PositiveThe Times (UK)This book is never mean-spirited, and never degenerates into a demolition job. He’s often infuriated and sometimes appalled by Churchill; yet somehow he always finds him fascinating, even loveable ... The question is whether we need another Churchill book. Nothing Wheatcroft says is new; even his revisionism is familiar. As for his underlying argument — that Britain suffers from a dangerous case of \'Churchillism\', which prevents us from \'coming to terms\' with our place in the world, whatever that means — I find it utterly unconvincing ... Yet although I don’t buy Wheatcroft’s argument, I enjoyed disagreeing with it. Even readers sick of Churchill will find much to enjoy, partly because Wheatcroft is such a fluent and entertaining writer, but also because he has so many interesting and provocative things to say.
John Le Carré
PositiveThe Sunday Times (UK)In almost every respect Silverview fulfils the late-period le Carré stereotype. It’s deftly and confidently written, but so slight you can easily read it in one sitting. In the very first sentence it’s raining. Everybody seems thoroughly dejected and nobody ever tells the truth. Most of the characters, in fact, are having affairs, thinking about having affairs, feeling guilty about having had affairs or worrying that other people are having affairs ... Since everybody is haunted by the ghosts of old betrayals, much of the narrative consists of people telling each other what somebody else did 40 years ago. And as always in late-period le Carré, nobody speaks quite like a real person ... The only real change from the late-period le Carré formula, in fact, is that this book is surprisingly unpolitical ... the actual plot is pretty thin ... Is the book weaker, then, for being so familiar? Maybe not. After all, just as Ian Fleming’s readers devoured the Bond books for the familiar staples of guns and girls, so le Carré’s fans will probably enjoy seeing the old formula given one last runout ... perhaps it’s the privilege of a great writer to repeat himself. And although Silverview never comes close to matching the achievement of Tinker Tailor or A Perfect Spy, there are enough reminders of the old magic to please his most ardent aficionados.
RaveThe Sunday Times (UK)Cervantes, reader in history at the University of Bristol, does not downplay the conquistadors’ violence. But he thinks they have been grossly misunderstood. Turning them into pantomime villains, he argues, completely misses the genuine force of their Christian faith, the importance of their late-medieval context and the historical reality of the conquests themselves ... Cervantes’s account makes it hard to see the indigenous peoples as saintly victims ... All the time Cervantes teases out the nuances of his story. He is brilliant at showing the wider context ... Carefully researched and vividly written, Cervantes’s account blasts hole after hole in the 21st-century view of the conquistadors as little more than 16th-century Nazis. In his account they are often tortured by self-doubt, holding anguished debates about their treatment of the indigenous peoples. And he ends with some enjoyably provocative observations.
MixedThe Sunday Times (UK)It’s to Rooney’s credit that although he clearly knows a colossal amount about clocks, he wears his learning very lightly ... The obvious criticism of Rooney’s book is that it is just too short. His discussion of clocks and faith, for example, is barely 20 pages long, whisking us from medieval Mesopotamia and Cromwellian England to Mecca’s colossal new Royal Clock Tower without a pause for breath ... The details are fascinating, but it is disconcerting to travel centuries in just a few sentences ... Yet underlying this breakneck dash is a serious thesis ... strikes me as an unnecessarily pious, even Bourdinish note on which to end. After all, clocks aren’t only instruments of control, and to most of us they don’t really represent power and oppression. They are miracles of care and craftsmanship, testament to the ingenuity and imagination of the human spirit. Clocks are us, as Rooney argues. But surely we’re not all bad, are we?
PanThe Sunday Times (UK)... will probably leave many readers purple with rage. Yet the idea of focusing on Stalin, rather than Hitler, is a clever way of inviting us to rethink the traditional narrative ... As the book goes on, McMeekin the historian fades from view and McMeekin the armchair strategist takes over ... Challenging as all this is, I find it overwhelmingly unconvincing. Most readers will find the idea of dealing with Hitler a moral obscenity, although McMeekin is right to point out that Stalin was little better. However, some of his claims are little more than fantasy: the idea of an Allied intervention in Finland is surely no more realistic than a Churchill-Hitler rapprochement after Hess’s flight to Scotland. And although making Stalin the centre of the story is an intriguing exercise, McMeekin’s approach is far too one-sided to be satisfying. He seems too keen to shock, to say the unsayable. As a result, his book reads less like a serious scholarly history than a provocative thought experiment that has got completely out of hand.
RaveThe Sunday Times (UK)... gloriously rich ... As in his previous history of the mid-Victorian period, Heffer’s scope is vast. Almost nothing escapes him ... While Heffer’s treatment of politics is strikingly even-handed, his portraits of the royal family are positively blistering ... Heffer is very good not just on the Pooters’ growing political importance but also on the kind of things they read ... As a columnist for The Daily Telegraph, Heffer is best known for his extremely trenchant opinions, so some readers may be surprised by his book’s balanced and judicious tone. But The Age of Decadence is an enormously impressive and enjoyable read, all the same. Heffer has a brilliant eye for anecdotes ... every now and again there is a flash of the Heffer readers will recognise from his columns.
RaveThe Times (UK)... a marvel of erudition ... That might not sound an immediately appealing subject, but Colley uses her constitutions to explore war and diplomacy, mass literacy and high finance, imperial ambition and national identity ... Where did all these constitutions come from? Most historians emphasise literacy and liberty, seeing constitutions as the product of high-minded, slightly bloodless political salons. Colley’s approach is more imaginative ... All this might sound a bit esoteric, but Colley’s book has plenty of memorably colourful details ... fascinating.
RaveThe Sunday Times (UK)Sands’s untangling of the mysteries surrounding Otto von Wächter is masterfully done ... On the face of it, the second half of the book, with its cast of war criminals, secret agents and Nazi bishops, sounds almost impossibly thrilling. Yet, as Sands’s search for the underwhelming truth about Otto’s death leads him down one rabbit hole after another, much of it reads like high-class padding. There is also far too much literary-London name-dropping ... Where the book really shines, though, is in its portrait of Otto’s son, Horst ... Is Horst a fool, a liar, or simply a dutiful son? Should we condemn him for denying his father’s guilt, or admire him for his devotion to his parents? It is to Sands’s credit that he avoids glib judgments.
Richard J. Evans
PositiveThe Times (UK)... seems long overdue ... Evans’s version of history is satisfyingly complicated ... Trenchant, carefully researched and often very funny, Evans’s book is a pleasure to read. But will it make a difference? Probably not. The Nazi-conspiracy industry is too entrenched to be undone by a single book. And conspiracy theories, unfortunately, will always be with us.
RaveThe Times (UK)One Two Three Four is such a ridiculously enjoyable treat ... Despite Brown’s reputation as a supremely funny writer, One Two Three Four is often surprisingly poignant. Almost alone among Beatles books, it devotes considerable attention to the people damaged by the band’s success: the losers, the people left behind ... Too many writers take the Beatles, and themselves, far too seriously. Brown does neither ... at a time when, like everybody else, I was feeling not entirely thrilled about the news, I loved every word of it.
RaveThe Times (UK)MacMillan’s book ranges briskly and fluently across the entire history of human warfare. As poor Ötzi’s story suggests, she is a bracingly unsentimental observer with an admirable eye for detail.
RaveThe Times (UK)... one of the most disturbing books I have read ... Meticulously researched and carefully written, Our Bodies Their Battlefield is almost unbearably difficult to read, which is exactly as it should be. Showing admirable patience and empathy, Lamb visits Yazidi women who were traded on internet forums and Nigerian mothers whose daughters were kidnapped by Boko Haram ... Many of these stories are enormously harrowing to read, and certainly too harrowing to repeat in detail ... Although Lamb’s book could scarcely be more powerful or more important, she admits that it tells only one side of the story.
Volker Ullrich, Trans. By Jefferson Chase
RaveThe Times (UK)... meticulous ... For some readers, Ullrich’s portrait of Hitler may be difficult to take, since we are so used to seeing him as inhuman, even subhuman, a madman or a beast. Even Sir Ian Kershaw, whose two-volume biography represents the gold standard in 20th-century history, saw Hitler as a \'non-person\', a lazy, talentless mediocrity onto whom people projected their hopes and anxieties ... But Ullrich argues that Hitler was all too human. And although his second volume covers almost exactly the same period as Kershaw’s second book —the Second World War — the focus is quite different. Kershaw’s real interest lay in the Nazi dictatorship. Ullrich is more interested in Hitler the man ... [Ullrich] is also excellent on the dictator’s health and appearance ... Some of this, of course, is very familiar: the rages, the Stauffenberg bomb plot, the final scenes in the bunker. So if you know the story, do you need to bother? ... The answer is yes. Smoothly written and splendidly translated, Ullrich’s book gives us a Hitler we have not seen before, at once cold-blooded and idealistic, chillingly narcissistic and cloyingly sentimental. And precisely because he seems so much like the rest of us, it is probably the most disturbing portrait of Hitler I have ever read.
