Doxology by Nell Zink review – invigorating state-of-the-nation novel


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Two generations of a family expose the failings of Trump’s America in the novelist’s frequently brilliant latest

The novels of the US writer Nell Zink tend to be thrillingly unhinged, apparently written on the fly – within a month or even a week – and buzzing with witty dialogue and zany plots. In Mislaid, written before the Rachel Dolezal affair, a white woman identifies as black to leave her gay husband; the main character of Nicotine inherits her childhood home only to end up in a three-way fling with anarchist squatters, one asexual, the other a nymphomaniac.

If the wider points could sometimes go astray amid the quirkiness, Zink’s new novel looks like a bid for greater heft, targeting state-of-the-nation terrain through her regular prism of an unusual domestic setup. Running from 80s New York to Trump-era Washington DC, and framed by a pair of accidental pregnancies some 20 ...

Your Duck Is My Duck by Deborah Eisenberg review – darkly comic stories


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The American writer’s first book in 12 years showcases her singular, scintillating prose

The wry, singular stories of the US short-story writer Deborah Eisenberg aren’t easy to pin down. Temporally fluid, chatty without being workaday, they don’t rely on plot yet aren’t person-has-thoughts narratives either and are often built from a dizzying array of moving parts. If there’s a secret, she isn’t giving it away, telling interviewers that she considers writing a “holy” act not to be “approached casually”, but also that she writes by “just sitting down and seeing what my hand does”.

The pieces in her new book, her first in 12 years, immerse us in a range of perspectives, from that of a dog-owning widow in need of home help to a schoolboy holding tight at bedtime after learning about terrestrial rotation. Eisenberg trusts us to stay afloat: when the artist narrator of the title story falls ...

Broken Ghost by Niall Griffiths review – a bleak vision of modern Britain


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A novel about austerity and social breakdown is flawed yet compelling

Set in west Wales, Niall Griffiths’s new novel begins on a mountainside in the aftermath of an open-air rave, as three troubled strangers witness the mysterious vision of a spectral, floating woman. At first, the apparition seems to be more MacGuffin than comedown, as a means of immersing us in the characters’ stories.

Their travails, told in vernacular point-of-view chapters, hint at the past causes of their present difficulties, from childhood abuse to domestic violence. There’s Adam, an ex-addict volunteering at the rehab centre that helped him get clean; Cowley, a dragon-tattooed, Leave-voting hardman who, priced out of the building trade by “Stony-hands or Poles”, turns to the gangsters lining up for his services; and Emma, a single mother fending off a sleazy hookup who denounces her as a welfare cheat after she rejects his gift of a dildo ...

Nobber by Oisín Fagan review – grisly slice of medieval life


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People run wild in a plague-hit town in the Irish writer’s idiosyncratic first novel

Irish writer Oisín Fagan’s debut story collection, Hostages, narrated in part by a talking bomb, announced a writer out to do whatever the hell he wants – an approach confirmed by his wild first novel, set in the middle ages and named after the plague-hit Irish town where it unfolds.

It starts by following a young aristocrat, Osprey de Flunkl, touring Ireland to profit from what’s known as “the sickness” by hoovering up property deeds of the largely illiterate dead. He’s joined by a bickering retinue including a hard-pressed translator, William of Roscrea, relied on for diplomacy with marauding Gaels equally keen to use the plague to recapture land the Normans forced them from.

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The Volunteer by Salvatore Scibona review – a bravura piece of writing


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Spanning 40 years, from the Vietnam war to post-9/11 Afghanistan, this spy thriller-cum-family saga is weighty and heart-rending

Cryptically structured, glacially paced but with volcanic flashpoints, Salvatore Scibona’s new book keeps you guessing as to what it’s even about. A mix of war novel, spy thriller and family saga, set in the US, Germany and Latvia, ranging in time from the invasion of Vietnam to post-9/11 Afghanistan, it eventually emerges as a kind of 400-page backstory to its alarming prologue – a bravura piece of writing that reels you in before Scibona starts to make us sweat over his purpose.

