Our latest must-read recommendations


The Things We Do to Our Friends
By Heather Darwent
(384pp, Penguin, £14.99, hb)
Reviewed by SJ Watson

Obsession and revenge are two of the main staples of thriller fiction, and with good reason. Who has not experienced the former, or fantasised about the latter? Debut novelist Heather Darwent understands this perfectly and, in this almost dazzlingly accomplished literary thriller, has combined the two perfectly before adding a third delicious ingredient by setting her book in a moody, labyrinthine Edinburgh, so evocatively conjured the reader can almost hear it groaning under the weight of its history.

Clare arrives at the university lost, alone, with several suitcases full of secrets and desperate for reinvention. She soon falls under the spell of the wealthy Tabitha and her coterie of sophisticated friends and, to her initial surprise – and despite the warning of her friend Finn (who describes them, collectively and brilliantly, as The Shiver) – is drawn into their world of dinner parties and exotic trips to France. But just as the new life she had envisioned for herself seems to have begun, Clare realises she may already be in too deep. For Tabitha has a rather special project with which she needs Clare’s help, and Clare soon discovers her new friend knows rather more about her past than she’d hitherto suspected. By the time Clare realises the true scope of her new friend’s ambitions, and the dangers into which she’s being inexorably drawn, it is, of course, too late. Clare too, has become one of The Shivers.

It would be wrong of me to reveal more about the mysterious project, but it’s enough of a clue to say that in this expertly plotted feminist thriller Darwent seamlessly blends elements of Gone Girl and Promising Young Woman. The writing is smart, sophisticated and seductive, and Darwent manages to root all of her characters in the solid ground necessary to create a gripping novel in which it’s relatively difficult to find anyone to actually like. Don’t let that put you off, though. It’s not out until January, but pre-order it now, for this is a beguiling and brilliant novel you won’t want to miss.

S J Watson is the award winning author of the bestselling psychological thrillers Before I Go To Sleep, Second Life and Final Cut. Follow him on Twitter at @sj_watson

Arabs and Israelis
Conflict and Peacemaking in the Middle East

By Abdel Monem Said Aly, Shai Feldman and Khalil Shikaki
(504pp, Bloomsbury, £39, pb)
Reviewed by Nigel Summerley

This epic account of the past 120 years of the “Palestinian problem” is remarkable for one thing: balance – something that seldom plays a part in the usual analysis of this unending tragedy.

That balance has been achieved by its three authors being, respectively, Egyptian, Israeli and Palestinian – veteran academics who have tasked themselves with presenting a momentous series of events, as seen from the differing perspectives of their countries.

This same trio first tackled the subject ten years ago, but their new book presents a necessarily expanded update, examining the Arab Spring of 2011-12 and 2019-2020, the bloody rise and fall of Isis, the Israel-Hamas wars of 2014 and 2021, the Abraham Accords of 2020, the ups and downs of Netanyahu, the Covid pandemic, and the impact of the very different US foreign policies of Obama and Trump.

The outside world has always played a significant, if frequently inglorious role in the Middle East, and here it’s clearly chronicled how, in World War I, Britain played fast and loose with promises made to further its own ends, particularly in supplanting the Turkish empire.

“A set of competing, if not contradictory, commitments were made by the British to those whose support they had courted in order to achieve the Ottomans’ collapse: the Arab peoples and the Zionist movement. The first of these was a promise [in 1915] to facilitate the creation of an independent Arab state… contradicted by a commitment [in 1917] to the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.”

It’s no wonder the word “betrayal” looms large in page after page – not just in relation to the British, but also to the Americans and the Arabs, and among differing Palestinian factions.

World War II’s aftermath brought more of the same. Western guilt over failure to avert the Holocaust made it easier to accept the creation of Israel – even at the expense of up to a million Palestinians having to leave their homes for refugee camps in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt.

We also get the Israeli narrative that blames the intransigence of the Palestinians, and the war-making of Arab neighbours.

Traduced, yet aware of their own shortcomings and failures, subsequent decades saw the Palestinians trapped in “a Sisyphean experience, compelled to repeat endlessly an exhaustive but futile effort” to achieve statehood.

The Arab Spring brought hope of radical change in the early 2010s, but mostly did the opposite, as affected states turned inward to concentrate on their own problems.

