In brief: Strange Flowers; The Shadow King; The System – review

An explosive Tipperary-set thriller, a Booker-longlisted tale of women at war in Ethiopia, and a fascinating ‘biography’ of the internet

Strange Flowers
Donal Ryan

Transworld, £12.99, pp240

A young woman goes missing for years in 1970s Tipperary – but Donal Ryan upends any thriller cliches when the mysterious Moll reappears by the end of the first chapter. From there, it’s classic Ryan; poignant and atmospheric storytelling that not only explores the effects of Moll’s absence but picks away at community, family, religion and prejudice when she returns with unexpected companions. With an embedded short story written by one of the characters a generation on, Ryan isn’t afraid to unsettle the tone either; quiet but intermittently, surprisingly, explosive.

The Shadow King
Maaza Mengiste

Canongate, £8.99, pp448

Maaza Mengiste thoroughly deserves the Booker longlisting for The Shadow King, a hugely impressive story of African women at war. The novel begins with a portrait of the tense daily lives of orphan Hirut and her mistress in Ethiopia, broadening out into an epic war narrative when emperor Haile Selassie goes into exile. Hirut disguises a peasant as the emperor – the titular Shadow King – and becomes his guard, inspiring other women to take up arms. Mengiste makes similarly brave choices in approach and style but her risks pay off.

The System
James Ball

Bloomsbury, £20, pp288

The former Guardian journalist James Ball’s last book discussed how truth has become devalued in the social media age; his new one takes that idea a step further by exploring “who owns the internet and how it owns us”. We all think we know this story – the world’s biggest tech companies have become the world’s biggest companies full stop – but Ball, with this biography of the internet, takes us beyond Zuckerberg, Bezos et al into a murkier world where we discover how everything online works and who benefits from it. Fascinating, engaging and important, too.

• To order Strange Flowers, The Shadow King or The System go to Free UK p&p over £15


Ben East

The GuardianTramp

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