John Preston rss

'Jack' in his St John’s Wood studio, his portrait of Luisa Casati on the easel

The Etonian peer who became an assistant to a Mexican commie

18 October 2014
The Red Earl: The Extraordinary Life of the 16th Earl of Huntingdon Selina Hastings

Bloomsbury, pp.212, £18.99, ISBN: 9781408187364

The lefty hereditary peer has few equals as a figure of fun, in life or literature. The late Tony Benn comes inevitably to mind here, as does the Earl of… Read more


The author’s father didn’t want you to read this book. It’s hard to understand why

19 July 2014
A Dog’s Life Michael Holroyd

MacLehose Press, pp.237, £12.99, ISBN: 9781848665224

There were several times when reading A Dog’s Life that I felt as if I’d fallen into a time warp. It starts with a quote on the cover from Hugh… Read more

‘Jeanne arranged for a Marie Antoniette lookalike to linger coyly in the undergrowth in the park at Versailles’

The queen, the cardinal and the greatest con France ever saw

14 June 2014
How to Ruin a Queen: Marie Antoinette, the Stolen Diamonds and the Scandal that Shook the French Throne Jonathan Beckman

John Murray, pp.386, £20, ISBN: 9781848549982

You usually know where you are with a book that promises the story ‘would violate the laws of plausibility’ if it appeared in a novel, and that’s in deep trouble.… Read more

Jeff Bridges stars in the 2010 film, True Grit Photo: Kobal/Skydance Productions

There's so much mystery around Charles Portis that we're not even clear whether he’s alive

7 June 2014
Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany Jay Jennings (ed)

Overlook Duckworth, pp.364, £9.99, ISBN: 97809150472248

The American writer, Charles Portis, has had what some novelists — the more purist ones — might regard as an ideal life. While his books have seldom been big-sellers, his… Read more

(FILE) In Profile: 100 Years Of US Secretaries Of State

Hillary, Obama, Osama — and a hapless Bill

22 February 2014
HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes

Hutchinson, pp.448, £20, ISBN: 9780091954482

The actor David Niven was once badgered by the American columnist William F. Buckley to introduce him to Marc Chagall, a neighbour of Niven’s in Switzerland. Buckley, a keen amateur… Read more

Do you believe in Elves? Photo: John Anster Fitzgerald

Why are Scandinavians so happy when they should be so sad? 

25 January 2014
The Almost Nearly Perfect People: The Truth About the Nordic Miracle Michael Booth

Cape, pp.416, £14.99, ISBN: 9780224089623

As I sit here in my Sarah Lund Fair Isle sweater, polishing my boxed sets of Borgen and nibbling on a small piece of herring, it briefly occurs to me… Read more

Major John Wesley Powell  with a Paiute Indian, Arizona, 1873 Photo: Getty

Simon Winchester slides off the map

14 December 2013
The Men Who United the States Simon Winchester

Collins, pp.463, £25, ISBN: 9780007532377

This book begins with Simon Winchester becoming a US citizen two years ago: ‘I swore a solemn oath before a federal judge on the afterdeck of the warship USS Constitution… Read more


Curtains for kitty! How to care for cats — and how to kill them

7 December 2013
The Big New Yorker Book of Cats The New Yorker (with a foreword by Anthony Lane)

Heinemann, pp.329, £30, ISBN: 97803943587950

The New Yorker has always had a peculiar affinity with cats, perhaps because they have a lot in common — an elegance, an abhorrence of sentimentality and an innate sense… Read more

Landseer’s portrait of Queen Victoria riding in Windsor Home Park four years after the death of Prince Albert

Queen Victoria, by Matthew Dennison - review

12 October 2013
Queen Victoria: A Life of Contradictions Matthew Dennison

Collins, pp.189, £16.99, ISBN: 9780007504572

When Prince Albert died in 1861, aged 42, Queen Victoria, after briefly losing the use of her legs, ordered that every room and corridor in Windsor Castle should be draped… Read more

Move Along, Please, by Mark Mason - review

28 September 2013
Move Along, Please Mark Mason

Random House, pp.311, £12.99, ISBN: 9781847947109

Mrs Thatcher was widely believed to have said that ‘any man over the age of 26 who finds himself on a bus can count himself a failure in life’. In… Read more

A poster for the American mind-reader Alexander, 1915 (reputedly printed by ‘Av Yaga’, Bombay)

