RaveThe Herald (UK)Are novels more frivolous than non-fiction? Not in Julian Barnes’s universe. His are as thought-provoking as any history or biography, and never more so than in this latest offering, which is as much a work of ethics and philosophy as of invention ... Barnes’s style is so compellingly undemonstrative – almost self-effacing – it would be easy to gulp it down without pausing to chew. Rarely, though, has he offered more to digest ... The novel takes the form of a partisan memoir, as Neil recalls her inspirational teaching, and tries to discover more about her ... The premise behind the novel is intriguing ... Split into three parts, the central portion of Elizabeth Finch is Neil’s essay on Julian. Leavened by his companionable voice, and drawing on progressively more favourable historical judgements, it is a lesson in time lending perspective. Not until the novel concludes, however, does its purpose become fully clear ... Sophisticated and subtle, it is also enthralling. Using Neil’s fellow students to offer fresh perspectives, the author holds various surprises and revelations in reserve to keep the plot’s gentle momentum going. By the book’s end, its obvious narrative artifice is outweighed by its probing profundity.
RaveThe Scotland Herald (UK)... the plot is filigreed with individual and collective stories, each a nugget that, in Smith’s world, is as precious as gold ... Not that these, or the novel itself, are conventional plots, with a beginning, middle and end. As in almost all her previous work Smith tinkers with time, bringing the past into the present, as if that’s where it belongs, and leaving us guessing the outcome for her characters ... So peculiar, so Ali Smith, you might say. And if, like me, this is the sort of thing you like, then Companion Piece will be a treat. Not that it is unalloyed pleasure. Much of it is a state-of-the-nation commentary, tugging the imagination, conscience and heartstrings. With every book, Smith’s voice grows more beguiling and powerful. Underpinned by rage, bemusement and humour, her stories take on the world from unexpected angles. In so doing they offer startling illumination ... Although it is a gimlet-eyed record of our times, Companion Piece is no dirge. Smith’s talent is to infuse dread and despair with visions of better days, and possibilities of positive change. At its core is the worth and fragility of every living thing.
PositiveThe Herald Scotland (UK)Laurie has a descriptive talent, finding beauty and meaning in whatever he surveys ... an unflinching account of what it takes to turn into a farmer, bearing callouses, bruises and scars. .. There is a propulsive energy that carries it across pages where his lyricism or introspection threaten to bog him down. Favourite words are frequently over-used (drooling, dribbling) and for a writer with an innate sense of rhythm, a few sentences jar ... Frankly and confidingly written, it is so obviously a labour of love it inspires awe for Laurie’s heroic dedication. Few could fail to be impressed by his resolve to bring some kind of ecological balance back to his few acres, at considerable personal cost ... His attempt to reclaim some of that older and better way is moving as well as inspirational.
PositiveThe Herald (UK)It is a timely and original reappraisal, adding an extra dimension to a figure renowned for his political acuity who, it emerges, was equally interested in flowers ... Weaving Orwell’s biography sketchily throughout, Solnit is more at ease in the realm of ideas than of gardens. Here, she feels on shaky ground. She does not think like a gardener, nor seem to appreciate its meaning for those who immerse themselves in their own patch of the great outdoors ... Solnit’s version of Orwell’s life is not intended as a full-scale biography. Instead, its aspirations lie in the author letting her mind roam freely on the connections between Orwell’s love of nature and its beauty and his political ideas, between the meaning of cultivating the land in our time, as well as his. In some ways the link is simple and obvious ... Solnit describes Orwell’s essay, \'A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray,\' as \'a triumph of meandering\'. Orwell’s Roses is equally discursive, leaping from Orwell to the Mexican photographer of roses Tina Modotti, or Stalin’s insistence on growing lemons out of season in icy Moscow. Some of her literary digressions cover well-trodden ground, such as the erotic photography of Robert Mapplethorpe. Most of them suggest a butterfly-catcher swiping the air, hoping to net something memorable.
RaveThe Herald Scotland (UK)Duras’s disappointment with the timidity of most writing could be the inspiration for Levy’s individual, seemingly effortless but highly crafted style ... conversational and coolly confessional ... pulses with ideas and emotion. Honest, original, invigorating and at times challenging, it captures Levy’s singular life, and the foundations on which it is built.
