Books of the month: From Ian McEwan’s Lessons to Terry Pratchett: A Life in Footnotes

 (The Independent)
(The Independent)

Australian roadie Tana Douglas may well be the only person ever to be formally introduced to Queen Elizabeth II while wearing Doc Martens boots. “She tilted her head slightly to one side, and made what I swear was a ‘hmmmmph!’ before she moved on,” recalls Douglas in her highly entertaining memoir Loud: A Life in Rock ‘n’ Roll by the World’s First Female Roadie (HarperCollins).

Douglas found her calling as a teenager, initially starting out lumping equipment for AC/DC, before going on to work with some of the world’s leading musicians, including Status Quo, Suzi Quatro, Leo Sayer and Neil Diamond (all nice) and the volatile Elton John (“not always gracious”). In her memoir, now published in the UK after its Australian launch, she is open about her personal life, which included an abusive parent, run-ins with pimps and a bitter custody battle over her child. She also details the sexism, violence, drugs, hanky-panky and crazed fans you would expect a female roadie to have encountered in the 1970s and 1980s. There are some cracking stories, my favourite being the one about the strange intervention of an acid-dolling fake preacher during a night in the outback cells.

Among other memoirs out this month is Nick Thomas-Symonds’s Harold Wilson: The Winner (W&N), a comprehensive tribute to one of Labour’s most successful prime ministers. I like comedian Lenny Henry, but found the second instalment of his autobiography, Rising to the Surface (Faber), rather tepid. There’s more frankness in Amanda Prowse’s Women Like Us: A Memoir (Little A), which contains tales of the author and television star’s battles with food addiction. Along the way, she reflects on the cruel things that rancid men somehow believe they have a right to say to a woman in the public eye.

I’m sure there will be a deserved fanfare for September novels by Stephen King, Ann Cleeves and Graham Norton, but instead I offer a hard recommend for both Kamila Shamsie’s Best of Friends (Bloomsbury), a beautiful, enchanting story about friendship, set in Pakistan and London over three decades; and Kate Atkinson’s Shrines of Gaiety (Double), a compelling, intricate novel about a missing girl, set in Soho in the 1920s. New novels by Ian McEwan, Joyce Carol Oates and Orhan Pamuk are among the six main reviews (below), along with Terry Pratchett’s “official” biography, Orlando Figes’s history of Russia and a book about Bond and the Beatles.

Serge Diaghilev is hailed as the man who invented the modern art form of ballet. In Diaghilev’s Empire: How the Ballets Russes Enthralled the World (Faber) my former Telegraph colleague Rupert Christiansen brings his usual elegant prose, gift for insight and ability to find intriguing detail to a superb study of the impresario, one that involves scandal and sensation as well as artistic excellence.

Finally, there are lots of oddball animal doings in Marlene Zuk’s Dancing Cockatoos and the Dead Man Test: How Behavior Evolves and Why It Matters (W.W. Norton) but none more so than the exploits of the sacoglossan sea slug. When their heads become infected with deadly bacteria, they decapitate themselves and then grow a completely new body, including heart and digestive organs. The detached body floats around for a while before it expires. A scene worthy of a horror film, Professor Zuk notes.

Joyce Carol Oates’s ‘Babysitter’, which began life as a short story, is a consuming, tense read (Dustin Cohen)
Joyce Carol Oates’s ‘Babysitter’, which began life as a short story, is a consuming, tense read (Dustin Cohen)

Babysitter by Joyce Carol Oates


The fictional child serial killer nicknamed Babysitter was inspired by the real life (never apprehended) Oakland County Child Killer, who caused terror in the Michigan suburbs in 1977. Joyce Carol Oates is a former recipient of the National Humanities Medal, awarded for a career in which she has written more than 50 novels. In Babysitter, the celebrated author, who turned 84 in June, brings all her powers for drama and insight to a gritty tale of suburban noir – a story based around a woman who is suddenly bent to the will of a vicious, malevolent man, during a time when rich Detroit suburbanites are asking themselves: “If we are not safe here, then where?”

