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  • Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott review – Truman Capote’s decline and fall
    This accomplished debut novel tells of the great writer’s last years in the voices of the women who once loved him

    Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s memorable first novel is a fictionalised reimagining of the later life of Truman Capote, an author whose work so often took factual events and applied to them the techniques of the novel. Swan Song treads that modish no man’s land between fact and fiction, finding resonance in the interplay between what we know of Capote’s life and what we don’t. If, as Capote said, life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act, then Greenberg-Jephcott has constructed a third act for her hero that does him justice, never shying away from presenting him as the preening, bitchy, rancorous alcoholic he became, but also finding ways to show why so many loved him.

    Swan Song is related by a kind of occluded first person plural – the swans. This “we” voice can feel occasionally like it emanates from one or other of the high-society women with whom Capote surrounded himself, but most often it arrives like a drifting ghostly chorus, moving backwards and forwards in time, knowing every truth of his self-constructed life, holding each of his lies up for inspection. It’s a well-handled use of this choric commentary, calling to mind not only Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides, but also two other recent novels that have employed the “we” voice to uncover suppressed stories: TaraShea Nesbit’s The Wives of Los Alamos and Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic.

    Related: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood at 50

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  • Posh Boys: How the English Public Schools Ruin Britain – review
    Robert Verkaik comprehensively illustrates the stranglehold the public school system still has on Britain

    Robert Verkaik could hardly have picked a better time to publish this. One notorious posh boy (Eton, Oxford) exits Her Majesty’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, another (Charterhouse, Oxford) arrives to take over. No surprise there, but the nation, or the 93% of it that did not go to private school, is left wondering again how this crony class of bought privilege and vicious self-interest has managed to hold on to the reins for so long. Not least when – from Balaclava to Brexit – they haven’t run things very well.

    Of course, it may be that the grockles and plebs are not very bothered. In his fascinating, enraging polemic, Verkaik touches on one of the strangest aspects of the elite schools and their product’s domination of public life for two and a half centuries: the acquiescence of everyone else. “Public schools have a mesmerising influence over British people,” Verkaik says, echoing George Orwell (Eton) 85 years ago. Verkaik says we are all seduced, not least by the innocent question: “Who doesn’t want the best for their children?” As a parent and a troubled posh boy myself, I understand him.

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  • My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh – caustic and acute
    The 2016 Booker nominee’s fable about a New Yorker avoiding life through drug-induced sleep hits its targets with pitiless black humour

    When the US author Ottessa Moshfegh was shortlisted for the 2016 Booker prize with Eileen, a slow-burn psycho-noir narrated by an unloved prison clerk, she let slip that she wrote the book with help from a guide called The 90-Day Novel – a calculated lunge for mainstream success following McGlue, her lauded but commercially disappointing debut set among sailors in 19th-century Zanzibar. “I needed to write something that was going to be reminiscent of the crap that people are used to … How do you expect me to make a living?! I’m not going to be making cappuccinos. I’m fucking brilliant!”

    Potentially a Ratner moment (she later said it ruined her chances of winning), the admission stoked the renegade aura of a writer who divides the critics. For some, she’s a ghoulish shock merchant who still manages to be dull; to others, who found Eileen a structurally daring anti-thriller kept afloat by the narrator’s feminist vitriol and confrontationally bad hygiene, Moshfegh has become a pin-up for the fightback against the notion that fictional characters – especially female ones – have to be likable.

    Related: Ottessa Moshfegh: I didn’t set out to write Eileen as a noir novel

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  • Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations – review

    With remarkable access to officials and reports, Ronen Bergman’s revealing book lays bare Mossad’s kill operations

    In January 2010 Israeli agents converged on a luxury hotel in Dubai: their target was Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, an arms supplier for Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement which controls the Gaza Strip. The mission involved 27 operatives of the Mossad secret service who were posing as tourists or tennis players. The hit team and their watchers flew in from different European airports using false passports. Communications were routed via Austria to avoid surveillance. Mabhouh was killed in his room using a paralysing drug and his body left to be discovered by hotel staff the next day.

