A toast to beer, from Plato to Frank Zappa


‘He was a wise man who invented beer,’ said Plato, although I imagine he had changed his mind by the following morning. Beer: A Global History (Reaktion, £9.99, Spectator Bookshop, £9.49) is the latest addition to ‘The Edible Series’, following… Read more

Illustration, from World War I in Cartoons, Mark Bryant, Grub Street.

The completely ludicrous – and sometimes believable – world of the First World War spook


There can’t have been this many books about the first world war since — just after the first world war. One publishing craze of the 1920s was books about spying, in which retired war spooks gave away their trade secrets… Read more


The talent and tragedy of Richard Pryor


The troubles of Richard Pryor’s life are well known — from his childhood in a brothel to his self-immolation via crack pipe — but arranged in a biography their impact is renewed. So grotesque was his upbringing that an early… Read more


Hurrah for Andrew Strauss


Andrew Strauss is a serious man and Driving Ambition (Hodder, £20, Spectator Bookshop, £18) is a serious book. It looks like most other sporting autobiographies: there are heroes, jokes and solecisms aplenty. Yet it is also the Bildungsroman of a… Read more


Slow Train to Switzerland, by Diccon Bewes - review


In 1863, the pioneering travel agent Thomas Cook took a group of British tourists on the first package holiday to Switzerland. One of them, a jolly young woman called Jemima Morrell, kept a diary — and 150 years later, English… Read more


#Onyourmarks! What is the formal name for the hashtag? 


One day there simply won’t be any strange byways of the English language left to write quirky little books about. Happily that day hasn’t arrived yet. Keith Houston’s Shady Characters (Particular Books, £16.99, Spectator Bookshop, £13.99, Tel: 08430 600033)) ventures… Read more

An Endangered Species, by David Gower - review

Gower vs Boycott


Ask any England cricket fan in his fifties to name his favourite batsman and chances are he will say David Gower. (Unless he says Geoffrey Boycott: the cavaliers and roundheads tend to divide along these lines.) In 114 Tests between… Read more

Ruin near Kelso, Mojave Desert, California

Walking in Ruins, by Geoff Nicholson - review


Geoff Nicholson is the Maharajah of Melancholy. The quality was there in his novels, it was there in his non-fiction book The Lost Art of Walking, and it’s there in the latter’s successor, Walking in Ruins (Harbour Books, £12.50). He… Read more

Left to right: Unity, Diana and Nancy

The Mitford Girls’ Guide to Life, by Lyndsy Spence - review


For some reason you don’t expect people to be fans of the Mitford sisters, as others are fans of Doctor Who or Justin Bieber. But just in case this subset of humanity does exist, we have The Mitford Girls’ Guide… Read more

Canal boat

Chaplin & Company, by Mave Fellowes - review


The unlikely heroine of Mave Fellowes’s Chaplin & Company (Cape, £16.99) is a highly-strung, posh-speaking, buttoned-up 18-year-old with the unhelpful name Odeline Milk. Utterly friendless, she dislikes both humans and animals, but she has one huge, far-reaching private passion. She… Read more


Across the Pond, by Terry Eagleton - a review


The esteemed literary critic, serial academic and one-time Marxist firebrand Terry Eagleton is, at 70, still producing books at an admirable rate. Across the Pond (Norton, £9.99) is subtitled ‘An Englishman’s View of America’, and begins with a rigorous justification… Read more


The Authors XI, by The Authors Cricket Club - review


We were never going to get ‘come to the party’ or ‘a hundred and ten per cent’ from The Authors XI by The Authors Cricket Club, with a foreword by Sebastian Faulks (Bloomsbury, £16.99). Instead there’s ‘Passchendaeleian’ and ‘Ballardian’ (of… Read more


The Outsider, by Jimmy Connors - review


As a teenager in the 1980s I liked Jimmy Connors. This meant parking my not inconsiderable jealousy that he’d once had Chris Evert as his girlfriend. Magnanimously, I agreed to do so. Not only did the star respond to a… Read more

