The Blue Flower is based on the true-life love story between the 18th century German philosopher and poet Georg Philipp Friedrich (Fritz) Freiherr von Hardenberg and a young girl, Sophie von Kühn. Sounds dreary? No, it’s not, actually! It’s a great book, thanks to Penelope Fitzgerald’s light, funny and authentic writing. No wonder her horde of fans include Jonathan Franzen, Allan Hollinghurst, Julian Barnes, James Wood…I could go on and on…who all hail this as a modern classic.
It’s here! Genius declared ‘Great American Novelist’ Jonathan Franzen’s much anticipated new book Purity. In terms of compulsively readable, contemporary fiction with depth and humour, his last book Freedom was up there amongst the very best for me. Perhaps my expectations were too high, perhaps Purity is not as good as his two previous best-sellers The Corrections and Freedom, or perhaps you will disagree with me, but despite moments of brilliance, I found Purity to be an uneven book, oscillating between Franzen-esque genius and rushed, flat, even – dare I say it – boring writing.
I’d forgotten how good John Steinbeck’s classic Of Mice and Men really is. Just re-read it after many years and what a gem of a little story! In a mere 120 pages, Steinbeck dives deep into themes such as loneliness, dreams and loyalty while portraying the nomadic lives of ranch hands in America during the Great Depression. To top it off are the most exquisite descriptions of landscapes and farm life.
How would you react if your partner one day walked out on you? In Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment Olga’s husband Mario announces, out of the blue, while clearing the table that he wants to leave her. Overwhelmed by grief, confusion and anger, Olga descends into madness in this raw, brutally honest story. The Days of Abandonment is explosive stuff – as we have come to expect from Ferrante – and all the better for it.
Diving into a long family epic is one of my favourite literary luxuries. Days and days of reading until you feel you’ve almost become ‘part of’ the family. The Lives of Others is just this kind of book. What’s more, it sucks you in from the very first page in one of the most harrowing prologues I’ve come across. Intrigue, double lives, betrayals, gossip, shocking inequality, illicit love affairs, politics, Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others has it all.
H is for Hawk and H is for Helen MacDonald. An in-depth account of the author’s experience training a goshawk after the loss of a dear parent, it would indeed be correct, and natural, to categorise this book as “Nature” and “Memoir”. In the past, though, those categories have left me a little cool – (with exceptions of course) the former often too pedantic, and the latter a little too self-absorbed to regularly engender great writing. This is not the case with H is for Hawk which showcases some exceptionally sublime writing.
It’s rare these days that I wish a book were longer, but that’s what I did with Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s latest book God Help the Child (to be published on 23 April). For the wrong reasons, unfortunately. Morrison’s writing is beautiful, as always, but this novel about child abuse felt like a thin veneer of a story. One in which I constantly wanted to scratch the surface for more information.
There’s something wonderfully innocent and warm about this 1950s classic, despite its dead serious subject matter of racism. Life is simple; the goodies are good, the baddies are bad. Fundamentally, the book is about tolerance, for the lonely, weirdo neighbour, for the sick, angry, old lady down the road and, of course, for blacks, otherwise ostracised by 1930s Alabamian white society. I read this book 20 years ago and found it a joy to re-read, although my older more cynical self did think it a bit sentimental at times.
Jenny Offill’s little gem of a book Dept. of Speculation was on The New York Times’ list of 10 best books of 2014, and with good reason. It’s an unusual novel, written in snapshots, in much the same fragmented way our memory works. It’s the sum of those memories that create the narrative of our past or, in this case, the story of a relationship. In Dept. of Speculation, Offill tells an age-old tale in a refreshingly new way and creates something truly different.
It’s been a decade since Kazuo Ishiguro’s sinister, sci-fi-esque Never Let Me Go, a novel I really liked. In The Buried Giant Ishiguro yet again embarks on a genre bending project. This time it’s fantasy. We’re in 6th century post-Roman Britain and a mist has descended on the landscape and peoples’ minds, obscuring memories of recent wars. Axl and Beatrice, an elderly couple go on a journey to find their son and stumbles over dragons, ogres, knights and monks as well as recollections of a violent past. Despite the beautiful, atmospheric writing and profound message, I found The Buried Giant hard work. Will this only be the case for fantasy-sceptics like me?