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Critical eye: book reviews roundup


Nelson: The Sword of Albion by John Sugden, George Osborne: The Austerity Chancellor by Janan Ganesh and Nicholas Roe's John Keats: A New Life

In characteristically worded praise, Roger Lewis enthused that "John Sugden's utterly epic Nelson: The Sword of Albion is the longest, richest, most absorbing biography I have read since I myself produced 1,200 pages on Peter Sellers". The Daily Mail reviewer particularly relished the detailing of Nelson's infirmities and discontents in Sugden's 1,000-page second volume, with opium damping the pain of an already disabled admiral now stricken by gout, rheumatism and a hernia, and described as "emotional, irritable, lonely, embittered and above all vulnerable" ("that's to say, exactly like the rest of us", noted Lewis). The Sunday Times's Dominic Sandbrook adopted a rather less subjective approach, calling the author's chronicle of the last eight years of Nelson's life "a sequel of colossal length, global sweep and great psychological acuity … At times his book, almost staggering under the weight of detail, is slow going. But the rewards are immense, not least because Nelson remains such a magnetic character". The Spectator's Robert Stewart complained of "wearying" trivia, but liked the biographer's "prose of admirable clarity" and his handling of the love triangle of the sailor, his abandoned wife Fanny and his mistress Emma Hamilton ("Sugden does not sit in judgment. He simply tells the story''). In the Sunday Telegraph, Andrew Roberts appeared entirely unwearied as he called the book "a superb biography, presenting a carefully nuanced, yet admiring depiction", which rises to the concluding challenge of its subject's death at Trafalgar.

Turning from these paeans to reviews of Janan Ganesh's George Osborne: The Austerity Chancellor offered a contrast between a national hero and a figure fast becoming a national hate figure. In the Daily Telegraph, Peter Oborne called Osborne "a hugely influential but strangely insubstantial figure", and while he found the book "lively", he missed "any serious exploration of Osborne's economic ideas" and found it plain wrong in depicting him as consistently seeking the centre ground when, for Oborne, the chancellor is "one of the most ideological British politicians to have emerged since the second world war". In the Mail on Sunday, Anne McElvoy echoed some of these criticisms, but nevertheless awarded four stars. "The book is a frank admirer's tale," she conceded, in which "most of the main characters 'shine' or are 'glamorous'", and Osborne "emerges as a cheeky, life-enhancing sort" who does impressions and is "loyal to old mates"; yet Ganesh is "incisive" on "what has driven … the revival of the Tories". The Independent on Sunday's James Hanning found things to praise too, but felt Ganesh's fan-like relationship to the chancellor meant a tendency to be "sometimes needlessly generous" to him, while the book lacked "revelations on his domestic life and those sagas that have tripped [him] up".

No such caveats punctuated reviews of Nicholas Roe's John Keats: A New Life, which Ferdinand Mount lauded in the Spectator for improving on earlier lives in "conveying the sense of Keats as a poet of the inner suburbs", a milieu the author "reconstructs beautifully". In the Literary Review, Seamus Perry remarked approvingly that, instead of being shown as a frail "aesthetic flower", Roe's Keats is "robust, feisty and individual, quick and streetwise". John Carey, in the Sunday Times, acclaimed the book as "a remarkable achievement, authoritative and imaginative to a degree that should make future biographers quail".

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