A week in books
Boyd Tonkin is Senior Writer and a columnist at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Literary Editor at The Independent, and before that Social Policy Editor and then Books Editor at the New Statesman magazine. He has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes and has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize. In 2001, he re-founded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for literature in translation, and serves on its judging panel every year.
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 reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride
FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head
Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treattv
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 A politically correct lefty goes to see Top Gear live – you'll probably believe what happened next
- 2 Woman accidentally shoots herself in the head while posing for a selfie
- 3 Isis burns woman alive for refusing to engage in 'extreme' sex act, UN says
- 4 Puerto Rico, island of lost dreams: People are leaving the debt-hit territory in droves as near neighbour Cuba's star rises
- 5 David Starkey 'tells Amal Clooney to shut up and stop over-promoting human rights'
Art Garfunkel calls Paul Simon a 'monster' with a Napoleon complex
Eurovision 2015 winner: Sweden beats Russia and Italy to take the title from Conchita Wurst
Dheepan, film review: Palme d'Or prize goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head
Game of Thrones, The Gift, Season 5, Episode 7: Why two of the show’s most iconic characters just met
Eurovision 2015: Estonia seemingly enters Louis Tomlinson from One Direction
As a white man, I'm surprised more women aren't tweeting the hashtag #KillAllWhiteMen
Scotland may have to leave the EU even if it votes to stay in, David Cameron confirms
The day that Britain resigned as a global power
Almost a third of school pupils believe 'Muslims are taking over our country', study claims
SNP fury as HS2 finds 'no business case' for taking fast train service to Scotland
Gay marriage 'Bert and Ernie' cake bakery found guilty of discrimination in Northern Ireland