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Lead book review

Spectator writers' Christmas book choices

Books of the year from Philip Hensher, Jane Ridley, Barry Humphries, Jane Ridley, Melanie McDonagh, Matthew Parris, Nicky Haslam and more

23 November 2013

9:00 AM

23 November 2013

9:00 AM

Byron Rogers

Rhys Davies by Meic Stephens (Parthian, £20). This is the first full-length biography of the grocer’s son from the Valleys who, in the course of a long and industrious life spent mainly in London (where guardsmen were), wrote over 100 short stories and 20 novels and was hailed as the Welsh Chekhov. Helpfully, he encouraged his countrymen to follow his example: ‘Stop thinking of yourself as a Welsh writer. Consort as much as possible with people who dislike Wales or, better still, are completely indifferent to her.’ A funny and quite delightful book.

John Preston

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s The Pike: Gabriele d’Annunzio, Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War (Fourth Estate, £25) is a cracker of a biography, an extraordinary story of literary accomplishment, passionate war-mongering and sexual incorrigibility — d’Annunzio’s housekeeper was expected to have sex with him at least three times a day. But rather than tell it chronologically, Hughes-Hallett has done something much bolder, giving us d’Annunzio’s life in a series of illuminated flashes. In less skilled hands this could easily have been a disaster; in fact it works wonderfully well.

Joe Moran’s Armchair Nation (Profile Books, £16.99) does something I had thought impossible: make the history of British TV as dramatic as it is fun. It also nails some prevailing myths, one being that it was Kenneth Tynan who first said ‘fuck’ on British telly. In fact, it was Brendan Behan nine years earlier, but he was so drunk that no one could understand what he was saying.

Martin Gayford

What was the quest that inspired the Renaissance? In his refreshing and original The Loves of the Artists (Simon & Schuster, £30) Jonathan Jones proposes that it was not linear perspective so much as sexual intimacy. Nudes and portraits, often modelled by people close to the artist (illustrated below), led to a new image of humanity.

In Breakfast at Sotheby’s (Particular Books, £20) Philip Hook has produced an auctioneer’s alphabet of quirky reflections and off-beat lists such as ‘middle-brow artists’ and ‘fictional artists’: an ideal volume for the art-lover’s bedside.

Martin Bailey’s The Sunflowers are Mine (Frances Lincoln, £25) is entirely devoted to Van Gogh’s pictures of those blossoms (which feature along with the Mona Lisa on Hook’s tally of the world’s best-known images). Bailey has carried out prodigies of research, including the discovery of a Provençal pot just like the one in which Vincent arranged his bouquets. As a Van Gogh obsessive, I loved it.

Barry Humphries

Stage Blood by Michael Blakemore (Faber, £20). A marvellous study of backstage melodrama at the National Theatre by one of our finest directors. Michael Blakemore can really write. Solo by William Boyd (Cape, £18.99). A brilliant James Bond pastiche by a better writer than Ian Fleming. Out There by Jamie McKendrick (Faber, £9.99). A new voice in British poetry by a writer who has deservedly won the Hawthornden poetry prize.

Jane Ridley

Deborah Cohen’s Family Secrets (Viking, £20) is a thoughtful critique of privacy and the family masking an academic monograph. It blows apart our patronising attitude towards the Victorian family and argues that secrecy worked as a strategy for dealing with shame and misfortune just as well as today’s much-vaunted culture of openness.

Antonia Fraser’s Perilous Question (Weidenfeld, £20) succeeds in making a gripping read out of the political crisis of the Great Reform Bill. Lord Grey — the idealistic older statesman with his tight-fitting white pantaloons — emerges as an unexpected hero.

The race is on for the best book about the crisis of 1914 and Margaret MacMillan is a strong contender. At over 600 dense pages, The War that Ended Peace (Profile Books, £25) is not for the faint-hearted. It moves the debate on from the century-old game of German-bashing by showing that all the European powers — not just Germany — had come to accept war as an option, even as an inevitability.

Darling Monster: The Letters of Lady Diana Cooper to her son John Julius Norwich (Chatto, £25) is really a diary of Diana Cooper’s life during the second world war and afterwards in Paris — absorbing, funny and sharply observed.

Melanie McDonagh

It’s quite something to make an essay about immigration policy a must-read, but Paul Collier’s Exodus (Penguin, £20) is just that. It deals with mass migration from the perspective of the migrants’ countries both of origin and destination and it doesn’t look good from either angle.

