Tag Archives: Andrew Miller

Paperbacks to Look Out for in June 2019: Part One

Cover imageThis June is bursting at the seams with tempting paperbacks – enough to fill two long posts – of which I’ve already read and reviewed several beginning with one of my books of last year, Sarah Moss’ Ghost Wall. Longlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, Moss’ novel is a powerful exploration of controlling violence and its consequences, all wrapped up in a tense, atmospheric piece of storytelling. Together with three students and their professor, seventeen-year-old Sylvie and her parents, Bill and Alison, spend the summer living as Ancient Britons in the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall. Bill’s menacing control of both Sylvie and Alison pervades the book offset with a degree of waspish humour and gloriously evocative descriptions of the summer landscape. The climax is horrifying: hard to read yet impossible to tear yourself away from it. Still mystified as to why this superb novel didn’t make it on to the Women’s Prize shortlist.

Ghost Wall was one of a succession of novellas that so impressed me in 2019 including Hubert Mingarelli’s Four Soldiers which came as no surprise given the excellence of A Meal in Winter. A company of Red Army soldiers is ordered to make camp as winter closes in. Four of them form a tightly bonded group over the ensuing months, stumbling upon a pool near their new camp which becomes the calm centre of their days with the advent of spring. As the weather improves the return to marching looms large and with it the end of their peace. Written in plain, clean prose, Mingarelli’s book quietly captures the comradeship of soldiers with humanity and compassion

Andrew Miller’s Now We Shall Be Entirely Free follows Captain John Lacroix who has been invalided out of the disastrous Peninsular War, exploring themes of war and culpability in a story taut with a thread of suspense. Finding himself unable to return to war, Lacroix travels to Scotland where he is embraced by a utopian community but two men are on his tail, one with a sinister motive. I loved Andrew Miller’s Ingenious Pain so much that I included it in my One-Hundred-Book Library and Pure came a close second but I’ve found some of his contemporary-set novels disappointing. Having read this new one, I’ve come to the conclusion that he’s is at his best when writing historical fiction.

I reviewed Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred-Year House back in 2014, finding it a little disappointing after very much enjoying her first novel, The Borrower. That said, The Great Believers sounds very appealing. It spans thirty years, beginning in 1985 with Yale Tishman acquiring an extraordinary collection of 1920s artwork for a Chicago gallery. AIDs cuts a swathe through Yale’s life leaving just one person dear to him – his friend’s sister Fiona who, thirty years later, is searching for her estranged daughter in Paris. ‘Yale and Fiona’s stories unfold in incredibly moving and sometimes surprising ways, as both struggle to find goodness in the face of disaster’ say the publishers, whetting my appetite nicely.

I’m not so sure about Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success having begun Super Sad True Love Story with high hopes only to give it up but I do like the sound of a road trip through modern America, particularly one that sees a ‘master of the universe’ reduced to travelling on a Greyhound. Barry Cohen is on his way to Texas to meet his old college girlfriend hoping for a second chance having fallen foul of an insider investigation. According to Maria Semple, author of Where’d You Go Bernadette, it’s ‘the funniest book you’ll read all year. A rollicking and zinger-filled road trip [that] sneakily deepens into a poignant tale of a man trying to outrace his problems’. We’ll see.

Humour’s also on the agenda in Good Trouble, by the sound of it, a collection of short stories by Joseph O’Neill, author of the much-lauded Neverland. Good Trouble’s characters are brought face to face with both who they are and who they will never be, apparently. ‘Packed with O’Neill’s trademark acerbic humour, Good Trouble explores the maddening and secretly political space between thoughts and deeds’ say the publishers promisingly.

A. M. Homes’ Days of Awe is another collection I’m eager to sample. These thirteen pieces explore ‘our attachments to each other through characters who aren’t quite who they hoped to become, though there is no one else they can be. Her first book since the Women’s Prize-winning May We Be Forgiven, Days of Awe is another visionary, fearless and outrageously funny work from a master storyteller’ say the publishers. Looking forward to this one very much.Cover images

I’m saving what I suspect will be the very best until last with this month’s third short story collection. William Trevor’s Last Stories comprises ten pieces described by the publishers as ‘exquisite, perceptive and profound’ and for once I won’t be arguing with their superlatives. This will undoubtedly be a treat to savour for all who treasure quietly understated, elegantly lyrical prose, and that jacket is lovely.

