I review and have reviewed books, with varying regularity, for The Independent, The Guardian, The Independent on Sunday, The Times Literary Supplement, The Daily Telegraph and The Financial Times. Here’s some of what you can read of mine online, most recent first. It is far from comprehensive, but god willing will become moreso:
Fifteen Dogs, by André Alexis: “novel about a pack of talking dogs, you say? The very idea will most likely breed thoughts of insufferable whimsy, like those paintings of mutts playing poker, or of more or less effective satire, in the vein of Animal Farm. It’s a grand thing, then, that this spry novel by Canadian André Alexis spends its 160 pages repeatedly defying expectations.”
The Decision, by Britta Böhler: This old-fashioned, well-crafted biographical novel could almost be used as a dictionary definition of what’s not hip in the grey area where fiction and non-fiction meet and meld. “It’s an interesting question: what we want from fiction like this, and what we think we’re getting.”
The Folly by Ivan Vladislavić: “a satire on – and a love letter to – human gullibility, and, as such, quite strange, and as special as it is strange”
Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch 1934-1995: A disappointment. “Indefatigable, yes. But good? Murdoch was not writing for posterity; she was writing for her friends, or rather as a way of maintaining her friendships, whether intellectual, passionate or both, and there’s nothing wrong with that.” But you find out precious little about the novels or, really, about Murdoch the writer.
The Age of Reinvention, by Karine Tuil: “You often hear sighs about the lack of translated literature in the UK, but if translation can be a bridge between cultures, it can also show up the gulf between them.”
I Love Dick, by Chris Kraus: “This books comes with a reputation, though it’s not the one you might expect… You can call it a novel, then, but it’s as a philosophical and cultural critique that I Love Dick bites hardest.”
Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life, by Jonathan Bate: “The picture Bate gives us of Hughes is a noble, tragic one, of a poet kept from truly expressing himself by forces within and without”
Grief Is The Thing With Feathers, by Max Porter: “Hughes’s wicked and omnivorous protagonist has been revived by Max Porter for this thrillingly various book, which in 114 pages passes itself off as essay, poem, fairy tale, lit crit both parodic and real, and putative memoir”
Endgame, by Ahmet Altan; Trans. Alexander Dawe: “This isn’t a plot-heavy book – that’s the “existential” aspect, I suppose – but unfortunately this also leads to long repetitive passages of dialogue, and longer ones of writerly rumination”
June, by Gerbrand Bakker: “To say that the book’s themes are family and memory is to err on the side of platitude, but what’s clear from the narration, that can flick at quantum speeds across the decades and back again, and from the insistence on honouring the detail of life, is that what we see around us, and barely notice, is precisely what future memories are made of.”
The Four Books, by Yan Lianke: “Stark, powerful and compelling, this book is not “a joy to read”, but reading it is certainly a privilege.”
All Days are Night, by Peter Stamm: “Peter Stamm’s novels are not where you go for happy endings, but what makes them such a gruelling proposition is that the Swiss-German writes happiness so well”
Our Endless Numbered Days, by Claire Fuller: “Familiar tropes of being the last person alive on Earth are given a twist in a debut novel that brings to mind such unlikely bedfellows as Thoreau’s Walden and Emma Donoghue’s Room.
Found in translation: 10 great foreign reads: A top 10 books in translation by living authors, commissioned as a sidebar to a piece on Ann Morgan’s book, Reading the World.
A Stranger in My Own Country: The 1944 Prison Diary by Hans Fallada: “Knowing that discovery would mean death, he wrote in a miniscule, virtually unreadable script, then, when he’d run out of paper, turned the pages upside down and carried on with new lines of writing between the old”
10:04 by Ben Lerner: “here, it seemed to me, was a new kind of male writer, who was set on holding on to the limelight with a virtuoso confession of their own inadequacies. Knausgaard, David Foster Wallace, Geoff Dyer all do or did this to a degree, but Lerner seemed a particularly specious case”
International fiction in translation round-up: This Should Be Written in the Present Tense, by Helle Helle; By Night the Mountain Burns, by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel; Raw Material, by Jörg Fauser; Uncertain Glory, by Joan Sales
All the Days and Nights by Niven Govinden: “The language is plain, but oblique – falling across the characters and events rather like the light that Anna is so obsessed with capturing, that renders people and places at once obvious and ineffable.”
Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano: “You can see why he appealed to the sensibilities of the Nobel committee, but readers shouldn’t be daunted by the accolade. Modiano is as accessible as he is engrossing”
Radio Benjamin by Walter Benjamin: “many of these pieces can certainly be read alongside Benjamin’s autobiographical writings on Berlin, and might even be considered as sorts of primers for his mammoth Arcades Project”
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante: “Ferrante is an expert above all at the rhythm of plotting: certain feuds and oppositions are kept simmering and in abeyance for years, so that a particular confrontation – a particular scene – can be many hundreds of pages in coming, but when it arrives seems at once shocking and inevitable”
Twilight of the Eastern Gods by Ismail Kadare: “It’s not too hard to see this novel as Kadare’s reminder to himself to keep his own promise, and not end up like the compromised mediocrities around him.”
