Charles Cumming’s latest thriller A Colder War, Samuel Beckett’s Echo’s Bones, plus an account of small indie record label Postcard Records
The Target by David Baldacci (£16.99, eBook £8.27).
David Baldacci’s third outing for CIA assassin Will Robie, The Target, hits the bullseye with its fast-paced well-written story full of twists.
After the success of Will Robie and Jessica Reel’s last mission, they both hope to take some much needed rest.
DCI Tasker, however, is not about to let either of them forget that although they are national heroes in most people’s eyes, in his eyes, they are traitors.
The President is about to order one of the riskiest missions in US history and he needs two of the CIA’s most skilful agents.
The target is in North Korea and the backlash could mean a nuclear strike.
Meanwhile an old man is on death’s door in an Alabama prison hospital and a deadly game of cat and mouse is about to unfold.
Baldacci has again created a page-turning masterpiece that will keep you on the edge of your seat from start to finish.
Echo’s Bones by Samuel Beckett (£20, eBook £12.99).
“It is a nightmare... it gives me the jim-jams.”
So wrote Charles Prentice, Samuel Beckett’s editor, upon receipt of this singular work.
It was intended to conclude his collection of related short stories More Pricks Than Kicks, but by comparison to those absurd but essentially straightforward tales, Echo’s Bones truly is enough to give anyone the jim-jams.
A triptych of surreal conversations between Belacqua Shuah, a dead man, and the people he encounters in a strange state of limbo, the text features no discernible narrative or logic, yet is nevertheless a fascinating stream-of-consciousness, so dense with word-play and literary allusion that the end-notes run longer than the story itself.
It also features insightful annotations by Mark Dixon, and amusing excerpts from the correspondence between the author and his bemused editor.
It would certainly not make for the most accessible entry point for anyone new to Beckett’s work, but for scholars and aficionados, it is a must.
A Colder War by Charles Cumming (£12.9, eBook £12.99).
Thriller writer Charles Cumming’s latest book marks the second appearance of his spy hero Thomas Kell.
Disgraced and drummed out of the security services, he is summoned back when an old colleague is killed in a plane crash, sparking a hunt for a traitor that takes in shady goings-on in London, Istanbul and Tehran.
Cumming, who claims to have been targeted for real-life recruitment by MI6, expertly recreates a world of waiting and watching where boredom is as much an enemy as other agents, and yet has still produced a page-turning thriller.
The search for the mole packs in plenty of twists, a body count worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy and some tense surveillance scenes that will change the way you think about London’s smartest store – Harrods – forever.
If you thought true spy novels went out with the Berlin wall, think again.
History Of The Rain by Niall Williams (£18.99, eBook £16.99).
History of the Rain is Irish author and playwright Niall Williams’s first novel for four years.
It follows the narrative of Ruth Swain, a dry, witty, bookish young woman who tells the story of her family history with the help of numerous references to her favourite novels.
She makes it clear from the start that she is bed-bound, with claims there is ‘something wrong in her blood’.
However, her true ‘illness’ is gradually revealed.
Through her anecdotes and detailed descriptions she paints a clear picture of her family’s damaging obsession with putting the ‘impossible standard’ upon their children, and gives a unique look at rural Irish life.
The writing is very random and rambling, and it certainly doesn’t conform to any literary style.
For this reason it can be occasionally hard to follow and the constant, essay-like inclusions of the author, publisher and year of every novel mentioned is rather tedious.
However, it is also extremely funny and clever, and packed with beautiful imagery.
This is a brave and wildly imaginative novel, that certainly stands out in a genre of its own.
Surrounded By Water by Stephanie Butland (£14.99, eBook £6.64)
This is the first novel by writer Stephanie Butland, who has previously authored two books about her battle with cancer.
The story centres on Elizabeth, whose world falls apart when her husband tragically drowns while rescuing a young woman from a pond.
Elizabeth finds that coming to terms with Mike’s death is not all that she will have to deal with; it’s not long before she begins to discover her husband may not have been the man she thought he was.
This is a beautifully written novel that really conveys the pain Elizabeth experiences.
