Give Us This Day by Jonathan Tulloch (CAPE £11.99)
Father Tom Carey is a fiftyish, blue-eyed Paul Newman lookalike, working in a comfortable parish in the North East. Diligent, bookish and well-liked, he attracts a healthy-sized congregation, who all contribute generously to the church building fund. Untouched by scandal - a fondness for wine gums his only vice - he's a success and something of an anomaly in the modern Catholic church, and the Bishop wants to fast-track him to Monsignor. But Tom's suffering a crisis of faith and, "beginning to feel a revulsion for God's world... the bits you see when you lift the stone." And that's even before he's sent to work as the chaplain of an industrial Teeside port, a filthy and windswept slagheap of a place, seemingly populated entirely by one-eyed alcoholic tramps, cheap prostitutes and the coarse sailors who use them.
Tulloch masterfully fashions a foreboding gothic landscape out of this godforsaken colony of the damned. Down here, Carey gets to emulate his hero Father Damien, patron saint of lepers and outcasts, and soon he's going on drinking benders with a mysterious ship's captain. He also entertains thoughts of resuming a touchingly chaste romance with the nun whose hand he held, once, as a teenager, and fell in love with.
Tulloch's apparently simple and introspective drama turns out to be an immensely resonant and powerful story, about a man attempting to reconnect with the divine who first has to understand what it is to be human, and forgive himself for it.
Mimi and Toutou Go Forth by Giles Foden (PENGUIN £7.99)
In June 1915, as the young men embroiled in a new and terrible form of mechanised warfare on the Western Front were being shelled and gassed, a motley and hastily-assembled battalion of 28 volunteers and conscripts embarked on an unlikely expedition to "the forgotten front" in East Africa.
Two plucky little mahogany motor launches, His Majesty's Ships Mimi and Toutou, at 40ft the smallest in the British fleet, were transported on an ocean liner from the Thames to South Africa, and then overland through the Belgian Congo, to Lake Tanganyika in what was then German East Africa, where they successfully engaged with German warships five times their size. Although largely forgotten today (except perhaps as the inspiration for C S Forester's The African Queen), it was a remarkable, against-all-odds victory of major strategic importance. And all the more remarkable for the fact that the mission was helmed by Lt Commander Geoffrey Spicer-Simpson, who was a born leader of men, cunning strategist and celebrated war hero in his own mind, but in fact a vainglorious fantasist and coward who'd twice been court-martialled for negligence.
With material this good it's enough that Giles Foden sets the scene authoritatively and tells his stranger than fiction story straightforwardly. The blustering Spicer-Simpson strides towards accidental heroism wearing a skirt and swishing a lion-handled fly-whisk, and subverts the conventions of the colonial wartime adventure story all on his own.
Tamburlaine Must Die by Louise Welsh (CANONGATE £9.99)
After a notable debut, The Cutting Room, comes Louise Welsh's second literary thriller about an innocent man who gets drawn into a city's violent underbelly. This time the city is London, and the protagonist is the playwright Christopher Marlowe who was stabbed to death in a house in Deptford in 1593. Welsh has Marlowe narrate the events of the last 10 days of his life, during which he tries to unravel the conspiracy and political intrigue that he's the unwitting victim of.
It begins when he's summoned to face the Privy Council, which charges him with heresy and sedition after an inflammatory atheist tract signed by "Tamburlaine" was found pinned to a church door. A meeting with the grubby Newgate jailer confirms to him that it was his former friend and fellow playwright Thomas Kyd who, from his place on the rack, denounced Marlowe to the Council as, "an unbeliever who lies with whores of both sexes". Which he was, as it happens, and this betrayal matters less to Marlowe than discovering who Tamburlaine is and why he's framed him. And what, exactly, is Walter Raleigh's involvement?
Welsh's plot inventions are a tantalising addition to the mystery that surrounds Marlowe. But the pleasure of her book has more to do with her bold reconstruction, in a mostly contemporary idiom, of the unwholesome sights and smells of the city; and of Marlowe as a rakish man of action with an uncanny insight into the psyche of men corrupted by power and dark desires.
