Book Reviews

Our reviews of the latest in literature

Natasha Feroze, Robert Ades, Lucasta Miller, Sam McPhail, Toby Young and Catriona Olding

38 min listen

On this week’s Spectator Out Loud: Natasha Feroze reports on the return of ex-Labour MP Keith Vaz (1:10); Robert Ades presents the case against sociology A-level (7:39); Lucasta Miller reviews Katherine Bucknell’s book, Christopher Isherwood Inside Out (15:24); Sam McPhail provides his notes on the lager Madri (23:16); Toby Young explains why he will be voting Reform (26:23); and, Catriona Olding reflects on love and friendship (31:17). Presented by Patrick Gibbons.  

Sam Leith

Marlon James: A Brief History of Seven Killings

40 min listen

My guest in this week’s Book Club podcast is Marlon James, who ten years ago published his Booker Prize winning novel A Brief History of Seven Killings. He tells me how that remarkable book came about, how he feared it would be ‘my Satanic Verses’, what genre means to him, the importance of myth, and what he learned from the X-Men.

The good old ways: nature’s best chance of recovery

Britain is one of the most nature-depleted places on Earth. The consequences for human wellbeing and resilience, as well as for non-human life, are grave. Conservationists and others say it doesn’t have to be this way. But when it comes to recovery, what should we aim for? How much can we know about what was once present? How much is it practicable or sensible to restore? What does recovery, let alone ‘rewilding’, really mean in a rapidly heating world? Sophie Yeo does not have the answers to all of these questions. Nobody does. What she does offer in Nature’s Ghosts are insights that could help shape a better informed and

Disgusted of academia: a university lecturer bewails his lot

There’s a beautiful moment in I Am the Secret Footballer (2012), a Guardian column turned whistle-blower memoir, when the anonymous author is momentarily freed from an enveloping depression caused by his career as a professional sportsman. He’s at Anfield to play against Liverpool in one of the biggest games of the season when he picks up a pristine, unused football before a warm-up drill and, inexplicably, sniffs it. With that inhalation he’s transported from the corruption, pressure, scandalous abuse and monstrous egos of elite sport and for a few seconds becomes a kid uncontainably excited at the prospect of kicking a new ball around his council estate. This Proustian reverie,

Kapows and wisecracks: Fight Me, by Austin Grossman, reviewed

Superheroes are the trump card of genres. As a rule of thumb, if a novel has a murder, it’s ‘Crime’; if it has a murder on a space station, it’s ‘Science Fiction’; and if it has a murder on a haunted space station, it’s ‘Horror’. But a novel with crimes, robots, faeries, cavemen, magic, cyborgs and time travel can only be ‘Superhero’. It is rarely successful outside the graphic variety, possibly because such strenuous suspension of disbelief is best managed in comics. Yet it can be done. Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay is one, while Lavie Tidhar’s Our Violent Century and Nick Harkaway’s Titanium Noir are

At last we see Henry VIII’s wives as individuals

Divorced. Beheaded. Died. Divorced. Beheaded. Survived. Nearly 500 years after the death of Henry VIII, can there be anything new to say about his queens: Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard and Katherine Parr? Does the world need another book about this sextet? The answer to both questions, as this elegantly written and sumptuously illustrated volume makes clear, is a resounding yes. Published to coincide with the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition of the same name (20 June-8 September), Six Lives is a collection of concise, accessible essays written by experts with specialist knowledge of Tudor painting, music, jewellery, manuscript illumination and book binding, among

Jam-packed with treasures: the eccentric Sir John Soane’s Museum

Sir John Soane’s Museum is one of London’s most eccentric buildings, containing a riot of classical fragments, paintings, architectural models and plaster casts jammed in to overflowing narrow galleries packed into a Georgian town house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Soane viewed it as a reflection of his busy intellect, ‘studies for my own mind’, he said, and Bruce Boucher’s new book reveals how the architect, famous for designing the Bank of England, put together the remarkable collection that visitors can still see today. The author was director of the Soane Museum from 2016 to last year, and his privileged access to its archives ensures we get an insider’s view of

The sheer drudgery of professional tennis

Wimbledon’s starched whites, manicured flower beds and hushed silence enable tennis to present itself as a genteel sport. But Wimbledon only represents tennis in the way that an Olympic 100m final represents athletics. It is the best players in the best setting for a brief period. Actual tennis, the day-to-day life of a regular player on the circuit, is very different. It is relentless, stingy and unsentimental. The most surprising thing about The Racket, Conor Niland’s bruising account of his career as a good (but not great) tennis player, is that he emerges with both his sanity and his compassion intact. Tennis is not an easy game to break into.

