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Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Simon Sebag Montefiore and John Gray.

Jerusalem: the Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Writing in the Guardian, Anthony Beevor has high praise for this account of the holy city's complex history: "Montefiore's book, packed with fascinating and often grisly detail, is a gripping account of war, betrayal, looting, rape, massacre, sadistic torture, fanaticism, feuds, persecution, corruption, hypocrisy and spirituality." Despite Montefiore's close links to Jewish Jerusalem, Beevor finds the narrative to be "remarkably objective". Though certain details could be quibbled over, it is a "reliable and compelling account, with many interesting points".

The Telegraph's Munro Price admires Montefiore's "compelling and thought-provoking" book, which eloquently investigates the city's "fascinating but ghastly past". Though it does not inspire optimism about Jerusalem's future, Montefiore illustrates one enduring lesson to be learnt from the past, that "attempts by any one religion to control the city are doomed".

Montefiore's book is delivered with "flair" and a "bracing pace", supplying "doses of salacious detail", says Rebecca Abrams in this week's New Statesman. It is "a gripping read that throws the city's present problems into sharp relief." Ultimately Montefiore's conclusions about the future are "muted but hopeful", urging each side to recognize the other's narratives of "tragedy and heroism."

The Immortalisation Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death by John Gray

Writing in the Financial Times, Stephen Cave describes Gray's book as "an absorbing study" of humanity's post-Darwinian anxieties. Gray's polemical and anti-humanist instincts "bore through the book like a worm-hole through an apple" as he seeks to "expose the quasi-religious and magical thinking that underpins our visions of progress".

In the Guardian, John Banville heralds the author as "a connoisseur of human idiocy". His "brief, modest-seeming yet profound book" charts the neurotic "teleological wishfulness" of educated Victorians and the "mad dreams" of savants and scientists who planned to embalm and reanimate Lenin's body. Ultimately, he offers a "compelling plea for man to come to his senses and stop dreaming of immortality".

Marek Kohn of the Independent praises Gray's "engrossing style" and his readiness "to take absurd endeavours seriously and to consider morally complex individuals sympathetically" as he discusses the strange mixtures of mysticism and rationalism that have strived to overcome mortality.

Gray's work "is on to something important regarding the delusion that science consists of indefinite progress" according to Michael Burleigh in the Telegraph. Yet the quality of the book "deteriorates" as Gray's "deep pessimism" develops and he eventually "ends up sounding like Hamlet."

"The Immortalisation Commission" will be reviewed in a forthcoming New Statesman