Paperback reviews: From Thunderstruck by Elizabeth McCracken to 10:04 by Ben Lerner

Also The Rich by John Kampfner, Dip by Andrew Fusek Peters and The Table of Less Valued Knights by Marie Phillips

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The Independent Culture

Thunderstruck by Elizabeth McCracken, Vintage - £8.99, 5 stars

It’s not entirely safe to be a character in one of Elizabeth McCracken’s stories. You might get murdered, or your partner might die, or you could suffer a serious head injury. But if that gives the impression that this collection of stories is morbid or depressing, nothing could be further from the truth. McCracken’s world-view is empathetic, sensitive, sometimes even humorous; every story has a tender awareness that we are creatures “of warm blood and nerves”, as Chekhov put it. “Some Terpsichore” is the story of a woman briefly famous as a novelty singer because her voice sounded like the musical saw with which her violent and unstable boyfriend accompanied her. “Property” explores the pathos of empty houses and old possessions. “Juliet” is about the murder of a woman in a small town and how it affected the staff of the public library she used to frequent. The brilliant “Peter Elroy: A Documentary by Ian Casey” is a most unusual tale of betrayal, in which a film director does his best friend no favours by making him the subject of a movie; many years later (and a lot of the stories feature large time-shifts, by the way), dying of pancreatic cancer, the friend visits the director’s family. The title story is the pièce de résistance: an American family take a trip to Paris, in the hope of sorting out their wayward daughter; a life-changing accident occurs. It’s moving and thought-provoking, also unexpectedly uplifting; and includes one of the most effective perspective-shifts you’re likely to come across. These stories are beautifully constructed, with every character in the right place and having a key part to play, like the pieces in a chess problem.

10:04 by Ben Lerner, Granta - £7.99, 4 stars

10:04 is a clever book. The unnamed narrator is a New York writer who’s just been offered a fat six-figure advance for his second novel, at more or less the same time as discovering he has a possibly fatal heart condition, while his close friend but not girlfriend Alex wants him to father a child with her. He’s also feeling guilty about eating an octopus which had been “massaged to death” at an expensive restaurant, and worried about a superstorm that’s about to hit the city. Lerner’s style is tricksy and super-confident: one section is the writer’s short story based on themes that appeared in the previous section; another section features excerpts from a Whitmanesque poem he’s writing; another section has an extended literary analysis of Ronald Reagan’s speech on the occasion of the Challenger disaster. The chronology leaps about nimbly, and modish black-and-white photos illustrate the text. One has to admire the virtuosity. But sometimes I feel I’d like to read a novel by a brainy New York writer that wasn’t about a brainy New York writer.

The Rich by John Kampfner, Abacus - £10.99, 3 stars

In this historical account of how wealth tends to end up concentrated in the hands of the few, Kampfner demonstrates that the super-rich have always been with us, from Marcus Licinius Crassus of the Roman Republic, to Cosimo de’ Medici in Renaissance Florence, to the sheikhs, oligarchs, geeks and bankers of today. It’s readable and interesting, and full of good anecdotes and curious facts. For example, the Emirates Palace in Dubai is the only hotel in the world with a vending machine that dispenses gold bars. But there is not much analysis. It would be interesting to explore the political/sociological/economic/psychological reasons <itals>why<itals> the super-rich consistently emerge, even in the most troubled times, and why they are tolerated, indeed venerated. But Kampfner does not really seize that opportunity.

Dip by Andrew Fusek Peters, Rider - £8.99, 3 stars

Dip opens with a not-very-good poem in the style of Housman; but it gets better after that. While recovering from depression, Andrew Peters chronicled a year of his outdoor swims in Shropshire and Wales, from January to December. There are lyrical descriptions of scenery, seasons and wildlife, as well as some rather wonderful double-page photographs of lakes, rivers and rapids. WG Sebald once said that there wasn’t enough weather in English writing; there is certainly plenty of weather here. It’s an enjoyable piece of travel writing and a testament to the healing power of the natural world – cold water can “wipe clean worry and launder dark thoughts”. It made me feel eager to go and swim in Barmouth Lake, or the River Teme. Not in January, though.

The Table of Less Valued Knights by Marie Phillips, Vintage - £7.99, 4 stars

Sir Humphrey du Val isn’t one of the knights of King Arthur’s Round Table; he isn’t even one of the lower-status knights of the Table of Errant Companions; he sits at the table of Less Valued Knights in a draughty corner with the other no-hopers and has-beens. When he gets the chance to go on a quest, however, he grabs it, taking his giant squire Conrad (who’s on the short side for a giant) and his elephant Jemima, to seek the golden-haired damsel Elaine’s kidnapped fiancé. The picaresque plot features plenty of jousts and castles, an enchanted sword, a sex-change, and no fewer than three men in iron masks. It’s the Arthurian world as it might have been written up by Douglas Adams, and very good fun, too.

Brandon Robshaw’s latest children’s novel is ‘The Big Wish’, published by Chicken House