Friday, 13 April 2012

Book reviews: 13 April

Books, Films, Theatre, Radio, Art, Television, Music


Fever-TreeTHE FEVER TREE, Jennifer McVeigh (Viking, £12.99), 352PP

When Frances Irvine's father dies unexpectedly, leaving untold debts, her world of privilege comes crashing down. Cast out by her wealthy uncle and seemingly set for a life of drudgery as a nursemaid in Manchester, she accepts an unwelcome marriage proposal from Edwin Matthews, a doctor with whom she spent an awkward childhood summer.

So begins Frances's journey to South Africa in the 1880s, to join Edwin on the remote and droughtravaged desert plains, a man driven by his struggle against the smallpox epidemic and the ruthless colonial owners of the country's diamond mines.

It's a noble cause. But Frances's heart lies elsewhere – with a rich and ambitious man she meets on the turbulent voyage out. Full of grief over her father's death and trapped on the ship, the attentions of William Westbrook prove overwhelming. It is a striking backdrop for Jennifer McVeigh's fi rst novel. Westbrook, trapping, dashing and reeking of money, sweeps Frances off her feet. If this sounds like a hopeless cliché, better suited to the pages of a Mills & Boon, that's because it is.

Despite its masquerading as a bodice-ripper, I'd like to give McVeigh's story the benefit of the doubt. I hope and suspect that the author has painted the liaison between Frances and William as a series of clichés to convey the naivety and inexperience of her lead character. Frances falls into William's clutches, but it doesn't last and, arriving alone and penniless in South Africa, she must marry Edwin. She sees the men in her life – her father, Edwin and William – for who they really are.

That's not to say that such revelations guarantee a less predictable finale. Any twists and turns are easily anticipated. But McVeigh's narrative is absorbing and her characterisation finds its footing in the novel's later pages. Claire Cohen



shakespearsTHE SECRET LIFE OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE Jude Morgan (Headline Review, £12.99), 400pp

It takes a brave writer to tackle the life of the Bard, but Jude Morgan has already won his literary spurs with previous fictional biographies of the Brontës and Byron. Unlike these figures, however, we know very little about Shakespeare's private life. This proves no problem for Morgan who plunges into the breach to flesh out the story of the glove-maker's son from Stratford, whose youthful friendship with the town's travelling players will take him to London and into the orbit of fellow dramatists Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe.

Happy to combine romance with academic investigation, Morgan places Shakespeare's relationship with his wife, Anne Hathaway, at the novel's heart. Anne is older than Will, but they share a keen emotional sensibility and a love of dallying in bucolic country lanes. Anne accommodates her husband's need to leave Warwickshire, but only fully comprehends his creative passion when she sees an early performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

In a smart move, Morgan rarely quotes from Shakespeare's works and never pictures him in a garret dipping his quill. Instead, he introduces encounters and experiences that we understand will be later incorporated into his plays. Emma Hagestadt





EVERY CONTACT LEAVES A TRACE Elanor Dymott (Vintage, £12.99) 384pp

There was a time when the English campus novel was a fi rmly redbrick affair. But in recent years, a Brideshead backlash seems to have taken place and novels inspired by the wisteria-clad quads of Oxford are once more entering the bestseller lists.

Elanor Dymott's arresting debut, largely set in Worcester College, combines the pleasures of a thriller with an elegiac meditation on the trials of youth. Not long after graduating, Alex Peterson and his wife Rachel return for a dinner at their old college. At the end of the evening, they briefly part as Rachel decides to take a solo turn around the college's moonlit lake. Minutes later, her badly bludgeoned body is found face down in the grass.

In his attempt to understand his wife's murder, Alex retraces her student past – a time of 'lost afternoons', intense friendships and experimental sex. In the process he learns more about his wife than he cares to know.                 Emma Hagestadt







Back from the dead

Claire Cohen reviews a new novel by Anne Tyler

Beginners-GoodbyeTHE BEGINNER'S GOODBYE Anne Tyler (Chatto & Windus, £14.99), 208pp

Anne Tyler's characters have been called 'unheroic survivors'. They aren't special. They aren't always likeable. Put simply, they are regular people, struggling with everyday minutiae. Aaron Woolcott is 36 years old, 6ft 4in and walks with a limp due to a childhood illness. He lives in the city of his birth, Baltimore (where Tyler herself resides) and works for his family's vanity publishing company. It produces a series of slim, self-help guides, which tackle an eclectic range of mundane subjects: The Beginner's Spice Cabinet and The Beginner's Colicky Baby.

Aaron isn't an obvious literary hero. Prickly and with the demeanour of a man twice his age, he struggles to see beyond the back yard in which he was raised. But the reader comes to learn the ordinary details of his life, as a consequence of an extraordinary event. Following a quarrel one day, his wife Dorothy storms out to the porch, only to be killed when a tree falls on the house, crushed by the television which falls off the wall after impact. It's the sort of dark observational humour that the author does so well.

