The best of literary fiction March 2015 | Books | Entertainment

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A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale (Tinder Press, £16.99)

A break from his usual vibrant contemporary settings, Patrick Gale visits turn-of-the-century Edwardian England for his new novel loosely based on his family history.

At the center of this tale of loss, love and friendship is Harry Cane, an affluent but shy gentleman who drifts brilliantly through his day. His world then collapses and is remade in the hostile surroundings of the newly colonized Canadian Prairies.

In the English section of the story, Harry gets married, has a child, and is quite happy, but a visit to the theater puts him on the path to disaster. He is taken in an affair which obliges him to leave his family to avoid a huge scandal.

Ill-prepared, he sets sail for a new world and becomes an apprentice on a remote farm, slowly learning the skills needed to become a farmer, and sets out to transform his life.

Gale’s descriptions of Harry learning to feel useful in a difficult environment are beautifully observed, but the real moment of breath-taking wonder comes when Harry falls in love and is loved with all his heart. It is an unabashedly passionate affair and fills Harry with purpose and strength.

He needs these qualities when he is later tested by a malevolent man and pushed to the edge of his sanity by the toll of tragedy. Gale is not a sentimental writer, he is well aware of hardship and despair, but the overwhelming emotion in this beautiful book is tender, vital joy.

VERDICT: 5/5

The Wolf Frontier by Sarah Hall (Faber & Faber, £14.99)

Rachel Caine first encounters wolves in a ramshackle Victorian menagerie in Cumbria’s Lowther Valley. Bewitched, she observes a “creature so beautiful she can barely understand it”, playfully stalking it.

Decades later, Rachel has avoided family strife and romantic attachments during a life spent watching wolves on an Idaho reservation. Then she was offered a controversial but hugely attractive chance to oversee a gray wolf reintroduction project in England.

The post is in the gift of Thomas Pennington, eccentric Earl of Annerdale. Reluctant to depend on “a rich man’s whim”, her decision is further complicated by her delicate relationship with her family.

She’s estranged from her half-brother Lawrence and is suspicious of her mother, the irrepressible Binny, who wreaked all sorts of havoc in her glory years but is slowly succumbing to cancer. Unexpectedly pregnant, Rachel decides to return home and face family life in all its bewildering complications.

Sarah Hall is wonderful at identifying the push and pull of loyalties, the way a person can be undone or remade by the force of a new emotion. She is equally brilliant at tackling notions of land ownership in an increasingly urbanized society.

But above all, there is the world of the wolf, an elegant and magnificent animal that prowls through the pages of this graceful, visceral and absolutely captivating read.

VERDICT: 5/5

The Kindness of Polly Samson (Bloomsbury, £14.99)

Polly Samson’s exquisite novel opens with a falcon named Lucifer strapped to Julia’s leather gauntlet watching the bird fly away. With Julia is Julian, who has cycled in mad panic to meet her after falling head over heels in love with the woman of his dreams. He is eight years younger and despite the fact that Julia is married to the aggressive and possessive Chris, he is in depth and so, it seems, so is Julia.

Seven years later and everything has changed. Julian is floundering, depressed and intensely missing his daughter Mira “with a crown of daisies and sunshine in her hair” who is no longer a part of his life. All photos of her have been deleted, and all of Julia’s property is also gone.

In compelling prose, Sampson traces the trajectory of their life together, first through Julian’s eyes and then from Julia’s perspective.

Julian’s perspective is colored by what went wrong, a bitter veneer on a relationship that shone with passion. He remembers his joy at Julia’s pregnancy, their cheap and drab bedroom, the apartment they were able to afford when his cartoon series took off, a lifetime of shared affection until until Mira becomes dangerously ill and Julia betrays him.

Samson’s portrayal of Julian is so skillful it’s hard not to feel hostile towards Julia, but slowly, steadily, she overturns everything you thought you knew about their shared history. It’s so subtly done and the revelations are so startling that you’re compelled to reconsider the legacy of pain, grief and betrayal. Impressive.

