Newest Literary Fiction Reviews

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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...

Affections by Rodrigo Hasbun and Sophie Hughes (translator)

4.5star.jpg General Fiction

If you thought your teenaged years were a struggle to work out the world, and yourself, consider that of Heidi Ertl. Or either of her sisters – this book serves as a sort of tribute to these three real-life women, and the lives that came out of their very disjointed youth, forced to be rarefied from the norm by their family uprooting. Father Hans was one of Leni Riefenstahl's key cameramen, and a Nazi military photographer, before taking the whole family into post-war exile in Bolivia. Their mother would have followed him to the ends of the earth – as in part would their daughters, the older two of which start the book by joining him on an expedition to discover a lost Incan city. Heidi finds young, instant love on the trek – but sees the dark side of such emotions, too. Older sister Monika, who might well be manic depressive, finds something else, while the baby of the family stays at home with a maudlin mother. So much here could be the hook on which to hang a full novel, but if anything it's the reaction of them all to this unusual formative journey that inspires this book. Full review...

The Dog who Dared to Dream by Sun-mi Hwang

4star.jpg Literary Fiction

From the very beginning, Scraggly knows that she is different to her brothers and sisters. Her siblings have short, glossy coats, but Scraggly's blue/black fur is long, wild and untamed. She may be an outsider, but she still enjoys life with her family in Grandpa Screecher's sunny yard, even if it means putting up with the evil cat next door. Scraggly dreams that things can stay this way forever, but fate has other plans. One tragic night, everything she loves is cruelly ripped away from her. As she struggles to rebuild a new life and family for herself, she comes to understand that sadness, betrayal and loss are an inevitable part of life. Can Scraggly ever learn to trust another human again? Full review...

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

4.5star.jpg Literary Fiction

I confess to a bias… when I came across a reference to Sarah Perry's latest novel; I wanted to read it for two reasons only. She is a local writer, and the book is set in a place not too far away, but that I have yet to explore and which fascinates me: the Blackwater estuary in Essex. That's a place of the kind of wide open skies and mud creeks that you will find up much of the Norfolk and Suffolk coast as well, and a landscape type that probably only appeals to a certain type of person. Full review...

The Good Guy by Susan Beale

4star.jpg Literary Fiction

September 1964: an Indian summer in suburban Massachusetts. Ted McDougall is a twenty-three-year-old Goodyear tyre salesman who lives with his wife Abigail and ten-month-old daughter Mindy in the up-and-coming Elm Grove community. Both Ted and Abigail feel unappreciated in their roles. Ted knows his in-laws wanted him to become a lawyer and join Abigail's father's firm, but he's a good salesman and wishes they wouldn't look down on him for it. Meanwhile Abigail, an American history buff, can't master the domestic arts of cooking and cleaning, much as she tries, and longs to go back to school. Full review...

The Girls by Emma Cline

4star.jpg Literary Fiction

California. Summer 1969. Fourteen year old Evie Boyd is a thoughtful yet bored teenager from a broken home. The attention she craves is nowhere to be found in the form of her neglectful, serial dating mother, or even in the friendship of her fickle best friend Connie. Abandoned by those around her, Evie's path collides with Suzanne – a mysterious older girl who introduces Evie to a strange yet thrilling new life, offering her the intimate relationship her life back home lacks. Full review...

Father's Day by Simon Van Booy

5star.jpg General Fiction

When devastating news shatters the life of six year old Harvey, she finds herself in the care of a veteran social worker, Wanda, and alone in the world save for one relative she has never met - a disabled ex-con, haunted by a violent past he can't escape. Moving between past and present, Father's Day weaves together the story of Harvey's childhood on Long Island, and her life as a young woman in Paris. Full review...

Napoleon's Last Island by Thomas Keneally

4.5star.jpg Literary Fiction

It's not usual to open a review with the history of how the book came to be written but with Napoleon's Last Island the story sheds an intriguing light on the plot. In 2012 author Thomas Keneally was given tickets to an exhibition of Napoleonic artefacts: uniforms, furniture, china, paintings, military decorations, snuff boxes and memorabilia as well as Napoleon's death mask. He was intrigued as to how the exhibits and particularly the mask came to be in Australia. Some pieces in the exhibition had been bought in later but most came from the descendants of the Balcombe family, who came to the colony in the first half of the nineteenth century, from St Helena via England. The result of Keneally's research into the story is Napoleon's Last Island. Full review...

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

5star.jpg Literary Fiction

Yolanda and Verla wake up disorientated. They realise they've been drugged. Yolanda thinks that perhaps they are in some kind of mental facility - She knew she was not mad, but all lunatics thought that. Verla just sits, still and frozen, waiting. And soon enough, two men arrive to reveal their fate. Yolanda and Verla, along with eight other girls, have been brought to a remote farmhouse surrounded by an electrified fence. Their heads are shaved. They are dressed in uncomfortable, scratchy, Amish-style clothes. They are tied together like a chain gang. And, like any chain gang, their days are marked with forced labour. Two men, one more cruel than the other, and a so-called nurse are their jailers, not their guardians. Full review...

