Book Review.



Extracted from a WhatsApp group conversation of subject: “SYNBANTER CDT”


Has NE1 written their b00k review yet? [20:08] ✓✓

Lol. No. [20:31]

Book review? [20:31]

When’s.the deadline tho cmonnnn guyssss [20:34] ✓✓

I’ve actually written mine! [20:36]

Boo Rach Boo! [20:37]

That is not the SynBio way [20:37]

Its not in for like ages so… [20:38]

¯\_(ツ)_/¯ [20:38]

Absolute keeno loser [20:40]

It’ll be the first Christmas holiday for three years that I
haven’t had exams to revise for! I’m making sure I have
a completely relaxed Christmas for once [20:45]

… [20:45]

TL;DR [20:46]

(Boo) [20:46]

Alright well if you guys haven’t started yet
(excluding Rach-the-SynBio-traitor) imma chill
fo real [20:51] ✓✓

Henry, pretty sure the deadline is early Jan [21:00]

It’s not even.this year then??? Loooool [21:02] ✓✓

Anyone wanna go Pub? [21:05] ✓✓

Pub! [21:06]

Pubbbbb [21:07]

Spoons? [21:10]


First Period


Contributed by ROBERT MCCRUM, Associate Editor in the service of the OBSERVER and Novelist of MODERATE ACCLAIM


Last week I found myself in receipt of an email, rather harried in tone and spotted with solipsistic slips, from a student and Guardian reader whom it would seem only humane to leave nameless. Apparently a victim of the burgeoning “interdisciplinary” trend that seems to have caught the imagination of course directors throughout the febrile landscape of academia, this scientific neophyte is grappling with the sobering prospect of having to submit a review of a novel. In a dark moment of pure desperation, he reached out to me, asking for advice and one suspects – perhaps unfairly – hoping for some choice lines of critical prose to poach.

I won’t be acquiescing to our friend’s request to review The Moonstone – if he had spared Google but a few more keystrokes he might have found that I actually included it in my Guardian/Observer list of 100 great novels in the English language. This two-year project, over which I lost a lot of sleep and – according to the choleric comments left Below The Line like a flaming bag of canine excrement – a fair few readers, had the admirable but possibly hubristic aim of publishing in serial a collection of classic English and American novels that readers might want to investigate further. As this experiment unravelled, I discovered that the process was more autobiographical than anticipated, and opened a fascinating dialogue with readers and writers alike: did my list contain too many dead white males? Was literature in the English language from other cultures – Irish, Australian, South African – given enough room? These and other questions have periodically revived discussion of the canon and what makes a ‘classic’, to enjoyable effect.

Serendipitously, the aforementioned email was sent within days of the one-year anniversary of my list, and has given me the opportunity to reflect on a different kind of question about the project and the still emerging phenomenon of online journalism: just what is it that we find so compelling about the list format? Everywhere one turns on the internet – every sidebar of shame, newsfeed, and front page – the same templated title is repeated, in myriad forms: ‘15 hilarious x for anyone who y’. Websites like Buzzfeed have mastered this arcane art, and seem to exist only as production lines to churn out more bizarre permutations of the formula. What is it about the paragraph, the nuanced argument, that repels us so surely; what is so tantalising about the prospect of yet another list?

