Hanya Yanagihara’s gripping debut novel The People In The Trees, Peruvian-born author Daniel Alarcon’s latest work, At Night We Walk In Circles and bestselling Orange Prize winner Helen Dunmore’s new novel, The Lie
The People In The Trees by Hanya Yanagihara (£12.99, ebook £5.39).
Loosely based on the true story of physician Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, Hanya Yanagihara’s debut novel is a shocking exploration of whether a man’s personal flaws cancel out his professional achievement.
The bulk of the novel is narrated by the Nobel Prize-winning protagonist Norton Peralta, who writes his memoirs of travelling to a tiny Micronesian island called Ivu’ivu, where he studied jungle-dwelling people who remained physically healthy despite living to well past 100.
He then wins acclaim for his scientific discovery of the cause, and for the subsequent adoption of dozens of orphans – but sex offence accusations soon reveal his darker side.
Yanagihara spent two decades on this book and her succulent descriptions of forest, village and culture are engrossing, but most striking is her masterful characterisation of the selfish, charismatic Peralta.
Aided by a sycophantic ‘editor’, Peralta’s personality dominates the text and is horrifyingly convincing in justifying his willing destruction of the islanders’ lives.
At Night We Walk In Circles by Daniel Alarcon (£18.99).
This is the fourth book by Peruvian-born novelist Daniel Alarcon who was recently named by The New Yorker as one of the best young writers in America.
Its nameless narrator recounts the story of a young actor who flees his failing family life to team up with his playwright hero and revive his most famous work – a play about a sadistic president who abuses his staff and family.
They travel across an unnamed country, still marked by memories of a vicious civil war, as they revive the play for a new audience and reveal their own secrets along the way.
It’s an unsettling read and Alarcon expertly maintains the novel’s uneasy atmosphere, creating a picture of a country where everyone keeps their own secrets and no one is what they seem.
Entry Island by Peter May (£16.99, ebook £7.63).
When a wealthy businessman is murdered on remote Entry Island, detective Sime Mackenzie is sent from Montreal to investigate.
Recently separated, he looks on it as a chance to escape his loneliness and regret.
At first, it seems like an open-and-shut case; all the evidence suggests a crime of passion – the victim’s wife Kirsty is found by the body covered in blood and is the only witness.
Sime, however, is not convinced. He is sure he knows Kirsty, even though they have never met, and is determined to prove her innocence.
Fans of The Lewis Trilogy will find more than a passing resemblance to Fin Macleod, and May uses the same dual-narrative technique, deftly weaving the present-day investigation in Canada with Sime’s distant past 3,000 miles away in the Outer Hebrides.
Part thriller and part love story, there is just enough excitement and suspense to forgive the slightly contrived ending.
Wake by Anna Hope (£12.99, ebook £6.02).
Anna Hope’s intricate debut novel is an honest insight into the lives of three lonely women struggling to adjust in the aftermath of the First World War.
Set over five days in November 1920, the people of London are awaiting the funeral procession from France of the Unknown Warrior, an unidentified British soldier due to be buried on Armistice Day.
But as the cortege draws closer Ada, Evelyn and Hettie are forced to confront their harrowing demons, and the impact the war has had on the men they love.
This novel is ambitious, with Hope gradually weaving together the four different storylines in a haunting but powerful way, and by telling the story from the dance halls, offices and kitchens in which the women spend their days Hope gives a unique glimpse into love, loss and the post-war mindset.
But there are weaknesses here too. The novel only starts to gather momentum halfway through, making the different storylines appear disjointed.
The frustration I felt at the somewhat abrupt ending – while perhaps testament to how well Hope crafted her characters – also distracted from the intensely emotional journey the women had travelled.
Despite Hope’s elegant writing, these two factors stopped an otherwise compelling book delivering the full impact it was capable of.
When Mr Dog Bites by Brian Conaghan (£12.99, ebook £8.67).
Being a teenager with Tourette’s sounds like a tough enough prospect, but when Dylan Mint thinks that he is dying his short life starts to look like an even tougher deal.
Glaswegian Dylan’s dad is away in the army and his mum has started inviting a new man around, so he can only confide in his best mate Amir, and together they hatch a plan for him to seduce the hottest girl in school before his time is up.
But most of what Dylan thinks he knows is based on snippets of conversations he has overheard.
Is his dad really away in the army? Is death really just around the corner for him?
As he discovers the truth, the story takes us through a heady few months in the life of a teenage boy starting to grow up, and shows what’s really going on in his mind behind the tics and swearing.
The plot twists might seem a little too obvious from the start, but Scottish author Brian Conaghan, in his debut novel, gives a fresh look at what it’s like to live with Tourette’s, which will be an eye opener for many readers.
The Lie by Helen Dunmore (£14.99, ebook £6.02).
The Lie is a story of the Great War and its aftermath.
Its main characters – best friends, Dan and Frederick, and the latter’s sister, Felicia – are , in their different ways, fixed by the horrors they have suffered or the grief they still endure.
Dan cannot get over the violent death of Frederick, whom he was forced to abandon in no-man’s-land in France.
