Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett
PanThe Guardian\"In many ways the conversation already seems dated in its political preoccupations ... The Horsemen agree eagerly that they are all very brave ... New Atheism’s arguments were never very sophisticated or historically informed ... This is where the preeningly fearless insistence on entertaining uncomfortable questions can so easily lead ... In its messianic conviction that it alone serves the cause of truth, this too is a faith as noxious as any other.\
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe book, indeed, rarely pauses to consider pesky counterexamples to...grand claims. It is a manifesto-style sequence of 100 numbered sections, flitting from one subject to another. Mr. Rushkoff is on firmest ground when discussing his central theme: that, of all Earth’s animals, humans are especially good at \'working and playing together,\' and it is only the virtue of social cooperation that might lead us out of the current mess. But how, exactly? ... The concrete suggestions here...are rather thin ... Mr. Rushkoff does have a gift for the counterintuitive aphorism, which occasionally sparkles through the clouds ... The book’s structure enables him to wander off on some curious tangents. He gives a thoroughly garbled account of the difference between vinyl and digital music formats that seems to rest on a series of technical misunderstandings ... The casual, riffing style also skates past a lot of complications in its invocation of a magical pre-internet golden age ... The book is at its best when inferring a social diagnosis from a small, telling detail ... Overall, Team Human paints our current predicament with infectious élan and energy ... The book’s own style of fractured attention and shallow detail, however, can often seem as much a symptom of this problem as a solution to it.
MixedThe GuardianA curious literary artefact ... It’s all highly entertaining, and a fine excuse to watch the movie again, even if it could have used a bit more research ... Dyer can’t help writing brilliant sentences even if he is not always trying very hard.
Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson
MixedThe GuardianMuch of the heavy lifting of analysis and argument has already been done in the previous book [The Spirit Level], and this one contains more opinion, speculation and arguable interpretation of evidence, as the authors wander off briefly into different fields of inquiry ... For all the power of the book’s data and charts the reader may remain unconvinced that inequality explains everything bad, and greater equality explains everything good, about happiness levels in different countries ... But, the authors argue, capitalism also needs to be overthrown because climate change demands a social revolution ... this nice rhetoric is a bit woolly, and short on persuasive details of how a zero-carbon, zero-growth nirvana may be achieved.
Torill Kornfeldt, Trans. by Fiona Graham
PositiveThe GuardianAdvances in gene-editing technology promise to make \'de‑extinction\' a potentially viable enterprise, but what exactly is the point? To answer this question, the Swedish science journalist Torill Kornfeldt has travelled to meet the researchers involved for this excellent book, written with a deceptively light touch (in Fiona Graham’s translation), that raises a number of deep questions and paradoxes about our relationship with nature ... There are no right or wrong answers in this area, but as Kornfeldt implies, the rhetoric of such debates still revolves around a few presumptive virtues that are rarely interrogated deeply.
RaveThe GuardianYou probably think you have beliefs, desires, fears, a personality, an \'inner life\', maybe even a subconscious. Poppycock, says Nick Chater, a behavioural psychologist. All that stuff is folk nonsense...The book could equally have been called The Mind Is Shallow, though potential readers might have found that more off-puttingly rude ... This is one of those books that is a superb exposition of scientific findings, from which the author proceeds to draw highly polemical and speculative inferences. There are beautiful discussions of how little we actually see around us: eye-tracking software can show us a page filled with Xs with one word positioned exactly where we are looking , and we have the experience of seeing a full page of text.
Richard K Morgan
PositiveThe Guardian[A] super-fluid action thriller ... a dazzlingly intricate game of political double- and triple-cross, spiced with tastily kinetic battle sequences ... Luckily most of the action happens outside the bedroom, and it’s expertly written. Morgan is very good at the mild, pleasurable alienation of unexplained but workable-out vocabulary items ... Most of all, Tak Veil’s first-person narration is addictive and deceptively highly wrought: it’s casual and coarse, as befits a former mercenary, yet highly imagistic and sensuously attuned ... By the end, rather unkindly, you hope he gets sucked back into it in a sequel.