So begins Aaron's journey through grief. He moves in withhis bossy sister Nandina, immerses himself in work, while those in his periphery tiptoe around his loss, leaving consolatory casseroles on the doorstep. Then, out of nowhere, he begins to see Dorothy. At the market, in a shopping mall, on the street. In her unfl attering trousers, starched doctor's coat and thick-soled 'cloddish' shoes, she appears more solid – more substantial – than a typical ghost.

Indeed, Tyler doesn't make clear whether she is an apparition or not – and Aaron doesn't question it. He simply longs for their next fleeting exchange. Not that this is a heartfelt reunion. The pair soon begin to bicker. Dorothy's reappearance forces Aaron to examine the truth of their unhappy marriage. At barely 200 pages The Beginner's Goodbye might, at first glance, leave fans of Tyler wanting. But it would be a mistake to dismiss it as a lesser work. It is Tyler distilled.

Tyler lost her husband 15 years ago and in a recent, rare interview said that this novel has been brewing ever since. She described her feelings as: 'I don't understand. Where did he go?' This thread is carried through the novel. Aaron, perhaps, sums it up best: 'That was one of the worst things about losing your wife, I found: that your wife is the very person you want to discuss it all with.'





Must read



THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF BING THE PARACHUTING DOG, Gil Boyd (£16.45, inc p&p) To order a copy email:

Bing was an Alsatian-cross who served with the 13th Parachute Battalion during the Second World War. Now Gil Boyd (who served with the Second Battalion The Parachute Regiment until 1974) has told the story of this brave pooch for the first time in a book for children, with all proceeds going to charity.

Told from Bing's point of view, the story follows his exploits through training until he was ready to become a parachuting dog – in action during the D-Day landings. He was also trained to use his sniffing skills in locating the enemy and guarding the men while they slept. After the war he went back to his owners in Essex, and in 1947 he won the highest gallantry award given to animals: the PDSA Dickin Medal.                                                                                                       Daisy Leitch




WHY BE HAPPY WHEN YOU COULD BE NORMAL? Jeanette Winterson (Vintage, £8.99), 230pp

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit was an award-winning novel written by Jeanette Winterson when she was only 25. It told the story of a girl adopted by Pentecostal parents who begins to fancy girls. It was an explosive novel and semi-autobiographical. Why Be Happy... is a literary autobiography, published nearly three decades later, which tells the true story behind that classic.

SOME GIRLS, SOME HATS AND HITLER Trudi Kanter (Virago, £7.99), 256pp

The story of Trudi is more a story of love and fashion set against the backdrop of wartime Vienna as opposed to an account strictly about survival. Yes, Trudi, our Jewish protagonist, is desperate to get herself, her family, and the love of her life to safety, but along with her account of how she got out of the horror engulfing Europe, is the story of fashion and how it changed with the times.

THE WAR ON OUR DOORSTEP Harriet Salisbury (Ebury Press, £6.99), 512pp

The story of the East End told by East Enders: 'of a camaraderie born of poverty and hardship, of children who formed lifelong allegiances to each other and the streets where they grew up.' Taken from a number of oral history projects conducted by the Museum of London, this is the authentic account of how the Second World War dispersed the old East End communities forever.



Also published...

SEASONS IN THE SUN: The Battle for Britain 1974-1979 Dominic Sandbrook (Allen Lane, £30), 992pp

This new offering from Sandbrook presents the compelling thesis that the late 1970s were the defi ning point in the creation of modern Britain.

A COMMON LOSS Kirsten Tranter (Quercus, £12.99), 400pp

A seductive thriller is the second novel from Australian author Kirsten Tranter, set around five friends, one of whom is now deceased, and an annual trip to Las Vegas.



Audio Pick

BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP SJ Watson, read by Susannah Harker (Cornerstone Publishing Audiobooks, £17.99)

SJ Watson's amnesia thriller was another of 2011's top sellers. Following a car crash, Christine's memory is wiped clean: each day she must learn again about her life, assisted by her husband, Ben. But just how far can she trust his version of events?

THE WHITE LIE by Andrea Gillies, read by Daniel Portman (Whole Story Audiobooks, £30.62)

'My name is Michael Salter; and I am dead': so begins this absorbing and evocative tale. Michael is aged 19 when he dies, drowned in a Scottish loch by his aunt. Or at least, that's what she says has happened... Daniel Portman's Scot's burr makes this elegant and genuinely gripping story an irresistible listen.



One book every lady should have on her bookshelf

Jane Harris recommends Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

'Last night I dreamt I went to

Manderley again.' From the start of this classic 1938 novel, we know we're in safe hands. The unnamed narrator, a timid young woman, escapes life as companion to a wealthy American by marrying widower Maxim de Winter. Manderley is his West Country estate and it's only when the heroine moves in that she realises how much the mansion and her husband are haunted by memories of the first Mrs de Winter.

The narrator's inexperience cause her to commit one faux pas after another and we can't help but root for her when she is undermined by the formidable housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, who makes it clear that no one can ever replace Rebecca, her previous mistress. There is a mystery at the heart of this suspenseful tale, but the novel transcends genre. It made du Maurier one of the most popular authors of her day. Hitchcock's film version, released in 1940, is also a masterpiece.

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris (Faber, £7.99), 624pp

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