Bookface Blog

Archive by tag: Alexander LarmanReturn
Jun 26, 2022

The film-maker and author’s latest novel, about the bond between an aristocrat and a freed slave, is thrillingly written and laden with social and sexual ambiguity

“This is a ballad of fools and heroes and maybe you can work out which is which.” The real-life relationship between the Irish aristocrat turned republican revolutionary Lord Edward Fitzgerald and his servant-cum-saviour, the freed slave Tony Small, is one that has been largely ignored by history. Small is remembered, if he is at all, as a minor character in Fitzgerald’s more celebrated story. But the association between the two men forms the backbone of the author and film-maker Neil Jordan’s latest novel, which explores their tentative, highly unequal friendship from Small’s perspective, and is typically laden with social and sexual ambiguity.

The narrative begins on the battlefields of the American war of independence, as Small almost accidentally saves Fitzgerald’s life. It continues as Small, granted his freedom papers in gratitude, accompanies “my lieutenant” as his servant on his travels to the West Indies, Britain, Ireland and across Europe, as Fitzgerald takes an increasing, and eventually fatal, interest in revolutionary politics. There is a vividly depicted – if brief – account of the horrors of slavery and “the passage”, as well as a charmingly evoked vignette of theatre-going in 18th-century London. But Jordan is most interested in the ethical and racial tensions that exist between the two men – Rousseau is evoked repeatedly – even as something akin to a love affair develops between them.

The Ballad of Lord Edward and Citizen Small by Neil Jordan is published by Head of Zeus (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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Jun 05, 2022

Bond is headhunted by Smersh in a plot to eliminate the moderate Khrushchev in this rollicking Russian spy story

Anthony Horowitz’s third James Bond tale begins both dynamically and canonically. It starts immediately after the events of Ian Fleming’s final Bond novel, The Man With the Golden Gun, at M’s funeral; his murderer is none other than 007, who has now been brainwashed by the Russians and turned into their prime asset. Nothing is as it seems, though, and a labyrinthine game of spycraft develops, with Bond caught between British intelligence and a dastardly group of Smersh villains who regard Khrushchev as too moderate. They wish to recruit the British spy to further their nefarious plans. Will they succeed? Or will Bond save the day?

This is the first 007 novel to be published post-No Time to Die, which ended with the death of Bond. A similar sense of unpredictability permeates With a Mind to Kill. The secret agent depicted here is an ageing, vulnerable figure, weary both from torture and from years of deceiving everyone around him; this is not so very far from the Daniel Craig incarnation, but I was also reminded of William Boyd’s poignant representation of an over-the-hill Bond in his 2013 African-set novel Solo. At one point, a junior MI5 agent angrily says to 007: “Whatever you were is gone… there are no heroes any more, and you’re just the lowest of the low.” Strong stuff.

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May 22, 2022

The comedian fails to strike the right tone in this comedy-mystery set in an Irish border town

The actor and comedian Ardal O’Hanlon’s first novel, 1998’s The Talk of the Town, hinted at the emergence of a distinctive literary talent, equal parts Flann O’Brien and Irvine Welsh. His follow-up has taken nearly a quarter of a century to appear, and unfortunately the boldness of his original debut has been replaced by a jarring mixture of whimsy and brutality. No doubt O’Hanlon’s publisher would like it to be compared to Paul Murray and Colin Bateman, but Brouhaha would probably never have been published were it not for O’Hanlon’s status.

The book is set in Tullyanna (“a smallish border town populated by just three thousand pinched faces and all of them secretive’), a poverty-riddled hellhole that is home to the usual cliches: a reluctantly retired detective trying to do the right thing, a frustrated journalist and the usual supporting cast of hardmen turned politicians, the lucky few who escaped small-town ennui and the far greater number who never had a chance. (There are, of course, Springsteen references to hammer this point home; this is not a subtle book.) All are brought together by the apparent suicide of the street artist “Dove” Connolly, whose death seems to be linked to the disappearance of Sandra Mohan, last seen a decade earlier.

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May 15, 2022

The Station Eleven author’s brilliant novel flits between disparate lives past and future, and the detective patching them together

It is a bold author who heads off potential criticisms of their work with a self-aware allusion, but in Emily St John Mandel’s ambitious new novel, the character of the writer Olive Llewellyn is confronted by an unimpressed reader in a book-signing queue. Her interlocutor impatiently claims “there were all these strands, narratively speaking, all these characters, and I felt like I was waiting for them to connect, but they didn’t ultimately”.

Some may agree with this as a description of Sea of Tranquility, but it also elegantly anticipates censure of this thought-provoking read. Over its spare length, St John Mandel’s book juggles a variety of storylines, loosely connected by the pivotal character of the time-travelling detective Gaspery-Jacques Roberts. He has been sent back from the far-distant future to interact with apparently disparate figures, from the 23rd-century novelist Olive to the disgraced “remittance man” Edwin St Andrew, making his uncertain way in 1912 Canada. The recurring motif that unites them all is the sound of a violin heard in an unnatural setting; its significance becomes increasingly clear as the narrative progresses.

