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Reading for pleasure

19 May 14

This month's selection of leisure reading chosen by the Journal's Book Review Editor

by David J Dickson

Sworn Virgin

Elvira Dones (& Other Stories: £10; e-book £4.80)

Elvira Dones is one of Albania's foremost authors. This book is brought to readers by & Other Stories, a not-for-profit publisher which uses a subscription model to publish books and bring them to the attention of booksellers. Their philosophy is straightforward: "a literary publishing house that works on the principle that great new books will be heard about and read thanks to the combined intelligence of a number of people: editors, readers, translators, critics, literary promoters and academics".

This excellent book demonstrates the practical outcome of such an approach. Hana Doda is brought up by her elderly aunt and uncle following her parents' death. She comes from a mountain village in northern Albania where traditional values and customs are observed. She however studies literature in Tirana and is exposed to a more progressive life, albeit in the years immediately after the death of Hoxha when Albania was still a closed country.

Her uncle falls seriously ill and she misses her exams to return and care for him. Despite her commitment to him, she refuses to participate in an arranged marriage. Following tradition, she leads a life in the mountains as a man even long after he has died, and despite her cousin having emigrated to the United States. Hana travels to the US in the months after 9/11, living with her cousin and her family, where, slowly, hesitantly, she reverts from living as a man to a woman, adjusting to life in a new culture.

The author intertwines Hana's life in Albania with her developing life as an immigrant in the US. The personal, internal and external pressures, tensions and frustrations are eloquently and movingly described. The importance of the Kanun, Albanian traditional law, in Albanian life – one aspect of which is blood feuds – is a central feature in the book. Originally written in Italian, a little knowledge or research on Albanian traditions gives the story greater context. A literary novel drawing on the lives and experiences of 12 woman who live as men, this book won the English Pen Award.

Last Friends

Jane Gardam (Abacus: £8.99; e-book £3.59)

This is the last in a trilogy of books written about Sir Terence Veneering, known as "Old FILTH" (Failed in London Try Hong Kong), his arch rival in commercial litigation Sir Edward Feathers QC, their wives, and Dulcie Williams, wife of Judge "Pasty Willie" Williams. This book sees both Veneering and Feathers dead. The story moves between the childhoods of Veneering and Sir Fred Fiscal-Smith; Veneering's early career provides the background to a delightful story of friendship old and rekindled, ageing, and ultimately love. Veneering narrowly missed death as a child, having skipped being sent to Canada with other children to avoid the war in Britain. Serendipity leads to his ultimately finding chambers.

The two old Titans of the Bar are reconciled, living next door to each other in a small Dorset village. Fiscal-Smith has a past but has been much loathed by his circle, having foisted himself on others over the years. His is a sad but determined character. He and Dulcie meet up, and after she shoos him away, she seeks him out. Beautifully written, and delightfully drawn characters, as well as the North Yorkshire landscape. A joy to read.

The Library of Unrequited Love

Sophie Divry (MacLehose Press: £6.99; e-book £2.57)

In this slim volume, the author conjures up a brilliant monologue of an unnamed female librarian, whose ambition has been thwarted by senior management and who finds herself confined to the less interesting library stock in the basement, principally geography. There, one morning, she comes across a man who has been inadvertently locked in overnight. Before opening hour, she speaks with him, a discourse ranging across the Dewey system of library classification, art, culture, the inability of those attending the library to be more adventurous than asking "for the latest books they've heard about the night before on the radio", and unrequited admiration for a male researcher whose attention she has failed to attract. This book speaks to a large, mainly silent audience. Large? The newly opened Library of Birmingham houses 1,000,000 books and cost £189 million. Silent? Until the authorities try to close a library. A funny, moving, invigorating book.

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