Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet Marianne Moore Photo: Getty

The mad, mum-fixated maiden aunt of modernism

7 December 2013
Holding On Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore Linda Leavell

Faber, pp.455, £30, ISBN: 9780571301829

Marianne Moore’s poems are notoriously ‘difficult’ but her personality and the circumstances of her life are as fascinating today as they were to the avant-garde writers and artists of 1920s… Read more

Desmond Fitzgerald, the 29th Knight of Glin, alongside his French wife Louise de la Falaise, 1966 Photo: Getty

The Last Knight, by Robert O’Byrne - review

30 November 2013
The Last Knight: A Tribute to Desmond Fitzgerald, 29th Knight of Glin Robert O’Byrne

Lilliput Press, pp.224, £15, ISBN: 9781843514084

I have to declare an interest: for many years the Knight and I were the closest of friends until a sequence of his unpredictable and volcanic rages drove us apart.… Read more

David Bowie with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in 1973 (Photo: Keystone/Getty)

One Leg Too Few may be one biography too many

16 November 2013
One Leg Too Few William Cook

Preface, pp.704, £25, ISBN: 978184809333

It’s no joke, writing about comedians. Their work is funny, their lives are not. Rightly honouring the former while accurately relaying the disasters of the latter is a challenge few… Read more

‘Swing’, acrylic and collage on canvas, 2003

The abstract art full of 'breasts and bottoms'

9 November 2013
Terry Frost: A Painter’s Life Roger Bristow

Sansom & Co, pp.253, £30, ISBN: 9781906593780

Is there any such thing as abstract art? Narratives and coherent harmonies seem to me always to emerge from the shapes and colours. Picasso’s cubist planes, as critics have noticed,… Read more


The man who shared a bed with D.H. Lawrence and Dylan Thomas (though not together)

9 November 2013
Rhys Davies: A Writer’s Life Meic Stephens

Parthian Books, pp.364, £20, ISBN: 9781908946713

Rhys Davies was a Welsh writer in English who lived most of his life in London, that Tir na nÓg in the east, the place of eternal youth and beauty… Read more

Photograph courtesy of Tina and Terence dooley

Why did Penelope Fitzgerald start writing so late? 

2 November 2013
Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life Hermione Lee

Chatto, pp.508, £25, ISBN: 9780701184957

‘Experiences aren’t given us to be “got over”, otherwise they would hardly be experiences.’ The opening sentence of the first draft of The Bookshop, published in 1978 when Penelope Fitzgerald… Read more


George Orwell's doublethink

26 October 2013
George Orwell: English Rebel Robert Colls

OUP, pp.304, £25, ISBN: 9780199680801

This is the most sensible and systematic interpretation of George Orwell’s books that I have ever read. It generously acknowledges the true stature of the great works — most notably,… Read more

J.S. Bach: more complex and human than 
the Haussmann portrait suggests

Was Bach as boring as this picture suggests?

26 October 2013
Music in the Castle of Heaven John Eliot Gardiner

Allen Lane, pp.629, £30, ISBN: 9780713996623

What, one wonders, will John Eliot Gardiner be chiefly remembered for? Perhaps, by many who have worked with him, for his notorious rudeness to performers and colleagues. At one point… 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

Basil Bunting, 1980
(Photo: Jonathan Williams/
Basil Bunting Poetry Archive, Durham University Library)

A Strong Song Tows Us, by Richard Burton - review

12 October 2013
A Strong Song Tows Us: The Life of Basil Bunting Richard Burton

Infiniteideas, pp.608, £30, ISBN: 9781908984

How minor is minor? ‘Rings a bell’ was more or less the response of two English literature graduates, now successful fifty-somethings, when asked what the name Basil Bunting meant to… Read more

Mary Evans picture library

Music at Midnight, by John Drury - review

28 September 2013
Music at Midnight John Drury

Allen Lane, pp.416, £25, ISBN: 9781846142482

When John Drury, himself an Anglican divine, told James Fenton (the son of a canon of Christ Church) that he was writing about George Herbert, Fenton replied with gnomic brio… Read more

A Punch caricature of Wilkie Collins, emphasising his sensationalism

Wilkie Collins by Andrew Lycett - review

21 September 2013
Wilkie Collins: A Life of Sensation Andrew Lycett

Hutchinson, pp.522, £20, ISBN: 9780091937096

In the outrageous 2010 press hounding of the innocent schoolteacher Christopher Jefferies over the murder of his young female tenant (of which a neighbour, Vincent Tabak, was later convicted and… Read more

‘Uncle Bill’ as the troops remembered him

Uncle Bill, by Russell Miller - review

14 September 2013
Uncle Bill: The Authorised Biography of Field Marshal Viscount Slim Russell Miller

Weidenfeld, pp.466, £25, ISBN: 9780297865841

Given the outcome of recent military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is pertinent to look for one particular quality in our senior commander: honesty. In other words, after blaming… Read more

