A lord of thin air

Higher Gossip John Updike, edited by Christopher Carduff

Hamish Hamilton, pp.501, 25

It is easy, especially if one is not American, to feel ambivalent about the fictions of John Updike. The immaculate clarity of his prose style, the precision of his vocabulary,… Read more


Photo finish

19 May 2012
Liberation: Diaries, Volume III, 1970-1983 Christopher Isherwood, edited by Katherine Bucknell

Chatto, pp.875, 30

Christopher Isherwood kept diaries almost all his life. The first extant one dates from 1917, when he was 12, and like most schoolboys he used it more to measure than… Read more

Family get together 

5 May 2012
The Red House Mark Haddon

Cape, pp.264, 16.99

Mark Haddon is in what must sometimes seem like the unenviable position of having written a first (adult) novel which was, and continues to be, a smash hit. Drawing in… Read more


A polished fragment

The Hanging Garden Patrick White

Cape, pp.224, 14.99

One evening nearly 40 years ago the world’s press descended on Patrick White in Sydney: they rampaged outside his house, pounded its doors, shouted through windows, camped on the lawn.… Read more

Speeding along the highway

31 March 2012
Under the Same Stars Tim Lott

Simon & Schuster, pp.341, 16.99

Back in the Sixties, if you wanted a fruitful, freakout-free LSD experience, you might have called on Mrs Aldous Huxley in Los Angeles, where she lived as a beatifically attuned… Read more

… in the fall of a sparrow

31 March 2012
Painter of Silence Georgina Harding

Bloomsbury, pp.312, 14.99

Set in Romania in the 1950s, this is the story of two people, Augustin and Safta, who are both very different and yet very closely linked. Safta is the daughter… Read more

What was it all for?

31 March 2012
No Time Like the Present Nadime Gordimer

Bloomsbury, pp.421, 18.99

What happens to a novelist who becomes the conscience of a nation? Nadine Gordimer, who is now 89 and whose writing career began in the 1940s, has represented the progressive… Read more

Memory games

24 March 2012
The Man Who Forgot His Wife John O’Farrell

Doubleday, pp.309, 14.99

I read this novel while convalescing from pneumonia. It proved admirably fit for purpose. A light diet, mildly entertaining and with enough twists and turns of plot to serve as… Read more


Hero of his own drama

17 March 2012
Strindberg: A Life Sue Prideaux

Yale, pp.371, 25

Sam Leith is enthralled by the larger-than-life genius, August Strindberg — playwright, horticulturalist, painter, alchemist and father of modern literature When I’m reading a book for review, it’s my habit… Read more

Joy to the world

17 March 2012
A Perfectly Good Man Patrick Gale

Fourth Estate, pp.405, 16.99

Patrick Gale’s new novel could be read as a companion work to his hugely successful Notes from an Exhibition, and in fact, in a satisfying twist, some characters and even… Read more

Enigma variations

17 March 2012
The Detour Gerbrand Bakker

Harvill Secker, pp.230, 12.99

This is a novel full of hints and mysteries.  Why does the Dutch woman rent a house in rural Wales, bringing with her a mattress, some bedding and a portrait… Read more

Deviation and double entendre

17 March 2012
Briefs Encountered Julian Clary

Ebury, pp.364, 12.99

If there’s anything full-time novelists hate more than a celebrity muscling in on their turf, it’s the celebrity doing such a good job that it seems as if anybody could… 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


Menace, mystery and decadence

11 February 2012
The Alexandria Quartet Lawrence Durrell

Faber, pp.880, 14.99

Amateurs in Eden Joanna Hodgkin

Virago, pp.335, 25

It is fitting that Charles Dickens’s bicentenary coincides with Lawrence Durrell’s centenary, for the two novelists have crucial resemblances: both of them are triumphant in the intensity and power of… Read more


‘A world dying of ugliness’

4 February 2012
Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters translated and edited by Michael Hofmann

Granta, pp.551, 25

Some writers’ lives are estimable, some enviable, some exemplary. And some send a shudder of gratitude down the spine that this life happened to somebody else. It isn’t necessarily about… Read more

A choice of first novels

4 February 2012
Mountains of the Moon I.J. Kay

Cape, pp.368, 16.99

Alys, Always Harriet Lane

Weidenfeld, pp.224, 12.99

The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals Wendy Jones

Corsair, pp.208, 12.99

Mountains of the Moon is narrated by a woman just released after spending ten years in jail. The reason for her sentence and the details of her previous life are… Read more

Chaos and the old order

28 January 2012
An Ermine in Czernopol Gregor von Rezzori, translated by Philip Boehm

New York Review of Books, pp.380, 9.99

If Gregor von Rezzori is known to English language readers, it is likely to be through his tense, disturbing novel Memoirs of an Anti-Semite (partly written in English), and/or his… Read more

Questioning tales

7 January 2012
Married Love Tessa Hadley

Cape, pp.242, 14.99

Tessa Hadley’s previous book, The London Train, was one of the best novels of last year, though overlooked by prize committees. It concerned the gently disentangling lives of a pair… Read more


Poison Ivy

17 December 2011

‘Who was she?’, a browser might ask on finding three re-issued novels by Ivy Compton-Burnett, and ‘Why should I read them?’ Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett (1884-1969) was one of 13 children… Read more

A gimlet eye

10 December 2011
Jane Austen’s Letters edited by Deirdre Le Faye

OUP, pp.667, 25

We should be grateful to families which encourage the culture of writing letters, and equally vital, the keeping of them. Leopold Mozart, for instance, taught his son not only music… Read more

Entry to the sacred grove

3 December 2011
The Lives of the Novelists John Sutherland

Profile, pp.818, 30

Some readers may wonder if we need this book. Surely, the argument might go, one can summon up potted ‘lives’ on the internet, while serious biographies take book form. And… Read more

A literary curio

26 November 2011
The Sea is My Brother Jack Kerouac

Penguin, pp.426, 25

Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac, better known as Jack Kerouac (1922-1969), the son of French-Canadians spiced with the blood of Mohawk and Caughnawaga Indians and subdued, no doubt, by migration from… Read more

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

5 November 2011
The Marriage Plot Jeffrey Eugenides

Fourth Estate, pp.486, 20

Jonathan Franzen. David Foster Wallace. Jeffrey Eugenides. Giant, slow-moving, serious writers, notching up about a novel per decade, all with their sights set on The Big One, The Beast, The… Read more


Martin Amis: The Biography by Richard Bradford

5 November 2011
Martin Amis: The Biography Richard Bradford

Constable & Robinson, pp.418, 20

Where’s Invasion of the Space Invaders? That’s what I want to know. Only by consulting Richard Bradford’s bibliography would you know that in 1982 Martin Amis published a book —… Read more

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

5 November 2011
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Jeanette Winterson

Cape, pp.230, 14.99

In the 26 years since the publication of her highly acclaimed first novel, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson has proved herself a writer of startling invention, originality… Read more