The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman (Windmill £8.99)
Nate Piven was a high-school nerd, but is now a rising star on the New York literary scene, with a five-figure advance for his novel in his pocket, assignments to write for high-end literary magazines – and a series of hot women queuing up to date him. Characters become interesting when they are in conflict not just with others but with themselves, and Nate is a great example: he’s smart, decent, civilised, witty, thoughtful, non-sexist, a liberal equipped with a functioning social conscience; he’s also smug, selfish, hedonistic and self-congratulatory, with a habit of leaving the women he dates unhappier than they were before they met him. He’s a self-deceiver, but too smart not to know that; a self-accuser, but always quick to forgive himself.
The central relationship of the novel is with Hannah, another writer (almost all the characters are writers in this book) who seems the perfect match: Nate’s uncertainty about whether he wants to commit is matched by the reader’s uncertainty about whether he deserves her. It’s a brilliant depiction of the modern male psyche: Nate’s description of the perfect blow-job, which he envisions with perfect clarity but won’t explain to Hannah, is a tour de force, and I loved his reaction, on receiving an emotional email from Hannah, of wanting either to smash his computer, go for a ten-mile run uphill or read some Schopenhauer. It’s also a razor-sharp dissection of the rigours of the New York dating scene, full of unspoken but cast-iron rules and points lost and gained. Waldman’s prose is clear and elegant, and she can skewer a character in a couple of sentences: for instance, a friend of Hannah’s is “one of those people who sees her life as a long series of injustices perpetrated against her by various assholes. If you take issue with her, you’re one of the assholes”. A clever, funny novel which works on both an intellectual and an emotional level, and makes you both condemn and sympathise with its protagonist.
A Crime in Holland by Georges Simenon (trans. Sian Reynolds) (Penguin £6.99)
Despite the lazy cliché that there are no famous Belgians, Belgium has produced more than its share of internationally renowned figures; and perhaps the greatest of these is Georges Simenon. His Inspector Maigret is one of the most memorable and real of fictional detectives: heavy, taciturn, pipe-smoking, cynical, astute. This novel finds him in Holland, investigating the murder of a college lecturer; he’s been called in from Paris because a visiting French mathematician is one of the prime suspects, but since Maigret doesn’t speak a word of Dutch, he’s somewhat handicapped. He discovers a community with a split personality: the strict, Protestant middle-class in their brightly painted houses, and the gin-drinking sailors in the waterfront taverns; a divide which is reflected within each individual. Every character is utterly solid and believable, drawn with a few deft touches. There’s a heft about the writing which make this short novel feel much more substantial than its 150 pages. Simenon wasn’t just a writer of excellent detective stories, but a major 20th-century novelist with a world-view as distinctive as Beckett’s. If you don’t know his work, you should.
Agatha Raisin – Something Borrowed, Someone Dead by MC Beaton (CR Crime £6.99)
In this, the 24th Agatha Raisin novel, the G-and-T-drinking, fag-smoking, middle-aged, man-hungry private detective with a thick waistline but excellent legs is on the case in the Cotswolds once again. This time it’s a jolly widow, fond of borrowing items and not returning them, who’s got it in the neck: murder weapon, a poisoned bottle of home-made elderberry wine. As Agatha investigates, the corpses pile up in the picture-postcard village of Piddlebury... It’s like a satire on the “Mayhem Parva” school of English detective fiction. Characterisation is perfunctory and the writing is simple, verging on the simplistic. It’s certainly easy to read, but feels rather like the result of a collaboration between Alexander McCall Smith and Enid Blyton.
The Serpent’s Promise by Steve Jones (Abacus £9.99)
This is billed as “The Bible Retold as Science” – but there’s little attempt to re-tell biblical stories. Instead, Jones uses them as jumping-off points to investigate scientific questions: what can we learn about human descent fom giantism, DNA and surnames? What’s the geological evidence for floods in antiquity, and did they coincide with the ending of the last Ice Age? Will humans ever live to be as old as Methuselah (969)? How did leprosy originate and what are the prospects for eradicating it? What’s the physical basis for spiritual experiences? Throughout it’s taken for granted that science, unlike religion, delivers real progress in knowledge. Opponents of NewAtheism will have to find a new adjective to express their unease, for “strident” doesn’t do a good job of describing this witty, urbane and erudite book.
The Humans by Matt Haig (Canongate £7.99)
An alien arrives on Earth from an unimaginably distant galaxy, and takes up abode in the empty, naked body of Andrew Martin, a Cambridge mathematician who had only just found a proof of the Riemann hypothesis. Its mission: to impersonate Martin while locating and eliminating everyone who knew of the discovery. But this involves living among the humans – for the alien, a baffling, disgusting experience to begin with, but one which gradually becomes intriguing, enjoyable and rewarding. Much of the fun derives from the alien’s defamiliarising view of human habits – “A Martian Sends aPostcard Home” at novel-length – but there are also elements of a love story and even, towards the end, a thriller. A story which makes you appreciate that human life, with its poetry, music, sport, sex, personal relationships, wine and peanut butter sandwiches, really isn’t so bad.