The Top Ten Books I’ve Reviewed On This Blog

I’ve been running this blog for – as of a few days ago – seven years now. Long time. Fair few books reviewed over that time (though nowhere near as many as I’d have liked). So, with the seven year mark gone by, and the weather being wet and cold and dreary, I thought it might be nice to draw up an updated countdown of the best books that I’ve reviewed over that time.

There is, however, a slight complication. In recent years, a lot of my reading has been two big re-read projects of the works of two of my favourite authors – Robin Hobb and Terry Pratchett. This means that any brief list would be overrun by their works – in particular, I’ve reviewed around 35 of Pratchett’s Discworld novels, and a lot of them are very, very good. A list of Discworld novels with a couple of other things thrown in just doesn’t seem that useful.

So, a compromise: this is a list of the ten best books I’ve read in the last 6-7 years, but with only one book per author. Just for fun, I’ve also thrown in the opening paragraph or two of each novel.

So, here we go….

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The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton

Moderate strength is shown in violence, supreme strength is shown in levity.

I can forgive God his anger, though it has destroyed nations; but I cannot forgive him his peace.

Fly at once. The truth about your trouser-stretchers is known.

 

G.K. Chesterton, the Prince of Paradox, is probably one of the most overlooked writers of the 20th century. His commentaries on the state of the world (he wrote over 4,000 essays) inspired figures as diverse as Michael Collins and Mohandis Gandhi; his prose has been praised by writers ever since, and he has been a pivotal figure in a great many genres. His ‘Father Brown’ detective stories were among the foundations of modern detective fiction (particularly in taking a more inductive, psychological approach, rather than the pure deduction of Sherlock Holmes) – Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers were among the young writers who joined his “Detection Club”. His The Napoleon of Notting Hill presages the dystopian novels of the coming century – Orwell may have spoken ill of Chesterton, but it is no coincidence that Napoleon is set in London in 1984… His novels in general are all parts of the birth of the science fiction and fantasy genres, and particularly that part of speculative fiction that deals in the peculiar, the unsettling and the symbolic. Anthony Burgess was a fan – he wrote the introduction to Chesterton’s autobiography. Jorge Luis Borges called him one of the great writers of the modern age – and, more than that, he hailed him as Borges’ own personal “master”. More recently, when Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett got together to write Good Omens, they began by dedicating their novel to Chesterton [Chesterton even makes a personal appearance of sorts in Gaiman’s ‘Sandman’ graphic novels, in the guise of ‘Gilbert’ – he’s apparently Gaiman’s favourite author] . Some authors, of course, were inspired in a more personal way: Sayers and CS Lewis are among those inspired to conversion or religious re-affirmation by his popular apologetics (Chesterton was born protestant, but later became an ardent Catholic) – Sayers going as far as to call him her “Liberator”. He also helped people be inspired by other authors: his literary re-assessment of Dickens reinvigorated public interest in an author who had by then begun to be seen as passé, and in particular to legitimise him as not merely popular entertainment but as respectable serious literature. And then, of course, there is the poetry, ranging from the thunderous war-cries of ‘Lepanto’ to the epic religious-historical narrative verse of ‘The Ballad of the White Horse’ to the genial doggerel of ‘The Rolling English Road’, to the acerbic personal satire of ‘Antichrist’.

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And yet Chesterton has always been more of a writer’s writer than a popular writer – and surely a big part of this is his lack of interest in the novel as a form. Four thousand essays, hundreds of poems, dozens of short stories, nearly a hundred books… but he only wrote five novels, and none of them are what you might call popularist. A satire on the temperance movement set in a dystopian Britain ruled by a theocracy of ‘Progressive Islam’? Hmm. How about a fanatical atheist and a fanatical catholic trying to escape the police long enough to duel to the death… in an authoritarian Britain ruled by Lucifer, complete with flying ships (written, mind you, in 1909), all the while furiously exchanging religious/antireligious epigrams and discourses? Let’s face it, when the man did turn his hand to novels, the results were generally… odd.

The most popular and enduring of the novels is this, The Man Who Was Thursday. My edition labels it one of the greatest adventure stories ever written, and bears a quote from no author less than Kingsley Amis, who rather moderately and ambivalently calls it the most thrilling book he has ever read. That’s quite a claim to have to live up to.