    The snag was that the killing exposed the Mossad to global scrutiny – and angered an Arab country with a record of quiet cooperation with Israel. CCTV caught the agents changing disguises and stalking their prey – seen as a legitimate candidate for extrajudicial execution as he had killed an Israeli soldier and, more importantly, was a logistical link with Iran, sworn enemy of the Jewish state.

    Bergman cites internal accounts and scores of interviews with spymasters, agent-handlers and killers

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  • Book clinic: which writers can lead me inside the minds of millennials?
    Sally Rooney’s confessional style and Joe Dunthorne’s satire should help a teacher understand the ‘avocado generation’

    I’m teaching millennials but find it hard to know what makes them tick. Can you recommend millennial writers who would help me better understand my students?
    Christina Melia, 47, Paris (originally from Ireland)

    Johanna Thomas-Corr, literary critic, writes…
    Ah, those millennials. So hard to pin down, aren’t they? Once denoting the generation born c1980-1995, millennial is now often used to mean “digital-era whippersnapper” or “profligate consumer of avocados”. Such is the difficulty of generalising about a generation born at the apex of individualism – but happily, this most overanalysed group is now telling its own stories.

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  • Gabriel Tallent: ‘I follow my inspiration, however difficult’
    The US novelist talks about the genesis of his gripping debut and his willingness to lay bare the dark, morally abject corners of life

    Gabriel Tallent grew up on the Mendocino coast, California, with two mothers. My Absolute Darling, his debut novel, is the story of an isolated teenage girl who is being abused, physically and sexually, by her survivalist father. Set on the wild coastline where Tallent grew up, and following the feints towards freedom made by Tallent’s heart-piercingly courageous heroine, Turtle, it drew waves of praise when it was published in hardback and became the only literary debut novel to enter the bestseller lists in the US and the UK simultaneously last year.

    Was My Absolute Darling always going to be centred on Turtle, your 14-year-old protagonist, or did she come to life in the process of writing?
    My initial project was a much more academic, idea-driven book dominated by men, inspired by James Thomson’s 18th-century poems, The Seasons, in which Turtle was a peripheral character. A few years into it, I had a draft from beginning to end, and I was even thinking about shopping it to agents, when I realised that Turtle’s story was the most important story, that for her the stakes were the highest, that in some sense everything else paled to academic terms next to her life. I had kind of a crisis, so I went and I pulled up everything by the roots and wrote the entire book trying to tell Turtle’s story in the most central way, beginning where I first felt I could illumine the stakes of her life and her emotional predicament, telling that story and abandoning all the rest of the material.

    ‘The risks of rendering the predicament of harm  are clearly worth it. The alternative is silence’

    Related: Plato, pulp and guns: meet Gabriel Tallent, the author of 2017's most talked-about novel

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  • Room to Dream review – a remarkable insight into David Lynch

    This hybrid biography cuts between essays from Kristine McKenna and reflections from the great auteur

    Kristine McKenna admits at the outset of Room to Dream that she and David Lynch have come up with an approach to life writing “that some might find strange”. This hybrid form combines memoir and biography: each of McKenna’s chapters is followed by one by Lynch on the same years, “having a conversation with his own biography”. Clearly this highlights the subjectivity of experience and the inadequacy of life writing, but it could also compromise a biographer’s freedom to speak frankly about her subject. Nevertheless, Room to Dream is a memorable portrait of one of cinema’s great auteurs.

    Lynch was born in 1946; his devout Presbyterian parents moved to Boise, Idaho, in 1955. This “most beautiful golden era” of rock’n’roll, early TV and girls in bobby socks and saddle shoes laid the foundations of the Lynchian universe: “When I picture Boise in my mind, I see euphoric 1950s chrome optimism.” But as McKenna notes, it’s what lies beneath the “gleaming veneer of innocence and goodness” that truly defines his art, from the “agony and ecstasy” of his first film Eraserhead (1977) to the darkly surreal Twin Peaks: The Return (2017). Lynch is a perfectionist and his attention to detail – such as the colour of fake blood (“Blacker! Blacker!”) – is legendary. An extremely practical person (“I love plumbing”), he wants to have a hand in every aspect of his films, even attempting (and failing) to craft John Hurt’s prosthetic makeup for The Elephant Man (1980), the movie that brought him international acclaim. His following film, Dune (1984), was by his own admission “a humiliating major failure”. But with Blue Velvet (1986) and the TV series Twin Peaks (1990) – both rooted in his memories of small-town America – Lynch reasserted his claim to be one of the most original directors. His films have often divided critical opinion, but for McKenna the key theme is always the attempt to reconcile the dualities that each of us – and all his unforgettable characters, from Frank Booth to Laura Palmer – must confront in daily life: “Nobody is all one thing.”

