It isn't just new books that can spring surprises. The Cyberiad (Penguin, £9.99), a collection of stories from Stanislaw Lem first published in Polish in 1965, knocked me sideways. I only really knew about Lem because of Solaris, the masterful (and determinedly laugh-free) film by the great Andrei Tarkovsky, and the rather ponderous translation of the source novel that found its way to the UK in the 1970s.
So I knew he was good – but I had no idea that he was funny, cheeky and equally as capable of glorious absurdity as Slavic profundity. These interconnected stories are light, breezy and full of splendidly bizarre inventions (my favourite was a machine that can make anything, just so long as it starts with the letter N). Next time you meet someone who tells you they don't like SF, give them this and see how long they hold out.
Back in the all too real world, Chocolates for Breakfast (Harper Perennial, £8.99) was a runaway success for Pamela Moore back in 1956. It was described as "appallingly frank" in its depiction of teenage depression, sexual awakening, drinking and disaffection. "Youth", wrote Moore "is a ghastly time." The accompanying scandal ensured it sold a healthy 600,000 copies before the author reached her 19th birthday. Sadly, for all her lightness of touch, Moore wasn't kidding about the horror. She killed herself aged just 26. It's haunting to read her strident, confident voice today.
Revisiting Laurie Lee's Cider with Rosie (Vintage, £16.99) makes for a far happier experience. I can't do better than quote Harold Nicolson's 1959 Observer review. It is, he said, "a first-rate work of art", one whose "vigour and delicacy animate the loveliness of existence".
As to how I know Nicolson said that, it's because the full piece appears in the back of the lovely new edition Vintage has brought out to celebrate 100 years since Lee's birth. Alongside the original memoir of Lee's Cotswold childhood, which remains as fresh as ever, there's a decent introduction from Michael Morpurgo, outlines of the book from Lee's notebooks, and images of the original galleys (when the book was called Cider with Poppy). A good excuse to revisit a precious book, in other words.
On that note, The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford gets another outing this month, wrapped in a pleasingly spare, French-flapped paperback from Roads Classics (£9.99). It isn't a book I'd recommend to everyone, since it is so angry, caustic and upsetting. But if you value good writing, and a horrible story brilliantly told, this is essential.
If you like your fiction tough, The Mahé Circle by Georges Simenon (Penguin, £7.99) is just as rewarding. This "roman dur" is extraordinary. In 150 high-pressure pages, it gives insights into the world, the mind and the horrible frustration of a French country doctor that most writers would struggle to convey with 10 times the word-count. It is yet another triumphant entry in Penguin's drip-feed release of his huge back catalogue – a collection that makes it increasingly clear Simenon is one of the most important (as well as entertaining) writers of the 20th century.
On the subject of big writers, the NYRB release of Shakespeare's Montaigne (£10.99) is a treasure trove for bardolators. John Florio's translation of the French essayist was a book that Shakespeare read – and plundered. Parts of an essay on cannibals reappeared almost wholesale in The Tempest, while Montaigne's ideas informed King Lear, Hamlet and numerous others. More than that, the book is a pleasure in and of its own right. Florio's sinuous, punchy prose is a joy. Even his translator's introduction is fun: "In sum, if any think he could do better let him try," he dares. The challenge holds good more than four centuries on.Reuse content