PositiveThe Scotsman (UK)This is a political novel, also, I suppose, now a historical one ... This richly peopled novel is also a violent political thriller. It is full of action and is, for two reasons, demanding for the reader. First, Vargas Llosa sometimes describes the same incident twice, the second time from a different point of view, when we already know what has happened. This can be confusing. Second, there is a huge number of characters, and I would have found it easier to remember who is who if the publishers had supplied a cast list. Scrupulous readers might be advised to do this for themselves ... Setting such reservations aside, this is a splendidly rich and absorbing novel. It tells remarkable stories and it is, unlike much that may be classed as historical fiction, politically serious. There are sharp portraits, not least of an American ambassador who peddled unreality with missionary zeal. As in the work of some of the author’s masters – notably Conrad and Thomas Mann – the horrors described are relieved, and their reading made tolerable, by a tone of voice rich in irony.
PositiveThe Scotsman (UK)... this politically-so-correct novel is also good, often moving, intelligent and beautifully written. One may even set a prejudice against talking trees aside when one realizes that Shafak rather neatly employs her fig tree to impart necessary information about the historical background to her story ... A lot of this novel is journalism—intelligent, good-quality journalism, but journalism all the same. Yet there are so many fine things here. The treatment of lives damaged by public events is excellent. So is the evocation of Cyprus, its history, landscape and culture. Whenever the author forgets that she is a public figure making important pronouncements about the state of the world and instead remembers that she is a novelist breathing life into her imagined characters, the novel is delightful, beautiful, moving and enriching.
RaveThe Scotsman (UK)Elizabeth Strout has a novelist’s most desirable quality: a distinct voice. Hers is quiet, conversational, intimate. It allows her to move easily between now and then ... This is Strout’s third Lucy Barton novel, and I would guess, and hope, there will be more to come ... Strout unravels the mysteries of relationships deftly. Perhaps these mysteries are never – can never – be fully resolved; but they can be lived with and that is a step towards understanding and acceptance ... This is a novel that searches for the truth of these things. It is written with the lightest of hands as we follow Lucy’s flickering thoughts ... This is a delightful novel. It rattles along so easily and agreeably in Lucy’s voice that it is only gradually that you realise how intelligently it examines the lives of its characters. The easy reading it offers is evidence of Strout’s technical mastery.
RaveThe Scotsman (UK)The Black novels, as well as being well-worked mysteries, were also concerned with the moral and political condition of Ireland ... So too is this one ... Banville, unlike many authors who turn to crime, demands, deserves and indeed requires close attention, slow and careful reading ... There is no intelligent distinction to be made between his \'straight\' novels and his crime ones ... [A] masterly book ... Not many crime novels merit, or indeed bear, re-reading, except in your laziest hours and then with a deal of skipping over descriptive paragraphs and without a suspension of disbelief. Banville’s do. Each scene holds the attention, invites question. The precision of the writing is a delight. I got an early proof copy of April in Spain, read it at once with pleasure, have since read it twice more, finding more in it each time. It is a social and political novel too, concerned with the arrogance of power and pervasive moral corruption ... In his eighth decade Banville is writing as well as ever—perhaps even better.
John Le Carré
RaveThe Scotsman (UK)The pace of the novel is beautifully judged. As ever, le Carré moves between now and then, much of the narrative coming in conversations retrieved from the past, from Poland in the Cold War and Bosnia in the terrible break-up of Yugoslavia. There is just enough of the familiar tradecraft, most centred on Proctor, amiable, sympathetic, yet bound to duty ... Nabokov, in his Lectures on Literature, told readers to cherish the details. Le Carré was always a master of detail, and there are cherishable details galore here. It is, I suppose, a sunset novel, but what a glow it leaves in the evening sky.
PositiveThe Scotsman (UK)\"The description of the storm is terrific, utterly dreadful ... McGregor’s writing is on a par with Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s account of the quest in search of the eggs of the Emperor Penguins, a classic of polar literature ... This first section is as gripping as anything you could wish for ... Though he is...very good at portraying Anna’s state of mind divided between her sense of responsibility, surviving love for Robert and impatience with, indeed resentment of, his condition and the way this has subverted her life, one comes to see that McGregor’s chief interest is in the use and often inadequacy of language. If the description of that frightful day in the Antarctic storm is a magnificent piece of bravura writing, the second half of the novel is a brave experiment in articulating the inarticulate ... The first two sections of the novel, each utterly distinct from the other, are excellent. They show McGregor to be a writer with a quite remarkable range. Unfortunately the last section which deals with a therapy class for a stroke support group directed by a former actress who tries through performances by a group of dancers to demonstrate the range of possible non-verbal communication, is disappointing. Given McGregor’s linguistic dexterity and the marvellous vitality of the first—Polar—part of the book, it falls sadly flat. Even so, one must admire the author’s often ingenious and persuasive renderings of the attempts of the sufferers to recover the use of meaningful speech. The first two parts of the novel are so good, and display such a range of imagination and sympathetic understanding, that one can easily forgive the banality of the last part and recognise that McGregor is a novelist of rare quality and accomplishment.
MixedThe Scotsman (UK)Ruth Ozeki’s new novel starts, with sentences that call, whimsically and pretentiously, for your attention. There are a great many such sentences in this fat, over-stuffed novel, and it leads this reviewer at least to sigh for the days when strong-minded editors were more important in publishing houses than the marketing department. The blue pencil would have come out, underlining a sentence or indeed paragraph and scribbling \'self-indulgent\' in the margin. There aren’t many of Ozeki’s pages that would have escaped the blue pencil ... It’s a pity. There are many good things in the novel. There could scarcely fail to be because Ozeki often writes well and has good and interesting theme here ... There is a general and tedious fuzziness to much of the novel. Silliness too. If, however, you think a spoon can speak of its sorrows, this may be your sort of novel.
