Elmet by Fiona Mozley

Elmet is a beautifully written novel. There is an atmosphere that draws you in, a sense of being in and of the landscape that feels both gritty and timeless, putting human beings onto a level with the animals and foliage of England’s wooded land. At the centre of this wood are Daniel and his sister, Cathy.

Daniel and Cathy haven’t had a stable upbringing. Their father and mother move in and out of their lives and they are cared for mostly by their grandmother. When she dies and their mother has moved out for last time, their father pledges to stay with them always and to build them a home where they’ll be safe. A home, it turns out, in the woods on land that once belonged to their mother.

Divided between an italicised account in which Daniel searches for a her that you soon realise is Cathy, and an account of the events that led him to this search, there is a taut line of telling that flexes over the bones of a story about relationships between people, land, family, community and society. It is bleak and it is raw – drawing attention to those who live at the edges of official society, those who are poor and easily exploited – but it is also thoughtful and articulate, weaving a kind of magic of the faery tale into the modern world. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Read it and let me know what you think.

Next week I’ll be reading First Person by Richard Flanagan.

Gnomon by Nick Harkaway

Set sometime in the future, in a radically democratised UK under the constant and supposedly benign surveillance of a computer programme, a woman dies in custody. Diana Hunter was a known antagonist of the system and was having her head examined – her memories literally reviewed – by the Witness when she died.

Inspector Mielikki Neith will be investigating the circumstances of her death and, as the novel itself explains in the opening, she will soon lose ‘faith in everything she has believed in her life’, especially the system. Continue reading

Small Hours by Jennifer Kitses

Over the course of one long day and night, we follow the life of a married couple, Tom and Helen. They moved to the countryside with their young twin daughters after Helen discovered Tom had a brief affair with his boss.

Helen still works in advertising, exhausting work and part-time only in pay. Tom is a journalist in the city, waking early – often sleeping on the sofa fully dressed – to commute back and forth each day.

Both Tom and Helen are tired from moving, working, parenting, worrying about money and keeping secrets from each other.

Helen is angry at how motherhood and moving has isolated her and devalued her. Tom is overwhelmed by the energy it takes to keep his secret hidden. They are worried the people they have become will destroy any last remnants of affection between each other. They are worried they’re not sure if they even care anymore. Continue reading

Broadcast by Liam Brown

David is a social media star, a vlogger with a million subscribers and six hundred thousand followers. With a pretty face, inoffensive views and constant sunny, silly updates, David is the epitome of modern celebrity. But is it enough? How long can he stay on top? How long will his fame last?

When the technological genius that is Xan Brinkley wants to meet David to discuss his latest project, MindCast, David’s agent has him there straightaway. But what is MindCast and how does it threaten vlogging? Continue reading

Reconciliation by Guy Ware and Book Giveaway

Reconciliation takes the transcript of a diary from the Second World War, written by an English spy describing his deliverance from occupied Norway, and creates a delightfully playful novel about the difficulties of accounting for past and present, fact and fiction, in national and individual identity. Set in the 1990s during the Iraq war as well as the 1940s, one woman’s grandfather’s diary becomes the subject of several different retellings and reframings that never quite seem to grasp the skirts of truth, constantly questioning a reader’s grasp of authenticity and our desire for fiction to say something true.

The novel feels wildly relevant, questioning the wisdom of all governance and the clarity of individual allegiance to a political ideology. It forces us to accept a reconciliation between history as fact and history as interpretation. Some things we can only ever speculate upon, but speculation is attempted empathy, a compromise that allows us to move on.

Because the novel progresses from one seemingly authentic account of the transcript’s discovery and subsequent exploration to another, we are forced to continue to question our expectations of narrative. Outlining the plot would spoil the novel, but let’s just say there is enough intrigue in the past and present, as well as a thoroughly forensic exploration of the minutiae of daily living – the reheated ready meals, the workplace banter, a clear vision of Scotland, Norway, Cambridge and London, as well as plenty of whisky – to create a page-turning novel that has the reader constantly on the hop. That’s what makes it such a delight. You’re never quite sure where you are, and yet all of it feels relevant, meaningful and real. Literary critics would have a field day with this novel, despite it also being a book you would be happy to read in one sitting on a long journey or tucked up in a comfy chair by a warm fire.

Nicholas Lezard called Guy Ware’s previous novel, The Fat of Fed Beasts, ‘The best debut novel I have read in years’. Reconciliation consolidates Guy Ware’s reputation as a writer whose observations of modern life are witty, precise and provocative. It’s brilliant. Read it and see for yourself.

Speaking of which, I am delighted to say I have 5 copies of Reconciliation to give away to the first 5 people who reply to this blog post requesting a copy. Good luck!

