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  • The Girl on the Train review – is Paula Hawkins's bestseller unadaptable?

    West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
    Joe Murphy directs an adaptation of the 2015 thriller with Jill Halfpenny playing an amateur sleuth drawn to the case of a missing woman

    Surveying an elliptical painting, a character in this dramatisation of Paula Hawkins’s 2015 bestseller says: “The eye is always drawn to what’s absent.” Much the same is true of adaptations of admired books. Here you feel that an eerily compelling novel, with its multiple narration and Hitchcockian voyeurism, has been turned into a workmanlike thriller and you focus more on what is missing than on any minor gains.

    Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel, who have done this version, may have jettisoned Hawkins’s triple narrators and ingenious time-scheme but they remain true to the basic events. The main character, Rachel, is alcoholic, unemployed, divorced and obsessively interested in what she sees through train windows. She finds herself inexorably drawn to the case of a missing woman, Megan, about whom Rachel has fantasised and whom she has glimpsed kissing a man palpably not her husband. Given that Rachel was seen in the neighbourhood on the night of Megan’s disappearance, might she have vital clues to the case?

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  • The Devils’ Dance by Hamid Ismailov review – a landmark Uzbek novel

    A lost novel about a 19th-century slave girl, and the fate of its real-life author who was imprisoned under Stalin, are reimagined with powerful results

    Hamid Ismailov fled authoritarian Uzbekistan for the UK in 1992, and works for the BBC World Service. He is known for novels, such as The Dead Lake, that were originally written in Russian. The Devil’s Dance is the first of his Uzbek novels published in the UK, and the first major Uzbek work to be translated directly into English. It provides a crash course in Uzbek literature, and the main character is the real-life prominent Uzbek writer Abdulla Qodiriy.

    When Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD, imprisoned Qodiriy in 1937, they destroyed the novel he was writing – about Oyxon, an alluring 19th-century slave girl forcibly married to three khans. But as NKVD interrogators tell Ismailov’s Qodiriy in The Devils’ Dance, “nothing in this world disappears without trace”. Ismailov reimagines Qodiriy’s lost novel, recreating Oyxon and her brutal husbands. He interweaves these fragments with details of Qodiriy’s life and with verses, fables, anecdotes and letters, some taken from real life, told and read by 1930s political prisoners and by poets trapped in harems. It’s Ivan Denisovich meets Scheherazade meets the Lannisters at a postmodern party.

    It’s Ivan Denisovich meets Scheherazade meets the Lannisters at a postmodern party

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  • Break.up by Joanna Walsh review – the end of a virtual affair

    From tantalising texts and passionate emails to heartbreak and rootless wandering … an examination of modern intimacy, this autofiction challenges genre boundaries

    A woman has a love affair – or not quite a love affair, or something more than a love affair. She and the man meet in person a few times, but their relationship is never consummated, since it exists only in the world of emails and instant messaging, where responses are thrillingly instant and gratification tantalisingly deferred:

    We met wherever there was WiFi, which is almost everywhere nowadays, so that when you left, there was never a space from which you could be erased, tidied over. There was never a place where you weren’t, a place from which you could be properly missed.

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  • Pops by Michael Chabon review – what parenthood asks of a man

    The prolific and prizewinning novelist reflects on the pram in the hall, what children can teach fathers and a trip to Paris men’s fashion week

    A year before he published his first novel, Michael Chabon met a famous author at a literary party. This man, who was twice Chabon’s age, offered him some unsolicited advice. “Don’t have children,” he said. “That’s it. Do not. That is the whole of the law.” He went on to explain how, after one book, there would be a second that would inevitably be more difficult and unwieldy than the first, and would probably bomb. A third would nonetheless be expected, followed by a fourth, fifth and sixth, and so on for as long as his “stubbornness and luck held out”. All this would happen, he said, unless Chabon made the same fatal mistake as so many fledgling writers before him. “You can write great books,” he said. “Or you can have kids. It’s up to you.”

    Twenty years later, Chabon – novelist, short story writer and proud father of four – has turned their exchange into an essay called The Opposite of Writing, the first in this warm, whimsical and elegantly observed collection. Chabon, who won a Pulitzer prize for fiction in 2001 for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, is too generous a writer to take a yah-boo-sucks approach to this author, whose intentions, despite the tone of condescension, were seemingly decent. Instead he uses it as a springboard to pondering the perceived problem that is the pram in the hall.

    Pops is less about the next generation as about being in the previous one, and observing one’s slow-burning irrelevance

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  • White Houses by Amy Bloom review – inside FDR’s inner circle
    Real-life aide Lorena Hickok’s companionship with Eleanor Roosevelt, and the president’s womanising, are vividly captured in this timely reimagining of a political household

    Amy Bloom’s new novel uses the power of gossip to get inside the Roosevelt White House through the character of Lorena Hickok, real-life aide and close companion to Eleanor Roosevelt. What she finds there is rank corruption and plenty of paradoxes, some of which resonate with the world we live in now and some of which do not.

    Bloom’s novel is short, but dense and affecting. Hickok, known as “Hick”, is a smart, self-made newspaper reporter raised by a cruel and sexually abusive father in Nebraska. She is also deeply in love with Eleanor Roosevelt, who reciprocates her love when she can, though she is beset by many distractions, including her unpleasant children, her faithless husband and her predilection for always doing the moral and generous thing. Hick is a compelling narrator; she tells the reader a few things that she doesn’t tell Eleanor, including that her sexual awakening came when she was working for a travelling circus. There she met Gerry, “Brother and Sister in One Body”, who may be truly intersex and may be faking it, and who notices that Hick is more attracted to his female side. Eleanor, from a wealthy and sheltered background, is attracted to Hick’s tales. The implication is that her humanitarianism arises from not only her generous nature, but also her sense of her own circumscribed life.

