Book Reviews

Our reviews of the latest in literature

Sam Leith

Jonathan Jones: Earthly Delights

56 min listen

My guest in this week’s Book Club podcast is the art critic Jonathan Jones. The term ‘renaissance’ is out of fashion among scholars these days, but in his new book Earthly Delights: A History of the Renaissance Jonathan argues that it points to something momentous in human history. On the podcast, Jonathan makes the case for what that something is – which is perhaps more heretical, and less Italian, than we might have remembered.

The horrors of the ‘Upskirt Decade’

The subject that Sarah Ditum addresses in Toxic is why the early part of this century was ‘such a monstrous time to be famous and female. It’s about how the concept of privacy came undone and why that was a catastrophe for women’. The concept of privacy was actually undone by a judge in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 2006. A 16-year-old girl was browsing through greetings cards in a shop when a man crouched down beside her and took photographs up her skirt. A security guard saw him and called the police. The whole scene was captured on CCTV, so there was no shortage of evidence. But the judge ruled that

Olivia Potts

No nonsense in the kitchen

I rather bristle at newspaper column collections. They strike me as a bit lazy, a cheat’s way of getting another book under the belt, often just in time for the gift-giving season. When it comes to Rachel Cooke’s Kitchen Person, however, I have to eat my words. It draws from the 14 years of monthly food columns Cooke wrote for the Observer from 2009. Each comes with a postscript from the author looking back on her thoughts at the time, ensuring that the pieces hold their own as a collection, as something cohesive. You sit down to read one essay, and look up 75 pages later. The tone, too, is

The last battle: The Future, by Naomi Alderman, reviewed

The sirens sound in the street. The lockdown order comes. The images on the television are of chaos and illness, total societal collapse. The apocalypse is here, and where are the rich? Already holed up in their survival compounds, ready to ride out the end of the world before emerging to take control of what’s left of it for themselves. Billionaire preppers and their plans for Bond-villain bunkers have now pervaded the public imagination to the extent that this year we have two novels dealing with the phenomenon. First there was Eleanor Catton’s Birnam Wood, which took inspiration from Peter Thiel’s efforts to build a bunker in New Zealand. Now,

A multicultural microcosm: Brooklyn Crime Novel, by Jonathan Lethem, reviewed

Would readers approaching this novel (although novel might not be precisely the right word) without any indication as to the authorship recognise it as the work of Jonathan Lethem? It doesn’t have kangaroo gangsters packing heat, or sentient miniature black holes, or marine drills converted into nuclear-powered limos. It is not set on an alien planet, or in a parallel universe, or inside a simulated game. There are a few hints. It is set in Brooklyn and has a vaguely geeky feel to it; but tonally it seems very different to Motherless Brooklyn or The Fortress of Solitude. Instead of vernal exuberance there is autumnal wistfulness, but certainly not sentimentality.

The real problem with ChatGPT is that it can never make a joke

I have been reviewing books for nearly four decades – starting in this very magazine – and over the years I have encountered some real stinkers. But this is the first time I can recall being reluctant to pick up the book because of actual physical nausea. Intellectual nausea I’ve had plenty of times. Give me a 900-page book of magical realism and that’s what I’ll get. But this time it metastasised into real queasiness. I’ll explain why. (Well, that is my job.) The odd thing is, Benny the Blue Whale starts amusingly enough. Andy Stanton, a writer of chidren’s books, had been both intrigued and alarmed by the rise

Surreal visions: the best of this year’s art books reviewed

Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas first met in a gallery at the Louvre. Degas was standing, etching plate in hand, copying a picture. How audacious, Manet exclaimed, to work without a preliminary drawing. ‘I would not dare to do the same.’ And thus he revealed the essential difference between the two. Degas was a supreme exponent of drawing, while Manet was a magician of the brushstroke. In many ways they moved on parallel tracks, each interested in subjects from contemporary life, both at odds with academic convention. But their talents were at a tangent. Famously, they fell out after Degas painted a double portrait of his friend and his wife.

Sam Leith

Terry Hayes: The Year of the Locust

34 min listen

In this week’s Book Club podcast my guest is Terry Hayes, author of the squillion-selling thriller I Am Pilgrim. He tells me about invisible submarines, taking advice on crucifixion from Mel Gibson, and why it took him ten years to follow up that first novel with his new book The Year of the Locust.

A choice of this year’s cook books

What a relief to find ourselves in a non-faddy cook book year. We are not being encouraged to chew only plants, ferment everything, grow burgers in labs or devour insects. It’s not that I don’t look for answers to how we should eat to survive the future, but I know a thing or two about the human appetite and no scheme seems any more sustainable than the way the West eats now. The answer is there – and always has been – but it’s adrift. In The Lost Supper: Searching for the Future of Food in the Flavours of the Past (Greystone Books, £19.99), Taras Grescoe identifies the crucial ingredient:

