SMALL towns full of people with even smaller minds have proved a fruitful source of inspiration for a great many novelists.
Stephen Amidon is the latest writer trying to put a fresh slant on the familiar scenario, but he meets with only partial success.
The action unfolds in Stoneleigh, Massachusetts, a college town where almost every resident seems to be harbouring a dark secret. The exception is Ed Inman, the owner of a local security company, whose quiet integrity seems unsettlingly
at odds with everyone else.
The story opens with Inman being called out to a late-night alarm at the home of Doyle Cutler, one of his more wealthy clients. It turns out to be a false alarm, but on his way home Inman comes across Conor, an extremely drunk teenager who just happens to be his ex-girlfriend's son.
Good Samaritan that he is, Inman takes Conor home to his mother Kathryn – and immediately rekindles the long-dormant flames of their romance.
Meanwhile, in apparently unconnected incidents which are clearly anything but, Amidon's morality tales begin to unfold.
The first involves Walt Steckl, an alcoholic electrician who has never fully recovered from a near-fatal electric shock. Shunned by the gossiping townsfolk and misunderstood by the local police, he is slipping further into a booze-soaked decline.
His troubled daughter Mary attends the local university, where her popular, charismatic writing professor is having a highly-illicit affair with one of his students. Here, too, malicious chit-chat fuelled by rumour and speculation is undermining the foundations upon which established relationships have been built.
Amidon keeps us waiting a long time before the pieces start to fit together. Eventually, however, we discover that Mary has been sexually assaulted while at the home of Cutler (remember him?).
But by making full use of the influence his wealth allows him to exert, Cutler ensures Steckl becomes the prime suspect.
As Amidon's readers plod their way to a disappointingly melodramatic conclusion, they are clearly expected to undergo some kind of morality check; one in which they are reminded of how easily both power and suspicion can corrupt.
And, to a limited extent, so they will. But in the process they will learn little that they did not know before.
ATLANTIC BOOKS, 12.99
THE WHITE RAVEN ROBERT LOW
TO BEGIN with, a word of warning. Do not begin reading this book when you've just finished your dinner.
Not when the opening pages describe, in graphic and excruciating detail, the impaling of an unfortunate woman for some unspecified crime. But then, Robert Low has shown himself to be most adept at constructing an authentic historical atmosphere, and we wouldn't want to stifle his creativity, would we?
The White Raven is the third and final instalment in the trilogy featuring Orm and the Oathsworn, his Viking band of brothers. We find them uncharacteristically kicking their heels on their homestead, tending fires and doing not much else. Of course, it can't last. For the Oathsworn are at the mercy of two irresistible forces: the pull of the sea and the lure of silver.
An attack on their land is more than enough to propel them into action, and soon they are back on the Whale Road on the trail of silver. Not just any silver, mind you, but Attilla's hoard – all the silver of the world.
But this time, Orm has an even greater spur. Some of his comrades face execution at the hands of a young ruler, Prince Vladimir, and if he can't come up with the treasure, they will be impaled.
It's another rip-roaring yarn from Low, told with enormous panache. And if this really is the end of the Whale Road for the Oathsworn, it will be interesting to see what Low has in store for us next. RC
White is for Witching
In a vast, mysterious house on the cliffs near Dover, the Silver family is reeling from the hole punched into its heart. Lily is gone and her twins, Miranda and Eliot, and her husband, the gentle Luc, mourn her absence with unspoken intensity.
All is not well with the house, either, which creaks and grumbles and malignly confuses visitors in its mazy rooms, forcing winter apples in the garden when the branches should be bare. Generations of women inhabit its walls. And Miranda, with her new appetite for chalk and her keen sense for spirits, is more attuned to them than she is to her brother and father.
She is leaving them slowly, slipping away from them. When one dark night she vanishes entirely, the survivors are left to tell her story. This is a spine-tingling tale that has Gothic roots but an utterly modern sensibility.
Told by a quartet of crystalline voices, it is electrifying in its expression of myth and memory, loss and magic, fear and love.
Review by Waterstone's
Romance in the blogosphere
50 Ways To Find A Lover
Sarah Sergeant is bubbly, attractive and loved by her friends; she is also single and spends an indecent amount of time in her pyjamas crying.
Fast approaching 30, her loving friends and family decide to kick-start her love life and encourage her to embark on a hilarious dating adventure to explore 50 different ways to find a man.
Sarah is introduced as a modern Bridget Jones, only she has left the diary behind and is documenting the experience on an internet blog.
However, she is not merely a reproduction of the well-known spinster aimed at a new, more technology-aware audience.
Despite the similar flaws and insecurities, author Lucy-Anne Holmes has drawn on her own blogging experience to create a refreshing and entertaining character that readers can easily relate to and support in her escapades.
A fast-paced, smart and very funny read, but not suitable for those averse to strong expletives or embarrassing situations.
Review by the Press Association
Sunday Times columnist Andrew Clover would like to share with you everything he's learned – the hard way – about childcare.
Starting at the beginning, by asking why men are so terrified of breeding, he examines every worry a parent is likely to face: How can I make them sleep? How do I choose a good school? Will I ever have sex again? Why should I paint my face like a tiger? Wise and candid, this is the most truthful parenting guide of all time.
It's also the funniest and most inspiring read any dad – or mum – could ever hope for.
Review by Waterstone's
THE First Person and Other Stories
Distinguished by Smith's trademark ability to unearth flashes of truth and depth in the everyday, The First Person and Other Stories sparkles with humanity.
In one story, a middle-aged woman conducts a poignant conversation with her 14-year-old self. In another, a supermarket shopper finds in her trolley a foul-mouthed yet beautiful child. And in a third story that challenges the boundaries between fiction and reality, the narrator, "Ali", drinks tea, phones a friend, and muses on the surprising similarities between a short story and a nymph. Fans of Ali Smith will be delighted.
Review by Waterstone's