This page features a variety of types of review, including some longer ones for particular books. The thumbnail reviews are a very personal way for me to formulate my response to a book that I’ve just read. They have proved to be quite popular on Facebook, so I reproduce them here. Please note that they are not in any way intended to be formal judgments; they’re merely my immediate reactions. Star ratings are on a five-point scale, except for The Tale of Genji, Persuasion and Gormenghast which always receive six each time I read them.
2017 Review #1 A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford
This review is dedicated to the genetically unique Güneş Taylor who, at the moment I am composing this, is writing the final words of her PhD thesis in what Rutherford calls ‘one of the grand endeavours of twenty-first century genetics’. Good luck, Güneş! Good luck, me.
Rutherford’s book is both interesting and disappointing. It is firmly in the popular science category, seeking to make a vital yet complex subject, genetics, comprehensible to the lay reader. As is common with such books, it tends to fall between two stools. It’s neither quite basic enough if you know nothing about genetics, nor sophisticated enough if you do.
As is also common it does offer some insights, kind of ‘take home’ messages that linger in the mind. The first is an indication of just how fast the world of genetics has changed, and how recently. At a conference in 2000, a geneticist opened a betting book on how many genes there were in the human genome. 460 leading geneticists took part over the next three years, with estimates varying between 25000 and 290000 (quite an extreme range!). The actual answer eventually turned out to be about 20000, not even within the range the experts had guessed at.
This anecdote illustrates two key ideas, firstly that the growth of understanding in the field is exponential, and second that the ‘truth’ is always more complex than it looks. One of the problems with agreeing how many genes there are turns out to be that there is no total agreement about what a gene is. Rutherford approvingly quotes (twice) H.L.Mencken: ‘For every complicated problem there is a solution that is simple, direct, understandable, and wrong.’ Rutherford hammers home the point that we cannot look to genetics for simple answers (genes for criminality, for instance).
Another ‘take home’ message is how closely we are all related. In the same way that Jesus was the ‘son of David’, because everybody in his lifetime in Palestine was, so we are all descended from King Solomon (700 wives, 300 concubines), because everybody is. We’re also descendants of Charlemagne. If you have your DNA sequenced by one of the commercial firms now offering the service very cheaply, you will discover that ‘you are of Viking descent, because everyone is. You are of Saracen, Roman, Goth, Hun, Jewish descent…’ (p.152). Indeed the Last Common Ancestor of everyone alive on the planet (all 7 billion) is now estimated to have lived approximately 3600 years ago. As recently as that. We are all cousins under the skin, a fact disguised by a few trivial phenotypic effects such as skin, eye and hair colour.
Beyond this, the book doesn’t have a great deal to offer if you are reasonably interested in and conversant with current genetics – and who else is going to read it? If you know nothing, some of the material may take a bit of grappling with, particularly sections like the one on heritability.
The writing is lively and engaging, but not altogether lucid or elegant. Oddly, this is a characteristic the author shares with his stated mentor, Steve Jones. If you want lucidity and elegance, head for Darwin or Dawkins. With Rutherford you get sentences like: ‘We know that the emergence of the pale skin we associate with Europe, and particularly northern Europe, only emerged in the last few thousand years, just as the genes for processing milk did.’ (pp.250-51) Aaargh. How did the author (or his editor) let that past?
One final point: if you are going to read this book, read it soon. Published in 2016, it’s already out of date, because of the pace of change in research, and it will need updating before 2017 is over.
2017 Thumbnail Review #1 A Snow Garden and Other Stories by Rachel Joyce
2017 Thumbnail Review #2 A Month in the Country by J.L.Carr
A well-written and reflective ‘pastoral’ novel about a WW1 veteran and medieval wall-painting. My kind of combination.
2017 Thumbnail Review #3 Something About Eve by James Branch Cabell
A novel which concludes that domesticity in Mispec Moor is preferable to Romance in Caer Omn.
Quirky, sardonic fantasy (think Thurber) from one of America’s greatest authors. This is Volume X in the Storisende edition, which I shall be reviewing once I’ve (re-)read the lot.
2017 Thumbnail Review #4 The Certain Hour by James Branch Cabell
Volume XI in the Storisende edition, this contains ten stories supposedly of incidents from the lives of authors (Herrick, Sheridan, Pope etc). The one about Shakespeare is especially effective in Cabell’s unique way.
The fact that all ten authors are supposed to be figures created by Dom Manuel (in Figures of Earth) is merely part of the complex alternative universe that Cabell creates.