It’s 2010 and we’re in the company of a US soldier, Elroy, a one-time jailbird and ex-addict who once got a waitress pregnant while posted to Latvia. The child, Janis, is now five and his mother is letting him go; she emails Elroy to come to Riga between tours ...

Everything You Ever Wanted by Luiza Sauma review – a digital detox too far


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A woman’s midlife crisis leads her to a reality show on a desert planet. Then her problems really start

Luiza Sauma’s second novel puts a science-fiction spin on a well-worn narrative of early midlife crisis. Iris, a Londoner nearing 30, is wondering how much longer she can spend Thursday nights trying not to throw up on the bus home after drinking with colleagues from the branding agency where she works as a “digital innovation architect”.

There’s early fun poked at this lingo. “So many valuable learnings for us to take away and ponder,” Iris’s line manager says after a presentation on hashtags. Parsing emails about the need for “dynamic, holistic social”, Iris compares herself to a detective: “but instead of solving a murder, she was trying to work out what she did for a living”.

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Travellers by Helon Habila review – cool and adroit


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The acclaimed Nigerian author’s ‘novel-in-stories’ about six African refugees in Europe is rich and complex

From his 2002 debut novel, Waiting for an Angel, about a reporter jailed in the 90s under the regime of Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha, to 2010’s Oil on Water, a hostage narrative set amid the petroleum industry’s ruin of the Niger delta, Helon Habila has tackled weighty issues without solemnity. It’s a virtue on show once again in Travellers, a nuanced, often surprising novel-in-stories about the experiences of six African refugees in Europe, and his first book set outside his native Nigeria.

Its unnamed narrator (like Habila, a Nigerian based in the US) joins his American wife, Gina, in Berlin, where she has a year’s fellowship to produce a series of portraits of “real migrants”. When he starts drinking with Mark, an anarchist squatter from Malawi who has been rejected by ...

Empty Words review – riddling but enticing


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The first book by Mario Levrero to be translated into English reveals an eccentric talent with a penchant for the absurd

This riddling novel is the English-language debut of the Uruguayan writer Mario Levrero (1940-2004). His translator, Annie McDermott, tells us in an introduction that he was an uncategorisable cult figure formed of omnivorous influences, from comic strips to tango music. “It’s a mistake to expect literature to come only from literary sources,” he told a rare interviewer, “like expecting a cheesemaker to eat nothing but cheese.”

Seemingly autobiographical, Empty Words (1996) is set between 1989 and 1991, taking the form of the diary of a depressed and overweight fiction writer with eczema. His mother has just had a stroke and his wife wants an expensive new house, which he’s hoping to fund with a pay rise from his job, setting crossword puzzles.

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This Storm by James Ellroy review – Nazis, orgies and Orson Welles


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The latest instalment of the writer’s blood-soaked alternative history of the US rewards the attentive

Set in Los Angeles in 1942, the latest instalment in James Ellroy’s occult saga of US history centres on Irish-born police sergeant Dudley Smith, a closet Nazi using his rank as a front for activities including drug running and people trafficking.

In his day job, he’s coordinating a manhunt for a blood-drinking necrophile, Tommy Glennon, though Smith’s real reason for wanting to find him isn’t the obvious one, having more to do with Glennon witnessing what Smith once got up to at a Nazi orgy in the company of Orson Welles.

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Salt Slow by Julia Armfield review – uncanny realities


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Weirdness is piled on weirdness in this vivid debut collection of stories

Strange things happen in Julia Armfield’s debut collection of stories. Lovers turn to stone or rise from the dead. A PhD student collects male body parts to stick on to the lifesize outline she’s been hiding in her cellar. One protagonist shapeshifts into an insect; another gains a wolf for a stepsister.

These tales draw thrilling vigour from Armfield’s conscientiously vivid approach to their dialled-up reality. An insomnia epidemic in one story sees sufferers stalked by their own sleep, mutinous and anthropomorphised. Television, we’re told in passing, isn’t really viable any more: “Fairly early on, a live morning show with a viewership of some 4 million was yanked unceremoniously off air because the host had been attempting to present a segment on seasonal salads with his Sleep in shot behind him.”

