Saturday, 4 June 2016

Reading round-up: May

May 2016 books

The Countenance Divine by Michael HughesPre-order
A genre-defying novel with multiple timelines, from the 17th century to the 20th, that converge in a fantastical alternate-history climax. Real historical figures (William Blake, John Milton, and... Jack the Ripper) appear in the story, and they're given surprisingly authentic voices, but the best plot strand involves Chris, a young computer programmer who's working to eradicate the millennium bug. The Countenance Divine is being compared to the novels of David Mitchell, and I think there's a genuine resemblance. It's thoroughly readable, but clever, nuanced and original.

What Belongs to You by Garth GreenwellBuy
An anonymous narrator – an American working as a teacher in Sofia, Bulgaria – weaves together two stories: that of his obsession with manipulative yet vulnerable hustler Mitko, and an account of his own coming-of-age. The resulting story feels so personal and confessional that it can be difficult to remember it's fiction, not memoir. With its clear crisp prose, stripped-back, lonely story and strong sense of place, it's pretty much my ideal novel – but something held me back from completely falling in love with it. Although it's brilliantly written (and deserving of all the hype), parts of What Belongs to You left me uncomfortable.

The Square Root of Summer by Harriet Reuter HapgoodFull review / Buy
A lovely YA romance, with added physics. I'm always wary of even the most acclaimed YA books and am often disappointed (unsurprisingly, since I am not, in fact, a young adult), but this really surpassed my expectations. It's a great concept, a warm, heartfelt story, and wonderfully evocative of the momentous summers of adolescence. Reuter Hapgood's heroine Gottie is, crucially, a believable 17-year-old girl; a character I was happy to root for, but with just enough everyday magic (like her loveably eccentric family and their country bookshop) to hit that aspirational sweet spot. And her grief for beloved grandfather Grey – really, a stronger theme than the love story – is heartbreaking.

This Too Shall Pass by Milena Busquets, translated by Valerie MilesFull review / Buy
Is this a sexy beach book or a philosophical deconstruction of the grieving process? It's both, which doesn't always make for the smoothest read. The protagonist is the frequently insufferable Blanca, who, in the wake of her mother's death, decamps to her ancestral home along with her kids, best friends, and not one but two ex-husbands. Her plan for dealing with the bereavement involves hooking up with as many men as possible and shirking all responsibility – but there are also startling, moving insights into life and death, marriage and infidelity, ageing and parenthood.

When She Was Bad by Tammy CohenFull review / Buy
A completely addictive thriller set in a 'toxic' office environment. When a ruthless new boss takes control of a recruitment team, her divide-and-rule tactics stir up resentment and rivalry among a group of colleagues. But who is she really, and what's her connection to the parallel story told by an American child psychiatrist? This had me hooked from the start and kept me guessing right to the end.

Revision by Andrea PhillipsBuy
A fun and forgettable conspiracy thriller with a sci-fi edge and the tone of chick-lit. Ditsy NYC heiress Mira discovers her boyfriend's tech startup, Verity, may have the power to actually alter reality. After that, she's contacted by a former employee who faked her own death, and the two do some amateur sleuthing to get to the bottom of Verity's true purpose. It's enjoyable and an easy read, but the stakes never feel very high, and Mira is pretty annoying.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah PerryBuy
I've been looking forward to this for ages, and it was worth the wait. Perry (whose first novel was the sublime After Me Comes the Flood) has crafted an unusual, rare thing: historical fiction that feels exhaustively well-researched and meticulously put together, but never forced, overwritten, or deliberately bent to cater to modern sensibilities. The tale of headstrong widow Cora Seaborne (and a wide cast of equally engaging supporting characters) is a dialogue between science and faith, and a love story that's mainly about friendship. The titular serpent, a monstrous beast rumoured to be dragging unsuspecting victims into the marshes, adds a measure of gothic intrigue. It seems to be much easier to think about/mentally inhabit this book than to write about it, which I think says it all; it's an experience to be savoured.

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1 comment:

  1. The Countenance Divine by Michael Hughes sounds great! I wonder when it would be published in the US. I also want to check out Sarah Perry. Thanks.