Author, Books in translation, Elena Ferrante, Elizabeth Von Arnim, England, essays, Europa Editions, Fiction, Five fast reviews, Franco 'Bifo' Berardi, Helen Macdonald, Italy, Japan, Jonathan Cape, literary fiction, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA, Verso, Vintage, Yukio Mishima

Five Fast Reviews: Franco Berardi, Elena Ferrante, Helen Macdonald, Yukio Mishima and Elizabeth Von Arnim


‘Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide’ by Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi

Non-fiction – paperback; Verso; 232 pages; 2015.

Mass-murder-and-suicideAs you may gather by the title, I like my non-fiction as dark as my fiction — and Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide, written by an Italian Marxist whose work mainly focuses on communication theories within post-industrial capitalism, plumbs some pretty black depths. But what Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi has to say about society and, in particular, capitalism rang a lot of bells with me.

There’s a lot of hard-hitting political, economic and psychological commentary and analysis running throughout this book — produced as part of Verso Futures, which is a new series of essays by leading thinkers and writers — and not all of it is easy to understand. Some of the arguments occasionally feel a little uneven and there are sections written in a clunky academic style, but the ideas outweigh the writing style. Berardi’s main argument is that many young men — and yes, he says they are always men — commit mass shootings before turning the gun on themselves, because this new age of hyper-connectivity and relentless competition in which we live, where neo-liberal politics has stamped out egalitarianism, has divided the world into winners and losers. If you’re a disaffected young man who hasn’t achieved much it’s very easy to become a winner in a short space of time: you take a gun to school (or another public place) and kill everyone in a violent rampage. You’re in charge for 30 minutes or however long it takes and before long the whole world knows your name, even though it’s unlikely you’ll live to see the fame you’ve achieved.

Admittedly not for everyone, this book posits some interesting ideas and is recommended for those who like to explore complex moral and social issues.

‘My Brilliant Friend’ by Elena Ferrante

Fiction – Kindle edition; 336 pages; Europa Editions; 2012. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

My-brilliant-friendIt seems the whole world has fallen in love with My Brilliant Friend, the first in a four-part series by Italian writer Elena Ferrante, but I have to admit that I didn’t really warm to it, perhaps because it was too slow and gentle for me.

The story is a simple one: two girls growing up in 1950s Naples — at a time when women stayed at home and looked after their husbands and children, and girls received only a minimal education — become firm friends. But like many close relationships between teenagers, their relationship is fraught with jealousies and rivalries and they begin to grow apart as they enter the complex world of young womanhood. Elena, the narrator, is bright and does so well at school she’s encouraged to continue her education, while Lina, perhaps more intelligent than her friend, leaves school to pursue work in her family’s shoe-making business.

As well as an authentic look at female friendship, the story is an intriguing portrait of a machismo culture — there’s a lot of violence, domestic and otherwise in this tale — and an impoverished neighbourhood on the brink of political and social change. But while I admired the author’s restraint in telling the story in such simple, stripped back prose, My Brilliant Friend didn’t grip me and I probably won’t bother reading the rest in the series.

‘H is for Hawk’ by Helen Macdonald

Non-fiction – hardcover; Jonathan Cape; 284 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of publisher.

H-is-for-hawkIn a previous life I was the editor of a bird magazine and often commissioned articles about falconry, so I was keen to read H is for Hawk, which explores Helen Macdonald’s attempt to train a goshawk following the death of her photojournalist father. The book is actually three books in one: it’s an entertaining account of the ups and downs of training a bird of prey; it’s a moving portrait of a woman’s grief; and it’s a detailed biography of T. H. White, a troubled man who wrote a controversial book about training a goshawk in the early 1950s. These three threads are interwoven into a seamless narrative that is both compelling and illuminating.

The story is infused with a bare and sometimes confronting honesty as Macdonald comes to grips with her own failings and frustrations brought about via the clash of wills between her and Mabel, the £800 goshawk she bought especially for this project. At times it is quite an emotional book, but it’s lightened by moments of humour and it’s hard to feel anything but admiration for the dedication that Macdonald devotes to the task of taming a wild creature. H is for Hawk is probably one of the most unusual non-fiction books I’ve read, but it’s also, happily, one of the most heartfelt and intriguing ones.

