RaveThe Scotsman (UK)I was more than delighted to read Jing Tsu’s incredibly fascinating book ... As Jing Tsu eloquently shows, from typewriters to telegrams to digitisation there has been a paradox at the centre of China’s infrastructure ... Jing Tsu makes an important point that Chinese has a vast number of tonal variations and homophones. She quotes, brilliantly ... The book would be dry if it were not for the cast of characters. We meet engineers, novelists, monks, rogues, brave librarians, imprisoned geniuses. It humanises what might seem like a fringe concern. It also gives the reader insight into the geopolitical dilemmas around what was once brush-marks on paper ... Jing Tsu’s book may be as prophetic as it is historical.
RaveThe Scotsman (UK)... [a] deftly structured and white-hot furious novel ... It is a whirlwind...radical and profoundly fabulist. It is about the stories we are told and whether there is the possibility of there being new stories ... a very intriguing cross-section of 20th century, subterranean Scottish social history.
RaveThe Scotsman (UK)This is one of the most extraordinary books it has been my privilege to review ... tolling repetitions have shades of Beckett, and they do, in a very elegant fashion, mean the reader gives a slightly different timbre to the refrain. It is as if the same words can not mean the same thing ... tonally diverse ... It may seem to sprawl and digress but is phenomenally engineered. If I were a Booker judge again, I would move heaven and earth to get this on the shortlist.
RaveThe Scotsman (UK)\"... like a ghost-written hybrid of a John le Carré thriller, the postmodern philosophy of Jacques Derrida and a sci-fi romp all at the same time ... At one level this is about the choreography of the human body; at another it is—since the studies involve production lines—a horrific vision of how to make humans more efficient, or rather, more like robots...with some wonderful comedy about getting the physics right about a sex scene in zero gravity ... It reads like a parody of Star Wars or Flash Gordon, with a loveable rogue and a haughty princess, and sending these tropes up, McCarthy shows how all these stories contain their own precedents ... McCarthy has, in the old sense of the word, wit ... There is something uplifting about McCarthy’s work. He makes you think and he makes you think things you hadn’t thought before, in stark opposition to the bourgeois novel of manners ... That seems to encapsulate both the cleverness and the prankishness of this most intriguing of contemporary writers.
RaveThe Scotsman (UK)It is a rending read, and all the better for that. The characters are so deftly done, in all their ambiguities, that the catastrophe is actually meaningful ... Hall deploys an effective jittery jump-cut to the passage of time ... The book is frank, and had as much about menstruation as copulation. It seems more the descendant of writers like Anaïs Nin and Georges Bataille in its yoking of the erotic and the violent, the morbid and the sublime. But: both prude and trigger warning, it really is frank. That the body is a source of joy and a site of decay is integral to the novel’s meaning. You might want to close your eyes at the sex scenes, but you’ll definitely want to when the descriptions of necrosis and suffering hove into view ... I found one of the most admirable things about Burntcoat the almost metaphysical musings on the virus. There is an aghast admiration for its adaptability ... There will be more that attempt to understand The Curious Years [of the pandemic], but Hall has set a bar, and few will be as finely wrought, intellectually brave and emotionally honest as this is.
Jocelyn Nicole Johnson
MixedThe Scotsman (UK)This is a striking, if sometimes strident, novel ... chilling, affecting and intelligent, but it does seem to be critic-proofed. Who, after all, would criticise a novel that calls out racism? That said, there is a difference between agreeing with the moral and political propositions of a book and understanding its status as an act of literature ... sparse and indignant, pared back and simmering ... I would very much have liked more about Da’Naisha and Knox’s relationship, in that he veers between being genuinely concerned about his white privilege (and is even estranged from his father through dating someone of colour) and his incapacity not to patronise ... The problem with the novel is not in intent, but in structure. I read through it expecting two closures ... A first person narrative in which the person never seems to be writing, or telling us why they are writing, can be slightly off-key ... the absence of any scenes where the narrator actually puts pen to paper or types renders it slightly unsatisfying. The battle is coming, but we are never told the outcome. This is deft, but also a dodge. Would these people take up arms against those who would harm them? ... The characters are always identified by the problematic notion of skin. Johnson runs through a whole spectrum of ways of describing skin colour, but there is one consistency. Black is always Black, where brown, olive, honey, golden, pale, white are all in lower case. One can see the point: this is an assertion of Black identity. Nevertheless, it jars. Hierarchies are not disrupted by reversing them. For all its virtues, My Monticello is relentless in driving home its message, often at the expense of expanding the secondary characters. I could not tell you much about the personality of the twins, the religious neighbour, the students activists on the run, the fascists. Most of us have had the memo. What we require is the humanity.
PositiveThe Scotsman (UK)There are multiple misdirections that seem more like Rankin than McIlvanney, and the revelation about the murderer was fairly easy to guess, but satisfying nonetheless. There are also a few references for the aficionados ... Tonally, it seems to be in the right key from the opening word ... The Dark Remains is both enjoyable and thought-provoking. I did wonder if the actual McIlvanney ur-text might ever be released, so one can sift through which piece of the jigsaw went where.
