Lead book review

Liberating Marianne

In Marianne in Chains, his last book on Occupied France, Robert Gildea offered an original view of life in that country between 1940 and 1944, arguing that outside the cities it had not always been as bad, nor had the Vichy regime always been as reactionary, as was subsequently claimed. Confining his research to three

More from Books

First-rate firsts

It has become something of a truism among writers’ groups and in articles offering advice on how best to secure the services of an agent or publisher that the opening of a novel is everything — the ne plus ultra of the writer’s armoury. If one can knock the reader’s socks off with the first

The day of reckoning is nigh

I think this should begin with a truth-in-journalism disclosure: I know R.W. Johnson well enough to call him Bill. Since this opens me to charges of bias, let me start by acknowledging that Professor Johnson (a former leader of the ‘Magdalen Mafia’ at Oxford and author of a witty book on the subject) is unpopular

It happened one summer | 27 August 2015

Five songs, only three of which were amplified. Thirty-five minutes, including interruptions. That’s how long Bob Dylan played for at Newport Folk Festival on Sunday 25 July 1965. Even on its own merits, it was a messy, halting set with an inadequate sound system. ‘Why did that matter?’ Elijah Wald rightly asks. ‘Why does what

Life with old father William

This intensely written memoir by Adam Mars-Jones about his Welsh father, Sir William, opens with the death of Sheila, Adam’s mother, of lung cancer in 1998: ‘She died with self-effacing briskness in little more than a month.’ Adam too is self-effacing, moving in while his mother was dying, then staying on as his father’s main

Another near run thing

Charles VI of France died on 21 October 1422. He had been intermittently mad for most of his long reign, ‘a pathetic figure’ flitting, often witless, around his palaces. He left a ruined and divided kingdom. There was no French prince to follow his funeral. ‘Tradition was maintained by a solitary figure in a black

Gothic mysteries

This is a muddle of novel (originally published last year by Tartarus Press in a limited edition), though there are plenty of indications that the author will go on to do great things. I doubt if he had quite decided what he was writing — a Stephen King horror story, a book about the loss

A rollicking satire on the way we live now

Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Purity, comes with great expectations. Its author’s awareness of this fact is signalled by a series of lampoons of writers expected to produce ‘big books’, writers named Jonathan and an assortment of other self-referential gags, but also the fact that its eponymous heroine, Purity Tyler, is nicknamed Pip. This Pip’s expectations

Red for danger

‘Gentlemen prefer blondes,’ Anita Loos pronounced, ‘but gentlemen marry brunettes.’ Quite what they do with redheads she never revealed (and I’ve often wondered), but with Red: A Natural History of the Redhead, Jacky Colliss Harvey sets out to discover everything — what it takes to make a redhead, where in the world they come from


after Robert Hooke, Micrographia (1665) Their world is a glass of rainwater. They move up and down through the clearness,    swallowing their way, or hang by their tails from the surface: tiny transparent caterpillars with their bristled segments of body,    horned trophies of head. The glass holds nothing that I can see, but they find

Spirits of the Blitz

If the early Martin Amis is instantly recognisable by way of its idiosyncratic slang (‘rug-rethink’, ‘going tonto’ etc) then the later Pat Barker can be similarly identified by its finely wrought accounts of physical trauma. ‘Afterwards, it was the horses she remembered,’ runs a specimen sentence from the new novel, ‘galloping towards them out of