Simon Kuper

The feel-good football story of Watford Forever

One Saturday in 1953, the six-year-old Reggie Dwight of 55 Pinner Hill Road went to his first football match with his perennially gloomy father, Stanley. ‘Emerging from the Tube station,’ writes John Preston, ‘Stanley reached down and took his son’s hand.’ Reggie was enchanted by Stanley’s sudden happiness. The only place the two would ever manage to connect was on the stands at their beloved Watford FC. Once Reggie became the rock star Elton John, he bought the club and took it, improbably, to the top. He did it with a manager who was both his opposite and his soulmate, Graham Taylor – better known for his later disastrous reign

Prejudice in Pennsylvania: The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store, by James McBride, reviewed

If chicken soup is balm for the soul, then James McBride’s eighth book, set in 1930s Chicken Hill, a neighbourhood in a small town in Pennsylvania that is home to Jewish, black and other immigrant people, is its literary equivalent. There is something nourishing about The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store, a warm story about the power of community in the face of prejudice that both salutes the American dream while exposing it as a sham. Like much of McBride’s previous work, which includes four other novels, a biography of James Brown and his 1996 memoir, A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, about his Jewish mother, Ruth, The

The balance of power between humans and machines

The twin poles of the modern imaginarium about technology and society can be represented by two masterpieces of popular culture. In James Cameron’s film The Terminator (1984) and its sequels, a global computer system called Skynet becomes sentient and proceeds to try to exterminate the human race by means of time-travelling Austrian bodybuilders. In Iain M. Banks’s ‘Culture’ novels, by contrast (beginning with Consider Phlebas, 1987), a space-faring humanlike species has created superintelligent machines, known as Minds, which automate all the labour of production, leaving people free to pursue artistic activities and extreme sports. As our tech-bro overlords race to create proper AI, then, the present question is whether engineered

How has the Conservative party’s ‘Dr No’ escaped everyone’s notice for so long?

The reason conspiracy theories are so resilient, reproducing themselves from one generation to another, is that they are unfalsifiable. Evidence against them, however solid, has obviously been faked. Anyone who tries to demonstrate that Americans did land on the moon or that J.F. Kennedy was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald is obviously in the pay of people who stand to benefit. If you ask who those people are, since there seems to be no evidence of their existence, the answer is always the same: they are very good at concealing themselves. And so the theory finds credulous punters. To save time, I should probably point out that The Spectator, which

Was there ever a time of equality in human society?

Origin stories have always helped humans gain a moral compass. Locked in a tight embrace, the Maori deities Rangi and Papa are separated by their enveloped children, creating the distant father sky and nurturing Mother Earth, bringing light to the world. Mayan gods fashion man from maize after destroying earlier clay and wood versions, who are seen to have no soul. Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Life but illicitly also from the Tree of Knowledge. One of the more touted modern human origin stories, ostensibly based on evolutionary science, speaks of a natural inequality between violent and promiscuous men and caring and faithful women. Having evolved to

Melanie McDonagh

The best of this year’s children’s books

In some children’s books, nothing much happens. In Roberto Piumini’s Glowrushes (Pushkin Press, £9.99), it’s like this: a father, a great Turkish lord, hires an artist to paint his sick son’s rooms for his 11th birthday, and together the boy and the painter create walls of wondrous imaginary landscapes. It turns out that you don’t have to travel outside your own room to inhabit new worlds. One wall is for the meadows of a goatherd, with tiny red goats, a lame dog and a distant minaret and a muezzin with a big nose. Another is for a besieged castle with a lovely princess atop a tower. And one room has

Why do the British still dream of bricks and mortar?

In Building Soul, Thomas Heatherwick’s recent Radio 4 series, architects are villains. According to the puckish designer of Google’s King’s Cross campus, the profession is in thrall to a ‘cult’ of modernism, intent on forcing us to live in houses that make us ill and work in offices that make us depressed. Is property ownership a natural state? When did we start toregard homes as investments? Heatherwick is often accused of over-simplification. His latest attack on the architectural profession, and his blaming of Le Corbusier as miscreant-in-chief, is worse. It misrepresents how and why buildings come to be. They are the work not of lone fanatics but of countless competing

Magnificent men in their automobiles: the 1907 Peking-Paris rally

The age of the car was a long time coming. The 19th century belonged to the train and, to a lesser extent, the bicycle. Several prototype automobiles were built during this period, but by the end of the century the technology was still primitive. In 1899 a handicap race held in France pitted walkers, riders, cyclists, motorcyclists and drivers against one another. The horses came first and second. However, in the early years of the 20th century, a series of widely publicised challenges increased popular interest in motoring. The most ambitious was set in 1907 by the French newspaper Le Matin: a non-stop race from Peking to Paris, taking the

Tea and treachery: Sheep’s Clothing, by Celia Dale, reviewed

‘It was a nice way of living,’ huffs Grace, the fiftysomething anti-heroine of Celia Dale’s devilishly dark 1988 novel Sheep’s Clothing, republished by Daunt Books. Recently released from Holloway prison, and using a demure headscarf and twin-set as cover, Grace teams up with Janice, a former fellow inmate, to rob elderly women. Disguised as social workers, and armed with an illicit supply of sleeping pills, they are after pension money stashed under mattresses, trinkets in shoeboxes and polished candlesticks on mantelpieces. The victims, invariably women (‘even an old man could be surprisingly strong’) often welcome the thieves, happy to have someone to ‘talk at’ and a cup of tea made