MixedThe Scotsman (UK)It is not a book that I resented reading – it passed the time adequately. There is an interesting idea about goodness in it ... All this is interesting, in a way that Iris Murdoch made such questions almost dangerous. Here, there is a candy-coating ... Although I said it was Jonathan Franzen self-consciously writing a Jonathan Franzen novel, that is not wholly true. I think it is Jonathan Franzen trying to write a Marilynne Robinson novel. Robinson is the most theologically sophisticated and subtle writer of our times. Franzen spells out the difference between a Mennonite and an Anabaptist. Robinson deals with errant children, quivering faith and quiet redemptions; Franzen has kids going off the rails, adultery and compromise ... there are moments of very astute and fine writing in this. Some scenes will stay with me, and some resonate. The depictions of drug use, depression, moral laxity, moral abyss are all done with earnest feeling ... Franzen aches to be profound, but ends up a vox-pop. He wants to be a serious novelist, but is more of a social commentator. Not a prophet, instead a curtain twitcher on goings-on and of passable interest.
RaveThe Scotsman (UK)... a work that has a certain joy and a deep melancholy ... This is a very good thriller and so much more than a thriller. As with Colson’s previous work, this deals with race. But he does not deal with it in a simple, dichotomous way ... The subtlety of Carney’s character is key to this novel. External either/or-s plague him. The competing claims of loyalty and propriety, aspiration and anonymity, grift and grit run through the book on every level. It makes the reader wonder the whole time about the extent of sympathy to extend. This is a rare quality, to keep you double-guessing about how we are going to judge the character. It is also a moral proposition, which is rare in contemporary fiction.
PanThe Scotsman (UK)The problem with the book is...fundamental. The language around ecological and futurological writing is deeply fractious. \'Reconnecting with nature\' or \'back to the soil,\' transcendence via staring at mycorrhizal networks or shedding flesh to be q-bits in the eternal web; none of this comes without linguistic baggage. This book is not with a degree of apocalypse fetishism that both sides share ... Kingsnorth offers a pabulum Gaia. But I, for one, do not think that if the world is a massively complex, inter-related phenomenon, then a binary nihilism can be true. There is room for redemption ... Kingsnorth has written a significant and intriguing trilogy, but one I find hard to admire.
RaveThe Scotsman (UK)There is something delightfully disconcerting about the non-fiction work of Geoff Dyer. The books seems like a very amiable and intelligent conversation; all the more so with a book like See / Saw, where Dyer writes about photography (again) and makes the reader flip back and forth between the text and the image, making the whole experience a kind of dialogue. He is exceptionally genial company, and the musings move away from the photographs to freewheel around geopolitics and pornography, the meaning of statues or jazz, the poetry of WH Auden or the paintings of de Chirico. But for all the conviviality of ideas, an observant interlocutor might notice that all the while, Dyer has been sharpening a pencil while beguiling you. His prose is limpid and witty, and one is left in no doubt that what seemed like divagations and digressions and drifts were artfully crafted ... Not having known the works of most of the photographers beforehand is almost a blessing, in that it trains the reader in looking intently and perhaps even naively. Time and again I went back to the pictures and thought \'But why, Geoff, did you not mention that?\' ... Dyer is not merely a fine prose stylist but a writer of knowingly stylish prose ... I could open this book on any single page and find examples of clever alliteration, assonance, rhetorical flourish and little tourniquets of grammar ... This is both a beautifully written and a beautiful book. An old friend once offered the sage advice that one should always review non-fiction, because even if the book is bad, you will still learn something, but all you learn from a bad novel is how bad a novel can be. This is not in any sense a bad book. But it is a melancholy one.
RaveThe ScotsmanI read Maxwell’s Demon in proof in 2019, publication was delayed because of the pandemic, and it is now here. I re-read it in the finished copy and it was more than worth the wait, and rewarded being read twice. I found even more traps, foreboding fore-shadowings, dialogue that only reveals its true importance in retrospect, sly references and clever sleights of hand. It is also – ingeniously – about a long-awaited difficult second novel ... It moves at an exhilarating lick, as befits its pop culture propensities, but with highbrow sensibilities, its concerns including the Kabbalah, whether the world is made of words, the origins of the alphabet, the mythopoetic nature of the hero’s journey and what angels look like ... But the genius of the book is that despite it seeming like an elegant orrery, all these wheels within wheels are a carapace, a psychic armour against a grief (and it’s not the grief you were expecting). Beneath this truly beautiful astrolabe is a beating human heart.
PositiveScotsmanWhat does Andrew Marr, formerly of this parish, bring that is new to this discussion? Elizabethans takes a clear starting point – the coronation of our currently ruling monarch – and moves towards the days we are living through; the introduction cleverly elides the Queen’s speech about the NHS with the Prime Minister’s hospitalisation from Covid-19. Quite a contrast. What, I feel, it brings is a journalist’s eye for the human story ... It helps that Marr is such a well-known broadcaster, as you can hear the cadence and timbre of his intonation on almost every page. That is not a glib comment: there is an element of trust built into the book ... Throughout the book, this fascination with the stories of the people who became Elizabethans is both informative and entertaining.
