Lead book review

King of the World: The Life of Louis XIV

I was flicking through an old copy of The Spectator the other day, one of the issues containing contributors’ ‘Christmas Books’, and there was a comment of Jonathan Sumption’s that ‘as a general rule, biography is a poor way to learn history’. It is primarily a matter of approach rather than simply subject of course,

More from Books

Staring into the abyss

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan has achieved that rare feat, in her second novel Starling Days, of writing a convincing novel about depression which manages, miraculously, not to be in itself depressing. Her success is partly due to the fact that her protagonist, Mina, is not flattened by her despair and remains alive enough to become fascinated

Love at first sight | 4 July 2019

France was to blame. Yes, France was most definitely to blame. He was never like this at home. So thinks an English boy, Cromwell, as he lies on a beach at Biarritz, contrasting the green fields of Scotland and Eton with the state he is now in, perpetually waiting and haunted by the ‘constant premonition

Women on the edge

In Nicole Flattery’s Show Them a Good Time (Bloomsbury, £14.99), her female protagonists grapple with abusive relationships, degree courses, difficult bosses, unemployment programmes and a lascivious professor. The stories are tragicomic and deliciously odd. The author writes sentences that make you laugh, and then immediately want to reread to savour a striking image: a woman’s

King of a wild frontier

Red Dog is an ambitious hybrid of a book. It was published in South Africa to wide acclaim in 2014 and has been expertly translated by Michiel Heyns, who has retained the cadence and some of the vocabulary of the original Afrikaans — the mongrel tongue that evolved in the Dutch East India Company’s Cape

Murder at the funeral

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird remains one of the most beloved American novels of all time. Famously, Lee never completed another book, once declaring she’d ‘said what I wanted to say and I will not say it again’. But a journalist who went to Lee’s home in Monroeville, Alabama in 2015 learned of another

Harlequin ladybird, fly away home

I was shocked some years ago to discover, as I scratched bites on my ankles on holiday on Maui, that mosquitoes are not native to Hawaii. They first arrived in the 1820s, in barrels of water from a visiting ship. Of course, the climate was perfect for them, and they settled in very happily. But

Distress signals

It’s an increasingly common lament that computers have ruined everything, and a longing for the days before Google and Twitter, when everything was somehow more organic and authentic, is on the rise. As someone who can remember writing early reviews on an electric typewriter and then going to the library to fax them to a

Feasts and flowers

Cedric Morris is often referred to as an artist-plantsman, and while as a breeder of plants, most particularly of irises, he has always been highly regarded in horticultural circles, his reputation as a painter has been subject to regular fluctuations. Last year, two excellent and complementary London exhibitions — Cedric Morris: Artist Plantsman at the

A sea of troubles | 4 July 2019

Andrew Ridker’s The Altruists (Viking, £20) is a Jewish family saga of academic parents and grown-up offspring. From this rather careworn material he manages to wring a spry comedy of parental failure and romantic misadventure. Arthur Alter is a terrible father, an ‘emotional cheapskate’ who attempts to bring his estranged children Ethan and Maggie together