MixedThe Scotsman (UK)This is fresh, not long matured, and the frequent mentions of the run-up to Brexit and other contemporary politics give the novel some authentic ballast which will ensure its immediate appeal to many of the author’s generation while also, one guesses, dating it very quickly. But, since it is very much a novel of our time and Hamya’s generation, where life is lived as much on a screen as in live communication, this was doubtless unavoidable. The novel also plays off Rachel Cusk’s solipsistic not-quite-fiction, sometimes acerbically ... makes for a degree of self-pity, something common to first novels and perhaps to many of her generation who have been highly educated but find no immediately satisfying place for themselves in a world that does not seem to care for or value their higher education. No doubt this is true to life or at least to the author’s unavoidably limited experience of the world. But it is not, as she seems to suppose, unique to her generation. Many have always found the transition from university to the world of work difficult, disturbing and disappointing. More happily however, a degree of self-pity and consequent resentment has often served writers well ... Still there is also an agreeable sharpness of observation here too. Hamya cherishes detail and this is good. She gives a vivid and persuasive picture of life as lived by highly intelligent well-educated young people today, puzzled and dismayed by the indifference to culture displayed by many they encounter both at university and in the adult world she enters. Not surprisingly, she finds it hard to understand how people can embrace causes for which she can experience only distaste. Well, this is certainly true to life ... The narrator is often tediously self-regarding, but in compensation, there are agreeable flashes of humour ... It’s a picture of the world the author lives in and one that rings true ... Jo Hamya is a very talented writer and this is a good beginning. She has intelligence, a sharp eye and a keen ear. I’m sure she will write richer and fuller novels in which other people are granted the understanding denied them here.
RaveThe Scotsman (UK)\"Tóibín makes a wonderful novel ...There is almost no invention that I could spot and yet it reads as a novel, not history or journalism. I have always respected Mann. Tóibín makes me feel affection for him as well as admiration. The relationships with the remarkably talented, often difficult, brood of children, with his wife Katia and his brother Heinrich, also a fine novelist and a man of the Left, are intelligently and sympathetically treated. Tóibín has done something very difficult, harnessing the public and private lives of his characters. Anthony Powell thought there were few more difficult things for a novelist than portraying the course of a marriage. Tóibín does this splendidly; here the novelist brings to vivid and immediately dramatic life what in a biography might only be reported or analysed. Moreover by treating all relationships in this manner, Tóibín offers what is very rare in biographies—that is, humour. We are never allowed to forget the horrors of Nazi Germany, but the novel by its comprehensive nature also admits comedy. Mann himself always put irony at the centre of his fiction. This is a very accomplished and enjoyable novel. It reads easily, more easily indeed than Mann’s own novels. But it is so interesting and understanding that many who read it are likely to be encouraged to return to Mann’s own works or tackle them for the first time.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThere were, Ms. Wilkerson says, two notable prisoners in Pignerol at the time of the mystery man’s incarceration ... Ms. Wilkinson devotes long chapters to both of them. Their stories are certainly interesting but add little to the quest for the masked man’s identity, except this: He seems to have served briefly as Fouquet’s valet, which suggests that he wasn’t of noble birth ... for all Ms. Wilkinson’s wonderful portraiture and sleuthing, one is persuaded only that the mysterious prisoner was indeed \'only a valet.\' But how and why he transgressed, and drew the terrible sentence on himself, remains a mystery.
PositiveThe Scotsman (UK)It’s a novel about their individual stories, all interesting and convincing in their twists and turns, ups and downs, some of the downs very deep. But it is also a social novel, one that follows the transformation of a mostly white working-class district of South London into a multicultural society in which the headmaster of a local comprehensive finds that only a minority of children have English as their first language ... There’s a lot of music and examination of recording techniques – too much for my taste, because it is beyond my understanding, but more knowledgeable readers may be fascinated ... One of the strengths of the novel is Spufford’s immersion in his characters’ work. He is a very literary novelist (good) but, unlike many literary novelists he not only remembers that work, everyday employment, plays a huge, even dominating, part in peoples’ lives, but is also able to present that work convincingly, something that many novelists recognized as Great never really managed ... Spufford is a novelist who combines amplitude and a relish for detail. Some of the scenes are perhaps too prolonged, and he doesn’t quite avoid the trap he has set for himself by offering the stories of five lives which only occasionally connect, so that readers interested, in say, Alec’s story or Val’s may be impatient, even bored, when they disappear for 50 pages or more while we read about Vern or Ben. But on the whole he gets away with this, holds one’s attention and interest. In short, this is an admirably ambitious, humane and, mostly, very enjoyable novel.
Edmund de Waal
RaveThe Scotsman (UK)Everyone who bought, read and loved Edmund de Waal’s first book. The Hare With Amber Eyes, will find equal interest and delight in Letters to Camondo. It is a beautiful and fascinating book, even if its last pages are painful and depressing. It is also beautifully produced, on good paper with fine illustrations, and how Chatto & Windus can do this at less than the price of many shoddily-published novels beats me ... This is a marvellous book, elegant, tender, loving, appreciative, disturbing, a reminder of both the fragility and resilience of high culture, indeed civilisation.
