Best new paperbacks: Rose Tremain, Don DeLillo, Janine di Giovanni

Tremain’s study of political neutrality makes a striking contrast with Di Giovanni’s reporting of the war in Syria in the best of the month’s reissues


The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain
This slim but perfectly formed novel was a mystifying absence on last year’s Man Booker prize longlist, but it went on to be shortlisted for the Costa novel of the year and now takes its place on the Baileys longlist just as the paperback hits the shelves. Tremain’s 14th novel – she has also written five collections of short stories – examines the cost of neutrality through the story of Gustave Perle, a child of Switzerland’s ostensibly neutral years during the second world war. Kate Kellaway in the Observer declared it “a perfect novel about life’s imperfections”, written with exemplary narrative skill and subtlety. Marcel Theroux, in the Guardian, was equally complimentary, declaring the novel to be “a masterclass in naturalistic fiction”.

Zero K by Don DeLillo
DeLillo “doesn’t tell stories”, wrote Alex Preston in the Observer, “he summons visions”. This grand statement comes at the start of a glowing review that declares Zero K DeLillo’s best novel since Underworld. “Like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, it forces us to confront the spectre of our own mortality, to ask deep questions of our motives in wishing to prolong our span on Earth,” according to Preston. “This is Don DeLillo’s Book of the Dead,” wrote James Lasdun, in the Guardian, of a book that pits a visionary billionaire and his consorts against the problem of mortality. “This being DeLillo, it goes without saying that there’s a much higher quotient of beautiful sentences and arresting observations than you’d find in most other living writers.”

The Crime Writer by Jill Dawson
Dawson’s decision to write a novel based on the life of Patricia Highsmith could not be more timely, wrote Joanna Briscoe, coming hot on the heels of a much-praised adaptation of her novel Carol and with the fashion for Ripley-style psychological thrillers still in full flow. Dawson “merges life and literary themes … and plays with them, creating a layering of forms, a novel within a novel … creating a novel as dark and odd as the subject herself”, found Briscoe.


The Romanovs by Simon Sebag Montefiore
Montefiore’s epic history of the Romanov family, packed full of gory detail about the tsars and tsarinas, arrives in paperback already a global bestseller. It is, wrotes John Kampfner, “a study of brutality, sex and power”. “Montefiore doesn’t do minimalist history,” he noted, although this becomes the book’s strength. Behind this “grand sweep” of Russian history, “the research is meticulous” and the author’s style “captivating”.

Respectable by Lynsey Hanley
Hanley’s book is an ambitious attempt to update Richard Hoggart’s groundbreaking 1957 treatise, The Uses of Literacy, using herself as a case study. In doing so she skewered the hypocrisy and continued inequality at the heart of British society, according to reviewer Colin Grant, in “an intelligent and important book that deserves to be widely read”.

A Life Discarded by Alexander Masters
Masters made his name with his back-to-front biography Stuart: A Life Backwards. His latest book takes 148 discarded diaries found in a Cambridge skip as the basis for reconstructing the life of their writer. Given the imprecision in the way in which this life found its way to publication, flaws are to be expected, and Rachel Cooke, in the Observer, certainly found them. “The book’s failures,” however, “are profoundly honourable”. And she was effusive in her praise for Masters’ ambition. “He is a beautiful writer,” she declared, “funny, inquisitive and talented”.

Landskipping by Anna Pavord
In a book that is part memoir, part history, part polemic, Pavord investigates why there are some places we love best and considers the future of the British landscape. “The relationship between the beauty (or sublimity) of landscape and down-to-earth husbandry is the most fascinating subject in Landskipping. It’s also an important one as we consider the future of the British countryside,” wrote Alexandra Harris in the Guardian. “Among the many kinds of writing in this heterogeneous book – historical, autobiographical, descriptive – there is a strain of polemic … I didn’t always agree, but was glad of the debate.”

The Morning They Came For Us by Janine di Giovanni
“Reading this book is at once necessary, difficult and elating,” wrote Syrian Robin Yassin-Kassab of war reporter Di Giovanni’s account of life in the country of his birth during 10 months in 2012. She witnesses the fallout from massacres, torture and rape. “Her reporting from the Syrian revolution and war is clear-eyed and engaged in the best sense – engaged in the human realm rather than the abstractly political,” said Yasin-Kassab. “[The book] simply observes, and is much the stronger for it.”

Nick Sidwell

The GuardianTramp

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