Book Reviews


Hesketh Pearson’s Life of Oscar Wilde

Book Reviews

It was all going so well and then it fell apart. 📖

The Life of Oscar Wilde by Hesketh Pearson (1946)
Copies available here:

In the prologue Pearson relays George Bernard Shaw’s advice when he first proposed this biography: ‘Don’t’. For #Wilde was ‘incomparably great as a raconteur, conversationalist and personality; and those points cannot be reproduced.’ Pearson did, but whilst doing so kept Shaw’s warning in mind, painstakingly recreating what Wilde said, how he said it and how it was received; producing an irrepressibly witty and vivid portrait of the man.

Modern readers might fear that this portrait could be a little old-fashioned. And in some ways Pearson can be a little coy. Wilde’s homosexuality is stated and tentatively explored but many of the specifics are avoided. A modern biographer would surely delve deeper into Wilde’s romantic life. But this is a trifling matter and in fact Pearson’s proximity to his subject is the book’s great strength.

Being just one generation removed, Pearson entered into circles still reverberating from Wilde’s presence. Indeed, one of his first jobs was with Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who staged the first production of A Woman of no Importance. This lends an urgency to questions of who Wilde was and what he did and makes this such a compelling book, unravelling his tragedy out of necessity.

Pearson’s account is both sufficiently critical and sympathetic without being affectionate. Wilde’s behaviour and personality is assiduously researched and feels authentic. Although his unshakeable belief in Wilde’s physical prowess can be amusing. Pearson is adamant that, despite Wilde’s indolent and amiable nature, he could have dispatched both the Marquis of Queensbury and one of his thugs with ease. Still, as this biography makes clear Wilde was a singularly extraordinary man, so who knows?

Highly recommended.


The History of a Vendetta by Yorgi Yatromanolakis

Book Reviews

The History of a Vendetta

history of a vendetta

A vendetta begins and ends with a murder. A raw yet ritualised mechanism of justice that took root wherever the rule of law was absent or weak and persisted from antiquity right up until the modern era. For Yatromanokis it becomes a mechanism with which to explore a transitional period in Greek history that polarised the nation for the best part of a century.

The novel is set in Crete, in the space between the two world wars where, under the influence of Greece’s arch-reformer Eleftherios Venizelos, the country was undergoing a chaotic modernisation. It is told from the point of view of Grigoris, the lame and rather simple son of the murderer Dikeos and victim of the inevitable reprisal from the family of the murdered Zervos.

The motivations for the killing are slowly unravelled in a non-linear fashion. Grigoris’ life is not only flashing before his eyes, giving him freedom over time, but in response to his disability he has trained his mind to move freely where his body cannot. Through fragmented recollections we begin to trace the divergent paths of the murderer and the murdered; from shared beginnings as volunteers in Venizelos’ civil guard we see how Zervos was able to take advantage of the nascent capitalism and how Dikeos was to suffer from it.

Translator Helen Cavanagh has done a superb job in rendering the novel’s detached, almost forensic style. The careful depiction of events and its frequent forays into cultural, historical and even scientific wisdom evokes Herodotus. Coupled with Grigoris’ freedom of space and time we have a narrative that is at once grounded and otherworldly. One might struggle to gain traction at first but once you do its possibilities become apparent.

Grigoris’ simplicity has also liberated him from perspective and context. Folk tales are afforded the same importance as theories on capital, the activities of people are considered with the same attention and weight as the activities of Zervos’ silkworms. This throws up beautiful, almost kaleidoscopic patterns of interconnectivity. With unassuming materials it conjures a staggering depth.

Although the sweep of Modern Greek history is central to the novel, and a short timeline is included at the rear of the book; such is Yatromanolakis’ achievement here that no real knowledge is required to appreciate it. He has created an accessible, tangible world and its themes are deftly elevated to universality. This is a remarkable little book, authentically earthly and astonishingly ambitious.


The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire by Edward Luttwak

Book Reviews / Currently Reading

Luttwak is not a Historian nor a Byzantinist – that’s evident throughout The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire. He is, though, a savvy political and military thinker and he applies himself to the Empire’s thousand year struggle against limitless enemies in an energetic way.

grand strategy of the byzantine empire Luttwak

Apparently in his previous, similar volume on the Early Roman Empire he made a misstep in describing a ‘Deep lying’ defense strategy. Here his thesis is far less controversial (perhaps self evident) that, as their military power waned, the Byzantines had to adopt more considered, indirect ways to manage their enemies.

