From the haunting case of a retired policeman grappling with the past to a thrilling psychological debut, check out our critics’ picks of the best new books to read this weekend.
Dancing With The Red Devil
By Sarah Standing
(Headline, £12.99, 320pp)
At 61, Sarah Standing had led a charmed life. The daughter of film director Bryan Forbes and actress Nanette Newman, she had an idyllic childhood. She was happily married to actor John Standing, with three grown-up children and two grandsons.
But in November 2020 she suddenly began feeling breathless. Convinced that nothing serious was wrong, she was shocked to hear the diagnosis was lymphoma. The fact that her treatment coincided with the Covid lockdown was especially devastating, because it made it much harder for her to look after Nanette, now widowed.
Sarah’s fierce and defiantly funny memoir is an unflinching account of chemotherapy (the ‘red devil’ of the title), hair loss and holding it together with the help of an army of supporters, from medical staff to family and dear friends (including family friend Sir Elton John).
Old God’s Time
By Sebastian Barry
(Faber £9.99, 272pp)
Tom Kettle is a retired policeman, living alone on the Irish coast. Visitors are rare, so he is surprised when a pair of detectives from his old division arrive to discuss a cold case.
Back then, the power of the Catholic Church meant that priests who abused children were seldom brought to trial. In this case, one of the alleged perpetrators escaped prosecution, while the other was murdered. New evidence has emerged, and Tom’s former colleagues need his assistance.
Also in need of help is his neighbour, Miss McNulty. She is an actress with a young son, living in fear of her violent husband.
In this haunting novel by the highly acclaimed Irish novelist, the ghosts of the past emerge to reveal long-hidden secrets and tragedies. For all its grief and horror, Tom’s story is illuminated by the inextinguishable power of love.
By Costanza Casati
(Penguin £8.99, 416pp)
While Helen of Troy is immortalised in Greek mythology as the Spartan princess whose beauty unleashed the Trojan war, her sister Clytemnestra is remembered as a murderous wife who killed her second husband, Agamemnon, after he sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenia, to the goddess Artemis.
Constanza Casati’s debut novel presents Clytemnestra as a spirited girl who could match the Spartan boys in skill and courage. But an ominous prophecy foretells a troubled future, predicting that both Helen and Clytemnestra will marry more than once and desert their husbands.
And so it proves. Agamemnon kills Clytemnestra’s beloved first husband, King Tantalus, and their infant son, then forces her to marry him.
When Agamemnon returns in triumph from the Trojan war, Clytemnestra prepares to avenge Iphigenia’s death.
Constanza Casati’s powerful novel vividly reclaims Clytemnestra as a heroine of heartbreaking vulnerability and strength.
BEST NEW FICTION
By Madeleine Gray
(Weidenfield & Nicolson £18.99)
Aged 24 and armed with three arts degrees, Sydney native Hera is both knowing and naive. Compelled to join the world of work as an online content moderator, she decides to make office life more interesting by flirting with an older, married guy – it’s what corporate types do, right? But as their affair gathers pace, her feelings become genuine, teeing up a droll coming-of-age story that explores what we’re really looking for when we fall for the wrong person. Hephzibah Anderson
By Kate Davies
(The Borough Press £16.99)
Davies delivers a funny, moving novel about reproduction, IVF and biological identity that’s packed with explosive
emotion and warmed by empathetic understanding. It starts when Lena buys DNA testing kits for her twin sister Alison and their dad Tom. The results are decidedly unexpected, prompting reflections on the meaning of family as Tom is forced to reveal a secret, a famous half-brother materialises and Alison and her wife embark on their own journey to parenthood. Eithne Farry
By Joe Thomas
This is the second chapter in Thomas’s epic trilogy of policing and corruption in 1980s East London.
At the heart of it is undercover ‘spy cop’ Parker. His mission is to infiltrate local radicals but he’s increasingly unsure whose side he’s really on. Meanwhile money is pouring in like never before. Juggling storylines like a box-set drama rather than a conventional thriller, Thomas builds up an absorbing portrait of a time when everything was in the balance. John Williams
How To Be Somebody Else
By Miranda Pountney
(Jonathan Cape £16.99, 288pp)
This Rooney-esque debut follows 38-year-old Dylan, a would-be writer and English expat, as she implodes one version of her life and steps into another.
Blowing out her Manhattan ad-agency job, she adopts an economical approach to the truth with her devoted long-distance boyfriend Matt and finds herself a gig housesitting for an artist. It’s not long before she’s embarked on an affair with her married musician neighbour, Gabe — but what does his wife, Kate, actually know?
There’s not a lot here to distinguish this from the glut of similar novels in the cool coming-of-age vein. But it’s entertaining and sharp enough to keep the pages turning.
By Angie Kim
(Faber £16.99, 400pp)
Braiding linguistic theory with a pandemic-set missing person mystery, this comes endorsed by author of the moment Gabrielle Zevin.
Our narrator is Korean-American grad student, Mia, whose life is turned upside down when her younger brother, Eugene, returns from a hike distressed and without their father. But there’s a snag — Eugene has both autism and a genetic condition that renders him non-verbal.
As the family frantically try to unlock the truth that only Eugene knows, Mia is drawn into her father’s obsessive research into the relativity of happiness, which throws new light onto both his past actions and dramatic disappearance.
Kim wears her heart on her sleeve, stressing in an afterword the danger of equating verbal skills with intelligence (and their lack with its absence). And as an emotive portrait of life with a special needs sibling this feels authentic and compelling. So it’s a shame that hyperlexic Mia’s maximalist approach to commentary, some heavy retrospective irony and clunky cliff-hangers encumber the endeavour.
By Andrew McMillan
(Canongate £14.99, 192pp)
Award-winning Barnsley-born poet McMillan writes whereof he knows in this short but memorable debut.
Set in the author’s hometown, it follows three generations of men in the shadow of the pits and their post-industrial replacements — anonymous call centres such as the one where Simon works. But Simon has side hustles — an OnlyFans account that pays the bills (despite his boyfriend’s reservations) and a subversive drag act that he dreams of turning into art. Dressing up as the hated Maggie Thatcher, he can mine the identity that Thatcher’s Section 28 necessitated he kept hidden as a child.
Meanwhile, academics have descended to extract memories from inhabitants, and Alex’s uncle Brian finds himself obliging.
Interspersed throughout are incantatory sections of prose poem that indelibly summon the reality of life in the mines — the cages, the dust, the suffocating weight of earth and history above — building to a gut-punch of a reveal.
Sensitive, skilful and original, this is a debut to applaud.
The Trials of Lila Dalton
By L J Shepherd
(Pushkin Vertigo £16.99, 352pp)
Now and again a new writer with a real feel for language and a genuine grasp of what makes a good psychological plot comes along. Enter L.J. Shepherd.
Shepherd’s chief protagonist is Lila Dalton, a barrister suffering amnesia. She finds herself, for reasons she doesn’t know, standing in a courtroom with a man accused of mass murder and bombing the Home Office.
In case things aren’t weird enough the courtroom is on an island reserved for trying particularly serious cases.
And on top of that Lila herself is being watched and dealing with threats against her daughter. In summary the plot sounds a bit crazy. And it is a heady, ambitious mix of courtroom drama and dystopian mystery. But, thanks to Shepherd’s formidable prose skills, she pulls off a winner.
What We Did In The Storm
By Tina Baker
(Viper £16.99, 400pp)
Tina Baker is still probably best known for her appearances as a TV critic on BBC and GMTV and winning ITV’s Celebrity Fit Club. All that might be about to change with this, her second, and very enticing, thriller.
The backdrop is Tresco where wealthy incomers and the locals seem to rub along until the aftermath of a violent storm.
Everything changes when two women are attacked and one goes missing. Suddenly there are rumours and intrigue about marriages and relationships which threaten to blow up the chocolate-box image of the island.
Baker’s deceptively simple style belies the power she brings to storytelling and for getting under the skin of so many varied characters. The story is told by multiple voices. Sometimes there are too many, but it’s the only flaw in an otherwise well told tale with a satisfying conclusion.
Perfect for readers who love to be transported to new places to get their thrills.
By Tracy Sierra
(Viking £14.99, 368pp)
An unnamed mother has just put her children to bed when she hears a noise on the stairs and sees a man creeping up them. There is a blizzard outside and she has to make a split-second decision about the best way to survive and protect her children.
She decides to hide with them in a secret room in another part of the house and wait it out. Of course this means keeping the children quiet so as not to alert him.
What unfolds is a powerful account of the woman’s present trauma, but her past ordeals are also told in equally powerful flashbacks.
