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Ben Lerner

Book review: The Topeka School, by Ben Lerner

Ben Lerner’s debut novel, Leaving The Atocha Station, received laudatory reviews from critics whom I esteem such as James Wood. I confess that although I was not left cold by it, nor was even tepid, I found the adulation somewhat unwarranted.

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A group of people being ferried across a stretch of water in Hong Kong.  (Photo by Leonard G. Alsford/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

The Scot who helped Hong Kong back from the brink

In 1945, after four years of harrowing martial law, Hong Kong was starving and destitute. Britain sent out a team of civil servants to help get the colony back on its feet. One of them was a quiet, determined and deeply principled Scotsman by the name of John James Cowperthwaite.

Heritage
Author Matthew Woodward at Jokhang Temple. Picture: Matthew Woodward.

From Edinburgh to Tibet on the longest and highest railways in the world

I imagine that you will, like me, be fascinated by that instinctive feeling that people call a sense of place; discovering that something historic has happened in the very spot that you’re occupying. The hairs on the back of my neck often stand up as I try to imagine that exact moment in time and its connection with me here in the present day. Taking advantage of this, I planned my adventure while sitting in a room in what was Channings Hotel and before that was once the Edinburgh home of Sir Ernest Shackleton. The simple connection of sitting and thinking in the same place filled me with inspiration.

Travel
Richard Holloway PIC: Colin Hattersley

Richard Holloway writes a letter to the author of the book of Genesis

Dear Author of Genesis, I know it’s pointless to begin like this, because you lived about three thousand years ago and are no longer around to answer my questions, but I think you would appreciate what I am trying to do in this letter, so I’ll carry on. You were a creative writer, an artist, and writers play around with words in ways that non-writers don’t always understand. It is the way you have been misunderstood that bothers me. In fact, not understanding you has brought the world you wrote about so lovingly to a moment of great danger, a danger I want to tell you about.

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Andre Aciman PIC: Dia Dipasupil/Getty

Book review: Find Me, by André Aciman

There are novelists who write well about the sort of people unlikely ever to read their books, and so give a voice to those who often go unheard, and there are others who write for readers as well educated and devoted to art, music and literature as they are themselves; André Aciman is such a novelist. His kind of novel is rather out of fashion now, certainly less fashionable than it was in the days of Angus Wilson and Iris Murdoch.

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Sudden Traveller, by Sarah Hall

Book review: Sudden Traveller, by Sarah Hall

One of the trickiest puzzles short story writers face is how to get readers to care about their characters. The first obstacle is the lack of incentive: if we know we’re going to be spending the entirety of a 300 or 400-page novel in somebody’s company, we don’t mind investing in them emotionally; if we’re only going to be spending 20 or 30 pages with them, however, we’re less inclined to make the effort of trying to tune in to their interior life. And then there’s the issue of space: over the course of a novel, an author can develop the bond between reader and protagonist incrementally as the chapters roll by. In a short story, by contrast, there is much less time to sketch in somebody’s personality quirks and show what motivates them – economy and discipline are key.

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Andrew Michael Hurley PIC: Luca Teuchmann/Getty Images

Book reviews: Starve Acre, by Andrew Michael Hurley and Ness, by Robert Macfarlane

Andrew Michael Hurley knows his shtick and he is sticking to it. I have given very positive reviews of his two previous novels – The Loney and Devil’s Day – and I still think he is one of the most interesting and eerie writers of contemporary horror. There are certain tropes all three books have in common: a setting within the underwritten middle of England, old tales taking on new lives, religious overtones, and a fear about how those stories will infect children. If you haven’t read his work before then Starve Acre will be a great introduction. If you have, then there may be a note of disappointment. To put it as a metaphor: when you first go round the ghost-train you will leap and shriek at the sudden appearance of a skeleton, or the roar of a werewolf. If you go round it three times, you know exactly when the fairground worker is going to pull the trick. That is not to say that there is not a horrible pleasure in the novel. It is just that it is a pleasure we have felt before.

Books
Theresa May, who, as Conservative Home Secretary, introduced the Hostile Environment Policy with remarks including: "The aim is to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants." PIC: House of Commons/PA Wire

Book review: Hostile Environment: How Immigrants Become Scapegoats, by Maya Goodfellow

Maya Goodfellow’s study appears as the recent deaths of 39 immigrants in a refrigerated lorry continue to stir horror and outrage. But, as evidenced by the countless examples of atrocity that Goodfellow cites which have been overlooked or forgotten, it is only a matter of time before the public outcry dissipates. Her thorough and even-handed book will leave readers both unsurprised at the suffering of yet more immigrants, and shocked at the tower of complex, harsh and contradictory policy facing anyone attempting to enter the country by safer means.

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Umberto Eco PIC: Francois Guillot / AFP Photo/Getty Images

Book review: On the Shoulders of Giants, by Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco, who died in 2016 aged 84, is best known in the English-speaking world for his 1980 novel The Name of the Rose, a historical mystery set in a 14th-century monastery; the film of the book starred Sean Connery. But he was already known in Italy as a literary critic, semiologist, authority on medieval philosophy and all-purpose intellectual. Unlike many academics, he had the ability to write in an accessible and engaging style. That said, he demands alertness from his readers and he was like an intellectual Catherine wheel – a firework throwing out sparks in every direction.

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Icebergs float in Disko Bay near Ilulissat, Greenland. PIC: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Book review: Stillicide, by Cynan Jones

In 100 years time, when literary historians attempt to explain the forces which drove the writers of the early 21st century, they could do a lot worse than to take Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine’s “Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto” as their starting point. Kingsnorth, a former editor of The Ecologist, whose novel The Wake was longlisted for the 2014 Booker Prize, began corresponding with environmental journalist-turned-activist Hine in 2007, after both of them had fallen out of love with mainstream journalism.

Books
Kisimul Castle, Castlebay, Isle of Barra. The island suffered terribly during the potato famine. 'PIC: P. Tomkins/VisitScotland

Book review: Insurrection, by James Hunter

Everyone knows of the terrible Irish famine caused by the blight that destroyed the potato crop in 1846-7. Hundreds of thousands died and like numbers of wretched and semi-starved survivors emigrated, most to the USA. The simultaneous famine from the same cause in the Western Isles and North-East of Scotland is less well-known, less generally remembered, partly because the death toll, though horribly large, was much lower than in Ireland, partly because of organised resistance in Caithness, Wick and Pulteney and in the burghs and ports around the Moray Firth to the new economic doctrine of free trade.

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