His own mother having died while he was away, Dan now ekes out a hermit’s life on a bleak cliff-top overlooking his native Cornish village.
He inherits his one-room hovel from Mary Pascoe, an elderly wise woman whom he nursed and subsequently buried in her garden on her wishes.
The horror of war cannot be buried so easily, however, and Dan is the constant victim of nightmares, flashbacks and delusions.
Dan and Felicia struggle to forge a relationship in the face of Frederick’s absence, a void that both unites and threatens to divide them.
The story is told in a taut style that suits well Dan’s own desperate reticence.
Each chapter begins with a quotation from the Army’s own ‘Notes for Infantry Officers on Trench Warfare’.
As well as underscoring the horror of the war with its banally bureaucratic tone – ‘Dead, disposal of: bodies of dead men will be taken right away from the trenches to be buried’ – each extract adds a poignant counterpoint to the unfolding narrative.
Ultimately, the power of The Lie depends on how engaged you are by Dan’s relationship with Frederick, which carries a rather predictable homoerotic charge and is complicated by their social incompatibility – Dan is the clever country lad who has to leave school early and ends up in the infantry, while Frederick cares little for books but as the son of the local grandee ends up an officer.
Similarly, you may feel that the simplicity of the plotting verges on the schematic.
But the post-war village ways and Dan’s lonely post-traumatic subsistence are convincingly drawn, and there’s much to admire in this well-told tale of a conflict that continues to haunt us.
Acts of Union and Disunion by Linda Colley (£8.99).
This book, by eminent Princeton University historian Linda Colley, demonstrates how the United Kingdom, over the centuries, has been glued together, become “unglued” and, following more attempts with varying degrees of success, sought to find unity once again.
But it is an ongoing process with no finality, the imminent referendum on Scottish independence is merely the latest of these “acts of union and disunion” and one, which because of its topicality, will command the most attention.
There is nothing new, as Colley points out, about the continued uneasy relationship between Scotland and England.
She recalls, as an example, how Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe, when he toured Ross and Cromarty in the northern Highlands, found it safer to pass himself off as a Frenchman to avoid “the mockery or worse” which often befell Englishmen intrepid enough to cross the border.
She also points out some little-known and fascinating facts.
For instance, in the early 12th century, Scottish kings briefly established dominance over north Lancashire and parts of Yorkshire as well as all over Cumberland and Northumberland.
Colley makes no bones, either, about the discrepancies between north and south in the British Isles, the so-called North-South Divide.
Another surprising fact she adduces is that it is not wars but periods of protracted peace which have repeatedly presented the most profound threats to union in the UK.
This is a compelling read, even for people who do not profess any interest in the evolution and devolution of the component parts of the British Isles. Put it on your book list!
The Life & Times Of Herbert Chapman: The Story Of One Of Football’s Most Influential Figures by Patrick Barclay (£20, ebook £6.99).
Born into a poor mining village just outside Sheffield in January 1878, Herbert Chapman seems an unlikely figure to lay down the template for success which was to be followed by many great football club managers since, including Matt Busby, Bill Shankly and possibly the greatest of them all, Sir Alex Ferguson.
But Patrick Barclay, one of our best soccer journalists, explains in this vivid tale that Chapman – who became famous for taking Huddersfield to the top of the League in the 1920s and was then hired by Arsenal for a staggering £2,000 a year in 1925 to begin the club’s near century of pre-eminence – devised many ideas and tactics which will be accepted as textbook stuff at this year’s World Cup.
He invented the idea of putting numbers on players’ shirts – swiftly banned by the authorities – began the building of each new team by placing great emphasis on defence, with the flexible 3-4-3 formation enabling a rapid switch from defence to attack, and amazed the world by paying vast transfers fees – paying all of £8,750 to buy Alex James from Preston in 1925.
He also insisted that teams could only be successful if the manager has total control and, preferably, a seat on the club board.
The great achievement of this biography is that it is written without a single note, letter or even a reported speech from its subject, not even a postcard.
Despite that, Barclay keeps his story rolling along at a rollicking pace with a glittering cast of walk-on players, including that distinguished Wolves fan (and composer) Sir Edward Elgar, The Queen Mother, Rudolph Valentino and many, many more.
Even Joe Stalin, Russia’s tyrant, apparently came up with his first Five Year Plan about 18 months after Chapman devised one for Arsenal.
Soccer buffs will be absorbed by the detail and the dramas of this intriguing book.
Yikes, It’s Stinkysaurus! by Pamela Butchart and Sam Lloyd (£6.99).
In her latest children’s book Yikes, It’s Stinkysaurus, author Pamela Butchart spins a funny tale about a smelly dinosaur whose friends avoid him to escape his pong.
Indeed, while Bronto is tall and T-Rex has a temper, Stinkysaurus is the scariest of the bunch because of his pungent stench.
Fed up with Stinksaurus’s scent and flat-out refusals to have a wash, the other dinos club together and push him into a giant bubble bath.
After being smelly for so long, Stinkysaurus realises he likes being clean because it means people will play with him.
Funny and non-preachy, this lively read is a must for any child who resists bathtime.