OUR review of the latest books

Leaving it all behind

Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99; ebook £9.99) *****

THE new novel from Gary Shteyngart, bestselling author of Super Sad True Love Story, is a brilliant blend of pathos and satire, political insight and belly laughs. It tells the story of Barry, a hedge-fund 1%-er with a beautiful wife, Seema, a retinue of staff, a palatial condo in Manhattan (among other homes), and a watch collection worth seven figures. But his fund is down hundreds of millions, he's days away from an indictment for crude mis-selling, and at home he has a severely autistic son that neither he nor his wife - despite all their expensive therapies and specialists - have any idea how to deal with.

Things kick off with Barry walking out on his gilded life. Chapters alternate between soon-to-be-ex-husband and wife, as Seema takes up with a novelist, and Barry goes in search of a purer, more authentic life (which he associates with his college sweetheart Layla). Seema's struggles raising a child with special needs are portrayed with great insight and compassion, while the arc of the story follows Trump's unexpected ascendancy, which lends the book an acute social conscience. In case that all sounds a bit worthy, you should know this is also a very funny book; sometimes satirical, sometimes dialogue-driven, sometimes more poignant. And most of it centres on Barry, at once the heart and the hole around which the whole book builds. There is a generosity to his narcissism that, like Lake Success itself, is very hard not to love.

Dan Brotzel

The Incendiaries by RO Kwon (Virago, £14.99; ebook £7.99) ****

THIS slim novel tells the story of a unusual love triangle in which faith, loss and obsession all play their part. At an Ivy-clad American university, Phoebe – a beautiful, glamorous socialite who accidentally killed her own mother in a car crash – meets and romances Will, a driven, out-of-place scholarship boy with family traumas of his own. He's escaped Bible college and the clutches of evangelical fundamentalism and now waits on tables, all the while lying to his new friends about his impoverished background. Will's love for Phoebe is both watchful and ecstatic. Phoebe, as far as she can, seems to love Will too. But she's drawn into a religious sect led by the barefooted and darkly charismatic John Neale. Both she and John are of Korean descent, and the sect has links to North Korea and somehow also to Phoebe's family. Somehow Neale's sect, with its group confessions and alarming physical chastisements, appeals to Phoebe, while Will, who has escaped one fanaticism, must now try to rescue Phoebe from another, then she disappears...

This is a brilliantly written book. The prose is sparse and yet wonderfully expressive. The gradual filling in of layers of motivation and character build a drama and suspense all of their own, and what starts out as an absorbing psychological study keeps you guessing right to the end.

Dan Brotzel

Varina by Charles Frazier (Sceptre, £20; ebook £13.99) ***

CHARLES Frazier is best known for his first book Cold Mountain, published in 1997. Varina is his fourth novel, and is similarly set around the American Civil War. It is a fictionalised account of Varina Howell Davis' life - the second wife of Jefferson Davis, the only President of the Confederate States. An old Varina tells the story of her life to James Blake, a middle-aged black man who she adopted but was separated from when he was a child. The narrative is sweeping and Frazier has a beautiful style of writing, tracking Varina's childhood and marriage to Davis, to fleeing the Union soldiers chasing her as the country came to reckoning. However, the book begs the question: Do we really need a novel from the perspective of a Southern white woman during the Civil War? Varina is fallible, but it ultimately feels like Frazier wants you to like her - she's painted as a brave woman who deep down knew that slavery was wrong. Even though Blake is ostensibly there as a moral guide, in the grand scheme of the book, black voices aren't really featured, which strikes an off note.

Prudence Wade

Ship that caught the spirit of the times


Endeavour by Peter Moore (Chatto & Windus, £20; ebook £9.99) ****

THE full story of the ship which took Marton-born Captain Cook to Botany Bay and beyond is told for the first time in Peter Moore's epic tale. Perhaps no vessel was given a more appropriate name than HMS Endeavour which captured the spirit of the times. Moore dwells first on the importance of endeavour to the Enlightenment era, which led the Royal Society to charter the Whitby collier to observe the Transit of Venus, which Cook, astronomer Charles Green and others dutifully recorded in Tahiti, before heading for the uncharted waters of New Zealand and Australia. During their voyage, they encountered Polynesian priest and navigator Tupaia, botanist Joseph Banks wondered at undiscovered plants and wildlife, including a 'Kangaru' and Cook put Poverty Bay and Botany Bay on the map. A far more frightening discovery was the Great Barrier Reef, from which Endeavour and its crew were lucky to escape.

The biography is fantastically well researched and, to further enable him to bring the mid-18th century to life, Moore followed Endeavour to distant shores himself. It's a rich, engrossing read, but occasionally the detail-heavy, on-page journey descends into the doldrums, with Moore's musing on the minutiae surrounding the ship making heavy weather of the story. But history buffs will find it an entrancing read as it sails through the stormy times of the Wilkes Riots in London, Cook's epic voyage between 1768-1771, to its final resting place in Newport, Rhode Island, before inspiring fresh generations of explorers, this time in space, 250 years later.

Derek Watson


Pages & Co: Tilly And The Book Wanderers by Anna James (HarperCollins Children's Books, £12.99; ebook £7.99) ****

BOOKS are certainly journalist Anna James' thing, and that love she has for fiction is thoroughly tangible in her debut children's novel, Pages & Co: Tilly And The Book Wanderers. Matilda (Tilly), 11, lives with her grandparents, who run a higgledy-piggledy bookshop called Pages & Co. which is bolstered by in-house cafe baker Jack (you will want to try his Folk Of The Faraway Tree-inspired honey pop cakes). Tilly's mother went missing shortly after her birth, leaving her with a lot of questions, which are exacerbated when she begins bumping into her favourite fictional characters – Alice of Wonderland and Anne of Green Gables – amongst the store's bookshelves. And so begins her adventures wandering directly into books.

The story has a cosiness and warmth to it that's quite irresistible - especially if you grew up burying yourself in fiction. However, at times it does lack tension; at no point do you feel that Tilly and her sidekick Oskar are in any genuine peril, despite the creepiness of the dour Enoch Chalk, who appears to be following them, and them being faced with the beheading-happy Queen of Hearts. The big reveal doesn't quite thwack you with the 'wow-factor'. That said, it's a very lovely and enchanting read, whether you're a nine-year-old or a 49-year-old.

Ella Walker



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2. Awakened:A Novel by James Murray and Darren Wearmouth

3. Jamie Cooks Italy by Jamie Oliver

4. Normal People by Sally Rooney

5. The Guilty Feminist: From our noble goals to our worst hypocrisies by Deborah Frances-White

6. Transcription by Kate Atkinson

7. Sea Prayer by Khaled Hosseini

8. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari

9. Joe's 30 Minute Meals:100 Quick and Healthy Recipes by Joe Wicks

10. Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks