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  • The Way Past Winter by Kiran Millwood Hargrave review – a quest to the frozen north

    Sibling love drives this richly imagined adventure from the author of The Girl of Ink and Stars

    “It was a winter they would tell tales about. A winter that arrived so sudden and sharp it stuck birds to branches, and caught the rivers in such a frost their spray froze. A winter that came and never left.” So begins Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s ode to the frozen north, to sibling love and to the lure of adventure. This is Hargrave’s third novel for eight- to 12-year-olds and like her award-winning debut, The Girl of Ink & Stars, it features a girl on a quest who will not easily give in. Told in vivid, often lyrical language, The Way Past Winter portrays a richly imagined world that is rooted in myth, magic and folk tales, while appealing to modern sensibilities and concerns.

    Mila is the middle of three sisters who live in the great forest of Eldbjørn in a house with windows made from ice. They have a brother named Oskar; their mother died in childbirth and their father abandoned them shortly afterwards. One day a mysterious stranger, accompanied by a group of boys, turns up asking for food and talking about treasure. The stranger, we soon learn, is a great bear, a mythical creature responsible for imposing perpetual winter on the forest. On learning that Oskar has three sisters, he says: “Three? What a curse.” He will, of course, come to regret underestimating these resourceful girls. That night, Oskar vanishes. In the morning, the sisters argue about the reason for his disappearance. Sanna, the eldest, believes her brother has been seduced by tales of money, but Mila insists that Oskar has been taken against his will and decides to set off in pursuit through the frozen landscape.

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  • What We’re Teaching Our Sons by Owen Booth review – a comic oddity with bite

    Gambling, hunting, philosophy and romance … life lessons from fathers to their sons make for a funny, quirky debut

    I’m not sure if this is a novel or a series of short stories, articles, blog posts or semi-autobiographical jottings, but whatever the hell it is, it’s funny. It’s a funny book in the same way that, say, Gulliver’s Travels, or Three Men in a Boat, or the collected articles of Fran Lebowitz are funny books. It’s a novelty, an oddity: neither a 19th-century style realist novel nor an avant-garde piece of experimentalism, but a nice little comedy squib, with just enough heft and bite.

    The first chapter/entry/jotting is titled “The Great Outdoors”. It sets the tone for the others – “Philosophy”, “Romance”, “Gambling”, “The World’s Most Dangerous Spiders”, “The Importance of Good Posture and Looking After your Teeth” – and there are many, each only a couple of pages long, all beginning: “We’re teaching our sons about ... ” It continues: “We’re teaching them how to appreciate the natural world, how to understand it, how to survive in it.” And then it all goes a bit wonky, in that rather knowing McSweeney’s fashion that will be familiar to readers of short fiction and whose antecedents lie in the work of Donald Barthelme and Richard Brautigan. “We’re teaching them how to catch things, how to kill things, how to gut things. Out on the frozen marshes before dawn we produce hundreds of rabbits out of sacks, try to show our sons how to skin the rabbits.” And then there’s the kicker: “Our sons look over our shoulders, distracted by the beautiful sunrise. They don’t want anything to do with skinning rabbits.”

    If you like the structure – setup, joke, setup, joke – then you’ll love this book. If not, there’s still lots to enjoy here

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  • Schadenfreude review – is our zeitgeist a Spitegeist?

    Tiffany Watt Smith’s delightful book, full of jokes and confessions, divides examples of laughing at others’ misfortunes into good and bad

    When I interviewed Daniel Craig for his first outing as James Bond, his pecs were ripped, his clothes elegant, his manner intolerably genial. The whole package was that of an alpha male at ease under interrogation by a babbling slob with no muscle tone. God, I hated him. And then he did something that cheered me up. He bent down to sip a banana milkshake and almost skewered himself with the straw. “Oooh, I nearly put my eye out,” he said in a satisfyingly effete voice.

    Evolutionary biologists suggest that the emotion of schadenfreude I felt then, that pleasure in witnessing a tall poppy cut itself down to size, stems from early societies that were dependent on cooperation and so needed to be egalitarian. That said, if Bond had actually put out his eye with the straw, I wouldn’t have delighted in his misfortune. Probably.

