Thursday, 20 August 2015

Catching up: Four recent reads

First Execution by Domenico StarnoneFirst Execution (2007, translated 2009) by Domenico Starnone

First Execution begins as a tale of political intrigue. Domenico Stasi, a retired teacher, goes to meet a former student, Nina, who has been arrested on a charge of terrorism. She sets him a task: to go to the apartment of a friend of hers, find a certain book and copy out a specified line, which will be collected from him by a stranger. When he complies, he finds himself drawn into a dangerous chain of events. But then the story becomes metafictional: another Domenico, the author himself, appears in the narrative, talking about how he's writing this book, where he wants it to go, and how his own experiences and memories are feeding into it. The two stories then run alongside and into each other, as Stasi's dilemma gets worse and Starnone rewinds and reshapes his story, exploring the different directions it could take. First Execution is bursting with ideas - about politics, education, writing, ageing, justice and injustice, the nature and definition of 'terrorism', pacifism vs direct action... - but they are expressed so clearly and beautifully that the book is a pleasure to read. I frequently found myself marking pages to remember, or highlighting passages that struck a chord with me (I've compiled a long list of quotes over at Goodreads). It's intensely thought-provoking and challenging - but also a gripping story I struggled to tear myself away from.

Barbara the Slut and Other People by Lauren HolmesBarbara the Slut and Other People (13 August 2015) by Lauren Holmes

Lauren Holmes's debut is aptly subtitled And Other People, correctly indicating that what's inside is a collection of character sketches rather than a set of neat stories. These are very much character-driven tales, each giving a little window into the life of one of the author's creations. There's a girl trying to negotiate coming out to her mother, a graduate who chooses to work in a sex shop instead of joining a law firm, a woman who only discovers she doesn't like her new boyfriend when he moves into her flat, and the title character - a teenager whose sex life leads to her being bullied. If there's a major flaw, it's that the stories are too similar: they're all told in first person, all about young people trying to find their way in the world, all of whom are Americans from similar backgrounds, and almost all set in the US in the present day, or close to it. I was impressed by the apparent depth of the characters and how well they were drawn in such short spaces; they'll certainly strike you as real, with all their flaws and vulnerabilities. But I felt the book could have used some diversity, in who the characters were and how their stories were told. Still, it's obvious from this collection that Holmes is a talent to watch.

The Good Liar by Nicholas SearleThe Good Liar (14 January 2016) by Nicholas Searle

Reviews of this are supposed to be embargoed until close to the release date, so I'll be publishing a more detailed write-up later. For now, I'll just say that I'm not surprised this is being talked about as one of Penguin's big debuts of 2016 - it's got that 'unputdownable' quality in spades. It starts as the story of Roy, an ageing conman who, after a series of dispiriting dates in gastropubs, appears to have found his perfect mark - Betty, elegant, widowed and, most importantly, wealthy. We know Roy has nefarious intentions from page one; things get more interesting when it becomes apparent that Betty has a hidden agenda too. But what is it? The Good Liar will keep you guessing as it slowly unpacks Roy's character and tells his life story in reverse, taking several surprising turns along the way. This is a thriller in an old-fashioned sense (comparisons have been made to Patricia Highsmith), a book I think will appeal to readers of historical fiction, classic suspense and crime.

Number 11 by Jonathan CoeNumber 11 (11 November 2015) by Jonathan Coe

Completely addictive - and what a fantastic return to form after the lacklustre Expo 58. I read this at breakneck speed, barely able to tear myself away from it. It tells interconnected stories that revolve around two women, Rachel and Alison, childhood friends whose lives go in very different directions after what might be a life-changing encounter with the 'Mad Bird Woman' when they're both ten years old. It's also a very loose sequel to Coe's What a Carve Up! and makes numerous callbacks to that novel (but you don't need to have read What a Carve Up! to enjoy it). Political/social commentary mingles with satire, mystery and a touch of horror. My favourite section was 'The Crystal Garden', which tells of a man's obsessive search for a magical film he watched as a boy. The ingredients all add up to a book so incredibly enjoyable that I fell into a genuine state of despair upon finishing it.

As with the above, a more detailed review will follow closer to the publication date. If you want a preview, an extract from 'The Winshaw Prize' - probably the most obviously satirical story in Number 11, not necessarily representative of the tone of the whole book - is available on the Guardian's website.

I read advance review copies of Barbara the Slut, The Good Liar and Number 11, the former received direct from the publisher and the latter two via NetGalley.

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