NORMAL PEOPLE by Sally Rooney (Faber £14.99, 288 pp)
by Sally Rooney (Faber £14.99, 288 pp)
This follow-up to Rooney’s first novel, Conversations With Friends, is about the fluctuating and evolving sexual relationship between two school friends from different economic backgrounds at Trinity College Dublin.
It’s very different in tone to Rooney’s debut, but conveys her seemingly effortless ability to track the intensely experienced, minute-by-minute shifts in thought and feeling within a relationship and to make each and every shift matter.
I suspect the talented Rooney will go on to write a more ambitious novel than this, but I very much doubt it will be more enjoyable. CLAIRE ALLFREE
MILKMAN by Anna Burns (Faber £8.99, 368 pp)
by Anna Burns (Faber £8.99, 368 pp)
It is surely the literary story of the year that this tricksy novel, which won the 2018 Man Booker Prize, should have now sold upwards of 300,000 copies.
It is not a straightforward read. Set in a Troubles-riven Belfast in the Seventies, it’s a high-voltage stream of unhinged, raconteur lyricism that centres on the predatory attentions of the titular Milkman from the point of view of an 18-year-old known only as Middle Sister.
But it also offers a sideways — and all the more devastating — account of the psychological legacy of Ireland’s violent 20th-century history.
At the same time, it manages to be bleakly funny. CA
MELMOTH by Sarah Perry (Serpent’s Tail £16.99, 288 pp)
by Sarah Perry (Serpent’s Tail £16.99, 288 pp)
Perry’s follow-up to her hit The Essex Serpent is an altogether darker creature, which, from its opening scenes in snowy, jackdaw-haunted Prague to its terrible, triumphant conclusion, keeps you racing towards the very revelations you fear.
Melmoth herself is an unforgettable creation — barefoot and black-cloaked, a witchy, eternally wandering witness to the darkest chapters in mankind’s history.
But Perry’s other central character, fortysomething translator Helen, gets under the skin, too. Just what has cast such a shadow over her life? For what awful crime is she seeking to atone?
This is a top-notch Gothic of unmistakably serious intent.
CRUDO by Olivia Laing (Picador £12.99, 176 pp)
by Olivia Laing (Picador £12.99, 176 pp)
Olivia Laing’s blistering debut novel is a full-throttle, caution-to-the-winds delight.
Spanning a handful of months in the summer of 2017, it is narrated by Kathy, a permanently itchy-footed author. She is modelled partly on Laing and partly on the late American novelist and punk poet Kathy Acker.
The ‘plot’ is minimal: we simply follow Kathy as she adjusts to life as the wife of a much older man, sells her flat, dreams of her ex, attends arty events and compulsively checks Twitter. But what might sound humdrum is, in fact, electric — a blow-by-blow, appalled/amused account of the way we live now. SC
THE SILENCE OF THE GIRLS by Pat Barker (Hamish Hamilton £18.99, 336 pp)
THE SILENCE OF THE GIRLS
by Pat Barker (Hamish Hamilton £18.99, 336 pp)
This brings the grit and gristle of Pat Barker’s wartime fiction to the Bronze Age, revisiting Homer’s Iliad through the eyes of Briseis, a Trojan queen squabbled over by the Greek captors who sack her city.
As Briseis struggles to retain her dignity in the face of savage handling, Barker makes brutally explicit what the original poem left implicit.
The brazenly modern dialogue makes it clear that scholarly exactitude is hardly the main point of this lesson in the value of reading between the lines.
The stunning simplicity of Barker’s concept, and the vigour of her execution, will ensure that this novel is read for generations to come.
PERFIDIOUS ALBION by Sam Byers (Faber £15.99, 400 pp)
by Sam Byers (Faber £15.99, 400 pp)
While Jonathan Coe’s Middle England has been tipped as the novel for our fractious political times, Sam Byers’s satirical post-Brexit dystopia — centred on the proposed bulldozing of an East Anglian housing estate — is, for my money, by far the better bet.
It involves a tech company scheming to rig out the revamped estate with sinister gadgetry intended to make life harder for the poor.
But the project hits the skids when a resident refuses to leave, finding himself in the eye of an internet storm.
The hounds of Fleet Street 2.0 seize upon him as a symbol of a left-behind white working-class.
One key thread involves two journalists who, beginning at opposite ends of the political spectrum, converge in a race for clicks.
