Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on David Laws, Polly Samson and Alex Ross.

22 Days in May by David Laws

In the Guardian, Peter Preston is impressed by the Liberal Democrats preparation for coalition talks in David Laws' account of the aftermath of the May 2010 general election: "the thoroughness of Liberal preparations long before any votes were cast is a revelation ... just as the shambles of Labour's non-fight for survival passes all previous understanding."

In this week's New Statesman Andrew Adonis (who was part of the Labour negotiating team which failed to broker an agreement with the Lib Dems in May) argues that Laws' view of the talks is highly teleological and points to the 2004 Lib Dem policy publication, The Orange Book as "a clarion call for a return to classical small-state liberalism", which "conditioned the party (the Lib Dems) into forming an alliance with the Tories that would have been inconceivable just a few years ago."

Sean O'Grady, in the Independent, finds that 22 Days in May offers up a convenient scapegoat for the failure of a progressive Lib-Lab coalition to form: "If, like me, you were half hoping for a "progressive coalition" of the Lib Dems and Labour, then you need to know who killed this dream: Ed "Tribal" Balls, who effectively sabotaged the talks."

Perfect Lives by Polly Samson

Susan Hill in the Spectator finds Samson's prose in her new collection of stories to be refreshingly unaffected: "Samson does not show off as a writer; her prose is clear and precise, but she makes it sparkle every now and then by producing a brilliant image".

Writing in the Guardian, Shena Mackay points to Samson's talent for exposing the darker corners of middle class life: "Samson reveals the darkness and pain beneath the most polished surfaces ... she sees the worm in the bud, the canker in the rose, the mildew on the vine, the genetic time-bomb primed to devastate."

Olivia Laing, reviewing the book in the latest issue of the New Statesman, is similarly captivated by Samson's ability to expose the fault-lines in the most polished fictional surfaces: "Lives so artfully arranged they resemble scenes from a Toast catalogue are cracked open to reveal innards as unexpected as they are unsettling."

Listen to This by Alex Ross

From the Daily Telegraph Ivan Hewett, reviewing this collection of Ross's writings on music from the New Yorker, thinks that Ross has managed to claw back the dignity of music journalism: "By appealing to humble metaphors and common sense, Ross revives the spirit of those old-fashioned musical men of letters, of the type that flourished before academia colonised the field."

In the Guardian, Peter Conrad found Ross's infectious enthusiasm to be more illuminating than his criticism, writing that "the most fervent acts of critical appreciation here are explosions of contagious excitement, more like yelping ovations than cerebral analysis", whilst Conrad Wilson, in the Herald, applauds Ross as a critic "who shows himself to be the most elegant and engaging of writers."

Listen to This will be reviewed in a forthcoming issue of the New Statesman.

HELEN SLOAN / THE FALL 3 LTD
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The Fall is back - and once again making me weary

Five more episodes to go, after which its “feminist” writer (his word, not mine), Allan Cubitt, should pull the plug on it at last. Plus: Damned.

It is with much weariness that I return to The Fall (Thursdays, 9pm), the creepy drama that still doesn’t know whether it wants to be a horror-fest or a love story. I’ve written in the past about what I regard as its basic misogyny – to sum up, it seems to me to make a fetish of the violence committed against women, a preoccupation it pathetically tries to disguise by dint of its main character being a female detective – and I don’t propose to return to that theme now. However, in its early days, it was at least moderately gripping. Now, though, it appears to be recovering from some kind of nervous breakdown. If in series two the plot was wobbling all over the place, series three has misplaced the idea of drama altogether. Nothing is happening. At all.

To recap: at the end of the last series, Paul Spector, aka the Belfast Strangler (Jamie Dornan), had been shot while in police custody, somewhat improbably by a man who blames him for the demise of his marriage (oh, that Spector were only responsible for breaking up a few relationships). On the plus side for his supposed nemesis, DSI Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson), before he fell he led them to Rose Stagg, the ex-girlfriend he’d locked in the boot of a car some days previously, and she is going to live. On the minus side, Spector’s injuries are so bad, it’s touch and go whether he’ll survive, and so Gibson may never see him brought to justice. Of course, the word “justice” is something of a red herring here.

The real reason she wants Spector to live is more dubious. As she stared at his body in the ICU, all tubes and monitors, her expression was so obviously sexual – her mouth opened, and stayed that way, as her eyes ran over every part of his body – that I half expected her to reach out and stroke him. Just in time for this nocturnal visit, she’d slipped into another of her slinky silk blouses that look like poured cream. (Moments earlier – think Jackie Kennedy in 1963 – she’d still been covered in her love object’s blood.)

The entire episode took place at the hospital, police procedural having morphed suddenly into Bodies or Cardiac Arrest. Except, this was so much more boring and cliché-bound than those excellent series – and so badly in need of their verisimilitude. When I watch The Fall, I’m all questions. Why doesn’t Stella ever tie her hair back? And why does she always wear high heels, even when trying to apprehend criminals? For how much longer will the presumably cash-strapped Police Service of Northern Ireland allow her to live in a posh hotel? Above all, I find myself thinking: why has this series been so acclaimed? First it was nasty, and then it was only bad. Five more episodes to go, after which its “feminist” writer (his word, not mine), Allan Cubitt, should join Gibson in the ICU, where together they can ceremonially pull the plug on it at last.

Can Jo Brand do for social workers in her new comedy, Damned, what she did a few years ago for geriatric nurses in the brilliant Getting On? I expect she probably can, even though this Channel 4 series (Tuesdays, 10pm), co-written with Morwenna Banks and Will Smith, does have an awfully inky heart. Hungry children, drug-addict parents, a man who can go nowhere without his oxygen tank: all three were present and correct when Rose (Brand) went to visit a client who turned out to be a woman who, long ago, had nicked her (Rose’s) boyfriend. Ha ha? Boohoo, more like.

Damned is basically The Office with added family dysfunction. Al (Alan Davies) is a hen-pecked wimp, Nitin (Himesh Patel) is a snitch, and Nat (Isy Suttie) is the stupidest and most annoying temp in the Western world. This lot have two bosses: Martin (Kevin Eldon), a kindly widower, and Denise (Georgie Glen), the cost-cutting line manager from hell. And Rose has a plonker of an ex-husband, Lee (Nick Hancock). “I’ve been invited to the Cotswolds for the weekend,” he told her, trying to wriggle out of looking after the children. “Is that why you look like a knob?” she replied.

Jerky camerawork, naturalistic acting, a certain daring when it comes to jokes about, say, race: these things are pretty familiar by now, but I like it all the same.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories