There’s fantastic new fiction this week with Reckless from Bafta-winning screenwriter William Nicholson, and The Last Word, the latest novel by Hanif Kureishi.
Reckless by William Nicholson (£16.99, ebook £10.99).
Bafta-winning screenwriter and novelist William Nicholson has outdone himself with this sequel to Motherland.
The ambitious Reckless is set largely against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
London is a complex social world: bachelor Rupert advises Mountbatten as the rhetoric escalates and governments wage a war of bluster; Pamela is 18, bored, beautiful, and desperate to fall in love but falls in with Stephen Ward and Christine Keeler instead; at 29, Mary lives anonymously, ashamed of the childhood visions of Jesus Christ that turned her into a child prophet in Ireland; Khrushchev and Kennedy swear and scheme and count warheads.
It’s a Who’s Who of 1960s Britain, a masterful interweaving of the historical and the emotional, and in Nicholson’s hands, we almost expect the characters to walk off the page.
As the political clouds gather, whirlwinds descend on the Londoners.
National fears hatch in backstreet conversations, Pamela sails giddily out of her depth, marriages falter with delicate ambiguity, spiritual demons are laid to rest, and love and secrets bleed unexpectedly into the present.
I raced through the 500 pages in 24 hours; full marks.
The Last Word by Hanif Kureishi (£18.99, ebook £8.96).
Kureishi is known for producing exceptionally well written, controversial works, such as Buddha Of Suburbia, that cover the issues of sexuality, race and immigration.
The Last Word sticks to these themes and follows Harry Johnson, an upper class, womanising writer who is attempting to write the biography of the author Mamoon Azam, revealing his sordid past and the truth about his various sadistic affairs.
The novel is rumoured to be based on the story of the author V S Naipaul, who like the fictional Mamoon, remarried a younger woman and was exposed as being a deplorable person by his biographer.
Kureishi has denied this is the case, but the similarities are too obvious to ignore.
Indeed the plot is laden with references to Kureishi’s own life as well of that of Naipaul.
Harry’s determination not to fail as an author and have to resort to teaching creative writing is particularly amusing, as Kureishi does just that.
This is a gripping, somewhat shocking and darkly funny tale, and with the hype surrounding it still building, this is set to be another of Kureishi’s most memorable works.
Children Of Paradise by Fred D’Aguiar (£14.99, ebook £12.86).
A reimagining of the 1978 Jonestown Massacre, Children Of Paradise tells the story of the final days of a cult through the eyes of its children and pet gorilla, Adam.
More than 900 people died at the Guyana commune, and D’Aguiar describes life at the People’s Temple in the jungle under the total rule of their leader, the preacher.
Trina and her mother Joyce are starting to question life under the control of the preacher and are plotting how to escape.
Their plan is helped by both the preacher and Adam taking a shine to Trina which gives them slightly more freedom than the rest of the commune – but will it be enough for them to become some of the lucky few able to avoid the cult’s tragic fate?
By using the children and Adam to tell most of the story, D’Aguiar presents a view of what life in the People’s Temple was like for those who didn’t choose to be there.
D’Aguiar is also a poet and his poetic style of writing lends itself perfectly to painting a picture of what the cult members hoped would be an ideal society, but which rapidly took a sinister turn.
The Farm by Tom Rob Smith (£12.99, ebook £5.70).
Bestselling novelist Tom Rob Smith has made his name with a string of thrillers set in the murky world of police work in Soviet Russia.
His latest book swaps that Cold War setting for contemporary London and rural Sweden and a plot fuelled by paranoia and thickened with long-buried traumas.
A horrific family feud, complete with allegations of mental illness and dark deeds in the Scandinavian countryside, unravels over 350 pages with both sides given the benefit of the doubt until the narrator – and the reader – is tied up in knots and unsure who to believe.
The plot gathers pace with each new revelation as the story twists and turns but always stays believable until the final page when it is resolved.
Fans of The Killing or Henning Mankell’s books looking for something new should give this English take on Scandinavian-noir a try.
Sheila: The Australian Ingenue Who Bewitched British Society by Robert Wainwright (£14.99, ebook £7.07).
Born on the other side of the world yet becoming the toast of English interwar society and a confidante of two princes, Margaret Sheila MacKellar Chisholm led a life few could have imagined.
Always claiming she was motivated by love, the racehorse breeder’s daughter had an affair with the future King George VI and married three times: to a Scottish lord, an English baronet and a Russian prince.
She also survived both World Wars and was a main player in breaking down British class barriers and society’s fascination with America.
Journalist Robert Wainwright has pieced together an admirably full picture of the Australian socialite’s life, gleaning details from countless newspaper reports and private letters, including those by Edward VII.
Unfortunately, he tends to repeat information, presumably to help the reader keep track of the myriad characters that come and go throughout Sheila’s life, but this seemingly patronising approach spoils the book.
Jumbo: The Unauthorised Biography of a Victorian Sensation by John Sutherland (£14.99).
Born in about 1861 in what is now Eritrea, the African elephant who became the Victorian sensation Jumbo was captured and brought to Europe as a cub.
At Regent’s Park Zoo he quickly acquired national treasure status, and went on to spend 17 years dutifully stuffing buns and giving children rides (including the young Churchill).
But behind the scenes Jumbo was routinely tortured and fed alcohol to keep him subdued, and when he eventually showed signs of distress he was sold off to the American showman and scam-artist Barnum to join ‘The Greatest Show On Earth’.
The British public and media were outraged at this unpatriotic betrayal, but Jumbo was considered damaged goods and his zoo was only too pleased to be shot of him.
John Sutherland uses this fascinating tale as a vehicle for a wider exploration of our ‘cultural elephantiasis’, and quickly shows how our enduring attachment for this beautiful creature has almost invariably spelled exploitation and death for the supposed object of our affection.
We learn of how elephants have been hunted almost to extinction for ivory – a practice that continues unabated to this day but first hit dangerous levels with the 19th-century obsession for ivory balls for pool, billiards and snooker.
Sutherland’s books contains much to engage, instruct and often sadden.
But it’s an oddly miscellaneous and digressive read, which develops no central argument and breaks little new ground.
Facts are often repeated in different chapters, and the frequent use of phrases like ‘one is told’ and ‘one is reliably informed’ lends the whole story a disappointingly Googled air.
I Totally Don’t Want To Play! by Ann Bonwill (£11.99, ebook £6).
Hugo the hippo and Bella the bird are best friends who do everything together, including taking trips to the playground.
But one day instead of going skating with Hugo as planned, Bella announces that she’s going to the playground with her new pal, Cressida the crocodile.
Miffed by the change in plans, Hugo tags along and watches on as Bella and Cressida take turns on the swings and the seesaw.
But little Bella can’t push Cressida on the swing and soon it’s up to Hugo to save the day and give her a good heave.
With cheerful illustrations and an easy to grasp moral, this new book from the Hugo and Bella series offers an accessible way of introducing your little one to the idea of sharing.