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April's book reviews

The pick of the latest hardbacks and paperbacks, reviewed by Simon Evans

Charles_Spencer_A_Very_private_school_book_cover.A Very Private School, by Charles Spencer

Anyone who was sent away to boarding school at a very young age, at any time up until the late Seventies, will recognise all too readily Charles Spencer’s honest, brutal and at times shocking account of his own experiences at an especially Dickensian prep school, Maidwell Hall, in Northamptonshire.

But while I, like Spencer, was sent away from home at the age of eight, and fully share the sense of abandonment, of suddenly being left alone in the world, my boarding school, for all its petty cruelties and lack of pastoral care, was very different to Maidwell Hall.

Under the iron fist of a sadistic, twisted head teacher, the pupils at this particular hell-hole (it still exists today but, like so many schools of its type, including my own, is now unrecognisable) lived a regimented, spartan life, with the ever-present threat of the slipper or cane for the slightest infraction of the rules.

It’s no surprise that Spencer needed therapy after completing this book – it makes Tom Brown’s Schooldays sound like Mallory Towers in comparison – nor that many people he is still in touch with still bear the emotional scars.

It is a record of a childhood lost and never quite regained; like many others who experienced boarding school life at the time, Spencer will never understand why he was sent there in the first place, “to live with adults and children who were total strangers, in a clear rejection of family life.”

Published by William Collins Price £25 Pages 296 ISBN 9780008666088

Baptiste_book_coverBaptiste: The Blade Must Fall, by David Hewson

French detective Julien Baptiste first appeared in the TV series The Missing, followed by its spin-off Baptiste. Engagingly played by Tcheky Karyo, Baptiste was a man clearly troubled by the missing person cases he had been involved with over the years, of which the mystery that lies at the heart of this prequel novel is but the first.

Set in the summer of 1976, it finds Baptiste seconded to a rural Northern French town where a young girl has disappeared. Her parents are, understandably, frantic, but the police chief seems less than inclined to show any urgency in hunting for her. Could it be that he is privy to some dark secrets? Could the sinister group of powerful men, known as ‘Les Amies’, who dominate town life, be involved?

Baptiste solves the case but is haunted by the possibility he might have accused the wrong man of murdering the girl, even though no body has been found. Visiting the accused on the day he is due to be executed, Baptiste’s doubts only deepen, but is it too late?

It’s a gripping story, full of well-drawn characters, that also dovetails neatly with the TV series.

Published by Orion Price £9.99 Pages 357 ISBN 9781398718043 

Star_Trek_discovering_the_TV-series_book_cover.Star Trek: Discovering the TV Series, by Tom Salinsky

Famously a flop when first aired in the United States, Star Trek only became a cultural phenomenon when it went into syndication and was screened over here in the late Sixties and early Seventies.

Tom Salinsky was too young to witness those early evening screenings on the BBC, coming to the series via novelisations of the original series, the motion pictures of the late Seventies and early Eighties and the Next Generation TV series, which was shown over here from 1990. It still made enough of an impression for him to become a devoted fan, and to spend two years of his life making his way through every single episode of the show, from the original series, the animated episodes of the Seventies, the movies and the Next Generation, right up to the later spin-offs Deep Space Nine and Enterprise.

This book, the first of two, takes us up to the end of the Next Generation series and you don’t have to be as devoted a Trekkie as Tom to enjoy it, especially as the book is written from the perspective of a British fan so there’s a welcome wry detachment you don’t always find from the more bug-eyed transatlantic admirers of the series.

Published by White Owl Price £9.99 Pages 224 ISBN 9781399035040

Freaks_Out_book_cover.Freaks Out, by Luke Haines

Luke Haines is perhaps best-known for his work with the rock bands The Auteurs and Black Box Recorder, but he has also published two volumes of eccentric memoirs as well as releasing numerous solo albums with such titles as Nine and a Half Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the Seventies and Early Eighties. This, you will have gathered, is not a conventional music book.

It takes as its stepping off point Luke’s very personal view of what constitutes a ‘freak’, a term common in the Sixties and Seventies to describe a certain kind of counter-cultural outsider but now denotes a singularity of purpose, a boldness, an unconventional view of life and a wilful distrust of rules and authority.

