Tag: book reviews

Review: Borrowed Time

Naomi A. Alderman’s Borrowed Time is a Doctor Who novel first published in 2011 and recently re-released to capitalise on the success of Alderman’s award-winning The Power. In it, the Eleventh Doctor, Amy and Rory visit the headquarters of the fictional Lexington Bank in the City of London in order to have ringside seats at the 2008 financial crash (???), only to find that there’s more than one speculative bubble in the making. The bank’s employees are impossibly productive and prepared, doing vastly more work than they should have time for. Turns out that two fishy characters by the names of Symington and Blenkinsop are lending out time to all and sundry: who wouldn’t relish having an extra hour or so in the day? But the wonders of compound interest have people owing more time than there is in a lifetime – tens if not hundreds of years.

Borrowed Time is, first and foremost, a lot of fun – unexpectedly so, for a novel about banking. The conceit of having time lent out like money, and on the same capitalist principles, serves to clarify the stakes of actual, real-world banking practices like those which precipitated the 2008 crisis: practices which ruined people’s lives just as thoroughly as they would have if they’d literally taken years from them. Poverty is still a major killer, even in the West, which makes bankers the biggest villains on the planet. Perhaps some of the imagery is a little on-the-nose: Symington and Blenkinsop, the predatory loan sharks, are also literal sharks. Well, shark-headed, anyway. And it’s a little difficult to believe that bankers would fall for the compound interest trick. But, hey, this is a book that’s designed to be accessible to older children as well as adults, so I can forgive a little narrative efficiency. (This is Doctor Who, after all. Subtlety has never been its strong point.)

I’m not sure how to parse the weird meta doubleness of having all this go down in a bank. Of course it’s thematically appropriate and it’s a great way of explaining the complex economics of the sub-prime mortgage crisis; but making the bankers the victims of their own behaviour (without making it explicit that they too would engage in Symington and Blenkinsop’s trickery if they had the chance) perhaps lets them off the hook a bit. What’s more, one of the sympathetic human characters goes on to lead the bank, weathering the financial crash and achieving huge success – which definitely excuses her of culpability. The novel encourages us to think that there are “good” bankers and “bad” bankers, instead of a system that incentivises risky, predatory decision-making.

Having said that, would the story work as well if it was set in a management consultancy, or a law firm? I’m not sure. I think Alderman is aiming for clarity of purpose here rather than complete ideological purity, which might be beyond the scope of a Doctor Who novel anyway. As it is, taken on its own terms, this is a clever, light adventure story with a bit of depth to it – something for everyone to enjoy.

Review: Ayoade on Top

Ayoade on Top is a satirical monograph by comedian Richard Ayoade (whom you’ll know as Moss from The IT Crowd) on the American aeroplane romcom View from the Top, starring Gwyneth Paltrow. View from the Top has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 14%, just to give you an idea of the calibre of work we’re talking about here.

Ayoade has some fair if obvious points to make about this genre of film:

Cinema helps us to remember that although we all have the right to shine, some of us must shine in the background, out of focus, and not too brightly.

And I can’t help but admire the sheer randomness of this project: a parody of a type of writing most people don’t ever read, about an obscure film most people will never see? How does one even go about selling that? let alone convincing people to buy it? I suspect name recognition helps, but still, the market for this book must be less than enormous – it’s a refreshing change from big-name commercial cash-grabs like The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet.

It’s an entertaining enough read, in other words (especially if you can do Ayoade’s deadpan voice in your head), but the joke does become – a little laboured. 250 pages is about 150 pages too long for this particular gag. For all its originality, I think Ayoade on Top is destined to go down in the annals of publishing as no more than a minor work.

Review: The Secret Barrister

The Secret Barrister (henceforth TSB) is, as their name implies, an anonymous barrister with a hit blog taking a look behind the scenes of the criminal justice system. Their book, subtitled Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken, is pretty much the same thing: it guides us through the life of a criminal case, from the first hearing at a magistrates’ court through to sentencing and appeal, looking at the principles behind the process and how they actually work in practice.

TSB is a strong supporter of the system in principle, arguing that the adversarial nature of the process pitting defendant and prosecution against each other – as compared with justice systems in some parts of Europe where the state collects the evidence and trials are more about fact-finding than seeking to prove one case or another – is the best way to ensure that only the guilty beyond reasonable doubt are found guilty. The “but” is depressingly predictable: in practice, years of underfunding have left the system straining under the load: the Crown Prosecution Service doesn’t have the time to chase up vital documents; court dates are postponed indefinitely because there aren’t enough magistrates to hear all of them; cuts to legal aid leave wrongly accused people deep in debts they have no way to pay back.

It’s an informative, accessible look at a system that often seems cloaked in bureaucracy and impenetrable legalese – a system many of us don’t think about until we’re already in its clutches. And it’s a useful corrective to much received wisdom about how that system works (received, it has to be said, mainly from film & TV. Did you know that British judges don’t actually use gavels?). Recommended if you’re at all interested in justice, public service or law.

