Reviews of Jenny Offill’s second novel, Dept Of Speculation, plus Damon Galgut’s fictionalised account of E M Forster’s life.
Dept Of Speculation by Jenny Offill (£12.99, ebook £6.69).
Dept Of Speculation, the second novel from Jenny Offill, shimmers with fragments of prose that tell the story of one woman’s journey through life, love and marriage.
Poetic in style and philosophical in substance, each fragment can be read as a whole in itself, but also acts as part of something bigger.
A writer in Brooklyn falls in love, marries and has a child, but then has to go to the supermarket to buy meat or stay at home and deal with bedbugs.
These trivial and mundane moments of life are intermixed with insights and musings that range from Buddhism and Keats to Einstein.
You get the impression that there is some deeper point being made here, but it is always elusive; it never takes hold, and part of the fun is trying to figure out the meaning of it all.
The writing is clever, the pacing fast, and the pages slip away as a story is built around fragments and philosophical observations.
Parade by Shuichi Yoshida (£12.99, ebook £8.99).
Parade is the story of five friends who live together in Tokyo, and everything looks calm and ordered.
But there is an undercurrent, something lurking on the background, which does not become apparent until the startling twist right at the conclusion of Shuichi Yoshida’s descriptive of life in Japan.
Parade is a fascinating story of how five people can co-exist, what attracts them to each other and what gets on their nerves, written in each character’s own words.
Woven between the nuances of these relationships are the details for which award-winning author Yoshida has become renowned.
The unexpected, but nevertheless almost inevitable conclusion of Parade, brings a brilliant book to a brilliant end.
Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut (£17.99, ebook £7.43).
South African author Damon Galgut has twice been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and his latest book, Arctic Summer, explores the life and times of the writer Edward Morgan Forster.
Galgut has created a fictional account of a key period in Forster’s life, focusing on his travels to India in the early 20th century.
He looks at how Forster’s experiences shaped his seminal 1924 novel A Passage To India and its view of the complex relationship between East and West.
Galgut vividly describes how Forster laboured for almost 12 years to write what would become his most successful work, and how he shed the clarity and order of his English life to embrace India’s mysticism more fully.
The literary times in which he lived are animated through encounters with Virginia Woolf and D H Lawrence, among others, on his return to England.
But Arctic Summer is not just about the mysteries of the creative process.
Galgut draws on material from Forster’s own letters and diaries to create an intimate portrait of his inner life.
Forster turned to writing as he struggled to reach an understanding of his homosexuality and Galgut poignantly describes his closest relationships, including his affair with a young Egyptian tram conductor.
Arctic Summer is a must-read for Forster fans but also stands alone as the story of a man trying to find a way of living in a society which cannot fully accept him.
Road Ends by Mary Lawson (£16.99, ebook £6.99).
Road Ends is an examination of provincial life set in the fictional Canadian town of Struan in the late 1960s.
Focusing on the Cartwright family, but giving three perspectives running parallel, the chapters move back and forth across several years, letting the reader slowly build a picture of life in the Cartwright family through the eyes of the father Edward, son Tom and daughter Megan.
Mary Lawson is known for her intricate explorations of family life, most notably in her bestselling novel Crow Lake.
Road Ends is a similarly slow-burning tale of tragedy and hardship.
Incredibly well-crafted, each narrative strand gradually reveals itself over the course of the book, and then the three characters are brought together as events very cleverly converge.
It might not be an edge-of-your-seat read, but Road Ends is absorbing and emotionally pitch perfect.
Fans of Mary Lawson’s previous work will not be disappointed.
Black Moon by Kenneth Calhoun (£14.99, ebook £6.49).
Black Moon is Kenneth Calhoun’s debut novel, having previously had short stories published in several literary magazines.
This book is an ‘end-of-civilisation’ fantasy novel that re-imagines the done-to-death zombie scenario.
Here though, instead of the un-dead, “Sleepers” are faced with hordes of insomniacs, who, once afflicted, rapidly descend into murderous and irrational beings.
A terrifying prospect, and one that somehow feels believable, the story follows four central characters as the world around them descends into madness.
An interesting concept you might think.
Sadly, this is where the positive comments end.
Though the idea was intriguing, the execution is poor.
The story is difficult to get into as each central character is introduced and then chapters seem to move randomly between them with no real purpose.
At times the prose drones on with not much happening and some of the scenarios leave you questioning whether the characters are awake or dreaming.
This story is more likely to cure insomnia than engage the reader.
The French Intifada: The Long War Between France And Its Arabs by Andrew Hussey (£25, ebook £16.25).