RaveThe Spectator (UK).. sheer joy. Although I cantered through the book and welcomed its distraction during lockdown, there are enough hidden jokes and cunningly disguised rabbit holes to make one want to return to it ... a novel of lists, alliterations, allusions, swirling meditations on language, dictionaries, gender, puns, linguistic jokes, text-emojis, grawlixs, tildes and even the author’s own neologisms — I shall use ‘splayground’ henceforth. As such it will endear itself to cruciverbalists and lingueccentrics, pedants and those who hate pedantry ... But — and it judiciously uses Dr Johnson’s definition of the novel, ‘a small tale, generally of love’ — it has heart as well as hijinks and hi-hats. It deals with love as something which cannot be put into words, and dare not speak its name (done neither stridently nor sentimentally). It is, in short, a delight.
RaveThe Scotsman (UK)It would only be slightly unfair to refer to Philip Pullman’s new work as a \'stocking filler\'. He does, after all, have form in the short form ... There is little really of plot, but that is not the point. It is set-up, not revelation ... It’s a joy of a book, but a little joy. Given we know that Lyra will be off gallivanting across Europe soon, there is no sense of threat, and as such it will make a delightful Christmas gift.
PositiveThe Scotsman (UK)... a very good novel, but the inevitable seems ever closer for John Rebus ... Although it is billed as a thriller – and it has its thrilling points – this is a crime novel. It deploys one of the most successful tropes of the form, which makes the reader a kind of parallel detective, particularly by using parallel narratives ... It is, in a Sherlockian way, guessable – there are no last minute revelations. But piecing it together balances readerly patience with the impetus of the plot. It’s no surprise that Fox uses jigsaws as a metaphor during the novel ... Rankin actually writes the elderly very well; without caricature and without sentimentality ... The Rebus novels have always tacked closely to the contemporary, and this one (with, for example, the references to Brexit) is no exception; though even here there is a feeling of fatigue and ennui ... Rankin is also very good at class disparity.
RaveThe Scotsman (UK)It is rare for a novel to be genuinely funny and truly touching, and to also to raise significant philosophical questions ... structurally elegant, with entire sections made up of whole sentences, then a break ... Pathos, comedy, satire (there is no moon in Jared’s time since Elon Musk blew it up), a car-chase, The Great American Zero Sum game, daftness, a nefarious nemesis, what it means to be human (memory? emotion? reason? always making the wrong decisions?), a ghost section, parodies, anger, and a shining sense of the novel being ultimately a machine that makes humans a little more human if possible. It is probably too ebullient to be taken seriously for prizes ... You shall read this with unadulterated pleasure. It is the closest thing I’ve read in a long time to Terry Pratchett.
RaveThe Scotsman (UK)I would like to say I enjoyed this novel, but enjoyment would seem to be a singularly inappropriate response to it. It is a kind of lure, and it deals with ideas of luring in quite remarkable ways. Wyld’s previous two novels were both artfully constructed...This book is as equally ingenious, if not more so. The virtue of this kind of dislocated narration is that it allows the novelist to withhold information, to make the reader speculate on possible connections and how the different parts of the story interlock. It is a high-risk strategy: too neat and it seems like clockwork, too many loose threads and it seems ill-conceived. But here it is done with a very judicious blend of revelation and mystery ... It takes no small amount of skill to juggle such a structure. Through it all, the Bass Rock of the title glowers, eerily close and distant at the same time ... Wyld lures the reader into what might have been any other split-time frame, slightly quirky novel and then lets rip. As the men lure the women, the writer lures the reader ... What is very clever indeed is to use the gothic as part of this bold book. In effect, it is as much as disguise as a predator’s balaclava. The gothic allows for a certain comfort zone, that horrors are supernatural, that the nasty thing in the woodshed is a ghost or a goblin. No, the nasty thing is a human man. There is a decent man in the book, and he is a lush, and berates himself for not being a murderer. Wyld has constructed an elaborate trap. It is not about millennial angst, or post-war stifled politeness, or historical witchery. It is about the war that seems unending ... With each novel, Wyld gets better and better. I will personally snub anyone who dismisses this book as a #MeToo novel. It is – importantly – written with dreadful clarity.
RaveThe Scotsman (UK)Helen Macdonald’s series of studies is very much a sipper rather than a glugger. Read individually, they show a remarkable eloquence, intelligence and empathy; but read sequentially too often and the same concerns, the same phrases spring up ... Macdonald is famous for her deservedly-praised H Is For Hawk, and this book does provide the intersection of ecology and elegy which made that book so remarkable ... In terms of the connections between nature and capitalism, she is unfailingly acute ... Most readers will enjoy the more autobiographical parts most – and what’s not to like about an anecdote involving staving in the head of an ostrich with a rock and cutting its throat with a pen-knife, much to the bemusement of your employer? But the way different concerns are braided and twisted is done with extreme skill.
PositiveThe Scotsman (UK)It has all Smith’s exuberance with word-play ... The sequence began with Brexit and has to end with Covid-19. The pandemic sidles into the narrative almost unawares, and I think we can all appreciate that concern ... It ends with something like a blessing from a stranger to a stranger. It ends with a cautious optimism that we might, just might, have learned something from the past few months.
