Book reviews roundup: The Goldfinch, Autobiography, Ammonites and Leaping Fish

What the critics thought of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, Autobiography by Morrissey and Ammonites and Leaping Fish by Penelope Lively

"It's a door-stopper and a window-opener, a modern epic and an old-fashioned pilgrimage, a nimble thrill-seek and a heavyweight masterpiece." Alex O'Connell in the Times could hardly contain her excitement about Donna Tartt's third novel, The Goldfinch, which begins with 13‑year‑old Theo Decker caught up in an explosion at the Met in New York: "unlike the goldfinch of the title, shackled to its painted perch, it is light on its feet and the pages fly … It's Dickens with guns, Dostoevsky with pills, Tolstoy with antiques." For James Kidd in the Independent on Sunday the novel is "a gripping page-turner and a challenging, beautifully written account of modern life. Moving but unsentimental, funny without being trite … The Goldfinch will doubtless be a contender for one of 2013's best novels." But other critics disagreed. Among them was Peter Kemp in the Sunday Times: "Tartt seems to be aiming in The Goldfinch to emulate the breadth of 19th-century fiction … But while the social range is wide, there's no matching depth … Stupefyingly long stretches of near inertness … are interspersed with frenetic bursts of mayhem … no amount of straining for high-flown uplift can disguise the fact that The Goldfinch is a turkey."

Reviewers of Morrissey's already bestelling Autobiography agreed that it starts well. In his five-star notice in the Daily Telegraph, Neil McCormick wrote that "from the opening lines … as he evokes … 'Victorian knife-plunging Manchester' with relish, you know you are in good hands. With typical pretension, Morrissey's first book has been published as a Penguin Classic. It justifies such presentation with a beautifully measured prose style that combines a lilting, poetic turn of phrase and acute quality of observation … It is certainly the best-written musical autobiography since Bob Dylan's Chronicles, and, like that book, it evokes a sense of what it must be like to dwell within such an extraordinary mind." "Yes, he's self-important," argued Will Hodgkinson in the Times, "but he's never boring. He's also extremely funny, taking himself far too seriously while at the same time being aware of his own preposterousness. Autobiography is overlong and you grow weary of the endless documenting of yet another grievance or perceived slight, but it's honest … essential reading." But Boyd Tonkin in the Independent spluttered in anger: "A Penguin Classic? Not in a month of rainy Mancunian Sundays. Let's hope that Penguin's suicidally foolhardy executives wake up howling … for almost a quarter of Autobiography, I did sniff a potential Modern Classic in the making." But when "a more conventional narrative of fame kicks in … the predictable whine of self-pity and self-justification begins to rise in volume … The droning narcissism of the later stages – enlivened by the occasional flick-knife twist of character sketch … may harm his name a little. It ruins that of his publisher."

Critical consensus, on the other hand, greeted Ammonites and Leaping Fish by Penelope Lively, a "view from old age". According to Peter Parker in the Daily Telegraph, "she remains clear-sighted and able to pounce upon the smallest, most telling detail with unerring accuracy. She has a true writer's relish for how words are used." Patrick Skene Catling in the Spectator called the book "brave", while the Times's Helen Dunmore was exuberant: "Her understanding of what memory is, what it does and how it roots us in time is superb in its clarity and pure, keen intelligence."

The Guardian

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