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Apr 10, 2022

Katherine Rundell’s engaging and playful biography of the metaphysical poet demands – and rewards – your attention

“Donne, for not keeping of accent, deserved hanging.” Ben Jonson’s stern judgment on his contemporary, the metaphysical poet, cleric and scholar John Donne, was mitigated by his concession that he was “the first poet in the world for some things”. Nearly four centuries after his death, Donne remains a man of his age and a thoroughly contemporary figure, whose love of ambiguity and paradox, in life and art alike, baffles and thrills.

From a young age, as we learn from Katherine Rundell’s masterly new biography Super-Infinite, Donne was consumed by ideas of identity. The challenge for any biographer is to delve into the apparent contradictions between the two Donnes, the piratical Jack who sailed with Raleigh to Cadiz and who wrote brilliant sonnets, rich in witty paradox and bold sexual assertion, and the prelate Dr John, who eventually became dean of St Paul’s; an accomplishment, Rundell tells us, that owed as much to his networking skills as it did to his considerable ability at preaching. His show-stopping sermons, delivered with theatrical relish, were as much of a draw as any play at the nearby Globe.

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Jan 16, 2022

The former Observer journalist recalls a star-studded era when advances were large and lunches were long

The former Observer Washington editor and classical music critic Anthony Holden’s memoir of his prolific career is a rip-roaring salute to a bygone age of journalism, with Holden himself firmly at the centre of events. He sets the scene early on, citing Gyles Brandreth’s observation that “Tony Holden is one of my favourite people – except he smokes and drinks all the time.” This self-described “well-brought-up young product of the north-western petit bourgeoisie” is a committed observer, and sometime friend, of the famous. We meet everyone from Sartre to Humphrey Lyttelton in the opening chapters and countless actors, writers and princes appear in subsequent, often score-settling anecdotes.

Holden’s rise to prominence came when long lunches with contacts and editors were de rigueur and where the ambitious and well-connected would be offered lucrative columnist gigs by their friends. Holden revels in this and depicts a time when a writer would be given a six-month paid sabbatical by the Sunday Times to write a book in exchange for the serial rights and where his resignation from the Times – forced out of his position by Murdoch, even as Harold Evans groomed him to be his successor – was front-page news.

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Jun 07, 2021

The oral historian takes the winning formula of 2011’s Londoners over the Atlantic to reveal a city more fearful, but still full of dreamers

In 2011, the Canadian author and oral historian Craig Taylor published Londoners, a series of verbatim interviews with citizens from all walks of life for a book whose aim was to build a kaleidoscopic portrait of the city. Now, nearly a decade on, he has visited New York and taken the same approach. But its residents live in a more fearful age, in the shadow of Trump, BLM protests and a global pandemic. Taylor wrote the book between 2014 and 2020, and even in these six years the city changed significantly. The world depicted here can be a harsh and bleak one, but not without humanity and wit, which Taylor captures superbly.

Armed with 71 notebooks and 400 hours’ worth of taped interviews, the author tries to make sense of a confusing and bewitching metropolis. His first thought, as he prepares to leave his apartment, is that he should “get ready to enter the oceanic power”: one of this fine book’s many pleasures is the way in which its overlapping prose aptly complements the adrenaline rush of the city’s frantic daily ballet. Taylor calls the people of New York “the greatest ongoing flicker of human life I’d ever encountered”, and cites the photographer Gus Powell, whose work embraces “the quotidian poetry” of the city, as well as the spirit of life there. As Powell says: “It is an incredibly generous place… this is why you can get things done here.” Taylor’s own experience of volunteering at a lunch programme in the Flatiron District gives him a first-hand insight into the city’s gruff good nature, especially in his affectingly evoked friendship with Joe, a homeless but indomitable Vietnam veteran.

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Oct 19, 2020

The secret lives of three characters on a 1960s film set make for the novelist’s funniest book in years

WH Auden said of TS Eliot that three different figures coexisted within him: a conscientious churchwarden, a screaming peasant woman and a mischievous 12-year-old boy. Much the same is true of William Boyd, whose novels have consistently left readers wondering who the “real” author is. Some of his comic writing suggests a kinship with Evelyn Waugh as a farceur of rare talent, but other books hint that he is a very un-English talent indeed, as befits his upbringing in Ghana, Nigeria and Scotland. For all his skill at constructing page-turning narratives, there is an ostentatious delight in game-playing that almost makes him the novelistic equivalent of Tom Stoppard.

That was especially true of his last book, the excellent Love Is Blind, which filtered Chekhovian pathos through a postmodern take on the Scottish Enlightenment genre, and continues to be the case in this, his 16th novel. Set in 1968, Trio revolves around three stories, connected by the Brighton production of a terrible-sounding film called Emily Bracegirdle’s Extremely Useful Ladder to the Moon.

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