‘Spring Snow’ by Yukio Mishima

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 389 pages; 2000. Translated from the Japanese by Michael Gallagher

Spring-snowFirst published in 1968 but set in 1912, Spring Snow is the first in Yukio Mishima’s acclaimed The Sea of Fertility tetralogy. It’s a rather beautiful and austere tale about a teenage boy, Kiyoaki, who falls in love with an attractive and spirited girl, Satoko, two years his senior, but he plays hard to get and views their “romance” as a bit of a game. It is only when Satoko becomes engaged to a royal prince that Kiyoaki begins to understand his depths of feeling for her — and the enormous loss he looks likely to face unless he takes drastic action to change the course of events.

As well as being a deeply moving love story — think a Japanese version of Romeo and Juliet — the book is a brilliant portrait of Japanese society at a time when the aristocracy was waning and rich provincial families were becoming a powerful elite. Through the complex and troubled character of Kiyoaki, it vividly portrays the clash between a rigid militaristic tradition and a less restrained, Westernised way of life.

Written in lush, languid prose, filled with beautiful sentences and turns of phrase, this is one of the most enjoyable books I have read this year. It’s a dense and complex work, but is imbued with such pitch-perfect sentiment it’s difficult not to get caught up in this rather angst-ridden romance. And the ending is a stunner. I definitely want to explore the rest of the books in this series.

‘The Enchanted April’ by Elizabeth Von Arnim

Fiction – paperback; Vintage Classics; 288 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The-enchanted-aprilThe Enchanted April is appropriately named for it is, indeed, one of the most enchanting books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. First published in 1922, it tells the story of four very different English women who go on holiday to Italy together without their male partners — quite a daring proposition in itself at that time in history; even more daring when you realise that none of them know each other before the month-long trip.

The holiday is first mooted by an unhappy Mrs Wilkins who sees an advertisement in The Times which captures her eye — and her imagination— looking for “Those Who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine” to rent a “small medieval Italian castle on the shores of the Mediterranean” for the month of April. She advertises for companions, which is how she is joined by Mrs Arbuthnot, who is fleeing an unappreciative husband; the elderly, fusty, set-in-her-ways Mrs Fisher; and the beautiful Lady Caroline, who is not yet ready to settle down but is sick of being chased by marriage-hungry young men.

In the delightful confines of the castle and its heavenly garden, the four women seek rest, recreation and respite with mixed, and often humorous, results as clashes between personalities and numerous misunderstandings ensue. A  brilliantly evocative comedy of manners and an insightful exploration of the give and take required between friends and married couples, I totally loved this warm and delightful book. It’s uplifting, fun and the perfect summer read.

Atlantic Books, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Patrick Flanery, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Fallen Land’ by Patrick Flanery


Fiction – Kindle edition; 432 pages; Atlantic Books; 2013.

Without wishing to turn this blog into a political one, one of the things that increasingly worries me about living in 21st century Britain is how more and more public services are being outsourced and privatised. This means that the Government has absolved itself of any responsibility to provide services that are essential to the functioning of society — such as prisons, basic education, health care, security, rail travel and energy, to name but a few — and handed them over to companies which supply these services purely to make a profit. So, if you can’t pay the (inflated) price for your winter fuel or your commute, bad luck. And even if the services remain free of charge at point of use, the quality can be dubious because the firm supplying the service is more interested in cutting costs than hiring the best (and usually more expensive) people for the job.

This theme is central to Patrick Flanery’s novel Fallen Land, which reads like a dire warning about what happens when you let corporations run the world. It is a rather alarming and yet entirely prescient novel, and one that often had me nodding my head in recognition.

Set in an unspecified state of America in the aftermath of the 2008 credit crunch, this is a novel which is very much about dreams — pursuing them, believing in them and dealing with them when they fail — and the outfall of our twisted value system in which everything — and I mean everything — has a price.

Three main characters

Fallen Land largely focuses on three characters: the property developer who goes bust, the woman who is duped into selling her farm for development and the young family man who buys his dream home on that land.

Much of the novel hinges around property developer Paul Krovik, who loses his business in the wake of the financial collapse. When his ultra-modern house on a “ghost estate” is repossessed, he doesn’t follow his wife and children back to Florida. Instead, he builds a hidden bunker underneath the house, moves in to it and lives there secretly, becoming increasingly more feral and more unhinged as time goes on.

Meanwhile, Julia and Nathaniel Noaielles and their young son, Copley, move from Boston to Paul Krovik’s repossessed house — unaware that the developer is living beneath them. Julia, who is an ambitious scientist, is excited about the chance to have a home of their own, but from the get-go Nathaniel dreads the move — it never feels “right” for him — and his job at security firm NKK (modelled, I dare say, on G4S) fills him with unease (his special project is to find a way to make a profit out of prison labour). Similarly, Copley never settles into his strict, regimented private school and develops behavioural problems, which result in him seeing a psychiatrist.

