Five flash book reviews

(FreeDigitalPhotos.net pannawat)
(FreeDigitalPhotos.net pannawat)

I’m just getting over a bad dose of reading fever (feeling better now, thanks) and thought I’d share a few short reviews of the books that have been keeping me glued to the screen and page over the past couple of weeks. It’s an eclectic mix so there should be something for everyone here.

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
Each chapter is written from the point of view of a different character, all connected in some way to an English-language newspaper in Rome over four decades. It’s funny, it’s tragic, it’s superbly plotted. The setting is lovely. Loss and loneliness feature prominently and the relationships are complex and fascinating. Rachman has a wonderful satirical touch which he applies lightly, poking fun in the right places. I think I’ve found my book of the year. Thanks for the recommendation Nicki Chen. Anyone who has worked in journalism will get a special kick out the novel but it’s in no way written for a clique. I’ll be pushing this hard at my book club next month. Going to start buying votes now.

His overarching goal at the paper is indolence, to publish as infrequently as possible, and to sneak away when no one is looking. He is realizing these professional ambitions spectacularly.
He opens a manila folder so that, if anyone happens past, he can flutter sheets and mutter “Preparedness!” which seems to put most people off.


The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

I borrowed this book from a friend after attending a scintillating talk by the author in Zurich in May. I’ll admit I was a little put off by the heavy intellectual fabric of the novel. The paperback travelled with me to Ireland and back, by car and ferry – unread. I finally started it a month ago and did what is normally unheard of for me – I alternated it with other books. Indeed The Blazing World is probably to blame for this bout of reading fever as I kept fleeing to other books for light relief.

That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it, in the way you might enjoy trekking through the jungle with a machete. I loved the premise of the disillusioned old artist who tries to hit back at the New York art establishment by colluding with three male artists to pass off her work as theirs. Like The Imperfectionists the book is polyphonic, written in the voices of about a dozen different characters. The different accounts are assembled and presented in the style of an academic work, complete with footnotes (I’ll be a long time getting over those footnotes), cleverly building to a full revelation of what went wrong with Harriet Burden’s plan. I’m not sure I liked the format but this book, but the questions it raises about ageing, gender roles, art and psychological scars will resonate for a long time.

I want to blaze and rumble and roar.
I want to hide and weep and hold on to my mother.
But so do we all.

Trespass by Rose Tremain

Something completely different. I don’t even remember how I came into possession of this book but I do remember starting it and abandoning it last year. Last week, burning with fever, I found it in among the children’s books and rescued it. Since I finished the book I looked up Rose Trumain and it turns out she is a prolific prize-winning writer, quite the maestro. Set in the arid Cévennes region of France, this cracking whydunnit is a dark portrait of the terror of early old age, unhealthy sibling ties and psychological scars galore. She uses the landscape brilliantly to help build the atmosphere of oppression and dread. And oh the malice that the characters feel for each other! Not to be read by anyone considering a move to warmer climes to buy that dreamy old stone house surrounded by wizened vines. This book will kill the dream.

A Better Man by Leah McLaren

I was hooked when I heard about the plot of this book in a review on Anne Goodwin’s blog. Man wants to divorce his wife and mother of their twin children. Realises it will cost too much because she has become a deeply dissatisfied (and neglected) stay-at-home mother. Decides to fake a complete change in his behavior to being loving and supportive to make things more advantageous for the divorce. Ends up becoming a better man by behaving like one. But will it save the marriage? I couldn’t sympathise with either of the two spoilt main characters (he runs a groovy adverstising agency, she is an ex-lawyer turned neurotic mother with full-time nanny and chip on shoulder). This was ok because we were mostly watching them suffer. It felt a bit like writing by numbers but I kept reading to see where she would take the story. The twins featured quite a lot but I didn’t feel the child characters came off the page. The perfect South American nanny was also a cardboard cut-out. Despite all the negative things I’m saying it was very readable. Proof of the power of a strong central story idea.

In the Sea there are Crocodiles by Fabio Geda

This book should be compulsory reading for every citizen of Europe over the age of ten. It is a fictional treatment of the true story of Enaiatollah, a young man who made a remarkable five-year journey from Afghanistan to Italy where he finally managed to claim political asylum aged fifteen. The author met Enaiatollah and was so intrigued by his story he wanted to write it as a novel. If you want to know how it feels to be an illegal immigrant risking your life crossing seas and borders, this book will bring that experience alive like no other. So compelling. It also gives valuable insight into the push factors driving the undocumented ever onwards – misery upon misery in the transit countries.

