Lead book review

Autocracy tempered by strangulation

‘It was hard to be a tsar,’ Simon Sebag Montefiore writes in his opening sentence, and what follows fully bears this out. In his thought-provoking introduction, he stresses the unique nature of Russian autocracy and its perverse contradictions; the tsar was absolute ruler, yet he was bound by a tangle of restrictions. His subjects were

More from Books

A legend in her own time

I usually dread the final 15 minutes of a celebrity interview: the awkward section during which the writer must steer the conversation away from the polite, mutually enjoyable discussion of whatever the star is currently promoting toward the juicy personal details that your readers really want to know and your subject really (and justifiably) wants

Recent crime fiction | 28 January 2016

We fully expect con artists to be caught in a sting themselves, but even with that thought constantly in mind I was still hoodwinked by Nicholas Searle’s The Good Liar (Viking, £12.99, pp. 288). The surprises start on page one: Roy Courtnay is in his nineties, with a longstanding pedigree of swindles behind him, and

Very much like a whale

In principle, freediving is simple and perilous: divers take one breath, then dive as deep as they can, with no tanks or air, and come back up again. Watch a video of this — or Luc Besson’s 1988 film The Big Blue — and you have to hold your own breath, because it is beautiful,


And we awake like children to tiny snow sprinkled on shed and car roofs, thinking, Will it last, will it last. The roads already damply black.   Nevermindfulnesss Contemplating truth and time, the face in the hairdresser’s mirror for twenty minutes or more, seeing while attempting not to.

Tricks of the trade | 28 January 2016

This book, the blurb warns us, was written by ‘an established voice in popular psychology, with a regular column on the New Yorker online’. Maria Konnikova is also the ‘bestselling author of Mastermind’, a book which explains how we can train our minds to see the world as Sherlock Holmes saw it. The Confidence Game

Alive and kicking | 28 January 2016

Four years after his death, it is still faintly surprising to recall that Christopher Hitchens is no longer resident on this Earth — or on any other sphere, if his friend Richard Dawkins is correct. A quote from Dawkins graces the cover of And Yet…, a final gathering together of Hitchens’s essays and the sequel

Rewriting the merchant’s tale

Howard Jacobson’s novelistic riff on The Merchant of Venice for the Hogarth Shakespeare project turns, unsurprisingly, on what makes some people (in Jonathan Miller’s memorable self-describing formulation) Jew-ish. Is it the gentile’s anti-Semitism, with its manifestations varying from relatively polite social snubs to persecutions down the centuries, culminating in the Holocaust, that defines Jew-ishness? Or

A country in crisis

Jack Shenker is a throwback to an older, more romantic age when foreign correspondents were angry, partisan and half-crazed with frustration at the stupidity of the powerful. He made his name in Egypt, arriving with nothing more than a desire to be a reporter. As the revolution began, he moved to Tahrir Square and started

Sharing the Dog

The Dog share didn’t work out well in the end. For a start, Dog — no mean manipulator — cadged extra rations in Home A, so that Home B was obliged to act the disciplinarian. Then there was the quasi-polite dispute about the missed flea drops and the bitten house-guest. Goodwill flagged, and it was

Poverty + anarchy + drug dollars = Mexico

You may not have heard of the Maras. Or Barrio 18. Or the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, or the Zatas, or the Knights Templar, or the Shower Posse. But you should have heard about them, says Ioan Grillo in his new book about transnational drug and crime gangs, because any one of them may have

Not so happy valley

Simon Barnes opens with a presumably true idea, that we are all in search of our own versions of paradise — a special place presented here as the sacred ‘combe’ of the title, being a word with Celtic origins that describes a steep hollow or hidden valley. These paradises might be real or imagined, exist