Cataract City, by Craig Davidson, Atlantic, RRP£12.99, 416 pages

Craig Davidson’s powerful novel tells the story of Owen Stuckey and Duncan Diggs, best friends since childhood. They live in Cataract City – a blue-collar town overlooking Niagara Falls, a place they long to escape. When the story begins they are grown men and Owen, a policeman, is picking Duncan up from prison, where he has served an eight-year sentence.

Technically the book is impressive. It alternates between past and present – and between Owen and Duncan’s perspectives – to trace the bond between them and how they end up on opposite sides of the law.

Davidson has a reputation for macho writing and Cataract City has its fair share of drinking and fighting couched in dense, flinty prose. But its appeal is more far-reaching. He is a compelling storyteller, tackling big themes: the nature of time and friendship, and how we are formed by where we live. This novel doesn’t always make for easy reading, but it will stay with you long after you put it down.

Review by Olrando Bird

The Kept, by James Scott, Hutchinson, RRP£14.99, 368 pages

The Kept, James Scott’s first novel, has zero feel-good factor. It has neither warmth nor charm: it is feel-bad – and extremely cold – throughout.

“Elspeth Howell was a sinner,” the novel begins. And so she is. In upstate New York in the winter of 1897 Elspeth returns home to find her family slaughtered. One son survives, however, and mother and boy trek into the frozen wilderness to hunt the killers. Along the way, Mama’s wicked past comes back to haunt them.

The Kept is a revenge thriller of unmistakable power. The plot is tense, the prose gritty, and unpleasantness unending. Scott paints a landscape filled with snow and ice and black-hearted, freezing people, starved, punched, shot at. He never lets up: the boy’s nightmares, the woman’s gnawing guilt, the crunch of bone – all are described in graphic, lurid detail.

Here is a hopeless America steeped in sin – an America with no dream, perhaps. A strong, unlovely achievement.

Review by Alexander Gilmour

The Martian, by Andy Weir, Del Rey RRP£9.99 / Crown RRP$24, 384 pages

Engineer and botanist Mark Watney is stranded on Mars, abandoned by his fellow astronauts, who think him dead. The next mission to the Red Planet isn’t scheduled to land for another four years. Watney has enough food, water and air to last, at best, a quarter of that time.

At first, all appears hopeless. But Watney is not only determined to live, he is ingenious and resourceful. Bit by bit, using only the equipment and materials to hand, he rigs up methods of prolonging his life. In return, Mars does its best to kill him, strokes of bad luck regularly undoing his labours.

Weir’s debut novel is as gripping as they come, written with the scientific rigour of Arthur C. Clarke and the narrative verve of Stephen King. Watney’s struggle becomes a metaphor for the human urge to overcome adversity and, through willpower and intellect, survive. You’ll be rooting for him the whole way, groaning at every setback and laughing at his pitch-black humour. It’s like Gravity meets Robinson Crusoe – utterly nail-biting and memorable.

Review by James Lovegrove

The Gospel of Loki, by Joanna M. Harris, Gollancz, RRP£14.99 256 pages

The Chocolat author has written about the Norse gods before in her children’s fantasy novels Runemarks and Runelight. Now, with The Gospel Of Loki, she retells the Sagas for adults, in all their wintry, saucy, grandiose, melancholy glory.

Loki is our narrator, and Harris lends him a sly, self-aware voice as he relates how he is born from Chaos, insinuates his way into the company of the gods at Asgard, overcomes their prejudice even as he plays his tricks on them, and finally falls prey to Odin’s mistrustful nature and his own vanity. As the Last Days loom and Ragnarok brings Asgard’s golden age to an end, Loki proves to be an active but unwilling agent of the gods’ downfall. Harris paints him, like Milton’s Lucifer, in the colours of victim as well as schemer. We feel sympathy for this devil.

Purists might carp that she uses modern vernacular to tell an ancient tale, but that is part of her book’s charm: it casts familiar stories in a fresh, coherent light.

Review by James Lovegrove

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