RaveThe Sunday Times (UK)... splendid ... The chapter on naming is one of the book’s most fascinating ... Mullan’s book is too rich to capture in a review. Each chapter shoots off in a fresh direction and illuminates it. There is a brilliant chapter on cliché — how Dickens revels in it, inventing characters who mix clichés up ... You must, and should, read Mullan’s book. Even if you know a lot about Dickens you will find revelations in it, and if you know nothing about Dickens and want to learn what makes him great it will be the perfect appetiser.
PositiveThe Times (UK)The scope of King’s knowledge is staggering and his book bulges with facts. They are at their most enticing when they relate to physical processes such as the details of Vespasiano’s manuscript production ... The author is equally circumstantial when describing the rival process of printing. Anyone who has set up a page using moveable metal type will be impressed by the vividness and precision of his account ... A persistent fault of King’s book is irrelevance. He devotes a whole chapter, for example, to the loopy sage Ficino, who believed he had found a treatise (a fake, of course) by a seer more ancient than Moses, called Hermes. This has nothing to do with Vespasiano, and such spiced-up digressions suggest that King fears his subject is not interesting enough. That is understandable. The other Renaissance figures he has written about — Brunelleschi, Michelangelo, Leonardo — created artworks known to every tourist, and Vespasiano’s dusty manuscripts cannot compete in that league. Yet, as King’s spectacular book shows, Vespasiano deserves to be remembered, if only because shortly before his death, aged 76 in 1498, he lost faith in the ability of the classics to illuminate the world. As King puts it, he came to see them as \'the light that failed\', and to see that it is not what you know but what you are that matters. Even now that is a truth easy to forget.
PositiveThe Sunday Times (UK)Bradford clearly does not admire Highsmith as a person ... More convincing is Bradford’s appraisal of Highsmith’s genius as a writer ... Bradford makes his case convincingly, and notes that Highsmith chose lovers who were either socially or intellectually her superior ... Others will seek to untangle her tormented psyche, but Bradford’s has the edge over the two previous biographies by Wilson and Joan Schenkar, if only because it is less than half the length of either.
MixedThe Sunday Times (UK)His book is breathtaking in scope ... It should be said at once that this is not a book for everyone. For many readers its pages will be full of fascinating discoveries. For others, the same pages will be full of meticulously catalogued nonsense ... If you agree...that it is not irrational to believe all misfortune and death to be caused by magic and witchcraft, then this book is for you. If you disagree, it is probably not, unless you can suspend disbelief completely while you read ... He is convinced, too, that early humans did not think of humans and animals as different species, and he points, as evidence for this, to the mixture of animal and human remains in many prehistoric graves. Such evidence is, though, disputable ... Gosden’s depiction of magic as a set of sensitive, benevolent beliefs is also contestable ... Whether he himself really believes in magic is not clear. He certainly writes as if he does. But can he truly believe, for example, that Chinese magic could \'shift the cosmos,\' or that Egyptian magic could enable a dead husband to beget a child on his still-living wife—both of which he reports with no suggestion that they are nonsense?
A. N. Wilson
MixedThe Times (UK)The best chapter in AN Wilson’s book about Dickens is the last, and it is mostly about Wilson ... His schoolboy sufferings can distort his reading of Dickens ... As a novelist Wilson must surely appreciate the subtlety of the relationship between an author and his characters. But in his treatment of Dickens it is crudely simplified ... These clumsy attempts to match creator and creation contrast with Wilson’s more perceptive moments ... Wilson has kept up to date with, and acknowledges, recent Dickens scholarship. He has also done research himself.
PositiveThe Times (UK)... [an] illuminating biography ... Modern specialists dismiss [Banks] as a jack of all trades, but Musgrave’s claim that he changed our world is not an exaggeration. He helped to lay the foundation of what was to become the British Commonwealth and, at a more domestic level, he changed our gardens. The flowers that fill them are mostly not natives, but the legacy of collectors often employed and financed by Banks.
PositiveThe Times (UK)As a relative beginner, a post-doctoral researcher, [Sheldrake] has to depend on other people’s findings most of the time. That does not make them any less wondrous ... Sheldrake’s tribute to [biologist Lynn Margulis\'s] courage is a fitting climax to a book that beguilingly weaves together lived experience and scientific research.
PositiveThe Times (UK)Curiously, Radical Wordsworth is markedly unlike the book Bate describes in his preface. It is not particularly short and packs in a lot of erudition ... richly repays reading, and bears comparison with his pioneering life of Ted Hughes (2005). He is illuminating on the sources of Wordsworth’s nature worship ... He carefully and persuasively re-examines the effects of the revolution on Wordsworth ... This midlife collapse could have made the final phase of Bate’s book boring to write and read, since it documents what he calls \'the longest, dullest decline in literary history\'. In fact, it is far from dull.