    Related: The secret joys of schadenfreude

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  • Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg review – an Italian classic
    This novel-cum-memoir paints an unusual portrait of everyday domestic life in Italy from the 1920s to the 50s

    “Dribbledrams! Doodledums! Nitwitteries!” These are a few of the signature eccentric sayings that Italian novelist and essayist Ginzburg ascribes to members of her family in this unusual portrait of everyday life in Italy from the 1920s to 50s. An experimental novel-cum-memoir first published in 1963, it features her parents, older siblings, in-laws, dissident friends and acquaintances, as well as those known through her mother’s oft-recounted reminiscences, who had “assumed the step of the dead, light and elusive”.

    The expressions recur through the book, becoming leitmotifs, character distillations that resonate as much through accumulation as explanation. She describes this idiosyncratic lexicon as “our Latin, the dictionary of our past” and “the basis of our family unity”. It forms the building blocks for a lovingly rendered, abruptly funny domestic scene, punctured only rarely by the surrounding political turbulence; her husband’s death during the German occupation, for instance, is given just a sentence.

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  • The Future of War by Lawrence Freedman review – from the trenches to terrorism
    This powerful survey reflects on the past to assess the likely characteristics of conflicts to come

    In this authoritative and illuminating survey, Freedman – a professor of war studies and member of the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war – argues that “the future of war has a distinctive and revealing past”. The subject of wars to come has long fascinated not just those in the military but also politicians and writers highlighting concerns about foreign threats, campaigning against types of weaponry or seeking to banish war. Texts about future war can reveal anxieties about impending conflict and offer historical insights into the causes and conduct of actual wars.

    Beginning in the 19th century, Freedman shows how the optimism that new tactics and technologies would deliver quick and decisive victories foundered in the mud of the trenches. For authors such as HG Wells, the chaos of modern war was a necessary prelude to world peace. Indeed, it was a superweapon Wells predicted in 1914 – the atomic bomb – that made all-out nuclear conflict unwinnable after 1945.

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  • Brief Answers to the Big Questions by Stephen Hawking review – God, space, AI, Brexit

    This absorbing posthumous book draws on essays, lectures, speeches and the questions the physicist was so often asked

    The late Stephen Hawking did not believe in an afterlife, but he has one all the same. He has appeared as a co-author in two posthumous research papers since he died in March. One takes a fresh look at the problem of just how complex the universe far beyond our horizon could be; the other returns to the intractable but apparently not entirely insoluble problem of what happens to information once it falls into a black hole. This second paper is a response to a paradox that concerns only theoretical physicists but the first addresses the machinery of creation that seems to have needed no creator.

    Not surprisingly, he returns to both themes and many more in what his publishers call his final thoughts. Pioneering thinkers leave their names on their science. Hawking and Roger Penrose proved mathematically in 1965 that time, space and matter must have had a beginning in an infinitely small, dense point. Radioastronomers separately identified tantalising evidence of creation inscribed in the cosmos that year. Hawking also pursued another unknowable object to establish the theoretical reality of an elusive entity, instantly dubbed Hawking radiation, from within the forbidden frontiers of a black hole.

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  • The best recent crime novels – review roundup
    Tombland by CJ Sansom, When Trouble Sleeps by Leye Adenle, Dark Sacred Night by Michael Connelly, Trap by Lilja Sigurðardóttir and Bright Young Dead by Jessica Fellowes

    Tombland (Mantle, £20), the long-awaited seventh novel by CJ Sansom about Tudor lawyer Matthew Shardlake, is a thumping 847 pages of glorious pageantry. It’s 1549, and the sharp-minded, crook-backed hero must ride to Norfolk to look into a murder case on behalf of Lady Elizabeth, younger sister of boy king Edward VI and the future queen. She is anxious about the fate of her distant relative, John Boleyn, who stands accused of murdering his wife; the family have been in disfavour since the 1536 beheading of Elizabeth’s mother, Anne, so he is unlikely to get a sympathetic hearing. With the state coffers being emptied in pursuit of a fruitless war with Scotland, it’s a turbulent time: not only is there religious conflict, but the existing social inequality is being exacerbated by the enclosure of common lands, as wealthy landlords with an eye on the increasingly profitable wool industry fence them off to graze their sheep. Shardlake and his assistants find themselves caught up in Kett’s rebellion, a real but little known peasants’ revolt, which has dramatic and bloody consequences. Although the main storyline is sometimes lost in all the hurly-burly, Sansom handles his huge cast with aplomb. This is a totally immersive and vividly written tale: compelling reading for history lovers and crime aficionados alike.

