PositiveThe Observer (UK)A certain sighing impatience dogs him and he doesn’t mince his words, at least in private ... He’s not a full-time moaner and will often write something to make you smile ... From his obituaries I got the feeling he was wonderful company. These diaries confirm it.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)A sulphurous drollery animates Shrines of Gaiety, Kate Atkinson’s ensemble portrait of Soho’s underworld between the wars. It continues a run of novels that put a quirkily self-conscious spin on period drama, their focus much sharper on the intricacies of character than the forces of history. But Atkinson is an expert juggler of both ... The cast of characters is lively and diffuse, though you wonder at times if the points of view are too many. The Maltese gangster and the bent copper, for example, might have been profitably pruned of their baggage. Shine all that light on motivation and you risk losing the shadows. But Atkinson loves her minor characters, and in the case of Nellie’s feckless younger son, dope addict Ramsay, she makes fine sport ... her exuberant swing between the high-and-low life of drugs and booze you may pick up traces of Patrick Hamilton, and the merest rumour of Waugh ... Atkinson has read widely on the era, and it has certainly repaid the effort in her persuasive re-creation of Soho and Covent Garden both as working neighbourhoods and nocturnal hunting grounds. Not all of the obvious bells are rung ... here is a fascinating glimpse into the fetid precincts of a Thames mortuary, Dead Man’s Hole, and unexpected sidelights on crime ... If there’s a slight disappointment in Shrines of Gaiety, it’s the slapdash ending. Having set up a grand denouement, Atkinson seems almost to tire of the plot, and hurries her characters, as it were, off stage. A chapter is devoted to What Happened Next … and we register their fates like aftertitles in a documentary. Even the ghosts end up shortchanged ... Nonetheless, this book is one to savour, for the energy, for the wit, for the tenderness of characterisation that make Atkinson enduringly popular.
MixedThe GuardianCircus of Dreams – no skimping on the grandeur there – recounts a brief period when publishing almost became bold and writers became almost famous...Books suddenly infiltrated the news pages via awards (a bolstered Booker prize) and marketing gimmicks...A major new book chain (Waterstones) appeared in the high street...A whizzy new members’ club (the Groucho) opened in Soho, the improbable brainchild of a bunch of publishers...Occupying a ringside seat at the \'circus\' is Walsh, writer, broadcaster and, we must now add, illusionist...picks up the story in his early 20s when, an aspiring littérateur, he begins as dogsbody in a London publishing house Gollancz, just as its star was in decline...He can be very funny and I laughed long at the set-piece lunch with Amis (again) when he over-orders on the vegetables and likens his steaming plate to \'a Crimean war field kitchen\'...He’s a good observer when the mood suits him...Alas, his book can’t escape the impression of secondhand stock...While you couldn’t wish the book were longer, it’s quite surprising that Walsh omits to mention one of the stories most illustrative of the book world’s nutty excess in the 1980s...A mainstream publisher was preparing an offer for a renowned historian’s three-volume whopper on the 20th century (or something) when it received by fax a letter from his agent: they wanted £500,000 for the three books. The fax, handwritten, was mulled over at HQ and eventually the publisher agreed to pay £900,000, in instalments...Circus of Dreams?...Send in the clowns.
