Friday, 20 April 2012

Book reviews: 20 April


BooksApr20-District-NurseDISTRICT NURSE Patricia Jordan (Orion, £6.99), 224pp

The BBC One series Call The Midwife became the most popular drama since 2001. Like Jennifer Worth, on whose memoirs Call The Midwife was based, Patricia Jordan was a midwife in the 1950s. She grew up in a Catholic family in Belfast and intended to settle down with her childhood sweetheart. But he was a Republican, and when they quarrelled over politics, Patricia left Belfast for the mainland.

During her training at the Middlesex hospital in London, she treated Colin Jordan – love blossomed, and she moved to his home town of Borrowdale in Lancashire, and completed her midwifery training at the local hospital. Patricia Jordan's book is filled with anecdotes from her experience as a district nurse. Many are tragi-comic, such as the story of her first assignment as a relief district midwife, when she delivered the unwanted baby of Pearl, a hard-swearing trollop who beguiled the moments between contractions by quarrelling with her sister. Others, like her description of the decline of Robert, a young man with what was then known as 'disseminated sclerosis', are heartbreaking. But there's optimism in Jordan's character that finds hope in even the saddest story.               

Jane Shilling


BooksApr20-favored-daughterKoofi with Nadene Gourhi (Palgrave Macmillan, £16.99), 272pp

'God had a purpose for me,' Koofi states. Destined to become Afghanistan's fi rst female Speaker in Parliament, she was born in a poor Muslim village in Northern Afghanistan. Her mother left her out in the sun all day in the hope she'd die. Scarred but still alive, Koofi had to prove herself as worthy every day of her life.

In her autobiography, Koofi describes her path from childhood to her adult life in politics. Both her father and her grandfather were political leaders in her home village. But a woman in politics was unheard of. Girls were not valued and had no education.Koofi 's life was one fraught with danger. She tells of the terror when her father was executed by the Mujahideen. Rebels came to the village, looted their house and threatened to kill the family. Her sister and sister-in-law, both 16, were beaten with a rifl e butt.

When the Mujahideen ousted the Russians, civil war broke out and life became unbearable. For the first time, Koofi was forced to wear a suffocating burqa. A further wave of repression came with the Taliban. They banned education for girls and shut down schools and universities.

In this book, Koofi pulls the reader into the oppressive world of women under the rule of men in Afghanistan. Infl uenced by brave women who ran underground girls' schools, and affected by povertystricken villagers asking her advice while working as a UN employee, Koofi knew she had to go into politics. A tale of bravery and faith in the face of adversity and corruption.                                                                                                                                                 Julie Peakman


BooksApr20-Beastly-ThingsBEASTLY THINGS Donna
Leon (William Heinemann, £17.99), 304pp

The Venetian tourist board ought to give Donna Leon a lifetime service award. Her great achievement has been to create a Venice apart from its picturepostcard glamour, a place where ordinary Italians live, work and – for the purposes of our plot – die horribly, but which retains a poetic resonance for the reader.

Beastly Things is the 21st novel featuring Commissario Brunetti, and it is, like Leon's Venetian underworld, awash with beasts both animal and human. The stabbed body of a man – deformed by a rare medical condition – is discovered fl oating in a canal. Searching for the man's identity – as well as his killer – Brunetti uncovers a world where violent death is carried out on an industrial scale: the mass-market meat industry.

Leon's exposé of meat production introduces a note of gothic horror, while also questioning the real boundaries between meat and murder. I've previously found the ethical back story in Brunetti's cases dull. But here it produces a striking result. If the plot has a fault, it's that it's reasonably clear from the beginning who the guilty party is, and perhaps it's not quite the equal of her earlier works. But, like La Serenissima itself, this book is both haunting and sophisticated.                                                                                                                                           Cecily Gayford



Philippa Gregory (Simon & Schuster, £7.99), 544pp

Drawing on years of research, this novel is steeped in history. The Lady Of The Rivers tells the story of the mother of the White Queen who is determined to become a part of history as opposed to its victim, even if the path she has chosen involves navigating through the battle lines in the War of the Roses.


Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan (Hodder & Stoughton, £8.99), 304pp

The ninth Duchess of Marlborough opens the doors to her life as a highly respected aristocrat in the Edwardian era. An honest and amusing account of the American's upbringing, her entrée into British society, marriage to the Duke of Marlborough and life at Blenheim Palace. Read for her Winston Churchill and Queen Victoria anecdotes alone.


Pam Weaver (Avon Books, £6.99), 400pp

A heart-warming story about mothers and daughters. Worthing, just after the war: a young, pregnant girl leaves for London – she is too ashamed to face her family and she plans to meet her boyfriend, George. When he never arrives she is left to fend for herself. Left behind in Worthing her mother's life is thrown into disarray.



Jump in...

THE JM BARRIE LADIES' SWIMMING SOCIETY Barbara J Zitwer (Short Books, £7.99), 304pp

Joey is a work-crazy architect from New York who is sent to the UK to restore a stately home in the Cotswolds, but this is no ordinary stately home. It is Stanway – where JM Barrie wrote Peter Pan.

