Author of four previous well-regarded novels sometimes labelled as “women’s fiction,” Sally Hepworth branches out stylistically with “The Mother-in-Law.” Roughly alternating chapters in the first person present tense explore the rocky relationship between hesitant Lucy and her determined, principled mother-in-law Diana, ricocheting between flashbacks and the fraught current situation where Diana has been found dead. Hepworth is a lovely stylist and the individual scenes are evocative and nuanced, but the trappings of a suspense thriller – what really happened to Diana and what did the supporting cast of characters really do? – make for a reading experience that never gets beyond vignettes. Towards the end I found myself whispering that the latest plot twists weren’t credible, and even the two main characters lost power as the plot buckled under their feet. Final result: much to recommend here, and a likeable read, but somehow sapped of depth.
A thriller set in the fascinating, high-stakes world of immunotherapy drug research sounds like winner but “Eight Lives” is more a multi-character drama and it suffers from a busy plot that is modulated confusingly. Don’t get me wrong, there is much to like here, and if the topic zings for you, as it did for me, this debut novel is an engaging read. The milieu of pharma drug testing is interesting and the background of immigration offers an interesting twist. The basic plotline – a refugee surgeon who invents a new wonder drug dies a baffling death that ignites a quest for the truth – is sound but Hurley tells the tale through five interlocking characters, with such copious ongoing explanation, that the exoskeleton of the plot blurs, as does tension. The convolutions at the end would serve a better book well. Flawed but a topical diversion.
In her slim but punchy memoir “Insomnia,” Marina Benjamin tackles an affliction (or is it? That’s a question she asks) that bedevils many of us, me included. This is not a How-To or praise for a curative process, but a rumination of intelligence and breadth. Exploring philosophy, art, literature, and her own experiences with tackling her sleeplessness. No plot spoilers here but she meanders down a number of fresh, imaginative alleyways, picking away at notions of sleep and the lack of it. Benjamin writes beautifully – insomnia reveals “just sometimes, just maybe, the faintly detectable buzz of a cosmic hum that was there before human beings came into existence and will be there until the end of time.” In the end, she arrives at a conclusion that I think I’d also come to, during my years of reading about insomnia, but a conclusion I had never been able to explicate. Now I can. Highly recommended.
The hottest topic in cancer research and treatment has been tackled to thunderous effect by journalist and writer Charles Graeber. If you know or knew someone with cancer (I do), read “The Breakthrough: Immunotherapy and the Race to Cure Cancer” to get a glimpse into this formerly controversial but now mainstream field. We’re all familiar with what the author calls “cut, burn, and poison” methods of tackling the Big C but immunotherapy is different. Hugely complex, it involves revving up our own immune system to massacre cancer cells, at the same time as cancers mutate to hide and to trick our immune system, all the while ensuring we don’t tip our body over into autoimmune diseases as savage as cancer. Graeber is an exceptional plain-English explainer and storyteller and he plots the thrilling history of immunotherapy’s many debacles and seeming rise from oblivion. Stories of survivors and non-survivors sit alongside the “hunt for the Holy Grail” tales of researchers and cancer specialists. If I remain bewildered by T cells and CAR-T and “checkpoint inhibitors,” at least now I can sense this cutting edge of medical science, and for that I’m immensely grateful.
What a premise! Hitman Charley Fieldner unveils his next assignment… and it’s to kill himself. His world careens wildly and “Hit Me,” a wildly entertaining thriller, zooms off into the stratosphere. I lapped up this wholly immersive thriller, written in a smooth-as-butter kinetic style, in little over twenty-four hours, and I’m confident you’ll do likewise. Author Peter Thompson employs the close-up first person style, which has the advantage of placing us there, in the thick of things, but distances us a little from more profound reflection or any sense of irony. Charley Fieldner is portrayed as living flesh, and all the supporting characters are well drawn, and the locales in city and suburb come to evocative life. The action scenes are to die for. Charley is a worthy successor to Westlake’s Parker or Disher’s Wyatt, and I hope he returns soon. A wild ride.
