circumstances beyond their control. Writing that sentence, I feel that I am stating the obvious, but reading the news from various parts of the world, it is something that we have forgotten.

Best books of 2018

My request for the best books you read this year had an overwhelming response! Thank you to those of you who sent in their lists.  

The lists below not only cover  a wide range of subjects, but also span centuries, from 2018 to those published hundreds of years ago. Fiction includes fantasy, crime and family sagas. The non-fiction books range from an account of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, problems with the Indian judicial system, to history, autobiography, politics, science and travel. We also have poetry, so there is something for everyone. I was delighted to find so many books in translation. Some are in French or Spanish and have not been translated (yet).

And I am proud to say that Achala Upendran’s first book made the cut—it’s incredible to see someone I have known since she was a child mature into a talented and successful writer.  

There is plenty for you to explore. Links are to reviews on this site (or to reviews on Women on the Road). Blurbs in quotes are from contributors.

Contributors: Caroline Dommen, Dalip Mehta, David Dunkley, Deborah Eade, Jenifer Freedman, Jo Grin-Yates, Kamakshi Balasubramanian, Kristine Goulding, Leslie Jones, Leyla Alyanak, Mariana Duarte Mutzenberg, Marie-Graziella Nguini, Sajid Mahmood, Sally-Anne Sader, Sergio Sandoval, Sophia Murphy, Stara Amidouch, Suroor Alikhan, Susie Partridge, Thomas Fitzsimons, Tom Peak, Usha Raman and Will Ramsay.

If you are not among the contributors, do share your list with us. We would love to hear from you. And here’s to another year of fantastic books!

Photo: Hackley Public Library (CC BY 2.0)

FICTION

General fiction

  • Ocean-Rimmed World: Joe D’Cruz (2005, translated from Tamil into English in 2018)
    The struggles and changing fortunes of the Parathavars of the Tuticorin coast—a community of seafarers and fisherfolk.
  • Go, Went, Gone: Jenny Erpenbeck (2015, translated from German into English in 2018)
    A retired professor gets to know some African refugees in Berlin. A scathing indictment of Western policy toward the European refugee crisis.
  • Des ailes au loin: Jadd Hilal (2018)
    A story of four generations of Palestinian-Lebanese women for whom migration becomes a way of life.
  • Qui a tué mon père: Edouard Louis (2018)
    “Especially in these times of gilets jaunes,[1] this is a very powerful and personal account of what we call la France d’en-bas.”
  • Les prénoms épicènes: Amélie Nothomb (2018)
    The relationship between a father and daughter.
  • The Overstory: Richard Powers (2018)
    Nine Americans come together to fight the destruction of forests. “A compelling book.”
  • Flights: Olga Tokarczuk (2018)
    Interweaves reflections on travel with an in-depth exploration of the human body. “At times uneven, but I liked her language.”
  • The Labyrinth of the Spirits: Carlos Ruiz Zafón (2016, translated from Spanish into English in 2018)
    The last in the Cemetry of Forgotten Books series. Alicia uncovers murders tied to the Franco regime.
  • Stay with Me: Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ (2017)
    A Nigerian couple’s unsuccessful attempts to have children tells on their marriage.
  • Lincoln in the Bardo: George Saunders (2017)
    “An unusual book—a sort of fragmented Spoon River Anthology.”
  • Behold the Dreamers: Imbolo Mbue (2016)
    A Cameroonian couple try to stay in New York—a story of migrants trying to make a life for themselves.
  • A Gentleman in Moscow: Amor Towles (2016)
    About a man who is ordered to spend the rest of his life inside a luxury hotel.
  • The Sellout: Paul Beatty (2015)
    Subversive look at race in the US.
  • Go Set a Watchman: Harper Lee (2015)
    The sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird.
  • Optic Nerve: Maria Gainza (2014, to be translated from Spanish into English in 2019)
    The story of a woman’s life told through artists and paintings.
  • Americanah: Chimananda Ngozi Adichie (2013)
    The experiences of a young Nigerian in the US and in Nigeria. Raises questions of race and belonging.
  • A Man called Ove: Fredrik Backman (2012, translated from Swedish into English in 2013)
    A curmudgeon finds his world turned around when a chatty family moves in next door. “It made me laugh out loud, and I love books that do that.”
  • The Sound of Things Falling: Juan Gabriel Vásquez (2011, translated from Spanish into English in 2013)
    How the drug trade in Colombia impacted on the lives of people.
  • Nazi Literature in the Americas: Roberto Bolaño (1996, translated from Spanish into English in 2008)
    A biographical dictionary of fictional right-wing Pan-American writers and Nazi sympathizers. Black humour.
  • Disobedience: Naomi Alderman (2006)
    A young photographer living in New York goes back to her orthodox Jewish community in London when her father dies and has to confront her past.
  • A Way through the Woods: Aminuddin Khan (1997)
    “Made me nostalgic for the people and stories of India I remembered hearing about when I first went to Hyderabad in the 1980s.”
  • Stoner: John Willams (1965)
    Follows William Stoner’s undistinguished academic career and his marriage and affair.