Mediated: how the media shape your world by Thomas de Zengotita (BLOOMSBURY £10.99)
Imagine a philosophy or media studies academic who not only understands exactly what postmodernism means, but knows how to explain it in a way that you can actually grasp. How cool would that be? Meet American academic Thomas de Zengotita. His hip and hyper book almost audibly buzzes with observations and excitable theories about these accelerated and unreal times, and posits that the recent exponential proliferation of images, information and options in the developed world has dissolved the barrier between reality and representation. The result is that we construct our own identities and personalities like method actors performing in a drama of our own devising. Which particular insight is not new, but seems fresh and apposite again after Zengotita exposes the mechanics of the process, and explains how it accounts for the cult of celebrity and the general narcissism of our age.
His most original insight - obvious when you think about it - concerns what he's labelled "the flattery of representation". We're incessantly addressed by performers, politicians, advertisers and, for that matter, smartass cultural theorists, all of them clamouring for our valuable time and attention. And combined with the God's-eye view of the world that modern media afford us, it's enough to deceive us into thinking that our choices are meaningful. By the book's end he's convinced you that we've surpassed Nietzsche's supermen, and that soon we'll have usurped God too. He's too canny to say whether that's good or bad of course, but does at least insist that it's important we recognise it.
The Man Who Hated Football by Will Buckley (HARPER PERENNIAL £7.99)
Jimmy Stirling is Chief Football Writer for a Sunday broadsheet, at a time when football writers are paid more money and awarded more column inches for their opinions than ever before. He's grown bored of the game, though, and contemptuous of both players and fans. He loathes his colleagues, and despairs of the ludicrous prominence accorded to the sport, such that the country's most popular newspapers, "could tell you more about the state of Steven Gerrard's groin than what might or might not be happening in the entire continent of Africa".
A typical Saturday afternoon finds him reporting on a relegation battle in which he has no interest, arriving in time for the second half but without a clue which team is which. When the final whistle blows he reuses the standard footballing clichés to cobble together a match report and invents some quotes from the manager, safe in the knowledge that he won't be caught out because nobody in football reads the broadsheets for fear of seeming homosexual.
Shabby, heavy-drinking and bilious, he's equally ill- at-ease in his personal life. He incompetently muddles his way through PTA meetings, driving lessons and dogging sessions, as irritated by the inane chatter of his wife's friends as by the interminable debate about the national side's problem on the left wing. There's a mawkishness to the obligatory scenes about his relationship with his sports-loving father, but otherwise this debut by a real-life broadsheet sportswriter is a thoroughly invigorating piece of comic invective on journalism, parenting and the beautiful game.
Mary Seacole by Ron Ramdin (HAUS LIFE & TIMES £9.99)
In his preface to The Wonderful Adventures of Mary Seacole in Many Lands, W H Russell praised the courage and pureness of heart of the pioneering nurse and "mother to the British army", writing, "I trust that England will not forget one who nursed her sick." Sadly, until comparatively recently, there did only seem to be room for one heroine of the Crimean War in the nation's collective memory - and Ron Ramdin implies that Florence Nightingale deliberately besmirched Seacole's reputation in an effort to steal the limelight.
Born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1805, Seacole began practicing medicine at an early age, feeding traditional Creole herbal remedies to cats and dogs. Having spent her life travelling and combating disease wherever she could, she was in her early fifties when she heard that there was important work to be done in the Crimea, and set sail for London to report to the War Office. There she learned that, having no formal training and being, as she put it, "a few shades duskier" than the English nurses, her services would not be required. Undeterred, she made her own way to Balaclava and erected her British Hotel, providing the army with medical attention, tender care and cheese sandwiches.
Sadly, though, Ramdin's biography of this extraordinary woman is merely perfunctory, and dry in a way that's ill-suited to its subject. He conveys the times well enough, but his account only sparks into life when he's quoting from Mary's memoirs, and we hear for ourselves her funny, plain-speaking, wise and comforting voice.Reuse content