The Existential Englishman: Paris Among the Artists – review


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The art critic Michael Peppiatt’s account of his bohemian life in Paris is full of colour, character and charm

Michael Peppiatt’s memoir is subtitled Paris Among the Artists, but it could be called A Portrait of the Art Critic As an Older Man. Peppiatt, who is best known for his biography and memoirs of his friend Francis Bacon, has spent the greater part of his working life in Paris, and this book is a love letter to the city, although not an uncritical one. He writes in the preface that he will explore “my lifelong attachment to this bewitching, temperamental, exasperating city and the deep love-hate relationship that binds me to it”. Yet he is ultimately a romantic, and the scent that rises from these pages is a heady aroma of Gauloises and red wine. Peppiatt, as a young man, was rather fond of the bottle; this book, at ...

The Library Book by Susan Orlean – review


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An elegant history of the Los Angeles Public Library lauds both the building that survived a fire and its vivid patrons

In Susan Orlean’s enthralling and inspirational account of the Los Angeles Public Library, she alludes to a common euphemism used by the Senegalese when someone dies, namely that “his or her library has burned”. This poetic expression, implying the loss of a great store of knowledge, came into literal focus on 29 April 1986, when the LA library caught fire, destroying more than 400,000 books and devastating the community reliant on its resources. Yet, like a phoenix, it rose from the flames, greater and more beloved than ever. This book is a homage not just to the spirit and resilience of those who rebuilt the library, but to those whose lives are transformed by these public palaces of reading, on both sides of the lending desk.

The ...

Jeeves and the King of Clubs review – spy capers with a PG certificate


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Ben Schott’s new ‘Wodehouse’ novel is an amusing and well written homage to the master

In a likably modest afterword to his new Jeeves and Wooster novel, Ben Schott writes that “nothing can cap perfection; my aim has been to establish base camp in the foothills of Plum’s genius and direct climbers up towards the peak”. He has certainly succeeded in this aim and a great deal besides. Although Schott, whose first novel this is, cannot compare to PG “Plum” Wodehouse’s peerless ability with comic plotting and situation, his joy in manipulating language is certainly on a par – and an unexpected but welcome topical element gives the high jinks some added bite.

The convoluted plot has many strands, none of them remotely realistic. Bertie Wooster, bumbler and feckless man about town, becomes drawn into an unlikely plot to discover a fifth columnist at the heart of British society, along ...

Jeeves and the King of Clubs review – spy capers with a PG certificate


This post is by Alexander Larman from Books | The Guardian


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Ben Schott’s new ‘Wodehouse’ novel is an amusing and well written homage to the master

In a likably modest afterword to his new Jeeves and Wooster novel, Ben Schott writes that “nothing can cap perfection; my aim has been to establish base camp in the foothills of Plum’s genius and direct climbers up towards the peak”. He has certainly succeeded in this aim and a great deal besides. Although Schott, whose first novel this is, cannot compare to PG “Plum” Wodehouse’s peerless ability with comic plotting and situation, his joy in manipulating language is certainly on a par – and an unexpected but welcome topical element gives the high jinks some added bite.

The convoluted plot has many strands, none of them remotely realistic. Bertie Wooster, bumbler and feckless man about town, becomes drawn into an unlikely plot to discover a fifth columnist at the heart of British society, along ...

Love Is Blind by William Boyd review – a rapturous return to form


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This audaciously unpredictable tale of passion and pianos in 1880s France and Russia is worthy of adulation

In his latest novel, Love Is Blind – his 15th – William Boyd has pulled off an audaciously cunning trick, a literary bait and switch that both delights and surprises. At first glance, this historical travelogue-cum-romance follows in the vein of Boyd’s earlier successes such as Any Human Heart and Waiting for Sunrise, being a beautifully written and deeply humane account of its protagonist’s journey through a specific historical period: in this case, fin-de-siècle Scotland, France and Russia. Yet there is also a sense of mischief and playfulness imbued into its narrative that takes the form of several elaborate homages to other books and stories. If one never noticed, this would still be a thoroughly enjoyable read. Yet much of the pleasure here is in the gleeful way that Boyd dares the ...