2017 Thumbnail Review #5 The Cords of Vanity by James Branch Cabell
An ‘autobiographical’ account of the romantic peccadilloes of the fictional author Robert Townsend – ‘his gallant trifling with just half serious emotions’, as Cabell himself puts it. Kind of like Breakfast at Tiffany’s written by James Thurber channelling Lewis Carroll; i.e. quintessentially Cabellian.
2017 Thumbnail Review #6 From the Hidden Way/The Jewel Merchants by James Branch Cabell
From the Hidden Way is a collection of all Cabell’s poetry, notionally assigned to Robert Townsend, the fictional author from The Cords of Vanity (qv). As such it should be read as an adjunct to that work. It consists mainly of imitations of renaissance verse forms, but has some effective moments, such as pieces about Troy and about Venus.
The Jewel Merchants is Cabell’s only (1-act) play, and is a typical Cabellian sardonic musing on the nature of love.
2017 Thumbnail Review #7 The Rivet in Grandfather’s Neck by James Branch Cabell
The arresting title is derived from a Hans Christian Andersen story which also serves as the inspiration for the plot, wherein people aspire to view the stars together (romance) but ultimately retreat into more mundane existences. A ‘contemporary’ (1915) and ‘realistic’ novel, as opposed to the pseudo-medieval and fantastical nature of much of the sequence. It’s one of the few I hadn’t previously read, and I liked it.
2017 Thumbnail Review #8 The Eagle’s Shadow by James Branch Cabell
Like the previous title, a contemporary (1904) realistic novel that marked the beginning of Cabell’s literary fame. The usual wry and sardonic tone prevails, but this one has a romantic ending. Another that I hadn’t previously read, and another I enjoyed.
2017 Thumbnail Review #9 The Cream of the Jest by James Branch Cabell
Typically enmeshed Cabellian fantasy, where the fictional 20th century author Felix Kennaston is also the demiurge Horvendile from the early books of the sequence.
2017 Thumbnail Review #10 Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
What do you mean, I haven’t read this since 2010?? Unthinkable.
2017 Thumbnail Review #11 Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter
If, like me, you believe that Ted Hughes’ Crow is the greatest post-war book of poetry in English, then you’ll want to read this. Short and highly original, it recounts the reactions of a widowed father who is visited by Crow to help him with his grieving. Each section is narrated by one of the characters – the father, the twin sons, Crow. Read it. Then re-read it.
(If you don’t know Ted Hughes’ Crow, get that first!!)
‘Dad has gone. Crow is in the bathroom, where he often is because he likes the acoustics. We are crouched by the closed door listening. He sounds very old-fashioned, like Dad’s vinyl recording of Dylan Thomas.’
2017 Thumbnail Review #12 The Ambassadors by Henry James
I really liked this when, as a student, I read it; surprisingly, now, I find the writing tediously mannered, with every, or nearly every, sentence punctuated by semi-colons and commas – sometimes even dashes – before it reaches, with a final extra phrase, its end. What is more, the apparent acuity, and detail, of observation of character and behaviour, which ought to clarify everything, in reality tends to allusion, or illusion, and imprecision.
Still worth having for one of my life mottoes: ‘The right time is any time that one is still so lucky as to have.’
2017 Thumbnail Review #13 Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett
Re-read (research for Dublin). Am I the only person who thinks that Terry Pratchett is Not Very Funny (a mile off Douglas Adams; none of the wit and subtlety of James Branch Cabell)?
2017 Thumbnail Review #14 Beowulf tr. Seamus Heaney / Sir Gawain and the Green Knight tr. Simon Armitage
Heaney does a good job. Beowulf is very hard to read in the original; Heaney offers an approach which succeeds in its own right and will encourage people to try the Old English (as they should!). Armitage, I thought, made SGGK too jaunty, which had the effect of undermining its seriousness. SGGK, the greatest single poem in English, isn’t easy in the original (neither’s Shakespeare when you start), but amply rewards perseverance. It’s a joy and a marvel. So start with Armitage if necessary, but get stuck into the original text as soon as possible.
Heaney **** Armitage ***
Gawain in great peril:
Hit was the ladi, loflyest to beholde,
That drow the dor after hir ful dernly and style
And bowed towarde the bed. And the burne (knight) schamed
And layde hym doun lystyly and let as he slepte.
2017 Thumbnail Review #15 Macbeth by William Shakespeare
More Dublin research. It’s striking to compare Macbeth with Beowulf and Gawain. The latter two both position themselves in relation to the Christian God, so that their reliance on wyrd is morally complex and ambiguous. Macbeth doesn’t. The Christian God is signally absent from the play (despite the references to heaven and hell), and Macbeth emerges as a more monodimensional character. The play is great stuff, of course, and a fine study in evil behaviour, but Macbeth lacks the psychological complexity of Gawain.
