Friday, 06 April 2012

Book reviews: 6 April

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ALYS, ALWAYS Harriet Lane (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99), 224pp

It's not often that you pick up a first novel with an unpromising title and a somewhat gloomy cover by a female writer you've never really heard of and, six hours later, put it down with a sigh of satisfied (and envious) pleasure. But this is the experience that lies in store if you decide (and you should) to buy and read Alys, Always, for this book really is that rarest of creatures, a sort of literary unicorn: a stunning debut.

The story is simple. A 30-ish, spinsterish female, who works as a sub-editor on the literary pages of a newspaper called the Questioner, is driving along a country road near her parents' house and comes upon an overturned car. In it, a woman lies injured. Frances Thorpe is the only person on the scene until the emergency services arrive. The woman dies.

Frances wants nothing more to do with the tragedy until she discovers that the deceased woman's husband is the Booker Prize-winning novelist Laurence Kyte. Then she decides she does want to have something to do with the Kytes, after all. It is at this point that the blood chills a little: we realise that Frances Thorpe is not what she seems. Far from being a tragic spinster, she is a manipulative anti-heroine who makes Becky Sharp look positively wholesome and innocent.

The writing is tight, it's compulsively readable and brilliantly controlled. Harriet Lane has a deft economy when it comes to recording scenes, descriptions and dialogue. It is utterly believable in all respects (we all seize opportunities to our advantage and can recognise unattractive facets of ourselves in Frances) except perhaps one. This is the relationship between Polly Kyte, the flighty entitled daughter, and Frances.

This is central to the plot, as it provides the door through which Frances can step into the Kyte family's hearts and, most importantly, their comfortable houses in North London and by the sea. But that's a minor quibble other readers may not share.                                                                                                                                         Rachel Johnson

 


 

MUST READ

TARGET LONDON: UNDER ATTACK FROM THE V-WEAPONS DURING WWII Christy Campbell (Little, Brown, £20), 528pp

The gripping story of secret German long-range weapons and the British efforts to defeat them during the Second World War. It shows how 'intellect, moral bravery and cunning' were used to save London from destruction by German 'revenge weapons': the 'V-Weapons'. In the records of the ULTRA decrypts at the National Archives at Kew, Christy Campbell discovered the evidence of the operation at Bletchley Park to uncover the truth about the weapons, and the underground slave factory in Mittelwerk where they were being built. Campbell is the former defence correspondent of The Telegraph and he has used his investigative skills to weave together this hitherto neglected part of the history of code-breaking and the bombing of London.                                                     Daisy Leitch

 


 

A voyage round your father

Emma Hagestadt reviews a book about falling in love

THE SCIENCE OF LOVE AND BETRAYAL Robin Dunbar (Faber, £12.99), 320pp

According to Robin Dunbar, Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University, Jane Austen had it about right. Once a woman has been turned down by Mr Darcy, she must accept the 'curate option' or else meet her biological comeuppance. In a riveting exploration of the nature of romantic love, Dunbar assesses how far human mating behaviour is grounded in our evolutionary history.

Pheromones, vasopressin, oxytocin and endorphins – these far from sexy-sounding compounds now vie for attention in the lexicon of love.

But why, compared with the rest of the animal kingdom, does homo erectus seem so susceptible to falling in love and so stung when courtship goes awry?

While Dunbar admits we're still a long way from understanding how physiology relates to social psychology, he's convinced infatuation is largely the result of a chemical reaction. While monogamous coupling makes sense for a species whose young have poor survival skills, the way in which we read the 'quick and dirty cues' of sexual selection proves a complex affair.

Some of the research Dunbar quotes here will be familiar – men with symmetrical bodies and confi dent dance moves advertise a good genetic outcome, while curvaceous young lovelies promise boundless fertility. Other findings are less obvious. For example, during ovulation, women prefer men with strongly masculine features, but at other times they prefer a more feminised mate.

So, from this provocative volume, what important lessons can the lonesome female glean about the dating game? First off, tall men with symmetrical features are best avoided – they are babe magnets and likely to be unfaithful; kissing is a good way of testing the health of a prospective lover; monogamy will make you brainier than promiscuity; women feel rejection more deeply than men (they have higher densities of endorphin receptors); and internet flirting can be a waste of time – less than 40 milliseconds' exposure to a face tells you all you need to know.