A fast-paced thriller set on the rough streets of Glashow, “In Servitude” has much going for it but the plot overruns the characterisation. When Grace’s sister is killed in a car accident, Grace is thrust into a miasma of shady deals and shady people. Debut author Kist writes energetically, with plenty of style, and the Glasgow locale is well drawn. Yet it was hard to warm to Grace, lurching around in polar emotional states and forever finding new hidden enemies. It’s hard to get right, the multiple betrayal plot twists, and authors like Harlan Coben make it easy, but here the hand of the author remans too blunt. A promising debut.
Abby Graven is the young, geeky, going-nowhere heroine of the engaging, sharp-witted debut novel “The Paper Wasp“,” written with immediacy and panache. Abby’s former best friend Elise is now the next hot thing in Hollywood and Abby impulsively inserts herself into Elise’s turbulent life, with unexpected consequences. I’ve read many of these “beauty and the beast” dramas but this one distinguishes itself by immersing the reader in Abby’s coiled psyche. I loved the savage look at Tinseltown and dreaded, then enjoyed, the dark ending. An impressive debut.
Haruki Murakami, the workaholic Japanese literary star, represents a conundrum for most readers. Some, myself included, will complain about the plot weirdness of his novels, complain about the seemingly simple writing style, but come away from each experience refreshed and elated. Others – and I know plenty of them – will praise the ease of reading but rubbish the books as nonsense. “Killing Commendatore” is a baggier example of these two extremes. This time, Murakami follows the adventures of an aimless portrait painter who ends up in a lonely mountain house dealing with midnight tolling bells, an enigmatic nearby tycoon, a young girl, and a painting whose subject comes to life. In typical Murakami fashion, our hero’s life unfolds in endless detail that should bore the reader but is instead riveting. Towards the end, he actually plunges down an Alice-in-Wonderland-like hole battling something called Metaphor. Sounds silly? Yes, yet it isn’t. Somehow, through dint of immersion and rhythmic writing, our hero’s meandering, possibly pointless journey exhilarates. The many extended scenes exploring how the painter paints his portraits, deep “in the zone,” are wonderful. I reached the end refurbished and baffled. Another Murakami, I reflected.
I love mysteries and thrillers set in my old stamping grounds of the finance sector, so I snapped up “The Target,” a fast-paced tale about Sean Dwyer, an insurance lawyer who snares a job with the SEC, allowing him to investigate insider trading claims against his now-dead father. Insider trading and “shorting” of stocks are fascinating areas of what I call “money behaving badly,” and “The Target” is built on a most clever plotline centered on them. Dwyer is a terrific hero and all the other characters come alive for the reader. A sure sense of pacing, an engaging style, plot twists galore, and vivid settings (especially the milieu of U.S. corporate justice) complete what is a most enjoyable thriller.
Every few years, I read a futurist’s breathless prognostications for our genetically enhanced future, a world of diseases cured, humans enhanced, and humanity reconfigured. “Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity” by Jamie Metzl, and yes, he is a futurist, is the most sprightly, clear predictive extravaganza of them all. Metzl startled me early by pointing out that IVF involves giving parents the choice between the eggs at their disposal, in effect selecting amongst alternative genes, and he quickly points out that this will inevitably lead to expanding the number of eggs and expanding parents’ God-like capabilities. From there, he explores the entire gamut of accelerating technologies that will be available to “hack” or engineer humans’ genetic make-up. Metzl does a great job in organizing the book intelligently and his writing style is cogent and stylish. I noted that on any genetic issue, he cycles through pointing out the risks (personal and societal) and encouraging oversight, before edging us towards believing that we won’t be able to resist the amazing new machinery. By the end, I had enough material to plot a dozen sci-fi books, I felt excited, I had experienced dread, and my mind buzzed. What more could I ask of such a book?