Friday, 28 September 2012

Book reviews: 28 September


MERIVEL: A MAN OF HIS TIME by Rose Tremain (Chatto & Windus, £18.99)
Culture-Books-Sept28-Merivel-176Waiting games can be frustrating but in this fi ttingly autumnalfeeling novel, delays, hesitations and frustrations make for both absorbing and affecting material.

The victim of these vexations is Sir Robert Merivel, the fl amboyant physician star of Rose Tremain's 1989 Booker-shortlisted Restoration.

Readers unacquainted with Merivel's backstory shouldn't be put off: Tremain cleverly contrives to provide a recap, detailing the ebullient but tender-hearted Merivel's earlier adventures at the court of Charles II. The year is now 1683 and Merivel, at 56, is acutely aware of time's passing. His beloved daughter is nearly grown and, without her, his Norfolk estate holds no charm.Fortunately Charles, with whom Merivel remains as enchanted as ever, offers the doctor a passport
to Versailles where – as it turns out – amour awaits.

Merivel is subtitled A Man Of His Time and eventful times they are too. But, as Tremain subtly suggests, it is the dramas of the heart and soul – those mysterious and ungovernable entities – that often loom largest in a life. Her hero is but a fleeting player on the world's stage but, so wonderfully complete and fully realised is he, it is with real sadness that one reaches the end of his tale.

Stephanie Cross

Culture-Books-Sept28-PragueTale-176PRAGUE FATALE by Philip Kerr (Quercus, £7.99)
Philip Kerr adds another fine instalment to his noir fiction books with Prague Fatale, eighth in the series, and set in 1942 in Berlin and Prague. Tough-talking private investigator Bernie Gunther is invited to stay the weekend with Reinhard Heydrich, one of Hitler's architects of the holocaust. No sooner has he arrived than Heydrich's adjutant is found mysteriously murdered, leaving Gunther to work out why.

Walking a nightmarish tightrope between inner revulsion and complicity with the Nazi regime in order to save his skin, Gunther has to keep Heydrich happy while also remaining true to himself. Historically accurate with a forensic eye for period detail, Kerr creates a thoroughly intriguing story in a fast-paced, psychologically engaging whodunnit.
Elizabeth Fitzherbert

THE SERVER by Tim Parks (Harvill Secker, £16.99)
Culture-Books-Sept28-TheServer-176The Server is a sharply observed novel set somewhere in England in an ascetic Buddhist retreat ruled over by the spooky whitesuited Dasgupta. He appears daily via video to guide the community while sitting in a plush red chair intoning Buddhists dictums such as the Four Noble Truths. 'Sex is forbidden at the Dasgupta Institute' is the first sentence, but sex permeates the book.

Beth Marriott, the central figure, is on the run from her former life as a singer in a band. She has had a rackety lifestyle,
forever tumbling in and out of bed with both sexes.

The mystery of the book is to discover why such an unlikely character has been at the austere retreat for eight months, serving in the vegetarian kitchen.

Is it because of a tragedy she was involved in or is she merely fighting her demons? Alas, she is a self-obsessed foolish and consequently unappealing character who has a knack of destroying everything around her. She quickly turns the orderliness of the community upside down for herself by sneaking into a man's room (the retreat is strictly segregated) and reading his diary. Of course she becomes more and more curious about the man and the tenets of Buddhism are all but forgotten by Beth.

Sex dominates her thoughts. Not surprisingly, she eventually escapes. There are some funny scenes along the way and imaginative concepts. For example: 'Jonathan was an onion. Slithery inside, with so many layers. I never got to the heart. Carl was a baked potato. With melted butter'. But it is ultimately a disappointing read.
Amicia de Moubray


Life behind the billboards

Steve Barfield is moved by Katherine Boo's book on a community of people too poor to live in a slum

Culture-Books-sept28-BookOfWeek-176This is an astonishingly vivid, beautifully written example of non-fiction by one of America's leading younger journalists, which takes the reader behind the glamorous face of contemporary
India's economic miracle.

Her subject is the slumdwellers of Annawadi, who live hidden beside the road to Mumbai's airport, on 'a stretch where new India and old India collided and made new India late'. An undercity is an illegal shanty town, a mess of corrugated iron, old cardboard and rejected wood, put up by the rural poor who have moved from India's villages into the city, yet who cannot even afford to live in legal slums.

Ignored, barely tolerated by the authorities, their jobs are the lowest of the low: they scavenge rubbish dumps for useful materials. Yet they try to create an ordered life and there are families, children, laughter and love.

Annawadi is hidden from passing view by a series of large billboards, advertising the promises of India's beautiful future to consumers. The surprise is that the residents of Annawadi believe they too can trust to a better future life in tomorrow's India.

Dispassionate, objective, yet sympathetic to the hopes, dreams and fears of the garbage resellers she writes about, the book is free of the hyperbole and rhetoric that so often mars contemporary journalism. Boo devoted threeand- a-half years to talking with the people she writes about, made many recordings and became someone they trusted enough to share with her their most private thoughts and dreams.

