Reviewed in short: New books from Victor Sebestyen, Susan Jonusas, Howard Jacobson and Keiran Goddard

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Budapest: Between East and West by Victor Sebastien
Orion, 432 pp, £25

When Gustav Mahler was appointed conductor of the Budapest Royal Opera in 1888, he incurred such hatred that two tenors challenged him to a duel. It’s not clear how, if there were two of them and he was one, it could be called a duel, but it sounds like one Mahler was more than enough for everyone. Sebastien’s history of Budapest is full of such fascinating facts: every other page contains a long footnote as an aside.

The first 60+ pages are taken up with a summary of early Hungarian history; Paradoxically, the book only truly comes to life after the Battle of Mohacs in 1526, when Budapest was largely destroyed by the Ottoman army. The narrative oscillates between Hungary’s vast past and the almost tangible feel of the city—its streets, its inhabitants, and its cafes—where the 1848 revolution began and the words of the national anthem were written. The book ends in 1989, with the fall of communism and the rise of a young thug named Viktor Orban. For those looking for information about Hungary’s recent history, this is a great place to start.
Alix Kruger

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Half Acre of Hell by Susan Jonusas
Simon & Schuster, 368pp, £16.99.

Combining frontier history with true crime, Half an acre of hell does not correspond to the literary inspiration of Truman Capote. in cold blood (1965), nor the sinister atmosphere created by Richard Lloyd Parry in People who eat darkness (2010) is the greatest piece of true crime since the Capote classic. But Susan Jonusas has made a gripping and moving thriller that tells the story of a family of serial killers in 19th century Kansas.

In the early 1870s, as America emerged from the shadows of the Civil War and people crossed the earth trying to settle down and start living, the Benders, a family of German immigrants, killed at least ten people in Labette County, Kansas. Drawing on many archival sources, Jonusas’s book is not only a story of murder and manhunt (Benders, who killed travelers in their hut and buried them in the basement, escaped justice), but also an impressive history of America to the brink of modernity. It also destroys the romanticized notion of the perpetrator. Buried under the myth of criminals, writes Jonusas, are very real criminals whose violence has left an indelible mark on communities across the border.
Gavin Jacobson

“Mother Boy: The Beginning of a Writer” by Howard Jacobson
Jonathan Cape 288pp £18.99

mother boy is Howard Jacobson’s account of how he got there. The path to becoming a celebrated writer and winner of the Booker Prize was rocky, in large part because he did it that way. “I came out of the womb in every way the other way around,” he claims, and it wasn’t until he was in his forties and published his first novel that he began to make amends. Full of sweetness and humour, this memoir, full of sweetness and humor, tells vividly, touchingly and often with self-flagellation of his childhood, the grammar school in Manchester, Cambridge with the English panjandrum F. R. Leavis, work in Cornwall, Australia and Wolverhampton and, along the way, two marriages.

Jewry, of course, takes center stage; Jacobson is the product of family structure, his inherited insider-outsider status, and traits he saw in his father who spoke and did and in his mother who read and thought. Jacobson’s mother died while he was writing this book, and in a late conversation she asked him about it: “What is this again?” “Memories”. ‘What is it about?’ “I, ma, what do you think?” She seemed worried. “Is this a good idea?” Well, yes, it was.
Michael Proger

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Hourglass by Keiran Goddard
Little, Brown, 208 pp., £12.99.

Hourglassthe first novel by the poet Keiran Goddard, not prose, but not really No the prose. Almost every sentence is followed by a paragraph break, so it reads like free verse or a proverb. Our unnamed protagonist is a special, obsessive, insightful observer and thinks literally to the point where you imagine he might have difficulty in social situations. The narrative is so pure in his mind that he is blazingly real, the other characters are only half visible.

This is a universal story about two lovers, one of whom has fallen out of love, and the other has come to terms with his loss – basically, going to the blood and throwing away household items that suddenly bother him. His observations are beautiful (“Love sneaked through the city and repainted it while we weren’t paying attention to it”), funny (“Vests are an aesthetic abomination and an insult to God!”) And quietly profound (“I wonder if you can learn to love the rain, or love the dark, or the wind. / If we ever have a child, I’ll take him out into the rain and say something like: “What a wonderful rainy day!”). Read it in one luminous session.
Pippa Bailey

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