In our pick of this month's books, the Bennets' servants in Pride and Prejudice have their time to shine in the excellent Longbourn and Hannah Kent takes us to 19th century Iceland in the haunting Burial Rites, based on the true story of the last woman to be executed. We also review the most controversial novel of the year, Tampa, about a female teacher with an obsession for 14-year-old boys. Don't say we didn't warn you.
Words: Stacey Bartlett
Longbourn by Jo Baker
It’s 200 years since Pride and Prejudice was published, and now for the first time we hear the servants’ side of the story. Longbourn follows the parallel lives of those who work below stairs at the Bennet residence, and we see the darker side of some of the most well known characters in literature.
From Elizabeth’s musings (who do you think cleans her muddy skirts?) to the sinister Mr Wickham and the lavish balls and frayed tempers that come with them, the story of the Longbourn servants – Mr and Mrs Hill, Sarah, Poppy and new footman James – is fascinating in its own right, and adds a whole new dimension to Jane Austen’s much-loved classic.
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
In Iceland in 1829, 34-year-old Agnes Magnusdottir is sentenced to death for murdering two men. But instead of being executed straight away, she is sent to a remote farm to live as a prisoner with a middle-aged couple and their two daughters. In the year leading up to her execution, timid Agnes’ story comes to light with the help of assistant priest Toti, who is assigned to give Agnes spiritual guidance during her sentence, and we soon learn the tragic truth.
Based on the true story of the last woman to be executed in Iceland, Burial Rites is an incredibly moving novel and Hannah Kent evokes the harsh tundras of Iceland and the desolation of a powerless young woman living out her last days in a masterful way.
Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
When Clay Jannon loses his job as a web designer in San Francisco he picks up night shifts at a dingy, dusty bookstore working for a curious old man named Penumbra. But the books it stocks are huge, ancient tomes, taken out by even more eccentric people in the middle of the night, and Clay is baffled as to what’s going on. With help from his uber-cool programming friends and a sprinkling of fairy dust from Google, he is determined to crack the code that Penumbra seemingly holds the key to.
Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is an utterly charming modern love-letter to reading, and Robin Sloan has affectionately mashed up tradition and technology in this delightful novel that reads like The Social Network meets The Da Vinci Code.
The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker
In the late 19th century, a Golem – a tall, beautiful woman with the strength of ten men – dives into the ocean just before her immigrant ship from Poland arrives in New York. A few miles away in Lower Manhattan, a tinsmith accidentally releases a Djinni who has been trapped in a lamp for a thousand years, still shackled to earth by an iron cuff.
Stripped of their powers, these powerful creatures from different worlds forge an unlikely friendship, and are soon faced with more than just the hardship of mortal life in a bustling city. The Golem and the Djinni reads like a modern fairytale based on the immigrant experience, and fans of A Discovery of Witches and The Night Circus will love this magical historic fantasy debut from Helene Wecker.
Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson
Sixteen-year-old Marina lives in a cramped London flat with her mother Laura and three elderly Hungarian relatives on her father’s side, but her father has long since abandoned them. As Marina deals with problems at her new school – the private Combe Abbey where she sticks out like a sore thumb in a world of patriarchy and competitive sports – Laura is patching up her feelings after an affair with a married man, all while under the watchful eyes of her interfering in-laws. She of all people is most surprised when her husband returns.
Almost English is long-listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize, and Charlotte Mendelson writes of the inner monologues and quiet frustrations that plague an all-female, half-Hungarian household trying to fit into society with a wry humour that carries echoes of Zadie Smith and Zoe Heller.
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
On a warm July evening at a summer camp in 1974, a group of six teenagers make a pact to be successful, fulfilled, and, most importantly, interesting, in adult life. But over the next 30 years they realise it’s not easy to sustain teenage dreams. Budding animator Ethan creates a successful television show; dancer Cathy ends up working a 9-5 desk job; guitarist Jonah’s career has stalled and brother and sister Ash and Goodman naturally end up high-flying in Manhattan.
But narrator Jules keeps hitting walls in her career and, always mindful of the pact she made as a teenager, is on a reluctant journey of self-discovery. Meg Wolitzer writes fluently about the American Dream and whether you should surrender your goals to reality in this novel for fans of Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen.
Tampa by Alissa Nutting
If the cover of this book made you do a double-take, that’s just a hint of the controversy surrounding what’s set to become the most talked-about novel of the summer. Celeste Price is a high school English teacher with an unyielding obsession: 14-year-old boys. Attractive, successful and married to a rich husband, she risks her career and her freedom by indulging in a scorchingly passionate affair with pupil Jack.
The sex scenes – and there are many of them: in her car, in the classroom and at Jack’s father’s house – make Fifty Shades of Grey look like Rosie and Jim. Tampa is all at once graphic, gripping and depraved, and controversial or not, is a compelling account of a woman who will stop at nothing for satisfaction.
The Gallery of Vanished Husbands by Natasha Solomons
When 29-year-old Juliet Montague’s husband disappears, in her Jewish community’s eyes so does she. So on her 30th birthday she decides to commission a portrait of herself instead of sensibly buying a fridge, marking the first in a series of portraits that punctuate her adult life and take her on a journey through the vibrant post-war London art scene – a world previously inaccessible to a conservative mother-of-two.
But her career as an art talent spotter does not make her love life any easier: despite falling for a reclusive artist she still feels trapped by her husband’s abandonment, which takes her on an investigative trip to California where she unearths a few home truths. The Gallery of Vanished Husbands is a colourful and captivating tale of a woman shedding her skin.
The Orchard of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohamed
Nadifa Mohamed was picked as one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists after just one novel, and her second, The Orchard of Lost Souls, is a moving story of three women in the Somalian civil war. It’s the late 1980s and there are rumours of revolution in Hargeisa. Nine-year-old Deqo has left the refugee camp she was born in for the city; widowed Kawsar is bed-bound, trapped in her home after a brutal beating in the local police station, and Filsan is a young female solder attempting to suppress the rebellion in the north.
As these three women’s stories entwine, the result is a moving and captivating tale of survival and hope in a war-torn country, and confirms Mohamed’s stature as one of Britain’s best young novelists.
Precious Thing by Colette McBeth
We’ve all had a friend who we love one minute and hate the next, but Colette McBeth takes frenemies to the next level in Precious Thing. Rachel and Clara have been best friends for years, but now, in their late twenties, their roles have reversed and Rachel is the successful, attractive one while Clara is recovering from a mental breakdown.
When Clara goes missing on a night out, Rachel is thrown in at the deep end in her job as a crime correspondent for a news channel, and has to try and separate her professionalism from the emotional turmoil in her personal life. But when she smells a rat, the events of the past decade come crashing down on her. Colette McBeth was a crime reporter for ten years and presents a unique twist on this addictive psychological thriller.