RaveThe Times (UK)... intimate and insightful ... Whether Rhys’s heroines were Rhys or not, this certainly reads like novel. Seymour, the author of biographies of Lady Ottoline Morrell and Mary Shelley, is a bewitching writer. Rhys used to talk about the \'magics\' practised on Dominica, the Caribbean island on which she was born. This book is full of magics ... Seymour gives us Rhys in all her glory.
RaveThe Times (UK)Previous biographers have taken Casanova at his word; Damrosch is tougher ... Here we go, I thought. Casanova for the age of #MeToo and toxic masculinity. Can’t we keep the Casanova myth as it is? Can’t sex ever be fun? Why not let sleeping rogues lie? The more I read of Damrosch’s biography, however, the more uneasy I felt about Giac the Lad ... In his stylish, insightful and, yes, one must admit, sexy biography, Damrosch gives us the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly ... Reading Damrosch’s stern but measured book, I went from fancying Casanova, to hating him, to pitying him. There’s no fool like an old fool and no man so lonely as the Priapus who can’t get it up. Good, bad, in flight or in flagrante, Giacomo Casanova, scourge of 18th-century husbands, is never less than compelling.
RaveThe Times (UK)... a brilliant cultural history ... Dreary hardback, sparkling text. Fox paints a great rainbow of natural history, philosophy, religion, art, optics, myth and the occult. It is a book that takes in Manichean duality and popular detergent adverts ... This intelligent, vividly written book is full of such black, red, yellow, blue, white, purple and green nuggets. I’m going to buy three copies for my mother and aunts for Christmas and hope to brighten their winters.
RaveThe Times (UK)Slow biography, perhaps, but this whizzes along, keeping pace with its subject who walked more than 20 miles in a day. One might wish it 40 pages shorter, but Dickens himself didn’t exactly do pithy. Douglas-Fairhurst is a shrewd, amusing and original guide. He is critical, acerbic, I might even say tart ... I was going to say that Turning Point is an Old Curiosity Shop: a motley collection of episodes, incidents and anecdotes from Dickens’s life and from the wider world. Perhaps a better metaphor is that of the Crystal Palace, Joseph Paxton’s great, glass, omnium gatherum grand bazaar, more than three times as long as St Paul’s Cathedral, which opened in Hyde Park in the spring of 1851 ... Douglas-Fairhurst gives you fascinating facts, facts, facts ... The last quarter of the book is a brisk and brilliant analysis of Bleak House which inspired me to download the full 43-hour audiobook read by Miriam Margolyes.
PanThe Spectator (UK)The book is bang up to date, but it can feel like scrolling through the homepage of Jezebel, the self-styled ‘supposedly feminist website’. McCormack is the founder of the ‘Women and Art’ study programme at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, and I see how these chapters lend themselves to lively, engaging lectures. On the page they are hard work ... McCormack isn’t wrong. I’m with her on a lot of it, but the tone of grudge, gripe and the grievance of millennia does the case no favours. It’s what put me off feminist art history at university. It’s what puts a lot of people off ... You catch more flies with honey than vinegar and you catch more readers with good prose than bad. The writing...is pedestrian. One sentence plods after another ... Man, I felt depressed reading...narratives of struggle, misogyny, marginalisation, being overlooked and being always on the outside looking in.
PositiveThe Times (UK)Catherine’s story is beautifully, hauntingly told in spare and elegant prose ... The archive photographs...are moving and evocative, and inspired in this shabby book reviewer not a little gown envy ... What starts as glossy advertorial becomes something quite different, something awful and awe-inspiring. Catherine’s life might have been bookended by roses, but there was a thicket of thorns in between ... This is a book about the Resistance and collaboration, haute couture and black marketeers, about the occupation and the resurrection of Paris. But it is not a portrait of Catherine Dior. She disappears for tens of pages at a time ... This book is beguilingly told and a lovely object in its own right. It just doesn’t do what it says on the bottle.
MixedThe Times (UK)I’m going to betray my own interests here, but I found Wells the Writer a great deal more interesting than Wells the Lover ... The love stuff drags and the book stuff soars. Enough \'Amberissima\', let’s get back to Gissing, Gosse, Arnold Bennett, Henry James and the literary gents Wells knew and rivalled and riled.
MixedThe Sunday Times (UK)... a rambling book. It is lovely and musing, if occasionally irritating. I read it while feeling low and found it a solace and a spur ... The best bits of the book are about Orwell proper. At 308 pages, there’s a definite need for secateurs ... There are straggling sections and tangential thorns. There is a tendency, too, to virtue signal ... Orwell, writing on good and bad acts, is subtler and funnier.
