Kirsten Spiteri – Perfettament Imperfetta

A few years ago I read Kirsten Spiteri’s English language novel, Far From Home and, to be honest, I did not like it too much. The story was inconsistent, the style was functionable . It lacked something special.

Perfettament Imperfetta (Perfectly Imperfect) is his first novel in Maltese and as I have said many times, I approach each book without any preconceptions so that the final judgement is fair.

The book consists of two narrators: Wade, a tween who is a mess of hormones and Miguel, a sixty six year who is equally brimming with hormones but since he is a widowed philosophy lecturer, let’s say he gives his sexed up emotions an intellectual edge. Both characters have designs over 17 year old Charlotte. In Wade’s case she is the desirable next door neighbour and for Miguel she is a student who attends his philosophy private lessons.

Perfettament Imprefetta is essentially a tale of obsession. However it is constructed in an interesting way. It starts out as an Adria Mole book: i.e. a horny teenager expressing his fantasies but when Miguel’s narrative wriggles in, the book goes into darker territories and that obsession evolves into lust which, in itself goes into more physical. In between Charlotte tantalises and plays along. Just to make things clear this is not a book about masculine power but rather all parties are guilty of breaking rules in this novel.

The book also functions as a coming of age. As Wade explores different aspects of sex: dating, visiting a sex worker, pleasuring oneself etc he discovers his own rules and boundaries. For Miguel, who has experienced all this, his relationship with Charlotte functions as filling a much needed void.

One could also see Perfettament Imperfetta as a commentary on Maltese youth: attitudes regarding schoolwork, clothes, towards dating and even gender. Kirsten Spiteri throws in a little bit extra as the setting is 2019/2020 – pre pandemic and pandemic Malta, in which he further goes into teens reactions to be in quarantine.

On the whole I enjoyed the book. I laughed at Wade’s way of thinking in the beginning, then when things got serious, it was done well. I felt that the structure was good, a bit unpredictable at times, which I appreciated. I thought the descriptions were great, (if you need someone to describe the lust a person has for a rear end look no further.) There’s quite a few taboo busters here, which is needed for Malta and the ending will get the reader thinking. For those on the rush it’s a relatively quick read as well. I am impressed.

Many thanks to Merlin for providing a copy of Perfetta Imperfetta

Orla Owen – PAH

When describing PAH to people, I would say that it is a novel about relationships. Then again aren’t all novels about relationships of some sort? I guess that’s an incorrect description and yet it’s a correct one.

Susan is a nurse who lives with other nurses in a shared flat. As an individualistic and aloof character she plans to marry in order to escape the accommodation. She finds that way out in Jeffrey Jeffreys, a simple character, who has his hang ups as well. As one can see, this is a doomed marriage.

Into the mix is stoner Carlton, whose parents have died and has to escape the city. His destiny does cross with Susan and it does leave an affect of sorts. The question is, what will happen to these characters?

One aspect I liked about PAH’s characters is that they are flawed. Susan may be a user and controlling but Jeffrey is a sexist and an alcoholic. Carlton may like drugs and escapism but he also feels guilty for some of his actions. It’s these messy people which make PAH such an addictive read. Like authors such as Rónán Hession or Iris Murdoch, Orla Owen knows how to write believable people.

Despite the dark vibe that runs in the book, PAH does have genuinely funny moments: Jeffrey’s love for a pie, his mother makes, Susan’s attempts to adapt to Jeffrey’s behaviour and then try ‘tame’ are equally tragic and humorous.

The writing is great. PAH consists of an endless supply of memorable scenes. From Susan’s disgruntlement with her life to her predicament at the end of the book, will awash the reader with many emotions and they will linger on.

PAH, in it’s own way, is a deeply human book. True the protagonists may appear cold, unfeeling, odd and weak but don’t we all have moments like that? I do like realistic books and PAH is definitely one of them.

Many thanks to the author for providing a copy of PAH.

