MixedThe Spectator (UK)At the heart of Blake’s world was the power of imagination, which faculty he believed would free us from our mind-forged manacles. Imagination, represented in Blakean mythology by Los, is the opposite of the reason, and we cannot understand Blake without understanding what he meant by imagination or taking seriously his visions. Higgs does this admirably, by exploring what we know about the mind while maintaining, for our secular times, the sacred quality of Blake’s attention ... I grew weary of these analogies — further misreadings, perhaps, which do little to explain Blake’s sublime strangeness; but then this book is not written for my generation. William Blake vs the World is a primer for the future.
RaveThe Times Literary Supplement (UK)A tight little Oedipal drama ... Tessa Hadley observes her characters with a cold eye ... The blurb tells us that Free Love explores \'living out the truest and most meaningful version of our lives\', but nothing so trite would ever interest Hadley ... Hadley’s observations are tough and wince-inducing, particularly the sartorial ones ... Hadley, a keen Jamesian, muses throughout on the problem of belatedness, returning to it on the devastating final page.
RaveThe Times Literary Supplement (UK)... bold, adventurous and unpredictable. It is also Lawrentian, insofar as MacCleod uses real people as copy, except that her people have died so can no longer sue ... Working within the constraint of the facts (there are fifteen pages of endnotes), MacCleod allows her fictions to take root ... At times such as these, we feel, MacLeod has felt the need to jettison some of the \'better, stranger, stronger\' stuff in pursuit of interiority ... The inventions are compelling, and the blending of the Kennedys with the Chatterleys is wittily done.
MixedThe Spectator (UK)The entries...are...as Sedaris admits, over-polished, and what we hear on the page is a spoken rather than a written voice ... There is a great deal that Sedaris doesn’t say, most of which is the kind of stuff we expect to find in diaries ... The accumulation of what goes unsaid creates a melancholy undertow which reaches its climax during the pandemic ... While his talent is unquestionable, the wild popularity of Sedaris is hard to explain.
MixedThe New York Review of BooksSolnit’s own prose style...conforms to none of the rules outlined by Orwell in \'Politics and the English Language\': to avoid \'lack of precision,\' \'foreign phrases,\' and \'a long word where a short one will do\' ... we’re off, not meandering but hurled headlong at one hundred miles an hour in several directions at once. The scatter-gun effect of the free associations...recalls those of a psychoanalytic session ... Solnit’s personality...is always there on the page: confrontational, anxious, angry, self-absorbed, and—most importantly—female. Solnit thinks about gender; Orwell does not. For Solnit, gender is political while for Orwell, women have no political identity ... Roses, for Solnit, connect to everything, yet not to Orwell’s problem with women ... While she does, in general, see Orwell’s misogyny, Solnit doesn’t—to quote her response to his roses—\'think enough about what that meant\' ... In this stimulating and exasperating book, she puts in a good word for George Orwell.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)... excellent ... The Artful Dickens is both an exposure of the trickster’s methods and a celebration of close reading. The book is divided into 13 essays which can be read separately, but whose impact is greater when taken together ... If Mullan put into his hat a creator of gargoyles and spinner of melodrama, he pulled out an innovator who broke all the rules. The Artful Dickens made me feel that I had been in some form of trance during my earlier reading of these novels.
RaveThe Spectator (UK)... an existential literary thriller in which writing itself is the lethal weapon. With the precision of Patricia Highsmith, Chris Power takes us into the world of John le Carré as seen through the autofiction of Rachel Cusk ... every sentence is packed with, well, power. Postmodern metafiction with an old-school plot, this is the slickest, smartest and most enjoyable novel I’ve read in years.
RaveThe Guardian (UK)So as not to interrupt the narrative flow, the sources are given only at the back of the book. It’s a witty motif which works well, not least because it immerses us in the forcefield of Dostoevsky’s thought, which Christofi also employs to explain his own waywardness ... Novelists tend to make good biographers, not least because they know how to shape a story, and it is no mean feat to boil Dostoevsky’s epic life down to 256 pulse-thumping pages. Dostoevsky in Love is beautifully crafted and realised, but it is the great love that Christofi feels for his subject that makes this such a moving book.
PositiveNew York Review of BooksHastings’s approach to Bedford’s biography is similarly judicial. She enters her subject’s life through a side door, puts her witnesses in the box, and hears the evidence for and against Bedford’s literary merit. There will be no questions from the judge’s bench about Bedford’s politics, lesbianism, or antifeminism, no close readings of character or text, no analysis of motive. The biographer’s task is to preside over the rituals by which the truth is formally established by presenting, without prejudice, a full range of critical opinion ... Now that we have heard the whole of it, Bedford emerges as even more elusive than before; the books become less clear and harder to read emotionally. Because Selina Hastings, the spirit of biographical detachment, never says \'exactly what she thinks,\' the book ends not with her own summing up but with the expert opinion of Brenda Wineapple, Bedford’s friend and a witness to her final years.