PositiveThe Times (UK)... an energetic and highly engaging game of literary ping-pong across the ages. Life, writing and inspiration are served and returned in a rapid rally of ideas. If the book lacks the pulse and propulsion of Bate’s biography of Ted Hughes, it’s the fault of the format. Just as you’re getting into the rhythm of Keats and the Romantics, you’re bounced on to Fitzgerald and the Jazz Age. Still, what an immensely charismatic pair they are ... Bate occasionally overeggs it. For \'uncanny\' parallels, read pleasing similarities.
RaveThe Times (UK)... the feeling you get reading Frances Wilson’s Burning Man ... The flare of a match, a man on fire, raging, crackling, spitting, consuming everything and everyone around him. Wilson too is on form and on fire ... I’m not totally convinced the Dante business works. Wilson’s voice is so appealing—confiding, intelligent, easy, amused—I would happily have read a straightforward blaze through the life, cradle to grave, basket to casket ... This is a red-hot, propulsive book. The impression it leaves is of Lawrence not so much as a phoenix (his chosen personal emblem) rising from the flames, but of a moth coming too close to a candle and, singed and frantic, flying into and into and into the wick.
RaveThe Sunday Times (UK)This is the first biography of Bell and, like its subject, it is amusing, charming, stimulating, urbane. It is a bit on the plump side, but then so was Bell ... This book could be a roll or two slimmer, but it is a most sustaining read ... It is this appetite—for life, for art, for a brace of partridges and snipe—that makes Bell such happy company ... It makes you long to be taken round a gallery by Bell. This book is the next best thing.
PositiveThe Times (UK)The heart matters, but it is the head, ideas, independence and identity that interest Sampson. She sets Elizabeth against the intellectual concerns of the time: slavery and abolition, industry and empire, the 1848 revolution in Paris and the Risorgimento in Italy ... Sampson is an astute, thoughtful and wide-ranging guide, but two things jar. First, the life is told in the historic present ... Second, the chapters telling Elizabeth’s story are interleaved with a series of \'frames\', short essayistic chapters in which Sampson considers the nature of biography, portraiture, photography, self-presentation and the ways in which creative work reflects life and vice versa — the \'two-way mirror\' of the title. There are digressions about the writer Italo Calvino, the poet Stephen Spender, the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas and the artist Bridget Riley. These are intellectually chewy and hold up the reader. Better to hear Elizabeth’s own voice: restless, ambitious, unsatisfied.
David Hockney and Martin Gayford
RaveThe Times (UK)Hockney and Gayford, collaborators on two previous books, make a good double act: Hockney’s questing vision, Gayford’s clear-eyed prose. They share an irrepressible interest in just about everything. You need a notebook handy to jot down all the books you want to buy, all the paintings to look up later.
PositiveThe Times (UK)Put it on your Christmas list and spend the post-goose collapse reading the good bits aloud ... Mullan, the Lord Northcliffe chair of modern English literature at University College London, is the best of professors ... The tone is less ivory tower, more doublestout at the Magpie & Stump. The book’s fault is a tendency to Dickensian excess. Two or three illustrative quotes become four, five, six, seven… Please, sir, I want some less ... Mullan is a brilliant noticer. He leads you from individual words, crossings out, inky amendments to sweeping themes of haunting, drowning, foreseeing or coincidence. Many of his insights come from close comparison of manuscript and printed text ... There are some wonderful lines.
MixedThe Times (UK)... a portrait of a brave, defiant and pleasingly eccentric soul ... At more than 400 pages, this book is more lumbering ox than gambolling lamb. Historical background is not so much sketched as scored in. \'Oh no, here we go,\' you think as Hewitt ploughs through another digression ... Her phrasing is often misjudged or laboured ... One wants more on 19th-century taste and the sensibility that was so moved by calves, piglets and the loyal sheepdog Brizo. As it is, Rosa Bonheur strikes the modern reader and gallery-goer as an artist of middling talent and an admirable force of character who made a fortune painting rather mawkish moo-cows.
PositiveThe Times (UK)It is an extraordinary story ... It is Hastings’s bad luck that many of the letters between Bedford and her partners and confidantes should be written in ickle, piggy-wiggy baby language. It is difficult to get a serious read on the relationships when they sound so very silly ... Hastings...writes with her hallmark elegance, insight and forgiveness. Bedford’s faults as a writer, friend and lover are laid bare and understood ... One might, however, wish for a quick snip here and there. The litany of schlösser, villas and Wiltshire manor houses tips into Private Eye’s \'What you didn’t miss . . .\' territory.