PanThe Times (UK)... a very familiar, not to say tired, argument ... Whatever you think of Buruma’s case, the next 200 pages are so soul-crushingly predictable that you wonder why he bothered. Like innumerable writers before him, he sees the special relationship as essentially an exercise in British self-delusion, with successive governments trying ever harder to prove their relevance to their American counterparts ... Buruma’s decision to focus entirely on prime ministers and presidents means he has nothing at all to say about the cultural and social dimensions of the Anglo-American relationship. Everybody conforms unerringly to stereotype ... None of it will come as any surprise to anybody who has ever read a newspaper ... Buruma has spent much of his life outside Britain, and it shows. There are one or two small errors...but the bigger problem is that he is so incurious about the British themselves ... He completely misses the resilience of popular Euroscepticism from the 1960s onwards, dismissing it as merely the creation of the \'right-wing tabloid press\'. As for his account of Brexit, the problem is not so much that it is one-sided as that it is so comically overwrought ... What is so disappointing is that for a writer of Buruma’s ability, the so-called Churchill complex ought to be a richly promising subject. Yet he has virtually nothing to say about Churchill and empire, and does not even mention his protagonist’s afterlife in films such as The Gathering Storm and Darkest Hour. Instead, he prefers to indulge himself in a long rant about the \'toxic\' political culture that has held Britain back. You would hardly guess from his account that, despite its supposedly “rabid” politics, Britain remains one of the richest countries in the world, and that surveys consistently rank its people as some of the happiest in Europe ... This is merely the latest in a long line of books written for the kind of American who is keen to hear what a dementedly arrogant and self-deluding lot the British are, but is uninterested in ordinary British people’s lives. It is like being stuck in a lift with nothing to read but The New York Times. I do not mean that as a compliment.
RaveThe Times (UK)... tremendously rich and learned ... massively researched, occasionally dense but powerful, persuasive and utterly fascinating — is also likely to stir controversy ... For anyone with fond memories of Spanish holidays, Preston’s book makes for harrowing reading. Although it appears to be a straightforward highly political history, somebody is assassinated, tortured, maimed or imprisoned on almost every other page. And many of his characters seem more like escapees from some chamber of horrors than traditional parliamentary politicians.
PositiveThe Sunday Times (UK)As Charles Moore’s titanic biography shows, Thatcher was a much more complicated individual than many people realised ... She seemed more regal now, almost imperial, her hair ever more bouffant, her shoulder-pads ever more colossal. And it is telling that, in stark contrast with Moore’s first two volumes, hundreds of pages go by without Britain, the British people or domestic policy being mentioned at all. As a result, the first half of Moore’s book drags more than its predecessors ... it can be pretty hard going. Then, at last, the momentum quickens ... Moore’s portrait of [Thatcher\'s] final years, when she was overtaken by dementia, is so exquisitely judged that even the most glacial Thatcherphobes may find themselves melting ... For as Moore’s mighty volumes have shown beyond doubt, the Iron Lady was human, after all.
RaveThe Sunday Times (UK)Although none of this will come as a surprise to those familiar with Cold War history, Macintyre tells the story brilliantly. His book’s final third is superbly done, the tension mounting relentlessly as Gordievsky realises the KGB are on to him ... For Gordievsky, the ending is bittersweet. But as with any good spy thriller, it would be a shame to give it away ... On the last page of his compelling account, Macintyre describes Gordievsky as \'one of the bravest men I have ever met, and one of the loneliest\'.
RaveThe Sunday Times (UK)Although there are already several books about him, Sorge ought to be much better known. As the journalist Owen Matthews writes in the introduction to his gloriously readable biography, he was irresistibly fascinating, \'an idealistic communist and a cynical liar\', a \'pedant, a drunk, and a womaniser ...addicted to risk, a braggart, often wildly indisciplined\'. ... Every chapter of Matthews’s superbly researched biography reads like something from an Eric Ambler thriller ... In retrospect, the most extraordinary thing about Sorge’s career is that it took so long for anybody to realise he was a spy.
RaveThe Financial TimesCollected in this volume, they make a tremendously moving memorial to a first-class historian and essayist, moving from the streets of London in the threadbare Clement Attlee years to the dining rooms of New York in the 21st century. If nothing else, Judt led a compellingly colourful life ... Perhaps surprisingly, though, some of the most affecting passages in this book look back to Judt’s childhood, long before his academic fame and fortune. He writes beautifully about the moral and physical atmosphere of his London boyhood ... One of the most acute essays is devoted to the institution of the Cambridge \'bedder,\' the woman who cleans a student’s room ... But this book is quintessential Judt: humane, fearless, unsparingly honest. In essay after essay the same qualities shine forth, all the more remarkable given the tragic circumstances.
MixedThe Times (UK)... breezily readable ... Orwell’s story is hardly unfamiliar, and although White retells it with gusto, he has nothing new to say ... As a study of literary culture during the Cold War, White’s book is a mixed bag. He enjoys biographical gossip, but has surprisingly little to say about what his chosen characters actually wrote. All the same, his book raises some haunting questions.
