Tag Archives: Haruki Murakami

Books to Look Out for in October 2018

Cover imageOctober’s the month in which the big literary guns are rolled out in the battle for our Christmas present lists although the publicity campaign for Sarah Perry’s Melmoth has already been in full swing for months. Helen Franklin is hiding from an unforgivable act she committed twenty years ago. Her sheltered life is threatened by the discovery of a manuscript telling a story in which the mythic figure of Melmoth frequently appears, complete with unblinking eyes and bleeding feet. The novel’s described by the publishers as ‘a profound, ambitiously realised work of fiction which asks fundamental questions about guilt, forgiveness, moral reckoning and how we come to terms with our actions in a conflicted world’ and having read it, I’d say they’re right. The Essex Serpent is a hard act to follow but Perry’s more than met expectations with this one.

I finally got around to reading Paraic O’Donnell’s The Maker of Swans earlier this year and enjoyed it very much. He’s a writer who knows how to spin a good yarn which raises hopes for The House on Vesper Sands. Set in a snowy London in 1893, its sounds like a second pleasing slice of Gothic involving a man whose one-time love is found stretched out in front of an altar, a seamstress with a message stitched into her skin and her employer who disappears into the night, all under the watchful eye of a society columnist keen for a real story.

Eoin McNamee’s The Vogue sounds as if it may also have a foot in Gothic territory or perhaps that’s just the slightly opaque blurb. In 1944, two teenagers silently dance in an aerodrome. She draws the outlines of their footwork in eyebrow pencil; he loses their bet. Decades later, a body is found. ‘Set against an eerie landscape, awash with secrets, The Vogue is a grimly poetic dance through the intertwined stories of a deeply religious community, an abandoned military base, and a long-shuttered children’s Care Home’ say the publishers promisingly.Cover image

Season Butler’s Cygnet sees a young girl, stranded on an island seemingly abandoned by her parents. Swan Island is home to an ageing separatist community who have turned their back on the mainland to create their own haven and have no wish to have their carefully constructed idyll shattered by an incomer, let alone a young one. ‘Cygnet is the story of a young woman battling against the thrashing waves of loneliness and depression, and how she learns to find hope, laughter and her own voice in a world that’s crumbling around her’ according to the publishers. This one could go either way but it’s an interesting premise.

Something that could also be said Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered which intertwines the stories of Willa Knox who is grappling with a host of domestic problems in 2016, and schoolteacher Thatcher Greenwood whose ambitions to teach Darwinism in 1871 are met with obdurate opposition in the town. ‘A testament to both the resilience and persistent myopia of the human condition, Unsheltered explores the foundations we build in life, spanning time and place to give us all a clearer look at those around us, and perhaps ourselves’ say the publishers, rather ambitiously comparing it with George Eliot’s work. I prefer Kingsolver’s earlier fiction to her more recent novels.

I’m much more confident about Hubert Mingarelli’s Four Soldiers, described by Hilary Mantel as ‘a small miracle’. The titular soldiers set up camp in a forest close to the Romanian frontline of the Russian Civil War in the winter of 1919. They fill a lull in the fighting, trying to forget the horrors they’ve seen, enjoying a brief freedom and the beauty of their surroundings. ‘Tightly focused and simply told, this is a story of friendship and the fragments of happiness that can illuminate the darkness of war’ say the publishers. The spare prose of Mingarelli’s A Meal in Winter made a lasting impression on me when I read it five years ago

Cover image Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore sounds wacky enough to please even the most ardent fan. A portrait painter discovers a strange painting in the attic of a famous artist, opening a Pandora’s box in the process. To close it he must do all manner of things involving ‘a mysterious ringing bell, a two-foot-high physical manifestation of an Idea, a dapper businessman who lives across the valley, a precocious thirteen-year-old girl, a Nazi assassination attempt during World War II in Vienna, a pit in the woods behind the artist’s home, and an underworld haunted by Double Metaphors.  A tour de force of love and loneliness, war and art – as well as a loving homage to The Great GatsbyKilling Commendatore is a stunning work of imagination from one of our greatest writers’ say the publishers. Can’t wait.