It takes a particular kind of non-conformity to make it as a freak in Luke’s alternative history of pop – cricket fans, the Glitter Band, Dollar’s David Van Day, the Incredible String Band, Jim Morrison (but not The Doors), The Shadows, Ivor Cutler, Sir John Betjeman and Ashley Hutchings (for his Morris On album) all qualify as freaks. Cast into outer darkness however are anyone who wears shorts, David Bowie, and, strangely, Roy Harper who, despite ticking most of the freak boxes, including cricket fan, is disqualified because of his collaborations with Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.

It’s a book that will make you laugh and fume in equal measures – I enjoyed it immensely.

Published by White Owl Price £22 Pages 320 ISBN 9781788709347

The_Intruders_book_cover.The Intruders, by Louise Jensen

When Cass and James are given the chance to house-sit at an old manor house, rent-free, it is too good an offer to pass up, giving them the chance at last to save up for a deposit on their own home. One of, as it turns out, multiple catches, is that the house was the scene of a brutal house invasion 30 years ago, which left three people dead and the sole survivor severely traumatised. But that was a long time ago – wasn’t it?

But then strange things start happening; odd smells, a clock stopping at the same time every evening, and is that somebody watching and waiting in the garden? It soon becomes clear that not only does the house hold dark secrets but that James and Cass might not be everything they appear, even to themselves.

Unexplained coincidences, odd goings-on and curveball plot twists all contribute to the novel’s rich, immersive tapestry.

Published by HQ Price £9.99 Pages 417 ISBN 9780008508548

British_General_Elections_campaigns_book_cover.British General Election Campaigns 1830-2019, edited by Iain Dale

Following the format of Iain Dale’s previous books on Prime Ministers, American Presidents, and British monarchs, here we have every election campaign over the past 200 years or so examined in short essays by a mixture of academics, journalists and politicians. Some are inevitably more interesting than others – you may find yourself skipping many of the campaigns that took place in the mid-19th Century – and contributions range from the academically dry to the journalistically anecdotal. All focus, however, on the context in which a particular election took place, the key personalities involved, how the campaign progressed and, of course, the results and eventual fall-out.

Contributions from Michael Crick (1970), Peter Snow (1983, the first he was involved with as the BBC’s swingometer man), Sir John Curtice (1997), and Simon Heffer (1979) all stand out but especially fascinating is Stephen (now Lord) Parkinson’s hands-on account of the 2017 general election. Parkinson was political secretary to Theresa May when the ill-fated election was called, and it’s fair to say his life was irrevocably changed by it.

Published by Biteback Price £25 Pages 720 ISBN 9781785908118

Red_Queen_book_coverRed Queen?, by Michael Ashcroft

The question mark in the title is important, because the council house-related scandal currently enveloping Labour’s deputy leader – first detailed in this revealing, unauthorised biography – may yet bring her down. If that happens then opponents of this divisive, partisan figure will no doubt rejoice, but our politics may be the poorer if only because of Rayner’s colourful back story – a pregnant single mum who left school at 16, worked in the care industry, rose up through the trade union movement, deftly negotiated the Corbyn years to rise to the top of the Labour Party and – if she survives the current rumpus – who knows? It’s certainly a fascinating story but one you suspect may end badly.

Published by Biteback Price £20 Pages 365 ISBN 9781785908569


The House at the Edge of the Woods, by Rachel Hancox

When artist Rebecca wins a commission to create a fresco at the home of a wealthy businessman, Pieter, it brings to the surface the murder, 30 years before, of her husband Ben’s mother, a crime that remains unsolved and unexplained. Gradually, as the narrative shifts from one protagonist to another, the truth gradually emerges with all three coming to realise that you can never truly escape your past. This is the second novel from award-winning short story writer Rachel Hancox and it’s equally as impressive as her debut, The Shadow Child, rich in character and with plenty of plot twists.

Published by Penguin Price £9.99 Pages 368 ISBN 9781529160345

Not_that_Im_bitter_book_cover.Not That I’m Bitter, by Helen Lederer

The early Eighties may have marked the start of what became known as ‘alternative comedy’, populated by comedians who were impeccably right-on and politically correct, but it was no easier for a woman to make it on the cut-throat stand-up scene scene that it had been ten years before. And, as the actress, comedian and writer Helen Lederer reveals in this wonderfully candid autobiography, the few women who did set out on such a perilous career were just as prone to the lecherous advances of men in a position of power as those that had gone before.

