Saturday 04 October 1997
After five enthralling books on the Great Game - the struggle between the great powers for supremacy in Central Asia - Hopkirk turns his attention to Kim, the novel which prompted his lifelong obsession. His pursuit of the locations and exotic personalities in Kipling's fiction makes wonderful reading. Though disappointed that the 03.25 Lahore-Umballa express no longer follows the 1878 schedule (nor does it stop at Umballa), Hopkirk finds the Lahore horse bazaar and Col Crighton's bungalow (still occupied by a colonel).
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (Virago, pounds 6.99)
Convicted at the age of 18 of the murder of her master and his housekeeper, Grace Marks, a penniless Irish maid, was one of the most notorious women in 1840s Canada. Her accomplice in crime, James McDermott, was hanged, while Grace entered the Provincial Penitentiary in Kingston to become the case study of an interested prison doctor. Atwood's reconstruction of this real-life story reads with all the verve of an upstairs-downstairs pot-boiler spiced with the dismal details of 19th-century immigrant life. Extracts from Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti add to the atmosphere of sexually charged gloom.
Emily Tennyson: The Poet's Wife by Ann Thwaite (Faber, pounds 14.99)
Over 700 pages may seem excessive for a poetic spouse, even if her partner happens to be the greatest bard of the 19th century. But Ann Thwaite's vast, addictive biography - she portrays a dazzling literary pantheon including Browning, Lear and Lewis Carroll - makes good the claim of Julia Margaret Cameron that Lady Tennyson was "as great as he was". At the age of nine, she perceived her future husband (then 13) as being "full of strength and spirituality and tenderness". Emily emerges as a Victorian superwoman, an able and brilliant individual who, surprisingly, found happiness with the irascible laureate.
Knights In White Armour by Christopher Bellamy (Pimlico, pounds 12.50)
Like many military experts, Bellamy, ex-soldier and former Defence Correspondent of The Independent, is an ardent humanitarian: "There are no nice ways of killing people." In this perceptive book, he insists that "total war" has had its day. However, armies will "be used for real with increasing regularity". A conflict like the Gulf War may occur every decade. He believes that the UN should set an example with a French Foreign Legion-style force: "Conducting diplomacy as well as being formidable in battle." Judging by recent off-duty scandals, the British squaddie has some way to go.
The Bull Calves by Naomi Mitchison (Virago, pounds 7.99)
First published in 1947, Mitchison's novel tells the story of her 18th- century Scottish ancestors, the Haldanes, and their role in the Jacobite risings. Complicated (you have to get your Pretenders straight), romantic (Black William and Kirstie may be hitting 50 but they still make love by moonlight) and energetic, the author's appetite for historic detail is daunting.
About Modern Art by David Sylvester (Pimlico, pounds 12.50)
Despite the daunting epithets ("he is the best living writer in English about modern art": Lord Gowrie), Sylvester's collected essays reveal a surprising lightness of touch, Picasso and Braque are compared to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Gilbert and George to Morecambe and Wise. Sylvester is generous in his praise - G & G display "a mature compassion", while Warhol is described as "magnificent" - though he sideswipes critics from John Berger to Ted Hughes. He admits his errors, as in his late discovery of Pollock in 1958: "What could I have been using for eyes?" This passionate and inspiring book is an eye-opener.
Ecstasy by Irvine Welsh (Vintage, pounds 5.99)
Bad-boy Scot Irvine Welsh has more in common with headgirls Fay Weldon, A S Byatt and Penelope Lively than he'd like to think. Take away the dialogue and the smattering of E numbers, and these novellas are as waspish and stylish as the most classic of modern British fiction. In "Lorraine Goes to Livingston" a middle-aged romantic novelist exchanges her suburban marriage for the joys of soft porn and jungle music; while in another story a young woman goes on Prozac when her husband takes up reading The Independent and talking about having children.
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