Newest Literary Fiction Reviews

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Spring Garden by Tomoka Shibasaki and Polly Barton (translator)

4.5star.jpg General Fiction

Murakami, and (long before the film) Endo's Silence. That's my limit as regards contemporary Japanese writing. But now there's Tomoka Shibasaki, and her noted work Spring Garden. Which, make no mistake, is definitely Japanese. For instance, if I told you it starts with a man looking up to watch his female neighbour on her balcony, and concerns obsession, you could well think it was his about her. But no – perhaps only in the west is the gaze so male. The obsession is very much hers here, and it – and the novel – concern a singular house. And the very singular country it lives in, and the changes it is going through… Full review...

English Animals by Laura Kaye

5star.jpg Literary Fiction

When Mirka gets a job in a country house in rural England, she has no idea of the struggle she faces to make sense of a very English couple, and a way of life that is entirely alien to her. Richard and Sophie are chaotic, drunken, frequently outrageous but also warm, generous and kind to Mirka, despite their argumentative and turbulent marriage. Mirka is swiftly commandeered by Richard for his latest money-making enterprise, taxidermy, and soon surpasses him in skill. After a traumatic break two years ago with her family in Slovakia, Mirka finds to her surprise that she is happy at Fairmont Hall. But when she tells Sophie that she is gay, everything she values is put in danger and she must learn the hard way what she really believes in. Full review...

Kingdom's End by Charles D Blanchard

4star.jpg Literary Fiction

The rats made their massive colony inside the ruins of an abandoned motion picture palace, where for thirty long dark years, an aged blind leader ruled over them. A beloved figure held in high regard, he rules with patience, understanding, justice and love. When a young upstart challenges all he has built, ruling with harsh punishments and rash decisions, the rats must decide how best to protect their colony in order to preserve all that they have built together. As the rats clash amongst themselves, some fail to notice the ever growing threats and dangers that the outside world provides - who will come out on top in this very literal rat race? Full review...

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

5star.jpg Literary Fiction

It's the mid nineteenth century and Thomas McNulty has left his home in Sligo, his family dead from famine, to make a new life in a new nation. He teams up with prairie fairy - a dancer in drag - John Cole and together they sign up for the US Army. Their journey will take them through the American Indian wars and eventually to the Civil War. Along the way, the two soldiers form a lasting bond with a young Sioux girl called Winona and their travels take them from Missouri to Wyoming and Tennessee. It's the story of perhaps the most violent birth of a nation in history but it's also a convention-defying love story. Full review...

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

5star.jpg Literary Fiction

Gustav Perle grew up in a small town in neutral Switzerland: the horrors of the Second World War seemed distant, but neutrality was maintained partly at the expense of those who would seek refuge in the country. Gustav's father died in mysterious circumstances and whilst Gustav adored his mother, Emilie, she was cold and indifferent to him. Until he met Anton Zwiebel he was a lonely child with just one toy, a tin train, but he and Anton met at kindergarten where it fell to Gustav to look after the nervous boy. Anton is Jewish and he's a talented pianist, but he lacks the confidence to perform in public. Throughout much of his life he relies on Gustav's support, but fails to appreciate just how important, how necessary it is to his wellbeing. Full review...

The Eleventh Letter by Tom Tomaszewski

3star.jpg Literary Fiction

At the end of the working day, Christopher is looking over the ghosts of his occupancy of some rooms on Harley Street, before moving up the road to different chambers, and pastures new. He's half impelled and half reluctant to revisit a pair of audio cassettes, on which are interviews by him and someone else of a woman called Louise, who was arrested in Italy in the 1980s for the double murder of two close friends, Kate and John. Hardly aware he's being snowed in by a London blizzard and the usual British response to any bad weather, he spontaneously provides shelter to a flame-haired beauty, Kay, who provokes him into playing the tapes. It's an occurrence which changes him much more profoundly than he does others at the therapist's couch. Indeed, the closer he gets to Kay, the closer he gets to the voice of the victim from decades ago. What on earth could be the connection? Full review...

The Good Lover by Steinunn Sigurdardottir and Philip Roughton (translator)

2.5star.jpg Literary Fiction

Karl is a global example of the Icelandic species, with more than one home abroad and an amanuensis-cum-assistant to do his scheduling and arrange housework while he's going here and there being a businessman. He has a string of lovers that has stretched into three figures, partly because with one exception three is the limit of liaisons he'll have with each. But he's also got a heart devoted to Una, his teenaged love whom he adores, despite her splitting with him decades ago. On a whim he leaves a beach holiday to go back to one of the icy limbs of Iceland, witnesses the changes wrought by fifteen years on her – and then ends up staying the night with the woman next door. This is purely platonic, but what with his host knowing everything about the situation, an ever-present taxi driver, and an ex on the line in America, is there a way he can snatch his love from her marriage and find happiness? Full review...

