Lead book review

To earth from heaven

When I was a child, the highlight of the summer holidays was when my cousin Simon came to stay. We shared a common obsession: aliens. Day after fruitless day, we would scan the skies, looking for UFOs. At night, long after we were supposed to have gone to sleep, we would get out our torches

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Arms and the woman

In August 1939, Clare Hollingworth, a 28-year-old aid-worker, had been employed as a reporter for less than a week by the Daily Telegraph when she landed her first serious journalistic coup. Using feminine wiles and diplomatic skills extraordinaire, she convinced a friend in the Foreign Office to lend her his chauffeured car. Stocking up with

We’re all snobs really

D.J. Taylor’s clever dissection of snobs is really two books in one. Scattered throughout are entertaining, delicious (initially), solemnly related nuggets of hardcore snobbery. He writes brilliantly, for example, about the diarist and National Trust employee James Lees-Milne, who liked a world that knew its place (ideally beneath him). Lees-Milne was steeped so far in

The unkindest cult of all

When I was 22 I met a man called Yisrayl Hawkins who said his coming had been prophesied in the Book of Isaiah. Yisrayl (born Bill) lived with his many disciples and several wives in a compound carved out of the red dirt scrub near Abilene, Texas. His cult was called the House of Yahweh,

Double trouble | 8 December 2016

Cousins is a curious novel. If I’d been a publisher’s reader, I’d have consigned it to the rejection pile after reading the first quarter. It seems to be a dreary saga about three generations of the Tye family. The background is of an intellectual, comfortably off, left-wing family from a milieu in which Polly Toynbee

Dark and graphic

A woman birthing bloated speckled eggs from her supernaturally swollen womb. Sushi screaming and squirming. A skull-shaped sweet, bearing the message, ‘I was you.’ Doubting yourself. Knowing you don’t love your girlfriend. Waking beside someone beautiful and new, only to notice a filigree of knife-scars etched across her breasts. If, sensitive reader, these ingredients make

Love at first bite

Legends cling to Bram Stoker’s life. One interesting cluster centres on his wife, Florence. She was judged, in her high years, a supreme London beauty. She preserved her Dresden perfection by denying her husband conjugal access. Bram consoled himself with warmer but more dangerous ladies of the night; such satisfactions came at greater cost than

Crime fiction for Christmas

Imagine receiving an anonymous suicide note addressed to you by mistake. Would you try to find that person, to help them in some way? This is the opening dilemma in Bernard Minier’s Don’t Turn Out the Lights (Mulholland Books, £14.99), and Christine Steinmeyer’s failure to locate the letter’s sender turns her life in Toulouse upside

Snow on snow

Here is William Diaper in 1722, translating Oppian’s Halieuticks (a Greek epic poem on the loves of the fishes): As when soft Snows, brought down by Western Gales, Silent descend and spread on all the Vales . . . Nature bears all one Face, looks coldly bright, And mourns her lost Variety in White. Unlike

Port in any storm

Cometh the hour, cometh the book, and so Christmas brings us once again a tidal wave of titles relating to food and drink: cookbooks of seasonal dishes from around the world, never once to be consulted, and endless tomes of wine connoisseurship for all of us dedicated cheapskate consumers of Lidl and Aldi plonk. So

A marvel and a mystery

In 2013, Pavel Dmitrichenko, disgruntled principal dancer of the Bolshoi, exacted a now infamous revenge on the company’s artistic director, Sergey Filin, for overlooking his girlfriend in casting the starring role in that most Russian of ballet classics, Swan Lake. The circumstances surrounding the acid attack, which seemed to combine ballet’s glamour with a murky

Little and large

Here are two approachable and distinctive books on our churches, great and small. Simon Jenkins’s cathedrals survey follows his earlier volumes on England’s best churches and houses, and like them includes fine photography by the late Paul Barker of Country Life. Too hefty to serve as a guide book, it can be consulted as a

A girl in a million

All readers know that good novels draw us into other worlds. I cannot think of another, however, which so alarmed me as this one, just as events alarmed and frightened its central character. She is Okatsu, a young woman from the samurai Satsuma Clan in mid-19th-century Japan. The country has been ruled by the shogunate,

Poor bewildered beasts

If you’ve ever read a history of the early days of the Foundling Hospital, you’ll remember the shock: expecting to enjoy a heartwarming tale of 18th-century babies being rescued from destitution and brought to live in a lovely safe place, you will have found instead that the tale was mostly about babies dying after they

Rhinoceros pie, anyone?

Forgotten? Though I can rarely attend their dinners (in Birmingham), I am a proud member of the Buckland Club (motto: Semper in ventrem aliquid novi). Dedicated to the memory and gastronomic exploits of Francis Trevelyan (Frank) Buckland (1826–1880), the Oxford-born surgeon, natural historian and popular writer who aspired to eat a member of every living

Roving the world

In these books, two handsome and popular telly adventurers consider, from viewpoints that are sometimes overly autobiographical, the culture of internal combustion in two of its most distinctive forms. Ben Fogle is obsessed by Land Rovers while Richard Hammond is fascinated by motorbikes. Fogle came to notice in 2000 when he survived a harrowing year

The lonely passion of Beatrix Potter

The story of the extraordinary boom in children’s literature over the last 100 years could be bookended with a ‘Tale of Two Potters’ — Beatrix and Harry. The adventures of the latter have sold millions, but the foundations of his success were laid by the former, whose series of ‘little tales’ Matthew Denison estimates in