Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Dan Brown, Leo Hollis and Jesse Norman.

Inferno by Dan Brown

Once again Dan Brown does not fail to divide and fire up the critics with his latest story in the Robert Langdon saga, Inferno.

Steven Poole of the Guardian climbs on board the Dan Brown fan train with light-hearted enthusiasm. “The stout book was brilliantly engineered. It made art and poetry seem glamorous, and mixed them with luxury tourism and scenic chases. It spoke with the seductive urgency of a good-looking someone telling you a brainy secret. The pages fly by. Only lunatics would begrudge the blockbusting bard's determination to popularise great Italian poetry.” 

Janet Maslin of The New York Times is less impressed. "The early sections of “Inferno” come so close to self-parody that Mr Brown seems to have lost his bearings. When Robert Langdon of The Da Vinci Code can’t tell what day of the week it is, the whole Dan Brown brainiac franchise appears to be in trouble."

A.N Wilson from The Daily Mail praises Brown’s ability to entertain, but denounces the content as "twaddle" written for the big screen. "But at least it is entertaining twaddle.” Dan Brown claims to have gone into philosophical, theological and literary history in great depth for his books, “but if he has done so, he has left no trace of these in-depth researches in Inferno. Even though I thought it was bilge from beginning to end, I could not stop myself reading it.”

Jake Kerridge, in The Telegraph, gives the most damning appraisal of all. "As a stylist Brown gets better and better: where once he was abysmal he is now just very poor."


Cities Are Good For You by Leo Hollis

Leo Hollis’ book is a ramble through the ailing relationship between humanity and the metropolis.

Despite acknowledging some “fascinating and thoroughly researched passages,” Ed Hammond in the Financial Times argues that these sections are undermined by the “jarring changes of direction.”

Joy Di Loco in the Independent is also reserved in praise- “the examples Hollis uses are tired, having been examined countless times by other writers.” Hollis, she argues, is “looking for a magic formula” but “answers aren’t easy to come by.”

Similarly, Jonathan Glancey in The Telegraph sees the question Hollis is asking as “ultimately unanswerable”- “all cities have their highs and lows” and “good cities have never really existed.” Hollis, he argues, is instead looking for us to “settle for little more than a slightly livelier version of Milton Keynes.”


Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet by Jesse Norman

This new biography of Edmund Burke by Conservative MP Jesse Norman looks to bring the thinkers ideas back into the age of the ‘Big Society’.

Despite viewing Burke as a figure who “won’t help anyone discern the way ahead,” The New Statesman’s John Gray argues that Norman presents an “intruiging and illuminating portrait” of a contradictory thinker.

For Labour Policy Co-ordinator Jon Cruddas, writing in The Independent, Norman’s work is an “immense critique” of the “cold economic rationalism” of the present. In calling for a compassionate conservatism it is a “patriotic tract” and an “act of great leadership.”

To Charles Moore in The Telegraph, “Norman himself…is clear-sighted about Burke’s practical failures. But he is also a subtle historian of ideas. He does an excellent job of extracting from his subject’s speeches and writings why, in his view, Burke is the first and most important conservative thinker.”

Dan Brown's Inferno is set to be one of this year's top sellers

A year on from the Spending Review, the coalition's soothsayer has emerged to offer another gloomy economic prognosis. Asked by ITV News whether he could promise that there wouldn't be a double-dip recession, Vince Cable replied: "I can't do that.

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR