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Books

What the critics liked

Just how close, asks Roger Alton in the Daily Mail, did America and the Soviet Union come to nuclear war in October 1962? “Too damn close,” says Harvard history professor Serhii Plokhy in Nuclear Folly: A New History of the Cuban Missile Crisis (Allen Lane £25).

The crisis that “made the world hold its breath” came during a 13-day standoff after the US discovered that the Russians had installed nuclear missiles in Cuba. Plokhy “thrillingly pieces together events that have stayed out of sight for too long”. With access to a “treasure trove” of Soviet archive material, his book reads “like an hour-by-hour drama, history in the moment, brought vividly to life”.

In “startling” detail, he recounts the experience of the 43,000 Russian servicemen sent to Cuba. Battened down throughout the long journey, they arrived to find that Cuba was unbearably hot, their tins of food were rotten and the palm groves were not tall enough to conceal the secret missiles.

This is probably as authoritative a version of the Soviet side as we are likely to get, says Max Hastings in The Sunday Times. Neither John F Kennedy nor Nikita Krushchev had “as much control of events as they wished to suppose”. Both sides suffered “huge intelligence failures” and the Americans “failed to understand that the nuclear weapons were already armed and operational”.

The book will be gladly plundered by students and scholars, says Julie McDowall in The Times, “and highlighted until its pages are damp with neon yellow”. The Cold War might be over, but “the nuclear monsters have not gone away. It is good to be afraid.”

Available as an audiobook on Audible.

Perhaps you only think of Sharon Stone as the dazzling beauty who uncrossed her legs so unforgettably in Basic Instinct, says Lynn Barber in the Telegraph. “Think again.” Her memoir, The Beauty of Living Twice (Allen & Unwin £18.99), begins with a “horrifying” account of the stroke she suffered in September 2001, which she believes “divided her life in two”.

Stone is “a fighter, a brawler, from… hillbilly stock”, who grew up on a “hardscrabble farm” in Pennsylvania. She was the third of four children and her parents were “too busy to pay much attention to her”. There were dodgy relatives like Uncle Gene, “who was good fun until she found him holding a gun to his head”, and her beautiful grandmother Lela, “who wore Schiaparelli suits and… taught her to steal”. When her brother Mike was jailed for dealing cocaine, her mother “thought she should get away and decided she should be a model”.

Her writing can be electrifying, says Victoria Segal in The Sunday Times, “especially when she is describing her early life or illness”. Her story is one of “survival, about the nerve-holding clarity that comes with age and after a terrifying near-death experience”.

I had been hoping that this memoir would be full to bursting with juicy tales of Hollywood Babylon, says Craig Brown in The Mail on Sunday. “Alas, such tales are few and far between.” There is much about her recovery from the stroke “and the easier, kinder, more enlightened person she became as a result of it”. Most of the rest of the book is “all to do with learning to forgive herself”. At one point “she even apologises to the universe”.

Closing the book, “it occurred to me that it won’t be long before Sharon Stone is nominated Life President of Harry and Meghan’s Archewell Foundation”.

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

Vintage read: The Moon’s a Balloon

“I apologise for the ensuing name-dropping. It was hard to avoid it.” So wrote David Niven in the introduction to his bestselling 1971 autobiography, The Moon’s a Balloon. This is the unchallenged champ of the Hollywood memoirs, said Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian in 2020: “glamorous, louche, exciting, amusing, name-dropping, ridiculous, outrageously sexual but seasoned with real tenderness and piquancy”. His book is “packed with anecdotes about Hollywood pals”, but the “most extraordinary” is about losing his virginity aged 14 to Nessie, a Piccadilly sex worker – “owner of a voluptuous… body and a pair of legs that went on for ever” – who he even introduced to his headmaster at Stowe.

Niven was a wit and raconteur, said Bruce Handy in The New York Times in 2005. “He seems to have been possessed of an almost superhuman bonhomie”, and “clearly had a talent for… social climbing”. Early friends in Hollywood included Fred Astaire, and for a time he shared a house with Errol Flynn, known as “Cirrhosis by the Sea”. Women adored him: “Niven has charm where other men have only cologne,” explained Mae West. He was married twice, and there were affairs with Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner and Marilyn Monroe.

Even though he starred in classic films such as A Matter of Life and Death, and won an Oscar in 1959 for his performance in Separate Tables, his “charmed life” is remembered for the “effervescent quality of his existence, at least as he presented it”. Or, as Bart Mills wrote in his review for The Guardian in 1971: “You’d think, from reading The Moon’s a Balloon, that here is the most superficial bounder in the whole history of civilisation.”

Available as an audiobook on Audible, narrated by the author.

Set during the dog days of the Callaghan Labour government, London, Burning (Little, Brown £14.99) continues Anthony Quinn’s “richly pleasurable” series portraying London down the decades, says Anthony Cummins in The Observer. Quinn is a “suave writer, relying on the old-school charms of rounded characters and a clockwork plot”.

Involving “police corruption and showbiz hanky-panky”, the novel links four strangers: Hannah, a young left-wing reporter; Vicky, a detective bullied after her promotion; Callum, an English lecturer from Co Down; and Freddie, a married theatre director who is sleeping with a TV star. At the centre of it all is Margaret Thatcher’s shadow home secretary, Anthony Middleton (a fictional version of Airey Neave), “an ex-spy and former POW vowing to crush the unions and the IRA alike”.

From Warninks liqueur to workplace sexism, the novel is “awash with period markers both solemn and light-hearted”. At one point Hannah’s boyfriend “uses his Access card to chop out a line of cocaine”.

Quinn lights a long fuse and stands well back, says Mark Bostridge in The Spectator. The story’s two bomb explosions, “the first killing the shadow home secretary… are every bit as exciting and climactic as they should be”. It is a shattering moment, says Sue Gaisford in the Financial Times. “A subsequent apparently copycat murder… raises even larger questions, tantalising and intriguing the reader right up to the last page.”

Available as an audiobook on Kobo.