The Way of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry review – pastiche Victoriana

An anaesthetist’s assistant and a plucky housemaid team up in a historical crime caper from husband-and-wife team Chris Brookmyre and Marisa Haetzman

“Ambrose Parry” is the crime novelist Chris Brookmyre and his wife Marisa Haetzman, an anaesthetist. So it is unsurprising that James Simpson, who pioneered the use of chloroform in 19th-century Edinburgh, has a role in the book, and that it has a grand guignol thriller plot. Though it will carry you perfectly through a lazy afternoon, it suffers from many of the defining characteristics of pastiche Victoriana: it has to have something old, something new, something borrowed and something in 50 shades of blue. “No decent story ought to begin with a dead prostitute,” declares chapter one – and yet, behold, it does.

Will Raven, an apprentice to Simpson, has a dark secret – and not only that he fled the scene where he found his lover dead. ...

Does Elon Musk really understand Iain M Banks’s ‘utopian anarchist’ Culture?

The tech entrepreneur has endorsed a vision of monolithic totalitarianism overseen by machiavellian machines – and one that is neither entirely utopian or anarchist

So, Elon Musk has claimed he is a “utopian anarchist” in a way he claims is best described by the late science fiction author Iain M Banks. Which leads to one very relevant question: has Musk actually read any of Banks’s books? In a series of novels, the Scottish author explored “the Culture”: a post-scarcity, hedonistic society where you could create your own drugs in your own body, change gender at will and where freedom was the highest and noblest sign of a civilisation.

Related: 30 years of Culture: what are the top five Iain M Banks novels?

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Almost Love by Louise O’Neill review – when grief and passion collide

The hard-hitting YA author makes her adult fiction debut with an exploration of sexual obsession set in post-crash Dublin

Louise O’Neill is an established writer for young adults, with a reputation for hard-hitting books tackling feminist themes. Her debut, Only Ever Yours, won plaudits for its Atwood-esque depiction of a world in which women are bred for male pleasure. The follow-up, Asking for It, addressed the gang rape of a young woman, and won children’s book of the year at the Irish book awards.

This is no bland by-numbers romance – O’Neill ventures into some interesting psychological territory

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Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff review – smartly subversive pulp horror

Secret societies, ghosts and Ku Klux Klan killers … racists are the monsters in this Lovecraft homage with a conscience

There are a few things that are widely known about the work of HP Lovecraft – his viscous, tentacular monsters; his fondness for words such as “eldritch” and “gibbous”; and his racism. Matt Ruff’s new book is therefore a kind of exorcism. It pits a predominantly black cast of characters against “America’s demons”, though the Shoggoth in the woods is not nearly as dangerous as the systemic and ubiquitous racism they encounter. Is it scarier if the sheet-clad thing holding a burning torch is a genuine ghost, or just your average member of the Ku Klux Klan?

The book is beautifully structured as a short story collection and novel at one and the same time. In the overture, set in 1954, we meet Atticus, a veteran of the Korean war, ...

theMystery.doc by Matthew McIntosh review – a giant scrapbook of ideas

But is there a story worth telling behind the 1,600 pages of asterisks, photos and text messages?

You could, I suppose, blame Herman Melville for the American penchant for maximalism: books that are not just long but weighty. It flourished under William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon and John Barth; it became even more prominent when David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest appeared the year before Don DeLillo’s Underworld, and recent examples might include Joshua Cohen, Adam Levin and especially Mark Z Danielewski’s proposed 27-volume The Familiar. To be added to this door-stopping tendency is Matthew McIntosh’s theMystery.doc, subtitled “a novel”, although it frets over that description.

What is surprising is that McIntosh would join this vaguely macho club. His debut novel, Well, published in 2005, was a shade under 300 pages: classic creative writing in the key of Raymond Carver, and no bad thing for that. theMystery....

