Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Charlotte Mendelson, Daniel M Davis, David Shields and Shane Salerno, and Jhumpa Lahiri.

Almost English, Charlotte Mendelson 

Charlotte Mendelson’s fourth novel pivots precariously between tragedy and comedy, exploring the turbulent inner workings of an emotionally fragile mother – Laura – and her awkward daughter Marina. A coming-of-age story with a Hungarian tang, this Booker-longlisted novel has been receiving a mixed response from critics, who both admire Mendelson’s theatrics, yet criticise her sincerity.

Bella Bathurst, writing for The Observer, praises the sharp, cynical voice that governs Almost English, noting that the novel deserves to win the Booker “for the quality of the writing alone”. While impressed by the prose, Bathurst does find fault with the similar characterization of Marina and Laura, noting that although “the lack of differentiation between mother and daughter sometimes makes for comedy, [it] sometimes feels uncomfortably same-ish”. In a similar vein, The Independent’s Arifa Akbar criticises the pair’s lack of individuality, observing that “the often histrionic inner voice of the teenager sounds a little too similar to the often histrionic inner voice of the mother, which sounds peculiarly petulant for a woman of her years”.

Arifa Akbar writes in the Independent that it’s not just Laura and Marina who lack refined characterisation, but the whole cast of Almost English. “Characterisation of the eccentric brood of Hungarians feels two-dimension and generic,” writes Akbar, “they seem forever to be saying ‘Von-darefool’ as if accented English were a substitute for depth.” But aside from this, Mendelson is admired for her depiction of strained but intense teenage crushes: “Marina talks in the screeching language of teen love”.

The New Statesman's Claire Lowdon refigures what Akbar calls “generic” or “histronic” as a “Dickensian love of caricature and plot.” Lowdon identifies a shared purpose between Mendelson and the Victorian author, where “the comedy comes with a sting”, and acts as a “poignant counterpoint to all the rollicking social satire.” This “sting” however, is not always achieved and at points the humour is smothered by over-exaggeration. “Marina’s visit to the Viney country pile is hammed up, Guy’s snooty 17-year-old sister utter[s] such improbabilities as, ‘One becomes so protective…’” Initially appreciative of Mendelson’s larger-than-life characters, Lowdon is ultimately frustrated, concluding with the judgment: “if you are writing in the realist tradition, you can only exaggerate so far.”

The Compatibility Gene, Daniel M Davis

In The Compatibility Gene Davis popularizes the genetics of immunology, investigating how the genes of each human being determine relationships, health and individuality. Small clusters of our 25,000 genes, Davis argues, hold disproportionate influence over the human body. These clusters, as The Compatibility Gene explores, control tissue compatibility for transplants and are responsible for a healthy immune system.

Michael Brooks, writing for the New Statesman, praises Davis’ scientific storytelling, paying particular attention to his Darwinian vision of genetics: “As well as dealing with foreign tissue, the compatibility genes seem to influence our selection of biologically beneficial partners. It turns out that we look for complementary immune systems that enhance the chance of our offspring’s survival.” While Davis’ study offers optimism for a future where genetics is increasingly understood, Brooks is quick to notice a note of poignancy in Davis’ work. “Many more scientists are threaded through the pages of Davis’s thoughtful book and they all share one thing: the grinding heartbreak that is the slow progress of scientific discovery.” Nonetheless, concludes Brooks, “The Compatibility Gene is a fascinating, expertly told story of a field that may yield significant treasures in the decades to come”.

Peter Forbes in the Guardian also identifies Brooks’ “heartbreak”, noting how “Davis sugars the pill of exploring unresolved research by focusing on the lives of the researchers and their struggles.” In his review, Forbes highlights the problem of locating underlying principles in immunology, when exceptions are present in so many cases. Most diseases require more than a single defective gene, and this “makes the job of a populariser such as Davis doubly difficult.” But Forbes is satisfied with Brooks’ admission: “While many scientists would argue that a popular-level book like this one should stick to established decades-old ideas, my view is that nothing can be more exciting than what's happening at the edge of knowledge."