Hannah, the wife of a prominent local businessman, has two children and her unhappy marriage has left her on a precipice. During a time when everyone is scared out of their wits by the serial killer stalking children, she embarks on a reckless affair with a mysterious stranger. He turns out to be a man with a visceral loathing for women. Oates seems to deliberately make Hannah a grating personality, while forcing you to experience her torment through the sinister way in which her lover tries to “annihilate” and “obliterate” this woman. The sexual assault scenes are horrific.

Babysitter, which began life as a short story, is a consuming, tense read, and is genuinely demanding, because it slops over with depraved, vicious characters. The descriptive similes, as you’d expect from Oates, are scalpel sharp, including one describing child abusers with “eyes shining like pond scum”.

Oates also explores failed marriages, sexual yearning, the demands of raising children, alcoholism, power dynamics within suburban communities and the racism of wealthy America (the tricky relationship between Hannah and her Filipina housekeeper Ismelda is deftly handled) in what is a damning portrait of 1970s America.

At one point, Hannah muses on the fact that she does not enjoy reading The Cat in the Hat to her children because it “is not funny”. Hannah believes that “too much happens, too much for small children to process. Too much breakage, smashing. Too much that is terrifying”.

The same, as it happens, could be said for Babysitter.

Babysitter by Joyce Carol Oates, published by 4th Estate, is out now, £16.99

Orlando Figes offers a valuable overview of how Ukraine has become a battlefield for a ‘clash of civilisations’ between Russia and the West (Phil Fisk)
Orlando Figes offers a valuable overview of how Ukraine has become a battlefield for a ‘clash of civilisations’ between Russia and the West (Phil Fisk)

The Story of Russia by Orlando Figes


Ivan the Terrible was a violent tyrant and a pretty shoddy parental role model – he beat his daughter-in-law so badly she miscarried, and murdered his 27-year-old son when he tried to intervene – but even he failed to match mass murderer Stalin’s capacity for evil. Stalin, the man who threw orange peel and flicked cigarette butts across the table at his first wife on the night she ran to her room and shot herself with a pistol, wrote in 1947 that Ivan the Terrible “should have been more ruthless” in dealing with the feudal clans of Russia in the 16th century.

Why does this matter? Well, the debate around these major historical figures, along with key events such as the Mogul Invasion and the Russian Revolution of 1917, all feed into the controlling narratives and myths that influence mindsets to this day. In The Story of Russia, historian Orlando Figes has written an impressive account of the ideas, myths and ideologies that have shaped that country and the way its people interpret the past.

Vladimir Putin, who joined the KGB at the age of 23, is well read about Russian history and like many fellow citizens of his generation, was schooled in Soviet views of history. The president of Russia, who turns 70 in October, had a sharp grasp on how the over-50s have been moulded by the history they were taught in Soviet schools and how they resented the “besmirching” of their country’s past in the glasnost period. “They did not want to listen to moralising lectures about how bad the Stalin era was, they thought otherwise… Putin’s version of their history enabled them to feel good as Russians once again,” writes Figes, the author of eight previous books on Russia.

This account takes readers up to the 21st century, a period when Russia is allowing talented creative native people to leave its borders, particularly those it believes are “potential oppositionists” to the regime. “It believes they can be replaced with more pliant immigrants from central Asia and China,” Figes notes, adding ominously that “Russia, slowly, is retreating from Europe.”

Putin never truly recognised the independence of Ukraine. In 2008, he told the US president that Ukraine was “not a real country” but a historic part of greater Russia. His dubious reading of his country’s history allows him to spout controlling narratives. Like Trump, he feeds on false nostalgia. If you want to understand how Ukraine has become a battlefield for a “clash of civilisations” between Russia and the West, then Figes’s book offers a valuable, instructive overview.

The Story of Russia by Orlando Figes, published by Bloomsbury, is out now, £25

‘Lessons’ skilfully explores the everyman struggle to make sense of the ups and downs of existence (Supplied)
‘Lessons’ skilfully explores the everyman struggle to make sense of the ups and downs of existence (Supplied)

Lessons by Ian McEwan


Roland Baines, the main character in Lessons, was born in 1948, the same year as Ian McEwan. His past is the superb vehicle for his creator to reflect on the events and accidents “personal and global, miniscule and momentous” that shape and determine a person’s fate.