Olivier in one of his most celebrated roles as Shakespeare’s Henry V in the 1944 film

Olivier, by Philip Ziegler - review

7 September 2013
Olivier Philip Ziegler

Maclehose Press, pp.460, £25, ISBN: 9780857051196

Philip Ziegler is best known for his biographies, often official, of politicians, royalty  and soldiers. They include Harold Wilson, Edward VIII and Louis Mountbatten, whose correspondence he also edited. What… Read more

J.D. Salinger in 1952, reading from The Catcher in the Rye

Salinger, by David Shields - review

7 September 2013
Salinger David Shields and Shane Salerno

Simon & Schuster, pp.698, £25, ISBN: 9781471130373

This biography has somewhat more news value than most literary biographies. Its subject worked hard to ensure that. After 1965, J.D. Salinger, having published one novel, a volume of short… Read more

Matthew Carr’s portrait of his father, Raymond, as Warden of St Antony’s College, Oxford

Raymond Carr by María Jesús Gonzalez - review

31 August 2013
Raymond Carr: The Curiosity of the Fox María Jesús González, translated by Nigel Griffin

Sussex Academic Press, pp.509, £69.95, ISBN: 9781845195359

This is an unusual book: a Spanish historian writes the life of an English historian of Spain. In doing so, as the historian in question is the extraordinary Raymond Carr,… Read more

It's not just about the bike. (Photo: Phil Walter/Getty)

Land of Second Chances, by Tim Lewis - review

27 July 2013
Land of Second Chances Tim Lewis

Yellow Jersey, pp.304, £16.99, ISBN: 9780224091763

This is a book about Rwanda. It’s a book about cycling. But it’s not, in the end, a book about Rwandan cycling. Well, it is. Tim Lewis gives us the… Read more

Mysterious and powerful: ‘Event on the Downs’ (1934)

Paul Nash, by Andrew Causey - review

22 June 2013
Paul Nash: Landscape and the Life of Objects Andrew Causey

Lund Humphries, pp.168, £35, ISBN: 9781848220966

Andrew Causey opens his book on a slightly defensive note: Paul Nash, he says is often identified as Britain’s outstanding 20th-century landscape painter, as if painting the natural scene was… Read more

Unnerving as Bill Sikes in Carol Reed’s Oliver!

What Fresh Lunacy is This?, by Robert Sellers - review

22 June 2013
What Fresh Lunacy is This? The Authorised Biography of Oliver Reed Robert Sellers

Constable, pp.500, £20, ISBN: 9781472101129

Midway through this startling book, Robert Sellers asks himself a question with such apparent seriousness I barked with laughter: ‘Was Oliver Reed an alcoholic?’ A more pertinent enquiry would be:… Read more


The Outsider, by Jimmy Connors - review

22 June 2013

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… Read more


My last chance to follow in Napoleon’s footsteps

15 June 2013

St Helena, the island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean on which Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled and died, is so far away from anywhere else that even pirates never… Read more

Nijinski by Georges Barbier in ‘Le Festin /L’Oiseau d’or’ (1912)

Nijinsky, by Lucy Moore - review

15 June 2013
Nijinsky Lucy Moore

Profile, pp.320, £25, ISBN: 9781846686184

The first biography of Vaslav Nijinsky, which appeared in 1934, was written by his wife Romola with the help of two ghosts — the young Lincoln Kirstein and Little Blue… Read more

The Frontman, by Harry Browne - review

8 June 2013
The Frontman Harry Browne

Verso, pp.179, £9.99, ISBN: 9781781680827

According to a story which Harry Browne accepts is surely apocryphal, but which he includes in his book anyway, at a U2 gig in Glasgow the band’s singer silenced the… Read more

Portrait of Byron in Greek national dress by Thomas Phillips

Byron’s War, by Roderick Beaton - review

1 June 2013
Byron’s War: Romantic Rebellion, Greek Revolution Roderick Beaton

CUP, pp.338, £30, ISBN: 9781107033085

On 16 July 1823 a round-bottomed, bluff-bowed, dull-sailing collier-built tub of 120 tons called the Hercules made its slow, log-like way out of the port of Genoa. Roderick Beaton writes:… Read more

They really were in love: Scott, Zelda and their daughter Frances (‘Scottie’) in Paris

Z, by Therese Anne Fowler, Beautiful Fools, by R. Clifton Spargo, Careless People, by Sarah Churchill - review

1 June 2013
Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald Therese Anne Fowler

Two Roads, pp.376, £17.99, ISBN: 9781444761405

Beautiful Fools: The Last Affair of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald R. Clifton Spargo

Duckworth, pp.366, £16.99, ISBN: 9780715645437

Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of the Great Gatsby Sarah Churchwell

Virago, pp.438, £16.99, ISBN: 9781844087662

The Great Gatsby is one of those great works of literature, like Pride and Prejudice, that appeals as much to the general reader as to the literary bod. It’ll always… Read more