Picoult strikes gold again

Hodder, £16.99

For an easy-reading, best-selling author, Picoult tackles some pretty serious issues. Fans will recognise her favoured theme of troubled or ill children, written through the perspectives of those nearest to them, in House Rules.

But with this, her 16th novel, Picoult seems to be stepping her writing up a notch, and the book demonstrates a new calibre of craft. Expert prose meets a high level of real-life detail, a smooth plot and the magnetism of a book that is impossible to put down.

Picoult’s inspiration for this book was her cousin David, diagnosed as autistic when a toddler. She has talked of his frustration as a child who couldn’t express what he needed, and of a moment when her aunt had to “literally sit on him to stop him having a meltdown in a store.”

The central character here is Jacob Hunt, a super-smart 17 year-old with Asperger’s. He takes all language literally and has a fascination with forensics, which leads him – in the middle of the night – to turn up at real-life crime scenes. His mother Emma hires a social worker to help him lean more normal social behaviours. Jacob takes to her, even developing an awkward crush.

But when Jess is found dead, he becomes the main suspect for her murder and is hauled to court for a trial. The book becomes chiefly concerned with the question of whether someone with a mental handicap like Jacob’s can be treated fairly in a court proceeding like this one. After all, his twitches and oddities look awfully like guilt to judges and juries.

Told from the harrowing perspectives of Emma, Jacob, his lawyer, the police officer who arrested him and last but not least, his angry brother Theo, who feels neglected in light of his brother’s illness, this is a multi-dimensional, deeply human look at a family’s saga.

Heavy stuff, as I said. But from the moment you pick this up to the moment you finish (probably a short time), you’ll forget distinctions between heavy and light. You will simply be absorbed.

Chatto & Windus, £12.99

YOU may not have heard of him, but in his native Israel, Eshkol Nevo is a household name for his 2008 best-seller Homesick, which stayed on the Israeli best-seller list for 60 weeks, winning two major prizes.

While World Cup Wishes seems too timely a book to refuse just now, it’s actually about far more than football. Indeed, the Cup itself is merely a conceit that allows Nevo to delve into the dramas and passions of four male friends.

It starts at the World Cup of 1998. Yuval, a philosophy graduate who works as a freelance translator; Churchill, a lawyer; Amichai, already a father with twins, and Ofir, who works in advertising, always meet together to watch the tournament. This year, they decide to make a list of their dreams and ambitions for the following four years – and to say where they’d like to be by the time the next World Cup rolls around.

World Cup Wishes tells the story of what happens to the friends over that four year period – their loves, fall-outs, marriages, kids and above all their experience of maturing and living in Israel with all its messy realities.

The narrator is Yuval, but it is clear from the beginning that something awful has happened to him, instantly adding a thrum of unease to the story. And, we realise by and by, he may not be the most trustworthy narrator.

The name is but a way in – this book is about far more than footie and will delve to the core of male and female readers alike. If Nevo isn’t well known in the UK yet, after this book, he deserves to be.

Macmillan, £18.99

ALREADY a bestseller, Dead Like You shows why Peter James is a perennial favourite, whose novels are snapped up by fans and devoured. In part, it’s down to his sturdy grasp of police procedure. Otherwise it’s the sordid precision with which his villains operate, and the clever responses of his well-meaning heroes.

Brighton. After a glitzy New Year ball at the Metropole Hotel, a woman is brutally raped on the way back to her hotel room. Shortly afterwards, other women are attacked. In both cases their shoes were taken, which puts Detective Superintendent Roy Grace in mind of the Shoe Man, an attacker who had committed similar crimes in 1997 bearing the same trademark of shoe-theft. His own wife was tragically caught up in the spree in 1997 so as the parallels start trickling in, Grace becomes increasingly preoccupied with the cold case.

The dual narratives make for a well-made police thriller, grittily English and with crafty personal development. The premise isn’t the most original and perhaps it sounds a bit like numerous other crime novels. But it’s a sure bet if you’re a fan of the genre.