RaveThe Herald (UK)Mullan has taken the most popular Victorian novelist and, by holding different facets of his literary technique up to the light, found new angles from which to admire the work. By the end of this teacherly but readable analysis, Dickens’s novels are sparkling as if spring-cleaned ... What at first feels like a primer, with an over-excited leaping from one example to the next, gradually exerts its hold ... By examining how Dickens used supernatural occurrences to indicate a person’s state of mind, or took coincidence to preposterous lengths, or used the present tense in a manner then unheard of, Mullan with one hand tears the books limb from limb, and with the other stitches them back together ... a fulsome tribute to a writer whose commonly perceived flaws are part of what makes him great. It creates a rich kaleidoscope, as the same faces and stories whirl repeatedly before our eyes.
MixedThe Scotland Herald (UK)Shadowplay...shows a writer in the full bloom of maturity. From the offset his storytelling is sure, delivered with panache. The bare bones of the tale...are true, but in place of plodding fact O’Connor offers a layered, intricately told historical drama ... the verbal duets throughout this book sing most loudly, a clamorous, often brash brass section to the rest of the orchestra. At times, the rodomontade is tiresome, as most actorly rhetoric usually is. Perhaps aware of this, O’Connor constructs his story through various devices, much as Dracula was composed. It unfolds through letters, memoir, newspaper cuttings and recordings, stretching across the years from Stoker leaving Ireland to 1912, when he dies. Skilful as all this is, however, it left me unmoved. Perhaps because of the gothic tone of its dramatic events, and the often overwrought setting, it feels contrived and artificial. The best word for it, I suppose, is theatrical.
RaveThe Herald Scotland (UK)[O\'Donnell] is an honest writer, who scrupulously avoids glamorising or exculpating her family ... In piecing together the way her great-grandparents and her grandmother navigated the war, O’Donnell paints a portrait of millions of unseen, unrecorded citizens: those who tried to keep their heads down, who did no active harm, but whose blinkered view, or eagerness to save their own kin, helped create hell on earth ... It is sobering to reflect that Inge’s reactions are of especial historical interest because, as her clear-eyed but admiring granddaughter writes, \'My grandmother’s life was not one of innocence or guilt. It was one of extraordinary events, of the things we do to survive, and how they shape our lives.\'
PositiveThe Scotland Herald (UK)As with a play, the novel unfolds with the stately, mannered, self-conscious air of a troupe of travelling players treading the boards, each delivering lines in a different accent, their voices creating a chorus from another age ... Meek has written about the past before...but this is something new. Using a language of his own making, bolted together from archaisms, and embellished by imagination, he attempts to enter the mouths and minds of people so far distant from us the gulf feels too wide to bridge. With some characters he is more successful than others. The noblewoman Berna and her kind speak in such a stilted, artificial way it defies suspension of disbelief. ... Yet despite its many flaws, there is a mesmerising quality to the way in which the more lowly characters talk, and reflect, that turns To Calais, In Ordinary Time from a worthy attempt at historical imagination into something altogether more inventive and risky ... It will not be to all tastes but for those who surrender themselves to the flow, it gradually exerts an almost magnetic pull.
MixedThe Herald (UK)Now, with her third novel, McBride has eased off the staccato, and her sentences flow in rhythm with her protagonist’s thoughts: anguished, panicky, revolving, repetitive, and occasionally humorous. In common with the first two books, however, is its bedrock of sexual self-expression, and the claustrophobic sensation she creates of being trapped in an angst-ridden woman’s mind ... Not until the final pages does McBride reveal the purpose behind this woman’s incessant hotel and bed hopping. It might feel an insufficient explanation, but the agony McBride conveys shows that we are in exceptional territory in terms of emotional pain ... Such a narrative technique unfortunately can turn curiosity into a penance, as if the reader is complicit with the author in teasing out the meaning of every sentence, and where it might lead. The banality of getting into a hotel room or checking out the mini bar is neither interesting nor revealing. It is the fictional equivalent of dead air or treading water, with the result that, while this is not a long book, it sometimes feels like one.
