The Queen and I by Sue Townsend, Mandarin pounds 4.99. However you take this bestseller - subversive (the Windsors are dispatched to a hellhole council estate by the new Republican government) or pro-monarchy (Queenie, Phil, Charlie, Di et al lose their cardboard cut-out frigidity as they adapt to the grim realities of gas meters and housing benefits) - it is hard not to enjoy the pure cheek. The royals' conversations and letters are a lot funnier than anything the tabloids could dream up.
Ottoline Morrell: Life on the Grand Scale by Miranda Seymour, Sceptre pounds 8.99. Six feet tall, carelessly roped with jewels, clothes brilliant as pantomime costumes, Lady Ottoline Morrell was, loosely, a Bloomsbury groupie of noble birth who knew that the world of the imagination was more interesting than the hunting- and-shooting society into which she was born. She befriended and encouraged two generations of talent from Huxley and Lawrence to David Cecil and Stephen Spender, all of whom recognised that, while absurd and imperious, she was not contemptible. Seymour is the first biographer to be given full access to Ottoline's papers (she received 2,000 letters from Bertrand Russell alone) and provides a sympathetic and definitive account.
Memories of Rain by Sunetra Gupta, Phoenix pounds 4.99. This first novel is the story of a marriage between a young Indian woman and a visiting English student, their subsequent move to London and, 10 years later, her return to Calcutta after discovering his infidelity. The focus is on the waning of a nave romance and the clash between incompatible cultures; sentimentality is held at bay. Gupta's poetic language, with its free association and continuous time shifts, is reminiscent of Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse. A fine debut.
Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography by Ian Hamilton, Pimlico pounds 9. Wry, wise, richly anecdotal study of those whose job it is to tend the gemlike flame of art: the biographers, relations and executors who 'protect' a writer's posthumous reputation, sometimes in defiance of the wishes of those writers themselves (who might have preferred that their diaries, unfinished novels, etc, be fed to the bonfire). Donne, Shakespeare, Byron, Tennyson, Dickens, Hardy, Plath, Larkin: all are judiciously dealt with. Hamilton's own view is that 50 years is not too long to wait for the 'whole truth of a life', but 'in the meantime no one should burn anything'.
English Music by Peter Ackroyd, Penguin pounds 6.99. Odd and even numbers take on a new significance here. In the odd chapters, we are given the narrative: recollections of a peculiar upbringing in the East End between the wars when father and son worked as a spirit-healing double act, gathering a circle of lonely dependents. In the even chapters, the son's visionary dreams involve encounters with literary characters from Alice (in Wonderland) to Blake and Sherlock Holmes, each awakening him to the grandeur, beauty and 'music' of English art, literature and landscape. Readers may feel as if Englishness is being rammed down their throats. A bold experiment none the less.
The Great Melody by Conor Cruise O'Brien, Minerva pounds 8.99. The title of this 'thematic biography' of Edmund Burke, a treat for serious readers of history, is inspired by Yeats's lines: 'American colonies, Ireland, France and India / Harried, and Burke's Great Melody against it.' O'Brien decides that the 'it' refers to the abuse of power, and that the apparent inconsistencies in Burke's political and moral crusades thus disappear. His study is not merely a reconstruction of a fascinating man and period; it is also a tract for the times, with an epilogue that sets the collapse of communist rule, and the further horrors which may follow it, in an illuminating Burkean perspective.
The Furies by Janet Hobhouse, Simon & Schuster pounds 5.99. Helen, this novel's narrator, is a woman who loves ferociously, something conveyed with immediacy and rawness. Her time at Oxford, where she experiences a love so passionate that it's deemed 'beyond ridicule', is peppered with witty observations on English convention. In marriage, she finds an ideal of love, even when her husband is in another continent. This last novel from a writer who died tragically young emphasises the need to learn fast how to 'get near other people's lives without getting scorched'.
Architecture Today by Charles Jencks, Academy Editions pounds 35 (also hardback pounds 49.50). With full text and more than 500 images, most in colour, this handsome brute of a book surveys the state of architecture now and developments of the last 20 years. An impressive trend-watcher, Jencks leads us deftly through the chaos that, in the absence of a canonic Modernism, threatens to reign. Above, 'The Atlantis', a Miami condo, c 1980, by Arquitectonica.
G M Trevelyan: A Life in History by David Cannadine, Fontana pounds 7.99. More than a biography, this is an impressive exercise in intellectual revisionism. Most of Trevelyan's critics rely upon generalisations about his youthful Whiggery, underrate his research and ignore his objectives. Cannadine, by contrast, reminds us how alarmingly well-timed his volumes were. In turn they reflected Edwardian complacency, Liberal ascendancy, patriotic coalition and the survival of 'Englishry' in a postwar world. Indeed, Trevelyan's emphasis on family and class relations, leisure, changing attitudes to nature, religion, art and architecture is not so far removed from the 'new social history' of the 1960s, many of whose practitioners robustly dismissed him.
Bet They'll Miss Us When We're Gone by Marianne Wiggins, Sceptre pounds 5.99. This collection of short stories encompasses settings as diverse as Ostende, the Black Mountains of Wales (where Wiggins briefly stayed with her then husband Salman Rushdie after the Iranian fatwa against him), and Zaragoza. Intellectuals, truck-drivers, elderly ladies are all brought to life with equal persuasiveness.
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