Helen, however, overcame multiple challenges to thrive – appearing in many of the key shows of the era – including The Young Ones, Bottom, Absolutely Fabulous, Harry Enfield’s Television Programme, French and Saunders, One Foot In The Grave and Naked Video, and encountering at close quarters – in some cases very close quarters – some of the leading comics of the time including Ben Elton, Harry Enfield (who cast Helen as a sex worker after she cheated on him) and Rik Mayall, who haughtily warned her not to “crash my laughs” when they were recording a show together.

Despite the title there’s surprisingly little bitterness or score-settling in Helen’s no holds barred book; it’s confessional and self-lacerating almost to the point of being painful (there’s always an embarrassing mishap just around the corner) as well as being very funny indeed. At 69 Helen has been through enough to have developed a highly developed sense of the absurd, especially in relation to her chosen profession, and lived, just about, to tell the tale.

Published by Mirror Books Price £20 Pages 288 ISBN 9781915306654

All_You_Need_Is_Love_The_end_of_the_beatles_book_cover.All You Need Is Love, by Peter Brown and Stephen Gaines


Many books about The Beatles were published in the early Eighties, following the murder of John Lennon, and most of them were instantly disposable hack jobs. The Love You Make, by Peter Brown and Stephen Gaines, and Philip Norman’s Shout, however, proved to be enduring and indispensable portraits of a group that had, until Lennon’s death, rather fallen out of view.

Norman’s book was the first to tell the full story of The Beatles in any real detail and was based on scrupulous journalistic research over a number of years, but The Love You Make was written by someone, Peter Brown, who had been part of the group’s inner circle from their early days in Liverpool right up to the ignominious, bitter split.

As one of their closest aides and confidantes, and managing director of the band’s Apple label, Brown knew where the bodies were buried, and had no qualms about providing a detailed road map where necessary. So incensed was Paul McCartney when the book was published that he is reputed to have torn it up page by page and burnt it – which is a kind of recommendation in itself.

Long out of print, but easy enough to find, The Love You Make was, and is, essential reading for any self-respecting Beatles fan, as is this companion piece, comprising the full transcripts of the original interviews conducted during the writing of the book.

Included are candid interviews with George Harrison, Yoko Ono, Ringo Starr and, most fascinating of all, Paul McCartney. Conducted not long before John Lennon’s murder, McCartney’s interview reveals the depth of the bitterness that still existed between the two old friends and collaborators nearly a decade after the break-up of The Beatles, deep-rooted issues that, sadly, did not appear to have been resolved before Lennon’s death.

There are also new insights into the break-up of the band, in particular how the manoeuvrings of Allen Klein, the accountant brought in to oversee the group’s affairs as Apple disintegrated, only served to exacerbate tensions already present within the Beatles during their final years.

Although the format of the book necessarily involves a certain amount of padding and repetition there is still more than enough here for any Beatles devotee to feast on.

Published by Monoray Price £25 Pages 368 ISBN 9781800962330

Also recommended

In the engrossing thriller The Escape Room, by LD Smithson (Bantam, £14.99), eight strangers are shipped out to an old Napoleonic fort in the middle of nowhere to take part in a reality show, but their mysterious host has murder in mind, as they discover all too soon. With plenty of twists and turns this will keep you guessing right up to the final page…

With Christianity in England seemingly under threat from all sides, not least the clergy who you would expect to safeguard its traditions, Peter Ackroyd’s The English Soul (Reaktion, £20) is full of this great historian’s usual passion and clarity and is an invaluable study of how the faith of the nation has evolved over the past 1500 years…

Organised chronologically, 100 Books That Changed the World, by Scott Christianson and Colin Salter (Batsford, £20) includes religious texts, scientific treatises, ground-breaking novels, works of political and social importance, as well as the no less important Mrs Beeton’s Guide to Household Management and Roget’s Thesaurus. Each entry provides a useful overview of the work in question as well as evocative photographs of early editions…

Colin Salter, in the introduction to his book Shakespeare Every Night of the Year (Batsford, £25), describes Shakespeare’s plays as having done much to “shape the way the English see themselves, and the way the world sees England.” No one would argue with that, and the extracts Colin has chosen from the Bard – one for every night of the year, as the title suggests – range from well-known plays to lesser-known poems and sonnets, all marked with the stamp of his unique genius. And what could be better to end your day than to dip into a book “so full-replete with choice of all delights”…