Richard Powers – Bewilderment

In 1959 Daniel Keyes wrote a book called Flowers for Algernon. This consisted of a janitor, Charlie, who has a low IQ and undergoes surgery which makes him more intelligent. Alongside Charlie, a mouse, Algernon, is going through the same process and he sees Algernon. As time goes by Charlie regresses and so does Algernon.

Richard Powers latest novel, Bewilderment, namechecks Flowers for Algernon and that makes sense as it concerns a child on the autism spectrum who also goes through an experiment which proves to be successful then causes failure.

At first you may stop and say ehh this is Richard Powers, how could the person who retold the Orpheus myth then followed that up by writing the greatest book ever on trees actually borrow a plot from a classic science-fiction novel? However this is Richard Powers and one should know by now that he’s going to do things differently.

The plot revolves the widowed Theo Bryne and his son Robin. At first Robin proves to be a challenge to Theo; he has an aversion to school, his phases and rages tire Theo out and there is his constant questioning about his activist mother, Alyssa.

Despite all the problems Robin causes Theo, he still does not want to use psychoactive drugs as Robin his too young. An old colleague of Theo suggests that they try insert some of Theo’s wife’s memory patterns (left over from a past experiment when Theo and Alyssa were younger) in Robin. The experiment is a success but you can guess the outcome.

Richard Powers feelings about nature and climate change are strong in Bewilderment : Alyssa was an activist, Robin is concerned about the environment, especially on animals and Theo is trying to discover new life in places where they cannot exist. In fact throughout the book, Theo invents planets which he and Robin discuss and formulate the type of life forms which may exist.

This is also a novel about the power of science – can one use science to take over the brain? However the book is about the pros and cons of media: As Robin’s fame grows, Theo is more perplexed at how the media manages to try control a person.

Bewilderment is also a very ‘human’ novel. One cannot deny that the centre of this book is Theo’s and Robin’s relationship. The book details the lengths Theo will go to due to the love of his son. Eventually this love also leads to the book’s tender conclusion. The last time I read about such a powerful father/son was in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

Did I like the book? I LOVED it! Each Powers novel I read just makes me admire him more. Crisp, poignant writing, moments of heartache and many intense scenes. Bewilderment provides an onrush of emotions, which will fluctuate with each page turned. Also Bewilderment is probably the novel which will win Powers new fans as it is quite accessible and the themes bash the reader in the face (which didn’t bother me in the least). Even if it doesn’t win the 2021 Booker Prize, I can assure all readers that Bewilderment does not need to win anything – read it and wallow in it’s greatness.

Ramona Depares – The Patient in Hospital Zero

In her foreword to this debut short story collection, Ramona Depares lays out clearly her influences and processes behind these nine stories, which is a love for alternative realities mixed with the grotesqueness of Roald Dahl and the surrealism of Neil Gaiman and flawed characters. Thankfully this is exactly what we readers get.

Within The Patient in Hospital Zero there are stories about a woman who falls upon good luck every time a certain person crashes into her car, a girl who has a strange talent with music, a flipped vision of COVID-19 Malta and a person who hears voices from an odd source. Elsewhere there are robots, nightmares and … rooms with flowers (don’t ask, you’ll find out when you read the story)

There’s a lot of good stuff here ; The stories are well constructed , the characters are good and the twists are the kind that make one reflect. I also did like the world building on the more dystopic leaning pieces. As someone who has a hard time with short stories, I was pleased to like all of them, something that , for me, is rare. Having been brought up on Roald Dahl, I do appreciate stories with unconventional endings or strange set ups, Ramona Depares’ does manage this.

I do have a major complaint though and it lies within the writing. Way too many cliched expressions litter the text and it did ruin my enjoyment of the actual stories. In fact I did wish that the writing style was more in the vein of the foreword as I did feel that was Ramona Depares’ actual voice. To use a cliche – it’s a bugbear.

As a debut work of fiction, though this is solid and Ramona Depares’ imagination can break boundaries. I’ll be eagerly waiting for what will be forthcoming.

Many thanks to Merlin for providing a copy of The Patient in Hospital Zero

Maggie Shipstead – Great Circle

There is something about a big thick read which is soothing. I have learnt that when things are a bit tough it is the epics which manage to help provide a small form of escape. As I have mentioned, September was not an easy month and a tome like Great Circle landed at the right time.

