For a few reasons, April turned out to be bit of a lean reading month. Quite by chance, all four of the novels I did manage to read were the first novels for each author. My pick, if you're up to something challenging, is "The Solitude of Prime Numbers", the debut novel by Paolo Giordano. For something a little easier, try Chekhov's "The Shooting Party". 1. "Things Fall Apart" by Chinua Achebe <http://www.amazon.com/Things-Fall-Apart/dp/0385474547> The novel is set in the late 19th Century in Umuofia, a fictional village in what is now Nigeria. Okonkwo is a proud, tradition-bound warrior and prominent clansmen of his tribe. Early in life he sought to make amends for lazy, debt-ridden and "unmanly" father. After gaining prestige in battle, and working hard on his farm, he achieved an important rank in the community. However, his hot-temper causes an incident that would bring dishonour and exile. Greater challenges await for Okonkwo after his return from exile, with the arrival of white colonists and their new ways. Okonkwo fears tribal culture is unravelling, and wants to prevent this. In the face of change, he is an immovable object about to be met by an irresistible force. This was an interesting and thought-provoking story. The author doesn't try to glorify pre-colonial life in West Africa, but rather he describes it as it was. The novel was well-received when it was published in 1958, and is apparently widely read in schools. 2. "The Shooting Party" by Anton Chekhov <http://www.amazon.com/Shooting-Party/dp/0140448985> Chekhov is mostly renowned for his short stories and plays. This story, while not very long, is his only "full-length" novel. It's a murder mystery, told in the form of a story within a story. Zinovyev, a former investigating magistrate, visits an editor with a novel he has written about one of his old cases. In that novel, a young woman, Olga, has been found murdered, and Zinovyev is entrusted with the investigation. The actual murder doesn't take place until well into the novel. The plot leading up to the murder and the subsequent "investi- gation" portrays most of the characters in an unflattering light. In fact, several of the main male characters have had their eye on the beautiful, but sadly now dead "girl in red". First, there's the jilted husband, Urbenin, estate manager for Count Karneyev. The Count was Olga's latest beau and she had recently moved in with him. We also learn that Zinovyev (i.e. the author) had had an affair with Olga. Drunkards, gypsies and uncouth peasants also round out the cast. It's obvious to the reader (and this includes the editor) that the magistrate has a conflict of interest, which influences both the investigation and the telling of the story. After the "inner" story ends, the editor confronts Zinovyev with his theories about the murder. I enjoyed this novel. It's nowhere near as long as novels by Chekhov's Russian contemporaries, so that's not an excuse. My only real complaint is that the translation of Russian peasant speech as Cockney English did grate a bit. This seems to be common for British translations of Russian novels set in the 19th Century. Fortunately it doesn't detract too much from this entertaining novel. 3. "The Solitude of Prime Numbers" by Paolo Giordano <http://www.amazon.com/Solitude-Prime-Numbers/dp/B0040RMEEO> This is the story of two damaged individuals, both haunted by events in their childhood. Alice, left with a permanent limp after a skiing accident, develops an eating disorder. Mattia, who feels responsible for the disappearance of his twin sister, inflicts pain on himself. The pair meet up in high school, and an unlikely friendship begins. Mattia has managed to take advantage of his solitude, developing an interest in numbers into a promising career as a mathematician. After completing his degree, he accepts a research post at a foreign university. This is an opportunity to escape his parents and his past Alice doesn't do quite as well scholastically, but manages to use her passion for photography to get a job as an assistant for a commercial photographer. The relationship between Alice and Mattia is close but they're not a typical girlfriend/boyfriend. At various times they individually consider taking things further, but circumstances always intervene. At one point Alice reflects: "she and Mattia were united by an elastic and invisible thread that could exist only between two people like themselves: two people who had acknowledged their own solitude, each within the other." Mattia sees themselves as two prime numbers, close but always separated by at least one other number. As the book's title suggests, Mattia's meditations on prime numbers get right to the core of the novel's theme. This is a challenging book. In addition to the two main characters, many of those around them have their own flaws and issues with intimacy. The story is told through a series of key episodes in the lives of Alice and Mattia, rather than as a single, flowing narrative. Overall, it's an unforgettable and poignant story about flawed and enigmatic individuals. In 2008 Giordano received the Premio Strega, awarded to the best work of prose fiction by an Italian author. 4. "The Big Sleep" by Raymond Chandler <http://www.amazon.com/Big-Sleep/dp/0394758285> Philip Marlowe is the original private eye. For $25 a day plus expenses, he'll go about his work discreetly. Poor old General Sternwood has a couple of tearaway daughters, Vivian and Carmen, who look for trouble and never fail to find it. One of his daughters is the subject of a blackmail attempt, so the General hires Marlowe to get to the bottom of it. Set in Los Angeles' underworld of the late 1930s, the brash characters and snappy dialog keep the story moving at a fast clip. Maybe a bit too fast, since it does get a little confusing at times. Marlowe seems to stumble across guns-out action wherever he goes. Yet luck always seems to be on his side. In its day it was hailed as a new, distinctive type of crime novel. While it mostly still holds up, the long trail of imitators and its ongoing influence in film and television have diminished its impact these days. For example, growing up I've watched a lot of PIs on TV: The Rockford Files, Charlie's Angels, Magnum P.I., Moonlighting, Remington Steele, etc. While set in different eras, they do share the plot twists, wisecracks and underworld intrigue. A movie was made in 1946, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. I don't remember having watched it, but with those stars, one can imagine the fireworks.