The Many Selves of Katherine North by Emma Geen

3.5star.jpg Science Fiction

As a Bristol-area 'phenomenaut', nineteen-year-old Kit projects herself into the lab-grown bodies of all sorts of creatures. She's recently spent a lot of time as a fox (appropriate given her nickname) and got particularly close with a vixen named Tomoko. It's becoming much harder for her to leave the animal world behind at the end of her 'jumps'. Even after Buckley, her neuroengineer, signals her to 'Come home' and she resumes her original body, she has trouble giving up animal tendencies like territorialism, toileting outdoors and raiding bins. Full review...

Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was by Sjon and Victoria Cribb (translator)

5star.jpg Literary Fiction

Sixteen-year-old Mani Stein - Moonstone in translation - existed on the fringes of society. He lived in Reykjavik and in 1918 the night sky (and the day for that matter) was lit by the eruptions of the Katla volcano. The Great War was raging, or possibly grinding on, but life in the capital carried on much as usual. There were shortages, such as coal, but there was the new fashion and it was for the movies that Mani lived, seeing every production he could, sometimes several times. He dreamed about the films, changing them to suit his tastes, working his own life into the plots. But there was another reason why Mani was a misfit: Mani was gay and frequently made a living as a sex worker. Full review...

Nothing on Earth by Conor O'Callaghan

4.5star.jpg Literary Fiction

On a sweltering night in what is a blisteringly hot summer a young girl hammers at a man's door and when let into the house tells him that her father has disappeared too. Gradually her story emerges, of a home on one of those estates so common in Ireland after the collapse of the Celtic Tiger with only the occasional house occupied and others only part built. It could be any one of hundreds of Irish towns at that time and its main feature is the lack of hope that it will never be any better. Our narrator tells her story, much, he says, as it was told to him and we hear of a life on the edge of poverty, with strange noises in the night, words written in the dust on the windows mirrored by those written in blue ink on her skin. Full review...

The Parable Book by Per Olov Enquist and Deborah Bragan-Turner (translator)

3.5star.jpg Literary Fiction

It's not only springtime when a man's fancies turn to thoughts of love – he can also do it in the autumn of his life, as does the man involved here. But being a well-known author, and being beholden to silence, can he really put his thoughts on paper? It happened a long time ago, and he only met the woman concerned a couple of times, but with it being such a powerful event and such a slightly unusual circumstance, what should he do? It takes a notebook of his father's love poems to his mother, that he finds both incomplete and scorched, to give him the green light – the voice from the past that says to him, 'go for it'. And what we read here is a result. Full review...

This Must Be the Place by Maggie O'Farrell

4star.jpg Literary Fiction

Maggie O'Farrell's globe-trotting seventh novel opens in 2010 with Daniel Sullivan, an American linguistics professor. He lives with his wife Claudette, a French actress who retreated from the limelight, and their two children in a remote home in Donegal. It was 10 years ago that he first came here and met Claudette by chance when her van had a flat tire; he struck up a conversation with her son Ari and gave the boy tips for dealing with his stutter. Now, preparing to fly back to Brooklyn for his father's ninetieth birthday party, he's caught short by a long-lost voice he hears on the radio. It belongs to Nicola Janks, a former lover he last saw 24 years ago; when he learns that she died soon after they were together, he determines to figure out whether he played a role, even if he doesn't like what he finds. Full review...

Different Class by Joanne Harris

5star.jpg Literary Fiction

St Oswald's Grammar School For Boys is in crisis. A murdered schoolboy, a procession of new Head Masters, a(nother) new Head Master, a Crisis Intervention Team and a potential merger with St Oswald's all female counterpart, Mulberry House. Roy Straitley is not altogether dismayed at the prospect of delaying his retirement; St Oswald's has been his life, man and boy and a crisis is a crisis after all is said and done, isn't it? It's probably his duty to stay and right the ship. So when the latest of the new Head Masters and his duo of crisis managers walk into the staff room, Straitley can't quite believe his old eyes. The new Head is an ex-pupil of St Oswald's; a boy who, in his time at the esteemed old School caused such an uproarious scandal that one of the Masters ended up in prison! Full review...

Dodgers by Bill Beverly

5star.jpg Literary Fiction

Judging a book by its cover can mislead. It can especially mislead if you don't look closely at the cover and are just grabbed by the feel or style of the design of the thing. Being misled is not necessarily a bad thing. For reasons best left in the depths of my addled brain, the styling of Dodgers had me thinking 'noir'. I was expecting late fifties, early sixties. If I'd looked closer, I'd have seen that it is much more contemporary than that. Then again… Full review...

Invincible Summer by Alice Adams

3.5star.jpg Literary Fiction

As Alice Adams's debut novel opens in the summer of 1995, four university friends are lounging on Bristol's Brandon Hill, drinking and contemplating what the future holds. There's Eva Andrews, raised in Sussex by a single father; siblings Sylvie and Lucien Marchant, neglected by their alcoholic mother; and Benedict Waverley, a rich kid whose parents have a holiday home on Corfu. Eva has a crush on Lucien, while Benedict is besotted with Eva. Full review...

