Weight by Jeanette Winterson

“Weight” is Jeanette Winterson’s straightforward retelling of the classic story of Atlas, who carried the world on his shoulders, and Heracles, the half-god hero, from Greek mythology. She infuses her protagonists with human flaws and foibles. Heracles is depicted as noxiously egocentric, driven purely by his own desires; Atlas is blinded by his own self-importance; both learn humility as their tales intertwine, their transformations complete by tales’ end.

Winterson bejewels the familiar narrative with autobiographical and universal contextualisation and understanding, underlining that the weight we carry in our daily lives is often unnecessary; these burdens are things we deem important, but actually things only matter — have “weight” — when we ascribe significance. We can lead happier lives if we learn to distinguish between what actually matters and what doesn’t.

As eminently readable as one would expect, but with Winterson’s name attached, I was hoping for a more subversive reimagining.

ISBN: 9781786892492
ISBN-10: 1786892499
Series: Canons
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 176
Published: 27th June 2018
Publisher: A&U Canongate

Outlawed by Anna North

“I wanted the town the Kid imagined to exist… I imagined treating a barren woman at the surgery in Pagosa Springs and telling her I knew of a place she could go and live without fear.”

In Anna North’s subversive, feminist western, eighteen-year-old newlywed Ada, daughter of the town’s chief midwife, worries she’ll be accused of witchcraft following several unsuccessful attempts at conceiving a child. The year is 1894, the world is a hard place, and such allegations have lethal consequences.

When her friend miscarries, she accuses Ada of jealously casting a spell, turning the townsfolk against Ada, and forcing her on the run. At first she turns to a nunnery, then to the infamous Hole in the Wall gang and its enigmatic leader, the Kid. No gender pronouns are assigned to the Kid; the Kid, as Elzy, one of the gang members underlines, is simply the Kid.

The Kid envisions a town where “nonconforming” people can exist in harmony; where people are valued because of who they are rather than on the form of their genitals, and are uncategorised by centuries-old obsolete structures. A community, in the truest sense, where the Kid’s female and nonbinary outlaws can live in peace. With her medical background, Ada becomes the gang’s doctor, and joins them in tense, action-packed adventures and holdups, which build in intensity and stakes as the novel rushes to its conclusion.

The roughness and ruthless of North’s world is contrasted by her insightful, evocative and sensitive prose. This is taut, trim storytelling at its best: a reworking of classic Western archetypes, begging for a cinematic adaptation.

ISBN: 9781474615358
ISBN-10: 147461535X
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 256
Available: 5th January 2021
Publisher: Orion

The Searcher by Tana French

If you stripped its parts bare, the components that comprise Tana French’s “The Searcher” are emblematic of a plethora of conventional crime novels: a retired cop named Cal Hooper, an outsider from Chicago recently relocated to a small town in Ireland, takes one last case.

But French makes this well-trodden territory distinctly her own, obliterating the artificial distinction between genre and literary fiction by creating a gracefully paced character study punctuated with flashes of intense violence and explosive revelations. Most crime writers, I think, would start their version of this tale at the point when a kid named Trey comes to Cal for help. You’ve read that opening a million times before: the client knocking on the investigator’s door because someone is missing who needs to be found. In this instance, it’s Trey’s brother, Brendan.

But this moment, the ostensible “inciting incident,” occurs 70 pages into proceedings. French is happy to lay the groundwork gradually, develop her characters and the township, the relationship between Cal and Trey, explore moral ambiguities, and delve deep into Cal’s backstory, in order to make its dramatic moments truly reverberate.

This slow-burn psychological mystery seamlessly transitions into a white-knuckled thriller in its final third, before a perfect endcap confirms French as a maestro of the form.

ISBN: 9780241459416
ISBN-10: 0241459419
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 400
Published: 17th November 2020
Publisher: Penguin UK

The Decameron Project: 29 New Stories from the Pandemic by The New York Times Magazine

Inspired by Boccaccio’s “The Decameron,” the editors of The New York Times Magazine assembled a conclave of twenty-nine authors for “The Decameron Project” — an anthology of short stories memorialising the COVID-19 pandemic.