Classics

  • The Grapes of Wrath: John Steinbeck (1939)
    A family of tenant farmers migrates during the Great Depression.
  • War and Peace: Leo Tolstoy (1869, first translated from Russian into English in 1898)
    “I glazed over some of the war bits, and the epilogue is overwrought. But these are minor in the broad sweep of the novel (partly written by Tolstoy’s wife).”
  • The Tenant of Wildfell Hall: Anne Brontë (1848)
    “A classic I had never managed to get to and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it and admired both the writing and the characters.”
  • The Adventures of Simplicius Simplicissimus: Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen (1668, first translated from German into English in 1912. This entry refers to a 2018 translation.)
    “The account of the life of an odd vagrant named Melchior Sternfels von Fuchshaim.” (from the subtitle)

Crime

  • The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle: Stuart Turton (2018)
    “The most unusual whodunit I’ve read. Takes the idea of a murder in a country house and puts a completely different spin on it.”     
  • IQ (2016), Righteous (2017) and Wrecked (2018): Joe Ide
    Joe Ide is a Japanese-American crime fiction writer.
  • Inspector Armande Gamache series: Louise Penny
    Set in Quebec.

Humour

  • Last Week Tonight with John Oliver Presents a Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo: Jill Twiss, illustrated by Gerald Kelly (2018)
    A story about a gay bunny who belongs to US Vice President Mike Pence. “Something that rounds off the crazy year.”

Fantasy/Futuristic

  • The Sultanpur Chronicles: The Shadowed City: Achala Upendran (2018)
    Peace reigns in Sultanpur until a spell releases a rakshasi[2]and threatens to plunge the empire into chaos.
  • The Power: Naomi Alderman (2016)
    What happens when teenage girls have immense physical power to cause pain. 
  • Laurus: Evgeniy Vodolazkin (2013, translated from Russian into English in 2015)
    A healer sets out on a voyage of redemption that spans ages and countries.
  • Kafka on the Shore: Haruki Murakami (2002, translated from Japanese into English in 2005)
    “A weird and wonderful book about a young runaway and a man damaged by an accident trying to untangle their pasts.”
  • The Master and Margarita: Mikhail Bulgakov (1967, first translated from Russian into English in 1967)
    The devil pays a visit to Moscow. Subversive with lots of black humour.

Historical fiction

  • Homecoming: Yaa Gyasi (2017)
    The story of two half-sisters from a village in Ghana in the 18th century. One marries an Englishman and the other is sold into slavery.
  • Pachinko: Min Jin Lee (2017)
    Set in Japan in the early 1900s, it is about Sunja, a pregnant teenager and how her decisions impact on her life.  
  • L’Art de Perdre: Alice Zeniter (2017)
    “The consequences of being on the wrong side of history and not really belonging anywhere, this is about the Harkis[3] in France. Zeniter raises issues that French society does not really want to deal with and that individuals are still struggling with.
  • Burial Rites: Hannah Kent (2013)
    The final days of a young woman accused of murder in Iceland in 1829.
  • Les naufragés de l’île Tromelin: Irene Frain (2009)
    In 1761, a ship carrying slaves is wrecked on an unknown island in the Indian Ocean.  Fifteen years later, there are only eight survivors. What happened on the island?
  • The Book of Night Women: Marlon James (2009)
    “A haunting book about slavery in Jamaica in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.”
  • The Jewel of Medina: Sherry Jones (2008)
    A fictional biography of Aisha, the favourite wife of Prophet Muhammed.
  • Pompeii: Robert Harris (2003)
    A recreation of Pompeii in the days before Vesuvius erupted.
  • The Known World: Edward P. Jones (2003)
    About black slave owners in the US.
  • The World My Wilderness: Rose Macauley (1950)
    “A story of post-war Italy and London and the casual neglect of children by adults who were too busy with the aftermath of war to pay much attention to their children’s needs.”

Retellings

  • Circe: Madeline Miller (2018)
    A reworking of the story of Circe, the Greek goddess.
  • Frankenstein in Baghdad: Ahmed Saadawi (2013, translated from Arabic into English in 2018)
    Frankenstein in present-day Baghdad.
  • Norse Mythology: Neil Gaiman (2017)
    An enjoyable retelling of the Norse myths.
  • Hag-Seed: Margaret Atwood (2016)
    Margaret Atwood’s take on The Tempest.
  • Home Fires: Kamila Shamsie (2017)
    The story of a Pakistani immigrant family in Britain, and about being Muslim in the UK. Based on Sophocles’s Antigone.