PositiveThe Scotsman (UK)Much is thought-provoking, much fascinating, much in this accumulation of detail wearisome, much confusing. I would guess that this is a book many will dip into and find fascinating information and speculation, but few will read through ... Ferguson is at his best when he examines government and public responses to disasters ... Ferguson ranges widely, sometimes confusingly, and deluges us with statistics. His book is fascinating at times, boring at others, now clear as a summer day, now murky as a winter night. He raises and examines big questions, yet is often at his best evoking small-scale responses to disasters. What justifies the book and makes it valuable is his recurrent insistence that disasters and catastrophes are not just something which happen to us and before which we are powerless, but are often consequences of social and economic development and of political decisions
PositiveThe Scotsman (UK)... certainly offers easy reading ... Most are trivial. That’s to say, success depends on the manner, not the material. There is very little narrative interest. The stories meander like a river through gentle countryside ... This new book will surely please those who already know and delight in his work, and serve as an enjoyable introduction for those unfamiliar with it. Sometimes the faux-naif tone may be tiresome, but mostly he offers agreeable comfort reading. Some will read it as pure fiction, more perhaps as a lightly fictionalised memoir. It doesn’t matter which it is. The pleasures and occasional irritations will be the same.
MixedThe Scotsman (UK)If Elmet was a full-bodied wine that had lain maturing for years in the cellars, Hot Stew is like a young sparkling wine with more fizz than taste, lively, enjoyable, insubstantial. The publishers offer this judgement or recommendation on the front cover: \'a rollicking tale\'; fair enough ... There is schmaltz here, reminiscent of the novels Wolf Mankowitz used to write about the East End ... Mozley writes with great verve and lively invention. Yet, while there are some good comic passages, and the central theme – which is the destructive power of money and its disregard for human values – will meet with approval from many readers, the novel veers too often into what is fanciful rather than imaginative. The register is inconsistent. There are too many scenes which simply don’t work and this makes for an impression of incoherence. A severe editor might have suggested revision which would have cut many passages and improved the novel by eliminating much that seems self-indulgent ... Mozley is very talented, there is no doubt about that. There is much that is enjoyable here. But the novel is badly structured and incoherent. At moments it is a comic extravaganza; at others it promises to deal with genuine emotions and real questions, then draws back. Mozley hasn’t fallen at the second novel hurdle, but she hasn’t quite cleared it and so stumbles before regaining her balance. I have no doubt that she will write better novels, ones which more fully engage with the realities of experience. This book may then be recognized as a holding action, a staging-post on what should be a distinguished career.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... vivid ... Mr. Bergreen is determined to argue that \'Drake became the catalyst in England’s great transition from an island nation to the British Empire,\' and he sees Elizabeth’s reign as the time from which that empire supplanted Spain’s. There is some truth in this, but it is still an exaggeration ... is most entrancing when it concentrates on Drake himself and his remarkable exploits. Elsewhere it is less satisfactory. There is some padding—do we really need another account of Henry VIII’s disgusting marital history?—and there are a few careless mistakes, such as the repeated assertion that James VI was reared as a Catholic. But all this is venial. The accounts of Drake’s circumnavigation and his subsequent naval career are very good indeed. They will surely delight aficionados of imperial history and anyone keen on real-life adventure stories.
MixedThe Scotsmant’s certainly ambitious, powerful in its descriptions of drought, bush fires, impending environmental disaster; to this extent certainly a novel for our troubled times. It is also an uneasy hybrid, the private and public themes crudely yoked together, the private domestic part of the novel disfigured by tiresome and rather pointless dashes of magic realism ... Credibility collapses when the magic realism moves in. Anna finds bits falling off her body: first a finger, then a knee. Nobody notices or pays attention. Later bits will fall off her lover Meg. No doubt this reflects or is intended to reflect both Francie’s deterioration and the climate crisis. But since, unlike them, it seems incredible and silly, it weakens the novel. It’s mere fantasy and realism is almost always more interesting than whimsy of this sort ... It’s a pity because other parts of the novel are very good.
MixedThe Scotsman (UK)In truth, though one may respond with sympathy and agreement to Roy’s passionate indignation, this book, assembled from speeches and lectures delivered over a number of years, is more confusing than satisfying. Roy is a repetitive and often clumsy writer. She packs in material, with an excess of detail. It is hard to keep track of her arguments. She veers between reportage and discussion of her own life and her two novels. Indeed the publisher’s decision to recall the old Penguin Specials seems unwise, for the point about these books was usually their clear and cogent line. There is no line in Azadi, no coherent argument. I am sure that much that Roy tells us is horribly true. I just wish she had told it better.
RaveThe Scotsman (UK)What a pleasure it is to read a novel by an author who not only knows what he is doing and how to bring it off, but also remembers that people mostly read novels for enjoyment ... Boyd moves from one register to another without striking a false note. His sympathy for his characters is rooted in the recognition that most of us know ourselves imperfectly and seek to keep even this imperfect knowledge from others ... Trio is a delight, one of Boyd’s best novels ... Never content to repeat himself, he treats each novel as a new challenge. In Trio he meets that challenge triumphantly.
