The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman

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The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: An unusual novel full of unforgettable people and quirk from an author who knows how to get us to journey with him, no matter where he goes. Indeed, as Tooly tries to discover the answer to her past, we discover something rather enjoyable.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: May 2014
Publisher: Sceptre
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1444752342

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Tooly (Matilda) Zylberberg, runs a small independent book shop in Caergenog, close enough to Hay on Wye to attract literary festival overflow. She loves and understands literature which is more than can be said about her understanding of her parents. In fact Tooly doesn't even know who her parents are. She had a weird childhood being taken from one city or country to another by Paul but she never got to ask why or even who he was. The sum of her knowledge was that he worked in IT and seemed to take care of her… or rather she took care of him. So one day she leaves her able assistant Fogg to keep the shop going and retraces her life, hopefully finding the answers to the questions she never got around to asking.

This is American author Tom Rachman's second novel. His first, The Imperfectionists knocked us out here at Bookbag Towers. It centred on the world of newspapers and used his insider knowledge as a journalist to great effect. For this tome he points his creative finger of quirkiness towards something totally different.

It begins as a humorous look at an unlikely pair in a small Welsh borders town/village bookshop (topically published now, during the Hay-on-Wye Festival). I settled down to a well observed examination of the beleaguered world of the independent but then Tooly takes off and everything changes. Small village becomes global village and the focus becomes Tooly; it becomes her very well in fact.

The lass is feisty, resourceful and someone we plump for from the beginning. We want her to discover who her parents are and why she had that childhood; we having as great an urge to find out as she does. Actually it's a shame that the ironically named Fogg doesn't get to go along too as they're a great double act, rippling with wryness. (Perhaps a sequel, please?)

As Tooly flies from country to country visiting neighbourhoods in which she used to live, we combine that trip with a journey back and forth across the decades watching her grow up. The time-flitting is occasionally confusing but hold on – the characters are well worth the odd moment of puzzlement.

I love the Russian émigré Humphrey: endearing, reliable and consistent till it all has to change. He contrasts well with the selfish, very needy Sarah whom I could quite happily have shaken. Venn the hippyish chap gets the prize for the most colourful novel occupant as he drifts in and out of the narrative in a way in which you can almost smell the joss sticks and nefarious substances. The biggest mystery comes in the form of Paul the IT guy until gradually the bizarre behaviour is all explained.

One thing that remains consistent (apart from the quality) is that, no matter how old or young she is, Tooly is always the one to support, guide and assist; a miniature adult among giant children.

As the novel goes from comfy to surreal when Tooly leaves the bookshop there are some adeptly placed clues and teasers. We laugh, we cry, we're touched (in a good way) and we also get oh so angry on others' behalves. A novel that engenders that much emotion and engagement is hard to forget. Mr Rachman I do believe you've gone and done it again!

(Thank you very much, Sceptre for providing us with a copy for review.)

Further Reading: If this appeals and you like a bit of book-based-quirk, look no further than Books by Charlie Hill.

Buy The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman at

Buy The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman at


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