Book Reviews: 24 January - 6 February 2020

OUT NOW

Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars by Francesca Wade (Faber, £20)
In Mecklenburgh Square, in the heart of Bloomsbury, flats sell for millions today. But in the early 20th century the area it was a radical, shabby-chic enclave that became home to the five trailblazing female writers who are the subjects of this stylish group biography. 
Escaping from the ‘dark, dank’ Victorian family home in Kensington for ‘new beginnings’ in Bloomsbury’s Gordon Square, ‘where she no longer had to sit demurely in the drawing room serving tea to her father and his eminent guests’, or be paraded in front of suitors, Virginia Woolf flourished in a room of her own. She briefly lived at 37 Mecklenburgh Square in 1939, with her husband Leonard, where they ran the Hogarth Press.
Modernist poet Hilda ‘HD’ Doolittle lived in the square from 1916-18 after she broke off her engagement to Ezra Pound and married a supportive younger man. Unwilling to let go, Pound moved in next door. The crime novelist Dorothy L Sayers took the same room four years later and created Lord Peter Wimsey, the monocled detective who made her famous. A few doors down, Eileen Power became a China expert and BBC broadcaster.
All these remarkable women challenged the Victorian wifely ideal of the self-sacrificing ‘angel in the house’ and struggled to find a more independent and fulfilling life through work and friendship. 
Rebecca Wallersteiner

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The Family Gift by Cathy Kelly (Orion, £12.99)
Freya Abalone appears to have it all: she is married to her ideal man, has had a glittering career as a TV chef and has cute children who adore her. After buying their dream house, her glossy life seems pretty perfect – but all is not as it seems. After a recent mugging, an anxious Freya craves safety and protection, something she hopes the high, solid walls of her new home will provide.
Inevitably, all her insecurities come to the fore in moments of anxiety – and the name she gives to these feelings and doubts is ‘Mildred’. Tension builds up, and the tipping point comes when Elisa, the biological mother of her eldest daughter, comes back on the scene: Freya starts to question everything and fears that it may only be a matter of time before ‘Mildred’ takes over. Will she be able to hold it together or will her world fall apart?
This is a refreshing and honest take on modern families, the pervasive effects of self-doubt, and the resilience of the human spirit. Though I think that the narrative device of ‘Mildred’ as a personification of anxiety is an interesting one, it took me a little while to get used to it. However, this did not detract from an otherwise compelling, thought-provoking and unusual read.
Helena Gumley-Mason

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PAPERBACKS MAGGSIE MCNAUGHTON’S SECOND CHANCE by Frances Maynard (Picador, £8.99)
Meet Maggsie: a toothless, illiterate convict, hard as nails, don’t-need-nobody type. But unexpected friendship comes knocking at her cell door in the form of a fellow inmate who teaches her to read – and her life is transformed in the process, although most certainly not in a saccharine rose-tinted style. 
Out of the can and into the world, then: a job in a London kitchen, and yet another serendipitous encounter that will challenge all her embittered, isolationist and pessimistic certainties. Not since Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van have I met such a love-hateable, unforgettable, utterly relatable anti-heroine. Heart-warming but
not soppy – grit and gloriousness in equal measures.
Juanita Coulson

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ROYAL WITCHES: From Joan of Navarre to Elizabeth Woodville by Gemma Hollman (The History Press, £16.99)
How do you destroy a powerful woman? Call her a witch. In the 15th century, as the Wars of the Roses unfolded, four blue-blooded women were accused of practising witchcraft to kill their kings: Joan of Navarre, Eleanor Cobham, Jacquetta of Luxembourg and her daughter Elizabeth Woodville. 
Brought into context are society’s fear of magic and the women’s belief in astrology. Hollman reveals their back-stories as a soap opera plays out at court – a rivalry between courtiers, an exiled earl trying to discredit the Queen and regain his position, and a king in desperate need for money and looking for ways to explain his usurpation of his nephews’ throne. Beautifully written and meticulously researched, it’s a balanced book which is both enlightening and entertaining. 
Lyndsy Spence 

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HOW TO FAIL: Everything I’ve Ever Learned from Things Going Wrong by Elizabeth Day (Fourth Estate, £9.99)
Like it or not, confessional self-help style journalism is on the rise – especially in January, when we are all supposed to be improving ourselves: no pressure! Based on her popular podcast, Elizabeth Day reassures readers that failing is OK and, in some cases, should even be celebrated ‘because learning how to fail is actually learning how to succeed better’.
Admitting that she has evolved more as a result of things ‘going wrong’ than things ‘going right’, Day takes us from her general failure to fit in socially when younger to
failing at dating and relationships, failing at work and even at success (although, let’s face it, she is a successful author). 
Elizabeth Fitzherbert

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OUR TOP PICK

The Shapeless Unease: A Year of Not Sleeping by Samantha Harvey (Jonathan Cape, £12.99)
When did sleep become an obsession? Every day seems to bring another study about the need for a good night’s shut-eye – and how, for many of us, that’s a vain hope and a source of worry. Sleep, writes Samantha Harvey, is like money: ‘You only think about it when you have too little. Then you think about it all the time.’
Harvey’s insomnia is triggered by a tragic bereavement, but in the small hours she is tormented by everything from Brexit to speeding drivers. She tries cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness, ‘sleep hygiene’, jigsaw puzzles. In desperation, she visits her GP, but receives short shrift. ‘This is surely something women get more than men,’ she reflects, ‘this message that they need to put up with things.’ Ultimately, it is writing that keeps Harvey sane. An acclaimed novelist, she finds the relief she craves in words. ‘The mind is a prison. And when we write the noise is distilled and alchemised, and the self can find a way out’.
This is a short memoir, but one that reads as though it has been formed under the pressure of Harvey’s sleeplessness: dense, urgent and full of arresting images and insights, although it’s probably best not to read it before bed.
Stephanie Cross 

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COFFEE TABLE BOOK

SILK ROADS: Peoples, Cultures, Landscapes edited by Susan Whitfield (Thames & Hudson, £49.95)
Afro-Eurasia’s complex web of ancient trade routes is legendary. From the vast expanse of the steppes to sprawling and forbidding deserts and dizzying mountain ranges, what is known today as the Silk Road and its history is as epic as it is challenging.
Showcasing its magnificence, this volume of reference is revealing on every level and will undoubtedly cast a spell upon the reader. Ancient maps, including the striking medieval Catalan Atlas, sit alongside spectacular photographs of landscapes, artefacts, national dress and people, providing a glimpse into the exotic blend of cultures that have lived and thrived on the route’s highways and byways. With contributions by 80 scholars and artfully tracing the route’s 1,500-year-old history, this is one journey not to be missed.
EF

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ALSO ON THE SHELF

THE SECRET MESSENGER by Mandy Robotham (Avon, £7.99)
The chance discovery of a vintage typewriter in her attic leads a woman in modern-day London to unearth a wartime tale of love, bravery and betrayal. The life of Stella Jilani, typist for the Nazis by day, resistance agent by night in occupied Venice, unfolds like an atmospheric, arresting film.
JC

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