This is by far the second best biography of J.R.R. Tolkien I have ever read; I have read two. Of course, the other—Humphrey Carpenter’s—is generally held to be authorative and largely definitive, so the comparison may seem somewhat unfair, but having read that book, one frankly wonders why anyone felt that this one needed to be written.
I have no quibbles with accuracy. In part this is because I lack the knowledge to offer criticism, and in part because it does seem to agree with Carpenter’s authorative work in every essential. However, what it fails to lack in accuracy it makes up for in obnoxious style. Not only is it a far less substantial work, but the language is oddly facile, with a number of subjective asides that do not so much provide an authorial voice as stand out as distractingly peculiar. Then, too, there are the occasional remarks—the ones that brought the word “facile” to mind earlier—where Coren finds it necessary to inform his readers that real Christians don’t hate and murder each other (even across Protestant/Catholic divides), that the Great War was in fact bad, and so on. One wonders why he felt these remarks needed to be made, or why his editor felt they should be included.
I have probably given the impression that I felt the book was terrible. This is unfair: It isn’t in fact a terrible book, but rather a middling biography with some odd (and unappealing) stylistic quirks. However, standing as it does in the shadow of Humphrey Carpenter’s biography, it is profoundly unnecessary and offers nothing new except its novel weaknesses. If you’ve read that, this book will fail to impress you. If you haven’t read Carpenter, this one probably won’t strike you as bad at all, but why not pick up the superior work instead?