Magic, by Ricky Jay - review

3 August 2013
Magic Ricky Jay, Mike Caveny and Jim Steinmeyer

Taschen, pp.527, £44.99, ISBN: 9783836528078

People, they say, want different things from a book over the summer than they do the rest of the year. If, by chance, you are looking for a book that… Read more

Dear Lumpy, by Roger Mortimer - review

25 May 2013
Dear Lumpy Roger Mortimer and Louise Mortimer

Constable, pp.174, £12.99, ISBN: 9781472109279

After the success of Dear Lupin, Roger Mortimer finds himself facing something not normally experienced by former Guards officers who have been dead for more than 20 years — namely… Read more

'Kurt Vonnegut Letters', by Dan Wakefield - review

27 April 2013
Kurt Vonnegut Letters Dan Wakefield

Vintage, pp.436, £25, ISBN: 9780099582939

In the early 1950s Kurt Vonnegut became the manager of a Saab dealership in Cape Cod, a job which often involved him taking prospective clients out on test drives. Keen… Read more

Away with the fairies

16 February 2013
The Heretics Will Storr

Picador, pp.464, £16.99, ISBN: 9781447231684

There have been plenty of books in recent years in which apparently sane hacks go off in search of loonies to poke fun at. While The Heretics looks at first… Read more

Mono Print

Beautiful and damned

9 February 2013
Handsome Brute: The Story of a Ladykiller Sean O’Connor

Simon and Schuster, pp.480, £16.99, ISBN: 9781471101335

According to his mother, Neville Heath was ‘prone to be excitable’. He was that all right — and then some. In the space of two weeks in the summer of… Read more

The further tragedy of unknowing

5 January 2013
Death of a Soldier: A Mother’s Story Margaret Evison

Biteback, pp.299, £16.99, ISBN: 9781849544498

Margaret Evison spent Easter 2009 with her 26-year-old son Mark, who was about to go to Afghanistan as a lieutenant in the Welsh Guards. They walked around her garden talking… Read more

Torn between ideology and compassion

29 December 2012
Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s Graham Stewart

Atlantic, pp.560, £25, ISBN: 9781782391458

On 1 September 1978, the then prime minister Jim Callaghan invited six leading trade unionists to dinner at his Elizabethan farmhouse in Sussex. By all accounts it was a very… Read more

Divided loyalties

3 November 2012
In the House of the Interpreter Ngugi Wa Thiong’o

Harvill Secker, pp.244, £16.99, ISBN: 9781846556289

On his first day at boarding school in Kenya in the early 1950s, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o stood to attention as the Union Jack was raised on the school flagpole. Afterwards… Read more

Colossal windbags

27 October 2012
The Spanish Ambassador’s Suitcase: Stories from the Diplomatic Bag Matthew Parris and Andrew Bryson (editors)

Viking, pp.388, £16.99, ISBN: 9780670921034

‘Senior British diplomats really knew how to write,’ declares Matthew Parris in his introduction to The Spanish Ambassador’s Suitcase, a collection of ambassadorial despatches about funny foreigners and filthy, far-flung… Read more


Bookends: Umpty, umpty, umpty…

11 August 2012

According to Ogden Nash, the reason the British aristocracy wrote so much is because they could never understand what they were saying to one another. Much of the advice proffered… Read more


A date with death

2 June 2012
Midnight in Peking: The Murder that Haunted the Last Days of Old China Paul French

Viking, pp.260, £12.99

On 8 January 1937, an old man was taking his prize songbird for an early morning walk in the eastern section of Peking when he came across a woman’s body… Read more

Enter a Wodehousian world

26 May 2012
Dear Lupin: Letters to a Wayward Son Roger and Charlie Mortimer

Constable & Robinson, pp.172, £12.99

On 26 February 1969, Roger Mortimer wrote to his son, Charlie: ‘Your mother has had flu. Her little plan to give up spirits for Lent lasted three and a half… Read more


One that got away

21 April 2012
Escape from Camp 14 Blaine Harden

Mantle, pp.256, 16.99

There are six drawings in the back of this book. They’re not very good drawings. In fact they look as if they come from an unusually hamfisted comic strip. However,… Read more

Africa’s excesses

17 March 2012
Crazy River Richard Grant

Little Brown, pp.272, 13.99

There are an awful lot of prostitutes in Africa and most of them seem to pass through the pages of Richard Grant’s book at one time or another. All this… Read more

Winning words

19 November 2011
You Talkin’ to Me? Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama Sam Leith

Profile Books, pp.296, 14.99

If you want to see what an ambivalent attitude we have towards rhetoric, you have only to look at the speeches of Barack Obama. Before Obama became President, when he… Read more