Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart review – America’s new age of discontent

The story of a hedge fund manager’s journey of self-discovery is timely and true – and absolutely comfortless

President Trump’s 20 months in office have been rancorous and divisive, but a bonanza for pundits and writers of non-fiction. Now fiction writers are turning up to the party, led by the American comic author Gary Shteyngart. His latest book is an ambitious state-of-the-nation novel about the miasma of discontents that produced the astonishing election result of 2016. Its central character is Barry Cohen, a hedge fund manager on the edge of a nervous breakdown. As the novel opens, his jittery mood parallels that of the country as a whole: envy and self-loathing exist side by side with a delusional love of an America that never really existed.

Barry has run off in a drunken funk, heading to New York’s Port Authority bus terminal with not much more than a case of ...

A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen review – perceptive portrait of Russia

Astute analysis and goofy prose combine in the story of a young man and his grandmother

There seems to be an unwritten law of publishing that says books about Russia and the former Soviet Union must have the gloomiest possible titles: The Long Hangover, The Last Man in Russia, Lenin’s Tomb, The Harvest of Sorrow, A People’s Tragedy. Russian writers started it, of course, back in the 19th century, with Demons, Dead Souls and The House of the Dead. From its title and the pedigree of its author, who translated Svetlana Alexievich’s searing Voices from Chernobyl, you’d think A Terrible Country might resemble the works of PG Wodehouse’s fictional writer Vladimir Brusiloff: “grey studies of hopeless misery, where nothing happened till page three hundred and eighty, when the moujik decided to commit suicide”.

In fact, Keith Gessen’s second novel is a very funny, ...

A Hero Born by Jin Yong review – the gripping world of kung fu chivalry

The martial arts epic Legends of the Condor Heroes is the magnum opus of China’s most widely read living writer. The first book has finally been translated into English, and it’s a joy

Jin Yong is an unfamiliar name in the English-speaking world but a superstar in the Chinese-speaking one. Since his first novels were published in serial form in Hong Kong during the 1950s, Jin Yong – the pen name of Louis Cha Leung-yung – has become the most widely read Chinese writer alive. His books have been adapted into TV series, films and video games, and his dense, immersive world inspires the kind of adoration bestowed on those created by writers like western worldbuilders such as JRR Tolkien, JK Rowling and George RR Martin.

One peep into Jin’s fictional universe conjures a sense of deja vu. Now 94, he is the most famous literary exponent of the wuxia genre, the ...

The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser review – tales of human complexity

The recurring character of an ambitious young writer links narratives about love, betrayal and motherhood in a novel that explores the violence storytelling does to truth

Along the paths down from the rim of the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River, there are signs warning walkers that they shouldn’t even consider setting off unless they are planning to spend at least one night in the valley. The delights at the base of the canyon are not for the uncommitted, day-trippers or the ill prepared. At least, I presume so: in two brief visits, I never dared disobey the signs.

A warning of this kind seems to be implied in the brambly first sentence of Michelle de Kretser’s new novel. “The house by the river belonged to an old man whose relationship to George Meshaw was complicated but easily covered by ‘cousin’.” It’s both awkward and precise, a little bit off-putting and a little bit ...

The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris review – the problem with men

Male shortcomings snowball into slapstick, emotional cruelty and violence in short stories that skewer modern-day follyIn his first short story collection, the Man Booker-shortlisted American author Joshua Ferris presents a bouquet of egregious male doofuses. Behind a deadpan title – “Fragments”, “The Breeze”, “A Fair Price”, “The Stepchild” – each of the 11 tales in The Dinner Party anatomises a particular variant of 21st-century masculine folly. The stories are constructed with great care, combining beady-eyed observation with farce, black comedy and occasional moments of lyricism. Ferris never tells us in so many words that his protagonists are awful – except in an acknowledgments page, where he’s careful to let us know that they don’t resemble him – but their selfishness, narcissism, neediness and moral idiocy are the recurring notes of the collection. Continue reading...

Spoils by Brian Van Reet review – essential insights into the Iraq war

This vivid debut from a former soldier, about the capture of marines by an Islamist militia, captures the valour, horror and absurdity of conflictBrian Van Reet’s assured debut novel begins with one of the best opening chapters I’ve read for ages. The setting is Iraq, 2003, and we’re in a Humvee with three US soldiers as they come under attack. Van Reet makes the moment extraordinarily fresh through the vigour of his writing and his constant turn towards unexpected and intense detail. The scene takes place at night, in pouring rain; the muggy interior of the Humvee is “hot and slimy as a locker room”; and our protagonist, Specialist Wigheard, underslept and wired on diet caffeine, is a woman. The strengths of this excellent book are all on show in these tight 15 pages: the vivid observation, the nuance of its characters, the deep familiarity with the processes ...