I’m sticking my neck out here, but of all this year’s books for teenagers, Roland Watson-Grant’s Sketcher (Alma, £12.99) was the most original by a mile. Lots of readers will be put off by the New
Orleans dialect of the novel — about a young boy whose brother makes things real by sketching them — but in a genre notable for cynical, formulaic fiction, this was a cracker.

No room here to go into why Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary (Penguin, £7.99) was such a turkey, but take it from me, it’s finely written tripe; blasphemy without point or purpose. It made the Booker shortlist — I assume because it’s nice and short.

Marcus Berkmann

A.M. Homes’s May We Be Forgiven (Granta, £8.99) won the Orange Prize, or whatever it was called this year before it becomes whatever it is called next year. It is huge, apparently rambling, densely populated and very hard work for its first 100 pages, as a series of catastrophes assaults its rather blank, dislocated narrator.

Oh dear, you think, yet another miserable novel about the disconnection of American lives. But like a Test wicket on the first morning, it gradually flattens out and becomes easier to bat on. Such redemption as
we get feels entirely earned, as much by us as by any of the characters. And Homes writes wonderful dialogue: every page crackles with wit and intelligence.

Susie Boyt’s The Small Hours (Virago, £7.99) is the tale of a rich but unloved woman who opens the kindergarten of every middle-class parent’s fondest dreams. It’s a paradise, and therefore it cannot survive, but as we know this from the beginning we are spared any dismal sense of impending doom. With the exception of one minor plot-point near the end, which I thought over-egged the pudding, it’s amazingly well-judged, and the protagonist, Harriet Mansfield, is an utterly believable and singular creation.


I read these two very dissimilar novels one after another during the summer and nothing since has come close to matching them.

Philip Hensher

Tapan Raychaudhuri’s The World in Our Time (Harper Collins, India) hasn’t been published in this country, alas, but it is an instant classic of autobiography by the Bengali historian; beautifully written and intensely evocative of the Bengal delta, it is the book I have been recommending to everyone this year.

Hermione Lee’s Penelope Fitzgerald (Chatto, £25) was the literary biography of the year. It served an impressive purpose; it gave us Fitzgeraldophiles answers to all our questions with decorum and

Much the same purpose was served by the first volume of Charles Moore’s Margaret Thatcher (Penguin, £30), an exceptional political biography with dozens of incidental pleasures — it is full of Dickensian walk-on parts and deliciously redolent of its period.

Stephen Walsh’s Musorgsky and his Circle (Faber, £30) was an excellent, detailed survey of this gripping moment in music. But I wish publishers were bolder about allowing books of this sort to reproduce the score.

Richard House’s The Kills (Picador, £20) was the novel that impressed me most: a terrific unbuckled ride through global and intimate catastrophes, blood and

Jim Crace’s Harvest (Picador, £16.99) was masterly in its firm grip on what need only be intimated and what stated cleanly. It was easily the best-written novel of the year.

David Crane

The best history I have read in a long time is Roger Knight’s Britain Against Napoleon (Allen Lane, £30). In the usual run of things I would pay good money not to know what goes on in government departments, but out of the intransigently dull raw material of the Victualling Office and Transport Board Knight has created a brilliant picture of how Britain sustained, and finally won, a military and economic war against revolutionary and Napoleonic France that lasted four times as long as either world war.

Last year I re-read Alexander Baron’s From the City, From the Plough (Black Spring Press, £9.99), and this year  caught up with his There’s No Home (Sort of Books, £7.99). Baron was probably best known for his Z Cars scripts, but both of these books — the first a haunting evocation of D Day, the second a portrait of a British army unit billeted on a Sicilian town in a lull in fighting before the invasion of Italy — are up there with the best novels to come out of the second world war.

Charlotte Moore

The revised Pevsner Architectural Guide to East Sussex (Yale, £35) was truly a labour of love for Nicholas Antram. Suffering from a mortal illness, he was determined to finish his task of updating Pevsner’s 1964 original; he died soon after its completion. It has all the rigour of this admirable series, and a humanity and sensitivity of its own.

The most remarkable book of the year was The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida, a Japanese teenager whose autism makes it impossible to hold a conversation but who can communicate via his keyboard. The book throws a pontoon bridge over the chasm dividing autistic and neuro-typical experience. Beautifully translated by the novelist David Mitchell and his wife K.A. Yoshida, themselves parents of an autistic son, it is published by Sceptre at £12.99.

