4 Of our favourite reads this month

James Walton

If it's emotion you're after, forget Mills & Boon, two of our picks focus on the twists and turns of familial love… And for those more mysteriously inclined we have a kind-hearted policemen in Sweden, then sex drugs and rock ‘n’ roll in the Seventies

If Only I Could Tell You

by Hannah Beckerman (Orion, £14.99)

Like many novels these days, this one begins with a cunningly mysterious prologue. In 1988, ten-year-old Jess saw her teenage sister Lily coming out of the spare room looking guilty. Naturally, the reason for the guilt takes most of the book to emerge. Once we move to the present day, though, it’s clear the sisters are still estranged because of whatever happened—and their mother Audrey, suffering from terminal cancer, is desperate for them to reconcile before she dies.

Alternating between the three viewpoints, Beckerman is particularly shrewd on the shifting dynamics involved, while treating the characters with a sympathy that turns out to be entirely justified. All three are trying to behave honourably. The trouble is they have very different versions—or, more accurately, fateful misunderstandings—of the same family secret.

The big reveal, when it comes, is certainly thumping enough to explain the decades of mistrust. It also confirms the book as the equivalent of a high-class Hollywood tear-jerker. At times, you might feel a bit manipulated—but so skillfully that a) you won’t mind that; and b) your tears will be jerked anyway.

 

Late in the Day

by Tessa Hadley (Cape, £16.99)

Perhaps Hadley’s greatest claim to fame is regularly appearing on lists of novelists who deserve to be more famous. For 16 years, her fiction has turned a beady, amused eye on ordinary lives, illuminating them with quiet authority. Even so, her big break has yet to come.

That quietness, of course, may be part of the problem. Hadley definitely doesn’t specialise in dazzling twists—and while virtually all her sentences are perfect for the job, they don’t go in for wild flourishes.

And so it proves again—I’m delighted to say—in Late in the Day. The main characters are two sets of long-married fifty-something couples, who’ve been friends for years. But then one of the husbands suddenly dies, and the others find themselves re-examining their lives, with sometimes surprising results—which, nonetheless, Hadley presents with her usual calm acceptance of human unpredictability.

In other words, if it’s a compulsive page-turner you’re after, you might want to go elsewhere. If, however, you fancy an acute and beautifully observed novel by a writer in her defiantly unflashy pomp, then look no further.

 

The Department of Sensitive Crimes

by Alexander McCall Smith (Little, Brown, £18.99)

Ever since The No. 1. Ladies’ Detective Agency in 1998, Alexander McCall Smith has proved himself the most genial of writers. His books do acknowledge life’s difficulties, but their emphasis is firmly on the abiding presence and transforming power of human goodness. His many fans might therefore be slightly alarmed to hear that his latest novel is the first of a new crime series based in Sweden: a setting which usually guarantees a serious dollop of gloom.

But, as it soon transpires, those fans needn’t worry. Not only is the main character Ulf Varg “possibly the kindest man in the entire Swedish police service”, he’s even old-fashioned enough to believe in behaving like a gentleman (although McCall Smith makes the interesting point in passing that the modern #MeToo movement could be seen as a call for the return of gentlemanliness). Naturally, the crimes he investigates aren’t terribly nasty either—and, given that they’re quite easily solved, the novel’s considerable appeal lies mostly in the relationships between Ulf and his similarly well-meaning colleagues. That, and McCall Smith’s continuing warm-heartedness makes him such unfailingly good company.

 

Daisy Jones and the Six

by Taylor Jenkins Reid (Hutchinson, £12.99)

Daisy Jones and the Six were one of the biggest bands of the late 1970s, when their album Aurora became a huge, world-conquering success. And if you haven’t heard of them, that’s because they’re fictional—something that can often be hard to remember while enjoying this brilliantly gripping account of their rise and fall. The novel—already snapped up for a 13-part drama series on Amazon—is structured like an oral history, the narrative made up of fragments of interviews with former members, their friends and assorted hangers-on. In theory, I suppose, this could have made for a frustratingly bitty book. In Taylor Jenkins Reid’s expert hands, it becomes a remarkably vivid way of capturing every aspect of the band’s career: from the excitement of their early breakthroughs to the increasingly fraught atmosphere brought about by global fame, drugs and intra-group rivalries and sexual relationships. Along the way, too, the book has lots to say more generally about the trickiness of working out what you want from life—and the equally tricky business of getting it when you do.