That’s it for the first part of June’s paperback preview; pretty tempting I hope you’ll agree. Should you want to know more, A click on the first three titles will take you to my review, and to a more detailed synopsis for the other five. If you’d like to catch up with June’s new novels they’re here and here. More paperbacks soon… 

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller: Love and war

Cover imageI have a history with Andrew Miller’s writing: I loved Ingenious Pain so much that I included it in my One-Hundred-Book Library and Pure came a close second. It’s not that his other novels haven’t been enjoyable but Ingenious Pain was so inventive in its premise and so beautifully executed that I’ve been left mildly disappointed by them. Having read Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, I’ve come to the conclusion he’s is at his best when writing historical fiction. This novel about a cavalry officer invalided out of the disastrous Peninsular War who finds himself unable to return to it sees Miller on top form.

Captain John Lacroix is delivered, unconscious, to his Somerset home in the winter of 1809. Nursed back to physical health by Nell, the servant who has known him all his life and to whom he occasionally blurts brief descriptions of the horrors he’s seen, he arranges a passage to Scotland through his brother-in-law. Assaulted and robbed of his money and his boots in Glasgow, Lacroix finds his way onto a supply boat heading for the Hebrides, putting ashore somewhat ignominiously astride the back of a cow. There he meets the veteran of another war and is taken in by three English siblings awaiting the leader of their utopian community. Cornelius prattles on, combing the peat bogs for relics while his sisters attend to more practical matters. Lacroix finds himself drawn to Emily whose sight is failing, accompanying her to Glasgow for the risky surgery she’s determined to undergo. Meanwhile, a ferocious English corporal accompanied by a Spanish officer edge ever closer to their goal: executing orders to dispatch the man Calley has told the authorities is responsible for a dreadful atrocity.

Miller’s novel is a consummate piece of storytelling, pulling the thread of suspense nicely taut by alternating Lacroix’s narrative with Calley and Medina’s chase. Themes of war and culpability are woven through the novel, explored in eloquent yet understated prose. Lacroix’s part in the events in Spain is quietly unfolded so that our sympathy has been engaged before we learn the extent of his involvement. There are many pleasing details to enjoy, sometimes laced with a surprising gentle humour, from Nell’s soft spot for Tom, which may well be reciprocated but will never be revealed, to Medina’s joy at finding a band of naked men cavorting in a river contrasted neatly with Calley’s sourness. Altogether a thoroughly absorbing novel, neatly avoiding the trite in its ambivalent ending. I was sorry not to see it on the Man Booker longlist.

My 2018 Man Booker Wish List

Almost time for the 2018 Man Booker judges to announce their longlist to readers, not to mention publishers, waiting with bated breath to see if their favourites are amongst the chosen few. This year’s a special one. As I’m sure you all know, It’s the prize’s fiftieth anniversary which has been celebrated with a string of events, culminating in the coronation of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient as the Golden Man Booker ten days ago. There’s also been a little celebration over at Shiny New Books where contributors have been writing about their own favourites.

Regular readers will know that any similarity between my wish list and the 2018 Man Booker judges’ longlist is likely to be entirely coincidental. To be eligible for the prize all books must be published in the UK between October 1st 2017 and 30th September 2018 and have been written in English. Like the judges I’ve allowed myself twelve, although they sometimes stretch to thirteen. Their list will be revealed on Tuesday 24th July but here’s mine – wishes not predictions, see above – in no particular order, with links to my reviews.

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Sugar Money                                   The Ninth Hour                        A Long Way from Home

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The Immortalists                         From a Low and Quiet Sea             White Houses

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The Life to Come                                         Putney                              All Among the Barley

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Transcription                                     Bitter Orange                Now We Shall Be Entirely Free

 

It’s quite possible that I’ll read a gem I’d loved to have included here published before 30th September – I’m reasonably sure that Patrick deWitt’s French Exit would make my cut and William Boyd’s Love is Blind is due in September– but I’m sticking to novels I’ve read. And if I had to choose one? That would be Kate Atkinson’s Transcription but no doubt the judges will disagree with me on that yet again.