Roland’s life is altered indelibly when, as an 11-year-old at a boarding school (based on McEwan’s Woolverstone Hall), he meets piano teacher Miss Miriam Cornell. You suspect she is slightly unhinged from the moment she reaches under Roland’s shorts and roughly pinches his leg. Three years later, when she is 25, she uses her psychological superiority to lure the teenager – terrified that he will die a virgin under the looming threat of nuclear vaporisation haunting the world amid the Cuban Missile Crisis – into a two-year affair.

This fictional #MeToo moment from the 1950s scars Roland’s memory and distorts his future relationships with women. Years later, he is left to raise a baby son after being abandoned by his first wife, Alissa Eberhardt, who is resolutely determined to fulfil her destiny to become a truly great writer. The two women dominate Roland’s reflections and when McEwan fashions separate set-piece confrontations between his protagonist and Miriam and Alissa (decades later), he pulls off both scenes with great aplomb.

As Lessons charts Roland’s entire restless life, examining how global political events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Chernobyl disaster, terrorism and Covid penetrate our private lives, the novel skilfully explores the everyman struggle to make sense of the ups and downs of existence and the baffling role that mere chance can play in anyone’s life story.

McEwan, who also mines his own past for a plotline about Roland discovering, in later life, that he has a brother who was given up for adoption during the Second World War, is shrewd enough to reflect on “shaming inadequacies of memory” and the dangers of dwelling on “all the routes not taken”. McEwan also masterfully describes the long letting go that is the essence of parenthood and the travails of old age, when, in his drolly devastating phrase, “reason fades in and out like short-wave radio”, amid a trickle of minor ailments “that fed a deeper river”.

One of the many charms of the novel is that McEwan captures a lost Britain: the delights of growing up in an age where you could swim in rivers that were “clean and blue” (before Liz Truss helped allow greedy water executives to dump sewage in them at will), the intellectual thrill of hearing lectures by forgotten sages such as historian E.P. Thompson (something I still remember clearly) and the poignancy of pre-digital realities, such as having to press a radio to your ear when the battery was draining down.

Lessons serves up much heartache and melancholy to chew on, but the book is also a celebration of the things that make life joyful (loving relations, friendship, sex, music, food, sport) and often bursts into sudden colourful humour. I smiled at his description of coaching adult tennis beginners in Regent’s Park as “grinding work, being kindly and encouraging all day”. There is a carefully staged fight scene between Roland and a businessman, who grapple over the remains of a mutual ex-wife, and although that scene seemed contrived just to allow McEwan to drop in a sporting pun pay-off, it was a true banger. The longer joke from that plotline was that his repulsive enemy goes on to be a junior minister in the Johnson government.

Although there are wonderful ancillary characters in Lessons – especially Lawrence and Daphne – Roland is the heart of the novel. Perhaps McEwan’s latest male protagonist will divide opinion, but I found it hard not to warm to a candid man who is so openly floundering. It also appealed to me that his immediate reaction to hearing The Archers on the radio was to “snap off” this “unbearable” sound.

The book concludes in pandemic times, as Roland fears inhaling the virus from some “unmasked moron”, a period when the optimism about the world that rose in the Nineties has slowly evaporated in a Brexit-damaged, climate change-blighted landscape. “Everything, especially life, fell apart,” bemoans Roland. The novel could easily have finished on a downbeat note. However, the ending is strangely uplifting and full of wisdom. As Roland says, nothing is ever as you imagine.

When Roland visits Germany, Alissa’s publisher tells him that “when a writer has been around long enough people begin to get tired”. Lessons is McEwan’s 17th novel and offers no reason for weariness. A wonderful author has delivered another mesmerising, memorable novel.

Lessons by Ian McEwan is published by Jonathan Cape on 13 September, £20

‘Love and Let Die’ explores interconnections between the Fab Four and slick secret agent 007 (Isaac Higgs)
‘Love and Let Die’ explores interconnections between the Fab Four and slick secret agent 007 (Isaac Higgs)

Love and Let Die: Bond, The Beatles and the British Psyche by John Higgs


As a peg on which to hang a book about the Beatles and James Bond and their influence on the British mindset, the fact that “Love Me Do”, the first Fab Four single, and Dr No, the first 007 film, were both released on Friday 5 October 1962, is a pretty neat one.

