Ian McEwan. The Children Act. Review.


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I first picked up an Ian McEwan book in 1978 when i read his Somerset Maugham Prize-winning short stories, First love, Last Rights.  It was a bawdy collection of off kilter tales that I relished.  He followed it up with a similar second collection, In Between the Sheets.  I was now a fan, despite not being an avid reader of short stories.  But the 14 publications that followed these, I’ve read them all bar Solar, are full length, albeit some of his most successful, Amsterdam, On Chesil Beach and this latest outing, The Children Act, are really novellas.

He’s covered a lot of ground as you might expect in 36 years but almost always they have been intensely personal and deep psychological insights of how people have responded to what often seem like quite random acts.

His novel, Saturday, covers a hijacking in an upscale London apartment and plays out, in extreme tension, over the course of a single day. On Chesil Beach, if memory serves me correctly, takes place in a similarly condensed timeframe.

Six of his books have been Booker Prize nominated (although only Amsterdam, controversially, triumphed) and eight have been made into movies (Sweet Tooth is currently in development).

So it’s fair to say that McEwan comes to the writing of The Children Act with some positive credentials.

Nevertheless, I was blown away by this slight (200 page) novel that deals with the reaction of a 60 year old female family law judge and a case she presides over.  It regards the refusal to take a life saving blood transfusion by a 17 year old Jehova’s Witness boy on the grounds that his religion forbids it.

The case coincides with a particularly rocky patch in her long, loving but childless, marriage and it is this central irony that makes these two situations riff off each other in a way that has a profound impact on her life.

It is clear that our central character, judge Fiona May, is a good and extremely considerate, intelligent and thoughtful woman both personally and professionally and that’s what drives this story.  The book is all about ‘doing the right thing’ in all aspects of her life and relationships and is profoundly thought provoking and moving as a result.  To say more would only run the risk of spoilers so I will leave it at that.

McEwan crafts his novels with extreme diligence, yet never appears to overwork his writing; rarely more so than in this tremendous outing. The one exception being the below par Sweet Tooth.

Absolutely and unequivocally recommended.

A master at work and an assured masterpiece is the result.

Recent reading. Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan.


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“Not Mr McEwan’s Finest Book.” was the Economist’s summation of this odd book and I thoroughly agree.  Described also as a “Russian Doll” of a novel because of its stories within stories.  Most of them distracting or just plain poor.

For me it’s just badly written with an incredible central character, Serena Frome, written in the first person by McEwan.

The sex scenes (and there are several) are embarrassing, the musings on life stilted, and the overall flow of it just plain bad.

It’s a Cold war thriller set around the 1970’s offices of MI5 and MI6 and concerns the travails of the aforementioned Serena as she appears to shag her way through most of the Western World’s (mostly) straight spies.

I adore Ian McEwan but this is just guff.  Sorry.

Massive plot twist or otherwise.  Avoid.

Books of the year


It was a slow year for me. I can’t have read more than a dozen books in all, but very few duffers came my way, indeed I think the Mrs may have out-read me and will no doubt post her own best-of by close of play today.

However many of the best books I read were recommended by Ian Dommett, so he goes to the top of my critics list.

In no particular order my favourite reads of the year were.

The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood.

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In truth this probably wins by a nose. The fact that it was written in 1985 is a strength as it shows off her perceptiveness even better than if one read it at the time of its release. Is it her best book? Hard to say as she is such a brilliant writer, but it certainly sits alongside Oryx and Crake, The Robber Bride, Alias Grace and he Blind Assassin. All magnificent.

You’ll find my full review here if you are interested.

Then We came to The End by Joshua Ferris

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I predict this will be a monster in paperback. It’s been on many year end lists this year and so should get the reviews it deserves when it comes out in PB in 2008. I think it’s slated for a movie too, although the mystery that is implicit in its writing will probably be diluted on screen. I reviewed it here.

The Damned Utd byDavid Peace

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My all time favourite sports book. It’s a novel but reads like a Biography od Brian Clough in his 43 days as manager of Leeds Utd. Not a happy experience. It is frightening how out of control Cloughie was. So good was it that I asked for, and recieved, “provided you don’t Kiss me, 20 Years with Brian Clough” for my Christmas. I’m really looking forward to that. Anyway I reviewed David Peace here. Highly recommended.

An Occurance at Owl Creek by Ambrose Bierce

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It’s just a short story but it’s packed with drama and a brilliant twist.  Read more here.

 The Virgin Suicides by Jeffery Eugenides

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I was blown away by this.  Far superior (aren’t they all) to the movie; it gets right under your skin in a very odd way.  But he’s a very odd writer.  My mother read this and his other masterpiece, Middlesex, on my recommendation and loved both of them.  More here.

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

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This is an interesting but overwritten and ultimately pompous diatribe against the existence of God.  Nevertheless, until he starts getting overly political about it all it is a very interesting essay and worthy of reading for anyone who has any interest in the existence of god(s).  Read more here.

 Auchwitz by Laurence Rees

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I was gripped by this book and I also liked the BBC Drama later in the year that depicted the liberation of Auchwitz.  Not by the same writer.

It’s a detailed account of the concept behind Auchwitz and throws the net of Nazi guilt far wider than Hitler.  Well written and absorbing it is, despite its gruesome content, a compelling read. 

 On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

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Great, but not his greatest.  I wrote an overly glowing review of this on completion, but, in hindsight, it’s a bit style over content.  Still beats most of the muck that gets published though.

Agent Zig Zag by Ben Macintyre

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If this was a novel it would be rejected on grounds of ludicracy.  It is in fact, the true life account of an English Double agent who crossed sides more often than Michael Stewart.  It’s real boys own stuff and a splendid read.  What ho!