Happiness, Like Water: Stories, by Chinelo Okparanta, Granta, RRP£12.99, 208 pages
Chinelo Okparanta’s bittersweet stories are set mostly in her Nigerian birthplace, Port Harcourt. They tell of a society caught between tradition and modernity, in which the weight of expectation is borne disproportionately by women.
In “Wahala!” a man becomes violent towards his young wife when she is unable to bear him the child his “status” merits; in “Fairness”, schoolgirls surrounded by magazine images of “pale faces and pink lips” feel pressured into bleaching their skin.
The lure of the US for aspirational Nigerians is a persistent theme. Characters in “Shelter” and “Tumours and Butterflies” make the journey, only to find that poverty and violence exist across the Atlantic too.
When Okparanta turns to overtly political themes her writing can appear forced. But this is an extremely promising debut: the handling of tone and perspective is assured; the prose lucid and elegant throughout.
Review by David Evans
Mouse and the Cossacks, by Paul Wilson, Tindal Street, RRP£11.99, 240 pages
Eleven-year-old Mouse de Bruin doesn’t like to talk, and when she moves with her mother to a remote farmhouse she enjoys the silence and tranquillity of the place. Traces left by the house’s former occupant pique her interest, and she decides to piece together the details of his life.
The owner, she discovers, was one William Crosby, an army officer involved in the forced repatriation of Cossack exiles to the Soviet Union after the second world war. As Mouse learns more about Crosby’s regret at his wartime actions, and his estrangement from his family, she slowly comes to terms with difficult memories of her own.
Paul Wilson’s moving and beautifully crafted novel is, in part, an exploration of the therapeutic power of language. At the beginning Mouse worries that she and her reticent mother are insubstantial as ghosts – “perhaps in the end, we’ll simply vanish into thin air” – but in recovering Crosby’s story via his correspondence she learns how words can give shape and meaning to a life.
Review by David Evans
Alif The Unseen, by G Willow Wilson, Corvus, RRP£7.99, 448 pages
Alif the Unseen is set in an unnamed Middle Eastern country where revolution is fomented using social media, instant messaging, and phone-camera footage. This being a fantasy tale, there are also genies and demons.
Our hero is a hacker known as “Alif”, whose talent lies in creating software that protects anonymity and thus allows radicals and dissenters to operate freely online, safe from government censorship.
Wilson’s novel elegantly explores the clash between truth and fiction, secrecy and revelation. She shows us both the exotic Arabia of old and the energetic, striving Middle East of today, and suggests the possibility of a stable, egalitarian future arising from a fusion of the two. Marvellous.
Review by James Lovegrove
The Boy with Two Heads, by Andy Mulligan, David Fickling Books, RRP£10.99, 400 pages
Andy Mulligan is one of the most stimulating and funny writers in the Young Adult field. Author of the brilliant Ribblestrop novels, about a crazy boarding school, and Trash, a poignant tale of runaways living on a rubbish dump, he is passionately on the side of children in a hostile adult world. In his latest novel, Richard, a mild-mannered 11-year-old, grows a second head. It’s a rare but not dangerous condition and he goes back to school, where Rikki swiftly gets him into all kinds of trouble.
What is Rikki? Another personality altogether, or Richard’s shadow side? Rikki can be funny but also voices sexist and racist views and hates fat people. On the plus side, he’s nonconformist, brave and smart. When sinister psychiatrists move in on him, it seems this may be a study of schizophrenia. How should we deal with the societally unruly? Should bolshiness be medicated out of existence? Profound questions about tolerance, consciousness and death are woven into an exciting and moving tale for all ages.
Review by Suzi Feay
Noble Conflict, by Malorie Blackman, Doubleday, RRP£12.99, 368 pages
Malorie Blackman, the best-selling author of the Noughts & Crosses series, has been named as the new Children’s Laureate. She excels at writing pulse-quickening thrillers that are exciting enough to tempt reluctant readers without alienating everyone else.
In Noble Conflict, Kaspar’s parents have been killed in a terrorist attack against the post-apocalyptic government, the Alliance. In his late teens, he has become, like his parents, a Guardian, peacekeepers dedicated to thwarting the Crusaders who live in the Badlands, harbouring a grudge against society. The trouble is, every terrorist he encounters is not the monster he’s been led to expect, but calm and brave. Kaspar is even rescued by a female Crusader called Rhea.
Through Kaspar’s dawning awakening, Blackman skilfully dramatises the danger of reducing complex issues into a simple idea of good versus evil, or truth and lies, and, by way of fictional extracts from Alliance texts, demonstrates the link between bad writing and fallacious thinking.
Review by Suzi Feay