RaveThe Spectator (UK)Lucasta Miller’s task, which she carries out very successfully, is to strip away what we think when we think about Keats. She presents him to us as he would have struck his first readers ... Close reading teases out much of the oddity, and goes on to root it in the circumstances of Keats’s life ... This excellent book marks the 200th anniversary of the poet’s death. It enters an already crowded market of Keats biographies, but earns its place through its firm basis in precise reading. Miller is empathetic, and relishes Keats’s best phrases ... She is patient with the (to me) increasingly ludicrous critical readings of ‘To Autumn’ as really about the Peterloo massacres. She persuasively shows, however, that the predominantly indigenous word choices produce as politically charged a celebration of Englishness as the famous passage in Emma ... If you read the words, Miller persuades us, whether of the poems or the great letters, Keats is there, as new as ever.
RaveThe Spectator (UK)George V is a peculiarly interesting subject for study. There were a number of major constitutional questions during his reign which required the Crown to take action. These were mostly the consequence of immense upheavals in society ... Both George and Mary have inspired great biographies in the past, including James Pope-Hennessy’s life of the queen. Ridley has written a magnificent new life — wonderfully funny, from its winning subtitle onwards, and full of human sympathy and understanding ... I wish conventions and proprieties had permitted her to interview perhaps the only living person with intimate recollections of George, HM the Queen. But failing that, she has produced an evocative and touching portrait of a surprisingly impressive man.
PositiveThe Spectator (UK)Though it would have been better to have focussed on half a dozen genuine cases, exploring where real contributions have been made in different areas, Burke has nevertheless unearthed a fair number of bizarre show-offs, medical cases and eccentrics.
PositiveSpectatorRoss has written a book about Wagner’s consequences with a striking omission — what he did with music, and what he did to music ... Nevertheless, it is possible, as Ross has found, to write a very long book about his influence which has almost nothing to say about the music itself, and which doesn’t find it necessary to talk about the music that was shaped by him ... It is an eccentric approach, but entirely possible ... Ross does a good and very full job in tracing the obsession of different times and places, and the intellectual flavor each wave took ... Ross is very conscious of the complexity of these questions, and how they have become more complicated with the passage of time. His omission of much consideration of Wagner’s music has the curious effect of making those who were obsessed by him sound somewhat deranged. This, however, is not always inappropriate, and much of the story is inevitably of gross misuse on both sides ... Ross’s book is excellent, and extraordinarily thorough. Though one occasionally misses a musically literate person saying something intelligent about Wagner there are plenty of books about that. Leaving the music to one side, Ross’s is a very thorough account of apparent delusion in search of a fugitive meaning.
PositiveThe Independent (IRE)\"... it\'s a concise and trimmed-down novel at the root ... One might gently suggest, from an observer normally so acute and precise, that Micah seems much more like an old man, with his pottering and his eyesight problems, than a man in his early 40s. But the novel still has her vividly evocative way with language, rooted in ordinary speech ... There is, too, the distinctive Tyler approach to ethics; she has thought deeply about the right way to live ...
What is so moving about Tyler\'s work is that, always, we have the illusion that we\'re hearing what her people feel like saying, and no more than that.\
RaveThe Spectator (UK)...outstanding ... This is a magnificent political biography, which takes its place next to Robert Blake’s Disraeli and Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson on the highest level. It is a huge literary challenge to make sense of lives of such public complexity: the topics of engagement must be separated out into their own discrete narratives, but an overall forward movement must be conveyed ... Moore does a superb job in conveying, towards the end of Thatcher’s time in office, the rioting in the streets, the resignations, the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the return of double-digit inflation, until the parallel narratives of themes subside into the single chronological story of betrayal and sacking. It is extraordinarily compelling.
PositiveThe Spectator (UK)... capable of detached bemusement at its subject’s unstoppable advance ... What still hangs around the room like a bad smell are the shell-shocked accounts of what engaging with Sontag in person could be like. These make this wry, clever, rather sly biography a richly engaging volume ... a memorable and evocative biography. It keeps a proper distance, and if it makes the occasional excessive claim for Sontag’s writings, especially the fairly negligible fiction, that is forgivable. Moser maintains sympathy, not just for his out-of-control subject, but for her quailing court. I wish, however, he had spent more time discussing the European intellectuals who encountered her and with whom, in a Paris cemetery, she was eventually buried. Did they think her as chic as she thought them? Did they honour the longed for comparison with Roland Barthes? Hard to tell from this account ... It’s going too far to call Moser’s biography comic in tone, but what it does possess is what its subject notably lacked — a sense that one of the tools of analysis, thought and intellectual engagement is the possibility of laughter; that laughter, in the end, may be a better tool than the customary hyperbole.