PositiveThe GuardianHorowitz has...come up with an excellent villain: a tremendously corpulent Corsican drug-dealer named Scipio ... Horowitz is good at action scenes, which he helps along with emotive adjectives ... Inevitably, the prose throughout is more verbose and cliched than the brutal efficiencies of Fleming, but Forever and a Day is still an enjoyably compact thriller, with an absolutely killer last line. Scattered throughout the book, too, are some pleasingly echt Bond moments, as when he tells one of his captors: \'It would be nice to know your name when I kill you.\'
Eric Vuillard, Trans. by, Mark Polizzotti
RaveThe Guardian\"In this obsidian gemstone of a book, the novelist and film-maker Éric Vuillard uses such details—moments of farce, historical flotsam—to conduct a powerful argument against the inevitability of history ... In Mark Polizzotti’s translation, the prose has an aphoristic gleam ... And [Vuillard] is brilliant on the authoritarian’s relationship to the law, when describing how Hitler insisted that the Austrian president must accept his chancellor’s resignation ... However you decide to categorize it, this is a thoroughly gripping and mesmerizing work of black comedy and political disaster.\
MixedThe GuardianIt is surprising to see a professional philosopher talking of \'mere abstraction\' here. Few people today will stand up for abstraction, but it is a keystone of all intellectual endeavour, as Nietzsche himself well knew ... Kaag has a pleasingly wry, compact style, and is particularly interesting on thinkers that Nietzsche influenced heavily: Herman Hesse and Theodor Adorno ... Nietzsche’s demand is that you should joyfully embrace such a prospect; indeed, to do so he calls the \'highest formula of affirmation\'. Kaag rather spoils the moment here by reducing this awful existential task to a version of the old metaphysical idea \'that the movement of reality is best described in terms of cycles and epicycles\'. But Nietzsche wasn’t making positive claims about the nature of material reality, he was throwing down a gauntlet; and we have still not picked it up.
Yuval Noah Harari
PanThe Wall Street JournalWe should, he recommends, \'switch from panic mode to bewilderment.\' Try telling yourself, he encourages the reader, \'I just don’t understand what’s going on in the world.\' The author, by contrast, writes as if he understands absolutely everything about what’s going on in the world but needn’t stoop to details. Many of the book’s chapters have their genesis in occasional pieces of journalism, and much of the text is windy punditry. There are many generalizing statements next to which this skeptical reader penciled, in the jargon of Wikipedia, \'citation needed\' ... Mr. Harari’s idea of technology is similarly more concerned with broad sweep than fact and plausibility ... This book is marketed as history and promises to guide us through the present and near future, and yet by the conclusion its overriding tone is rather mystically navel-gazing.
PanThe GuardianThis book is his long-brewed revenge ... There’s a really big problem with Morris’s account, and it’s right there in his book’s subtitle: Kuhn did not, in fact, \'deny reality.\' He simply insisted that we could ultimately never know the fundamental truth about reality ... this book’s central and rather hysterically repeated accusation, that Kuhn thought reality didn’t exist and science was merely a social power game, is just plain wrong ... [Morris is] going on a flamethrower rampage from the start in an attempt to reduce everything to smouldering ash.