Game of Thrones will not be decided by a contest of TV and print

George RR Martin’s mighty fantasy might be somewhat different on page and screen, but those distinctions are the least interesting aspects of the story The divergence began, for me, with the death of Shireen. Yes, there have always been inconsistencies between TV’s Game of Thrones and the novel series A Song of Ice and Fire, but the sacrifice of a child to the Lord of Light felt like the most significant change yet. Then Stannis was killed (or was he? We didn’t see the sword strike home and the show usually likes to display every gory detail), Danaerys set out for Westeros and Cersei blew up King’s Landing. No wonder The Winds of Winter is taking so long; George RR Martin must be thinking up ways for the novels to outsmart what’s already been televised. Related: 'Arya should skewer Ed Sheeran': your verdict on the new Game of Thrones Continue ...

Broken River by J Robert Lennon review – astonishing, nasty, brilliant

This magnificently creepy haunted house thriller keeps the reader guessing with languorous prose and shifts of perspective There is a strong tradition in American writing of the unheimlich house, from Jay Anson’s The Amityville Horror to Mark Danielewski’s astonishing House of Leaves. This book sits perfectly within that genre. We are in a backwoods place near a rust-belt kind of town; bad things have happened, and will happen. The house is haunted, but the ghost is the house itself. No reason is ever given why the place seems to be so magnetic for awfulness, and the novel is all the better for keeping the background in the back. Lennon’s prose has a languorous, lingering quality with shifts of perspective and tonal jolts that make you concentrate all the harder. I might venture that Broken River ought to be on prize longlists, but as with the house, nothing is certain. ...

Reading Twin Peaks: the literary tie-ins that tantalised and infuriated

From The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer to the Autobiography of FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, the success of these tie-ins lies in their failure to provide real answers The tie-in is a curious beast. As an exercise in branding, it can encompass lunch boxes, duvet covers, video games, toy mannequins and lollipops. In literature, a true tie-in refers to televisual or cinematic attempts to extend the narrative of a novel without changing its original story. It involves more than simply changing the book jacket – in the way that the novels of Jane Eyre and Jaws were reissued with new covers to cash in on their cinematic fame. And it is quite different from novelising a film – though that can lead to some interesting comparisons with its representations on screen. As we are now a third of the way through Twin Peaks: The Return on TV, it seems ...

The Erstwhile by B Catling review – a dazzlingly psychedelic quest

Following on from The Vorrh, the second instalment in the surreal cult trilogy sees the setting move from the African jungle to old Europe, and quiet comedy come to the foreBrian Catling is a poet and sculptor who published his remarkable 2015 novel, The Vorrh, in his late 60s. It is a fantastical work in the tradition of what is sometimes called “the new weird”. The Vorrh of the title is a primeval, unmapped jungle in the centre of Africa which may or may not be the location of the original Garden of Eden. With the second world war looming, it is now inhabited by monsters and exploited by colonial capitalists. It drives mad most who venture into it, whether seeking profits or prophets. The book has a classic quest structure, and encompasses historical figures such as the novelist Raymond Roussel and the photographer Eadweard Muybridge; it reads ...

Hame by Annalena McAfee review – a metatextual Scottish tale

Cantankerous bards, remote islands and a US billionaire star in a novel steeped in Scots heritageThe second novel by Annalena McAfee is a curious confection indeed. Mhairi McPhail, a Canadian of Scots descent, accepts a job on the remote and fictitious Scottish island of Fascaray. With her nine-year-old daughter, she decamps to “a bonsai Scotland, a diminutive Dalraida, an atomic Alba, a bright flake of Caledonian confetti in which all our country’s marvels … are shrunk as by faery command”, in order to write a biography and establish a museum in honour of the island’s recently deceased, nearly centenarian bard, the fykesome and ill-cankert auld dotterel Grigor McWatt. The novel is presented as various found texts – parts of Mhairi’s biography of McWatt; parts of her diary; parts of McWatt’s Fascaray Compendium, an unpublished ethnological, botanical, historical lifelong project. We also read his testy newspaper polemics and his poetry, ...

