From a Scandi-noir thriller to a reimagining of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Ciabatarri chooses the best books to read this month.
Alan Furst, Under OccupationIn 1942, Paul Ricard, a journalist and detective writer, is working on his new book when a dying man, who has been shot on the street in the Rive Gauche, shoves a piece of paper in his shirt pocket. It’s a drawing of a detonator, smuggled out of a U-Boat factory in Kiel, where Polish émigrés work as slave labourers. Soon, with the help of his Polish friend Kasia, Ricard is part of a clandestine group travelling the country to track down weak links, running a safe house, and smuggling missiles. He risks all to join those who are creating insurrection within Occupied France. Furst’s genius for capturing sensual atmospherics in Paris, and his detailed descriptions of courageous acts of resistance from all segments of French society, make this one of his best yet.
Olaf Olafsson, The SacramentAn incident in his hometown of Reykjavik inspired Olafsson’s meditative and startling fifth novel. When Unnar, a young boy, is locked in a broom cupboard for misbehaving, he imagines Batman coming to his rescue, only to see a dark figure plummet to the ground, who he recognises as his headmaster. Decades later, haunted by memories of this eerie vision, Unnar asks the Vatican to have Sister Johanna Marie, a French nun, return to Iceland to follow up on the report she had previously filed, absolving the school of abuse. Sister Johanna Marie has found refuge in a provincial convent where she tends the rose garden. Her mission stirs up troubled memories of her only love – Halla, the Icelandic girl who was her roommate at the Sorbonne – and how her earlier investigation was thwarted.
Lars Iyer, Nietzsche and the BurbsThe charismatic new boy who has arrived at a suburban Wokingham high school from a private school fits in immediately with a crew of rebels who adopt him, protect him, and serve as the chorus to his journey through the last nine weeks before exams. They dub him Nietzsche, and cast him as lead singer in their metal band, the Burbs. His lyrics lead them: “The sky is hollow. The stars are blind.” They share drugs, alcohol, philosophical discussions, parties and cycling trips through the suburbs. (“There should be signs: Warning: Low Meaning Zone. Hazard: Nihilism.”) They support Nietzsche when he confides with them about his mental breakdown, and when he finds love. Iyer’s swiftly paced, gently satirical fifth novel builds to a startling crescendo.
Helene Tursten, Winter Grave“What the hell is going on in Strömstad?” That’s what law enforcement officers wonder as a wave of violence hits a small town in Sweden. Nine-year-old Amelie goes missing after leaving school to retrieve her St Lucia Day costume. Six-year-old Viggo disappears from his back garden. Townspeople suspect Kristoffer Sjöberg, a teenager with autism who behaves in unusual ways and spends his time tinkering with cars at the estate of his father Olof, a wealthy man with a drinking problem. A gangster from Norway is found murdered. A local police officer’s body is found in a ditch. Someone sets fire to Olof’s house, and Kristoffer is badly beaten. It is Tursten’s second Scandinavian Noir featuring tough yet empathetic Embla Nyström of the violent crimes unit. Translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy, it’s an engrossing read.
Rachel Winters, Would Like to MeetEvie Summers hopes to be promoted from assistant to film agent after seven years at a London agency. Then Ezra, – a major client and the screenwriter of A Heart Lies Bleeding – misses his film-script deadline for a romantic comedy. “I don’t do cute,” he tells her. His speciality is “obsessive, needy, toxic, real love”. To save her job and help him with his script, Evie accepts his challenge: in order to prove that the genre is realistic she must meet someone the way people do in films like When Harry Met Sally. Winters structures her story as a film script, interspersed with emails, texts from helpful friends, office politics, misadventures at cafés, coffee houses and pubs, and a “road-trip meet-cute”. A delightfully comic first novel
Brian Doyle, One Long River of SongThis posthumous collection from an award-winning essayist and editor dances on the edge of mortality, tossing out exaltations and questions, and offering a fresh, playful, slant on spiritual writing. In his introduction, David James Duncan notes that this collection of 82 brief pieces was “born of joy and desperation”. Doyle ranges skyward to consider the hummingbird (“they have race-car hearts that eat oxygen at an eye-popping rate”) and the heron. He describes Herman, a captive sturgeon native to the depths of freshwater lakes who is on display in an Oregon fish hatchery, as an “agent of wonder.” His hybrid prose and poetry is both ecstatic and sober, a celebration of life, love, and waking each day. As he writes in his “Last Prayer”, “Dear Coherent Mercy: Thanks. Best life ever.”
Dead Astronauts, Jeff VanderMeerThe latest sci-fi universe invented by VanderMeer, winner of Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards, revolves around an unnamed city destroyed by an unnamed biotech company whose experiments wounded the Earth, spawning shape-shifting monsters and beasts. A mystical blue fox leads the foxes who inhabit the bleak desert-like landscape. Three astronauts wander among them in repetitive versions of a mission to vanquish the Company. There’s Grayson, a tall black woman who survived in space for many years, becoming as “direct as a fist to the face”; Moss, who is happiest near tidal ponds, and Chen, who worked for the company, his equations rationalising horrors. The three, VanderMeer writes, “knew they were disposable and finite and vulnerable”. A post-apocalyptic, kaleidoscopic, strangely lyrical novel.
Molly Greeley, The Clergyman’s WifeThere’s a hint of DH Lawrence in this nuanced, cleverly-plotted Pride and Prejudice spin-off. Charlotte Lucas was a minor character in the Jane Austen classic, a friend of Elizabeth Bennet who married the clergyman William Collins after pretty Lizzy rejected him in favour of Fitzwilliam Darcy. Greeley builds Charlotte’s world artfully, balancing her yearnings for love and autonomy against her choice to marry a dull, socially awkward man rather than remain a spinster. Charlotte submits to her husband, mourns her firstborn son, adores her baby daughter Louisa, and chafes under the oversight of her husband’s patroness, Lady Catherine. Lady Catherine’s gift of roses for their garden leads her to Mr Travis, an irreverent farmer she finds strangely appealing. You needn’t be an Austen fan to relish Greeley’s spirited first novel.
Jeffrey Colvin, AfricavilleColvin’s first novel explores the intricate ties of love and family in a town based on the little-known African-Canadian community of Africaville. The Sebolt family settles on a remote bluff north of Halifax, Nova Scotia in the late 18th Century. By the 1930s, descendant Kath Ella Sebolt has become the first black girl to graduate from Sainte-Marie College Montreal. She becomes a teacher and marries Timothee Peletier, who adopts her light-skinned son Omar, renamed Etienne. Etienne is bereft when Kath Elle dies while he is in college. In the tumultuous 1960s, he and his wife move to Montgomery, Alabama to work at a local college. In 1984 their orphaned son Warner, who was raised white, discovers his black heritage and is welcomed as he traces his line back to Africaville.
LC Shaw, The NetworkJournalist Jack Logan is caught up in a clandestine and corrupt underworld after a surprise visit from a congressman who begs for his help to protect his wife Taylor, once Logan’s girlfriend. When the congressman is murdered, Jack gathers up Taylor, who is unexpectedly pregnant, and finds himself a hunted man. While on the run, he discovers the Institute, a mysterious medical training facility founded by Damon Crosse and funded by a former Nazi. For generations, Crisse has worked behind the scenes pulling political strings, influencing the media and advertising. His goal: the destruction of mankind by eradicating a clear sense of right and wrong. The merciless Crosse makes a timely villain in this thriller from Lynne Constantine, who with her sister Valerie writes under the name Liv Constantine.