The Cracked Bell by Tristram Riley-Smith (Constable, £8.99) Tristram Riley-Smith, a British civil servant and anthropologist, was posted for years at the British embassy in Washington DC. And it doesn’t seem as if he liked what he saw. America’s ideal of liberty, he believes, has been pushed to a dangerous extreme. It has created a radically individualistic society obsessed with consumerism, a “candyfloss culture” that shows little concern for its underclass. This, the author argues, can only be countered by allowing room for the values of equality and justice alongside the overriding good of personal freedom. And Barack Obama, argues Riley-Smith, is the man to achieve this.
The Cracked Bell sounds like a caricature of what Europeans are supposed to think of America. Yet it has been favourably reviewed – not least by the Economist, which praised its author’s sharp eye and vivid, impressionistic writing. Mark Greaves
Fever of the Bone by Val McDermid (Sphere, £6.99) Second only to Ian Rankin in the pantheon of modern British crime writers, Val McDermid has won many awards and accolades as well as inspiring the hit television show Wire in the Blood.
Fever in the Bone is her 22nd novel and features her main reoccurring character Tony Hill, criminal profiler. As with all the Hill novels, there’s a serial killer on the loose in Scotland. This time he’s targeting and killing teens and the police can find no obvious leads. Hill is called in, and using his expert deductive powers he enters a world of internet snares and online grooming.
As with all McDermid’s novels, the mood is dark and atmospheric, the writing never less than proficient.
Hill is a great character, burdened by his past and his own mind and the pacing is always just enough to keep the pages turning. Maria Jones The 100 Word Bible by Jonny Griffiths (Darton, Longman & Todd, £4.95) The Bible as toilet book? It might seem a bit reductionist, but getting through the entire 593,493 words of the Old Testament and the 181,253 words of the New is hard work in our time-poor age, which is the thinking behind Jonny Griffiths’s shortened version – as he describes it, a series of theological haikus.
With light-hearted headlines like “A book of two halves”, it’s obviously not going to be for readers of Géza Vermes or Karen Armstrong, but some of the descriptions are succinct enough. Lamentations, the acrostic poem describing the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC, is “A short, tragic / Book that / Could swiftly / Depress almost / Everyone”. As well as explaining (briefly) each book of the Bible, the author explains such ideas as the Trinity and the Resurrection, and whether we should take the Bible literally.
Ed West Brothers by Yu Hua (Picador, £8.99) With the slight fraying of the bamboo curtain, China’s novelists and poets are finding themselves translated and on the world stage for the first time in generations.
Yu Hua’s novel, Brothers, has sold more than a million copies in its native China and was shortlisted for the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize.
It is a dense book spanning generations and political upheavals perfectly suited for western readers who want to immerse themselves in those times.
The book follows the fortunes of two step-brothers from their early days during the Cultural Revolution to the dizzying frenzy of the recent consumer revolution.
Born in 1960, Hua is of the perfect age to map the changes in his country and Brothers is an ironic, occasionally scathing portrait of China today, its moral values and material greed.
Maria Jones Hopping by Melanie McGrath (Fourth Estate, £7.99) Hopping, until the Fifties, was hugely popular: thousands of East Enders would leave dirty, busy London to go harvesting hops in Kent every autumn. For Daisy, the protagonist of Melanie McGrath’s latest novel, the annual hop “was a kind of Oz, the place where life meted out most of its magic”.
It’s a warm, nostalgic setting, and an intriguing book: part fiction, part social history, it follows the fortunes of two intermarried families over the course of a century. It’s not all sunshine and hop picking: the families have to face poverty, disease and early death. McGrath sticks scrupulously to historical record, but fills in the gaps in vivid, novelistic fashion.
The novel been highly praised, and is sort of a sequel to the acclaimed Silvertown, a biography of the author’s own grandmother, Jenny Page, another East Ender. Mark Greaves