Reviews Round-Up

The critics' verdicts on J. K. Rowling, Edna O'Brien and David Byrne.

The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling

After praising her attempt to overcome the Potter legacy and tackle something new, the New York Times’s notoriously sharp-tongued critic Mitchiko Kakutani gives J. K. Rowling’s new book a signature dressing down: “Unfortunately, the real-life world she has limned in these pages is so willfully banal, so depressingly clichéd that The Casual Vacancy is not only disappointing – it’s dull.” Kakutani sees the characters as underdeveloped and the “circumscribed lives” of Pagford’s inhabitants technically weak by comparison to the world of Harry Potter where “identity is as much a product of deliberate choice as it is of fate.” A bit more like America then? If the novel’s grim reality disappointed Kakutani, it positively enraged Jan Moir, who saw it as “nothing more than 500 pages of relentless socialist manifesto masquerading as literature crammed down your throat.”

However, Boyd Tonkin sees something liberating in J. K. Rowling’s writing about young people, now it is no longer constrained by the censorship required of literature for children: “Rowling’s writing, which can be long-winded and laborious in the clunkily satirical set-pieces, picks up passion, verve and even magic with Krystal and the other adolescents. Indeed, the teens of Winterdown belong in a bolder, richer book than some of the parental caricatures.” George Eliot is a name being floated (The New Yorker dubbed the book “Mugglemarch”) by way of comparison – a woman with keen moral instincts and sharp insights into small-town life, something which Theo Tait in the Guardian sees as the book’s central achievement. “It’s a book that wrestles honourably and intelligently with big moral and political questions, but does so in a slightly clunky and convention-bound way,” he writes. “If you’re irritated by important episodes being telegraphed with phrases such as ‘But then came the hour that everything changed,’ then this is probably not the novel for you. But equally, it offers something more stylish, highbrow fiction often doesn’t or won’t: a chance to lose yourself in a dense, richly peopled world.” Read Margaret Drabble's review in the New Statesman later this week.

Country Girl by Edna O’Brien

Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and UN Commissioner for Human Rights, remembers as a teenager “reading, hidden under a false cover, a dog-eared copy of The Country Girls,” Edna O’Brien’s controversial breakthrough novel of aspiration and female sexuality, “that one of my schoolfriends had managed to get a hold of and passed around among us, and being astonished that she would write these things, and somehow grateful for the insights and revelations the books held.” Mary Kenny sums up the O’Brien “enchantments” which glisten through the book in the Irish Times: “The lushness about nature; the delicate balance of rapture and rupture in recapturing the experience of love; the feminine eye for clothes; the true ear for a story; the sharpness of specific recollections.” Both note the stars with whom O’Brien spent her time in London, entertaining at her home in Carlyle Square – Robinson finding the name-dropping cloying, Kenny the opposite. Rachel Cooke wrote in yesterday’s Observer that “The book falls away as O’Brien grows older; there are repetitions and the writing becomes gluey, more opaque.” Though she quickly counters, “But this hardly matters. The first half is so wonderful, crystalline and true, it seems churlish to complain.”

How Music Works by David Byrne

In Peter Aspden’s FT review of the former Talking Heads frontman and latter day polymath’s new book How Music Works, emphasis is placed on the pie charts, numbers and fiscal reassessment of an illustrious career in music. “The chapter on the economics of music should be required reading for all 16-year-olds tinkering with their GarageBand software and dreaming of dollar signs,” Aspden writes, “while the section on ‘How to Make a Scene’ is nothing less than a manual for urban regeneration through pop culture.” A sometimes memoir sometimes essay collection, what the book appears to lack in autobiographical insight is supplanted with an unflinchingly anatomisation of the musician’s life: the author as data. “It’s a big undertaking, which Byrne approaches with encyclopoedic zeal, drawing on testimony from historians, neuroscientists, philosophers and, in looking at the industry, managers and executives,” writes Fiona Sturges in The Independent. She praises the book in particular for its focus on the reality of a life spent making music without the domineering pop personalities and rock star posturing, a fascinating hodgepodge of authoritative opinion and fact. “[Byrne’s] book offers a meticulously researched and hugely absorbing history of music, focusing on the practices rather than the personalities that have led it to where it is today.”

Margaret Drabble and Edna O'Brien in 1966.
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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times