Home / Book Reviews
  • Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce review – a winning wartime romp
    Stiff upper lips all round: a comic novel about an agony aunt in wartime London proves as hilarious as it is moving

    A jolly romp through London in the blitz sounds like an unlikely idea for a novel, but Dear Mrs Bird is full of poignant moments that cut through the froth of its narrator’s voice. Miss Emmeline Lake is a plucky gal who lives in a smart flat with her best friend, Bunty, and dreams of becoming a lady war correspondent. This is a world in which young couples make “a lovely effort to be gay about things”, one’s regiment has “a bit of a time of it”, and Boots in the high street has “taken a biff during the raids”. It’s stiff upper-class lips all round.

    Emmy’s journalistic ambitions also take a biff when she accidentally applies for a job typing up letters for a women’s magazine problem page, run by a termagant in a feathery hat. Henrietta Bird issues Emmy with an extensive list of “Topics That Will Not Be Published Or Responded To By Mrs Bird … not exclusive and will be added to when required”, but Emmy finds herself moved by her correspondents’ troubles, and begins, rather rashly, to answer them.

    Pearce gives a voice to all those women who had to be 'chipper and stoic and jolly good sorts and not cry or be dreary'

    Continue reading... Read more »
  • All in the Downs by Shirley Collins review – the English Folk Revivalist’s revival

    A memoir from the singer who lost her voice that celebrates her roots and is unsparing about the London scene’s leading lights

    It took almost 40 years for Shirley Collins to recover her voice, and with it her identity. After realising that her second husband, fellow musician Ashley Hutchings, was cheating on her – an actress wore his jumper to one of their concerts – the folk singer was struck by dysphonia, and could no longer sing. Collins had always thought herself a conduit rather than a performer: in her 20s, she heard two elderly folk singers and was struck by their “gentle dignity”. It cemented her own philosophy: “No dramatising a song, no selling it to an audience, no overdecorating in a way that was alien to English songs, and most of all, singing to people, not at them.” If her work is self-effacing, then Collins’s memoir reveals the strength of character required to overcome the insidious disempowerment she faced within the postwar British folk scene.

    Now 82, she is experiencing a revival – this book and a documentary follow Lodestar (2016), her first album in 38 years – returning her to the vocation she felt so fiercely as a young working class woman in Sussex. As teenagers, she and her sister Dolly sang for BBC folk archivist Bob Copper, and Collins quit teacher training to move to London and become a singer. She worked in a bookshop, and starved to afford a copy of Olive Dame Campbell and Cecil Sharp’s 1917 English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians: “It’s called ‘suffering for your art’, but I maintain to this day that it was the best money I ever spent.”

    Related: Shirley Collins review – a five-star foray into the darker depths of folk

    Continue reading... Read more »
  • Elastic by Leonard Mlodinow review – unplug to think creatively

    In praise of procrastination and getting drunk … a theoretical physicist and Star Trek writer on the importance of imaginative thought

    Everyone knows we should be concerned about ecosystems, but what about the ecosystem inside your skull? Research suggests that new ideas and solutions to problems often arise when our minds are not focused on a particular task, but running in the high-connectivity state recently identified as the “default network”. Yet in an age of smartphones, social media and other electronic crack-pipes, it is all too easy to keep focusing on one trivial thing after another, and so never allow the brain enough of this fecund time. There is, then, some scientific basis to the increasing advice for us to unplug, at least partially, which is becoming formalised within a young discipline with the nice name of “ecopsychology”. Just as ecology aims to bolster biodiversity in physical spaces, ecopsychology aims to help us keep our minds fertile terrain for the green shoots of constructive thinking.

    Related: The psychology of the to-do list – why your brain loves ordered tasks

    Continue reading... Read more »
  • Murmur by Will Eaves review – inside the mind of Alan Turing

    First love and the nature of consciousness are examined in this extraordinary journey into the cryptanalyst’s dreamworld

    The premise is startlingly ambitious: what if we could think our way into Alan Turing’s dreams? It’s the sort of thing Turing himself might have attempted as he tried to move between minds, questing for the limits of shared comprehension. But a novelist imagining the unconscious of a genius and finding words for his visions – can that be wise? Yes, if the writer is Will Eaves. Scrupulous, humane, sad and strange, this fifth novel by the author of The Oversight and The Absent Therapist is as bracingly intelligent as it is brave.