2017 Thumbnail Review #16 Stories of Your Life and Others (now re-packaged and sold under the title Arrival) by Ted Chiang
There’s a reason you hadn’t heard of Ted Chiang until the arrival of Arrival.
2017 Thumbnail Review #17 Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson
Occasionally over-written, but a remarkable tour de force which presents life in the Devon countryside entirely from the perspective of the animals that live there, without sentimentality or anthropomorphism. Deservedly a classic.
2017 Thumbnail Review #18 The Ginger Man by J.P.Donleavy
Ulysses with drink taken.
2017 Thumbnail Review #19 Daybreak by Joan Baez
Two things stood out from this 1967ish memoir by the greatest of all singers. Firstly, her genuine uncertainty in that MAD decade as to whether humanity would survive into the 21st century.
Secondly, this: ‘The pacifist thinks there is only one tribe. Three billion members.’
2017 Thumbnail Review #20 The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
Well well well.*
Re-read. Murakami puts the ‘urr’ into surreal. Taking characteristic Japanese dislocation to its extreme, he produces a narrative that continuously shifts and redirects. It’s terrific, although it loses its sharpness in the last third. The publisher Vintage ‘twins’ it with Alice in Wonderland, which, on reflection, seems quite apt. It helps that I know May Kasahara.
* That’s the plot summary.
2017 Thumbnail Review #21 South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami
2017 Thumbnail Review #22 The Last Battle by C.S.Lewis
I’d forgotten how much darker this is than the rest of the Narnia series. The Apocalypse and the Last Judgment for children, with many, many deaths.
2017 Thumbnail Review #23 The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima
Not sure about this one. Anybody know it? It seems portentous, but does it get somewhere? Is it nihilistic, or is there something more? The ending doesn’t seem to prove anything, although it might want to.
2017 Thumbnail Review #24 The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
Well-crafted. That seems the most apposite description. The cast of characters is rounded and well-blended, the themes subtly interwoven, the ending satisfying. More accomplished than After Me Comes the Flood (see 2016 review #11).
2017 Thumbnail Review #25 The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader
A well-wrought attempt to imagine the life of a 13th century anchoress. Thematically rich and with well-crafted characters. Heavily dependent on the Ancrene Wisse (which I studied at university) and other medieval sources, it’s a convincing exploration of this most extreme of life choices.
2017 Thumbnail Review #26 The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth
Unique. Set in 1066-68 and focusing on resistance to the Norman Conquest, it is written in what the author calls a ‘shadow tongue’ – a kind of lapsed Anglo-Saxon. Daunting for the first page or two, the language soon grips you and is resonant and surprisingly easy to read. The other triumph is the first-person narrator, the hero/anti-hero buccmaster, who is consistently and convincingly imagined. Thematically rich, the novel asks: what is England? And what should we believe? There are even topical echoes in its issues of resistance to Europe and hatred of ‘ingengas’. Highly recommended.
there is ways to see this world i saes. there is the way of the boc and the way of the wilde there is the god of the boc and the gods of the mere there is the way of the crist and the eald ways of this land. i is cum from the mere i specs for the wilde for the eald gods under the blaec waters in the drencced treows. i is the lands law ofer mens i is eorth not heofon leaf of treow not leaf of boc
2017 Thumbnail Review #27 The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy
Why is this not one of the great novels? It has Hardy’s characteristic fusion of character and landscape, and his use of coincidence as plot driver and theme; it starts with clearly defined and empathic characters and features the usual proto-tragic events. I think the answer lies in the latter part, where the narrative drive is lost and the empathy with the characters becomes diffused.
2017 Thumbnail Review #28 Sagittarius Rising by Cecil Lewis
One of the great WW1 aviation memoirs. Notable for its foreshadowing (published 1936) of WW2. Not as good as Wind in the Wires, but still essential reading for those interested in early air warfare.
2017 Thumbnail Review #29 The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula Le Guin
The most singular of the Earthsea trilogy. It seems peripheral, but on deeper reading can be seen as pivotal. It’s so sophisticated; the first half is about unbelief, the second about belief, with the two in fine balance. And so beautifully written.
2017 Thumbnail Review #30 Orlando by Virginia Woolf
The first thing that strikes you is the intelligence of the writing; the second is its playfulness. Woolf frolicking (the word seems apt), Orlando sprawling (ditto) across four centuries and both sexes.