RaveThe Scotsman (UK)\"McDermid...weaves her plots spendidly. Here she manages to keep one’s interest in both investigations. She juggles them beautifully, and you don’t find yourself wishing she would leave one case and get back to the other. She is also expert at modulating the pace of her narrative. She knows that in a long novel there is a need for quiet patches when the tension is relaxed and her readers, like her characters, can pause to re-charge their batteries ... We read crime fiction for enjoyment, comfort and reassurance. McDermid provides all this. She is a writer with a clear sense of right and wrong. In tune with contemporary life, she remains also a moralist. Still Life shows that she is still at the height of her powers; it is deeply enjoyable, one of her best.\
RaveThe Scotsman (UK)This is a conventional opening and an arresting one. What we have is indeed in one sense a conventional and rather old-fashioned detective novel, which is fair enough since it is set in the Ireland of the 1950s. It is also, I think, the first crime novel that the doyen of Irish novelists today, John Banville, has chosen to publish under his own name, his previous crime fiction having been attributed to his nom-de-plume Benjamin BlackIn truth, though Banville employs and respects the method of the classic detective story, the question of whodunit is of marginal interest ... the novel is rich in pleasures: the chilly atmosphere of Osborne’s Ballyglass House, the evocation of the country inn where Strafford lodges; the rich array of characters...all are thoroughly imagined and realized ... Banville brings off an astonishing double. On the one hand he presents us with a picture of a narrow, barren society in which the establishment of the truth is regarded by authority as unsettling, dangerously divisive, and therefore undesirable. On the other hand his evocation of this dank, now-buried Ireland, with its bitter memories of the war of independence and the civil war which followed, memories which still corrupt the present is, despite its harsh injustice, strangely enchanting ... This is a novel which demands and deserves to be read slowly, with close attention. It had me doing what I rarely have time or indeed inclination to do with a book that comes for review: to go back to the beginning and read it again with an even deeper pleasure and admiration.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalMs. Tallis has researched Margaret’s life assiduously, delving deep into her account books, which record lavish expenditure on clothes and jewels ... Ms. Tallis draws on the admiring memoir left by Margaret’s chaplain and confessor, John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester—much later a cardinal sent to the executioner’s block by her grandson Henry VIII for his loyalty to Rome and refusal to accept Henry as Supreme Head of the Church in England. Yet Fisher didn’t meet Margaret until 1494, when she was 50. He knew her only when her position was secure as Henry VII’s influential mother, so his portrait, though offering evidence of her piety, intelligence and good nature, leaves out a good deal. Inevitably Ms. Tallis is reduced to offering \'must haves\' and \'may haves.\' Sometimes her eagerness to bring Margaret to life as a wife and fond mother lurches into domesticity at the expense of her role in the politics of the era.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Penn’s narrative is rich in detail, and he leads the reader through a dense and dark forest with masterly skill ... Our picture of Richard was indelibly painted by Shakespeare—as a cruel, manipulative hunchback. Shakepeare’s authority was a biography composed by the chancellor of Henry Tudor (now Henry VII), thus a work of propaganda. The fate of the Princes in the Tower is still a matter for argument. Most hold Richard responsible. This seems to be Mr. Penn’s view, though as a scrupulous historian he stops short of declaring as fact what can only be supposition. In any case, Mr. Penn has written a gripping account of the brothers York and of the England they briefly governed. The best one can say for them is that their Tudor successors were every bit as callous and brutal.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal...Maurice Samuels, a professor of French at Yale, offers an engaging account of the duchess’s bold, if futile, efforts to install her son on the French throne. He gives almost as much attention to Deutz’s story as to hers and holds him responsible, in part, for the vehement anti-Semitism of the French religious right later in the 19th century ... The Duchess of Berry’s story is enthralling, and Mr. Samuels tells it well.
PositiveThe Scotsman (UK)With much delving in the Oxford English Dictionary, which is a rich repository of the history of the language, [Meek] has contrived to employ a vocabulary which is at the same time wholly individual and capable of suggesting that it is a representation of the way men and women might have spoken more than 600 years ago. Readers may find difficulties at first, but if they are receptive and especially if they sound the words to themselves, they will get the sense. In doing so they will feel their way into a culture very different from ours, yet with comprehensible similarities. It is very clever and I think that on the whole it works. This is an unusual and highly intelligent novel. Parallels with our own time aren’t pressed hard. It can be read with pleasure as an evocation of a rich and disturbing age.
RaveThe Scotsman (UK)Graham Swift has always been a novelist with the lightest of touches. A lesser writer would have stretched this novel’s material out to 500 pages, smothering it in superfluous detail. Swift can give you the loneliness of childhood in couple of paragraphs or catch the uncertainty that lurks beneath Jack’s stage-manner jauntiness in a sentence. This means he demands careful reading. You might so easily miss the significant line ... Here We Are is a delight, all the characters and the settings thoroughly imagined and therefore inhabited ... He writes about the gaps between people and the attempts, sometimes vain attempts, to bridge them. He writes always with sympathy and understanding, and his ability to capture the fleeting moment is remarkable. He writes also about guilt and how we contrive to live with it and so often excuse ourselves. There is never anything flashy about Swift’s novels, but they are deeply satisfying. They are novels you want to read a second time to get more from them.
RaveThe Scotsman (UK)The intensity and precariousness of Kairo’s feeling for Jay is beautifully realised, all the more so because his devotion to this life-enhancer is not entirely uncritical ... Still, it’s an enchanting novel in which the author skilfully marries his public theme of political uncertainty and imminent, perhaps alarming, change with the passions of adolescence, and also its langour. Though the setting is completely different, the mood of certain passages in the novel and the sense of the brevity of youth call to mind the early chapters of Brideshead Revisited. That’s to say, the author has created, or more exactly re-created, a world in which you are happy to linger, all the more so because you cannot escape an awareness of its fragility.
