Norse Code

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

The Vikings entered history with a bang. The year 793, marked by their unheralded attack on the monastery of Lindisfarne, where they descended like ‘stinging hornets’ and ‘fearful wolves’ to enslave or slaughter the defenceless monks, has become a somewhat predictable prelude to most histories of these Scandinavian raiders. Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough’s new entry into […]

Dedicated Followers of Fascism

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

A partnership of Beckett and Joyce might suggest an alliance between two of Ireland’s greatest writers, but in this case the individuals in question are John Beckett and William Joyce. Ejected from Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF), they together formed the National Socialist League in 1937, a farcical enterprise that, deservedly, swiftly fizzled out. […]

Dublin’s New Dawn

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Michael Brown has written a brilliant, encyclopaedic but ultimately unconvincing book addressing an important subject that has for too long remained a closely guarded secret. A few minutes on Google Scholar will confirm that most references to the ‘Irish Enlightenment’ date from the last ten years. Scare quotes and question marks recur, emphasising the insecure […]

Charlie’s Angels

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Seventeenth-century royals weren’t blessed with big families. Elizabeth I had neither husband nor offspring – unless we believe the stories that she was secretly married to Robert Dudley or the Earl of Oxford and gave birth to Francis Bacon, or the Earl of Essex, or William Shakespeare. James I and Anne of Denmark had eight […]

Dancing on Thin Ice

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Don’t be misled by the tabloid melodrama implicit in this book’s title. If it leads you to expect a shock-horror exposé and conspiracy theories involving the KGB and double-agent ballerinas, you will be disappointed. Simon Morrison is a respected musicologist based at Princeton and an expert on Prokofiev. He writes in clean and lucid prose […]

Romanov Retrospective

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

In 1873 an English traveller put his finger on the whole problem with Russian art. ‘Artists in St Petersburg live in comparative isolation,’ he wrote, ‘they are as a colony planted on the utmost verge of civilisation; they are as exiles or exotics, far away from the commonwealth of art, left to pine or starve […]

Setting the Wheels in Motion

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

The year 2016, the anteroom to the centenary of the Russian revolutions of 1917, has already brought us several books that, in various ways, speak to the epochal events that brought down a 300-year-old regime and ushered in the utopian experiment of the Soviet Union. Most notable of these are Simon Sebag Montefiore’s engrossing ‘The Romanovs’ and ‘Historically Inevitable? Turning Points of the Russian Revolution’, a collection of essays edited by Tony Brenton, a former British ambassador to Moscow. In ‘Lenin on the Train’, the distinguished historian Catherine Merridale provides one more look at this revolutionary year, retracing what she calls ‘a journey that changed the world’, the eight-day trek by rail and ferry in April 1917 undertaken by Lenin

Bittersweet Symphony

Posted on by David Gelber

In her Booker Prize-shortlisted Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Canadian author Madeleine Thien, the daughter of Malaysian-Chinese immigrants, offers a fresh look at the experience of exile. In Thien’s carefully crafted story, not only is her protagonist, Jiang Li-ling, suspended between two cultures, but also huge portions of history in one of those cultures, […]

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Crashing to Earth

Posted on by David Gelber

Adrien Bosc’s bestselling book is a wide-ranging study of an Air France plane crash in the Azores in 1949, in which several high-profile passengers died. Bosc describes it as fiction, saying in an author’s note, ‘Constellation is unequivocally a novel, a truelife novel to probe the fiction at the heart of our lives.’ However, this […]

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Murder Most Foul

Posted on by David Gelber

Graeme Macrae Burnet’s debut novel, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau (2014), was a taut psychological mystery set in a small provincial French town. His follow-up, the more ambitious yet also more accomplished His Bloody Project, is another literary thriller set in a rural backwater, only this time Burnet plays closer to home in his native […]

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Remembering Rebecca

Posted on by David Gelber

Six pages into Eileen, Ottessa Moshfegh’s narrator-protagonist declares, ‘this isn’t a story of how awful my father was.’ This is not strictly true. Sixty-seven pages later his awfulness is still being dissected: ‘He had no loyalty to me. He was never proud of me. He never praised me. He simply didn’t like me.’ Eileen tells […]

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All About Me

Posted on by David Gelber

‘Like that black president, you’d think … you’d get used to square watermelons, but somehow you never do,’ says Me, the disingenuous black narrator of Paul Beatty’s latest, Booker-shortlisted novel during one of his many raucous comic riffs. A resident of the anomalously named fictional Los Angeles suburb of Dickens (imagine if Slough were called […]

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Faith Off

Posted on by David Gelber

Robert Harris’s new book is an electric read, like a shot of adrenalin to the heart. Not what one would expect of a plot in which 118 cardinals are locked in a building to pray and vote. They’re electing a new pope, the proceedings chaired and seen through the eyes of the likeable Cardinal Lomeli. […]

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Lord of the Dance

Posted on by David Gelber

In The Childhood of Jesus, the first instalment of what now, somewhat surprisingly, proves to be J M Coetzee’s series of Jesus novels, we followed a strange boy named Davíd and his adoptive guardian, Simón, who had come on a ship across Lethean waters to the land of Novilla. In the voyage they had been […]

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The Definitive Version

Posted on by David Gelber

Teatime at the offices of the Oxford English Dictionary in the 1980s resembled a scene from a Barbara Pym novel. It was taken in the ground-floor room of a grand Georgian building in St Giles’, Oxford, in which millions of slips sent in by volunteer readers filled large grey filing cabinets. In every other office […]

The Eleventh’s Hour

Posted on by David Gelber

The Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica is unquestionably an impressive thing. Even the India paper printing – the one I am happy to possess – demands an impressive five feet of bookshelf space to accommodate its forty-four million words in twenty-nine volumes. And sheer size is not its only attribute. First published over a […]

Lost for Words

Posted on by David Gelber

I began reading this fascinating book on the morning after Donald Trump was accused of inciting those Americans who believe Hillary Clinton will take away their guns to take matters into their own hands. The episode caused one passage to leap right out at me. Mainstream politicians, Mark Thompson notes, draw on all sorts of tired […]

Oh, Mother of Mine

Posted on by David Gelber

From his early infancy John de St Jorre retained a shard of memory of a woman wearing ‘a loose blouse, half-open, revealing large breasts. She had blue eyes and blonde hair framing a full, plump face. Smoke curled upwards from her cigarette. She looked at me, threw back her head, and laughed … She sounded […]

Raising the Black Flag

Posted on by David Gelber

Amid the many, many books published in recent months on Islamic militancy, the Muslim faith and Islamic history, two stand out. ‘United States of Jihad’ is a rigorous, balanced, clear-eyed and perceptive overview of violent Islamic extremism in the USA. Its author, Peter Bergen, is an excellent

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