And it’s not just Elizabeth’s pain either; the author paints a clear picture of the anguish suffered by Mike’s family and friends, as well as by those concerned for Elizabeth’s wellbeing.
Readers looking for a novel full of twists and turns may be disappointed that the revelations don’t come as surprises, but the book is nonetheless hard to put down.
Tiny Stations by Dixe Wills (£16.99, eBook £8.95).
Dixe Wills’ latest whimsical journey around Britain encompasses some 38 of the island’s 150-plus railway request stops, those remote outposts of our network which rally forlornly against the sad, gradual decline of trains – post-Beeching, post-privatisation – in their service, value and cultural eminence.
Wills does their history great credit with careful research and lovingly rendered pen-portraits, teasing out idiosyncrasies and shaggy-dog stories in friendly prose to leave us invisible and willing co-passenger on services from Cornwall to Scotland’s extremities, in a style incorporating poetry, heartfelt celebrations of language and gentle flashes of romance and humanity.
While occasionally let down by many stations’ repetitious backstories – request stops are only created for a painfully limited number of reasons, it transpires – the continual rediscovery of vanished Victorian industries and the Second World War infrastructure adds to a sepia hue, making the whole escapade an enjoyable but ultimately rather melancholic trip around a disappearing world.
Simply Thrilled: The Preposterous Story of Postcard Records by Simon Goddard (£16.99, eBook £9.99)
Histories of cult indie labels have been on the rise these past few years, with volumes on Rough Trade, Factory and 4AD all now available for music-lovers’ shelves.
To that list, Goddard (who has previously published on Bowie and Morrissey) adds a breathless account of Glasgow’s shambolic Postcard.
Home to jangly romantics Orange Juice, the Go-Betweens and Aztec Camera, Postcard began the long career of Edwyn Collins and kicked off a whole tradition of arch, lovelorn pop, leaving a legacy far greater than the label’s brief lifespan and limited releases would suggest.
Postcard was the pet project of a troubled chap invariably described as “the legendary Alan Horne”, whose scams, idiosyncrasies and half-baked plans provide many of the liveliest moments in Simply Thrilled, which freely admits it’s only one version of a debatable tale.
Alas, the overwritten and under-edited prose here obscures that story as often as it illuminates it.
Hippy Dinners by Abbie Ross (£12.99, eBook £8.99).
Hippy Dinners is the opposite of a misery memoir.
It tells the story of a childhood that is, if not idyllic, certainly one whose ups and downs are on a gentle scale and can be remembered with affection rather than dread.
The only question is whether enough really happens to warrant this book-length exploration.
It all starts in 1972, when our narrator Abbie moves as a small child with her sister, mum and dad to a remote farmhouse in rural Wales from a townhouse in north London.
Mum and dad, who have slightly cosmic leanings, love the fresh air and the promise of a more holistic lifestyle; grandma and grandpa, proud fashion retailers from Liverpool with a love of Liberace, flash clothes and chintz, are horrified.
Abbie desperately wants to belong, to be seen as normal.
She wants to be as Welsh as the Welsh, to fit in at school, to share the locals’ disdain for the hippies who have turned a big house on the high street of the nearby town into a chaotic commune.
All these aspirations to conform are constantly undercut by her parents’ fraternising with the hippies, admiring their folk art and homespun recipes and inviting them round for mellow, smoky gatherings.
As far as narrative tension goes, that’s just about it. The tale is told with a deft sense of dialogue, especially among children, and lots of gentle humour and neat observational touches.
We get a good sense of the period from the clothes and brands and cultural references.
There are well-drawn characters too – like Philip, the pathologically shy boy next door who relaxes by removing his trousers and only eats orange food, and like gobby, nosey and oddly likeable Lisa.
But pleasant though the read is, at over 300 pages, there isn’t enough incident, drama or insight to really sustain the reader.
The real reason for local resentment of the hippies – the economic disparity that allows these middle-class southerners to do nothing but smoke and bake bread (and deal drugs, as it turns out) while the locals must graft – is barely touched on.
The hippie dream turns sour and when eventually Abbie’s family move on she is heartbroken to leave. The reader, on the other hand, will probably cope.