School of Velocity by Eric Beck Rubin

4.5star.jpg Literary Fiction

Jan's head is dropping him in it. He's a trained concert pianist, but is having difficulty performing, with a horrendous problem, in that he can hear any discordant music, or just in fact horrid noise, when in the wings waiting to perform, and never the score he is due to follow. The devil's tinnitus, you might call it. With another failure behind him, but dignity somewhat intact, Jan decides he has to work back through his life to tell us the cause – and we're likewise dropped into an extended flashback, to his formative years at art school, with a pretentious drama student, Dirk. The book is a fast-moving exploration of what Jan finds of note (pun intended) through his life, and all that might have caused his mental problem. But is cognisance of what might lie behind it going to help? Full review...

The Evenings: A Winter's Tale by Gerard Reve

3.5star.jpg Literary Fiction

The Evenings was voted the best Dutch novel of all time by the Society of Dutch Literature, and its author, Gerard Reve (1923–2006), was the first openly gay writer in the Netherlands. It's a historic book for its native country, but will it have the same impact in English translation? Contemporary Dutch novelist Herman Koch compares The Evenings to the works of Kerouac and Salinger, and I can see how it could have achieved cult status for a certain generation, but plot-wise I found it more tedious than revelatory. Full review...

Nineveh by Henrietta Rose-Innes

5star.jpg General Fiction

Henritetta Rose-Inne's Nineveh instantly reassures you that you are in the presence of a confident and talented writer. The story of Katya Grubbs, a second generation pest exterminator who specialises in relocating the bugs and rodents that ruin middle-class garden parties, Rose-Inne writes with the enviable ability of describing both the intricacies of Katya's job and the feeling of it simultaneously. Full review...

The Gravity of Love by Sara Stridsberg and Deborah Bragan-Turner (translator)

4.5star.jpg Literary Fiction

Particularly literate cover… Setting of a real-life mental hospital – in Sweden… Mature themes… Opening with an emotion- and closure-laden death… Yes, this book has more than its share of things to put the potential reader off. Which, in this instance, is quite a large shame indeed. Full review...

How Much the Heart Can Hold: Seven Stories on Love by Carys Bray and others

3.5star.jpg Short Stories

This Sceptre collection does not have as simple a remit as it might appear; these are no straightforward love stories. Instead, they each take one aspect of love – often one of the ancient Greek classifications – and provide a whole new way of thinking about it. After all, the heart holds a lot of metaphorical weight. Full review...

Cousins by Salley Vickers

4star.jpg Literary Fiction

We don't know our own limits so how can we judge the limits of others? And what it is easy to forget is that they were so young. Too young to bear all those horribly complicated family strains.

Salley Vickers' intense family odyssey revolves around one devastating accident in 1994. Reminiscent of the past, Will Tye's accident has a powerful effect on three generations of the Tye family, revealing long forgotten truths and close kept secrets. Cousins pieces together the events leading up to the event from three different close relatives perspectives, in an attempt to understand what exactly happened and why it happened that dark night. His sister, grandmother and aunt all recount Will's childhood and growth into an adult, highlighting both his successes and mistakes whilst reflecting on their own pasts. From the outbreak of the Second World War right up until the present day, the family's mysteries are laid out for all to see. Family loyalties are tested and the lengths you will go to for those you love are questioned. At its heart, Cousins is a love story between two cousins, Will and Cece, littered with complications, potential and realism as well as the struggle to determine your worth when you're young. Full review...

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

5star.jpg Literary Fiction

This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I've never stolen anything.

Isn't that one of the great opening lines of literature?

Our black hero and narrator, surname Me, first name unknown, was born in the southern Los Angeles suburb of Dickens and subjected to an isolated upbringing dominated by his father's extreme views on race, supposedly the subject of a psychological memoir which will solve their financial problems, but cruel and unnatural to anyone with an ounce of humanity. To add insult to injury Me discovered after his father's death (a racially provoked shooting) that there was no memoir. A drive-by shooting produces nothing more substantial than a bill for a drive-through funeral, but it starts Me on the path which will end in the Supreme Court, the subject of a race trial: Me v the United States of America. Full review...