Katerina by James Frey review – a glorification of masculine privilege


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A writer longs for a lover from his youth in this crude, narcissistic novel by the author of A Million Little Pieces

Those who have had the misfortune to come across a stranger masturbating in public usually feel a mixture of shock, revulsion and embarrassment. Much the same emotions are engendered when, on page three of James Frey’s much-awaited and largely autobiographical new novel, the protagonist, Jay, announces: “Follow your heart and follow your cock.” Over the course of the book’s unedifying length, there is a great deal about Jay’s cock, and its machinations, which is described in tedious detail. What is never supplied is a reason why the reader should engage with Frey’s pretentious and vacuous alter ego.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the idea at the heart of the narrative, which follows Jay both as an eager 21-year-old in Paris in 1992, consorting with the beau ...

Night Time Cool by Jamie Paradise review – a rip-roaring debut


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Audacious writing puts a thrilling gloss on a conventional crime tale

The journalist Jamie Jackson has had a thriving career writing about football for the Guardian, but it is now clear that he also has the makings of a fine comic crime novelist.

At least, his alter ego Jamie Paradise does on the evidence of this rip-roaring debut novel, set amid the noise, colour and occasional violence of London, pre-Christmas 2015. Written in an audaciously flamboyant manner that is roughly equal parts Money-era Martin Amis and Filth-style Irvine Welsh, it’s a thrilling ride, even if the suspicion lingers that the verbal and chemical fireworks conceal a more conventional saga.

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Firefly by Henry Porter review – flight from Isis


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A gripping procedural takes us into a world of suffering refugees in the Middle East

Henry Porter’s latest novel not only feels unusually credible for a suspense thriller, but has a clear social purpose. In its account of refugees displaced from their homes by the ravages of Islamic State and forced to rely on their wits and petty kindnesses to survive, there is both a sharp journalistic attention to detail (Porter was a regular columnist for the Observer) and genuine anger at how we, as a society, have become inured to the almost unimaginable suffering of others. If Firefly ultimately works better as a Le Carré-esque procedural than a ripping yarn, then its attainment is a greater and more serious one.

His protagonist, who should return in other novels, is a compelling and multifaceted figure. Paul Samson, himself a former refugee, is Lebanese by birth and English by upbringing ...

There There by Tommy Orange review – moving and powerful


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A challenging debut novel centred on a powwow in urban California explores the breadth of modern Native American life

The title of Tommy Orange’s bold debut novel is a reference to Gertrude Stein’s line about the city of her childhood, Oakland, California: “there is no there there”, she wrote. Oakland happens also to be Orange’s home town and provides the setting for the book, which has attracted many admiring reviews in the US.

The novel centres on the interconnected lives of a group of Native Americans – or Indians, as they call themselves, determined to reclaim a term more often used disparagingly. Orange, himself a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma, deals not just with several centuries of oppression of the Native American community (which a brief, dryly witty prologue deals with in a devastatingly matter-of-fact way), but how rites and tradition can seem comically anachronistic in ...

House of Nutter: The Rebel Tailor of Savile Row by Lance Richardson – review


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The enjoyable story of Tommy Nutter – flamboyant suit-maker to the stars – casts a new light on swinging London and Britain’s persecution of homosexuals

The Savile Row tailor Tommy Nutter – his birth name, rather than a moniker adopted at the height of his stardom – was the exemplar of fabulous but fleeting fame in the 60s and 70s. Emerging apparently from nowhere, he quickly became “the coolest man you’ve ever seen”, designing flamboyant clothes for stars such as Elton John and the Beatles, who, apart from George, wore his suits on the cover of Abbey Road .

Lance Richardson’s splendidly readable and gossipy account of his life has a trump card to play – namely the relationship between Tommy and his photographer brother, David, who acted as a kind of artistic Boswell to his brother’s sartorial Johnson. Tommy died in 1992 of an Aids-related illness, but David is still ...

The Overstory by Richard Powers review – a majestic redwood of a novel


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Migration meets the magical qualities of trees in the National Book award-winner’s mighty story that is richly detailed and shot through with hope

No less a writer than Margaret Atwood has said of Richard Powers that “it’s not possible for him to write an uninteresting book”. On the evidence of The Overstory, he is continuing a remarkable run that began when he came to prominence in 2006 with the National Book award-winning The Echo Maker. This is a mighty, at times even monolithic, work that combines the multi-narrative approach of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas with a paean to the grandeur and wonder of trees that elegantly sidesteps pretension and overambition. Early comparisons to Moby-Dick are unfairly lofty, but this fine book can stand on its own.