    Murmur is based on Turing’s experience during the period of his punishment for gross indecency, when he went to hospital weekly and quietly submitted himself to the injection of hormones that effected chemical castration. As his body and mind underwent disturbing changes, he talked to the Jungian therapist Franz Greenbaum. In the sessions of analysis and outside them, in sleep and waking, Turing pressed towards an understanding of singular and multiple identity, memory and desire. The cryptanalyst who, at Bletchley, had programmed machines to break the German naval code now applied himself to the cipher of his own trance-like visions.

    Turing was a philosopher, psychologist, mathematician and biologist – Eaves's narrative experiments honour that legacy

    Related: Alan Turing’s school report reveals little of his genius

    Continue reading... Read more »
  • A Higher Loyalty by James Comey review – Hillary’s emails, the election and a loathing for Trump

    The FBI director sacked by Trump a year ago attempts to justify his pre-election decisions and paints a portrait of the president that could not be uglier

    In the copious literature of the US capital, there is a sub-genre we might call “the saint in the swamp”. It focuses on the travails of an honest man sent to wade through the muck and slime of America’s political Babylon. The exemplar is, of course, the 1939 classic film Mr Smith Goes to Washington, with Jimmy Stewart as the lone man of integrity on the Potomac. But the archetype recurs at intervals in the culture, with the West Wing’s Jed Bartlet a more recent incarnation. And now we can add a new, non-fiction addition: the memoir of James Comey, the FBI director fired a year ago by Donald Trump.

    Perennially cast as a boy scout – and in Washington that’s usually an insult – Comey establishes his goody-goody credentials early and often. We learn that, when he was in his 20s, people would clap eyes on the 6ft8in lawyer and instantly offer smalltalk about his presumed past as a player of college basketball. As it happens Comey hadn’t played, but in his youth he would let people think he had. “This was a seemingly small and inconsequential lie told by a stupid kid, but it was a lie nonetheless. And it ate at me. So after law school I wrote to the friends I’d lied to and told them the truth,” he writes. Later he gives the director of national intelligence a necktie. Or rather, “I regifted to him a tie my brother-in-law had given me … Because we considered ourselves people of integrity, I disclosed it was a regift.”

    In the Hillary chapters, Comey makes a good defence of his actions, showing how he was confronted with lose-lose choices

    If the book has a hero besides Comey, it is Obama: he is bowled over by the Democrat who made him head of the FBI

    Continue reading... Read more »
  • Wade in the Water review – lost voices of the American underground
    A long overdue collection from US poet laureate Tracy K Smith weaves a spiritual hymn to the nation’s forgotten people

    Tracy K Smith is the poet laureate of the United States and a winner of the Pulitzer prize. Wade in the Water is, inexplicably, the first of her three collections to be published in the UK. The title is from a spiritual sung on the underground railroad that carried slaves to safety in the 19th century. Its centrepiece is a gathering of what are known as “erasure poems” – a strange term as what Smith is doing is the opposite of erasure. She is making visible the words of slaves and their owners, of African Americans enlisted in the civil war –these are found poems about people who were lost. Smith has pieced their correspondence together with the love of someone making a hand-stitched quilt.

    The letter from Nashville in 1865 (below) is typical: brittle, misspelt and piercingly sad. It is a poem of salvage where salvage is no longer practical. I found myself wondering whether these were poems at all – and whether it matters. Their power to move is obvious, the injustices suffered undiminished by time. Elsewhere, Smith writes about history’s tendency to flee: “History spits, Go, go go, lurching at the horizon” (New Road Station). She is determined to hold history back, yet the outrage these poems occasion is familiar. They border on uncontroversial: no one reading this poetry could fail to be on the poet’s side.

    Continue reading... Read more »
  • Our Place review – damning indictment of Britons’ ecological complacency
    Mark Cocker delivers a blistering attack on the country’s collective failure to protect its landscape and wildlife

    At the beginning of Our Place, Mark Cocker sets out his vision of the kind of book he’s trying to write. Springing out of his attempts to steward five acres of sodden fenland in the floodplain of the river Yare in Norfolk, he says he wants to compose a work that interweaves “an autobiographical narrative of place and a historical exploration of how and why the British countryside has come to look as it does”. Like any great book – and this is a seriously great book, important and urgent – Our Place does so much more than merely fulfil its author’s admittedly wide-ranging aims. It is an elegy for a beloved landscape, an anguished lament, a manifesto, a call to arms.