Historian Andrew Hussey is not a man to stay locked away in the archives – his new book on France’s empire in North Africa starts when he steps off a train in Paris into the middle of a riot.
Along the way he travels through Algeria, is punched in a Moroccan bar by a man who thinks he’s French, and travels to the banlieues – the vast suburbs of French cities where many of the country’s north African immigrants now live.
His history of how France’s North African adventures have come back to haunt them takes in murderous civil wars, the riots that erupted in those suburbs in the past 30 years, and the rise of home-grown terrorism, radical Islam and anti-Semitism.
Hussey, originally from Liverpool, is an engaging guide to his adopted home, writing with authority and humour about everything from Zinedine Zidane to architecture.
He manages to make what at times is a terrible tale into a fascinating and enjoyable read.
Did She Kill Him? A Victorian Tale of Deception, Adultery and Arsenic by Kate Colquhoun (£18.99, ebook £6.64).
In 1889, Florence Maybrick was found guilty of murdering her husband.
James Maybrick, 24 years her senior, was a hypochondriac who routinely self-medicated with arsenic and strychnine, both accepted remedies at the time.
When a post-mortem examination failed to establish the cause of death, suspicion fell on Florence.
Had she killed him to escape her loveless marriage, since it was impossible for her to get a divorce, even though James was unfaithful and beat her?
Or had James accidentally poisoned himself?
Colquhoun presents an absorbing picture of a patriarchal society that would rather hang a woman, despite lack of evidence, than besmirch her husband’s name.
The case had all the ingredients of a classic Victorian scandal – a boorish husband, a flirtatious young wife, infidelity, below-stairs gossip, gambling debts and addiction.
It became something of a cause celebre and Florence became a poster girl for the nascent campaign for suffrage and sexual equality.
Countrymen – The Untold Story of how Denmark’s Jews Escaped The Nazis by Bo Lidegaard (£22, ebook £15.99).
This account of how Nazi-occupied Denmark saved almost its entire Jewish population from extermination in the Holocaust, by helping them escape by sea to Sweden in 1943, is heart-warming and uplifting.
Danish newspaper editor and author Bo Lidegaard has produced a well-researched and gripping book, which shows what might have been achieved in other countries, if the will had existed.
Denmark was a model democracy which, at every level, rejected discrimination against its Jews, despite the presence of the Nazis.
They, in turn, wanted Denmark run as a “model” occupied territory with the minimum of trouble.
When the threat of a German round-up of Danish Jews for deportation came in 1943, an audacious secret plan was carried out by the Danes.
It resulted in 7,742 people – 95 per cent of Denmark’s Jewish population – being spirited by boat to neighbouring Sweden, where they were cared for until the end of the war.
Only a small number were captured by the Germans and murdered.
At a time when human decency was in short supply, Denmark and Sweden’s behaviour shine out like a beacon of light.
Napoleon: Soldier Of Destiny by Michael Broers (£30, ebook £10.04).
This weighty tome is the first half of a major new life study of Napoleon, which will take us from his birth and upbringing in Corsica to his assumption of the title emperor in 1804, the death of Nelson and the eve of the battle of Austerlitz.
This book charts his earlier years and successes, making full use of correspondence from Napoleon himself, released a few years ago.
The writing is thorough and knowledgeable, especially about the shifting currents of realpolitik and military stratagem of the period, although we see less of Napoleon the man.
Broers is well-disposed to Napoleon.
He writes admiringly of the educational system and legal code he worked to establish in unusually hands-on style, and which are still the basis of many legal and educational systems around the world today.
But he reserves his fullest praise for Napoleon as soldier and military strategist.
Despite his lofty status, Napoleon never lost the knack of inspiring affection and admiration in his long-suffering foot soldiers, and showed a surprising flair for knowing when to delegate to others.
At 500 plus pages, this is a book on a suitably epic scale – and there’s still half of a very full life to go.
Miffy by Dick Bruna (£4.99).
A hit for the past 50 years, cute white rabbit Miffy may already be a familiar sight, but in these new versions of classic stories the popular character has a modern makeover.
Updated for the first time in 50 years, poet Tony Mitton retains the charm and rhyme of the original series.
In this prettily illustrated tale, we find out about Miffy’s dad who is a keen gardener and her mum who loves shopping for food.
But there is one thing they both love more than buying groceries and tending to flowers – Miffy.
During the book, Miffy and her parents meet a range of animals but after a long day of saying hello, Miffy is tired and needs to sleep.
With the classic design, lovely splashes of primary colours and endearing story, this is a classic that – however it’s dressed up – will never goes out of fashion.