PositiveTimes Literary Supplement (UK)The Lives of Lucian Freud does not read like a novel, but nor does it read like a traditional biography. Feaver seems unaware of the genre’s obligation to be dull, or prurient, or both, or the biographer’s obligation to draw a moral lesson from his subject’s life ... The Lives of Lucian Freud is therefore, like psycho–analysis itself, concerned with the art of listening as much as it is with looking ... nter Feaver, and it is with the appearance of Freud’s Boswell in 1973 that Fame takes on its added dimension ... Feaver shares his subject’s style and timing. His clipped prose is running commentary and ironic aside; the sentences, bone-dry, have dramatic entrances ... Feaver’s refusal to provide a psychopathology of Freud’s everyday life – the artist’s need to push every situation to its extreme, his refusal to let something go before it becomes \'disconcerting\' – means that a charge is kept below the surface of his narrative, much as the unspoken relation between Freud and his sitters charges his portraits.
PanThe New York Review of BooksBiography as blood sport is one way to describe Richard Bradford’s Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires ... Bradford’s life is based on hate alone ... Highsmith was what William Hazlitt called \'a good hater,\' and in this respect alone Bradford and his subject are well suited ... catastrophic literalism...defines his style ... Highsmith seems vastly more courageous and complex than Bradford allows. An entirely different person, in fact. Her hatreds were born of self-hatred and her self-hatred was fueled by the persecution of queers ... how could Bradford, having visited the Highsmith archive and scanned eight thousand pages of lacerating self-analysis, not feel at least some sympathy for his subject, or have gained at least some understanding of how the popular and optimistic student became the rancid and pessimistic recluse? The answer is that Bradford did not consult the fifty-six diaries and cahiers at all during the writing of his biography. His book’s argument depends entirely on quotations, taken out of context, from the journals selected by Highsmith’s earlier biographers ... Bradford replaces analysis and research with opinion ... It is because Bradford deals in literalisms that he misses Highsmith’s irony, is baffled by the doublethink of her two diaries, and confounded by her sexuality. It is also why he can make no sense of her figurative language.
MixedThe SpectatorGiannì is an unpredictable and unappealing narrator ... whether The Lying Life of Adults is a good novel or not is beside the point because Ferrante is a hypnotist. The opening sentence works like a swinging watch, and the reader is, for the next 300 pages, held under her spell. Ferrante achieves her mesmeric effect by numbing the reader with page after page of super-efficient and flavourless prose which push events forward like counters across a board, before throwing in a sentence of such devastating power that it gives us a heart attack ... Everyone in these pages behaves appallingly, and telling the truth serves no evident moral or artistic purpose. ‘The truth,’ as one of the lying adults explains to Giannì, and Ferrante explains to Claudio Gatti, ‘is difficult, growing up you’ll understand that, novels aren’t sufficient for it.’
PositiveThe Times Literary Supplement (UK)Shriver doesn’t much mind whether we like her...which makes her challenge to the reader—and we are goaded throughout these pages—all the more enjoyable ... Provocative and witty, The Motion of the Body through Space is a 350-page argument with its readers which takes the form of an argument between Serenata and Remington, and between Serenata and herself, in dialogue so poised it could be lifted from page to stage without changing a word. While no author wants their book to appear during a lockdown, the timing of this one could not be better: the need for us all to stop moving for a moment and reflect on where we are is Shriver’s main subject.
MixedThe Sunday Times (UK)Seduction, argues Clement Knox in this big and bold book, is a question of storytelling ... Casanova is inevitably given centre stage, and Knox gives an impressive synopsis of his multivolume memoir, The History of My Life. ... It seems ironic to suggest that a book about the power of seduction narratives would be more seductive with less narrative but this is, I feel, the case ... There is much to praise here, but the book would have been improved by reducing the word load, focusing the plot line and tightening the guy-ropes throughout.
PositiveThe Telegraph (UK)The Shapeless Universe is a merciless and self-mocking memoir in which Harvey shows us the insomniac’s universe of \'edgeless expanse.\' The register shifts throughout and so too does Harvey’s perspective on herself ... The fact I found myself falling asleep over this book is a compliment. The thoughts that kept Harvey awake send me into a coma; my own response to high levels of anxiety is to pull down the blinds and shut up house, so I sleep like a narcoleptic through grief, rage, and panic. Writing should take us to places we wouldn’t otherwise go, and Harvey invites us to open our eyes in the darkness and feel the tiger in the room.
MixedThe Sunday Times (UK)Each [woman], Moulton argues, gave something back in exchange for her Oxford degree. Believing in women’s equality, they quietly, and in their own ways, fought for a truly democratic culture by pushing boundaries in reproductive rights, definitions of the family and sexual identity. This is a hard case to prove ... Because Moulton’s interest is solely in the community of friendship, we get little sense of each woman’s private character or interior life, which is doubtless how they would have wanted it. Loyalty did not involve intimacy, and it is unclear how much any of them knew about the courage, conflicts or sacrifices involved in one another’s various domestic arrangements ... A blend of group biography and social history, Mutual Admiration Society tells a quintessentially English story in a slightly plodding way.