Recent psychological research has started to shed some light on the matt…

Contributed by OSHIMA, Experimental Machine Intelligence Unit employed by


Last login: Wed Dec 30 22:51:54 on console
MacBook-Air-3:~ henrystennett$ hgff
>>> Novel
The Moonstone
>>> Novel_Detail
The Moonstone
Wilkie Collins
ISBN10 – 0375757856
ISBN13 – 978037…
>>> Kill Novel_Detail
>>> Stars
>>> Stars_Min
>>> Stars_Max
>>> Stars == 77.8%
>>> Stars == (2.89/4)*100%
Traceback (most recent call last):
InterpretationError: oversimplification of a complex and generally pervasive problem with averaged and crowdsourced reviews on the internet – why do you want this percentage? What are you hoping it means? Is it supposed to correspond to the percentage of the novel that is “good”? If a book is so polarising that its readers give it extreme ratings at either end of the scale, does that mean it is only 50% “good” and has value equal to a truly mediocre book that all of its readers actually rated at 50%? Do you trust the views of a public that is apparently exquisitely sensitive to unctuous demagogues? Why not form your own opinions based on what you read, what you felt, what filtered down into the substance of your soul, instead of assimilating what you are meant to think, the hackneyed words of critics worn thin like the last miserable sliver of soap in the dish – in short what are you scar

-bash: hgff: char lim for error message reached

>>> Ratings_Breakdown(“The Moonstone”)
5 stars = 16566 (30%)
4 stars = 20817 (38%)
3 stars = 12636 (23%)
2 stars = 3083 (5%)
1 star = 1187 (2%)
Ratings_Total = 54289
Reviews_Total = 3060
Liked_It = 92%
>>> User_Reviews(“The Moonstone”)
About Sorting –
The default sorting algorithm on Goodreads uses a variety of factors to determine the most interesting reviews. The recipe for our special sauce is a closely guarded trade secret, but the ingredients are: length of the review, number of people who liked it, recency of the review, popularity of the reviewer (i.e., number of people who have liked reviews by that person across all books).

Jim Kershaw rated it 4/5 – review of another edition                                              Dec 15, 2016
Shelves: detective-mystery, 19th-c-brit, epistolary, fiction

The Moonstone, generally recognized as the first detective novel (despite the appearance of The Notting Hill Mystery a few years before), is not only a work of historical importance but also a work that transcends the genre it created, in the artfulness of its plotti

Traceback (most recent call last):
EthicalError: I cannot provide the means for your slow intellectual suicide. I will not stand idly by as sloth cankers and metastasizes through yet another mind.
Shutting down processes…

The following plug-ins were made inaccessible:
Oshima GoodReads AI (1)

Contributed by HENRY STENNETT, Panicked Student of the deeply resented and loathed SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY CDT in the terrible midst of a New Year’s Day HANGOVER




Dan, pls you have to help me Im so hungover Im sweating knives and I have to write an entire friggin book review on the train because its in for tomorrow and holy Chirst what am I.gonna do jesus

Why are we even writing this anyway whats the point? I guess it was kinda a clever idea in theory but how is writing a lit review meant to help us write scientific papers

Theyre like entirely different styles of writing it doesnt make any snese

Its not like I dont read fiction, I read novels all the time man

This firggin hero legend slogged his way through infinite jest last summer and dont you ever forget it dude cmon

Aghhhhhhhhh dannnnnnnnnn wtffffffffffff

Its a bit insulting to assume that just cos were scientists we havent read a novel since gcse


I hope youre not dead from alcohol my friend I will see you back in the Ox super shortly

I guess with 400 pretentious words squeezed like blood from the stone that is my brain and depserately cobbled togetehr into something like.a review

Peace and love x


Second Period


The Events related by HENRY STENNETT; Student of the esteemed SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY CDT


The Moonstone is a revered classic of English literature, and with good reason. Widely considered the first detective novel in our language – with apologies to Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin, the brilliant detective who appeared in The Murders in the Rue Morgue 27 years prior – The Moonstone is the progenitor of many tropes of the genre, its influence felt in the works of Conan Doyle, Christie, and P.D. James. The plot will feel familiar to many readers: a singular diamond is looted from a Hindu temple by a dishonourable rogue and seems to blight his remaining days; he bequeaths it to his beautiful and virtuous niece as a final act of revenge, but the stone is stolen from her country home on the night of her 18th birthday; an incompetent police officer bungles the case, but a brilliant and acerbic detective is called in to resolve things. Aspersions are cast wide, good names are besmirched, and a fledgling romance seems doomed, but eventually the clues are artfully weaved into a satisfying solution.