2017 Thumbnail Review #31 Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad
This, with Heart of Darkness, creates a binary star. Each revolves around and illuminates the other. The stories, narrated by Marlow, are parallel but contrasted; in both a great man is isolated and sets up a ‘kingdom’ in the jungle, but where Kurtz becomes a monster Jim becomes, of a sort, a hero. Conrad’s interest lies in exploring the deepest motivations and behaviours of tortured souls, while all the time admitting these cannot be truly known.
2017 Thumbnail Review #32 Wind in the Wires by Duncan Grinnell-Milne
The best of all the (many) WW1 aviation memoirs, partly because it is beautifully written and partly because it covers both 1915 and 1918 (G-M was a PoW between the two) and gives contrasting insights into air warfare in the two periods. Go for the revised 1966 version rather than the 1933 original.
This review is dedicated to all the pilots of the SE5 (which should be as well known as the Spitfire), introduced into service in 1917. And I at last got to see the Shuttleworth SE5a flying, on Sunday.
2017 Thumbnail Review #33 High in the Empty Blue by Alex Revell
The exhaustive, effectively definitive, history of 56 Squadron, the foremost British fighter squadron of WW1. Read it in association with the three great war memoirs by its pilots, Wind in the Wires (Grinnell-Milne), Sagittarius Rising (Lewis), Flying Fury (McCudden), and one by a German opponent, Wings of War (Stark).
2017 Thumbnail Review #34 Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake
Unique, and wondrous.
‘Through honeycombs of stone would now be wandering the passions in their clay. There would be tears and there would be strange laughter. Fierce births and deaths beneath umbrageous ceilings. And dreams, and violence, and disenchantment.’
2017 Thumbnail Review #35 Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake
‘the power of the imagination’s pride ‘ (p.438). A fine summation of Peake’s unique work. There is no other book like it.
Irma’s party (Chs 34-36) is a comedic masterpiece. ‘Her bosom was slipping. She clasped her hands together so that her forearms might keep the hot water bottle in place, and then with every eye upon her she lifted her head high and began to pace towards the doorway at the far end of the salon.’ And almost immediately the tone shifts to the nightmare of Steerpike’s visit to the Twins: ‘Without a pause he slammed the door and before he had turned the key in the lock he had heard the thud as the head of the axe buried itself in that part of the floor where he had been standing.’
Oh, just read the thing.
2017 Thumbnail Review #36 Titus Alone by Mervyn Peake
2017 Thumbnail Review #36 Titus Alone by Mervyn Peake
The outlier (all senses) of the Gormenghast novels, becoming darker and darker as it progresses; the echoes of Peake’s visit to Belsen as a war artist grow and grow. Yet it’s still a fantastic (again, all senses) novel and a fitting finale to the Gormenghast sequence, which one leaves with something of the feeling of Muzzlehatch:
‘Once there were islands all a-sprout with palms; and coral reefs and sands as white as milk. What is there now but a vast shambles of the heart. Filth, squalor, and world of little men.’
For a more extended consideration of this book see my article, Titus Alone and the Art of the Improbable
2017 Thumbnail Review #37 The Trial by Franz Kafka
I’d forgotten just how neurotic Kafka is. Every page teeters on the edge of breakdown.
2017 Thumbnail Review #38 Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
Variable; some of these thought experiments are not hugely memorable or effective. But there’s a handful that have defined my thinking for decades: e,g. The Library of Babel, Funes the Memorious, Pierre Menard. Essential reading.
2017 Thumbnail Review #39 Steering the Craft by Ursula Le Guin
This short creative writing manual is disappointing. It says it’s not aimed at beginners; but it is. And it’s resolutely American, revealing an unexpected and disconcerting distinction between American and English writing (curiously highlighted by her extensive use of examples from the masterly Virginia Woolf). I’d hoped for much more from Le Guin, one of my favourite writers. Rather than read this, read her own novels.
2017 Thumbnail Review #40 The Castle by Franz Kafka
Always my favourite Kafka novel. The enfolded cloudings shroud the unattainable castle in the archetype of impenetrable obfuscation. Nothing that isn’t what it seems seems what it isn’t.
PS Does anybody read Kafka any more, or has the world got weirder than him?
2017 Thumbnail Review #41 War Horse/Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo
Morpurgo has the knack of finding a simple narrative line through immensely complex subject matter, distilling key elements and presenting them clearly and cleanly.
2017 Thumbnail Review #42 America by Franz Kafka
Kafka’s ‘realistic’ novel, notionally set in … America. On The Road without the drugs, but who needs drugs when you’re spending your time inside the mind of a psychotic? The novel offers, in Edwin Muir’s neat wording, ‘an obstinate strangeness which is the expression of his sense of the ambiguity of everything.’