It’s sharply observed and full of startling reversals — I’m still wondering exactly what happens at the end. . .AC
CRIME AND THRILLERS
Geoffrey Wansell & Christena Appleyard
THE TATTOO THIEF by Alison Belsham (Trapeze £13.99, 384 pp)
THE TATTOO THIEF
by Alison Belsham (Trapeze £13.99, 384 pp)
This is one of the creepiest debut crime novels I have read this year.
A serial killer who slices tattoos from their victims’ skin — while they are alive — is stalking the bohemian streets of Brighton.
The first body is discovered by a female tattoo artist who was married to another tattooist for 15 years.
Newly promoted DI Francis Sullivan’s fellow officers are willing him to fail, as they are all convinced he is over-promoted. Gradually, Sullivan realises that the murderer is trying to become the finest collector and preserver of tattooed skin on the planet. But why? GW
IN BLOOM by C. J. Skuse (HQ £7.99, 384 pp)
by C. J. Skuse (HQ £7.99, 384 pp)
Although this is brimming with bad language and driven by the outrageously politically incorrect insights of a young pregnant serial killer, it succeeds in being one of the funniest and best written thrillers published this year.
Our bonkers heroine frames her former lover for a string of murders she has committed. Her unborn baby, who she refers to as ‘Heil Foetus’, has her own bossy voice.
The book is punctuated with the murderer’s imaginary kill lists — which include everyone from the people who hold up supermarket queues to dawdling groups of tourists who clog up pavements. CA
IN THE DARK by Cara Hunter (Penguin £7.99, 448 pp)
IN THE DARK
by Cara Hunter (Penguin £7.99, 448 pp)
Alfred Hitchcock would have made a great movie out of this scary story, focusing on the accidental discovery of a young woman and a small boy in a locked basement in Oxford.
The woman cannot speak and the child is traumatised. The elderly and eccentric academic who owns the house insists he did not know they were there and claims that he had nothing to do with their abduction.
DI Adam Fawley is not convinced, but has to gain the woman’s trust before he can learn her version of events. Was she raped? Is it her child? Like the opening of a delicate flower, the truth emerges, with twist following twist. GW
OUR HOUSE by Louise Candlish (S&S £12.99, 448 pp)
by Louise Candlish (S&S £12.99, 448 pp)
This is both a mischievous take on the property-obsessed London middle classes and a good thriller. Candlish asks: Do some women care more about their house than their husband? Rather than lose her house, Fiona Lawson opts for the trendy bird’s nest solution, whereby she and husband Bram take it in turns to spend half the week with their children in the house.
Suddenly, Bram disappears — and he has also sold the house. A gripping take on modern marriage. CA
I INVITED HER IN by Adele Parks (HQ £7.99, 478 pp)
I INVITED HER IN
by Adele Parks (HQ £7.99, 478 pp)
Not only is this beautifully written, dark, twisty tale of revenge and retribution filled with unexpected plot twists, it’s the perfect antidote to Christmas schmaltz.
When Mel receives a surprise email from Abi, an old university friend to whom she hasn’t spoken for almost 20 years, long-buried memories come flooding back.
Abi’s life is a mess and Mel immediately asks her to stay in the family home, hoping to right some past wrongs.
An unexpected benefit is that Mel begins to feel like her younger self again: the way she was before she left university early, pregnant and alone. Mel’s husband, however, has reservations about their guest — but Mel refuses to listen.
THE PLUS ONE
THE PLUS ONE by Sophia Money-Coutts (HQ £12.99, 384 pp)
by Sophia Money-Coutts (HQ £12.99, 384 pp)
This debut is by a former features director at Tatler. Polly is nearly 30, single and frustrated by her job as a writer at Posh! — a high-society magazine that churns out interviews with handsome aristocrats.
When her best friend gets engaged, Polly has to find a plus one to take to the wedding. She interviews Jasper, Marquess of Milton, a charming playboy, and can’t believe her luck when he starts pursuing her.
Flattered when he introduces her to all his friends, she starts to relax, but sudden bombshell revelations force a quick rethink.
It’s fast and furious, funny and fresh, and Polly is highly appealing.
THE WINTERS by Lisa Gabriele (Harvill Secker £12.99, 336 pp)
by Lisa Gabriele (Harvill Secker £12.99, 336 pp)
An update of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca moves it to the U.S. East Coast.