Good People by Nir Baram

4star.jpg Literary Fiction

Thomas Heiselberg's self-focus pays off when he attracts the best clientele to the American advertising firm he helps establish across Europe from his German home. Meanwhile in Russia Sasha Weissberg is struggling with being in a literary, free-thinking family that doesn't go down too well with Stalin's regime. As World War II arrives, both of their worlds are shaken. As a result both decide to become collaborators rather than resistance fighters for different reasons and with far reaching effects. Full review...

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

4.5star.jpg Literary Fiction

Meet Trudy. Successfully living in a large and valuable London home, she is heavily pregnant, and in between two men – she has swapped the homeowner, poet and publisher John, for someone completely different, namely Claude, a nasty, brutish and short type. Some people cannot work out why on earth she has made that decision, including our narrator. Oh, and he himself, our narrator, is the child she's pregnant with. He is a very alert young thing, with nothing else to do but kick here and there, and practice what you might well call mindfulness, and listen in on Claude and Trudy, as they calmly talk their way to plotting and carrying out murder… Full review...

The Blackbird Singularity by Matt Wilven

5star.jpg Literary Fiction

Thirty-something writer Vince Watergate sees his partner's pregnancy as a fresh start. He stops taking his lithium and the new clarity of mind lets him start writing his best work in ages. He befriends a blackbird in the garden with the help of a bag of sultanas, and begins preparing the baby's room. For a short while, everything seems full of peace and hope. But Vince and Lyd's first child, despite having died a couple of years earlier, might not have completely left them and the blackbird might not be as friendly as Vince first thought. Lithium withdrawal, stress, and the pressure of appearing 'normal' push Vince into a frightening, irrational place. Can he fight his way through it and return to his family? Full review...

Harmony by Carolyn Parkhurst

5star.jpg Literary Fiction

Josh and Alexandra Hammond have two daughters. Iris is eleven years old and neurotypical: her brain works in the same way as most people's, but her elder sister, Tilly, is thirteen and on the autistic spectrum. Her parents are finding it difficult, if not impossible, to cope with her. Even her special and rather expensive school has indicated that they can't continue. She's subject to mood swings and unpredictable and inappropriate behaviour. Josh is lucky - he goes to work - but Alexandra is stuck with the problem, which is why Scott Bean, educator and expert in parenting, appeals to her. The name came to her attention on a couple of occasions: she subscribed to his newsletter, heard him speak and what he had to say rang a bell. Before long he was coming to the house for private consultations. Full review...

The Constant Soldier by William Ryan

5star.jpg Thrillers

Paul Brandt returns home to his village without the arm he left at the Russian Front in defence of Germany. The village looks pretty much the same as he left it, with the exception of the lack of young men and a new building. His home now boasts an SS rest hut, providing officers with entertainment and respite breaks from the fighting. As Paul passes the hut for the first time, he sees something… or rather someone… that will make him return to work for those he despises. The subject of his decision? A girl he once got into trouble with under different circumstances – before she wore the stripes of a concentration camp prisoner. Full review...

Taking in Water by Pamela Johnson

4star.jpg Literary Fiction

Pamela Johnson's third novel is set in 2002 but has its roots in a real-life tragedy from nearly 50 years earlier: in 1953 a storm surge hit the Norfolk coast, destroying Lydia Hutton's grandmother's home and sweeping her whole family out to sea. Seven-year-old Lydia was the only one to survive, clinging to the wreckage and singing hymns to herself to survive. It's a dark part of her past she's never told anyone except Luc, the half-French lover whose iconic performance art piece, Taking in Water, she participated in during a spell in New York City in the 1960s, when she was known as 'Layla' and hung around with the likes of Andy Warhol. Full review...

Resolution by A N Wilson

4star.jpg Literary Fiction

In 1772 Reinhold Forster and his son George were hired as ship's naturalists for the Resolution, the vessel Captain James Cook piloted to New Zealand and back on a three-year voyage of discovery. Once a Lutheran pastor near Danzig, Reinhold seemed unable to settle to one line of work and had a higher opinion of himself than was prudent. In Wilson's vision of life on the Resolution, Reinhold seems fussy, argumentative and rather heartless, as when he offers George's dog up as fresh meat when the captain is desperately ill. George, just 18 when he joins the expedition, is a self-taught illustrator and botanist with a keen ear for languages. Though precociously intelligent, he is emotionally immature and cannot keep a handle on his masturbation habit or deal with their servant Nally's crush on him. Full review...

The Countenance Divine by Michael Hughes

4.5star.jpg Literary Fiction

In 1999, a programmer is trying to fix the millennium bug, but can't shake the sense he's been chosen for something.

In 1888, five women are brutally murdered in the East End by a troubled young man in thrall to a mysterious master.

In 1777, an apprentice engraver called William Blake has a defining spiritual experience; thirteen years later this vision returns.

