It is difficult to look beyond three biographies this year: Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s Mao (Cape, £25), William Hague’s Pitt the Younger (HarperCollins, £8.99) and Max Egremont’s Siegfried Sassoon (Picador, £25).
Mao is a standing indictment not only of Mao himself but also of the self-hating Left of the Sixties and Seventies who bought his Little Red Book and worshipped at his feet. William Hague on Pitt is elegant, readable and, with admirable clarity and concision, brings a politician’s understanding of the world of Whitehall and Westminster to the service of his scholarship. His return to the Conservative front bench is long overdue. It is risky to puff the work of one’s close relations. However, Max Egremont, ever the stylist, is discerning and elegant about Sassoon. His reviews are richly deserved.
The most overrated book is difficult to pick from a crowded field, but 1776: America and Britain at War by David McCullough (Allen Lane, £25) stands at least a good chance of finishing among the first three.
Margaret Yourcenar’s 1951 novel Memoirs of Hadrian, reprinted by Penguin Classics, £8.99. An astonishing feat of imagination that takes us into the world and the mind of the Roman emperor. An enthralling meditation on power, politics, love and death.
Pinkerton’s Sister by Peter Rushforth (Scribner Paperbacks, £8.99). A wonderfully weird and enjoyable novel of 752 pages; take your time and be rewarded. In turn-of-the-century New York a clever young woman escapes from grim reality into books, identifying herself with the mad woman in the attic of literature. Funny and original, disturbing beneath its witty surface.
The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana by Umberto Eco (Secker, £17.99). A man loses his personal memory but can recall every book he’s read. Cue extravagant
literary razzle-dazzle. Retracing his life through his books, Eco’s protagonist stumbles into a dangerous landscape of emotion and feeling.