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list.co.uk/books Reviews | BOOKS

MEDIA & POLITICS ALAIN DE BOTTON The News: A User’s Manual (Hamish Hamilton) ●●●●●

In this engaging and thoughtful book, the popular philosopher and co-founder of London’s School of Life, Alain de Botton, turns his attention to the news in its various forms. Specifically, he seeks to question the generally accepted positions of authority held by Western news outlets, and to offer some perspective on the effects of

our incessant consumption of news from sources that multiply exponentially every year. Beginning with the point that news ‘now occupies

a position of power at least equal to that formerly enjoyed by the faiths’, de Botton goes on to assert that, unlike religion, the news is not presented to us with any appreciation of or sympathy for our frailties, sensitivities and felt needs. Rather, he argues, news is generally presented in a way that manipulates and takes advantage of our weaknesses, all the while drawing attention away from its own methods. De Botton delivers perceptive analyses on current reporting of different types of news (politics, world, celebrity etc) and in each case posits the ways in which an ‘ideal news agency of the future’ might do things differently. While the analyses are invariably more convincing than his proposed solutions and his tone can occasionally feel pompous and privileged – there is much of value to chew on in his observations. Subtitled ‘a user’s manual’, this book would still probably be best treated as a discussion starter, and should provoke many a worthwhile debate. (Paul Gallagher)

PHILOSOPHY SARA MAITLAND How to be Alone (Macmillan) ●●●●●

FICTION TOBY BARLOW Babayaga (Corvus) ●●●●●

‘Loner’ has become a dirty word, serving as polite code for loser, weirdo and even potential serial killer (‘I’m not surprised they found all those bones in his back garden, he was always a loner . . . ’). But at the same time, we revere the solitary genius, the hermit, the artist musing in a garret. This is why the first step to enjoying solitude, says Sara Maitland, is to let go of stereotypes and accept that, to some extent, we all need time alone.

Like many self-help books, How to be Alone initially focuses less on the how and more on the why. Although an uncomfortable idea to accept, it’s hard to argue with Maitland’s point that perhaps we fear solitude because we don’t want to know how empty our heads really are. More encouragingly, she points out that while we may initially fear time alone, it certainly won’t do us any harm and will probably do us good.

Whether you’re looking for some quiet in a busy life or trying to deal with solitude due to break-up or bereavement, this is a good place to start. (Kirsty Logan)

In which Toby Barlow unleashes a juggernaut of a narrative and, amazingly, keeps it in complete control for 400 hugely entertaining pages. The story comprises three intertwining sets of characters in post-war Paris, and involves CIA espionage, a pair of centuries-old witches and a police detective who gets turned into a flea. The nominal central character is Will, an American ad-man abroad, who stumbles unwittingly into this adventure and, shortly after, true love. Barlow strings the reader along without even a brief explanation as to why anything is happening, balancing outlandish fantasy with wittily captured period reality, making for a fun ride.

His bold characterisation and

freewheeling plotting bring to mind the equally entertaining worlds of Ned Beauman’s Boxer, Beetle and Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker, but Babayaga arguably has a depth that eluded those two. The core of his story is emotional rather than intellectual, and in among the novel’s many fantastical exploits, he buries affecting ruminations on the near-magical capacities of love. (Paul Gallagher)

FICTION MARINA MANDER The First True Lie (Canongate) ●●●●● HISTORICAL FICTION ELIZA GRANVILLE Gretel and the Dark (Hamish Hamilton) ●●●●●

The First True Lie is Marina Mander’s British debut, translated from the Italian by Stephen Twilley, and we’re fortunate that such a stunning gem of a novel has reached our shores. Imagine you’re ‘half-orphan’, then your mother died: what would you do? Fearing life in an orphanage, Luca keeps it secret, pretending everything is normal as his mother’s body decomposes in the bedroom.

Potential grimness is arrested by the brilliantly realised Luca, his heartbreaking story leavened with humour and a quirky world view. He is intelligent and insular, with friends at school but no confidant other than his cat, Blue. ‘Anyway, friends are crawling with parents,’ he points out, knowing this endangers his secret. Fascinated with words, he believes in their power to alter his reality: ‘I am no longer an orphan. I am a single human being. It’s a matter of words.’

Mander’s debut is as close as you can get to perfect with style and substance meeting to create a poignant and beautiful story. (Ever Dundas)

Gretel and the Dark is an atmospheric and beautifully written historical novel told in two linked narratives. In 1890s Vienna, psychoanalyst Josef Breuer is treating a mysterious patient: found by a lunatic asylum, skeletally thin and with her head shaved, she claims to have no name and no past. She claims, in fact, not to be human at all.

In 1940s Germany, a spoilt young girl can’t understand why her father spends so much time bloodying his hands treating the ‘animal people’ who live in the camp beyond the fence. As the novel unfolds, the two narrative strands begin to bleed into one another: characters have the same names and use the same phrases, though they cannot be the same person. Twined throughout are references

to dark and gruesome European fairytales, which set the tone perfectly. Despite the emotive subject matter, this is a subtle and thoughtful novel. It seems soon to call it, but Gretel and the Dark will be one of the best books of 2014. (Kirsty Logan)

23 Jan–20 Feb 2014 THE LIST 43