Bill Clinton & James Patterson
MixedThe Guardian\"Patterson, who never knowingly writes a paragraph when a single sentence will do, also seems highly unlikely to have authored all the prose-blocks of sorrowful asides on the state of the media and politics today ... Throughout, the story regularly halts for folksy homilies on police shootings of African Americans (bad), stricter gun control (good), or the desirability of friendly relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia. But never mind, because soon we will cut to a sexy vegetarian assassin dangling from a tree, or a silent helicopter making stuff blow up, or Secret Service men clenching their jaws in moodily lit rooms as their maverick president plans to do something they don’t like. As long as it concentrates on this stuff, the forthcoming Showtime TV series will no doubt be a hit.\
MixedThe Wall Street Journal\"With admirable clarity and ease, Mr. Kaku rehearses the history of rocketry and the formation of the planets, and explains how we might colonize not only Mars but some of the rocky moons of the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn ...The book has an infectious, can-do enthusiasm and is occasionally even a little silly. But since the author covers so much ground—appropriately enough for a book about traveling the universe—no subject can be treated in great depth ... What, meanwhile, does a highly speculative work of popular science such as this one do that a well-researched work of science fiction doesn’t? Mr. Kaku understands SF’s attractions—he introduces chapter topics by mentioning movies (such as Interstellar) or novels (such as Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series). But a lot of modern science fiction is richer than Mr. Kaku’s treatments of his subjects in technical detail as well as in emotional heft.\
RaveThe Wall Street JournalSome chapters are elegant profiles of scientists and mathematicians ... Some pieces limn the history of a certain idea ... Other chapters are long book reviews, as when Mr. Holt...gently savages (\'a book that prizes difficulty but not rigor\') a book...by David Foster Wallace. Another book he describes as \'full of the sort of excess detail that mathematicians call ‘hair.\'\' In this sense it is a pleasure to report that, aside from a few inevitable repetitions between essays, Mr. Holt’s book is perfectly bald.
PositiveThe Guardian\"Will Storr’s thoughtful and engaging book comes at the idea of the human self’s relationship with itself from many angles ... Storr is sympathetic...but it’s worth pointing out that the suggestion that an entire new generation of young people is selfish in unprecedented ways is the kind of thing that the grumpy middle-aged have been saying since time immemorial. And recently, quite a few of the young seem to have found time away from selfie-taking to vote for decidedly anti-neoliberal policies. So, although Storr’s cultural history is fascinating and often persuasive, his diagnosis of where we are now might well be too pessimistic.\
Jo Nesbø, Trans. by Don Bartlett
PositiveThe GuardianNesbø orchestrates scenes of blackmail and fighting with the slickness of a writer who has sold 36m crime novels. There are odd touches of the supernatural, sometimes with a naturalistic alternative explanation. (The ghost of the murdered Banquo turns up at a dinner, but Macbeth might just be hallucinating because he’s high.) Nesbø finds some clever twists, too ... At times the novel strains credulity ... The book’s style, in Don Bartlett’s translation from the Norwegian, is workmanlike ... This is in the end a deliciously oppressive page-turner that, like The Tragedy of Macbeth itself, seems to harbour something ineradicably evil at its core.
MixedThe Guardian\"A novel can be awfully long without being long-winded. Gnomon, however, reads like the first draft of what might have been a tighter 400-page book rather than a rambling 700-pager. Progress is routinely halted by sketchy Wikipedia-style exposition-dumps about tidal flow or behavioural economics, or a character asking herself a whole page or two of questions about what just happened, or vague disquisitions on the meaning of identity. Things are repeatedly explained, unnecessarily ... the novel wants very much to be propelled by dramatic tension and a sense of jeopardy, but there can’t really be any when a plot proceeds as this one does, essentially from one deus ex machina to the next. Pretty much anything can happen, so you can’t make educated guesses about what might occur next ... Of all the characters, though, the most interesting is actually the least human, and the one after whom the novel is named...He is angry and funny, and a really interesting effort at portraying a consciousness that at some level is irreducibly alien. As the novel itself rather too insistently hopes, it is Gnomon’s voice you remember most clearly after the end.\
PositiveThe GuardianEveryone falls in love with Amber in a different way. But who is she, and what does she want? Essentially this is a modern-day reworking of Pasolini's 1968 film Theorem, in which unexpected dinner guest Terence Stamp charismatically destroys a bourgeois family. Here, too, the lives of Eve, Michael, Magnus and Astrid will never be the same after Amber's visitation … The Accidental has an infectious sense of fun and invention. The story goes through some surprising reversals and arrives at a satisfying conclusion, which is also a beginning.
Robert M. Sapolsky
PositiveThe GuardianSapolsky goes back through adolescence, childhood and gestation (including genetics), and, beyond the birth of the individual, to more distant causes still – those found in culture, evolutionary psychology, game theory and comparative zoology. He makes the book consistently entertaining, with an infectious excitement at the puzzles he explains, and wry dude-ish asides ... This book is a miraculous synthesis of scholarly domains, and at the same time laudably careful in its determination to point out at every step the limits of our knowledge ... But Sapolsky’s insistence on the truth of strict determinism poses wider problems for the way he frames the rest of his book ... It remains debatable, though, whether strict determinism is compatible with Sapolsky’s final message of hope for humanity.
