In brief

Tomorrow I’ll Be Twenty, by Alain Mabanckou, translated by Helen Stevenson, Serpent’s Tail, RRP£8.99, 320 pages

Alain Mabanckou’s novels about life in Africa have won much acclaim. Tomorrow I’ll Be Twenty, a fictionalised account of his childhood in Congo-Brazzaville, is perhaps his best yet.

Set in 1979, it is narrated by 10-year-old Michel, who is fascinated and bemused by the world of grown-ups: he falls in love with his older brother’s girlfriends, frets over his parents’ volatile relationship, and muses on his uncle’s obsession with Friedrich Engels. The narrative is uneventful, but Michel’s voice is compelling. Interested in politics and history, he doesn’t always fully grasp the subjects he addresses, and his discussion of communism features some Marxian malapropisms: “before the hungry can win their struggle against the capitalists, they must do a tabula radar of the past ...”

In an admiring afterword, Nobel laureate JMG Le Clézio likens Mabanckou to Céline, Chinua Achebe, JD Salinger and Réjean Ducharme. Such a varied list suggests that he is, in fact, incomparable.

Review by David Evans

A Wolf in Hindelheim, by Jenny Mayhew, Hutchinson, RRP£14.99, 352 pages

When a physically deformed child goes missing from the home of a village doctor in Germany in 1926, Constable Theodore Hildebrandt is sent to investigate. He finds the household insular and diffident, but is beguiled by Ute, the doctor’s young wife. The child is found dead, and fingers are pointed at a Jewish shopkeeper whom the locals accuse of practising black magic. Theodore suspects the doctor – who espouses eugenicist views – but colleagues worry that his attraction to Ute is clouding his judgment.

This assured debut is both a slow-burning thriller and an astute examination of anti-Semitism. Mayhew associates the prejudices that grew in interwar Germany with an older tradition of superstition: “This is what witchcraft is – not stirring frogs in a cauldron ... but keeping the old resentments and fears and desires bubbling forever.”

The narrative is satisfyingly open-ended, the characters vividly drawn and the atmosphere – part Nordic noir, part Brothers Grimm – beautifully sustained.

Review by David Evans

Lionel Asbo: State of England, by Martin Amis, Vintage RRP£8.99, 288 pages

In Diston, suburban London’s knife-crime capital, inept gangster Lionel Asbo looks after his orphaned teenage nephew Desmond and a pair of Tabasco-fuelled attack dogs. Lionel’s hobbies (porn, extortion, violence) mostly wash over mild-mannered Desmond – whose romantic streak takes a difficult turn when he’s seduced by Lionel’s 39-year-old mum.

Scooping £139m on the lottery offers Lionel a way out of Diston, and the meat of this enjoyable comic romp is Lionel’s ensuing debauched spree of caviar and Cobra lager, mansions and bad sex.

A few nasty moments of offstage brutality don’t intrude on Amis’s fondly sentimental portrait of Asbo as “a white van man in a black mink coat”. Thronged with well-drawn caricatures, this is more of an entertaining farce than a “state of England” satire. The spectacle of jailbird Lionel frittering his windfall drives Amis’s knockabout plot, but it’s Desmond’s surprisingly touching relationship with his uncouth uncle that provides the emotional ballast.

Review by James Urquhart

The Daughters of Mars, by Thomas Keneally, Sceptre, RRP£8.99, 528 pages

Keneally’s recent novels have all explored moral dilemmas exacerbated by the strain of military combat. As its apt title suggests, his latest work gives this theme an outing on a heroic scale when Australian sisters Naomi and Sally Durance sign up as nurses at the start of the first world war. It’s a steep learning curve. Punishing shifts on a hospital ship receiving waves of wounded men from the 1915 Gallipoli onslaught give way to front-line nursing on the Somme.

Chirpy friendships and strong passions keep this meaty novel rolling along, while medical orderly Sgt Kiernan’s Quaker beliefs bring into sharp focus issues of courage and integrity, duty and conscience, guilt and self-esteem that afflict Keneally’s main characters.

The abiding impression, however, remains one of senseless carnage. The Durance sisters’ restless, prickly relationship might be tempered by the heat of war but Keneally offers little catharsis here, and much visceral horror. Superb, but hardly uplifting.

Review by James Urquhart

NOS4R2, by Joe Hill, Gollancz, RRP£18.99, 704 pages

It seems unfair to compare Joe Hill’s fiction to that of his father Stephen King. But NOS4R2, Hill’s third novel, is undeniably King-like, and that’s no bad thing.

As if acknowledging that he may never wholly escape from his father’s shadow, Hill seeds the novel with sly nods to King’s work (Pennywise the Clown and Shawshank Prison are referenced). Yet King’s great shortcoming – sentimentality – is largely absent from this brutal tale of “road vampire” Charlie Manx, who travels in a Rolls-Royce Wraith kidnapping children to feast on their life force. Manx’s nemesis is Vic McQueen, who foiled his plans once when she was a girl. Now, as a grown woman, she must rediscover her paranormal gift for finding lost things after Manx whisks her son off to his sinister funfair netherworld, Christmasland.

Hill’s early work tended towards sophomoric literariness. NOS4R2 is pedal-to-the-metal supernatural horror, a tour de force of confident storytelling. It’s hauntingly, harrowingly good.

Review by James Lovegrove

Finches of Mars, by Brian Aldiss, The Friday Project, RRP£14.99, 224 pages

Aldiss has announced that Finches of Mars is to be his final sci-fi novel. If so, then this grandmaster of the genre, who has laid down many a milestone in his 60-year career, including classics such as Hothouse, Greybeard and the Helliconia trilogy, is retiring on a high note.

Finches of Mars is an account of the colonisation of the red planet by an intellectual elite sponsored by a consortium of universities. The problems they encounter are more psychological than practical. Ennui sets in, fuelled by nostalgia for Earth. Religious division repeatedly rears its ugly head. Babies arrive stillborn and deformed, threatening to derail the entire future and purpose of the project. Will the colonists adapt and thrive in the harsh climate of Mars? Will they evolve to suit their environment, in the manner of the finches Darwin studied on the Galápagos Islands?

A thoroughgoing examination of humankind’s flaws and potential, the novel is jaundiced, cantankerous, intellectually engaged, and in the end grudgingly optimistic.

Review by James Lovegrove

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