However, our excursions into her past don’t necessarily fill us with confidence about her reliability. Then a few more twists and turns of plot make us doubt ourselves.
The extreme tension at the start of the book builds, sags a little in the middle but builds again and triumphs in a gripping and convincing finale.
Not for the faint-hearted.
By David Nicholls
(Hodder £9.99, 436pp)
As Netflix launches a new series based on this book, it’s hard to remember just how it swept us all up when first published in 2009.
Emma and Dexter first drunkenly meet on graduation night, July 15 (St Swithin’s Day) 1988, at Edinburgh University and we revisit them on the anniversary every year for two decades as Emma (Northern, straight-talking, principled) and Dexter (Cotswolds, privileged, hedonistic) navigate life and attempt to stay friends as their careers, social and romantic lives diverge.
It’s laugh-out-loud funny but on a deeper level it’s a genuine exploration of relationships, integrity and love and even if you know the ending, it will still bring a lump to your throat.
By Mervyn Peake
(Vintage £14.99, 478pp)
This first volume in a reissue of the Gormenghast trilogy (Neil Gaiman calls it ‘a perfect creation’) reaffirms what a master of the Gothic novel Peake was.
The reclusive sixth Earl of Groan, his absurd wife Gertrude, his twin sisters and daughter live in the massive, isolated Gormenghast Castle where young Titus is born. His arrival triggers a rebellion by kitchen boy Steerpike, who harnesses the bitter resentment of the twins to stage a massive library fire from which he hopes to emerge a hero.
But loyalties switch and nothing goes to plan in this extraordinary story bursting with grotesque characters, madness and mayhem. Fantasy writers of today owe his wild imagination a massive debt.
Sea of Poppies
By Amitav Ghosh
(John Murray £10.99, 544pp)
Ghosh’s expansive novel traces the fate of characters from very different social backgrounds whose lives intersect on a voyage aboard a former slave ship, Ibis, crossing from Calcutta to China. It’s 1838 and ruthless Benjamin Burnham is determined to maintain his lucrative poppy trading despite China’s ban on opium imports.
Passengers include Neel, a Raja convicted on trumped up charges of fraud, Deeti, a widow saved from burning on her husband’s funeral pyre and French orphan Paulette, who’s infatuated by Zachary, the second mate. Ghosh seamlessly weaves their stories together using pidgin slang (glossary provided) in this rip-roaring, sweeping drama, the first in a trilogy.
By Hannah Kaner
(Harper Voyager £16.99, 400pp)
Difficult second novel? Hannah Kaner yanks the myth off its high horse and stomps it into the mud. This brilliantly accomplished sequel builds and expands on our first visit to Middren, the god-plagued land in the grip of endless conflict, but now with a rampaging, reborn, monotheistic monarch.
Kissen, the one-legged god-slayer, is still grittily sexy but learning to hold back on slayage; Elogast, the reluctant royal knight, must come to terms with his attempted regicide.
But this novel really belongs to young Inara and her godling Skedi, as she starts to understand her strength and learns how to tread the fine line between determination and fanaticism.
The Burning Land
By David Hair
(Jo Fletcher Books £16.99, 400pp)
You’ve got monsters, virginal knights, forgotten civilisations and a looming apocalypse. It all adds up to a magnificent, full-throttle epic that grips, gives you a good shake but does not relent.
All is not well in the Empire: the outer reaches are being ravaged by the Vyr, peasants transformed into fangy, muscled monsters, and even the Vestal Knights are in retreat.
There’s an eco-parable brilliantly wrapped up in the action as Romara, a priggish knight, goes uncomfortably rogue while leading a ragtag band of renegades across a broken land. The truth is out there but can she really let go of everything she believes is right and righteous?
The Fox Wife
By Yangsze Choo
(Quercus £20, 400pp)
This rich and beguiling mix of matter-of-fact detail, pin-sharp humour and Chinese myth takes us back to Manchuria at the turn of the last century.
It’s a country on the edge of modernisation but still peopled by foxes: shapeshifting, magical creatures who are like us, only better looking and helplessly curious.
Beautiful Yuki is looking for the brute who murdered her cub; Bao is an elderly investigator, haunted by his fox-touched past, and hired to track her down.
While Yuki’s quest draws us into a world of political plots, betrayals and prodigious quantities of food (foxes have appetites), Bao plods steadily towards his fate: a beautiful resolution to an unfulfilled life.