There are lots of interconnections between the shaggy-haired scousers and the slick secret agent – Paul McCartney composed “Hey Jude” in a gadget-packed Aston Martin DB5, bought days after the premiere of Goldfinger and went on to write the Oscar-nominated Bond theme tune “Live and Let Die” – and overall this is a highly evocative picture of the 1960s, especially considering it was written by someone born in 1971. I also liked the way author John Higgs veers off at oddball tangents, notably in a hilarious section about Peter Sellers and his pathological feud with Orson Welles.

My lasting take, however, was that McCartney seems to be, well, just a nice chap, in contrast to the repellent Ian Fleming, a depressive, heavy drinking racist and pal of Oswald Mosley. The casual misogyny of the Bond books is bad enough (in Casino Royale, Bond says that women should “stay at home and mind their pots and pans and stick to their frocks and gossip and leave men’s work to the men”), but Fleming was seriously dangerous when it came to his writing (true feelings?) about sex.

Bond forces himself on women in Thunderball and Goldfinger (Bond actor Sean Connery would later arouse contempt for his views disregarding consent) and Fleming actually wrote – and was allowed to publish – a passage about Bond boasting that sex with agent Vesper Lynd would be “excitingly sensual” because it would have “the sweet tang of rape”. He also described Pussy Galore as climbing into bed “like an obedient child”. Hmm. It’s no wonder that Higgs discusses why many from Generation Z despise Bond and see him as “something to define themselves against” nowadays.

One of the most intriguing sections in the book, however, is about how Russia has re-emerged as a global villain since the early days of 007, how Putin’s state allegedly played a part in the Brexit debacle and how the state’s rulers use the internet to cause social divisions in America.

Love and Let Die is a book to leave you shaken and stirred.

Love and Let Die: Bond, The Beatles and the British Psyche by John Higgs is published by W&N on 15 September, £20

‘Nights of Plague’, set on a fictional Ottoman island, will resonate with those of us who are still reeling from the Covid pandemic (Supplied)
‘Nights of Plague’, set on a fictional Ottoman island, will resonate with those of us who are still reeling from the Covid pandemic (Supplied)

Nights of Plague by Orhan Pamuk


Orhan Pamuk, who turned 70 in June, began writing Nights of Plague in 2016, remarking later that epidemics “happen all the time”. The novel is set in 1901, on a fictional Ottoman island called Mingheria, during an outbreak of bubonic plague that has spread to the West from China.

Turkey’s most celebrated author – whose last novel was the brilliant fable The Red-Haired Woman, one of our picks for best novels of the 2010s – has written a true historical epic (Nights of Plague, translated by the award-winning Ekin Oklap, is a testing 682 pages long) that is full of memorable descriptions, including the corpses slowly swinging in the wind after an uprising in the quarantined Aegean island.

Although Pamuk, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, deals with sweeping universal themes – how societies are affected by their belief in fate, the problems of national identity, the strains of modernity on a fragile empire – he has also written a historical novel that will resonate with us all still recovering/reeling from the Covid pandemic. Nights of Plague has relevant things to say about the reactions of a frightened and frantic population living with the fear of death from an invisible killer. His depiction of people with headaches that are like “someone hammering a nail into his skull”, or suffering diarrhoea “sharp as a corkscrew”, are grimly powerful.

Nights of Plague is a tale of spies, conspiracy and murder (the Sultan’s Royal Chemist Bonkowski Pasha is butchered after arriving to investigate the outbreak), which is full of vivid characters such as Princess Pakize and her husband Doctor Nuri. There are downsides to the novel (the narration is sometimes a little formal and dry) but some of the passages evoking life in Mingheria – even the silence of quarantine, when locals miss the “noise of anchors splashing in and out of the water, the clattering of carriages and horses’ hooves” – are wonderful. Pamuk can also be witty, especially in his depiction of the royal princes of the time, a “proliferating population” of indolent, pampered, uniformed and dull-witted royals (into which category, incidentally, Pamuk also places Queen Victoria’s heir, Prince Edward).

