In brief

Penelope, by Rebecca Harrington, Virago, RRP£14.99, 304 pages

Rebecca Harrington’s debut tells the story of Penelope O’Shaunessy, a freshman at Harvard. Worried about fitting in, she recalls her mother’s advice: smile, refrain from playing Tetris on her mobile, and avoid revealing her weird obsession with Hercule Poirot. But these tips prove of little use when faced with inappropriately chummy tutors, passive-aggressive roommates and Gustav, a handsome European lothario.

This low-key campus comedy captures beautifully the atmosphere of college life. The enjoyment lies in the details: a boy’s room with “a copy of The Fountainhead posed prominently on a plywood bookcase”; conversations laced with references to obscure musicians. The romantic entanglements of fellow students are “a bedroom farce without jokes”. Now that is as pithily accurate a description of university life as you’re likely to find.

Review by David Evans

Ten Things I’ve Learnt about Love, by Sarah Butler, Picador, RRP£12.99, 292 pages

Alice returns to London in time to say goodbye to her dying father. She has mixed feelings: he seemed to treat her differently from her older sisters. Meanwhile Daniel, a homeless itinerant, wanders the streets in search of the daughter he never met.

Sarah Butler’s assured debut alternates between Alice and Daniel, the chapters prefaced with lists (“Ten things about my father’s house”; “Ten things I thought I’d do with my life”) that shed light on their stories. Despite that saccharine title, there’s little sentimentality, and the contrast between Alice’s affluent Hampstead milieu and Daniel’s squalid existence is sensitively drawn.

But the book soon loses its way: though it is apparent from the beginning that Daniel is Alice’s real father, their reconciliation is deferred, perhaps to maintain the dramatic tension. The result is a meandering and somewhat listless narrative.

Review by David Evans

The Marlowe Papers: A Novel in Verse, by Ros Barber, Sceptre, RRP£8.99, 445 pages

Although history suggests that Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe was killed in a tavern brawl in 1593, Ros Barber, in fluent pentameters, imagines an alternative fate: the stabbing was a hoax, Marlowe fled to the continent as a spy but secretly returned to England, risking execution for his atheism and homosexuality. In hiding he has to pay “a colourless merchant from Stratford – one William Shakespeare” to front his plays, which only aggravates Marlowe’s self-destructive desire for recognition.

Full of sharp wit and ribald humour, Barber’s poetry combines Elizabethan cadence with modern idiom to great effect, while her dramatic, page-turning plot gives her book the verve of a good thriller. In thrall to his lusty passions, whether for writing, illicit seduction or rash proclamations, Barber’s Marlowe is a complex but boldly entertaining bedfellow.

Review by James Urquhart

This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You, by Jon McGregor, Bloomsbury, RRP£7.99, 272 pages

After winning the prestigious Impac Prize 2012 for his last novel, Even the Dogs, Jon McGregor returns with a set of intense short fictions set in Lincolnshire, a flat English county of rural isolation, agriculture and old airfields.

From the shortest micro-story (which in its entirety reads: “The fire spread quicker than the little bastard was expecting”) to longer tales of inadvertent manslaughter or uncomfortable house guests, a brooding sense of unease accumulates through the collection.

McGregor’s stories are subtle, powerful and quietly dramatic. He builds tension in a few deft paragraphs and while his pared down prose style recalls Raymond Carver, the emotional complexities mapped out here beneath the oppressively wide fenland sky also bring to mind Adam Thorpe’s Ulverton or Graham Swift’s Waterland.

Review by James Urquhart

SEAL Team 666, by Weston Ochse, Titan Books, RRP£7.99, 304 pages

SEAL Team 666 affords the same pleasures as Jonathan Maberry’s Joe Ledger series or Christopher Farnsworth’s Blood Oath and its sequels: namely seeing supernatural beasties receive a good old military-grade beating.

The titular Navy SEAL squad is an elite unit of five men and a dog who perform covert missions to protect the US against demons, cults and sundry other X-Files-ish threats. New recruit Jack Walker is pulled out of basic training to become the team’s sniper and is thrown into a world of ferocious orange homunculi and stone chimeras that can be animated with blood. These monsters serve an Asian baddie who is making a suit from tattooed human skin in order to command an ancient evil spirit. But his goal isn’t to overthrow the US, it’s more wide-reaching than that.

Ochse’s army background lends authenticity to this snappy, fast-paced thriller.

Review by James Lovegrove

The Peacock Cloak, by Chris Beckett, Newcon Press, RRP£10.99, 239 pages

Beckett’s first short-story collection, The Turing Test, won him the 2009 Edge Hill Short Story Prize over mainstream authors such as Anne Enright and Ali Smith. This second collection is another bracing assortment of tales told with a jaundiced eye but compassionate heart.

The influence of Ray Bradbury hangs over the book like a benign ghost. “Atomic Truth” is a reworking of Bradbury’s “The Pedestrian”, depicting a near future in which everyone is absorbed in the virtual worlds of their “bug eye” glasses, the only exception being a madman; and two stories set on a newly colonised planet, Lutania, echo The Martian Chronicles.

That said, The Peacock Cloak is marvellously British in outlook, while Beckett takes the parochial and makes it universal in this fine, intelligent collection, evidence of an undeservedly underrated talent.

Review by James Lovegrove

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