Hah by Birgul Oguz

3star.jpg Literary Fiction

I was interested to receive this book for review as I knew it was written in a modern, interesting style, being effectively a collection of short stories, but appearing more in a novel structure. I was, however, rather disappointed with the book. Whilst it does have some very fine examples of prose writing within the stories, I felt disconnected from the narrator, who is the daughter of a recently deceased man who was involved in a Turkish military coup in 1980. There is therefore a lot of examples of the narrator relating the conversations they had shared regarding revolution, and the way this had affected the daughter's upbringing and childhood. Another 'story' then delves into a seemingly disconnected wander through the town, whereby we see the narrator working at gutting fish, and talking about a man she finds repulsive, but who appears to be in love with her. Full review...

Make Something Up by Chuck Palahniuk

5star.jpg Short Stories

What are we to make of that subtitle-seeming writing on the front cover – stories you can't unread? Does that not apply to all good fiction? Clearly it is here due to the reputation of the author, and the baggage his name brings to the page. We'd expect a dramatic approach from anything Palahniuk writes, and an added frisson, an extra layer, from which we might be forced to shrink back. But a lot of the contents don't quite go that far. Yes, things are dramatic, when society starts attaching defibrillators to itself, to create the perfect, simple, care- (The Price is Right-, and Kardashian-) free happiness. A man buys a horse for his daughter – but boy is it the wrong horse to buy. A man falls in love – yes, sometimes the plot summaries of these stories really are better off for being short (speaking of which, don't turn to the three-page entrant here as a taster, it'll put you off by dint of being, almost uniquely here, a nothing story). A call centre worker can't convince people he's on the level and even in their country – until someone starts riffing back to him. A housing estate report conveys bad regulation violations, but not as bad as the happenings at a 'Burning Man'-styled festival, in a very clever couple of tales. But many too are the instances where that extra step has been taken. Full review...

The Arrival of Missives by Aliya Whiteley

4.5star.jpg Literary Fiction

In the aftermath of the Great War, Shirley Fearn dreams of challenging the conventions of rural England, where life is as unchanging as the seasons. The scarred veteran Mr Tiller, left disfigured by an impossible accident on the battlefields of France, brings with him a message: part prophecy, part warning. As Shirley's village prepares for the annual May Day celebrations, where a new queen will be crowned and the future reborn, she must choose between change and renewal – will the missives Mr Tiller brings prevent her mastering her identity? Full review...

Armadillos by P K Lynch

4.5star.jpg Literary Fiction

Aggie is one of Texas' downtrodden. Dirt poor and abused. a 'sub' from a 'sub' familyHer father and brother enact that 'sub'-ness on her, week in, week out. She has only the vaguest notion that there is something wrong with the abuse she endures.. Full review...

The Birds by Tarjei Vesaas, Torbjorn Stoverud and Michael Barnes (translators)

4.5star.jpg General Fiction

We're somewhere in rural Scandinavia, on the shores of a large lake, but in a community relying on the farmland that is scattered in amongst the woods. Our chief concerns are brother and sister – Mattis and Hege. He, Mattis, is what the other villagers call 'simple' – sure, he knows a few things about life, and what makes a clever person and what makes a well-turned phrase, and how to talk to girls and when to not stare at them, but he is definitely not quite as the others would wish. Those others include his sister, who is seeing her life waste away in listening to his chatter, knitting jumpers to make ends meet, and regretting in her own small way what has got her to middle-age in this situation. But from this galling introduction, you should take away the bigger picture – even if there is no way out, the life in this countryside is brilliantly conveyed, full of sun as well as shade, of labour and of idleness, and wit and charm as much as hardship. I defy you to read this and think this corner of Scandinavia bleak. Full review...

The Cauliflower® by Nicola Barker

4star.jpg Literary Fiction

Nicola Barker teasingly refers to herself as this book's 'collagist', piecing together diverse documents to create a picture of Sri Ramakrishna (1836–1886), a largely illiterate guru who attracted followers to his intense worship of the goddess Kali. His life story is a sticky mass of contradictions: Full review...

God Help the Child by Toni Morrison

4star.jpg Literary Fiction

A truly complex and emotionally raw portrayal, that seeks to cover issues of race, gender, and paedophilia. A slim volume, yes, but one that is powerful in its punch. Full review...

Out in the Open by Jesus Carrasco and Margaret Jull Costa (translator)

3star.jpg Literary Fiction

Meet the boy. We never learn his name – in fact we learn very little in this book, such as where or when we are, and why. What we do know is that he has left home. We get the feeling his father is too handy with punishment, but that can't be the only reason for him first hiding out in an olive grove overnight, then fleeing across the plains surrounding his family's village. Especially as he's chosen one of the most awkward, attritional times to cross said plains – the land is in the middle of a horrendous drought. When he tries to steal his first provisions from an aged goatherd, however, he finds some light and liquid, but is this substitute father figure ever going to be enough to help the boy flee what he needs to? Full review...