VERDICT: 4/5

The best of the rest

Fans of literary fiction are spoiled for choice this month. Turn a new page with one of these exceptionally crafted novels…

The Mirror World of Melody Black by Gavin Extence (Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99)

Life has gotten tough for the endearing heroine of Gavin Extence’s second novel.

After discovering a dead body in the apartment next door, charming a difficult poet, sparking an impulsive encounter with a professor, and going on a hugely expensive spending spree, budding journalist Abby finds herself once again plagued by mania and depression.

Insightful and sensitive, Extence describes with the lightest of touches what it’s like to live with bipolar.

The Shore by Sara Taylor (William Heinemann, £12.99)

Sara’s Taylor’s ambitious debut novel is a series of interlocking stories that explore the lives of generations of women who live on The Shore, an outcrop of islands that stretches out into the Atlantic.

It’s a world of oyster shell roads, meth labs, unwanted pregnancies and weather magic, and it’s no wonder the women are fierce, resilient and vengeful as they face a sad catalog of disasters and domestic violence. It’s grim material, but Taylor’s prose is dreamy and surprisingly playful.

The Ladies of the House by Molly McGrann (Picador, £12.99)

Life isn’t much better for the wives of the Ladies of the House. Rita reminisces about her days as a high-class prostitute over many glasses of sweet sherry while managing to keep tabs on Annetta whose story is lost to Alzheimer’s disease. Meanwhile, Marie Gillies is in shock to find out how her father made his money.

In razor-sharp prose, McGrann swings between past and present, deftly revealing the mysterious ties between the women and the rather large ramshackle house that unites them.

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy (Jonathan Cape, £16.99)

The latest offering from Booker-nominated author Tom McCarthy is slim, smart and infuriating. Narrator U, a cool corporate anthropologist, tries to find the connections between the most unlikely things at the behest of the mega-corporation he works for and riffs on zombie parades, oil spills, traffic jams and the parachute murders.

Tasked with summarizing the unfathomable meanings of our time, U is alternately inspired and befuddled by the wealth of information he is forced to contemplate in this entertaining slice of experimental fiction.

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum (Coat, £14.99)

Hausfrau is a chilling read, a story told with the kind of chilling emotional honesty that burns as well as freezes.

Anna is a married American expat living in a pretty suburb of contemporary Zurich. Uncomfortable in her own skin, she courts disaster in a series of affairs. But when this catastrophe happens, it is unexpected and heartbreaking.

Top 5 fiction

1. Mightier Than The Sword by Jeffrey Archer (Macmillan, £20)

2. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (Doubleday, £12.99)

3. 14th Deadly Sinby James Patterson (Century, £20)

4. Prodigal Son by Danielle Steel (Bantam Press, £18.99)

5. The Dandelion Years by Erica James (Orion, £16.99)

Top 5 non-fiction

1. Deliciously Ellaby Ella Woodward (Yellow Kite, £20)

2. Mary Berry’s Absolute Favorites by Mary Berry (BBC, £25)

3. Love, Tanyaby Tanya Burr (Penguin, £12.99)

4. Winners: And How They Succeed by Alastair Campbell (Hutchinson, £20)

5. Sainsbury’s Cookbook (Volume One) (Dorling Kindersley, £9.99)

Top 5 kids

1. The Queen’s Orangutan by David Walliams (HarperCollins, £4.99)

2. Demon Dentist by David Walliams (HarperCollins, £6.99)

3. The dinosaur that pooped a lot! by Tom Fletcher and Dougie Poynter (Red Fox, £1)

4. Jacqueline Wilson’s The Butterfly Club (Doubleday, £12.99)

5. Girl Online by Zoe Sugg (Penguin, £12.99)

To order titles for these pages, see Express Bookshop; expressbookshop.co.uk.

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