Reassembling The Jigsaw

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Quicksand is Sybille Bedford’s long-awaited autobiography. As with many of her generation (she is ninety-four), hers is a disturbing and moving story. Bedford has written relatively little, and most of what she has written is the same story shown from different points of view. The story is her own. She writes slowly, painstakingly, and finds […]

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Doomed to Decay?

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

For four hundred years the Roman empire reached from the hills of Northumberland to the banks of the Euphrates, to encompass most of Europe and substantial bits of Africa and the Near East within a single state. In the fourth century, the publicists who served its rulers liked to stretch a point and proclaim the […]

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Heads Will Roll

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

This sounds familiar: ‘There is no doubt that he was a good man and a loving father and husband, nor that he had the intellectual capacity to cope with affairs of state. He was, however, a vacillator, often unable to decide between conflicting courses of action, anxious to avoid confrontation, and inclined to give his […]

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Haggling Their Way out of Hell

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

When Giovanni di Bicci de’Medici, founder of the Medici Bank, died in 1429, he advised his children to ‘stay out of the public eye’. Never can paternal advice have been so ignored. Giovanni’s descendants left monuments to themselves all over Florence, and changed the political and financial scene in Italy for ever. Giovanni registered the […]

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Naval Gazing

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

This is an intellectual’s history of Trafalgar. Instead of dragging us through another thudding account of the 1805 battle outside Cadiz, Adam Nicolson – begotten of Nigel, begotten of Harold – examines the ‘underlayer’ of the ‘English’ victory, as he insists on calling it. Good writing obviously runs in the family, and the reader will […]

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An Uncivil War

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Civil wars are notoriously the worst of all armed conflicts. To the miseries of danger, death, wounds, heat, cold, disease, fatigue and separation from homes and loved ones is added an extra twist – the division of families, friends and neighbours, which often produces extreme abysses of savagery absent from ‘normal’ wars between nations. Recently, […]

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The Good Life

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

I think I can truthfully say that I have read more autobiographies over the past twenty-four years than anyone else in the world – with the exception of three people. The reason for this is that I am chairman of the judges of the J R Ackerley Prize for Autobiography. The three people who can […]

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Ali al-Domaini and Dr Matrouq al-Faleh

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Ali al-Domaini, a leading Saudi Arabian writer and poet, and Dr Matrouq al-Faleh, an academic, were arrested in March 2004 and charged with threatening ‘national unity’. They are both known for their peaceful advocacy of political reform in Saudi Arabia. One year on and the two men remain in prison without having been brought to […]

Audiobook

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

First published in 1902, The Hound of the Baskervilles is generally regarded as the finest detective story ever written. This new and unabridged audiobook is a triumph. The story is familiar: an ancient manuscript reveals that the curse on the family began in 1742 when the sadistic, wild first baronet, Sir Hugo, carried off a […]

Conversation Signifying Nothing

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Nicholas Mosley has always written ‘novels of ideas’, and one admires his increasingly bold experimentation, even into his eighties; but what might have been intriguing as a short story this time struggles to hold together as a novel. The narrator of Look at the Dark is a nameless, aging Englishman, a linguistics philosopher turned TV […]

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Niagra Falls

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The fictional African republic of Niagra is the unfortunate playground of a psychopathic despot called General Daudu, who presides over an orgy of corruption, poverty and torture in incomparably luxurious style. The wealth that he squanders comes from the sale of crude oil; and the backing he receives from America, and from the Burton Holly […]

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Living in Limbo

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Paranoia, betrayal, and the pursuit of scientific and emotional ‘truths’ are themes at the heart of this densely woven debut novel by the award-winning biographer Neil Belton. 

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A History of Hardship

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

This is a beautiful and moving book, rich in its sense of history and character and in its vivid evocation of Berlin. It encompasses four generations of a lively, prosperous and cultivated Jewish family during the last years of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth. The story begins with a tragedy: […]

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Something Naaarsty in the Sports Hut…

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

I blame Stella Gibbons. A one-time country gal myself, I sometimes fantasise about finding a book where a naïve refugee from city life arrives in a picturesque country village and discovers that the locals are well-adjusted members of society living pleasant, orderly lives. You’d miss out on comic mayhem, perhaps, but as a radical literary […]

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Keeping it in the Family

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

This title deserves a second chance. My first instinct was to recoil. What could be more boring or abstruse than a history of tractors in a foreign language? This is surely the stuff of the dustiest scholarship. And then an appreciation of whimsy kicks in. There must be more to it.

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A Taste of New York

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

This is the story of a Manhattan neighbourhood during the sweltering summer of 1988. While Jay McInerney captured something of the essence of 1980s New York in such books as Brights Lights, Big City (1985) and Brightness Falls (1992) by presenting a particular point of view (that of the yuppies), Mark Kurlansky gives voice to […]

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Not For Farangs

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Farang. It’s the Thai word for foreigner, tourist, outsider. Serious-minded travellers to Thailand hate it. They look for ways to break out of the stigma of being foreign. They want to find ‘the real Thailand’, not the tourist fantasy of overpriced soft drinks and smiling supplication. In Rattawut Lapcharoensap’s debut offering, breaking out of the […]

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Small Town Tales

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

J Robert Lennon’s Pieces for the Left Hand comprises one hundred literary titbits, mostly no longer than a page – a smorgasbord of condensed observations about middle America in the form of finely honed parables. Lennon’s voice is wry, and the style always plain, though the tales range from the prosaic to the paranormal. His […]

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Death in the Family

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The cover of Beyond Black, Hilary Mantel’s first novel in seven years, is emblazoned with the statement ‘There are powers at work in this country about which we have no knowledge’. The claim by Paul Burrell, Princess Diana’s butler, that the Queen whispered this minatory aside to him is almost certainly entirely untrue but the […]

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