Yuval Noah Harari
RaveThe Sunday Times (UK)Sapiens is the sort of book that sweeps the cobwebs out of your brain. Its author, Yuval Noah Harari, is a young Israeli academic and an intellectual acrobat whose logical leaps have you gasping with admiration. That said, the joy of reading him is not matched by any uplift in his message, which is relentlessly accusatory and dismaying ... Mostly, though, Harari’s writing radiates power and clarity, making the world strange and new. His central argument is that language has not just made us top animal, it has also enmeshed us in fictions ... Humans, Harari observes, are the only animals that believe in vastly powerful entities that they have never seen, touched or smelt, and that is language’s fault ... Harari has his own contradictions. He makes predictions while declaring that prediction is impossible. He argues that history is a \'chaos\' while treating it as a system of cause and effect. But such blips should not deter readers from treating themselves to this mind-stirring book.
D. J. Taylor
PositiveThe Times (UK)... an exploratory and sometimes eye-popping slice of social history ... it does not ultimately matter that Taylor’s lost girl idea is a romantic dream, because the real subject of his book is not the scandal and gossip that these girls surrounded themselves with, though there is plenty of that, but the complexity of human beings and how different they can seem to different people ... Taylor is a strikingly versatile writer — novelist, critic, historian, author of the standard biography of Orwell, and the acerbic wit behind Private Eye’s What You Didn’t Miss column ... If you have even a passing interest in human relationships and the imagination, you should not deny yourself the pleasure of reading it.
Karl Ove Knausgaard, trans. by Don Bartlett
RaveThe Times (UK)This fourth volume, Dancing in the Dark, depicts him as a teenager and is the least flattering self-portrait to date. Although he presents himself as singular, much of what makes him objectionable stems from normal adolescent arrogance and confusion ... The sense you have, as you read, that you are being admitted to his life and mind depends on your taking him at his word. You have to believe in the authenticity of his account, and in that respect his frank exposure of his selfishness, arrogance and other personal defects enhances his credibility.
MixedThe Times (UK)Rée enlivens his story with anecdotes, and with descriptions of how the philosophers talked, dressed and behaved or misbehaved in private. Shadowy figures become human when he supplies details of their early lives and extra-philosophical interests ... People who are just names, if that, to most readers are fitted out by Rée’s research with memorable identities ... With all this colourful material, Rée’s book should be a joy to read. But it is not. It is rambling and diffuse. The narrative keeps plunging down side turnings that lead to other side turnings in a seemingly endless maze. New names keep appearing like the jumbled contents of a biographical dictionary. The lack of any sense of direction is bewildering, and might be deliberate ... Readers should also be warned that unless they can take philosophical language...in their stride, some sections will pass them by in a fog. For non-specialists, a wise preliminary to tackling Witcraft would be to read one of the short introductions to philosophy that teenage Rée despised.
RaveThe Sunday Times...[an] outstanding biogaphy ... [Ursula Buchan\'s] book draws on a wealth of family papers and memories. Though factual, it reads like a big, rambling Victorian novel, and takes you, as novels do, into other people’s lives. She compounds the feeling of intimacy by referring to her grandfather as \'JB,\' which is what his family called him, and to his wife, Lady Susan Grosvenor, as \'Susie,\' which is what he called her. Though she admits he had a few faults (a self-made man’s vanity about honors and titles being one), he emerges from her account glowing with sincerity and goodness.
RaveThe Sunday TimesThe first part inevitably repeats material from the voluminous commentaries on Orwell already in print. But it is freshly and powerfully argued ... The second half of Lynskey’s book is richly informative, surveying the reception of Orwell’s novel decade by decade, and its adaptation ... It makes for an astonishing cultural medley ... Lynskey’s overall admiration is clear, but he sharply criticizes Orwell’s prejudices—his \'kneejerk homophobia\' and his \'thoughtless dismissal of feminism\' ... If you have even the slightest interest in Orwell or in the development of our culture, you should not miss this engrossing, enlivening book.
MixedThe Times...flea circuses, model railways, replica warships made of spent matches, Victorian dioramas — only a writer with Simon Garfield’s versatility could get them all into one book, and only a writer with his boundless curiosity would want to ... Garfield is at his best in unearthing relatively unknown labourers in the miniature modelling mill ... A worry for readers is that Garfield sometimes seems sick of his subject. His chapter on model villages is almost as boring as model villages ... Meanwhile important subjects are missed ... Even the great Elizabethan miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard gets only a sentence or two. Of course, a book like this cries out for colour plates, and the smudgy photos on offer are no substitute ... Also absent are dolls, though they have a fascinating history. Perhaps Garfield feels unfitted, as a man, to write about them ... Fortunately, people continue to interest him even when his subject palls. The accounts of miniaturists at work bump us out of toy-town into reality.