When the novel came out in Turkey in March 2021, Pamuk was investigated by the Turkish state for “insulting” Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, and ridiculing the Turkish flag. It’s possible that in his portrayal of the despotic yet popular Sultan Abdul Hamid II, Turkey’s most celebrated novelist touched a nerve with subtle allusions to the conduct of his country’s current president, Tayyip Erdogan.

Nights of Plague is a demanding read, but well worth it for its sparkling imagining of an island at the centre of one of life’s catastrophes.

Nights of Plague by Orhan Pamuk is published by Faber on 22 September, £20

Rob Wilkins’s ‘official biography’ of the celebrated Discworld author features hundreds of entertaining moments and stories ‘too good to check’ (Supplied)
Rob Wilkins’s ‘official biography’ of the celebrated Discworld author features hundreds of entertaining moments and stories ‘too good to check’ (Supplied)

Terry Pratchett: A Life with Footnotes by Rob Wilkins


Terry Pratchett did not really do deference to celebrity. When he met Bono in Dublin, the author of the best-selling Discworld series was informed that the U2 singer owned the hotel in which they were standing. “Ah good, can you get me a milkshake?” he asked Bono (who obliged, to be fair).

The anecdote is one of hundreds of entertaining moments in Terry Pratchett: A Life with Footnotes, a book labelled “The Official Biography”, written by Rob Wilkins, who worked with the author for more than two decades and now manages his literary estate. The friendship and affection between the pair shines through every page.

Wilkins’s tone is just right for a Pratchett biography. As well as listing stories as “too good to check”, including Pratchett’s grandfather’s dying words about custard, he also offers extended capitalised chapter headings that are small treats in themselves (”NOVELTY VEGETABLES, THE MAGISTRATE’S KNICKERS AND HELL’S OWN SCOOTERS” is just one example.)

Pratchett’s fiction was full of wit, evident in quotes that pepper the book – “I’m deeply suspicious of a man who can wrap a present well”, for example – in a memoir that takes in some of the unpublished autobiography, initially titled A Life with Footnotes, that Pratchett began working on before his death on 12 March 2015 at the age of 66.

Wilkins pieces together Pratchett’s pre-author career well, showing how a voracious reader from a working-class home in Beaconsfield got into writing after working at local newspapers. Pratchett was witty about the ways of journalism, once offering the following advice about interviewing people gleaned from his many years in the business. “An interview needn’t last more than 15 minutes,” he joked. “A good quote for the beginning, a good quote for the end, and the rest you make up back at the office.”

After a spell in PR, Pratchett finally jumped into the “cold waters of self-employment”, triggering a career that included writing 50 best-selling books with worldwide sales of 100 million copies. This was a wonderful turn of events for a man who had no money to pay for a honeymoon with his beloved wife Lyn.

Of course, his fans will love the book – he describes Discworld Convention attendees as people who “drink like the rugby club, but fight like the chess club” – and even casual readers will delight in tales of his idiosyncratic passions, including sampling local beers, playing Space Invaders, chatting on CB radio – mostly about the merits of various Somerset fish and chips shops, it seems – and gardening. He was generous with his riches and, indeed, the only qualm I have about his character after reading this memoir was that Pratchett once bought a house with a tennis court, and gleefully used the flat surface as a foundation for an enormous new greenhouse. Sacrilege!

Pratchett also loved folk music and it’s touching to read that Maddy Prior, from Steeleye Span, came to his bedside to sing “Thomas the Rhymer” to him in his final weeks. The celebrated author always displayed a gallows humour about death – usually remarking on hearing about the passing of a friend that, “at least it wasn’t me” – but it’s also true that the final section of the book is painful reading. After being diagnosed with a rare form of Alzheimer’s Disease, he declined in sad, difficult ways. But the measure of the man is that his first response to his diagnosis, when he was 59, was to say: “At least it’s me. At least it’s not Lyn.”

Those left behind still have Pratchett’s wonderful fiction to enjoy, but you can’t help feeling that anyone who met the author in real life must have been extremely fortunate to spend time with such a thoroughly good egg.

Terry Pratchett: A Life with Footnotes by Rob Wilkins is published on 29 September by Doubleday, £25