RaveThe Scotsman (UK)Barry has found a wonderful speaking voice for Winona: lyrical, youthfully innocent, yet darkened by her memories and awareness of the genocidal destruction of her own people and their way of life ... Barry writes with the freshness and beauty of an early summer morning when the dew sparkles and the air shimmers with the promise of a glorious day. He is also a masterly craftsman, modulating the pace of his narrative, alternating vivid scenes of action with tranquil moments in which time seems to stand still ... his writing is better than ever. Days Without End and A Thousand Moons are equally marvellous; together, one of the finest achievements in contemporary fiction.
PositiveThe Scotsman (UK)It is all done so easily and with such a light but assured touch that you find yourself caring. Tyler believes in kindness, and this is rare in our agitated times ... Her novels, which read so easily and pleasantly, delve deep below the surface of experience. She presents us with a figure who seems to have let life slip by him till forced by circumstance to engage more fully with it. Yes, Redhead is indeed \'the mixture as before,\' but what a rich and enjoyable mixture it is.
RaveThe Scotsman (UK)... a triumphant conclusion in this huge, detailed and compelling book. Nobody else to my knowledge has so persuasively and delightfully captured the actuality of the period – the rhythm of daily life, the politics, the arguments over religion, the treachery, the danger ... Apart from the pleasure offered by a historical novel’s evocation of the past and giving it a new and vivid life, it does at its best two valuable things: first, it reminds us that the men and women of the time were not the dry figures they may appear to be in academic histories but people of flesh, blood and feeling; second, it reminds us that while history may be read backward, as it were, it is lived forward, the actors ignorant of what is to come. Mantel has an uncanny skill in presenting us with uncertainty, in conveying the precariousness of not only politics, but life itself, in a time of revolutionary change and upheaval ... Her portrait of the dreadful – in both senses of the word – Henry VIII is brilliant and, to my mind, utterly convincing ... I doubt if any of the other fine Tudor novels have ever matched Mantel in the ability to present the reader with such an impression of authenticity . She catches the rhythm of 16th century life and is excellent on food, clothes, buildings, the atmosphere of both the streets and the court. She makes the past a living present, and what more can one ask of a historical novelist? Indeed the three Cromwell novels are so urgent with seen, heard and felt life, that attaching the word \'historical\' to her work seems unnecessary ... This trilogy is one of the great works of contemporary English fiction, at once terrifying in its treatment of power politics, and entrancing in its depiction of everyday life.
PositiveThe Scotsman (UK)There’s a delightful and comic account of her early teenage years with a theatrical company touring small towns and villages in the west and midlands of neutral Ireland during the war ... In truth, Norah herself is not a very interesting character. So, to this extent anyway, the doubt whether Enright could maintain the delightful brilliance of her first chapter is justified. Interest sags whenever Katherine is off the stage ... This is not a perfect novel, even, after its early brilliance, a somewhat disappointing one; nevertheless it is always interesting, and for the most part very enjoyable.
PositiveThe Scotsman (UK)... in such cases the author is always taking a risk, moving from one register to another. Leila Aboulela just brings it off, nevertheless leaving one with the suspicion that this novel might have been more satisfying if she had dispensed with the Hoopoe ... The lives of all three women are thoroughly imagined, and ring convincingly true ... Like, I would guess, a good many readers of this novel, I knew nothing of Lady Evelyn and am pleased and interested to learn about her ... By putting Slama, Moni and Iman into a situation where they are invited, insensibly, to consider how they are living, to assess their strengths and weaknesses and to determine how they should lead their lives from now on, Aboulela is doing much the same thing as Jane Austen did when she brought her heroines to the point of examining their feelings honestly and so realising who they should marry and on what terms. Aboulela does this very well, and always (which is just as important) interestingly ... Whether the hoopoe’s role in this delights you or seems a piece of tiresome whimsy is a matter of taste. Even if you find the hoopoe a piece of self-indulgence on the part of the author, you can skip these passages, and you will still have a very good novel.
Isabel Allende, Trans. by Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson
PositiveThe Scotsman (UK)... an agreeably old-fashioned novel. There is nothing clever or tricksy about it, and, though it is set mostly in Chile, there is no pretentious and tiresome magic realism. Instead we have an easy-flowing narrative and credible characters. It’s the kind of novel that used to be more common than it is now, reminding me of good, if for the most part forgotten, novelists of the mid-20th century such as RC Hutchinson and Thomas Armstrong ... All this is well done, but probably not new to many readers ... The picture of Chile in the 20 years after the war, with its division between the rich, conservative, devoutly Catholic upper class, a liberal or Communist intelligentsia and an impoverished peasantry and urban working-class, is fascinating, if at times sketchy and politically biased ... This is a novel of absorbing interest and reads very easily. It will please readers who delight in family sagas, but also those who are interested in the history and political divisions of the 20th century. For the most part these are fairly and judiciously represented, even though Allende’s leftist or liberal prejudices are evident. That said, she is generally fair. The excesses of the Left in both Spain and Chile are admitted, presented in such a way as to allow the reader to understand the reasons for the harsh and murderous reaction they provoked.