A third character, Louise, has been thrown off the land which she once owned before she sold it to Paul for development. She befriends Copley and later becomes his nanny.

Unusual structure

As you can probably guess, the plot is fairly straightforward. When strange things start happening in the house — furniture is moved, items go missing, windows are opened and slogans are daubed on the walls — it is only a matter of time before Paul’s secret den is discovered instead of Copley being blamed for the mischief making. Yet the novel’s structure is a little more complicated. It opens with Louise visiting Paul in prison, but the reader does not know who Paul is or why he is in prison. But you do know that Louise does not like him, which begs the question,  why visit him?

The story then spools back to explain how these two characters came to be thrown together and how each, in turn, became involved with the Noaielles family. Each character’s story unfolds in alternate chapters, all written in the third person except for Louise’s version of events, which are told  in the first person.

Despite the opening chapter, which is brooding and tense and written with an eye for dramatic flair, I found the narrative tension waxed and waned and I occasionally became bored by certain elements — Nathaniel’s reluctance to stand up to his wife, and Paul’s slow descent into madness, for instance — but am glad I persevered. The ending, when it comes, is rather brutal and shocking — and not at all what I expected (though clearly the signs where there all along).

I think my main problem with the novel was this: it didn’t know if it was a psychological suspense novel or a domestic-drama-come-state-of-the-nation satire. In falling between the two, it didn’t truly succeed in marrying the heightened narrative tension with all the (very well done) character development and social commentary.

Nonetheless, Fallen Land is an intriguing read, packed with ideas, themes and plenty of discussion points — and will no doubt have you scurrying to check the basement and lock the doors before you go to bed each night.

As an aside, if you’ve read Tana French’s Broken Harbour — which is also set on a ghost estate with the owner of the house convinced someone or something is living among them — will find plenty to like here.

Author, Book review, China, Leslie T. Chang, Non-fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting, travel

‘Factory Girls’ by Leslie T. Chang


Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Picador; 320 pages; 2010.

Since the 1990s China has undergone rapid economic development. It’s no exaggeration to say that practically every useful item that we buy in the West — for example, shoes, t-shirts, laptops and mobile phones — was made in a factory somewhere in China. But what of the people who work in those factories? What sort of lives do they lead? How is China’s rise to power affecting them?

Leslie T. Chang, a Chinese American, wrote Factory Girls as a means of exploring these very questions. She says she didn’t want to write about the harsh conditions in the factories, because that had already been done. Instead, she wanted to concentrate on the workers and tell their stories.

Over the course of two years she follows two young women, Min and Chungming, who leave their rural villages — what is known as “going out” — in pursuit of a better life earning a regular wage in a factory. In China, these young women (and men) are “rural migrants”. There are 130 million of them (one-third of which are female), representing “the largest migration in human history, three times the number of people who emigrated to America from Europe over a century”.

Chang says she specifically wanted the book to focus on women, because they “seemed to have the most to gain in leaving the village but also maybe the most to lose”.

Dongguan, in the south-west, was the logical place to start. It is one of the largest factory cities in China, with a population of almost 7 million people, 2 million of them rural migrants. Some 70 per cent of the workforce is female.

What Chang discovered was surprising. While I won’t go into specific details about Min and Chungming — you need to read the book to discover their ups, downs, successes, failures, and the corruption and dangers to which they are exposed, all of which is gripping stuff — in general the women did not see factory work as we in the West might view it. They saw it as an opportunity to better themselves, to escape their rural lives and to achieve some measure of career success.

They also enjoyed a more fluid job situation than their male counterparts, and were often promoted more quickly. They were more flexible, in terms of fitting in, because they “quickly adopted the clothes, hairstyles and accents of the city”.

But if you are female, rural migration is a double-edged sword:

If migration liberated young women from the village, it also dropped them in a no-man’s land. Most girls in the countryside were married by their early twenties, and a migrant woman who postponed marriage risked closing off that possibility for good. […] Social mobility complicated the search for a husband. Women who had moved up from the assembly line disdained the men back in the village, but city men looked down on them in turn.

Despite Chang’s insistence that she didn’t want to write a book looking at factory conditions, she does provide some interesting pen-portraits of what it is like to work in these places. I found it eye-opening: the factory, no matter what it produces, is pretty much a way of life. Employees sleep in factory dorms, eat in factory cafeterias, are treated in factory hospitals. One factory that Chang visits employees 70,000 people!

