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.

Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate