A Man Called Ove: Fredrik Backman

★★★★

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll know that I have a huge soft spot for Fredrik Backman. He has a talent for writing charming, heartwarming stories about human nature in small communities. Here are the vulnerable, real people beneath the spiny carapaces of the curmudgeons we meet in our daily life, laid bare with compassion and gentleness. And there’s no curmudgeon quite like Ove. This was Backmann’s debut novel and, while already displaying the hallmarks he would develop in his later books, it’s probably the darkest of the three I’ve read so far. That’s mainly because, when we first meet Ove, he’s very carefully preparing to commit suicide.

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The Infatuations: Javier Marías

★★★

I’ve wanted to read one of Javier Marías’s novels for ages and this has been quietly sitting on my shelf, waiting. It’s a story I heard about years ago and which captured my attention: a young woman, breakfasting every morning in the same Madrid café, has become accustomed to seeing a married couple there every day at the same time. They are so much in love, so deeply connected and content, that she shyly adopts them as an ideal. But then, one day, they fail to appear and our narrator María reads with a shock, in the papers, that the man has been murdered in a senseless attack. Due to her fondness for them – her infatuation, perhaps, with the idea of them – she can’t leave it there. Now, given my high expectations for the book, I was a little disappointed. It wasn’t quite what I expected: more detached, more intellectual; a philosophical analysis more than a mystery. And the story’s several infatuations manifest themselves not as glorious passions, but as states of mind that can drive us to accept terrible situations as the norm.

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Before I Go To Sleep: S.J. Watson

★★★★

Further thanks to everyone for your support and messages over the last few days. Give yourselves a pat on the back for being wonderful human beings. For my part, I’ve decided that life is far too rich and busy to sit around feeling sorry for myself, so let’s forge onward and get back to thinking about good books and gorgeous art and crazy operas and all sorts of other lovely things. I was so afraid I wouldn’t be able to focus on my blog but, you know what? I’ve realised that writing The Idle Woman is one of the great joys in my life and the best possible tonic for my spirits. So you can all imagine me right now, curling up contentedly with a cup of tea after a busy day, in order to thrash out my thoughts on my most recent read. And this one requires a bit of thrashing.

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The Girls: Emma Cline

★★★★

Following Gone Girl, I switched my attention to Emma Cline’s sun-drenched, twisted slice of 1960s Californian life, which is inspired by the case of the Manson Family (a story, I should stress, that I knew nothing about beforehand). Unfolding at the dreamy pace of a marijuana trip, it doesn’t match Gone Girl’s urgency, but it offers more relatability, in its tale of a fourteen-year-old girl who just doesn’t fit in, and the seductive gang of dreamers who capture her imagination. Few of us, thank God, will have gone as far as our protagonist Evie Boyd, but I suspect that many of us can remember the pain of teetering on that brink between childhood and adulthood, feeling eternally divorced from either place and, somehow, feeling so much older than all the adults around us. Cline manages to produce a book that’s compelling, compassionate and wise, as well as plumbing some of the darker places in the human soul.

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Gone Girl: Gillian Flynn

★★★★

Better late than never, hmm? As an intense period at work came to a close, I decided it was time to welcome the advent of summer with a couple of good, old-fashioned, white-knuckle thrillers. The first of those was a book I’ve managed to avoid having spoiled for me: quite an achievement, considering that it’s a publishing phenomenon, a film, and has been read by everyone else on the planet except my neighbour’s cat. Finally, it was my turn to meet Nick and Amy Dunne, the picture-perfect couple whose marriage begins to go sour when they lose their jobs in the recession, and move from Amy’s native New York to Nick’s native Missouri. When Amy disappears on their fifth wedding anniversary, leaving signs of a struggle and traces of blood on the kitchen floor, everyone thinks they know how this story ends. Only they don’t. Only one person has even an inkling of what’s about to happen… and Nick Dunne is in no position to protect himself.

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The Serpentine Cave: Jill Paton Walsh

★★★½

There’s always a frisson of excitement when you come across a ‘new’ book by an author you like. Jill Paton Walsh’s Knowledge of Angels is one of my all-time favourite novels, as many of you will probably know, and so I was excited when J gave me The Serpentine Cave, which he’d unearthed in a second-hand bookshop and which I’d never heard of before. It’s very different in spirit – a tale of quiet, private truths rather than the epic resonances of Knowledge of Angels – but it’s nevertheless a moving tale of a woman trying to piece together her identity from the fragments left behind on her mother’s death.

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The Jealous One: Celia Fremlin

★★★½

Celia Fremlin’s works have recently been reissued by Faber Finds, in neat little ebooks with come-hither pricing. I hadn’t heard of her before, but was intrigued by her themes of suburban unease and mystery, and chose The Jealous One as my introduction to her novels. First published in 1964, it occasionally shows its age, but its essential story is one that doubtless remains painfully familiar in the present world. Rosamund and Geoffrey have been married for years, united by their gossiping about their London neighbours and by shared despair over their feckless teenage son. But when the exuberant Lindy moves in next door and inches her way into their lives, Rosamund discovers how painful jealousy can be. And then, one day, she wakes from a feverish sleep and a dream of murder… to find that Lindy has vanished.

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The Standing Chandelier: Lionel Shriver

★★★★

This is the first book I’ve read by Lionel Shriver (except, of course, for We Need To Talk About Kevin) and so I came to it without many preconceptions. More novella than novel, it impressed me a great deal with its incisive and unsentimental view of human nature. We may not like the picture that Shriver reflects back at us, but her characters all feel so very convincing. It’s a story that many of us can easily imagine, even if we don’t have direct experience of it, because it starts with a friendship: an old friendship, of twenty years’ standing, between a woman, Jillian Frisk, and a man, Weston Babansky, and how their easy dynamic is challenged by the arrival of Weston’s girlfriend Paige.

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The Last Romeo: Justin Myers

★★★

Some people say that most first novels are thinly-described autobiography. In this particular case, the disguise is as robust as the Emperor’s New Clothes. Justin Myers, author of the popular Guyliner blog, is probably best known for his ruthless takedowns of the Guardian’s weekly Blind Date column (an occasional guilty pleasure on a Friday afternoon). But he started out as a cataloguer of the gay dating wilderness: a mission shared by the protagonist of his first novel. Blending acerbity with vulnerability, this is a rom-com for the online dating generation, told with panache in Meyer’s distinctive voice, but it rarely convinces as a novel rather than a memoir with names changed.

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Fever Dream: Samanta Schweblin

★★★

Sometimes you feel you’ve completely missed something. You end up suspecting there was a big revelation in the final pages that you completely overlooked and which would have made everything make sense. I feel that may have been the case here, so I’m hoping we can get into a discussion in the comments about exactly what was going on. Schweblin’s novella unfolds in the course of a single unbroken, breathless dialogue. Here is Amanda, lying in the dark in a hospital bed, running out of time. Here, at her side, is David, a young boy who keeps probing her with ruthless questions. They have to find something among the confused tangle of Amanda’s memories: a clue; a moment that will bring everything into focus. But what has happened to Amanda? And who is David?

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