If it were fiction, then the richness of the characters and their stories would invite comparison with Dickens or VS Naipaul because of Boo's ability to convey the inhabitants' interior lives, whether it is rivalries that turn fatal because of kitchen improvements, a woman who burns herself almost to death to punish a rival, or young Abdul's impossible dream of working in a swanky hotel kitchen: he's heard, but can scarcely believe, that there are people who are paid to wash dishes all day. I was moved by their plight and the blind indifference of their government, but I also grew to admire their abundant resourcefulness, tenacity and their optimism.

MUST READCulture-Books-Sept28-MustRead-176

Castaway Characters
DESERT ISLAND DISCS, 70 YEARS OF CASTAWAYS by Sean Magee (Bantam Press, £25)
Astonishingly, Roy Plumley was only 27 when he came up with the idea for Desert Island Discs, one of the most enduring radio programmes ever broadcast. Since 1942 when the first episode was aired (with entertainer Vic Oliver), 3,000 world leaders, musicians, actors, politicians, artists and scientists have been shipwrecked with their eight chosen records, favourite book and the luxury (excluding boat, mobile phone or companion) they feel least able to do without. This book is a collection of the highlights, ranging from Mitford sister Diana Mosley's shocking opinions on the attraction and blue eyes of Hitler, Princess Margaret's fear of the dark and the news that naturalist Peter Scott once played poker with the composer Richard Strauss in Munich, to the castaways' choice of luxury: a rum and raisin ice-cream maker for Archbishop Desmond Tutu; the Mona Lisa for Arthur Scargill. Book choices include Vampire by Anne Rice for Elton John; The Lord Of The Rings for Edmund Hillary. Fascinating.
Theo Walden



A TRAIN IN WINTER by Caroline Moorehead (Vintage, £8.99)
Paris, January 1943: an icy setting for a harrowing account of heroism, endurance and misery. Moorehead's book is both biography – of the Resistance women rounded up and sent by train to Auschwitz – and history. Of the 230 women who suffered this fate (the youngest was 15; the oldest a farmer's wife of 68), only 49 survived. Moorehead tells the story of these women, from archive and family memoirs as well as first-hand accounts.

THE WOMAN WHO WENT TO BED FOR A YEAR by Sue Townsend (Penguin, £7.99)
When her twins leave home for university, Eva gets back into bed and stays there. Who hasn't, on occasion, wanted to do the same? Townsend's portrait of family life gone awry (Eva's husband finds that a wife who stays in bed is not only unproductive in the kitchen, but also a hindrance when it comes to extramarital affairs) is both moving and very funny.

THE ROUNDABOUT MAN by Clare Morrall (Sceptre, £8.99)
Quinn, once the boy hero of a world-famous series of children's books, is living like a tramp in a caravan on a roundabout. Why? Morrall's excellent novel describes what happens when his privacy is invaded.



THE HOUSE OF SILK by Anthony Horowitz (Orion, £7.99)
Horowitz, a Holmes aficionado, creates a new adventure for Conan Doyle's famous detective – an untold story remembered by an elderly Dr Watson now incarcerated in a nursing home in 1915. An intriguingly twisty plot involving an Elizabethan manor house, Holloway prison and a Limehouse opium den follows.

MY OLD MAN: A HISTORY OF MUSIC HALL by John Major (HarperPress, £20)
John Major, famous for underpants, Edwina Currie and a disastrous attempt to reform British Rail, was brought up in the shadow of music hall. His father worked with Marie Lloyd and his mother, Gwen Coates, was an acrobatic dancer. Not much family stuff, but Major's grasp of music hall minutiae is unrivalled.



THE END OF THE WASP SEASON by Denise Mina (Orion, £7.99)
Winner of the Theakston prize at this year's Harrogate crime festival, this novel, set in Glasgow, rather unusually devotes equal attention to victim, investigator and perpetrator. A young woman is found brutally battered to death in her mother's house, two schoolboys are under suspicion, a businessman has hanged himself in leafy Sevenoaks and DS Alex Morrow, heavily pregnant with a longed-for child, is not only investigating but trying to smooth over an imminent mutiny at work. A gripping tale with a truly shocking conclusion.

VENGEANCE by Benjamin Black (Mantle, £16.99)
The fifth outing for Quirke, Black's morose but intelligent pathologist. Set in 1950s Dublin, Quirke doesn't so much investigate the murders that come his way as lift the lid on human nature and paddle his fingers in the murk he finds. His inability to connect with his fellow man emotionally allows him to observe the events and the people around him dispassionately. This leads to a great consumption of whiskey in the back room of McGuigan's bar, and he moves through a raindrenched Dublin with a Ready Brek nimbus of alcohol surrounding him. Not a criminal procedure novel, it is more an autopsy of humanity.

THE ABBEY by Chris Culver (Sphere, £6.99)
Our hero Ash is a member of the small Muslim community of Indianapolis and a serving police officer who is putting himself through law school. When his niece dies of a suspected overdose he decides to investigate. We meet drug dealers, Sanguinarians (you may well ask), and power-crazed vengeancedriven Asian scientists. A jolly romp through the improbable.

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