RaveThe GuardianEvery drowned, unwanted or lost object is precious to Maiklem, who reveals, as she takes us downriver from Richmond to the Estuary, a preternatural sympathy for the broken, mud-caked and out of context ... A custodian of the past, Maiklem’s relation to the life of the river is personal rather than scientific ... Maiklem likes to kneel down with her nose inches from the foreshore: \'I breathe in the muddy aroma of silt and algae and listen to the sound of water drying on the stones: a barely discernible fizz-pop as it evaporates and the lacquered shine turns to a powdering of fine grey silt.\' Her prose has none of the self-conscious sensibility that defines contemporary nature writing; her thoughtful sentences read as though she were talking to herself ... There is nothing that Maiklem does not know about the history of the river or the thingyness of things ... There is a great deal to learn from these pages, not least the insight that finding lost things is the best way of losing yourself. It is, above all, her wisdom that makes Lara Maiklem such restful company
MixedThe Sunday Times (UK)The mountain of unpublished papers in her archive at UCLA, together with the two published volumes of her Journals & Notebooks, have provided Moser with complete access to Sontag’s inner life. Placing the public and private Sontags back to back, he creates a portrait of a woman with \'an uncanny understanding\' of her own character, and no understanding whatsoever of anyone else’s ... Moser is good at elucidating Sontag’s ideas and putting into context the fecundity of her thought. He discusses her \'Olympian\' sex life with sympathy and insight...and is unbiased when it comes to evaluating her writing ... He is less good, however, at knowing what to leave out, resulting in a book that is repetitive, overweight and clogged with irrelevancies. In addition to which the structure is confusing and there are too many self-regarding sentences ... These failings would matter less had Sontag herself not been a master of brevity; it is surprising that Moser could have spent so long in her company without imbibing some of her skills. While there are things to admire here, the biography is not an aesthetic achievement.
PositiveThe TelegraphCountry Girl is the memoir that Edna O’Brien swore she would never write, but because her stories have tended to mine the seam between fact and fiction, much of what she tells here...will be familiar to readers of her novels. For those expecting further revelations from the Goddess of Love, her reticence as an autobiographer will disappoint: O’Brien has done a good deal of kissing but does very little telling. While passion is one of her themes, the people she has felt passionate about are kept to the margins of the tale and not even the name of the \'powerful\' politician who broke her heart is revealed ... O’Brien’s memory is marinated in literature, and the seductive power of words and writing have shaped her life.
MixedThe TimesThe research in these pages is indeed important; Wolf makes an excellent connection between the aims of the Obscene Publications Act and those of the Matrimonial Causes Act in the same year, in which some of the only grounds on which a husband could be divorced by his wife were if he had enjoyed relations with an animal or another man ... But the strength of the argument is undermined by the self-preoccupation of the author, who describes the \'journey\' she has undertaken on the reader’s behalf. Added to which the narrative is disorganised, the paragraphs are repetitive, some sentences make no sense at all, and the index gets us nowhere. Had the book been better written, there would be more cause for Wolf to celebrate herself.
PositiveThe GuardianThe Five is...an angry and important work of historical detection, calling time on the misogyny that has fed the Ripper myth ... The Five is not simply about the women who were murdered in Whitechapel in the autumn of 1888: it is for them. This is a powerful and a shaming book, but most shameful of all is that it took 130 years to write.
MixedThe Literary ReviewHolland paints a large canvas with broad brushstrokes, paying little attention to detail. There are, in addition, a number of lacunae in his narrative: he says nothing about the sexual availability of Mediterranean boys, or how many non-poetic tuberculosis sufferers migrated there, gasping for air. I would also have liked something on the breed of early 20th-century travel writer inspired by the Mediterranean. Robert Byron is briefly mentioned, but Norman Douglas, who epitomised the louche culture of Capri, Naples, Florence and Calabria between 1897 and his death in 1952, gets no mention at all ... More sightseeing excursion than deep excavation, The Warm South is like being rushed along by a guide with a tight schedule, a firm agenda and a dislike of too many smart-arse questions.
RaveThe Times Literary SupplementFor so strikingly slight a book, The Friend arrives with a lot of freight: a 2018 National Book Award in America and a clean sweep, on both sides of the Atlantic, of rapturous reviews. And it isn’t merely slight in size (200 pages of tight, stream-of-consciousness prose) but in subject...Still, within this slender package Sigrid Nunez casts judgement on a whole generation of readers, and this is why The Friend has been greeted by the critics with such a roar of gratitude ... Nunez, in a wily move, gives us a nice-as-pie story at the same time as loading her pages with quotations about writing as a weapon of mass destruction ... The Friend is a magnificently hostile act. A non-fiction novel posing as a recovery memoir, a valediction enclosing a manifesto, it is also a cute book about a Great Dane who tucks his owner up in bed, dances the cha-cha-cha and appreciates Karl Ove Knausgaard. That’s a lot of freight.