Lead book review

When we were very young

Few monarchs could become novelists. They wouldn’t be able to develop the practice, or possess the necessary temperament. No monarch could sit in the corner of a room observing, or walk the streets unnoticed. They don’t have much of a chance of a long morning working quietly, without interruption, or of seeing what ordinary people

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Celebrations of song and humanity

‘All my life, always and in every way, I shall have one objective: the good of Hungary and the Hungarian nation.’ Ask any musician for a one-sentence summary of Béla Bartók (1881–1945) and they will probably tell you that he is Hungary’s national composer — a musical modernist who passionately championed his nation’s folk music

The bravest of the brave

‘It is the task of a Patton or a Napoleon to persuade soldiers that bits of ribbon are intrinsically valuable. The historian’s job, in part, is to spot contradictions and unravel obfuscations, and the history of the VC is steeped in both.’ To this job of de-obfuscating, Gary Mead, former journalist and military historian, might

To Hell in a handcart — again

Despite the offer of joy proposed in the subtitle, this is a deeply troubling book by one of Britain’s foremost journalists on the politics of nature. Michael McCarthy was the Independent’s environmental editor for 15 years, and his new work is really a summation of a career spent pondering the impacts of humankind on the

Beautiful, bedevilled island

The Arabs invaded Sicily in the ninth century, leaving behind mosques and pink-domed cupolas. In the Sicilian capital of Palermo, Arab rule was generally tolerant, its dolce far niente evocative of sultans, minarets, concubines and other jasmine-scented delights. Walking round Palermo today, however, one is assailed by less lovely smells. Parts of the city remain

Nasty piece of work

Finders Keepers is a sort-of sequel to last year’s Mr Mercedes, Stephen King’s first foray into what he called ‘hard-boiled detective fiction’. The new book is not so much hard-boiled as slowly poached, Heston Blumenthal style, in a sous-vide water oven, then finished on a violently hot grill. King has the popular novelist’s gifts in

Lulzfags v. moralfags

It is almost a century since the Michelin brothers had the brainwave of supplementing their motorists’ guide with information about fine-dining establishments. Their star-rating system had become a mainstay of lifestyle reviews long before the Internet came along. In the digital age, this work has been comprehensively crowd-sourced: the immense success of review sites such

Dizzying swirls of impasto

With a career of more than 60 years so far, Frank Auerbach is undoubtedly one of the big beasts of the British art world. His personal reticence, however, and the condensed, impacted idiom of his painting have contributed to his enigmatic, somewhat opaque reputation. Catherine Lampert, who has sat regularly and patiently for him since


In eastern Congo years ago on a road logged into a hill I drove or was driven one evening to see pygmies who claimed they were being eaten. This was possible. I’d met a woman with my name who’d watched the fire on which her arm was cooked and then devoured. The pygmies turned out

Something sensational to read on the train

Readers who have put in some time on the railways may remember the neat, brush-painted graffiti that appeared in 1974 on a wall facing the line just outside Paddington station: FAR AWAY IS CLOSE AT HAND IN IMAGES OF ELSEWHERE. Not until Banksy took up his spraycan did a piece of London graffiti make such

A triumphant failure

I must be an idiot for pointing out the failings of a novel that’s so screamingly, self-denouncingly about failure. Steve Toltz’s Quicksand is a nutty, occasionally hilarious, flaccid carrier bag of a comic romp, all dazzling one-liners and no comic paydirt. Like his debut novel, A Fraction of the Whole (about a misfit philosopher and

Lost in the telling

This is a thriller, a novel of betrayal and separation, and a reverie on death and grieving. The only key fact I can provide without giving away the plot is that Caroline, the film-making wife of Michael, the novel’s main protagonist, is killed in the badlands of Pakistan by a drone controlled from a facility

There’s no substitute for human intelligence

Spying may be one of the two oldest professions, but unlike the other one it has changed quite a lot over the years, and continues to do so. During the quarter-century since the end of the Cold War, the main preoccupation of our intelligence agencies has not been with classic espionage by the Soviet Union,