Mark Z. Danielewski
PositiveThe GuardianThere is something very wrong. The Navidson Record becomes a vérité horror film as Will and his friends try to explore the anomalous space, which rearranges itself periodically with a roar, and expands into terrifying volumes of darkness … Danielewski...weaves around his brutally efficient and genuinely chilling story a delightful and often very funny satire of academic criticism. In one way, and after the manner of Moby-Dick, the novel is its own Leviathan commentary … House of Leaves...is a superbly inventive creation. It is not mere genre fiction, because the author so gleefully ignores the conventions of horror: no finally unmasked monster, no ghosts, no malign extraterrestrials. There is only the house.
RaveThe Guardian...[a] splendidly entertaining and ingenious first novel ... The third-person narrative voice, in era-appropriate style, is the book’s great comic triumph ... Throughout Golden Hill, Spufford creates vivid, painterly scenes of street and salon life, yet one never feels as though a historical detail has been inserted just because he knew about it. Here is deep research worn refreshingly lightly ... The whole thing, then, is a first-class period entertainment, until at length it becomes something more serious. The comedy gives way to darker tones, and Smith’s secret is at last revealed – but the novel, most pleasingly, still has one more trick up its sleeve.
MixedThe Guardian...an enjoyably driving techno-thriller with literary ambition, and as such it may be read as being in close dialogue with the work of SF demigod William Gibson, admirers of whom may see in this novel a lot of influence, even outright homage ... Void Star’s particular tricksiness lies in its not revealing when some apparently physical location might be a virtual hallucination — and even when some apparently real characters are just memory reconstructions running on computers, unbeknown to themselves or the reader. This is clever, but sometimes feels cheap: a character will die dramatically, only for it to turn out that it was just a copy ... But Void Star’s larger drawback is that, as its storylines converge in virtual spaces, everything begins to seem ethereally confusing and abstract.
Mathias Enard, Trans. by Charlotte Mandell
PositiveThe Guardian\"As a literary genre, the stream-of-consciousness epic is by now rather old and conservative, even though new versions are regularly hailed as daringly experimental. Compass, in its relentlessly discursive impressiveness, embodies an uncompromising vision of the novel as relatively static political and cultural essay – at least until the final few pages, when, miraculously, real-time events intrude upon Franz’s reverie, and the book concludes with a surprisingly upbeat, if not sentimental, flourish. As the dawn does for our sleepless hero, this comes as a relief to the reader, who emerges from this strangely powerful work as from a feverish dream.\
PositiveThe GuardianThe book’s best and most original contribution is a chapter that patiently demolishes the idea that cultural products ever actually 'go viral.' The disease model, in which people infect other people who in turn infect others, simply doesn’t explain massive hits ... he has conducted a lot of interviews and read some original research. Yet occasionally he does seem to hang a lot on a single, rather obscure study that may not warrant such confident extrapolations, and he sometimes slips himself into the zombie semantics of marketing speak ... So is Hit Makers a hit in the making? Well, one of the key things the author wants us to understand throughout is this: 'Most consumers are simultaneously neophilic – curious to discover new things – and deeply neophobic – afraid of anything that’s too new.' Or, to put it less pseudo-scientifically, people want something that’s a bit new but also deeply familiar. It is surely no coincidence that Hit Makers, a book of a very familiar type with a couple of good new twists, is the ideal kind of product for such an audience.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMr. Johnson’s narrative is crammed with elegantly told vignettes from the history of ideas...But what do all these subjects have in common? By the end, Mr. Johnson is invoking the brain’s dopamine system in a neural pseudo-explanation; his conclusions seemingly reduce the idea of play to a simple desire for novelty, driven by something he calls 'the surprise instinct' ... But much of the book’s material seems to be thrown in merely because it is interesting (which it is), and the ambition to link it all under the conceptual umbrella of 'play' doesn’t work.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThis is one of those books that overuses the first-person plural, constantly claiming that 'we' fear this or that, or that 'we' have this or that wrong-headed idea, or that 'we are also miserable and bored.' Play Anything is nonetheless an erudite and often amusing book, not so much an extended argument as a series of variations on a theme, with a wide range of reference ... Less successful are the book’s aspirations to being a self-help manual ... Where the book functions best as a critique of modern culture is in its insistence that we moderns are too self-obsessed and inward-looking.
