The Art of Dying by Ambrose Parry

The Art of Dying is a historical medical mystery about unexplained deaths and medical rivalries set in Edinburgh, the follow up to The Way of All Flesh by husband and wife writing team Ambrose Parry. Will Raven and Sarah Fisher are back, with Will now Dr Simpson’s assistant and Sarah trying to expand her position giving medical help to the doctor despite the limitations placed on women. Dr Simpson’s reputation is in trouble after one of his patients died in circumstances that other doctors have claimed are suspicious, but looking into this causes Raven and Sarah to uncover a lot more mysterious deaths and find some unlikely possible causes for them. At the same time, Raven continues to evade his pursuers and worry about his own nature, whilst Sarah has new troubles to worry about.

The first in the series was most interesting for its look at class and gender in the period, and the sequel certainly focuses on the latter, looking at the position of women in society and in the roles they can take. Once again, anaesthesia plays an important role in the novel, with Simpson’s focus on chloroform still present, though there is slightly less of the medical focus as in the first one (or at least it feels like there is). The mystery narrative is unravelled using a good trope that allows for a few twists, and a wide cast of characters are kept up (though it feels very much like a book in a series for not resolving a number of side plots).

Historical mystery fans will likely enjoy this follow up, which combines a range of interesting characters with some real historical inspiration and a dark series of murders. Not one for the squeamish, but for people who like some historical research alongside the mystery.

We Hunt The Flame by Hafsah Faizal

We Hunt The Flame is a gripping young adult novel that explores the light and dark in people and forging your own identity. Zafira is the Hunter, a mysterious figure who hunts for food in a magical forest no one else can navigate, but no one would care how she feeds her people if they knew the Hunter was female. Nasir is the Prince of Death, forced to obey his father the sultan and kill on order. Though very different, they both find themselves on a similar mission: to retrieve magic from a dangerous island; Zafira for the people and Nasir for his father. And though Nasir has been ordered to kill the Hunter, they both end up part of an unlikely gang, all untrusting but united in a common goal, and then it turns out they have a bigger enemy than any one of them.

As someone who doesn’t tend to read fantasy (but saw someone raving about this book), We Hunt The Flame was a revelation: a fantasy novel that is carefully woven to dig deep into character and motivation, and without excessive or unnecessary world-building. Moving between Zafira and Nasir’s perspectives, the narrative is fast-paced and balances surprises with emotion. Both of the protagonists are engrossing characters, with Zafira learning that people’s morals and lives aren’t black and white whilst she looks to who she is outside of the ‘Hunter’ legend, and Nasir battling with the fact that emotion and relationships with others might stretch beyond who he’s been told to kill next. The coming together of the whole crew doesn’t feel forced and works well, leaving an intriguing mix of characters for the second part of the duology.

This is a novel that is really centred around its characters and the ragtag band of fighters that they form. It also emphasises the importance of taking control of your own identity and how that might not always be an easy task in relation to the society or rules you live with. At the same time, it is a fun fantasy story with a lot of banter and characters learning to work together.

The Falconer by Dana Czapnik

The Falconer is a coming of age novel with a vivid New York City in the early 90s setting. Lucy Adler is seventeen, a basketball player, applying to college, and in unrequited love with her best friend, the rich and self-assured Percy. She’s searching for how she can be herself—not one of the ‘girl’ stereotypes but a rounded, complex person—whilst discovering philosophy and feminism and realising she has a supportive network of similarly complex women.

The novel is exciting and sharp, with Lucy’s narrative voice capturing her personality as someone torn between contradictions, trying to be cynical and romantic, self-confident and insecure. The importance of New York City as the place she has grown up, a place full of memories, and a place she will eventually leave is vital, and Czapnik uses almost stream of consciousness parts to show Lucy’s thoughts as she travels down familiar streets, building up a rich layer of memory. Lucy tries to work out her desire for male approval and the difficulty of wanting to be seen for who she is, not either as a sports-playing ‘one of the boys’ or as a girl who doesn’t fit what she feels are usual standards of beauty, and this element of the novel gives it a powerful message about growing up, identity, and gender.

With The Falconer, Czapnik seems to have captured a character who will resonate with a lot of people whilst also creating a depiction of NYC from the perspective of someone who has grown up there and both loves and hates it.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys is a tense and memorable novel about an awful reform school and an idealistic boy who finds himself there. Elwood Curtis, an outsider brought up by his strict grandmother and stirred up by the words of Martin Luther King, is about to start taking college level classes and dreams of something better. But one unlucky circumstance in the face of prejudice lands Elwood in The Nickel Academy, which purports to improve and reform its inmates, but really is a horrific place where abuse, corruption, and students disappearing are the norm. Elwood looks for a way to keep his idealism in spite of this which his friend Turner thinks is unmanageable, and the violence of The Nickel Academy will affect them all.

