Reviews of novels I read in the past month ... 1. "Il Conformista" ("The Conformist") by Alberto Moravia <http://www.amazon.com/Conformist-Alberto-Moravia/dp/1883642655> Set in Italy during the Fascist era, the novel focuses on three crucial points in the central character's life: when he was about 13 years old, when he was 30 years old, and when he was 36 years old. Marcello Clerici is the only child of a well-to-do family. As a child his parents have little time for him as they lead their busy lives. In fact, Marcello seemed to spend more time talking to the maid and the cook. A slightly effeminate boy, he was teased at school. Perhaps this lead him to overcompensate, for example he is obsessed with guns and cruelly kills lizards he found in his backyard. When reflecting on the latter, he fears that he may not be "normal". He tries to get reassurance from the kid next door that the idea hunting for and killing lizards is acceptable, but Roberto is appalled. His fascination with guns leads to an unfortunate accident where he shoots a man (Lino) who had offered him a revolver in return for his company. Fast forward to when Marcello is 30. Having believed for 17 years that he killed the man, Marcello resolves to become a "normal" person. He thinks that this will be achieved by conforming to society's norms. He will get married to his girlfriend, Giulia. They will buy a grand house and fill it with fine things, and eventually start a family. He will work hard to get his career on track, no matter what it takes. Marcello works for the Secret Service of the Fascist government, and he is asked to betray his former professor who is suspected of agitating against the regime. He sees this as a normal thing to do, since it is for the greater good of the society into which he so desperately wants to fit. The bulk of the story revolves around his mission, which takes place while he is on his honeymoon in Paris. Marcello experiences more concerns about being "abnormal", especially when he compares his behaviour to that of his wife. Repressed feelings, doubts about the mission and his futile attraction to the beautiful young wife of his former professor (Lina) combine to torment him further. The final part of the story takes place just as the Fascist regime is overthrown. Marcello feels he has backed the wrong horse. He is worried his past will be exposed and fears he and his family (now including a baby daughter) will pay the ultimate price. He heads off with his family to lay low in the country. There's a major twist which makes Marcello question his choices and actions. A deep and fascinating story about a man struggling to be a "normal" person in the world, whatever that is. By confusing conformity with normality, the outcomes may be very different to those desired. And society's current norms may not always be acceptable or normal. 2. "Silk" by Alessandro Baricco <http://www.amazon.com/Silk-Baricco/dp/0375703829> This is a short but satisfying novel. It's set in 19th Century France. The local supply of silkworms has become infected, so Herv√© Joncour is asked to make a dangerous voyage to Japan ("the end of the world") to buy healthy silkworms to supply the silk factories in the town. After the first successful mission, he repeats the voyage each year. Each time he finds himself falling further in love with a companion of the local ruler. However the "affair" only occurs in their respective minds, and in fact he never even hears her say a word. A lot happens in this book, but the writing style is simple and economical. If it weren't for a rather racy bit towards the end of the book, involving the translation of a love letter, this would be a story for young and old to enjoy. 3. "The Fourth Bear" by Jasper Fforde <http://www.amazon.com/Fourth-Bear/dp/0143038923> The second in the Jack Spratt/Nursery Crimes series by Jasper Fforde. If you're a fan of Fforde's work you'll probably enjoy this too. The plot revolves around the death of Goldilocks, of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" fame. She's an investigative reporter who has stumbled upon the link between mysterious explosions around the world. I found it slightly more enjoyable than "The Big Over Easy", perhaps because it wasn't quite as twee. The usual plot twists and clever characters are present as Jack Spratt and the Nursery Crime Division try to solve the case. A couple of things that stood out for me in this book. Jack bought an unusual car from a "Dorian Gray", which came with a framed picture of the car. The damage from any accidents the car was involved in would be fixed magically, and mysteriously become visible on the car depicted in the painting. There's also a rather plausible rationalisation of why, if they were supposedly prepared at the same time, Papa Bear's porridge was too hot, Mama Bear's was too cold, yet Baby Bear's was just right. The explanation, along with the explanations of other events that occur in the Goldilocks story, ties in well with the plot.