In search of a character

A chronicle of three young actors desperate to forge careers in the acting profession sounds like a dangerously familiar proposition.


An existential hero

Sam Leith is enthralled by a masterpiece on monotony, but is devastated by its author’s death

A choice of first novels

Rocco LaGrassa was ‘stout around the middle . . . wee at the ankles, and girlish at his tiny feet, a man in the shape of a lightbulb’. In Salvatore Scibona’s first novel we join this lightbulb of a man on perhaps his darkest day: the day on which the police arrive at his door to tell him his son has just died of tuberculosis in a prisoner-of-war camp in North Korea.

Whatever next?

Philip Hensher’s King of the Badgers is set in Hanmouth, a small English coastal town described so thickly that it is established from the outset as effectively a character in itself.


The passionate friend

Sam Leith explores H. G. Wells’s addiction to free love, as revealed in David Lodge’s latest biographical novel

Triumph and disaster

The title of this first novel refers to a version of childhood as a magical kingdom where evil can be overturned and heaven and earth remade at the whim of a power-crazed infant.


About 80 per cent of books sold in this country are said to be bought by women, none more eagerly than Joanna Trollope’s anatomies of English middle-class family life. Her 16th novel, Daughters-in-Law (Cape, £18.99), is sociologically and psychologically as observant as ever, showing how not to be a suffocatingly possessive mother-in-law.


The family plot

Hisham Matar is a Libyan-American writer whose father, Jaballa — an opponent of Gaddafi — was kidnapped in Cairo in 1990.

Death of the Author

The death of the Polish-born British novelist Joseph Conrad is the central event of David Miller’s debut novel.

Desk-bound, needing to get out more

Great House is an ambitious novel, if it’s a novel at all.

The call of the wild

Annie Proulx (pronounced ‘Pru’) began her writing career — quite late, in her fifties — as E.A. Proulx, to baffle misogynist editors; then she was E. Annie Proulx, until she dropped the E and became simply Annie the Proulx.

Bruising times

In a market town in Kent at the time of Thatcher’s Britain, Charles Pemberton attends the town’s minor public school where his businessman father is a governor.


Beatrix Potter meets the Marquis de Sade

Anthropomorphism and a weird, astringent sense of humour combined to make The Queue, the late Jonathan Barrow’s only novel, a work of genius in the opinion of his brother Andrew.


And then there was one . . .

The English fascination with spies is gloriously reflected in our literature, from Kim to A Question of Attribution, and while their Egyptian and Israeli counterparts remain untranslated, and the Americans unreadable, English spy novelists rule.

Morphine memories

Chapman’s Odyssey became quite famous before it was published, largely because it nearly wasn’t.

Odd characters

Cedilla picks up where Adam Mars-Jones’s previous novel Pilcrow (2008) left off.

The sweet smell of danger

If this novel is ever published with a scratch-and-sniff cover — which incidentally, I think it might be successful enough to warrant — this is what it would smell of: cheap petrol, lust, the ripe, acidic scent of decaying corpse, cat litter, $2,000 suits, Cristal champagne, decaying encyclopaedia, corruption, fumes from the power plant, betrayal, sausage.

Smart ass

It’s the way Caroline pisses onto the concrete during the lunch break that delights her work colleagues: in a steaming, splattery arc.


Classic makeover

Philip Hensher finds Flaubert’s scorn for his characters relieved by hilarity

Under the skin

Why do so many aspiring writers think it best to begin with the short story and graduate to the novel? It’s madness.


BOOKENDS: Xmas with the exes

‘I only see radiators these days’, announces one of the characters in this novel — ‘You know, people who give out heat and warmth.’ A radiator is a pretty good description of India Knight’s Comfort and Joy (Fig Tree/ Penguin, £14.99), too: a book so kindly and funny and affectionate that you could probably warm your hands on it.

Change, decay and success

After having for so long been treated with such disdain by the French literary establishment, Michel Houellebecq has at last been embraced by it.


The start of the affair

In this season of Franzen frenzy, spare a thought for André Aciman, an American writer whose name, I think, is so far unmentioned in the daft pursuit of the Great American Novel.


BOOKENDS: A Tiny bit Marvellous

Criticising Dawn French feels like kicking a puppy. She’s so winning that the nation was even tempted to let The Vicar of Dibley slide.

Out of time and place

The misleadingly titled Life of an Unknown Man is in fact the story of two men, and the dualities that their characters embody — fame and anonymity, unhappiness and happiness, West and East.