And in 1666, poet and revolutionary John Milton completes the epic for which he will be remembered centuries later.

But where does the feeling come from that the world is about to end? Full review...

The Strays by Emily Bitto

5star.jpg Literary Fiction

Lily comes from an ordinary suburban family, but on her first day at a new school she meets Eva: the super-confident middle daughter of artist Evan Trentham. The girls fast become firm friends, to the exclusion of all those ar ound them and it isn't long before Lily is spending more time at the Trentham's than she does at home. Why wouldn't she? Their life is everything her family's isn't. Full review...

To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

4star.jpg General Fiction

If you're going to go pioneering across unexplored lands, at least be prepared to accept what you seek – namely, what you've never seen before. That lesson seems quite obvious, but back in the time of 1885 Allen Forrester is a little too naïve to heed it. A career soldier, he is tasked with scouring the potential of the Wolverine River that threads south to the shores of Alaska, even though the Russians (who of course used to own the Territory) have had all manner of lethal encounters with those already living there, and even though a major stretch of the river has to be traversed in winter when entirely frozen over, as the cliffs either side are too impenetrable. Allen leaves a much younger, new bride behind – and right from the get-go his journals force him to pen words about strange happenings, strange encounters and things of legend coming to life. Like I say, what he's never seen before… Full review...

Acts of Love by Talulah Riley

4.5star.jpg Women's Fiction

Bernadette St John presents herself as the very face of contemporary feminine independence. She is strong, career-driven, beautiful…and definitely holds the attention of the public. For Bernadette is the Man Whisperer, winning herself fame with her ability to coax secrets from the richest and most powerful men of the world, exposing them with controversial distaste in her articles. Hidden behind such a conniving and judgemental persona, however, is a deep insecurity, and a desperate longing to be loved by the perfect man. She has already decided that the newly engaged Tim Bazier is the only candidate for such a position in her heart, and will stop at nothing to win him back from his all-too-lovely fiancé. Yet what is perfect is a subject for discussion, and charismatic entrepreneur Radley Blake's unwavering attention has also fallen upon the feisty journalist. It is a weaving tale of will-they-wont-they that Riley spins here, one that I found myself unable to put down. Full review...

How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball

4star.jpg Literary Fiction

Lucia Stanton is a sarcastic 14-year-old misfit who lives with her elderly Aunt Lucy in a garage they rent from an evil landlord at the bottom of his large garden. She never comes right out and explains why she's there, but if you read between the lines you work out that her father is dead and her mother is in a mental hospital – presumably for his murder. Aunt Lucy is dignified and principled – Don't do things you aren't proud of is her motto – even though they are undeniably poor: Lucia only has one set of clothes and mostly lives off of liquorice and Aunt Lucy's terrible homemade bread. Full review...

Fell by Jenn Ashworth

5star.jpg General Fiction

Now her parents have died, Annette returns to sell her old childhood home but there's work to do on the decrepit building first. As she wanders around and tries to make some order of the overgrown shambles, she's watched by the ghost of her mother, Netty; a spirit with regrets. Netty reminisces about Annette's childhood and the turning point their lives reached when the mysterious healer Timothy Richardson came to stay. It was a time that promised so much but one for which Netty now needs to make amends, even if she is beyond the grave. Full review...

Trio by Sue Gee

4star.jpg Historical Fiction

In the winter of 1936, Steven Coulter's wife, Margaret, dies of tuberculosis, leaving their Northumberland cottage cold and empty. His work as a history teacher at Kirkhoughton Boys' School isn't enough to distract him from his grief; he spends his long evenings writing letters to Margaret. Gradually, though, as spring arrives he starts to take an interest in other things. His colleague Frank Embleton invites him to a performance by the Hepplewick Trio: Frank's sister Diana on cello; pianist Margot Heslop, whose mother died when she was young and who looks after her father, a coal mine manager, at Hepplewick Hall; and their friend George Liddell, the violinist and leader, who is a Royal College of Music graduate. Full review...

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

4star.jpg Literary Fiction

Twenty –two year old Tess is a restless graduate from a broken family. With the intention of finally starting her life, she moves to New York City with no real plan but a need to do something. She manages to get a job at one of the most exclusive restaurants in town as a back-waiter and Tess is thrown into the comforting commotion of New York life. It's at her new job that she becomes fascinated by two people: Simone, a know-it-all server and Jake, a handsome yet moody bartender. While the restaurant becomes her home and her colleagues her new family, Sweetbitter follows Tess through a year of her life as she grows and learns about the complexities of human relationships. Full review...