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Bookcase

First published in AdXtra

A look at the latest releases, plus what's new in paperback.

By Kate Whiting


New fiction

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson is published in hardback by Granta Books, priced £12.99. Available now

After losing his wife and baby daughter to a wildfire that ravaged much of the valley in which they lived, Robert Grainer labours to rebuild his life during the transformation of early twentieth century North West America, in this Pulitzer shortlisted novella.

Moving slowly and not burdened by over-explanation or description, it is an astonishingly gripping read.

Johnson's simple writing allows you to focus on the tragedy of Grainer, who struggles to adapt to an ever-changing world.

Having lost all that matters, he seeks comfort in his own company and falls into a life of solitude, almost completely void of the complications of human interaction.

Sleeping naked outside and howling at the night to encourage wolf cubs, some may argue he goes mad.

Awe-inspiring and heartbreaking, exciting and humbling, this is a recommended read.

9/10

(Review by Wayne Walls)


Valentine Grey by Sandi Toksvig is published in hardback by Virago, priced £16.99. Available now

Those who have been waiting patiently since Toksvig's last novel for adults are rewarded with this gem, as the Danish-writer-turned-national-treasure creates a page-turner that moves, delights and horrifies in equal measure.

Set at the turn of the 20th century, the book sees cousins Valentine and Reggie Grey united in a desire for forbidden pleasures: she for the freedom and excitement denied to her gender, he for his lover - music hall star Frank.

As the Boer War rages in South Africa, Valentine seizes her chance to take Reggie's place at the front in a move that will shape both their futures in unforeseen ways.

Although Toksvig occasionally gives way to authorial outrage at the worst atrocities of Victorian life, and a string of coincidences make it hard to suspend disbelief at times, the loveable characters and excellent writing will keep you gripped.

8/10

(Review by Sarah Warwick)


The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers is published in hardback by Sceptre, priced £14.99. Available now

Author and poet Kevin Powers is a veteran of the Iraq war and his debut novel is an engrossing journey into the human cost of conflict.

The story is told through Private John Bartle's eyes, an ordinary soldier thrust into a situation he struggles to comprehend, troubled with guilt over a broken promise.

His time in Iraq is juxtaposed with his struggle to deal with the world and himself after he is sent back home.

Throughout the book, Powers' background shines though.

The descriptions of war feel personal and visceral, and are aided by a poetic, graceful prose which lends the book a haunting beauty.

The Yellow Birds offers a powerful insight into a world which most of us will never experience.

Don't let the subject matter put you off, this is a marvellous debut and highly recommended.

9/10

(Review by Chris Gray)


Bones Are Forever by Kathy Reichs is published in hardback by William Heinemann, priced £18.99. Available now

Kathy Reichs' books always top the best-seller list - and on the evidence of Bones Are Forever, it is easy to see why.

Fans will be familiar with Tempe Brennan - a forensic anthropologist based out of North Carolina and Montreal.

Those new to the character will soon be up to speed.

Tempe is called to a run-down apartment outside Montreal, where she finds the mummified remains of a tiny newborn baby.

The discovery signals the start of a complex investigation which leads Tempe to the desolate edges of Canada.

This is a fast-moving, deftly plotted tale which has the reader on the edge of their seat.

Not only is Reichs a top forensic anthropologist herself, but she's also a top writer.

One to savour

9/10

(Review by Sandra Mangan)


The Shadow Girls by Henning Mankell is published in hardback by Harvill Secker, priced £17.99. Available now

This novel defies genre as Henning Mankell ventures away from his usual thriller to a concoction that resists categorisation.

A struggling writer named Jesper Humlin has a chance encounter with an African refugee named Tea-Bag.

She, along with two other refugees - Tania, who has escaped human trafficking, and Leyla, from Iran - provide Jesper with the fresh perspective he desperately needs, but the girls also have their own agenda.

As we are drawn into the shadow world of immigrant life in Sweden, Mankell's blend of comedy and moving drama provides a voice for those who lose theirs on their journey from oppression to imagined freedom; freedom which is often transient and blighted with prejudice and racism.

For those who enjoy the security of definitively formed fiction, The Shadow Girls may not appeal as it feels like reading two novels at once.

7/10

(Review by Natsayi Sithole)


Toby's Room by Pat Barker is published in hardback by Hamish Hamilton, priced £16.99. Available now

This intriguing novel reintroduces the reader to art students Elinor Brook, Kit Neville and Paul Tarrant - the three central characters in Pat Barker's 2007 novel, Life Class.

Toby's Room revisits the trio as the First World War looms in their paths.

Opening during the hot summer of 1912, Barker plunges the reader into the centre of an uncomfortable yet fascinating relationship between Toby and his adoring sister, Elinor.

When Toby is reported 'missing, presumed dead' on the battlefield, Elinor struggles to disengage herself from her intensely obsessive relationship with her brother, refusing to believe that he is dead.

The presence, and indeed significance, of wartime art is nothing less than enthralling in Toby's Room.

The controversial plot can at times feel awkward against the backdrop of the war, but Barker again manages to draw the reader completely into the horrors of battle.

