Shelf Improvement

Boisdale Life’s new literary correspondent, Alexander Larman, recommends this season’s most mind-massaging reads

By Alexander Larman

May 17 2020

Spring was once a quiet time for new books as publishers preferred to focus on the lucrative Christmas market, but that has now changed. Today, many publishers are releasing some of their most interesting, dynamic titles in spring. Here are some of the most eagerly awaited books of 2020, which may inform the nation’s cultural debate for years to come.

THE MIRROR AND THE LIGHT Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate, £25)

Dame Hilary Mantel’s conclusion to her Wolf Hall saga, focusing on the downfall and execution of Henry VIII’s leading courtier, Thomas Cromwell, is surely the most highly anticipated book of 2020. It has been heralded by a popular BBC adaptation of the earlier books (Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies), an RSC play, and endless column inches discussing anything from Tudor fashion to Mantel’s views on the Harry and Meghan saga. (Racism “is more deeply embedded in people’s consciousness than any of us are willing to admit,” she says. “I hesitate to call her a victim but ... there has been an element of racism in the invective against her.”)

Peter Kemp in The Sunday Times is a rare negative voice when he writes that it is “more a phenomenon of amassed information and tireless enthusiasm than triumphant creativity”. More typical is the critic Stephanie Merritt’s judgment that “The Mirror and the Light is a masterpiece”, and she goes on to praise the trilogy as “the greatest English novels of this century”. The events Mantel depicts are well-known, but the flair and brilliance of her writing make this finale more Bourne Ultimatum than Return of the Jedi.

ONE TWO THREE FOUR Craig Brown (Fourth Estate, £20)

Anyone who has ever enjoyed Craig Brown’s pitch-perfect satirical writing for Private Eye will know how incredibly gifted he is at imitating (and ridiculing) specific voices and characters, but his 2017 book Ma’am Darling did something altogether more challenging and successful. Brown produced an anti-biography of sorts about Princess Margaret, using everything from interviews to fantasy to produce a kaleidoscopic life of a complex character. It won the James Tait Prize and fans were itching for this follow-up.

Brown’s subject is that most beloved of all British bands, The Beatles. He uses a similar style to Ma’am Darling to tell their near-unbelievable story, in which four young boys from Liverpool could first perfect and then reinvent an entire musical form, before separating and drifting apart before their youngest members were even 30. We discover that Wallis Simpson adored them, that Noel Coward loathed them, and that the Queen said, “Think what we would have missed if we had never heard The Beatles.” Brown is a perfect guide, and this is the equal to Ma’am Darling.

DEAD FAMOUS Greg Jenner (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £18.99)

Greg Jenner, the so-called “celebrity historian”, returns with another intriguing account of what fame has meant over the past centuries. In an era when the death of Caroline Flack has led to many questioning whether the relationship between the press and those that they first build up, then destroy, is anything other than toxic, Jenner looks at 125 cases, ranging from the Bronze Age to the halcyon days of Hollywood, of those who achieved their own success and fame and often regretted it. Some, such as Byron, have become immortal in their very own afterlife, and others, such as the actor Edmund Kean, are nearly forgotten. Jenner brings all these figures back to life once more, in this witty and incredibly readable book.

THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF BYRON Emily Brand (John Murray, £25)

Everyone with any interest in the Romantic poets knows the story of the rock star amongst them, Lord Byron. Famously dismissed (and praised) by his lover, Lady Caroline Lamb, as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”, his witty satires and heartfelt love poetry are only second in reputation to the dashing, wicked lifestyle that he led. Yet Emily Brand’s fascinating and well-researched work of biography is not another account of Bad Boy Byron. Instead, she revisits his forebears, such as the heroic sea captain “Foul-Weather Jack”; the so-called “Wicked Lord” George Byron, who killed another landowner in an argument; and Byron’s own near-satanic father, Captain Jack, who abandoned his wife and son and died young. These figures are sometimes awful, and sometimes admirable, but Brand’s book brings them all to vivid and often surprising life.