That’s it for October’s new novels. As ever a click on a title will take you to a fuller synopsis should you be interested. Paperbacks soon…

Paperbacks to Look Out for in May 2018: Part Two

Cover imageI’ve read just one of this second selection of May paperbacks – Dorthe Nors’ Mirror, Shoulder, Signal which picked up a bit of attention when it was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize. It sees fortysomething Sonja attempting to learn to drive, something she feels she really should have done some time ago, while failing to find a place for herself in the world. Nothing much happens in Nors’ sharp, very funny novella. Sonja stumbles from perplexity to perplexity, occasionally making stands, constantly finding herself out of step with everyone else until one day she has an epiphany.

With her pleasing eccentricities, Sonja wouldn’t be out of place in one of the seven stories comprising Haruki Murakami’s Men Without Women if past performance is anything to go by. Each of them bears many of the hallmarks no doubt familiar to fellow fans – ’vanishing cats and smoky bars, lonely hearts and mysterious women, baseball and the Beatles’ – promises the publishers who also quote the author on writing short stories in the book’s blurb: ‘I find writing novels a challenge, writing stories a joy. If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden.’

Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Gravel Heart will no doubt be rather more sombre than Murakami’s stories. It moves between revolutionary Zanzibar in the 1960s and 1990s London, following writer Paradise Salim whose happy childhood is disrupted by his father’s departure from his brother’s house where the family has been living. ‘Evoking the immigrant experience with unsentimental precision and profound insight, Gravel Heart is a powerfully affecting story ofCover image isolation, identity, belonging and betrayal, and is Abulrazak Gurnah’s most dazzling achievement’ say the publishers. Gurnah’s By the Sea remains one of the most powerful depictions of exile I’ve read.

I’m hoping for some light relief with Katherine Heiny’s Standard Deviation after that. It’s about modern marriage, a second marriage to be precise. Graham is charmed by the fun-loving, spontaneous Audra but tired out by her. When his first wife turns up again, Graham finds himself in a quandry: ’How can anyone love two such different women? Did he make the right choice? Is there a right choice?’ ask the publishers which doesn’t sound entirely up my street and there’s every possibility that I’ve been persuaded to look at it by Twitter, something I’ve had cause to regret in the past. We’ll see.

Francesca Segal’s The Awkward Age also tackles modern family life through Julia who has fallen in love with James. All looks set for happiness but their teenage children put several spanners in the works. ‘Uniting two households is never easy, but the teenagers’ unexpected actions will eventually threaten everyone’s hard-won happiness’ say the publishers which, once again, sounds a little outside my usual literary purview but I enjoyed Segal’s The Innocents very much

Cover imageI’m ending this preview with a book by an author whose first novel is still sitting on my shelves unread although it is now the next in line. Paula McGrath’s A History of Running Away follows three women: one wanting to box at a time when boxing is illegal for women in Ireland; the second contemplating a job offer but wondering if she can bring herself to abandon her mother in her nursing home; and a third who takes up with a biker gang as a means of escape. ‘A History of Running Away is a brilliantly written novel about running away, growing up and finding out who you are’ say the publishers, promisingly.

That’s it for May. A click on a title will take you to my review for Mirror, Shoulder, Signal and to a more detailed synopsis for the other titles. If you’d like to catch up with the first batch of May’s paperbacks they’re here, new novels are here and here.

Six Degrees of Separation – from Memoirs of a Geisha to Capital #6Degrees

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

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I’m somewhat late to this month’s party, having spent a week in Spain (more of which next week). We’re starting with Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha which took the bestseller charts by storm back in the late ‘90s. Although I’ve read it, I can’t say it stands out in my memory.

Given the Japanese connection I can’t resist linking to a book by one of my favourite writers, Haruki Murakami. Last month I wrote a Blast from the Past post about one of his wackiest novels, A Wild Sheep Chase. To balance that I’ve chosen South of the Border, West of the Sun, a much more accessible pieces of fiction about a happily married man forced to remember his past when his childhood sweetheart reappears.

Cats pop up all over the place in Murakami’s fiction which takes me to Takashi Hiraide’s elegantly pared-back The Guest Cat about a reclusive young couple who open up their home and hearts to a stray cat and are then faced with the prospect of moving. Short but not slight, it’s a thoughtful rather lovely book.

Cats are not known for paying their way as opposed to Sarah Waters’ characters in  The Paying Guests which sees an impoverished war widow and her daughter reluctantly take in lodgers. Lots of readers loved Waters’ first twentieth-century set novel but I much prefer her Victorian pastiches.

