Reviews round-up

The critics’ verdicts on the latest books by Orlando Figes, Colm Tóibín and P D James.

Crimea: the Last Crusade by Orlando Figes

Angus Macqueen in the Observer praises "Figes's lucid account of three years of bloodletting in the Black Sea", whose chief merit resides in "attempting to place the Crimean war as the fulcrum of 19th-century Europe between Waterloo and the First World War". "With his deep understanding of Russia and its uncomfortable position in the world, Figes elegantly underlines how the cold war of the Soviet era froze over fundamental fault lines that had opened up in the 19th century."

For Mark Bostridge, writing in the FT, "The book's true originality lies in its unravelling of the Crimean war's religious origins." The rivalry between the Catholics and the Greeks, backed by France and Orthodox Russia respectively, "is represented as the vital spark igniting the conflagration that followed". The author of Florence Nightingale: the Woman and Her Legend (Penguin) finds less convincing other aspects of Figes's book, including his characterisation of Florence Nightingale, which "relies on tired old sexist taunts".

Oliver Bullough in the Independent acknowledges that he is not unbiased: Bullough's book Let Our Fame Be Great was the only one to be reviewed positively by Figes, who savaged all other rival accounts of the Russian Revolution in comments "unwisely" posted on Amazon. While recognising that "it is not a perfect book, and his sourcing can be erratic", he concludes that Figes's "lucid, well-written" account is "the only book on the Crimean war anyone could need".

"Crimea: the Last Crusade" will be reviewed in the next issue of the New Statesman.

The Empty Family by Colm Tóibín

For Hermione Lee in the Guardian, the "stories in The Empty Family – like the painful stories of family conflicts in his last collection, Mothers and Sons – are threaded through with regret and need". A few "soggy moments" set aside, Tóibín's "scenes of longing for lost family homes or missed landscapes" are admirable in their "dramatic economy". Lee sees the depiction of "women's interior lives" in particular as "one of Tóibín's great strengths".

Keith Miller in the Telegraph comments on "a certain autobiographical element: in the characters' age, sexuality, nationality and profession". "But from the particular crucible of his own life," she writes, "Tóibín has forged something of wider, if not quite general, interest: a schedule of the principal torments available to the educated, left-leaning, upwardly mobile, male baby boomer in middle age."

David Mattin in the Independent notes the "deep-running concern for modernity, and the spiritual deformations that it visits on us", underpinning the nine short stories in Tóibín's collection. "Running deep beneath the stories is a concern for our new, modern rootlessness, and the collapse of old certainties."

Talking About Detective Fiction by P D James

Edmund Gordon in the Observer, thinks that, "As a personal (and gleefully partial) survey of the highlights of English detective fiction over the past 200 years, her book offers much that will enlighten and entertain." He is less convinced by her claim that "the genre has been unfairly stigmatised by critics, and is as worthy of academic attention as any other kind of writing". But her "modesty", combined with "intellectual vigour . . . make it impossible not to take [her views] seriously".

For Amanda Craig in the Independent it is "P D James's longevity, as well as her serene intelligence, that makes this book especially noteworthy and enjoyable, for at 89 she has grown up with the Golden Age of detective fiction as well as made a substantial contribution to it".

BBC/Chris Christodoulou
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Proms 2016: Violinist Ray Chen was the star of a varied show

The orchestra soaked up his energy in Bruch's first violin concerto to end on a triumphal note. 

Music matters, but so does its execution. This was the lesson of a BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus programme which combined both a premiere of a composition and a young violinist’s first performance at the Proms. 

The concert, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, opened with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy The Tempest, a lesser-known sibling to his Romeo and Juliet overture. The orchestra got off to a fidgety start, with some delayed entries, but fell into line in time for the frenetic chromatic runs that drive the piece. The end, a muted pizzicato, was suitably dramatic. 

Another nature-inspired piece followed – Anthony Payne’s composition for chorus and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky. Payne drew on his memory of watching of white horses appearing to run across water, as well as other visual illusions. At the world premiere, the piece began promisingly. The chorus rolled back and forth slowly over scurrying strings with an eerie singing of “horses”. But the piece seemed to sink in the middle, and not even the curiosity of spoken word verse was enough to get the sinister mood back. 

No doubt much of the audience were drawn to this programme by the promise of Bruch violin concerto no. 1, but it was Ray Chen’s playing that proved to be most magnetic. The young Taiwanese-Australian soloist steered clear of melodrama in favour of a clean and animated sound. More subtle was his attention to the orchestra. The performance moved from furious cadenza to swelling sound, as if all players shared the same chain of thought. Between movements, someone coughed. I hated them. 

Ray Chen in performance. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Chen’s playing had many audience members on their feet, and only an encore appeased them. It was his first time at the Proms, but he'll be back. 

The orchestra seemed to retain some of his energy for Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region. Composed between 1904 and 1906, this is a setting of lines by the US poet Walt Whitman on death, and the idea of rebirth.

The orchestra and chorus blended beautifully in the delicate, dark opening. By the end, this had transformed into a triumphal arc of sound, in keeping with the joyful optimism of Whitman’s final verse: “We float/In Time and Space.” 

This movement from hesitancy to confident march seemed in many ways to capture the spirit of the concert. The programme had something for everyone. But it was Chen’s commanding performance that defined it.