The costly legacy of Margaret Thatcher’s monetarism

Post-war British economic history is littered with failed policy panaceas. Keynesian demand management would solve the unemployment problem; the Exchange Rate Mechanism would provide an anchor for stability and end sterling’s perennial weakness; the Barber and Kwarteng budgets – separated by 50 years – would throw off the shackles of Treasury orthodoxy and put the country on a path to higher growth. On the face of it, monetarism – the theory that if you control the money supply, you control inflation – fits squarely into this paradigm. As soon as government sought to control the money supply, the historic relationship between money and inflation broke down. But partly because inflation

A long goodbye to Berlin

Christopher Isherwood pioneered what is now known as ‘autofiction’ long before it acquired that label. His best known work, Goodbye to Berlin (1939), which later inspired the musical Cabaret, was based on the diaries he kept while living in the Weimar Republic in his twenties. He’d already used the material before in Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935), a brilliant black comedy thriller that deserves to be read alongside more supposedly serious works of modernism. Forty years later, he reworked the experiences yet again in Christopher and His Kind (1977), in which he finally made explicit, for the new gay liberation era, what had been suppressed in the earlier works: his

Max Jeffery

Max Jeffery, Melanie McDonagh, Matthew Parris, Iain MacGregor and Petronella Wyatt

28 min listen

On this week’s Spectator Out Loud: Max Jeffery reports on the rise of luxury watch thefts in London (1:18); Melanie McDonagh discusses the collapse of religion in Scotland (5:51); reflecting on the longevity of Diane Abbott and what her selection row means for Labour, Matthew Parris argues that shrewd plans need faultless execution (10:44); Iain MacGregor reviews Giles Milton’s book ‘The Stalin Affair’ (17:30); and, Petronella Wyatt ponders her lack of luck with love (21:49). Presented and produced by Patrick Gibbons. 

Lara Prendergast

The Farage factor

45 min listen

This week: The Farage factor. Our cover piece looks at the biggest news from this week of the general election campaign, Nigel Farage’s decision to stand again for Parliament. Farage appealed to voters in the seaside town of Clacton to send him to Westminster to be a ‘nuisance’. Indeed, how much of a nuisance will he be to Rishi Sunak in this campaign? Will this boost Reform’s ratings across Britain? And could it be eighth time lucky for Nigel? The Spectator‘s political editor Katy Balls joins the podcast to discuss, alongside former Clacton and UKIP MP, Douglas Carswell (2:32). Then: Gavin Mortimer reports from France ahead of the European and local

Those magnificent men and their stargazing machines

Where is science bred? Is it where the physical circumstances are right – clear skies for astronomy, for example? Where raw materials are abundant – coal for organic chemistry? Where minds freely meet? Where the enlightened patron rules? Violet Moller’s first book, The Map of Knowledge, examined the spread through the centuries of the ideas of Galen, Euclid and Ptolemy by focusing on seven, mainly Mediterranean cities, from Alexandria to Venice, where scientific knowledge was gathered, augmented and promulgated anew, ensuring the survival of classical learning into the modern period. But why these men and these cities? Are people or places the drivers? Is geography a reliable guide, a storytelling

The English lieutenant’s Frenchwoman: the tragic story of Adèle Hugo

In 1882, a sneaky reporter from the Figaro managed to track down Victor Hugo’s only surviving, long-forgotten child to an expensive mental asylum on the edge of Paris. He stalked her as she was being taken for a walk in the local park. She had the ‘profile of a duchess’, ‘staring black eyes’, a perilous hopping gait and odd compulsions. According to the reporter’s inside source, ‘Mme Pinson’ had spent a month removing all the rocks from the asylum’s long driveway and then replaced them one at a time. Thirty-three years later, she could still play the piano and claimed to be writing an opera titled Venus in Exile. She

Bayes’s Theorem: the mathematical formula that ‘explains the world’

Here’s a profound question about beards: is the number of acrobats with beards the same as the number of bearded people who are acrobats? Go with your gut instinct. It’s not a trick question. If you answer ‘yes’, then you’ve understood the central idea behind Bayes’s theorem. If you’re one of those people who likes to titter about how bad you are at mathematics, stop it. Retake your GCSE, learn how to pin this obviousness down in symbols, and you can produce artificial intelligence, forecast stock market collapses and understand this: P(A|B) = (P(B|A)∙P(A))/(P(B)) This is Bayes’s equation, the formula which, as Tom Chivers insists in this remarkable, bold book,

Why must we be in constant battle with the ocean?

I recently learned to dive in the bay of Dakar. It was exciting. I’d started learning in a Leeds swimming pool and though I knew the ocean would feel different, I didn’t expect it to feel comfortable. It shouldn’t. It is not my element, and humans have long since left it to the rest of the ocean’s creatures. I also didn’t think the ocean would sound like my neck when I roll it during yoga: that same crackle. With their remarkable sonar, dolphins can even tell when a human is pregnant That the ocean is not quiet is one of the most pleasing revelations of the past century (I mean

‘A group of deranged idiots’ – how the Soviets saw the Avant-Gardists

The Avant-Gardists tells the story of the small group of brilliant, punky outsider artists who, after the Bolshevik coup in 1917, to everyone’s amazement suddenly found themselves holding important posts in government (as if Sid Vicious were made minister of education). They were soon demoted, and by the end of the 1920s persecuted or driven abroad. Yet news of their breathtaking originality spread internationally, playing an important role in transforming not only our understanding of art, but the aesthetics of modern life, from buildings to household objects, textiles to the printed word. Sjeng Scheijen has written an exhilarating history of the movement, illuminated by new research and insights, and with

A Native American tragedy: Wandering Stars, by Tommy Orange, reviewed

‘You will ask the librarian what novels are written by Indian people and she will tell you that she doesn’t think there are any,’ reflects Victoria Bear Shield, a Native single mother in Tommy Orange’s polyphonic second novel. It is 1954, in America, and she is working out how to rear her baby daughter so that the child is not puzzled, as she herself was, by being ‘the brownest person in every room’. Seventy years later, one would hope that the librarian’s knowledge of indigenous writers would include at least Orange’s own work and that of Sherman Alexie and Louise Erdrich. Orange is a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho