Sandra Newman

Book review: The Heavens, by Sandra Newman

This is a tour de force of a novel; more than that, it does things that only the novel can do. It is gloriously bewildering and presents a piquant challenge to the reader to stitch together its shifting stories. Most importantly, it is serious.

It begins with Ben meeting Kate at “a rich girl’s party. He didn’t know the rich girl personally” in New York in 2000. The party-goers are all young, bohemian, cool without being cool, and mostly privileged. But something is awry already. There is a female President, Chen, who supports ecological causes and advocates a universal basic income. Ben – who is half Bengali and half Jewish – and Kate – who is Hungarian-Turkish-Persian – inevitably fall in love. But there is a problem. Kate is a dreamer – they are all dreamers – but her dreams are different. For one thing, “often, she dreamed in the dream – or the person she was sleeping as dreamed”. In those dreams, it is 1593 and she is Emilia Lanier, one of the people often cited as the inspiration of the Dark Lady in Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Moreover, her dreams seem to have the capacity to change the future. So the reader is set adrift between Elizabethan England and millennial New York, and things keep on changing. In one present she conjures, Shakespeare is only known as the minor poet of Venus And Adonis. Sometimes she has parents and a family, sometimes not; sometimes George W Bush is President, not Chen. Sometimes it is all going to work out alright, not just between Ben and Kate, but for the whole planet. Sometimes it will not.

Alexander McCall Smith PIC: Kirsty Anderson

Book review: The Second Worst Restaurant in France, by Alexander McCall Smith

Fans of Alexander McCall Smith will be familiar with the feel of his new novel if not the cast of characters. Some, however, may have met the protagonist already as this book is the second in a series featuring food writer Paul Stewart. The first, My Italian Bulldozer, was set in Tuscany and was billed as “a Tuscan holiday you can have at home”. Following Paul from Edinburgh to Provence, on what he hopes will be a writing retreat and an escape from relationship problems, The Second Worst Restaurant In France has a similar vacation feel, although the peaceful village of Saint Vincent de la Colline turns out to be anything but.

Mark Haddon PIC: Guy Bell/REX/Shutterstock

Book review: The Porpoise, by Mark Haddon

Mark Haddon is still, I suppose, best-known for his first novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which won lots of prizes, among them the Whitbread, and became a worldwide bestseller. Such a success is often a burden for a writer, and may also of course prove a liberation, allowing him the freedom to experiment. It seems to have been the second for Haddon. With The Pier Falls, he ingeniously reworked two myths – Ariadne in Naxos and Gawain and the Green Knight – setting them in today’s world. Now, with The Porpoise, he plays a similar game with one of the most perplexing of Shakespeare’s works, Pericles, Prince of Tyre.

Joanne Ramos PIC: Ben Gabbe/Getty Images

Book review: The Farm, by Joanne Ramos

In the UK, surrogates can only carry another person’s baby for entirely altruistic reasons – it is against the law to pay someone other than very strict expenses. However, in the US and many other countries, commercial surrogacy is the norm, and when you bring money into the equation – coupled with poverty and desperation – the relationship between the parents and the surrogate changes dramatically.

Denise Mina

Book review: Conviction, by Denise Mina

Denise Mina’s work is increasingly intriguing. She has written detective novels and police procedural novels, and recently a marvellous non-fiction fiction. Her newest novel might be described as a fictional non-fiction. It is a thriller that often evokes an almost Hitchcock-like air of paranoia, doubt, double identities, sexual frisson, gadding around over several countries from Fort William to Venice, with sinister train journeys and mordant wit. I half expected a character called “Denise Mina” to make a cameo appearance, possibly carrying a small ukulele, especially since the last line of the novel is: “That could mean only one thing: I was going to have to write this f***ing book.”

Cover of The Sea Journal, by Huw Lewis-Jones

Seafarers’ Sketchbooks: historic journals capture drama of life on the ocean wave

For as long as humans have been adventuring, it seems, we have had an innate desire to communicate our experiences to others when we return home. “We would not take a sea voyage in order never to talk of it,” wrote the French mathematician and scientist Blaise Pascal in 1669, “and for the sole pleasure of seeing without hope of ever communicating.” These days, of course, there’s a whole chunk of the tech industry which caters to modern-day adventures wishing to share their exploits with the world: from gadgets like GoPro cameras and selfie sticks right through to platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, the denizens of Silicon Valley are labouring night and day to ensure that no heroic gap year bungee jump need ever go unrecorded again. In the past, however, men and women journeying to far-off lands had to resort to simpler means to record the things they saw, thought and felt, and in many cases the medium they chose was the humble notebook or sketchbook: portable, more-or-less indestructible (as long as you’re able to keep it dry) and infinitely adaptable. And as demonstrated by The Sea Journal: Seafarers’ Sketchbooks, a new book by Huw Lewis-Jones, paper and ink has another significant advantage over the tech toys of today: it encourages the user to concentrate on the things they see around them, rather than constantly putting themselves at the centre of the story.

Doug Johnstone. Pic Neil Hanna

Book review: Breakers, by Doug Johnstone

Much of Doug Johnstone’s work falls into two camps: action-packed (Smokeheads, Crash Land) or psychologically powerful (Gone Again, The Jump). Last year’s Fault Lines saw him weld these strands together and in Breakers he goes further, giving us pacey action punctuating a painfully beautiful study of 17-year-old Tyler, who is trying to hold himself and his family together despite having been dealt one of life’s crappier hands of cards.

Elizabeth Macneal' PIC: Mat Smith

Book review: The Doll Factory, by Elizabeth Macneal

The Doll Factory scarcely needs a review. It is already a success and, according to its publishers, is “the most coveted debut of 2019, an intoxicating story of art, obsession and possession.” Elizabeth Macneal is a graduate of the creative writing course at the University of East Anglia where she was the Malcolm Bradbury Scholar, and The Doll Factory has won her the Caledonia Novel Award and has been sold to “28 territories so far,” while TV rights “have already been snapped up.”

Robert Macfarlane

Book review: Underland - A Deep Time Journey, by Robert Macfarlane

“Facilis descensus Averno”, as the Roman poet Virgil wrote: “It is easy to go down to the underworld.” Robert Macfarlane’s new book is also a retort to that line. It is not easy at all to find your way into the “underland”; and, as Virgil cautioned, it is even more difficult to take the route back.

Niall Campbell

Book review: Noctuary, by Niall Campbell

A friend with three children under 12 describes the first few years of parenthood as “the donkey years”. All parents can do during this period of extreme sleep deprivation and endless nappy changes, he reckons, is to accept their new roles as beasts of burden, put their heads down and get on with things. It’s a philosophy captured perfectly in “Packhorse”, a poem in Niall Campbell’s new collection, Noctuary, in which he reflects on his new life as the father of a baby boy.

CA Fletcher

Book review: A Boy And His Dog At The End Of The World, by CA Fletcher

Dystopian novels are all the rage. The genre isn’t new of course. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World remains one of the best, prophetic and disturbing, and, if the world lasts till 2032, which it probably will, his book will be 100 years old. Still it’s a rare month now when a new dystopian novel isn’t published, and what was once classified as sci-fi or fantasy has elbowed its way into the mainstream. Writing in the New Statesman recently Erica Wagner (former literary editor of the Times) suggested this might be due to “the pressures of the 21st century.” Perhaps, perhaps, though these pressures may be no greater than in previous centuries; for Climate Change now, read Nuclear Winter 60 years ago. Moreover, no fictional dystopia matches the historical realities of the Nazi death-camps or the Soviet gulag.

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