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A brilliant debut novel that tells of tragedy in the City rings all too true

THIS BLEEDING CITY
BY ALEX PRESTON

Faber, £12.99
You’d have thought the time had passed for another book about the City and its pre-crunch pulse of money, aspiration and the personal damnation all that can lead to. Certainly, there have been countless stories about “what really went on” – the strip clubs, the arrogance, the hedonism, the development of murky products. There have been novels and thrillers too, based on the lifestyles and adventures of traders.

But what there hasn’t been is a proper Bonfire of the Vanities-style tragedy about London’s financial heart and the havoc its most ardent participants brought on themselves though the pursuit of excess. And though it’s a different beast than Tom Wolfe’s epic, Alex Preston, a 30 year-old year old trader and Oxford English graduate, has pulled off something undeniably magnetic with his first novel.

Charlie Wales is a poor but attractive boy who gets in with the posh set at university (Edinburgh) and – to keep up with them after the halcyon days of university – sets his heart on making it rich quick in London. And so he follows his mates into the hedge funds of Mayfair, where the end begins.

Behind Wales’ ambition is the beautiful, unobtainable Vero. “I was certain that if I could buy her these glamorous dresses, take her to these sun-dappled hotels, furnish a home with these lavish objects, she’d be mine again,” he laments, flicking through a magazine on her bed.

Wales has tragic flaws, too – envy, neurosis, intense covetousness. The chip on his shoulder only intensifies. All of which is how he ends up losing it all; his loved ones, his dreams, the fabric of his life. The story isn’t particularly groundbreaking, it’s even clichéd at times, but Preston is a gifted writer, with a talent for dragging the eye along the page through sharply realised images and a terse intensity of emotion.

This is not an uplifting read, but it is intensely gripping – even upsetting – from the first, and if you still have the stomach for a tale about the despair that materialism can bring, then you will lap this novel up.

THE MERRY MISOGYNIST
BY COLIN COTTERILL

Quercus, £14.99
This is the sixth Dr Siri investigation and it is – like the others – an odd sort of joy to read. Dr Siri Paiboun, national coroner of Laos, is not the type of tooled-up pathologist one finds in the shiny morgues of most modern thrillers. Siri is 73 and living in the rather derelict city of Vientane, Laos, circa 1976. Here, the school laboratory offers about as advanced a microscope as can be found, while bicycles are the main form of transport. Though he may not have the latest equipment, Dr Siri is pretty deft, having a wealth of experience and a deep sensitivity to those around him, not to mention an almost Sherlock Holmesian level of observational power.

Now there’s a particularly unpleasant murder on his books – somebody in Laos is wooing and wedding country girls, then killing them on honeymoon and binding their bodies to trees. Dr Siri and his team at the morgue are enraged by this criminal’s activities and vow revenge. But they become distracted by the disappearance of Crazy Rajid, a talisman-type figure living on the edge of Vientane society. Siri senses he is in danger, and – in the attempt to get to the bottom of his vanishing – follows an elaborate set of clues that lead to the city’s most ancient temple. What he finds is a terrible discovery that holds the key to the mystery of the serial killer too.

Cotterill was born in London but since he was young has lived abroad, and now lives in southern Thailand. His love of south-east Asia is everywhere evident, lending his writing an elegance and poignancy – beautiful exotic imagery, a pleasing wry patter to his characters’ speech. The series has been commended for its humanity and intrigue and the latest instalment won’t disappoint.

STILL ALICE
BY LISA GENOVA
SIMON AND SCHUSTER

paperback, £7.99
Alice, aged 50 and a star professor of psychology at Harvard, is in the middle of a speech at Stanford when she forgets a word. “She had a loose sense for what she wanted to say, but the word itself eluded her. Gone. She didn’t know the first letter or what the word sounded like or how many syllables it had. It wasn’t on the tip of her tongue.”

That is how this novel begins to chart Alice’s descent into the terrifying world of Alzheimer’s, made all the more nightmarish given her academic speciality of linguistics. On one hand, she can see her brain failing, observe it losing the words and sentences it should be constructing. On the other she is surprised when she is removed from her post for erratic behaviour, and when her BlackBerry ends up in the freezer.

Alice has three children, a husband and – in her view – so much to do in life. Yet she gets lost in her own back garden and can’t remember the recipe for her famous Christmas pudding. When she fails to recognise her actress daughter after a performance, she comes up with a plan. Whether or not she can, or should, go through with it becomes the book’s central concern.

This is a deeply distressing fictional first-person account of what it’s like to go from being a highly functional adult to someone who is losing their mind – a nightmare we all share, particularly in moments of dappiness. Lisa Genova has a Ph.D in neuroscience from Harvard, and her first novel is not only a beautifully written work, it is brimming with painful reality.