Burns Night celebrates the wrong Scottish poet

The bard honoured on 25 January was a fine writer, but he also treated women appallingly. I can think of at least one other Scots author more worthy of a national festival At this time of year, with one of the few days on the calendar given over to the celebration not of poetry, but a poet, I always find myself reading Percy Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry again – in particular his argument that the character or moral behaviour of a poet is not a factor in analysing the worth of the poetry. Shelley writes: “Let us assume that Homer was a drunkard, that [Virgil] was a flatterer, that Horace was a coward, that Tasso was a madman, that Lord Bacon was a peculator, that Raphael was a libertine, that Spenser was a poet laureate. It is inconsistent with this division of our subject to cite living poets, ...

Herman Melville’s Bartleby and the steely strength of mild rebellion

The story of a 19th-century office worker who manages to refuse the rules of his society without ever saying no is a story of metaphysical defiance There are very few stories that, on re-reading after re-reading, seem to become impossibly more perfect, but Herman Melville’s eerie, aching story Bartleby, the Scrivener is one such. Like a parable without an obvious moral, it is defiance raised to the metaphysical.
The plot is easily comprehensible; the meaning utterly elusive. The narrator, an unnamed New York lawyer, takes on a new scrivener, or copyist. Our lawyer describes his own philosophy as “the easiest way of life is the best” and relishes that he has a “snug retreat” where he can “do a snug business among rich men’s bonds and mortgages and title deeds”. He has two clerks already, nicknamed Turkey and Nippers, and a junior jack-of-all-trades, a boy called Ginger Nut. Continue reading...

Herman Melville’s Bartleby and the steely strength of mild rebellion

The story of a 19th-century office worker who manages to refuse the rules of his society without ever saying no is a story of metaphysical defiance There are very few stories that, on re-reading after re-reading, seem to become impossibly more perfect, but Herman Melville’s eerie, aching story Bartleby, the Scrivener is one such. Like a parable without an obvious moral, it is defiance raised to the metaphysical.
The plot is easily comprehensible; the meaning utterly elusive. The narrator, an unnamed New York lawyer, takes on a new scrivener, or copyist. Our lawyer describes his own philosophy as “the easiest way of life is the best” and relishes that he has a “snug retreat” where he can “do a snug business among rich men’s bonds and mortgages and title deeds”. He has two clerks already, nicknamed Turkey and Nippers, and a junior jack-of-all-trades, a boy called Ginger Nut. Continue reading...

Does Westworld tell a truer story than a novel can?

The conventions of prose fiction are bound up with an understanding of life that feels more and more outdated – not so with this box-set drama I do not think it is a coincidence that the novel as a form reaches maturity at the same point as the bourgeoisie as a class are ascendant. Although the novel has its forerunners and predecessors – Boccaccio, Rabelais, Cervantes, de la Fayette – it gets into its stride with affluent, middle-class white men: Richardson, Fielding, Sterne, Smollett. Will Self has recently written about the shift from page to screen, word to image, and while agreeing with much of what he writes about the nature of narrative, I’d like to propose a more optimistic vision. The novel is hamstrung by its 18th-century origins and the TV box set sets fiction free. Continue reading...

The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin review – vampire trilogy’s final showdown

The epic climax of the post-apocalyptic fantasy series that began with The Passage loses its bestseller biteThere is very little about the phrase “post-apocalyptic vampire thriller” that does not appeal to me. In the second volume of this bestselling trilogy, The Twelve, an exasperated military leader set out the conceit neatly: “You decided to re-engineer an ancient virus that would transform a dozen death row inmates into indestructible monsters who live on blood, and you didn’t think to tell anyone about this?” But this brief summary doesn’t quite encapsulate what made the first volume, The Passage, so accomplished. The first 300 pages of that novel introduced Wolgast, the FBI agent tasked with securing the subjects for the experiment. He was already concerned that Carter, the last convict, seemed innocent; when he was told also to obtain a young orphan, Amy, his conscience was stretched too far. Related: Justin Cronin: ...

