Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

This one’s an odd choice for me: no sorcerers, no ghosts, no guns, no starships, and if I’m honest, there wasn’t really much that would normally hold my attention … aside from the some very fine writing.

The story is set a few years before WWII. America is rediscovering its sense of prosperity following the Great Depression, and New York is crammed full of industrious rich, and the idle children of the industrious rich.

And crash-landing into this world of privileged hedonism, is our heroine and narrator, the unlikely-named Kathey Kontent (Kontent – emphasis on the ent, as in ‘reasonably happy’). Kathey takes us through her time as a wannabe ‘it’ girl, climbing New York’s society ladder aided by a vast array of equally ambitious female friends and somewhat vacuous lovers.

The author draws a world that you can almost touch. The architecture, the cars, the noise, the people … reading this book is really odd; a lot like remembering a forties movie you’ve never seen. It’s wonderfully atmospheric, and the story is beautifully told, and it gets better as Kathey becomes a wiser to the way the world works. It helps that she’s a very likeable character: smart and ambitious, with two very simple aims: a fabulous career and a rich husband.

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Hitler’s Canary by Sandi Tokskvig

I started reading this book last night. When I finished the last page, I got out of bed, made breakfast, then stood in front of the bifolds looking out at the garden while drinking coffee. I watched a magpie watching me, and thought that as long as there are Danes, there maybe hope for the human race after all.

It was 4am, so I was probably a bit more emotional than I usually am.

Now I don’t read a lot of YA fiction. I think the last one was Predator’s Gold from the Mortal Engines series. But I actually made the effort to track this one one down after my much better half (she’s a huge Toksvig fan) played me an interview where Toksvig talked about her family’s involvement in a nationwide plan to the evacuate Danish Jews (or as the Danes liked to call them, Danes) from the occupied Denmark. Toksvig had written a short story about it. I’ve got more than a passing interest in the exploits of Scandinavia during the war. In fact, I thought their sacrifice and bravery has never received the recognition it deserved, so I wrote a book about it. I wrote about Norway, but it could just have easily been Denmark.

I didn’t find Toksvig’s short story, but I did find this book, and as you may have already guessed, I think it’s certainly the best YA novel I’ve ever read.

There were 8000 Jews living in Denmark when the Nazis invaded (April 1940). The country was small, and ill-equipped to fight, and so submitted in pretty short order. In fact, the term Hitler’s Canary was coined by the British press, as they now viewed Denmark as a caged bird, singing for the Nazis. Unsurprisingly, as with most things regarding the British press, nothing could be further from the truth.

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The Young Bride by Alessandro Baricco

I read Silk a couple of years ago, and to this day it remains the best book I’ve ever read. In fact, it was so good, I couldn’t finish another book for months. But I realised … and I’m doing it again: this isn’t about Silk, this is about another piece from Alessandro Baricco’s multi-room writing studio.

I’m not sure how the Young Bride escaped my radar for so long, but when I found it, it was a day of joy. It’s an odd story; a dense, literary tale about a young woman who comes to live with a family of wealthy textile merchants. She has been promised to the Son of the family’s patriarch, but on her arrival she discovers the Son has travelled to England to study manufacturing. No one is sure when he will return, so she decides to wait for him, slowly becoming indoctrinated into the strange domestic and sexual rituals of the Family. After a time though, it becomes clear that the Son is no longer in England; he left the country to travel further, and has not been heard from since. The Bride, now bewitched by the Family, and weaving an intricate web of desire of her own, must face the possibility that the Son may never return.

Yes, it’s Alessandro Baricco, so you know it’s going to be a great book, though that doesn’t mean you’re going to like everything about it. I mean, I like a good poetic read as much as the next would-be writer, but sometimes I found the prose a little dense, to the point that it sometimes got in the way of the story, and that’s a shame because it really is a great story. The characters are perfectly flawed, the setting is immaculately crafted and the pace, while measured, is pretty much what a book like this needs. But occasionally, very occasionally, the story gets lost in the poetry.

But aside from that, this is a thoroughly enjoyable read that doesn’t builds to a gentle but satisfying end.

Seven out of ten