What about you? What would you like to see on the list, and what do you think the judges will plump for?

Books to Look Out for in August 2018: Part One

Cover imageMuch jostling for position at the top of August’s list of new titles, three of which I’ve already read but not yet reviewed. I’m starting with Andrew Miller’s Now We Shall Be Entirely Free which is up there up there alongside Ingenious Pain and Pure, his two best novels for me. Set in Somerset just after the turn of the eighteenth century, it’s about Captain John Lacroix whose health has been so devastated by the disastrous campaign against Napoleon in Spain that he goes on the run rather than return to the front once recovered. ‘Taut with suspense, this is an enthralling, deeply involving novel by one of Britain’s most acclaimed writers’ say the publishers and I’d have to agree.

Patrick Gale’s Take Nothing with You is also set in Somerset, this time in 1970s Weston-Super-Mare where ten-year-old Eustace finds a passion for the cello when his mother signs him up for lessons with a glamorous teacher. Lessons of another kind are learned when Eustace enrols on a holiday course in Scotland, apparently. ‘Drawing in part on his own boyhood, Patrick Gale’s new novel explores a collision between childish hero worship and extremely messy adult love lives’ according to the blurb. I’ve long been a fan of Gale’s writing, going right back to The Aerodynamics of Pork in the ‘80s.

Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley is also a coming-of-ageCover image novel with much to say about the dangers of nostalgia and nationalism. Set on a Suffolk farm in 1933, it’s about Edie, to whose family the farm belongs, and Constance, who arrives from London to record the area’s traditions and beliefs. Edie finds herself attracted by their visitor’s sophistication but it seems Constance may have a secret or two. I’m a great fan of both At Hawthorn Time and Clay but Harrison’s surpassed herself with this one.

Claire Fuller’s previous novels Our Endless Numbered Days and Swimming Lessons were a delight and I’m pleased to report Bitter Orange turns out to be one too. In the summer of  1969, Frances is drawn into a relationship with her fellow tenants of a crumbling country mansion: ‘But as the hot summer rolls lazily on, it becomes clear that not everything is right between Cara and Peter. The stories that Cara tells don’t quite add up – and as Frances becomes increasingly entangled in the lives of the glamorous, hedonistic couple, the boundaries between truth and lies, right and wrong, begin to blur. Amid the decadence of that summer, a small crime brings on a bigger one: a crime so terrible that it will brand all their lives forever’ says the blurb, neatly setting the scene.

I’m ending this batch with the winner of last year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize, an award of which I’ve Cover imagelearned to take notice. Described as a darkly comic thriller, Michael Redhill’s Bellevue Square is about Jean Mason whose friends and acquaintances tell her she has a doppelgänger. Jean sets about tracking down her likeness, becoming obsessed with this other woman who has been seen haunting Bellevue Square. ‘A peculiar collection of drug addicts, scam artists, philanthropists, philosophers and vagrants–the regulars of Bellevue Square–are eager to contribute to Jean’s investigation. But when some of them start disappearing, she fears her alleged double has a sinister agenda. Unless Jean stops her, she and everyone she cares about will face a fate much stranger than death’ according to the publishers. As is often the case with Canadian books, I first came across this one at Naomi’s excellent Consumed by Ink blog.

That’s it for the first selection of August’s new novels. As ever a click on a title will take you to a fuller synopsis should you wish to know more. Second instalment soon but not before my Man Booker wishlist…

Blasts from the Past: Ingenious Pain by Andrew Miller (1997)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

Ingenious Pain is the example I often cite when talking about the difficulty of following an impressive first novel. It’s a book I didn’t expect to love not being a huge fan of historical fiction but I found myself drawn in and entranced by it. Set in the eighteenth century, straddling the old world of quack shows and superstition and the new world of religious doubt and scientific enquiry, it’s the strange story of James Dyer.

