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A prickly character

Hester, by Ian McIntyre ‘I must eat up my own heart & be quiet,’ confided Hester Thrale in her private notebook in the autumn of 1777. She was pregnant again, for the 11th time in 13 years. By then seven of her children had died, including her only and much loved son, and she was

The Great Duke and others

Wellington, by Jane Wellesley There can never be too many biographies of the Duke of Wellington because, like Churchill’s and Nelson’s, his career path is so extraordinary, uplifting, chequered and involving that it reads more like (slightly overwrought) fiction than fact. The first thing you’d give your mildly implausible hero if you were a novelist

Enemies within

Fifty People Who Buggered Up Britain, by Quentin Letts As readers of the Daily Mail know, Quentin Letts leaves no turn unstoned. His withering parliamentary sketches have left the blood of wounded politicians over the walls of Westminster. Wearing his theatre critic’s hat, he swims against the prevailing tides to tease dramatists and directors, and

Turning back the pages

Magic Moments: The Books the Boy Loved and Much Else Besides, by John Sutherland Curiosities of Literature: A Book-lover’s Anthology of Literary Erudition, by John Sutherland John Sutherland’s life has been devoted to the enjoyment of books and the passing on of that enjoyment to others, whether through his columns in the Guardian and Financial

A rich harvest

Coda, by Simon Gray Were Simon Gray alive today, I could not have reviewed this book. Friends should not review each other’s work or reviewing becomes a form of puffery. But death changes everything. Coda, so named because it rounds off the trilogy of ‘Smoking Diaries’ (The Smoking Diaries, The Year of the Jouncer and

Celebrity is not enough

Annie Leibovitz at Work, by Annie Leibovitz, edited from conversations with Sharon DeLano When Annie Leibovitz started out as a photographer in 1968 her heroes were Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank. Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’ turned out to be the antithesis of the celebrity portraits that have defined her career — not only posed but contrived

Remembrance of girls past

Past Imperfect, by Julian Fellowes ‘But why should people want to read about us?’ exclaimed my cousin, a debutante of the season of 1968, which forms the backdrop of this new novel by Julian Fellowes, author of Snobs, winner of an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (Gosford Park) and screenwriter of the new film, The

From pillar to post

The English House: The Story of a Nation at Home, by Clive Aslet Earlier this year a brave publisher republished in two volumes and nearly 800 pages the classic book on English domestic architecture, The English House, by Hermann Muthesius. It had first appeared in German as Das Englische Haus in 1904. Clive Aslet’s new

Ten minutes that shook Europe

Wrath of God: the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, by Edward Paice Portugal in the 18th century was at once a mystery and deeply familiar to the British. Deeply familiar, as one of Britain’s most enriching trading partners, providing Brazilian gold in exchange for British textiles and other manufactured goods. A mystery, because Portugal appeared

A backdrop of beasts and losers

There’s this cow nuzzling a bunch of roses though floating belly up over a matchwood village where smoke springs from every blessed chimney and a po-faced couple issues forth, poised either to sink back among the onion domes or zoom to the far corner where the Eiffel Tower teeters on two legs in moonlit snow.

Tales of the unexpected | 5 November 2008

The Atmospheric Railway: New and Selected Stories, by Shena Mackay In Waterstones bookshops there are little signs dotted among the fiction shelves, to prompt readers towards new purchases. The signs suggest that if you liked, say, Evelyn Waugh you’d also enjoy Nancy Mitford; or if Ruth Rendell is a favourite you might like to try

A choice of first novels | 5 November 2008

A Fraction of the Whole, by Steve Toltz Pollard, by Laura Beatty Chatto & Windus Inside the Whale, by Jennie Rooney Chatto & Windus Slaughterhouse Heart, by Afsaneh Knight Doubleday AFraction of the Whole, by Steve Toltz, was one of two debut novels on the Booker shortlist — and is, one could argue, a more

The divided states of America

A Mercy, by Toni Morrison You may or may not agree with the New York Times, which a couple of years ago voted Toni Morrison’s Beloved the greatest work of American fiction of the past quarter century. (What about Updike’s Rabbit novels, you might ask? Or Philip Roth’s American Pastoral? Or Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping? Or,

Surprising literary ventures | 5 November 2008

Ken Follett is a cult in countries such as Japan, Italy and Spain — in Spain, in fact, there is a statue to him, inaugurated in January this year, in the town of Vitoria-Gasteiz in the Basque country. In Britain he is also loved, but perhaps not with the fanatical devotion he deserves. Most people