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Books

What the critics liked

“I didn’t need to read 432 pages about New York to confirm that the place is teeming with extraordinary characters,” says Laura Pullman in The Sunday Times, “but I’m delighted I did.” Craig Taylor, “an endlessly curious Canadian”, spent six years recording more than 400 hours of interviews for New Yorkers: A City and Its People in Our Time (John Murray £25).

The 70 people who “made the final cut of mini monologues” include a window cleaner, a car thief, a dog walker and a security guard at the Statue of Liberty, “who describes Lady Liberty as his ‘work wife’.” The book is at its best “when we hear from the often overlooked: a homeless veteran, a mother grieving for her son, who is in Rikers Island jail, and a man who recycles cans to scrape by”.

One of Taylor’s many skills as an interviewer, says Craig Brown in The Mail on Sunday, “lies in his eye for the vivid detail that captures a larger abstraction”. A dentist tells him that “in New York you get a lot of grinding”. At the time of the financial crash in 2007, you “were seeing cracked teeth. You were seeing ground-down teeth.” A nanny talks of the sense of entitlement of wealthy children and the depression that follows in its wake: “If you are nine and cavalier about having your own private jet, nothing is ever going to be exciting for you.”

Taylor conveys the “zest and ebullience” of New Yorkers, says Brown, but towards the end of this “remarkable” book, admits that even he was finally overwhelmed by it – “I wanted quiet. I wanted to get away.”

Available as an audiobook on Audible.

Vintage fiction: Fathers and Sons

Ivan Turgenev’s celebrated novel sent shockwaves through Russian society when it came out in 1862. At a time of intense intergenerational conflict, Fathers and Sons hit a raw nerve.

It tells the story of Arkady, a young, idealistic student who brings his brilliant new friend Bazarov back from university to meet his father and uncle. The reunion doesn’t go as planned. Bazarov, a staunch nihilist, ridicules the traditional Russian values held dear by the older generation, who in turn despair at the ignorance of the young.

Eugene Schuyler, the American scholar who first translated the novel into English, wrote in 1867: “A tempest was raised in Russia by its appearance… Each generation found the picture of the other very life-like, but their own very badly drawn. The fathers protested, and the sons were enraged… of course, the more it was abused the more it was read.”

Although it was written more than a century ago, Fathers and Sons resonates strongly at a time when millennials and boomers are locking horns over questions of free speech and political correctness. If Turgenev had been writing in the 21st century, he’d have had Bazarov crying: “OK boomer!”

Available as an audiobook on Scribd.

The Last House on Needless Street (Viper £12.99) is the story of a child whose life was stolen; of Ted, the man “who may or may not have done it”; and of Dee, “the sister out for revenge”. That might make Catriona Ward’s book sound “straightforward”, says The Guardian’s Alison Flood, but it’s not. This is a “gloriously complex” story, “deeply disturbing yet also, somehow, heartwarming”.

The book sits in that twilight margin between psychological thriller and gothic horror, says James Lovegrove in the Financial Times, “with Ward beautifully wrongfooting the reader every step of the way”.

Ted lives with his daughter and his cat in a boarded-up house on Needless Street, on the edge of the forest, and the “exceptionally unsettling” events are revealed from the viewpoint of all four characters, including the cat. Eleven years after Lulu’s death, still fixated on finding out what happened to her, Dee moves next door to Ted, convinced he is the person who killed her.

The reader is in Ward’s hands, but never feels manipulated, says James Owen in The Times: this is “horror with integrity”. Revelations are not exploited “merely to shock, but to let us see what is really going on”.

Available as an audiobook on Kobo.