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Shadowplay by Anthony Cummins review – campy fun


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Bram Stoker is involved in a love triangle with two giants of the Victorian stage in a humorous retelling of the Dracula author’s life

After The Thrill of It All, a faux-rockumentary tale about the life and loves of a 1980s band, Joseph O’Connor’s new novel returns to the territory of 2010’s Ghost Light, based on an affair between dramatist JM Synge and a younger actress at the Dublin theatre where he worked.

Retelling the life of Bram Stoker, Shadowplay makes fiction out of a longstanding critical interpretation of Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, often read as a vessel for the mixed-up emotions spilling over from his day job as manager of a London theatre. The story starts when Stoker, a court clerk moonlighting as a drama critic in 1870s Dublin, gets catapulted into the world he writes about when he’s hired by actor Henry Irving, flattered by ...

Plume by Will Wiles review – struggles of a sloshed hack


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A journalist suffers in pursuit of a scoop in this sparky if flawed comedy

It wasn’t clear how far you were meant to be troubled by Will Wiles’s 2012 debut, Care of Wooden Floors, about a man whose clumsiness while flat-sitting leads to the death of his host’s cleaner, an event the novel seems to brush under the carpet as just another pratfall. Wiles’s next book, The Way Inn, a slow-release sci-fi horror about a bland hotel chain popular with travelling businessmen, channelling David Lynch as well as David Brent, added to the sense of a smart and interesting writer not yet fully in control of his effects.

That isn’t entirely dispelled by his engaging new novel, which wraps an exploration of technology, authenticity and gentrification around the story of Jack Bick, an alcoholic journalist on a lifestyle magazine in east London. While Bick’s unreliability would seem to ...

The Porpoise by Mark Haddon review – a transcendent, transporting experience


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Adrenaline-fuelled adventure meets Shakespeare in a serious contender for novel of the year

You suspect that whatever he writes, Mark Haddon will always be best known for his 2003 bestseller The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. But there were strong signs in his 2016 collection The Pier Falls – in which he describes a fatal seaside disaster with an impassivity that is all but indistinguishable from relish– that he was keen to shed his child-friendly reputation. And his wondrous new novel, a violent, all-action thrill ride shuttling between antiquity and the present, is another step in a transformation as surprising as any in the book itself.

It starts with a shadowy, super-rich businessman, Philippe, mourning his wife, Maja, a Swedish actor who dies while heavily pregnant in a plane crash that leaves no survivors apart from their child, Angelica, delivered safely. As she grows up, raised in ...

Crossing by Pajtim Statovci review – duplicity, double identity and horror


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Two boys flee Albania in Statovci’s complex and gruelling follow-up to My Cat Yugoslavia

“Nobody has to remain the person they were born; we can put ourselves together like a jigsaw,” says Bujar, the androgynous Albanian narrator of Crossing, the second novel by Finnish-Kosovan writer Pajtim Statovci, acclaimed for his debut My Cat Yugoslavia.

Bujar’s story stress-tests the truth of his statement, asking: at what cost? We see him in Rome in 1998, in hospital after a suicide attempt, and eight years earlier in his native Albania, as a teenage runaway heading for the coast with his schoolmate Agim, who wants to leave after his father beat him for wearing his sister’s clothes.

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The Storyteller by Pierre Jarawan review – pacy Lebanese mystery


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A man is haunted by his father’s disappearance in this acclaimed debut novel set against the backdrop of Middle Eastern politics

Seesawing through three decades, Pierre Jarawan’s first novel – a bestseller on its original publication in Germany, where he moved from Lebanon as a boy in the 80s – is a multilayered mystery of family secrets set against the turmoil of Middle Eastern politics.