“The Arab Spring was associated with a dramatic decline in the importance of the Palestinian question in the Arab world. American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2020 was met with indifference by Arab governments and publics… [and] response to the Trump ideas for resolving the conflict was mostly mute, despite strong Palestinian rejection.”

Plus, growing perception of Iran as a regional threat, fear of Islamism, and prioritising of economic prosperity “all combined to diminish the relative importance of the Palestinian issue.”

This book shows how the two-state solution has been dying a long, slow death, and the battleground has shifted to fighting for equality in a one-state solution. Yet the “war of the narratives” continues, and the authors identify the parties’ extreme ignorance of each other as a major stumbling block to peace. “In the absence of relevant knowledge, they attribute to one another the worst of intentions and designs.” But, as the book shows persuasively, there really are no heroes or villains.

Other obstacles to peace include lack of an effective “enforcer” to bring about a lasting settlement (“the UN has proved no substitute for the Ottoman Empire”) and lack of leaders bold enough to be radical peacemakers.

The tripartite approach of the authors – who write with one voice, rather than making independent contributions – is a powerful testament to the possibility of collaboration and compromise.

At the book’s launch, the trio said that while their personal views were sometimes differently nuanced (Israeli Shai Feldman said with a smile that Palestinian Khalil Shikaki’s view was sometimes coloured by “wishful thinking”) they were determined to offer facts rather than opinion or bias. Such mature intelligence left me praying for comparable wisdom from the major players next time they are round the negotiating table.

This meticulous academic book is aimed at serious students of history, but for anyone craving a readable, no-nonsense analysis of the decades of this continuing crisis, it offers the key – a whole bunch of keys – to a new understanding. The politicians would do well to read it.

An Unanchored Heart
By Rory Knight Bruce
(Mount Orleans Press, £20, hb)
Reviewed by Celia Lyttleton

Rory Knight Bruce’s memoir is a Rabelesian gallimaufry of hilarity and hedonism, plus a lot of hard grafting, hard times (very hard), and exceedingly good times too. It’s a life lived to excess, fuelled by steely determination and enough booze to sink a frigate. Some passages made me roar with laughter. Like John Clare and Housman, in prose, his descriptions of places, travels and observations of nature are vivid and poetic; his lyrical Lindisfarne poem ends one of the chapters.

The author loves animals as much as his vast circle of friends. As soon as he could walk, he was riding cows on his father’s Devonshire farm. Later he became a polymath, student politician, magazine publisher, fishmonger, dole receiver, ad salesman at the Spectator and the Evening Standard and writer. This is his third book.

His childhood was frugal and solitary, and his ex-POW father would sit drinking whisky while watching porn – he’d escaped the Nazis by doing the “Long Walk” down to the toe of Italy. At the village school (a two-mile walk) Knight Bruce was “Rory the tiger”; winters were a “clod of desolation” and they were sometimes cut off for weeks by snow. Father and son lived in noble poverty: a portrait of Charles II could be a Lely, but has never been authenticated because “I would have to sell it”. Rory was an early developer and his au pair crept into bed with him aged ten after taking him to a Paris suburb where her family ate horse meat and haricots. There is much shagging throughout, though he’s discreet about his legion of lovers.

His mother, “the Bolter”, left him aged one. She was a TV quiz show hostess, wrapped in furs, with a fleet of fancy cars and husbands, including a Russian prince. She whisked him away to prep school and then Stowe, after which Rory went to Edinburgh University for a seven-year bender of bars and balls, writing and acting in his own play, editing the New Edinburgh Review and being honorary secretary of the NUS on £50 a week.

When Rory’s father died, the “wailing Finn” who’d been his carer for 25 years refused to move out; the farm was a poisoned chalice, and half of it went to the “glugger”. 94 bottles were discovered hidden under the beds. Rory made minimal repairs to the Georgian farmhouse, replacing missing slate roof-tiles with old LPs.

Rory reached the apogee of his chequered career as editor of the Standard’s Londoner’s Diary for seven years. Sections of the book are littered with name dropping, indigestible, as if the author has swallowed the Tatler Bystander pages. “Was my life no more than an imitation of Fielding’s Tom Jones?” the author ponders in the last pages; it would be a spoiler to reveal whether the ending is happy or not.

