Let the Games Begin, by Niccolò Ammaniti, translated by Kylee Doust, Canongate, RRP£12.99, 336 pages

Niccolò Ammaniti is best known for two fine, bittersweet novels of childhood innocence lost – I’m Not Scared (2003) and Me and You (2012) – both of which have been adapted for film. Let the Games Begin, a raucous black comedy, marks something of a change in direction.

At its centre is Fabrizio Ciba, a pompous novelist who is invited, along with sundry pop stars, footballers and politicians, to a lavish party thrown by an eccentric billionaire in the centre of Rome. After drinks, the guests are invited to go hunting in the Villa Ada, which has been converted into a giant game reserve for the purpose. Predictably, things go wrong, and the hunters become the hunted.

That précis makes the novel sound more interesting than it actually is. There is the germ of a good idea here – a comment on the extravagance of the Berlusconi years – but Ammaniti is sidetracked by subplots concerning Russian Olympians and Satanic sects. This is scattergun satire that rarely hits the target.

Review by David Evans

The Gardener from Ochakov, by Andrey Kurkov, translated by Amanda Love Darragh, Harvill Secker, RRP£12.99, 320 pages

When nebbish Igor accompanies his family’s gardener, Stepan, to the seaside town of Ochakov he comes across an antique police uniform. He discovers that if he wears it while sipping brandy, he can move back and forth from the 1950s to the present day.

Igor enjoys his adventures in the past: he befriends a wine smuggler and falls in love with a fisherman’s wife. But he discovers that life in Soviet Ukraine was not the idyll his mother had fondly described, and he is targeted by a violent gang.

Andrey Kurkov, author of Death and the Penguin, has perfected a brand of deadpan magical realism; his latest reads like a mixture of Mikhail Bulgakov and a rejected script for the amiable 1990s sitcom Goodnight Sweetheart.

Kurkov’s unadorned style accentuates the narrative’s simple, fable-like quality but The Gardener from Ochakov is thematically rich: one might read it as a reflection on the role of alcohol in Ukrainian society, or the no less pernicious effects of post-Soviet nostalgia.

Review by DE

Johnny Alucard, by Kim Newman, Titan, RRP£12.99, 480 pages

The fourth Anno Dracula novel brings the series, which opened in the Victorian era, up to date. After Count Dracula met his “true death” in the previous volume, Dracula Cha Cha Cha, the position of lord of the undead lies vacant. Into the power vacuum steps Ion Popescu, a vampiric Transylvanian peasant boy who believes himself rightful heir to the throne.

Emigrating to America in the late 1970s, Popescu reinvents himself, first as New York drug lord Johnny Pop, who hooks his human clients on dried vampire blood. Then, as Hollywood mogul John Alucard, he peddles that subtler narcotic, movies. Both roles are stepping stones in his master plan to resurrect Dracula and help establish a homeland for vampire kind.

As ever, the tale is studded with characters from both real life and fiction. Newman is a one-man pop culture Wikipedia and there’s fun to be had catching his most obscure references. He’s also a skilled, witty writer, conjuring a world of blood-soaked decadence.

Review by James Lovegrove

Shaman, by Kim Stanley Robinson, Orbit, RRP£18.99, 464 pages

In last year’s 2312, Robinson took us on a dazzling journey through the solar system as it might be 300 years from now. In Shaman, he delves 30,000 years into the past and explores our world as it was during the last glacial period. Inspired by Werner Herzog’s documentary about Palaeolithic cave art, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the novel is an amazing piece of re-creation, vividly evoking the deprivations, animistic beliefs and day-to-day struggles of a primitive tribe.

Where it falls down is as successful fiction. Amid the welter of well-researched background detail – several pages are devoted to the simple but crucial act of starting a fire – there’s precious little narrative drive. The action really only gets going halfway through, when the wife of Loon, a young shaman-in-waiting, is kidnapped by a rival tribe. Loon pursues her, is himself taken captive, and then must escape with Elga and find his way back to his own people.

Anthropologically fascinating the book may be, but plot-wise it is seriously underpowered.

Review by JL

The Testament of Mary, by Colm Tóibín, Penguin, RRP£7.99, 112 pages

Slim and unsettling, The Testament of Mary is Colm Tóibín’s third novel to be shortlisted for the Man Booker prize.

Tóibín’s Mary, an unremarked woman whose beloved son created momentous events, recounts the life and death of Jesus Christ. Her story is a “testament”, not a gospel account; there is no “god-spell” or good news here, and Mary’s horror at the long-ago events has not dimmed: “Memory fills my body as much as blood and bones.” She is bewildered when her son proclaims himself the Son of God and angered by the crowds of “misfits” who follow him and draw official attention. Even the miracles, as she relates them, are ambiguous and take place amid confusion and crowds.

The Testament of Mary works so well because it is one mother’s extraordinary story that Tóibín grounds in the universal experience and losses of motherhood. “I realised that he had not even heard me,” Mary says, recalling her efforts to warn her heedless son of danger.

Review by Isabel Berwick

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