This is a masterful novel, carefully weaving together the past and present of the narrative and the history of a real reform school similar to Whitehead’s depiction of Nickel Academy. It uses a single personal story with terrible consequences to expose what happened to children, with the backdrop of segregation and the civil rights movement. As with Colson’s previous novel The Underground Railroad, it is quietly devastating whilst looking at a specific piece of US history and the resonances with contemporary America.

The Nickel Boys is a much anticipated novel that lives up to the anticipation and will no doubt be one that people will be talking about, not only due to the subject matter and writing style, but also the memorable and gripping character of Elwood himself. It is an intense and powerful novel that is cleverly written and carefully plotted.

The Hiding Game by Naomi Wood

The Hiding Game is a novel about a group of friends and their rivalries in a dangerous time. Paul Beckermann starts at the Bauhaus art school in Germany in 1922 and finds himself amidst a new way of thinking about creating art, with Kandinsky and Klee as the stars they all dream of reaching. He forms a group of friends and seems to be falling into something with Charlotte, a woman from Prague. However, their group has divided loyalties and love and obsession will divide them as the Bauhaus moves location and the political situation becomes dangerous. As Paul looks back at this time, now much older and in England, he must confess the truth of what ultimately happened to their group.

The reader is drawn into the world of the Bauhaus and the combination of fictional friends and real life historical figures, with the narrative moving between their original time together and Paul’s viewpoint and recollection much later on. He is the somewhat unreliable narrator finally telling the truth, but not wanting to reveal it too early. The characters are interesting, the kind of flawed, sometimes unlikeable people that work well in this kind of novel about obsession (both of people and art) and the cracks that form in intense friendship groups (though, despite comparisons, they don’t reach the level of compelling that the group in The Secret History do).

The novel is a blend of the ‘group of friends intensely studying something in a specific way and having a lot of drama’ kind of narrative and a historical book that looks at the consequences of personal actions and decisions in the face of larger political danger. Without much knowledge of the artistic history or real life figures in the book, it was a good read though without a completely immersive spark.

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

This Is How You Lose the Time War is a love story across the battlegrounds of time, sci-fi turned into an epistolary romance. Red, an agent of the Commandant, finds a letter bearing the instruction ‘Burn before reading’. It is from Blue, an agent from the rival side, and it sparks off a correspondence, taunting to begin with, then growing into something more, something romantic and world-defying. Soon—or not, as this is the Time War—their bond is deep and discovery would be the end of them, and the question remains, who will win the war?

Written as a collaboration between two writers and featuring two protagonists known by colours and pronouns (both ‘she’), this is not your usual sci-fi story. Though there are teased out descriptions of the circumstances of each side, it is really focused on love and time and the myths and quirks of the multiverse. Packed with referenced despite its short length, it is a book that rewards its readers for spotting references and witty names as its protagonists do the same with each other. The creation of an aching love story told in improbably letters is an impressive feat, and the lyrical prose suits it well, particularly as the protagonists devolve into poetry and metaphor to try and explain their love across time through written words.

This is not your typical sci-fi, and those who aren’t fans of the genre should give the book a chance, though its unusual style and worldbuilding won’t be for everyone. It is forbidden love, Romeo and Juliet style, but with the complications of cause and effect and a war that seems insurmountable. It is playful and clever, almost unbearably short, and it is the pull of and between the two protagonists that brings it together.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is a novel about a group of children trying to solve the disappearances that have been happening around the slum they live in. Jai is nine and watches too many real life police TV shows, so when a boy from his class goes missing, he has to recruit his friends Pari and Faiz to be his sidekicks for the investigation. They weave around various places they aren’t allowed to go—the bazaar, the railway station—looking for answers,  but as more and more children keep disappearing, the question remains: is it a djinn to blame, or is there a dangerous person out there?

The book is carefully structured around the disappearances and is well-paced to allow the events to unfold whilst capturing a sense of Jai’s life. It is notable that the book skirts the line between crime and more general fiction, with crime tropes being more part of Jai’s imagination than feeling particularly important in the novel, which is more preoccupied with character and with painting a vivid setting. This works well, as the elements work in conjunction with each other to have a narrative that moves forward, increasing tension as disappearances occur, but also looks to depict the characters’ lives rather than focus on the particular mystery at its heart. The life of these characters is portrayed in a very immersive way, using the senses and lots of detail such as the TV shows they watch and the food they eat.