Most important of all, don't be alarmed if you end up with an asymmetrical man who looks vaguely like your father. As Austen would probably concur, in evolutionary and romantic terms, you've no doubt made the sensible choice in a demanding market.

 


 

THE MISSING SHADE OF BLUE Jennie Erdal (Abacus, £12.99), 320pp

'Therapists are paid a lot of money to ask questions that new friends will ask for free,' reasons shy Parisian academic Edgar, whose life is changed irreparably when he takes a trip to Edinburgh to work on a philosophical translation.

A chance encounter in the city leads to Edgar meeting mischievous, disillusioned philosopher Harry Sanderson and his beautiful artist wife, Carrie.

Edgar quickly becomes inextricably entangled in their lives but, as he gets to know his new companions, he begins to realise that life for the Sandersons is not all that it seems.

So thorough is Erdal's representation of her characters that, by the end of the novel, we feel as if we have had our very own chance encounter. The book questions the role that philosophy can – or cannot – play in helping us find happiness in the 21st century, subtly probing common beliefs about modern relationships in an ever-changing world. Katie Byrne

 


 

THE JANE AUSTEN MARRIAGE MANUAL Kim Izzo (Hodder & Stoughton, £6.99), 384pp

It is a strange decision to include Jane Austen in the title of your first novel, broadcasting, as it does, the impossibility of it being anything like Jane Austen's work.

Kate is an unmarried American freelance journalist who finds herself homeless and jobless in the midst of recession. An addict of Austen, she decides to 'live out' a writing assignment – travel to Europe in search of a billionaire husband. The story that follows sees British life through American glasses. We all live in mansions or Notting Hill, ride horses and fall over our feet if we see an aristocrat. The brooding Brit hero wears torn jeans and yet still we must believe he is Darcy. He is actually called 'Griff', a fine English name. And the butler? 'Herbert'.

The recession in its various forms is referenced throughout, one assumes to make the book seem relevant. It only proves the opposite. A better title might have been 'Bridget Jones Gets American Passport Then Eats Pride And Prejudice For Money'. But perhaps that's too severe. It's a lighthearted tale and would suit a holiday. Like Bridget Jones, it might also make a good film.                                                                                                        Edwina Langley


PAPERBACKS

THE LONG GOODBYE, A MEMOIR Meghan O'Rourke (Virago, £8.99), 320pp

A study in loss and the death of Meghan O'Rourke's mother, who died aged 55 from colorectal cancer. A poet and critic, O'Rourke grew up in Brooklyn and had a wonderful childhood with idyllic summers in Vermont. The illness upended all her assumptions about life and enabled Meghan to get to know her mother as never before. An emotionally intense and engrossing read.

LONDON UNDER Peter Ackroyd (Vintage Books, £7.99), 208pp

'Tread carefully over the pavements of London for you are treading on the skin, a skein of stone that covers rivers and labyrinths, tunnels and chambers, streams and caverns, pipes and cables, springs and passages, crypts and sewers, creeping things that will never see the light of day.' So begins this fascinating study of everything under London, from rats and eels to monsters and ghosts.

THE FORGOTTEN WALTZ Anne Enright (Vintage, £7.99), 230pp

Booker Prize winner Anne Enright has written an unapologetically straightforward novel about adultery. The novel's narrator, Gina Moynihan, is a Dubliner in her mid-30s who relates the history of her seven-year affair with Seán Vallely, the man for whom she leaves her husband. A simply and beautifully told tale.

 


 

Also published

DRAWING FIRE: THE DIARY OF A GREAT WAR SOLDIER AND ARTIST Len Smith (Collins, £9.99), 384pp

A vivid gem, which brings to life the trenches of the First World War, by Len Smith, soldier and artist, who was at the battles of Loos and Vimy Ridge. It includes his wonderful illustrations.

AN AFRICAN LOVE STORY: LOVE, LIFE AND ELEPHANTS Daphne Sheldrick (Viking, £16.99), 352pp

The memoir of a life devoted to saving elephant orphans in Kenya's Tsavo East: rescuing baby elephants from poachers and campaigning against the ivory trade. It's also a poignant love story




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