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What the critics liked

Readers might expect a clergyman’s book on grief to be orderly and full of the consolations of faith, says Helen Brown in the Telegraph. But in The Madness of Grief: A Memoir of Loss and Love (Weidenfeld & Nicolson £16.99), Richard Coles writes “not as a vicar, but as a bereaved partner scrambling through the disorientating landscape of loss”. His husband, David, was just 42 when he died suddenly in December 2019. “Anybody who has loved an alcoholic will relate to Coles’s frank descriptions of how it felt to watch David self-destruct.”

The book “captures brilliantly, beautifully, bravely the comedy as well as the tragedy of bereavement”, says Rachel Sylvester in The Times. Coles is the Strictly vicar, the presenter of Saturday Live on Radio 4 and “the only vicar to have had a No 1 single, with the Communards” – a “borderline national trinket”, as his partner used to say. The Madness of Grief is “simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking, painful and strangely comforting as it confronts the reality of what happens to us all in the end”.

Their love for each other is “unquestionable and deeply moving”, says Rosie Boycott in the FT. “Coles may never find the acceptance stage of grief”, but by chronicling this period of David’s life and their relationship, “he may have unwittingly reached acceptance of living with such a difficult illness”.

Available as an audiobook on Kobo, read by the author.

The proverb “marry in haste, repent at leisure” might have been invented for Elizabeth Chudleigh, says Ysenda Maxtone Graham in The Times. In The Duchess Countess: The Woman who Scandalised a Nation (Simon & Schuster £25), Catherine Ostler tells the “scintillating story” of the “sparklingly charismatic” 23-year-old maid of honour to the Princess of Wales, who secretly married a “hot-blooded young blade” late one night in a Hampshire mausoleum in August 1744 – and how, 32 years later, she found herself embroiled in a “spectacular domestic scandal and downfall” following the death of her second husband, one that resulted in her being found guilty of bigamy. Ostler “packs every paragraph with eye-opening detail”, but never veers from the central story of a woman “trying to hold herself together” while the men did as they pleased.

Ostler tells Elizabeth’s story with admirable style and gusto, says Dominic Sandbrook in The Sunday Times, “and clearly finds her heroine irresistible”. But, much as I enjoyed the book, “I found Elizabeth and her friends entitled, arrogant, spoiled and stupid”. I spent a lot of time “wishing them all the worst, and am glad to report that I closed it thoroughly satisfied”.

Available as an audiobook on Audible.

Vintage fiction: Nineteen Eighty-Four 

“I do not think I have ever read a novel more frightening and depressing,” announced VS Pritchett in The New Statesman on the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1949, “and yet, such are the originality, the suspense, the speed of writing… it is impossible to put the book down”. George Orwell’s dystopian vision is of a world divided into three rival superstates, Oceania (North America and Britain), Eurasia (Russia and Europe), and Eastasia (China), all permanently at war – and its totalitarian horrors have resonated across the decades.

This is probably the definitive novel of the 20th century, said Robert McCrum in The Guardian in 2009, “a story that remains eternally fresh and contemporary”. Terms such as “doublethink”, “newspeak” and “thoughtcrime” have become “part of everyday currency”. Winston Smith, “an everyman for his times”, is employed by the Ministry of Truth to alter documents so the truth is always relevant to state policy. He decides to launch “his own hopeless private rebellion” against the oppression of the Party and its all-seeing dictator, Big Brother.

Orwell “builds his nightmare of tomorrow on foundations that are firmly laid today”, said Time magazine on the book’s publication in America in June 1949. “Any reader… can uneasily see his own shattered features in Winston Smith, can scent in the world of 1984 a stench that is already familiar.”

The Orwell Collection: Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four is available as an audiobook on Audible, narrated by Stephen Fry.