Monday, 30 November -0001

Book Reviews: 14 October

The Lady reviews of the latest books to download now


Sex--DeathSEX & DEATH: Stories edited by Sarah Hall and Peter Hobbs (Faber & Faber, £18.99)
These 20 specially commissioned stories promise to strip us back to our animal selves as they explore two of life’s central themes. Nowhere is that intention more evident than in Sarah Hall’s evie, in which a woman’s provocative behaviour escalates to a climax that is as devastating as it is unexpected. A cautionary tale of sorts, it is typically pungent, muscular and unflinching.

The approach of Hall’s fellow editor Peter Hobbs is more oblique: his own contribution, in the reactor, underlines the truism that the best short-story writers know precisely what to leave out. Set in an isolated nuclear power plant, its breezy surface is increasingly disturbed by deep charges of unease. A singular and ingenious story, the conclusion doesn’t prevent its disquieting frequencies from continuing to sound.

Other contributions come from award-winning authors including Jon McGregor, Petina Gappah and Ali Smith. Alan Warner’s jeu d’esprit Porto Baso Scale Modellers, about a group of ex-pat model aircraft enthusiasts, is a joy, while Lynn Coady’s End-Of-The-Affair-Style Fin rings all-too- painfully true. An exceptional collection.
Stephanie Cross

Beryl-BainbridgeBERYL BAINBRIDGE: LOVE BY ALL SORTS OF MEANS by Brendan King (Bloomsbury, £25)
Shortlisted five times for the Booker Prize, Beryl Bainbridge drew on her tumultuous emotional life for her fiction. Imaginative, sparkling and gamine, she had no shortage of admirers. In this first biography, her former assistant Brendan King draws on diaries and letters to untangle her story. He explains, somewhat pedantically, that his task was made difficult as Bainbridge was a compulsive fibber when recounting past events. It seems likely that she fictionalised herself to avoid confronting traumatic, humiliating experiences, such as her father’s bankruptcy, a failed marriage and suicide attempt. A trained actress who appeared at the Liverpool Playhouse and starred as Ken Barlow’s Beatnik College friend in Coronation Street in 1961, the mask she wore in public hid her complex private self.

Bainbridge attracted a dizzying roll call of damaged men, who were ideal material for her novels. ‘I go on making messy relationships’, she confessed. These included her marriage to artist Austin Davies; and her long-standing liaison with her publisher Colin Haycraft, who exploited her financially. The main weakness of this entertaining book is that it focuses on Bainbridge’s messy personal life, rather than her brilliant, blackly funny novels.
Rebecca Wallersteiner


NutshellProspero's progress
NUTSHELL by Ian McEwan (Jonathan Cape, £16)
Acclaimed for his serious, often harrowing novels (Atonement, Enduring Love), Ian McEwan is even more brilliant when turning his pen to wry humour and satire. There were flashes of this in solar, but he has taken it to a new, sustained level in this tale of adultery, deceit and murder with a most unusual narrator: a baby boy in utero.

This bold conceit could have backfired in lesser hands, but McEwan’s skilfully voiced protagonist parries any potential attacks of disbelief: ‘How is it that I… could know so much, or know enough to be wrong about so much? I have my sources. I listen’. He hears, among other things, his decadent mother, Trudy, and his paternal uncle, the callous property-developer Claude: their crude trysts, their plans to kill his father and seize the crumbling but valuable family home.

The narrator’s tone is one of refined sensibility and insightful world-weariness – to great comic effect, given his position. He skewers the lovers’ booze-fuelled, vacuous lives and paints a nuanced portrait of his poet father, but the real gems are his musings – on everything from consciousness to fine wines. The parallels with Hamlet go deeper than the title (a reference to a line from the play), plot and characters’ names. The ‘rotten state’ here is greed, sexual voracity and moral turpitude. An intelligent social satire.
Juanita Coulson


Landscape Of Dreams by Isabel and Julian Bannerman (Pimpernel Press, £50)Trematon-Castle-pic3
In his foreword, HRH Prince Charles compares Isabel and Julian Bannerman to William Kent, the 18th-century gardener- architect whose landscapes surround some of England’s greatest country houses.

