Our favourite books to read this May

James Walton

Whether it’s the tensions of Nazi-occupied Greece or the romance of Victorian London, historical novels dominate our top literary picks this May…

Those Who Are Loved by Victoria Hislop (Headline Review, £20)

Victoria Hislop’s many thousands of fans will be delighted to hear that her new novel once again manages the neat trick of combining a blockbusting family saga with plenty of well-researched history.

The main character is Themis, a Greek woman first seen celebrating her 90th birthday in 2016. But she then spends the rest of the novel remembering the often terrible events of her long and dramatic life, including the Nazi occupation and the brutal civil war that followed.

The fact that Themis fought with the Communists in that war leads to some of the book’s most memorable, if gut-wrenching passages, especially after she’s taken prisoner. But it also perhaps introduces the only awkward note. For Themis to be as heroic as she’s clearly intended to be, the family-saga part of the novel needs her to have been on the side of the goodies. The historical-background sections, though, are too honest to deny that the Communists could be equally as cruel as their right-wing opponents.

Even so, this is an undeniably sweeping and powerful read—as well as a jolting reminder of the horrors that went on in Greece far beyond the Second World War.

 

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal (Picador, £12.99)

Elizabeth Macneal’s first novel has pretty much everything you could want from a book set in Victorian London. There’s a plucky, highly appealing heroine who leaves her dull job painting dolls to hang out with the Pre-Raphaelites. Other characters lurking in the impeccably dark alleyways include a loveable street urchin and a properly scary villain. One of the key settings is even an old curiosity shop.

The novel, however, proves far subtler than you might expect from these familiar elements. The characters, and the relationships between them, have such depth that you end up completely immersed in their world. We learn quite a lot about the artistic trends of the day without ever feeling remotely lectured—while Macneal’s feminist message also emerges naturally from her terrific story-telling. And all this before the heroine and villain meet in a nerve-jangling climax that will, I suspect, have most readers both desperately wanting to read on and desperately wanting not to.

Ever since the success of Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, there’s been no shortage of good modern gothic novels. The Doll Factory might just be the best yet.

 

RD's recommeded read:

Incredible insects

Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson reveals some amazing facts about one of the animal kingdom’s most underappreciated representatives…

Extraordinary Insects is one of those books that might well change the way you look at the world. As Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson admits, insects don’t tend to feature much on most people’s lists of favourite animals. If we think about them at all, it’s generally not with a sense of overwhelming gratitude. Yet over the centuries the free goods and services they’ve given us include silk, honey, waste removal, genetic research and the plays of William Shakespeare—which have survived only because they were printed in a particularly durable ink extracted from a gall wasp. In a world without insects, by contrast, plants would go unpollenated, most birds and fish would be left unfed and they’d be nothing to recycle vital nutrients. In short, human life would just be impossible.

And then there’s the sheer variety of the things, and of their ingenious methods for eating and reproducing. Sverdrup-Thygeson, a Norwegian professor of life sciences, writes with such infectious and well-informed enthusiasm that it’s impossible not to develop a new-found respect for insects (however grudging)—and you might even find yourself starting to share her whole-hearted admiration. Either way, almost every page contains some fact about their behaviour that’s guaranteed to leave you astonished: from the ants that keep aphids as livestock to the cicadas that emerge from the earth in their millions precisely every 17 years to mate, die and leave the next generation to disappear underground for another 17.

But as you might imagine, there are still also lots of moments that make you go “Ugh!” (These are insects, after all.) And here, I’m afraid, are some of them—from a section on wasp reproduction that really isn’t for the faint of heart…

The beautiful, green-eyed Dinocampus coccinellae is a parasite wasp. The female sticks her egg-laying tube into a ladybird beetle and lays an egg. The egg hatches and over the next 20 days the wasp larva chews its way through many of the ladybird’s inner organs. Then it squeezes its way out of the ladybird’s abdomen while the unfortunate host is still alive. The larva spins itself a little ball of silk between the ladybird’s legs, where it transforms into a pupa.

Something quite remarkable happens next: the ladybird’s behaviour abruptly alters. It stops moving and just stands there, stock-still, like a living shield. This lasts for a week until the wasp hatches and flies off, leaving the ladybird to her own devices.

The big question here is how the wasp mother can control the ladybird, transforming her into a zombie babysitter. After all, several weeks have passed since she laid her egg and vanished. The answer is that she doesn’t just inject the ladybird with the egg but also with a virus. The virus accumulates in the brain and is controlled by a timing mechanism that paralyses the ladybird at the precise moment when the larva is squeezing its way out, so the virus enables the wasp to take over the brain of the ladybird, making it serve not just as baby food but also as a babysitter. The only good thing we can say about all this is that, unbelievably enough, the ladybird sometimes survives the whole ordeal.

The cockroaches that fall prey to the soul-sucker wasp aren’t so lucky. You probably remember the dementors in Harry Potter, those flapping black monsters that suck out people’s souls? That’s what gave the Ampulex dementor wasp its name.

Here, too, the whole process starts with a mother wielding her egg-laying stinger. First, she stings the cockroach in the chest to paralyse its legs for a few minutes—because the next stage involves high-level brain surgery, which requires ‘the patient’ to lie completely still. Now the wasp stings the head. With extreme precision, she places a dose of nerve poison in two specific points of the cockroach’s brain, which blocks the signals that control its ability to start moving: the cockroach can still move but cannot take the initiative to set itself in motion. This allows the soul-sucking wasp to simply bite into the cockroach antennae and lead her prey wherever she wants—like a dog on a leash—straight to its death.

The cockroach allows itself to be led down into a hole in the ground; here, the wasp lays an egg, which it glues to the cockroach’s leg. Then the soulsucker wasp blocks the entrance to the hole with small stones and vanishes. Her little larva child spends the next month fattening itself up. First, it sucks the bodily fluids out of the cockroach’s leg and then it bores into the creature’s insides and gobbles up its intestines, before forming a pupa inside the cockroach, which eventually dies.