Snuff, By Terry Pratchett
The Wandering Falcon, By Jamil Ahmad
Alan Turing: The Enigma, By Andrew Hodges
Thinking, Fast And Slow, By Daniel Kahneman
Jubilee, By Shelley Harris

Paperback reviews of the week

Snuff, By Terry Pratchett
Corgi £7.99
**

On the evidence of this novel, Terry Pratchett's Alzheimer's has not yet significantly eroded his creative capacities, for which we must be thankful. This exhibits all the humour and inventiveness of his previous 38 Discworld novels. However, I'm sorry to say that I've never been a fan, although I know he has plenty of admirers, AS Byatt among them. Snuff is the story of hardbitten but decent copper Sam Vines, who takes a holiday from Ankh-Morpork to play country squire, but finds himself involved in a case involving smuggling, murder and slave traffic in goblins. It's full of comic periphrasis and facetiously archaic words ("aforesaid", "endeavour"); characters have an annoying tendency to speechify and the running gags don't so much run as periodically wallop you over the head. The characters seem to be composites drawn from stock – Vines's butler Willikins has a distinct air of Campion's butler Lugg in Margery Allingham's detective stories, though at times his diction seems to owe something to Jeeves. There's also a sharp-eyed lady writer who is a Discworld version of Jane Austen, and a cameo from Wee Mad Arthur Nac Mac Feegle, the violent drunken six-inch Scottish gnome. It's not my cup of tea I'm afraid, but it's well-plotted, eminently readable and Pratchett's heart is clearly in the right place. Those who enjoy his work will most certainly enjoy this.

 

The Wandering Falcon, By Jamil Ahmad
Penguin £8.99
****

Jamil Ahmad's literary debut (published when he was 78) is a collection of linked short stories, set in the harsh, mountainous region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The eponymous wandering falcon (Tor Baz) is an infant in the first story, orphaned when both his parents are murdered in an honour killing in accordance with tribal law. Each story tells of a new stage in his life as he wanders through the region, meeting warlords, mullahs, and prostitutes. Ahmad's spare prose captures the stony beauty of the landscape – and the stony cruelty of the culture. Ahmad neither judges nor sentimentalises but simply shows this soon-to-disappear world, where tribe is more important than state and honour more important than life. The stories have the power and simplicity of fables.

 

Alan Turing: The Enigma, By Andrew Hodges
Vintage £10.99
****

First published in 1983, this biography was reprinted to mark the centenary of Turing's birth and, as Hodges's new preface makes clear, Turing's importance is now even more apparent. Turing is a superb subject for a biography: mathematician of genius who helped break the German codes during the Second World War and who, essentially, invented the computer, archetypal eccentric scientist (even at Bletchley Park he was nicknamed the Prof), and marathon runner (he could have made the British Olympic team in 1948, but an injury ruled him out). Prosecuted in 1952 for homosexual acts, he killed himself in 1954 by eating an apple dipped in cyanide. Hodges's biography is sensitive, sympathetic and uncompromisingly intellectual. The maths is extremely hard work – but helps the lay reader to appreciate the scale of Turing's achievements.

 

Thinking, Fast And Slow, By Daniel Kahneman
Penguin £8.99
****

Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman argues that each of us contains (at least) two characters: System 1, an unreasoning self that makes snap judgements, and System 2, a reflective self that makes slow, effortful calculations. Mostly we cruise along in System 1 mode, which gets us by, but for some decisions, like those connected with risk assessment, System 2 is a more accurate, if counter-intuitive guide. Kahneman wants us to employ System 2 more often; he'd like us to learn and use such terms as the Endowment Effect, Anchors, Framing, and Reversion to the Mean in watercooler conversations. It's clever, clear, and it convinced me. Next time I'm at a watercooler, this book will inform my conversation ("Of course Germany didn't play so well in the semi-final – it's reversion to the mean").

 

Jubilee, By Shelley Harris
Phoenix £7.99
****

Satish is a successful cardiologist who, 30 years earlier, was in a photograph that came to be seen as an icon of Britishness: a young Asian boy at a Silver Jubilee street party in 1977, surrounded by white kids and Union Jacks.

The photo has been endlessly reproduced and used in album covers, so that Satish has a kind of unwanted Seven Up fame. Now they want to re-take the photograph with all the original participants – but for Satish this prospect awakens memories too painful to confront. It's an extremely well-crafted story that works both as a study of Satish's struggle to conquer his demons, and of the growing pains of modern, multi-cultural Britain.

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