RaveThe Scotsman (UK)It is rare to read a novel with so many quotable quotes in it—which is why I said it is almost too good ... In all, it is a bravura performance from someone with a track record in fashioning books that are both eminently readable and emotionally subtle. Sentimentality is an underrated genre in some ways. Done well it is incredibly affecting (pace Oscar Wilde on the death of Little Nell), but it hard to get right. Sweet Sorrow manages to be interesting, moving, hilarious and sad at the same time. I know when my heartstrings are being pulled, but tugged they assuredly were.
MixedThe Scotsman (UK)Laing is an intelligent and acute writer, and this book is certainly interesting and assuredly well-written ... certainly eclectic in its topics ... Does it cohere? To an extent, yes ... She is all for \'the anonymous, the cobbled together, the hand-me-down, the postscript; the collaborations between strangers that marry jubilantly, that don’t quite fit\'. It is what I would call a traditionally avant-garde ideal, rarely realised. The polymorphous perverse, the bricolage, can seem somewhat old hat sometimes. In terms of production, I suppose one good thing about the internet is that if you can’t immediately visualise Agnes Martin or Derek Jarman’s garden (there are no illustrations), then you can be taken there (and your interest will be noted) ... We all have our lodestones. I would have been more intrigued by a book where Laing takes on other figures that chime with her concerns – Beuys, say, or Leigh Bowery – or even what she does not like. Her moral clarion for compassion is admirable, but it seems a bad fit with the denunciations in the book of those with whom she disagrees.
RaveThe Scotsman (UK)This is a remarkable piece of work, in which emotional intelligence and solid, intellectual research are evident, but with enough of a \'space for fiction\' to make it a novel and not a thesis ... O’Farrell excels in avoiding both the traps, and, perhaps most impressively of all, has fashioned a novel of true heart and character that can be read and appreciated even if you have no interest in Shakespeare at all ... gives a Shakespearean tang ... not cluttered detail for its own sake ... the same shuttlecocking of chronology generates tension even when the outcome seems predestined ... This is a staggeringly beautiful and unbearably poignant novel. O’Farrell is one of the most surprisingly quiet radicals in fiction. When I finished it, I wondered – no, I hoped – that instead of shifting genre again, O’Farrell might not follow Mantel with a sequel. After all, the final years of Shakespeare between leaving the stage and dying are another curious absence.
RaveThe Scotsman (UK)There are some novels which are like intricately constructed traps for book reviewers. Catherine Lacey’s Pew is one of them, and it is also an alarmingly discomfiting, sublimely written novel ... How do you interpret a novel with an indecipherable centre? It’s not as if the reader isn’t granted access to Pew’s often cryptic, sometimes metaphysical musings ... [Lacey] pulls out every stop on the organ of gothic themes ... Pew is a masterpiece of misdirection. If that were just a clever parlour trick, it would be entertaining enough; but there is an importance here about how we judge. In some ways the moral is staring the reader in the face the whole time, but we are too caught up in the goose-flesh to notice ... This is a novel about preconception, moral blindness and the long fingers of guilt. I think it is the most enlightening trap I have ever encountered...
J. M Coetzee
MixedThe Scotsman (UK)The question is, is this a satire on how religions come about, or an attempt to make a modern version of what faith might mean? To be honest, I do not know. There is a political anger that has always been in Coetzee’s work, but here the hedging and the ambiguities seem awfully knowing. It is, by far, the best of the three novels about Simón and David...and the ending is affecting in a way in which Coetzee rarely is ... There are more than a few stylistic problems. I do not think that a newly introduced female character ought to be identified by her cup size ... the winking Biblical references are somehow juvenile, as if crammed in to import importance. The deeply intoned nature of some passages is merely portentous ... David apparently can toss a coin and make it always come up heads. Coetzee is more like a chilly carnival Tarot reader, who draws a blank card and says, wryly, make of that what you will. I told a friend I was reading this book, and he said: \'At least it’s the last.\'
PositiveThe Scotsman (UK)This is an extremely curious book, and I mean that as a sincere compliment ... It is part of the new trend in non-fiction, a kind of jumble-up but carefully patterned. It doesn’t sit easily in one genre, but tiptoes around many different styles ... One of the book’s most astonishing sections involves the language of the Pirahã. Did I say it was a compendious volume for such a slender book? ... The this-and-that-ness of this book is what makes it a particular joy. It moves between topics with ease, and yet at its heart it is an emotional book, in which loss of sleep and loss of family are the poles.
PositiveThe Scotsman (UK)There are numerous plot lines in this novel, and they are elegantly choreographed and intertwined...Despite these very disparate elements, the whole coheres through some very deft plotting ... This kind of thematic chiming holds the book together, which is quite an achievement when your two principal characters, whose interactions have been so key to previous novels, are not able to converse ... It would have been easy to do a hatchet job on the Catholic Church, but some of the novel’s most moving scenes involve the elderly nuns, and McDermid does fine work actualising and humanising ... I do not think it is any kind of spoiler to say that McDermid fashions a finale which tees up the next thriller in this sequence admirably. It is also almost comical in places.