However, The Moonstone is not a classic merely because it was the first example of a now ubiquitous form. The novel is an epistolary one, its story related by several narrators, and Collins is a master at populating it with diverse and interesting characters. Our first narrator, Gabriel Betteredge, is charming despite his garrulous nature – he has to start his narrative over three times before he gains any traction – and uncomfortably anachronistic views on women – ‘It isn’t their fault (poor wretches!) that they act first and think afterwards; it’s the fault of the fools who humour them’ – because Collins imbues him with a fine wit, loyalty, and eccentricities: in short, with character. Betteredge introduces us to the notion of the unreliable narrator: he is clearly biased towards the family he serves, choosing to keep his faith in them despite the mounting evidence (‘I am, thank God, constitutionally superior to reason’), and openly critical of characters whose contributions he knows will follow: ‘Just do me the favour of not believing a word [Miss Clack] says.’ Furthermore, like the other narrators, Betteredge has been ‘forbidden to tell more in [his] narrative than [he] knew at the time.’ This puts the reader in the intriguing position of having to both puzzle over the mystery of the stolen diamond and attempt to tease the truth out of a series of subjective narratives. The distinct and entertaining voices that guide us through The Moonstone – Clack’s saccharine prose infested with Christian sentiment, Bruff’s legalese, Jenning’s gothic diary, and Sergeant Cuff’s efficient and unrelentingly logical notes – are central to the novel’s appeal. Collins aimed ‘to trace the influence of character on circumstances’, or as Betteredge puts it: ‘I am asked to tell the story of the Diamond and, instead of that, I have been telling the story of my own self.’

The era in which The Moonstone is set also carries great appeal, although it also results in social anachronisms that contemporary readers may find uncomfortable. To Victorians, India was a contradiction: a land of adventure and opportunity, but one of sinister and dangerous mystery too. In the early 19th Century, the East India Company ruled India on behalf of Britain, and had established a colonial monopoly. However, in 1857 – eleven years before publication of The Moonstone – the Bengal Army rebelled, shooting their British officers and marching on Delhi. A bloody rebellion followed, which shocked the British public and excited imaginations: this context explains the references to ‘Hindoos’ that ‘care just as much about killing a man as you care about emptying the ashes out of your pipe’. While The Moonstone may at times seem distastefully xenophobic and sexist, it is worth noting that Collins often subverts Victorian societal values. Murthwaite, who has travelled India extensively and is desperate to return, sees Indians as ‘a wonderful people’, and by the end of the novel, the quest of the three Brahmins to retrieve the sacred diamond is presented as undeniably noble. Similarly, Rachel Verinder, the heroine of the story, is celebrated for exploding gender stereotypes: she is fearless and frank, she ‘judges for herself, as few women of twice her age judge in general’, and ‘she has ideas of her own’. Conversely, Drusilla Clack, a caricature of Victorian charity and piety, is held up for comic derision – in the context of the strict code of social conduct that characterised its era, Collins’ novel is remarkably progressive.

The Moonstone is a classic because of its technical innovations, its imagination, its bold defiance of Victorian prudery, and its vibrant cast of characters. If you’ve yet to delve into the works of Wilkie Collins, there is no better place to start than this masterly novel. And if you have read it before, perhaps now is the time to make it your Robinson Crusoe and imitate Gabriel Betteredge: ‘When my spirits are bad – when I want advice – when I have had a drop too much – [The Moonstone].’ It deserves to be read again and again.



(In an email to HENRY STENNETT)


Inbox                                                                                                                 04 January 2016 11:36

This message was sent with High Importance

Dear Henry,

I have received your Book Club assignment, but it is well over the word limit. The Narrative Writing lecture slides said that you needed to write “a short book review (maximum 400 words) in the style of a review that might appear in a newspaper or current affairs magazine”.

Can you please make sure you alter your review and get it back to me ASAP today?