Powers marshals a diverse central cast of nine characters, dealing with the history of migration to America. We meet, among others, a plant ...

Macbeth by Jo Nesbø review – something noirish this way comes


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Jo Nesbø’s retelling of Macbeth as a gritty crime thriller suffers from not pushing Shakespeare’s play far enough

The latest in the Hogarth series of contemporary retellings of Shakespeare’s work is unashamedly commercial. From the moody cover to the blurb boasting that this is the new thriller from the No 1 bestselling author, there is a determined attempt to drag this tale a million miles away from images of dusty theatres and tights. Only a brief statement by Nesbø that he sees the play as “a thriller about the struggle for power, set both in a gloomy, stormy, noir-like setting and in a dark, paranoid human mind” alludes to its origins. On its own terms, this is a “fair and foul” crime novel with a vivid sense of place that will please Nesbø fans. But as an adaptation of Macbeth, it encourages us to hope that it might be ...

Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi review – elegant satire


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The winner of the international prize for Arabic fiction reimagines Mary Shelley’s classic in war-torn Iraq

“Be a positive force and you’ll survive,” a character repeatedly mutters in Ahmed Saadawi’s hallucinatory and hilarious novel. In war-torn Baghdad, where truck bombings are an unremarkable part of everyday life and where human life is a trinket to be tossed away, positive force is in short supply. It seems unsurprising in this present-day hell, then, that an opportunistic tinker and ne’er-do-well, Hadi, could seize upon myriad spare body parts covering the streets and create a patchwork human being. Saadawi suggests that, amid all the horror and spiritual degradation, there is nothing especially unlikely in the idea that this thing of shreds and patches should find reanimation from the soul of a security guard blown to shreds. Nor that the “whatsisname” should roam the streets, committing a series of murders.

Initially, the creature’s ...

White King review – Charles I as you’ve never seen him before


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Leanda de Lisle’s beautifully written biography offers fresh perspectives on the English monarch and those who surrounded him

Leanda de Lisle’s engrossing biography of Charles I is both revisionist and traditional. Its revisionism comes in the refreshing form of placing the women in Charles’s life centre stage; his Catholic queen, Henrietta Maria, is thus transformed from a simpering appendage into a politically adept schemer. Likewise, Henrietta’s lady of the bedchamber and the “last Boleyn girl”, Lucy Carlisle – the likely model for Milady de Winter in The Three Musketeers – is given an engaged psychological portrait that deals with her agency on both sides of the divided country. Yet many of the strengths of White King also lie in its traditional virtues of being an engaging, well-researched and beautifully written biography. Emphatically not another book about the civil wars – Cromwell doesn’t appear until halfway through – this instead offers a nuanced ...

David Bowie: A Life by Dylan Jones review – skilful and revelatory


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The GQ editor’s biography is comprehensive and full of new revelations and details

There have been many books about David Bowie, both before and after his death, but GQ editor Dylan Jones’s is among the best, as well as the most revelatory. Jones sensibly chooses to use the verbatim testimonies of Bowie’s friends, loved ones, colleagues and admirers (as well as a few sceptics) and skilfully teases out hitherto unknown facts and details. It is unlikely, for instance, that any other biography has taken such care to explore the formative role of Beckenham in Bowie’s early career.

For any admirer of the great man, there is a smorgasbord of new information, mixed with well-judged analysis. But even for agnostics, there is no denying Jones’s flair and dedication in giving his hero the most comprehensive of eulogies.

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Outskirts by John Grindrod review – in praise of Britain’s in-between bits


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The author of Concretopia turns his eye to those places that are neither town nor country in this well-researched bookAt a time when political parties seem to be eyeing up the green belt as a potential site for housing, John Grindrod’s salutary memoir-cum-meditation is a reminder that not everything can be viewed in simple black and white – or green and brown – terms. Grindrod grew up on “the last road in London”, the New Addington housing estate in Croydon, and retains a great, although not uncritical, affection for the 13% of England that is neither town nor country, but something else entirely. It would take the skills of a Betjeman to come up with a stirring ode to the green belt, and fine writer though he is, Grindrod is no Betjeman. Yet this well-researched and engaging book has other charms. It allows the reader to reconsider parts of ...