Emily St. John Mandel
RaveThe Scotsman (UK)... a very artfully constructed novel ... a strange...ambitious book, and its strangeness is very much its virtue ... the novel moves between different milieux, and part of the excitement of reading it is wondering where the characters will be—or even who they will be–—as we progress ... there is a narrative momentum in wanting to know how these disparate lives will be entwined ... St John Mandel is the real real, psychologically astute, morally wise and all done in singingly beautiful prose.
RaveThe Scotsman (UK)In our age of facile Instagram poets and one-note-joke performance poetry, Muldoon shows how craft and craftiness can cleave together ... Like many of his previous collections, Frolic And Detour has longer poems interspersed with shorter works. The longer form seems to suit Muldoon best, as a kind of challenge to the idea that the ideal poem is a haiku. It would be wrong to highlight the \'stand out\' poems as almost every page shows a dazzle and glamour that few other contemporary poets might reach ... he requires you to re-read, not read ... This is poetry at its most wide-ranging and curious about the world, but cleverly fettered in formal strictures and structures. If you buy one book of poetry this year, make it this one. Although you might learn to appreciate the nuance of how contemporary poetry can be askance and awry, you shall come away with a kind of moral polish. It is not \'difficult\'; that curse word of modern poetry. Take for example just this: \'Now we’re known less for snipers’ nests / than nests of singing birds\'.
PositiveThe Guardian (UK)In terms of its stylistic innovations, Zed is a tour de force ... works on the level of syntax, as language, grammar and meaning are compromised by the machines and their human controllers. [Kavenna] creates almost a poetics of tautology ... a nuanced, metatextual novel; an investigation into the erasure of language and agency in which the numerous literary reference ... There is a Dickensian quality to it ... There is a giddying quality to the prose, as the reader is steered through a maze of reproductions, seeking the unique ... a novel that takes our strange, hall-of-mirrors times very seriously indeed. It is a work of delirious genius.
RaveThe ScotsmanThis is almost a Chandler-esque style of storytelling ... It never seems like striving for effect, however. These [lyrical] flashes across the story cannot, in some ways, come from the characters, but seem perfectly adept of the narrator. The best part of The Quaker is its clever toying with one of the fundamentals of serial crime stories ... McIlvanney does give us connections between the various narratives, but they are occluded in a clever manner. What does blaze through is an anger at how power—whether at the level of the gang boss or the police high heid yin or the council employee —can be utterly toxic, and how it will always target the weak and the vulnerable. It would be sad if this book were not just the debut of McCormack, but his retirement. He is a character who has legs ... Although the novel has it as the moniker of the murderer haunting Glasgow, there is a lot of quaking going on in this book; a pervasive sense of guilt like an East Coast haar. I can’t commend it highly enough.
MixedThe Scotsman (UK)There is much to enjoy in this new novel, and in some ways I want to be wholehearted, but I cannot. The joy of the first trilogy was transportation, to a different world of daemons and witches and armoured bears and ghosts and harpies and even things such as the sort-of-mechanical mulefa. This, like La Belle Sauvage, feels not so much like an invented world but a reflected one. In La Belle Sauvage it was flooding and eco-catastrophe. This time it is everything ... Although people might think of Pullman as a \'children’s author\', this is written for the children that read His Dark Materials and have since grown up. What does retain the connective tissue, and what is far more significant than in La Belle Sauvage, is a rebooting of the mythological background to the books ... All of this is jolly rum fun. My reservation is that Pullman is too explicit in the contemporary concerns ... As I approached the final hundred pages of the book, I had goose-flesh. Not because of any narrative twist, and there are many, but because I realised that there was no way the strands would be tied. The fact that the last words are \'To be continued…\' will dispirit some readers.
RaveThe Scotsman (UK)This is an artfully confected collection...like a string quartet with an idea put forward, twisted around, brought back and set as variations of itself. It reminded me of Felipe Alfau’s Locos in terms of how disparate stories can be knitted and strangled together...That may sound rather portentous, but it is a hugely enjoyable, if unsettling, book ... There is a poise here among the gothic horrors. But there are certainly horrors ... the key thing I would say to readers is that it is absolutely beautifully written ... The prose is just a delight, wrong-footing the reader at every turn. The adjectives clash against the verbs, the names are sometimes wryly funny until the unexpected happens ... There is a smart-ass raised eye-brow in this, but with a deep emotional ache at its heart. Say the smart thing because you cannot bear to say the truth of a gruesome universe. In this respect, Armfield resembles Kelly Link, whose stories also intercut pop-culture and the preternatural, often to devastating emotional effect, or the work of Robert Shearman, who charms you along with wit until the stiletto hits ... horror for the Instagram generation ... There is a melancholy sense in reading such a wonderful collection of short stories and finding them so subtle, intelligent and imaginative. When I put the book down I wondered: will her first novel be as good?
Ryan Patrick Hanley
PositiveThe ScotsmanRyan Patrick Hanley has provided a succinct, witty and informative work on the relevance of Adam Smith today, mercifully released from the old \'father of capitalism\' misrepresentation. It is not a biography...but those who want the moral, ethical and practical core of Smith’s work would be well advised to start with Hanley’s jovial, sometimes controversial account of what Smith actually thought ... one of the great virtues of Hanley’s book is the centrality of love to Smith’s philosophy and economics ... Those who trumpet Smith as the free market guru and the saint of untrammelled capitalism miss the whole point. Indeed, Smith’s concern for how the poor are ignored by the rich shines out in this book. Morality and money were never far removed in Smith’s thinking, and he most often came down on the side of morality ... Hanley has done a great service in making Smith less of an ideologue and more of a quester ... Hanley’s book is an excellent primer on the true Smith, the person who thought that fellow feeling was more important than personal gain...
