By Martin Rowson
This is the first novel by the political cartoonist Martin Rowson, in which he demonstrates once again (after his Tristram Shandy and The Wasteland) that he is a master of the rewrite. In this book, however, the rewrite he has undertaken is particularly ambitious: the whole of human history, from Lucy the Hominid (aka Eve) who really gets down to it with the snake in the Garden of Eden (or does she?), to a scary, strange future in space, via the Starbucks Goldman Sachs Time Portal (a kind of failing, Millennium- Dome style affair that transports people from 21st-century Kent to "time that had already elapsed"). On the way we meet versions of Stalin, Hitler and Thatcher, among others.
Despite the plentiful violence and buggery, this turns out to be a rather jolly romp through time, written in a charming, very English style reminiscent of Monty Python sketches, 1066 and All That, Terry Pratchett novels and the kind of publications that once came flooding out of boys' grammar schools' sixth-form common rooms. Perhaps you do have to be of a certain age and class to appreciate this: Rowson's absurd world of historical grotesques only includes people who speak in traditional tea-party English (which can become awfully, terribly annoying, frankly), with the occasional "fuck" thrown in. This is certainly a valid and popular comic style: there's a reason why John Cleese's dead parrot sketch was voted the funniest of all time. But it has to be said that, if you don't find Monty Python both hilarious and meaningful, you won't get much out of this either.
The Abode of Love
By Kate Barlow
In spite of having a title like one of Barbara Cartland's more florid cast-offs, Kate Barlow's memoir is full of surprises. The title refers to a shabby mansion in Somerset where Barlow went to live as a child in the 1940s after her parents' marriage failed. With more than 20 bedrooms, extensive grounds and a chapel named Eden, the house was called Agapemone (which means "abode of love" in Greek) and contained the ageing female followers of a bizarre Victorian religious cult that was at one point tended by her grandfather - who was referred to affectionately by everyone as "Dearly Beloved".
It would have been easy for Barlow to concoct a very English piece of whimsy from these raw materials. Instead, she carefully separates from the weirdness historical details that make the book's more colourful revelations feel, while still shocking, less sensationalised. She takes time to explore the social turmoil in England during the 1840s that gave rise to the kind of non- conformist religious groups responsible for communities like Agapemone. In the United States, she points out, it wouldn't be long before utopian sects such as the Mormons, Adventists and Christadelphians became established. The old women living at Agapemone were characters who would, when they joined the sect in their youth, have been ostracised by mainstream Victorian and Edwardian society; but at the community they flourished. Violet Morris was, for example, one of England's first women architects.
Few family histories can hold as many dark secrets, some of which are very peculiar indeed.
Not Buying It
By Judith Levine
Almost every concerned liberal in the Western world must have observed that we live in a time of great paradox. Many of us are unhappy, for example, not because we don't have enough, but because we have too much. The usual answer to this problem? Just consume more stuff. Buy a book about green living, get on the internet and credit-card your way to a different sort of happiness via a new organic mattress or an eco-holiday.
This book, a compelling and funny memoir detailing the author's experiment …