Lead book review

The forgotten flowering of the medieval mind

For those who imagine the medieval period along the lines of Monty Python and the Holy Grail — knights, castles, fair maidens, filthy peasants and buckets of blood and gore (you know, all the fun stuff) — Johannes Fried’s version may come as something of an aesthetic shock. His interests lie in the more rarefied

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Sophia Duleep Singh: from socialite to socialist

Princess Sophia Alexandrovna Duleep Singh (1876–1948) had a heritage as confusing as her name. Her father was a deposed Indian maharajah who had been exiled to England, her mother the Cairo-born illegitimate daughter of a German merchant and an Abyssinian slave. The young princess was brought up in considerable splendour on a vast Suffolk estate

Refugees and resilience: a story of Africa

I would love to sit in on a Jonny Steinberg interview. Over the years this South African writer has perfected a form of reverse ventriloquism, in which he becomes the mouthpiece for the Africans whose lives intrigue him. I’d like to know how he does it. The process must require relentless badgering, as interview is

A ghost story without the scary bits

Two men walk into an ice cream parlour in Austin, Texas, order the three teenage girls working there to undress, then tie them up and gag them with their own underwear, and set fire to the place. However, See How Small is not interested in the why or the who, but rather in the lives

Brian Aldiss unpicks the Jocasta complex

What if the gods of Greek myth had parallels with Freud’s notion of the unconscious? This is just one idea explored in Brian Aldiss’s sassy retelling of the stories of two prominent women of Thebes. In two novellas, Jocasta, Wife and Mother and Antigone, Aldiss puts both women and their emotional lives centre-stage, as they

The best new crime novels (and a rule for enjoying them)

I have a rule: to ignore the prologue of a crime novel, especially if it’s printed in italics and written in the present tense. Almost always it will be violent, unnecessary and will give far too much away about coming events. I like to be unsettled. I like a story to build at its own

Lurid & Cute is too true to its title

One of the duties of a reviewer is to alert potential readers to the flavour and content of a book, particularly if it comes into the category of ‘not a suitable present for your great-aunt’. I always dislike this duty, since it spoils surprises, which are the essence of enjoyment in reading; but Adam Thirlwell’s

The real mystery is how it got published

As a boy I spent quite a lot of my free time trying to fake up ancient-looking documents. This hopeless enterprise involved things like staining paper with tea or vinegar, together with plenty of burning, and creasing, and copying of random texts with a scratchy old inkwell pen. Typical silly small boy stuff. Reading this

Making physics history

The European philosophical tradition, Alfred North Whitehead claimed, consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. If you really want to see Plato’s heirs in action, though, philosophy is the wrong place to look. Look, instead, at physics. Nowhere else is the spirit of the Academy cultivated so assiduously: the maths fetishism, the disdain for

David Lodge: confessions of a wrongly modest man

This massive first instalment of a memoir starts in the quite good year the author was born, 1935, and ends with his breakthrough novel, Changing Places, in the rather better year, 1975. A master-practitioner of narrative, Lodge chooses to write with an artful flatness which recalls Frank Kermode’s similarly self-depreciative memoir, Not Entitled. Lodge’s career

A major-general names the guilty men

The author of this primer to the long-overdue Chilcot report, a retired sapper (Royal Engineers) major-general, nails his colours to the mast in the opening paragraph. The British High Command made a number of judgments with poor outcomes in the decade from 2000 to 2010 when fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan… The outcome in some

The prophet Tolstoy and his dodgy vicar

One fine day in June 1896, a lone Russian nihilist visited Leo Tolstoy on his country estate. Come to hear the master, the stranger questioned Tolstoy about his latest beliefs. Satisfied, he left later that day. But then he returned with a written confession. He was an undercover policeman, sent to check on what Tolstoy