RaveThe Times (UK)Red Comet is a mighty achievement. Clark is compassionate, clear-eyed, sceptical. Each chapter reads with the ease of a novel ... In Clark’s telling there are no heroes, no villains. All are flawed ... Plath’s resilience, genius and insight blaze through the book. Where Clark fails in her stated intent is in separating her subject from her suicide. The end is foreshadowed for hundreds of pages ... At the telltale compression of the pages, I found myself pleading: don’t end, don’t die. The life and the writing are too good not to go on. This is a vast and heartbreaking book. I would not have wished it shorter.
MixedThe Sunday Times (UK)... one part antiquity, one part Renaissance, one part Smash Hits. Erudition, with an erotic frisson ... lively, wide-ranging ... After reading this book, there’s no excuse for standing ignorant and philistine before Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and thinking: \'Cor, check out the clam shells on her!\' ... Hughes can perhaps be forgiven for overdoing the desirous, tempestuous, tumultuous, odiferous, fructuous, uberous goddess stuff. This is Venus we’re talking about, after all, not the nice-looking girl next door. A beauteous subject calls for a beautiful cover and Tomás Almeida’s gold and indigo wreath and waves would look a picture peeping from the Christmas stocking of the classicist in your life ... Less forgivable is the sense that A Very Short Introduction to Venus has been bumped up with wide spacing and white pages to make a hardback. A couple of the colour plates are out of focus and some of the black-and-white illustrations are barely legible.
PositiveThe Times (UK)... wonderful, wide-ranging ... Whittell is a genial guide to the slopes. He has the gnarly cool of the snowboard stunt man, the quiet authority of the scientist and the glee of the schoolboy who has just stuffed a snowball down the back of your jumper ... The chapter about snow in art — What Bruegel Saw — is a fascinating piece of detective work ... If you’re not a skier, if indeed your memories of skiing are more freezing tears of frustration than glorious gliding, then you may struggle with the more athletic chapters ... Put this book on your Christmas list and let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.
PositiveThe Times (UK)... a lively literary gazetteer to great imaginative homes ... If you like nuggets about niches and gleanings about gables, you’ll love this book ... Much of the pleasure of this book lies in through-the-keyhole gawping ... If some of the chapters feel familiar, others surprise ... This is the perfect Christmas book. Curl up beside your own Lytel Fire-place and imagine yourself among the comforts of the Shire.
RaveThe Times (UK).... a fascinating compendium of quackery, surgery, science, faith, magic and superstition from the fall of the Roman Empire to the beginnings of the Early Modern period. The bodies he describes in this lively, wide-ranging history are sacred and profane, immaculate and bloodied, devoutly worshipped and lustily spanked ... Hartnell is particularly good on holy bodies: the cruel and visceral martyrdoms of saints, the miraculous innards of abbesses and the veneration of relics ... an erudite, wide-ranging, thoughtfully illustrated book with more than a dash of Carry On Monastery.
RaveThe Times (UK)This first volume of The Lives of Lucian Freud: Youth, which takes Freud up to 46, reads like fiction. Freud is Just William, Casanova, Barry Lyndon, Tom Jones and Pinkie ... The pace of the telling is frantic, propulsive and twitchy. Freud and Feaver seize you by the elbows, bundle you into a Bentley, haul you round the nightclubs, feed you oysters, Guinness and amphetamines and order you Russian tea and eggs the next morning. I didn’t know whether I’d been roughed up or ravished. As lives of artists go, this is up there with Michael Holroyd’s Augustus John and John Richardson’s Picasso ... The humour is black and slapstick, punning and perverse. Feaver allows Freud’s quotes to run at length. We hear his voice in interview transcripts...and showing off on the back of postcards. His talk was a mix of barrow boy and GI ... How much to believe? Freud went in for his own legend. One suspects a spot of mythmaking ... Feaver...writes of the paintings — of light, line, flesh and skin — with brilliant insight ... as his crony and co-conspirator Francis Bacon said: \'You’re never bored with Lucian.\'
MixedBBCIn two important respects, however, this is a weaker and less satisfying book. The first is voice, the second is place ... Three of the Nicole scenes are so obvious, so made for a film franchise – The Hunger Games in bonnets – that I almost laughed. There’s a Karate Kid montage as Nicole learns to fight, a tough-girl makeover complete with tattoo and green hair and a night spent by Nicole, chastely, in the arms of the muscular, yet sensitive, Garth ... Agnes and Nicole, unformed and formulaic, are less interesting than Offred ... The horrors and repressions of Gilead, so shocking on first encounter, so convincingly realised, are here repeated. If you’ve seen one ululating birth, one man torn apart by Handmaids, you’ve seen them all. Atwood’s prose is as powerful as ever, tense and spare...Her word games are ingenious. She forces you to think about language and how it can be made to lie. The plot is propulsive and I finished in six hours flat. But if The Handmaid’s Tale was Atwood’s mistresspiece, The Testaments is a misstep. The Handmaid’s Tale ended on a note of interrogation: \'Are there any questions?\' Those questions were better left unanswered.
