Welcome to our weekly Books Digest where we round-up the new books you should, and shouldn’t, be reading. This week features Elif Shafak’s The Island of Missing Trees, Stephen King and Rupa Marya and Raj Patel.

For more books take a look through our Books Digest Archive.

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak (Penguin), £14.99.

Olivia Gavoyannis

At its essence, The Island of Missing Trees is the story of star-crossed lovers Kostas and Defne. One a Greek Christian, the other a Turkish Muslim, the pair embark on a forbidden romance in the divided Cypriot capital of Nicosia in 1974, before bitter inter-communal violence forces them apart. Decades later, Kostas returns and the couple flee with a cutting from their favourite fig tree to start a new life in England with their daughter Ada. 

But the novel is more than a romance. Elif Shafak, who has previously been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, deftly splits the story between modern-day London, where Ada is struggling to come to terms with her repressed heritage, the destruction of 1970s Cyprus and the monologue of the relocated fig tree. Through these interwoven viewpoints, she tells a story of generational trauma, identity and the magic of the natural world.

One of the strengths of the novel is Shafak’s meticulous research into the history of Cyprus and the complexities of the flora and fauna that thrive there. Through the inclusion of small details, such as the real-life downfall of the opulent Ledra Palace Hotel, Shafak illustrates the ripple effects created by the real-life devastation of 1970s Cyprus. And although the subject matter is at times heavy, Shafak’s characters – and their delight in Cyprus’ natural world and bountiful culinary delicacies – create plenty of light among the dark. 

Billy Summers by Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton), £20.

David Waywell

In the best possible way, Stephen King’s latest novel, Billy Summers, could have been written by any of the better writers of crime thrillers. One could imagine Thomas Harris writing it, albeit with more emphasis on villains with a particularly nasty brand of sadism, James Ellroy with a more complicated setup and drawing in the wider world of politics, or Don Winslow on an epic scale with a cast of a dozen protagonists and set it in Mexico.

We should, however, be thankful this comes from Stephen King, who gives it his very particular spin. While it’s a book that leans heavily on the conventions of the thriller, it also explores the nature of stories and what it means to be a writer, a territory that King has visited before, most memorably in Misery. Yet where Misery (the novel and hugely successful film) dealt with the author’s relationship with his audience, personified by the crazy Annie Wilkes, this time he advances the theme to explore the writer’s relationship with himself.

This is ostensibly the story of Billy Summers, a good guy in a bad business. He’s a contract killer – a former army sniper – who takes on his last paying job but finds himself drawn into relationships with the communities in which he’s embedded. It’s the kind of contrivance that would often lead King into his worst habits. He famously writes every day, producing a regular word count, and, in his less successful books, that often shows. 

Too often, we get the 2,000-word potted biographies of waitresses in abusive relationships driving a classic but battered car down highways to classic rock of the 1970s. The problem with King is sometimes we get just too much of small-town Americana, and the reader can spot where his working day began and ended.

Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice by Rupa Marya and Raj Patel (Penguin), £20.

Caitlin Allen

In this compelling book, physician Rupa Marya and political economist Raj Patel delve into a growing body of research to demonstrate how problems in our political and economic systems drive health disparities. The authors take eight bodily systems in turn – our digestive, endocrine, circulatory, respiratory, reproductive, immune, and nervous systems – and explain how inflammation, which is the body’s response to infection or damage, occurs in each one.

Genetic factors do not just cause inflammation; instead, it is connected to the food we eat, the trauma we experience, and the air we breathe. “Age-related diseases of chronic inflammation”, such as Alzheimer’s, are linked to cellular damage caused by stress and environmental toxicity. And working-class people are more likely to be exposed to higher levels of pollution and environmental health hazards such as lead in drinking water.

In the chapter on the circulatory system, we learn that income volatility – which has been reaching new peaks since 1980 – can inflame our arteries and, quite literally, weaken our hearts. A sudden and unpredictable loss in income between the ages of thirty and forty-five independently causes a doubling of cardiovascular risk in the subsequent ten years.

Throughout the book, the language of inflammation is used both literally and metaphorically. Marya and Patel argue that our bodies, societies, and planet are all inflamed, and, to heal individual bodies, we must also heal the body politic.