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Competition No 3687

Set by John Crick on 25 June

"As a contribution to natural history, the work is negligible," said a 1908 Times review of The Wind in the Willows. We asked for similar reviews of a recent book.

Report by Ms de Meaner

You know how to tickle the cockles of my heart. £20 to the winners; the vouchers go to Will Bellenger.

The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx.

Miss Proulx's novel promises rich satisfaction to those involved in marine transport and insurance professions. This fascinating area of international operation is unjustly neglected; novelists prefer easier pickings from human tragedies, overlooking the scale of dramas enacted in shipping offices around the world.

Sadly, Miss Proulx fails in her mission. Information on shipping is minimal: I scoured the pages for anything on tonnages, construction, characteristics of individual vessels, or classification syst-ems such as we developed here at Lloyd's. Nor did she seem aware of the complex nature of the highly trained staff required for a thoroughly reliable and successful operation. Her "hero", Quoyle, would never be employable at Lloyd's: apart from personal circumstances too squalid to indicate here, he has no connections - school, university, club - essential for everyday social assurance in this competitive world. Nor is Newfoundland a dynamic location. I do not wish to discourage Miss Proulx, but this is no window into maritime finance - perhaps it is merely a rough draft? If so, I would urge her to contact us for a more realistic view of the real world of shipping.

D A Prince

Armadillo by William Boyd.

The chance to review this novel is well timed, since my appointment as chief keeper of these superb animals at Bristol Zoo was confirmed yesterday. Initially, I was disappointed by the indirect nature of the instructions for their care, but the author's introductory quotation provides a clue to the interpretation of the text: "We and other animals notice what goes on around us." This is a book written from the armadillo's point of view and thus offers many rewarding tips. Whereas we have been christening our specimens Jack or Mary, these prefer exotic names: Torquil Helvoir-Jayne and Flavia Malinverno. The hero's love of this lady draws attention to the animal's capacity for monogamous passion, and the frequent extracts from a supposed "Book of the Transfiguration" remind us that the creature may yearn for a different, possibly more fluid, image. The rest of the manual deals with feeding, sociability and maintenance of their shells, referred to metaphorically as armour, with constant reminders that the narrative operates on two levels: "Got to develop a thicker skin, Mr Black" or "He's a bit hard to get hold of at the moment". Read sensitively, it is a vade mecum for all armadillo enthusiasts.

Barbara Daniels

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks.

Mr Faulks, it may be idly presumed, is an ornithologist with something to tell us. Unhappily, nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, he introduces us to starlings, a lark, some blackbirds and thrushes, sundry rooks and crows, some wood pigeons, and one further "fat" pigeon of no demonstrable subspecies. In one remarkable instance, a canary is adduced underground, where the action of Birdsong is often unpromisingly set. It is rather as if, say, Three Men in a Boat had been set on an autobahn. The canary, however, fails to sing. There are occasional observations of the movement of birds, presented with some understanding of a pinion's function. But any representation of avian expressivity is entirely lacking. There are dreary, frustrating references to "the sound of birds", or to "singing". Birds appear after a carnal act, and also in a dream. In each case, they are effectively silent. At the novel's conclusion, we are treated to a crow's "explosive bang", but this in context is no more than an inarticulate (and inaccurate) reference to the crow in question leaving a tree. It is no comfort to note that Mr Faulks is quite good on the subject of digging earth.

Will Bellenger

Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt.

As a crematorium manager, I found this book deeply unsatisfactory. The author has clearly never worked in a crematorium and shows a reluctance to engage with the ideal of the hygienic disposal of the dead. Given the past preference of certain varieties of Christianity, including that in which the author was reared, for burning the living rather than the dead, perhaps I was unrealistic in expecting otherwise. Inexplicably, Frank McCourt declines to confront certain basic problems. Is Ireland too damp for economic, effective cremation? Can turf burn at a high enough temperature to reduce a body to ashes? Is there something in the Celtic character that recoils from ending a wake with burning? Surely the occasional cremation would have brought a touch of variety to the limited experiences offered by Limerick? Given the abundance of corpses, there was no shortage of human material. More research would have made this a better book and any secretary of a local branch of the Association of Crematorium Managers would have been eager to share his expertise with Mr McCourt. But this is, after all, the author's first book, and he is to be commended for aspiring to tackle so demanding a subject.

J Seery

No 3690 Set by Leonora Casement

"The chainsaw hovers about this book like some greasy mechanical incubus . . . Sometimes it is the central character; at other times it has no more than a bit-part", writes Adam Newey (page 55, this issue.) We want similarly stirring verse on garden sheers, secateurs, you name it. To be in by 26 July. E-mail:

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2001 issue of the New Statesman, How long have we got?