International scene
A sporting story geared towards human drama

By Chris Cleave. Hodder & Stoughton. £16.99.

CHRIS Cleave has an exemplary track record at painting vivid dramas against backdrops of real-life news stories. In Gold, he goes a step further, by setting much of the action at the yet-to-happen 2012 Olympics. His three protagonists are the competing British cyclists Zoe Castle, Kate Meadows and Kate’s husband Jack, and the stage is set for a protein shakes and lactic acid filled sporting novel. But the presence of Sophie, Kate and Jack’s young daughter, lifts the novel. While Kate is arguably the better cyclist, her chances of winning gold are about to be scuppered a second time: Sophie is suffering from leukaemia.

Cleave does a magnificent job of exploring the emotional terrain that top athletes must travel in order to become champions. Zoe, with her massive sponsorship deals and glamorous apartment, is broken inside. She needs to win, as she has little else. But Kate, with her marriage, her sick daughter and her more amiable nature, is less hungry for gold.

It all seems so simple, and the parallels a little obvious, until Cleave introduces Sophie’s voice. Star Wars-obsessed, and more than aware of the impact that her illness is having on her stressed and exhausted parents, Sophie attempts to navigate the effects of chemotherapy through fantasy and role play, hoping that she can hold her nerve long enough to allow her parents to compete. Her perspective makes for almost excruciating reading, yet is so powerfully direct that any remaining quibbles about reading a sports book are hurled aside. It might feel a little pulpy at times, but Gold does a magnificent job of reminding us what we’re actually going to be watching this summer: emotional drama.

By Juliet Nicolson. Bloomsbury. £14.99.

JULIET Nicolson has written two respected history books before this, her fictional debut. Abdication, based in 1936, is exhilaratingly rich in period details. This was the momentous year in which the Prince of Wales became King Edward VIII, his affair with the married and divorced Wallis Simpson became public, and Hitler’s invasion of his neighbours was leading inexorably towards world war.

The story centres around 19-year-old May, who arrives in England from Barbados. May becomes chauffeuse and secretary to Philip Blunt, government Chief Whip. Her work includes ferrying Blunt’s wife’s god-daughter Evangeline around to visit her old schoolfriend, Wallis. May learns that Wallis’s affair with Edward has to be kept secret. Neville Chamberlain is coaxed by Hitler into a policy of appeasement, but Edward and Wallis seem actively friendly towards the Nazis. Meanwhile, May falls for Julian, a politically aware friend of Blunt’s hedonistic son. Will the difference in social status allow this relationship to bloom?

Although the plot engages from the start, early mentions of May’s beauty, and slapstick anecdotes about Evangeline’s heft, seem trite. Personalities are the intriguing aspect here, and better shown through speech and action. However, Nicolson adds depth by elucidating the dysfunctional relationships: Myriad historical facts and luminaries of the day embellish the story. Abdication would make a stunning adaptation for the BBC.

China in Ten Words
By Yu Hua. Duckworth. £16.99.

TO tell the stories of China’s gargantuan transformation in just 10 words might seem a little quixotic. How could one capture the consequences of the fastest industrial revolution ever witnessed, in the world’s most populous state? In these short, kaleidoscopic essays, novelist Yu Hua has done it, each word the prompt for personal memoir, contemporary reportage and sharp political commentary.

All writers love words, but few can have hungered for them like Yu. As he grew up during the Cultural Revolution, almost all books were banned. In "Reading", he describes a world in which the only texts to hand were the The Little Red Book and Mao’s Selected Works. Both proved indigestible and flavourless. Undaunted, he subsisted on the intriguing tales buried in their footnotes.

Later, he graduated to illicitly circulating copies of Western classical novels. When he and his friend acquired, for only a day, a complete copy of a Dumas novel, they stayed up all night copying by hand. Just 30 years later, at a book fair in Beijing, he watched great piles of surplus books being flogged off by weight.

It is that great swing "from an era of material shortages to an era of extravagance and waste", that he explores in "Disparities". In his youth, disparities were minuscule and ideological – deviations from Mao’s line that could make or break a life. Now they refer to the massive material inequalities that have emerged.

The complexity and fragility of the new order are best captured by "Copycat" and "Bamboozle". "Copycat" began as a hamlet surrounded by a stockade, became a hinterland of bandits, before mutating into imitation, beyond the law. The word now carries connotations of counterfeit, mischief and caricature. Originally, "bamboozle" meant to bob and sway, but acquired the sense of misleading, a con-trick or a rip-off. The word elides rank deceit with chicanery and pranks, and serves to "throw a cloak of respectability over deception and manufactured rumour". In these pages, China appears to be a place where words can take on so many shades of meaning that they serve to obfuscate. We are lucky that Yu Hua hungered for them for so long; that he uses them with care, and to illuminate. — The Independent