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Two Novellas: In the Sanatorium & Facing The Sea, by David Vogel, Scribe, RRP£14.99, 179 pages
The first of the two novellas that make up David Vogel’s new book was written in 1926 but is published here in English for the first time. A black comedy set in a Jewish hospital, In the Sanatorium follows Irma Ornick, a hypochondriac alert to every change in his body – he measures his temperature every two hours, and knows that he coughs “fifteen times on a fine day, more when it’s rainy or cloudy”.
Facing the Sea, the second novella, was written in 1932 and follows a young couple on the French Riviera awash in sun, sand and sea. With each cosmopolitan tourist or local resident they meet, bit by bit their relationship falls apart.
Nothing much happens in either novella but Vogel is gripping for his depiction of a mundane world in which fate is completely arbitrary. Perhaps this outlook is not surprising: Vogel, one of the leading figures in modern Hebrew literature, was arrested as a Russian enemy during the first world war. Later, he was imprisoned by the Nazis for being a Jew. He died in 1944, probably at Auschwitz.
By John Sunyer
Vicious, by VE Schwab, Titan, RRP£7.99, 341 pages
Teen-fiction author Schwab’s first novel for adults is a highly charged tale of super powers, damaged friendship and revenge. Its approach to the superhero genre is low-key: no capes or spandex, no simplistic good-versus-evil parables, nor any in-jokes for comics fans; just credible characters with godlike abilities and compromised morals.
Victor and Eli are college buddies who figure out that a near-death experience can trigger the emergence of latent supranormal gifts, turning a person into an EO – ExtraOrdinary. After experimenting on themselves, Eli develops the power to heal from any injury and Victor gains control over pain. But tragedy strikes, causing a 10-year rift during which Victor languishes in prison while Eli embarks on eradicating all other EOs.
Schwab’s artful chronology-bending plotting rivals that of any Iain Banks novel, and her writing is a sly, cynical treat. Vicious grungy spin on timeworn tropes.
By James Lovegrove
Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea, by Adam Roberts, Gollancz, RRP£16.99, 306 pages
In 1958 a prototype French atomic submarine, Plongeur, goes missing on its maiden voyage. A series of accidents causes the vessel to begin an impossibly endless dive during which crew members’ nerves fray and discipline dissolves. Outside the craft, bizarre phenomena manifest: mermen, demonic leviathans, subaquatic suns. It has entered a “cosmos of water”, and the Plongeur’s relentless descent is an existential nightmare whose explanation is both scientifically reasoned and cunningly metafictional.
Roberts draws heavily on Jules Verne, as the book’s title suggests, and this applies all the way down to the ultimate deus ex machina revelation. The prose reads as though translated from French and, in the Vernian mode, there is plenty of discussion of physical principles and hypothesising among the characters.
A sinuously clever homage to the godfather of the scientific romance, enhanced by Mahendra Singh’s lovely engraving-style illustrations.
By James Lovegrove