2017 Thumbnail Review #43 Metamorphosis and Other Stories by Franz Kafka
Kafka’s novels are unfinished and unfinishable. These stories, by contrast, are finely-cut, multi-faceted gems. Metamorphosis is the best-known and most celebrated, but The Burrow has always been my favourite; a claustrophobic study of the self-doubt and insecurity that is a central feature of being human.
2017 Thumbnail Review #44 Phantastes by George MacDonald
Lin Carter reckons the fantasy genre began in 1895 with William Morris’s The Wood Beyond the World, although he admits Phantastes dates from 1858. In fact MacDonald and Morris are in a continuous tradition back through The Faerie Queene and Amadis of Gaul to medieval prose and poetic romances, alongside swathes of folk tales and fairy stories. The forward influences are Eddison, Dunsany, Cabell, and then on to Lewis, Tolkien… and me!
Phantastes is fun but a bit picaresque, lacking some cohesion and drive.
‘I was approaching a forest. Everywhere in Fairy-land forests are the places where one may most certainly expect adventures.’
2017 Thumbnail Review #45 Tree and Leaf by J.R.R.Tolkien
Essential reading. On Fairy-Stories is the text of a 1938 lecture about Secondary World creation – i.e. the art of writing fiction. Leaf by Niggle is a short story and a tiny jewel.
2017 Thumbnail Review #46 A Room with a View by E.M.Forster
‘It is Fate that I am here,’ persisted George. ‘But you can call it Italy if it makes you less unhappy.’
2017 Thumbnail Review #47 A Passage to India by E.M.Forster
An engaged yet dispassionate study of the British in India in the 1920s. The Indians are portrayed sympathetically and sensitively; the British emerge with little credit. Worth reading alongside Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet.
2017 Thumbnail Review #48 Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm
Entertaining. A 1911 fantasy that takes the concept of the femme fatale to its logical conclusion as Zuleika arrives in Edwardian Oxford and every single undergraduate falls in love with her simultaneously. It could do with being 50 pages shorter, but good fun.
2017 Thumbnail Review #49 Persuasion by Jane Austen
I’ve been very restrained. It’s over a year since I last read this. I have the addiction under control (although if Austen had written more, it would clearly be a 20-a-day habit). I do read other authors, but I don’t know why.
2017 Thumbnail Review #50 An Old Man\'s Love by Anthony Trollope
I do like a bit of Trollope, but this disappointed. His last completed novel, it’s would-be psychological fiction, but unfortunately the psychology doesn’t convince. Nice try, though.
2017 Thumbnail Review #51 Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
… and it’s been more than two years since I last read this one. I’m in control of my life. Nearly.
This is great fun: lively and mischievous. It helps if you’ve read The Mysteries of Udolpho (Radcliffe) but it’s not essential.
‘A very respectable man, though his name was Richard.’
‘A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing any thing, should conceal it as well as she can.’
2017 Thumbnail Review #52 Collected Short Stories by E.M.Forster
Anyone who’s ever used Facebook, or a smartphone, needs to know The Machine Stops, which has long been one of my key texts. This 1908(!) story is marvellously pre-scient about the internet and some of its potential consequences. The other stories in the collection are very different, and reveal an animist side of Forster that’s not readily apparent in the novels.
2017 Thumbnail Review #53 The Death of Grass by John Christopher
This 1956 novel should be a classic of dystopian fiction, but falls short. The premise – a virus destroys all grass species on Earth, including wheat, barley, rice etc, leading to the collapse of civilisation – is arresting, but the behaviours of the small cast of characters are unconvincing. An opportunity missed.
Footnote: John Christopher (real name Samuel Youd (!); I know his daughter) is better known for his children’s sci-fi novels, notably the Tripods trilogy.
2017 Thumbnail Review #54 Essays in Idleness (Tsurezuregusa) and Hojoki by Kenko and Chomei
These collections of memoirs and anecdotes by two medieval Japanese monks follow seamlessly on from Heian works like the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, and often echo modern sentiments too.
‘One yearns for the old world in every way. Modern fashions seem to grow more and more vulgar.’
Plus ça est changé, plus c’était la même chose.
2017 Thumbnail Review #55 Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
One of the exquisite things about Austen is her ability to hit multiple targets with single sentences:
‘She was not a woman of many words: for, unlike people in general, she proportioned them to the number of her ideas.’
That zaps Mrs Ferrars in one direction, and nearly everybody else in the other.
2017 Thumbnail Review #56 Artemis by Andy Weir
Moon light entertainment.