The Cauliflower by Nicola Barker review – unclassifiable genius

In her latest imaginative tour de force, the tale of a 19th-century guru, Barker lobs a literary hand grenade at the historical novel

There is only one guarantee for anyone picking up a new novel by Nicola Barker: her previous work will give you no indication where you might be going next. Her career has ricocheted between the gothic and the zany, the gracious and the macabre, the indignant and the cute, the tender and the terrible. That said, there might be a creeping realisation that her formidable comic gifts seem more and more directed towards questions of the sublime, the unreal and the holy, rather than the spiritual. From the misunderstood asceticism of Clear to the shamanic violence of Wide Open, the ghostly and ghastly jester of Darkmans to the fey and fairy barmaid in The Yips, Barker seems drawn to the hazy edges of things, the ...

The Brilliant & Forever by Kevin MacNeil review – an engaging tragicomedy in the spirit of Calvino

Roll up, roll up for a charmingly surreal literary festival on a remote Scottish island where even the alpacas are aspiring writers That The Brilliant & Forever, the new novel by the author of A Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll and Hyde and Love and Zen in the Outer Hebrides, is laugh-out-loud funny doesn’t mean it isn’t, in essence, a tragedy. The unnamed narrator is an aspiring writer and expert in “haiku-kery”, a form of cuisine that must abide by strict rules of three meals of five ingredients, seven ingredients, then five ingredients. His best friends are Macy Starfield, an aspiring writer and pioneering “fishermanwoman”, and Archie, an aspiring writer and spittoon-carrying alpaca – and all three intend to compete in their island home’s annual literary festival, the eponymous “Brilliant and Forever”. The island is fiercely divided – between tourists and residents, the middle-class whitehousers and the traditional blackhousers, alpacas and humans, ...

Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve by Tom Bissell review – what do we know about Jesus’s closest followers?

Bissell was brought up within the church and leaving it has not stifled his fascination with early Christianity. This book – part history, part travelogue – is an attempt to unravel its mysteries Origen, one of the wisest and most interesting of the early theologians, had an ingenious theory about the obvious discrepancies in the Bible. If one discovered a difference in, for example, the genealogies of Jesus as they appear in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels, he argued that these were hermeneutic trip wires deliberately inserted by the holy spirit to make the reader think that bit harder about the New Testament’s other meanings – symbolic, ethical and allegorical – rather than the merely literal. Unfortunately, most readers threw their considerable intellectual efforts into elaborate literal interpretations designed to iron out the inconsistencies, with all the fervour of Star Trek fans circa 2003 coming up with theories about why ...

Star Wars’ stories should not be limited to the cinema narratives

As with classical myths, the ‘para-canonical’ material – comics, novelisations and more – is just as legitimate as the big-screen tales In 1980, when I was eight years old, my family took the closest thing we ever had to a foreign holiday. It was to the island of Guernsey. After visiting preserved sites from the Occupation, and the tomato museum, and a day trip by hydrofoil to France, I think my parents were running out of options for our entertainment. With some reluctance, I suspect, my father took my brother and me to a matinee of a film I had been pestering him about for some time: The Empire Strikes Back. I must have been unusual as a viewer of that film, in that, despite beseeching, imploring, begging, pleading and throwing tantrums, I had never seen Star Wars, or, as I knew to call it, Star Wars Episode IV: A ...

Rules for Werewolves by Kirk Lynn review – a formidable debut with bite

A pack of feral teenagers raise hell as they pursue their wildest visions of utopia

Where do werewolves fit in the pantheon of horror? Vampires are easy: they are aristocrats and capitalists. As Marx understood: “Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.” Zombies are mindless consumers or, in Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2005 novel Handling the Undead, a metaphor for the most vulnerable in society. Ghosts are the return of the repressed and the dispossessed. Werewolves have tended to be a bit like Mr Hyde, a manifestation of unfettered id. It is not the least of its virtues that Kirk Lynn’s Rules for Werewolves finds a new slant on the idea. Whether the characters in his novel are werewolves or not is one of the enigmas it gifts to the reader. But what is certain ...