Paperback reviews: 'The Engagement', 'The Fun Parts' 'The Sports Gene', 'Cairo', 'It’s Not Rocket Science'


'The Engagement' by Chloe Hooper (Vintage £8.99)

Chloe Hooper’s unsettling psychological thriller is a modern version of “Bluebeard”. Liese Campbell is an out-of-work architect who’s maxed out her credit cards and is heavily in debt; fleeing to Melbourne, she gets a job in her uncle’s estate agents’ firm, showing prospective tenants around crappy modern apartments. More or less on a whim, she tumbles into bed with one of them – a wealthy farmer named Alexander, who’s looking for a flat in the city – and when he offers her cash afterwards, she accepts, and soon finds herself playing the role of a prostitute to him. Except that he doesn’t know it’s a role play. Before she returns to England, he asks her to come to stay with him in his country mansion, miles from anywhere in the middle of 7,000 acres of farmland. She accepts. Big mistake.

The style is plain and lucid, with beautifully accurate word-choice, and plenty of grace-notes that one pauses to appreciate – like the description of the rams on the farm “formally dressed with their horns on’”; or, when Alexander exhibits anger, “I felt resentment coming up from the ground like it was a kind of crop”.

For most of its length this is a two-hander, with the lovers/adversaries locked in a queasy power struggle, while the reader tries to work out who’s lying, and who’s deluded, and how the hell Liese is going to get out of there. The dialogue is tense, naturalistic, edgy, like a series of rallies between two tennis players who both hate and respect one another. It’s a highly intelligent, unpredictable, very grown-up, and crazily readable novel about sex and power and deception. Pity Alfred Hitchcock never got the chance to make a film of it.

'The Fun Parts' by Sam Lipsyte (Granta £8.99)

A junkie decides to write a children’s book about Marvelous Marvin Hagler. A kindergarten teacher-cum-poet wants a baby and attracts the interest of the “crypto-creepy” multi-millionaire dad of one of her charges. A straight guy gets a lesbian into bed by dint of his amazingly expressive face, which is able to wordlessly convey the idea of “Penis as Pure Novelty”. Then there’s the disturbed adolescent known as the Dungeon Master, who oversees the fantasy gaming of a bunch of younger kids and sadistically ensures every game has a painful and/or humiliating ending. None of these 13 short stories leaves a sweet taste in the mouth, and there’s a definite “look-at-me” quality about the writing – but they’re undeniably clever, and linguistically inventive. The word-choice is deliberately unexpected, sometimes perversely so (sample: “Exemplars of encroaching gnarlitude did ghoulish waltzes” – though, to be fair, that is supposed to be humorous). Overall verdict: easy to admire, hard to love.

'The Sports Gene' by David Epstein (Yellow jersey Press £8.99)

In this highly entertaining and enlightening study of what makes for athletic success, the sports journalist David Epstein asks whether it’s nature or nurture – and concludes that it’s 100 per cent both. There are chapters on why Jamaican sprinters are such world-beaters, why male athletes out-perform female ones, why there are so many “intersex” female athletes, and why there was a “Big Bang” in the diversity of body types in elite sports – at the start of the 20th century, an Olympic shot putter and an Olympic high jumper would have had pretty similar physiques; not so by the end of it. Advice for would-be champions boils down to two things: choose your parents carefully, and put in your 10,000 hours of practice.

'Cairo' by Ahdaf Soueif (Bloomsbury £8.99)

Cairo is the novelist Ahdaf Soueif’s evocative account of the “18 golden days” between 25 January and 11 February 2011, when President Mubarak’s regime was toppled by a popular uprising. Much has happened since then. At first, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces seemed friendly to the revolution; but they were slow to relinquish power and were only removed after much bloodshed. That was Revolution II. Then the Muslim Brotherhood took over, and turned out to be as corrupt and unjust as Mubarak, and had to be removed in Revolution III. This is an unfinished story, but that first, glorious, 18-day revolution offers grounds for optimism to those, like Soueif, who are still fighting for “bread, freedom, and social justice”.

'It’s Not Rocket Science' by Ben Miller (Sphere £7.99)

Ben Miller was studying for a PhD in physics at Cambridge until he was lured into a career in comedy. This book is an homage to his first love, written in as deliberately accessible and unscholarly a manner as possible, aimed at the reader who knows bugger-all about science and is missing out on the excitement. Miller explains how we know that we’re falling towards a black hole, explores the physics of cake-baking, and speculates that though we are probably the only intelligent species in the Milky Way as yet, we are the ancestors of future Klingons. The style is at times a bit over-jocular, but it’s a readable and engaging bid to throw a bridge between the two cultures.