Review: The Paganism Reader

Like many of the books on paganism and related subjects that I’ve reviewed here recently, The Paganism Reader, edited by Chas S. Clifton and Graham Harvey, was a loan from a friend, now returned. I don’t have it here to refer to, in other words, which is a little sad – I’d have liked to pay tribute to its comprehensiveness by being comprehensive and thorough myself.

In any case, The Paganism Reader brings together a selection of texts that have informed various flavours and philosophies of paganism in the last century or so. The works range over a much larger span of time, though, from Apuleius’ Golden Ass (160-170AD) to a couple of remarkably down-to-earth essays by modern Pagans: “Finding your way in the woods: the art of conversation with the Genius Loci” by Barry Patterson and “Entertaining faeries” by Gordon Maclellan were particular favourites. (It seems, however, that Maclellan is a white man calling himself a “shaman”, gah. It’s worth noting, too, that there’s an essay in the book entitled “What happened to Western shamanism?”, although I don’t remember anything about it.)

The book also contains extracts from Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land – famously the inspiration behind the Church of All Worlds – the “Piper at the Gates of Dawn” chapter from Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, the entire Book of the Law by Aleister Crowley (which is a trip, let me tell you) and work by Margaret Murray, Doreen Valiente, Robert Graves and Gerald Gardner, among much else. Another of my favourites was “Initiation by ordeal” by Judy Harrow – a look at military service as a modern-day initiation ceremony, a marking of the border between childhood and adulthood, examining the ways it succeeds and fails in this capacity.

I don’t know enough about the field to say with any accuracy how comprehensive or balanced this book is as a look at paganism and its sources, but its list of contributors is certainly impressive, and there’s a lot of texts here I feel grateful to have had ready access to – things like The Book of the Law which I would never have sought out on its own. It’s not really an introductory text: it won’t give you an accessible overview of what paganism looks like now. As a collection of sources, though, it’s wide-ranging, useful and enlightening. I wrote recently about how I’d like pagan authors and their readers to be much more mindful of where their traditions and beliefs are coming from, to avoid appropriating things that aren’t ours to take; having The Paganism Reader on the shelf strikes me as a great place to start.

Review: The Angry Chef

Anthony Warner’s The Angry Chef has its origins in his science blog of the same name: a site dedicated to the sweary, rage-filled mythbusting of fad diets and food-related pseudoscience. This book, subtitled, clickbait-ily, “Bad Science and the Truth about Healthy Eating”, is more of the same: a look at some of the most harmful and ill-founded modern diets, from GAPS to paleo, an examination of a few of the most pervasive myths about food (“evil sugar” features prominently), a handy guide to spotting bullshit in the world of food and a hard-hitting conclusion discussing some of the abuses perpetrated in the name of food pseudoscience. Young autistic children being put on heavily restricted diets in the hope they’ll be “cured”; cancer patients turning away from Western medicine, only to die in agony having put their trust in unscientific diets; these, Warner argues, are the eventual end point of the detox salad you choose for lunch.

Which seems a slight exaggeration, and indeed that’s the biggest flaw in the book. Warner isn’t a scientist – in fact he’s a development chef, which I’ll get to in a minute – but his whole schtick revolves around the Power of Science, and particularly of the scientific method. The pseudonymous Captain Science (who I believe is a real scientist who doesn’t want her name splashed all over the internet) is a regular visitor to his blog, supplying neat precis of scientific papers – an approach that’s carried over into the book, which is meticulously referenced. Warner also covers common psychological fallacies like regression to the mean, confirmation bias and mistaking correlation for causation – all things the scientific method can protect us from. In other words, a lot of the material in this book is valuable and well-sourced; it’s just a few eyebrow-raising arguments that let it down. Such as Warner’s assertion that looking down on convenience food is sexist, because convenience food has freed women in particular from hours of labour preparing meals from scratch.

There’s a good point in there somewhere. It’s true that, pre-convenience food, people spent A Lot of time preserving, baking, boiling, salting, chopping, pickling, churning and generally making sure their households had enough food throughout the year. And that those people were mostly women. It’s also true that convenience food has made many, many people’s lives easier and more viable: pre-chopped vegetables and ready meals are lifesavers for disabled people, people working three jobs so they can feed their families, carers, busy professionals and the like. But none of this addresses the actual problem at hand, which is that convenience food – by which I mean Dolmio’s sauces, ready meals, supermarket cakes and the like, not relatively innocuous things like tinned tomatoes and diced carrots – generally contains vast amounts of fat and salt and sugar, all of which have been shown to be bad for you in large quantities, and all of which are addictive when they’re present in large quantities, especially together. No, demonising convenience food is not the answer. But saying it’s specifically sexist to do so is a distraction.

A distraction from what? This is where Warner’s own biases come in. You’d think the answer to making convenience foods healthier and better for the people who rely on them would be to regulate the food industry. As a development chef working for a large food manufacturer (presumably looking at ways to make convenience foods more delicious and more addictive), this would, I suppose, make Warner’s life a bit more difficult. So: sexism!

