Bookshelf: Four great reads for this week

The Cauliflower by Nicola Barker
The Cauliflower by Nicola Barker
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The Cauliflower by Nicola Barker. William Heinemann, £16.99. Review by Heather Doughty

Only one thing is for certain when reading Nicola Barker’s latest novel – you have absolutely no idea which direction this chaotic and magical story is heading. The Cauliflower is not for those who give up on books easily, but hold tight, you’re in for a pretty epic ride. The novel concerns itself with Sri Ramakrishna, a 19th century Indian mystic. The narrative jumps around though and is often told from the point of view of Ramakrishna’s nephew. The story unfolds in fragments as the reader gleans half-told tales of magical India. While the narrative becomes slightly messy at times, Barker’s writing is completely original and insightful and bursting full of spirituality.

The Black Prince Of Florence: The Spectacular Life And Treacherous World Of Alessandro de’ Medici by Catherine Fletcher. Bodley Head, £20. Review by Alex Sarll

Fletcher, a historian specialising in the Renaissance and whose work has been praised by Hilary Mantel, excavates Florence’s first Medici Duke, born a bastard and possibly of mixed race origin. The evidence on this last point is inconclusive, and the era’s understanding of race was not one we’d recognise; Alessandro was mocked as a “mule”, but similar jibes were directed at other potentates over being part Italian and part Dutch. Alessandro’s life was brief, turbulent and largely defined by the Papacy and Holy Roman Empire. Alas, Alessandro himself never wholly comes alive; unavoidable when history was largely written by his enemies.

Sitting Ducks by Lisa Blower. Fair Acre Press, £9.99. Review by Nicola Wilson

Set over five days of the May 2010 General Election, the novel focuses on the Minton family from “Smoke-on-Trent” (Blower’s hometown). The characters, once part of the local pottery industry, now fight for survival. Constance Minton is clinging on to the council house she has lived in for 73 years, while her wayward son Totty rails against everyone around him. Much of the book’s political bite is directed at the Conservatives’ housing policies – including the “bedroom tax” and the mass sell-off of social housing to private landlords. “If you’re not angry, you’re not listening” says the novel’s strapline. This is an Angry Young Woman to watch.

We Go Around in the Night and Are Consumed by Flames by Jules Grant. Myriad Editions, £8.99. Review by Alison Potter

Stylistically similar to Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, the characters in Jules Grant’s debut novel do not only speak in dialect, they narrate in it too. Set in Manchester’s seedy crime underworld, it follows the story of lesbian criminal Donna and her goddaughter Aurora. It’s a world of warring gangs, drugs, gun crime and murder, but uniquely it’s presented from a distinctly female gaze. The author has created brilliantly layered characters, especially in Donna, the hard-bitten head of the Bronte Close Gang. Grant’s book has it’s fair share of violence and vengeance, but it’s also a heartbreaking and tender read about the relationships that tie us together.