Dhaka, Bangladesh
The best books you may have missed

The best books you may have missed

(From previous issue) Anita Sethi (critic) The power of music to stir memory and move the hardest heart permeates Taduno's Song (Canongate £10.99), the overlooked Kafkaesque debut novel by Nigerian writer Odafe Atogun, which echoes with the life of the great singer and human rights activist Fela Kuti. When the rebel singer Taduno returns from political exile to his homeland, he discovers that the ruthless dictatorship has erased all traces of him, and that his beloved Lela has been imprisoned. Taduno faces a stark choice: to sing in praise of the regime or to continue striving "against injustice and oppression". I urge people to read this unforgettable new voice, writing in polished, gleaming prose about how it feels to be silenced. The Memory Stones by Caroline Brothers (Bloomsbury £16.99) is an evocative second novel, bringing to life "the disappeared" - those who vanished during the 1976 Argentine military coup. This includes the Ferrero family, which fragments when its members are forced to flee or go into hiding. This rough diamond of a novel is a lyrical portrait of brutality that lingers in the memory and deserves a wider readership. Abundant with hidden gems of another kind is the wonderfully illustrated Atlas of Improbable Places: A Journey to the World's Most Unusual Corners (Aurum Press £20) by Travis Elborough and Alan Horsfield. This compendium of curiosities showcases the world's lesser-known wonders, from the relics of ancient cities to extraordinary land formations. But the world's hidden horrors are also elucidated (a British Indian penal settlement in the Andaman archipelago, for example, where freedom fighters were forced to construct their own prisons). From an underground cold war spy tunnel to the mist- and myth-wreathed Mount Roraima, this engrossing book traverses the heights and depths, the beauty and terror, of our world. A fascinating examination of friendship is at the heart of Anna Thomasson's magnificently researched yet largely ignored biography, A Curious Friendship: The Story of a Bluestocking and a Bright Young Thing, published in paperback this year (Macmillan £9.99). Telling the story of the unlikely friendship between a bohemian art student, Rex Whistler, and the writer Edith Olivier, which "changed them irrevocably", it explores the transformative power of friendship. This vivid portrait of the 1920s and 1930s also demonstrates how, through the meticulous process of biography - the painstaking excavation of letters, diaries, photographs - hidden emotional lives and forgotten nuggets of history can be thrown into the light. Hannah Beckerman (novelist and critic) Two debut short-story collections, both from John Murray and both little noticed, hugely impressed me this year. Dinosaurs on Other Planets by Danielle McLaughlin (£8.99), and Blind Water Pass by Anna Metcalfe (£10.99) demonstrated a grasp of storytelling, language and emotional economy beyond the expectations for any debut author. Alongside Mark Haddon's much more widely praised The Pier Falls (Random House £12.99), they prove the capacity of a short story to immerse the reader fully in a fictional world. Psychological thrillers have been the year's hot publishing ticket, and a number of literary titles have brought complexity to the genre, but received less attention than they merited. Amanda Jennings's In Her Wake (Orenda Books £8.99) is a haunting and elegiac novel, exploring themes of identity, family and loss. Following the death of her mother, protagonist Bella begins to uncover secrets about her past that force her to question everything she thought she knew about herself and her family. Deeply atmospheric, it is compelling and emotionally satisfying. Noah Hawley's Before the Fall (Hodder & Stoughton £7.99), a big hit in the US, didn't receive the coverage in the UK it deserved. Opening with a plane crash from which there are only two survivors, Hawley peels back the layers of each passenger's previous life with all the precision and pacing of a great suspense writer. But to describe Before the Fall as a thriller is to undersell it: as Hawley has proved with his previous novel, The Good Father, and as the creator of the TV series Fargo, he has an intuitive understanding of human behaviour and an instinctive grasp of plot that make him a master storyteller. Anthony Quinn (novelist and critic) Benjamin Johncock's The Last Pilot (Myriad Editions £8.99) seems at first to be a brilliant pastiche of distinct American classics, the Tom Wolfe of The Right Stuff, the short stories of Raymond Carver and James Salter of Burning the Days. The author's grasp of the intricacies of life among test pilots and their perilous pursuit of the demon of speed is striking enough. What gives the novel its emotional lift-off is its portrait of a marriage going wrong, harrowed by the pressures of American machismo and familial loss. The novel dovetails these two different agonies and wrests from them a dreadful sense of breakdown, of life being torn apart in front of our eyes. It is achieved by the use of pared-down dialogue and prose that conveys an absolute understanding of its subject: the technical daring of pilots in the age of the space race, and the awareness of their mortality. Despite winning this year's Authors' Club best first novel award, The Last Pilot has remained, mystifyingly, under the radar. I do urge you to seek it out. In nonfiction, Diary of a Wartime Affair (Viking £16.99) hasn't received its due as a remarkable record of private life in the years between 1934 and 1941. Doreen Bates was a 30-ish, well-read civil servant in London involved in a passionate and sometimes anguished affair with a married man at her office. Their night-time country walks, trips to the theatre and circular arguments (she wants a baby; he doesn't) are recounted with a precision and feeling that might break your heart. But it's droll and candid, too, as only a young woman can be when describing quick sex in a train carriage between Leatherhead and Box Hill. This is a companion piece to last year's A Notable Woman, and a treat for anyone interested in the sturm und drang of life during wartime. Stephanie Merritt (novelist and critic) I've always been obsessed with ghost stories, and the more I read, the more I realise it's one of the hardest genres to tackle: to create a story that avoids cliche and succeeds in being genuinely scary takes real skill. So I loved Julie Myerson's The Stopped Heart (Vintage, £12.99), a properly chilling novel with a dual narrative that plays on the idea of being haunted and deals with profoundly disturbing subject matter. I read it almost in one sitting and felt it should be a huge hit - I'd love to see a TV adaptation, but it would need to be sensitively handled. But the queen of the genre is Shirley Jackson; for Halloween a new edition of her collected stories, Dark Tales, was published by Penguin Classics (£9.99) and it's full of little-known gems. There's been an explosion of superb nature and travel writing in the past few years by writers who have fused the genres with memoir and literary reflections. Two recent books I've loved have both been fascinated with the landscapes of the north. Madeleine Bunting's Love of Country (Granta £18.99) charts a series of journeys to the Hebrides over the course of six years, following a love born in childhood holidays. She explores the history and culture of the islands and, through them, the nature of home and what it means to belong to a place. Charles Moseley's Latitude North (Indie Books £20) ventures even further towards the pole, following a lifelong passion for the icy landscapes of Greenland and Spitsbergen. Moseley draws on his expertise as a literary scholar to weave the history and myth of the northern lands into accounts of his own travels. The result is a lyrical treasure chest of anecdote and insight.

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