The Fall Guy by James Lasdun review – a twisty, slick thriller

Deception and adultery among the rich and disgraced make for a gripping readWith its Occupy backdrop, The Fall Guy seems rooted less in America’s recent past than another, pre-Trump era. But global inequality isn’t really the focus; instead, it’s the skewed relationship between Matthew, the son of a Lloyd’s “name” who vanished with his clients’ money and family’s reputation, and his super-rich American cousin Charlie. Moreover, who is indebted to whom, and how, reveals itself only in the fullness of time – although from the moment that Matthew slips into Charlie’s (albeit empty) marital bed, we feel safe in assuming what’s on the horizon. But nothing is straightforward in this slick, Highsmithian thriller, and while the damaged Matthew’s capacity for self-deception is flagged early, Lasdun’s skill lies not least in letting us think that we might therefore have his number. Wrong – and yet the novel’s denouement feels fated ...

The Trouble With Goats and Sheep review – secrets and sorrow

An English suburb is the setting for Joanna Cannon’s bestselling tale of a woman who goes missing in the 1976 heatwavePrior to its publication last January, Joanna Cannon’s debut novel was tipped as a likely hit of 2016 and the author appeared in the Observer’s annual New Year feature about debut novelists to watch. Expectations were fulfilled and The Trouble With Goats and Sheep became a bestseller; less foreseeable was quite how prescient this winning parable would come to seem over the course of the year. Cannon, a psychiatric doctor, suggests with sensitivity the secrets, shame and sorrow that lurk behind every net curtain Continue reading...

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein – review

The Sleater-Kinney riot grrrl delves into her early years and musical motivations with an engaging, unself-pitying intelligenceBrownstein’s lyric turned title is of course ironic, her use of the “G” word in particular. Sleater-Kinney, the Washington trio that she co-founded in 1994,were riot grrrl not girl power – the opposite end of the spectrum to the Spice Girls’ “dumbed down” feminism. “I didn’t want to be a girl with a guitar,” Brownstein writes. “‘Girl’ felt like an identifier that viewers, especially male ones, saw as a territory upon which an electric guitar was a tourist, an interloper.” It’s perhaps the only duff sentence in the book, its stylistic failings evidence of the freight it carries. The sexism of the industry is all-pervasive, but “territory” is also a key word for Brownstein, her search being less for a room of her own than a way of inhabiting her flesh. Retreating ...

The Essex Serpent review – love, faith and geology

Sarah Perry’s blend of historical romance and gothic mystery is pure pleasure Just what is the Essex serpent? Foul beast of legend, divine judgment or, as widowed young amateur geologist Cora suspects, a living fossil that somehow eluded extinction in the inscrutable depths of the Blackwater estuary? Curiosity piqued, she decamps to briny Aldwinter, where her friendship with local vicar Will blossoms, and faith and reason – indeed faith and freedom - tussle. A Victorian-era gothic with a Dickensian focus on societal ills, Perry’s second novel surprises in its wonderful freshness. There’s a sense of Llareggub about close-knit Aldwinter, its flint church, historic oak and ribby shipwreck instantly present, while the tapestry of voices that results from the use of letters amplifies the Under Milk Wood echo. Perry’s singular characters are drawn with a fondness that is both palpable and contagious, and the beautifully observed changing seasons permitted space to ...

The Sport of Kings review – a breathless Kentucky tale

A story of horse-breeding and the legacy of slavery from prize-winning US author CE MorganIf the author’s name rings a bell, it might be because she won one of Yale University’s Windham-Campbell prizes, established to “call attention to literary achievement”. That Morgan’s second novel is an achievement is beyond doubt; dedicated “to the reader” it is also, at more than 500 pages, a test of the reader’s dedication. Yet Morgan barely draws breath as she chronicles the fortunes of Henry Forge, the racehorse-breeding scion of Kentucky planters. Horses, however, are only half the story: the selfish gene and the legacy of slavery; creation myth, oedipal struggle and torrid melodrama – all are grist to the voracious narrative surge. As for overegging it, that charge too is entertained and overruled: “There aren’t too many words; there aren’t enough words… we’re infants before the Ohio coursing its ancient way, the icy ...

Conspiracy by SJ Parris review – return of the Dominican detective

Sixteenth century Paris provides monk-turned-spy Giordano Bruno with another murder to solve in an entertaining addition to the seriesRecently returned to France from England, SJ Parris’s monk turned spy, Giordano Bruno, is hoping to return to the favour of his former pupil, Henri III – if he can only get his sentence of excommunication for heresy lifted. Yet the king’s own future is looking shaky: France’s ills are widely laid at the doors of the Louvre, the nation’s decline blamed on debauchery and Henri’s decadence, and with the Duke of Guise, leader of the fanatical Catholic League, fanning the flames, civil war seems imminent. Related: Forget 'serious' novels, I've turned to a life of crime Continue reading...

The Cauliflower by Nicola Barker – review

Barker’s fictionalised biography of Indian mystic Sri Ramakrishna is typically audacious but a little hit and missWhen, in 1965, Christopher Isherwood published his biography of the mid-19th century Indian mystic Sri Ramakrishna (Ramakrishna and His Disciples), it was to general head-scratching. “It is still a bit difficult to regard Herr Issyvoo as a guru fancier,” one critic sniffed, a response that Isherwood recorded resignedly in his own memoir of spiritual questing, My Guru and His Disciple (1980). Nicola Barker’s interest in Ramakrishna, whose life forms the meat of The Cauliflower, is less of a surprise. Ramakrishna’s own Skimpole-like unworldliness is the source of a perpetual headache for his devoted nephew Hriday Continue reading...