RaveThe Observer (UK)Robert Douglas-Fairhurst isn’t an innovator in restricting his scope to a specific time-frame, but he is surely the first to compass the life of Charles Dickens this way ... Douglas-Fairhurst is clear-sighted about Dickens’s failings, not merely in his treatment of Catherine but in his reactionary attitudes to class, race and women’s liberation ... Yet for all the strictures on his character The Turning Point is more admiring than admonishing and the way it builds incrementally towards Bleak House, the great project that had been fermenting in his head all year, makes for a very satisfying finale. A manuscript page of the novel, dense with crossings-out and emendations, is reproduced as evidence of Dickens’s painstaking process of creation. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst has taken pains of his own and this wonderfully entertaining book is the result.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)Matthew Sturgis hasn’t the style of a great storyteller—the tone of this new biography is stolidly impersonal—but he is a tremendous orchestrator of material, fastidious, unhurried, indefatigable ... Sturgis, armed with new discoveries such as a full transcript of the libel trial, an early notebook and previously unknown letters, aims to return the man \'to his times, and to the facts\', to lend the life \'a sense of contingency\'. At 720 pages in my edition, with a further 137 pages of endnotes, that may be rather more contingency than your average reader can handle ... But Oscar repays the effort, even for those who have read the Ellmann and the earlier biographies by Hesketh Pearson and Montgomery Hyde—and all the letters.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)It is mostly fascinating, especially if, like me, you’re baffled by the mechanics of artistic collaboration. How is it that two people can find a common voice to make a single work of art? ... Lapine recalls this in a sequence of transcribed conversations, which gives the book a nice flow and allows all involved a turn in the spotlight ... Alas, the format also encourages a lot of luvvie confessional and mutual backslapping ... By the end, the love-in between star and director feels like Sally Field’s Oscar speech rewritten as a duet. Lapine, recalling the struggles of 40 years ago, isn’t above polishing his own legend ... Lapine has hold of a good story all the same.
John Cooper Clarke
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)... [a] wild ride of a memoir, in the sardonic Salford drawl that’s always ready with a quip or a comeback. Here, that voice takes a while to tune into, for it’s strange to have this dandified poet suddenly present himself in the plain clothes of prose ... The intricacy of detail he supplies is staggering, and you start to wonder: is he going to tell us everything? Apparently yes, because he’s forgotten absolutely nothing. This is the Lancashire lad as mohair-suited Proust, weak of lung but iron of will, plotting his course from antic poète maudit to punk laureate with all points in between ... Be warned, however: he doesn’t actually take to the stage until page 203. Before that come screeds of reminiscence about his hungry years and his frequent changes of career ... If you don’t care for stories about craving drugs and scoring drugs, the second half of the book might pall, but as a slice of 70s nostalgie de la boue I found it pretty compelling, a companion piece to Viv Albertine’s brilliant 2014 memoir, Clothes Music Boys.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)Craig Brown’s One Two Three Four, the latest to enter the crowded library of Beatles books, is not a biography so much as a group portrait in vignettes, a rearrangement of stories and legends whose trick is to make them gleam anew ... The book is a social history as well as a musical one ... Brown is an able memoirist.
MixedThe Observer (UK)... it is a strength of this book that people do keep surprising us. Like any good novelist, Miller manages this by creating the illusion that everyone, even a minor character, has an inner life. The human heart cannot be reduced to an algorithm. The plot thickens nicely, spiced with piquant aphorisms to lend it that fatalistic Russian flavour ... It is perhaps a pity that the story’s climax is a long philosophical argument on the benefits of self-interest, rather than, say, a knife-fight or a foot chase. Or both. You sense at this stage the journalist in Miller muscling out the novelist, offering a mini-lecture on realpolitik to bring us up to date on the sick soul of Europe ... The detail of Miller’s scenario feels authoritative, and the quality of his prose is never in doubt. But a touch of something more vulgar and racy might have made Independence Square a book that grips as well as gripes.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)Robert Hutton’s deeply researched, often astounding book...includes transcripts of eavesdropped conversations with [Nazi] fanatics that would make your hair stand on end ... This is the wonder—and the horror—of the story Hutton tells. That there were all sorts of inconspicuous but resourceful British natives plotting to bring down Churchill’s government is frightening enough; that they might have succeeded in communicating vital secrets to Berlin hardly bears thinking about. You marvel at their being taken in by \'Jack King\' ... Agent Jack has paid him a belated and honorable due.
