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NEW FICTION Inferno by Dan Brown. Publisher: Transworld. Price: PS20, hardback (ebook PS7.20).

IT'S BEEN almost four years since Professor Robert Langdon, the renowned Harvard symbologist, last embarked on a mystery.

In 2009, Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol, which was set in Washington, was met with a lukewarm reception. Perhaps the winning formula he'd struck upon in the best-selling Da Vinci Code and its sequel Angels And Demons had started to seem tired.

With Inferno, Brown wisely returns the action to Europe, the setting for his first two books, but the formula is the same: Langdon meets a very attractive, intelligent young woman (think Da Vinci Code's Sophie Neveu) called Dr Sienna Brooks and together the pair try to unravel a mystery with its roots in ancient literature to save the world from a deadly plague, while escaping from some evil types who are trying to kill them.

Brown cleverly adopts a new device here though - - we first find Langdon coming round in a hospital bed, attended by Dr Brooks, with what seems to be retrograde amnesia. He can't remember a single thing about the past 48 hours - - and doesn't know why he's suddenly in Florence. A spiky-haired female assassin, who has already tried to shoot him in the head, tracks him down but Langdon and Dr Brooks escape.

In the safety of her apartment, Langdon discovers a mysterious object sewn into his trusty Harris tweed jacket, which conceals a pointing device that, when shaken, projects an image of Botticelli's Inferno di Dante painting, which depicts the first part of the Italian poet's Divine Comedy.

But the image has been subtly altered to provide a clue, leading Langdon and Dr Brooks on a race against time across Florence and Venice to Istanbul to find a hidden deadly virus, which is set to wipe out masses.

Brown is famously not the most literary of writers (what would Dante himself have thought?) but he is a master of intrigue and clever plotting - - right until the close, he's throwing twists at his readers - - and with Inferno he has returned to his Da Vinci Code best.

Rating: ?? The Last Hangman by Shashi Warrier. Publisher: Atlantic Books. Price: PS12.99, hardback (ebook PS5.87).

ECONOMIST and software specialist turned author Shashi Warrier's The Last Hangman is set in south India, where he grew up. It is the story of a retired hangman who is visited by a writer interested in producing his biography.

To help the writer, he suggests the hangman put pen to paper to describe his life. Through his diary entries, the reader learns about every aspect of the hangman's work, from how the gallows operate to the religious rituals connected with a hanging, and how society shuns him for the job he does.

Despite the unsettling subject matter, the reader is compelled to delve deeper into the mind of the hangman. In doing so, they learn of the loneliness he has felt, unable to speak to his family or friends about his experiences.

Through the hangman's eyes, the book ultimately asks what it means to end a life. Its only flaw is that with the hangman talking about his life in the present tense and then in diary form, on occasion details are repeated. Otherwise, it is an interesting, thought-provoking read.

Rating: ?? Leftovers by Stella Newman.

Publisher: Avon.

Price: PS6.99, paperback (ebook PS0.99). STELLA NEWMAN'S latest novel is the happy-ending type that makes you sigh 'Ahh' as you close the final page.

According to a magazine quiz, Susie Rosen is a 'leftover'. A modern day Bridget Jones, 30-something and stuck in a career she hates, she is still recovering from her last failed relationship. Her habit of drinking too much alcohol on a week night makes her job even more painful with a hangover.

But what happens when you find yourself ready to jump off that treadmill and start doing something you actually enjoy - - like setting up a blog about the best pasta to eat in any given circumstance? It's daunting, but Susie is adamant it will happen - - just as soon as she pulls off her latest advertising campaign ('Fat Bird' pizzas for dieting women - - genius) and gets that promotion.

This read is funny, feisty and fresh.

Rating: ?? Raven Girl by Audrey Niffenegger. Publisher: Jonathan Cape. Price: PS16.99, hardback.

BEST known for her novel The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger, who's also a skilled illustrator, has turned her hand to creating an illustrated novella after she was asked to write a 'dark fairytale' for the Royal Ballet.

A postman strays from his usual route to deliver a package and comes across an injured raven, which he nurses back to health, falls in love with and marries, fathering a child shortly after. Physically the child is human, but growing up she longs to become more bird-like.

The succinct writing style is accompanied by Niffenegger's abstract illustrations that help distinguish the dark tone of the story and highlight the unethical measures the raven girl takes to modify her body.

It's a melancholic fantasy with a warped take on cosmetic surgery, the nature of self identity, and man's compatibility with technology. Dark and aesthetically inviting, this tale is just not engrossing enough for an adult audience.

Rating: ?? Ten by Andrej Longo. Publisher: Harvill Secker. Price: PS12.99, paperback (ebook PS10.01).

FIRST published in 2007, and the winner of the 2008 Bagutta Prize in Italy, Ten is part-time pizza maker and writer Andrej Longo's first translation into English.

Written in somewhat sparse simple prose, which is nonetheless poetic and multi-layered in meaning, the author inflicts his vision of modern-day Naples on us through 10 interlinking short stories based on the Ten Commandments.

Each story acts as a vignette of the city, vistas of ordinary people trying to live out their lives within a backdrop of decadence and violence.

Here, Longo skilfully paints a picture of a community overrun by crime, lorded over by gangsters, and populated by lascivious thugs and young girls.

The compassion he feels for all of these players is deeply felt and the result is a searing indictment of a bereft society where spiritual matters have all but been forgotten. Rating: ?? NON-FICTION The Serpent's Promise: The Bible Retold As Science by Steve Jones. Publisher: Little Brown. Price: PS25, hardback (ebook PS12.99).

THE BIBLE was the first scientific textbook, says popular geneticist Professor Steve Jones. It asked a lot of questions and gave a lot of answers.

In The Serpent's Promise: The Bible Retold As Science, Jones examines some of those questions and answers them using modern science. This isn't an examination of the minutiae of The Good Book. Instead, it looks at the bigger questions, such as how did the universe originate, where do diseases come from and are we all descended from a single couple (Adam and Eve)? If you're interested in science and love a good fact then it's worth a read.

Rating: ?? The Manner Of Men: 9 Para's Heroic D-Day Mission by Stuart Tootal. Publisher: John Murray. Price: PS25, hardback (ebook PS12.99).

JUNE 6 is a date that will never be forgotten in the coastal village of Ranville in France's Calvados region.

It was here that 9 Para's heroic D-Day mission overcame almost overwhelming odds, poor planning and flawed intelligence and more than its fair share of bad luck to play a vital role in the Allied invasion of mainland Europe that was eventually to bring about the end of conflict.

Their assault on a well-defended gun battery bought valuable time for troops landing on the Normandy beaches and their follow-up mission also protected the invading force from German counter-attacks.

Tootal, a veteran of the Gulf War and Afghanistan who now commentates on defence for various media, writes with the authority and insight only a serving soldier can possess.

Rating: ?? How Animals Grieve by Barbara J King. Publisher: University of Chicago Press. Price: PS17.50, hardback (ebook PS7.72). A BOOK focusing on how animals mourn for their fellow creatures was never going to be light or easy reading, but Barbara J King has to be given her dues for what she has done here.

A professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, King uses real-life anecdotes to emphasise the scientific data that exists on animals' grieving processes.

In this book, King argues that most animals possess the ability to feel loss - - not just domestic pets like cats, dogs and horses, but also wild creatures such as dolphins, elephants and baboons. But it appears that not all animals mourn for their fellow creatures, with chimpanzees and ants among them. Rating:
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:May 25, 2013
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