    There are blatant resemblances to today's politics, notably secrets that the White House would like to keep​​ but can’t

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  • The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez review – a history of conspiracy

    The acclaimed Colombian novelist investigates two defining political murders in Bogotá’s past, in a multilayered critique of conspiracy aesthetics

    In October 1914, in Bogotá, two disaffected carpenters hacked to death General Rafael Uribe Uribe, “undisputable leader of the Liberal party, senator of the Republic of Colombia and veteran of four civil wars”. Years later, on 9 April 1948, Liberal firebrand and presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was shot and killed by Juan Roa Sierra; the assassin was beaten to death by a mob before his motives could be made plain or his associates – if any – discovered. This clever, labyrinthine, thoroughly enjoyable historical novel by the Colombian author of The Informers and The Sound of Things Falling entangles the two deaths and investigates the internecine politics that lay behind them.

    “I accepted very early,” the narrator tells us of the Gaitán killing, “as we’ve all come to accept over time, that the murderer … was only the armed branch of a successfully silenced conspiracy.” The suspicion of conspiracy always gives rise to conspiracy theory, which, he concludes, is in itself a sort of further conspiracy – grown men discovered late at night at a cafe table, exchanging anecdotes about a famous killing in “the way boys exchange stickers for football albums”.

    Vásquez assembles anecdotes into a discursive, mischievous autofiction, combining forensic medicine with hearsay

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  • Cringeworthy by Melissa Dahl review – why feeling awkward is good for us
    This lively study explains how embracing embarrassing conversations or exposing situations can improve your life

    I read part of this book in somebody else’s reserved seat on an overbooked train; do train companies have any idea of the anxiety they cause when they suddenly announce that all seat reservations are suspended? As each stop triggered another mortifying conversation about seats, the book explained what was going on in our brains to make the situation feel so painful, why that matters so much to us and what we can learn from it.

    Melissa Dahl is an American science journalist who has been writing about psychology for 10 years, and her book, about the very specific phenomenon of awkwardness, “began as an attempt to permanently banish the feeling from my life with science!” Like all good scientists, though, she has changed her opinion based on the evidence she collected. Dahl now seeks out and embraces awkwardness, and she thinks that we all should, too.

    Related: A Neuroscientist Explains: psychology's replication crisis – podcast

    Dahl takes up improv, appears in a show called Mortified and pays a stranger for a hug

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  • Asako I & II review – Japanese romcom flips the gaze to tell the same old story

    Ryūsuke Hamaguchi’s earnest romance switches things up by having a woman obsessed with a man’s beauty and then falling for his double

    Here is a quibblingly titled movie from Japan that turns out to be an odd doppelganger romance of YA earnestness, directed and co-written by Ryūsuke Hamaguchi, adapted from the novel by Tomoka Shibasaki. It has a kind of counter-Vertigo theme, a tale of mirror-image obsession, but where this kind of thing is usually about the possessive male gaze and passively enigmatic female beauty, here things are reversed. Asako is about the female gaze, and male beauty.

    Erika Karata plays Asako, a college student in Kyoto, demure, hardworking, self-effacing and possessed of a doll-like beauty. One day she attends a photographic exhibition and outside chances across Baku (Masahiro Higashide), a fellow student who is hardly less pretty than she is: cool, careless, like the solo breakout star of a boyband. Baku waltzes up to Asako, chats a little and then presumes to kiss her. Within an instant, she is in love, and they are an item, to the dismay of Asako’s loyal pal Haruyo (Sairi Itô), who knows about Baku’s irresponsible-heartbreaker reputation. One day, Baku does precisely what everyone feared: he wanders off and capriciously vanishes from Asako’s life, having evidently dropped out of school.

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  • The Burning Chambers review – Kate Mosse’s latest tour de force
    The Labyrinth author’s new historical adventure, set amid the wars of religion in France, is ambitious and skilfully constructed

    Kate Mosse’s multimillion-selling 2005 novel Labyrinth reinvented her as a novelist, and reinvigorated the historical adventure genre by putting women’s stories firmly at its heart. After the two subsequent novels, Sepulchre and Citadel, that completed her Languedoc trilogy, and a brief diversion into gothic fiction, Mosse has returned to the geographical and historical terrain of Labyrinth and the epic form that suits her storytelling so well.

    The Burning Chambers is the first in a planned series charting the Huguenot diaspora from the wars of religion in 16th-century France to 19th-century South Africa, and here a prologue set in a Franschhoek graveyard in 1862 hints at the sweep of the story to come. But this volume is rooted 300 years earlier in the Languedoc, in the city of Carcassonne that Mosse brought so vividly to life in her earlier books, and in Toulouse, where in 1562 the tensions between Catholics and Protestants spilled into violence that fuelled 35 years of civil war.

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  • Inner City Pressure: The Story of Grime – review
    Grime, black music’s rawest cry for political justice, has found the passionate chronicler it deserves in Dan Hancox

    It’s December 2010. Hundreds of young demonstrators are kettled in Parliament Square by the Met’s scary territorial support group, despairing of the abolition of the education maintenance allowance, which kept underprivileged young people in colleges and sixth forms, and seeking to influence the parliamentary vote then under way on raising university tuition fees.

    A makeshift PA system turns up, and the jack into the amplifier is passed around the demonstrators’ devices, all naturally loaded with MP3s. A rave erupts in the kettle, playing a huge variety of “music of black origin” – that unsatisfactory portmanteau word covering, at least that day, R&B, dancehall, UK funky and dubstep.

    After a period of pop dilution, it has finally started racking up airtime and awards on its own terms

    Related: How grime gave a voice to a generation

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