One of the best examples of Victorian pastiche I’ve read is Charles Pallisers’ The Quincunx which I pulled off the shelves earlier in the year for H who was recovering from a nasty chest infection. It’s many years since I read it but I do remember it has a satisfyingly convoluted plot and an equally pleasing unreliable narrator.

I haven’t read Anthony Trollope’s Palliser series but H tells me I really should given that I’m a fan of state of the nation novels. Made up of six separate books, the series was once known as the Parliamentary Novels and was adapted for TV back in the days before the BBC thought it was a good idea to condense a long piece of fiction into four parts.

Which leads me to a more recent state of the nation novel of which there are many to choose from but I’m plumping for John Lanchester’s Capital because of its clever premise – surveying the nation through the fortunes of one London street just after the global financial collapse of 2008.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from an ageing woman’s memories of her life as a geisha in early twentieth-century Japan to a single London street holding up a mirror to my own nation in 2008. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

Blasts from the Past: A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami (transl. Alfred Birnbaum) (1989)

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.

I have the BBC to thank for introducing me to Haruki Murakami’s work. Someone picked A Wild Sheep Chase for Radio 4’s A Good Read way back in my bookselling days and I was intrigued by their description of it, as were many other listeners: we sold shed loads of this wacky novel by a writer hardly anyone in the UK had heard of at the time. It was actually published in Japan in 1982 but not translated into English until 1989.

A Sherlock Holmes-obsessed, chain-smoking advertising executive is pursuing a sheep with a very particular birthmark after pinching an image from a postcard sent by a friend to illustrate some copy. The sheep has been spotted in the photograph by a shady character called ‘The Boss’ who has threatened our unnamed narrator with some very nasty consequences if he fails to track it down. Things become increasingly surreal as the narrator fixes the sheep in his sights on a trail that leads him from Tokyo to the snowy peaks of Hokkaido where he comes face to face with his quarry. There’s a good deal more to it than that but this is a book impossible to encapsulate in just a few words which is part of its charm. I read it with increasingly delighted astonishment. Funny, gripping and wonderfully odd, it’s excellent.

It’s well over twenty years since I read A Wild Sheep Chase but I can still remember the excitement of discovering Murakami, gobbling up everything I could find by him. As for A Good Read, it’s still going strong and still well worth listening to for recommendations.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

Books to Look Out for in May 2017

Cover imageFewer treats than usual in May for me but three of them are from some of my favourite authors. It was a toss-up as to which one of them should lead this preview but in the end it had to be Elizabeth Strout. Anything is Possible is a novel told in stories linked to Lucy Barton, familiar to readers of last year’s very fine My Name is Lucy Barton. Lucy is now a successful writer living in New York but these stories explore the lives of those she left behind in the small town of Amgash, Illinois. ‘Writing these stories, Lucy imagines the lives of the people that she especially remembers. And the people she has imagined that, in small ways, have remembered her too. For isn’t it true that we all hope to be remembered? Or to think in some way – even fleetingly – that we have been important to someone?’ say the publishers. Such an interesting device to have a character playing the role of the author of a book.

Colm Tóibin’s House of Names comes a very close second to Anything is Possible but I’m slightly put off by its premise. It’s a retelling of the story of Agamemnon whose shocking sacrifice of his daughter in an effort to secure the gods’ approval for his battle plans plunges his family into a terrible and violent chaos. ‘They cut her hair before they dragged her to the place of sacrifice. Her mouth was gagged to stop her cursing her father, her cowardly, two-tongued father. Nonetheless, they heard her muffled screams’ quotes the publisher assuring us that it’s ‘a work of great beauty, and daring, from one of our finest living writers’. I won’t argue with the last point.

Even before my short story conversion I would have read Haruki Murakami’s Men without Women. These seven stories bear many of the hallmarks no doubt familiar to fellow fans – ’vanishing cats and smoky bars, lonely hearts and mysterious women, baseball and the Beatles’ promises the publisher who also quotes the author on writing short stories in the Cover imagebook’s blurb: ’I find writing novels a challenge, writing stories a joy. If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden.’ I’d still prefer a novel.