RaveThe Scotland Herald (UK)[Bowen\'s] stories are remarkable in countless ways. For a start, the earliest of them, such as \'Daffodils\', are as good as those when she was at the height of her powers ... Bowen’s language is opaline and mesmerising. Overwrought characters play out their part against a backdrop conjured with painterly style, the fall of light through an evening window or shadows against a wall, almost as significant as the storyline itself ... Bowen ruthlessly plumbs psychological depths. This is not done coldly, but with needle-sharp precision. It is tempting to wonder if her happy early childhood were the bedrock from which she was to observe and measure a world that her characters, mean or decent, careless or sensitive, must negotiate all alone.
MixedThe Herald (UK)Miller is never less than a pungent, atmospheric writer ... But despite the occasional line of Gaelic, and a handful of Scots words, none of the chapters or passages set in the Hebrides, or Glasgow, carries an authentic note or mood of Scottishness ... A little heavy-handed also are the nods to the early 19th century ... So from promising beginnings, Now We Shall be Completely Free comes disappointingly adrift. Even the conclusion of Calley’s murderous mission, the wire on which all events are to this point tensely strung, is oddly rushed and unsatisfying. By the story’s end, it feels less as if you have seen how war can make even a decent man heartless, and more that you’ve been given a history lesson, one that you did not necessarily need.
PositiveThe Herald (UK)...the predominant note is not wistfulness or regret, but a bracing, refreshing astringency ... In Jacobson’s gnarled hands, there is no room for self-pity in this almost merciless depiction of age and its terrors. As a result, Live a Little is airless, claustrophobically intense ... Live a Little is an angry book, as well as tartly funny and audacious. It needs more than one reading for its full meaning to be mined, and its literary, historical and political references grasped. So too the hard-hitting barbs, Jacobson’s aphorisms memorably punctuating the plot. This is an unflinching portrait of great old age ... In precis, the bare bones of this novel appear to be cruel, and on one level is it the most unforgiving of stories. On another, as the resolution approaches, it is generous.
Javier Marías Trans. by Margaret Jull Costa
PositiveThe HeraldReferences to fiction and poetry recur in this elegant, discursive, persuasively vivid novel ... As always, plot is secondary to the scenario Marias explores. In this he is a philosopher, like his father, endlessly deliberating moral quandaries. He knows that the surface hides much of what really matters. This is an enthralling work, but not everything is as seamless or satisfying as in some of his other novels. When the structure of the book becomes clear, the narrative duet undermines its tension. And there is a downbeat tone, a detached air, that overwhelms any sense of propulsion. Just once is there high drama – superbly executed – when Berta’s baby is mortally threatened by Tomas’s enemies. The reverberations of that roll down the years, but for the most part the novel takes place in its characters’ heads. Marias is nevertheless clever in deploying a bloodless tone for a most disturbing subject. The result is powerful and indelible. What begins as a love story turns into tragedy of a peculiarly cruel nature. It is bearable, even enjoyable, only because he spares us all the details, and focusses on the essentials.
PositiveThe Scotland Herald (UK)Pulitzer-winner Colson Whitehead’s novel is so steeped in cruelty, injustice and neglect you have sometimes to look away from the page, and pause to draw breath ... The Nickel Boys is...historic, but barely. Indeed, what makes this book so painful, beyond its harrowing plot, is that it is based on real events, and those events are recent ... Whitehead has been criticised by New Yorker critic James Wood for his over-energetic prose. What impresses about The Nickel Boys, however, is his measured tone. It is as if the bare bones of what he writes speak for themselves, and require no emphasis or artificial colour ... There is an airlessness and pitiless momentum to this novel. Whitehead, one feels, has had to rein in his rage and sorrow to allow the story to unfold plainly ... What follows is an account that speaks not just to the appalling treatment of the black boys in the Nickel – modelled on The Florida School for Boys – but highlights sinister parallels with our own age. As recent incidents have shown, in pockets of America there exists a state, at best, of indifference to people of colour, at worst of hostility and racist abuse.