It turns on a disappearance. The narrator, Samir, begins by recalling how his father, Brahim, who fled Lebanon to settle in West Berlin in 1982, left their house one night never to be seen again. Before he vanished, the telephone would ring, only for the caller to stay silent. Brahim, claiming it was a sick relative in Lebanon, would dash to a phone box, saying it was too expensive to call from home – but making Samir promise not to tell his mother.

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Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams review – a smart and breezy debut


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A Londoner’s low self-esteem leads to a series of ill-advised flings in an amusing first novel

You can’t help but suspect that literary fiction short-changes readers when it comes to portraying black Britons. A novel such as Diana Evans’s Ordinary People, about middle-class midlife marital crises, felt radical mainly because the alternatives tend to be gritty or nothing: a choice between, say, Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City, about estate kids caught up in riots, or John Lanchester’s south London panorama Capital, without a black British character in sight.

So it’s hard not to hear the double meaning when, at her lowest ebb, Queenie, the titular heroine of Candice Carty-Williams’s smart and breezy comic debut, also set in south London, says “there’s no space” for her. At 25, she’s verging on breakdown, adrift in her job on a newspaper culture supplement, cold-shouldered by her long-term ...

We, the Survivors by Tash Aw – review


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Prejudice and the refugee experience are examined in this taut novel set in Malaysia

After novels set in British Malaya, postcolonial Indonesia and modern-day Shanghai, Tash Aw’s new book stays in the present to tell a brutally discomfiting tale of social inequality in Malaysia.

It’s told by Ah Hock, a villager who, after a string of precarious jobs in and around Kuala Lumpur, lands on his feet managing a fish farm. But when a cholera epidemic leaves him without workers, he unwisely accepts help from a childhood friend, Keong, a one-time drug dealer and pimp now sourcing migrant slave labour for the palm oil industry.

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We, the Survivors by Tash Aw – review


This post is by Anthony Cummins from Books | The Guardian


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Prejudice and the refugee experience are examined in this taut novel set in Malaysia

After novels set in British Malaya, postcolonial Indonesia and modern-day Shanghai, Tash Aw’s new book stays in the present to tell a brutally discomfiting tale of social inequality in Malaysia.

It’s told by Ah Hock, a villager who, after a string of precarious jobs in and around Kuala Lumpur, lands on his feet managing a fish farm. But when a cholera epidemic leaves him without workers, he unwisely accepts help from a childhood friend, Keong, a one-time drug dealer and pimp now sourcing migrant slave labour for the palm oil industry.

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The Other Americans by Laila Lalami – review


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Multiple narrators subtly unfold a detective story and revelations of American family life

Laila Lalami’s rich, polyphonic fourth novel The Other Americans, her first to be set in the present-day US, centres on the hit-and-run killing of Driss, a Moroccan grandfather and restaurant owner who, as a philosophy student in the early 80s, fled a crackdown on anti-royal dissent in Casablanca to settle with his wife in California.

As Lalami describes the impact of Driss’s death on fellow residents of his small suburb in the Mojave desert, the story unfolds as a state-of-America family saga told as a slow-burn detective story in which there are no obvious leads; the sole witness, Efraín, from Mexico, didn’t intervene or call the police, fearful of drawing attention to his family ever since a friend found herself deported after calling the cops on a violent neighbour.

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Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli – review


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A squabbling US couple set out to document the Mexican migrant crisis in Luiselli’s cautious attempt at introducing autofiction to the real world

A common criticism of autofiction is that it doesn’t get out enough. You could see Valeria Luiselli’s teasingly autobiographical new novel, about American border crises past and present, as an attempt to square the circle, enjoying autofiction’s perks – the freedom from clunky scene-setting; the flexibility to be essayistic as well as dramatic – while avoiding accusations of solipsism by targeting an issue of unimpeachable urgency.

Taking the form of a travelogue centred on a road trip from New York City to the Mexican border, the book was begun in 2014, when tens of thousands of migrants from Mexico and Central America crossed into the US. Its unnamed narrator, who shares much in common with Luiselli herself, reflects on the ethics of storytelling while setting out ...