Molly and the Captain
By Anthony Quinn
(432pp, Abacus, £16.99, hb)
Reviewed by Christobel Kent

Over a handsome span of novels Anthony Quinn has specialised in gently brushing the dust from shadowy corners of British history, furnishing them with finely-wrought background and finding their human stories. From the limelight glow of ’30s theatrical London to bombed-out Liverpool, Quinn has an eye for a colourful setting and a sixth sense for drama. And for his considerable fanbase, guessing where he will alight next is a thoroughly satisfying appetite-whetter.

Molly And The Captain, Quinn’s latest (and ninth) dip into history should not disappoint. Offering three narratives for the price of one, his best and most ambitious novel yet dances through three centuries, entwines the worlds of theatre and art in a thoroughly seductive embrace, and brings all his considerable gifts into play.

Opening in Bath in 1785, the first narrative in Quinn’s triptych deals with the genesis of the painting for which the novel is named. “Molly and the Captain” (or “The Merrymount Sisters at Night”) depicts the two young daughters of eminent portraitist and “Landskip” painter, William Merrymount (possibly based on Gainsborough). They are Molly, the highly-strung younger, and Laura our narrator (with her own artistic ambitions), named “the Captain” for her incorrigible bossiness: we look on as the family migrates from sedate Bath to the sparkling orbit of the London stage-actress Mrs Vavasour, and the perils of the demi-monde.

And London in 1889 is the scene of the novel’s second instalment, where young painter Paul Stransom, inhibited by the legacy of childhood disability and wary of the fashionable art world, finds himself haunted by a glimpse of a mother and two daughters as he sets up his easel to paint in Kensington Gardens.

For part three, we move to Kentish Town in the 1980s, where artist Nell Cantrip (prickly at the prospect of a 40-year retrospective) and her actress daughter Billie (juggling lovers old, new and borrowed) come face to face with a 200-year-old portrait whose subject looks unsettlingly familiar.

Poignant, involving, beautiful and thoroughly entertaining, with an unerring skill in evoking the distinct flavour and fine detail of different centuries, this is a novel packed with pleasures. Leading among those, in my view, is Quinn’s sure-footed choice of milieu. His faultless feel for the delicious, raffish glamour of Bohemia, be it theatrical or artistic, neatly dodges the dead hand of class that can weigh so heavy on the English novelist. Quinn’s is a cast of glittering characters, rich in variety and for whom all sorts of things are possible, proving them an unstoppable driver in an irresistible narrative.

Material Cultures: Material Reform
By Summer Islam, Paloma Gormley and George Massoud
(96pp, Mack, £18, pb)
Reviewed by Wade Graham

The authors of Material Cultures: Material Reform “propose a construction process removed from the carbon cycle” by turning to “bio-based materials” that are environmentally and socially positive. It’s a goal that seems absolutely necessary, given our built environment accounts for 40% of global CO2 emissions. And yet, like transitioning our energy systems away from carbon, it will likely prove incredibly difficult.

It is undeniable that our construction systems, from supply chain through design, assembly, and disposal, are both environmentally and socially destructive. We build outer structures preferentially with concrete, steel, and glass – all of them extremely energy-intensive. First, their raw materials must be extracted from nature by mining, whether limestone, gravel, gypsum, metal ores or silica. Their manufacture is if anything more energy-intensive: cement requires grinding rock, then burning at incredible temperatures (1,450C), then grinding again; steel is smelted in blast furnaces at even higher temperatures, nearly always using coal (steel alone produces 11% of global CO2 emissions); glass production using sand needs similar energy inputs.

All are globally sourced, with long, opaque supply chains involving long transportation distances to developed world markets, typically beginning in low-wage, low-justice countries that are completely reliant on cheap fossil fuels.

The insides of our buildings are no better. The authors point out “the hermetically-sealed environments we make using what comes down to a set of variations on plastic sheeting”. Insulation is made with polyurethane and polystyrene. Myriad petroleum-based glues, coatings, and membranes hold it all together. None of it breathes – that is, allows air to pass through and moisture to escape. Anyone who has seen how small floods, spills, or leaks completely destroy the insides of our buildings, yielding catastrophic material failures and black mould can attest to this. Most of it ends up in landfill.

There is waste at all levels of the “construction chain” – extraction, construction, and disposal. In fact, it isn’t conceivable to build as we do without waste, as the possibility of reuse or recycling – rarely achieved in real life – only adds another layer of energy-intensive processes.