PositiveThe Scotsman (UK)[Shuggie Bain] has already been hailed as a masterpiece, almost always a premature judgement. It isn’t that, but it is a very good and often moving novel, which would have been better still with some scrupulous editing, for it’s about a quarter too long ... It is in many ways a harsh, bleak novel, for that decade was a harsh and bleak time in Glasgow ... What redeems the novel and makes it remarkable is that its central theme is love – a caring, responsible love ... The relationship between Agnes and Shuggie is beautifully, tenderly and understandingly done. Stuart doesn’t sentimentalise it and he hides nothing of the horrors of galloping alcoholism, but there is a gallantry about Agnes which commands respect and admiration, however reluctantly. There are even moments of hope ... In treating of the bond between the mother and the boy, Stuart writes with sympathy and with a tenderness that contrasts sharply with the brutality of much that he presents. It even seems appropriate that Shuggie, though reared in this coarse world, should speak with a certain delicate refinement, rather as Dickens has his boy heroes ... There are of course echoes of other Glasgow writers, Archie Hind, Alan Spence and James Kelman, but it is in no sense derivative. It’s a case of playing off and against the influence of others. There is humour here too, of a dark dry sort, and it’s a novel that deserves, and will surely often get, a second reading. It deserves better proof-reading too.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal... splendid ... The first half of Mr. Hardman’s masterly biography offers an account of the court and pre-Revolution politics. It is lucid but involved, and some may find it hard going. It is with the forced move to Paris that the book takes off ... is not only a wonderfully gripping biography, it is also a history of the most dramatic stage of the French Revolution.
John Le Carre
RaveThe Scotsman (UK)Le Carré’s mastery of tradecraft is as compelling as ever, and the long scene telling how Ed is caught in a spider’s web is as compelling as it is perplexing. There’s a very nice twist to it which took me by surprise ... The novel has been trailed as an anti-Brexit, anti-Trump book, and it is indeed that, the narrator being in understated agreement with the angry idealist, Ed. But it goes beyond that. Le Carré’s subject has always been corruption – corruption of the intellect and the spirit, the corrupting influence of power and money ... Yet this is a warmer novel than many of Le Carre’s books ... the story is more straightforward and the narrative lines clearer than was the case in Le Carré’s masterpieces ... his intellectual and emotional energy is undiminished. He remains angered by what should anger us all: duplicity, treachery, the arrogance and indifference of wealth and power, the readiness to use others as mere instruments. It is natural now that his masterpieces are behind him, but this is a very good, engaging and enjoyable novel, his best, I should say, since A Most Wanted Man.
RaveThe Scotsman (UK)There is unity here. This is not just a collection of pieces thrown together in sufficient number to make a book. Even the one essay that does not immediately seem to have a connection to the others – a marvellous picture of a journey to the edge of Tibet at the time of the Tiananmen Square repression in Beijing – does in fact belong ... This is a beautiful book, and a wise one. It invites feeling and thought.
PositiveThe Scotsman (UK)...Rushdie’s most personal novel for years, perhaps indeed since Midnight’s Children ... It has, admittedly, some of the characteristic faults that have marred other novels, notably the self-indulgence of extravagant language and the dissociation of his fiction from any experienced reality. Here, however, perhaps by siting everything in this book in his Age of Anything-Can-Happen, what does happen, paradoxically, comes closer to probability than has often been the case. One has the impression that Quichotte is less a work of extravagant fancy, as so many of his novels have been, than a truly imaginative response to his own experience of exile and dislocation ... Those readers who have stuck with Rushdie will surely be delighted. Others who, weary of his extravagance and verbosity, have abandoned him, might be advised to return. There are passages, especially those in which he tracks back over Brother’s family story, which are as good as anything he has written. Meanwhile, even the sternest of critics should acknowledge his commitment to the art and craft to fiction. Quichotte is, to me, a surprisingly enjoyable novel.
PositiveThe Scotsman (UKCoe skilfully contrives to keep a balance between the individual stories of his large cast of characters and his general Condition of England themes. There is little doubt where his sympathies lie ... It’s natural to talk about the themes and arguments of a novel like this, but the point must also be made that Middle England is much more than a treatment of public affairs, not a succession of opinion page columns. On the contrary, it has all the human interest which led DH Lawrence to call the novel \'the Great Book of Life\'. Coe can make you smile, sigh, laugh; he has abundant sympathy for his characters, even those...whose attitudes and opinions may be deplorable to him.
PositiveThe ScotsmanMacneal has a magpie’s eye for whatever is bright and glittering, and she writes vividly, employing the present tense more deftly and with more vivacity than is usual—that’s to say, it doesn’t, as so often, prevent the narrative from moving briskly. Her characters may be the stock figures of pastiche Victorian fiction, but she contrives to animate them sufficiently to make them pleasing. The narrative is nicely orchestrated – so much so that improbabilities are easily accepted. For the book is in its way a thriller too, certainly a crime novel, even if the denouement falls short of being surprising ... It has its faults, but they are the faults of youthful enthusiasm; the faults of a young writer suddenly discovering her power and taking pleasure in exhibiting it ... It’s accomplished; there’s nothing raw about it ... But is it about anything that matters? Perhaps we shall have to wait for a second or even a third novel before knowing whether the author’s evident ability can carry her beyond charm so that she deals with matters of significance, writing something which has the reader engaged in both feeling and thought
PositiveThe Scotsman... a wild adventure echoing parts at least of the Wilkins/Shakespeare play. It is full of splendid incident, some of it horrid, some delightful ... The persons in the novel are little more than names; it would require suspension of all disbelief to care a jot for them. This won’t matter to many readers. In contemporary fiction, character is often utterly subservient to incident, and the gaudier the incident the better. Haddon does incident at its gaudiest and his prose is often exhilarating. The novel is charming. It is even smothered in charm ... There is much to enjoy in this novel – the liveliness of Haddon’s imagination and the virtuosity of his style—and those who think of art only as entertainment will surely delight in it. More severe, even puritanical critics may judge that a novel in which the unfettered author can make anything happen is one where nothing that happens matters.