Maxim de Winter has become Max Winter, a charismatic, deceptively charming, silver-fox senator; magnificent Manderley has turned into extravagant Asherley; and the narrator, nameless as ever, is a penniless boat girl from Grand Cayman set to marry Max.
Best of all is Dani, Max’s teenage daughter from hell. She makes her stepmother’s life a misery, to an extent that might have shocked Mrs Danvers. It doesn’t stick entirely to the story, but the new twists are all wonderful and the old creepy atmosphere is brilliantly recreated with Long Island’s swirling mists. Loved it!
THE ADULTS by Caroline Hulse (Orion £7.99, 416 pp)
by Caroline Hulse (Orion £7.99, 416 pp)
Few Christmases can be worse than the one in this novel. Two ill-matched couples, a small child and the child’s imaginary friend are spending the festive period together in a Center Parcsstyle wooden chalet.
The adults are mercilessly observed, contemporary archetypes: a laidback, jaunty dad, an uptight alpha male and the control-freak minx to whom the jaunty dad used to be married. It’s a dreadful warning of the dangers of shared holidays. Tensions, sexual and otherwise, simmer and then explode. Quite literally — someone ends up shot. It’s a brilliantly original modern comedy of manners starring, as the best character, a vast, trouble-making, invisible purple rabbit. A literary first, surely.
THE WATER CURE
THE WATER CURE by Sophie Mackintosh (Hamish Hamilton £12.99, 256 pp)
by Sophie Mackintosh (Hamish Hamilton £12.99, 256 pp)
Three sisters live with their father, King, and mother in a dilapidated house on an island far removed from the toxins and influences of the world. When King disappears, the women are left to fend for themselves.
Their mother ensures that Grace, Lia and Sky continue with the violent cleansing ‘therapies’ designed to strengthen the bonds between them and prepare them for the brutalities of men by learning to hold their feelings at bay.
When two shipwrecked men and a boy wash up on the beach, the sisters are both repelled and attracted to them — especially Lia, who dares to forge a more personal connection. The arrival sets off a chain of events that allows the girls their chance of freedom. The dynamics between the sisters are skilfully conveyed, along with asense of atmosphere and place. I can’t forget it.
MEET ME AT THE MUSEUM by Anne Youngson (Doubleday £12.99, 224 pp)
MEET ME AT THE MUSEUM
by Anne Youngson (Doubleday £12.99, 224 pp)
Recently shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, 70-year-old Anne Youngson proves that it’s never too late to succeed at something new.
Tina Hopgood, a grandmother and farmer’s wife living in Bury St Edmunds, writes to Professor Glob, at the Silkeborg Museum in Denmark, who once dedicated a book to her and her classmates.
But the professor has died and so a reply comes from the new curator, Professor Anders Larsen.
The two lonely people tentatively begin a correspondence that becomes a lifeline for them both. An intriguing and tender read about friendship and hope.
WASHINGTON BLACK by Esi Edugyan (Serpent’s Tail £14.99, 432 pp)
by Esi Edugyan (Serpent’s Tail £14.99, 432 pp)
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2018, this searing tale begins on a Barbados sugar plantation. ‘There could be no belonging for a creature such as myself . . . a disfigured black boy with a scientific turn of mind,’ says slave Washington Black.
He has been taken under the wing of ‘Titch’, the brother of Washington’s cruel owner. Inventor and adventurer, Titch has seen Washington’s potential and, after an unexplained death in which Washington is implicated, rescues him.
Slavery — its abominations and cruelties — lies at the heart of the novel. Yet it is also about adventure, science, friendship and the inner journey of an individual. I loved it for its daring and originality.
WRECKER by Noel O’Reilly (HQ £12.99, 384 pp)
by Noel O’Reilly (HQ £12.99, 384 pp)
Debut author Noel O’Reilly conjures the spectacle of disintegrating ships and the gruesome business of scavengers picking at corpses washed ashore in this story about smugglers and wreckers in a Cornish fishing village.
So far, so Daphne du Maurier.
However, O’Reilly is also exploring the toxic combination of poverty, religious superstition and harsh social hierarchy that governed these 19th-century communities.
Feisty, defiant Mary Blight saves Gideon Stone, a Methodist minister, from drowning, and brings him home to nurse him — setting in train a vicious whispering campaign against her.