    Cocker steps rather carefully around the subject of Brexit and his rallying cries are directed more to the people of Britain than to its politicians, but that shouldn’t mask the fact that this is a radical and polemical work in the tradition of those figures from the past and present that Cocker calls on throughout the book: Cobbett, Hazlitt, Wendell Berry, Marion Shoard.

    By adopting the language and attitudes of capitalism, environmentalists are defeated at source

    Related: Natural England has become a gopher of the landed classes | George Monbiot

    Continue reading... Read more »
  • The One Who Wrote Destiny by Nikesh Shukla review – funny and fascinating
    This tale about a British-Asian family tackles trauma and intergenerational relationships with wit and wisdom

    Nikesh Shukla has recently risen to prominence as a diversity champion for literature, setting up various initiatives that offer opportunities for underrepresented writers. But we mustn’t forget that, first and foremost, he is a powerful chronicler of British lives with Asian roots. In his fabulously funny 2014 novel, Meatspace, he captured the zeitgeist with his protagonist, Kitab Balasubramanyam, a young man whose online persona masks his real life and personality. Shukla was particularly adept at portraying Kitab’s difficult relationship with his widowed father, who, to his annoyance, had more online dating success than himself. In this new novel, he shines a light on a wider Gujarati family settled in Bradford with roots in Kenya. This family is inter-generationally doomed, it appears, by fate. To what extent, it asks, are our lives predestined? And what are the consequences on those left behind when young lives are tragically cut short?

    Shukla deftly orchestrates the multiple voices beginning with Mukesh, a seemingly gormless teenager from Kenya who arrives in Bradford in 1966 and falls in love with Nisha, the girl across the road. Within weeks he has stood up to a racist mob intent on murder, and proved his heroic credentials to Nisha. When his son, Raqs, accuses him years later of not integrating, he replies: “Why integrate into a country that wanted me annihilated?” Mukesh bemoans his son complaining about “micro-aggressions” and “white girls wearing bindis at festivals”, when he himself was almost killed because of the colour of his skin.

    Characters who at first appear to be pigeonholed quickly transcend reductive cultural assumptions

    Continue reading... Read more »
  • Ponti by Sharlene Teo – review
    A much-lauded debut novel featuring a faded movie star is a lesson in the limitations of a creative writing course

    Ponti, Sharlene Teo’s first novel, won the inaugural Deborah Rogers writers’ award (in honour of the late, great agent) and comes ablaze with praise from Ian McEwan. There’s not a debut writer on the planet who wouldn’t kill for such names on their dust jacket and certainly I came to this book very ready to like it.

    Szu and Circe meet as teenagers in Singapore and form an intense, if uneasy, friendship. Szu’s mother, Amisa, now dying, once had a short-lived career as the star of a series of obscure 70s horror movies. Ignored at the time, these films now enjoy a cult following.

    Continue reading... Read more »
  • The People vs Tech by Jamie Bartlett review – once more into the digital apocalypse

    The latest treatise on technology taking over our lives suggests democratic systems are incompatible with the digital age, but the theory lacks coherence

    There is a clear, algorithmic formula for writing books about technology and society in 2018. Authors are generally required to be male, their documented personal journey must have been from that of techno-optimist to techno-sceptic to techno-panicker. There must be an urgent existential threat to either democracy or humanity lurking in the code base of Silicon Valley companies. The intractable crisis is not so profound, however, that it cannot be solved by a hail of partially thought-through remedies tacked on in the appendix.

    This recipe is producing a growing body of what might be termed “techlash” literature: the backlash against Silicon Valley and its seemingly unstoppable accretion of wealth, data and cultural and political capital. Where once we might have read expansive works of science fiction creating vivid and ambiguous alternative realities to help us navigate the future, now we have worrisome documentaries of threats so present they have often played out by the time the galley hits the review pile. In the last year several notable techlash titles have appeared, including Franklin Foer’s World Without Mind, Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants and Jonathan Taplin’s Move Fast and Break Things.

    His depiction of the general population as dazed and confused by Silicon Valley's trickery does not feel grounded in fact

    Continue reading... Read more »