Conclave by Robert Harris

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I’ll read anything by Robert Harris. There’s a reason he’s one of the most popular modern storytellers around- his Cicero trilogy was a triumph.

So reading Conclave was a no brainer. Amongst the melee of the modern world, the cardinals of The Catholic Church go into Conclave to elect a new Pope. Within this sequestered community, we explore the candidates with all their flaws and foibles. An intriguing subject, strong characters and potential dramatic resolution.

Intrigue and plotting abound as we get sucked into an intricate and ancient ritual, cleverly overlaid with the concerns of a modern church. The wannabe-Popes discuss declining congregations, female clergy and reform. However, all the action takes place away from the talking which is perhaps why the tension suffers a bit and the ending is a little anticlimactic.

I absolutely enjoyed it, but it lacked some of the dramatic punch of Harris’s thrillers and the political intrigue of his other novels. Maybe (and I’m slightly ashamed to admit it) it’s because I couldn’t help thinking of Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons which has a not dissimilar concept. It’s not that I preferred Dan Brown, more that the rituals and mystery were less alien and arcane.

Still a very good read- its compelling prose propels you along and I happily devoured it in a single sitting. If only I hadn’t seen the name Robert Harris on the cover.

Read: After Fatherland, Enigma Archangel, and his Cicero Trilogy

Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall

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I’m a classic millennial. I’m constantly on my phone interacting with an online community and my priority is travelling to far-flung destinations. So to me, geopolitics is quaint and outdated. Why do maps, mountains and seas matter nowadays? Time for a Geography lesson.

Tim Marshall shows us that they very much do. These are his ten maps that tell you all you need to know about global politics. Some of his hypotheses: the decline of America is over-stated because of its prime real estate, Russia’s tense relationships stem from its shape, and the arctic is the battleground of the future.

A great premise but the book’s real secret weapon is that it reads wonderfully. It’s clear and compelling, like having something explained to you by a passionate teacher. This is the best type of learning and incidentally great material if, god forbid, someone insists on talking about the EU for too long.

It’s maybe not all you need to know- there are some parts of the world or events crying out for a chapter. I’d love a follow up post-Trump and Brexit. I want to see how these massive world events are rooted in geography. Marshall does state that leaders and history have influence too but that they exist within the land itself.

Ultimately, you can have all the wireless in the world but we are still grounded in the reality of the physical world.

Read: When you wonder what Putin’s up to now

The Power by Naomi Alderman

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What if in the future, by some freak genetic mutation, women become more physically powerful than men? This is the premise of Naomi Alderman’s ‘feminist fiction’, The Power.

A teenage girl discovers her hands are charged with electricity and attacks a man. But this isn’t an isolated incident. As the power emerges amongst girls globally, physical strength translates to cultural clout. There is a massive shift in sexual politics as women overthrow oppressive regimes, construct female-centric religions and dominate society.

The reversal of power is electrifying (sorry). It is crude but effective to read about a man fearful to walk the streets because of groups of women around or a male opinions being shouted down by the stronger sex. We see these smaller experiences through the eyes of four main characters, scattered across the globe.

Maybe some of it is too obvious. An exact reversal of paradigms gives a very black-and-white, upside-down dystopian feeling to the book. It reads a bit like Young Adult fiction (other than horrific violent scenes), although that’s not necessarily a criticism; it’s zingy and current with trolls living on Reddit and news through vloggers.

Either way, Alderman gets her point across loud and clear in this crackling, thrilling page-turner that will leave you gasping for breath but also pausing for thought.

Read: to challenge your assumptions on gender

Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama

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Hyped new million-copy shifting crime novel from Japan? Yes please.

Although if I’d known what I was letting myself in for I might not have been so flippant in picking up Yokoyama’s book. Warning: this was a gruelling marathon, not a sprint like most other whodunnits. There are no action sequences or shoot outs. There is a lot of admin. And the pay-off is perhaps even more satisfying for it.

This is an unusual police procedural. The plot centres on the unsolved case of Six Four; a girl ransomed and then brutally murdered years back. So far, so typical, but then there are some cultural specifics.

Our hero Mikami is not the detective, but actually the Director of Media Relations for a prefecture of Japanese Police. He battles administrative politics and unruly journalists, rather than criminals. There are instances of Yakuza, a reclusive son, the strength of corporate hierarchy and ‘saving face’ which all give the novel a uniquely Japanese flavour.

The combination of these unusual elements with the strong universal human emotions when a young girl goes missing is a potent combination. And whilst I can’t tell how faithful it is to the original prose, Lloyd-Davies’ translation is pleasingly crisp and understated.

Read: if you enjoyed the manoeuvring and politics of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

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‘Lesbian Dickens’ was how I heard Fingersmith once described. Crude, but not miles off at first glance. There are definitely lots of Dickensian elements to the story: criminality, identity, class, poverty.

Sue Trinder is an orphan and thief from a den of iniquity in darkest, dirtiest London. She is recruited by a swindler as part of his scheme to con a young heiress out of her fortune. So they travel to Briar, the country home of cocooned and cosseted lady, Maud Lilly. Trickery ensues.

But Dickens, for all his subject matter, was a gentleman writer whereas Fingersmith is unsparing of the sordid detail. Gothic flourishes like asylums and perverted books are all thrown into the mix too. This blurring of genres means it’s certainly reductive to call it a Lesbian novel. The mixed genre makes it feel very modern, as does the unflinching gaze and fast pace.

These elements quickly accumulate to create a richly-textured page-turner. You do have to concentrate very hard though not to get lost in the silk layers, thimble-sized details and plot twists.