Great Circle has two timeline. The first one deals with the life of fictional female pilot Marian Graves; from her childhood , love of airplanes, relationships and her mysterious disappearance. Along her timeline we also get chapters focusing on her twin brother Jamie.

The second major timeline takes place in the present and is narrated by actor Hadley Baxter, who is a bit of a one hit wonder in the acting world, suffering from failed marriages and tabloid featuring affairs (I guess you could compare her to BoJack Horeseman). However she will be playing Marian in a biopic and this may save her career. As she goes more into the role she discovers that Marian’s past is changing her destiny and making her realise that the myth of a famous person sometimes overrides the truth.

As for themes there’s a lot of them but if one where to summarise them I would say the book is about breaking free from society’s constraints. By being a female pilot, Marian is bucking convention, by being sexually ambiguous she raises eyebrows. In fact the only time she does something that is considered conventional, by marrying the villain of the book, Barclay she truly suffers. Even in the present day, by playing Marian and discovering her life, Hadley goes through a transformative character process.

Then there’s the circle of the title. On a surface level this represents Marian’s dream of flying around the globe but it could also represent the circular structure of the book as it starts and begins the same way. or it could represent the way the truth has a way of coming back to a person, as all Marian’s past actions reappear in present day.

Great Circle, is a well structured novel. I like the way Maggie Shipstead makes the past reappear to Hadley and how the affect of the media distorting it. All the characters are memorable and the writing is solid. Saying that I can’t help thinking that it is a bit overlong in places and the Hadley chapters do not carry the clout of the Marian chapters. It’s a good read though and it does have something for all types of readers. I do think it’s a bit too conventional to win this year’s Booker but I am definitely glad that I read Great Circle.

Book Round Up – September 2021

September was a horrible month, both in my personal life and my reading one. As you can see, I did not read as much as I usually do. Obviously there were standouts but reading felt like a slog.

The ‘book of the month’ is the fantastic Seesaw – it’s a must read.

I also liked The Passing of the Forms that we have Loved

Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye was an excellent read

And John Boyne’s latest, The Echo Chamber, was a terrific piece of satire

What’s next?

Due to my current situation, I am having a lot of trouble trying to focus on a book so really it’s a case of finding a book a gel with. I know I’ll regain my usual speed but it will take a bit of time.

Margaret Atwood – Cat’s Eye

When I read Cat’s Eye 15 years ago, I was totally unimpressed by it. However, this reread has changed that view. Not only did I enjoy the novel, but I do think that it is far superior than it’s predecessor, The Handmaid’s Tale.

The main protagonist is Elaine, a painter, who is moving into her first husband’s studio in order to prepare for an exhibition, which is taking place in Toronto. This sparks off many unpleasant memories for Elaine and she starts to reminisce about her childhood. Namely her relationship with her tormentors Cordelia, Grace and Carol.

Cat’s Eye is about friendship politics but it is also about trying to find one’s identity. Throughout the book we see Elaine’s development from a bullied girl to an established artist. As she advances her ‘friends’ go off on their destinies and they are not as a good as Elaine’s.

The novel is also about how Canadian society changed during the war and post war year. As we see a more cosmopolitan Toronto appear, also it seems that morals have changed as relationships become more frivolous.

Cat’s Eye’s greatest feat is how Atwood manages to use reoccurring themes in clever ways. The cat’s eye of the title is a marble which symbolises Elaine’s youth and makes a frequent appearance in the book. Elaine’s paintings also are a document of her youth. Despite many serious moments, Elaine’s witty observations are a pleasure to read.

Although The Handmaid’s Tale is considered Atwood’s masterpiece, I do feel that Cat’s Eye is more representative of Atwood’s style and themes.