RaveThe Scotsman (UK)...Colson Whitehead, in this riveting novel, takes us, with laconic economy, to a place of comparable horror, the Nickel Reform School in Florida ... Whitehead is a master of the novelist’s craft, manipulating the time-switches deftly. The depiction of the nightmare school is all the more effective for the restraint with which he writes. This is how it was: let the facts speak for themselves ... I suppose that, given the way things are or seem to be in Trump’s America, this novel is as timely as Uncle Tom’s Cabin was. But, though its subject is America and the perversion of the American Dream into nightmare, it is not only about that. There are comparable horrors elsewhere, and Whitehead is writing about man’s capacity for cruelty and the denial of justice. Yet it would be wrong to read it as a cry of despair. As Elwood’s friend Turner comes at last to recognise: \'it was not enough to survive, you have to live\'. That had been Elwood’s message, the message of a quiet boy who held to the hope which was almost a conviction that in the end truth, goodness, love and justice will prevail.
PositiveThe Scotsman... though Smith is alert to the dull dishonesty of authority and its clerks, the novel’s title is not ironic ... li Smith is, I think, a life-enhancer, but you can’t be sure. You can’t really be sure of anything, can you? That’s the message that Shakespeare’s clowns so often deliver. Charlie Chaplin has a brief walk-on part in Spring.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalIn Louis XIV: The Power and the Glory, Josephine Wilkinson, an independent scholar, has written an agreeable and generally admiring biography. She covers war and politics efficiently, but this is very much a personal biography. The king’s ministers receive less attention than his mistresses. Yet Louis was no playboy monarch, as Ms. Wilkinson makes clear ... Ms. Wilkinson has little new to say about Louis’s wars and foreign policy, but as a portrait of the king and a story of his private life her chronicle is as entertaining as it is sensible and generous. It compares well with Nancy Mitford’s biographies of Louis XIV and Madame de Pompadour. Ms. Wilkinson may not be quite as witty as Mitford, but her understanding of her subject and feeling for her hero are every bit as satisfying.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal\"... Nick Barratt... brings [Henry II, Richard I, and Richard\'s brother, John] to life in The Restless Kings, along with the medieval world they inhabited.\
RaveThe ScotsmanVery early on Ian Rankin made the wise decision to have his character Detective Inspector John Rebus age with the series, fictional time and real-life time marching in step. This has contributed to making him the credible figure he has become. It has also helped to make the series social novels as well as crime novels ... As ever, Rankin contrives to marry intricate plotting to a narrative that never slackens its pace. He has become a consummate craftsman, his novels put together like pieces of fine furniture. They make for easy reading, but easy reading in this kind of novel is almost always made possible by hard writing. All fiction demands a willingness on the part of the reader to accept conventions and suspend disbelief. Reading a Rankin novel makes this surrender easy.
PositiveThe ScotsmanRemarkable and often beautiful, well enough written to be called exhilarating, even if the story itself is anything but that ... darkly atmospheric, descriptions of weather, scenery, the village and the harsh lives of the parishioners darkly convincing. Harvey succeeds in making the imaginative leap from our own secular age to one in which there is widespread certainty that this life is no more than a prelude to eternity, and a testing-ground for men and women ... Yet, despite this imaginative leap, and Harvey’s ability to conjure up a world so very different in thought and faith from the one which most of her readers will inhabit, there is something abstract or perhaps unanchored about this novel ... a novel by a very talented author, one which is often beautifully and evocatively written, clever in structure, and decidedly unusual. If it seems to me not quite to have come off, I’m certain that many good judges will be enthusiastic and think it a more complete success, a novel that will surely feature on prize shortlists.
John Julius Norwich
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThe late John Julius Norwich was a professional writer and an amateur historian. He never had an academic position, and he picked subjects to please himself. Unlike many academics, he remembered that there was a public composed of people who read books of history for pleasure, not from duty. So he wrote to please not only himself but his readers ... The book offers an easy narrative with a wealth of anecdote and deft character sketches. It is, one should say, somewhat old-fashioned: a history of France and the French state, not of the French people, who are generally ignored except when rioting, rebelling or erecting barricades in Paris ... A History of France is a delightful book—engaging, enthusiastic, sympathetic, funny and sometimes, one has to add, quirky.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal\"Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life is a wonderfully rich, detailed and demanding account of an extraordinary career ... Mr. MacCulloch has written what Elton thought impossible: a compelling biography of Cromwell. It’s a book to satisfy academic historians and the general reader alike. Nothing so dramatically and persuasively conveys the reality of life in these blood-soaked years.\
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThis is a romance as well as a crime story ... The reader may be ahead of Max here in Sorrento and guess that Mecha, moved by more than sentimental memories, may have a use for him ... Max is a scoundrel of course, but Mecha is pretty tough and ruthless herself — more Katharine Hepburn than Grace Kelly ...What We Become is an admirably constructed romance. It has its gritty moments... To the extent that it’s a crime story, it’s of the old-fashioned adventure kind, with a couple of thrilling scenes... Mr. Pérez-Reverte is an accomplished storyteller, and anyone nostalgic for the lost, elegant days when people dressed for dinner and a tuxedo was obligatory in casinos will find much to delight them here.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal[Schmidt] undoubtedly faced two distinct challenges: first, creating an atmosphere in which, granting the family’s gentility, the crimes become believable; and second, leaving the question of “whodunit” teasingly open as long as possible. She has met both challenges splendidly ... It’s a gripping and still puzzling story, and Ms. Schmidt contrives to make her version persuasive. In some respects the novel is over-written. Blood jumps. Words are snarled or spat out. When Lizzie eats cake, she says that she lets 'the deliciousness form soft pyramids in my cheeks.' Ms. Schmidt’s intelligent treatment of the story makes such strained writing feel irritatingly superfluous. That said, See What I Have Done is a credible imagining of a bizarre episode. It also offers a convincing explanation of why, a dozen years after the murders, Emma suddenly left the house that she and Lizzie had bought and lived in together since the trial and never spoke to her again.