Ashland & Vine by John Burnside review – the redemptive power of listening

An elderly woman tells the story of her life to a young alcoholic in this lyrical, thought-provoking tale which thumbs its nose at narrative convention If there is a conclusion to be drawn from the last year, it might be that the capacity to listen is the most persistently undervalued human gift. John Burnside’s thought-provoking new novel is a book of wintry landscapes, family secrets and alcoholism, but it’s also a paean to the art of listening well that is especially welcome after the last 12 months of stridency. The opening finds narrator and protagonist Kate Lambert, a young film student, drifting through her life in a midwestern college town. Estranged since childhood from her mother, recently bereaved by the loss of her father, Kate is drinking heavily and involved in a spiky relationship with Laurits, a domineering academic in the film studies department. Continue reading...

Ashland & Vine by John Burnside review – the redemptive power of listening

An elderly woman tells the story of her life to a young alcoholic in this lyrical, thought-provoking tale which thumbs its nose at narrative convention If there is a conclusion to be drawn from the last year, it might be that the capacity to listen is the most persistently undervalued human gift. John Burnside’s thought-provoking new novel is a book of wintry landscapes, family secrets and alcoholism, but it’s also a paean to the art of listening well that is especially welcome after the last 12 months of stridency. The opening finds narrator and protagonist Kate Lambert, a young film student, drifting through her life in a midwestern college town. Estranged since childhood from her mother, recently bereaved by the loss of her father, Kate is drinking heavily and involved in a spiky relationship with Laurits, a domineering academic in the film studies department. Continue reading...

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain review – why there are some things friendship can’t fix

An investigation into the uses and limits of empathy from a writer of exemplary visionOnly connect,” EM Forster wrote, but the world’s shortest epigraph often turns out to be an impossibly tall order. In Rose Tremain’s new novel, sincere connections between people are constantly being thwarted by old psychic injuries, blinding passions, misplaced love, envy, ambition and ethnic hatred. Her own choice of epigraph, from Montaigne, implies that friendship may be the most reliable form of connection, but by the end of the book, it feels as though there are some things that even friendship can’t fix. At the heart of the novel is Gustav Perle, whom we first meet as a five-year-old boy, growing up with his widowed mother in a small town in central Switzerland just after the second world war. Gustav is a kind of Swiss William Stoner, the hero of John Williams’s rediscovered ...

Golden Years by Ali Eskandarian review – sex, drugs and rock’n’roll

Posthumously published after Eskandarian was shot and killed in 2013, this autobiographical novel about struggling to make it on the New York music scene demands comparison with the beat classics Ali Eskandarian’s posthumous novel makes perfect reading for sober January days. It tells the story of a young Iranian-American musician on the make in 21st-century New York, pursuing his dream of art through a haze of drugs, alcohol, casual sex and intermittent poverty. The book would be gripping and poignant in any circumstances, but what doubles its power for the reader is knowing the fate of Eskandarian himself. In November 2013, the author was shot and killed in an apartment in Brooklyn, along with two members of the punk band Yellow Dogs, by a fellow musician who bore a grudge. The killer then took his own life. All four men were exiles from Iran. At the time he died, Eskandarian was ...

The Making of Zombie Wars by Aleksandar Hemon review – war, identity and dislocation

Zombies and slapstick signal a change of tone in a surprising follow-up to the Bosnian-born author’s memoir The Book of My Lives

My heart always sinks a bit when someone says I should read a book because it’s well written. Praising a book for the writing alone is like recommending a restaurant where the food is well seasoned, or supporting a football team because they are good at corner kicks. But it can’t be denied that Aleksandar Hemon – incidentally, a keen amateur footballer – is a gifted crafter of sentences. His books are replete with the kind of memorable phrases that reviewers cherry-pick and offer to the reader. Here is an assortment from his new novel: a cat purring is “revving his little pleasure engine”; a character presses “his face against the window in the parenthesis of his hands”; elsewhere, “leafless tree crowns scrambled the early morning light”.

These bright nuggets are all the ...