From a crackling political thriller about Russian espionage to tales of life in the Jim Crow era of the American South, check out our critics’ picks of the best new books to read this weekend.
By Matthew Blake
(HarperCollins £16.99, 432pp)
This striking debut is one of the most remarkable in many years — for at its heart lies a fascinating enigma.
Twenty-five-year-old Anna Ogilvy hasn’t opened her eyes in four years — not since the night she was found fast asleep in her home, a blood stained kitchen knife in her hand, near the bodies of two of her best friends who had been stabbed to death.
Enter sleep expert Dr Ben Prince, who is asked to see if he can wake her up to face a trial for murder. He concludes she is suffering from ‘resignation syndrome’, a mysterious illness afflicting those who commit a dreadful crime and whose brain then refuses to allow them to wake up.
Anna’s story becomes even more compelling when the boss of the sleep clinic in Harley Street that she has been assigned to is murdered.
Brilliantly executed, packed with insight, it deserves to be a breakout best-seller.
By Alex Michaelides
(Michael Joseph £18.99, 368pp)
Another blockbuster by the author of the multi-million selling A Silent Patient. Reclusive ex-movie star Lana Farrer has invited a small group of her closest friends for a week on her private Greek island — a lavish present from her late movie-producer husband.
But this is not the joyful reunion that everyone expects at this glamorous retreat. Old enmities, bitter jealousies and violent passions surface all too quickly.
Within 48 hours of their arrival, one of the friends is killed — but by whom, and why? Could the local man charged with looking after the island for the past seven years be a killer, or could it be one of the celebrity guests, all of whom seem to have darkness in their hearts? Infinitely thrilling, and delicately crafted, the plot keeps everyone guessing until the very end, with an unscrupulous villain to underline just how good it is. Do not miss it.
The Shadow Network
By Tony Kent
(Elliott & Thompson, £16.99, 464pp)
At the heart of this crackling political thriller, packed with deception and espionage, lies a shadowy organisation determined to overthrow the world order. Its aim is to re-establish Russian supremacy but not under communists like Vladimir Putin. It wants the ancestors of the Russian Tsars back in control.
Then two lawyers, acting for an alleged war criminal who is to be tried at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, are gunned down, it transpires the attack has been carried out on the orders of ‘The Monk’ — named after Grigori Rasputin, the legendary Russian adviser to Tsar Nicholas II.
British barrister, Michael Devlin, who knows one of the victims, sets out to discover where the reality lies. Tense and fast paced, it has a fierce edge that questions whether the world as we know it can survive. Kent has become the British Baldacci, and there can be no higher praise.
By Ela Lee
(Harvill Secker £14.99, 384pp)
The daughter of mixed-heritage immigrants, Jade has spent her life working hard to fit in. She’s a talented lawyer working for a big London firm, has had the same gorgeous boyfriend since university and is also a dutiful daughter who delights in making her parents proud.
Jade feels like she has everything. However, when she belatedly realises she’s been the victim of a brutal sexual assault by a colleague after a work party it’s not long before she starts to feel like she’s got nothing.
As rumours begin to fly around the office, Jade’s carefully constructed façade starts to crumble and she is worried she will lose her job as well as her relationship.
The author once worked as a city lawyer herself, which lends the corporate bits a pleasing authenticity.
Jonathan Abernathy You Are Kind
By Molly McGhee
(4th Estate £16.99, 368pp)
Drowning in debt but unable to get a job, Jonathan is a desperate man who thinks he is utterly worthless. He’s so desperate he regularly tells himself lies to get through the day.
He always tells himself the same things — that he is kind, competent, respected by his community and loved by his family.
Eventually, Jonathan gets an offer from a government loan forgiveness programme to work as he sleeps, auditing the dreams of people just like him and reducing his debt as he does so. It seems fine if a bit weird at first. As he gets used to it, however, he realises he’s involved in a deeply sinister occupation and is losing more than he is gaining.
This is a quirky, original story and so is our protagonist, an anxious people-pleaser who often makes bad decisions and is riddled with fear. I still rooted for him from the start. Brilliantly different.
By Chloe Seager
(HQ £9.99, 384pp)
When Holly’s boyfriend, Will, books them dinner at a swanky restaurant they’ve never been to before, she is convinced he’s going to propose. After all, they’ve been together for nine years and most of their friends are engaged or married already.
But instead of proposing, he suggests they open up their relationship from its current monogamous status and both start seeing other people. She’s totally blindsided. Meanwhile, Fliss has been in an open relationship with Andy for the last five years.
She wouldn’t want to live any other way, so is staggered when he says he now wants to make it just the two of them. Fliss isn’t sure she can make monogamy work and Holly will try anything to keep Will, so they resolve to help each other get what they want. Compelling complications ensue.
Neighbors And Other Stories
By Diane Oliver
(Faber £9.99, 272pp)
Pin-sharp prose, keen observation and a deep emotional engagement with the struggles of black lives in the Jim Crow era of the American South are the mainstays of this remarkable collection, from an author who died when she was just 23.
Here, Oliver explores the personal consequences for the trailblazers in the Civil Rights movement, from the parents rethinking their decision to send their young son to a previously all-white school (Neighbors), to college girl Winifred who’s ‘tired of being the Experiment’, and whose mental health declines in The Closet On The Top Floor.