But however ripe our present is for depressive, maudlin and despotic fiction, “The Decameron Project” features stories that explore the entire emotional spectrum, and sometimes touch on the virus abstrusely; the pandemic merely the spark for an idea on which these writers expand upon in tales kept to fewer than 10 pages, some grounded in reality, others dipping into the supernatural. It’s a stylistically eclectic collection, but the quality of the fiction is universally high, and their brevity means even those that don’t quite connect are worth persisting with.

My favourites include Victor LaValle’s “Recognition,” which stars a Black woman in a rapidly emptying apartment building, who connects with one of her neighbours; “Outside” by Etgar Keret hauntingly explores the first steps outside the confines of one’s home after 120 days of isolation; Dinaw Mengestu’s “How We Used to Play” examines the relationship between a nameless protagonist and their taxi driver uncle; Karen Russell’s “Line 19 Woodstock / Glisan” is centred around the driver of a bus and her passengers frozen in a moment in time; “The Perfect Travel Buddy” delves into the complicated relationship between a man, his wife, and his step-son during lockdown; and “Barcelona: Open” by John Wray spotlights Xaxi, who realises he can monetize strangers walking his dogs: a loophole in lockdown rules means people are allowed outside their homes to exercise their canine companions.

More than a mere snapshot of 2020, “The Decameron Project” is a wonderfully tantalising taster of fiction by authors I’ve never sampled, but who I’m determined to read more of.

Publisher: Scribner UK
Publication date: November 18, 2020
Length: 320 pages
ISBN13: 9781398502147

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

In Douglas Stuart’s Booker-shortlisted debut, the fates of Agnes Bain and her children are held hostage by her alcoholism.

As she drinks herself to oblivion against the dreary backdrop of early 80s working-class Glasgow, interjecting bottles of vodka between cans of Special Brew lager, and wildly fluctuating between pushing her family away and desperately trying to hold onto them, Agnes’s clan gradually abandon her. First her abusive, cheating husband; then her daughter elopes; soon her eldest boy is plotting his escape; until all Agnes has left is her young, timid son — the titular Shuggie Bain.

Shuggie, despite all evidence to the contrary — his coming home from school to find his mother passed out; or in the company of a stranger; or pounding beers with their neighbours in the council estate; her volatile moods; her wasting child support allowance on booze — believes Agnes is capable of change. He perceives a glimmer of something nobody else can. He has hope. He believes her alcoholism doesn’t have to be the defining factor of her life; that there is a place beyond her struggle. But time and time again, Agnes is unable to break her addiction. And everybody suffers as a result.

Stuart’s depiction of alcoholism is raw, unvarnished and heartbreaking. The consequences of it are brutally accurate; there’s nothing melodramatic about its portrayal. “Shuggie Bain” is bleak and relentlessly tragic, but far less sensationalist than, say, Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life” — a novel I adore, but is almost surrealistically traumatic. Everything about this is grounded and authentic. There are moments of barbarity, certainly; but it’s the smaller moments, Anges’s outbursts, her meltdowns into fits of rage aimed at her children, that are most distressing; the venom of her words is the kind of toxin that seeps into one’s soul and stays there, festering. As readers we hope and pray it can be exorcised.

“Shuggie Bain” is an absolute triumph, a masterclass portraiture of lives controlled by alcohol and poverty.

ISBN: 9781529019285
ISBN-10: 1529019281
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 400
Published: 25th February 2020
Publisher: Pan Macmillan UK

Just Like You by Nick Hornby

“Just Like You” treads familiar fictional territory — a supposedly incompatible couple fall headlong in love and prolong their relationship despite their adversities — but Hornby’s trademark wit and keen observations are in full force, bringing to the emotional landscape an interesting perspective that’s distinctly his own.

Joseph is a Black man in his early 20s. He’s drifting through early adulthood, not quite certain of where life is headed, but working hard to keep his dream of making it as a DJ afloat by coaching football, babysitting, and working in a north London butcher’s shop. Lucy is a customer at said butcher’s. She’s in her early 40s, separated from her husband Paul, their love unequivocally extinguished, and she’s wondering “what next?” Neither Lucy or Joseph would necessary choose each other as their romantic partners upon first glance — unspoken factors such as age, race, class and politics prohibit such a coupling, according to societal “norms” — but something sparks between them, which matures into more than just a fling, and they are determined to see it through to its conclusion. Which is the question at the heart of “Just Like You” — what does their future hold?