RaveThe Times (UK)... incorrigibly anecdotal ... In tone, Strathern strikes a successful balance between gorblimey Horrible Histories and the reverence due to Renaissance men. Don’t be beside a pool or under a loggia in Italy this summer without a copy from which to read (luridly) aloud ... Strathern is in masterly command of his material. The plot moves at the gallop of a condottiere — one of Italy’s mounted mercenaries ... If the history is assured, the style is sometimes schlocky, no cliché left unturned ... [Strathern] uses the formula \'as we have seen/as we shall see\' 11 times in 30 pages (three times on the same page). Still, if you can forgive some clunky exposition, this history of ruthlessness, intrigue and men broken on Fortune’s Wheel is a wickedly entertaining read.
PositiveThe Times (UK)... absorbing ... This is a long book, but it was a long war ... reads like a thriller ... this is also a book about personal and political liberty; about the freedom to write, mock and dissent; about truth, lies and wilful ignorance ... If some of the stories are familiar, the scale of White’s book means there is always an author and an anecdote you haven’t heard ... [an] ambitious, intelligent, searching history.
PositiveThe Times (UK)\"As a biographer, MacCarthy has a gift for making a not immediately attractive man compelling ... While I may never be convinced by Gropius the architect, by the end of MacCarthy’s commanding, intelligent, gripping biography, I was, like Alma, Ise and those three spurned lovers, strangely mesmerised by Gropius the man.\
RaveThe Times (UK)\"...[an] eye-opening and thoroughly entertaining book ... He is a polyglot who speaks Dutch, Limburgish, English, German and Spanish and \'reads\' (he says modestly) French, Afrikaans, Frisian, Portuguese, Italian, Catalan, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Luxembourgish and Esperanto. While working on Babel he has a jolly good go at Vietnamese. Writing here in English he is wonderful company: chatty, informative, enthusiastic.\
PositiveThe Times (UK)[A] marvellous, transporting cultural history ... [a] heady, evocative, wandering book.
Jean Moorcroft Wilson
RaveThe Times (UK)In her diligent and insightful biography of Graves, Jean Moorcroft Wilson teases the truth from Graves’s exaggerations, mis-rememberings and downright fibs. Moorcroft Wilson, who has written the lives of Sassoon and Edward Thomas, is an even-handed biographer. She is by turns compassionate and caustic. She is clear-sighted when cutting though Graves’s \'condescending and disingenuous\' attitude to his father’s poetry.
MixedThe Times (UK)\"It is a sprightly book. Preston gives us not just the old favourites — Shelley’s To a Skylark, John Clare’s Nightingale... but also the hatchling nature writers: Helen Macdonald’s memoir H is for Hawk, Max Porter’s novella Grief Is the Thing With Feathers ... Preston captures his birds beautifully ... Several times seeing a bird is like a dream... This becomes slightly maddening. The most vivid nature writers see something rare and transformative and make it real for those who weren’t there. Preston’s birds are diminished by wishy-washy vagueness ... It’s a shame because there is so much here to set the heart soaring. Often it is the simplest descriptions that hold your imagination.\
MixedThe Times (UK)Harvey writes with a beautiful ease. Her passages of nature writing, describing this strange, left-behind landscape, are evocative. She wraps you in the language of ritual and liturgy: albs, amices, shriving bells ... However, it’s a book that could do with a bit more carnival. It is lyrical and literary, but, like a Lenten fast, it is thin on fun, incident and cheer ... promises tempests and blows a gentle breeze.
PositiveThe Times (UK)\"Groskop has a knack of giving you just enough biography of the author, just enough tantalising kiss-and-tell detail from the works. You find yourself thinking, of all those books that you’ve labelled too difficult, too gloomy, too long, too Russian ... This book is a delightful primer and companion to all the authors you are ashamed to admit you haven’t read during after-dinner games of Humiliation ... [Groskop\'s] enthusiasm (obsession) carries you along.\
Andrew Michael Hurley
PositiveThe TimesHurley excels at claustrophobically small communities. The landscape of the Endlands is vast—moors to the horizon, rivers that roil and flood — but its inhabitants are as penned as the dogs in their kennels. John has tried to leave, but the land—the Devil?—calls him back. Hurley is a superb storyteller. He leads you up on to the moors, into the eye of a snowstorm, dropping little clues, sinister hints at devilment and demonic possession. Then he changes course, scuffs over the prints in the snow, springs new villainies on you, abandons you overnight in the hills. The moment you feel secure in your skepticism—there’s no such thing as devils—Hurley sows a seed of doubt ... At times the book bags and slows. It has all the fear and shivers of an MR James tale, but not the tautness. A slight shear—the chit-chat of the farmers’ wives drags—would make the difference.