Davis in the Times offers personality to his readers as well as science. “Until recently, in everyday speech ‘Neanderthal’ was a stock term of abuse, meaning lumbering, out-dated, stupid”, notes Forbes. “Davis himself can't resist quipping: ‘I look forward to discussing my wife's Neanderthal inheritance with her family at our next Christmas lunch.” Nicola Davis in the Times comments on this readability, which allows for easy comprehension. She comments, “many of the early concepts tackled are fairly familiar but Davis’s readable narrative allows them to be seen afresh through the eyes of those who first probed such puzzles as the existence of blood groups or the very nature of disease.” For all readers of The Compatibility Gene, it is clear the more we find out about this science, the more complicated the science becomes. Nicola Davis doesn’t seem fazed, she remarks.

Salinger, David Shields and Shane Salerno

With a figure as aloof as J D Salinger any biography is likely to be alluring and problematic in equal measure. In their new work Salinger, David Shields and Shane Salerno, neither of whom are biographers, think they have the answers to this particular mystery. But despite nine years of research, 200 contributors and 175 photos, they have failed to impress the critics.

Christopher Taylor, writing in the Telegraph, is unconvinced and awards the book two stars. He doesn’t like the tone of the book and although he grants that it is “energetically researched and contains some notable scoops, it is non-Salingerian in spirit to an almost comical degree: over-emphatic, lurid Hollywood-infected”. All in all, Taylor deems the autobiography to be looking for a film-style “killer montage” rather than providing any sort of insight into Salinger’s relatively unknown life.

John Walsh, in the Sunday Times, however, was more complimentary, impressed especially by the scale of the work. He says “You take away two fascinating paradoxes from this hugely impressive, if not entirely revelatory project. One is Salinger’s creepy obsession with girls on the edge of adulthood... Second is his attitude to seclusion. For a man supposedly indifferent to fame, he monitored it obsessively, checking reviews of his work, ringing up journalists, turning up to interviews with pretty women, inviting people to his house, attending army reunions.“

Carl Rollyson in the Wall Street Journal points out the haphazard nature of the book: “Salinger is biography as scrapbook, chock-full of well-known figures and well-worn stories, with fresh information scattered about.” While Taylor was pleased by the amount of information, Rollyson finds it all too much, concluding “Biographies are often accused of not explaining enough. Here, however, is an example of one that tells us too much. The raw material in "Salinger" will need to be digested by yet another biographer. But the next book will need to be less thesis-ridden and more generous to the insights that other biographers contributed to our understanding of Salinger. We have waited so long to understand J D Salinger. We must wait longer.”

The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri’s second novel The Lowland, already longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, follows the story of two Calcutta brothers as their paths diverge after they go to university. While one becomes politically active and a Naxalite revolutionary, the other is more obedient and passive, studying oceanography in Rhode Island. The novel examines the political and the personal, set over nearly 50 years of Indian and American history.

Stephanie Merritt, writing in the Observer, gave the book a positive review, impressed by Lahiri’s “restraint and understatement. She resists lyricism, just as she avoids obvious drama.” Although she says that “perhaps Lahiri spreads her net a little too wide at times”, she ultimately concludes that “there is no doubt that The Lowland confirms Lahiri as a writer of formidable powers and great depth of feeling, who makes the business of conjuring a story from the chaos of human lives seem quite effortless.”

Randy Boyagoda of the Financial Times, however, was not so complimentary. He writes that “Jhumpa Lahiri would be a far better writer if she weren’t so bloody exquisite about her writing. The Lowland [...] is an ambitious multigenerational intercontinental drama, but also a symptom of its author’s success.” He finds the style too irritating for the novel to merit much praise, concluding “All of the intellectually listless contradictories share the novel’s pages with those tiny ants and the softness of kisses and many other maddeningly meticulous, pathologically decorous reflections on memory and identity and tea and biscuits and journeying and jasmine-picking and Googling. Booker or not, The Lowland is awash with Lahirical excess.”

