Friday, 15 July 2016

Book reviews: 15 July

The latest reviews of the latest books available to buy or download now


books-fellFELL by Jenn Ashworth (Sceptre, £18.99)
There’s magic in this Lancashire-set novel – miracles, even. But both are of a strange, unsettling kind: like the mercurial tides of Morecambe Bay, they cannot be tamed.

Standing between the bay and the fells, crumbling Sycamore House is the childhood home of 50-something Annette. Following her stepmother’s death, Annette returns to the house, but it is not entirely empty: the ghosts of her mother, Netty, and father, Jack, are awoken by her presence.

It is they who, with one voice, narrate the novel, carrying us back into Annette’s childhood and the final months of Netty’s life. Conventional medicine can do no more for her as cancer takes hold, but at the 11th hour the advent of a stranger seems to offer hope. Silver-tongued charmer Timothy seems gifted with healing powers – but can he really effect a cure? And what lies behind his desire to help?

This is an atmospheric, empathic novel, not least in its unflinching depiction of a couple struggling with what we would now call ‘end-of-life care’, in an era when death was determinedly swept under the rug. But, drawing on the myth of Baucis and Philemon, Ashworth also highlights the importance of hospitality, of the simple acts of kindness that, to those in need, can themselves seem miraculous.
Stephanie Cross

books-spies-congoSPIES IN THE CONGO: THE RACE FOR THE ORE THAT BUILT THE ATOMIC BOMB by Susan Williams (C Hurst & Co, £25)
Despite being advertised as the untold story of America’s struggle to secure enough uranium to build its atomic bomb, Spies In The Congo takes nearly 300 pages to cover a subject previously dealt with succinctly and efficiently by historian Margaret Gowing: the difficulty of securing uranium from the Belgian Congo was swiftly solved by the British government.

Williams attempts to enliven the story by retelling it through the agents for the fledgling US Office of Strategic Services. Their haphazard operations in a benign but complex operating environment are a study in conflating ambition with idealism.

Oddly for a Commonwealth scholar, Williams fails to mention that it was the Frisch-Peierls memorandum of March 1940 – rather than Einstein’s letter of August 1939 – that was decisive for the Allies’ atomic-bomb project. Equally, she is unconvincing in her analysis of the Farm Hall transcripts, concluding that a lack of access to uranium put paid to the Nazi atomic project – it didn’t.

Where Williams is best is in comparing Belgium’s suffering under occupation and how it treated its colonies during the war. This is the real untold story, and she is the author to tell it – let’s hope she does.
Stephen Coulson


books-book-of-the-weekHidden in plain sight
THE MUSE by Jessie Burton (Picador, £12.99)
Following the international success of her debut novel, The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton has become an exciting new voice in historical fiction. Her latest book follows Odelle Bastien, an aspiring writer, who has left her Caribbean home to settle in Swinging Sixties London. But with racism a not-sodistant memory, she discovers that life in the capital is not the postcard image she had dreamt of.

By chance, she leaves her job at Dolcis and accepts a post at an art gallery, where she is mentored by the mysterious Marjorie Quick – and an odd friendship develops. Woven into the narrative are flashbacks to Spain on the eve of the Civil War, where Olive Schloss, a talented artist, works on her masterpiece. She falls in love with Isaac Robles, an impoverished painter and revolutionary who helps Olive to conceal her talents – an act that will have severe consequences in years to come, when Odelle inadvertently finds a painting with a link to Quick’s past.

The Muse is a study of mistaken identities, buried secrets and a burning ambition to be something quite different from what society dictates a person ought to be. With clever and unpredictable plotting, Burton has created another beguiling piece of historical fiction.
Lyndsy Spence


GEORGIA O’KEEFFE edited by Tanya Barson (Tate Publishing, £30)

books-coffee-tableMy Front Yard, Summer (1941)

Edited by curator Tanya Barson, this lavishly illustrated book accompanies the Tate Modern’s retrospective on trailblazing modernist painter Georgia O’Keeffe, 100 years after her debut on the New York art scene.

An early feminist, she is best known for her powerful, sensual paintings of magnified flowers, sun-bleached animal skulls and dramatic New Mexico desert landscapes. The book takes a fresh look at her development as an artist living through a turbulent era, and her complex friendships with fellow artists, from Alfred Stieglitz, whom she married, to Paul Strand and Ansel Adams.

Tough, staunchly independent and as experimental in her work as she was in her life, she outlived them all, dying at 98, in 1986.


ACT OF GOD by Jill Ciment (Pushkin Press, £7.99)
Tender, witty and elegantly written, Ciment’s quirky new novel is an explosive blend of tragedy and comedy. Like her brilliant Heroic Measures, it is a study of people under the pressures of urban catastrophe and personal loss.

When a toxic, luminous super-fungus infects a Brooklyn building and begins to spread, a whole block is condemned. Among the evicted are 60-something twins Edith and Kat, caretaker Frank, proprietress Vida, a middle-aged actress now famous for the wrong reasons – and a Russian girl who’s found squatting in her spare room.

As their stories intersect in unexpected ways, the narrative shifts effortlessly between a drama of biblical proportions – extreme weather, pestilence and guilt – and intimate close-ups, all punctuated with sparks of humour. It is a tale of fortitude and frailties, of selfishness and solidarity, celebrating the city while exposing its cruelties. A compelling novel to be devoured in one sitting.
Juanita Coulson

THE PARIS SECRET by Karen Swan (Pan, £7.99)
In present-day Paris, an abandoned apartment belonging to the Vermeil family has been unlocked, and priceless art is found dating back to Vichy France. Flora, an auctioneer and art dealer, is summoned to inspect the pieces, but what she unearths takes her from Paris to Vienna, Antibes and London on a quest to discover the dark secrets of the apartment’s past inhabitants.

Amidst her sleuthing, Flora falls in love with a scion of the Vermeil family, which threatens to derail her fact-finding and break her heart.

Karen Swan paints a vivid picture, from Flora’s stylish clothes to the landscape of the cosmopolitan cities. Très chic! LS


This week we look closer to home for cooking inspiration: north of the border. By Juanita Coulson

THE SCOTTISH OATS BIBLE by Nichola Fletcher (Birlinn, £4.99)
We all know that the best oats come from Scotland, and that porridge – with its slow energy release – is the breakfast of champions. But in her wonderful little book, cookery writer Nichola Fletcher reveals there is so much more to oats than porridge and cranachan. Arranged in chapters for soups, savouries, desserts and even drinks, her inventive recipes combine the Scottish cereal with a wide range of ingredients. Wild mushroom risotto is a healthier and lighter version of the Italian classic, ideal for summer. And an indulgent spiced oatmeal cake is a far cry from puritan, made-withwater porridge. A charming book showing off oats in their wonderful versatility. Who knew?

SCOTTISH BAKING by Sue Lawrence (Birlinn, £12.99)
The Edinburgh-based bestselling cookery writer and MasterChef winner combines her twin passions – baking and the cuisine of her native Scotland – in this stylishly designed, definitive cookbook. Drawing on the country’s great baking heritage, the 70 recipes featured here include humble but much-loved classics like scones, bannock and oatcakes, but also snazzier contemporary creations such as sticky toffee apple cake. The photography is mouth-watering and appealing, but not overstyled – no unrealistic images to intimidate the less confident cook. Written in a convivial and relaxed style, the instructions are crystal clear and easy to follow, the recipes unashamedly scrumptious. No wonder Nigella is a fan.

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