Friday 20 September 2019

Popular fiction authors close great literary divide

Graham Norton: Great grasp of character crafting
Graham Norton: Great grasp of character crafting
Holding by Graham Norton
Miss You by Kate Eberlen
Maestra by LS Hilton
Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld
Black Panther by Ta-Nehisi Coates with art by Brian Stelfreeze

Meadhbh McGrath

Fans of popular fiction were likely left unimpressed by a US study earlier this year 'revealing' that readers of literary fiction were more emotionally intelligent and had a greater understanding of others' emotions than those of genre fiction.

In 2016, the boundaries between literary fiction and other genres became more blurred than ever, to the point where many of the year's most celebrated literary novels relied on generic elements, while genre novels contained powerful literary elements, boasting well-drawn characters and deftly handling challenging themes.

By now, most readers realise that it is possible to write with just as much style, skill and acuity on both sides of this outdated divide, and this year offered an array of popular fiction across many genres to prove it.

Holding by Graham Norton (Hodder & Stoughton, €13.99). A cosy crime story set in the small fictional village of Duneen, Holding is not the novel many of us would have expected from the flamboyant chat-show host. But readers were pleasantly surprised by the Cork native's debut, in which he demonstrates an impressive grasp of character, crafting a charming cast, most notably in the form of bumbling policeman PJ, who finds himself out of his depth investigating the discovery of a body on a building site. Norton allows the intriguing mystery to tick away in the background as the village's inhabitants reflect on life, loss, and long-buried secrets.

Miss You by Kate Eberlen (Pan MacMillan, €16.99). There are echoes of David Nicholl's One Day in this warm, moving story about Gus and Tess, two strangers who first meet while on holiday in Florence as teenagers. Gus is tormented by guilt following the tragic death of his golden child brother, while Tess's visions of college are scrapped when her mother falls ill, leaving her to care for her much younger sister. The pair continues to cross paths without knowing over the course of the novel, in a twist on the classic 'will-they-won't-they' plot. But there's far more to the novel than these near-meetings - both their stories are fantastically absorbing and amid the teary moments, Eberlen intersperses plenty of comedy. As we move through 16 years of Gus and Tess's lives, the chapters shift between their narratives, making for a truly unputdownable read.

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (The Borough Press, €20.99). It requires a certain amount of confidence to take on an update of a Jane Austen novel, in particular her most popular work, Pride and Prejudice. Luckily, the author of bestselling novels Prep and American Wife pulls it off with aplomb, managing to dodge much of the clumsiness that generally attends American homages to Austen.

The classic love story is reimagined in contemporary Cincinnati, and features CrossFit, IVF and a surprising amount of casual sex. Elizabeth Bennet is recast as a journalist in her late 30s, while Darcy is a neurosurgeon, and Bingley a former star of a Bachelor-esque reality TV show. Sittenfeld successfully puts her own spin on the timeless tale with this fizzy and thoroughly enjoyable retelling.

Maestra by LS Hilton (Zaffre, €9.99). Following the phenomenal success of EL James's Fifty Shades of Grey, you'd think we'd have a lot more erotica hitting the shelves over the past five years. Rather than another timid Anastasia Steele, however, Maestra - the first in a planned trilogy, with a Hollywood script already in development - presents an anti-heroine in the form of Judith Hashleigh. Working as an assistant at a London auction house, she uncovers her boss in an art forgery scheme and gets caught up in a whirlwind of crime that takes her to a host of glamorous locations across the continent.

While Maestra's abundant sex scenes eventually grow repetitive, the outlandish plot remains wildly entertaining, romping along at a delightful pace. The best moments allow Hilton to showcase her knowledge of the high-end European art world, and readers will be left hankering for the next instalment.

Black Panther by Ta-Nehisi Coates with art by Brian Stelfreeze (Marvel, €14.99). With Marvel's movie schedule ambitiously mapped out through 2020, many of us may be suffering from superhero fatigue. Thankfully, the revival of the publisher's first black superhero is a breath of fresh air, authored by the Atlantic journalist and award-winning writer of Between the World and Me. The series chronicles the adventures of T'Challa, ruler of the fictional, technologically advanced African nation of Wakanda.

Black Panther first appeared in 1966, and his return sees him facing political unrest across the country. While Coates's script masterfully weaves in broader themes about power, it is the deeply human characterisation that is most striking. The story moves fluidly, with impressive visual storytelling from Stelfreeze throughout.

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