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What the critics liked

When the diaries of the Tory MP Henry “Chips” Channon were published in 1967, society was scandalised. “You can’t think how vile & spiteful and silly it is,” wrote Nancy Mitford. “One always thought Chips was rather a dear, but he was black inside, how sinister!” And those were just the censored versions.

Earlier this year, Simon Heffer edited and released his first volume of Channon’s musings. Now, the second, Henry ‘Chips’ Channon: The Diaries 1938-43 (Hutchinson £35) is out, and Channon’s bitchiness is on full display again, says Martin Pugh in the TLS. His comments after observing the arrival of several society ladies at the reopening of parliament in 1938 included that the Duchess of Somerset “looked like a housekeeper”, Lady Curzon was “like a great meringue, vast, sugary and imposing”, and Margot Asquith resembled “a Spectre of Death”. Other snatches of gossip reveal that the former chancellor of the exchequer RA Butler was a virgin until marriage and that the Queen Mother was disparagingly called “grinning Liz” in smart circles.

There’s genuine venom too, says Chris Mullin in The Spectator. Channon was a noxious anti-Semite. He loathed Churchill – “that angry bullfrog, slave of prejudice” – and praised Hitler’s Danzig speech as “good stuff”. Perhaps he was bitter due to his own, miserable personal life. Channon’s wife ran off with a ski instructor and he lived as a secret bisexual, frequenting Turkish baths. For years he lusted after his married brother-in-law Alan Lennox-Boyd – they shared a bed and indulged in flagellatory games, but we do not know if the relationship was ever consummated.

Channon’s a vile snob, but I couldn’t put it down, says Robert Harris in The Sunday Times. “It is Proust without the insight into human character. It is social life in Pompeii before the eruption.” And it’s funny too. After the Allied armies invade Italy, Channon chats to American socialite Laura Corrigan. “When I said, ‘Isn’t it wonderful about Sicily?’ Laura answered, ‘Sicily who?’” One cannot praise Heffer enough for compiling it. “When all three volumes are published it will be a monument to scholarship; to what else I am not entirely sure.”

Available as an audiobook on Audible

Colson Whitehead is a chameleon, says Janet Maslin in The New York Times. The American author’s last two books were completely bleak. The Nickel Boys, published in 2019, is a devastating drama about two black schoolboys, while 2016’s The Underground Railroad is a harrowing slavery-era fantasy. Both won Pulitzer prizes, making Whitehead a huge name in the US, but thankfully that hasn’t stopped him from trying something cheerier. His latest novel, Harlem Shuffle (Fleet £16.99), is a pulpy, breathless noir. “It reads like a book whose author thoroughly enjoyed what he was doing.”

The story takes place in 1960s Harlem, with Ray Carney, a hustling furniture dealer caught up in a jewel heist. He’s a compelling lead, but it’s the gallery of supporting characters that makes this book so special, says Johanna Thomas-Corr in The Sunday Times. Whitehead has a lot of fun with his fictional crooks, “right down to the names”. There’s Miami Joe, a purple-suited conman; Chink Montague, a quarrelling gangster; and Pepper, a philandering Second World War veteran who packs a lunch box before a day of criminal activity. “It’s a red-blooded book full of powerful personalities and worldly wisdom.” Good on Whitehead for trying something new – Harlem Shuffle is funnier, more relaxed in tone and alive.

Available as an audiobook on Audible and Kobo, narrated by Dion Graham. 

Dick Francis: the authors’ author

The jockey-turned-novelist Dick Francis only started writing books to pay for a new carpet. But his horse-racing-themed thrillers were an instant success – Francis trotted out one book a year between 1964 and 1997. He had it all, says Jake Kerridge in The Daily Telegraph. Francis was a champion jockey before becoming a bestselling author and the toast of the literary establishment.

Kingsley Amis was, privately, an enormous fan. In 1983 he wrote to Philip Larkin that he was reading nothing other than Francis, “all the time, crying my eyes out at all the marvellous good sense and decent feeling (not being sarky)”. Larkin himself was a Francis devotee, but much more open about it. He publicly declared Francis his favourite novelist alongside Thomas Hardy. I love his “literate jauntiness of style, the unfailing intelligent compassion”, said the poet, in a review for The Observer. “He is always 20 times more readable than the average Booker entry.”

Are Sally’s characters any good?

There’s no doubt Sally Rooney’s third novel Beautiful World, Where Are You will shoot to the top of the bestseller list this week, says Christian Lorentzen in the London Review of Books. On its publication, queues wound around bookshops, reviews were glowing and Rooney was confirmed, again, as the voice of a generation. But are her characters actually any good? “I’m not talking about likeability.” Rooney’s fictional lot are relentlessly leftist and moral. “I mean simply: are they interesting?”

The answer is, well, only sort of. In Beautiful World, Where Are You, Felix, a warehouse worker is the most interesting character, but he’s also the least coherent. Sometimes he feels more checklist than person. “He had some dodgy sexual relations as a teen, bad but forgivable; he seems to be well endowed, also good; his hands sometimes get cut up at the warehouse, quite sympathetic.” Rooney’s second book, Normal People, was no better. Its leads Marianne and Connell, weren’t so much characters as they were “a quivering set of power dynamics”. Really, Rooney’s debut, Conversations with Friends, had her most interesting characters by far. I was gripped by Bobbi and Frances, the bickering-exes-turned-friends. Especially Bobbi, “because she shoots her mouth off a lot and doesn’t seem to give much of a fuck what anybody, except sometimes Frances, thinks of her”. If only Rooney could reproduce them.