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  • The Penguin Book of the Contemporary British Short Story – a standout survey

    Zadie Smith, David Szalay, Martin Amis … this anthology edited by Philip Hensher showcases skill and range rather than innovation

    The wealthiest short story prize I have judged was the Sunday Times EFG short story award, which presents the victor with £30,000. If the winning writer were to use every single one of the 6,000 words allowed them, that would work out at a fiver a word, which puts them on a par with that other well-paid writer of creative fiction, the columnist Boris Johnson.

    In straitened times for writers, you would think a prize bonanza like this is a good thing – but it cuts no ice with Philip Hensher, editor of The Penguin Book of the Contemporary British Short Story, published two years after his immense anthology-cum-survey of the British short story since c1700 and designed, in part, to compensate for some of the space-related omissions of the last project.

    It's interesting to see novelists exercising their talents over a shorter distance, with a different frame of reference

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  • Wise Children review – Emma Rice's spectacular Angela Carter carnival

    Old Vic, London
    Razzle-dazzle showbiz twins bewitch and delight in an inventive, smart and saucy production

    Wise Children is Angela Carter’s rambunctious last novel about illegitimacy, incest and Shakespearean illusion. It is also the name of Emma Rice’s new theatre company, which launches with this adaptation. Carter would surely have approved of such doubleness and reinvention; her work is filled with twins and revisionist retellings of old stories.

    Dora and Nora – the central twins of Carter’s book – are Brixton-born septuagenarians, looking back on their lives as showgirls in the tawdry music halls of 1930s London. Here, they are represented by puppets, as their youngest incarnations, and by three couples: cartwheeling girls in pigtails (Bettrys Jones and Mirabelle Gremaud), Amazonian showgirls with Louise Brooks bobs (Melissa James and Omari Douglas), and the 75-year-old dual storytellers (Etta Murfitt and Gareth Snook), narrating their life stories with the cockney bonhomie of old-school entertainers.

    Related: Emma Rice: ‘I don’t know how I got to be so controversial’

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  • Metamorphica by Zachary Mason review – mish-mash of Graeco-Roman myth

    A predatory Athena and a playboy Narcissus bring flashes of brilliance to a reworking of Ovid that lacks rigour

    Ovid’s Metamorphoses is an extraordinary work: a retelling of Greek myth by a Roman poet, whose unifying theme is the act of change. The invocation that begins the poem explains: “My spirit compels me to tell of forms changed into new bodies”, and Metamorphoses has inspired visual artists from Bernini to Picasso, as well as poets from Shakespeare to Ted Hughes. Zachary Mason now adds his name to an intimidatingly long list. He should be used to that, though, having reworked Homer for his wonderful debut novel, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, in which he reimagined Odysseus’s story from multiple perspectives.

    Sadly, the rigour that thrilled readers of his first book is missing for much of this one. Too many chapters – those concerning the Trojan war, in particular – feel like offcuts from his taut debut. There, Mason dealt beautifully with Polyphemus, the cyclops blinded by Odysseus, in a chapter told from the cannibalistic monster’s viewpoint. It was a clear homage to “The House of Asterion” by Jorge Luis Borges, which tells the story of Theseus from the perspective of the cannibalistic Minotaur. In Metamorphica, the third chapter is a woolly version of an earlier part of Polyphemus’s life, when he loves the sea nymph Galatea and kills her beloved Acis in a fit of jealous rage. Mason retains the jealousy and the slaughter, but omits the part where Galatea turns her lover into a river god, the metamorphosis that renders the story Ovidian. If there is no metamorphosis (and the only thing in Mason’s version that comes close is Polyphemus carving Acis’s dead face into rock, like a bronze age Mount Rushmore), then what is the reason for the story’s inclusion?

    Metamorphica is given a veneer of complexity by its footnotes, but they are inconsistent and occasionally inaccurate

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