PositiveThe Times (UK)\"The reader ought really to have a working knowledge of De Profundis, Easter 1916, and Ulysses. This is not Dubliners for dummies ... This is a book about all manner of things. About being an Irishman in an Englishman’s writing world, about ardour in old age, about measuring a man by his gaze, about freedom and spirit-crushing incarceration, about homosexuality, tolerance, reputation, class, duty and loyalty. It is about the sins of the fathers — debt, self-delusion, drunkenness — and the legacy left to their sons ... It is not a mad book, certainly not a bad book, but it is an odd book ... Tóibín’s portraits are often moving, always interesting and made me tearful as I listened to my father and brother planning a boys’ trip to, as it happens, Dublin. But it is a demanding book. And it is odd.\
PositiveThe TimesGough, who wrote the ending to the online game \'Minecraft,\' favors short sentences. Very short. Almost. Too. Short. His style is Tense . . . Real . . . Vivid. Random italics multiply. Questions . . . hang? My God, you think, it can’t go on like this. It goes on. When Colt orders a pizza, he describes its texture as: \'Weird. Gluey.\' So is the plot ... Nevertheless, and despite being several thousand lines of computer code out of my depth, I found Connect propulsively paced and ingeniously twisting. Gough has written a hyperactive, adrenaline-junkie dystopian thriller that deserves to be made into a belter of a film franchise.
RaveThe Times (UK)A Life of My Own is an antidote to the pappy, pop motivation of Sheryl Sandberg and Arianna Huffington, with their Lean In and Thrive manifestos ... [Tomalin] should be a heroine to modern snowflakes who melt at the first setback. Tomalin is like a glacier, unstoppable, inexorable, gathering grit and resolve as she goes ... The book is poised and beautifully paced. She reels you in and casts you out. She is intimate and confiding, distrustful and reclusive. She is like a new friend who spills secrets, pours out her heart, then shuts up like a clamshell when you ask for more.
PositiveThe Times UKThe mind does funny things, argues Thomson in Unthinkable. Odd things. Unnerving things. In this fluent, eye-opening book she explores what happens when the mind misbehaves: distance is distorted, memory plays tricks, people hear in colour and see in music. Thomsons’s style is wonderfully clear. She never talks down to the layman. If there is academic jargon, she carefully explains it, drawing useful analogies. She is the science teacher you wish you’d had at school.
RaveThe TimesPoirier’s approach is cinematic ... There is incident and sexual intrigue on every page. Poirier spins several plates of the story at once ... Poirier moves easily between Paris, London and New York. She deftly assembles her characters in Brooklyn and Bloomsbury ... At times I did lose track of the dizzy sexual ronde and its various ménages à trois, quatre, cinq ... Poirier gives a useful cast of characters at the front of the book (I do like a crib), also a chronology and an annotated map of who lived, loved and danced where ... One small complaint: we never really get to the bottom of the significance of the Left Bank. We take it for granted that Rive Gauche stands for cool, alternative, bohemian. But why there and not the Right Bank, or Montparnasse? The introduction needs a beginners-start-here explanation of what combination of geographic, economic, social, historic, political and architectural circumstances made the Left Bank such a crucible of experimentation. Other than that, Poirier’s hugely enjoyable, quick-witted and richly anecdotal book is magnifique.
RaveThe Times (UK)\"There is a creeping claustrophobia to this collection. With a few exceptions, events take place in narrow confines: a rented attic flat in Belfast, a doer-upper in Brooklyn, a desert island, neighbouring suburban back gardens. Shriver’s chamber pieces are thrillingly tightly written. Walls press in ... Shriver writes a bimonthly column in The Spectator and there is a topical, satirical sharpness to these modern moral (and immoral) stories ... All Shriver’s stories are satisfying. I exhaled a little triumphant \'Ha!\' at the end of each one. She gives you not the ending you wanted or expected, not necessarily a happily-ever-after, but a feeling of rightness, resolution and unjust deserts. Shriver is brilliant at the \'twitch upon the thread\' that brings the wandering reader back with a hook through the cheek.\