If you miss the giveaway, you can buy a copy, published by Salt on the 5th October 2017, here.

Compass by Mathias Enard

Compass is one of those novels that requires high levels of engagement, whose scope of knowledge is scintillating and baffling.

Franz, the narrator, is seriously ill. Set in one sleepless night, we follow his thoughts as he contemplates his mortality and his failed loved life. He has had two obsessions in life: the workings of Oriental music within the European tradition – both Europeans using Oriental motifs or Oriental composers working in Europe – and Sarah. Continue reading

The Mandibles: A Family 2029-2047 by Lionel Shriver

After reading We Need to Talk About Kevin and The Post-Birthday World, I wasn’t sure I’d be tempted to read another novel by Lionel Shriver. I’d found We Need to Talk About Kevin an issues based novel whose characters didn’t quite convince me and I seem to remember feeling mildly unmoved by The Post-Birthday World. Reading The Mandibles brings all the good sides of Lionel Shriver’s fiction – her snappy dialogue, her delight in conflict, her interest in topical issues – and shows them off to their best. My readings of her previous novels feel harsh and I begin to understand what it is that motivates Shriver and what makes her a fascinating writer to read. Being provocative isn’t just about getting people to read your book, it’s about getting people to think and The Mandibles really does get you thinking.

My scepticism of her previous work is one confession over with, the next is that I know very little about economics. Given that The Mandibles is all about the economy on a local and global scale, how it drives all aspects of governance and society, my reading of the novel will undoubtedly be different from someone with sound economic knowledge.

Ok, now I’ve confessed it all, you’ll know where my review is coming from.

The Mandibles are an American family whose head, Great Grand Man, has a fortune (from his forebears) to leave to his children and their children’s children. At the start of the novel his family are living with the knowledge that one day they may receive some of this fortune, though none of them seem to know how much money there really is. Some of children and grandchildren have done well for themselves, some struggle.

Then the dollar collapses.

In one fell swoop the fortune has gone and different echelons of the Mandible family are thrown together in ways they couldn’t have expected. Continue reading

So The Doves by Heidi James and Book Giveaway

Marcus Murray had just completed the scoop of his journalistic career. When his editor suggests he return to Medway, his hometown, to write a story about the body uncovered in the building of the Cross Euro Speed Link, it feels curiously as if he’s being punished. A return home is always difficult, not just because he feels guilty for rarely visiting his mum, but because he can’t help thinking of Melanie, his best friend who disappeared in 1990.

Forced to leave private school for the local comprehensive, it was Melanie who helped Marcus navigate his new world and Marcus idolised her. She seemed fearless to him, moving ‘as if she skipped through the world unchanging, untouched by her environment’ (page 31).  Continue reading

Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba

Before I talk about the contents, Such Small Hands is a beautiful object. Published by Portobello Books, it is one of those books you want to buy simply to hold. The gorgeous green hardback with gold lettering and a terrifying image of a tiny plastic doll, its relationship to the human form so stylised it looks more like a jelly baby than a girl, is a book lover’s delight. The sense of the uncanny delivered by the cover is exactly what the book explores. What we seem to be on the surface, and what desires writhe within makes a frightening topic, especially when its subjects are all little girls.

Marina was once an ordinary, middle-class child. Then her parents die in a car crash and everything changes. Badly injured from the accident, she isn’t good at talking to the psychologist at the hospital and so she is given a doll to try to get her to confide in something. So the power of the silent, inanimate doll, the observer, is born.

How would this child with such a rich history of experience, both good and traumatic, be accepted in an orphanage of girls who have been living and growing together for years? Continue reading

The City Always Wins by Omar Robert Hamilton

I hate straplines that say a book is heart-wrenching, but The City Always Wins is definitely that. A telling of the 2011 Egyptian Arab Spring, after its seeming early success, the novel is full of hope, horror and a painful sense of needing to keep wading on despite the impossibility of fighting those with all the guns (my echo of Macbeth is intentional; it’s as if attempting to change the leadership will always lead to blood and monsters).

Like all summaries, this doesn’t do the novel justice. Mirroring the situation, The City Always Wins is complex, with multiple voices – not just of the central couple, Mariam and Khalil, whose lives we follow – but the voices of the parents of the martyrs killed in the first 18 days and endless tweets and texts, podcasts, snippets of internet and social media that helped to create and fuel the revolution. Indeed modern technology as a tool for connecting disempowered voices is explored. Khalil wonders if there is any point in continuing to use your voice to tell the story of the underdog, if no one is listening. As a founding member of Chaos, a media organisation set up to report and comment on the revolution, another member believes in the importance of telling stories regardless of the numbers of listeners; the stories can always be found if anyone looks for them. Continue reading