For Different Class (Doubleday, £18.99), Joanne Harris’s third psychological thriller to be set in the fictional Yorkshire village of Malbury, she returns to St Oswald’s School, the location of her 2005 novel, Gentlemen and Players. Different Class, which takes place a year later, is similar in structure and concept, with two narrators telling a story that ranges over almost quarter of a century – one, an anonymous former pupil with a penchant for drowning rodents and some serious scores to settle, and the other, Latin teacher Roy Straitley, a man on the brink of retirement. Now, the beleaguered establishment (impropriety, murder, poor exam results) is the subject of government intervention. The crisis management team includes Super-Head Johnny Harrington, an old Oswaldian who, as a pupil, was involved in a scandal that resulted in one of Straitley’s colleagues going to gaol and almost cost him his own job. With institutionalised masters clashing with determined modernisers and a staffroom rife with petty feuds, the atmosphere soon becomes poisonous and the truth about what really happened in the past begins to emerge. Although there are some nods to Gentlemen and Players, it’s not necessary to have read it in order to enjoy this deftly orchestrated and beautifully written tale of abuse, loyalty and regret.
School is also the setting for Girls on Fire (Little, Brown, £12.99), the first adult novel from American YA author Robin Wasserman, but here – a small town in Pennsylvania called Battle Creek – the teachers are largely absent from the narrative, which focuses on the intense and increasingly toxic relationship of two outcasts. Awkward nonentity Hannah Dexter is excluded by queen bee Nikki and her acolytes and desperately lonely until rebellious new girl Lacey befriends her, citing their mutual dislike of the reigning mean girl. Under Lacey’s tutelage, Hannah evolves into Dex, with an altogether cooler wardrobe and an appetite for risk-taking, including involvement with black magic. Lacey, who has several dark secrets, eggs her on, and inevitably, things go too far… Although written with great panache and evident sympathy for its subjects, Girls on Fire is fairly repetitive, which, coupled with the 1990s setting – references to Kurt Cobain, Sun-In and the like lend a nostalgic feel – tends to dampen the powder.
Abir Mukherjee’s debut novel, A Rising Man (Harvill Secker, £12.99), is narrated by former Scotland Yard detective Captain Sam Wyndham, a Great War veteran with painful memories who arrives in Calcutta in 1919 to join the police force. Before he’s had a chance to settle into his new home, he’s tasked with solving the murder of a senior British official and finds himself embroiled not only in the politics of Empire – his superiors believe that Indian activists are responsible for the civil servant’s death and news of the massacre at Amritsar foments unrest amongst the population – but also the internecine struggles of his countrymen. Despite the occasional jarring anachronism and a few too many undigested gobbets of historical information, A Rising Man is an assured novel: well-researched and vivid, with a strong plotline, delivered with verve and some appealingly wry humour.
Another splendidly vivid portrayal of a city – Lagos, this time – can be found Leye Adenle’s first novel, Easy Motion Tourist (Cassava Republic, £9.99), although I can’t imagine it’s one that the Nigerian Tourist Board would approve of – the place is lawless, corrupt and stupidly violent, and that’s just the police. Here, the innocent abroad is British journalist Guy Collins, who is on his first foreign trip when he stumbles upon the mutilated body of a woman outside a bar. He attracts the attention both of the authorities and of beautiful Amaka, unofficial social worker to the city’s prostitutes, who is trying to stop the clandestine trade in body parts. Fast and furious, told from a kaleidoscope of different points of view, it’s a rollercoaster ride through a world of extremes, where everything is up for grabs.
The first in a projected series of cyber thrillers, Sockpuppet (Hodder & Stoughton, £16.99) by Matthew Blakstad is a cautionary tale about the power of the internet. Coder Dani Farr has created a bot called sic_girl, whose ‘personality’ is made up of information gathered from other users and regurgitated online – all harmless fun until sic_girl starts reporting that Digital Citizen, a pilot scheme set up by the government to harvest personal information, has been hacked. Minister of Information Bethany Lehrer’s job is on the line, and Dani finds herself under suspicion from the powers that be and beset on all sides by the media. Sockpuppet will undoubtedly be tough going for anyone unfamiliar with the techno-jargon, and the plot is fairly convoluted, but it is a fascinating – and thoroughly hair-raising – examination of just how much we are in thrall to computers, and how willingly we give up our privacy.
(c) Laura Wilson, 2016