The child main characters give an extra dimension to the novel, allowing Indian child disappearances to be explored through the eyes of a child who isn’t entirely aware of the potential danger and implications. This fact makes the novel feel quite distinctive and original, particularly the quirk of having a nine-year-old protagonist who is obsessed with the idea of being a detective, but who is also impacted by the very real crime occurring.

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is a distinctive novel that blends a crime story with an immersive narrative of children living in an Indian slum. It feels like a cross between A People’s History of Heaven and The Book Thief, with a focus on child disappearances and how they are treated by the police.

The Truants by Kate Weinberg

The Truants is a novel about discovering the cost of being someone different, someone more noticeable, when you’ve always blended in. Jess Walker is thoroughly middle class, mostly forgotten in her large family, and about to start university. She chose her university due to an obsession with an academic there, the distinctive Lorna Clay, whose famous book ‘The Truants’ is about writers having to push themselves to the limits of life. Once there, she makes a close group of friends and their lives tangle around each other’s and Lorna’s until tragedy forces Jess to question what she thought the plot of their lives was.

In some ways, this has all the elements of a campus novel with tinges of thriller: obsession, love affairs, intellectual excitement, and the lingering comparison of real lives to fictional ones. In the case of The Truants, the latter is mostly around Agatha Christie and her works, which forms a fitting lens for Jess to attempt to untangle what is happening, though the novel itself isn’t really a murder mystery. There are clichés, but also a satisfyingly weaving narrative that isn’t afraid to leave the campus. It is a novel built around ambiguity and interpretation, and particularly by the end it isn’t clear to what extent if any Jess is an unreliable narrator, especially as she becomes interested in unreliable narrators in Christie’s writing.

The Truants will draw in fans of campus novels (and it is always exciting to read new British ones, with more familiar university experiences), though it might not be exactly what some people expect. The use of Agatha Christie as the academic focus is a nice touch which makes you tempted to pick up some of the novels mentioned in the book and the novel has enough plot to keep readers gripped, though the characters themselves are often left purposefully unexplained.

Becoming Dinah by Kit de Waal

Becoming Dinah is a YA novel that takes the story of Moby Dick and turns it into one about a teenage girl running away from her unusual upbringing and the mistakes she’s made. Dinah is seventeen and grew up in a commune. She shaves off her hair, packs a bag, and is about to try and hitch her way south when she is persuaded by Ahab, a grumpy man with one leg also from the commune, to illegally drive a VW campervan on a quest for him. As they travel, she reflects on what she is running from and tries to work out if it is really the right course for her.

This is a touching and powerful novel that requires no knowledge of Moby Dick, though it may then inspire people to read the original. The narrative is carefully revealed and the novel leaves a lot unspoken or not discussed until near the end, so the reader is also on a quest, to find out why Dinah is running away. Despite the commune upbringing, there are a lot of relatable parts to Dinah’s story as it touches on topics such as families splitting up, sexuality, and feeling like an outsider.

Moby Dick may seem like an unusual choice for a YA modern reworking, but actually it allows themes of obsession and freedom to be explored through the eyes of a memorable protagonist.

Starling Days by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

Starling Days is a novel about mental health, bisexuality, and how you can’t be healed by a single person. Mina lives in New York City with her husband Oscar, who has to come and fetch her when she’s found standing on the edge of a bridge and is unable to convince the officers she wasn’t about to jump. A chance need for a trip and a desire to get away lead them to travel to London, where Oscar tries to sort out selling some flats for his father and Mina finds herself drawn to Phoebe, the sister of one of Oscar’s oldest friends, whilst she tries to manage going off her medication.

This is a novel deeply about mental health, about how a person perceives their own illness and their suicidal thoughts, and how their husband both tries and fails to understand and to help. It doesn’t shy away from looking at Mina’s thought processes, but also tries to balance thoughts with narrative and with Mina and Oscar’s different perspectives. Phoebe brings another crucial element, not only about attraction, but about how Mina hopes for someone who can bring the sun when she is feeling awful, only for that to not be as easy as it might seem. A thread about Mina’s research into classical women who survive brings interesting parallels and also a comment on how women are treated, though it stays as a background thread rather than coming to the foreground.

Starling Days is moving, a sometimes blunt and sometimes understated novel that explores mental health and human relationships.