A week in books
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Saturday 14 December 1996
It would (for example) be a crying shame if anyone who wants a guide to pop opted for the nerdy lists in Q's Encyclopedia of Rock Stars (Dorling Kindersley) rather than the wit and nous of The Rough Guide to Rock (Penguin). But sometimes hype-evasion has more to do with value than merit. There's nothing wrong with Longitude (Fourth Estate), Dava Sobel's tale of horological skullduggery, except that it's a longish article decked out in hard covers. The cornucopia of breakthroughs in John Carey's Faber Book of Science could see readers right through into 1997.
Sometimes, though, a gulf in quality hints at a deeper cultural chasm. Sir Roy Strong's overpriced Story of Britain (Hutchinson) delivered insular heritage history while Norman Davies's Europe: a history (Oxford) brought a continent to pulsating life - for a tenner less.
The familiar name also proved the unwise choice in crime fiction. Colin Dexter's Death Is Now My Neighbour (Macmillan) revealed its author's limits; retire Morse and hire any deft whodunnit by Reginald Hill (HarperCollins). You can also forget plodding John Grisham (The Runaway Jury, Century) while Scott Turow has his latest thinking-person's blockbuster on the shelves (The Laws of our Fathers, Viking).
Even readers daft enough to buy books by actors need a helpful hint or two: for instance, about Alec Guinness's My Name Escapes Me (Hamish Hamilton) - so slight, you're amazed it doesn't float away like thistledown. However, even thesps can manage gravitas at times: see Claire Bloom's riveting memoir, Leaving a Doll's House (Virago).
Bloom transforms her emotional knots into readable prose. No such concern bothers Adam Phillips, the decade's smartest shrink, in Monogamy (Faber). Whatever these coy riddles teach, it isn't Emotional Intelligence (Bloomsbury): Daniel Goleman's humane account of why nice guys finish first.
I meant to close this Xmas blacklist with a dig at Melvyn Bragg's Dark Ages doorstop, Credo (Hodder). After all, people who hanker for a long dull chronicle set in the remote past can always read Tony Blair's Desert Island Book: Scott's Ivanhoe. Then I sat opposite someone who was not only immersed in Bragg's 7th-century quagmire, but 95 per cent of the way through. Soppy Yuletide thoughts returned. Better, surely, to cherish an imperfect book than none at all.
TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Peter Lik: The self-proclaimed 'fine-art photographer' whose work sells for millions
The best underrated Christmas movies from Love, Actually to While You Were Sleeping
Grace Dent on TV: The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies was a beautifully shot, immensely considered drama
The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, review: Jason Watkins is brilliant, but real victim Joanna Yeates is reduced to a footnote
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Shock poll shows voters believe Ukip is to the left of the Tories
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits 'record low' as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
Ukip candidate jokes about 'shooting peasants' in racist and homophobic rant
Pakistan school attack live: Taliban kill at least 132 children in 'horrifying' massacre