Each week our team of book lovers choose a selection of books they have loved and think deserve an extra shout out. Everyone fights to get theirs on the list. Here are this week’s faves…
Brimming, barely contained, with bone-deep grief and all-consuming awakenings of the sexual and soulful kind, Akwaeke Emezi’s You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty is a uniquely compelling story about bravely risking setting lives aflame for love, for a chance to embrace a new, fulfilling life. Five years have passed since Feyi’s husband died in a car accident. Though still grieving, her life is beginning to shift. She’s getting herself together as an artist in Brooklyn and, with the encouragement of her straight-talking, loving best friend, she’s ready to have sex for the first time since her husband’s death — urgent sex with no strings: “Feyi didn’t think she could stand it, to be touched so tentatively. People had turned her into webbed glass after Jonah died; it made her feel like a relic, not a person.” Feyi’s first frantic carnal encounter spirals into her jetting to a Caribbean island with a guy whose well-connected art collector father, also a famous celebrity chef, has seen her art and offered to introduce her to a major curator who wants to show her work in a major exhibition of Black diaspora artists on the island. Seismic emotional shifts erupt the moment Feyi steps foot in the stylish, tropical mountain home, where she faces tremendous conflicts of loyalty and pulls between the past and her possible future. Messy, moving, heart in-your-mouth stuff, told in dazzling prose.
Expect to wince, flinch, and occasionally grimace in this highly charged and darkly amusing novel. Two grown up daughters return home to their parents and so begins the breakdown of a family. As expected this is an entirely different offering to her previous novels and yet the voice of Helen Fitzgerald is unmistakable. She does this every time, and I love it! Each of her books slips, sometimes swaggers into thoughts sending them spinning. She looks at ‘normal', picks it to pieces, and shows you something you hadn’t even considered. Here we see a family, with parents too intimately involved in their own issues to even begin to notice that sibling rivalry has turned to the dark side. The family therapist adds an extra dimension, keeps the story twisting, the unexpected ready to stick an oar in. The ending is intensely dramatic and yet oh-so convincing, no spoilers but for me it was pitch-perfect. Keep her Sweet is fabulously entertaining, and yet as confrontational and powerful as heck.
With two spectacularly contrasting settings and two oh-so different officers you’ll find yourself with an eloquently compelling novel on your hands. A murder investigation enters the heavyweight corporate world of international deals and exploitation. Award-winning Kjell Ola Dahl began writing in 1993, this book in his successful Oslo Detective series was first published in Norway in 2003 and is just as bitingly relevant today. Little Drummer is book four to be translated into English, and as ever, Don Bartlett does a cracking job, fully immersing you in the story. Gunnarstranda and Frolich make a fabulous pairing, even though they are only together on the page on a handful of occasions. With Frolich jetting off to Kenya, and journalist Lise on the scene, Gunnarstranda still holds his own in Oslo. The fiercely political and social aspects of this novel are highlighted when you consider that this was written twenty years ago, human greed, power, and corruption are our constant companions. Little Drummer is as chillingly Nordic Noir in the dry heat of Africa as it is in Oslo, ensuring an absolutely thrilling and rewarding read.
Wowsers. It’s kind-of a cliché to praise quality thrillers for being unpredictable and un-put-down-able, but Chris Pavone’s Two Nights in Lisbon delivers both those qualities with outstanding style. Reeling with smart misdirection, and raising questions around how well we really know people, Two Nights in Lisbon is a twisty rollercoaster of a read. The unnerving scenes of an American woman, Ariel, waking-up in Lisbon to find her husband gone soon veers in a direction you won’t see coming, setting the tone for the rest of the novel. Just when you think you’ve figured out what kind of story this is — bam! A new nugget comes to light and you’re hurtled down an entirely different track. In Lisbon for a vacation around her new husband’s work trip, Ariel reports his disappearance to the local police, and then the US Embassy. Neither are particularly interested at first — he hasn’t been gone that long, maybe he’s off with a mistress. A tonne of everyday explanations could account for his absence. But it’s not long before the stakes are raised — think changed identities, NDAs, and a murky situation in which it seems that no one’s who they claim to be. As Ariel remarks, “We tell ourselves stories about each other, about ourselves too, our pasts. We construct our narratives, we start with the big picture and then add details one by one, like building a house”, ending up with something “that looks like it’s been there forever, even though it’s a brand-new fabrication”. And, having built a new life for herself, Ariel is forced to return to her past if her new husband is to have a future, and all the while she has her son back home to worry about, “one of the reasons that Ariel felt like she’d been living on high alert, waiting for some bad thing to happen”. Diving headlong into male abuses of power, and touching on how we leave digital footprints even if we try our damndest to be digitally invisible, Two Nights in Lisbon is a triumph.
Beginning as a young French woman moves to Morocco after WWII, Leila Slimani’s The Country of Others, the first in a trilogy, parallels a personal struggle to lead a free life with a nation’s fight for independence. It’s a beautiful, immersive story of conflicts between genders, cultures, classes and generations that sweeps you into its lyrical detail and honesty. After the Liberation, a free-spirited French woman leaves Alsace for a new life with Amine, her Moroccan husband, who’d served as a soldier in France. As Mathilde later explains (the novel is not strictly chronological — episodes from the past are related through perfectly-placed recollections), “She’d been walled up for four years with no new clothes to wear, no new books to read, and Amine was the answer to all her payers. She was nineteen and hungry for life and the war had taken it from her”. Mathilde’s initial optimism at being greeted by her husband, who looked “more handsome than ever, under a sky so profoundly blue that it looked as though it had been washed in the sea”, soon sours. As Amine struggles to make a success of his farm, Mathilde is scorned by the French community for marrying a Moroccan, with their daughter mocked at school for her hair and old clothes. Amine is also tangled in conflicts. As Morocco’s fight for independence intensifies, he feels solidarity with his workers. But, as a landowner, he’s not one of them, and as a Moroccan he’s reviled by the French. And, while he adores his French wife, he’s prone to treating her badly and feels ashamed of her refusal to be subjugated: “What madness was this? How could he have thought he’d be able to live with a European woman as emancipated as Mathilde?” Despite these differences, husband and wife “shared the same aspirations for the progress of mankind: less hunger, less pain. They were both passionate about modernity”, but the political climate increasingly threatens to destabilise what firm ground they have. Brilliantly translated from French by Sam Taylor, this novel crackles with love and resilience.
The first in Alexander McCall Smith's Detective Varg series, The Department of Sensitive Crimes introduces readers to the whimsical delights of what might be termed “cosy Scandi crime” (Scandi noir it ain’t), with endearing philosophical musings on life, love, and human nature coming courtesy of detective Ulf Varg. Working in Malmo's Department of Sensitive Crimes, Ulf makes for an utterly endearing, intriguing protagonist. As is often the way with detectives, he has his personal issues, but in Ulf’s case we’re not talking a dark past of addiction, difficult divorces, and strained relationships with estranged children. Rather, Ulf is a man who worries for the health of Martin, his beloved hearing-impaired dog. A man who’s somewhat irritated by one colleague as he moons after another (in a manner of speaking). Within this glorious set-up, Ulf finds himself having to investigate the curious case of an attack on a market trader alongside the vanishing of an enigmatic chap who might not even exist. Dancing with top-notch dialogue, this novel excels at quirkily comic moments.