BUILD YOUR HOUSE AROUND MY BODY
Violet Kupersmith (Oneworld)
Vietnamese folklore is at the heart of this dazzling debut novel from Violet Kupersmith, following on from her short story collection. Winnie, a Vietnamese-American, has arrived in Saigon to teach English, but with no clear prospects is feeling a little lost and looking to blend into the background. Following her journey, the characters she encounters – some who appear by chance – all have a part to play and are cleverly linked through historical folklore and mysterious events.
As the story is set in different times and places, the chapter sequence can be confusing on occasion, but the map and character list is a useful addition. The intricate level of detail to each sentence appears too much at first glance, yet there doesn’t seem to be a word wasted, combining to create suspense.
It’s difficult to summarise the intricate nature of Build Your House Around My Body, with its many witty and deft observations. Weaving together spirits and secrets with complex characters proved to be a successful combination in this immersive, atmospheric tale.
Price £16.99. Info: here
words RHIANON HOLLEY
A LAST RESPECT: THE ROLAND MATHIAS PRIZE ANTHOLOGY OF CONTEMPORARY WELSH POETRY
Glyn Mathias and Daniel G. Williams [eds] (Seren)
Viewpoint finds Ruth Bidgood looking out at a natural landscape that is at once familiar and alien: “from here / we saw it new, aslant, changed, / a beauty of questioning and strangeness”. A Last Respect is a similarly revelatory survey of the literary landscape, one that throws the lofty peaks of Anglo-Welsh poetry into even greater relief. Titled after a Roland Mathias poem and featuring 11 previous winners of the annual prize established in his memory, it’s a fitting tribute to a tireless champion of Welsh writing in English.
Rhian Edwards’ Skype may be a deliberately topical nod to the pandemic, and digital maintenance of intimate personal relationships, but generally the subject matter is universal and weighty. The shock of parenthood verges on visceral horror in Ailbhe Darcy’s pair of poems, After My Son Was Born; Owen Sheers and Robert Minhinnick take us into bloody combat on foreign soil; Edwards laments her own physical decline in The Unkindness (“What of this cauliflowering arse, / where are the buttocks that snake-charmed?”); Gwyneth Lewis and Bidgood are haunted by the prospect or reality of losing linguistic faculties in old age (“Words have migrated, / I forget their calls”); and the latter writes ominously of death in Porch-light.
By contrast, Dannie Abse’s A Marriage is light relief, a tender portrait of “perdurable love” that sees the poet comically recollecting illicit nocturnal visits to his lover’s lodgings, avoiding a ferocious German landlady and her “anti-Semitic” pooch.
Price: £9.99. Info: here
words BEN WOOLHEAD
THE LOST STORYTELLER
Amanda Block (Hodder Studio)
Despite being Amanda Block’s debut novel, this book works its magic spell on you, dragging the reader through the mystery of a lost father and his daughter Rebecca, desperately trying to unlock the clues that he left her in the form of fairytales. It’s a story of love, loss, friendship, and a missing parent.
This is a captivating and richly mesmerizing read that celebrates the magic of forgotten folk and fairy tales and the power and resilience of imagination; The Lost Storyteller is packed full of secrets and family mystery, as well as the emotional challenges of having an absent parent. I especially enjoyed the way Block uses unique and often quite dark fairytales to provide clues to the mystery both she and the reader are working to solve. It reminded me of Pan’s Labyrinth and A Monster Calls where the author creates new fairytales but with a strange and nostalgic familiarity.
An ideal book for fairytale lovers, The Lost Storyteller’s plot offers so much to keep you engaged and intrigued throughout. A brilliant debut novel – I can’t wait to read whatever Amanda Block writes in the future.
Price: £14.99. Info: here
words SARAH BOWDIDGE
Daniel O’Connor (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
The mind is a fragile thing, and Nothing, the debut novel from Daniel O’Connor, shows just how unstable it can be when trauma strikes. O’Connor takes us on a jarring journey that begins when Michael, the protagonist of the story, is struck by a stray golf ball, leaving him in a coma. Fully aware of his surroundings but powerless to do anything, Michael is able to observe his family from a unique position, and it’s not all good.
When he does awake Michael, unbeknownst to him and his family, has already begun his journey to madness, and is only just releasing the potential of his power to wish things out of existence. Nothing’s dark and unnerving feel is alleviated somewhat by the humour and liberties of the English language at play: bringing to mind Flann O’Brien or Charlie Kaufman, it can be an unsettling experience at times, yet you find yourself at the mercy of your craving for the next page.
A compelling if not peculiar examination of the mind and life’s anxieties, with elements of science fiction and big chunks of dark humour; O’Connor’s debut novel has already knocked the ball out of the park, and it’ll be interesting to see what his next output will look like.
Price: £14.99. Info: here
words CHRIS ANDREWS
A.E. Warren (Del Rey)
Two hundred years in the future, and Homo Sapiens is no longer at the top of the food chain after genetic engineering creates Homo Medius and Homo Potiors. Blamed for war, disease, climate change and animal extinction, Sapiens have become a class of manual workers deprived of owning their own land or pursuing education beyond the age of 16: the only schooling they do receive teaches them their ancestors’ talent for destruction.
Elise is given the opportunity of a lifetime when she’s hired as a companion for one of the museum’s prized exhibits, a Neanderthal. The more she learns about him, though, the more determined she is to set him free.
Following the success of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and Veronica Roth’s Divergent, YA dystopian fiction was one of publishing’s biggest triumphs, but the hunger (pardon the pun) for such material has waned in recent years. Subject Twenty-One is a palate cleanser for anyone who has gorged on Hollywood blockbuster-style dystopias. Elise’s story isn’t leading a nationwide rebellion against a corrupt government, but an unputdownable exploration into the ethics of science and what it means to run a museum when the exhibits aren’t bones but living, breathing creatures.
Price: £8.99/£13 audio download. Info: here
words JESS GOFTON