PositiveThe Times (UK)Lawford’s article gives little space to the \'lachrymose sentiments\' of Landon’s poetry. But Miller pays it much fuller attention, and strives to make it sound interestingly up-to-date ... Her most gripping section concerns Landon’s death ... meticulous, precise research.
PositiveThe Sunday Times (UK)Miller applies her investigative skills to the Regency literary culture that made and destroyed Landon, and finds it brutally misogynistic and riven by envy, spite and mischief-making. For those who believe in the civilising power of literature, it is a dismal spectacle, and Miller argues persuasively that one reason Landon was so quickly forgotten is that the Victorians wished to draw a veil over \'the literary industry’s sleazy past.\' Her most gripping section concerns Landon’s death ... Miller cuts through the tangle with meticulous, precise research.
PositiveThe Times (UK)Holland’s searching, original book takes Keats’s phrase and hugely widens its scope ... Holland has the advantage of boundless enthusiasm and seemingly limitless reading. I have seldom read a book that uses out-of-the-way knowledge so tellingly ... At all events this is a book so crammed with interest that when you finish it you feel like starting all over again to make sure you haven’t missed anything.
RaveThe Sunday TimesNeil MacGregor is pre-eminently a teacher. He possesses the teacher’s two vital gifts, which are the ability to distinguish things that are interesting from things that are not, and the capacity to change the second category into the first ... Living with the Gods is based on a BBC Radio 4 series, and seeming to hear MacGregor’s calm, educated tones as you read is one of its pleasures ... He maintains scrupulous scholarly objectivity, writing respectfully about all the main religions, and sensitively about ways of feeling beyond our understanding ... he is unwilling to criticize any religious observance, however horrible ... Some readers might feel that this is taking religious toleration a bit far. But it is because MacGregor draws on his knowledge to open new perspectives that Living With the Gods is such a mind-expanding book.
PositiveThe Times\"Many of [the people in the biography] served as raw material for the enormous cast of characters who drift in and out of the pages of the Dance novels. In fiction they can be amusing, but in real life they seldom were, and chronicling their confused and confusing careers, plus the effort to make them sound exciting and glamorous, puts Spurling’s prose, and her reader’s patience, under strain ... Powell died in 2000, but Spurling’s biography ends in 1975 with the publication of Dance’s final volume. Possibly she found his declining years too painful to record. It may be, too, that she did not wish to give more than passing mention to the four volumes of Memoirs and three volumes of Journals that he published between 1976 and 1997. These occasioned some merriment in critical circles, and secured him a reputation for vanity and pomposity that Spurling’s biography battles to dislodge. [Spurling] is at her most persuasive when writing on his talent for friendship.\
RaveThe Times\"There are several moments in this second volume of Plath’s letters when you feel you are watching a Greek tragedy ... Yet to regard the letters merely as raw material for poems undervalues them. They are astonishing in themselves, terrible in their intensity and as raw as freshly sliced meat. As a real-life depiction of a mind in agony they are, so far as I know, unmatched in literature.\
RaveThe Sunday TimesIf you are heading for Paris this summer be sure to put City of Light in your bag. Besides being a cracking read, it will open your eyes to the reality of what you see around you. It’s common knowledge that the reason Louis Napoleon tore down old Paris, and replaced its narrow alleys with broad boulevards, was to stop the mutinous plebs building barricades. But, like much common knowledge, that turns out to be less than half the truth. Rupert Christiansen’s account of the destruction and rebuilding is masterly — vivid, dramatic, admirably compact and ultimately tragic.
PositiveThe TimesFrom the start, a poisonous strain of racism was an element of the attacks on Wilde [during his American tour] ... But if the American tour was, by and large, a nightmare, it also, Mendelssohn argues, taught Wilde useful lessons ... [the] realization that Wilde’s art is partly based on the techniques of a popular racist entertainment has somehow faded from literary critical memory ... Mendelssohn’s remarkable book focuses on the American year, and fills in the before and after briefly. But it uncovers material missed by lengthier biographies, even Richard Ellmann’s, and conveys the excitement of real research and discovery.
RaveThe TimesHow she came to write such a masterpiece is the question at the heart of Fiona Sampson’s sensitive, probing biography. One answer is that she was deeply serious and highly intelligent ... Another answer Sampson gives to the question of how Mary came to write Frankenstein is because she was a woman. She knew, as no man can, what it means to bring forth new life and to be responsible for its physical make-up, as Dr Frankenstein is for his \'creature\' ... If we get another literary biography in 2018 as astute and feelingful as this one, we shall be lucky.