The novel is fairly conventional insofar as its plot. It desires profundity from its exploration of themes; of 2016 Britain as the Brexit vote loomed; of subtle racism concealed in the fabric of society, alongside overt intolerance; of ageism and dating. Hornby is a fine, insightful writer. “Just Like You” can be unravelled and exploited for conversation at book clubs. But it’s a tad understated. I never quite bought into the chemistry between Lucy and Joseph; I accepted their relationship because the plot demanded it. There’s no will-they-won’t-they-tension; I wasn’t particularly worried when their romance hit obligatory road bumps. I was never totally invested in them emotionally. At times they read more like pieces on a chessboard, there for Hornby to manipulate into circumstances to provoke discussion, to poke at hot-button issues.

What Hornby has to say about his characters is interesting; the character themselves less so. Ultimately “Just Like You” is comfortably entertaining and affecting; gently pulling on your heartstrings rather than tugging at them; amusing rather than uproariously funny. An easy recommendation despite it feeling like Hornby could’ve gone up one extra gear to make this truly special.

Published: 15 September 2020
ISBN: 9780241338575
Imprint: Viking
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 320
RRP: $32.99

Box 88 by Charles Cumming

“Box 88” is the start of a new espionage series by le Carré heir Charles Cumming — or at the very least the first in a duology, the author having penned a two-book deal for what HarperCollins has described as a “game-changing” series.

Hyperbolic? Well, perhaps. Not that “Box 88” isn’t worthy of accolades — this is my favourite spy novel of the year, and if you take one thing away from this, it should be that. But not because it’s revolutionary; not because it’s changed the face of the spy novel. Rather, because it’s a refinement of the genre’s tropes. Cumming gets back to the fundamentals, and polishes them to a gleam. He delivers a salvo of exciting action set-pieces, strips his story of political bureaucratese, and tinges his narrative with emotional depth. In a genre saturated with gun-totting renegade operatives, “Box 88” is a novel for the more discerning thrill-seeker.

The titular Box 88 is a covert transatlantic anti-terrorism spy agency that’s blacker than black; even MI6 and the CIA aren’t sure of its existence. Lachlan Kite is one of its agents, recruited from an elite boarding school in 1989, towards the end of the Cold War, to gather intelligence on an Iranian businessman implicated in the Lockerbie bombing, who has ties to the family Kite is staying with in France, at the holiday home of one of his closest friends.

What happens on this operation for the young, inexperienced Kite will have massive repercussions more than 30 years later in 2020, when he is kidnapped off the streets of London by Iranian intelligence, in front of a team of MI5 observes who are watching Kite, hoping to find evidence of Box 88’s existence. Kite’s kidnappers want to know the truth about events three decades ago — and are willing to kill, wound and maim anybody connected to Kite to illicit answers.

Rejecting simplistic linearity, Cumming’s book flits smoothly between timelines, building to a fabulous crescendo of action and revelations; and plenty of reason to return for its sequel. Spy fiction at its very best.

ISBN: 9780008200374
ISBN 10: 0008200378
Imprint: HarperCollins – GB
On Sale: 02/12/2020
Pages: 496
List Price: 29.99 AUD

Daylight by David Baldacci

David Baldacci has penned his Atlee Pine novels like a television series. Each of the three books so far have involved an over-arcing story involving the kidnapping of her sister, Mercy, thirty years ago. That investigation inches towards a revolution with each instalment, but is relegated to the “B” story, as a more urgent situation arises, drawing the FBI agent’s attention away.

Sounds great, conceptually; but with a year between books — and having skipped last year’s “A Minute to Midnight” (for no other reason than I never got around to it) — I wasn’t totally up to speed on where things stood with Pine’s investigation. And though Baldacci provides the necessary information to support newcomers, its detailing is a little contrived. Perhaps a “Previously in…” page before the story begins might be a way around this? It’s artificial, sure; but would spare the reader recap banter.

When “Daylight” opens, Pine and her bureau colleague Carol Blum arrive at a house in Trenton, New Jersey, the last known location of Ito Vincenzo, Mercy’s kidnapper. They inadvertently stumble into — and ruin — an Army CID investigation run by John Puller; an established Baldacci hero, who is working a case involving a drug ring tied to a military installation.