PanThe ObserverUrsula Buchan...has made efforts to animate this new biography of \'JB,\' as he was known, has read the work with impeccable care (more than 100 books) and traipsed in his far-flung steps around the colonies (South Africa, Canada) where he pursued an administrative career. She has paid him a due that would make her illustrious forebear proud—a labor of love. Sadly, that equation works out mostly to the reader’s disadvantage: her love, our labor ... In a life apparently unshadowed by scandal or dishonor, what might have lent the book a dash of vinegar was some deep-lying flaw in JB’s character. But aside from a slight case of vanity (after the war he petitioned the colonial office for an honor and was turned down—by Winston Churchill), the man was more or less a paragon. His biographer has not stinted in ferreting out every wonderful thing ever said about him ... praise heaped as unsparingly as this blots out nuance and chokes off interest. Great men may be a privilege to know, but without redeeming vices they are very dull to read about.
RaveThe Financial TimesThe magpie eclecticism of Geoff Dyer is something to wonder at. His books are like party turns, each one different from the last while all bearing his distinctly puckish signature ... Dyer makes for a droll guide, combining a scene-by-scene breakdown of the film’s silliness with gonzo riffs on its cultural legacy ... less a work of film criticism than a jeu d’esprit ... it’s not the movie itself that holds him, or us, but its effectiveness as nostalgia, its throwback to a more innocent time when a man with a Schmeisser machine gun and a length of thin rope could seemingly win the war for Britain and be back home in time for tea.
RaveThe GuardianYou will find it hard not to be amazed, and impossible not to be moved, by the indomitable spirit that drives this memoir ... Though dealt a terrible hand in her middle years, Claire Tomalin remains so utterly without self-pity, so brimful of stoicism and courage, that at times she comes across like the heroine of a great novel ... a hugely entertaining book ... Tomalin exercises a discretion on her private life she would never dream of conceding to her biographical subjects.
RaveThe Financial Times\"What is most impressive is her capacity to give the work under review a life of its own. She makes even those books I recall not much enjoying sound fresh and remarkable ... The book has something wise or funny on almost every page, and one only wishes that the publishers had thrown the cat a goldfish and included an index.\
MixedThe GuardianRobert Harris has parachuted one of his trusty old-school protagonists through the interstices of historical events, sticking tight to the record but suggesting how things might have turned out differently … The first hundred or so pages of Munich are full of tight little huddles, grave-faced men darting in and out of offices. At times the documentarist in Harris seems to be rather crowding out the novelist, hugging the shore of verifiable fact instead of boldly striking out on the choppier waters of fiction … the book turns up the volume as the dual plotlines converge … A tantalising addition to the inexhaustible game of ‘what if?,’ Munich is one of Robert Harris’s more contained performances.
RaveThe Guardian\"Improvement is a patchwork novel, quiet in its voice, ambitious in its design ... such is Silber’s expertise that it requires no more than a paragraph, or even a couple of sentences, to involve us in the next one, and the next ... Silber’s superb handling of time... draws the disparate lives into a unity, and makes this compressed novel feel mysteriously capacious ... If \'Atonement\' hadn’t already been taken, it would have given the book a better title – the only improvement it needs.\
PositiveThe Financial TimesHer diaries recount this will to power with caustic drollery and dash, at least in their early pages. The writing isn’t knockout, but she has a journalist’s beady eye for detail, an amazing memory (she doesn’t drink) and an almost chilling sensitivity to the volatile market in social popularity ...feverish, conspiratorial mood of the book’s opening section now gives way to something almost as interesting: a struggle between her natural British irreverence and the bumptious spirit of American self-promotion ...at their best when Brown is still nervy and on the back foot. Once the hobnobbing and glad-handing take hold, the book loses its jittery tempo and becomes a roll-call of celebs, places and deals ... Nostalgists and devotees will fall upon the book anyway, and in time it should make a useful pendant to the key chronicle of high-low New York in the crazed, jabbering 1980s, The Bonfire of the Vanities.