Typically, the pay is usually low and the working hours extreme. Privacy is non-existent, as this excerpt describing one of Chang’s visits, explains:

Girls stand in doorways combing their shampooed hair in hand mirrors; girls in shorts and flip-flops lug buckets of water to mop the dormitory floors. Residents of the upper floors lean on bare arms over balcony railings, checking out the goings-on at ground level and calling out to friends many stories below. A pop ballad blasts from a tape deck into the muggy morning. I love you, loving you, as a mouse loves rice. The air smells of laundry hanging out to dry; bleach, detergent, and damp are the perpetual scents of the Yue Yuen factory.

Interestingly, migration, once a last resort, has now become an acceptable, indeed desirable, route to a better life. Chang says today’s migrants are “younger and better educated than their predecessors” and that “they are driven out less by the poverty of the countryside than by the opportunity of the city”.

One of the girls she follows, Min, is able to support herself and her family in the countryside, buying them new things — a TV, furniture and so on — and upgrading their lifestyle in the process. It’s not uncommon for young rural migrants who work hard to buy their parents a bigger, better, more modern house or apartment.

But Factory Girls isn’t just a book about modern China. Chang includes a dual narrative that gives a nod to the past. This narrative focuses on her own Chinese roots, in which she returns to her ancestral village and learns about her family, particularly her grandfather who was assassinated after World War Two. This adds an extra dimension to what is already a superb journalistic endeavour.

This is a book that puts a human face to China’s ongoing economic development, but ultimately the book works because these are human stories that transcend time and place. And you don’t even have to be remotely interested in China to appreciate Chang’s effortless and engaging writing style. Highly recommended.

Author, Book review, Canongate, England, Fiction, general, literary fiction, Publisher, Scarlett Thomas, Setting

‘PopCo’ by Scarlett Thomas


Fiction – paperback; Canongate; 450 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I read dozens of novels every year but I can quite honestly say I’ve never read anything quite so weird nor as wonderful as Scarlett Thomas’s PopCo.

Thomas, who was named by The Independent in 2001 as one of the 20 Best Young Writers, has an idiosyncratic style that is fiercely intelligent but imminently readable. This is a book that brims with ideas, is stuffed full of one-liners, and even includes a crossword puzzle and a list of prime numbers at the rear. It’s hugely ambitious, wanders off on what seems like a million tangents and editorializes on everything from the state of Western medicine to the “cruelty” of the dairy industry, but somehow it all comes together to form a coherent and immensely entertaining narrative.

The story revolves around Alice Butler, a 29-year-old “creative” at PopCo, a global toy company (“the third largest in the world”), during an “away” trip in the English countryside. With all the employees pitted against each other to come up with a new product for the teenage girl market, Alice buzzes with excitement and creativity. But then she begins receiving secret coded messages, which indicate that there might be more going on in PopCo than meets the eye.

Alongside this main narrative thread is a back story about Alice’s childhood in which she was raised by her  grandparents, two mathematical geniuses, whom she very much adored. This gives us a glimpse of the girl who grew up to be a fiercely independent woman with a penchant for numbers and puzzles. From this we learn not only about her troubled schooldays in which she was too geeky to fit in, but about the highly secretive work involving code-breaking and treasure-hunting, to which her grandfather devoted his life.

Throw in a healthy bit of romance (and sex), a whole lot of stuff about marketing and mathematics, and you’ll get some brief idea of what PopCo is about.

While I can’t say that I found the ending particularly satisfying (it seemed slightly too far-fetched for my liking), I did very much enjoy reading this book and learning about code-breaking and all kinds of mathematical rules, which surprised me given I am not a numbers person at all. But what I loved most about this book was its cynicism, particularly in relation to marketing and the dubious practices some advertisers carry out.

This is what Alice begins to realise part-way through the book:

It is all dishonest. We are twenty-first century con artists. Marketing, after all, is what you do to sell people things they don’t need. If people needed, say, a T-shirt with a logo on it, no one would have to market the idea to them. Marketing, advertising… What started off being, ‘Hey, we make this! Do you want it?’ turned into ‘If you buy this, you might get laid more,’ and then mutated into, ‘If you don’t buy this, you’ll be uncool, no one will like you, everyone will laugh at you and you may as well kill yourself now. I’m telling you this because I am your friend and you have to trust me.’ Marketing is what gives value to things that do not have any actual intrinsic value. We put eyes on a bit of plastic, but it is marketing that actually brings the piece of plastic to life. It is marketing that means we can sell a 10p bit of cloth for £12.99.

There’s no doubt that PopCo has a conscience and treads a subversive line, but it is also quirky, unusual and damn good fun and is perfect if you’re looking for something a little different to cleanse the reading palette. Highly recommended.