Ponti by Sharlene Teo – review

A much-lauded debut novel featuring a faded movie star is a lesson in the limitations of a creative writing course

Ponti, Sharlene Teo’s first novel, won the inaugural Deborah Rogers writers’ award (in honour of the late, great agent) and comes ablaze with praise from Ian McEwan. There’s not a debut writer on the planet who wouldn’t kill for such names on their dust jacket and certainly I came to this book very ready to like it.

Szu and Circe meet as teenagers in Singapore and form an intense, if uneasy, friendship. Szu’s mother, Amisa, now dying, once had a short-lived career as the star of a series of obscure 70s horror movies. Ignored at the time, these films now enjoy a cult following.

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Lullaby by Leila Slimani review – a truly horrific, sublime thriller

This tense, deftly written novel about a perfect nanny’s transition into a monster will take your breath away

If you’ve ever been paid to look after someone else’s children – and I have – then you will know what a queasy, bittersweet transaction it is. A nanny wields such emotional power, despite a sometimes appalling lack of rights or status or future. And that’s without the guilt of working parents, desperate to do the right thing by their children (and themselves), yet doomed always to be anxious, suspicious, insecure and vulnerable.

It’s an explosive cocktail, and Leïla Slimani’s deft, often agonising novel shakes it up with a precision that takes your breath away.

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Lullaby by Leila Slimani review – a truly horrific, sublime thriller

This tense, deftly written novel about a perfect nanny’s transition into a monster will take your breath away

If you’ve ever been paid to look after someone else’s children – and I have – then you will know what a queasy, bittersweet transaction it is. A nanny wields such emotional power, despite a sometimes appalling lack of rights or status or future. And that’s without the guilt of working parents, desperate to do the right thing by their children (and themselves), yet doomed always to be anxious, suspicious, insecure and vulnerable.

It’s an explosive cocktail, and Leïla Slimani’s deft, often agonising novel shakes it up with a precision that takes your breath away.

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Julie Myerson: ‘I am a solipsistic maniac who can think of nothing but the book’

The author and columnist on her powers of concentration, the importance of Pilates and the trials of co-existing with an inquisitive tabby cat

I wrote my first novel at evenings and weekends, with an office job, two babies and another one on the way. I also had debilitating back pain and often had to lie down on the floor between paragraphs. I now wonder how I did it (a husband untroubled by childcare is the honest answer). These days it’s all very different but it still feels like the biggest luxury, to be allowed to think, write and work exactly when and how I want to. The only non-negotiable is twice weekly Pilates: if I didn’t stretch my body seriously and regularly, I don’t think I’d be able to sit and write.

Otherwise, my requirements are straightforward: a desk, a good chair, a screen and a door that shuts. I ...

My Cousin Rachel: Daphne du Maurier’s take on the sinister power of sex

Du Maurier’s novel is a tightly plotted, sinuous and undeniably feral piece of work that puts power in the hands of women At first sight, the scene could not be more romantic. Philip Ashley, on the verge of coming into his inheritance, intends, in just a few hours, to tip the lot – vast Cornish estate, family jewels and his entire fortune – into the lap of his dead cousin’s widow Rachel, the older woman with whom he is besotted. He takes a euphoric late-night dip in the sea and strides back to the house where – though he does not know it yet – she is about to make him the happiest man alive. As he makes his way through the eerily moonlit woods and chooses the path which will lead him to his lover (and, it turns out, a lot more besides), an odour reaches his nostrils – ...

From the Heart by Susan Hill review – closeted coming-out tale

This 1950s-set story of forced adoption and lesbian awakening is bafflingly lacking in subtext or ambiguity

Susan Hill’s coming of age – and coming out – novel is set in the 1950s, a time when admitting to having feelings for your own sex could cause you to lose your job, be shunned by your family and worse. Plain, bespectacled, English literature-loving Olive is a “tactful and truthful” girl who, along with so many of her generation, is dangerously underinformed about sex. A brief and uninspired relationship at university leads to a couple of episodes of tactful intercourse and, inevitably, pregnancy.

Despite an invitation to marry the father and settle down, Olive bravely opts to give birth alone at a home for unmarried mothers where the babies are snatched away after six weeks and “sold” for adoption. She goes on to teach English at a girls’ school and at last ...

The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien review – a chilling masterpiece

A war criminal reinvents himself in Edna O’Brien’s breathtaking new novel, her first in a decade

Edna O’Brien’s new novel, her first in a decade, has already been hailed as “her masterpiece” by that master-of-them-all Philip Roth. And he’s right. This is a spectacular piece of work, massive and ferocious and far-reaching, yet also at times excruciatingly, almost unbearably, intimate. Holding you in its clutches from first page to last, it dares to address some of the darkest moral questions of our times while never once losing sight of the sliver of humanity at their core.

It begins arrestingly. A wanted Balkan war criminal, disguised as a self-styled “holistic healer” (he quickly drops the term “sex therapist” when he clocks the responses), fetches up in a little village on the west coast of Ireland. The parallels with the “butcher of Bosnia” Radovan Karadzic cannot be accidental, but neither is ...

The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley review – horror days by the sea

Chilling description and a suburban gothic edge give this evocative oddity of a debut novel an unsettling, eerie power

This enigmatic and distinctly unsettling debut novel was discovered last year by Tartarus Press – it’s right up their macabre street – but is now enjoying a second coming courtesy of the more mainstream John Murray. Already hailed as a “modern classic”, it’s been compared to The Wicker Man, and arrives with a plaudit from Stephen King.

It’s easy to see why it has attracted such attention. It might be a cliche to say that a work defies categorisation, but this one really does. It scared, amused, perplexed and – if I’m honest – just occasionally bored me, but I finished it none the wiser about exactly what sort of novel I had just read.

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