PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... is not intended as a comprehensive biography, and it contains little fresh research. Instead it’s a sprightly work of reinterpretation. Besides being a prolific popular historian who has produced lives of Charles Darwin, Adolf Hitler, C.S. Lewis and Jesus, Mr. Wilson is a novelist, and he brings to the task of biography a shrewd sense of how creative writers operate, along with a large stock of intuitions about human nature. The results are frequently perceptive, though colored by a desire to provoke ... The opportunity is available to him because there is much about Dickens’s life that we simply don’t know. Each chapter sustains the promise of the book’s title by unpacking an at least partly obscure aspect of it, in a style that’s a mix of brisk exposition and expansive psychological inquiry ... Mr. Wilson, borrowing a term made popular by the psychiatrist R.D. Laing, diagnoses a \'divided self,\' though he analyses his subject’s contradictions with more subtlety than this well-worn phrase suggests ... Unlike some of Dickens’s best-known biographers, Mr. Wilson is keenly attentive to the books themselves and to parsing their effects. He is an observant reader and, as he makes clear, an avid re-reader, forever developing new insights into familiar stories ... Mr. Wilson is often happy to make his case with peppery audacity ... while Mr. Wilson’s speculations are sometimes clumsy, most are rooted, as becomes increasingly clear, in the emotional truth of his response to the novels.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalAlthough Mr. Geary keeps returning to the subject of puns and their capacity to fold \'a double knowledge into words,\' he ranges wide ... Crucially, instead of analyzing wit to death, Mr. Geary chooses to embody it. Each of his chapters is written in a particular form that wit frequently takes. One chapter is a stand-up routine ... Another is an illustrated lecture on the trompe l’oeil ... Mr. Geary writes not just playfully but also with panache ... Mr. Geary’s chief success is in conveying the power of wit to refresh the mind.
RaveThe Wall Street JournalThe Prodigal Tongue is acute about the more subtle differences between America and Britain, not least in perspectives on class and race ... Yet the book’s chief pleasure is a simple one: Instead of sending the language to school, it savors a great many words and phrases that are staples on one side of the pond and unfamiliar on the other. Ms. Murphy has an amusing facility for zapping tired language myths, and she peppers her lively chapters with snippets from latter-day Bernard Shaws ... the most striking feature of her writing is a fascination with the quirks of usage. She succeeds in her ambition to increase \'our enjoyment of our common language and our pride in it,\' and her essential argument is that the plurality of English, a result of the riotous drama of history, is something to extol: \'What if instead of tutting, we marveled?\'
Edward St. Aubyn
PositiveThe Financial TimesLost for Words is much lighter than the Melrose novels – a brisk, ultimately farcical satire that is ideal for the sun lounger and unlikely to earn the author further heavyweight comparisons. Whereas previously St Aubyn’s subject has been the tortured intricacy of family life, he now turns to the snaky politics of the literary world. Everything he writes is a comedy of manners, and even here one can occasionally see the legacy of Henry James and Jane Austen … We are left in little doubt that St. Aubyn has contempt for the political agendas and horse-trading that influence the process of awarding literary prizes. More interesting than this is his concern with the hyperactive self-consciousness that informs the very act of creating fiction – and especially the kind of fiction that’s intended to be prize-worthy.
PositiveThe Financial TimesIn each of the 10 stories here, dark forces operate with spirit-sapping persistence: officials are corrupt, politicians are manipulative and crowds thrive on lurid spectacle ...
Alarcón is hardly the first writer to examine the crisis of masculinity, but he’s unusually alive to the ways that it is bound up with uncertainty about political and national identity. His recurrent concern with men drowning in ennui means that these stories lack tonal variety ... Yet at root this experiment in alternative reality is still about loss and malaise, and even when flirting with surrealism Alarcón maintains a deadpan style. It’s the detachment of a writer whose work suggests that there is no clear-cut frontier between reportage and fiction.
Karen Joy Fowler
MixedThe Financial TimesIn flashbacks, [Rosemary] pictures the extraordinary lifestyle her parents constructed. Her tone calls to mind a patient talking frankly to her therapist, presenting episodes from her childhood with a bracing vividness that is touched by uncertainty … The strength of Fowler’s writing is its piercing evocation of the dynamics of family. Rosemary’s relatives may be eccentric, but their patterns of guilt, affection and evasiveness are familiar. Where the novel proves less successful is in seeking – indeed, straining – to make bigger points about the inherent brutality and insouciance of humankind, the ‘endless, fathomless misery’ we each day choose to ignore.
Karl Ove Knausgaard, Trans. by Ingvild Burkey
PositiveThe Financial TimesAlthough Autumn consists of short essays rather than lengthy musings, it shares the digressive and pedantic qualities of My Struggle. Ostensibly writing for his unborn daughter, Knausgaard ponders abstract matters such as forgiveness and silence, but mostly discusses more humdrum items... Sometimes he’s a latter-day Roland Barthes, examining familiar objects and activities in a style that’s eloquent but also a bit precious ... The best sections are suffused with parental tenderness ... Whereas the magic of My Struggle lies in its author’s ability to do justice to exactly what’s on his mind, in Autumn he is less interested in the topography of his inner life, preferring to look outwards. As the title suggests, the mood tends to be elegiac.
MixedThe Financial TimesJulian Treslove, a middle-aged BBC producer of little note, is in fact a typical Jacobson creation, obsessed with Jewishness. He loves what he sees as the Jewish cult of rivalry and expertise in introspection. His friends are Jewish; he is intrigued by them as individuals and as cultural specimens. Their angst seems wonderful in its intensity … Why exactly does Treslove want to be Jewish? It’s hard not to sense that the chief reason is that it allows Jacobson to have great fun with Treslove’s non-Jewishness – and to draw a succession of enjoyable contrasts between Jewish and Gentile behaviours … Yet while The Finkler Question is both an entertaining novel and a humane one, it isn’t Howard Jacobson at his best. The characters are not as satisfyingly developed as in 2006’s superb Kalooki Nights and his writing here feels less precise than is his wont, less fresh and less frighteningly mordant.
MixedThe Financial TimesBoyle is a smart observer of human flaws, and there are moments when The Terranauts is a striking portrait of vanity and weakness. Yet while he’s a fluent, often exuberant writer, he’s certainly not an economical one ... Despite all Boyle’s efforts to make the novel seem a spiritually charged experience and a religious allegory, it feels like an upmarket soap opera. There’s too relentless a concern with which of the terranauts will pair off — and too much sprawling evocation of how and where they might do so.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMr. Dorren doesn’t seek to develop a bold argument. Instead this is one of those books—now abundant—that bulge with linguistic trivia. Fortunately, he has an eye for genuinely surprising detail. He is also, for the most part, a witty commentator, though occasionally his efforts to be amusing fall flat...