Iza’s Ballad by Magda Szabo: “The tightness with which the characters observe each other make this a slightly claustrophobic read, but it certainly holds you once it has its claws in you.”
Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones: A fascinating story of women in northern Albania who take on a male role, but less emotionally involving than it might have been
Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas: “Irony is just the seasoning that stops us gagging on the nostalgia. Ah! To have been there! To have lived that! Whatever his intentions, this wonderful book only reconfirms the never-ending-ness of Paris… for a while at least.”
Dispute Over a Very Italian Piglet by Amara Lakhous: “Lakhous keeps things light – the book is half media satire, half crime caper – and to that extent it’s a success.”
The Death of the Poet by N Quentin Woolf: “The Death of the Poet is a big book, and paints its story on a large canvas, but a lot of it reads like self-pity, and that, more than any amount of hard knocks, is hard to take.”
A Sentimental Novel by Alain Robbe-Grillet: “Published in France the year before his death in 2008, this is a studied exercise in obscenity, an homage to the Marquis de Sade that goes well beyond what the 18th-Century libertarian came up with.”
Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips: “The Eicher children are so vividly drawn, in fact, that it is a shock to turn the page and find them staring out of archive photos, fuzzy and blank-faced and unknowable”
A Love Letter From a Stray Moon by Jay Griffiths: “There are very few writers in English today with the courage to splash their heart on the page like this, and this means it’s a tonic to read it – and a challenge.”
Orfeo by Richard Powers: “Orfeo is a deeply intelligent book, and, though it knows enough to make you care about its characters, its greatest achievement is to flatter the reader into thinking they care about — and understand — music and art too”
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler: “Fowler might have taken a dozen more straightforward routes that would have made the same heartfelt points about human nature and the duties we have to each other.”
Wake by Anna Hope: “The women’s lives come at us in a present -tense narration that keeps the book easy to read, letting the characters’ thoughts bob to the surface of the text in italics, as if in a nod towards the modernism that was brewing in that very period.”
S. by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst: “There are some glaring mis-steps, but the love affair is undeniably compelling, and the mid-20th-century pastiche of Ship of Theseus very well pulled off indeed.”
The Kills by Richard House: “a kind of Möbius strip, albeit one with frayed edges… It all gets very confusing, and for those who enjoy readerly confusion this is a real treat.”
From the Fatherland, With Love by Ryu Murakami: bizarrely, from the author of In the Miso Soup and Audition, a procedural thriller, “a long and closely-written narrative about a fictional North Korean invasion of the Japanese island of Kyushu”
Things I Don’t Want to Know by Deborah Levy: An essay response to Orwell’s ‘Why I Write’ that starts with the story of the author feeling lost in her own life, which she then arms with quotations from the likes of De Beauvoir, Duras and Julia Kristeva.
Nostalgia, by Jonathan Buckley: “a minor-key masterpiece of restraint, invention and the fine art of keeping expectations deliberately low, then elegantly surpassing them.”
The Woes of the True Policeman by Roberto Bolaño: one of the most interesting of the posthumous additions to Bolaño’s oeuvre, this is a companion piece of sorts to his most celebrated novels, even when it contradicts them.
Secrecy by Rupert Thomson: “Where Mantel’s immediate, visceral present-tense prose in Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies is an immersive experience, this is more distant, like a luxurious art-house film, seducing you with its beautifully paced, beautifully framed images”
A Great Big Shining Star By Niall Griffiths: “It is these apocalyptic rages at the iniquity of humankind in general, and himself in particular, together with his lyrical absorption in the natural world, that carry the book beyond being the bleakest of jeremiads”
Black Bread White Beer by Niven Govinden: a short novel about how the first joyful years of a relationship can fade under the demands of routine, and the expectation of parenthood.
An Indy blog to mark the 90th anniversary of the death of Katherine Mansfield – was she a ‘purer’ writer for writing only short stories?
The White Goddess: An Encounter by Simon Gough: “In his foreword Gough apologises to anyone who may be hurt by the book, which is always a good sign.”
Pieces of Light: The New Science of Memory By Charles Fernyhough: “Like Rosencrantz, in Tom Stoppard’s play, I can’t remember my earliest memory. (“No, it’s no good, it’s gone. It was too long ago.”) But thanks to Charles Fernyhough’s new book, I begin to understand why.”
The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus: “a gnarly, difficult book, part-fairy tale, part-horror story, part-literary dissection of these: a mutant worthy of the best experimenters.”
The Valley of Unknowing by Philip Sington: the book’s “cumbersome, overegged English seems to be pushing against the impetus of the plot, and the buoyancy of love.”
A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale: “guaranteed to give the reader a warm glow, but in that there is something Panglossian: the idea that redemption awaits us all, as surely as it does Gale’s characters.”
