Books in brief: From Sinéad Crowley’s atmospheric novel to the horrors of Chinese ‘re-education’

The Belladonna Maze; Girl Online; Things They Lost; Beasts of a Little Land; The Irish Difference by Fergal Tobin; How I Survived a Chinese ‘Re-education’ Camp

The Belladonna Maze by Sinéad Crowley (Head of Zeus, €14.99)

With just the right balance between realism and romantic, The Belladonna Maze is an atmospheric book full of everything you’d want from a suspenseful mystery: vivid characters, a sumptuous setting and an expertly crafted thread of malevolence.

Grace is the new nanny in the captivating world of the FitzMahon estate in Roscommon, Hollowpark, the most beautiful house she has ever seen. But as you might suspect from a book with poison in its title, there is more to the house, and its eerie maze, than meets the eye. Flights of dark fancy, flickers of the dead, and unrestful truths abound as Grace is pulled into Hollowpark’s past. Told both in the present and through previous generations, there is a pleasing mingling of ghostly history and contemporary passions: an appealing combination of romance, intrigue and escape. RUTH McKEE

Girl Online by Joanna Walsh (Verso Books, £10.99)

Quoting from Kristeva to Lewis Carroll, this is an intellectually appetising and challenging book. It scrutinises the two-way lens of the internet, via philosophical, political and literary theory as the narrator navigates what her own “girl online” self signifies.

“This book is a thought experiment. This book is chick lit. This book is a piece of code.” This forms part of the list that opens the work, an amuse bouche of its content and style. It’s a kind of circuitry of being, the wires and connections distinct, important and linked in a book that asks questions about work, art and the self.

If this sounds abstract, prepare for a text that can be esoteric in one breath and widely relatable in another, threaded with sly humour and enlivened with breaths of personal reflection. RUTH McKEE

Things They Lost by Okwiri Oduor (Oneworld Publications, £16.99)

In this debut set in late 1980s Kenya, spirits benevolent and malicious rattle in attics and lead people’s lives astray. Twelve-year-old Ayosa remembers things from long before her birth when she was just “a wriggling thing”. Abandoned by her flighty mother for months at a time, she lives on handouts from neighbours and interprets violent intrusions from the natural world as desire. Imagining how hyenas would “rip her apart and dig their yellow fangs inside her”, she muses that “she might enjoy watching herself being turned into nothing” and feels “her toes [curl] from being wanted like that”. But unlikely friends soon disrupt Ayosa’s loneliness. When her mother falls sick, Ayosa must decide between her or the chance of independence. Rich with myth and the natural landscape of Kenya, this novel is entertaining and innovative. TANVI ROBERTS

Beasts of a Little Land by Juhea Kim (Oneworld Publications, £16.99)

As Korea struggles for independence, its people struggle to forge their lives. In this gorgeously evoked novel set during 1917-1945, Juhea Kim depicts courtesans-in-training, street urchins turned communist revolutionaries and wealthy men about town. They are, despite their differences, irretrievably linked, whether by politics, desire or necessity. Their troubles are several. Some are starving; others suffer from rigid social hierarchies and the ache of unrequited love; many are haunted by violence. In a world so volatile, what saves them one day could ruin them the next. Kim’s triumph, as she surveys the vast forces shaping pre-partition Korea, is her devotion to observing small beauties even amid tragedy. As one character reflects after being arrested, “death [is] such a small price to pay for life.” TANVI ROBERTS

The Irish Difference by Fergal Tobin (Atlantic Books, £18.99)

Why did Ireland detach itself from the UK 100 years ago; in other words, what explains the “Irish difference”? Religion is the foremost factor: the failure of the Protestant Reformation to take root here. Ireland’s remoteness was for long a significant factor. From the Normans’ coming, but more especially from the 16th and 17th centuries, Ireland was half in and half out of the English orbit. Then there was the appeal of republican ideas (via France), O’Connell’s democratic mass-mobilisation, no industrial revolution (thus no entrepreneurial middle class) and the catastrophe of the Famine, which led to agrarian and church reform specific to Ireland. The cultural revival further asserted Irish difference, culminating in the 1916 Rising; the subsequent executions were “Ireland’s Bastille moment”. A witty, thought-provoking, wide-ranging and readable historical survey. BRIAN MAYE

How I Survived a Chinese ‘Re-education’ Camp by Gulbahar Haitiwaji and Rozenn Morgat, translated by Edward Gauvin (Canbury Press, £18.99)

Since 1955, when communist China annexed Xinjiang as an “autonomous province”, its Uighur Muslim and Turkic minority have been persecuted but the repression has been particularly intense this century (oil-rich Xinjiang is a vital part of China’s “New Silk Road” initiative). Uighur woman Gulbahar Haitiwaji, who had fled Xinjiang for France with her husband and two daughters, was tricked into returning and detained for three years in a “re-education” camp, where she was subjected to interrogation, torture, malnutrition, police violence and brainwashing. Her memoir of those horrendous experiences is a powerful personal narrative but it also describes the general situation in Xinjiang (mass deportations, women forcibly sterilised, mosques bulldozed, extensive technological surveillance) and gives an account of China’s diplomatic relations with western countries (from which there’s been little effective action). BRIAN MAYE