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  • Days of Awe by AM Homes review – disorienting stories

    Usually Homes is merciless at skewering the comedy of disappointment and dread, but her new collection swings between send-ups and soul-searching quests for meaning

    Reading AM Homes’s new collection of stories, I’m brought up against that dull old chestnut: do we need to like characters in fiction in order to enjoy reading about them? Well no, of course not, again and again of course not. It’s pretty near impossible, for instance, to like Homes’s collapsed, incompetent, self-pitying couple Elaine and Paul in her 1999 novel Music for Torching – and yet the funny awfulness of their dialogue and their doomed attempts at self-improvement are compelling and page-turning; when their child is taken hostage in a shoot-out, they are sublimely craven. It’s not only Elaine and Paul; it’s their whole set. “Saturday afternoon at the cookout, regardless of the fact that they were all together the night before, they act glad to see each other. Perhaps they are not acting, perhaps they are genuinely glad to see each other. Perhaps it was that difficult being left to their own devices for twenty-four hours.” Fiction needs some meanness in its mix; even in the most wholehearted writing, a grain of it can ward off fatuousness. Homes is a mean writer, at her merciless satirical best in skewering the comedy of disappointment and dread, the squirm of self-indulgence and self-justification.

    Related: AM Homes interview: 'I write the things we don't want to say out loud'

    Some of the stories are so light they’re fantastical and hardly make contact with real earth

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  • Full Gas by Peter Cossins review – tactics and the Tour de France

    A cycling journalist turns his gaze on the puzzles of the peloton, and falls back in love with the sport

    The Tour de France, which finishes in Paris next weekend, attracts more than 10 million spectators to line its near 3,500km route, uniquely comprehensive press coverage for the sport and a TV and online audience estimated to be in the billions. Yet only a tiny fraction of those watching will have the first clue as to what is actually going on.

    Yes, there are obviously winners of the 21 stages, and an overall champion is crowned when they reach the Champs-Élysées. But in a peloton of 180 riders, operating in a seemingly chaotic working environment best described as like being inside a washing machine, very few are attempting to win. The vast majority are implementing a dizzyingly fluid set of agendas and allegiances that can combine – often in the same rider in the same race – team and personal ambitions, altruism and blatant commercialism, high courage and low cunning. In what is quite a brave admission for a cycling journalist, Peter Cossins admits early on in this breezy, enlightening book that even for someone who has reported on the sport for quarter of a century, what actually happens between flag and finish can often be close to “incomprehensible”.

    Cossins traces an ​arc to today’s stars, whose husbanding of energy produces three-week races won by only seconds

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  • The best recent crime novels – review roundup
    Give Me Your hand by Megan Abbott, A Noise Downstairs by Linwood Barclay, Take Me In by Sabine Durrant, City of Sinners by AA Dhand and Sticks and Stones by Jo Jakeman

    American author Megan Abbott’s explorations of the dark heart of female adolescence in novels such as Dare Me and The End of Everything are second to none, and in her latest book, Give Me Your Hand (Picador, £14.99), she presents the equally blood-curdling tale of adult frenemies Kit and Diane. When they met in high school, golden girl Diane gave Kit the impetus she needed to succeed, and their joint motivation to scale the academic heights created an unbreakable bond between them – until Diane divulged her terrible secret. Twelve years on, Kit, still haunted, is a scientist working in the lab of glamorous Dr Severin, competing for one of only two places on a team to study premenstrual dysphoric disorder (“like PMS only much, much worse”). When Diane reappears, poached by Dr Severin from Harvard, the secret is revealed, with catastrophic consequences. Beautifully written and unbearably tense, this is a standout study of ambition, rivalry and fear.

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