I’m particularly fond of the idea of an apartment block portrayed as a microcosm of a city – Alaa Al Aswany did it beautifully in The Yacoubian Building as did Manil Suri in The Death of Vishnu but my favourite has to be Georges Perec’s Life, a User’s Manual. Fran Cooper’s debut, These Dividing Walls, is set in a Parisian building whose inhabitants live their separate lives, barely aware of their neighbours’ existence. Enter Edward who seems to be about to change all that. ‘As the feverish metropolis is brought to boiling point, secrets will rise and walls will crumble both within and without Number 37…’ say the publishers somewhat melodramatically. Maybe I’ve set the bar too high having Perec in mind but it sounds worth investigating.

I tend to shy away from dystopian fiction, particularly at the moment. My optimistic world view has taken such a bashing over the past year that I’m looking for a little comfort. Megan Hunter’s first novel, The End We Start From, is set against a backdrop of an environmental crisis which sees London under water. It follows a couple desperately seeking sanctuary for themselves and their new-born baby. This all sounds a little familiar, a well-worn dystopian trope, but what’s caught my attention is the promise of beautiful writing and this quote from the blurb: ‘though the country is falling apart around them, this family’s world – of new life and new hope – sings with love’. Let’s hope so.

I’m finishing this preview with a novel which, unusually for a new title, I’ve already read – Daniel Lowe’s All That’s Left to Tell. TwoCover image people tell each other stories: one is a hostage, the other a female interrogator who visits him at night after he’s been blindfolded by his guards. Marc has been kidnapped while on business in Pakistan and finds himself caught up in the web of stories the woman he comes to know as Josephine weaves around his murdered daughter. These are the bare bones of Lowe’s cleverly structured, subtle debut which I found utterly engrossing. Breathes new life into that hoary old cliché ‘unputdownable’. Review to follow next month.

That’s it for May’s new books. A click on any of the titles that takes your fancy will give you a more detailed synopsis. Paperbacks to follow soon…

Paperbacks to Look Out For in May 2016: Part 1

Cover imageLots of paperbacks to look forward to in May, most of which I’ve already read and reviewed including several that made it into my 2015 ‘books of the year’ but the jewel in the crown has to be Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night. I’ve long been a champion of Haruf’s beautifully pared back, elegant novels set in Holt, Colorado and so was very sorry to hear that Our Souls at Night was to be his last. Haruf died in 2014, a sad loss at only sixty-nine. This final novel is also set in Holt – how could it not be? – and feels like a fitting end to the series: a beautiful, tender meditation on ageing and the joy it can sometimes bring along with sorrow. Haruf’s insightful writing is clean and simple, stripped of ornament and all the more powerful for it.

Hopping over Wyoming from Colorado to Montana, Malcolm Brooks’ Painted Horses is set in the mid-1950s. More used to sifting her way through the ruins of bombed-out London, archaeologist Catherine Lemay has a summer to excavate a canyon before it’s flooded as part of a new dam project. Meanwhile John H, a U.S. Army cavalry veteran and fugitive, has made his hideout in the canyon. I think we can guess the rest. ‘Painted Horses sends a dauntless young woman on a heroic quest, sings a love song to the horseman’s vanishing way of life, and reminds us that love and ambition, tradition and the future often make strange bedfellows’ is the publisher’s lyrical summing up. I’m hoping for striking descriptions of the gorgeous Montana landscape.

Heading east to West Virginia, Glenn Taylor’s A Hanging at Cinder Bottom is a rip-roaring tale of Cover imagesmall town life in the coal rush where powerful men make their own kind of law and corruption is the name of their game. The city of Baltimore comes up once or twice which is perhaps why The Wire popped into my head but a more appropriate comparison would be with Boardwalk Empire. Whichever, in the right hands, it would make a corker of a film. It begins in August 1910 with the town of Keystone all agog as Abe Baach and Goldie Toothman face execution. Stuffed with colourful characters, goodies, baddies, gambling, cheating, a fantastically elaborate con and a monkey, the rest of Taylor’s novel is the story of how Abe and Goldie arrived on that gallows platform.