Determined to make amends for her screw-up, and figuring their investigations are connected and will lead her to Vincenzo, Pine and Puller team up. But they’re blighted at every turn: by powerful people high up in the government, and a smorgasbord of gun-totting goons, naturally.

Baldacci’s no stylist, but his prose is economical, and his story moves quickly, pockmarked with all kinds of roadblocks for his characters to detour around. The action scenes read perfunctorily rather than pulse-poundingly; sketched too briskly to maintain suspense. But there are plenty of them. It’s unenterprising stuff from a guy who’s earned his legion of fans, and delivers precisely what they want, like clockwork, year after year. And I’ll be back with them, to hopefully finally learn the truth of Mercy’s fate.

ISBN: 9781509874583
Format: Trade Paperback
Pub Date: 27/10/2020
Imprint: Macmillan
Pages: 464
Price: $32.99

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams

The titular Queenie in Candice Carty-Williams’s debut is a 25-year-old Black British-Jamaican woman who is going through a very bad time. Her self-worth has entirely eroded as a result of her “trial” separation from her long-term boyfriend Tom, which has lead to a series of sexual episodes with strangers, and a work colleague; not to mention an overriding sense of purposelessness at her job.

Queenie is no stranger to emotional turmoil: the repercussions of her mother’s relationship with an abusive lover, which left her living alone at the age of 11, continue to undulate, and there is a standoffish relationship between Queenie and the rest of her family, who demonstrate no pride in Queenie’s accomplishments — she finished school and college, has a full-time job; the first in her family to do so —but are quick to vilify her when she announces her intention to start therapy. Thank goodness she has a strong network of supportive friends to lean on: the bristly, sharp-tongued Kyazike and gold-hearted colleague Darcy.

“Queenie” is one part laugh-out-loud romantic comedy — Queenie desperately trying to decode a sloppily drunk-texted ‘X’ from Tom, navigating her feelings for work colleague Ted — and part candid portrait of a young Black woman unravelling through the pressures of modern life. It’s a delicate balance of tone. The opening is uncomfortable — Queenie learns she had a miscarriage, despite her IUD — and though it never strays towards slapstick, the rest of the novel coruscates with moments of necessary levity. It’s pitch perfect.

ISBN: 9781409180074
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 400
Imprint: Trapeze
Publisher: Orion
Publish Date: 6-Feb-2020

The Silence by Don DeLillo

“Seemingly all the screens have emptied out, everywhere. What remains for us to see, hear, feel?”

“The Silence” reads like Don DeLillo’s sketched manifesto on humankind’s relationship with technology, how much of our lives are currently lived online, and the fallout if that connection was abruptly severed. All great fodder for an interesting story, no doubt; but such is the sparseness of “The Silence” — which is the length of a short-story exploded into novella-size thanks to double-spacing and absurdly large font — that any sort of subtlety is almost entirely eroded, and its characters read as caricatures who disgorge stilted dialogue.

DeLillo opens with an epigraph, a quote from Einstein: “I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” We then cut to our first exposure to the great technological blackout that has afflicted the world (we assume) when the plane on which Jim Kripps and Tessa Berens are returning home from Europe drops out of the sky. We don’t know for sure what has happened. We never find out. “Whatever is going on, it has crushed our technology,” says a nurse, much later, when their injuries are tended to.

Soon they’ll leave the hospital and wind their way on foot through the dark city to the apartment of Diane Lucas and Max Stenner, where alongside their guest, Diane’s former-student Martin, they had planned to watch the Super Bowl; no longer an option, the television blank, not even static. Here they engage in artificial conversations clearly designed to showcase how blighted we are as a species without our precious screens. For generations technology has interposed itself between ourselves and our neighbours; with it gone, DeLillo questions our capacity to reconnect as humans, with our capacity for empathy obliterated.

“The Silence” has neat, thought-provoking ideas at its centre that deserve meatier exploration. At times I wondered whether DeLillo intended this as some kind of fable. But, then, what was the lesson?

ISBN: 9781529057096
Format: Hardback
Pub Date: 27/10/2020
Imprint: Picador
Pages: 192
Price: $29.99