Lead book review

Broken dreams | 19 October 2017

In the expensive realm of musical comedy, it’s impossible to predict what will take off and what will crash and burn. Oliver! ran for 2,618 performances, but no other Dickens adaptation has succeeded— and Oliver! had to overcome a reluctant producer who’d suggested it could be much improved with an ‘all-black cast’. And would Lionel

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Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat

Lord Woolton put it best: ‘Few people have succeeded in obtaining such a public demand for their promotion as the result of the failure of an enterprise.’ By that, the Tory grandee meant that in the spring of 1940 Winston Churchill managed to use Britain’s grotesque military cock-up in Norway, for which he was responsible,

Unearthly powers

This delightfully good-humoured novel is the sort of genre scramble that doesn’t often work: there’s a bit of 1990s family saga, a bit of mobster crime thriller, a bit of Cold War goat-staring spy story and really quite a lot of psychic/psycho-kinetic fantasy. And yet Daryl Gregory, who won several impressive prizes a few years

Three daemons in a boat

Philip Pullman’s new k, the prequel to his Northern Lights series — the one north Oxford academics very much prefer to Harry Potter — is an intriguing work. It’s notionally set some time near our own, but the world it evokes is the 1950s and 1960s England of the author’s youth. The hero, Malcolm Polstead,

A choice of first novels | 19 October 2017

Black Rock White City (Melville House, £16.99) is ostensibly about a spate of sinister graffiti in a Melbourne hospital. ‘The Trojan Flea’ is scrawled across X-ray screens; ‘I am so full of your death I can now only breathe your rot’ on a stairwell; and, on a dead body, ‘cut into the flesh with a

Hunt the lady’s slipper

Who would want to read a whole book about a teenage boy’s gap year? When most 18-year-olds take time off before university, they either head for Thailand to experience middle-class Western culture in warmer climes with more drugs, or spend six months shelf-stacking and six months ‘finding themselves’ at a Ugandan orphanage. A tedious evening

Lend me your ears

Complaints about the decline and fall of political oratory are nothing new. Back in 1865 a British reporter branded the Gettysburg Address ‘dull and commonplace’ and, as this joy of a book points out, even Cicero had to put up with the Neo-Attics sniggering from behind their togas at his overwrought and outdated speaking style.

Art and aspiration

When Adam Gopnik arrived in Manhattan in late 1980 he was an art history postgrad so poor that he and his wife-to-be were reduced to sharing a 9’ x 11’ basement with a bunch of cockroaches. But everything was going to be all right because Gopnik had his guitar with him and he ‘knew someone

Something scary in the attic

How do you like your ghosts? Supernatural fiction is arguably the hardest to get right. Ideally it should terrify, but what appals A might bore B and merely confuse C. The mechanics of apparition, however fanciful, must be internally consistent, and explanations kept simple. M.R. James excelled at giving his spectres agency and focus, but

The pilgrims’ ways

Liza Picard, an chronicler of London society across the centuries, now weaves an infinity of small details into an arresting tapestry of life in 14th-century England. Her technique — pursued with the verve and spirit for which she is already justly admired — is to celebrate Chaucer’s pilgrim portraits by resituating them within an enlarged