This month's best new novels explore fascinating territory, from Victorian Gothic horror to WWI spy thriller to coming-of-age escapism. Happy reading!
1. Waiting for Sunrise, William Boyd
Vienna, 1913. As British actor Lysander Rief waits for his first appointment with a psychiatrist, a beautiful but distressed young woman enters the waiting room. Her name is Hettie Bull and the two begin a secretive love affair.
Fast-forward to London, 1914. Events in Vienna have left Lysander unable to return to his ordinary life and he is caught up in the dangerous world of wartime intelligence. His task is to find the traitor inside the Directorate of Movements, unravelling codes and secrets, separating truth from deception.
Part love story, part spy thriller, Boyd has spun a story of suspicion, betrayal and psychoanalysis, with finely crafted and atmospheric settings in pre-war Vienna and wartime London. Waiting for Sunrise will be eagerly awaited by fans of Boyd's acclaimed earlier novels Any Human Heart and Restless.
2. Various Pets Alive or Dead, Marina Lewcyka
Marcus and Doro Free were part of a left-wing commune in south Yorkshire from the 1960s to the 1990s, but the three children they raised there on Marxist and Feminist ideals have turned out rather unexpectedly. Mum and Dad might think son Serge is finishing his PhD in mathematics at Cambridge, but he's actually "earning loadsamoney" as a quantitative analyst for a London firm, buying and selling risk on the stock exchange. Daughter Clara is a primary teacher who craves order and cleanliness, while adopted daughter Oolie Anna, who has Down's syndrome, is desperate to move out of home.
Skipping between London on the eve of the financial crisis in 2008 and memories of the commune, this is a tale of family secrets and modern values, told with Lewcyka's characteristic humour, irony and sense of the absurdities of human nature. An entertaining read by the author of the comic bestseller A Short History of Tractors In Ukrainian.
3. The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson
Our must-read book of the month. Our hero is Pak Jun Do, a North Korean loner raised in an orphanage and trained in the army, who is sent on a series of extraordinary missions for the state before being sent to a prison camp. He escapes and, using the skills and insights he's gained in his varied career, plus a whole lot of desperation, takes on Kim Jong Il. Johnson, an American, had initially intended to write a light-hearted book about the eccentricities of the regime but realised early on that it wouldn't do justice to the experiences of the North Korean people. The result is an entertaining and fascinating read, laced with horror. If you missed our review earlier this month, you can read it here.
4. The Pleasures of Men, Kate Williams
It's east London, 1840, and the city is being stalked by a serial killer who rips open the chests of young girls and stuffs their hair into their mouths. Catherine Sorgeiul is an orphan with a tragic past who lives with her uncle in a rundown house in Spitalfields, the epicentre of the murders. Bored with embroidery, and resisting attempts by her uncle to marry her off, Catherine becomes obsessed with the murders. And then the action gets all a bit too close... The debut novel by a prominent historian with a doctorate from Oxford, The Pleasures of Men is an absorbing Victorian thriller. Read an extract here.
5. The Book of Summers, Emylia Hall
Beth is in her twenties when her father David brings her a package containing a letter informing her that her mother Marika has died, and a cloth-covered scrapbook. Marika had made the scrapbook about the seven summers Beth spent with her in rural Hungary from the age of 10. Marika had elected not to return to England with Beth and David and Beth spent her childhood in Devon longing for each summer, when she would be transported to a seemingly idyllic life in Hungary with her mother. This debut novel is an evocative coming-of-age story about a young girl walking the tightrope between separated parents and two very different cultures. A good escapist read.