Non-fiction: Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, Harper Collins
Is feminism humourless and self-serious? Maybe, insinuates essayist Roxane Gay - that, after all, is one of the reasons she wrote Bad Feminist, a suite of think-pieces that ruminate on what it is to be a young woman in the world today.
Admittedly, in the abstract that sounds like a gruelling and wearying undertaking - however, Gay sets about the task with self-deprecation and a sardonic charm. Even if you couldn't tell the difference between Andrea Dworkin and Conan the Barbarian there is lots here to keep you reading - the essays go down like cool lemonade on a warm day.
Her prose certainly twinkles (Gay has that rare gift of being profound and throwaway at the same time) and she has fun playing the ditz... but a ditz with brains (she is, after all, a professor of English at Purdue University).
"Pink is my favourite colour," Gay writes early on. "I used to say my favourite colour was black to be cool, but it is pink-all shades of pink. If I have an accessory, it is probably pink. I read Vogue, and I'm not doing it ironically, though it might seem that way. I once live-tweeted the September issue."
Alongside the lightness, she poses serious questions: can you be an intelligent, articulation representative of womanhood while crushing on pink teddies; does an aversion to underarm hair mark you as a traitor to your gender? Tender and funny, Gay can see both sides and wiggles her way out of firm conclusions. Then, that isn't what this book is for: she comes not to preach but you to make you think and, while she is at it, tweak your funny bone.
"I love dresses," she says, as she wrestles whether it is appropriate for her to be interested in 'girly' subjects. "For years I pretended I hated them, but I don't. Maxi dresses are one of the finest clothing items to become popular in recent memory. I have opinions on maxi dresses!"
Novel: The Dog by Joseph O'Neill, Fourth Estate
Long-listed for the Booker Prize, the new novel from Irish-Turkish writer Joseph O'Neill cleaves to many of the stereotypes of literary fiction: it is slow, occasionally impenetrable, with a narrative style that seems to set out to disorientate the reader. This is a novel that wants to confuse - to make you question your assumptions about fiction, the things a book should and should not seek to achieve at this point in the culture.
There isn't much plot: The 'Dog' of the title is an (unnamed) lawyer toiling in Dubai - a city he holds in genteel disdain, even as he acknowledges that he and it - both of them sharp and shallow - were made for one another. He drifts through the pages, half-spectral, so wrapped up in his life that every observation, no matter how throwaway, comes gilded in narcissism (he excuses his decision to sleep with prostitutes with the congratulatory aside that he was right to break up with his girlfriend when she pressed him to start a family against his will).
As with O'Neill's previous novel, the New York-set Netherland, the storyline really serves as background colour for an extended contemplation on modern living - O'Neill is fascinated with the lives lead by the well-educated jet-set, for whom the world seems to consist of a series of cookie-cutter international cities: a blur of sky-scrapers, conference suites, faceless apartments.
What's The Dog about? Everything and nothing - which, is to say, it's about being alive in the 21st century, when we feel simultaneously plugged in to a vast grid of information and yet, weirdly, adrift. You could say it's an existential shriek on behalf of the smartphone generation - a book where big ideas swirl around a void as soulless as a $25 business breakfast. The going is not always easy - O'Neill makes the reader work hard for nuggets of insight. Nonetheless, lovers of high-brow writing may consider it worthwhile. In many ways it is an extraordinarily superficial novel - then superficiality seems to be a condition O'Neill finds endlessly fascinating.
Over the course of 16 novels, Ross O'Carroll Kelly has worn many jerseys. Paul Howard's legendarily asinine creation has evolved from the schools rugby prodigy with the big boot and even bigger ego to some weird and twisted metaphor for the brief rise, and terminal decline, of this country's fortunes.