Home / Book Reviews
  • In brief: Roar; Educated; Courage Calls to Courage Everywhere – review
    Stories that dissect female subjugation, a memoir of a repressive Mormon childhood and a call for courage in the fight for gender equality

    Cecelia Ahern
    HarperCollins, £12.99, pp352

    Continue reading... Read more »
  • The Secret Network of Nature by Peter Wohlleben review – patchy on patterning
    This study of mankind’s disruption of the natural world is narrow in focus and awkward in tone

    Peter Wohlleben’s bestselling Mysteries of Nature trilogy – The Hidden Life of Trees, The Inner Life of Animals and his latest, The Secret Network of Nature – taps into a very human instinct: pattern recognition. Whether it’s the satisfaction that comes from the completed crossword or jigsaw or the perception of previously overlooked linkages and affinities in the functioning of the world, we draw pleasure from perceiving order where once there was chaos.

    This technique – the revelation of surprising causality – has been employed by many of our most successful authors of popular nonfiction, from Malcolm Gladwell, who applied it to the study of sociology, to Yuval Noah Harari in anthropology and Nassim Nicholas Taleb in economics.

    Wohlleben’s voice is that of a jaunty, hail-fellow-well-met naturalist

    Continue reading... Read more »
  • The Penguin Book of the Contemporary British Short Story review – from Blair to Brexit

    A collection of short fiction from the past 20 years, edited by Philip Hensher, pushes the limits of taste more than form

    With many books and hundreds of thousands of words of journalism to his name this past decade, the tag “writer and critic” already sounded limp in the face of Philip Hensher’s industry, even before he took on the improbable sideline of sifting 300 years of British short stories to edit, in 2015, a two-volume showcase running from Daniel Defoe to Zadie Smith via majestically obscure figures such as T Baron Russell, the so-called “Zola of Camberwell”.

    Now he’s back with an extra 30 stories he didn’t have room for last time. Starting in 1997, the new volume’s Blair-to-Brexit timeline pays homage to VS Pritchett, “the greatest of all British short-story writers”, who died that year. While Hensher, speculating darkly on the internet’s deadening effect on literary style, stops short of saying Pritchett’s socially grounded realism is the only game in town, his picks do tend to be in that vein, which, if not innovative, at least ensures this is an excellent book for curling up with.

    Continue reading... Read more »
  • The Life of Saul Bellow: Love and Strife 1965-2005 by Zachary Leader review – the definitive account
    This essential study of Saul Bellow’s destructive lust for life urges absolution for his sins

    There is a “be careful what you wish for” tone to this second volume of Zachary Leader’s decade-long submersion into the long life of America’s most vital postwar novelist. The first book was called To Fame and Fortune and ended with the publication of Herzog, the novel that secured both of those ambitions for Bellow. Here, we open at the swish party for the book’s launch. Bellow, aged 49, is receiving his guests – “all the old loves, would-be loves, friends and near friends, the hits and misses”, as his sparring partner Alfred Kazin noted in a diary entry, and “Saul alone of all the old gang has achieved first-class status”. Having reached something like this summit, downhill now beckons for Bellow as uphill long beckoned. He resists descent with every fibre. “There’s more yet for me, he cries in his heart,” Kazin observes, “more, much more!”

    Professor Leader agrees. There are well over 800 close-typed pages in the drama of his subject’s defiant second act; it is a tribute both to the life and to The Life that so few of these pages seem superfluous. The substance of these 40 years – four decades in which Bellow wrote a dozen more books, embarked on numerous love affairs (as well as on marriages four and five) and was awarded every major literary honour, including the Nobel prize in 1976 – is the necessity to preserve his private imagination while now a resolutely public figure.

    He was mostly at odds with 60s counterculture, generally refusing to support writers’ protests against Vietnam

    Continue reading... Read more »
  • Book clinic: which books can help with my daughter’s low self-esteem?
    A selection of books, from Victoria Jamieson’s Roller Girl to Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World, to help build confidence

    Q: Which books can help my 10-year-old daughter navigate her feelings of low self-esteem and not fitting in at school?
    Joanne Phillips, 48, writer, indexer and single mum

    Fiona Noble, children’s book reviewer for the Observer, writes:
    On the cusp of secondary school and puberty, 10 can be a challenging time, and books offer children a safe place to explore these emotions. In the award-winning Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson, 12-year-old Astrid faces the toughest summer of her life when she and her best friend begin to drift apart. Signing up for roller derby camp is a gamechanger.

    Continue reading... Read more »
  • The Vogue by Eoin McNamee review – a Northern Irish mystery

    The discovery of a body at an abandoned military base uncovers an eerie hidden history

    For a contemporary Northern Irish author, the subjects of buried bodies, military conflict and religious indoctrination are hard – and perhaps even improper – to avoid. Accepting this toxically proximate material, Eoin McNamee has written powerfully about the corpses, battles and sermons of the Troubles in novels including Resurrection Man (1994), The Blue Tango (2001) and The Ultras (2004).

    Just as Anna Burns writes obliquely about Belfast unrest in her Man Booker prize-winning Milkman, McNamee, in his seventh novel, The Vogue, explores familiar Ulster matters – hidden graves, war and dangerous faith – but from a fascinatingly unfamiliar angle. The conflict here is the second world war, the religious sect an evangelical group called the Elective Brethren, and, though the book begins with the digging up of remains that can be dated to a few years after Bloody Sunday, paramilitaries are not implicated.

