Friday, 09 September 2016

Book Reviews: 9 September

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

Written by Lady Guest


Dear-Mr-MDear Mr M by Herman Koch (Picador, £14.99)
Koch’s new novel, translated from the Dutch, is guaranteed to confound expectations, its unpredictable plot a pleasingly disconcerting experience for the reader.

Mr M, a radical novelist whose sparsely- attended book signings are agonisingly embarrassing, is so taken with an unsolved, headline-grabbing case that he tackles it in his fiction – with some artistic licence. A high-school teacher disappears, and linked to the case are two of his students, Herman and Laura. But someone is not pleased at all with mr m’s fictional account…

Beginning with a mysterious, eerie letter-writer penning pointed missives, more first- and third- person voices follow, but Koch keeps a masterly hold on his plot throughout. Set in the tranquil towns of Holland, this literary thriller is a collection of searing moments, accentuated by young Herman’s character, who captures them on film to equal shock and enchantment. Compelling and strange, it ought to fly off the bookshop shelves.
Philippa Williams

Queen-BeesQueen Bees: Six Brilliant And extraordinary society Hostesses Between The Wars by siân evans (Two roads, £25)

Evans examines the lives of six society hostesses who manoeuvred the minefield of social niceties in the interwar years and were revered for their wit, beauty and often scandalous behaviour. But these women had substance as well as style: Nancy Astor was the first female politician to take her seat in parliament; Sibyl Colefax paved a career as a celebrated interior designer; Edith Londonderry founded the women’s Legion; Emerald Cunard was a pioneer of the arts scene; Laura Corrigan sold her jewellery to help the French resistance during the Second World War, and Margaret Greville remained defiant in her hotel suite as the Luftwaffe dropped bombs around her.

As a social historian, evans explores the class system, which was ultimately weakened in the aftermath of the First World War, making it easier to enter those exclusive circles. She eschews dedicated chapters for each lady: instead, their individual stories are mingled together, so it is interesting to compare their rise and watch them jostling for prestige. A compelling portrait of six inspiring women.
Lyndsy Spence


CommonwealthFamily folklore
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett (Bloomsbury, £18.99)
At the centre – if not the heart – of Ann Patchett’s seventh novel is a book that also bears the title Commonwealth. Its author is the celebrated, saul bellow-like Leon Posen, but its tragic plot has been borrowed from the life of his much younger girlfriend, Franny Keating.

Decades earlier in 1960s Los Angeles, Franny’s mother began an affair with a married man, Bert Cousins. As the couples involved fractured and reformed, their children ran wild – that is, until one terrible summer in Virginia when disaster struck. But although it is this episode that goes on to provide posen with his material, Patchett’s own focus is much wider, and she moves effortlessly between perspectives, and forwards and backwards in time, as the two families’ intertwined histories play out.

Commonwealth is a novel interested in many things, not least storytelling itself – the stories that get handed down in families, and the ones that grow up around each individual member. But despite the complexity of her narrative, Patchett’s own powers are such that the reader is not only never confused, but is wholly convinced by the individuality of each character. Told with great sympathy and even greater wit – it should be said that Commonwealth is very funny indeed – this is a book to savour.
Stephanie Cross


THE FASHION OF FILM: How Cinema Has Inspired Fashion by Amber Jane Butchard (Mitchell Beazley, £30)

From its earliest days, the glamour of the silver screen has effortlessly spilled into the couturier’s studio and everywoman’s wardrobe. But as this gloriously illustrated and wide-ranging book shows, the influences don’t just come from screen sirens in sweeping gowns: monsters, murders, bionic bodies and supernatural creatures can prove unlikely inspirations too. Fashion historian Amber Butchard examines 45 influential films across seven genres – crime, musicals, epics, romantic drama, horror, sci-fi and art house – exploring their links to the fashions of their period and beyond. With a striking design, stunning fashion photography and memorable film stills, this is cultural history at its chicest. 
Juanita Coulson 



Shrunk and Other Stories by Oliver Black (Prospero Press, £9.99)
Philosophy professor, lawyer, hypochondriac and satirist, Black’s autobiographical stories take us on a journey into the darkest recesses of British black humour. With a forensic eye for detail, he is a great chronicler of the absurd, bewitching the reader with witty prose and astute observations. No subject matter is taboo. In Down The Tube he documents in unsparing detail a jittery visit to a colorectal specialist; there are also caustic musings on psychiatry, and a bleakly funny look at funeral etiquette. A literary gem that will appeal to those who are tickled by the genuine absurdity of life.
Elizabeth Fitzherbert

PENGUIN MODERNPOETS 1: IF I'M SCARED WE CAN'T WIN by Emily Berry, Anne Carson and Sophie Collins (Penguin, £7.99) 
The first in a new series showcasing prominent voices in contemporary poetry, this slim and elegant volume is perfect for carrying around and dipping into. The poems are selected to give a flavour of each writer’s style. Despite a tendency to obscurity and abstraction, there is plenty to like. Berry’s intense, introspective verse charts seismic shifts in the narrator’s inner world, mirrored by the outside. The sea is ‘like… something in pieces continually striving to be whole’. Carson looks through a wider lense, capturing the tensions in a marriage; the musings of an intellectual in a foreign city; scenes from homer. Collins explores identity, religious imagery and doubt: ‘The future is an eye that I don’t dare look into.’ All three eschew traditional form for more experimental structures: prose poems, lists, interviews. This is a challenging, intriguing read. Juanita Coulson

Lost in a Pyramid & Other Classic Mummy Stories selected by Andrew Smith (The British Library, £8.99)
A notable scholar in the field of gothic studies and former president of the international Gothic association, Smith brings together a neat collection of well-known tales and some hitherto hidden gems from the more obscure parts of the ‘mummy story’ horror sub-genre. Ranging in publication date from 1869 to 1910, with Arthur Conan Doyle and Louisa May Alcott sitting alongside Sax Rohmer and WG Peasgood, this is an intriguing collection which addresses the different historical contexts of the ‘mummy story’ spectrum.
Martyn Colebrook 

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