Sparks of Bright Matter (Bonnier, £16.99) is the hugely imaginative debut novel from documentary maker, podcaster and psychotherapist Leeanne O’Donnell. Brilliantly descriptive of its principal setting, 18th century London, it tells the story of an apprentice chemist (and secret alchemist) Peter Woulfe, who becomes embroiled in a dangerous Jacobite plot when he is given safe-keeping of a mysterious book…

Homecoming for The Chocolate Girls (Pan, £8.99) is the conclusion of Annie Murray’s series following the lives of women and girls who worked at the Cadbury’s factory in Birmingham during the Second World War, Joanne Toye’s novel The Little Penguin Bookshop (Penguin, £7.99), also set during the last war, tells how a railway bookstall changes one person’s life and brings a community together, and A Call to Service (Hera, £9.99) is the second in Holly Green’s evocative ‘Women of the Resistance’ series…

Originally available in a luxury hand-bound limited edition, The Beach Boys by The Beach Boys is now available as a hardback through Genesis Publications at a rather more affordable £50 (signed copies of the original can fetch northwards of £1000). That may seem a lot for the casual fan to splash out, but diehards will be attracted by this being the only official publication that tells the band’s story in their own words, complemented with fascinating photos and images drawn from the Capitol Records archive. And The Zerox Machine, by Matthew Worley (Reaktion Books, £20) is an excellent overview of the fanzine phenomenon, basic fan-produced magazines, mainly sold through record shops or at gigs, that exemplified the DIY ethos of punk and post-punk music in the years 1976 to 1988 and provided an important focus for its followers and practitioners…

Forever_Max_book_coverForever Max, by Kerry Irving (HarperElement, £20) is the moving final instalment in the life of Max the Wonder Dog, the Springer Spaniel that not only changed Kerry’s life, following a near fatal car accident, but also won the hearts of millions across the globe through the pair’s many charity walks. And On This Holy Island (Bloomsbury Continuum, £20), is a travelogue with a difference as travel writer Oliver Smith evaluates our idea of pilgrimage in Britain by tracing sacred travel routes and meeting modern-day pilgrims, hoping all the while to “break through the crust of the familiar to find the fantastical”…


From consorting with the movers and shakers of Swinging Sixties London and decadent Seventies Hollywood, to experiencing near-destitution in a remote Brazilian fishing village, Tanya Sarne survived it all – including a near-encounter with the Manson gang – to found one of the most influential fashion labels of the Eighties. Free Spirit (Mitchell Beazley, £10.99) is her extraordinary autobiography. And Running on Empty (Ad Lib, £9.99) is the incredible true story of Guy Deacon CBE, a former British Army colonel who, despite living with Stage 3 Parkinson’s Disease decided, at the age of 60, to embark on one last adventure, driving 18,000 miles from his home in the UK to South Africa to raise awareness of the disease…

Levitation for Beginners (Abacus, £20) is Suzannah Dunn’s first novel in nearly 25 years and, set in 1972, tells the engaging, unsettling story of ten-year-old Deborah and how she becomes entangled with Sarah-Jayne, an attractive charismatic new girl at her school. Alex_Gray_Out_of_Darkness_book_coverOut of Darkness (Sphere, £20), is the 21st book in the series of novels featuring Scottish detective DSI William Lorrimer and is a slight departure as it finds the detective and his wife caught up in a case of murder and intrigue while taking an extended holiday in Zimbabwe, while The Four (HQ, £16.99) is young award-winning producer Ellie Keene’s debut novel, a story of boarding school friendship turned sour, Mallory Towers with a savage twist…

Clickbait_book_coverThe corrupting nature of reality TV and social media come under the spotlight in LC North’s thriller Clickbait (Bantam, £16.99), with a story centred on a couple whose time in the limelight comes under threat when the truth starts to emerge about what went on at one of their legendary parties, and Women Who Murder: An International Collection of Deadly True Crime Tales (Mango, £16.99) is the latest in Mitzi Szereto’s excellent ‘The Best New True Crime Stories’ series of anthologies and contains true crime cases about female killers from around the world, including Mitzi’s own contribution about Iran’s first-known female serial killer…


And with the cricket season now under way, an essential addition to any fan’s flask and sandwiches is the 2024 edition of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, edited by Lawrence Booth (John Wisden, £50). This year it features, in addition to all the usual statistics, a report on the 2023 Ashes series as well as articles by Mike Brearley on the captaincy of Ben Stokes and John Liew on Stuart Broad’s memorable final test. Broad, inevitably, is also the 2024 cover star. The 2024 Wisden is also available as an ebook priced at £17.50… 

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