by Sam Thompson
This year's Man Booker shortlist is revealed on Tuesday. So I thought I would squeeze in a couple of novels that teeter on the cusp of selection. Sam Thompson's Communion Town is a collection of inter-linked short stories that, as the sub-title proposes, narrate A City in Ten Chapters. Comparisons have inevitably been drawn with David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad and Julian Barnes' now seminal A History of the World in 10½ Chapters. The city in question is fictional, generally quite unsettling but in constant flux dependent on whom exactly is telling tales. We have a Conan Doyleish detective, Peregrine Fetch, a Slumdog Millionaire-ish rickshaw driver in love with his passenger, and a mobster story that wouldn't disgrace Raymond Chandler. The shifts in genre and tone are linked by talk of a murderous entity on the prowl, and a dandyish figure roaming the streets like an alter ego for Thompson himself. Sadly, the parts are larger than the sum of the whole.
by Jeet Thayil
Faber & Faber
Set in Mumbai, Jeet Thayil's first novel unfurls like the opium smoke he describes so dreamily on almost every other page. This strange, but suitably visionary novel begins in an opium den during the 1970s. The hallucinatory atmosphere is enhanced by the lack of a centre. We follow various characters who drift in and out of Rashid's opium house. These are the outsiders of Indian metropolitan society. First among equals is Dimple, a eunuch who earns a little money preparing the pipes. His boss, Rashid, is greedy, patronising and snobbish by turns. Then there is Mr Lee, in exile from Mao's China, whose thoughts return repeatedly to his homeland. What makes Narcopolis ingenious and powerful is how opium doubles as history. In the early days, the hippie trail passes through Rashid's door in a fug of idealism and a new brand of colonialism. The rise of heroin during the 1980s and '90s coincides with a surge in political and religious violence. Thayil's other career as a poet serves his prose well. A fantastic book.
by Robyn Young
(read by Nick McArdle)
Hodder & Stoughton
Robyn Young writes bold, brassy novels set in the Middle Ages and revelling in bellicose set pieces and horrific weaponry. Having completed one trilogy - Brethren, set during the Crusades - she launched another three-parter: Insurrection, which tells the epic story of Scottish king Robert the Bruce. Part one dashed through Bruce's formative years. As Renegade opens, Robert is in exile in Ireland, having annoyed the old enemy, England, which has sent assassins courtesy of ruthless King Edward I. Ever the politician, (at least compared to William "Braveheart" Wallace), Robert seeks the lost Staff of Malachy, a mystical relic he hopes will smooth Edward's furrowed brow. Fat chance. Robert is arrested, and trapped in the webs of Edward's court. While Wallace tries to hold the English back, Bruce has to convince Edward of his loyalty to survive for another day. Nick McArdle's smooth English tones seem at odds with this lively Celtic tale but makes game attempts at Irish and Scottish accents.