Surveillance, By Jonathan Raban (Picador £7.99)
Jonathan Raban's novel gives an intense and compelling vision of an America driven mad and inward by 9/11, a world where "'Homeland Security' meant keeping the homeland in a state of continuous insecurity". America is seething and Seattle is unsettled. In the midst of this, Lucy Bengstrom, single mum and earnest liberal, has been assigned to interview one August Vanags, whose memoir of a childhood spent as a refugee in the Second World War has entranced the nation. Her research leads to a friendship. Her daughter Alida comes to adore this delightfully accessible old man. Tad, Lucy's dearest friend, distrusts this new friendship. Mr Lee, the landlord, is developing a most unromantic crush on Lucy. A shrill correspondent from England casts doubt on August's story.
The characters don't lie before you on the page; they lean over your shoulder. All so improbable, all so real: Lucy, gentle, well-meaning, ambivalent about everything; Tad, ardent Trotskyist, putative Buddhist, all-around activist, bursting with love but high on hatred; August, learned, sweet, reactionary and evasive; Alida (my favourite) wishing that people were as simple as algebra. The secrets kept are neither exposed nor resolved.
Those wanting some Orwellian dystopia will be disappointed. We are shown a fully recognisable America, just a rather heightened one. When the author veers off into fantasy proper, he is less compelling. The ending confounds all of the characters' plans, best and worst laid. The author reminds us that beneath our feet lies a foe who can quash all quarrels.
Atlas 02 ed Sudeep Sen (Aark arts £14.95)
This book is a gallimaufry of literature the purpose of which is, in the words of its editor, "to present the best of Indian and international writing to India and the world." In this it succeeds beautifully.
The collection opens with an interview with Salman Rushdie. It's an unexpected delight. The man who emerges bears little resemblance to the haughty, rebarbative figure of popular imagination. Here he is on the success of Midnight's Children: "what it confirmed to me was that I could write books – a huge relief!" I loved, too, this thought: "A lot of writers have the child in them alive. It's not the innocence of not knowing things. It's the innocence of being open to things."
This collection contains many gems, from new translations of Indian greats such as Rabindranath Tagore to offerings by our own John Barton. There are essays, short stories, and lush, disturbing illustrations. The poems tend to the darkly fanciful. It's not, perhaps, the most accessible collection you'll read this year: the print is very fine and the contents page proves a wayward guide to what's actually in the book. But a new, fiercely bright torch has been lit.
The Court of the Air By Stephen Hunt (Harper Voyager £7.99)
Here is a strange world indeed: Dickens' London but set in the future. It's something of a shock for Molly Templar when the lady who frees her from a workhouse adolescence turns out to be a bawd. When Molly's first client turns out to be a killer, the shock is compounded. When she returns to the workhouse to find her friends slaughtered, her reserves of shock are almost exhausted. Almost, for there's a lot more this alternative world has to offer her. Or rather, as it transpires, these three alternative worlds.
Oliver Brooks, meanwhile, is an orphan with the madness and insight of the dead and he, too, brings death to those closest to him and doesn't know why. But the two children have been guided and guarded more than they know. Certain "Observers" have been watching over them, pointing them to another world, the Court of the Air, where the horrors and ambiguities of the worlds below are resolved.
This three-tiered world of Stephen Hunt's is studded with invention but is only intermittently convincing. The children, sadly, are ciphers. But then, so was Alice in Wonderland.
Bad Monkeys By Matt Rush (Bloomsbury £10.99)
We find Jane Charlotte in a psychiatric wing, accused of murder. Her doctor needs to know whether she's a fantasist, psychotic or, as she claims, a highly motivated but wayward operative in an organisation dedicated to the eradication of evil. She's not telling the whole truth, so much is certain. She claims to be protected by "the organisation", and she's ready with all the details. But the organisation seems a bit ragged: its departments don't always get on with each other and, for all its vaunted power, glitches keep occurring – transmissions get jammed, surveillance throws up strange and misleading images.
Or are they so misleading? There are lots of "or are they?" moments in this gloriously adolescent fantasy; adolescent not only in its assumption that some people are beyond redemption, but also in the very notion of good and bad underworlds fighting it out with the aid of " scary clowns" and ghostly assassins. It reminds you of nothing so much as a tale whispered by a pair of geeks at a sleep-over. It's silly, scary, and enormous fun. I must be a geek.
On the Trail of Shakespeare By J Keith Cheetham (Luath Press £6.99)
Used as we are to the dubious notion that writers are formed by impulse, it is salutary to be reminded that they are quite as much the products of geography. Here, we are taken through Shakespeare's life and works, place by place, and almost every location yields an anecdote. We learn that John Shakespeare was fined one shilling for his lèse majesté in setting up his own dung heap; that a descendent survives of the mulberry tree planted by Shakespeare in the grounds of New Place, Stratford.
The book is delightfully easy on the eye, the tone modest, concise and conversational. The section entitled "Shakespeare the Traveller" is something of a disappointment, containing the usual fruitless speculation about whether Shakespeare visited the continent. Then again, the author can hardly be blamed: there is so little to go on.
Where there is something to go on, he goes there, furnishing the reader with a delightful and scholarly introduction to the Britain Shakespeare knew.