Michel Houellebecq, Trans. by Frank Wynne
PanThe New York TimesClearly we should brace ourselves for something on the grand scale, and from its earliest metaphysical musings to its closing sentence there seems no danger of Houellebecq taking anything other than a long view of the human condition … The novel is divided into three sections, the first of which is marked by a near-academic neutrality of tone. (Frank Wynne's stolid translation is presumably faithful.) Houellebecq reveals his characters in the manner of a sociologist rather than a storyteller … In the second and third parts, the tone lurches unpleasantly between the salacious and the psychotic as Bruno goes to a New Age resort where absurd self-help courses are the order of the day. Bruno, as if we couldn't guess, has chosen the place with the express purpose of bedding women. Houellebecq pokes fun at the pretension on display, though he doesn't seem to notice his own … One can only assume that France's literary scene must have been suffering a profound torpor if it responded with such outrage to this bilious, hysterical and oddly juvenile book.
RaveThe New York TimesTrue History of the Kelly Gang isn't merely a historical novel; it's a fully imagined act of historical impersonation … The form and style of the novel could hardly be more striking. Couched as a rough-hewn apologia drawn from 13 parcels of dogeared papers Kelly has written while on the run, True History is dedicated to the infant daughter he has yet to see and, he promises, contains 'no single lie may I burn in Hell if I speak false' … One's own eyes widen a little as this strange narrative unfolds in a prose that seems initially to be as untidy and agrammatical as subway graffiti. As we adjust to the raggedly punctuated flow, however, Kelly's voice develops into an expansive and malleable instrument, bristling with shafts of wit and poetic grace notes.
RaveThe New York Times Sunday Book ReviewMoralist that he is, Hollinghurst generally prefers to proceed through subtle modulations of irony, slipping in a dagger rather than wielding a cutlass. This treatment is as true for Nick as for the cast of grandees and gargoyles among whom he moves. His ambivalent character is a vehicle for the novel's central tension – between private conscience and public display … Although it gathers ominously in mood, The Line of Beauty feels more blissful than baleful in its anatomy of the era because it is, among other things, a magnificent comedy of manners. Hollinghurst's alertness to the tiniest social and tonal shifts never slackens, and positively luxuriates in a number of unimprovably droll set pieces.
PositiveThe New York TimesZadie Smith's debut novel is, like the London it portrays, a restless hybrid of voices, tones and textures. Hopscotching through several continents and 150 years of history, White Teeth encompasses a teeming family saga, a sly inquiry into race and identity and a tender-hearted satire on religious antagonism and cultural bemusement … the novel plays with the gap between expectation and reality, most vigorously dramatized in Samad's offspring, ‘the first descendants of the great ocean-crossing experiment’ … White Teeth, for all its tensions, is a peculiarly sunny novel. Its crowdedness, its tangle of competing voices and viewpoints, betoken a society struggling toward accommodation, tolerance, perhaps even fellowship, and a time in which miscegenation is no longer the exception but the norm.
RaveThe Guardian...a racy and highly entertaining love letter to 1980s movies ... Freeman’s journalistic instincts have rooted out a different story, one that concerns the narrowing of American culture and the betrayal of women in movies, on screen and off ... Freeman’s breathless prose often looks in danger of overheating...Thank God, then, for her sense of humour, always ready to prick the bubble of absurdity in which so many of these movies are incubated ... I can’t imagine a more passionate advocate of mainstream 80s movies than Freeman.
PositiveThe Guardian...compulsive and crazily entertaining. One might tap Nathan Hill’s shoulders with the double-edged sword of 'Dickensian,' given that his debut novel is stuffed with good jokes, family secrets and incidental pathos; it’s also windy with circumlocution and occasionally too intricate for its own good ... Hill has an instinct for loneliness and an eye for the repulsive excesses of American consumerism ... There is no denying the inventive wit and energy on display; but a writer needs to take an occasional step back to consider the reader, who may have a life of their own to be getting on with. Hill, to his credit, understands the risks of long-windedness. Samuel’s publisher tells him that his projected 600-page novel will most likely have about 10 readers. I would bet on The Nix having many, many more.