MixedThe Scotsman (UK)The Handmaid’s Tale was sly and subversive. It demanded to be taken seriously. The Testaments is lighter; often relying on rather weak jokes ... plotlines converge in a way which is almost Victorian ... The highlight of the book is the memoirs of Aunt Lydia. They deal with torture, moral compromise and how to resist a totalitarian regime, and they do so with sensitivity. The plot which is focused on the younger characters is less believable. It seems written with an eye to the Occupy Movement, and #MeToo: what brings down regimes of terror is plucky young women, tattooed go-betweens and secretly resentful wise old owls. It is too much of its time ... The genius of Aunt Lydia is in creating a morally complex character; by contrast, the ghastly Commander Judd, one of the founders of Gilead, is just a baddie, with a wicked heart and a rotten soul. There is no attempt to ask why this man became what he has become. He is there purely as a lecherous hypocrite. Evil is usually more complex than that ... Atwood is undoubtedly clever, and knows how to turn a sentence and keep the reader sprightly over the plot. It will no doubt appeal to those who have never read her other works ... But as I read it, I was reminded of a different Gilead entirely; Marilynne Robinson’s book with that title. It tried to explain how to be good in a world gone wrong; but Atwood’s sequel shows merely how to be angry at the world as it is.
PositiveThe Scotsman (UK)... somewhere between what Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections might have been – a subtle exhumation of American dysfunction – and the intellectual pirouettes of Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet, a novel of intellectual integrity and deep concern for words and their meaning(s) ... Structurally, the novel is pleasingly intricate ... manages the kind of moral empathy that a novel requires, despite being awfully \'literary\'. Everyone is found wanting and nobody is judged. Or we are left in the morass of making our own judgements. Although I found the ending wanting, this is a serious book for serious times.
RaveThe Scotsman (UK)... exceptional ... Lovell has produced a work which may well be the most harrowing, fascinating and occasionally hilarious book on the subject thus far ... This is a book of almost constant pin-pricking...By looking at revolutions inspired by Mao in Cambodia, Peru, Vietnam, Indonesia, Korea, Zimbabwe and many other places, this work recalibrates an old story of the 20th century being dominated by the democratic West and the Soviet Union ... For a history so deeply sad and so enlightening, it ought to be mentioned that this account is also very well written. Some academic works can be terribly turgid, but this is smooth and cautious, almost wily in how the awful and the unbelievable are counterpointed. In looking at Maoism with wider eyes, the one thing that struck me about the various villains and revolutionaries was that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as plagiarism. The same slogans are repeated with a kind of hypnotic genuflection.
MixedThe ScotsmanThere are things that I learned and things that I had no concern in learning ... One might have thought this bloodline would allow a few piquant anecdotes, but not so, except for a rather touching account of her grandmother in old age. Indeed, being born 13 years after Buchan’s death, the author would have nothing but hearsay and family tradition to go by. I was surprised that the fleeting references to Buchan’s wife’s depression were not expanded upon ... The great strength of this book is to make Buchan not just the writer of \'shockers,\' but a man whose influence helped change government policy. Although the title seems to indicate a deeper reading of the other works by Buchan, the real interest here is in his work in the world ... Although Ursula Buchan has done an admirable piece of work here, part of me grieved that one of John’s books went unmentioned (although he did pen a heck of a lot). She rightly puts his faith at the centre of the book, but a small mention of The Kirk In Scotland would have been welcome. Nonetheless, this lays a line towards a reimagination of Buchan.
Michael J. Benton
PositiveThe Scotsman (UK)Benton has the grace and integrity to admit towards the end of his book that the reconstructions might well be proved wrong in the future; but what he does have to say is fascinating. In a manner this is a bold reiteration of the scientific method itself. Disproving can be more informative than advancing a theory ... In part this book seems a rebuke to a notorious quip by Luis Alvarez, who said: \'I don’t like to say bad things about paleontogists [sic], but they’re really not very good scientists. They’re more like stamp collectors.\' This book charts the shift from the work being about a trowel in a desert to a computer in a laboratory ... There is a sense in which this book asks the simple questions and then shows the difficulty of coming up with answers ... Why has there been such a spike in interest in the dinosaurs? I would suggest that part of it is in catastrophe thinking. These were a dominant species, and they are now extinct. Benton moves the argument on by looking as much at how they lived as at how they died, although there is a fascinating appendix listing a hundred different hypotheses for what caused the mass extinction (I never knew about the caterpillars being advanced as the culprits).
RaveThe ScotsmanDenise Mina’s work is increasingly intriguing ... Her newest novel might be described as a fictional non-fiction. It is a thriller that often evokes an almost Hitchcock-like air of paranoia, doubt, double identities, sexual frisson ... a novel which...is fascinated with story above all else ... Conviction is one of those rare and perfect titles, meaning both a belief profoundly held and to have been found guilty. The genius of the novel is that it reiterates that old phrase that a wise man once said—\'the truth will set you free\'—and it does so via fiction.
RaveThe ScotsmanThe subject is simple ... The handling of it is complex and beautiful ... Parts of it...are genuinely horrific ... But then there are sublime passages ... What the book embodies rather than insists on is that although we have many metaphors for the ground beneath our feet—a kind of steadiness, firmness, stability—the underland is actually a slithery, slippery place. It confounds more than it confirms ... There has always been in Macfarlane’s work a sense of yearning for transcendence. This book is perhaps the most explicit example of this ... Macfarlane’s prose has a very conspicuous lilt to it, a use of alliteration and balanced sentences that seem to soothe and beguile, but are actually bristling with little daggers for the reader. This is a challenging book, and an astonishing one.
RaveThe Scotsman... a non-fiction pendant to the novels and short stories, but it is as artfully constructed and as emotionally devastating as [Hemon\'s] fictional oeuvre ... There is a profound humanism in Hemon’s work, which, on occasion, just skirts above sentimentality ... The Aquarium, is perhaps one of the most compelling pieces of non-fiction I have ever read – and I don’t mind saying that I had a lump in my throat throughout it ... a wonderful collection, and the earlier descriptions of literary shenanigans and family borscht soften the reader up for the climactic blow of the final essay. Our lives, Hemon seems to say, are stories we are constantly retelling: except, tragically, when they’re not.
Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett
PanThe Scotsman\"An exercise in the art of make-booking; a transcription of the only time the four all appeared on a platform together with penny-a-word extras from the three who are still in our sublunary sphere. To make things worse, there is an introduction by Stephen Fry – the unthinking person’s idea of an intellectual – which is both fawning and incorrect ... They certainly know about rabble-rousers and morons and literalists and idiots, but as for scripture or theology, precious little ... there is very little about ethics here.\
PositiveThe ScotsmanI don’t want to use reviewer-y superlatives, but I don’t think I will read anything else like it this year. Like his previous work, it is honed, almost whittled. It has a hallucinatory quality to its sort-of-prose, sort-of-poetry. The novel manages to fuse mythic, folkloric subjects – the haunting \'Dead Papa Toothwort\' who emerges from his slumber at the beginning – with quite precise anxieties and angers about the present state of the country ... It resembles Dylan Thomas’s almost oratorio in many ways, not least in the polyphony of voices it conjures ... the horrific and the urgent are tethered together. It is also very English – but the same England of Ravilious prints and campanology is also the England of pub-bore bigots and ancient monsters ... It is a book which offers a morose kind of redemption in the end, without distancing from the terrors.
PanThe ScotsmanThis, apparently, is the last novel Irvine Welsh will write with the cast of his breakout debut Trainspotting. Thank goodness for that, though I doubt it. Welsh has squandered his original vision with a series of increasingly wretched spin-offs ... It wouldn’t be an Irvine Welsh novel without drugs, anal sex and intermittent violence, but it is striking that in this work there are also many paragraphs about tax regulations and systems, and how to get round them. Cynically, it also does a pub-bore version of socialism: the banks, Thatcher, the BBC, the elites—they’re the ones to blame ... There is something elegiac in all this, but in terms of the author, not the characters. I looked at Trainspotting again and it is remarkably restrained in terms of its stiletto vulgarity. Here, on one page alone, we have seven uses of the f-word and eight of the c-word. At one point I wondered if Welsh perhaps now outsourced his novels to a thousand monkeys at a thousand iPads ... Trainspotting was about Renton getting away with it; Dead Men’s Trousers is about Irvine Welsh getting away with it ... I feel soiled and sullied in my soul by reading this juvenile, Dad-dancing tripe, and would earnestly ask that no-one else should pay money to do so.
MixedThe Scotsman (UK)... ambitious, intriguing and in some ways flawed ... Fantasy is the most difficult of genres, since it must make its own rules and build its own world. In both cases, James has done admirably well. But as a reading experience it leaves something to be desired ... If this is an epic it is both old and woke ... The grammar sometimes sounds more like Yoda than anything else ... This kind of syntactical shimmer is part of the novel’s charm and frustration. It is a work of literature, but it is posing as a work from the oral tradition ... There is much to revel in, much to admire. But unlike many of the ancient stories, there is a lack of momentum ... It is a kind of questless quest. Perhaps the major problem is that Tracker is our \'window\' into the sprawl of tales, and yet he remains a character with whom it is difficult to empathise. Nor does the reader care for the quarry they seek. Still: good monsters.