The Bannermans transform landscapes into ethereal wonderlands with designs that utilise everything from rescued church ruins to fountains and grottoes made from tree roots and stags’ heads. 

Their planting style is rhapsodic and vivacious, although carefully planned. This book is full of wonderful photographs of highgrove, arundel castle and asthall manor (the Mitford sisters’ childhood home) – but do read the writing from the beginning: it’s romantic, thoughtful and inspiring. After waking, the couple share their dreams of an imagined, unloved place they want to bring back to life. 
Hugh St Clair


BETTYVILLE by George Hodgman (Two Roads, £9.99)
This self-contained memoir centres around Vanity Fair writer George Hodgman and his formidable mother, Betty. Leaving Manhattan, Hodgman returns to Paris, Missouri, to care for Betty, who suffers from dementia but refuses to go into a nursing home. Both are outcasts in many ways: he has outgrown his childhood home filled with dusty antiques and his dead father’s influence; and she is too cultured to identify with her well-meaning neighbours. What follows is a touching account of new- found respect and reconciliation. A genuinely charming literary debut. Lyndsy Spence

THE SECRET by Kathryn Hughes (Headline Review, £7.99)
Following her bestseller The letter, hughes’s latest novel is a mixture of contemporary and historical fiction. in 1976, mary learns her husband has died in a mining accident. Pregnant and facing an uncertain future, she makes a life-changing decision that will also alter the course of her baby’s life. in the present day, Beth’s infant son is dying and needs a kidney transplant. searching for clues from her past, hoping for a cure, she finds a newspaper clipping that holds the answers. Told from the point of view of the two women, it’s an emotional story with many surprises. an evocative read. LS

THE JEWELLER'S WIFE by Judith Lennox (Headline Review, £8.99)
A sprawling story that runs from the 1930s up to the 1960s, based around the Winterton family, their relatives, and friends. Juliet Winterton is married to Henry, a successful jeweller, who has a cruel streak and dominates their lives at Marsh Court. But when a dashing politician pays a visit, Juliet falls in love. Secrets and lies drive the plot, and as the Winterton children grow up and marry, their own lives suffer as a result. With glamorous characters and a fading fortune, this family saga can be predictable, but the tense plot makes up for any shortcomings. a gripping read. LS


TIf you are after minimum fuss and maximum impact, these are the cookbooks for you. by Juanita Coulson


SIMPLE: EFFORTLESS FOOD, BIG FLAVOURS by Diana Henry (Mitchell Beazley, £25)
Renowned for turning ordinary food into something amazing, Henry shot to culinary fame with her 2004 book cook simple, developed while she was raising a baby and was therefore time-poor and not always hands-free. This follow-up is based on similar principles; a greater emphasis on grains, vegetables and spices reflects how we eat today, But the staples are still what you’re likely to find in your cupboard. She is a mistress of the show- stopping sauce that lifts an everyday dish into something memorable. Persian eggs with dates and chilli is a brunch of (globetrotting) champions, while a salad of cucumber, radishes and cherries with rose petal is both refined and refreshing..

OTTOLENGHI: THE COOKBOOK by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami tamimi (Ebury Press, £27)
This revised edition of the game- changing 2008 classic reminds us why it remains a favourite, endorsed by the likes of Nigella Lawson. Drawing on a rainbow of influences, from the Middle East and North Africa to California and Italy, the Jerusalem-born authors have produced recipes that are inspiring, punchy and deliciouslylight: ‘a feast of bold colours and generous gestures’. There’s meat, poultry and fish, but vegetarian dishes are stars in their own right, rather than sides or sorry substitutes: roasted aubergine with saffron yogurt; fennel, cherry tomato and crumble gratin. In their warm, conversational style, the authors even tackle ‘fear of baking’ with heavenly (and fairly easy) desserts and cakes.

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