Patriot or traitor?

10 March 2012
Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life Peter McPhee

Yale, pp.299, 25

The mighty convulsion that was the French Revolution has stirred the blood of historians from Thomas Carlyle to Simon Schama and consideration of it still inflames opinions. At its centre… Read more


‘Viva la muerte!’

10 March 2012
The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth-Century Spain Paul Preston

Harper Press, pp.700, 30

The Spanish Holocaust is a book that will give readers nightmares: it gave me two in a single night. Even people who think they have read enough about the Spanish… Read more

Charming, cold-eyed cosmopolitan

10 March 2012
Journey to the Abyss: The Diaries of Count Harry Kessler, 1880-1918 edited and translated by Laird M. Easton

Knopf, pp.976, 30

At last a diary as penetrating on Berlin as the Goncourt brothers’ on Paris has been translated into English. The author, Count Harry Kessler, resembled a character from Sybille Bedford’s… Read more


The end of the affair?

10 March 2012
Secrets and Lies Christine Keeler with Douglas Thompson

John Blake, pp.290, 17.99

Of those caught up in the 1963 Profumo affair, the only winner seems to have been that blithe spirit Mandy Rice-Davies. Everyone else lost. Profumo’s family bore the brunt, of… Read more


His dark materials

3 March 2012
The Arch-Conjuror of England: John Dee Glynn Parry

Yale, pp.336, 25

Like the dyslexic Faustus who sold his soul to Santa, the life of John Dee was a black comedy of errors. His vain and vulgar efforts to harness the occult… Read more

Epic toy story

3 March 2012
Moby-Duck Donovan Hohn

Union Books, pp.402, 20

In January 1992 a container filled with 7,200 yellow ducks and the same number each of blue turtles, red beavers and green frogs, blow-moulded out of plastic for American children… Read more


Portraits of an age

3 March 2012
Beaton in Vogue Josephine Ross

Thames & Hudson, pp.240, 28

By a fine coincidence, two legendary icons of British art were being feted in London on the same evening last month, and both are primarily famous, to the public at… Read more

Fatal impact theory 

3 March 2012
What Are Universities For? Stefan Collini

Allen lane, pp.214, 9.99

As schools are for education, so universities are for higher education. In a civilised society, children should leave school literate, numerate and with some knowledge of science, history and culture.… Read more


Man of mysteries

3 March 2012
Wilkie Collins Peter Ackroyd

Chatto, pp.199, 12.99

It was always William Wilkie Collins’s good luck — though in later life something of a humiliation — that he was dragged along on Dickens’s coat-tails — not least in… Read more

Man with a mission

3 March 2012
Patriot of Persia Christopher de Bellaigue

Bodley Head, pp.310, 20

He was a Persian aristocrat who struggled to make his country a democracy. Given to mood swings and sulks worthy of Achilles, Mohammed Mossadegh was born in June 1882 just… Read more

Seeing red

25 February 2012
Watermelons James Delingpole

Biteback Publishing, pp.265, 14.99

With each passing year it becomes clearer that the cure for global warming is worse than the disease. While wind power and biofuels devastate ecosystems and economies, temperatures and sea… Read more


The family plot

25 February 2012
New Ways to Kill Your Mother Colm Toibin

Viking, pp.352, 20

Sam Leith explores the effect that certain writers’ relatives have had on their published works This book’s sort-of preface is a lecture on aunts and absent mothers in Jane Austen… Read more

Anglo-Saxon divide

25 February 2012
Keeping Up With the Germans Philip Oltermann

Faber, pp.304, 12.99

Philip Oltermann has set himself an almost impossibly ambitious task. In 1996, when he was 15 years old, he moved from Hamburg to London, so he has close experience of… Read more


What makes Romney run?

25 February 2012
The Real Romney Michael Kranish and Scott Helman

HarperCollins, pp.336, 17.99

It can be odd to read a biography of a major political figure for whom, every day while one reads it, the story continues. Everything we hear in the news… Read more


Spiritual superhero

25 February 2012
Ashoka: The Search for India’s Lost Emperor Charles Allen

Little Brown, pp.460, 25

When totting up the positives from the British Raj, people often put the railways first, followed by the Indian Civil Service or the Indian Army. The Empire was won by… Read more


How do birds fly south?

25 February 2012
Bird Sense Tim Birkhead

Bloomsbury, pp.265, 16.99

Did you know the external ‘shell’ of the ear is the pinna? That a woman’s oestrogen level alters the way she hears the male voice, making it richer, and thus… Read more

A deafening silence

25 February 2012
The Train in the Night: A Story of Music and Loss Nick Coleman

Cape, pp.272, 16.99

One morning in 2007, the music critic Nick Coleman woke up to find that he was profoundly deaf in one ear. ‘The silence did not descend silently, however. It made… Read more


More sinned against than sinning

25 February 2012
The Origins of Sex Faramerz Dabhoiwala

Allen Lane, pp.496, 25

When I saw the title of this book, then read that it only covered the period 1600-1800 I hoped this would be a riot of comedy, something along the lines… Read more


The making of the modern metropolis

18 February 2012
London in the Eighteenth Century: ‘A Great and Monstrous Thing’ Jerry White

The Bodley Head, pp.682, 25

Why in 1737 did Dr Johnson choose to leave his home in Lichfield in the Midlands and travel to London to make a fresh start as a writer, asks Jerry… Read more


Loves, hates and unfulfilled desires

18 February 2012
Zona Geoff Dyer

Canongate, pp.229, 16.99

Montaigne, who more or less invented the discursive essay, had a method which was highly unmethodical: ‘All arguments are alike fertile to me. I take them upon any trifle .… Read more


Robot on the loose

18 February 2012
Losing the Head of Philip K. Dick David Dufty

Oneworld, pp.273, 10.99

In December 2005, a passenger on an early-morning flight from Dallas to Las Vegas fell asleep. Woken by a steward when the plane touched down, the man wearily disembarked and… Read more


If only …

18 February 2012
The Lost History of 1914 Jack Beatty

Bloomsbury, pp.392, 20

In the early summer of 1910, a naval officer, bound for the Antarctic, paid a visit to the office of Thomas Marlowe, the editor of the Daily Mail. He had… Read more

Ecoutez bien!

18 February 2012
French Children Don’t Throw Food: Parenting Secrets from Paris Pamela Druckerman

Doubleday, pp.368, 15

The French make it look easy: small babies sleep through the night, toddlers calmly eat four-course lunches, well-dressed mothers chat on the edge of the playground rather than running around… Read more


Saviours of the sea

18 February 2012
Demon Fish Juliet Eilperin

Duckworth, pp.320, 18.99

The last time we went out for lobster in Lyme Bay we found a dogfish in the creel.  A type of shark that roamed the seas before dinosaurs existed, a… Read more

Time to sit and stare

11 February 2012
A Shed of One’s Own Marcus Berkmann

Little, Brown, pp.248, 12.99

Hermitic, oneiric withdrawal from responsibilities and threats is the most effective way of alleviating the pangs of middle age, suggests Marcus Berkmann. In his fifties, he is a frank and… Read more