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Ian R Macleod

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We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
This is a novel which sets out to look at the phenomena of school shootings, but ends up doing something else. In its fine attention to Americana and period detail, the book comes across as an interesting mix of Anne Tyler and Stephen King, but, in the end, it’s King who prevails. The Kevin of the title develops, as his mother’s narrative unfolds, into a creature far too spectacular to ever be the sort of sad and essentially pathetic person we know the perpetrators of such massacres to be. Evil is banal, but Shriver ends up making Kevin an appealing, appalling and enigmatic character; convincing in some ways, but never as a real person, and certainly not as a kid. Shriver’s writing drips venom, as well, so there’s little doubt about where her own sympathies lie. That’s a let-out - nevertheless, it’s not the first time the Devil’s got hold of the best tunes, and we still like to listen to them play.
 
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Darwin by Adrian Desmond & James Moore

I bought this book at Darwin's home in Downe in Kent. There, you're impressed by how much of a shrine the place has become, and the quiet domesticity of the life Darwin lived, but this biography also explains the terrible pains, both physical and mental, which beset the man. This truly is a great book about a great man, and it deals eloquently both with Darwin's youthful travels and his mature deliberations. In particular, its scrupulous about sticking to facts rather than launching into speculation. As Darwin was such a great keeper of records, this is a great bonus rather than a handicap. His life strikes a chord with writers, as he lived in a world of abstractions and questions, and it certainly did with me. The grave of Darwin's daughter beloved daughter Annie, whose death at the age of 10 put paid to his last shreds of Christian (if not religious) faith isn't far from us at Malvern Priory. My own daughter, Emily, and I paid it a visit. Touchingly, someone still places flowers there regularly, and tends the grave. I suspect that that would be at least as much a comfort to Darwin as to know that his own fame, and natural selection, have stood the test of time.

 
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The Kiln by William McIlvanney

A novel of the coming of age, told in flashes forward and back, of a Scottish writer much like McIlvanney. Taking a summer job in a kiln before he breaks family tradition and sets off to university, Tam broods over life, his hopes of being a writer, and his even greater hopes of losing his virginity. That’s it, really. Things progress with quite a few smiles of recognition (especially for fellow writers and once-desperate virgins) but not many surprises. There are flashes of fine language, and Tam’s adolescent poetry gains in power as the book progresses until we realise that, well, McIlvanney is a decent poet. What we lack though, is a stronger sense of plot, argument or purpose. The Kiln glows nicely enough, but it doesn’t burn as brightly as it could and should. Still, I’d be very interested to read more of McIlvanney, especially writing in a less navel-gazing context..

 
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The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

Roth’s a writer who’s often skirted close to the boundaries of fantasy and alternate history – The Ghost Writer and The Human Stain are two books with come to mind - but in The Plot Against America, he goes the whole hog and creates an alternate history in which America becomes a near-fascist state, with Charles Lindenberg (of all people) as its president. This book is in many ways an American equivalent to my own novel The Summer Isles, and for that reason alone I found it a fascinating read, although I have to say I don’t think this comes anywhere near Roth’s best work. I love the idea he’s taken up of using himself as narrator, and his own childhood for background, but this also creates a problem in dealing with the size of canvas that such a drastic re-telling of history inevitably creates. Lindenberg in his aeroplane and the big events of history all whiz above us in the skies, but never quite swoop close enough to the ground to become really believable, nor does Roth find whatever it takes – the arrogance, ignorance, ambition or nerve – to attempt to describe an American Auschwitz. The detail, as ever with Roth, is mesmerising, and I’m all for finding universal truth at the kitchen sink, but the bigger story we long to hear never quite gets told. Don’t let me put you off reading this work though; The Plot Against America may fizz and splutter at it strains to really ignite, but it deserves an audience. 

 

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