Not just Lesbian Dickens then, Waters shows that her prose is consistently and intensely readable- it says a lot about her writing that Fingersmith isn’t even my favourite of her books!

Read: on a gloomy afternoon in the countryside

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

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Two strangers meet on a train and agree to commit a murder of choice for one another. Intriguing? Yes. Implausible? Perhaps. Though Patricia Highsmith’s study of a psychological relationship is close to thrillingly believable. Plus any novel set on a train is fine by me.

Less glamorous than her more famous novel, The Talented Mr Ripley, but more self-contained, Strangers on a Train is deceptively slow and languid, hiding extreme anger, tension and passion underneath the surface.

Drunken playboy Charles Bruno suggests to unhappy architect Haines that he kill his adulterous ex-wife for him in return for Guy killing his overbearing father. Guy brushes the encounter off as a drunken joke, only for Charles to understand differently.

The interactions between the two men are nuanced and loaded with meaning. As they try to second guess and double cross one another whilst staying a step ahead of the law. the plot twists and turns accordingly and the tension ratchets up. It has lots of Hitchcock about it (I think there’s even a film), but with more style, like the pacing and aesthetic of Mad Men.

With so much subtlety and style to recommend her writing, its strange that Highsmith isn’t more popular.

Read: On a long train journey

Mad Love by Nick Spalding

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I very much feel that there is a place for happy romance in Fiction. A book Rom Com if you will.

But *sigh* Mad Love isn’t it for me. The premise is that video game journalist man-child Adam and wholesome sassy American Cassie are a woefully mismatched couple who have agreed to marry on first sight as a publicity stunt for a dating website. As they go on a year long promotional tour they come together, despite inauspicious beginnings.

It does have some good laugh out loud moments. A farting massage scene for instance or the wonderfully cringe-inducing party. The internal monologues of Adam and Cassie are very believable and amusing. But the love story doesn’t ring true- I dont understand why they love each other.

The plot meanders along in a series of set pieces; there are few obstacles for them to overcome other than the fact they’re strangers in a kooky engineered situation which requires photo shoots or to meet the parents. This would work on screen; lots of it has good film potential. As a book it feels a bit flimsy.

Some people will really enjoy this. Maybe I had unrealistic expectations, but won’t someone write me a modern Bridget Jones’s Diary soon?

Read: And imagine it as a film version instead.

The Wheel of Osheim by Mark Lawrence

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I have a secret. I’m an avid Fantasy novel fan.

I’ve been reading this much-maligned genre under the covers for years. Ever since I managed to get my sticky hands on a copy of The Hobbit in primary school, I’ve been hooked. I graduated to Narnia, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The Wheel of Time.

I’ve lately culminated in Mark Lawrence’s grown-up series, The Red Queen’s War trilogy. This is anti-hero Prince Jalan’s reluctant quest to save the world. Cowardly, untrustworthy and very flawed, he’s everything the usual Fantasy hero isn’t.

It’s very funny and relatable, which grounds some of the more abstract magic that tends to put non-fantasy readers off. It’s a similar playful, modern tone as something like the Gentleman Bastard Sequence by Scott Lynch or The First Law series by Joe Abercrombie.

Fantasy is a strange genre: once you can get your head round it, there’s so much creative scope and wonderful plotting as HBO can testify. But why then is it my embarrassing secret?

Read: For a modern, relatable take on fantasy. Also after the other books in the series- no matter how funny the characters are, you’ll be lost within 20 pages otherwise.

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

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A piece of classical music so lovely and sad it moves you to tears. Except it’s a novel.

Told in three parts (or movements if we want to be musical about this), Rose Tremain gently tells how the lives of two young boys Anton and Gustav intertwine at kindergarten in post-war Switzerland. Anton is a musical prodigy and Gustav is a kind but neglected boy who craves comfort and security.

We also see the lives of Erich and Emilie, Anton’s parents. Young and hopeful, they morph into tired and compromised adults. The sadness of their respective emotional and moral conflicts acts as a foil for Anton’s present day. In some ways their charged and challenging love story becomes the core of the book.

With this book, I think that the devil is in the detail (but in a good way?): Erich is an administrative man who does paper work to save people’s lives rather than a classic war hero. Their betrayals and sadnesses are small and subtle but significant, like a simple melody that stays in your mind.

Read: Before bed to lull you to sleep

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

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Literary establishment meets racial politics, The Sellout is surprising- as if the Times Literary Supplement decided to branch out into gangster rap. So what can I say about The Sellout that hasn’t already been said? Booker prize-winning, universally acclaimed. Needless to say I was sceptical.

Me wants to put his neighbourhood Dickens, California back on the map from the external pressures of gentrification and transience. He decides to do this by reintroducing slavery and racial segregation as a means of redefining the area’s black identity.

Yikes.

I loved it. It’s like reading the wittiest, most lyrical rap you’ve ever heard. Reading being the right term- it’s almost a work of academia in how layered and insightful it is in dialogue on identity and challenging philosophy. It takes every racial stereotype and interrogates it uncomfortably and effectively.

As clever as it is, it’s also side-splittingly funny. Beatty teases the reader with the taboo, the inappropriate, the things you shouldn’t laugh at. There’s an absolutely hilarious scene where Me is encouraged by his bonkers father to wolf-whistle at a white woman in some misguided attempt to demonstrate interracial sexual relations.

For a book dealing with such weighty topics the whole thing is vibrant and spitting with life, joy and rhymes.

Read: for something punchy to wake you up on your morning commute