RaveThe Wall Street Journal[Spufford] has devised an elegant plot (with an agreeable twist). He has also devised an adventure story packed with dramatic incident. But the novel is very much a literary work, too, echoing classic novelists of the 18th century, notably Fielding and Smollett. The dialogue has an 18th-century ring as well but manages to achieve a distinctive individual tone ... But Golden Hill differs from its models in one crucial respect: It is not a picaresque story of its hero’s wanderings but a taut drama ... Golden Hill is a remarkable achievement—remarkable, especially, in its intelligent re-creation of the early years of what was to become America’s greatest city.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThe Essex Serpent is a very fine and intelligent novel; not only that, but a richly enjoyable one. Ms. Perry writes beautifully and sometimes agreeably sharply ... The Essex Serpent is most easily discussed as a novel of ideas, and it is indeed that, and a very good one. But it has the virtues of the traditional novels, too: a strong narrative full of surprises; thoroughly imagined characters whose relationships with one another are credible and complicated; and those descriptive passages which not only paint a picture but create an atmosphere. In short, The Essex Serpent is a wonderfully satisfying novel.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Pears has not only engaged in prodigious research to bring this vanished world to life; he has so thoroughly absorbed his research that he seems to be recalling what he describes from his own experience. You might think he was crouched under a table listening to what is said ... I look forward to reading these promised volumes, for this is a wonderful novel. As with all good fiction, especially—strange as it may seem—the best fiction, echoes of other novels sound in your ear...the novel which came persistently to mind as I read this was another masterpiece of the years before World War I, Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes. The settings and stories are very different but, like Alain-Fournier, Tim Pears combines a down-to-earth rendering of the realities of rural life with a magical sense of another world beyond our everyday experience.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Harris’s plotting is deft; there are as many ingenious twists as in an Agatha Christie novel. Yet all are credible, and the sense of tense seriousness is never disturbed ... Conclave can be read as a thriller. It is indeed a thriller and a very good one, written with the authority that comes from the combination of scrupulous research and a sympathetic imagination. So it is more than a thriller; it is a novel of ideas, and one in which the author’s characters are tested, some diminishing, others growing as the story unfolds. I couldn’t imagine this theme being better treated.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalGuns were aimed at him and he shot back. This at least is how Mr. Hansen tells the story; and he does so persuasively ... without excessively palliating the Kid’s crimes, Mr. Hansen has you wondering how this intelligent and likeable young man might have turned out with better guidance in a different environment ... The Kid is a Romance, for all its documentary-style realism. But why not? The Western remains something uniquely American, a myth gone global. The real Kid may have been nastier than this figure from Romance, but so what? This is the West, and as the famous line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has it, 'when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.' Which is what Mr. Hansen has done, very enjoyably.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Rash is elegant and economical. The Risen is a beautiful piece of craftsmanship ... The river scenes with Ligeia are beautifully done, as Eugene recovers the innocent hopefulness of youth ... I’ve long thought Ron Rash as good as any contemporary American novelist I’ve read. This lovely and disturbing book confirms that opinion.
MixedThe Wall Street Journal...the author recognizes the importance of keeping the narrative jogging along. Mr. Fellowes dishes up the traditional mixture of mystery and romance. He provides us with a secret marriage, sudden deaths, a missing heir, snobbery and class distinction, loyal and disloyal servants, grand parties, some seedy scenes in gambling dens and low taverns, a spot of adultery, jealous rivalries, attempted murder. It is all agreeably familiar ... Mr. Fellowes is an easy writer—by which I mean one who makes for easy reading—and the narrative rattles along. It’s likely that you will quite soon see where it is tending, but the journey is enjoyable ... the author has set out to offer entertainment and has provided it. Yet it isn’t unreasonable to think that there might have been more to Belgravia if the author’s imagination had been more fully engaged; that, for instance, the characters might occasionally have surprised one.
Piers Paul Read
RaveThe Wall Street JournalMr. Read’s understanding of the nature, and consequences, of ideological wars makes this a historical novel for grown-ups ... And what a pleasure it is to read a novel by an author who knows precisely what he is doing and how to achieve his aim. Mr. Read has no time for the tyranny of creative writing schools, with their insistence that you should 'show, not tell.' He knows that there is a time for showing and a time for telling, that a narrative is first a thing told or recounted and that showing tends to slow the story. Piers Paul Read is one of England’s most accomplished novelists, and Scarpia is among his finest novels.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalHe has written a wonderfully rich book, packed with information, lively in style, evoking the turbulence of a vanished time and city. Admittedly it often verges on sentimentality, and is soaked in nostalgia.