California Literary Review

Great Britain

Democracy: 1,000 Years in Pursuit of British Liberty by Peter Kellner


September 22nd, 2009

Magna Carta, that legendary document which is so frequently referred to in discussions of freedom, and which permeates our cultural history from Rudyard Kipling (“What say the reeds at Runnymede?”) to Tony Hancock (“Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?! Brave Hungarian peasant girl…”) was produced by a power struggle between the military aristocracy and the monarchy. Any resulting “liberty” for ordinary people was a waste product of the medieval warlord industry.

The Earth Hums in B Flat by Mari Strachan


August 25th, 2009

She sees faces in the flaking walls of the kitchen, fears for the soul of a matriarch’s fox fur, and interprets the ever-changing moods of the decorative beer steins on the mantle. Gwenni is a contradictory combination of fearlessness and naiveté, unable to discern the boundary between her imaginative world and the real one. In this way, she recalls such classic girl heroines as Anne of Green Gables or Jo from Little Women. But it’s her similarity with another classic heroine, Nancy Drew, which really draws readers into her world.

In the Kitchen by Monica Ali


August 13th, 2009

Yuri is a porter, one of Britain’s penniless immigrants that Ali would like us (and Gabe) to finally acknowledge. He dies alone in the kitchen’s basement, the victim of a tragic accident. Or is it more…?

Waiting for the Etonians by Nick Cohen


July 28th, 2009

Nick Cohen is undoubtedly one of Britain’s finest living polemicists, and Waiting for the Etonians will be a genuine treat for readers who have come to rely on his rigorous thinking, stylish phrase-making and carefully controlled rage. The book’s subtitle, Reports from the Sickbed of Liberal England, reflects his despair at the current state of left-wing (or “left-ish”) thinking in Britain, which he sees as almost irrevocably compromised by post-modernism, cultural relativism and the focus-group politics of New Labour.

The Bolter by Frances Osborne


July 27th, 2009

She introduces a woman who may have upset those around her by her promiscuity, even nymphomania, drug use; but also gives us access to a fearless beauty with gifts of intelligence, wit, and extraordinary powers to attract the opposite sex. Then too, she reveals that her antics as combined with her endowments were nevertheless insufficient in her hunt for love and lasting affection.

Agincourt by Bernard Cornwell


February 24th, 2009

Much more serious, though, is the book’s take on the medieval world as a whole. Alongside the loud cynicism of its insistence that the battles are meaningless, the church is corrupt and the aristocracy live in a different world, Agincourt continually asserts a broadly positive, modern outlook.

Erskine Childers and The Riddle of the Sands


January 27th, 2009

Set against the backdrop of a yachting trip to the German coast, the story weds a tale of adventure with the reality of Britain’s imperial overreach thus beginning a genre that – as continued by the likes of Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, and John le Carré – has matured into one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the literate world.

Quarrel with the King by Adam Nicolson


January 11th, 2009

Nicolson concludes his reflections by noting that “the custom of the manor” believed “to an extent the modern world can scarcely grasp, in the rights of the community as a living organism.”

Dilettanti: The Antic and the Antique in Eighteenth-Century England by Bruce Redford


November 30th, 2008

A famous double portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds shows members of the Dilettanti Society sipping away while making rude gestures about vaginas while holding up gemstones from classical antiquity and admiring painted Greco-Roman vases.

A Most Wanted Man by John Le Carré


November 18th, 2008

The violent and crude final pages of the book force us to scrutinise our feelings over the last three hundred pages – did we will this? Are we guilty of this ending, if only by five percent? The brutal inanity of the dialogue is a warning that in Le Carré’s world, we don’t get to argue over the proportions and scale of what we set in motion.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows


September 2nd, 2008

Such a pity Mary Ann Shaffer is not around to enjoy her celebrity! Shaffer died in February of this year and thus missed her own miracle—best-sellerdom for a first book written by an already “mature” librarian, former bookseller, and unpublished, aspiring writer. The good news, however, is that her opus is engaging, ingenious and ahead of the publishing game.

O Beloved Kids: Rudyard Kipling’s Letters to his Children


July 17th, 2008

An Imperialist, a warmonger, blind to what was in front of him, the critics say. A Nobelist, a wordmonger, enshrined in Western memory, answer his supporters. All of these Kipling has been, but it is as a father, first and foremost, that he appears in O Beloved Kids.

The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir


June 16th, 2008

If you’re going to mix brains with bosoms, however, you have to be very careful stylistically. Readers don’t mind sex, we’re very fond of it in some cases, but we do mind when it’s over the top. And what jars in the racier bits jars overall. Underneath the adjectives and adverbs, there’s a streamlined, engaging book in here. It just needed a firm editor on passages like these

The Right Side of the Tracks


May 20th, 2008

Detective fiction revels in the possibilities offered by railway travel, but it also expresses some anxiety about them. The ability to travel across Britain at such speeds was exciting, but also potentially unsettling for a social system which still, in many ways, preferred that people remained “in their place”. When Sir Henry Baskerville is being followed by an unknown bearded man in London, he suspects it may be the butler from Baskerville Hall, and sends a telegram to check whether or not “Barrymore is at his post in Devonshire.”

Home: A Memoir of My Early Years by Julie Andrews


May 7th, 2008

Again, it took an intervention, this time by Moss Hart, to point her in the right direction. She doesn’t say much about what he did in the 48 hours of rehearsal that he devoted to her, but she does include one of his most memorable lines. When asked by his wife how the session had gone, he replied, “Oh she’ll be fine. She has that terrible British strength that makes you wonder how they ever lost India.” My Fair Lady was a hit and she belted it, day in, day out, both on Broadway and in London, fitting in her twenty-first birthday and a marriage to Tony Walton in the meantime.

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