Top up your bookshelves – your Zoom pals might appreciate it.
This week we have two books on glass buildings, comedian Robert Webb’s debut novel, and quite a bit of dystopia…
1. Come Again by Robert Webb (Canongate)
Following his excellent memoir How Not To Be A Boy, writer and comedian Robert Webb brings us his debut novel, a wistful and at times wacky time-travelling novel in which a widow, Kate, whose husband has died from a brain tumour, wakes one day to find herself back in university in 1992, where they met, and sets about trying to change the future.
Webb captures the spirit of those early university days with warmth and humour, the flutterings of first love, the madness of Freshers’ Week, the hopes and dreams of the students. It’s a story about a woman having to return to the past to learn to re-engage with the present and to integrate her loss with the hope of the future.
A sharply comedic subplot involving Kate’s job in the present day in online reputation management, wiping dodgy backgrounds and unsavoury dealings of her clients from the internet, ramps up the madcap action as the book becomes crazier and more chaotic, bringing in Russian gangsters, karate experts, a car chase and a good old punch-up. It may be a poignant tale of love, grief and memory, but there are plenty of zany shenanigans to lighten the mood.
2. Q by Christina Dalcher (HarperCollins)
Elena Fairchild is a teacher at a new elite school, and on the surface has a perfect life, with daughters who are exactly like her: beautiful, ambitious and clever. However, when her youngest daughter scores lower than expected on a state-mandated test and is taken away, Elena intentionally fails her own test to go with her. There she discovers the darker side of a society that constantly seeks perfection.
In terms of dystopian novels, this one feels firmly middle-of-the-road. More time is needed to explore the characters, who are quite surface level for most of the book, but it is an enjoyable read.
3. The Glass Hotel by Emily St Mandel (Picador – ebook)
Emily St Mandel’s breathtaking 2014 novel, Station Eleven – which focused on a flu-like pandemic and the social collapse it triggers – proved eerily prescient. Read it if day-to-day life isn’t already dystopian enough for you.
The Glass Hotel doesn’t have quite the same layers of grip and intrigue. Kicked off by a case of spiteful, vitriolic graffiti at a remote hotel, and revolving around a ponzi scheme that goes under, it has the bones for a clever plot, but a hollowness pervades the story, making it difficult to connect to protagonists and half-siblings, Vincent and Paul. St Mandel depicts loss and disappointment with nuance, but a lack of momentum means even a body falling over the side of a cruise ship has little impact on your emotions. Yet, it’s a solid and shrewd read.
4. The See-Through House by Shelley Klein (Chatto & Windus)
When Shelley Klein moved home to High Sunderland to take care of her elderly father, she was welcomed back into its glass rooms as the girl she once was, but the furniture and house plants she’d accumulated in the 30 intervening years, were not. This wasn’t wholly unexpected, however reignited a familiar tension between her and the man she both refuted and revered.
Part memoir, part heart-felt eulogy, Shelley maps her father’s life and career through the floorplan of the house he built for her and her siblings; from glass hallways, to the living and bedrooms, and finally to the garden where the children say their last goodbyes to an eccentric and fastidious, but ultimately adored, father. A touching and timely account of familial love, The See-Through House arrives with all the greater power in our period of lockdown, compelling readers to appreciate the importance of home and family anew.
Children’s book of the week
5. The Loop by Ben Oliver (Chicken House)
With early comparisons to The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner series, Ben Oliver’s The Loop comes with plenty of hype. That hype is justified: this is an excellent first instalment, with the second book due next year. Oliver has skilfully crafted a believable and consuming dystopian future, in which Luke Kane has been imprisoned in The Loop for – at the book’s start – 736 days. But on his 16th birthday, the world as he knows it tilts from its steady, AI-controlled axis: escape is possible, if he can survive the unfolding chaos of war and a pandemic.
The Loop is pure adventure. Oliver’s array of characters provide zest and vibrancy, while his projected society is well-rounded, packed with excellent twists, believable horrors and a good dose of timely pandemic drama to give this read some extra relevancy. Expect young adults and older readers alike to be hooked.