Francis Spufford – Golden Hill
Book Reviews / September 21, 2016

In which your Blogger sets forth his Views on a most admirable Book Golden Hill Francis Spufford, Faber, June 2016 World history can count a number of archetypal cities, each inheriting the mantle from the former: Babylon, Rome, Constantinople, Paris, London. Since the early 20th century the title has gone to New York, with a skyline so symbolic that it was targeted in the attacks of September 11th 2001. It is difficult to imagine New York City any other way, as if its skyscrapers have stood like monuments since the dawn of time. New York in the 1740s, when Francis Spufford’s marvellous novel Golden Hill is set, was a very different place: venture up the “Broad Way” only a few hundred yards, and the traveller is in the countryside, more likely to see sheep than showmen. Its population of 7,000 was a hundred times smaller than London’s. But although the 18th century saw the birth of a distinctive, American identity, it was also a time of growing global interconnectedness. The mayor of New York, sitting in his office 3,000 miles away from London, could quite reasonably describe himself as British. It is easy to forget sometimes that the 1700s ever…

Blake Crouch – Dark Matter
Book Reviews / September 7, 2016

Quantum buffoonery in a fun but unconvincing sci-fi romp Dark Matter Blake Crouch, Macmillan, 2016 Fans of the TV series Fringe, which ended in 2013, will know the narrative potential of parallel universes. They can be a textbook example of the uncanny in literature – similar enough to be recognizable but with noticeable, and sometimes amusing, differences. For example, we learn that the second universe’s version of Batman is called the Mantis, and then are forced to consider that, however silly a superhero taking his inspiration from an insect is, a flying rodent is not that much cooler. The raging geek within me was therefore excited by the sound of Dark Matter. The novel tells the story of Jason Dessen, a physicist teaching at a small college in Chicago. He has married the girl of his dreams and together they raise a sweet 15-year-old son. To get this ‘perfect’ life he has sacrificed a glittering career at the forefront of theoretical physics. On the day he discovers an old friend of his has received the Pavia prize—a sort of Wolf prize, presumably named after the book’s editor Julian Pavia—he is abducted and wakes up in a parallel version of Chicago….

Philip Pullman – Northern Lights reread
Book Reviews / June 27, 2016

Growing up Northern Lights Philip Pullman, Scholastic, 1995 (Warning: this review contains spoilers for the Harry Potter series.) For approximately three years after the release of The Golden Compass, the 2007 Hollywood adaptation of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, I was expecting news of a sequel. Then I, like most of the rest of the world, forgot about it. All things considered, the film—bowdlerized and in some places quite clunky—was a disappointment, but it could well have led to something better. After all, the two Columbus-directed Harry Potter films are, even seen through the prism of nostalgia, a bit rubbish. But the films that followed were excellent, marked by skilful direction and increasingly good acting. The His Dark Materials trilogy got no such chance to redeem itself—until now, that is: the BBC have announced that production has begun on a miniseries based on Pullman’s novels. As much as I am excited by this development, I can’t help but feel a little sad that we will not again see Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra, Nicole Kidman as Mrs Coulter, or hear Ian McKellen as Iorek Byrnison. But as wonderful as those actors are, the real star of any interpretation of His Dark…

Marilynne Robinson – Gilead
Book Reviews / June 27, 2016

Small town story Gilead Marilynne Robinson, FSG, 2004 If I had to choose a vocation in literature, I would not choose that of the ‘good man’. If that is your role, you are faced with two options: 1) suffer terribly and, preferably, die (the Christ model), 2) bore the pants off your readers, normally acting as a foil to more complex characters (the Alyosha Karamazov model). Readers are very rarely saints ourselves, and we identify more readily with flawed characters. So it is a testament to Marilynne Robinson’s skill that she is able to sell us a protagonist whose struggles are, for the most part, internal and not make this read like a philosophy student’s LiveJournal. Robinson’s narrator, a pastor named John Ames, has tended his flock in Gilead, Iowa for several decades. The reader joins him as he is approaching the end of his life, struck down by an undefined illness and soon to leave behind a younger wife and an infant son. The novel takes the form of a letter to his son—really a fragmentary series of narratives—which jumps ably between the present day and Ames’s childhood and later life. The third in a line of ministers, Ames…

Julian Barnes – The noise of time
Book Reviews / February 3, 2016

A coward’s life The noise of time Julian Barnes, Jonathan Cape, January 2016 Concluding a recent talk about life-writing, Julian Barnes wryly asked for a disclaimer to be placed into any future biographies of him: “This is not how I was; this is what I am like when I’m being biographed”. Of course, it is difficult enough capturing the ‘truth’ about a subject in a straight biography; Barnes’s fictional account of Shostakovich’s life asks us to believe, at least for a short while, that we are reading is the true, internal monologue of Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich. In this it succeeds marvellously. The novel’s structure is simple: a prologue and three chapters, each recounting an episode of the subject’s life. In the first Shostakovich believes he is about to be purged for his newly unpopular music; in the second he is returning from a propaganda tour of the US; the third seems him settling into respectable old age, plagued by the many moral compromises he has had to make. Throughout all this, Shostakovich—who in spite of his many failings is essentially a likeable character—maintains an attitude of innocent bafflement at his relationship with the state, bemoaning for example that he “had…