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Cruel, cool and complex

It was with some trepidation that I approached this new novel from Haruki Murakami. I had been captivated and slightly overwhelmed by 1Q84, a massive three-volume tale that was what I expect an acid trip must be like: green moons, time-travel, assassins, these totally wild cocoon things - I'm amazed I remember even that much, because while the world he created was gripping and mesmerising, so much went on in the 1,000 or so pages that it was almost less of a story than an experience.

There was a noticeable beginning, middle and end, but 1Q84's commonality with other books pretty much ended there. It was like a meticulously-wrought hallucination, and I'd honestly never read anything like it.

So yes, trepidation, because at 304 pages, how deep could this new world be? Having been so enraptured by 1Q84, could this be as all-consuming? Yes and no.

Tsukuru Tazaki is in his mid-30s. In secondary school he had been one of a group of five friends, the kind of friends who lived in each other's pockets, knew each other's hopes and dreams and created their own "orderly, harmonious community".

Tsukuru himself describes it thus when he is explaining that time in his life to Sarah, the new woman he is dating. Even when he went off to Tokyo to university and his pals all remained behind in their home town, all was well until the day they dumped him, out of the blue and comprehensively.

He feels he's moved on, but Sarah doesn't, and she encourages him to confront each of the four to find out why they had been so cruel.

Part mystery, part romance, part philosophical journey, I read it all in one go.

It was as stunning as it was instructional, which is an extremely strange combination: Murakami is astonishingly adept at relating the complex emotions his characters feel, and extraordinarily not with dialogue.

Some of the conversations were so stilted it was hard to believe that the same person who could perfectly render the physical, mental and emotional state one finds oneself in when experiencing shocking news could be so clumsy with verbal interactions.

When Tsukuru learns the truth of his abandonment, it is in no way a tidy outcome. It brings up all sorts of existential notions about self-perception, boundaries, expectations and self-esteem - so: life, basically. It ends on a feeling of narrative diffidence that is suitable for the character that Tsukuru is; whether or not that is satisfying to a reader is up to the reader.

Despite some of the clunky exchanges (not sure if the translator will be unjustly pilloried in this instance), I don't regret reading it one bit, but I do hope that there is more to Tsukuru's story. A second volume, perhaps?

Still in Japan for this one. Sweet without giving you cavities, moving without obviously pulling your heartstrings, Hiriade's gentle tone is poetically forensic in this examination of the lives of a 30-something married couple who have quietly - oh so quietly - sunk into a morass of routine and torpor without knowing it.

A stray cat arrives on their doorstep and into their lives and in so doing acts as destroyer/creator in the couple's life. The calm tone almost whispers this tale into your ear; the lightness of touch at even the heaviest times, the sense of wonder and discovery in the midst of stagnation; the truth that hope exists even in the worst of times.

Life in the form of the cat mediates the life of the couple; we know the animal is a metaphor, but it is not showy or cold, and the amount of emotion packed into this short work is astonishing. This too gets a spot on my 2014 top 10 must-read list.

Vintage are doing a terrific line in bringing back to our attention books that have gone before us. I was judging this one by its cover, a delicate and beautiful illustration - given the ways in which publishing is changing, and the design of book covers becoming something that seems like it needs to be got over with rather than respected for the skill it is - well, this is refreshingly accomplished.

As is the writing: Kennedy's tale of an unconventional, slightly disturbing family that takes as its locus the genius of the composer father is absorbing from the off and satisfying throughout.

Based loosely on the messy life of artist Augustus John, if you need a contemporary touchstone I'd say that the works of John Irving are very much like this: a family lives according to its own rules, a Bohemian existence that might be fun for a long boozy weekend but becomes rather hard going rather quickly.

Kennedy's tone is detached without being cold or judgemental. She's funny too, without minimising the tragedy.

I READ Irving Stone's The Agony and the Ecstasy on my first trip to Europe. Despite its florid tone, it was rock solid on biographical detail and fact.

At least, that was my primary takeaway during the reading of Unger's approach to the life of Renaissance artist Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni: I was slightly surprised that this wasn't bringing something new to the table.

Unger's insights into what may have been the motivations behind the notably truculent, arrogant artist's behaviours was interesting - Michelangelo came from a family whose nobility was very much down-at-heel by the time he was born, so there was a level of entitlement that fuelled his insistence on being regarded as someone special.

He was special, whatever his personality, and his works continue to enrapture. Unger's decision to follow the man's life through six of Michelangelo's most important works is smart, but the scholarly detachment of Unger's voice doesn't really do them justice.