With a grumpy caretaker and resistance from locals to her plans for the historical home, the job is wearing Joey down. That is until she discovers a rather unusual swimming society – taking their daily dip in an icy lake in a hidden corner of the estate. It's an all-female society with its own manifesto 'devoted to the pursuit of aquatic exercise and good health, liberty, free speech and ever-lasting friendship, following in the footsteps of our spiritual guide, James Matthew Barrie'. The elderly and feisty members of the JM Barrie swimming society are a cast of characters to delight readers.                                                                                                                                          Daisy Leitch



Sex, lies & damp squabs

Christopher Hirst on a fascinating account of the double-agent business during the Second World War

DOUBLE CROSS by Ben Macintyre (Bloomsbury, £16.99), 432pp

Ben Macintyre has discovered a theatre of the Second World War where the terrain was posh hotel bars, women were as signifi cant as men and weird personalities were encouraged. He notes that the Double Cross agents controlled by the Twenty, or XX Committee, were, 'One of the oddest military units ever assembled'. Entry qualifi cations included linguistic skills, plausibility, duplicity and a novelist's imagination.

Consequently, the doubleagent business attracted the likes of Serbian playboy and epic spendthrift Dusko Popov, bisexual Peruvian gambler Elvira Chaudoir and a volatile Frenchwoman called Lily Sergeyev, whose sole passion was a male dog called Babs. This troupe played a vital role before D-day by sending misinformation to Berlin that directed German battalions away from the Allied landing beaches in Normandy.

Most of the double agents arrived in Britain as German spies who offered their services to the Allies. Their messages to German handlers were regarded as credible, partly because Germany had no real spies in Britain and desperately wanted to believe. This even applied to a message about naval manoeuvres on land-locked Lake Windermere from a would-be double agent based in Lisbon.

Supporting elements of the D-day deception known as Operation Fortitude were less successful. An attempt to insinuate 350 double-agent pigeons into Germany proved to be 'a damp squab' because pigeons played no part in the Nazi war effort. A more serious threat arose because MI5 failed to expatriate, indeed possibly killed the dog Babs. His bereft mistress considered betraying Operation Fortitude with a secret Morse code warning: 'A dash will enable me to destroy their work.' Fortunately, Lily did not succumb and the deception worked superbly. Germany's reluctance to defl ect forces from Calais 'cost the battle and perhaps the war'. Even after D-day, the Germans didn't spot they'd been suckered. Popov was awarded the Iron Cross and $135,000 by Germany for his defective info. The equallY debtridden Elvira received a pay-off of £197 from MI5.

Despite the fact his cast of oddities is confusing at the outset, Macintyre's exploration of this bizarre corner of war often leaves the reader gasping in utter amazement.




IN THE SHADOW OF THE SWORD: The Battle For Global Empire And The End Of The Ancient World, Tom Holland (Little, Brown, £25), 544pp

Tom Holland, author of Rubicon and Persian Fire, gives a panoramic account of the rise of Islam.

TALULLA RISING Glen Duncan (Canongate, £16.99), 362pp

A sequel to Duncan's previous novel, The Last Werewolf, this is the story of the last living werewolf, Talulla Demetriou, who gives birth to a boy and makes a desperate bid to rescue him when he's taken by vampires.

Q&A: Sophie Kinsella

BooksApr20-Sophie-Kinsella-block-176Sophie Kinsella... Is the pseudonym of writer Madeleine Wickham, whose first novel, The Tennis Party, was a bestseller. Wickham wrote six more novels before anonymously submitting a novel under the name of Sophie Kinsella. In 2005 she revealed her identity for the first time with Can You Keep A Secret? Kinsella/Wickham is best known for her Shopaholic novels, two of which have been turned into a film, with Isla Fisher playing the shopping-obsessed heroine.

Stephanie Cross asks her about Oxfam, romance and writing

Tell us about I've Got Your Number...

My new book is about two strangers connected by a mobile phone. It's 10 days before Poppy Wyatt's wedding. She's lost her engagement ring and her mobile. So when she sees a phone in a bin, she grabs it. But the owner of the phone, businessman Sam Roxton, is less than impressed when she reads his messages and interferes in his life.

You studied Politics at Oxford and were a financial journalist. How did you become the queen of chick-lit?

As a journalist, I loved working with words, but not the subject of finance. I read endless paperbacks on my commute and one day thought 'I want to do this'. The minute I started writing fiction I knew it was what I wanted to do.

Your Shopaholic books have won you millions of fans. What purchase has brought you most pleasure, and why?

It has to be the red Moschino skirt I found in an Oxfam shop when I was an impoverished journalist. It was stunning, as good as new, and only £10 – a total bargain.

You gave birth to your fifth Mini Shopaholic in December. What impact has motherhood had on your writing?

Motherhood has given me more insight into family dynamics, which are grist to the mill for a novelist. It's made me more efficient – I find myself talking through a book plot with my husband while spooning apple purée into a baby's mouth.

Who inspires you?

Jilly Cooper and Joanna Trollope were huge inspirations to me when I stared out writing, and they still are.

I've Got Your Number by Sophie Kinsella (Bantam Press, £18.99).

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