The full title is very important to bear in mind: The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare. My edition comes with a grumpy article extract by the author, bemoaning how people haven’t bothered reading that second part of the title… and that word, ‘nightmare’, certainly does explain a lot.

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Thursday, you see, is indeed an adventure story, but it’s also a thriller, written in a fin de siècle era when the spectre of international terrorism haunted, and beguiled, the European public.  The President of France, the King of Italy, the Tsar of Russia, the Prime Minister of Spain, the Empress of Austria-Hungary, and the President of the United States had all been assassinated by anarchist terrorists, with another Prime Minister of Spain to follow, along with the Prime Minister of Russia, the King of Greece, and the King of Portugal – the Kings of Spain and Belgium and the German Kaiser narrowly escaped assassinations; symbolic targets such as the French National Assembly and the Russian Winter Palace had been bombed; and the bourgeoisie of Europe had been rocked by the unprecedented and flamboyant (though generally inept and mostly harmless) bombings of restaurants, opera houses and other entire civilian locales. Anarchists had been allied with, and were still thought to be in league less formally with, communists, unionists and radical socialists; anarchists called for violent revolution, propaganda by deed, and ‘a sea of blood and fire’ to purge the world of bourgeois decadence… and worst of all was the terrible, invisible, implacable Black International, the global alliance of terror that was widely believed to be orchestrating this campaign of (mostly harmless) slaughter. In Britain, moreover, there was the less existential but more visible threat of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a similar secret society devoted to the overthrow of the Empire, or at least one corner of it, whose ideologues spoke in similarly apocalyptic terms, and who were widely believed to be assembling arms and men for a bloody uprising.

It was a panic that was almost entirely unfounded, of course. There was no Black International – at least, not as an organised body. The International was simply a franchise of terror, more a short-hand for anarchists and governments alike than an actual group of people orchestrating everything. Most anarchists, even of a violent kind, turned out to be longer on rhetoric than on action, and indeed many of the most prominent anarchist crimes look a lot less anarchist on closer inspection – Leon Csolgosz, for instance, the murderer of President McKinley, could probably be better described as a lone madman whose knowledge of and allegiance to anarchism (and/or feminism) were at best cursory, and who carried out his crime with little or no aid or encouragement from others. The anarchist campaign of terror was largely a creation of governments, a way to clamp down on dissidents and demonise immigrants, delegitimising enemies of the ruling parties as extremists who inspired and possibly orchestrated terrorism – indeed, most of the attacks that did take place and that were truly anarchist in nature were not motiveless strikes against order, but were specifically retaliations against the abrogation of civil liberties by the government, while many of the crimes were planned by the governments they targeted, through an extensive network of secret agents. Meanwhile, in Ireland, there would indeed be a rising, and a war of independence, but it would be confined almost entirely to Ireland, it would be waged with guns against gunmen rather than with bombs against diners, and the Brotherhood would be shown to be not a monolithic deep state structure but only one small revolutionary group amongst many, unable to control the forces it had fostered (the Rising in fact took place against the direct orders of the Brotherhood, who had planned to wait for German military aid). [The one point that could have been borrowed from some classic conspiracy tale took place at the peace treaty to end the war, where Michael Collins, The Man Who Was Thursday fan, Brotherhood leader, and guerilla mastermind of the IRA, negotiated a truce with the British authorities – who until he turned up had never heard of him].

But the panic was real – what could be more terrifying than Émile Henry’s chilling justification for bombing a café, that “there are no innocent bourgeoisie”? – and The Man Who Was Thursday fits precisely into that genre of its day, the terrorism tale – c.f. Conrad’s Under Western Eyes (dealing with Russian terrorist emigrées in Switzerland) and The Secret Agent (a satirical interpretation of Europe’s first suicide bombing, the attack on the Royal Observatory at Greenwich). The novel begins with two men arguing in a park – Gabriel Syme, who appears to be a rather effete and foppish ‘poet of order’, and Lucien Gregory, who appears to be a flame-headed, flame-souled anarchist. I don’t want to give away the plot, but suffice to say it revolves around an anarchist ‘Supreme Council’ and its plans to terrorise Europe, and a special police organisation that has been secretly recruited to destroy it before it can do any harm.

