Five new books to read this week

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Rachelle Atalla
Hodder & Stoughton, available May 12.

THEY say they never judge a book by its cover, but I took one look at the livid red cover of The Pharmacist, and wanted to dive inside.
I was not deceived. A claustrophobic underworld lurks within the nearly 350 pages of Rachelle Atalla’s debut novel.
In this airless post-apocalyptic city in a bunker, people exist hand to mouth; going about their business like ants. Busy doing nothing. We are not told why they are there. Only that they’ve been around long enough for hope to be forgotten.
It might be a recipe for boredom, but in Atalla’s capable hands, it’s anything but.
The story is told through the eyes of a young woman, a pharmacist known as Wolfe. All the “detainees” call each other by their surname. It’s all part of a systematic process of dehumanization.
Wolfe is our eyes and ears in the burrow-like bunker, which is ruled by an all-powerful leader named ND.
ND lives in a certain style in his luxury quarters, with a personal chef, while his people vacuum the indeterminate grime from food pouches.
Through Wolfe, we glimpse the daily agony experienced by inmates as they rehearse routines in a heavily regulated – and medicated – society.
They wear overalls and sand shoes and live side by side in dormitories. Deprived of the comforts of their former life, hope is difficult.
The action opens with a man lying on the concrete floor of a recreation room. As Stirling, one of the bunker doctors, tries to help the man, Wolfe asks two children what happened. He swallowed all the plastic houses in Monopoly, a boy told him. And hotels, adds a girl.
From the first page, Atalla deftly guides the reader through hearts and minds as Wolfe navigates a path littered with potential pitfalls.
The feeling of claustrophobia is almost overwhelming at times, but the humanity of Atalla’s storytelling powers cuts through the gloom.
One of the most moving scenes in the novel occurs when a baby is born against all odds.
The positive effect this new life has on the inhabitants of the bunker is palpable.
There are nuances of George Orwell in this superb beginning of writing, but the voice of Rachelle Atalla is very original. And entirely hers.

9/10
Jan Patience

Lessons In Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus is published in hardcover by Doubleday, priced at £14.99 (ebook £7.99). Available now

Named as one of the must-reads of 2022, it’s easy to see why Apple TV scooped up the rights to Lessons In Chemistry. Original and refreshing, Elizabeth Zott is one of those unforgettable singular characters that we don’t come across often enough in fiction. She is a woman from the 1960s who wants to unlock the secrets of life through chemistry. Although she can understand chemical reactions, she has no idea about office politics or why people react the way they do to her – yet she finds a kindred spirit in award-nominated Calvin Evans. Nobel. Elizabeth finds herself kicked out of college for not toeing the line, and somehow finds herself the star of a TV cooking show where she teaches her mostly female audience about food chemistry and self-determination – don’t not settling for the status quo where women are underpaid, undervalued and undervalued. Witty and dark, it’s both a breath of fresh air and a reminder of all that still needs to change for true equality.

9/10

Beth O’Leary’s The No-Show is published in hardcover by Quercus, priced at £14.99 (ebook £8.99). Available now

Beth O’Leary’s latest novel departs from her previous efforts, which focused on two main characters. It opens with three women – Siobhan, Miranda and Jane – who have all been stood by the same man. The question is, why? It’s generally easy to connect with O’Leary’s characters, but that bond seems harder to form in this novel. At first, women’s decision-making and willingness to forgive can seem frustrating. As in his previous books, the individual chapters are told from different angles – on this occasion adding an element of confusion in places. But as the story unfolds, the lives of the main players draw the reader in until the story comes to its unexpected, but ultimately satisfying, ending. All in all, an enjoyable read.

7/10

nonfiction

Left On Tenth: A Second Chance At Life by Delia Ephron is published in hardcover by Doubleday, priced at £16.99 (ebook £9.99).

Author, screenwriter and playwright Delia Ephron is best known for her romantic comedies such as You’ve Got Mail and for collaborating with her sister Nora on films such as Sleepless In Seattle. Her tongue-in-cheek commentary on life’s challenges big and small, combined with her witty dialogue means that many of her best lines have become mantras for the middle-aged woman. Left On Tenth puts those talents to good use, in a memoir documenting Ephron’s life after losing her beloved husband of more than 30 years, her unexpected romance with an old flame, and an epic battle against the cancer. As tempting as it is to read this as just another script, this book is underpinned by the realization that this isn’t a movie, this is real life – in all its pain and glory. Ephron is fearless in his investigation of the circumstances, coincidences and emotions that can derail and unsettle us at any time, for better or for worse, and his famous levity carries the reader with it.

8/10

Children’s book of the week

Amma’s Sari by Sandhya Parappukkaran, illustrated by Michelle Pereira, is published in hardcover by Hardie Grant Children’s Publishing, priced at £11.99 (no ebook). Available April 28

Readers will be swept away by the illustrations of Amma’s sari just as six-year-old Shreya is in the folds of her mother’s outfit. It’s a touching story of life in two worlds: Shreya is a second-generation immigrant, and is caught between her family life and her mother – who wears a beautiful sari every day – and the Western country in which she lives, where people can’t help but watch when they are out and about. Shreya may have some complicated feelings about her mother’s saree and how it sets them apart from the crowd, but a little crisis helps change her perspective. The words are lyrical and easy to read, the illustrations are beautiful, and at its core it’s a love story for your culture and where you’re from – something that many readers are likely to relate to. .

9/10

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