    McNamee has a distinctive prose tone for purposes of staccato rhythm. 'Forty-watt bulbs in dusty storerooms' is a complete sentence

    Related: Review: 12:23 by Eoin McNamee | Accident Man by Tom Cain

    Continue reading... Read more »
  • Little by Edward Carey review – vivid tale of Madame Tussaud

    This rich, engrossing novel explores how a penniless Swiss orphan caught up in the French Revolution came to found the famous waxworks museum

    At one point in Edward Carey’s rich, engrossing novel, a young French princess hires an art teacher. It is 1778 and the teacher, who works at a popular new wax museum in Paris, has never seen anything like Versailles, with its vast rooms “filled with expensive, distinguished, furious objects”; the princess, now 14, has clearly never been properly taught. At their first lesson she throws open a room festooned with bad drawings. “They’re mine!” she exclaims. “I drew them.” The teacher, nicknamed Little because she is so small, real name Marie Grosholtz, eventually Madame Tussaud, weighs up her options. Then she says, “You do not … look, really, do you?”

    So they set about looking. And the princess learns that the act of looking well, at bodies in particular, has power – something Marie and her own mentor Doctor Curtius, working all hours of the day to keep up with demand for waxwork replicas of the good citizens of Paris, have already discovered. To look well, for Carey, an illustrator as well as a novelist, is to see how emotion and meaning inhere in all objects, giving them independent life. From his first adult novel, 2000’s Observatory Mansions, in which a man builds a secret museum of stolen items for which the only criteria for inclusion is that they are loved, to his Iremonger trilogy for children, which begins in a house surrounded by heaps of objects, Carey builds worlds where things take on supposedly human characteristics and humans are portrayed as animated things. To actually see, he seems to argue, is an act of love, a moral act, an act of empathy, a kind of faith.

    Related: Edward Carey: welcome to my Gothic world – in pictures

    Continue reading... Read more »
  • The Forgotten review: Ben Bradlee Jr delivers 2020 lessons for Democrats

    Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, was a key vote for Trump. The midterm results show the Democratic comeback is incomplete

    Donald Trump’s electoral college victory rests on the shoulders of more than 200 so-called “pivot counties” across the US. That is, counties that voted for Barack Obama only four years earlier. The most decisive of these swings occurred in Pennsylvania’s Luzerne county, nestled in the north-east part of the state, an area bisected by interstate highways that stretch from New Jersey to California and Canada to Tennessee, with places named Wilkes-Barre, Hazelton and Mountain Top.

    Related: 'Democrats won the House but Trump won the election' – and 2020 is next

    Trump told the working class what they wanted to hear. ‘You’re the ones Washington doesn’t care about’

    Maybe I’m a racist … I didn’t think I was

    Democrats need to make more room for centrist voices if they want to reach voters who now feel culturally alienated

    Continue reading... Read more »
  • Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism by Kristen Ghodsee – review

    Did East German women have more orgasms than those in the west? How market forces affect sexuality

    This book has a simple premise: “Unregulated capitalism is bad for women,” Kristen Ghodsee argues, “and if we adopt some ideas from socialism, women will have better lives.” Ghodsee is an ethnographer who has researched the transition from communism to capitalism in eastern Europe, with a particular focus on gender-specific consequences. “The collapse of state socialism in 1989 created a perfect laboratory to investigate the effects of capitalism on women’s lives,” she writes.

    Less regulated economies, she finds, place a disproportionate burden on women. Women subsidise lower taxes through their unpaid labour at home. Cuts to the social safety net mean more women have to care for children, the elderly and the sick, forcing them into economic dependence. Ghodsee contends that without state intervention, the private sector job market punishes those who bear and raise children and discriminates against those who might one day do so. The government is better at ensuring wage parity across different groups than the private sector, and economies with more public sector jobs tend to have more gender equality, too. Women bear the brunt of capitalism’s cyclical instability, and are often the last to be hired and the first to be fired in economic downturns. They are paid less, they have less representation in government and, she writes, all of this affects their sexuality. The less economic independence women have, the more sexuality and sexual relationships conform to the marketplace, with those who are disadvantaged in the free market pursuing sex not for love or pleasure but for a roof over their heads, health insurance, or access to the wealth or status that capitalism denies them.

    Ghodsee's argument that socialism leads to better sex is hard to substantiate when so many cultural factors are at play

    Continue reading... Read more »
  • The best recent science fiction, fantasy and horror – reviews roundup
    Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan, Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri, Sherlock Holmes and the Sussex Sea-Devils by James Lovegrove, The Subjugate by Amanda Bridgeman and The Dark Vault by VE Schwab

    In a genre replete with stock Arthurian templates, it’s refreshing to see myths and legends taken from a different culture, in this instance Malay. In Natasha Ngan’s third YA novel, Girls of Paper and Fire (Hodder, £14.99), the citizens of the lavishly portrayed world of Ikhara are divided into three castes: Moon, the ruling demons; Steel, demon-human amalgams; and Paper, subjugated humans. Narrator Lei is a Paper girl, taken from her family to become a concubine, with eight other girls, of the Demon King. What follows her initial submission is the slow-burning story of the iniquity perpetrated by the ruling elite and Lei’s affecting love affair with her fellow Paper girl Wren, a liaison forbidden by the powers-that-be. The book works on several levels, as a satisfying glimpse into a different fantasy world, as a compelling narrative of personal rebellion, and as a timely reminder that, in the right hands, the fantasy genre has things to say about injustice and abuse of power in the real world.

    Continue reading... Read more »