A Shout in the Ruins by Kevin Powers – review

The American civil war and its legacy propels a brutal but lyrical novel that spans a century

The US novelist Kevin Powers is preoccupied with the before and after of violence. The Yellow Birds, his prize-winning debut from 2012, follows a GI back home from Iraq, his mind still snarled in the horror of that maelstrom. With its teeming cast and a plot coiling back and forth over a century and a half, A Shout in the Ruins provides a more expansive overview of conflict – this time the American civil war – and its devastating effect on bodies, minds, families and societies.

The forms of violence in Powers’s second novel are legion. At a “doomed” Virginia hotel in 1863, a plantation owner and his new bride, Emily, stiffly eat dinner while pretending not to hear bread riots erupting in the streets outside. Yet Emily has more pressing problems ...

America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo review – a hero at the Golden Gate

One Filipino migrant’s struggle to live her American dream after two years in a prison camp makes for a blazingly fearless debut novel

While serving as a medic in the revolutionary New People’s Army in the 1980s, Geronima, called Hero for short, is captured by the Filipino military. After two years in a prison camp she weighs less than 90lb and cannot bear to be touched. Hero’s mutilated thumbs and cigarette-burn scars are not easy to hide but she keeps her emotional wounds to herself after joining her uncle’s family in California at the beginning of America Is Not the Heart.

Hero guards another secret too: she prefers girls. In this blazingly fearless debut novel, Elaine Castillo furnishes a queer hero with a history of suffering on a par with tragic Jude from Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (2015). She also probes the same disconcerting question: can such a profoundly ...

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar; Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday – review

Two top-notch debut novels tackle sexual power imbalances, one in Georgian London, the other in modern-day New York

“I’m a rich man. I have a right to rare things.” In The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, merchant Jonah Hancock is thinking of Angelica, the most splendid courtesan in Georgian London, but his sentiment could also serve as the tacit motto of Ezra Blazer, the renowned author in Asymmetry, as he sets his sights on youthful editor Alice in early 00s New York. While poles apart in style – one enchants, the other eviscerates – both of these much-heralded debuts delve into power imbalances with an implacability fit for our time.

If the supernatural siren in The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock seems to suggest twee fantasy, Imogen Hermes Gowar brings a lustrous realism to her panorama of London’s stinking docks and chintzy bordellos. Our leading lady is the irresistible ...

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King review – dark stories with moments of magic

With its killer cars and visions of death foretold, this collection of short works recycles familiar themes, but it also reveals King’s mastery of the novella

Often too long to sell to magazines and too short to sit alone on the bookshop shelf, the novella has long been sidelined as an awkwardly impractical form of fiction. Yet from heart-stopping skirmishes with maniacs in Big Driver and The Gingerbread Girl to the monster apocalypses of The Mist and The Langoliers, Stephen King has shown a remarkable knack for making the novella seem like the Platonic ideal of fiction. A classic King novella takes time to tease out the implications of its alarming central idea, but the ending still comes swiftly enough to make the final page resound like a slammed door.

Sure enough, in this new book of shorter fiction, the novella again proves his sweet spot. The 57 spellbinding pages of “Ur” ...