A Backward Place

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (Abacus, £9.99)

From the author of Heat and Dust, and the Oscar-winning screenplays for Howards End and A Room with a View, comes this social comedy written in the mid-60s about ex-pat Westerners in Delhi. Her characters include the snobbish Etta, contemptuous of India and its people, whose beauty may have faded but whose dedication to the chic European lifestyle has not; Clarissa, a mediocre artist who gushes about the simplicity of life in India while preferring to sponge off the wealthy rather than embrace it herself; and Judy, who married an Indian man and has settled into the culture as a “real Indian wife”. All have different relationships to India and to the countries they came from and, in one way or another, all are culturally unmoored. The observant Jhabvala, who had a foot in both cultures, takes a wry and detached view of their social world which evokes the era vividly and amusingly while giving the impression it has dated little.

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Ms Ice Sandwich

Mieko Kawakami (Pushkin, £7.99)

Kawakami has created a memorable narrator in this slim novella: an awkward, introverted young boy (his name is never revealed) who lives with his mother and a bedridden grandmother who is too ill to talk but is the only one the boy confides in. He becomes fixated on a woman who works on the sandwich stall at a nearby market, fascinated by her “ice-blue eyelids”, but is so oblivious to his own feelings that he doesn’t realise he’s developed a crush. But there’s more to it than that: too young to remember his father, he has to go through the process of learning to come to terms with loss, and learn the importance of connecting with people while they’re still around. A touching new friendship with an understanding girl from school helps him get through these important life lessons. It’s a warm and appealing story, and Kawakami’s guileless prose captures the tone of a thoughtful, innocent boy lacking social confidence.

I’m Your Man: The Life Of Leonard Cohen

Sylvie Simmons (Vintage, £12.99)

Having already written biographies of Neil Young and Serge Gainsbourg, Simmons excels in this study of the restless life of Leonard Cohen, bringing out his graciousness, self-deprecating wit and, importantly, his charm. Unable to settle down either domestically or spiritually, the flawed Cohen was nevertheless, apparently, able to mesmerise everyone he knew into forgiving him his faults and remembering him kindly. Simmons is no exception, but stops far short of turning in the hagiography her subject warned her against writing. She seems to have interviewed almost everyone of importance to him, including the celebrated Suzanne and Marianne as well as later partners Rebecca De Mornay and Anjali Thomas, and tracks his exploration of the sacred and the sensual as he roves from Montreal to the Greek island of Hydra, to Cuba and a Zen retreat on Baldy Mountain. In the hands of a good biographer, a subject like Cohen is a gift, and Simmons delivers what feels like the definitive volume.