Conceived on an icy night, the result of an adulterous coupling with a stranger, Dyer is an odd child whose inability to feel physical or emotional pain marks him out. When his family are all but wiped out by smallpox his adventures begin. He attaches himself to a quack show, is abducted and kept in a rich man’s house as a curiosity, acts as an assistant to a ship’s physician and, later, becomes a brilliant but supremely arrogant surgeon in fashionable Bath. When scandal ruins his practice he joins the race to St Petersburg to inoculate the Empress of Russia against smallpox. En route he meets his nemesis – a strange woman whose miraculous powers give him the gift of pain. From here the road to redemption leads through madness and eventually to a modicum of peace before he dies, aged thirty-three, in a small West Country village.

I was working in Waterstone’s when the novel was published and Andrew Miller was a local author living in Bath, a mixed blessing as any bookseller will quietly tell you. Some authors had a tendency to move their books to the front of the shop, demand to know their sales figures and castigate us for not stocking more of their titles. The epitome of modesty, Miller was the antithesis of that. Sadly, he’s never quiet matched Ingenious Pain for me although Pure came a close second.

That’s it from me this for a few days. H and I are off to explore the delights of Antwerp tomorrow. Back next week

Conrad and Eleanor by Jane Rogers: Absence makes the heart grow fonder

Cover imageThis is the second novel I’ve read in a year in which traditional gender roles are reversed within a marriage – Andrew Miller’s The Crossing saw Tim decide to stay at home and look after their child while Maud continues her work in clinical research – and I’ve since read a third, Sarah Moss’ superb The Tidal Zone (review to follow soon). Three in a year might seem a high score but you’d think over a decade and a half into the 21st century it would be a more ubiquitous and therefore unremarkable theme. Coincidentally, Jane Rogers’ Eleanor – like Maud – is engaged in medical research as is Conrad. The difference between them is that while Eleanor is a star in her particular sphere, Conrad’s work has stalled.

When Eleanor returns from spending the weekend with her lover she‘s expecting to find Conrad at home, back from his conference in Munich. At first she’s almost relieved, setting about making the house looked lived in despite the fact that Conrad is all too well aware of Louis. As the hours pass, anxiety slips in. Eleanor speculates about Conrad’s absence – perhaps he met someone at the conference, maybe he has his own affair to distract him upsetting as that may seem. The truth is very different: Conrad has fled Munich, convinced he’s seen the young animal rights activist who’s been stalking him, and headed for Rome. Spooked and anxious, he gets off the train in Bologna, worried that Maddy has seen him boarding it. With no suitcase and very little money, he books into a hotel, roaming the Bologna streets aimlessly for several days. One evening lost, feverish and hallucinating he is saved by the kindness of a stranger who takes him in. Eleanor and Conrad spend their time apart revisiting memories of parenthood, thinking about the role each has played in the other’s life and how they have arrived at a point in their relationship where they are so far apart.

Through Eleanor and Conrad’s alternating narratives, Rogers presents a nuanced portrait of a marriage in which traditional male/female roles are upended. Eleanor is intensely involved in her work while Conrad much preferred taking care of their four children when they were young, pushed into his organ transplant research by Eleanor and increasingly unhappy in it. Eleanor’s relationship with her children is distant, Conrad’s close. Neither of them talk to each other. Conrad’s abrupt absence and the crisis it precipitates forces Eleanor to reassess their relationship but Rogers resists any fairy tale ending, instead offering her readers an entirely plausible resolution. The novel’s secondary theme of animal experimentation is neatly stitched in, with arguments deftly rehearsed on both sides. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable and absorbing read. Not the first novel by Rogers I’ve read but it’s prompted me to think I should seek out more.

Paperbacks to Look Out For in July 2016

Cover imageI’ll start July’s paperback selection with my favourite of the three I’ve already read. Set in Morocco, Vendela Vida’s The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty takes us on a nail-biting journey wondering what our resourceful protagonist will come up with next. Exhausted after her long sleepless flight and preoccupied by problems at home, she finds herself in a Kafkaesque nightmare with no ID, credit cards cancelled and no cash after her backpack is snatched. When, after a fretful night, the chief of police hands her a black backpack she accepts it knowing that it’s not hers, nor is the passport or the credit cards she finds in it, but seeing a way out of her predicament. What follows is a somewhat improbable but thoroughly entertaining sequence of events as our nameless protagonist slides deeper and deeper into a quagmire of lies.