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I can’t say much more, because part of the joy of the book is the way that you can’t take anything for granted. As a general rule there’s a major plot twist in each chapter. It’s probably best to go in devoid of preconceptions about what will happen.

First of all, though, you’ll have to get through a fair amount of not a lot happening. Because when I say that the two rival poets are arguing, I don’t mean they spend a paragraph arguing. No, they declaim long passages of poetical debate, barbed with witty retorts, on such matters as nausea and the London Underground.

Because this isn’t just an adventure story and a spy thriller, it’s also an ideas book. There are quite a lot of characters, each with their own distinctive viewpoint, all of which have to be shared with each other and with the audience. And their views don’t stop at politics, but encompass the whole of the world, visible and invisible. Reviewers have often called this a ‘metaphysical thriller’, because so much of it is about the nature of existence, rather than about bomb-throwing and morning sword-fights. And yet it’s not just a metaphysical adventure thriller either, it’s also a deeply psychological work, as characters shine light outward on the world but in the process also in upon themselves – perhaps it’s best to see it all as an exploration of different types of psychology, or even as an exploration of different paths society can take, or different ways of being human. And then again, because this is Chesterton, none of this can be divorced from religion. It’s often tempting to see this entire book as a homily, a Christian parable – perhaps, just as his great apologetics explain Christianity through his own personal experiences, and through the history of mankind, maybe this time he’s just doing the same thing through the lens of a novel.

I should sound a comforting note: Chesterton’s method isn’t to expound what he thinks. No. The point of Chesterton is to say something so beautiful, so arrestingly new, that it seems certain that there must be something true about it, even if we’re not sure which bit exactly is true. His ‘theories’ are really just ways of looking at things afresh – he is committed to seeing everything in a new way. Chesterton once said that there is nothing we get less truth out of than a truism – particularly when the truism really is true. (He also said that a truism is the one thing it takes true courage to say – the man’s not called the prince of paradox for nothing!). That’s why when he wants to write an essay about modern morality, he begins by saying that the only thing that could be better than lying in bed is having a pencil long enough to draw on the ceiling. He positively delights in avoiding the obvious and the direct… to the extent that on the occasions when he does seem to be saying something straightforwardly you’re left puzzled, wondering what the trick is…

So this is a metaphysical political thriller adventure psychological study parable. That sounds heavy, but fortunately, as well as being plotted at a truly breakneck pace, and packed with fights (with fists and guns and swords and clubs and…) and chase scenes (with carts, carriages, horses, automobiles, trains, boats, an elephant and a balloon), it’s also extremely funny.

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The book is preceded by a fairly lengthy pice of verse (addressed to his old friend, EC Bentley, inventor of the clerihew), in which Chesterton locates the impetus for the book within a climate of despair that haunted both himself personally and the whole of the world. He, in code, identifies the one great beacon of light to him in that time as Walt Whitman, additionally praises Robert Louis Stevenson, and sees the ills of the world personified in… Oscar Wilde. Here’s the passage that’s relevent:

I find again the book we found, I feel the hour that flings
Far out of fish-shaped Paumanok some cry of cleaner things;
And the Green Carnation withered, as in forest fires that pass,
Roared in the wind of all the world ten million leaves of grass;
Or sane and sweet and sudden as a bird sings in the rain—
Truth out of Tusitala spoke and pleasure out of pain.
Yea, cool and clear and sudden as a bird sings in the grey,
Dunedin to Samoa spoke, and darkness unto day.

I bother to mention this not because of the rather odd opposition of Wilde and Whitman (Wilde was a devoted Whitman fan himself and made a pilgrimmage to see him, while Whitman was subject to many of the same rumours and scandals as Wilde was; in particular, I fear that Chesterton takes Wilde too much at face value and doesn’t recognise that (as I believe) much of Wilde’s life was highly satirical) but rather because Wilde is the one name that most sprung to mind when reading this. Chesterton shares with Wilde a love of epigrams and paradoxes, a tendency to pass rapidly from the banal to the philosophical and from the philosophical to the banal (a sort of mysticism of the day-to-day, if you will, the belief that the most ordinary things can be seen in deep metaphysical, poetic or religious ways, and yet at the same time that the most religious, metaphysical and poetic things can in turn be seen as trivial and quotidian) and that imperturbable aristocratic flippancy that we also see in Jerome and Wodehouse and that has its descendent in the narrative voice of writers like Pratchett.