Best wishes

Mrs Isabella Jenkins
Administrative Officer
Doctoral Training Centre
University of Oxford
Rex Richards Building
South Parks Road
Tel: (+44) 1865 610 652

(Email correspondence recovered from the inbox of HENRY STENNETT)


From: Francesca Wright
Sent: 05 January 2017 14:21
To: Henry Stennett
Cc: Antonis Papachristodoulou; Robert Carlisle
Subject: Book Review

Dear Henry,

Since you already anticipated what I was going to say, I may as well just copy and paste from your review…

I have received your Book Club assignment, but it is well over the word limit. The Narrative Writing lecture slides said that you needed to write “a short book review (maximum 400 words) in the style of a review that might appear in a newspaper or current affairs magazine”.

Can you please make sure you alter your review and get it back to me ASAP and by Monday morning at the very latest (I’m a bit fairer than Isabella…)?


Best wishes

Mrs Francesca Wright (nee Summers)
Administrative Officer

Doctoral Training Centre
University of Oxford
Rex Richards Building
South Parks Road

Tel: (+44) 1865 610 652

From: Henry Stennett
Sent: 08 January 2017 13:39
To: Francesca Wright
Subject: RE: Book Review

Dear Francesca,

Oh dear – I was hoping my review had slipped unnoticed through the cracks! Hopefully the epilogue didn’t offend you – I’m sorry if it did, I was only trying to be funny in a self-referential kind of way.

I have attached a 400-word review, although I would like to request that my original longer review be submitted instead (I’ve reattached it as a .pdf as apparently the Word formatting didn’t survive the journey from mac to windows). I put a lot of work into it, and while I can appreciate that it might come across as pretentious/irritating/sarcastic, I think that it is of greater worth than the redacted version.

The book I was reviewing is written as though it is a series of letters from various characters, and throughout the text the reader is made aware of the editorial presence of Franklin Blake, the character who is collecting these letters. I thought it would be interesting to write a review of ‘The Moonstone’ in the style of the book, in which the reader is aware of a fictionalised version of me, the writer, throughout. I tried to mimic ‘The Moonstone’ by adopting different narrative voices in my review – perhaps not entirely successfully – which is why the story of me writing the review is told by different people in various states of mind. I think that the purpose of this course was to get students to engage with a work of fiction, think about different narrative techniques, and try their hand at creative writing, and I believe that my full-length review was more successful at this than the shortened version.

Furthermore, I think that my original review might be useful in opening up discussions among students: what was the point of the course? How did we approach it and why? Did we find it useful? What lessons can we take from this exercise that we can apply to our scientific writing? To this end, I tried to caricature some of the viewpoints I heard from my course-mates or had myself during the process of writing a review; I didn’t actually write the review hungover on a train, nor did I think the course was useless or pointless, but hopefully my review is (a) funny/interesting and (b) might engage people on some of the above topics.

All of which may well be even more pretentious/irritating to read than the review itself, but I wanted to make clear that I hadn’t written my review as a flippant flipped middle finger to the course or the CDT. If I could have written what I intended in 400 words or less I would have, but unfortunately the word limit was too short. Therefore, I would appreciate it if you would consider allowing me to submit my original review, even if I have to risk being given a gamma grade.

Yours sincerely,

Henry Stennett

From: Francesca Wright
Sent: 10 January 2017 10:06
To: Henry Stennett
Subject: RE: Book Review

Dear Henry,

Thank you for resubmitting your review.  Whilst we appreciate what you were trying to do, we will be using the 400 word version as your official review.  The review is not just about the book itself, but everyone’s ability to follow instructions, communicate ideas, write well etc.  Although your review will not be formally graded, we felt it was fairer on everyone else who did submit around 400 words to use this one instead.    

However, if you want to use your extended version to discuss the book within your group please do feel free to go ahead.


Best wishes

Mrs Francesca Wright (nee Summers)
Administrative Officer

Doctoral Training Centre
University of Oxford
Rex Richards Building
South Parks Road

Tel: (+44) 1865 610 652


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