Previous reviews: The Edible Woman , Surfacing , Lady Oracle , Life Before Man , Bodily Harm , The Handmaid’s Tale

Next up: The Robber Bride

Christopher Boon – The Passing of the Forms that we have Loved

It is inevitable that throughout our lives that we meet people. Some disappear from our lives, some reappear and some we lose. This is so ingrained in ourselves that we take it for granted that life’s passage involves meeting people and cultivating friendships. Christopher Boon’s debut novel, The Passing of the Forms that we have Loved expands on the meaning of close relationships and how it affects us.

The book starts off with the narrator meeting a girl and documents his burgeoning relationship, at the same time his father is dying of cancer. During this period an old friend the narrator’s turns up, which bring out a new set of emotions. To add more, there’s also the main protagonist’s mother, who he cares for. One could say the rest of the book details the narrators’ struggle to control this emotional onrush.

Leaving aside the Laurentian plot, The Passing’s main strength is that the writing is gorgeous. This is writing that goes beyond anything you have seen and that is not an exaggeration. Christopher Boon can take something simple as the flickers of first love, or walking down a corridor or even lifting up a heavy object and make it sound like the most poetic, evocative action to grace humankind. Obviously on the more complex scenes, the style becomes even more awe inspiring. One stand out scene takes place in a nudist beach and I just love the way that both the flaws and perfections of the body are given equal space. The former never being described in a derogatory way and the latter is never hypersexualised. To hammer my point home, this book contains some mighty beautiful prose.

As the title states, all things must pass. Aside from the death in the beginning, the narrator experiences all the people in his life going by him until he makes a decision which will really remove him from his current situation, and inevitably and new cycle of relationships will probably start.

The Passing of the Forms is not only a book about complex relations but one about the paradox of time and life itself : as it does evolve and yet it is repetitive. It’s also about how certain actions can shape one’s future. The main protagonist is trying to move on and yet he is stuck as his past keeps returning and then when he makes a rash decision, other complications occur due to his past relationships. Coupled with the sensuous prose just elevates this novel. For such prose to stir such emotions makes The Passing of the Forms that we have Loved a special novel.

Many thanks to époque for providing a copy of The Passing of Forms that we have Loved

Taffy Brodesser-Akner – Fleishman is in Trouble

I am not one to boast but generally my reading quota is 100 pages a day. Now I never look at page numbers obsessively but when I’m reading and feeling a bit tired I do like to see which page I’m on and usually it’s 98 or 101 etc.

With Fleishman is in Trouble, I would feel exhausted after 40/50. Thus this novel took a week. Obviously that’s not a bad thing but my slow paced, time consuming reads are for authors who have a difficult writing style, such as Pynchon or David Foster-Wallace. Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s style is accessible but it is tiring.

Laborious style aside, did I actually like the book? I will say straight away that it is both yes and no. I’ll talk about the good parts.

I remember one booktuber DNFing the book saying that he didn’t want to read about white man problems. In a way he is right but if this booktuber continued to read a bit more. there is depth.

The main plot focuses on Toby Fleishman. He’s in the process of finalising a divorce from his wife, Rachel. However, for some strange reason, after leaving their two kids with Toby, Rachel disappears.

As simple as it may sound Taffy Brodesser-Akner includes other elements, the book is also a commentary on online dating, the dynamics of marriage and what it means to fall in love. The thing is, and this is where the book is totally different, the narrator is Toby’s college friend Elizabeth, who is detailing her own marriage in the process. Thus the book may superficially be seen as white man problems, deep down it’s about the womanhood, what it means to observe the crumbling of a marriage from that perspective. Furthermore in the third part of the book things go a bit Fates and Furies and we see Rachel’s take on her marriage to Toby. I thought this was well executed.

The problems that occur, besides the plodding prose is that there is a lot of unnecessary detail. Bubbles the dog, although does have some significance is an underdeveloped idea. One of Toby’s relationships drags on. The social media criticism is good but other than a brief reappearance at the end is dropped off as the narrative gets more twisty. All this results in an uneven read, which borders on the dull.

In a way Fleishman is in Trouble is not a bad book but it does feel like a first novel. I do hope Taffy Brodesser-Akner does continue writing fiction as her ability to pull off multi-layered, thoughtful plots with ease is an enviable skill.