In other words, it’s a funny book, and the humour comes from a sharp wit, a love of language, a piercing cynicism (that has not lost its heart), a penchant for and keen detection of absurdity (particularly in human rituals), and a determination to take nothing seriously, even the most clearly serious things. As the protagonist puts it when asked whether he doesn’t realise that this is a tragedy: “Always be comic in a tragedy. What the deuce else can you do?”.

There aren’t all that many out-and-out jokes, and most of those are witticisms that draw admiration rather than laughter, but there were several times when I laughed out loud, and a whole host of times – almost every paragraph – that drew at least a smile. Well, there are a few out-and-out jokes, but most of them are intentionally bad (including one of the (intentionally) worst puns I can remember). The enjoyment was only partly due to the humour, however – a large part is simply the exuberant joy, the irrepressability, with which Chesterton yanks his characters mercilessly through a thorny and convoluted plot. That’s I think what Amis meant when he said it was thrilling – not so much the tension of a modern thriller, but the excitement of going at top speed for so long. There’s barely a paragraph wasted once the story has gotten going, and every chapter contributes its own plot twist or two (while all remaining surprisingly simple in outline – the twists come from the confusion of the characters and the situation, rather than from assembling an increasingly complicated scenario), so it’s truly break-neck in pace. Some modern readers may not agree with this, if they struggle with the laconic asides and the earnest discourses, but I found both that they were short and rarely interfered with the pacing, and also that they were integral to the novel, even the plot. It’s not a book where there’s a perfectly good story weighed down by philosophical baggage – it’s a philosophical thriller all along.

That’s not to say that there’s not some traditional thrill in there too. A large amount of the book is made up of action scenes, and they’re handled really, and surprisingly, well. In particular I found it an extremely cinematic book – this would look stunning on screen (one sword-fight had me wanting very much a Hero-style film). The high point for me was probably the long, tense escape scene of “The Criminals Chase the Police”, which was both exhilerating and beautifully evocative. [Not that this sort of thing gets made in Hollywood, alas. Closest would probably be something like “Being John Malkovich”, I suppose]

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So, it’s a high-octane aristocratic Wildean satirical metaphysical political farce spy thriller adventure psychological comedy. But then it gets a little strange. The ending is… I don’t know, did anybody actually go up to Chesterton and punch him? I wouldn’t endorse that, of course, but I think if he were writing today it wouldn’t be unlikely. First time I read this book, I was enjoying it just as an adventure story, until the end felt like being smashed over the head with a purple salmon. This time around I loved it. It’s gloriously surreal, defiantly unconventional, and… I don’t know, is it an incredibly earnest allegory, or is it a completely flippant absurdity? Is it perhaps both? I suspect so.

Then again, the entire novel has a heavy taste of the surreal throughout. A lot of critics have identified the novel as a key step on the road to Kafka… I’d say it’s where Hans Christian Anderson turns into Kafka.

It’s worth noting that the note I mentioned, from a later article, about how people had failed to read the title, goes on to deny that the book should be taken as a serious religious dissertation. I’m not entirely sure I take the denial at face value either. But once you’ve read the book, and you think you’ve come to an opinion: add in this little fact, that Chesterton himself was six foot four and weighed three hundred pounds. Well, you may now consider my mind blown. [You’ll understand the significance of his physical size if you read the book].

How else can I try to explain this? Well, Tolkien springs to mind. Chesterton and Tolkien shared two influences: myth and Christianity. In the case of Chesterton, it’s not old Germanic sagas, it’s modern fairy tales. Chesterton loved Grimm and Anderson. In a way, Chesterton is a forerunner of magic realism – fairy tales implanted in his heart, he says, the conviction “that this world is a wild and startling place, which might have been quite different, but which is quite delightful” (there again is his determination to show everything in a new light – to show that the ordinary is startling, and to show that the inevitable could have been different). Bear in mind those fairy tales – the Gothic light and dark, the deep wild woods, the childlike sense of wonder and the unexplained, the savagery dressed up in polite society clothes. And then, like Tolkien, Chesterton has to reconcile that old, pagan perspective with his Christianity.