I dwell on this example not because it’s a hugely important part of Warner’s argument (his general stance is that people should feel free to enjoy food without guilt or unnecessary restriction, which I am in wholehearted agreement with) but because it’s representative of the book’s overall pro-industry bias and the odd leaps of logic Warner tends to take when he’s straying outside the realms of scientific evidence. It is not by any means a bad book: I’d recommend it to anyone who likes food unashamedly, and anyone who’s thinking about dipping a toe in the dieting pool. If you’ve already a reader of the Angry Chef blog, though, I don’t think you’ll find anything new here.

Review: Moranifesto

I didn’t not enjoy Moranifesto, a collection of journalist Caitlin Moran’s irreverent, feminist Times columns, together with some new content covering familiar ground. It’s well-written: Moran has a lively, colloquial style of the sort that’s very difficult indeed to achieve. It’s inoffensive, apart from a liberal dose of swearing. Even the claims of irrelevance plenty of Goodreads reviewers are making miss the mark: it’s true that the columns here cover events as long ago as 2012, but we’re talking about once-in-a-lifetime, big-ticket things like the London Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee. It’s not as if Moran’s tackling obscure current events with players nobody remembers any more.

And yet, that word irrelevant keeps coming to mind when I think about Moranifesto. Of course it’s hard to achieve anything earth-shattering within the constraints of a 1000-word newspaper column. But it doesn’t help that nothing Moran says is truly that original. She sets out, I think, to be shocking, with her profanity, her frequent references to vaginas and other taboo feminist issues, her irreverence for royalty and politicians and other things the Sunday papers like to treat as Very Serious. And it works! It works when it’s a page in the Sunday Times Magazine talking about periods or how difficult it is to find comfortable women’s shoes or how shitty and exploitative Benefits Street is – it’s a breath of fresh air amid four-page interviews with celebrities and strait-laced pieces about politics. As a book, though? There are fiercer and bolder voices out there: voices like Zadie Smith, Roxane Gay, Catherynne M. Valente. Actually even Moran’s novel How to Build a Girl is more groundbreaking: the principle of “show not tell” inherent in all fiction gives her themes greater power and greater impact.

Moranifesto is fine. There’s no reason not to read it if you already like Moran’s columns; if you’re a feminist and a little bit of a socialist too. If you’re looking for a read that’s appropriately angry without being too mentally taxing. But nor do I think there’s a particularly compelling reason to read it. Try How to Build a Girl instead.

Review: The Valley of Amazement

Violet, the central character of Amy Tan’s The Valley of Amazement, is the daughter of an American woman named Lulu who runs Hidden Jade Path: a Shanghai courtesan house that, uniquely, caters to both Western and Chinese businessmen. When the household is swept up in the chaos around the fall of the Qing dynasty, Lulu and Violet are separated – Violet is kidnapped into a life as a courtesan herself, while Lulu emigrates home to America in the belief her daughter is dead. The novel concerns Violet’s life and various love affairs as a courtesan, including her relationship with Edward, an American man, that goes badly wrong when the Spanish flu comes to call. It also delves into the story of how Lulu ends up in Shanghai, which bears some striking resemblances to Violet’s tale, and into what happens to Violet and Edward’s daughter, who’s taken to America by Edward’s relatives.

The novel uses geography as metaphor, its action jumping between China and America as Violet comes to terms with her biracial heritage and deals with what she sees as her mother’s abandonment. Its title refers to a painting by Violet’s father, Lu Shing, depicting a quintessential Chinese landscape, a valley lit by the rising or the setting sun, offering the promise of fulfilment, peace, beauty.

It’s not a promise that’s ever allowed to come true, even when Violet finds herself among the Chinese valleys and mountains depicted in the painting: instead of a quiet, luxurious country retreat there’s only privation and abuse at the hands of the penniless scholar who’s paid for her hand in marriage. Finding your identity is not so simple. Or perhaps it’s truer to say that Violet doesn’t find peace in the countryside because she does not fully belong there; her American half yearns for the future she was promised in the days when she lived at Hidden Jade Path.

The novel’s interest in familial bonds and national identity reminds me of Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing. They’re very different novels in tone and time period – Thien’s novel is much more engaged with the vicissitudes of history – but what they do have in common is a reaching-back down the family tree; a sense that connecting to long-lost family members is not an easy salvation, not a way of erasing or replacing the past, but a way, perhaps, of recognising it, of honouring the connection, of, perhaps, starting to build something new. We relate to these characters as part of a family unit; familial bonds underpin the structure of these novels, as the protagonists learn what’s happened to their forebears and their descendants. So family becomes a way to structure the chaos of history and the random, mundane cruelty of fate.

A criticism of the novel that I’ve seen a few times is that the characters are cold, affectless or hard to engage with. I can’t say that was particularly true for me, but to the extent that it was I’d suggest that it’s deliberate. These are characters experiencing awful things: privation, poverty, betrayal, loss of the most traumatic kind. There is nothing for them but to endure; no narrative convenience or closure to save them. I read their disengagement as necessary for survival.

Which isn’t to say that The Valley of Amazement is a bleak novel. There are grace notes of love and friendship and support; they just don’t last, or aren’t quite what the characters hoped they’d be. I enjoyed its bittersweetness; it felt authentic to the hardship of these lives without veering into misery porn. It’s a novel about how best to live with suffering, without losing the hope or the capacity for love.