Quick book picks for March

The weather hasn’t exactly become Spring-like yet and though I did tire of seeing endless ‘Snow day? Read one of our newly published books’ tweets (this may have been because I was at work), that was also the only idea I had for introducing this month’s new books. A rich bunch this month, with links to full reviews as usual (if you like short/flash/‘damp gothic’ fiction, I advise you to not skip past Mayhem & Death).

  • Sal by Mick Kitson – A different kind of wilderness survival story, this novel follows two sisters who escape their mum’s abusive boyfriend by following survival tips that Sal, the elder sister, learnt off YouTube. Powerful with a vivid voice.
  • The End of Loneliness by Benedict Wells – Translated from German into English, this book travels across Germany, France, and Switzerland to show snapshots from the often melancholy lives of three siblings in a film-like way.
  • Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala – A memorable and timely novel about telling the truth, friendship, race, and sexuality. Niru is a top student at his Washington D.C. school, but he’s keeping a secret from his attentive and proud parents, and when they find out he is gay, the fallout will change everything.
  • The Zero and the One by Ryan Ruby – A literary thriller set between Oxford, Berlin, and New York, this has dashes of The Secret History, Patricia Highsmith, and the Netflix series The Good Place and will appeal to those who like dark fiction centred around intellectual obsession and twisted relationships.
  • Mayhem & Death by Helen McClory – A collection of short pieces of writing and one novella which are filled with mystery, sea, birds, gothic, and irregularity. Read for the atmosphere, a fantastic poem about loneliness, and the sense of short writing that is exciting and fresh.
  • The Trick To Time by Kit de Waal – After My Name Is Leon, it was exciting to see another novel by Kit de Waal; this one focuses on grief and life spanning across decades that will appeal to fans of everyday character-led fiction.

The Zero and the One by Ryan Ruby

The Zero and the One is a novel about intellect, questioning morality, and how people can be pawns in a larger game. Owen is an Oxford fresher from a working class background who, feeling lonely and out of place anywhere other than stuck into his work, ends up befriending a visiting student who believes they have a similar mindset for discussing philosophy. However, Zachary Foedern is more complicated than Owen first thought, constantly trying to defy convention, and their friendship lasts barely more than a term before Zach proposes his greatest transgression yet: a suicide pact.

The novel moves between Owen in the aftermath of Zach’s plans and showing Owen and Zach as friends, from meeting until ending. The narrative is unfurled like a mystery, though it is not a hugely surprising one, not even as Owen gets to know Zach’s twin sister Vera who he never met during their time at Oxford. The ultimate denouement is definitely set up, but this seems to work with Owen as a clever and also short-sighted narrator caught in this dark, recognisably literary fiction world.

The earlier narrative is more centred around students obsessed with their intellectual quest: in this case, an obscure philosopher and questions about the morality of suicide, with an Oxford and Berlin backdrop. The later plot, with Owen in New York, feels quite different, with hints of a mystery and a fish-out-of-water Englishman in America vibe. This variation can be a bit strange: it feels like a mixture of The Secret History, the Netflix series ‘The Good Place’, a dash of Brideshead, and maybe a bit of Nabokov too. The Oxford parts were surprisingly decent with only the odd jarringly Americanised detail, though the Berlin trip felt too fleeting.

The Zero and the One is clearly trying to be a certain kind of book, a literary thriller type with intellectual obsession and dark characters hiding secrets. At times it pulls this off better than others, but it still makes for an intriguing read.