And then he takes that wild and frightening Christianity and he writes like a good Edwardian gentleman, like Wilde or like Wodehouse. Only rather than confining himself to a society farce, he instead indulges in a high-octane witty farcical society allegorical satirical metaphysical political religious spy thriller adventure psychological comedy surrealist… I-don’t-know-what.

[Of the books I’ve reviewed, it may also be worthwhile pointing out the similarities to Michael Marshall Smith’s Only Forward. The two books share a breakneck pace, an artificial, sardonic and auto-parodic narrative voice (though not the same artificial, sardonic and auto-parodic narrative voice – Chesterton’s is drawn from Wilde and Marshall Smith’s is drawn from Chandler), a willingness to spin the plot about so fast the readers get whiplash, and a surreal bent, particularly toward the ending. In every other way, the too books are totally different.]

Should I try to think of a flaw? Well, sometimes the characters seem a little hysterical, leaping to far too pessimistic a conclusion. Then again, as the pacing of the novel is inherently hysterical and in some ways it’s a novel all about fear, this is as much a feature as a bug.

Oh, wait, I remember something else I was going to say! The novel is a nightmare. I don’t mean that in the literal sense of “it was all a dream”, but that it’s surreal – surrealism is the language of dreams, after all. The book twists and turns and transforms and inverts much like a dream, according to dream logic. The ending, for instance, is much like the way that one dream can turn into an entirely different dream, seamlessly, while you’re not paying attention.

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So, scores:

Adrenaline: 5/5. If you have a low tolerance for flippancy, confusion, or discourses, this may not hold true for you. But I thought it was thrilling from beginning to end. Good action scenes, fast pace, plenty of unexpected things (which even worked quite well on a re-read). On this re-read, I wasn’t able to sit down and read it in one go, so I was expected my engagement to be broken, but as it was I found that even if I only had time to read for five minutes I’d still be glued to the page by the end. Partly because there’s almost no sustained passage of pages without something exciting happening on it.

Emotion: 2/5. I guess the big problem with this – as with a lot of books in this narrative voice and a lot of books with this pace – is that I was never really emotionally engaged. I didn’t feel deeply for any of the characters. Aside from the tone and the pace, this is partly because all the characters are (metaphorically and often literally) wearing masks.

Thought: 5/5. Woah. I was thinking, for the first half of the book, about what I was going to write about the themes of the book – whether the political themes or the social and psychological themes, or even the religious themes. By the end, though… I don’t know. I’ve been overwhelmed. I guess if I had to sum it up I’d say it’s a novel about the nature of existential fear, or of doubt or of despair, or maybe of pride… certainly, even if you strip out the overtly religious notes (or treat them, as Chesterton himself suggests we treat them, as only a way of expressing his real point, a narrative conceit to explore the psychology and/or philosophy), it’s a book that sits very easily, thematically, alongside a religious novel like A Canticle For Leibowitz. I feel a little guilty making out that it’s this enormously thinky philosophical/religious book when, on one level, I feel it’s all extremely simple and straightfoward, and maybe some reader will just read it as being simple. But it’s simple, and also deep and confusing. [I will say, though, that if you read everything at the simplest level, you’re going to get broken bones when you slam into the ending]. Oh, and of course there’s also the thought of admiring what Chesterton is doing. This is one of the rare books where if you take anything that looks clever, and think about it a bit more, it just looks even more clever than before. Lots of the ironies, paradoxes, absurdities and so forth, when thought about in more depth, just reveal yet another level of irony underneath. The whole novel can be read on a very simple, unintelligent level, but the more you think about it the smarter it seems. With most books, it’s the other way around.

Beauty: 4/5. I was tempted to give this full marks. It’s certainly good prose – varying from the elegant to the gorgeous – and has wonderful epigrammatic and paradoxical moments. But I’ll mark it down a notch because of its air of lightness – the beauty is there to be admired, it’s not searing. It’s also old-fashioned by modern standards. So I wouldn’t say it was as beautiful as a book could be. And yet I feel I may be being a little harsh in not saying that.