Even our wood products, in theory renewable, are guilty. Intensive forestry, while touted as carbon sequestering, is in practice anything but, and further, is monoculture at massive scale, replacing tens of millions of acres of biologically functioning forests.

Like our industrial agriculture, the entire system operates at net energy loss, net carbon loss, net resource loss. Both are forms of strip mining.

Instead, the authors advocate moving from carbon-heavy and unsustainable materials to renewable or reusable ones, obtained from regenerative resources. The first is, broadly speaking, earth. Stone, brick, clay, tile, rammed earth and lime render are all taken from abundant deposits, widely distributed, eliminating the need for long-distance supply chains and supporting specialised local economies. Materials obtained from plants bring another broad category: trees for structural timber, flooring, siding, and so on – free from petroleum-based glues, of course; plant wastes for straw, cob, hempcrete, and thatch – ancient composite materials which, though they sound to contemporary ears like the fantasies of hippies and eco-visionaries, do their work very well.

But first, big changes to business as usual – both the “construction chain” and the cultures of construction – will be necessary. A priori, building codes will need to be loosened to accommodate unfamiliar materials and techniques. The “exclusionary set of technologies” that rule the system – proprietary softwares and standardisation of specifications – limit participation and disincentivise innovation. Liability and insurance, rooted in a culture of risk aversion, will need to be reformed.

Not least, the expectation that finished buildings will last forever – utterly false in reality, as even concrete buildings have functional lifetimes shorter than our own – will need to be refashioned. The plant-based materials – wood and the like – will have cycles of replacement. Buildings will be rerooted in biological cycles, which actually opens the possibility of a kind of immortality. Think of the Ise Shrine in Japan, a wooden temple built without nails that has been rebuilt every twenty years since the seventh century. Most traditional Japanese buildings are maintained this way, and such traditions abound around the world.

The “earth” materials, especially if their unit sizes are standardised, can be reused. Spent plant-based material would be composted, not landfilled. We would move from a culture of demolition to a culture of repair, supporting local industries and highly-skilled, better-paid workers.

Building such a world makes a lot of sense, at a lot of levels. How quickly we can retool to achieve it is the question. This slimline book – brief, clear, and illustrated with striking photography of the landscapes of extraction – is a self-proclaimed manifesto, mapping the problem and the outlines of change. A sequel should be a how-to manual, with present-day examples of achieved post-carbon buildings – blueprints, not just sketches.

By Nell Zink
(224pp, Faber, £14.99, hb)
Reviewed by Belinda Bamber

A new book by Nell Zink is always cause for celebration and Avalon (out in January) brings much-needed cheer to the new year. The title evokes the mythical island of healing in Arthurian legend and the story is a satirical take on the nineteenth-century story arc of a Cinderella heroine who starts out poor and exploited but eventually gets her man – satirical because, this being Zink, no one is perfect and the “hero”, far from being Mr Knightley, is a nerdy intellectual who treats women badly.

An undercurrent of fascism, violence and misogyny is always present in Zink’s novels, yet in Avalon her dry-as-bone humour tilts the dark side into drollness. The narrator, Bran, is an Audrey Hepburn-esque beauty disguised by grubbiness and outsized men’s overalls. Abandoned by both parents at a tender age, her mother having run off to a Buddhist monastery before dying of cancer, Bran provides live-in, unpaid child labour at the plant nursery owned by her common-law stepfamily. They live in “an Appalachian-style Cape Cod with vinyl siding and a tin roof, hunched on brick pillars over a low crawl space,” a setting that has echoes of Cold Comfort Farm. Good-natured Bran decides she isn’t really abused, though, noting, “I ate every scrap of food that was put in front of me. It was never too much.”

Zink mines humour from the grotesque with unpleasant Grandpa Larry, “a one-man Ellis Island from hell”, who fiddles at his fly while speculating aloud about the blowjob technique of a blonde newsreader. He “used creepiness the way other people use charisma, to dominate a room.” Yet he’s effectively also Bran’s protector, and she returns to care for the old creep when he’s sick. There’s a redeeming sense that no one is wholly bad, or good, even if Avalon remains a mythical destination.

Engrossing and funny, with memorable set-pieces, it crawls with eccentrics. You’ll feel lonely when you’ve finished.

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