PositiveThe GuardianPerhaps the most enjoyable of the pairings is Bacon and Freud, because the ambivalence between them feels so awkward and profound...Smee is good on the sense of these friendships as a two-horse race. When one of them enjoys a coup or some kind of breakthrough, you feel the other man brood and take stock: how did he do that? It is not about admiration expressed through gritted teeth – there seems a genuine urge to absorb the other’s example, and then adapt it ... But it’s when the glaze of amity begins to crack that the reader’s interest quickens ... Smee doesn’t have any new material, but he shuffles the pack of familiar stories with dexterity and enthusiasm. His prose, spruce and well-mannered for the most part, suffers minor lapses here and there.
MixedThe GuardianBurton, juggling the two narratives, sets off chimes and resonances in her double portrait of hidden creativity ... Burton constructs the dual plotline with painstaking craft, and has a good ear for the ambient interruptions of nature ... The Muse is strong on the emotional and sensual, less so on the figurative depiction of interior states. It is a severely competent novel. The craftsmanship is solid, the sincerity of feeling is sustained to the end; none of it is exceptional.
MixedThe GuardianIf the Joan Crawford takedown Mommie Dearest is the template for the awful-mother showbiz memoir, Wear and Tear goes one better, or worse: this is Mommie and Daddy Dearest ... Trapped inside this parental 'horror movie,' Tracy decided she must be the normal one, given 'there was no other role available.' She became essentially an extra in a household regularly thronged with film stars and celebrities ... Though we already know of Tynan’s love of 'high-definition' performers – his magazine profiles remain models of the genre – this book exposes a celebrity obsession that can only diminish him as a man ... To have survived her upbringing may be Tracy Tynan’s great achievement – greater certainly than Wear and Tear, which for all its honesty and courage stretches very thin in its second half.
MixedThe Guardian...[a] scholarly and engrossing book ... you come away from The Bitter Taste of Victory with a sneaking suspicion that it was all a bit madder and stranger than Dr Feigel will allow. There may be an extraordinary movie to be made, set in the German ruins of this bitter aftermath, but it probably won’t be sourced here.
PositiveThe GuardianArtists and writers would put shoulders to the wheel to help rehabilitate the country and its people – to cleanse its poisoned soul. That was the theory. Lara Feigel’s absorbing book relives the era in all its uncertainty, and delves into the irreconcilable differences and contradictions that would come to thwart the project ... The most compelling section of the book – its moral centrepiece – is devoted to the tribunal at Nuremberg ... Feigel observes that for cultural ambassadors the occupation had been “a tragically wasted opportunity”, though one wonders if their high-flown ambitions for change were realistic in the first place.
PositiveThe GuardianOne Man Band rumbles along, engrossingly at times, though it shares with all multi-volume biographies the problem of sustaining momentum. Lives don’t have plots, they have only movements and phases. The good biographer tries to resist the rut of merely telling one thing after another, but it’s a struggle. Callow writes with energy and purpose, and the last quarter of the book is enlivened by two very different creative triumphs ... [Welles] has been lucky to have Callow as a biographer, balancing warmth with scepticism, fondness with reproof.
PanThe GuardianShadowing Roiphe’s book is a tentative desire to find something consolatory – a truth, a meaning – in death. Can writers teach us how to die? The uncertain, provisional nature of her project is evident. Instead of a continuous narrative, she writes in discrete floating paragraphs, as if conducting a philosophical investigation. Either that, or she doesn’t quite know how to structure her argument ... The Violet Hour does, however, rally at the end ... This book is Roiphe’s haunting but muddled attempt to come to terms with the mystery of extinction.