Fiction: Sep 17

Catherine Taylor, David Jays and Craig Taylor on The Year is '42 | The Flood | Natasha | The Blackpool Highflyer | Blecky Yuckerella

The Year is '42 by Nella Bielski, translated by John Berger and Lisa Appignanesi (Bloomsbury, £6.99)

It is 1942, and Germany's supremacy over the rest of Europe seems unstoppable: France has fallen and Russia beckons. "Not only is everything allowed, but the worst is recommended." In Paris, Karl Bazinger, a high-ranking German officer, samples the best that a high society under siege has to offer, from black-market luxuries to pretty girls. Urbane and cultured, he is a career soldier who has only recently begun to feel uneasy about the regime he serves. For his old friend Hans Bielenberg, similar disquiet has led to covert and drastic action, which for Hans can have only one outcome. In Kiev, on the banks of the River Dnieper, Katia Zvesdny, a doctor whose husband has long been banished to one of Stalin's labour camps, struggles to maintain a semblance of her old routine while at the centre of war. Although "guaranteed disasters seem more promising than improbable happiness", Ukrainian writer Nella Bielski's humane meditation on disparate lives connected through catastrophe is a subtle, engrossing read, translated with great delicacy and verve.

The Flood by David Maine (Canongate, £6.99)

The world is a thousand years old. Noe is a little younger at 600, gruff, cantankerous, domineering to his family and given to occasional bouts of hypocritical overindulgence. Then God decides to let him in on his sweeping plan to punish humankind - with the exception of Noe, his wife, sons and daughters-in-law - for its persistent debauchery. A retelling of the biblical legend of Noah's Ark could have been as disastrous as the events it describes. Yet David Maine has created a sinewy, rumbustious tale of a discordant group of individuals reluctantly setting sail by faith alone. "I'm not overly fond of boats, I decide, though I realise this might not be the best of times to make that particular confession," muses the stroppy youngest son, Japheth, as the first ominous drops of rain start to fall. The floating menagerie, "uninvited guests at the worst party ever", gropes its way towards a doubtful future with irreverent humour and eventual humility. Acute parallels with modern-day global misfortune are tacit but never forced: all in all, The Flood serves as a reminder that sometimes the oldest stories really are the best.

Natasha by David Bezmozgis (Vintage, £7.99)

Mark and his parents are Russian Jews who squeeze out from pre-perestroika Riga to Toronto in 1980. These exceptional stories (shortlisted for last year's Guardian First Book Award) capture the family's perilous negotiation of the new city. Language is the killer - Mark's parents are stupefied by the demands of English - alongside unforeseen hazards like the bad-luck status of warm Sabbath apple cake. Tarnished weightlifters and mail-order brides only complicate matters, and Bezmozgis treads a guilty hilarity. But as his narrator moves through adolescence, the tone seems less one of farcical dismay than a deliberate, testing blankness. Each story tears off a strip of innocence: Mark's experiments in love involve a happy yappy dog and a blank-eyed teenage girl, but nothing prepares you for the punch of grief he experiences in early adulthood. There's a conscious nod to Isaac Babel here, especially in his baffled youngsters and Yiddisher hard men, but the narrative voice for this uncertain territory of the in-between is brilliantly poised. Short, fraught and teemingly alive.

The Blackpool Highflyer by Andrew Martin (Faber, £7.99)

Jim Stringer, Martin's earnest young narrator, is a serious steamhead (the wife prefers trams, which she considers the coming thing). Within the first few lines of this Edwardian mystery there's a discussion of tonnage and how much a lad might expect for cleaning various engines, and few pages thereafter pass without a nod to standard radial tanks or cylinder bores. Jim works for the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway ("the Lanky"), where there's trouble on the line that takes the factory workers off on their annual jolly to Blackpool, the "excursion magnet". A grindstone causes an emergency stop and a jolting fatality, and Jim worries away at the cause. Are the wreckers connected to anti-rail anarchists or mill owners with a resistance to rational clothing? Why is Monsieur Maurice, the Ventriloquial Paragon, always playing the halls? Martin's plot takes the scenic route, but his prose, busy with shop talk, is worth a dawdle. He takes his leisure seriously, does Martin - this endearing whodunit isn't just for buffleheads.

Blecky Yuckerella by Johnny Ryan (Fantagraphics, £7.99)

With a halo of flies cruising above her head and a nasty case of three-day stubble, Ms Yuckerella is not the kind of adolescent cartoon character Disney will be pairing up with Winnie the Pooh any time soon. Collected here are her adventures with Insanio the cat and Wedgie, her socially awkward friend who enjoys sitting on poles and wetting his pants. Calling the collection gutter humour might actually lift it from its current position in some black hole of absolute bad taste. And yes, it's very, very funny stuff. Ryan gloriously desecrates the traditional four-panel comic strip. In Blecky he's found a character to continue the gag tradition of Nancy and Little Orphan Annie, though it's hard to imagine Orphan Annie fighting off a flock of lesbian gophers. At a time when graphic novels by artists such as Chris Ware have given the medium new emotional depth, Blecky is still, thankfully, splashing about in the shallow end. Don't let the bright cover fool you: this is not for children. Ryan's work is meant for those who find too much nuance and subtlety in an episode of South Park.


Catherine Taylor, David Jays and Craig Taylor

The GuardianTramp

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