7/10

(Review by Chloe Chaplain)


A Killing In The Hills, by Julia Keller, is published in hardback by Headline, priced £16.99. Available now

The murder of three old men in front of a diner full of customers poses several questions for hard-nosed prosecutor Bell Elkins.

The sleepy West Virginia town of Acker's Gap is just too quiet for major crimes like this to visit its cold and windy streets.

But at the back of 'A Killing In The Hills' is a message, a resonance about life in West Virginia and how it grips the people who live in the shadow of its mountains.

Julia Keller, a literary critic, a university lecturer in writing and an award winner for feature writing, has woven an intriguing story of suspense with a classic twist in what is a fine debut crime novel.

Bell Elkins has a sure fire future in the hearts of crime fans the world over, as has Julia Keller.

8/10

(Review by Roddy Brooks)


Children's book of the week:

The Further Tale Of Peter Rabbit by Emma Thompson is published in hardback by Frederick Warne, priced £12.99. Available now

It's a brave move to bring back a well-loved children's character and an even braver one to pick up where Beatrix Potter left off, but actress Emma Thompson succeeds with The Further Tale Of Peter Rabbit.

The young Peter is moping (his ears are delightfully drooping in the beautiful illustration by Eleanor Taylor) and tells Benjamin Bunny he needs a change of scene.

After falling asleep in a picnic basket, which is carried off on a cart, he finds himself in Scotland and in the company of vegetable-tossing Finlay McBurney.

Peter bizarrely ends up challenging Finlay to a spot of radish hurling, but all's well that ends well.

Potter would surely have approved of Thompson's humorous tale, inspired by a summer in Scotland, but it will never eclipse the original.

7/10

(Review by Kate Whiting)


Non-fiction

From MTV To Mecca by Kristiane Backer is published in paperback by Arcadia Books, priced £8.99. Available now

From MTV to Mecca is a thought-provoking memoir written by former MTV presenter Kristiane Backer.

Against the backdrop of the party scene of celebrity London in the 1990s, Backer tells her story of becoming a Muslim.

She is introduced to Islam during a trip to Pakistan, led by the famous cricketer Imran Khan.

Through him and the associates she meets during her physical and spiritual travels, Backer is increasingly drawn to a way of life in which total submission to a higher being is the only way to achieve true happiness.

Ultimately, Backer converts to Islam, and undertakes one of the religion's defining practices - pilgrimage to Mecca.

Backer's conversion is not without difficulties.

She encounters prejudice and ostracism, but the honesty that she imparts, in particular through her exploration of the status of women in Islam, is refreshing.

Backer, therefore, manages to produce a sincere account of the experiences of a Muslim convert today.

8/10

(Review by Liz Ellis)


Bright Young Things: Life In The Roaring Twenties by Alison Maloney is published in hardback by Virgin Books, priced £9.99. Available now

Journalist Alison Maloney chronicles the fashions and fancies of the 1920s, looking at the antics of high society and the rise of the flapper, the little black dress and nightclubs.

She explores topics including clothing, food, drink, music and entertainment to get a feel of the era and the younger generation's post-First World War sentiment towards freedom and liberation - a contrast with the stuffy practices of their parents.

Bright Young Things is a nostalgic read and harks back to those glamourous days when the young elite raced around London on treasure hunts, drinking and dancing 'til the wee small hours and holding wild parties.

Boundaries were redrawn and prominent figures such as designer Coco Chanel, musician Duke Ellington, socialite Zelda and author husband F Scott Fitzgerald and Charleston dancer Bee Jackson changed society's way of thinking.

8/10

(Review by Caroline Davison)


Winter Journal by Paul Auster is published in hardback by Faber and Faber, priced £17.99. Available now

Paul Auster's novels and screenplays have won him plenty of readers and awards, but there have always been many who found his self-reflexive style and recurrent fascination with a set palette of topics infuriating.

The latter are unlikely to be won over by this elliptical meditation on growing older, which by being told in the second person seems determined to make the reader a mirror to the author's concerns.

Memoir is, necessarily, an intimate and self-regarding form, but that seems more pronounced given the deliberate physicality of Winter Journal - this is a life measured out in ailments, accidents and meals, Auster's story told through the stories of parts of his body.

The sections on his family - and in particular his frustrating, fascinating mother - may be more conventionally emotional, but the overall effect is still rather unsettling.

Appropriate, perhaps, for a book written in mortality's shadow.

7/10

(Review by Alex Sarll)


Grammar For Grown-Ups by Katherine Fry and Rowena Kirton is published on hardback by Square Peg, priced £10.99. Available now

Tagged as 'a straightforward guide to good English', this encyclopaedia of grammar is split into distinct chapters, covering all the finer points of both British and American English.

Amusing comments from the authors help to lift the subject matter slightly, but don't be fooled - it is quite heavy going.

Many parts of grammar are confusing and take a while to get the hang of, especially for someone new to English.

And this is not a book aimed at everyone, but at those who are either interested in, or need to know all about, English grammar.

As a reference book, it's easy to navigate and includes short tests for those who want to try out their new-found skills (the answers are at the back of the book).

But I wouldn't recommend trying to read it all in one go... especially if you are trying to stay awake!

7/10

(Review by Debbie Murray)

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