Andrew Barrow

Paradise or prison?

This daintily dress-conscious and rewardingly heavyweight novel is set mainly in a half imaginary stately home in Oxfordshire. The story begins in 1663, jumps forward to modern times and then back to 1665. On all occasions, our attention is less on the actual house, Wychwood, than on the power of nature, whatever’s left of the

Thoroughly modern Melanie

This exhilaratingly lowbrow first novel concentrates on money and lust or, to put it more bluntly, sex and the City. Its young heroine or chief victim — or is she actually the villain? — has already joined an investment bank and had her first one-night stand a few minutes before this savage saga begins. Melanie

Among the snobs, slobs and scolds

The author of this jam-packed treasure trove has been a film critic at the New York Times since 2000 and is also professor of film criticism at Wesleyan University. As if these platforms weren’t enough, he’s now written a book about the tangled worlds of films, books, music, paintings and criticism, dragging in Aristotle, Pope,

A tale of cloaks and daggers

You don’t need to know the opera Tosca to understand and enjoy this book about Puccini’s most notorious villain, Vitellio Scarpia, portrayed on stage as a ‘sadistic agent of reaction’, a cut-throat murderer who enjoys drinking his victims’ blood from their skulls and, as one of my opera-loving Kensington pals puts it, ‘not a nice

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

Why prefabs really were fab

Sir Winston Churchill did not invent the prefab, but on 26 March 1944 he made an important broadcast promising to manufacture half a million of them to ease the new housing emergency caused by enemy bombs and the continued growth of inner-city slums. He went on to claim that these easy-to-assemble, factory-made bungalows would be

Falling in love with birds of prey

Is it the feathers that do the trick? The severely truculent expressions on their faces? Or is it their ancient origins? Or the places where they live? Whatever their secret, birds of prey have exercised an extraordinary hold on human beings for tens of thousands of years. In the bad old days, their fans ranged

Chaplin & Company, by Mave Fellowes – review

The unlikely heroine of Mave Fellowes’s Chaplin & Company (Cape, £16.99) is a highly-strung, posh-speaking, buttoned-up 18-year-old with the unhelpful name Odeline Milk. Utterly friendless, she dislikes both humans and animals, but she has one huge, far-reaching private passion. She wants to be a mime artist — like the great Marcel Marceau. To launch her

Bird Brain by Guy Kennaway

Basil Peyton-Crumbe is a multi-millionaire landowner. An embattled man known to all, even his dogs, as ‘Banger’, he claims to have despatched at least 41,000 pheasants with the cheap old 12-bore he’s had since childhood. Shooting pheasants, he believes, is ‘an exquisite accomplishment’, as complex as writing a sonata or designing a cathedral. On the

Tears of laughter

At first glance, these books have an awful lot in common. Indeed, all three might have been produced by the same self-centred chatterbox, so similar is the slightly manic, self-consciously jokey, self-interrupting, lower-middle class vernacular in which they are all written. Fluent, full of ideas and, above all, conversational. All three authors treat their imaginary

Blood will out

This brilliantly murky novel describes a nightmarish ten days in the life of a famous, highly successful but deeply dysfunctional family. The action takes place in prisons, mental hospitals, nursing homes — and the House of Commons. Involved in this brutal tale are three tall, handsome, Old Etonian brothers — a Labour MP, a stinking

A female Colossus

During the post-war years, the author of this book was a much-talked about variety artiste, famous for breaking ten-inch nails, bending steel bars in her teeth and throwing Bob Hope over her shoulder. Billed as the Mighty Mannequin, Joan Rhodes enhanced her appeal by looking and dressing as if she had stepped out of the

Under the shadow of the Minster

Listing page content here This heavy, clanking, finely wrought adventure story is set mainly on or around York station in the winter of 1906 and washed down with handfuls of soot, clinker, ‘bacon and eggs and related matters’ and, I would estimate,  some 90 pints of Smith’s ale. The Lost Luggage Porter is Andrew Martin’s

Lady into urban fox

This is a thoroughly rotten book, a squelchingly well-researched period piece with sex, lust, over-ripeness and what one character calls the ‘odour’ of the scholar permeating every paragraph. It is also, let me quickly add, a remarkable tour de force, jam-packed with poetry, verbal fireworks, vitality and charm. Set during the overheated summer of 1784

Seeing off six monarchs

This beguiling little book, nostalgically illustrated with faded family snapshots, describes the long and arduous life of a tortoise who died earlier this year at Powderham Castle near Exeter, aged 160. According to the blurb, Timothy survived six monarchs, two world wars and many generations of the family who looked after him. The story that

Heirs and graces

This provocative, titillating and seductive novel is about upper-class affectations and ‘the mystery of unearned greatness’. It focuses on a network of rich, blue-blooded and slightly dim grandees which apparently stretches ‘far beyond national boundaries’. Snobs describes in forensic detail a world where duchesses are ‘taken in’ to dinner and desperate, social-climbing women feel deeply

The Dutch manipulator of the Pelvis

Behind many great stars of stage and screen lurks a mysterious, sometimes sinister manager figure, minder or mastermind, whose precise role in their protégé’s life, especially in terms of creative input, may be hard to define. Richard Burton’s career was kick-started by the Welsh schoolmaster whose surname he took. Tommy Cooper’s affairs were handled for

The way to the tomb

This queer, black novel is mainly concerned with the special funeral train service which once plied between Waterloo Station and Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey. Its hero is an intensely innocent young railway apprentice, who dreams of becoming an engine driver ‘of the better sort’, and its villains – or so it seems – are a