George Saunders, Illustrated by Chelsea Cardinal
MixedThe ScotsmanA pleasing degree of restrained sentimentality ... Now, suspension of disbelief is a wonderful thing, but by the end of the book, when the whole story is revealed as being a letter written to a \'Yuman\', I sat thinking – did it hold a pencil in its teeth? Where did the paper come from? If you put a glamour over your reader, you need at least not to break it ... has charm, although it is undercut by a certain self-regarding virtuosity. Saunders has always been good at a kind of cuddly kindness with undertones of satire and sorrow. This does not break the mold, but it will indubitably take your mind off, say, the train journey between Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Iain Dey and Douglas Buck
RaveThe Scotsman\"This is a fascinating, informative...book. It is concerned with the life of Dudley Buck, a pioneer in the field of computing, whose genius brought him to the attention of the National Security Agency. It is, in some ways, a dark mirror to Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty, dealing with how the other superpower was advancing in terms of technology during the Cold War. But it also has a hook ... This is a timely book given how big-tech and politics are ever more intersected. A largely forgotten figure seems to have been a prophet of how computing, intelligence (both personal and the dark glasses kind), threat and innovation might coalesce. Lucidly written, and obviously researched with care as well as persistence, it is a model for how popular science books can be influential.
RaveThe GuardianThe narrative switches between Detective Versado, her teenage daughter – who is engaged in a dangerous game of paedophile-baiting with her best friend from school – a washed-up online journalist looking for a scoop, scavengers of Detroit's derelicts and the murderer. The last of these, horrifically, is the most sympathetic of the characters … She genuinely conjures up horror in its purest, most sincere form. There is real grief when characters we have come to identify with are subjected to all the banality and monstrosity of evil, and a goose-flesh sensation as we realise how similar the evil's values are to our own beliefs in art, in opportunity, in wanting the world to be a better place.
PanThe GuardianIt also features reams of pages made up mostly of asterisks. These may be a wink to Edith Wharton’s story ‘The Muse’s Tragedy’. They occasionally represent snowfall, but they are also the snow or static on a television, it seems; appropriately for a book much concerned with technology and its discontents … Even the extent of the book is a kind of awful realism: as if McIntosh is saying ‘too much, too much, too much’ again and again and again. He himself appears as a character, and that makes it even more problematic that the book tries to diagnose itself … theMystery.doc is like a giant scrapbook of ideas for books. Many are clever, many are moving, many are sincere, many are intriguing: but not all of them should be between two covers.
J. Robert Lennon
RaveThe GuardianWe are in a backwoods place near a rust-belt kind of town; bad things have happened, and will happen. The house is haunted, but the ghost is the house itself. No reason is ever given why the place seems to be so magnetic for awfulness, and the novel is all the better for keeping the background in the back. Lennon’s prose has a languorous, lingering quality with shifts of perspective and tonal jolts that make you concentrate all the harder … There is some excellent satire about writing here, while the mordant and ironic edge to the book only makes its horrible points the darker: both Karl and Eleanor aren’t the creators they feel they could be … But there is another character in the book, the observer, a kind of wink at the omniscient narrator...As a narrative device this is audacious. It means that the novel can encompass past, present and future tenses, as well as levels of modality: ‘she could’ as well as ‘she will’.
PositiveThe Guardian...it reads like Joseph Conrad trying to interpret a Max Ernst painting ... The middles of trilogies are difficult things, a balancing act between closure and continuation. The middle can’t just tread water, nor can it wholly deliver. In the right hands, this very balance can be elliptically tantalising. The Erstwhile almost revels in its status as the hiatus between Genesis and Apocalypse. It applies the sleight of hand that many of the best middle-books do, for a shift of focus ... It’s no wonder that Sinclair, Alan Moore and Michael Moorcock have enthused over these books: Catling is using the same raw materials they do, but in a different manner ... Even in the most extreme moments Catling has an eye to the wry, to the momentous absurdity of just being a thing made of flesh in a world that is not. In something as fluorescently psychedelic as this novel and its predecessor, the reader still requires an affective hook.
MixedThe GuardianSomewhere in this sprawling behemoth, this teeming leviathan, this pythonic mammoth of a novel there is a very good – even visionary – book struggling to get out ... There is much here that is magnificent, but the problem lies in the language. Beckett’s most famous play was purportedly described as one in which nothing happened, twice; Jerusalem is a novel in which everything is said at least twice ... Pity, because when it is good, it is very good.
RaveThe GuardianBarker’s formidable literary showmanship would count for little if the novel were not tethered to a moral and emotional core ... Barker not only refuses to switch off, but spirals and giddies and churns relentlessly. The result is typically atypical, expectedly unexpected and inexplicably good. She really is a genius.
RaveThe Guardian...[Link's stories] are never gratingly whimsical as some work in this form can be, nor do the necessary conceits and conventions of the supernatural stories overwhelm their emotional realism ... It is difficult to label Link’s work. She has the gothic discomfort of Shirley Jackson; many of these stories could be filed under 'New Weird'; like Robert Shearman she conjures surreal circumstances then twists them in unexpected, excessive ways. Link’s prose and ideas dazzle; so much so that you don’t see the swift elbow to the emotional solar plexus coming until it’s far, far too late.
MixedThe GuardianTom Bissell’s book is consistently fascinating about the stories that crept as inexorably as lichen over a gravestone around the people closest to Jesus. The travelogue elements make for a pleasant hike out of the archive and into surprising places...[but] in elegantly unpicking the minutiae, Bissell sometimes forgets to stand back and look at the wider picture. It is undergraduate fun to quibble over whether Judas hanged himself or fell and exploded in a suppurating mass of corruption. It is much more difficult to pose the big questions.