PanThe Times (UK)This last sentence, a sweeping, overconfident generalisation, is typical of his style. It takes courage to cram the past half-century of western political history into a single book, and to his credit he has clearly read widely and thought deeply about everything ... But when you boil it down, and there is a lot to boil down, his argument is very familiar, and becomes more predictable as it goes on ... there are no specifics ... For all its erudition, his book suffers from three weaknesses. The first is that much of his narrative is so well known...Second, as the book nears the present day, Reid-Henry’s prejudices become increasingly glaring ... Above all, though, his book is too lofty, as if Reid-Henry has become so comfortable on his Olympian perch that he is incapable of getting back down to the ground. Entire pages go by without a human being saying anything, doing anything or even being mentioned. When individuals do appear, they are almost always politicians, bankers or intellectuals. Given that his book is entitled Empire of Democracy, would it have killed him to have included one or two voters?
PositiveThe Times (UK)...as the journalist Anita Anand shows in her colourful, detailed and meticulously researched account, the story of Singh and O’Dwyer is more ambiguous than it might seem ... What Anand’s account brings home is how closely Singh resembled other well-known political murderers of the 20th century, such as Gavrilo Princip, Lee Harvey Oswald and James Earl Ray. Although the anniversary of his execution is now a public holiday in Punjab, he was far from a heroic figure ... To put it bluntly, he was a loser, and although Anand tries to give his story a thrillingly mysterious air, there is something irredeemably depressing about it ... Where the book really shines, though, is in evoking the fevered atmosphere of India in the late 1910s and early 1920s.
MixedThe TimesAlthough the story of appeasement is extremely well known, Bouverie...retells it with gusto ... Despite the extravagant claims of Bouverie’s publicists, nothing here will come as remotely surprising to anybody familiar with the story. But he has done his homework and has a nice eye for revealing anecdotes ... It would have been better, he argues, if Britain and France had launched pre-emptive action earlier: ...But because his book is too narrowly focused on high politics, with surprisingly few forays into ordinary life or popular culture, he overestimates the British government’s freedom of manoeuvre.
RaveThe TimesHis book is not a rant: based on a thousand interviews and vast numbers of leaked documents, it is often exciting, sometimes moving and always considered. And if his narrative sometimes has a hint of John le Carré, it always has a moral core ...
Some of Bergman’s findings are so extraordinary as to be barely credible ... Not only is Bergman’s book a stunning feat of research and a riveting read, it is also testament to the author’s personal courage.
RaveThe Times (UK)\"Hugely researched and elegantly written, sensitive to the ironies of the past and brimming with colourful details, [Gilmour\'s] book has no time for academic jargon or pretentious theorising ... Large numbers arrived with their prejudices fully formed. But Gilmour comprehensively dismantles his friend Edward Said’s argument that the British were uniformly racist and domineering ... Gilmour is interested in human complexity, not in moralistic posturing. Perhaps that is why his books sell, and [oher historians\'] don’t.\
RaveThe Times (UK)\'He was quite magnificent,\' Dalton wrote [of Churchill]. I defy anybody to finish this terrific book, which bursts with character, humour and incident on almost every page, without sharing Dalton’s view. Magnificent is indeed the word ... this is a familiar story, but [Roberts] tells it superbly ... Roberts tells this story with enormous confidence, drawing on a vast range of sources to present what is undoubtedly the best single-volume life of Churchill ever written.
RaveThe Sunday TimesAlthough none of this will come as a surprise to those familiar with Cold War history, Macintyre tells the story brilliantly. His book’s final third is superbly done, the tension mounting relentlessly as Gordievsky realises the KGB are on to him, survives a gruelling interrogation and triggers a long-prepared escape plan by signalling to his MI6 contacts with, of all things, a Safeway carrier bag. In a mercilessly gripping narrative set-piece, he throws off his KGB leads, makes his way to the Finnish border and ends up hiding half-naked in the boot of a British couple’s car. For Gordievsky, the ending is bittersweet. But as with any good spy thriller, it would be a shame to give it away.
RaveThe Sunday TimesAn experienced historian and documentary producer, Downing has written a carefully researched and hugely readable account of the build-up to war, the momentum inexorably growing as he assembles each part of the jigsaw. Indeed, his narrative is so persuasive that by the time you are about two-thirds through, it takes some effort to remind yourself that the Third World War never happened ... On the face of it, Downing’s book has a happy ending ... Yet there is a chilling lesson here, too. If only one or two people had made different decisions, the world could easily have tumbled towards disaster.