Chandak Sengoopta, in the Independent was also unconvinced, again finding problems with the Lahiri’s style. While he lauds Lahiri’s character portrayal, commenting “the tragic family saga is certainly affecting and Lahiri, as always, is adept at portraying the lives of diasporic Indians without condescension”, Sengoopta feels the tragic impact of the novel is somewhat blunted: “The entire novel, in fact, has an emotionally detached tone that reduces the impact of the tragedy”. He concludes that “The Lowland chooses to be a novel about unfathomably dysfunctional people, and not the epic human tragedy it could easily have been.”

Jhumpa Lahiri. Photograph: Getty Images.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

GRAHAM TURNER/GUARDIAN NEWS & MEDIA
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How board games became a billion-dollar business

A new generation of tabletop games escaped the family table – and fuelled a global industry.

In Birmingham not long ago, I watched a political catastrophe take place. A cabal of academics was clamouring for a liberal manifesto and an anti-capitalist government agenda. The working classes were demanding authoritarian rule with fewer socialist policies. And the ruling party, beset by infighting and resignations, was trying to persuade everyone that it had their interests at heart. It all felt disturbingly familiar – except that these politicians were brightly coloured cartoon drawings, their policies were drawn from a fat deck of cards and the people pulling the strings of government were a young family and a bunch of cheerful twentysomething men in T-shirts.

This was Statecraft, one of hundreds of board and card games on display at the UK Games Expo (UKGE) in Birmingham last summer. Now in its tenth year, UKGE is Britain’s biggest event in the increasingly crowded and profitable world of tabletop gaming and, with its milling crowds, loud music, packed stalls and extraordinary costumes (I spotted Judge Dredd, Deadpool, innumerable Doctors Who and more sorcerers than you could shake a staff at), it felt like a mixture of a trade show, a fan convention and a free-for-all party.

For anyone whose last experience of board games was rainy-day Monopoly and Cluedo, or who has doubts about the place of cardboard in an entertainment landscape dominated by screens, there was no better place to come for a Damascene conversion.

Statecraft’s creator, Peter Blenkharn, a gangly and eloquent 23-year-old with an impressive froth of beard, was in his element. “Our game also has one-party state scenarios,” he explained, brandishing a colourful deck of terrifying political events. “Sectarian violence. Hereditary establishments. An egalitarian society. Each one tweaks the mechanics and the mathematics of the game. There might be a housing crisis, a global pandemic, extremist rallies, a downturn in the economy, and with each you get a choice of how to react.”

Blenkharn is one of many new designers making careers out of the current boom in tabletop gaming. He founded his company, Inside the Box Board Games, with Matthew Usher, a friend from school and Oxford University, and raised £18,000 on the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter to make their chemistry-themed puzzle game, Molecular. It was manufactured in China and shipped to Blenkharn’s mother’s house, where his family helped to send copies to the game’s backers. Last year, a second Kickstarter campaign for Statecraft made more than twice as much money, prompting Blenkharn to go into the business full-time.

“Publishing your own games is definitely profitable,” Blenkharn told me. “The profit margins are enormous on medium runs, and there’s a huge amount of room for more indie publishers . . . People collect 20, 30 or 40 board games at £20 or £30 a time. You can play with a range of different people. And while video games have a fairly niche age range, as you can see . . .” – he gestured around at the milling crowds – “. . . these games appeal to everyone. The market is exploding.”

The figures appear to support this optimistic prognosis. Last August, the trade analysis magazine ICv2 estimated that the “hobby games” business in 2015 – that is, board and card games produced and sold for a dedicated “gamer” market, rather than toys – was worth $1.2bn in the US and Canada alone. On Kickstarter, where independent designers can gauge interest and take pledges to fund production, tabletop games made six times more money than video games in the first half of 2016.