This is Paradise by Will Eaves: “a novel about ordinary lives that, at times, dips – or perhaps rises – into the extraordinary”
Noughties by Ben Masters: “A little less of the showboating nods-to-Martin might have given Masters the space to develop his narrative and characters, and work up some resonance of his own”
The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips: one of my books of 2011, a humorous and tender take on the Shakespeare industry that functions more or less as a backhanded insult, praising even as it damns.
The Truth About Marie by Jean-Phillipe Toussaint: “Gallic through and through, teasing in its philosophical play, and pointedly cavalier with regards to such solid Anglo-Saxon notions as plot and narrative point of view”
Antwerp by Roberto Bolaño: “a fascinating, even compulsory addition to the Bolaño fan’s bookshelf, but in no way an introduction to it. The two great novels, The Savage Detectives and 2666, may be 20 or 30 times longer than this jagged little array of prose-poems, but they are also 10 times more readable.”
Telegraph double header review of debut novels Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus and Alexander Maksik’s You Deserve Nothing: one that is a pale shadow of Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus, the other an intriguing take on a teacher/student love affair. Does my good opinion of it change when I find out that Maksik apparently had such an affair himself when he was a teacher in Paris? Hmm…
Wild Abandon by Joe Dunthorne : “a book to make men of a certain age and beard weep with shame and recognition” – and proof that Dunthorne is capable of writing a a thoroughly likeable, well-adjusted character
An Independent feature on Writers who revel in losing the plot… looking at attempts at ‘shuffle’ technology in fiction, including Egan’s Goon Squad, Marc Saporta’s Composition No. 1, and Bolano’s Antwerp.
The Foxes Come at Night by Cees Nooteboom: mixed bag of stories from the writer of “exquisite toys for the broken-hearted, erudite tales that revolve around themes of loss and despair but are never less than playful.”
A double review of Lisa Appignanesi’s All About Love and Simon May’s Love: A History : “‘For’, ‘to’ and ‘with’ – the conjunctions themselves suggest a trajectory to which most of us would aspire.”
A Book For All and For None by Clare Morgan: “The great theme of the novel is that paradox of biography: that though the past is immutable to those who lived it, it is only ever available to us as conjecture”
The Echo Chamber by Luke Williams: “The Echo Chamber resists summary, but tumbles headlong through its pages driven by a seemingly unassuagable need to tell stories.”
A Vist From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan: ” seductive, and brilliant, but its fractured surface hides a meticulous organisation. This is a a Fabergé egg of a novel, which isn’t meant entirely as praise”
The Afterparty by Leo Benedictus: ” Without postmodern trickery #afterpartybook wld still be a pretty sharp funny & sad media satire. Wout media satire it wld be zip. Go figure. ”
A blog on the iPhone/iPad App for Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad at The Lit Platform. “‘Goon Squad’, with its very fluid connectivity between different characters, different geographies, different eras and scenes, seems to suit the shuffle function so well.”
I judge JA Baker’s The Peregrine by its cover for the FT: “Raymond’s bird isn’t even a particularly good zoological likeness – it certainly wouldn’t do as a field guide illustration – but it suits this enigmatic and rather otherworldly book down to the waterlogged ground.”
Cedilla by Adam Mars-Jones: ” The John Cromer trilogy is shaping up to be an endlessly extended Bildungsroman, in which physical hardship, an over-protective mother and the general social climate conspire to keep the hero from ever achieving maturity”
I judge Picture This by Joseph Heller by its cover for the FT: “Homer, for his part, stares blindly on, but with a look of horror on his face that seems to say he knows exactly what’s going on.”
I pick Mick Jackson’s The Widow’s Tale for the Fiction Uncovered blog
Indy Blog: When is a magazine not a magazine? I pick the ten best- and worst-dressed McSweeney’s issues.
I judge Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer by its cover for the FT: “The story is a trail that the reader must find and lose and find again”
Richard by Ben Myers: “In the end, it’s this sense of literary ambition that damns the book. You can’t imagine Richey giving it the time of day”
A Russian Novel By Emmanuel Carrère, trans. Linda Coverdale: “This memoir pushes candour to quite pitiless extremes.”
Indy Blog: The fine art of the introduction
The Last Interview, By Roberto Bolaño, with Monica Maristain: “This slim collection of four interviews does a little to feed the myth, and much to correct it”
Room, by Emma Donoghue: “As a life-affirming fable of parent-child love, and an antidote to the prurience of so much crime fiction, it’s a triumph, and deserves to be a hit.”
The Stars in the Bright Sky by Alan Warner: “Warner navigates the comic, the philosophical and the socially acute like no other writer we have”
Skippy Dies by Paul Murray: “The book strays near some dark territory (self-harm, domestic violence, bereavement, sexual abuse), but maintains its light, utterly readable, skippy tread throughout”
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer: ” This might be one of Dyer’s best books, but, the more he writes, the less the distinction between them becomes important.”