Vida’s writing was new to me but I’ve been reading Andrew Miller’s novels since the publication of his excellent debut, Ingenious Pain. He’s never quite matched that for me but it hasn’t stopped me looking forward to whatever he comes up with next. The Crossing opens with a young man and woman repairing a boat, both members of their university sailing club. They’re not a couple but Tim has it in the back of his mind that he’ll sleep with Maud before too long. Suddenly, Maud flips off the boat and lands on her head – for one long moment it seems she’s dead – then she gets up and walks away. Tim somehow feels responsible following her home and later conceiving a passion for her. Written in short, crisp sentences from which the occasional startlingly sharp image leaps out, The Crossing feels very different from any of Miller’s previous novels. It had me gripped throughout but left me puzzled.Cover image

Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, is also about a marriage but not just any old run-of-the-mill, everyday sort of marriage: Lotto and Mathilde are a shiny beacon of the perfect relationship but as we all know that can’t be true. The novel’s two-part structure – first the Fates then the Furies – sets us up for dramatic revelations, presenting an apparently idyllic relationship seen through both parties’ very different eyes. It’s stuffed full of little side stories, some of which go nowhere, some of which are picked up again and sewn neatly in. Groff’s baggy, extravagant, almost baroque writing is the antithesis of the spare elegance I so admire in the likes of Colm Tóibin, Kent Haruf and John McGahern yet there’s something about it that sucks me in. Not an unalloyed joy – it’s far too long – but it’s an absorbing, intriguing novel.

Jonathan Galassi’s Muse looks irresistible: its setting, subject and jacket tick all the boxes for me. Paul Dukach is in line to take over one of the last independent publishing houses in New York and is being shown the ropes, from navigating the choppy waters of the Frankfurt book fair to the wooing of authors renowned for their delicate egos. Paul has become obsessed with Ida Perkins, a star of literary New York, whose lover and longtime publisher is Paul’s boss’s biggest rival. ‘Enriched by juicy details only a quintessential insider could know, written with both satiric sharpness and sensitivity, Muse is a love letter to the people who write, sell – and, above all, read – the books that shape our lives’ says the publisher. See what I mean by irresistible…

Cover imageEnding on a very different note, Walter Kempowski’s All for Nothing takes us to rural East Prussia in January 1945 where the wealthy von Globigs have hidden themselves away from the horrors taking place on their doorstep. When they take in a stranger it seems that they will finally have to face the consequences of the war. ‘Profoundly evocative of the period, sympathetic yet painfully honest about the motivations of its characters, All for Nothing is a devastating portrait of the complicities and denials of the German people as the Third Reich comes to an end’ says the publisher. The novel is translated by Anthea Bell which makes it well worth a look for me.

That’s it for July. As ever, if you’d like to know more a click on a title will take you to my review for the novels I’ve read and to a more detailed synopsis for the ones I haven’t. if you’d like to catch up with the hardback selections they’re here and here.

The Crossing by Andrew Miller: Something of an enigma

Cover image I’ve had a somewhat chequered relationship with Andrew Miller’s writing: his debut, Ingenious Pain, left me eager for his second novel but that left me cold. The next few were enjoyable enough but not nearly as strikingly original as the first. The only one of his novels that’s come close to matching the brilliance of that debut for me is Pure which won the Costa Book of the Year back in 2012. That hasn’t stopped me from looking forward to and reading whatever Miller comes up with next. The Crossing is his latest and it’s left me puzzling over quite what to make of it.