Craft: 5/5. I’m trying to find a flaw, I really am. But apart from that earlier note about being hysterical, which may or may not have been intentional, I really can’t think of any mistake the author made, or anything he failed at. Sure, not everyone will love this book. Many people won’t be interested in it, won’t find it funny, will find the style off-putting. But those aren’t because Chesterton was lacking in craft – he set out to do something and he did it almost perfectly. If you don’t like the style, it’s because you just don’t like that style – perhaps because it feels old-fashioned or because you want something that feels more authentic. But if you want the sort of novel Chesterton set out to write, then by golly Chesterton wrote it.

Endearingness: 4/5. It’s not the most loveable book in the world. Largely because of that emotional distance, and because of an overall lightness. It’s hard to explain what’s light about it – I guess my description hasn’t sounded light – but I think it’s a combination of the witty tone, the pace (which makes dwelling on things impossible) and the shear brevity of the thing (if Chesterton had written The Wheel of Time, it would only have been one volume long). That said… my word, it brings a smile to my face. I decided to re-read it because I’d opened my copy to quote a line I’d remembered, then smiled so much I went on to read the next and really wanted to find an excuse to quote that, and on and on line after line until eventually I gave up and decided I needed to read the entire book from scratch. It’s a truly joyous book (for all that it’s a proto-Kafkaine nightmare thriller). I guess this will never be a book that resonates deeply in my heart, but it’ll always be a good book to pull off the shelf if I need to enjoy myself for a while. And now that I think about it, maybe I’m actually being a little harsh not giving it full marks…

Originality: 5/5. As I suspect this review has intimated, this is not an ordinary book. It’s hard to point to any one thing – even the ending – that’s entirely unique, but ramming everything together into one book… there are a lot of people who write like Chesterton, but nobody who Chesterton writes like.

Echo: If you remember, this is a little category I added to recognise the effect that some great books have on me when I finish them – they haunt me for a while, not just intellectually but almost physically. They make the world seem less real, almost. They shake me. They feel like that sound you hear when you plunge your head underwater, and hear a loud nothing – when I finish these books I feel like I’m underwater.

This book didn’t do that to me in the slightest.

Overall: 7/7. Brilliant. Maybe I was generous on this score or that, or maybe harsh here or there. If I try to be as harsh as possible, I might, just about, possibly, maybe call this only ‘Very Good’. Alternatively, if I embrace it wholeheartedly I could find myself having to offer an eight-out-of-seven. I think a mere 7/7 is probably fair. As it is, I’m currently ranking this the second-best book I’ve read in recent years, after The Prestige; it maybe ought to be the first; I’d say it’s probably top five at least, and undoubtedly top ten so far. In a way, this suprises me, as I wasn’t actually thinking ‘my gods this is incredible’ all the way through. It’s just that when I look at it and try to find things that were wrong with it, I can’t really find any (beyond the fact that it doesn’t set out to move me emotionally).

That said, since it’s more than a century old, some people probably won’t appreciate its style. Oh, and to say that some people will absolutely physically and violently despise the ending is an understatement. Fortunately, I’m not one of those people.

(Some people will also complain about the (almost complete) lack of female characters, especially since Chesterton apparently comes across as a bit conservative as regards women in his non-fiction works. However, I found this no problem, since it’s not as though he’s derogatory toward women here, he just happens not to mention them much. Given the premise and setting, not having major female characters doesn’t feel forced or unnatural – while I suppose there could have been a token anarcho-suffragette there, I don’t think the lack is particularly a problem. And if you do have a problem with it, I suggest you bear in mind that it was written more than a century ago, when women couldn’t vote, and even many well-meaning and pleasant people still often held onto peculiar notions about their role in society. It would be a shame if anybody found themselves failing to appreciate this brilliant novel purely because a Victorian man might be a little Victorian around the edges – particularly since his victorianism is a victorianism of ommission rather than commission, at least in this case.)

[Wow. I know my reviews are usually pretty rambling and disjointed, but this one really does take the biscuit, doesn’t it? In my defence, this is an exceptionally difficult book to both encapsulate and simultaneously do justice to.]