All in all a highly enjoyable run of reading. I’m glad the fever struck when it did. In other reading news, I received an e-reader as a gift earlier this year and I’m very happy with the transition. The score for the above list: E-reader versus paper book – 3: 2. And I finally joined Goodreads, a great resource for readers and writers. Hope to see some of you there.

What’s your reading news?

16 thoughts on “Five flash book reviews

  1. Thanks for those tips, Clare – I immediately set about ordering 2 of them!
    My quick tip this summer has to be Jonathan Tropper’s “This is where I leave you” about grown-up siblings returning to the family home to sit shiva for their father. The dialogue is brilliant – he writes screenplays – and I laughed and cried, especially the latter on reaching the end. Other tips: Jonathan Tropper’s other books – just don’t start with his first one (Plan B) as his later ones are sooooo much better!

  2. I have The Imperfectionists in the 746 and as I don’t even really remember buying it, I’d forgotten what it was about! I’m definitely going to get to it sooner than later after reading your review!

  3. Thanks for the mention, Clare, and love your review of A Better Man – all those negatives, but you liked it really! And if you’ve only just discovered Rose Tremain, you’ve a treat in store, although her much acclaimed The Road Home is far from her best, in my opinion, try The Colour.

  4. I’m so glad you liked The Imperfectionists.

    Recently I finished A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson. It was a long book with much to recommend it, and although I liked it a lot, I didn’t love it. I’m not sure why. Now I’m looking forward to reading Fate and Furies by Lauren Groff. I heard her being interviewed on the radio and was impressed by how well developed her characters seemed to be. I’m expecting the book to arrive in a couple of days. In the meantime, I’m reading Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ encyclical.

  5. Thanks for these wonderfully concise and insightful reviews, Clare. I’m reading ‘Americanah’ by Cimamanda Ngozi Adichie at the moment and enjoying it a lot although it’s very much a slow burn read. As for Rose Tremain, a friend introduced me to her with her 1999 award-winning historical novel ‘Music and Silence’ – loved that and it was one of my 2014 best reads. Have yet to read her short stories, but I believe ‘The American Lover’ is a fab collection. So many books on that TBR list …

    PS. If you go to my blog and search ‘Rose Tremain’ you’ll find my short review of ‘Music and Silence’ and also one for her ‘The Way I Found Her’ which I used in a post about getting the voice right when it’s a child. I think you contributed to that latter discussion.

    1. I remember that now. I loved Americanah once it got going too. Just finished Life After Life by Kate Atkinson as I was so impressed by A God in Ruins. The Todd family are so wonderful, they make you love the English. Funnily enough she writes an author’s note at the end of the book saying, if the book is about anything it is about the English.
      Now to chose which Tremain to read next, your favourite or Anne’s …. decisions, decisions!

      1. Yes, I so want to read Life After Life as well. I very much felt a major theme in A God in Ruins was the collapse of the class system on England after WWII and that was perhaps why she chose to focus on an upper-middle class family. Also read a Kate Atkinson crime novel this summer ‘When Will There Be Good News?’ – excellent plotting and characterisation – love this writer!

  6. I haven’t read any of those books, I’m afraid. Since Amazon has started playing silly buggers with my account, and not letting me buy anything I’ve been reading any odds and sods I find lying around. Just finished ‘Until we have faces’ by CS Lewis. In French unfortunately, but it reads flawlessly. I read his Oedipus years ago. This is in the same vein, very dark and evocative of times that are (thankfully) buried in the past.

    1. I find it so difficult to read in another language even though my French is up to it. Recently got a copy of Robert Louis Stephenson’s Journey Through the Cévennes (title from memory) in French from a friend. She did the walk this summer and had an amazing time. It’s a very slim volume but I am crawling along, much slower than the donkey in the book!

      1. Funnily enough I’ve never read it though it was a favourite of my dad’s (in English) and husband’s (in French). One day I’ll get round to it. Maybe.

  7. I have never read Rose Tremain’s books, but I might soon. Thanks for mentioning The Blazing World. I’m only on page 29, and although I’m enjoying it, it really is a piece of work and not exactly easy reading. Like you, I switch to lighter reading for relief, but I’m determined to get through it. It doesn’t help that the print is pretty small, but I’m to blame. I chose it from a selection of books I browsed through at the book shop.

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