“The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By” by Georges Simenon (published by Penguin Books)

An upright life derailed

Yesterday, Kees Popinga was a respectable mundane Dutchman, 40 years old, father of two teenagers after 16 years of marriage and second in charge in a ships’ chandlers in Groningen, a strait-laced town. Today, he is a killer on the run in Paris, and ...

The real story of why Dickens wrote ‘A Christmas Carol’

Moral outrage and the need for ‘a hit’

Nothing quite says “Christmas” like Charles Dickens’ mean old miser who hates everything associated with the cursed day. The story of Ebenezer Scrooge and his ghostly visitations is as synonymous with the season as turkey, Santa and raisin-addled puddings. And with most editions just ...

“all we are saying, The Last Major Interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono” by David Sheff (published by Pan Books)

Sgt. Pepper and a pinch of salt

After five years out of the public spotlight between 1975 and 1980, John Lennon’s musical muse had returned and he and his wife Yoko Ono had a joint comeback album in the making. They wanted to publicise it, and one of the writers hustling ...

“Conquistadors. A New History” by Fernando Cervantes (published by allen lane)

Venality, brutality re-evaluated

When Hernán Cortés finally conquered the Aztecs on August 13, 1521, it should have been a glorious triumph for the Spanish invaders, who had suffered an ignominious rout the previous year. Tenochtitlán, the monumental Mexican capital constructed on a lake, which had so awed ...

"A Maigret Christmas and Other Stories” by Georges Simenon (published by Penguin Classics)

Un joyeux Noel

How many Maigret/mystery enthusiasts avidly bought all 75 of Penguin’s one-a-month reissues that began in 2013 and ended in January 2020? Probably a lot. Maigret/Simenon has survived the years. Apparently one fan of the books is Rowan Atkinson, who played the Detective Chief Inspector ...

“John Lennon 1980. The Last Days in the Life” by Kenneth Womack (published by Omnibus Press)

The world read the news that day, oh boy

John Winston Lennon, born in Liverpool, UK, on October 9, 1940, would have been 80 years old on October 9, 2020. The world knows he only got half-way there, and despairs, but will always remember who John Lennon was. His life ended on December ...

Exclusive extract: read the first chapter of A ‘Promised Land’ by Barack Obama

Working – and living – at the White House

Of all the rooms and halls and landmarks that make up the White House and its grounds, it was the West Colonnade that I loved best.

“The Black Book. The Britons on the Nazi Hitlist” by Sybil Oldfield (published by Profile Books)

To be exterminated, or ’disappeared’

Why, Sybil Oldfield wondered while visiting the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2014 to see an exhibition on Virginia Woolf, did the display include a facsimile of a page from the “Black Book – the List of Britons Most Wanted for Arrest by ...

“Ready Steady Go! The Weekend Starts Here” by Andy Neill (published by BMG)

All together into the Swinging Sixties

Where did they come from and how did they do it, all those British and American teenage singers, guitarists, drummers, keyboardists? It seems like one moment it was an adult world and the next moment the youngsters were taking over. It was a cultural ...

Douglas Stuart wins Booker Prize for ‘Shuggie Bain’

30-plus editors rejected story of tough childhood

This year’s Booker Prize, one of the most prestigious literary awards in the world, was notable for having four debut novelists on this year’s shortlist of six books, and the award has gone to one of them, Douglas Stuart, with his autobiographical “Shuggie Bain”, ...