The Beatles

All Together Now, by David Rowley - review


Too many Beatles books? In my house there’s always room for one more, and this week’s addition is All Together Now (Matador, £9.99), an ABC of Beatles’ songs by registered Fabs geek David Rowley. This is his third book on… Read more


'The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice', by Polly Coles - review


Master your disappointment. The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice (Hale, £9.99) is as far from the fantasy-relocation genre of hapless writer transposed to sunny European idyll with cast of gurning locals and comic anecdotes involving insects as Prospero’s… Read more


Bookends: Byronic intensity


A year before he died from emphysema in 1990, the composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein agreed to be interviewed by the music journalist Jonathan Cott for Rolling Stone. Dinner with Lenny (OUP, £16.99) is the transcription of their 12-hour conversation, in which… Read more


‘A Slow Passion’, by Ruth Brooks – review


Snails are supposed to hate eggshells. Not the ones in Ruth Brooks’s garden. They clamber over the barrier as though it’s ‘a new extreme sport’. Ditto hair. And grit. She tries beer, but her young son drinks it. As for… Read more


The Quickening, by Julie Myerson — review


The plot of The Quickening (Arrow/ Hammer, £9.99) by Julie Myerson (pictured) revolves around pregnant, newlywed Rachel and her sinister husband, Dan. Rachel’s ghostly journey begins when Dan suggests a holiday in Antigua. Even though Rachel has a creepy premonition… Read more


Turned Out Nice Again, by Richard Mabey - review


We don’t have an extreme climate, says Richard Mabey in Turned Out Nice Again (Profile, £8.99). We don’t have tsunamis, active volcanoes, monsoons or Saharan duststorms. ‘What we really suffer from is a whimsical climate, and that can be tougher… Read more


How Many Camels are there in Holland? by Phyillida Law - review


Phyllida Law has a delightfully natural style, a gift for anecdote and the knack of seeing the funny side of pretty much everything.  She’s a good actor: she’s obviously a fine cook, too, if the recipes in How Many Camels… Read more


A hero of folk


‘This Machine Kills Fascists’ was the ambitious slogan that Woody Guthrie (1912-1967) painted on his guitars. By fascists he meant the entire American capitalist establishment during the Great Depression and after. A self-taught socialist, Woody wrote more than 3,000 songs,… Read more

gavin_corbett 3

Down to a T


There are normally three problems with reviews of books which, like This is the Way by Gavin Corbett (Fourth Estate, £14.99), concern the Traveller community. The first is that while most people have only just got used to the fact… Read more

Virginia Ironside

Growing old disgracefully


Virginia Ironside’s novel, No! I Don’t Need Reading Glasses (Quercus £14.99) about a 65-year-old granny who belongs to a local residents’ association and does a fair bit of knitting may not sound like the most alluring reading. Then there’s the… Read more


Novel ways of writing


If you consider ‘gripping metafiction’ a self-contradictory phrase (surely metafiction disables tension through its wink-at-the-audience style?), Nicholas Royle’s First Novel (Cape, £16.99), which is in fact his seventh, may change your mind. Royle (pictured above) teaches creative writing at Manchester… Read more

Modelling Dors

The Diana effect


My favourite joke of all time concerns Diana Dors, whose real name was Diana Fluck. She was invited back to Swindon, her birthplace, to open a fete. The vicar, terrified he’d mispronounce her name, mispronounced her name. ‘We have with… Read more


The Wiggins streak


As the first British winner of the Tour de France and a gold medalist at London 2012, Bradley Wiggins is a national hero, and though he insists he is an ordinary Kilburn lad he keeps dropping hints about a knighthood.… Read more


Rock solid


Rod Stewart once tried to convince his mother that he had made a lot of money, and wanted to buy her a really big Christmas present. After much thought, she chose a new bread bin. Feet that stay on the… Read more

Lord Halifax

A narrow escape


C.J. Sansom is deservedly famous for his Shardlake crime novels, featuring a 16th-century lawyer on the fringes of the court. But he has also written two successful novels with 20th-century political themes. The first, Winter in Madrid, is a compelling… Read more