Political prisoners

BOOK OF THE WEEK

The Facility

Simon Lelic

****

Simon Lelic's second novel is grander in scale than his intimate and claustrophobic debut, Rupture, but his ability to create an atmosphere of tension and foreboding fits just as neatly into this frighteningly believable conspiracy thriller.

At its heart is Henry Graves, a lifelong prison warden who has been tasked with mnaging a decrepit government facility hidden deep in the countryside. It is home to dozens of inmates, plucked from their loved ones and held in diabolical conditions under a new piece of sweeping government legislation.

Among them is Arthur Priestley – a dentist who has no idea why he is being kept in this British Guantanamo. The only person who seems to care about his disappearance is his estranged wife Julia, and the naive but precocious political journalist, Tom, whom she persuades to investigate the case, and who soon finds his life in danger as a result.

Clever, well-paced and with a clear message, this is an ambitious and important novel with shades of George Orwell's 1984 at its core.

Mantle, hardback 12.99

There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbour's Baby: Scary Fairy Tales

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

****

Nineteen scary fairy tales and fables from the last 30 years of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's work have been selected for this new book to celebrate the mystical side of the Russian writer.

Petrushevskaya offers us a glimpse into the world of these Soviet and post-Soviet allegories and songs, many never published before in English.

The settings of forests, morgues and underwater palaces might not be familiar but the emotional journeys certainly are. Almost all Petrushevskaya's characters encounter death in some form: a murder attempt on a neighbour's baby in Revenge, a widow finding love again in A New Soul or a mother adjusting to the afterlife in Two Kingdoms.

In a few, superbly precise sentences, Petrushevskaya brings each of them back from the brink of total despair to a place of hope and consolation. A short story collection which doesn't pull any emotional punches.

Penguin, paperback 9.99

American Assassin

Vince Flynn

***

American Assassin is an intriguing prequel focusing on the early years of counter-terrorism operative Mitch Rapp.

Regular readers of Vince Flynn's work will already be more than familiar with the main character, but this fast-paced thriller outlines how he first became involved in the murky world of an undercover agent.

After losing the love of his life in the Lockerbie bombing, a furious Rapp – hell-bent on revenge – is recruited to join a clandestine branch of the CIA.

The action comes thick and fast thereafter as, after an intense period of training under the leadership of the fiercely aggressive and borderline psychotic Stan Hurley, Rapp is thrown into a series of highly dangerous situations, culminating in a dramatic finale.

Flynn succeeds in building the tension as the book moves towards its conclusion, although his efforts are somewhat marred by a handful of unnecessary errors.

Simon and Schuster paperback 12.99

The London Train

Tessa Hadley

***

The first half of this thought-provoking novel focuses on Paul, a well-meaning but flawed man who lives in Wales with his second wife and their two young children. When he finds out that 19-year-old daughter Pia has dropped out of university, he catches the train to London in a bid to rescue her and discovers his own thirst for independence and freedom.

In the second half we follow enigmatic Cora, who has moved from London to Cardiff to escape her marriage to an emotionally inarticulate Whitehall mandarin. She is struggling to adjust to her new life - but a chance meeting with Paul on the London train turns her world upside down.

Tessa Hadley writes effortlessly and beautifully, particularly about Cora's inner turmoils, but the two distinct halves of the novel do seem disjointed. Perhaps the two stories would have worked wonderfully weaved in and out of each other.

Jonathan Cape, hardback 12.99

How to save the world from waste

NON-FICTION

The Secret Life Of Stuff: A Manual For A New Material World

Julie Hill

****

Instead of piling more doom and gloom on to the shoulders of well-meaning readers, environmentalist Julie Hill outlines a positive plan for a world spring clean.

Drawing on 25 years' worth of experience with the Environment Agency, the Eden Project and the Green Alliance think-tank, Hill investigates what the human race can do with all the stuff they've accumulated and how they can avoid creating waste in the future.

She argues that we can design our way out of such problems by ensuring products are designed with their environmental impacts in mind.

Exploring the life cycles of crisp packets, mobile phones and T-shirts, she explains where they end up, and why they need to undergo urgent change.

The result will make fascinating reading for anyone with an interest in their impact on the environment.

Vintage, paperback 8.99

Children Of Light: How Electrification Changed Britain Forever

Gavin Weightman

**

Social historian Gavin Weightman's account of electricity's arrival in British homes and streets moves from optimistic beginnings in the 1870s, through to the difficulties caused by misguided legislation and the world wars, to the glory days of the National Grid.

His acknowledgements note that much of the material has previously been available in dry, specialist publications, but while he has stripped out the technical detail, only intermittently can he make the material interesting for the general reader.

Mostly this happens when colourful figures such as the swindler Charles Tyson Yerkes, the eccentric Charles Algernon Parsons or the ghastly Thomas Edison take the spotlight away from the deliberations of local government, but the book is too short for full portraits of such characters. Nor does it help that the later sections cover ground already addressed recently in BBC Four's excellent history of the Grid.

Lacking either general or specialist appeal, this seems a book of uncertain purpose.

Atlantic Books, hardback 25

Ancient Worlds: The Search Of The Origins of Western Civilization

Richard Miles

****

A beautifully crafted book, Ancient Worlds mirrors the success of the recent BBC Two series. Whether you want to indulge yourself in the earliest empire of Mesopotamia, or read about the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, it delivers on its promise to get you thinking about the past and the present.

Historian and archaeologist Richard Miles tells the stories of the beginnings of our civilisation in a poetic manner. Culture, religion, politics and war are beautifully interwoven to successfully evoke the spirit of the times.

Those who wish to delve deeper into the civilisations of the Mediterranean and beyond will love this book.

Allen Lane, hardback 25

EP 8/1/11

Illustrator Ian Beck. Photo: Graham Miller

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