Lead book review

Filling in the Bloomsbury puzzle

In March 1923 a large birthday party was held in a studio in Bloomsbury. It is often assumed that the eponymous Group was habitually glum or intense; but there were a lot of parties. The artists were Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, and the birthday was David Garnett’s 31st. David (known as Bunny) was a

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Carrying on regardless | 25 June 2015

This big, bristling, deeply-furrowed book kicks off with a picture of the British countryside just before the second world war. Apparently we then grew only 30 per cent of our food, horses did most of the work and a lot of the land, criss-crossed by empty roads featuring the occasional pony trap, had been abandoned

Social climbing through the basement

This book has brought out my inner Miliband. A punitive mansion tax on all properties with garden squares in Notting Hill? Hell, yes! Friends, I’d go further: flight taxes on trips to Mustique; VAT at 27.5 per cent on Stella McCartney running shoes, Daylesford groceries, Yogalates classes, Vita Coco coconut water, almond milk and chia

Sex, violence and lettuces

There is something cruelly beautiful, delightfully frustrating and filthily gorgeous about a Scarlett Thomas novel. Two family trees open and close this book: one shows what the characters think they are and how they are related, the other what they are revealed to be. How the couplings shift is less important than the chains of

Licence to kill

One morning in March 1921 a large man in an overcoat left his house in Charlottenburg, Berlin, to take a walk in the Tiergarten. A young man crossed his path, drew a pistol and shot him in the neck. Emitting a groan ‘like a branch falling off a tree’, he fell dead. The assassin ran,

Recent crime fiction | 25 June 2015

The act of reading always involves identification: with the story, the characters, the author’s intentions. Renée Knight takes this concept and pushes it to dangerous extremes in her psychological thriller Disclaimer (Doubleday, £12.99, pp. 304, Spectator Bookshop, £11.69). Catherine Ravenscroft finds a novel in her house which she doesn’t remember buying, and which seems to

Into the blue

Jenny Balfour Paul is an indigo dye expert. She has written two books on the subject, and lectures around the world. A librarian alerted her to the mention of the colour, and the plant it comes from, in the journals of a long-forgotten sailor and indigo hand. That day a ten-year love affair began. Thomas

‘It’s always wrong to starve’

‘My mother and father named me Aron, but my father said they should have named me What Have You Done, and my uncle told everyone they should have called me What Were You Thinking.’ So begins, with bitter Jewish humour, this involving book set largely in the Warsaw ghetto. There is a hint of unnerving

The hardest man of all

From the unpromising and desperately unforgiving background that forged his iron will and boundless ambition, Temujin (as Genghis Khan was named at birth) rose to build an empire that was to range from Korea and China, through Afghanistan, Persia and Iraq and eventually to Hungary and Russia, constituting the largest contiguous land imperium in history.

The devils’ advocate | 25 June 2015

Jeremy Hutchinson was the doyen of the criminal bar in the 1960s and 1970s. No Old Bailey hack or parvenu Rumpole, he was the son of Jack, a distinguished practitioner in the same field, and Mary, a Bloomsbury Strachey. An Oxford undergraduate who acquired a criminal record along with a PPE degree (he accidentally shot

The Durable Postie

(For Karl)   He doesn’t even bother to change out of his uniform, just goes straight to the pub after his walk in his red jacket and stays till late evening. He’s usually drunk by the time I get there — drunk and loud, but always pleased to see you. He must get through a

Dick Whittington for the 21st century

Novels of such scope and invention are all too rare; unusual, too, are those of real heart, whose characters you grow to love and truly care for. The Year of the Runaways has it all. The action spans continents, taking in a vast sweep of politics, religion and immigration; it also examines with tenderness and