One of the most startling of these Kickstarter success stories was Exploding Kittens, a simple, Uno-like game illustrated by the creator of a web comic called The Oatmeal. This unassuming deck of cards, crammed with daft cartoons and surreal humour, earned nearly $9m in the month of its crowd-funding campaign, making it the seventh most successful project in Kickstarter’s eight-year history; so far, the only products on the platform to raise more money have been four iterations of the Pebble smart watch, a travel jacket with a built-in neck pillow, a drinks cooler that ices and blends your drinks – and a reprint of another board game, the fantastical (and fantastically expensive) Kingdom Death Monster, which costs $200 for a basic copy and is taking pledges of up to $2,500. It has already raised more than $12m. The figures for other games are scarcely less impressive: a game based on the Dark Souls series of video games, for example, raised £4m in crowd-funding pledges last April.

Touring the aisles of the UKGE, I started to wonder if there was any subject about which someone hadn’t developed a board game. A family was deep in a new edition of Agricola, a German game that involves scratching a living from unforgiving 17th-century farmland. “I’m going to have trouble feeding my child this harvest,” I heard one of the players say. Nearby, two people were settling into Twilight Struggle, a tussle for ideological control set in the Cold War, in which the cards bear forbidding legends such as “Nuclear Subs”, “Kitchen Debates” and “We Will Bury You”.

I spotted three games about managing fast-food chains, one about preparing sushi, one about eating sushi, one about growing chillies and one about foraging mushrooms; I watched sessions of Snowdonia, about building railways in the Welsh mountains, and Mysterium, a Ukrainian game in which a ghost provides dream clues to a team of “psychic investigators” using abstract artwork. A game called Journalist (“‘Where is that promised article?’ roars your boss”) seemed a little close to home.

Spurred by the opportunities of crowd-funding and the market’s enthusiasm for new ideas, a legion of small and part-time designers are turning their hands to tabletop games. I met the Rev Michael Salmon, an Anglican vicar whose football-themed card game Kix, a tense battle between two players with hands of cards representing their teams, has echoes of the Eighties classic Top Trumps. Nearby was Gavin Birnbaum, a London-based driving instructor who designs a game every year and carves them individually from wood in his workshop; 2015’s limited edition from his company, Cubiko, was Fog of War, in which perfect little tanks crept around a board of wooden hexagons, zapping each other.

Perhaps the most impressive prior CV belonged to Commander Andrew Benford, who developed his hidden-movement game called They Come Unseen beneath the waves in the Seventies while serving on Royal Navy subs. Sold at UKGE in a snazzy cardboard version by the war games company Osprey, it had come a long way from the “heavily engineered board covered with thick Perspex and secured to an aluminium board” that the nuclear engineers prepared for the original. Benford, now retired, was already thinking about an expansion.

This surge in innovation has also made these interesting times for established creators. Reiner Knizia, one of the best-known names in board games, told me, “There are enormous changes in our times, in our world, and this is reflected in the games. It’s wonderful for a creative mind.” Knizia is a German mathematician who quit a career in finance to become a full-time designer in 1997. His interest in games began in his childhood, when he repurposed money from Monopoly sets to devise new trading games, and he now has more than 600 original games to his credit.

Knizia’s games are frequently remarkable for a single innovative twist. In Tigris and Euphrates, a competitive tile-laying game set in the Mesopotamian fertile crescent, players compete to win points in several different colours, but their final score is calculated not on their biggest pile but their smallest. His licensed game for the Lord of the Rings series developed a method for co-operative adventure – players collaborate to win the game, rather than playing against each other – that has become a separate genre in the 17 years since its release.

But Knizia is no doctrinaire purist. The design experiments he conducts from his studio in Richmond, London (“I have 80 drawers, and in each drawer I have a game, but no sane person can work on 80 products at the same time”), embrace new methods and unusual technologies – smartphones, ultraviolet lamps – in their pursuit of what he calls “a simple game that is not simplistic”. When I mentioned the assumption common in the Nineties that board games would be dead by the millennium, he raised an eyebrow. “That clearly wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “Just as if you said travelling would die out because you could see everything live on television. There are basic needs of human beings: to socialise with other people, to explore things, to be curious, to have fun. These categories will stay. It doesn’t mean that we have to have printed cardboard and figures to move around: we might lay out a screen and download the board on to the screen. The act of playing, and of what we do in the game, will stay,
because it is in our nature.”

This question of the appropriate shape for board games – and how they are to utilise or shun the glowing screens that follow us everywhere – is one that many game designers are asking. Later in the summer, I had the chance to play the second edition of a game called Mansions of Madness, a reworking of an infamously complex board game based on the work of the horror writer H P Lovecraft. In its original incarnation, players navigated a series of terrifying colonial mansions, encountering monsters and events that needed to be drawn from piles of pieces and decks of cards by a human opponent. Like many games that involve huge numbers of interacting decisions, the first edition was a horror of its own to manage: the set-up took an eternity and one false move or misapplied card could ruin an entire game. For the second edition, its publishers, Fantasy Flight Games, streamlined the process – by handing over responsibility for running the game to an app for smartphones and tablets.

“To some, I’m the great Satan for doing that,” Christian T Petersen, the CEO of Fantasy Flight, told me when we discussed the integration of apps and games. “There was a portion of the gaming community that resisted it for various reasons: some on the basis that they didn’t want a screen in their lives, some on the basis of interesting thought-experiments that if they were to bring their game out 50 years from now, would the software be relevant or even possible to play? Maybe it won’t. I don’t even know if some of these inks that we have will last 50 years.”

Also a designer, Petersen was vigorous in his defence of the possibilities of mixed-media board gaming. “We’re trying to use technology to make the interface of games more fun,” he said. “Too much integration and you’ll say, ‘Why am I playing a board game? I might as well be playing a computer game.’ Too little and you’ll say, ‘Why is it even here?’ But I believe there’s a place in the middle where you’re using software to enhance the relevance of what this can be as a board game. We’re still experimenting.”

Other experiments have gone in different directions. The program Tabletop Simulator, released in 2015, is a video game platform that represents tabletop games in a multiplayer 3D space. Players can create their own modules (there are hundreds available, many of them no doubt infringing the copyright of popular board games) and play them online together. A recent update even added support for VR headsets.

While designers debate the future of the medium, tabletop gaming has been creeping out of enthusiasts’ territory and into wider cultural life. In Bristol, one evening last summer, I stopped by the marvellously named Chance & Counters, which had recently opened on the shopping street of Christmas Steps. It is a board game café – like Draughts in east London, Thirsty Meeples in Oxford and Ludorati in Nottingham – where customers pay a cover charge (£4 per head, or £50 for a year’s “premium membership”) to play while eating or drinking. The tables have special rings to hold your pint away from the board; the staff read the rule books and teach you the games.

“When I was growing up,” explained Steve Cownie, one of the three owners of Chance & Counters, “board games were associated with family time: playing Monopoly at Christmas and shouting at each other. Now, it’s been repositioned as a way for young professionals, students, just about anyone, to spend time with each other. It’s a guided social interaction, where there’s a collective task or a collective competition.”

There is barely a smartphone in the place. “People aren’t sitting around checking Face­book,” agrees Cownie. “They’re looking each other in the eye, competing or co-operating. It’s amazing to see, really.”

A board games café is an odd social experience but a compelling one. Before taking our seats at Chance & Counters, my companion and I were ushered by a waiter towards a wall of games that ran down the side of the building, past tables of other people bent in rapt concentration or howling in riotous disagreement over rules. “Would you like something light?” he asked. “Something heavy? Something silly? Something strategic?” The rows of gleaming boxes stretched out before us. Somewhere in there, I knew, was exactly the game we wanted to play. 

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era