Flash Reviews (15th November 2013)

‘The Red Garden’ by Alice Hoffman

The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman ****
Before beginning this beautifully titled book, I had no idea that Hoffman had turned her hand to short story writing, so I was rather intrigued to see how she would use the shorter fictional form to her advantage.  I have found with previous books of hers which I’ve read that she creates clever and well-rounded plots and realistic characters, and she is adept at writing about small town life in America.  I am pleased to say that this book contains all of the elements mentioned above, and it certainly met my expectations.  Hoffman’s descriptions particularly shine in The Red Garden.

The stories which she has woven here are both lovely and thoughtful.  I really liked the way in which she linked the seemingly separate tales too.  All are set at various points in history in the same small town in Massachusetts.  The different families and the relationships they forge with one another are the concrete which have made a cohesive whole of these tales.  I very much enjoyed The Red Garden and would recommend it highly, particularly if you are a newcomer to Hoffman’s work.

Elegy for Eddie by Jacqueline Winspear ***
I am really beginning to enjoy murder mysteries, and know that Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series is very well liked.  When I saw several of her books in The Works as part of a 3 books for £5 deal, I thought I would give one of her stories a go.  I chose this one merely because the plot intrigued me.  I was not sure which book in the series this was when I picked it up (it transpires that it is the ninth).  Throughout, I found that Winspear set the social and historical scene of the early 1930s well.  It is not a very well written book at times, and it was sadly rather lacking in correct punctuation (the eternal quibble of proofreaders worldwide, it seems).  The dialogue did not always fit with the time period, and aside from the constant assertion of events and objects which Winspear included, on this basis it could have been set anywhere, and during many different time periods.  I did not warm to Maisie Dobbs, the investigator of this series, as much as I thought I would, but it is by no means the best crime book I have read of late.  The plot was a little drawn out and there was no very clever twist which I did not see coming.  Overall, I found Elegy for Eddie mildly enjoyable, but I do not think I will carry on with the rest of the series on the strength of this book alone.

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil **
Narcopolis begins with a stream of consciousness; the prologue is essentially one long sentence, which has barely been broken up.  It then moves into a more traditional style of prose (with full stops and everything!) when the first chapter begins.  I found the overall feeling of the novel to be rather gritty.  Thayil does not show many – well, any, really – of the positive elements of Indian society, but focuses instead upon elements such as brothels, drug taking, addiction, and corruption.  In this way, he has highlighted the brutality of Bombay during the 1970s, and he does well in showing that such violence affects those from all walks of life.  This, for me, was the definite strength of the novel.

Unfortunately, I found that Narcopolis felt rather too matter-of-fact at times, particularly with regard to the many episodes of drug-taking (which made me feel a little queasy), and the pain experienced by the protagonists.  Throughout, even the few positives which his characters are faced with are tinged with sadness and cruelty.  Whilst I was not enamoured with any of those whom Thayil had crafted, they were all rather enigmatic and did intrigue me in different ways.  I neither liked nor disliked Narcopolis, and shall end only by saying that it wasn’t really my thing.  Note to self: do not be so taken in with brightly coloured covers and books adorned with ‘Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize’ slogans in future.