MixedThe GuardianCuriously, Gleick does not go into much detail about the scientific work on time travel of the last few decades, because he is convinced that physicists working on the subject have just read too much science fiction (they have, he condescendingly writes, been 'unwittingly conditioned' by it), and are wasting their own and everyone else’s, um, time ... What, then, is Gleick’s cultural diagnosis? He argues that the persistent dream of time travel is a cultural fantasy of escaping the worries of the present, and in particular of eluding death. This is perceptive and no doubt true, but it would still be true even if time travel were in fact theoretically possible. The author, however, seems too impatient to keep an open mind on the matter ... Time Travel is written with his usual elegance, but there is something morose about it, as though, having embarked on the work, he now can’t believe he is obliged to put all these supposedly clever people right about their stupid fantasies. Indeed, one ends the book intrigued mostly by the quirk of authorial psychology by which someone would choose to write a history of an idea that he is convinced is not only impossible but ridiculous.
RaveThe Guardian...[a] superb book ... Thompson’s own experience in the media is brilliantly deployed throughout for insight. Few other commentators on the subject can call on such depth of personally informed analysis ... Thompson is a sharp and entertaining analyst of political language itself, drawing on terms from classical rhetoric.
PanThe GuardianWolfe tells these stories with the kind of free-wheeling vim familiar from his brilliant books such as The Right Stuff and The Bonfire of the Vanities. Particularly in the way he ventriloquises the thoughts and worries of his protagonists, the book is superbly written, when it doesn’t tip over into a kind of self-parodic babble. The only problem with Wolfe’s tales, really, is that they are irresponsibly partial accounts, riddled with elementary falsehoods...The Kingdom of Speech, then, is a sad example of the interface of literary celebrity with publishing. An author less famous and bankable than Wolfe would surely have been saved from such embarrassment by more critical editorial attention.
PanThe GuardianJust like his communist-minded opponents, then, Scruton seems to think exclusively in terms of an embattled 'us' versus a homogenous 'them.' The overall effect is quite gloomy. Sadly not countenanced within these pages is the possibility that a person might not care for Lacan or Deleuze but still admire Sartre, Jacques Derrida and Žižek — and, for that matter, Scruton.
PositiveThe GuardianHis tour of the continent is a richly diverting exercise, organised into sections on languages and their families, history, politics, writing, vocabulary, grammar and state of endangeredness. He has something interesting to point out about nearly every topic...and delivers a brilliant lesson in how to decipher Cyrillic.
MixedThe GuardianThe pages of Arcadia flip by easily, and there is fun in trying to guess exactly how its different worlds are related. Yet the novel overall has a curious feeling of weightlessness: ideas are thrown together without much compelling detail or texture.
PositiveThe Guardian[Everything is] evoked in miniature, with tremendous economy. So the reader is going to have to work out her own line readings. Williams has often been called an 'avant garde' writer, but that doesn’t mean these stories are hard to read or unentertaining. What she is brilliant at, though, is making ordinary language seem newly strange ... Williams’s exquisitely deadpan method can result in a story that evidently means something devastating but is so obliquely sketched that the moral is left tantalisingly out of reach. Or it can produce something that just seems hermetic and odd.
Kenzaburo Oe, Trans. by Deborah Boehm
PositiveThe GuardianOne hopes this is all deliberate, and, at length, so it turns out: Oe wants the reader to get lost, too, in a forest of stories and competing memories... At length what seemed oppressively solipsistic widens out, almost imperceptibly, into a book that is also about politics, war and the place of women in modern Japanese society.