Noonday by Pat Barker review – awesome prose

Among nightmarish images from the blitz, a grotesque new character brings Pat Barker’s second trilogy to a dark conclusionThe first world war has proved fertile territory for Pat Barker, notably in the form of the 1990s Regeneration trilogy, but more recently in Life Class (2007) and Toby’s Room (2012), which introduced an entangled triangle of Slade School artists, Kit Neville, Paul Tarrant and Elinor Brooke. Barker’s decision to situate Noonday, the final instalment in this second trilogy, during the blitz, is thus a bold one, although perhaps not as bold as the introduction of a new character bearing the name of Jane Eyre’s madwoman in the attic, Bertha Mason. Grossly overweight, a former prostitute, Barker’s Bertha now subsists as a medium: “She mightn’t have been much use giving birth to the living, but my God she was a dab hand giving birth to the dead.” Related: ...

How to Measure a Cow by Margaret Forster review – keenly observed

A woman with a terrible secret seeks refuge in Cumbria – only to find a nosy neighbourIn the late Margaret Forster’s final novel, a woman with a terrible secret seeks to escape her past. Tara Fraser has murdered her husband in cold blood; newly released from prison in London, she flees north to start a new life. The premise is pure grip-lit but it is Forster’s acute scrutiny of the economy of friendship – what is taken, given and traded, and at what cost – that hooks. In Cumbria, Tara’s arrival piques the interest of elderly widow Nancy, a stalwart believer in keeping oneself to oneself but unfortunately possessed of a “devouring curiosity, a trait much frowned on by her mother”. Tara’s backstory may not always convince, but Nancy – forged by her tough upbringing and long solitude; drawn with sympathy and wit – is a memorable creation, and ...

The Mark and the Void by Paul Murray – review

The follow-up to Skippy Dies is a playful, sometimes chilling farce set in an Irish investment bank Amid the bounce and twinkle-eyed hilarity of Paul Murray’s third novel, set in the Irish investment banking industry, there are several moments that strike a chill – the scene, for example, in which one trader explains that his monstrous institution is still too small, because it isn’t yet “setting its own agenda, reality-wise”. Reality and fiction are the themes at the heart of this philosophical shaggy dog farce, which proves to be a more than worthy successor to the much-loved Skippy Dies. Continue reading...









Hostage review – an audacious, satisfying thriller

Observer journalist Jamie Doward’s second novel links murder, terrorism and big tobacco in a winning globe-spanning, quickfire plot Smoking kills – and ending up as a human ashtray isn’t to be recommended either. That’s the fate of Antony Carrington, one of the many corpses littering Observer journalist Jamie Doward’s audacious second thriller, which also sees the return of his marathon-running, financial analyst heroine, Kate Pendragon. Having previously been seconded to MI5, Pendragon is now in the pay of Carrington’s former employers, tobacco giants Smith and Webb. But the deceased’s serial slaying is just the start of it: Doward’s chewy plot – black markets, blackmail and a big, fat, satisfyingly diabolical conspiracy – speeds the reader confidently around the globe from Washington DC to Belize to the Sahara, where an arch terrorist is holding US and British energy workers hostage. The bleak Kent coastline – Pendragon’s adopted patch – is put ...

Orison for a Curlew by Horatio Clare review – in search of a bird often thought extinct

The travel writer traces the slender-billed curlew’s migratory path in a book that’s full of both wonder and gloomNot any old curlew, this, but the slender-billed variety, a white and gold creature with a scientific name, Numenius tenuirostris, “the slim beak of the new moon”, as evocative as its cry. The plangent sound of the latter captivates the author even as it issues from a Greek ornithologist’s mobile, which, it turns out, is the nearest Clare comes to a bird seen so rarely its extinction is often assumed. Yet as the acclaimed memoirist and travel writer knows well, the quest is what counts and here the focus is on the passionate conservationists he meets as he traces the birds’ migratory passage through southern Europe and the Balkans. There is much gloom – hunting, pollution, land drainage – but Clare is ultimately buoyed both by the efforts ...

David Eagleman: ‘Humans are real storytelling animals’

The American neuroscientist on the brain and free will, literature, science and humanity – and the possibility of space travel in digital form

The Brain investigates ways we might “hack” our neural hardware to substitute and add senses. Can you give an illustration?
In my lab we’ve developed a Vest [Variable Extra-Sensory Transducer] that’s covered with little vibratory motors so that we can pass new kinds of data streams to the brain as moving patterns on the skin. And what we’ve already been able to demonstrate is that we can circumvent deafness by capturing sound and converting it to patterns on the torso so that a deaf person can come to understand the auditory world. For a deaf person their only option is a cochlear implant, which is $40,000 (£26,311) and an invasive surgery. This Vest costs less than $1,000, and that opens it up as a global solution.

You ...

Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey review – of mussels and men

This collection of stories about animals caught up in human wars is witty and unsentimental

Although the animal protagonists of these 10 stories find themselves caught in human conflicts, Dovey is at no risk of succumbing to the sentimentality or moralising to which her enterprise could have fallen prey. Somewhere Along the Line the Pearl Would be Handed to Me is, for instance, frequently hilarious; a homage to On the Road which sees its molluscular hero hitching a ride to Pearl Harbor on the hull of a battleship as he avoids putting down threads and gathering algae.

The dolphin narrator of A Letter to Sylvia Plath, meanwhile, offers an account not just of her US navy service but a damning feminist critique of Ted Hughes: “Human women need no reminder that they’re animals. So why do your men keep shouting it from the rooftops as if they’ve discovered how to ...