There are omissions and strangely American sensibilities, nevertheless The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire is terrifically interesting. Nowhere more so than in Luttwak’s analysis of the Byzantine military manuals. It’s here that he teases out the Grand Strategy and illustrates the great panoply of techniques deployed against the barbarians: Defeat but don’t destroy (what fills the vacuum could be worse); the use of bribery and the sowing of discord; the importance of the navy and so on. Good stuff.

The Grand Strategy of the Byzatine Empire, available at AbeBooks from £12…


Money by Martin Amis – review

Book Reviews

Money Martin Amis review Money
Martin Amis

There’s always some wag who, when all other hacks are wondering whether Quentin Tarrantino or Damien Hirst or whoever has lost it, suggests that they never had it in the first place.

Being an icon: an occupational hazard of being iconic. You never know when you’ll stumble headlong into an oncoming iconoclasm. You never know when you’ll find yourself stunned and abandoned on the tarmac, blinded by emergency lights, your acolytes absent, while unfamiliar hands strip you of your clothes and your accoutrements of status.

When fellow author and fan Tibor Fischer reviewed Yellow Dog, Amis’ 2003 novel, he described it, ‘like your favourite uncle being caught in a school playground, masturbating.’ Despite his disappointment Fischer seemed to remain loyal. But wouldn’t you wonder whether there may have been something wrong with your uncle all along? Wouldn’t it make you reconsider those time he came around to entertain you and your friends? The balloon animals?

Money was published in 1984, the perfect platform from which to insert itself into the decade’s nascent self of itself. Money may be the definitive 80s novel and the 80s define Amis. He hitched a lift and found the leather runs smooth.

It begins in New York, where everything is something and knows how to makes itself heard. Cars shark, cabbies are bags of scum, tooth-aches stake out prime oral real estate and our newly arrived narrator, corpulent English consumer John Self, is wont to withhold and hamfistedly tease us with the narrative. It would be wrong to say that it’s dense or overwritten, better that it’s teeming with one and million one in a millions – but the effect is the same.

By the time a mirror ‘looks on, unimpressed,’ one can’t help free-styling in the Amis fashion.

The doorknob turned almost too easily. As
if it knew. The Douche was out of the bag
now. The wank I took before lunch hadn’t
worked. My testicles were tingling,
Crotch buoyant. Spunk-juggling.

This was just a few pages in.

But whilst he may leave a spongy flank exposed to parody, Amis is unquestionably a master stylist. Here he writes with an attentive viciousness, a sadistic relish. People and situations are mercilessly reduced to nubs of brutal shiny truth. It sounds like bullying and it is. If you can buy into it, it can be thrilling to stalk the halls, if you can’t it will seem a brash and ultimately pointless exercise in power. You could make the case that this is a textual reflection of the age or of Self’s predicament but that would only make it clever, not worthwhile. In search of respite I skipped forward a hundred or so pages.

You might wonder how this is possible. What of the plot? It’s been said, and it applies here, that Amis is a great novelist looking for a story. What story there is is telegraphed in the first couple of dozen pages. Self has arrived in New York to make a movie but was informed as he left England that his girlfriend, an avaricious ‘hot bitch’ named Selina, is cheating on him, ‘a lot’. He gorges himself on the excesses of the age, whilst trying to get a grip on the film and its cast. Characters plod through familiar arcs and all the while he is harassed by Frank, a mysterious phone stalker who blames Self for ruining his life. The movie will fail, Frank’s somehow metaphysical nature will be revealed, Self’s belief in money will play itself out. Things could go one way or another but you never really feel it’s much of an issue. That you can skip so much and re-orientate yourself so quickly is testament to the weakness of the story but also to the abstract appeal of Amis’ writing.

Ultimately the book feels too much like a contrivance; a meta-narrative on money, the decline of western civilization, the cultural shifts of the 80s and, when Martin Amis himself appears, on the novel as an art form. The insights are plentiful but the speed and frequency with which they come leaves them without mass, without weight. It seems to comment on certain trends whilst embodying them utterly. Again, some may be able to overlook these problems and for them this could be a fantastic book. But it’s an act of generosity and generosity is hardly in the spirit of the thing.


Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo

Book Reviews

p>Although utterly dwarfed – critically and physically (my copy is a paperback frisbee) – by his seminal opus Underworld (a brick), with a film adaptation on the horizon and with the world still reeling from the recent financial crisis, it’s worth taking another look at Cosmopolis, Don DeLillo’s take on the super-rich.

Cosmopolis received a poor reception on release and from the off you can see why. It begins abrasively, spooling through signifiers that inform us that our protagonist, twenty-eight year old currency trader Eric Packer, is, variously: intelligent, angsty, fabulously wealthy and so on. It’s fragmented and fast and interspersed with epigraphic philosophising – DeLillo doesn’t attempt to acclimatise us, preferring instead to push us beneath the book’s truncated prose and adolescently brutal theorising. In retrospect it doesn’t seem so bad but that’s because it’s easily forgotten.

We are then swept up into Packer’s fantastically white, cork-lined, sound and bullet-proofed limousine for a day long odyssey through the gridlocked streets of a near future New York, ostensibly so he can get a haircut.

As Packer crawls towards his destination, the mind-bogglingly well equipped vehicle allows him to go about his normal business, which involves betting against an inexplicably buoyant Yen, a medical check-up and being menaced by a credible death threat. Homer and Joyce are invoked in equal measure as Packer juggles a string of sexual encounters with his attempt to create a traditional home, a Homeric oikos, with his wife Elise – whom he has only recently married yet already become estranged from. A budding self-doubt is nurtured over the course of the day, in which he is progressively stripped down in a sequence of set piece episodes that are, by turns, thrilling and baffling.

Thrilling where the limousine wanders into the choreographed chaos of an anarchist protest. Here there is a sense of dialogue, of one-up-man-ship as Packer tries to assimilate the increasingly violent and unpredictable action into his conception of the market. When he is finally unnerved by events, it becomes equally unnerving for his travel companions and the reader. A well worked ripple effect.

But baffling when we happen upon the funeral procession of Packer’s favourite Sufi mystic rap star, Brutha Fez. The life of the rapper and his cortege are described in great detail and are stupendously boring. We also hear snatches of Fez’s lyrics which, obviously, are scant in light of the hagiography we’ve just been subjected to and we are left wondering if that was the point. This is kind of ambiguity is a continual problem in Cosmopolis. For example, Fez’s is one of a slew of high profile deaths but it is the only one that causes Packer any sorrow. Is this because Packer identifies more with the young rapper than the older businessmen or because he realises that his own death will be comparatively unlamented? You never feel it’s meant to be ambiguous in this way.

And yet ultimately Cosmopolis succeeds. Though it has little to do with who Packer is or what he does and everything to do with what he is. In his review for the New Yorker John Updike wrote that, ‘DeLillo’s sympathies are so much with the poor that his rich man seems a madman.’ And that if one wants to read about young masters of the universe they should read Tom Wolfe. Whilst this may be true I think it misses the point.

Packer is not a master of the universe, nor some new Wall Street archetype to be satirised. DeLillo is necessarily vague but it appears that Packer made his breakthrough with software, making him more of an engineer or dotcom entrepreneur. He has technical intelligence that surpasses all around him. So he’s not a trader but nor is he some kind of quantitative analyst, using a fraction of his knowledge in a rather limited capacity. Packer is something else, something that doesn’t exist in our world and appears unique in his.

His extravagant purchases don’t feel like aspirations realised, but emollients. He isn’t some brash, roving Homeric hero. To all intents and purposes he is stationary; employees, information and even doctors come to him as if he is the centre of the universe. If anything he is a modern Delphic oracle within his hi-tech limousine-cum-temple, a nexus between the mystical and technological.

So Eric Packer is a futuristic seer. He answers with questions and questions with statements; not because he’s meaning to be obtuse but because he is out of step with others. He is surrounded by kinks in time. From a constant video feed of himself that is slightly delayed to the semantic incongruities of operating in different time-zones. At one point he expounds that the market has divided time into smaller and smaller units: ‘Yocto-seconds, one septillionth of a second.’ And has all but eradicated the present. He is explaining this to his head of ‘message,’ who, at the same time, is tasked with mythologizing him.

