Faber, £20, pp324
In the 1860s, the French emperor Napoleon III came up with a ploy that, as the historian Edward Shawcross suggests, “was outrageous even by the standards of European imperialism”. He would invade Mexico by proxy, install a puppet emperor on the throne and thereby expand France’s dominion. Unfortunately, the titular ruler, “the hapless Habsburg archduke” Maximilian I, proved singularly ill-equipped for the task, preferring poetry and drama to the gritty business of imperialism. Shawcross’s fascinating debut is keenly attuned to the ironies and tragedies that Maximilian faced in his ill-fated task.
Chatto & Windus, £14.99, pp320
Vesna Goldsworthy’s excellent new novel is a comedy of manners that is nevertheless fraught with tension. Its protagonist, Milena, is one of the fortunate beneficiaries of Soviet largesse in the 80s and observes the privations that others endure with suitable detachment. But when she falls in love with an English poet and flees from behind the iron curtain to Britain, she discovers that she has exchanged her gilded cage for a life of terminal incompatibility. Goldsworthy captures the human perspective of life in the cold war superbly and sympathetically.
Methuen Drama, £14.99, pp199
Whether you believe that amateur dramatics are “an exhibitionist’s alternative to bridge”, in the dismissive words of Kenneth Tynan, or an invaluable way of supporting communities and keeping alive neglected plays, former Observer drama critic Michael Coveney’s fascinating account of the history of am-dram is compulsively readable and extremely funny. Focusing on such leading amateur theatres as Cornwall’s Minack and Bolton’s Little theatre, which launched Ian McKellen’s career, and their practitioners, Coveney pays equal attention to the stars who emerged from such institutions and those who remained proudly non-professional.