Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Susan Hill, Philip Mansel and Linda Grant.

A Kind Man by Susan Hill

In the Telegraph, Lucy Beresford is profoundly moved by Susan Hill's tale of a ordinary man who becomes possessed with extraordinary healing powers: "Sometimes a piece of writing is so pure, so true, it is almost painful to read ... it was hard to read this story without regular recourse to tissues."

Matthew Dennison, writing in the Independent, concurs pointing out that whilst "Hill's justice is tough and unrelenting, the sort of harsh predeterminism once attributed to pagan deities" what remains for the reader is "the warmth and humanity of her writing ... with the result that, despite its shortness, this is a novel of huge emotional impact and moments of immense poignancy."

The one dissenting critical voice in an otherwise uniform cacophony of praise is that of Charlotte Moore in the Spectator, who finds the simplicity of Hill's narrative voice slightly wearisome and open to precise questioning: "The tale is so clean and spare that every detail is telling, or feels as if it ought to be. The problem is that when a false note is struck, it resonates."

Levant: Splendor and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean by Philip Mansel

From the Guardian, Norman Stone is impressed by Mansel's new account of the complex history of the Levant, weaving delicately through Alexandria, Beirut and Smyrna as it does with historiographical panache. The sheer size of "the vast amounts of memoirs and official documentation" involved in such a task would intimidate even the most accomplished historian yet Mansel dexterously deals with them "with his usual elegance and skill."

Moris Farhi, writing in the Independent, salutes this "masterly work" in which Mansel "exposes the problems of achieving coexistence in a world fragmented by disunion ... Smyrna, Alexandria and Beirut stand as unique symbols of achievable utopias."

Jason Goodwin, reviewing Mansel's book in the Spectator, thinks that Mansel's reveals the Levant to have always been a precarious notion, constantly seesawing from enlightened cosmopolitanism to demagogic nationalism: "Harmony held for certain places at certain times; just as often, Mansel describes a city sitting on a volcano of communalism, or foreign intervention. Time and again, Levantines crowded on to ships in the harbour, waiting for a signal to flee, or to return." Mansel's work is, however, an "impressive return to the eastern Mediterranean."

We Had It So Good by Linda Grant

Lesley McDowell, writing in the Financial Times, gives Grant's factual based novel a highly laudatory write-up, suggesting that by incorporating fact into her literary fiction she has managed to trump all her previous efforts in the latter genre: "Grant's reliance of reportage in fiction finally produces what for me is her best novel so far."

In the Telegraph, Jane Shilling is lukewarm without being fully persuaded by Grant's grant narrative for the baby boomer generation. "Her delineation of character is judicious rather than passionate - so that even characters in extremis live out their dramas at a safe distance from the reader's heart" writes Shilling, adding that the novel relies "for its emotional impact on the painstaking accumulation of detail rather than a driving narrative."

Kyle Seeley
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For emotional value, Emily is Away – a nostalgic instant messaging game – is this year’s best release

If you want to express your lingering teenage angst, there’s no better option.

Every now and then, a game is released that goes beyond what it may look or sound like. It goes straight to the pit of your insides where you thought you had no soul left, and jolts you back to life. Or at least it attempts to. This year, it's Emily is Away.

Firstly, anyone and everyone can virtually play this thing as it’s a crude Windows XP simulator displaying an AIM/MSN messenger client and can run on the PC equivalent of a potato. And it's free. It’s a short game, taking about 30 minutes, in which you play a person chatting away to your friend called Emily (who could be more), choosing from a set list of pre-selected instant messages.

Each chapter takes place in a different year, starting in 2002 and ending in 2006.

You’re instantly smacked with nostalgia thanks to the user screen of Windows XP and a fuzzed out background of Bliss, which was the default wallpaper in the operating system, and probably the most widely seen photo in the world. And your ears aren’t abandoned either, with the upbeat pinging sounds reminiscent of how you used to natter away with your personal favourite into the early hours.

The first chapter starts with you and Emily reaching the end of your last year in high school, talking about plans for the evening, but also the future, such as what you’ll be studying at university. From this early point, the seeds of the future are already being sewn.

For example, Emily mentions how Brad is annoying her in another window on her computer, but you’re both too occupied about agreeing to go to a party that night. The following year, you learn that Brad is now in fact her boyfriend, because he decided to share how he felt about Emily while you were too shy and keeping your feelings hidden.

What’s so excellent about the game is that it can be whatever you wish. Retro games used the lack of visual detail to their advantage, allowing the players to fill in the blanks. The yearly gaps in this game do exactly the same job, making you long to go back in time, even if you haven't yet reached the age of 20 in the game.

Or it lets you forget about it entirely and move on, not knowing exactly what had happened with you and Emily as your brain starts to create the familiar fog of a faded memory.

Despite having the choice to respond to Emily’s IMs in three different ways each time, your digital self tries to sweeten the messages with emoticons, but they’re always automatically deleted, the same way bad spelling is corrected in the game too. We all know that to truly to take the risk and try and move a friendship to another level, emoticons are the digital equivalent to cheesy real-life gestures, and essential to trying to win someone’s heart.

Before you know it, your emotions are heavily invested in the game and you’re always left wondering what Emily wanted to say when the game shows that she’s deleting as well as typing in the messenger. You end up not even caring that she likes Coldplay and Muse – passions reflected in her profile picture and use of their lyrics. She also likes Snow Patrol. How much can you tolerate Chasing Cars, really?

The user reviews on Steam are very positive, despite many complaining you end up being “friend-zoned” by Emily, and one review simply calling it “Rejection Simulator 2015”.

I tried so hard from all of the options to create the perfect Em & Em. But whatever you decide, Emily will always give you the #feels, and you’ll constantly end up thinking about what else you could have done.