Elsewhere, it’s the domestic drama that pulls us into Oliver’s orbit — from tricky stepmother/stepdaughter dynamics and floundering marriages, to the effects of poverty on pupils and teachers, and especially on the women who leave their own children home alone to care for someone else’s.
Float Up, Sing Down
By Laird Hunt
(Riverrun, £18.99, 224pp)
Genial and generous of heart, these 14 interlinked stories capture the lives and loves of the inhabitants of Bright Creek in Indiana, where everyone knows everyone and secrets ripple under the surface of their rural world.
Brimming with easy-going charm, there’s real heart and hurt here, too, as Hunt unspools the hopes and dreams of his beguiling characters.
There’s Gladys, who walks through the shadowy cornfields and worries about her war damaged husband, as Hank, the elderly retired sheriff on the look out for romance himself, offers relationship advice to martial arts-obsessed Greg, who’s crushing on Bethie, who works with him in the Galaxy Whirl kiosk.
There’s unhappy, outsider Irma, much missed by Candy, whose charming, chipper tone opens the collection, as she hosts a gossipy gathering of her friends. An absolute delight.
This Is Salvaged
By Vauhini Vara
(Grove Press £12.99, 208pp)
Loss lingers in the pages of Vara’s funny yet sad short stories; it’s a world of dead siblings, failed careers and love gone astray, but there’s also a defiant sense of grabbing at life with both hands and characters who refuse to give in or up.
From the mother who explains how a ‘foundational lie’ became ‘cupolas, friezes, lintels of untruth’ in regard to her child’s parentage (What Next), to the artist in the titular story who abandoned his ‘fragile and perishable’ art to create a Biblical ark with inflammable consequences, there’s the realisation that, although things may ‘have been unmoored from all sense of meaning’, there’s hope and something to salvage from the wreckage.
What Will Survive of us
By Howard Jacobson
(Cape £20, 304 pp)
Jacobson, 81, seems out to give the reader a gentler time than usual in this rom-com about how love at first sight strikes a middle-aged man and woman who ditch their long-time partners to shack up.
The story centres on Lily, a television documentary maker, and Sam, a playwright, who get together while filming in Mexico before sealing the deal by sampling the S&M scene in London’s Soho and Amsterdam.
Sure, there’s a dollop of dirty talk — it’s a Jacobson novel after all.
But he dials down the usually relentless rib-digging gags poured into books such as his Donald Trump satire Pussy, and there’s no sign of the kind of edgy conceit that has previously animated his provocative comedies of Jewishness in the shadow of the Holocaust.
Instead, we have a warm-hearted examination of how Lily and Sam’s coup de foudre endures down the decades. Touching, yes, yet oddly short on electricity.
I’m New Here
By Ian Russell-Hsieh
(Scribner £14.99, 240 pp)
This punchy debut follows Sean, a Taiwanese-British photographer who leaves London to jet off to Taipei in search of belonging after he is sacked from his job and dumped by his girlfriend.
Instead, he falls into a self-loathing spiral of random hook-ups and junk food, reported with almost anaesthetic blankness. Our sense of what exactly is going on begins to fracture under the pressure of the protagonist’s psychological breakdown once he finds himself hired by a new client, a shadowy older man encountered in a doughnut joint.
If the unreliable narration of I’m New Here shares DNA with cult classics Fight Club and American Psycho, its sour comic candour also recalls the recent vogue for spiky novels flaunting the unrestrained appetites of women behaving badly (think Eliza Clark’s Boy Parts or Sheena Patel’s I’m A Fan).
A compelling character study, even if it’s ultimately more of a voice and an attitude than a story.
The Book Of Days
By Francesca Kay
(Swift Press £16.99)
Set in an English manor house in the dog days of Henry VIII’s reign, this absorbing novel takes the form of the diary kept by a young woman while her dying husband pursues his dream of building a chapel to safeguard his soul.
As she mourns a lost child while stirring to furtive glances from a local priest, grief and desire bubble slowly to the boil. This is historical fiction that is personal, not panoramic: intimate, hushed and spare.
Ed by Margaret Atwood and Douglas Preston
(Chatto & Windus, £20, 384 pp)
Assuming you haven’t already had your fill of lockdown stories, this is an intriguing take on the genre: a collaborative novel written by 36 North American writers, imagining a socially-distanced rooftop gathering of tenants in a New York apartment block as they share stories at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Although seriousness prevails, there is a mix of moods, genres and protagonists, from a pest exterminator to an Iraq veteran, a woman widowed by a plane crash and even William Shakespeare during his own experience of lockdown, when plague closed the theatres.
The different stories aren’t bylined, so you don’t know until the end of the book which of them was written by star names (Margaret Atwood, John Grisham) or up-and-coming talents (Nafissa Thompson-Spires, Tommy).
Parasol Against The Axe
By Helen Oyeyemi
Imagine a book whose story changes depending on where or when it’s read, or by whom. Oyeyemi’s new novel is just such a tome, and begins when a circle of women gather in Prague for a hen weekend. With her wild, stylish tale, Oyeyemi pays loving homage to the city of Milan Kundera and Franz Kafka, while also playing games in the manner of Italo Calvino.
Review by Tom Payne