A young man and woman are repairing a boat. They’re both members of their university sailing club. They’re not a couple but Tim has it in the back of his mind that he’ll sleep with Maud before too long. Suddenly, Maud flips off the boat and lands on her head – for one long moment it seems she’s dead – then she gets up and walks away. Somehow feeling responsible for her, Tim takes her to hospital, then home seeing her through her convalescence. They pass from acquaintances to lovers almost without thought on Maud’s part, somewhat obsessively on Tim’s. Their relationship follows an apparently conventional path – a career in clinical research for Maud, living together, friends, a child – but it’s far from that. Tim and Maud are entirely different. He is open, warm and passionate while she is self-contained and unknowable, opening herself up to no one and surprised when others look askance at her tattoo which translates as ‘every man for himself’.  When Zoe is born it’s Tim, whose wealthy parents support his easy pottering life, playing at musical composition, who looks after her while Maud continues to work long hours, consumed by her work. A tragic turn of events throws everything into question. As you might expect, Maud and Tim react in very different ways. The rest of the novel follows Maud’s journey towards a kind of reconciliation with what has happened.

The Crossing feels very different from anything that Miller has written before. Short, clean and plain sentences in which the occasional startlingly sharp image leaps out, unfold this story of a disparate couple who have reversed conventional gender roles. Maud is powerfully drawn – the antithesis of what is so often expected from a woman and a mother, playing with Zoe ‘on her hands and knees, a kitten that seems to have learnt its kitten nature out of a book’. The first half of the novel is gripping, almost hypnotic in its simplicity, but towards the end of the second half when the story has become just Maud’s, I began to feel I might be venturing off into an episode of Lost, a guilty pleasure from a few years back. Maud emerges still the same yet somehow slightly softer, more human. There’s a transformative moment in Miller’s first novel when his main protagonist, who is unable to feel pain, is made human. It seemed to me that Maud underwent a similar transformation but it takes very much more than a moment. Whether you consider the novel a success may depend on your reading of this part of the book. It had me gripped throughout but left me puzzled.

Books to Look Out For in August 2015

Cover imageYes, it’s that time already, and you might think that the publishing industry expects us all to slip our brains gently out of gear given that it’s summer, but there are a few stimulating novels sprinkled through my August choices, the most enticing of which for me is the weighty A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. It’s a bit of a doorstop – just over 730 pages – but that’s what holidays are for. It comes with a great deal of pre-publication brouhaha but nevertheless looks mighty tempting. The novel follows four graduates from a small New England college to New York where they plan to make their fortune: JB is a sharp-tongued artist, Willem an aspiring actor, Malcolm a frustrated architect and Jude – their ‘centre of gravity’ – a supremely talented lawyer. It charts the course of their friendship into middle age, visiting some very dark territory on the way. Irresistible, at least for me, anyway.

Still in New York, Julia Pierpont’s debut Among the Ten Thousand Things sees an anonymously sent box of printed explicit emails, meant for artist Jack Shanley’s wife, opened by their children, precipitating a crisis. In an attempt to repair their marriage, Jack and Deb decide to move, thrusting fifteen-year-old Simon and eleven-year-old Kay into different worlds. The synopsis reminds me a little of Jane Hamilton’s Disobedience published back in the days when email wasn’t far from being a novelty rather than the time-consuming annoyance it’s come to be for so many.

One more American novel, and the reference to Olen Steinhauer as the new heir apparent to John le Carré at the end of the synopsis made me dither as to whether to include it – not really my territory – but I like the sound of its premise. All the Old Knives explores the idea of trust through the relationship of Celia, once a CIA operative, and Henry, still in the game, whose relationship was destroyed when the rescue of a hijacked plane went horribly wrong. Neither can forget what happened and both are determined to get to the bottom of it but can they trust each other? It sounds like a thriller worth reading, but perhaps that’s my old Cover imageSpooks obsession talking

There was a time when a new Andrew Miller novel would have been top of my list but I’ve had several disappointments after the magnificent Ingenious Pain. Pure saw him back on form and although The Crossing is set in the present I’m hoping that he’s stayed there. I’m not entirely sure what to make of the blurb but it appears to be a love story about Tim who conceives a passion for Maud ‘who fell past him, lay seemingly dead on the ground, then stood and walked’ but Maud is a loner whose passion seems to lie in the direction of the sea rather than Tim. I think it will be well worth a look, despite its rather perplexing synopsis.

