by Irvine Welsh
There are sedate novels best read with a pensive mood and a chamomile tea, and there are intense, electrifying ones like this that absolutely gallop along. We went into this a little bit skeptical but Welsh has delivered a tremendously entertaining book – a whodunit, a thriller, and a probing character study – that’s obsessed with conflict, both physical and mental. It’s brutally violent in places, but mostly focuses on Frank Begbie’s inner turmoil and his determination, having forged a moneyed life in California, to not get dragged back into the deadening bleakness of his Trainspotting days. A surprisingly poignant, evocative read – highly recommended.
The best bit: When the garrulous and worldly Californian Frank reunites with his Scottish brother and suddenly regresses into grotesque lad banter.
What you’ll learn: Reinvention is an impossible dream. Hooray!
Worth a read? Yes!
By Hanya Yanagihara
Professionally speaking Hawaii-born, New Yorker Yanagihara smashed it out of the park with this. Imagine submitting a bicep-tearing mega-slab of a manuscript and then forbidding the publisher to cut a single word of it. Imagine how much of a badass you’d feel when they consented to your mad decree. Everyone in Literary World loved A Little Life. And it’s fine, if novels about sensitive men coming to terms with issues is your thing. Unfortunately, the literary scene being what it is, saying “this book would be loads better if it was shorter” out loud feels a bit like walking into the Vatican and telling the Pope that he’d get taken more seriously with less silly clothes. But it’s true. Anyhow, it starts off sort of facile but fun, then gets really dark, then it all looks like it’ll turn out okay and then it gets really dark again. There we go, saved you eight months of turning pages.
The best bit: One of the characters getting hooked on crystal meth.
What you’ll learn: You’re only ever one swoosh of your creator’s pen away from tragedy.
Worth a read? Nah.
By Julian Barnes
Ostensibly, what we have here is a book from A Serious Novelist that part-fictionalises composer Dimitri Shostakovich’s struggles in Stalin’s Russia. Don’t all rush at once! But it’s actually nothing like as difficult or willfully obscure as it sounds – essentially, it boils down to Shostakovich’s recurring dilemma about whether he should abandon his non-conformist principles to escape the state’s malevolent gaze. And it’s told by a dispassionate narrator in a calm, soothing way that’ll be familiar to anyone who read Barnes’ Booker Prize-winning The Sense Of An Ending: simple, unfussy sentences and the odd astute aside (“Power had no interest in figures of speech. Power knew only facts and its language consisted of euphemisms designed to publicise or conceal facts.”) What sets itself up as a challenging read soon melts away into a simple, relatable tale that, at 175-odd pages, can be finished in a couple of Tube journeys.
Best bit: Shostakovich’s tense confrontations with KGB interrogators – all the more powerful as they’re rooted in fact.
What you’ll learn: We all sell out eventually.
Worth a read: Maybe
by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Cristiano Ronaldo recently said that having a kid was “the best thing in life”. He’s wrong, of course. The best thing in life is watching a handsome man fail. Therein lies much of the appeal of Knausgaard’s enormous autobiographical books (this, 665 pages long, is the fifth in a series of six). First thing’s first: Karl – craggy, chain-smoking Karl – is a massive dickhead. The kind of dickhead whose perpetual self-analysis, posturing and egocentric jealousy would be merely annoying if you met him in a pub. Over the course of a book however the author’s candour (he details every wretched thought that goes through his brain) means that you come out the other side wondering if maybe, just maybe, we’re all dickheads and that Knausgaard just happens to be the only dickhead honest enough to be up front about it.
The best bit: the thin-skinned, anxious-to-impress Knausgaard penning a poem for his writing class that consists of the word “cunt” 354 times.
What you’ll learn: writers are unbearable.
Worth a read? Not really.
By Javier Marias
Marias is like a Spanish Martin Amis, weaving complex and flowery sentences, just without the smugness that often seeps through Amis’s prose. He’s a remarkably perceptive writer, skilled at delivering observations you’ve sort of half-recognised before, and can always relate to, but have never had the talent to articulate fully. Here he’s crafted a sort-of detective novel, albeit one where you’re not told for some time what’s being investigated – you just get the sense something grim occurred during the Spanish Civil War – and that’s far more elegant than is common in the genre.
Best bit: When the narrator snaps into a rant about novelists early in the book. It’s meta, but you’ll feel smart.
What you’ll learn: No tension simmers like Spanish tension.
Worth a read? Yes
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