There is an almost constant frisson where the ancient is fusing with the futuristic. It informs and enlivens an otherwise lacklustre narrative and, perhaps, this is the grander satire of Cosmopolis; that the rush of modernity and unrestrained greed can birth such throwbacks. And in that sense the book becomes an intriguing and effective portrait of a modern oracle.


The Junior Officers’ Reading Club by Patrick Hennessey

Book Reviews

The junior Officers’ Reading Club
Patrick Hennessey
First published 2009
junior officers reading club

copies from £9.65

I’m not sure who to blame for being slightly dissatisfied with this book; false advertising, lazy subediting of newspaper reviews (yes, yes, it’s a horribly tiring and thankless job) or my own Super-Mario like ability to jump to conclusions. Probably all three.

I began The Junior Officers Reading Club with hopes of a subversive take on the Army experience and the fighting of Blair’s wars. Its author, Patrick Hennessey, was not just educated at Oxford, but was described as ‘Oxford-Educated’, as if this were a surprising thing and we should expect the unexpected. I imagined a trajectory similar to that of Tim Collins, once the darling of the military and then almost a thorn in its flank, only edgier and even more literate. A book that would eschew the traditions of the war memoir. Not just a fish out of water but into a flak jacket and off to the Hindu Kush.

Hennessey disabuses us of such notions early on. We learn that he comes from a military background and that he is fiercely proud of his regiment and company. Whilst we (or perhaps just me) quickly remember that it’s hardly strange for well educated men and women to join the Army and begin to feel a little silly at having assumed what we (probably just I) did.

What we get is a personal journey from Oxford to Sandhurst Royal Military Academy, a brief pause in Bosnia and then onto the meat of the book, tours of Iraq and Afghanistan. It is slightly limited in scope, never straying very far up or down the chain of command, which is a shame as there are some tantalising glimpses of his interactions with the regular soldiers under his command. Hennessey doesn’t really attempt to analyse events far beyond their effect on him. This might seem appealing as these events have already been covered sycophantically, critically and every which way in between. Nevertheless he can hardly avoid all context or observation, thus when he does describe, for example, the nature and culture of the Afghans he must train or the absurdities thrown up by Army life, these are stories we have heard before – in greater detail.

Likewise, most of us are now familiar with the experience of being a hip, modern soldier; the unashamed bloodlust, the boredom punctuated by terrifying excitement, the difficulties of the comedown. They are, for the most part, excellently conveyed but again, it’s not really anything new.

In this sense the Sandhurst portion of the book is a bit of a letdown. Hennessey notes that when Prince Harry ‘rocked up’ there the academy received a lot more attention in the media but he misses a trick by not giving it more attention himself. Usually in such memoirs, as in fiction, the training sections are often some of the most thrilling; simultaneously lifting a veil and describing a weird hinterlands between worlds. We learn of some hardships and customs but there’s not much on the other recruits, their motivations and how they variously adapt. There’s something unaffecting about the whole episode. Hennessey mentions having lost some of his journals but perhaps it is because these experiences have been parsed and contextualised by what is to come.

Two seminal accounts of modern warfare are namechecked: Jarhead by Anthony Swofford and Michael Herr’s Dispatches from Vietnam. The Junior Officers’ Reading Club derives heavily from them in style if not in tone. It is laden with ironic wit, coarse language and acronyms. At times Hennessey is conversational, throwing in allusions to pop-culture, at others he becomes lyrical and metaphorical or makes references to Brueghel or Stravinsky. It doesn’t always hang together, especially early on but as we move into Afghanistan and, for the first time, real combat it gets exponentially better and better. As if Events started making their own demands, which Hennessey more than meets. The descriptions of combat here will surely be some of the finest writing to come out the conflict and could redeem a far lesser book than this.

So if it was getter better and better, why didn’t I finish? In truth, I didn’t so much stop as get waylaid. In the Sandhurst portion Hennessey mentions a text they were forced to study: 18 Platoon by Sidney Jary. Tracking it down was hard, it’s relatively rare but copies will often pop up (here). I borrowed a rather filthy edition from the central library.

It was a revelation. Jary was a 20 year old junior infantry officer when he was sent to command a platoon in Normandy. He is introduced to his assignment with a speech on the rather dismal life expectancy he faces. There is an immediate pathos that the experiences of non-conscripted soldiers just cannot match.