RaveThe Spectator...[a] splendid new novel ... Whitehead’s institution is based on the Dozier School in Florida, but his book is not just a piece of documentary writing. It finds its justification in a marvellous play between the real situation and a novelistic artifice — one which, in the end, proves to be inherent in the human story. This is a perfect example of Marianne Moore’s comparing poetry to imaginary gardens with real toads in them ... Whitehead has embedded the horrible historical episode in what might initially seem the most artificial literary device imaginable, the mistaken-identity plot ... But the genius of the novel is that mistaken identity was simply the condition under which black American men existed in relation to the structures of power ... Along with the plain beauty of his prose, Whitehead’s achievement is in having thought long and hard about the implications of this indifference ... This is a heartbreakingly good novel. Its excellence doesn’t lie in the attitude it takes to a social problem, which may immediately impress prize juries. Rather, this is a book which should last because of the elegant refinement of its treatment, and the harmonious and deeply affecting balance it strikes between real-life conditions, and the requirements of the finest and most penetrating art.
PositiveThe GuardianKeates is an enthusiastic, serious and careful writer, and this delightful book, though designed up to the hilt, contains a lot to muse over. I shake my head over the absence of music examples – the picturesque reproductions of Handel’s manuscripts are barely readable. Still, the author clearly knows what he is talking about, and illuminates what we thought we knew. No readers will get beyond the fifth page without finding themselves humming a very familiar tune or two.
Hans Fallada, trans. by Allan Blunden
MixedThe GuardianThe book has a terrible hallucinatory quality – people arrive and disappear, offer help or resistance for no reason – which partly reflects the huge amounts of drugs and alcohol being taken by all involved ... The always tremendously punchy Fallada style sweeps the reader along; the murk and hysteria and chaos are (just about) contained. Not contained in this translation, however, which is careless to the point of the amateurish. The translator, Allan Blunden, has a tin ear for register, and some of Fallada’s most direct and concise slaps come out completely wrong.
PanThe GuardianIn When We Were Orphans, the manner has, I think, become a problem. Again, the book has many virtues: it is surely developed and extended; it is full of ingenious variation; it builds to an admirable and satisfying climax. Its virtues, in short, are all architectural ones ... The single problem with the book is the prose, which, for the first time, is so lacking in local colour as to be entirely inappropriate to the task in hand. One can't only admire a book's structure ... Ishiguro's avoidance of phrasal verbs is a major problem here - it gives his narrator a circumlocutious, cautious air which isn't really very helpful ... Of course, there are splendid things in it; the games and huge terrors of a Shanghai childhood. Or the horrific descent into the lawless slums as Banks searches for his kidnapped parents, only partly marred by the way the prose will not budge an inch from its superb, unfeeling immaculacy.
MixedThe GuardianChabon’s playfulness emerges in passages in which the novelist’s art is held up to examination. No one can see the Skinless Horse that follows the narrator’s grandmother around, but in the novelist’s descriptions, we see it. The narrator’s mother, late on, opens a family album to find that the photographs have been removed; she gives a cry of despair and then proceeds to describe them anyway. For us, the photographs are there, as they would always have been, in words. The problem with Moonglow, however, is actually a shortage of playfulness. The book presents itself as a memoir, however implausible some episodes, and however neatly events are made to chime with what Chabon must know is publicly known about his real life. (A hat belonging to a real-life first wife surfaces late on). But memoirs have their own characteristic style and sound, and this book just doesn’t attempt it...It is beautifully and absorbingly written. But the inventive poetry of the writing is that of fiction, and not of the memoir it pretends to be ... It’s a handsome piece of work, but somehow leashed ... Sobriety doesn’t really suit him: the wonderful spliff-heavy rapture of Telegraph Avenue and the transvestite with the tuba in Wonder Boys are more representative of his unique contributions to American letters.