Quick book picks for September

Quite a short selection this month, but there’s two novels with clear connections to the modern political and media world, a look at female friendship and perspective, and a fantastic book of poetry by a young poet that tells stories of love and personal struggle in snappy and concise ways. As ever, links in titles to longer reviews.

  • The Golden House by Salman Rushdie – Rushdie’s new novel tells the story of an American immigrant real estate tycoon and his children with a background of modern politics and culture. Highly referential, it is a novel that understands fact and fiction aren’t all they seem.
  • The Beast by Alexander Starritt – The target of comic mockery is the British tabloid press, in this novel about scaremongering and prejudice that follows Jeremy Underwood, a subeditor for The Daily Beast, as he breaks what seems to be a story about a terror threat.
  • The Burning Girl by Claire Messud – Through the eyes of main character Julia, using hindsight to reflect upon the breakdown of her friendship with troubled Cassie, Messud creates a novel about reliability and perception, and whether people are how we think we see them.
  • Bone by Yrsa Daley-Ward – A collection of poetry about growing up, making mistakes, and finding love that will strike a chord with teenagers and adults with its clever and emotional lines and sparsely told stories.

The Beast by Alexander Starritt

Horrors of the tabloid press: The Beast by Alexander Starritt

The Beast is a compelling and at times horrifying novel about the modern tabloid press and how it exploits the nation’s fears and current events. Jeremy Underwood is a subeditor for The Daily Beast, which sees itself as the voice of Middle England, and when he comes back from holiday to spot two figures wearing burqas outside the newspaper offices, he sparks off a chain of events that he could have hardly imagined or planned. Fear is in the air as there are escaped suspects at large and The Beast needs a compelling story to keep its circulation up. Soon the staff are off to a secret bunker and the country is being divided by the story that Jeremy has set off.

Starritt’s novel is difficult to put down, partly due to the fast-paced narrative that feels akin to a film or feature-length drama, and partly due to the dark comedy as the events escalate, which carries with it a terrifying sense of observation. The author worked in a newsroom and The Beast’s one is described in careful detail, from its hierarchy to questionable working practices. His depiction shows the level of work ethic and rivalry that goes into making a newspaper, but also charts the way in which a single paper can affect national events and stoke fear and hatred. It is not entirely scathing, but is unlikely to appeal hugely to those who enjoy reading the kind of newspaper it depicts.

Though the book is Evelyn Waugh-esque (the name of the newspaper is the same as that in Waugh’s novel Scoop), its level of modern relevance makes it more horrifying and less light than reading Waugh today. Not only does it depict the media’s involvement in Islamophobia in Britain and look at how terror attacks might be reported, but it touches upon topics of press freedom, print vs online journalism, and how newspapers might make the news rather than report it. The fictional papers within the novel all have fairly obvious real life counterparts and the satire is pointed even for those who have little knowledge of modern journalism.

The Beast is a kind of escalating dark comedy that mostly tips into a tense and horrible narrative about tabloid reporting in relation to extremism and hatred in Britain today. Some readers will find it funny, but its lingering feel is one of exposition, an anatomy of a kind of newspaper that many people read and devour and many others loathe.