NON-FICTION

Autobiography/Biography/Memoirs

  • Le Lambeau: Philippe Lançon (2018)
    “An account by one of the surviving journalists of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack.”
  • Becoming: Michelle Obama (2018)
  • What Happened: Hillary Rodham Clinton (2017)
    “Political analysis of the shocker vote that saw Donald trump rise to the US presidency, as well as an honest introspection for Hillary – her life, career, mistakes, regrets and unfaltering sense of hope.”

History

  • The British in India: David Gilmour (2018)
    “Excellent and a marvellous compilation of the subject matter.”
  • Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China: Paul French (2011)
  • Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond: William Dalrymple (2017)

Science and living

  • Darwin Comes to Town: Menno Schilthuizen (2018)
    “Linking two of my favourite things: cities and biology.”
  • Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City: Richard Sennett (2018)
  • I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life:  Ed Yong (2015)

Travel

Writing and reading

  • First You Write a Sentence: The Elements of Reading, Writing … and Life: Joe Moran (2018)
  • The Library Book: Susan Orlean (2018)
  • Essayism: On Form, Feeling, and Nonfiction: Brian Dillon (2017)

Philosophy

  • The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual: David R. Godine (2018)
  • Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are: John Kaag (2018)
    “He made Nietzsche a personal experience beyond the philosophy and linked to Nietzsche’s time in the Engadine.”

Current affairs

  • The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities: John J. Mearsheimer (2018)
  • Anita Gets Bail: What Are Our Courts Doing? What Should We Do About Them?: Arun Shourie (2018)
  • Fear: Trump in the White House: Bob Woodward (2018)
    “Absolutely terrifying—this man has the nuclear codes! I developed an unexpected respect for Tillerson, Mattis, Porter and Kelly as I read.”
  • Women and Power: Mary Beard (2017)
  • Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City: Matthew Desmond (2016)
  • Indian Muslim Spring: Why is No One Talking About It?: Hassan Suroor (2014)

Poetry and reflections

  • Kumukanda: Kayo Chingonyi (2017)
  • Benedictus: A Book of Blessings: John O’Donohue (2007)
    “A mixture of poems and reflections on blessing different events from Beginnings to Endings to Callings.”
  • The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos: Anne Carson (2001)

[1] Yellow jackets, the symbol of the popular protest in France in 2018.

[2] A female demon.

[3] The generic term for native Muslim Algerians who served as auxiliaries in the French Army during the Algerian War of Independence from 1954 to 1962.

[4] Scroll down the page on Asia to find the review.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle: Stuart Turton

Stuart Turton takes the traditional English setting for a whodunit—a country house thrumming with secrets, tensions and fears—and turns it into something completely unexpected. I have read a lot of crime fiction, and this is one of the most original books I’ve come across.

Take the way it begins.

“I forget everything between footsteps.
‘Anna!’ I finish shouting, snapping my mouth shut in surprise.
My mind has gone blank. I don’t know who Anna is or why I’m calling her name. …
‘How did—’ I’m cut short by the sight of my own hands. They’re bony, ugly. A stranger’s hands. I don’t recognize them at all.”

No, it’s not just a case of severe amnesia—the narrator, whose name we are told only halfway through the book because he has forgotten it—wakes up in a different body every morning (well, sometimes more often than that). Evelyn Hardcastle, the daughter of the host, is going to kill herself that evening. But the suicide is actually a murder, and the narrator has to find the killer if he is to get out of the house. His advantage is that time is on a loop, and the day keeps repeating itself. Endlessly.

The narrator (who eventually finds out that he is called Adrian) has eight hosts. He can only exist in these, never as himself. Each of these eight men is in some way involved in the murder, whether directly or indirectly. All of these are guests at the house or work there. But who are the others? The Footman, whose very mention terrifies Adrian but he doesn’t know why. Then there is the man in the mask with the beaked nose, who keeps appearing and seems to know far more than he is letting on. And finally, who is Anna? Is she a friend, a murderer or a victim whom Adrian has to save?

Each time Adrian wakes up in another body, he has to contend not just with the physical reality of his host but also his mental makeup, trying to use any skills or knowledge the man has without letting him overwhelm Adrian. And because time is on a loop, Adrian can build the day’s events from several points of view. He might even be able to save Evelyn.

It sounds a little too clever but somehow Turton keeps all the balls in the air. I honestly don’t know how he does it, but the timelines all add up. It was complicated enough to keep me hooked but not convoluted enough to make me give up. The way he describes Adrian inhabiting his hosts was brilliantly done—you are in their head but you are also observing them. It is a world of smoke and mirrors and as a reader, you find yourself trying to help Adrian solve the mystery, not just of the murder, but the way this world works.

Absolutely brilliant. Read this—I guarantee it will keep you up into the early hours of the morning.