Lloyd Shepherd, The Poisoned Island (2013). Another Regency mystery for magistrate John Harriott and constable Charles Horton of the Thames river police, last seen in The English Monster. This time they’re investigating the strange deaths of crewmembers the Solander, recently returned from Tahiti, while an unidentified tree brought back on the ship grows rampant at Kew. As in the previous novel, there is an engaging subtext of transition and the tensions it brings – East London becoming a hub for trade; ideas of evidence-gathering changing the way crimes are investigated. The Poisoned Island is particularly alive to the fact that expeditions such as the Solander’s had a complex range of consequences, both positive and negative. Shepherd’s series is becoming something quite distinctive.
Birgit Vanderbeke, The Mussel Feast (1990/2013). Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch. The new Peirene Press novella depicts a revolution in microcosm. Shortly before the fall of the Berlin wall, a family sits down to welcome the father home from his business trip with a large pot of mussels for dinner. But the preparation is a lot of work for the mother, considering that she doesn’t like mussels herself – and especially considering that the father doesn’t even come home. Especially in the beginning, Vanderbeke uses repetition to emphasise how the family have become trapped in the same thought patterns. As the book progresses, we learn more of the father’s hypocrisy and the hold he has over the rest of his household – then we start to see them break away. It’s a wonderfully controlled piece of writing.
Chris Paling, A Town by the Sea (2005). A man wakes up on the beach, and wanders through a strange town whose inhabitants he can barely understand, as we gradually piece together something of his history. The set-up is intriguing, but it becomes frustratingly difficult to arrive at a satisfactory interpretation (even an uncertain one) of what’s happening. My best guess is that our man is a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, and his journey in the book is an externalised working-through of his feelings of dislocation from life. The novel can be nicely atmospheric, but ultimately I think it’s rather too nebulous.
Jonathan Pinnock, Dot Dash (2012). This is a collection of flash fiction (‘dots’) and longer stories (‘dashes’). What brings them together so well is Pinnock’s wry wit, his knack for sharp twists and rueful endings. The dots are marvellously concentrated bursts of language – not just punchlines, but stories reduced to their essence in a few sentences. Among the dashes, we find a harrowing tale of memory loss told in reverse; a street artist taking poetic revenge on a corporate boss; a girl who tries to bring Cairo to her dying grandmother’s bedroom; and more. Lovely stuff.
James Wheatley, Magnificent Joe (2013). In north-east England, Jim works as a labourer, his plans for university having been cut short when he was arrested as a teenager after a fight went too far. Now he’s working with his old school friends and living in his old village, with no apparent prospect of change. But Jim has also become friends with Joe, a fifty-year-old learning- disabled man – Jim gives Joe a helping hand, and Joe reminds Jim that there’s more to life than his immediate circle. The events of the novel will disrupt both of their lives profoundly: seeing events from Jim’s viewpoint perhaps dilutes some of the impact of what happens to Joe, but Wheatley paints an interesting portrait of a stable situation disintegrating despite the best attempts to hold it together. Magnificent Joe is its author’s first novel, and leaves me wondering where he might go next.