Scooting across to Seattle, Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite’s War of the Encyclopaedists is billed as ‘a smart, fresh tale for the millennial generation’ – not me, obviously but I need to keep up. Mickey Montauk and Halifax Corderoy have been hosting outrageous parties throughout the summer. Real life catches up with them when Mickey’s National Guard unit is sent to Baghdad and Hal heads for college in Boston, the only legacy of that summer a Wikipedia entry they’ve written dubbing themselves The Encyclopaedists. ‘Razor-sharp, urgent and authentic, this is the story of a generation at a crossroads, staring down the barrel of adulthood and trying desperately not to blink’ say the publishers, which does sound up my street although it may make me feel very old.

And finally, giving up on the American theme altogether, Haruki Murakami’s first two novels Cover imageHear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 both follow the fortunes of their narrator and his friend, the Rat. 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. It sounds as if many of those hallmark themes familiar to Murakami fans were already in place when the novels were written. As with the hardback edition, both will be published in the same volume.

That’s it for May’s first instalment of paperbacks. As ever a click on a title I’ve read will take you to my review and to Waterstones website for those I haven’t. If you’d like to catch up with May’s hardbacks they’re here and here. Second batch of May paperback goodies to follow shortly…

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.

Paperbacks to Look Out For in July 2015

Cover imageI’ve read all but two of July’s selection of paperbacks and reviewed four of them which makes this an easy post for me. I’ll start with one I haven’t read but have been eagerly anticipating: Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage and before you castigate me for that missing ‘u’, that’s the way it’s spelt on the jacket. All four of the eponymous Tsukuru’s schoolfriends’ names have a colour in them: he is the odd one out. After they all turn their backs on him he fails to connect with anyone until he meets Sara. As ever with Murakami, I’m sure there’s much more to it than that.

Josh Emmons’ debut, The Loss of Leon Meed, has largely earned its place here because it comes from The Friday Project whose books are always worth a look rather than its seemingly ubiquitous Jonathan Franzen recommendation. Popping up inexplicably and in the strangest of situations, Leon Meed brings together ten disparate residents of Eureka, California, previously unknown to each other, each of whom has witnessed his appearances and each of whom wants to share their experiences. ‘A canny status report on the American Soul’, according to the Los Angeles Times.

I’ve read but not reviewed Katherine Hill’s The Violet Hour in which Abe throws himself overboard after confronting Cassandra with her infidelity leaving her and her teenage daughter aboard their pilotless yacht. Theirs was an apparently perfect marriage, a fulfilment of the American dream, but Hill’s novel goes on to reveal otherwise. A classy summer read – just the thing for lazing around which is why I took it on my own holiday then failed to get around to reading it.

Niven Govinden’s All the Days and Nights is also a portrait of a relationship which is not quiteAll the Days and Nights what it seems. Narrated by Anna Brown, a celebrated portrait painter, it begins with a cry of anguish at the disappearance of John – husband, lover and the subject of many of her paintings. Anna has told her housekeeper that John is merely in town picking up art supplies but she knows that this is no short absence. Slowly – sometimes in vibrant word pictures, sometimes obliquely – a picture of John and the life they have lived together emerges through Anna’s memories and imaginings. It’s a short novel that repays attentive reading.

Much longer, unsurprisingly given its name, The Hundred-Year House is Rebecca Makkai’s backward looking history of Laurelfield which we first enter as a family home, albeit a somewhat dysfunctional family. You may know Makkai’s name from her lovely, engaging first novel, The Borrower, the story of a librarian who goes on the run with her favourite customer, a ten-year-old boy whose Evangelical mother is worried about his sexuality. Her second is entirely different, but just as entertaining.

As is Linda Grant’s Upstairs at the Party which had me absorbed from start to finish. It’s a novel about a particular generation, my own, and many of her characters are all too recognisable. This is the second novel in which Grant puts the baby-boomers under the microscope. The first, the hugely enjoyable We Had it So Good, is about the first wave who matured in the 1960s rather than us tail-enders. Upstairs at the Party has some familiar Grant hallmarks – young Jewish girl rebelling against her mother, a much-loved uncle figure, an attention to clothes – and is also a thoroughly absorbing, if darker, read. Hard to untangle my own enjoyment from nostalgia but if you’ve liked Grant’s other novels, I think you’ll enjoy this one, too.

Cover imageMy final choice is Emily Gould’s Friendship which didn’t seem to me to get as much attention as it deserved in hardback. We talk about relationship breakups but not the breakup of a friendship although they can be almost as heartbreaking, and in some cases more so. Gould’s novel makes no bones about its subject – it’s obvious from the title – but it’s about much more than that. Through the lens of Bev and Amy’s friendship she examines what it’s like to emerge from your twenties in the modern world, still unsure of what to do with your life.