Shipwreck at Cape Flora by P.J. Capelotti (Calgary, £35), celebrates Britain’s unsung arctic hero Benjamin Leigh Smith, who led five of the most important 19th-century polar expeditions and survived ten months of polar winter after his ship was wrecked. I declare an interest; Leigh Smith was my forebear. But the escape to safety of the entire crew is an adventure to rival Shackleton’s.

James Walton

Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life (Doubleday, £18.99) doesn’t seem to have made quite the splash that its publishers, and many of its reviewers, clearly expected back in March when it was tipped early for the Booker Prize.  Even so, I haven’t read a better new novel this year. In lesser hands, the concept behind the book — that we all have lots of potential lives, none of which would be entirely satisfactory — might have proved intrusive and self-congratulatory. Atkinson, though, wisely leaves the big ideas to take care of themselves, concentrating instead on rendering each of her protagonist’s many possible lives with complete and often stunning conviction.

My favourite first novel was Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart (Doubleday Ireland, £12.99). In just over 150 unhurried pages, no fewer than 21 impeccably individualised narrators weave together a rich and melancholy portrait of the West of Ireland after the crash.

Matthew Parris

Romps, Tots and Boffins: The Strange Language of News by Rob Hutton (Elliott & Thompson, £9.99). All Fleet Streat has been chortling at this little book by fellow journalist Rob Hutton, guiding readers through the perfectly idiotic version of English into which all who write for British newspapers are sucked. Why has everything happened ‘last night’ and ‘in the wake of’ something else? Why do ‘rows’ always ‘escalate’, party leaders ‘clash’ and ‘splits’ ‘widen’; and why is an added problem always a ‘fresh blow’? These and other mysteries are revealed  (oops) as Hutton’s devastating indictment unfolds … oh, I give up. Read it, anyway — or ‘Red faces at posh mag as shameless journo plugs chum’s tome.’

Disraeli: The Two Lives by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young (Weidenfeld, £20). Crisp, pacey, readable and short, this is a study of an all-purpose Tory standby that yet invites you to reconsider. There’s nothing here of a heavy Victorian antimacassar draping an already heroic Tory reputation; instead, we are asked to stand back, think again and think straight about a man who was undeniably a bounder, but (shocking thought) perhaps little more. Only from the authors’ imaginative and sympathetic study of the young Benjamin’s formative years are we left loving him better. This may be read as an exceptionally respectful stiletto between the shoulder blades: not just of Dizzy but of a Tory folklore starved of loftier heroes. Augurs well for Boris.

Cressida Connolly

Lots of books are good, but very few are really important. Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon (Chatto, £30) is both good — excellent, in fact — and important. It’s about children who are different from their parents and how families can adapt to and accommodate such difference, whether their child is physically disabled, deaf, autistic, transsexual, gay or in any way ‘other’. Solomon interviews literally hundreds of people all over the world, including Tutsi women who bore children after being raped by attacking Hutus during the Rwandan genocide. Compassionate, never glib, this is a work of deep scholarship and profound humanity. The acceptance and love these parents show is extremely moving, and instructive for any reader.

Molly Guinness

Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life, by Nina Stibbe (Viking, £12.99). Aged 20, Stibbe moved from Leicestershire to London to work as a nanny for Mary-Kay Wilmers, the editor of the London Review of Books. Her letters home to her sister are suffused with an air of wide-eyed mischief. She plays tricks on the children, lies to Alan Bennett about why she wants to borrow his car and cooks a lot of dubious dinners.

Birds and People by Mark Cocker (Cape, £40). Cocker has collected hundreds of anecdotes that illustrate the relationship between humans and birds. They range from a brutal story about an owl being lynched to a description of how an old woman with Alzheimer’s draws comfort from the company of hummingbirds. He writes movingly about the part that birds play in our culture; losing our birds, he argues, means losing part of our soul.

Darling Monster: The Letters of Lady Diana Cooper to her son John Julius Norwich (Chatto, £25). Beautiful, witty and adventurous, the Coopers knew everyone and went everywhere. These letters are an amusing record of an unusual life, and they’re full of gossip about people we’re still interested in. The book’s real charm, though, lies in Diana’s passionate love for her husband and son.

Peter Parker

For various reasons most of the fiction I read and enjoyed this year — Robert Liddell, Penelope Fitzgerald, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Christine Weston — was published long ago. The best new novel that I read, by a very long way indeed, was Nadeem Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden (Faber, £18.99).  Here is someone who writes about what is going on in the world — in this instance Pakistan and Afghanistan — without the sort of posturing and grandstanding that wrecks so many books addressing current topics.