I have to confess that this one’s only here because of my own obsession with the perfect pillow which would, of course, deliver the perfect night’s sleep. Lucy seems to have the same conviction which is why she fetches up in the bed linen department where William works. So far, so possibly clichéd boy meets girl but this is the bit of the blurb which clinched the inclusion of Nick Coleman’s Pillow Man here: ‘William and Lucy are not connected. Yet the pair of them share a terrible memory from the past, the sort of joint recollection that changes with the light, depending on who you were and where you were standing at the time. The question is: what to do with it?It goes on to talk about the ‘difficult metaphysics of bedtime’ – pretentious nonsense or intriguing, either could be true, but I think I’ll give it a try.

Cover imageAnd finally, Haruki Murakami’s first two novels Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 are to be published in the UK for the first time. Both follow the fortunes of their narrator and his friend, the Rat, and it sounds as if many of those familiar Murakami hallmarks were already in place when the novels were written. The first sees the narrator in college drinking and listening to music in J’s bar with Rat, and pursuing a relationship with a nine-fingered girl while the second moves our narrator on three years leaving Rat behind for life in Tokyo working as a translator, living with twin girls and searching for a replica of the pinball machine at J’s. Both novels will appear in the same volume under the title Wind/Pinball which will no doubt be bought by all of us committed Murakami fans, and maybe a few more.

That’s it for August. As ever a click on a title will take you to Waterstones website for a more detailed synopsis. If you’d like to catch up with my July choices, you can find the first hardback selection here, the second here and the paperbacks here.

The second novel conundrum

Cover imageI’ve been circling warily around Andrew Miller’s Costa Prize winning Pure for some time now. Miller’s first novel, Ingenious Pain, is one of my favourite books. Set in the 18th century, its main protagonist, James Dyer, is conceived on an icy night as a result of an adulterous coupling with a stranger. James cannot feel pain which appears to be a blessing but is, of course, a curse because he’s unable to understand the human condition. He attaches himself to a quack show, is abducted and kept in a rich man’s house as a curiosity, acts as an assistant to a ship’s physician and later, becomes a brilliant but supremely arrogant surgeon in fashionable Bath. His greatest and final adventure is to take part in a race to St Petersburg to inoculate the Empress of Russia against smallpox, and it’s on this journey that he meets his nemesis – a strange woman whose miraculous powers Puregive him the gift of pain. There, just writing that has made me want to rush off and read it for the third time. Ingenious Pain was published in 1997 and every time I’ve got wind of a new Miller novel I’ve looked forward to it eagerly. It’s not that they’ve been bad novels – far from it – but none has matched the magic of his debut for me hence the hesitation over Pure even though several people whose opinions I trust assured me that this one really did hit the spot. I’m half-way through the tale of the clearing of Les Innocents Cemetery in pre-revolutionary Paris and although not quite as smitten as I was by Ingenious Pain it’s a close run thing.

As a keen reader of debuts, always on the hunt for new talent, I’ve found that the second novel is often a disappointment. Jake The Long FirmArnott’s excellent The Long Firm is a case in point. Set in mid-60s London it explores the sinister underworld of gangland London and is written with a wit as sharp as the cut of a gangster’s suit, not too mention sufficient period accuracy to satisfy even my contemporary historian partner. Sadly the next two in the trilogy didn’t cut it for me. T C Boyle’s Water Music is Water  Musica rattling good yarn based on the 18th-century explorer Mungo Park’s compulsive quest to find the source of the Niger. It’s packed with extraordinary characters who never seem to have a dull moment and is very funny indeed but my copy of Budding Prospects, Boyle’s second novel, landed up in a charity shop. Of course, it’s not always the case – Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum was a joy as is everything else she’s written, and Audrey Niffenegger did a fine job with Her Fearful Symmetry after The Time Traveller’s Wife – but it’s happened enough to make me wonder why given that most of us get better at something the more we do it. Perhaps it’s the rabbit in the headlights syndrome – having laboured away quietly, some times for years, suddenly having so many expectations from both readers and publishers must weigh heavily. Perhaps it’s having the luxury of time to lavish on writing and research the first time around and being rushed the second. Or maybe I’m just being greedy.