Jary surveys his training and prevailing attitudes with a far more critical eye. He felt forced to develop innovative new measures to increase his platoon’s chance of success and survival. It is a thorough account of his campaign and of leadership but it is never dry, Jary has a good eye for detail and scenes of high drama and tragedy are effectively depicted. It is humble and thoughtful in tone but extraordinary in impact. Hennessey at one point describes how he and his colleagues wanted to be the new Jarys but you begin to realise that such extraordinary situations may never come around again.


The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe – review

Book Reviews

The Book of the New Sun
Gene Wolfe


The Book of the New Sun has achieved an almost tragic fame. Whilst this dense, labyrinthine four volume saga is widely judged to be the second greatest fantasy ever, it is also perceived to be so dense and so labyrinthine that it’s never really found the readership that it otherwise deserves – much to the chagrin of its adherents, to whom it is a genuine work of art and it’s author, moustachioed Texan septuagenarian Gene Wolfe, an unrecognised genius.

Set a million years in the future, in the crimson light of a dying sun, the Earth, now known as Urth, has past through ages of technological advancement and whole eras of astral empire only to collapse back into a pseudo-medieval world, her resources spent, her societies and nation clinging like weeds to futuristic ruins.



Rogue Dentist by Julian Bonser – Review

Book Reviews

Rogue Dentist

The Brothers Karamazov is the best novel ever written. In fact it’s almost certainly the best novel that ever will be written. Some writers will tarry for eons in futile attempts to emulate Dostoevsky’s achievement. Others will write books about Rogue Dentists and stuff. At least one will review those books. Here’s Rogue Dentist by Julian Bonser – Review!

Nadia Yilmaz is smart, sassy, sexy and a whole bunch of other things that sound ok by themselves, but mix them together within a young advertising exec and, like a Delia Smith recipe at Waitrose, you end up feeling slightly nauseous. Nadia’s life is going great, she works at Ace Marketeering; lives in hip, happening Worcester; and has a well endowed, monosyllabic boyfriend, who doesn’t mind listening to her problems or that she’s just using him for sex. But oh no! Her teeth aren’t sexy or sassy or anything of the sort – They’re merely functional and kind of grey – she’d better pay thousands of pounds to get them fixed then.

But oh no! (more…)


Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami & Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Book Reviews

Norwegian Wood

norwegian wood novel

Oryx and Crake

oryx and crake paperback

It was pure chance that I happened to read these two books in quick succession and superficially they have little in common – they may even seem antithetical. Yet they actually threw up so many intriguing similarities and contrasts that it felt fitting to review them together.

Norwegian Wood is surely Murakami’s most famous work, the book that brought him worldwide acclaim. But it was also something of a departure from the punchy, surreal fiction he had, up to that point, specialised in. It is set in the Tokyo of the late 1960s, when Murakami himself was a student – lending the book a vivid authenticity. Pop-culture abounds, from music and books to the hip bars of the Shinjuku district. Murakami’s private dormitory is faithfully recreated and the student riots and politics of the period are referenced. Yet these details never get in the way of the narrative, a symbol laden coming of age story; rather they imbue it with an autobiographical intensity.

We are introduced to the narrator, a jaded Toru Watanabe, as he waits to disembark a plane. He overhears an orchestral version of the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood and experiences a rush of memories that almost spilt his skull. What follows is his attempt to preserve and make sense of his student days, in particular his relationship with the fragile Naoko, childhood sweetheart of Watanabe’s best friend who committed suicide at seventeen.



The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe Review

Book Reviews

loneliness of the long distance runner review
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
Alan Sillitoe


Borstal. It’s an evocative word. Snarling, Victorian, conjuring images of a young Ray Winstone telling some poor bastard that he’s the daddy. It’s the grimy setting for Alan Sillitoe’s short story, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. A tale that gives us all the antagonism, period detail and deliciously out-dated slang we’d expect yet proves to be surprisingly and worryingly relevant.

Sillitoe passed away in April after a prolific career spanning over half a century and over sixty books. He found instant fame in the late fifties with his debut novel Saturday Night, Sunday Morning and was immediately tagged as one that decade’s Angry Young Men. Though he disliked the association it’s easy to see why it was made. In many ways Sillitoe was the archetypal angry young man; a working class author articulating the post-war working class experience with its growing disillusionment with traditional social mores. His follow-up, a collection of short stories entitled The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, was perhaps the purest measure of the theme.