Aslam never forgets that wars are as much about individuals as they are about causes, and he fixes those individuals and their fates indelibly in one’s mind by the sheer force and beauty of his writing. The effect is devastating.

David Plante is the ideal diarist: he has a fascination with the famous, a relish for anecdote and gossip, an ability to capture people in a few words, and the essential self-awareness. His elegiac and often very funny portrait of the years 1966-86, Becoming a Londoner (Bloomsbury, £20), was the treat of the year.

Thomas W. Hodgkinson

A collection of short stories by a Native American author? If Sherman Alexie’s Blasphemy (Grove Press, £16.99) doesn’t sound like the kind of thing you’d instinctively reach for, that isn’t my fault. Seek it out. Bloody funny and gut-punchingly moving, it’s without doubt the best book I read this year.

Otherwise, I’d recommend William Blacker’s Along the Enchanted Way (John Murray, £10.99), about his discovery of the delights of post-communist rural Romania. A place where the gypsies are dark-eyed and tempestuous and the sheep and cattle know their own way home in the evening. Does it still exist? Did it ever, in quite the form described here? Either way, it’s an extremely charming read.

From one modern manifestation of the pastoral to another, Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist (HarperCollins, £7.99) is surely the worst book I’ve read recently. The tale of a simple shepherd boy (ah, aren’t they all?) in search of enlightenment, it’s essentially a self-help book disguised as a novel. The fact it has achieved such phenomenal worldwide sales proves nothing except that most people don’t know the difference between good and bad.

William Leith

I love the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard, and his most recent novel, A Man in Love (Harvill Secker, £17.99), was my favourite book of the year. It’s sold as fiction, but is, we are told, very, very close to autobiography. He has the ability to make the small details of his life fascinating. In this one, second in a series of six, Knausgaard becomes a father. I also liked Familiar by J.Robert Lennon (Serpent’s Tail, £11.99), in which a woman goes to visit the grave of her son and then comes back home, where she finds out he’s not dead. It’s like a ghost story in reverse and very cleverly done. And 419, Will Ferguson’s novel about Nigerian scammers, is terrific too (Head of Zeus, £7.99).

Lewis Jones

Eighty years after Patrick Leigh Fermor set off from the Hook of Holland to ‘Constantinople’, and a quarter century after he left us at the Iron Gates, I hesitated to rejoin him on his epic walk lest the concluding volume, unfinished at his death, turn out to be a sad falling off from the magnificent achievement of the first two. But thankfully it isn’t. Admirably edited by Artemis Cooper and Colin Thubron, The Broken Road (John Murray, £25) offers the same combination of youthful exuberance, improbable adventure and dazzling erudition, as our hero makes his wildly erratic way through a long since vanished Ruritania.

The prose is sometimes less polished than we have come to expect, but there are many intoxicating lists and gorgeous descriptions of nature, people and buildings — a hilly town, for instance, is a ‘winged insurrection of houses’. He cannot possibly have remembered all this, but no matter. He never arrives, but no matter.

Nicky Haslam

This festive season brings much food for thought and eye. Clear the Christmas decs for Melanie Doderer-Winkler’s sumptuous Magnificent Entertainments (Yale, £40), an immaculately researched, written and illustrated blockbuster on the temporary pavilions, ballrooms, feasts and fantasies that Georgian foppery so delighted in.

I’m rather with Hitler about those hideous paintings discovered behind a barrier of long-past sell-by cereals in Munich, and Philip Hook, in Breakfast at Sotheby’s (Particular Books, £20), seems to be nudging us all to reconsider what these days passes for art. But Geordie Grieg shows us that eggs is eggs in his thorough, fond and faintly disturbing Breakfast with Lucian (Cape, £25).

Moving on to desserts, and its no trifle, is Marie-Christine Kent’s Queen of Four Kingdoms (Constable, £18.99). Many royals from Victoria on have taken up the pen, though none, discounting the Duke of Windsor’s A King’s Story, have attempted fiction. The Princess’s sweeping novel, set in the 15th century, of French feuds, foods and female rivalry is a sort of Gone with the Wimple.

Cleo Rocos’s The Power of Positive Drinking (Square Peg, £9.99) is worth it simply for her anecdote about Gore Vidal.

Ian Shircore is the author (with David Southwell) of John F. Kennedy: The Life, the President, the Assassination.

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