That’s it for July paperbacks. A click on the title of the three books I haven’t reviewed will take you to Waterstone’s website for a fuller synopsis. If you want to see what I’ve picked out in hardback for July you can find part one here and part two here.

Lost in Translation

When I was a reviews editor I tried my best to make sure that translators were credited in the bibliographic information that accompanies reviews. It didn’t always work: sometimes space was tight and the sub-editors had to cut the copy but sometimes the fact that it was a translated work was not immediately apparent. Perhaps the translator hadn’t been credited on the book’s jacket or I may have been sent a manuscript with no mention of a translator’s name.

I thought about this Cover imagelast week when I finished Daniel Kehlmann’s excellent Measuring the World about two eighteenth century German mathematicians: Alexander von Humboldt who enthusiastically travelled the world measuring everything in sight willing to endure the most horrendous conditions accompanied by the long suffering Bonpland, and the irascible but brilliant Carl Friedrich Gauss, reluctant to leave his own bedroom let alone cross a border.  I read the book partly on a recommendation but also because it had been translated by Carol Brown Janeway. I first noticed Janeway’s name when I read Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader many years ago and have since read several other novels just because she translated them.

I remember hearing a radio programme about how poorly paid translators of fiction are, and that many of them do it for love of the books that they work on. Low pay for such a skilled job seems unfair – a good translator captures both the spirit and style of the book, a bad one will ruin it. Haruki Murakami uses several translators, two of whom – Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel – managed to replicate the same idiosyncratic style when translating the zillions of pages that make up 1Q84 to the extent that you really can’t see the join. Perhaps poor fees in the UK have been justified because fiction in translation is notorious for not selling well here but that can’t be true of the many Scandi crime novels whose authors must have gratefully set up a shrine to Henning Mankell in their living rooms. Whatever the reason, translators at least deserve recognition so many apologies to anyone I failed to credit over the years. And for any fellow Murakami fans who haven’t yet heard, his new novel – already going down a storm in Japan – looks set to be translated in 2014.

A tip top reading month

I’m half-way through Jane Feaver’s An Inventory of Heaven, due out in paperback next month. It’s far from a bad book, although it does explore the rather well trodden territory of childhood and dark secrets, but I’ve been keeping company with Haruki Murakami and Kate Atkinson for most of this month and so perhaps have been spoiled for anything less than excellent.

Cover imageMurakami’s 1Q84 stretches over more than 1,200 pages and is spread across three books but it gripped me throughout. If pressed, you could probably boil it down to boy meets girl, albeit in a rather strange way, then both spend the next 20 years trying to find each other again but of course there’s much more to it than that. Any journey with Murakami is a surreal one and by the end of it I had begun to feel that it was more akin to Alice in Wonderland with its entrance and exit from the strange two-mooned world of 1Q84 than it was to George Orwell’s 1984, the year in which it is set. Last week Murakami’s new novel, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, was published in Japan. Readers queued overnight and over 1 million copies have already been sold. Let’s hope his English translators are hard at work on it.

Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life is also somewhat surreal with its replaying of the birth, life and death Cover imageof its main character, Ursula Todd, each time with differing results. Readers accustomed to the straightforward linear narratives of Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books may be a little taken aback by this but those who have read her second novel, Human Croquet, will be more familiar with her use of alternative realities. In Life After Life it’s more like alternative history, clear from the start when Ursula puts her hand in her bag pulls out a gun and says quietly “Führer, für Sie”.  In an ambiguity typical of the novel we’re left not knowing whether the single shot fired hits Ursula or her target. Events in Ursula’s, sometimes very short, life affect the outcome for her friends, family and possibly the entire world, sometimes almost imperceptibly, but often dramatically. Beginning in 1910 when Ursula is born, several of her lives take the narrative through both the First and Second World Wars with sombre often harrowing descriptions of a bomb-devastated London, but there’s also much humour in the book. It’s a novel that could have fallen flat on its face sending its readers screaming to their bookshelves looking for something else but Atkinson handles it all so deftly that the result is a fine piece of work thoroughly deserving of its place on the Women’s Prize for Fiction short list.